The Fallacy of Self Discovery

Metaphors give shape to mystery, and the metaphor of self-discovery has driven me to try many new things, like going to Asia to live a monastic life. However, it is this exact metaphor that has driven me around in circles – chasing an ideal that did not yet exist.

Discovery carries an implicit suggestion that, somewhere in our mind’s recesses or in data outside the mind, there is something waiting to be discovered. For a writer, the metaphor of discovery pushes forward that writing is a way to bring that something out. But recently I’ve been exposed to the idea that using this metaphor to teach the creative process bears its own limitations.

Because discovery emphasizes the rather glamorous experience of “Eureka, now I see it,” it obscures the fact that writers don’t find meanings, they make them.

A writer in the act of discovery is hard at work searching memory, forming concepts, and forging a new structure of ideas, while at the same time trying to juggle all the constraints imposed by his or her purpose, audience, and language itself. – Linda Flower and John R. Hayes

The idea of self-discovery has become such a sexy experience to be sought for that we’ve lost sight of what it means to create meaning ourselves. What do I mean by this? We aren’t born with shit, and we’re the ones responsible for creating the meaning we are searching for. Someone asked me what I discovered about myself during my stay in monasteries in Asia. Did you discover that you are more introverted than extroverted? Did you discover that you like meditation? Did you discover the meaning of life? 

I call bullshit. Your “true self” isn’t out there floating in winter wonderland waiting to be magically “discovered.” But to your last question, I did discover the meaning of life. I discovered that the very path you’re walking now will determine how you will end up in the future. You aren’t living your life to “discover” what you want to ultimately become. Every second you are alive, you are creating the tale of your life. If you’re doing X, Y, and Z everyday but expect to see something different in the mirror when you wake up, you’ll be in for a surprise. What you’ll see is what you’ll get. Whether it’s going to suck or not though is a completely different story.

Discovering your passions by trying out a bunch of random things sounds like a crapshoot to me. I strongly believe that you create your own passions. The more you commit to something, the more meaning you will create – then you will have discovered your passion. But this passion wasn’t hiding in the “deep recesses of your mind”, it had not even existed until you took the steps to create it.

The myth of discovery implies a method, and this method is based on the premise that hidden stores of insight and ready-made ideas exist, buried in the mind of the writer, waiting only to be “discovered.” Or they are to be found in books and data if only the enterprising researcher knows where to look. What does one do when a ready-made answer can’t be found in external sources? The myth says, “look to your own experience.” But what happens when a writer on this internal voyage of discovery still can’t “find” something to say because his or her “ideas” as such are not actually formed? – Linda Flower and John R. Hayes

So is there a method to self discovery?

I must disagree.

What does one do when a ready-made answer can’t be found in external sources? Well, shit. I’ve felt the exact same way when I first came to college. Nobody grew up like me, nobody thought in the same way I was thinking. How was I going to find my “why” in college? The myth says “look to your own experience.” But that felt like randomly casting a fishing hook out into the ocean, waiting for something to bite. I was frantically searching through my experiences to find an answer, when in fact the answer had never actually formed in the first place.

Growing up is strange, but don’t commit your effort searching for meaning and self-discovery. Because chances are, you’ll have to create those discoveries yourself.


 

Check out the paper: The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem

It’s Time For a Fuck-It Bucket

I’ve just come back from Asia, 2 months living like a monk. During those two months I’ve had my head up my ass, oblivious to a bunch of shit going on in my home land – America. I missed the whole Pokemon Go hype, presidential elections drama, Arthur memes, Harambe memes. And to be honest, it was fucking great. I didn’t have to spend time thinking about these random things. I could focus just on my meditation practice and writing. Landing back in California, I remember my head physically hurting from reading the headlines of all my emails and notifications.

jackie chan

Just at first, I came across this post on Medium: Why It’s Time You Start a Fuck It List

We spend so much time ticking off our to-do lists, making aspirational Pinterest boards, and thinking about our next big goal, dream or plan. And then we wonder why we burnout?

Ask yourself, honestly: How much energy do you dedicate to things that don’t really matter? Or things you think you “should” do, rather than those you actually want to?

Because true balance takes work. It takes sacrifice.

Alright fuck it, let’s go. Write a list, mentally or physically, filled with things not deserving your time. Think of it as an anti-bucket list of sorts. I call mine a Fuck-It Bucket.

