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With all the tension in the world today, I wondered what to do.
My grandmother told me that only her sister and her cousin escaped from the horror of Europe in WWII, across the USSR, to Palestine, every one else died. The Nazis could easily have defeated England, and Europe would be a very different place.
We are often told that “America won WWII”.
What we are not told is that Germany attacked Russia in June, 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor. (They delayed the invasion due to some of their army tied down by the GREEK resistance, but that’s another story.)
We are not told that over 20 million Russians died between then and May 9th, 1945, when the German army finally surrendered.
We are not told that Germany lost the war, at the gates of Stalingrad, when the German army surrendered, and Russia counterattacked and went all the way from deep in Russian territory, to Berlin.
By contrast, the US attacked on D Day, 1944. We lost 400,000 dead, not 20+ million, and aside from Pearl Harbor, US soil was never touched. America lost about 3000 killed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Russia lost over one million people in Leningrad alone.
The Russians were attacked by 222 divisions. America faced only 11 divisions, of a severely weakened German army.
So in recognition and gratitude, and in the face of Obama’s petty refusal to attend the 70th anniversary of that May 9th Victory, I decided to go to see for myself what is going on there. It is important to note that in the parade, Russia’s military was joined by China’s and India’s as well as several other countries, and I think 25 countries sent delegations. So if you think that Russia is isolated, and that US policy towards Russia is working, think again.
When I arrived at my inexpensive hostel in Moscow, the pretty young English speaking woman at the front desk said, jokingly,
“So you are American, did you bring a gun with you to protect yourself from us monster Russians?”
The 70th anniversary was a very big deal. There were posters everywhere, and that victory is a national holiday, like our 4th of July, complete with fireworks and parades. And why not? What Russia went through in WWII makes our Revolutionary War look like a walk in the park. This was not just about getting rid of the King of England, it was a matter of national survival.
Heck, if by some miracle, we European based invaders suddenly disappeared, the Natives whose land we really did devastate, would be as happy as the Russians were, to have defeated the Nazis.
While in Moscow, I went on a couple of walking tours, to the Kremlin, the Lenin Library, the fancy shopping district, and interestingly, the Moscow subway, or Metro, many of whose stations are decorated with mosaic ceilings, sculptures, chandeliers, and so on. On one of the tours, a man approached and asked if anyone wanted to go to the Bolshoi Ballet.
It was expensive–$80 for one of the worst seats in the house, high up on the top balcony, and way off to the side, you had to lean over the rail to see the full stage. I thought, how could I NOT see the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow of all places. The house was packed.
As I made my way around Russia, you might imagine, people were curious and surprised to see an American, since there aren’t that many around. Not too many English speakers either.
However, people were friendly.
My first dinner, I went to a cafeteria style very popular restaurant, where I could point to what I wanted. No menu needed.
When I saw what was offered, I felt like I had gone to my Nana Goldforb’s house, or maybe dropped into a Bar Mitzvah.
The food is very similar to the Jewish home cooking that my grandmother served. Pickled herring, soups, chicken, were a reminder of my childhood. I even saw Homontaschen, the traditional Jewish three cornered pastry everywhere.
There are a number of museums but unfortunately, I had no guide, so it was hard to get around to see everything. But fortunately, my hostel was right near the center of Moscow, so I could get a good feeling for the city.
There is Kremlin, with its iconic cathedral,Saint Basil’s, and many Churches which have reopened since the USSR discouragement of worship ended. Most people are very patriotic, there is a lot of nostalgia for the days of the USSR. and lots of Hammers and Sickle are around. However, Stalin has been more or less discredited. Lenin, less so. On the other hand, some people still credit Stalin’s leadership in defeating the Nazis.
There is also quite a bit of controversy about his rule, whether we are told in the West the true story or not, in full.
He was quoted as saying that Russia was 100 years behind Western Europe and America, and that if Russia did not modernize in 10 years, it would be crushed. And an attempt was made to crush Russia, more than once.
Another example, was a recent US story by some American who said that the Nazis and Russians planned to divide up Europe in a treaty called the Molotov Ribbentrop treaty.
I had to point out to the person who told me about that, that Stalin wanted to build communism within Russia, and defeated Trotsky, who wanted communism to expand. Hitler’s Mein Kampf made it clear that he wanted to expand to the East, that he regarded Slavic people with contempt. So that treaty was similar to Chamberlain’s “peace in our time’ treaty, where Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to give England time to prepare for a war they knew was coming.
Likewise, people often criticize Russia’s decent into totalitarianism, with its horrors. but few know that England, the US, France and Italy and Japan attacked after the Bolshevik revolution.
“Workers of the world, unite!”
Not if the capitalists can stop it. If Russian had not been threatened, things may have turned out differently. See below for more on that. Someone once said “Your’e paranoid” “True, but even paranoids have enemies!”
Anyway, what I saw was that Russia today is attempting to integrate its past, under the Tsars, who had their own problems, the Communists, and the Russian Church. Some people have become religious, some not. Young people have mixed feelings about the Communist era, many are glad to be free, that is free to struggle in a much more competitive environment, dominated by money. When the USSR fell, Russians traded lack of free speech for a dog eat dog economy. Which is pretty much what I see in every country I have been in. Lots of young Russians are scraping by on low wages and high expenses. Sound familiar?
Next, I went to Crimea. Crimea is famous to us for the Crimean War. Crimea reminds me of Sonoma County, California, where the climate seems to be similar (except none of Sonoma’s coastal fog). There is also a strong influence of classical Greece. Probably why for centuries, various countries have fought over it.
I visited a city on the Black Sea coast, called Sevastopol, from which the name Sebastopol (near the Sonoma County city of Santa Rosa ) comes.
The Nazis attacked and, following a brutal year long siege, eventually captured Sevastopol early in the war, but after Stalingrad fell, the Russians battled back and recaptured it. One resort town, Yalta, was the site of the famous conference between Roosevelt Churchill and Stalin.
My Hostel manager, who also was my guide for two days, gave a lot of interesting background, which I remember only in part.
Churchill was deeply impressed with Stalin as an extremely erudite figure, who had studied all sorts of subjects from history, culture, science, politics, and so on.
Roosevelt got along with Stalin much better than Churchill, though. Many streets are named after Russians, but only Roosevelt has a street named after him, the only foreigner to be honored.
I pointed out to her, that Harry Truman was installed in a coup at the Democratic National Convention in 1944. Had Henry Wallace replaced Roosevelt, as the Democratic party base wanted, there would probably have been no Cold War. But the oligarchs in the US were in charge way back then, too.
Outside of Sevastopol was a secret submarine base, now a museum, that was designed not only to house Russia’s submarines, but also do nuclear weapons work. It was designed to survive for three months after a nuclear blast.
I asked, how did Russia get ‘the Bomb’, so soon after the war, having been totally devastated.
Her answer, ‘Espionage. The first Russian bomb was a replica of the bomb that hit Hiroshima. Many scientists in the Manhattan project were refugees from fascism. They did not want one country, the USA to threaten Russia.
