Sesshin in Singapore

Note: photos courtesy of Wah Keong

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!


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Why Sit?

What is this thing about sitting meditation? Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes me sit and practice, and after all, why lots of people throughout history have done so. Most people, especially Westerners think that meditation is something weird or even dangerous. Years ago, I visited a community not too far from my university. This was a time of burgeoning spirituality in 1970.  I was talking with one of the members of the community and when I told him I was interested in meditation, he replied that meditation was a sin. Since when has breathing while being aware of one’s own breathing been a bad thing?
Another time, years later, I went on a business trip to Birmingham, Alabama, for a workshop. My host, in the midst of some cordial banter, asked, “So what did you do before you were in the insurance business? I said, “I was a Buddhist monk”. A big curtain of ice crashed down between the two of us, and his face became cold and hard. “THAT’S DIFFERENT!” he shot back. Sheesh!
Well, nowadays there is growing interest in meditation practice, but in Asia, I find that people are far more open to the subject even if they don’t do it. Seems like people at least in Thailand and China, where I have spent most of my time the last few years often consider it fairly normal. And commendable.
So the question is, what is it about meditation that is so special while not being special at all?
I did a web search and found pictures of various famous sages.  Here is a classic picture of Shakyamuni Buddha, who reportedly lived about 2500 years ago, and is considered the founder of Buddhism.

Shakyamuni Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree

This is Hsuan Hua, the famous disciple of Chan Master Xu Yun. Hsuan Hua established a strong Buddhist Center in California, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, in Mendocino County, as well as other centers. There he is, sitting in Lotus Position.

Hsuan Hua, famed disciple of Master Xu Yun

Here is Lahiri Mahasaya, the famous sage discussed in Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.

Lahiri Mahasaya

This is a picture from the Brooklyn Museum, showing a man meditating in a garden setting. I think this picture is Persian, but I am not sure, he does not appear to be East Asian.

From the Brooklyn Museum, A Man Meditating in a Garden

Here is a picture of the great sage, Laozi, who lived in China and was roughly contemporary with Gautama, the Indian who became known as the Buddha. As an aside, he got the name “Buddha’ because when people asked him who he was, he answered, “Buddha” which means literally, “Awake”. Laozi was the main founder of Daoism. The Dao is “the Way”. Things just as they are.

Laozi, who wrote the classic Dao De Jing, the most popular book on Daoism

And here is another picture of Daoist Meditation
Daoist, Meditation, “Gathering in the Light” is the method used.

Daoist Meditation, Gathering in the Light

Here we see depicted Mahavira,

Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha, who founded the Jain religion in India

a contemporary of the Buddha. It would hard for the average person to tell the difference between this picture and one of the Buddha. They both advocated sitting crosslegged, and both are often depicted with hands in their lap, seated on a lotus seat, with a halo on their head. Mahavira was the founder of the Jain religion which is still practiced in India.

Bodhidharma, the legendary Indian monk, who brought Chan/Zen to China. He is said to have sat meditating, facing a wall in a cave for nine years.

Some contemporary sitters in a park, enjoying their meditation together.

Meditating in Madison Square Park

What do all these spiritual practitioners have in common? They SIT!

Years ago, while I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, I spent time with a Yurok Indian Medicine Man, Harry Roberts, who actually was half Irish and half Indian, but had trained with his Uncle, the tribe’s medicine man. He told me that one of the practices that he did was to go to an isolated forest or mountain place, draw a three foot circle, and sit there for three days with no or almost no moving.
When I was waiting for an airplane in the Singapore Airport recently, I asked if there was a meditation room. In Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand, there is a room for Buddhists and a room for Muslims. In Singapore there was a prayer room that is presumably non denominational but probably almost anyone using it is Muslim. There is also a meditation room, for the use of anyone. I went inside and there were just a few small mats and one chair. I arranged the mats so I could do Zazen (seated Zen meditation), and was there for a few minutes when two people entered. One sat crosslegged and one sat in a chair. Because of the hat one wore, I knew they were Muslim. I could hear them talking. Probably Malay, one said one sound that seemed to be “Buddha’. So my guess is, that they were talking about that Westerner sitting by the rear wall of the room, and guessing I was Buddhist.