Complainers: Especially the passive-aggressive, subtle complainers. Oh my god, I have so many meetings back to back. I have so much to read. I feel like complaining is such a negative energy that kills my motivation and optimism. Especially in college, sometimes we can get into a huge complaining circle jerk that really isn’t beneficial at all. Same goes for me. No more complaining that I don’t want to wake up.

Dessert:  I’ve tried it, it’s just way too sweet. I can do without it.

Gossip: No I don’t want to hear your secret gossip about Suzy over there. I don’t want to talk behind somebody’s back, if you want an impression of them go find out for yourself.

Being Messy: Clean up after yourself, knoll everything. I lived such a simple life in Asia: a 15 lb suitcase, one style of monastic robes – and I noticed a HUGE decrease in stress. My sleep quality improved, I could remember all my dreams! I woke up singing “Here Comes the Sun” from the Bee movie, and skipped my ass out of bed.
Things will definitely change, but this is my fuck-it bucket for this next semester. None of these things matter. By acknowledging them, saying “fuck it” and waving them on their way, I free myself up to  be as energetic and present as possible.

“It’s impossible to be everything for everyone. But if you treat yourself with a little more acceptance and understanding, you’ll find you have so much more to give.” – Bianca Bass

Check out the original post, and comment if you decided to make a fuck-it list yourself! I want to hear what’s on yours.

Cheers!

Women in the Buddha’s Time

The traditional narrative of the Buddha’s life has gained popularity by walking through Siddhārtha Gautama’s difficult and humble transformation as a prince to a monk who attains enlightenment. Many approaches to the Buddha’s narrative however fail to consider Siddhārtha’s relationships with women in his family. These familial ties, which are deeply couched in South Asian culture, have indubitably shaped Siddhārtha journey to enlightenment. His journey, doctrinally what seems to be an individual journey separated from society, is intimately connected with the women of his family. More specifically, the Buddha’s ties with his foster-mother Mahāpajāpati, birth-mother Māya, and wife Yasodharā introduce a nuanced ambivalence towards women in the narrative. The Buddha is ultimately tied down to his cultural traditions and misogynistic view of women, yet these women are positive forces in the narrative who profoundly motivate him on his journey to enlightenment.

The Buddha’s relationship to Mahāpajāpati and his reluctance to create an order of nuns demonstrate how the Buddha was unable to drop his disdain for women even after enlightenment. In the version of the Mahāpajāpati/ordination story found in the Cullavagga section of the Pāli Vinaya of the Theravada school, Mahāpajāpati is claimed to have asked Siddhārtha “if women were allowed to go forth from the home to the homeless life under the doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata.” At the time, Mahāpajāpati had been widowed after the death of King Suddhodana and is asking the Buddha if women were able to be ordained. The Buddha dismisses her question and advises her not to set her mind on women being able to ordain themselves. During this time period, Buddhism was tempered with misogyny, which follows the Buddha’s comparison of women’s entrance into the Sangha as mildew attacking a field of rice and disease attacking a field of sugarcane. Ohnuma, a scholar of Buddhist traditions of South Asia, interprets that the establishment of the order of nuns was in fact not based on women’s spiritual capabilities, spiritual equality with men, or inherent right to pursue equivalent spiritual goals. Ānanda, one of the ten principal disciples of the Gautama Buddha, had to present Mahāpajāpati’s request to become ordained with two additional, separate arguments to convince the Buddha to establish an order of nuns. Firstly, that women are able spiritually capable of realizing all four fruits [Stream-Entering, Once-Returning, Non-Returning, and Arhatship]. Secondly, that “Mahāpajāpati Gautami was very helpful to the Blessed one – serving as his aunt, foster-mother, caregiver, and giver of milk, who breastfed the Blessed One after his mother had died.” Only then does the Buddha concede to allow women to renounce the world. Ohnuma supposes that through the Buddha’s interaction with Ānanda here, the establishment of an order of nuns was in fact based solely on the Buddha’s sense of responsibility to his mother. This theme of a son’s debt to his mother is a keystone part of Indian culture during this time period. Despite the Buddha being someone who renounced the world and all social ties, the tie to his mother could not be broken.

