Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Be a Samurai during Songkran


Warm in the Cold by Marser

The Songkran holiday is kicking off tomorrow.   As the year's longest-period official holiday, Songkran deserves all the hype it is getting.

For white collars in particular, Songkran is definitely something to look forward to.   When the economy was better, middle-class Thais tended to use it to fly out of the country, feeling grateful they could escape the scorching heat even for a little while.

This year, given the current economic downturn, more Thais are opting to stay at home.   The economy is having an effect on our mood as well.   People are a bit edgy. A  t the very least, we have become grumpy folks.

This brings us to the importance of staying cool during this summer holiday.   It is no secret that we humans find it harder to control our temper when the weather is maddeningly hot, global-warmingly hot.   It does not help either that the town is a little bit more crowded than every year in the past.   Longer queues and overcrowded restaurants, anyone?

So, watch out, dear readers.   With the above reasons, patience is going to be limited and tempers are going to fly this Songkran.   And we didn't even take into consideration the heated political atmosphere that is lurking in the background yet.

Songkran and samurai

As separate concepts, Songkran and samurai do not seem to produce any mental association.   But, believe it or not, almost 300 years ago in 1714, a caring samurai teacher named Daidoji Yuzan wrote a book that sounds as if he had the image of Thais celebrating Songkran in mind!

Titled Bushido for Beginners, the book is basically a manual for young, aspiring samurais.   Like us in the 21st century, life could be a struggle for the 18th century's Japanese warrior class.   In Tokugawa Japan, although the samurai class has been put on top of the social hierarchy, they ranked last economically, well below farmers, artisans and merchants.

Tokugawa Japan was also known as a peaceful period.   The samurai, therefore, faced another unprecedented distress. Their practical status as warriors had been lost.   They were busy redefining their raison d'etre, searching for their self-esteem. Basically, they had been transformed from a revered military class into a struggling civil servant class.

Seeing the plight of the young warriors, Daidoji Yuzan came up with that book.   At first glance, it seems to be a general career guide on "how to be a good samurai."   Reading between the lines, however, one can see that Yuzan wrote the book out of his love and concern for the younger generation.   His instructions, if dutifully followed, will lead the young men to a sustainably peaceful life.   He was coaching them how to "live smart." His real motive, therefore, was to help them out of suffering.

Consider that the world is now experiencing universal suffering, may be it is a good idea to look at Yuzan's timeless advice.

Be aware of death even at New Year

First, let's imagine the usual Songkran image: parties everywhere and reckless people roaming.   Year after year, statistics for road accidents during the holidays clearly show that alcohol is the number one culprit.   Yet, regrettably, the lobbyists still can not secure us a law prohibiting alcohol consumption while in a vehicle!   It is as if the authorities are trying to promote more deaths during the holidays!   But, seriously, do you think any revelers believe that they might die during the festivities?

Now, consider the opening sentence of Yuzan's book, "The man who would be a warrior considers it his most basic intention to keep death always in mind, day and night, from the first meal on New Year's Day right through the evening of last day of the year."

As Songkran is the Thai New Year, it would not hurt to remember Yuzan's advice and try thinking about death a little bit.   When one constantly keeps death in mind, Yuzan argued, both loyalty and filial piety are realised and a myriad of evils and disasters are avoided.

Songkran is supposed to be the time one goes to spend time with one's extended family to show respect and filial piety to the family elders.   If we keep death in mind, both ours and theirs, chances are that we would be gentle in our words, kind in our deeds, and mindful in our thoughts.

In his poetic language, Yuzan went on to describe a person's life as fleeting, not unlike the dew in the evening or the frost in the morning.   Being resolved that this might be the last day that we may live, Yuzan explained, one would naturally attend to one's parents with the thoughts that this may be for the last time, and one's concern for them would be sincere.

Therefore, if you are fortunate enough to be able to pour the blessing waters on the hands of your parents and/or grandparents this year, remember that it could be the last time. This way, your Songkran moment would be memorable.

When one forgets death, Yuzan continued, one's mind would lack prudence.   Arguments will be started over insensitive speech, and controversies will flare up concerning matters that could have been finished simply by ignoring them.   In an example quite similar to the scene at Songkran, Yuzan further reminded us to consider what could happen when one walks recklessly in the midst of crowds on temple visiting trips, bumping into strange fools and getting into unexpected fights.

The samurai's dos and don'ts

Because of that possible scenario, Yuzan suggested the young samurai shouldn't go to high-risk places even when invited.   If travelling during the festive season is unavoidable, Yuzan recommended that one plans one's route carefully in advance to stay clear of possible troubles.

At parties, Yuzan pointed out, smart warriors would eat and drink in moderation and train themselves to prudently keep sexual indulgence at a distance.   When having to engage in a conversation, laudable samurai would also keep their words to the minimum.   The most important thing is to diligently watch one's thoughts and words.

The popularity of Yuzan's book is a testament that his advice works.   Being mindful at New Year's is never out of date, for now or for the 18th century samurai!

May you all have a mindful and memorable Songkran holiday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Ghost Stories

Life as a mindfulness practitioner is fun.   Now and then your friends who happen to run into an unusual situation would seek your advice.   One day, the author received a phone call from KL where a friend, let us call him Romeo, was visiting on a business trip.

"Umm, I need a little favour," Romeo started.

"I've got a colleague here.   She is a Chinese Malaysian and also a Buddhist.   Recently, she feels that there is a ghost in her house.   She feels someone is watching her all the time, especially at night.   She also said that sometimes things got knocked over around her house," Romeo explained.

"To solve the problem, she invited some Chinese specialists to pray on the compound. It did not work. This spooky experience disturbs her a lot and she is losing sleep over it. Can you help?" Romeo asked.