After the war ended, Churchill had the idea to reconstitute the German military and invade Russia., using 100,000 Wehrmacht troops whom the US, Britain and mainly the USSR had just defeated! You probably think, “oh Eric that is just unthinkable”; and you are right! It was called Operation Unthinkable. What a lovely man Churchill was….
Turning to the recent past, we have heard that Russia invaded Ukraine, and annexed Crimea. Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of State, said that the Russians essentially terrorized the Crimeans to vote to be swallowed up by Russia.
So I asked as many people as I could about this. One young waiter in a restaurant was reticent about discussing anything.
But everyone else I talked with was relieved to be back with Russia.
Two encounters in particular stand out.
I wandered into an art gallery, and met a nice lady attendant. Her daughter speaks English and acted as translator and hostess.
She had been in the Ukrainian military, Her grandmother during WWII had fought the Nazis, which gave Masha, the daughter, great pride. In September 2013, her military base was attacked—by a neo Nazi paramiltary group, who wanted to capture her base’s weapons. So that means that a civil war was brewing well before the fall of the Ukrainian government in February, 2014.
When the coup occurred, —and it was a coup—planned by Victoria Nuland, John McCain and the US ambassador to Ukraine, Masha, knew immediately what had happened. She deserted and went back to Sevastopol, where her mother (the art gallery attendant) works.
If you are not familiar with the coup, then you are victim of the “Vietnamese attacked our ship in the Tonkin gulf”, or the “Saddam has WMD’s and can use them in 45 minutes” or Colin Powell’s “Saddam’s mobile weapons labs (which turned out to be hydrogen gas makers for weather balloons)”, or any number of blatant lies we have been told throughout the years, to railroad us into the constant wars.
Russia, if it wanted to could have easily, in 2008, rolled into Georgia, and ousted the government. It could easily do the same to Kiev, but it has not. Rather, NATO which was supposed to be disbanded after the USSR ended, has instead expanded. Even after the Warsaw Pact did disband.
My observation, is that when any of these types of historical fact are presented to most people in the USA, people simply don’t believe them. It is too disturbing to look in the mirror and see who is the source of the problem.
Another encounter is also important to note. A young couple with their little boy were staying at the hostel in Sevastopol.
They are from Donetsk, which is the area hotly contested in eastern Ukraine. Their home was destroyed in a bomb attack, They are lucky to be alive. Many of their friends have been killed. The wife’s mother’s home was also destroyed.
The husband, Victor, has PTSD, as does the wife. The hostel manager found him under a bed when he heard airplanes flying overhead. If you were bombed for weeks on end and finally your home got blown up, you probably would hide under a bed, too.
These are what the Ukraine government calls terrorists. Unarmed civilians, whose native language is Russian, which is now illegal to use in Ukraine.
While in Sevastopol, the seaport on the Black Sea, I visited the Leo Tolstoy Museum. When I went in, and people saw that I am American and speak English, the librarian, who also speaks English showed me three English language books. One I forget, one was a book with photos of Crimea, and its rich history (including the deep influence of Greek Civilization). But the one I like the best was a chronicle of the great Russian composer, Tchaikovsky– 25 days in America.
In that book they cited the deep FRIENDSHIP, that he had for Americans, and also it cited Mark Twain’s experience with Russia when he went there.
Mark Twain wrote:
“America owes much to Russia, is indebted to her in many ways, chiefly for her unwavering friendship in the seasons of our greatest need. That that friendship may still be hers in time to come we confidently pray; that she is and will be grateful to Russia and to her sovereign for it, we know full well.that she will ever forfeit it by any premeditated, unjust act, or unfair course, it were treasonous to believe”. (Mark Twain’s notebook, Harper and Row, 1935, P 79.)
In the Tchaikovsky museum in Moscow is a souvenir replica of the Statue of Liberty.
“The statue also reminded him[Tchaikovsky], a socially minded intellectual, of something else:America’s friendliness to Russia and her gratitude for Russia’s vast moral and political support at the most trying time in American history–the Civil War. Out to enfeeble the United States,……Britain and France, unlike Russia, supported the Confederacy….”
The Russian scientist, Mendeleyeff said, “You can mix with Americans freely, with no use for ceremony…never see the arrogance…of too many Europeans…. ” “He went on to compare America’s representative democracy to the Russian Autocratic monarchy…America has precious experience for us to consider as we work on our political and social structures…”
After Russian ships arrived in New York, they were greeted (during the Civil War), by “a steamerload of ladies and gentlemen…all shouted “Hurray” and showed ‘a sympathy out of the ordinary’ for the Russian officers and the ‘hearty enthusiasm of not only the cream of American society, but of people from all walks of life…”
When the sailors returned to Russia, the US ambassador gave a dinner and the following toast,
” Since the time of Catherine the Great, since the day the American nation was born, we have always been friends…No dark reminiscences cloud our friendship. It will go on provided we observe one strict rule: to never interfere in each other’s internal affairs…The benefits of such relations can serve as political examples for the governments of the whole world. Then, gentlemen, vast expenditures on hostile navies and on supplying numerous armies will stop of themselves. They will be replaced by flourishing peaceful industries, global fraternity, and genuine civilization.”
How have things gone so off track?
One hundred and twenty years later, having been invaded by Napoleon in 1812, by the Germans in 1914, by the British in 1919, who used poison gas–” A staggering 50,000 M Devices were shipped to Russia: British aerial attacks using them began on 27 August 1919, targeting the village of Emtsa, 120 miles south of Archangel. Bolshevik soldiers were seen fleeing in panic as the green chemical gas drifted towards them. Those caught in the cloud vomited blood, then collapsed unconscious.”
Winston Churchill’s shocking use of chemical weapons
and again by Germany in 1941, is it possible to understand why Russia is concerned when Nato has missiles right on the border with Russia, why it is concerned when, in violation of agreement after the USSR ended, when Nato promised not to move ‘one inch to the East’, that it has taken in many of the former republics of the USSR. And directly interferes in Russian internal affairs by use of NGO’s that are indirectly funded by the CIA?
Or that George Bush walked out of the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, and both administrations have proceeded to surround Russia with weapons that make a US nuclear first strike possible?
And historian and critic William Blum has noted, the US has overthrown or subverted 60 countries or assassinated or attempted to assassinate many leaders of foreign countries who would not bend to US demands? Just since WWII.
But it is all Putin’s fault.
Why? Because, after the US made use of predatory capitalism and US and Russian oligarchs, to asset strip Russia in the 1990’s, just like the Wall Street gang has done in numerous countries, including the USA. Finally, Putin said “Nyet”. No more.
Everything that was expressed in Tchaikovsky’s book has been violated—by the US.
Most Russian understand this, and some Ukrainians and other former USSR republics also understand it, but many buy into the narrative of ‘freedom and democracy’ as their economies get stripped, their pensions get stolen, their health care costs rise, and the costs of war in terms of wasted dollars and broken bodies pile up. All based on lies piled on lies.
William Blum once quoted a US Government spokesman during a news conference during the Vietnam War.