Interestingly, I visited a bead shop in Singapore, and the owner sold various kinds of beads, such as necklaces. He also sold Buddhist malas. And when I saw some odd ( to me) looking malas, he told me they were Muslim beads. They have 99 beads, and Muslims chant the names of God. Buddhists use ones with 108. And of course Catholics also use rosary beads. Well, it is not the same necessarily as sitting, but they are used to help control the ongoing out of control thought process which 99% of us call ‘thinking’.

One time I found myself, through an internet chat situation with someone with an Arabic sounding name. He was fretting about the world, which I can certainly relate to. So I suggested that he go into a quiet room, sit down, and start to breath. Breathe in “Al” and breathe out “Lah”. Al  lah….Al   lah. He was flabbergasted. “How did you know I already do that, you must be Muslim!” “No, I replied, this is normal, sit down, breathe in breathe out, this is the human way to calm the mind”.
“No no…you must be Muslim… you should read the Koran.” I thanked him for his suggestion.

The forest monks in Thailand breathe in Bud, and breathe out Dho…Bud…dho. Same thing. There are all kinds of methods one can use in the process of meditation, but common to many many is the simple act of sitting. But why sitting?
Sitting seems to be the natural way for us to just settle down. But in addition, when we sit in a symmetrical way, such as crosslegged, or in a chair with feet planted on the ground, our body finds alignment and balance. Once the body is aligned and in a state of balance and in harmony with gravity, our whole being settles down, in a natural and harmonious way.
We don’t have to “do” anything. Which is exactly the point. We humans are always doing or thinking we “have to” do something. Eat, sleep, walk, talk, but these are more complicated and require more than just the act of focusing, or just observing. So we create more and more stuff from our actions. It really does get tiresome, finally!

There is nothing to do and nothing to fix. Everything is just as it is. Once we are willing to Just Sit, just standing, just walking and so on become natural, our life becomes seemingly effortless, without struggle. “Learning” to sit is the first step.
Lying down is OK, too, but it seems harder to keep the mind from wandering. Likewise with walking or standing. All of these are good and useful, especially if done observantly.
Once we reach a point of observing and focusing, then our actions start to change in subtle ways that are apparently more harmonious. Humans share some basic hardwired values, like not harming or killing, stealing lying, etc.

Of course those unwholesome activities can be very profitable, which is why lots of people do them. But in the end, settling down, seeing things as they are, life becomes somehow easier.
So, sit, be aware.
Usually, when we enter a Buddhist temple or meditation hall, there is a statue or an image of Shakyamuni Buddha, or another of his famous disciples or other Enlightened Beings. People objectify these images, and we bow to them. Some people dismiss this as idol worship. How can bowing or offering incense of flowers to a block of wood or stone be useful?

