What is Wisdom, and where do I find it?

These are all my personal opinions and do not reflect that of Woodenfish.

I’m sure we’ve run into many smart people, but can we call them all wise?

I’ve had the opportunity this past weekend to organize a conference in Shenzhen, China called Buddhism, Science, and Future: Brain Science and Mental Well-Being. I, working with the Woodenfish foundation, invited neuroscientists, psychologists, Buddhists, and entrepreneurs from all around the world to talk about how Buddhism and science have clashed, interacted, and can work towards the same goal of learning something about our humanity. While listening to the presentations and discussions, I kept thinking about that ultimate wisdom of our humanity.

Many scientists and entrepreneurs are utilizing new tech to make the mindfulness and wisdom landmark in Buddhism more accessible. For example, neuroscientists used EEGs to monitor brain activity of lifelong meditators, and when compared to that of a lay person, the results were vastly different. A speaker developed E-Meditation retreats that combine electrical or audial signals to stimulate the brain in specific regions to increase effectivity of meditation. These are all used to grasp the feeling of inner peace, equanimity, and clear-headedness that has become the prized fruit of Buddhism and meditation. On some extreme cases, there are some who expose themselves to excruciating pain (wearing gloves with biting insects inside) to tap into some higher state of consciousness. These were new ideas that were being discussed in relation to Buddhism, and one monk objected that these practices were “sacrilegious”.

I could understand why he felt that way. Having grown up in a Buddhist environment, I do hold onto more traditional views of Buddhism. Is altering and stimulating your mind with electricity to help meditation and attain “enlightenment” blasphemous? I sure felt that way before. But I was learning to be more open-minded, as a theme of the conference was thinking about how Buddhism and science can be evolving together. I’ve studied religion (particularly Buddhism) in college, and have learned that the religion has been packaged in different ways throughout time and space to mold into different cultures. Buddhism brought from India to China went through a transformation incorporating rhetoric and ideas from Daoism and Confucianism. Perhaps the way Buddhism is accessible now to the future generations is through the lens of science. *I am intrigued with this idea and have many thoughts, I plan to write more on this in the future!*

I appreciate Venerable Yifa’s quote:

“When the Buddha went down to sit under that bodhi tree, he wasn’t thinking ‘I want to create one of the world’s largest organized religions.’ He just wanted to understand and end his suffering.” (paraphrased)

What this quote means for me, is that maybe the importance of Buddhism isn’t following everything that the Buddha did down to the T. I know I’ve gotten caught up in the small details – sitting in full lotus position while meditating is more important than noting and mindfulness, memorizing chants and sutras word for word, having to meditate while sitting still, etc. After all, his original goal was to just see the nature of suffering and overcome it. And that is accessible through different means, especially in different cultures throughout the world.

Throughout the conference, speakers were describing their “higher-consciousness” experiences and lessons through different words and practices – trans-personal psychology, feeling one with the universe, shamanism, universal empathy, etc. One speaker expressed very respectably to the objecting monk that perhaps people are just trying to climb the same mountain to reach this same “wisdom”, albeit through different methods. That sounded all nice and inclusive, but I found myself unable to accept that wisdom was on top of some mountain. I think the metaphor of wisdom being on a high mountain is very attractive yet misleading – if we work hard and climb high enough, we’ll attain a higher wisdom and be happy. Through my personal experience in meditation, I found that wisdom wasn’t in any high up place, but that it was with me all along.

I recall my meditation practice in Japan/China 4 years ago in 2015, I struggled the most with my leg pain when meditating. I always got frustrated that I couldn’t stay still and sit without my leg starting to get painful. I wrote about this in a previous post, but to make a long story short – I realized that it wasn’t the pain that was causing my suffering but my anger towards the pain. Here’s a metaphor: When I’m in a cafe writing or working, I notice the cafe-chatter in the background, but it doesn’t anger me or hinder my focus. And that’s how I treated the pain in my leg – like noise in the background of my main focus of breathing and meditating. And when I didn’t attach any dislike to the pressure on my leg,  thoughts of anger and frustration vanished. I feel that this “wisdom” of un-attachment and impermanence is similar (if not identical) to the wisdom taught in Buddhism. And this wisdom wasn’t somewhere high up on the mountain that would take years of struggle and meditation to reach.