If You Believe the Government, ‘You’re Stupid’ | Consortiumnews
If You Believe the Government, ‘You’re Stupid’ | Consort…
Americans are taught the myth that their democracy is safeguarded by an independent press.
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Winston Churchill’s shocking use of chemical weapons
Giles Milton: The use of chemical weapons in Syria has outraged the world. But it is easy to forget that Britain has used them – and that Winston Churchill was a po…
Having studied the lies we have been told all our lives to justify our massively bloated military budget and bullying tactics, I thought it would be a good idea to go see for myself, what is it like in Russia? Is Crimea held by Russian aggression, or did the Crimeans vote freely to disassociate themselves from a neofascist regime installed in just another of the many American concocted coups, starting with the overthrow of Iran’s democracy in 1953 and Guatemala’s in 1954. It’s all documented.
I really wish that more Americans would turn off NPR, cancel their subscription to the NY Times, smash their television sets, get on a plane and go visit other countries, and just LISTEN to what the people of the world have to say, such as the woman I met in a Thai monastery who said succinctly, “Your government is run by gangsters”.
Well, enough of this rant. I will close by mentioning some pictures that I took.
1. The iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.
2. Stained Glass window in the Moscow Metro (subway)
3. Ceiling mosaic in the Moscow Metro
4. A Famous Church inside the Kremlin
5. A poster with Putin winking and the symbol of Russia (like the American Eagle), winking. Caption I think says, I am a friend of Putin. Maybe similar to the Campaign slogan for Eisenhower, “I like Ike’
6.Poster, 70 year anniversary of Victory
7. Greek ruins near Sevastopol
8. A group of little girls on parade on Youth day, a National holiday, May 19th, where kids of all ages do a parade with their clubs like Tai Kwan Do, Science club, dance groups and so on.
9.Two newly weds with the bridesmaid, on their honey moon is scenic Sevastopol
10. Garden of a palace of the Tsar, near Yalta
11.Youth on parade. the black and orange ribbon is a symbol of St. George the patron saint of Russia. Now it is often shown with the Hammer and Sickle, together, which I interpret as the psychological integration of the Monarchy and the Revolution.
12.The doors to the underground, blast resistant submarine base
There are lots more but that is probably enough for now.
A final word. Russians are humans, just like you and me. Maybe more so.
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On January 21st, 2014, I gave a talk to a group of monks at Wat Suan Dok, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They are students at a University associated with the temple, Wat Suan Dok. These monks come from Nepal, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Lao. After I gave my presentation, there was a question and answer session for about an hour. Here are some of the thoughts I expressed at the meeting. First, I told them that I had studied basic traditional Buddhism at the San Francisco Zen Center, and had in recent years practiced several forms of Vipassana, at Wat Umong, Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Chom Thong (in Thailand). Practiced the Goenka Vipassana method and done three ten day retreats as well as spent one month at The International Meditation Center in Yangon, U Ba Khin’s center, where Goenka himself trained. I had also learned the method taught by the forest monks, breathing in ‘Pu…”, breathing out…”Dho” at Wat Tham Wua, in Mae Hong Son Province. I had studied and practiced Zen Buddhism in the USA. The primary difference in POV of Zen vs Thai—Bodhisattva vs Arhat. Bodhisattvas put off reaching liberation, “Nirvana”, while Arhats in the Theravada tradition have attained Nirvana (or in Pali Nibbana) in this lifetime. My opinion is that the issue is almost moot. Both practices involve meditation, knowledge of the 4 Noble Truths, the Eigthfold Path, 5 Skhandas, understanding of the how our senses work, examination of mental and emotional make up and so on. In fact, maybe only 5% or less of human beings even make any attempt at all to come to grips with their delusions and attachments. Self cultivation is very hard work. To experience the Dharma directly is extremely rare, so whether one chooses Mahayana or Theravada, and has some insight is a huge accomplishment in itself. Why China?—early influences. Having studied Zen for many years in America, I felt the need to reconnect and understand the context of China and the development of Zen. Here is a picture of a cave in a temple in Kunming, Yunnan Province, on my first trip.How I came to China—Dali, Meioguang Fashi. I met Meioguang Fashi ‘by accident’ in Dali. He invited me to travel with him and his friend Xiaojunjie, and later, we all went to Xiamen, his home town.A statue of Xu Yun, the legendary monk of the 20th century, whose bio I had read 30 years earlier.
- Meioguang Fashi, is both an expert in Chinese history and art, as well as a master artist and calligrapher. Here he is in his room and studio in a small city outside of Xiamen.
Meeting Meioguang in Dali, 2007. In August, 2007, I got it into my head to go to China. I had studied Zen Buddhism, which had its roots in China, but had been put off going there, due to my concerns with the language barrier. But my American friend, Paco, had traveled to Yunnan province, in Southwest China, almost directly due north of Chiang Mai. A quick airplane trip to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming got me there. Plus, I went online and found a college student who spoke English, who would be my guide. So I landed in Kunming, and met Faye, my student guide. For about three days, while she attempted to teach me Chinese, she shepherded me from my hotel to sites in Kunming, and to her favorite restaurant, MacDonald’s which is considered to be way cool. She taught herself English, and was a diligent student. She came from a Muslim family in Yunnan, but has left that all behind, now she is a modern young woman making her way in the world. Next, I took a bus with Paco and his girlfriend, Li, whom he subsequently married, to Dali. Dali is a small Himalayan foothills town. Wandering around Dali, I found many street vendors. One was selling silver dollar coins. “Please buy my coins, I need to make a sale to day to feed my family. “ She was selling the coins for the US equivalent of $6. But silver dollar coins in the US were selling for $12 at that time. I felt guilty buying about 10 coins, knowing I would make an immediate profit, since the woman lived in this backwater, and didn’t know the real price of silver. Then I bought a new backpack. I knew that you had to bargain with these people, so when the shop owner asked for 180 rmb, about $25, I said, “60”. She said, “Ok, how about 120 rmb?” I said, “60”. She rolled her eyes and said, “90”. I said, “60”. She said, “You Westerners drive a hard bargain,” and agreed to charge 60 rmb. I proudly went and met up with Paco and Li. With Paco translating (he spoke a little Chinese at the time), she said, “The bag is only worth 50 rmb, and the silver coins are fakes”. So I went back to the coin seller’s table and confronted her. “You sold me fake coins!” “No, they are real!” She clinked them together, and they had a nice ring. So I went to some other silver shops. I said, “I want to sell my silver coins” How about buying them for $6? They said, No. $5? No, $4, No. …$1…no. They were all fakes. I was pissed. I went looking for the silver lady, and when she saw me again, she ran away. In fact, what I was soon to discover, was something far more precious. Buying silver coins wasn’t my reason to be in China, anyway, I was looking for Buddhist monks to talk to. Wandering around the streets of Dali by myself, I was repeating a mantra, “where’s a monk, where’s a monk….?” A Chinese fellow