However, when I see a such a statue, I ask, what is this about? Is the block of wood saying, ‘give me money’, ‘give me incense’, ‘light a candle’, etc.? I can assure you that the image will do just fine without that (although making some offering to the temple will help support the activities there of course, and also help to open our hearts with the feeling of generosity.) But that is not what the statue is ‘saying’. I am amazed that people overlook this most direct teaching. Children learn by watching and copying others. So the wordless teaching of a Buddha image is, “if you want to be liberated and free, like me, then do what I am doing RIGHT NOW. SIT!” Said with a smile of course.
The great founder of Soto Zen (Caodong  Chan in Chinese)Dogen Zenji, gave a wonderful exposition of this practice, Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen. In it he says,
“Need I mention the Buddha, who was possessed of inborn knowledge? The influence of his six years of upright sitting is noticeable still. Or Bodhidharma’s transmission of the mind-seal?–the fame of his nine years of wall-sitting is celebrated to this day. Since this was the case with the saints of old, how can we today dispense with negotiation of the Way?”
Of course, this sitting does not mean being a  Couch potato! It is not an excuse to zone out. However, sitting frees us from the usual tasks that living beings have, and allows us the freedom to direct our mind, or as Dogen says, to turn the light backward. Instead of always looking outside, look within.
Jesus said not to worry so much about the splinter in the other person’s eye, but to see the log in our own eye. That is the same idea. It is sitting which is the scalpel that refines our consciousness.
When we first start to practice sitting meditation, our minds and bodies may be very restless and even uncomfortable, kind of like a fish out of water, flopping around, or, as it said in some of the earlier Buddhist texts, like a calf tied to a post, jumping around, trying to escape.
However, if we use our consciousness and effort to gently and persistently return to just sitting with our meditation topic, be it mindfulness of the breath or body, or thoughts, or a mantra, or other specific mental object, or even, no object just attention to the present moment… at some point we realize that Dogen is correct when he says, that Zen sitting is ‘not meditation, It is simply the Dharma Gate of Repose and Ease.
Sitting down, settling down, we find that we and everything is somehow OK just as it is. From there, we can go out into the world and act appropriately.

Look again at all the famous sages noted above, from many spiritual traditions. What do they have in common? They sit!


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War and Trauma

“Post traumatic stress syndrome” occurred when the soldiers were under stress for long periods of time, or saw scenes of violence, but the ones with the worst PTSD were the ones who killed people”

If we look at how humans are shaped, it is safe to say that highly positive experiences will result in a heightened sense of wellbeing. On the other hand, it is clear that traumatic experiences, whether physical injuries, mental abuse, violence or torture, will result in long lasting consequences, impairing a person from fully experiencing Life.

Here is what Wikipedia says:

Psychological trauma

PTSD is believed to be caused by experiencing any of a wide range of events[6] which produces intense negative feelings of “fear, helplessness or horror”[7] in the observer or participant.[1] Sources of such feelings may include (but are not limited to):

-1. experiencing or witnessing childhood or adult physical, emotional, or sexual abuse;[1]

-1. experiencing or witnessing physical assault, adult experiences of sexual assault, accidents, drug addiction, illnesses, medical complications;[8]

-1. employment in occupations exposed to war (such as soldiers) or disaster (such as emergency service workers);[8]

-1. getting a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness;[1] or

Children or adults may develop PTSD symptoms by experiencing bullying or mobbing.[9][10] Approximately 25% of children exposed to family violence can experience PTSD.[11] Preliminary research suggests that child abuse may interact with mutations in a stress-related gene to increase the risk of PTSD in adults.[12][13][14]

Multiple studies show that parental PTSD and other posttraumatic disturbances in parental psychological functioning can, despite a traumatized parent’s best efforts, interfere with their response to their child as well as their child’s response to trauma.[15][16] Parents with violence-related PTSD may, for example, inadvertently expose their children to developmentally inappropriate violent media due to their need to manage their own emotional dysregulation.[17] Clinical findings indicate that a failure to provide adequate treatment to children after they suffer a traumatic experience, depending on their vulnerability and the severity of the trauma, will ultimately lead to PTSD symptoms in adulthood.[18]

While external factors are obviously a trigger to PTSD, it is the individual’s reaction to stress that determines whether there will be serious long term psychological injury, and how the person will respond in the future.

When I was selling my house, the new buyer came for a visit. He was introduced by his woman friend. He was shaking, very nervous, wearing green camouflage outfit. She told me that he had been a paratrooper during the Vietnam War.