So what does this mean for Buddhists today? Does this elicit uncertainty for women practicing Buddhism? Maybe the Buddha did not believe that women could not attain enlightenment, both spiritually or socially. After all, the Buddha did concede to the creation of an order of nuns on the condition that bhikkhunis abide under eight strict rules, the Eight Garudhammas, which would subordinate them under male monks. The Buddha initially resisted creating an order of nuns, but then felt compelled to ordain his foster mother because she took care of him during his childhood. The Buddha struggled with an ambivalence towards how he should treat women. While the Buddha was unable to let go of his culture’s misogynistic views by establishing the order of female nuns to be lower to that of male monks, Mahāpajāpati significantly motivated that very decision to extend his reach of the dharma to women.

The fragmentary Bhikṣuṇī-Karmavācanā manuscript preserved in Sanskrit and deriving from the Mūlasarvāstivāda school offers a version of the Mahāpajāpati/ordination story that elaborates on the theme of the Buddha’s debt toward his mother. When Mahāpajāpati first asks the Buddha to allow women to be ordained, the Buddha answers that just Gautami alone should be permitted to be ordained, not that all women could be ordained. It was only after Ānanda’s intervention did the Buddha finally agree to allow women in general to renounce and ordain themselves. Why did the Buddha first decide that only Mahāpajāpati could be allowed to ordain? Did he not believe in the spiritual capabilities of women? Again Ohnuma hypothesizes that this is deeply intertwined with the theme of a son’s debt to his mother. The Buddha felt compelled to make an exception for his foster mother who raised and took care of him from birth. This is a significant event that should be considered in the Buddha’s narrative, as it represents his persistent ties to his mother in spite of the ideology of detachment.

Now let us explore the tensions Siddhārtha faced in his relationship with his wife Yasodharā. In traditional Buddhist narratives, Siddhārtha immediately abandons his family and renounces himself after witnessing the four sights: old age, sickness, death, and an ascetic. In an alternative tradition found in the Discipline [Vinaya] of the Mūlasarvāstivādins and corroborative sources, the Siddhārtha returns home to make love to his wife before leaving. In this version, Rāhula, Siddhārtha’s and Yasodharā’s son, has not yet been born. The Vinaya stated “that the prince Śākyamuni (another name for Siddhārtha Gautama) was ‘not a man’ and that he wandered forth without ‘paying attention’ to … his wives, and thinking ‘let me now “pay attention” to Yasodharā,’ he did so, and Yasodharā became pregnant.” Instead of turning away from the sensual pleasures of sex and abandoning his social, familial ties, Siddhārtha felt the need to fulfill his finally duties as a man and a prince, by engendering a son. This sense of a male duty is also reflected today in Buddhist ordination traditions. A prerequisite for ordination to the monkhood is that candidates cannot be “lacking in maleness.” By worrying about having a son, it is likely that Siddhārtha was in fact unsettled about his identity both as a prince and as a man. At the cathartic time of the bodhisattva’s great departure, he was in fact still grounded by this cultural sense of duty. Furthermore, Siddhārtha promises Yasodharā that he would take her along with him beside her in bed the night before he embarks on his journey to enlightenment. The Buddha abandons her the next day, so many interpret this as a promise to take his wife along him not physically, but spiritually on the path to Nibbāna. With this in mind, Yasodharā represents a positive role played by women in the narrative – she pushes the Buddha to attain some sort of wisdom and enlightenment when he leaves her and Rāhula behind to begin his spiritual journey in the forest. The Buddha’s drive to becoming a samma sambuddha 1 was motivated not only by his will and effort in practice but also by his final promise he made to his wife Yasodharā.