Meditation was a tool to peel back the layers of illusion and junk that clouded the mind. I’m not an expert, but I feel that this matches the Buddhist metaphors of “calming the monkey mind” or “purifying the mind.” So I think that thinking of meditation as a struggle up a mountain to attain enlightenment and wisdom can be fallacious, because the “wisdom” is in fact everywhere. Paralleling Japanese Zen Buddhist teachings, everything has Buddha nature. When the Zen master draws the Zen Enso (circle), it embodies the ultimate nature of reality as flawed yet perfect, and impermanent thus beautiful. When a dog barks, it embodies Buddha nature as it is acting without a polluted mind in its true nature. The wisdom I gained about impermanence was everywhere all along, as long as I just sat down and looked.

If you’ve read up to here, I sincerely thank you for reading my thoughts on this topic! It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Please comment and leave feedback for me on what you’d like me to talk about next, and I’d love to write about it.

 

Airplane Conversation between a Buddhist and a Christian

I was on a plane from JFK to Shanghai, and I asked the flight attendant if I could move to a free seat in front of for more room. After I got the thumbs up, I grabbed my backpack and moved to the next row, settling down in a seat next to somebody else. I felt a little guilty, he could’ve had a free seat next to him, but I took it so I could have more room. We exchanged glances, then introduced ourselves.

“You seem very happy and satisfied with your life.”

That took me by surprise, especially because I was thinking the exact same thing about him – that he was the one who looked content.

“Thank you, I’m pretty happy right now, I would say about 80% satisfied with my life.”
We talked more and I learned that he was from Korea and worked at a Christian church, he had been in Philadelphia to attend a Christian conference. That was a coincidence! Since I was heading to China to attend to a Buddhist conference. He had a calm aura around him, and I could tell that he himself had struggled a lot to get to where he was today. Having been conflicted with my faith in Christianity before, I asked him if he was always a Christian.

He went on and told me that no, he didn’t believe in any religion until he was in college. He had a powerful experience during a sermon with a professor, marking a turning point in his life when he was saved. I feel that the younger me would’ve dismissed a religious salvation story like this and arrogantly turned my head away, but I’ve had my share of transformations with faith during college, so I listened with an open heart.
He engaged in an empowering ritual everyday that I found relatable – confession. I thought it was empowering, the act of confiding in God to admit to sins you had committed that day. When I was younger, I couldn’t really relate to the necessity of absolving guilt. I hadn’t had the responsibility or authority to do anything important, especially to other people. But over the course of college, I’ve done things that have etched guilt in my conscience. I know that this guilt has not been a good influence in my life – making me think that I couldn’t believe in myself, making me believe that I was not a good person. Coming from my Buddhist point of view, I thought the act of confessing could really help someone live with themselves and move forward.
I told him that I was 80% satisfied with my life, and the 20% of dissatisfaction came from the frustrations I had with myself. I get frustrated when I say I want to exercise but end up staying home, frustrated when I want to be a certain way but end up doing the opposite.
He pulled out his mobile Bible and read me a verse from the book of Matthew 11:28-30

28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

He said something that was very similar to how I think Buddhists see the world. He told me that humanity is full of toil and suffering. We hurt ourselves when we can’t achieve what we want, or even when we do achieve what we want. He used to feel that way all the time – he had started a cosmetics business in Korea and was “successful”. However, he was still suffering because he kept wanting more. Later, he found refuge in this Bible verse. He told me that God is meek and lowly in heart, meaning that he didn’t have a high ego. So even if you fail – if you look ugly and feel shame, you can take refuge in God. I thought of this like ugly crying to a friend when you feel like you have failed. I feel that there are some parallels with how Buddhists and Christians (the Christianity described by him) deals with suffering and stress. The overlapping sentiment is to not dwell or attach to the suffering. The rhetoric each religion uses is different and in affect symbolize how we humans deal with our suffering. I am not saying that any one way is correct or incorrect. In my perspective, Buddhists place the emphasis on the individual to let go of fetters like greed, anger, ill-will. But Christians place the emphasis finding refuge through a higher being who carries no sins like greed or anger, in turn humbling themselves.