I had never met anyone before in that condition. But it was clear that he was suffering from PTSD. I myself shudder to think the things he saw and did as a paratrooper in a war zone. And this was 30 years after the war against Vietnam had ended. Another fellow I met in Thailand on a bus. He was wearing a blue jump suit, kind of like a uniform one might see in the Air Force or Navy. He had also been a soldier in Vietnam, and had, after a divorce (another traumatizing event ), come to stay in Thailand. Why Thailand, I asked. “Thailand is a peaceful country, live and let live.”

I sometimes meet veterans and can feel what they are feeling, and it isn’t comfortable.

I think I have had my own version of PTSD. The death of my father would be considered traumatic, plus, my mother had also experienced childhood trauma through her mother, who had almost certainly experienced trauma in Eastern Europe. In me, it manifested as constant anxiety, anger, depression, finger nail biting, shyness.

A cousin of mine was very aggressive, constantly harassing and picking fights with me. One time, I said to myself, I will never treat others like this. But some people react differently, and arm themselves physically and emotionally. My stepfather had been through WWII in Europe. He’d lost an eye, and didn’t want to talk about what he experienced. But he was very abusive to his sons, harassing, backbiting, even physically fighting with them. One of them joined the Special Forces. He told me later that he left dejected, after the Vietnam War, since now there was no reason to blow things up, which he enjoyed doing. His recreation was going to a shooting range, he had enormous bags of spent shells in his house.

It is my belief that trauma in families is actually passed on deliberately as perhaps a form of initiation into ‘the real world’. When babies in England would cry at night, a British doctor told the mother to let the infant cry, so as to develop self-reliance in a mean world. I think this explains to a degree the cruel treatment that colonial Britain showed its victims around the world at the height of the British Empire. Rather than learning compassion from the loving care of the mother, the child was learning to shut down emotionally. Is it any wonder why some people are so insensitive? I read years ago in The People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, that Indian children were never left alone, babies were carried by their mothers (papoose), and that in the rare case when white children were orphaned and raised by Indians, then returned to ‘civilization’, many preferred to live with the ‘savages’. So I would like to ask the question, is there something in our ‘civilization’ that engenders trauma in a way that encourages war, which results in a vicious circle of trauma and violence?

I have met other soldiers from the Vietnam War, one a bomber pilot shot down over North Vietnam, who was kept in “the Hanoi Hilton”, the prison for American pilots. These were the people who dropped bombs on Vietnamese whom they had never met or been threatened by. He had given an inspirational talk at some conference I attended. The soldiers had shown great courage in standing up to the North Vietnamese, who certainly must have abused them. But he had a kind of wooden quality about him. I greeted him after his talk, and said that although I disagreed with the Vietnam War and what he had done, he had shown courage in prison and appreciated that. His reply was, “I did it to preserve your freedom”. Well, we finally after 20 years of war which resulted in the deaths of at least 2 million Vietnamese, the displacement and injury of again as many, the poisoning of their landscape with Agent Orange, and the horror visited on the Vietnamese, who simply wanted to determine the fate of their own country and culture, we finally got kicked out. And I am still waiting for the Vietnamese invaders whom we were told were sure to come an attack us, if we didn’t fight them over there.

To put it bluntly, he fought and killed and suffered in prison for nothing but the profits of the war making corporations, the careerist military and the hubris of the political leadership.

And you could see it on his face and in his bearing even if he couldn’t feel his own pain. He simply isn’t willing to face the cruelty and meaninglessness of his actions.

The most famous example of PTSD is former presidential candidate, John McCain, who had a similar story. Navy Pilot, shot down over North Vietnam, broke both his arms, spent 5 years in Vietnamese prison.

Robert Dreyfuss. speaking to Amy Goodman on the show, Democracy Now, said, “And on a personal level, McCain has had a tendency over the years—this is so well known on Capitol Hill—to erupt, to explode, to scream and yell at his colleagues in the Republican caucus, in closed-door meetings behind the scenes, and sometimes even in public. So he has scared a lot of his colleagues, who I’m sure are supporting him, like Cochran did, out of party loyalty, but who’ve said, as Cochran did, that they’re extremely concerned about his temper and his apparent willingness to explode. “

I think that PTSD can result in both anger as well as withdrawal. What shocks me about war and trauma, is that people traumatized by war, rather than renounce war because of the horror they experienced, seem to seek it out and relive it.