In addition, the relationship the Buddha has with both his mothers Mahāpajāpati and Māya, his birth mother creates a significant tension the Buddha experiences after his enlightenment. There is an uneven dichotomy between Māya and Mahāpajāpati. Māya is the virtuous, good mother who fulfilled her function by giving birth in a clean, pleasant manner (Siddhartha was born through her side rather than through the vagina, which is deemed culturally impure), then dies 7 days after. By dying right after giving birth, Māya does not leave any lingering debt to her son Siddhartha. As opposed to Mahāpajāpati, who is characterized as problematic in the sense that she lingers with the Buddha by nourishing and taking care of him. With this in mind, let us revisit the Mahāpajāpati/ordination story we have analyzed before. After asking permission from the Buddha (with the help of Ānanda), Mahāpajāpati becomes a leader of the order of the nuns. Many of the women she leads seem to “have been former members of the Buddha’s harem who were abandoned by him when he renounced the world or women whose husbands had left them to be ordained as buddhist monks – in other words, similarly leftover” women. Furthermore, this theme of being left behind is especially apparent when Mahāpajāpati, and a group of five hundred bhikkhuni, followed the Buddha several hundred miles by foot after the Buddha refused to ordain the women. Even this acceptance of ordination is conditional on women subjugating themselves to male monks under the Eight Garudhammas. This opposes starkly with the Buddha’s interactions with Māya, the “good” mother. In the Dhammapada, it is told that the Buddha went up to the heavens to preach the Abhidharma Pitaka to Māya (who has been reborn there as a deity). In some versions of the Dhammapada, Māya lovingly “breastfeeds [the] Buddha at the very same time as he lovingly teachers her the dharma.” This interaction with Māya is depicted in a wholly positive manner, whereas the Buddha’s interactions with Mahāpajāpati was somewhat dismissive, or what Ohnuma describes Mahāpajāpati as being “leftover.” It is also significant that the Buddha went up to the realm of the deities to teach the Abhidharma, which is said to be a higher and more concentrated form of the Buddhist dharma. On the other end of the scale, Mahāpajāpati is given an inferior order of nuns. The difference between how the Buddha treats Mahāpajāpati and Māya lies in the cultural importance of birth mothers and how their sons are indebted to them for life. Siddhārtha was reluctant to ordain his foster mother but put in great efforts to teach his birth mother the dharma.

Again however, in spite of the cultural misogyny at the time, the Buddha’s special treatment towards Māya highlights an ambivalence towards women. In spite of the ideology of detachment, even the Buddha was unable to renounce his ties to his birth mother in his journey to enlightenment.

Throughout the narrative, the duty as a husband/man and the debt to mother themes clearly motivate the Buddha’s interactions with others spreading the dharma and with the women in his family. These should not be left out in narrative because they indeed shed light on significant aspects of the Buddha’s enlightenment. That the Buddha could not let go of his familial ties, relationships which carry symbolic weight in South and Southeast Asian cultures. So what does this mean? This stresses the importance of narratives over doctrines, as they expose the social complexities of religion and allow us to understand religious traditions to their deepest contexts. In addition, the ideology of detachment is nuanced as the family never disappears from the Buddha’s life. Finally, this can cause people to reconsider their views on the journey of the Buddha and raises questions especially for women who want to practice Buddhism.


1 An enlightened being that is referred to as Buddha, one who has reached nibbāna on his own efforts and is able to teach it skillfully to others. Opposed to paccekabuddha, an enlightened being who is unable to teach the Dhamma.

References

Ohnuma, Reiko. Debt to the Mother: Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74.4. 2006

Strong, John S. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.

It’s Time To Move Forward

One year ago, I started this blog mainly to sort out my insecurities and why I chose to go to Swarthmore. I was honest with myself because I never intended to share it with anybody, and over the year, this honesty has come more naturally the more I write. In this blog’s first post, I stated that reading other people’s experiences online had helped me in my life, so I wanted to contribute to that community.

In reality though, I didn’t know what I was talking about, I didn’t know what writing for other people meant. I wrote for myself, to sort out my problems and maybe share them with other people.

But shit is different now.

This past year has felt like a hyperbolic time chamber. I remember thinking how disappointed I would be if I came out of college the exactly way as I did in high school. But things have definitely changed.

hyperbolic
Hyperbolic Time Chamber (Dragon Ball Z)

I used to hate writing – blogging was a chore I challenged myself with to open up. Now writing has become a part of my lifestyle – waking up in the middle of the night to write, writing before homework, writing before sleeping.

I used to read because it would make me look smart, picking up trendy books about self improvement and pop psychology successful entrepreneurs shared. Now I share an appreciation for literature and understand the unbreakable harmony of reading and writing.

Now I have friends who don’t just do amazing things like win awards and make money. I have friends with personalities that inspire me, and hanging out with them feels like the fabric of our existences are weaving together and pushing outward together to grow.

I used to think of self-improvement as a solo mission, but you can only achieve so much alone. Within a genuine community, the selfish energy of achievement dissolves and harmonious successes amplify to create completely unimaginable things together like the reverberating overtone of multiple tuning forks.