I believe that isn’t right to dismiss people if they don’t believe in the same things you do. I know it is easy to cultivate an “us vs them” mentality and draw boundaries, because I have been guilty of doing that many times myself. But I’ve learned a lot about my humanity talking to him.

It was very moving to hear how Christianity had saved him and changed his life for the better. When growing up, he hated his father for being an alcoholic who beat him. But, through his faith he has opened his heart to him and forgiven him, praying for him everyday. I think that kind of transformation through faith is amazing.
He had bullied his little brother during school because his brother was not as “smart” as him, and that had ruined their relationship since. The first thing he knew he had to do after being saved was to apologize – he knelt down in front of his younger brother and sincerely apologized for the hurt he had caused. And now, they are growing closer together, and I think that is really beautiful.

I do not believe in all the things that he does, but we share a common thread which is that we are both human. And I have learned a lot about our humanity and how faith can transform it.

Missing California

Child to Adult
Cartoon by @lianafinck

I’ve been reading and watching a lot of the things I used to grow up with. And it has made me really think about how much I miss the simplicity I grew up with in California. A lot of the things here at Swarthmore (and the East Coast) are very high pressure and it kind of made me forgot what life was like back home. Even when I’m back home during breaks, I’m still always thinking about school, I’m talking with my girlfriend whose back on the East Coast. And today I realized how it’s been making me forget about what I grew up with.

I wanted to share some of the things that I’ve watched/read recently that reminded me of home

Quest Crew – I remember back when I was growing up I was captivated by watching these guys dance. They are a group of Asian dancers (shout out to Poreotics too) in California that would go make stupid and funny vlogs about their dance practices and give me a chance to get to know them.

Burmese Food – Recently I’ve been reading the cookbook by Desmond Tan “Burma Superstar”, one of the OG Burmese restaurants in San Francisco. It’s kind of crazy how growing up I would eat all of these dishes but I didn’t really understand the history of the dishes. The book gives me the geopolitical influences and forces that shaped the popular Burmese dishes today. And studying Asian Studies has given me a deeper understanding of the way people (and recipes!) transform as they move across boundaries. For example, Myanmar is sandwiched between India and China – then bringing Burmese cuisine to San Francisco, Tan worked had to work with the American/Chinese palettes and ingredients of SF. The youtube link I linked above links to somebody who pretty much is the only YouTuber posting Burmese cooking and recipe videos; and I actually wanted to contribute to that by making some Burmese cooking/recipe videos myself.

I’m not sure if it’s the distance from home that’s making me miss it so much, but I really miss the times going out on a sunny day to practice some handstands / flips I saw on Youtube, watching airplanes take off and land by the airport, and growing up in a monastery with a bunch of other Burmese kids.

I do know that as I grow older though, I want to hold on to what I grew up with.

Regression

“How did we go up so fast?” – My roommate

Last night I was hanging out with some of my friends, talking to somebody from Southern California about why we chose to come to college in the east coast. That made me really nostalgic about how different I’ve become after coming to Swarthmore.