So here is John McCain, who was shot down and kept as a prisoner for bombing Vietnam, who was quoted, referring to Iran in 2008, and paraphrasing an old Beach Boy song, Barbara Ann, Bomb Bomb Bomb Bomb Bomb Iran.

Didn’t he learn anything from his war experience? He has shown anger towards his Vietnamese captors, but seems to have forgotten that he was flying over their country blowing up men women and children.

It is this denial by many soldiers that amazes me. They walk through life with PTSD, not owning their own murder. Their own emotional and spiritual callousness.

I think there is a deeper issue in the effect of war. Certainly, victims of war experience PTSD. The most telling words were those of an American fellow I had met, who had returned from being a peacekeeper in Iraq. He had gone to Iraq before the war, hoping, by his presence, to stop the bombing, thinking that the US government would refrain from attacking Iraq if US citizens were there. Later, he returned to the US and set up a treatment program to help returning veterans. It was he who made the observation at the beginning of this piece. Those who kill experience the most traumatic stress. Indeed, we hear that as many soldiers return, according to a November, 2011 article in Huffington Post writer, Eleanor Goldberg, a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes, according to the VA. She further states that of active duty military, one commits suicide every 36 hours. New figures suggested in the documentary film, On the Bridge, that 8000 veterans of the Middle East wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have committed suicide.

This does not sound like Esprit de corp. What is going on? My theory totally unsubstantiated, is that when we harm others we harm ourselves, at least spiritually or psychologically. This is especially true if the other person is innocent.

We as humans are hard wired to know what is right and wrong. While people can be conditioned to change through training or –trauma, otherwise known as ‘basic training’, when new recruits see the world they knew collapse, only to be replaced by the cohesion of their unit, morality breaks down. But this psychological conditioning only goes so far. Some people like those pilots, go into emotional woodenness, and never recover, yet get by and may even be outwardly successful, like McCain. Others internalize their pain and get into drugs or alcohol to anesthetize themselves from facing what they have done.

Sometimes, it seems whole societies are severely traumatized by war but don’t learn anything. The Civil War, or The War Between the States, as people from the Southern United States like to call it, was in large part destroyed and certainly traumatized by the humiliation of having lost the Civil War. Yet, Southern culture seems to embrace military culture far more than say, Japan after WWII, which adopted a pacifist constitution. Even though the same class of people runs Japan now, as did during WWII, and even though Japan’s war crimes are not even taught in Japan’s public schools, most Japanese have resisted a larger role for their military since WWII. Note the use of language :Civil War. Comedian George Carlin and pointed out the selfcontradictory (maybe pathological) nature of the term.

“Hi there, we are at war. Blam blam blam, oops sorry about that”

In a telling article written in January 2001, Southern Honor, Southern Pride, author Jeff Adams stated,

“Any Southerner worth their salt will know that a big part of the Southern culture is a “love affair” with the profession of arms.” He notes with pride Southern Military culture, referring to the Civil War as The War for Southern Independence. He goes on to point out the disproportionate number of southern soldiers relative to the US population as a whole, as well as the large number of medal winners. But at the at the end of the article, he changes tone. noting that

“as a people Southerners need to start questioning the reasonableness of continuing to serve in a military force that holds no love for the South, its people or its culture, except as a resource for providing bodies for its war machine. While the Medal of Honor is presented to those who serve with the highest honor in combat, it is questionable if honorable service can still be obtained through being part of the military arm of the American Empire. Would an honorable Southerner have accepted the Medal of Honor for “outstanding bombing of civilians” in Serbia? I would hope not. “

It is more than 11 years since that article was written, and undoubtedly, the war machine has continued to rely on large numbers of Southerners. It is a good sign that many Southerners are questioning ‘the American Empire’, and although I don’t agree with Ron Paul on social issues and the role of Capital in American society, the groundswell of support for Paul, who is advocating a significant reduction in the role and funding of the military, is a hopeful sign.