To tell you the truth, dear readers, of all the requests the author has received so far, this is most extraordinary.   If you were the author, what would you do?

As it turned out, Romeo did not give enough time for the author to decide what to do.   He quickly concluded, "Her name is KC. Now, you talk to her."   With that, he handed his mobile phone to his colleague.
Right.   The things we do to help our friends.   But that is exactly what friends are for, isn't it? You offer a free ghost-busting service for your friend's colleague!

Having no time to properly form a thorough answer, the first suggestion the author gave to KC was a spontaneous one.  Assuming there actually are sentient beings in her house, the author told KC to first give them Loving-Kindness.

Loving-Kindness meditation

Loving-Kindness or Metta meditation is probably the easiest type of meditation for everyone.   All we have to cultivate is our sincere compassion for other beings.   Many meditation teachers would let the yogi meditation practitioners, start with giving loving kindness to themselves.

To do so, one need not recite any actual Pali (for Theravada) or Sanskrit (for Mahayana) chant.   Simply repeat in your mother tongue, "May I be happy, peaceful and free from suffering," over and over again.   Some yogi believe that it helps if you do this Loving-Kindness exercise while sitting in a meditation posture, with your eyes closed. Some yogi found it helpful to also watch their breathing while repeating the Loving-Kindness phrase.

We can of course do Loving Kindness meditation in any posture, even when we walk.   What is important is to put sincere, utmost effort in giving yourself that Loving Kindness.

Once your mind starts to calm down, move on to give the same Loving-Kindness to those that we respect and love.   For Thais, the author would like to humbly suggest that we start with HM the King.   This is a fail-proof method for us Thai practitioners.   For when HM the King is the meditation focus point, you would notice that your mind and your body are easily overwhelmed with piti or joy.

Next, use that feel-good, joyous experience to continue to give Loving-Kindness to your parents, teachers, friends, etc.   At the end, your mind would be ready to give Loving-Kindness to each and every being in the universe, let alone those residing in your house.

Because you can give

Knowing that Loving-Kindness would only work if the person feels at peace with himself/herself, the author went on to give encouragement to KC by explaining that, in Buddhist teaching, those beings would only visit the person who has enough boon (merit) to share.   And precisely because of that, the author congratulated her for being a wholesome person, most likely blessed with a kind heart that loves to give, dhana, and live a virtuous life according to the five precepts, sila.

KC was pleasantly surprised.   She never thought of herself that way before.   Realising that she indeed is a kind person who has done a lot of good deeds, her mind was at peace.

Yet, the author knew that KC might still harbour some fears regarding those beings in her home, assuming there actually are some.   We humans tend to have fear of the unknown, you see.   Therefore, the author thought it would help to point out to KC that, more often than not, beings from other planes usually come to ask for merit and blessings from their blood relatives.   Therefore, they could be someone you have known, someone in your family.   It could be her beloved grandmother or great-great grandfather.

And this is the beauty of a Chinese family.   On top of the Chinese wholesome livelihood is the loving bond among the family and the respect for the elders.   The author then told KC to send her Loving-Kindness to those beings as if she would to a beloved family member.   In addition to giving Loving-Kindness, the author told her that she can also go make merit or do charity work and dedicate the boon to them. KC was delighted.

A Zen ghost story

KC's story reminds the author of a famous Zen "ghost story."   It is about a man who once had a beautiful and loving wife who one day became sick and died young.   Before she passed away, she made him promise that he would no longer seek a new love of his life, otherwise she would come to haunt him.

After she died, the man dutifully kept his promise.   Several months passed by and, as karma would have it, he fell in love again and got engaged to a new lady.   The night of the engagement, the ghost of his wife did really come to haunt him.   The ghost lamented that he is a bad husband, not keeping his promise, etc.   Naturally, the man was really scared.

Being haunted by the ghost every night, the man finally went to see a Zen master.   "Indeed the ghost is very intelligent," the master said, "She knew everything that happened between you and the new girl.   What you can do now is to praise her intelligence when she comes again.   But give her a deal.   Tell her that you have one question to ask.  If she indeed knows everything about you, then she would be able to answer.   If she could not, she has to let you go so that you can begin a new life."

That night, without fail, the ghost re-appeared.   After hearing the challenge, the ghost took the bait.   She insisted that she knows everything that happens to him.   The man then scooped up beans from a bag and demanded to know the number of beans in his hand.   At that very moment, the ghost disappeared and never came to bother the man again.

What we learn from this Zen ghost story is that, sometimes, the "ghost" in our life could be just an illusion of our own mind, our own conscience or our own imagination.   The reason that it is so real is because we are already very scared.   Being scared by our own thoughts is a sign of mindlessness.   In this Zen story, the master simply gave the man an appropriate tool to trigger his own mindfulness to work for him at the time that he needed it most.

At the moment of this writing, KC does not have a visit from invisible beings in her home anymore.   In fact, she even had a very good sleep the night we had that phone conversation.   So, even we cannot conclusively decide at this moment yet whether in fact there were invisible beings in KC's home or not, one thing is clear: fear starts first in one's own mind.   When we give a strong immunity to our mind by mindfulness practice, we will be less likely to get haunted by our own illusions or imagination.

With mindfulness/Zen, you will be able to see things as they really are.   With mindfulness/Zen, you will be at peace with yourself and you will have enough merit to dedicate to other beings, ghosts or otherwise.   Our lesson for this week is, therefore, do not wait until you actually run into a ghost in your house before you think about being generous (dhana), living a wholesome life (sila), and learning meditation (bhavana).

See you in two weeks' time.   Until then, let us always have that Loving-Kindness feeling to all beings in our heart.   It may come in handy, you know. Just ask KC.