I remember the day of my Chinese final – I was walking up a hill to my classroom and thinking about how I had changed this semester. I really don’t have that many friends, off the top of my head I can count the number of friends I have with two hands, and I was completely ok with that. Ever since I came back from Asia, I feel that my extroverted side has been seeping out of me, and I’m left maturing as an introvert. For the first half of the semester, my roommate and I spent a lot of time in our rooms. After classes, after every meal, we would go back to the room to do work and hang out. It was all so simple. Before I came to college, I was anxious that I wouldn’t have that many friends. I was worried that I’d be by myself all the time because everybody else would be hanging out. And now fast forward a year and a half, I’m completely fine with not having that many friends. Hell, I go out of my way so that I can chill alone. But I don’t know if me being fine with it is the same as me being content with it. To be honest many times this year I felt that I’ve regressed.

I started off this semester with 4 index cards. Drink 62 oz of water every day, stretch everyday, take multivitamins and fish oil everyday, and floss everyday. These index cards each had a 5×6 grid on the back of them to check off everyday when I completed these tasks (total of 30 days). It was a way for me to hold myself accountable and be disciplined to complete these tasks. I only held out for about 20 of the days, then my discipline went to shit. To put this in perspective, I used to go to the gym at least 4 times a week for the past 2 semesters, and I could always see consistent progress. These past 2 months, I’ve gone to the gym a total of 6 times. It really doesn’t feel good, to be back in the same hole I’ve already dug myself out of.

Discipline wise, I tried to blame my regression on emotional stresses. I was feeling pretty bummed out the first few weeks because I was conflicted about seeing somebody. There were days that I thought it was ok to just wallow in my emotions and do nothing, in contrast from my roommate who still consistently went to the gym every week. Sure, maybe having some time to wallow in my emotions was fine, but the world is gonna keep turning, and I still should do what I have to do. So that’s a lesson that I won’t forget, even if I feel like shit I should still complete the things I had committed to before. Because that’s what a commitment is about right?

This semester was also fairly academically rigorous, pretty much every single day I would stay in Cornell (our science library) till closing at 1AM, then walk back to my room to sleep. Everyday felt exactly the same and seemed was like a blur. I can’t discount the fact that I was learning a lot – it was actually fun every single night staying up and working. But at times I was left thinking if I should be doing things a different way. I’ve been journaling almost everyday, but it’s evident that I haven’t written nearly as much as I used to. I know that I was much happier last semester writing answers on Quora, blogging here, and going to the gym. Last semester I had found my routine: writing and working out consistently made me happy. And it seems that I have drifted apart from this core this semester.

You know it’s funny writing about this now. I remember in a post I wrote last February I talked about how I felt offended when my friend Vivian called me mellow. I didn’t want to be mellow, fuck that. But ask me now if I’m mellow. I will give you a sincere smile and say “sure I can be mellow” and give you a high five.

The reason why I use the word regressed is because I’ve been exactly where I am now before. It’s almost funny how similar things are – not feeling extremely driven towards a goal, not being disciplined, not wanting to be around big crowds. And the biggest theme that kind of freaked me out was that I didn’t feel driven towards a goal.

Enough with this though, I’m making it seem like this semester was just bad. But I’ve had some of the most fulfilling experiences in my life this semester, this was just what’s on my mind. The metaphor I like to use is that of a phoenix. Fly high, then burn to the fucking ground. Then rise again, soaring higher than you’ve ever soared before.

Here’s to flying back up.

Happy Holidays.

Amidst all the lilies

When I walked into that garden.
Amidst all the lilies,
Stood a bright, red rose.
And I was captivated.

Everytime I walked past her,
I stared at the way the bees buzzed around her.

Everytime I walked past her,
I stopped to admire her beautiful petals
Red and gold, glistening in the sun.
But every time I held her in my hands
I was left bleeding from her thorns

Sometimes I wonder if I was a fool,
Ignoring those thorns I so clearly saw,
Just to see those petals glisten in that way again.
But I always come back the same way,
Disillusioned by the beauty of us,
Alone with cuts in my hands

I guess I am a fool.
Time and time again I come to pick you up,
But every time I come back,
My hands heal a little faster,
My skin grows a little thicker,
And after every trip,
I get a little closer,
To never coming back.

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!