Going Back: Why I started this blog

When I first started this blog, I had to choose a title and tagline. I asked myself before: “What do I want other people to see me as? Or what do I value in my life? They will probably change, but for now:”

Title: Becoming Interesting

Tagline: My reflections as I seek passion and relevancy.

So far, this blog has very accurately paralleled my life. First starting off with a lot of confusion and insecurity at Swarthmore, then moving into a strong phase of discipline and self-improvement. Late 2015 writing about my self-progress at school and some embarrassing sprinklings of romance talk. Early 2016 exploring eastern schools of thought, moving into my own theories of combing Asian philosophies. And Mid-2016 summer writing about my monastic life experience in Japan and Asia.

I appreciate this parallelism especially because when reading old posts, I can see myself progressing and moving forward with time. But I think the idea of always progressing in life can be harmful, so I prefer the term moving forward with time. More importantly, it is not my achievements moving forward, but rather my personality, which I think is what truly defines people.

Looking back at the taglines

My reflections as I seek passion. The most significant realization I had this past year was my naiveté towards the idea of “seeking a passion.” What really grounded me was a sense of purpose to challenge myself in all aspects of my life. Now, however, I feel that I have solved this passion problem and it’s time to move on to the next challenges.

I would characterize this past year as period of really questioning if I did things just because they were sexy. This past year I challenged my obsession and ultimately insecurity for success, and I realized that cultivating a pure personality of integrity is much more important to me.

But this past year, there were definitely times where I have slipped up. Thoughts, intentions, actions that I regret. And it’s time for a change. No more dishonesty, especially with myself. I would shy away from truly opening up because that would leave me vulnerable. But like I said, it’s about time I moved forward.

My reflections as I seek relevancy.  I was getting too ahead of myself when I first said this a year ago, I didn’t know what this really meant. But I’ve been starting to get a taste of what it means to be part of a community, not just living in the solo self-improvement mindset all the time. So this is something that I will continue to reflect on.

This is a small thing, but I think a good way to symbolize this move forward is to update my tagline. This relates to my previous post Finding Home where I talk about how you shouldn’t think of a commitment as losing something. It is fulfilling because it pushes you to do more. Self discipline was not a one year phase as it has become the core of my existence, and it will continue throughout the rest of my life. But this year marks my shift of focus to commitment. What is commitment, and what does it mean to me? To others?

As for the title, Becoming Interesting has grown on me🙂

Becoming Interesting

Committing to honesty. My reflections as I seek relevancy.

In a month I’ll be beginning my second year of college. But no way am I going back to school, things have changed and I won’t be repeating the same mistakes ever again.

It’s time to move forward.

 

Finding Home

“In America, people keep arguing for rights, but what we need is consideration.”

Peace vs. Harmony

At the temple, Osho-san and I talked a lot about how Eastern thinking influenced interpersonal interactions in Asia. “In the past, there was no word for peace 平和 in Japanese, there was only harmony 調和. When we talk about peace, somebody is always giving peace to somebody else, sometimes even forcing it onto them. It is uneven. But in harmony, there is coexistence.” He described harmony like crossing your hands together. “There is nothing forced on anybody. For example, we live together with nature in harmony. Where my hands cross is where we understand each other. But while there may be some things that we might not see eye to eye on, where our arms don’t touch, some things I don’t understand about you, I don’t mind. I just accept it.”

harmony

It was surprising to hear Venerable Yifa say something very similar here in China. “In the West, people always talk about rights, but what about obligation?” Obligation to your family, friends, society. “Many people nowadays are scared of commitment, but in commitment, you don’t lose something. It is fulfilling because it pushes you to do more. This relates a lot to relationships and activities in college, we try to squeeze these things in with our busy schedule and end up either burned out or giving up on them. But if I keep sticking with what I already do, how can I push beyond my old habits. I want to commit and push myself to do things I cannot currently imagine.

The most important thing in meditation is your determination. No pain, no gain. – Venerable Yifa

If you ask anybody who knows me, most people would describe me as an easy-going guy that goes with the flow of things. During meditation, we talked about how determination was the most important thing. My thoughts will wander, my legs will hurt, but I need to be determined to bring my focus back to my breathing. You have to commit to sit. This past year, I’ve thrown myself into uncomfortable situations to strengthen my discipline and learn more about myself. Indeed, I have committed to meditating in monasteries this summer, committed to Swarthmore, but I don’t feel that I have a strong sense of determination driving my life forward. So it’s about time for a change.

