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.

 

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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?

Preparing to Learn: Emptying Your Cup

There was a foreigner who visited a Zen Master to study with the master. The foreigner was a scholar with an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and came prepared to have big debates regarding Zen. After making the customary bows, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.

The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, the master poured the tea into the scholar’s cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, “Stop! Stop! The cup is full; you can’t get anymore in.”

The master stopped pouring and said: “You are like this cup, you are full of ideas about the Buddha’s Way. How can you ask for a taste of my tea if your cup is already full? I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

While this story shares a simple message, I feel that many of us get too caught up with arguing and being correct rather than having humility and being ready to learn. The quintessential image of a college classroom that comes to mind is centered on politically and intellectually charged individuals arguing left and right about what is true and what is not. However, while engaging in such a dialectic is certainly beneficial, it is hard to believe that we know everything, especially as young first years in college. We should consider our education in such a way, whenever we walk into a classroom or engage in conversations seeking for advice.

Sticking to what we already know is easy, but growing and cultivating knowledge requires emptying our cup of ego.