approached me outside one of Dali’s many antique shops and introduced himself. “Have you eaten yet”—the standard way of greeting in China, he asked. There was a fellow in the antique shop with a shaved head, wearing clothes that looked like a monk would wear. “Is that fellow there a monk?” I asked. Indeed he was, and Xiaojunjie, my new friend, took me to lunch, followed by wandering around through the many art and antique shops with Meioguang Fashi. (Fashi is Chinese for Master of Dharma, the Buddhist teachings). We ended up talking for 8 hours straight, debating various points of Buddhism, and having a wide ranging highly stimulating discussion, like I had never had before. What is the meaning of the Heart Sutra? What are the wellsprings of Chinese culture? What about all the famous Zen stories, and maybe most important, is there authentic Zen Practice going on in China? The next day, Xiaojunjie invited me to travel with them to Jizu Shan, a 10,000 foot high mountain. We got there and at the foot of the mountain was a 15 foot high statue of Xu Yun, the legendary monk of the 20th Century, who lived to be 120 years old. We’ll be seeing more of Xu Yun later. But just to give a sample, it’s said that one time, he decided to boil some potatoes. While they were cooking, Xu Yun did a little meditation. Some friends came by and looked in the pot, arousing him from his meditation. However, the potatoes were moldy. He had probably been sitting for at least a week, lost in his meditation! I’d read his biography 30 years earlier, and was in awe of his life as a monk. Seeing his statue, I felt like I was reconnecting with an old and dear friend. To return to Dali from Jizu Shan, Meioguang hired an unregistered taxi. The driver was in a hurry to get back, so he drove like crazy—the double yellow line in the middle of the road meant nothing to him. He played chicken with the oncoming cars, and would swerve back into the correct lane again and again. At one point, I finally said to Xiaojunjie, “This guy is driving too fast, and too dangerously. Tell him to SLOW DOWN.”, but Xiaojunjie just said, don’t worry. Indeed he wasn’t the only driver driving like that, so Xiaojunjie must have been used to it. Then, on one of the curves in the mountain road, we passed a minivan on the road bank. Upside down. I just thought, thinking of our Native American Ancestors maxim before going into battle,“it’s a good day to die.” After Jizu Shan, as Meioguang Fashi , Xiaojunjie and I proceeded on our trip, we found how much I had in common with them. They had encouraged me to come to Xiamen, study Chinese, and spend more time with Chinese, who had lost contact with the tradition of Chan, or Zen Buddhism. They had planned to go to Shanghai, and I had planned to go exploring more of Yunnan Province. But, when I told them that I thought it might be a good idea for me to visit Xiamen and check it out, the next day, they told me that they had decided to cancel their trip to Shanghai, and take me to Xiamen. So in the summer of 2007, my life took an unexpected turn—to Xiamen. They booked three first class train tickets for the three day trip, and off we went. Meioguang Fashi lives in a suburb of Xiamen. In 2007, there was hardly even a road there, and his friends and supporters drove beat up old cars, if they owned cars at all. Now, many of his friends drive new ones. So Xiamen has come into its own, and the road to his home town is now a modern 4 lane highway. Xiamen is one of the unique cities in Chinese history. Originally called, Amoy, it was one of the first cities that European traders found in the 15th Century. Most people think of cities like, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or Canton (now Guangzhou) when they think of China, but in fact, Xiamen was one of the very first ports where traders made their fortunes. As Bill Brown writes in his website, amoymagic, the USA would not have happened were it not for Xiamen. It turns out that the tea that was thrown overboard at the Boston Tea Party, came for Xiamen’s Fujian Province, and was doubtless shipped from Xiamen before being unceremoniously dumped into Boston Harbor. However, as Brown notes, the Brits got their revenge, when in 1843, they attacked Xiamen, as part of the First Opium War. As a result, a small island off the main island of Xiamen, called Gulangyu, was ceded by the Chinese Emperor, and several foreign missions set up, mainly from Europe, but also Japan. Gulangyu is one of China’s famous tourist spots, where many couples planning to marry have their wedding pictures taken. It is also the site of a piano museum, with perhaps 20 pianos many 200 years old or more, a virtual history of the piano as it developed over time. However, Gulangyu has a darker side. It was from there that the British and later other missions colonized and exploited China. China suffered massively from the forced importation of opium, primarily by the British. At one point, fully one fourth of China’s population was addicted to opium, and there was talk of the country committing national suicide as it sank into poverty and squalor. Can you, dear reader, ask yourself what would the USA or Europe be like, if they had 50 or 100 million heroin or meth addicts? As a post Opium War treaty port forced on China, Xiamen was a key entry point for England’s “free trade”, which had to include opium. The British, for their part, praised the benefits of opium, while outlawing it in England. At one point even the British Parliament was going to stop the opium trade, due to the pleading of the Emperor of China to stop the forced opium trade. But in the name of ‘Free Trade’,– Parliament was dissolved so that a second opium war could further destroy Chinese society for the benefit of British drug barons. It might also be of interest that both Presidents Bush were members of the Skull and Bones Yale Secret Society. How secret? Both George Bush and John Kerry, while running for president in 2004, when asked to explain this organization, said “we can’t talk about it”. However, independent researchers have discovered that the founder of Skull and Bones, William Russell was the key figure in the US side of the opium trade in China. Years later, another Skull and Bonesman, George Bush the elder, who has a nickname Poppy, just a coincidence no doubt.. was Vice President. He was in charge of the war on drugs. Bo Gritz, a great hero of the Vietnam war, had searched for POW’s in Asia, and met the notorious Burmese drug lord, Kuhn Sah. This was in the notorious Golden Triangle where Thailand, Burma and Laos borders converged. Kuhn Sah offered to stop selling heroin if the US paid him off. Bush, said, ‘leave it alone, Bo, we don’t want you to get hurt’. Years later, the opium growing moved to Afghanistan. However, the Taliban had wiped out opium production in Afghanistan by 2001. Then, his son George Jr. kicked the Taliban out of power after 911. Afghanistan’s opium poppy production has soared under US occupation. The Opium Wars have never ended, they’ve just changed venues. The main characters in the multigenerational gangster drug trade have stayed pretty much the same.But fortunately, China has had a reprieve. Xiamen has had its ups and downs, along with the rest of China. The Japanese invaded China in the 1930’s resulting in the deaths of at least 20 million people. Xiamen was occupied by the Japanese from 1938 until 1945. When the Japanese were finally forced out, the Chinese Civil War between the Communists and the Goumintang ensued. Chiang Kai Shek, Mao’s opposite, was forced to flee the Mainland, and go to Taiwan, which had been a province of China for centuries, although occupied successively by Dutch in the 17th Century and the Japanese in the 20th Century. As a result, for decades, Xiamen, was under the gun, so to speak of Taiwan. On the other hand, one island only an hour’s boat ride away from Xiamen is Jinmen Island, which held out against the Communists in 1949. This island, otherwise known as Quemoy, was