If you like it, it’s a blessing. If you don’t, it’s cultivation. – Venerable Yifa

I’ve learned so many things this past year, and even summer so far, that the 1 year has felt like 3. Determination, like discipline and memory, is a muscle that I have to keep training. So one idea that I have is that when I get back to college, I can have like a commitment board with post-its of things I want to commit to that week (starting small) like doing cardio every day, meditating every day. Another commitment I learned from somebody here at Woodenfish is the 100 day meditation challenge he learnt from his Taoist Kung-Fu school: where you essentially count to 100 everyday, but there cannot be a break in concentration. If you are on 51, for example, and start to get sidetracked on excitement, you have to restart from 1. Writing about this now, I feel this fire of determination that I want to keep fueling. Discipline and determination actually sound awfully similar, but I think this new dress on the idea is what I needed to commit to something bigger than what I already am doing.

Finding Home

On my last day in Kyoto, they cooked my favorite meal for lunch – curry rice! We got to eat casually, drinking tea and chatting about our plans for our lives after this.

“I’m going to the master’s monastery in September, but after that I don’t know.”

“I’m going to finish university then join the military. But after that, I don’t know.”

“I’m going to be staying here at the temple, Sam, how about you?”

“I’m going back to college, but after that, I don’t know.”

People that are not worried about the future. People who coexist with everybody practicing compassion and consideration. People who have a sense of challenge and discipline. Wanderers. So far this summer, I have been able to put these eastern philosophies into words and practice, but I feel that they have been with me my whole life.

I feel like a fish going back to sea.

fish-home.jpg

Staying in a Zen Temple: Sesshin 接心

The last 3 days at Fumonken have without a doubt been the most intense and hardest thing I have experienced in my life. Every month, there is a period (usually 1-7 days) of intensive meditation (zazen) called Sesshin 接心, which translates to touching the heart-mind. This is quite a beautiful phrase, but experiencing it is a whole different world. I asked Eh-san (who has been living at the temple for 2 years now) how Sesshin is, and he described that “it was hell,” then chuckled a little after. Haha, man was I in for a treat. Below is the schedule of a day of Sesshin:

Sesshin Schedule
04:00 : Wake up, little toilet, morning sutras. Zazen
07:00 : Breakfast. Cleaning.
08:30 : Tea time
09:45 : Temple job
10:30 : Zazen
12:00 : Lunch, get some restseiza
13:30 : Temple job
15:00 : Tea time, bath time
17:30 : evening sutras, Zazen
20:30 : Dinner
21:00 : Zazen
23:00 : All lights off.

 

The chunks of zazen time were broken up into 30 minute sessions each, with a 3-5 minute of a standing meditation break in between each one. Also, we would have 15 minutes of kihin (walking zen) after every 2 sessions. The sutras and mealtimes were also fairly challenging because we had to sit in seiza the whole time. I think by the time we had our 5th zazen session, my knees already felt like breaking and I felt as if there was an acupuncture needle stuck in the nerve of my hip being rotated
acupuncture-big
around. However, the worst part was realizing that it was only the 5th out of 18 sessions, and that it was only the first day. I remember that when we had a 15 minute break for brushing our teeth at night, I just went into my room and collapsed onto the floor, too sore to crawl under my mosquito net, just lying there with an impending reminder  that I only had 10 minutes left.  For sure, there were times when I wished that I had never come to the temple, but that was when persisting was the most important. It was as if the pain and distractions grew exponentially, and if I didn’t keep up my practice, I would just drown in my sensations and thoughts and not get anything out of it. The stakes literally increased every minute, but there was no way that I was going to give up, not this time. I think that meditation is my ultimate challenge, I need the determination to withstand the temptations to fidget, move, complain; and I didn’t want to be somebody who couldn’t sit without moving for more than 15 minutes forever.

 

Training only begins when it gets hard.