Maybe the trauma of continuous war is finally inducing some introspection and self examination, which, I believe is the antidote to trauma, whether induced by war or other causes.

Before 2003, the percentage of Army suicides was below civilian rates, but it started to climb in 2004, one year after the US-led invasion, according to the doctors’ analysis, which was expected to appear in the British journal Injury Prevention on Thursday.

In 2008, 140 Army servicemen committed suicide, a rate, which reflected an 80 percent increase from 2004, the article noted. The suicide rate was also a lot higher than that of the civilian society’s, it said.

“This increase, unprecedented in over 30 years of US Army records, suggests that 30 percent of suicides that occurred in 2008 may be associated with post-2003 events following the major commitment of troops to Iraq, in addition to the ongoing operations in Afghanistan,” said the paper.

It noted that more than one-fifth of all active-duty troops suffered from some kind of mental disorder.

According to three different studies published in the American Journal of Public Health in January, many US military personnel and veterans are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or other consequences of deployment to war zones.

A study of almost 600 US veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan showed that nearly 14 percent of them were suffering from PTSD and 39 percent from probable alcohol abuse.

Also see Cancer of the Spirit

On the Bridge

The Costs of War Collective Amnesia and Learning from Experience


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Six Months in China Part Six

My time in China was winding down, but I had a couple more events to take in before returning to Xiamen. While at Lao Zu Si, I made friends with Huang Zhao, a telecom engineer, who had worked for China’s biggest internet company, TenCent, also known by Chinese as QQ.

It is mainly a messaging and blog site, and when people exchange contact information, they will as often as not ask each other for their QQ number. It also works as an email address. However, outside China it’s not used so much.

Huang Zhao had an interesting history. His father had a stroke at the age of 28, and had to be cared for by his mother. After another 29 years or so, his father had died two years ago. So I felt a connection with him since my father had died, too.

He told me he decided to leave QQ and had not worked in about two years: when I met him, he was staying at the temple for a month or so.

He invited me to his city, Wuhan, which is in Hubei Province, as is Lao Zu Si. Since I had planned to go to the Chan Buddhism Conference in Hubei Province in late October, it was pretty convenient for me to take a 20 hour overnight train from Jiayuguan to Xi’An, and then another 12 hour overnight train to Wuhan.

At Huang Zhao’s house, his mom, true to his promise, fed me her delicious home cooked Chinese food, and we did some site seeing.

Here they are on the banks of the huge and famous Yangzi River.

China trip 2011 548

The thing about China is that there are sooo many cities with sooo many people, that we Westerners have most likely never heard of.

Wuhan is a city of 4.2 million people, but it is really three cities, that eventually grew together. We took a walk on the banks of the river,

which is near the historic district. Similar to Hong Kong and Xiamen, it was forced to open up to foreign concessions and companies, so now, despite urban renewal, there are still old charming buildings maintained as historic reasons.

China trip 2011 555

The façade of the (French Colonial) Bank of Indo China

There is a lot of new construction, too, such as a Howard Johnson Hotel that reminds me of the San Francisco Hyatt Regency, with its exterior elevator shaft. Going up the elevator, and looking down on the city, gave China trip 2011 554a bit of “High Anxiety” like Mel Brooks did in his memorable comedy.

Huang Zhau also introduced me to some of his friends at Wuhan University, one of the best Universities in China, with a strong department of technology. We went to their dormitory, sat around and –true to Chinese form–, drank tea! And of course had very good conversation. We talked about modern society and its discontents and also about the reemergence of Buddhism as a counterbalance to the strains of modern life.