a subject of debate between Kennedy and Nixon in the 1960 election. The question being, should the US attack China if it attacked Quemoy. Fortunately, the Communists gave up the idea of taking it back. Lucky for us foreigners,we can now renew our visas to China by hopping on a ferry for the one hour ride out of China and onto Jinmen. Relations between Taiwan and China have eased over the years, and as a result, the Communist government has been more willing to invest in Xiamen. Due to its status as a special economic zone, its economy has boomed. Since I was first invited by my monk friend to come to Xiamen, the city has developed significantly, and serves as my home base for my forays deep into China. Here, in Zhong Shan park, one of several fine parks in Xiamen, a group of musicians play using traditional Chinese string and flute instruments. Every fall, there is an international Buddhist trade fair, where all things Buddhist are exhibited and sold. Here is a Burmese style reclining Buddha. You can also buy bells, drums of all sizes, hand written Chinese Buddhist texts, incense, stonework, statues, art work and so on. I’ve written about previous stays at temples in China, and had returned in March 2013, for a two month stay at Tong Bo Yan Si. While there, the traditional Buddha’s Birthday celebration took place. Here is a picture of the Baby Buddha, set up under the statue of the 1000 armed Kuan Yin. Tong Bo Yan Si was the place where Jing Wu, the abbot of the temple, stayed when he had finished his three year solitary retreat at the famous training temple, Bailin Si, the Tang Dynasty monk, Zhao Zhou’s (Japanese: Joshu) temple, rebuilt in the 1980’s. The picture here shows me at the entrance to a small cave, where hermits sometimes lived. The original Tong Bo Yan Si was reportedly 800 years old. Jing Wu was discovered by some lay people and his vow to start his own temple was realized in 2007. Following my stay at Tong Bo Yan Si, I went with some Chinese friends to the temple of Xue Feng, about a 4 hour drive from Xiamen, in western Fujian Province. I have special affinity because Xue Feng (822-908) practiced meditation diligently for 25 years. While traveling with his monk friend, Yan Tou, his brother monk finally blurted out to him, “Haven’t you heard that, that what comes through the front gate is not the family treasure!” Haven’t you heard that what comes in through the front gate (your senses) is not Your Family Treasure? Here is a statue of the old man himself. The best meditator at Xue Feng Si. When I asked him for some truth of Buddhism, he said something, which I didn’t understand, but then, just laughed, said, Meditate More!, turned and walked away. Here, Guoji, my monk friend, and I stand on the ‘highway’ between Fujian and Jiangxi Province. After Xue Feng had his insight, he left Jiangxi province, and went to Fujian. He took up sitting in this old semipetrified tree trunk. The building you see was built around it only recently. A statue of him sits inside. Of course, Chan people have great respect for Arhats, and what you see here, is the footprint of a flying arhat, in the side of the large boulder. From XueFeng Si, I went on the main part of the trip, to Jiangxi Province. First, I went to the capital of Jiangxi, but no one knew anything about where these temples are located. Fortunately, a friend I had met at a temple two years earlier, gave me directions to my next stop, Yang Shan Xi Yin Si.It took about two days to get here, and when I arrived, there was a Buddhist summer camp. These are some of the campers who stayed at the temple for a week, learning to meditate and study Buddhism. This is a flat bell outside the kitchen where they cook meals. You see this type of bell everywhere in China and even in Japan. My home temple in the US has one like this, too. Yangshan was one of the most important early teachers of Chan. His school was one of the five schools of Chan, and this bell, with its five shapes, circle, half circle, triangle, oblong and square represent the five schools.. Also, notice the 8 spoked wheel of the Dharma on the wall of the Dharma Hall.Here is the rebuilt tomb of Yang Shan. The temple had been completely destroyed by fire in the 19th century but has been rebuilt in recent years. Note the placement of the temple nestled against the mountainside. This is typical of Chan temples. Like temples in Thailand, we can often see a pond where fish swim happily with out fear of being caught for food. The abbot of Yang Shan Si Yin Si, was very surprised to see a foreigner come to his temple. I may have been the first ever!. So he offered to help me on my pilgrimage. Pictured here are two students who speak English, along with their university professor. The Abbot then personally drove me to see two temples, both famous in the history of Chan/Zen Buddhism. The first was Dong Shan Liang Jie (Japanese, Tozan Ryokai), and the second was Baofeng Si, where I stayed for a week. Here we are at the site of one of Yang Shan contemporaries, Dong Shan Liang Jie (807-869). He had a big question whether non sentient beings are enlightened or not. Finally while on pilgrimage, he saw his reflection in the water and got his answer! Here is a new building at Dong Shan’s temple. It had probably hundreds of monks when it was active 1000 years ago, but much of it fell into disrepair, and also, during the Cultural Revolution, many temples were destroyed. They are now being rebuilt. This is one of the few surviving buildings from the Ming Dynasty, at least 400 years old. Here is Dong Shan’s tomb, which has been rebuilt Dong Shan’s school is one of the two surviving schools of Chan. And I first trained in a temple that came from his line of teaching. Here are some rice buckets, used to serve rice at the second temple, where Yang Hang took me to stay. It’s told in one of the old Zen stories that a teacher used to serve his monks from buckets like these, and before doing so, would dance and say, “Come eat, little Bodhisattvas!”. A bodhisattva is a being training to become enlightened. So he was encouraging the monks, as he served them from the rice buckets. The temple where these old style buckets are used is Bao Feng Si, where the great Chan Master Mazu (709-88)lived. He was enlightened when his teacher chided him for being attached to doing sitting meditation. More about that later. In the Reception Hall at Baofeng si, is a statue of Xu Yun. Hitting the wooden fish signaling meal time The meditation Hall at Baofeng Si. Standing in front of the Chan Hall with two regular Chan sitters. The monk on the left is the head of the Chan Hall. At the next temple I visited, which was founded by Yunju Daoying (d. 902),a successor to Dong Shan, we see many pictures and artifacts of Xu Yun, who is said to have lived or maybe died there. To understand the importance of Xu Yun, it is important to understand what happened to China, and its effects on Buddhism. The opium wars and the Qing Dynasty’s own corruption destroyed China’s defenses against colonial powers. The forced importation of opium resulted in ¼ of Chinese people addicted to opium, which resulted in virtual collapse of the society. In the mid 1800’s, another import was Christianity. A Chinese man who was converted to Christianity believed he was the younger brother of Jesus. He garnered an army to fight the corrupt and oppressive Qing Dynasty. Called the Taiping Rebellion, it resulted in chaos and civil war, lost food production, all resulting in between 20 and 100 million people dying between 1850-65. By contrast, the US Civil war lasted from 1861-65, and resulted in massive destruction in the US South, and perhaps 800,000 dead of a population of 32 million. China lost its amount of dead in a population of about 350 million. Perhaps up to 20% or more of China was killed outright or died of disease or starvation. Then WWII happened, with the Japanese invasion, which is said to have resulted in the death of another 20 million. Xu Yun lived from 1840-1959. Thus, he