 

For the first time in my life though, I experienced a type of samādhi, a state of complete serenity, tranquility, and concentration. It is said that there are 66 moments of time in a snap of a finger, and I felt that I could experience every 66 of those moments. Yet it wasn’t only just concentration, I also withheld my sati. It was like having a very strong concentration on one thing, and a very strong awareness of my surroundings. Samādhi and sati, each two wings of a bird. The pain was still there, but it didn’t matter anymore. It is quite hard to put in words, and as Venerable Yifa put it: meditation is not something you understand, but something you realize.

At the end of it, I learned and experienced a lot during this Sesshin. I definitely got something out of it, but the process was hell – I told myself that I never wanted to do anything like this ever again. But these challenges of determination are sort of addicting. I have to admit that during Sesshin, I had a tint of excitement coursing through my blood (albeit it wasn’t going to my legs as I was losing feeling🙂 ). I’m not sure if I would recommend this to everybody, but I think you should try everything at least twice. Training only begins when it gets hard, so I guess the only thing to do now is to go back and face it again!

Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, or Spirituality?

When I visited New York a couple of months ago, a student at Columbia University asked me this question: Would you consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy? I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall it being a half-baked answer skirting on the edges of classifying Buddhism as a philosophy. After all, many young people in the West do consider Buddhism as a doctrine about cause and effect, seeing most rituals and chants as moot. I grew up in a Buddhist household, attended temple rituals and ceremonies, yet still found myself doubting that Buddhism should be considered a religion. For me, religion was connected with worshipping god(s), like Christianity or Islam. But in Buddhism, there was no god to praise or worship. I’m sure that many would agree that Buddhism is in fact a way of life.

However, my view has come to change on this during my stay here at a monastic program (Woodenfish) in the Longquan Monastery in Shanxi, China. Let’s begin with the term spirituality.

I think it’s a fairly modern concept, and most people I know would rather be aligned as spiritual rather than a radical religious. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette, a professor at Woodenfish, opened his lecture about spirituality that spirituality had an attitude of “whatever.” It puts the individual at the center of the universe, makes people selfish and unhappy. It allows people to cherrypick whatever you like, but the dangerous part is that it can lead to dismissing what we don’t yet understand or what challenges us. If we are trying to learn, we need to relinquish our authority. For example, if we are learning how to make a chair, we would go to somebody who already knows how to make a chair. If we want to learn how to meditate, we should go to a monastery where they have established practices to teach meditation. This motivation behind cherrypicking in spirituality also translates over to the fractious nature of religions institutions and political parties. There is a loss of commitment to something greater, especially something that challenges us. And being our own authority can put a lot of stress on ourself to make the perfect decisions among a sea of options.

Philosophy, from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally translates to “love of wisdom.” And refers to the study of things like knowledge, existence, what we should or should not do, language, reason, etc. And from my experience of studying philosophy in college, has a categorical/classifying nature that can seem cold.

Religion, from Latin religio, means “that which binds us together.” As opposed to philosophy, religion feels more warm and human, dealing with things like love, death, passion, birth, etc. And religion can ben seen as having 7 dimensions.

7 Dimensions of Religion

1. Practical and Ritual – In Buddhism, rituals are seen not as an end in itself. Sacrifices, baptism, etc.

2. Experiential and Emotional – Meditative jhanas, metta (loving kindness), desire to convert others

3. Narrative and Mythic – Religions have rich, emotional narratives or myths. While myths are generally looked down upon in the present because of their lack of proof, these stories motivate us to strive for things greater than us. They give us hope.

4. Doctrinal and Philosophical – I believe this is where many people would put Buddhism into, but Buddhism is much more than just a philosophy.

5. Ethical and Legal – 5 Precepts, 10 Commandments, etc.

6. Social and Institutional – monasteries, interactions between laymen and monks/nuns, interactions between people and priests.

7. Material – artwork, clothing, bowls.

And having these 7 dimensions implies that there are many different ways we can enter into religion. For me, my entrance into Buddhism came from the experiential and philosophical dimensions.

For me, this added a lot more depth to religion. Religions are in fact deeply rooted in history and culture. There are also many recurring themes among religions, for example, how the mythological monomyth (hero’s journey) is apparent in many religious narratives. Studying Buddhism academically in the Woodenfish program has been very interesting and challenging, making myself ask questions that I would have never asked myself before, which I will answer in future posts.

What if the Buddha never existed? Does it even matter?

What would be the advantage and disadvantage of believing in the narrative?