Another highly interesting aspect of our discussion, as well as discussions I have had with a number of Chinese, was the degree to which they are familiar with American History. They know the names of some of our presidents like Abraham Lincoln, and have studied the principles of Democracy. Many express great admiration for the American system of government, the fact that American people have the right to vote, and the sense that the US government is more responsive to the people than their own.

On the other hand, they also are quite concerned about the many wars that the USA gets involved with. So there is a mixture of idealistic admiration as well as criticism. One thing is for sure: they know a lot more about America than Americans know about China, and that the information that Americans get about China is filtered and propagandized AT LEAST AS MUCH if not more so, than Chinese.

At least the Chinese know when they are getting propaganda, whereas most Americans take the narrative they’ve been told for granted as fact.

This is not only regrettable, but could really prove ultimately fatal for the whole world!

The next day, having called Ming Ji Fashi about the Chan conference, I was offered a ride with 8 other people in a van, taking the three hour ride from Wuhan to Huang Mei, site of the conference.

When we arrived at the hotel, I was shown a room which I was to share with another Chinese fellow, a young professor at another university in Wuhan.

There were about 400 people at the conference, and some top professors of Buddhism in China gave major addresses. Before the academic program started in the afternoon of the first day, there was a morning entertainment program. We entered a large auditorium a few minutes’ walk from the hotel, to the sound of the Diamond Sutra, chanted by Imee Ooi, a Malaysian Chinese woman who had done tremendous work in bringing Buddhist chanting to modern ears.

I first heard her rendition of it from my Chinese teacher at Xiamen University in 2009 and was totally captivated by it. She has also done chants of the Metta Sutta, the discourse on lovingkindness, as well as the Heart Sutra in Chinese, Sino Japanese and in English. Heart Sutra Heart Sutra highly recommend her work.

That was only the beginning. After introductions and welcoming of the honored guests on stage, the program went on for two hours of Chinese classical music, singers, dancers, and other entertainment. Hardly what I expected at an academic conference, but really great performances.

We returned to the hotel for lunch. One dining room served vegetarian food and the other served nonvegetarian.

After an afternoon rest period—Chinese often take an after lunch siesta– the main conference began, with addresses and talks given, first by eminent Chinese, starting with Jing Hui Fashi, then by foreign monks and professors. Later, there were breakout session where particular areas of interest were addressed, such as Buddhism and tourism, Buddhism and psychotherapy, and so on.

Jeremy Zhu, who had studied at Harvard and now is a psychotherapist and Ph.D researcher at Renmin University gave a talk on psychotherapy. He does work with art therapy as well as other creative approaches (

Most of the people at the conference did not speak English, so I was not able to fully appreciate what went on, however, I made some friends and contacts. One nice woman, who teaches Koans, the stories so central to Chan and Zen, at a University in Beijing has invited me to go there and do some work, teaching and editing.

Another speaker, Sheng Guang Shi, who has spent 20 years in Canada, spoke on the cultural barriers, separating Asians and Westerners. We had a good discussion, especially since he had spoken just recently at the American Buddhist Teachers’ conference held at the San Francisco Zen Center. He had had a discussion with my own American teacher Nelson Foster just a couple of months earlier. We agreed to stay in touch. Both of us feel that Asians and Westerners would benefit from cultural exchanges. Chinese are very open to foreigners who want to come and practice. And I think it would be really helpful to Westerners, who are sometimes a bit reticent and anxious about going to China, to come and see for themselves what China is about, on the human level, not what we are told about China. As one Tibetan said to Bill Porter, in his book Zen Baggage, a pilgrimage in China, “If you want to become Enlightened, leave your country.”

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China trip 2011 558Here I am with my friend Chen Jie, who teaches Koans.

China trip 2011 560Here is my translator and helper, Sheng Zhong.