lived through not just one, but TWO Holocausts! Here is a picture of the elderly Xu Yun, surrounded by his disciples. Including a young Jing Hui Lao Hesheng (“Jing Hui, the Old Monk [an honorific title]”). After the Communists took power, from about 1960-75, Jing Hui was imprisoned for 15 years, but on his release, followed Xu Yun’s example and rebuilt many temples in China, including Lao Zu Si, Si Zu Si, Bailin Si, and Yu Quan Si, all of which I visited and or stayed at. Here is a picture of Jing Hui and myself. Yan Zhen, the abbot of Baofeng Si, sent me on a tour with one of his young lay students, to see Yunju Shan, and I also to Baizhang Temple, one of the most important temples in Chan history. The founder, Baizhang, had a saying, “A day of no work is a day of no eating.” This goes against the rules laid down by the Buddha, but because Chan monks grew their own food, when Buddhism was almost destroyed by a Chinese Emperor in 843-5, the Chan temples survived, while others who were not independent, did not. This inscription marks the site of a famous story in Chan. The story of the monk reborn as a fox. This is the actual cave where his dead fox body could be found. Yan Zhen is the abbot of Baofeng Si. He speaks English and visited Burma last year. Maybe we can get him to come to Thailand, or even America. Here is an image of old Mazu himself, who was a teacher for Baizhang, we will see that his students eventually produced Linji, who founded the second surviving school of Chan. Along with my vow to visit these famous temples of Jiangxi Province, I also wanted to climb two of the mountains in China sacred to Buddhists, which thousands of sincere pilgrims go to climb. The mountain shown here is Jiu Hua Shan, sacred to the Bodhisattava, Ksitigarbha, (English, “Earth Store”, Chinese “Dizhang”). It’s said that a Korean monk who was a manifestation of Dizhang, lived on the mountain for 75 years, back over 1000 years ago. Here is a stairway on the way to the top of Jiu Hua Shan. Yan Zhen sent me to his monk brother, Yan Hui, who was my guide at Jiu Hua Shan. I also spent time with Yan Hui and discussed issues of history and modern society. Three steps one bow all the way up Jiu Hua Shan. After climbing Jiu Hua Shan, Yan Hui took me to two other temples. This bell was placed at a temple with a sad history. During the Taiping Rebellion, 3000 people took refuge there, and were massacred. So the abbot of that temple brought the bell, to be rung in memory of the people killed, to help their ghosts rest in peace. It took three tries to climb Wutai Shan, the legendary home of Manjusri Bodhisattva.The second sacred mountain I visited was Wutai Shan, or 5 Terrace Mountain, home to the Bodhisattva, Manjusri. At one of the countless temples on Wutai Shan, I saw this classic statue of Manjusri (Chinese, Wencu Pusa). I stayed at Wutai Shan for three days, and will write about it later on, as it was not so relevant to my discussion with monks in Thailand. Monks leaving the chanting hall at Bailin Si. This was the very famous monk, Zhao Zhou, Chan Master’s temple. The temple was totally destroyed, save for a severely damaged pagoda, over the last 1000 years. Jing Hui asked Overseas Chinese from different countries such as Singapore, Japan and Korea to donate money, and the temple was rebuilt 30 years ago. It is a very active temple (Jing Wu, now at Tong Bo Yan Si did his solitary 3 year retreat here.) Zhao Zhou lived from 778-897. It is said that after his teacher died when he was aged 60, he went on pilgrimage for 20 years, finally settling down at age 80, and he lived another 40 years after that.The Pagoda honoring Zhao Zhou Jing Hui’s successor, Ming Hai is the abbot of Bailin Si. He was not at that temple when I arrived, so he invited me to see him at this temple, which had also been rebuilt by Jing Hui. This temple, Yu Quan Si, was in the teaching line of Dong Shan, although it came 3 centuries later. It is the place where a monk in the Cao Dong (Soto, in Japanese) school of Chan wrote a book, The Record of Ease, or variously translated as The Book of Serenity, compiling stories of teachers of Chan told throughout several centuries, and is used in conjunction with meditation study. Here is a garden outside the meditation hall. The final two pictures were taken at Linji’s temple. Linji was the founder of the Linji School, one of the two surviving schools of Chan, or Zen. The pagoda and the meditation hall are shown here. I was brought here by a monk I met at Bailin Si, who calls himself Peter. The young girl, a college student name Jessie, came along, and helped translate for Peter and I. A fuller discussion of my trip follows in the next post. But I wanted to include these pictures and a brief overview. I used these pictures as a presentation to the monks, and a lively discussion followed.
Last year, I had been invited to attend a conference on Chan, which I wrote about here in another entry. So this year, I felt that I would like to contribute something to the discussion. I wrote an article which a Chinese graduate student, Han Qing, translated into Chinese from English. Most of the people who attended were academics, who presented their papers. The main issue was the history of Chan in that area of China. It was in Hubei Province, where Dao Xin, the 4th Ancestor had the first temple devoted exclusively to the Chan school, since there were many other sects of Buddhism in China going back to the first century. His disciple, Hong Ren started another temple, now called Wu Zu Si, or 5th Ancestor Temple, and it was there that a young Hui Neng arrived, later to become the 6th Ancestor. Now, in the same small city where Hui Neng gave many of his teachings, the 3rd Annual Conference on Chan Culture took place, and I presented the following paper.
How to Practice Chan in Daily Life
1 Expression of Gratitude
I would like to thank Jing Hui Fashi, Ming Ji Fashi, and the organizers of this conference on Chan in daily Life for the chance to participate. I also want to thank all the many warmhearted Chinese people I have met who have made my practice of Buddhism in China possible. I would also like to send a long distance bow of gratitude to my teacher, Nelson Foster, for his kind instruction and support.
Before continuing, please let me make a disclaimer, that I am presenting my own opinions, and am not a scholar or teacher,, just a student of the Way, offering some observations that I have found useful.
Of course, the topic of our conference is “Chan in Daily Life,”, and I was recently reminded of a talk given by a Korean Chan monk on the Diamond Sutra. He pointed out, that the Sutra’s first Chapter includes this passage:
One day before dawn, the Buddha clothed himself, and along with his disciples took up his alms bowl and entered the city to beg for food door to door, as was his custom.
After he had returned and eaten, he put away his bowl and cloak, bathed his feet, and then sat with his legs crossed and body upright upon the seat arranged for him.
He began mindfully fixing his attention in front of himself,
The monk pointed out that this passage includes the entire sutra. Why? Because it states clearly and simply, how the Buddha conducted his daily activity.
It is said that there were, in the time of the Buddha, 500 Arhats, that is, people who had totally stopped the chain of karma, and would no longer be reborn. At that time there were not so many people in the world, so how could there be so many Enlightened Beings? Nowadays, with so many people practicing, there must be many hundreds or thousands of such beings, and also many Bodhisattvas. Yet, in response to a question about how many Buddhist practitioners have a real initial experience of Enlightenment, Kubota Roshi, a Japanese teacher said that only about 5-10 percent of people who attend Chan Qi have such an experience, and only 5% of those people can answer all the Gong An (Koans).
The probable reason for this is that life then, 2500 years ago, was a lot simpler.
The Diamond Sutra did not say, “The Buddha arose, turned on his Ipad, checked his email, checked his text messages and missed phone calls from his many disciples, then fired up his computer to check the latest news”! The Buddha did one thing at a time. He didn’t multitask!
His physical actions were all done mindfully, with awareness. And he was also aware of his emotional and mental activities. So nowadays, as we self cultivate, we too can be mindful, that is, we pay attention to our bodily actions. The first thing we do, hopefully, when we wake up is to immediately bring attention to our body, and our breathing. However, if we notice ourselves thinking, then we are mindful of the fact that we are thinking.
4 Mindful Arising and the Importance of Daily Sitting Chan
We go to the wash room, attend to our personal needs, and mindfully brush our teeth, wash our face, and then, perhaps do some mindful stretching to bring some flexibility to our body. Then, take some time to sit. Why is sitting so important in the development of Chan in daily life? Because it is so simple, that it frees us from the usual daily complications of talking, planning and so on. We pay attention to our breathing, or to our body, or perhaps to our Hua Tou or Gong An. Nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, Emptiness can arise and we can enjoy the simple joy of Chan, just as it is!
We try to set a regimen of time that we devote to sitting Chan, whatever we find works, be it 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or perhaps longer.
5 Mindful Eating
Just before we eat, we can take a few seconds to be mindful of the fact that we are eating.
Most people notice if they are hungry, but few are willing to ‘feel’ hungry for the short time it takes to look at our food, and feel grateful for it! We may even say a short poem, such as my American teacher taught me, “We venerate the Three Treasures and are thankful for this food, the work of many people and the sharing of other forms of life”
Before we eat the rice, do we consider all the incredibly hard work of the farmers who planted the rice, took care of it, dug the fields to water it, and then harvest, thresh, dry bag, transport it so we could eat it? If we eat animal products, what about the life of the animal, what it went through, probably not a very easy life, penned in with thousands of other animals and then killed so that we will not go hungry and weak?
6 Cultivating the Social Emotions of Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity
We probably have interactions with family members or housemates. Do we pay attention as we busily prepare for our day, that they have their own life experiences that they are dealing with? Can we use the lens of Harmony as we conduct behavior?
We are not separate selves! When we act with Chan mind, we encourage others, whether they know it or not, to awaken their own Chan Mind!
7 The Challenge of Mindful Chan Living in Modern Society
One of the biggest challenges nowadays in maintaining mindfulness is the use of mass media and mass marketing, which is specifically designed to make us think or do or feel or buy what other people want us to, So, as we walk down the street, look straight ahead, and don’t get too distracted by the billboards and other enticements. When we are in the shop or supermarket, when something catches our eye, ask the simple question, “Do I need this? Do I want this?” We can then avoid impulsive, thoughtless purchases of stuff that is often useless. When we spend money, what are we spending it on? Is it useful, will it support life or is it wasteful?
Cooking our own food is a healthy alternative to eating fast food, especially from the big name popular chains. Their meals are designed to taste good, but not for good nutrition, regardless of what they may want you to think. So eat healthy food,
These are just some of many examples of how we can practice mindful awareness in our daily life. Chan is the cultivation of conscious living, these are some suggestions.
Buddhism is wonderful because it provides so many useful tools to hone our mindfulness.
8 Importance of the Precepts
One of the best is the 5 precepts.
One list of the 5 precepts is as follows:
- To not kill living beings
- To not take what is not given
- To not act sexually in a way that is harmful
- To not lie, slander, use harsh words, or gossip
- To not partake of drugs and alcohol
which lead to further confusion
It is unfortunately true that people break the precepts for personal gain at the expense of others. While the precepts are short and to the point, they can be interpreted broadly. For example, speaking harshly can kill a relationship. Using the work of another person without giving due credit is a form of stealing. Cheating on a spouse or using power as a means of seduction are both forms of misusing sex. Speaking untruthfully, or slandering others can destroy the trust which holds a group of people together in harmony. And it is not just drugs or alcohol, but addiction in all its forms—gambling, watching too much television, shopping for things one really doesn’t need, even working compulsively as a ‘Workaholic’—all these take us away from our true selves.
But we can be sure that breaking the precepts will usually result in lots of thinking, often negative thinking, such as guilt. That doesn’t even include illegal actions that can result in jail time, or worse! It’s been noted that the soldiers who commit suicide were those who often killed others, often innocent people, and later feel tremendous guilt.
We humans are hardwired to do Good, and sooner or later, face the ill effects of our bad actions. So let’s use the Precepts to guide our mindful actions!
9 The Importance of Critical Thinking
In our complex world, we are faced with many difficult decisions, yet this too is an opportunity for us to practice Chan in Daily Life. During the time of the Buddha, he once met some villagers from the place called Kalama. They approached him with the following problem. On successive days, various teachers would visit their village, praise their own teaching while deprecating others’. Confused, they asked the Buddha for his advice. Perhaps we would have expected the Buddha to say, “well of course, I am the Buddha, and I have the perfect teaching!”
That is not what happened. He sympathized with their dilemma, and advised them the following:
Do not blindly believe what is written in your holy books, or spoken by Authority, or what you hear rumored, or take for granted any other form of external advice, but on your own observation and analysis, if what is said conforms with reality and benefits all, then follow that approach. And if, on observation and analysis, something does not appear to be true, and appears to harm others, then reject that approach.
Buddhism is sometimes criticized as being simplistic, with the recitation of a mantra, or simply going to a temple and making offerings. However, a most important component of Buddhist practice, and Chan practice in daily life, is to constantly use our intelligence and critical thinking skill, to thoughtfully and mindfully make wise decisions. When you are at the supermarket, read the label. When you listen to some one, it is OK to respectfully ask questions.
If someone appears to be giving bad, or worse, fraudulent advice, trust yourself! They may not have your best interest in mind, but rather theirs. It is for this reason why our great Chan Teachers like Bodhidharma, or 6th Patriarch Hui Neng, and many others became our great teachers.
Finally, we must be patient with our selves, but not too lazy! We will falter, we will make mistakes, as we go through our daily life, but we will remember that it is our aspiration to be bodhisattvas, even if it takes eons, and regardless the obstacles, that slowly, slowly we vow to refine our life, and face the Present Moment, Here and Now, with courage, honesty and good intention.
One of my great American teachers, Robert Aitken used to say, ‘We are all in this together… and we don’t have a lot of time.” To which I will close by saying, “let us all enjoy practicing Chan together, support each other, as we find our own way, to avoid doing harm, practice all good, and purify our minds.
On November 19th, 2012, I came back to Thailand from Beijing, where the temperature was about 3 degrees Celsius, or 37 Fahrenheit when I left in the early morning. Took a flight to Kunming in Southwest China, and, although the city is 5000 feet high, or about 1600 meters, the weather was a comfortable 22 Celsius, or 70 Fahrenheit. In the evening took a flight back to Chiang Mai, where, at 9 PM, it was still 28 celsius, or 82 Fahrenheit.
Every year around this time is a special festival to mark the Full Moon. It’s called Loi Kraton. This year, based on the Lunar Calendar, it was on November 28. I think there is also a holiday based on the Lunar Calendar in China, too. Anyway, it is marked by three different kinds of quite beautiful offerings.
First, are the beautiful floats, mounted on trucks, with lovely Thai girls and some young Thai men, dressed it appears as either Royalty, or more likely, as Goddesses and Gods.
Second, there are small hot air balloons, made from paper, with a small burner at the bottom. The burner is lighted, the hot air fills the paper balloons, which then rise to the night sky by the dozens, sending the good wishes off to Heaven.
Third, there are many small boats, not more than a few centimeters or inches across, decorated with flowers and other small items. A Thai girl told me that the boats are an offering to the River Ping (that is the river that runs by Chiang Mai), asking the river to forgive anything the person has done wrong to the river, and I suppose, extending into the person’s life.
Right now, the weather in Chiang Mai is perfect, clear blue sky, about 28 degrees, or into the mid 80’s Fahrenheit. A lot more comfortable than Beijing, at least as far as the weather is concerned!! This time of year, especially with the Loi Kraton Festival, is the best time of year to visit Chiang Mai.
Apparently, the young Chinese folks are finding out about it. I met a lot of Chinese both last year and this year as well. This is something that was not so when I first came to Chiang Mai, and it always give me smile when I see Chinese people here, joining the many others from Western countries.
Since I practice Zen, I am interested in seeing what is going on in the Zen world throughout Asia.
In 2010, I spent time at Bodhizendo, a meditation center in India, founded by Father Ama Sami, a Jesuit priest, who studied Zen in Japan. His teacher was Yamada Koun Roshi, of the Sanbo Kyodan lineage.
Robert Aitken Roshi , whom I sat several sesshin with, was the teacher of Nelson Foster, my teacher at Ring of Bone Zendo, my ‘home Sangha’ which is a part of the Diamond Sangha network of Zen practitioners. Aitken Roshi had likewise studied with Yamada Koun Roshi. So, if we think in familial terms, Nelson is my ‘Dharma Father’. Aitken Roshi was my ‘Dharma Grandfather’. Yamada Koun Roshi was my ‘Dharma Great Grandfather’. That makes Ama Sami my Dharma Grand Uncle.
And it turns out that there are teachers in Singapore who also trained with Yamada Koun Roshi, as well as one of his key successors, Kubota Roshi. Kubota Roshi would also be considered my Dharma Grand Uncle.
So, when I told Nelson of my plan to sit sesshin, an intensive Zen Meditation retreat, he was supportive of the idea, especially since he has met Kubota Roshi. I decided to contact Wah Keong, a new Sanbo Kyodan teacher, who studied with both Yamada Koun as well as Kubota Roshi. Wah Keong, then, is my Dharma Cousin. Wah Keong and Nelson have also met. So this sesshin was really a family affair for me.
Wah Keong graciously let me stay at his house, my having arrived a day early from Chiang Mai. I had been able to arrange a direct flight from Chiang Mai to Singapore, but flights are only twice a week. So staying with Wah Keong was convenient and helpful.
Singapore is an unusual city. It had been a British colony for many years, but as part of Malaysia. However, it separated from Malaysia, maybe because it was in a seriously impoverished condition at the time, maybe because its population is mainly Chinese, rather than Malayan. I am not sure of the details. In any case, in the last 30-40 years, it has made really amazing strides. It is a very clean modern city state of about 4.5 million people, with good infrastructure, safe streets, an excellent bus and train system, that is reasonably priced. It also has an excellent education and health care system, and many employees from what I could determine have pensions.The government also runs a Sovereign Wealth fund, which invests widely and is run for the benefit of the people. Kind of like a big trust fund. (Norway and other countries have one too.) Sometimes, nowadays, Singapore is referred to as ‘the Switzerland of Asia’.
It took about an hour and a half to get from the airport to Wah Keong’s place by bus. English is a major, though not the only language spoken. Many people speak a form of Chinese. There are also Malaysians, who speak Malay, as well as those of Indian descent, who speak Tamil ( a south Indian language). Enough people speak English, though, so getting around was pretty easy.
The sesshin was held at his large flat in a condominium complex in Singapore. This was a really international group. The main teacher was Kubota Roshi, who is Japanese. Wah Keong also gave daily talks as well as dokusan (private interview with the teacher) the first day (while Kubota Roshi was en route from Japan.)
Wah Keong is of course Singaporean Chinese, with a full time practice as an anesthesiologist. The fact that he could go through his medical training, raise a family and become a successful doctor plus pursue his Zen study so assiduously is amazing to me. Add to that his warm hearted and disciplined practice, and he is as good a “Dharma cousin” as one could wish for.
Along with the two teachers, were, I think, 4 Germans, long time Zen practitioners, two Indian Singaporeans, several other Chinese Singaporeans, two Japanese fellows who came all the way from Japan to practice with Kubota Roshi, and myself, from America. There was a total of about 11 students during the week and another 7 or so who had time on the weekend. This was a very seasoned group of Zen students.
Most of the chanting and Zendo etiquette were the same as with the Diamond Sangha. We even chanted the same translation of the Shodoka, Song of Realizing the Way, and Hakuin Zenji’s Song of Zazen. Kubota Roshi and Wah Keong both gave excellent talks on Koans (Dialogues or stories with a subtle meaning), which I especially enjoyed, having spent much of my time practicing with no dharma talks, either in Thailand or in China. Kubota Roshi was the first Japanese teacher I had practiced with since my earliest days in San Francisco. He is an excellent teacher, both strict and warm. I also very much appreciated Wah Keong’s suggestions and support. Dokusan took place three times a day, quite unusual for me.
The schedule of sitting and length of the periods was also pretty much the same as with Ring of Bone Zendo, my ‘home zendo’ in California.Twenty five minutes of sitting, and 5 minutes of walking.
The sesshin even ended the same as Ring of Bone, with a circle of sharing experiences and a group lunch.
In the evening, we all went out to a fancy Japanese style restaurant. After the eating was done, we had a chance to sing songs, which is a standard Asian custom. Fortunately, I had prepared myself, so as to spare myself the embarrassment of being asked to sing, and not knowing what to do. I sang three songs, finishing off with Blowin’ In the Wind, which is very popular in China and in Singapore as well. Of course, other students sang too, and we also had a very special slide show. You see, this was to be Kubota Roshi’s final sesshin in Singapore. He is now 80 years old and wants to concentrate his efforts in Japan, while giving Wah Keong and his wife Vivien (both of whom are Zen teachers) the chance to develop their own teaching practice. So we watched 16 years of pictures, showing many of the students at this sesshin as they were going back to 1996!
The following morning, we saw Kubota Roshi off at the airport, and I ended up staying in Singapore for another three days, mainly resting and walking around the China town area, and having tea or ice cream with my new Sangha friends. A special thanks to Maria, who helped me out with hotel accommodations one night, and Kim, who treated me to maybe the best ice cream dessert I ever had!