After the conference was over, the conference coordinators got everyone to the airport or train station. I got a ride to Nanchang Airport, since I had had enough overnight train rides for a while, and got back to Xiamen the next day.  Cheng Rong invited me to meet her monk friend and teacher, Dao Cheng. When I met him, he was having tea in his room with a couple of young business women. After chatting awhile, I asked him what his practice was, and among other things, he said he studied the Diamond Sutra. We had a good exchange about its meaning, especially for people who are not monks. He said the central  point of the Sutra, is Kong, that is Chinese for Emptiness. He then went on to explain in laymen terms what that is, basically, it is the space which has the potential for everything, if I understood his meaning, translated into English by Cheng Rong.

I had first thought to stay in Xiamen, but then decided to make a one day trip to Guangzhou, a few hundred miles south. I had met a very nice Chinese doctor in Dun Huang, Guan Wanxian, who was doing her medical residency, and she invited me to come to see this city of about 5 million people. She told me that she liked the desert, but would not go back again because of the fragility of the environment. Here is a picture she sent me of a poor little plant living in the harsh desert. It reminds me of our own life. We may not notice it, but we are all sometimes like that little plant, trying to survive in a great world of emptiness. Sometimes I see a small insect crawling along the road. I wonder what they

73402730_731131385are thinking. Do they know where they are going? Do we know where we are going in this vast universe?

When Guan Wanxian took me out to see Guangzhou at night, I could see that the city skyline at night is really dramatic.

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The following day, we visited the tomb of an ancient King of South China.

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China trip 2011 590These are pieces of jade buried with the Emperor of that time. It seems that he also buried food, clothing as well as servants and even a China trip 2011 600wife, so he wouldn’t be lonely in the afterlife.  This is a reproduction of his coffin, since the tomb had undergone flooding in ages past, and the actual coffin had virtually disintegrated.

The Lonely Planet tourist guide book describes this mausoleum as one of the best museums in China, and indeed the exhibits are fascinating. It was built after the tomb was discovered in 1983. The Chinese have a fascination for jade, and the museum has many displays of jade as well as many artifacts from that period 2000 years ago.

Ancient Chinese jade Jewelry

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One of the things that I take away from my stay in China, is that, despite everything that China has been through in its very long history—numerous dynasties have come and gone, it has been invaded many times, and suffered tremendous instability, especially in the last 300 years, there is something very solid and stable. On the other hand, sometimes, things don’t work properly, like my problem with the airplane flight, or the possibility of getting scammed. Any time something doesn’t go right and seems unfixable, people often just shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s China”.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of history and culture that is so embedded in the people, that it gives a sense of groundedness that I don’t experience in Western culture. Many young people see Buddhism as old fashioned and superstitious. And yet, their sensibility reflects the impact of Buddhism, as well as Confucian and Daoist ethics and culture.

Also, China, while it has a sense of its own significance, and perhaps even superiority, is not arrogant in the same way that we see in the same way as American Manifest Destiny, that is America’s God Given Right to take what it wants—all in the name of freedom and democracy.

Here is an example of American propaganda about China. When Libya’s civil war started and it became very unstable, China had 30,000 workers there under contract to do some work in the oil business; China had invested several billion dollars in a deal to deliver Libyan oil to China. When the workers were endangered, China sent one warship to go to the Libyan coast as part of a rescue effort, to get its people out of harm’s way.

CNN reported this story as “ a dangerous projection of Chinese power into the Mediterranean Sea.” It went on to say that China was spending —in big letters across the TV screen—90 BILLION DOLLARS a year on its military. Whereas, the United States was planning to reduce its military budget in the future. What the announcer failed to point out, was that the “official” US military budget is well over 650 BILLION DOLLARS. This does not include the nuclear weapons budget hidden in the Department of Energy, or the tens of billions spent on the many “intelligence agencies”, the CIA, NSA for starters, nor the Homeland Security Budget, and on and on.  It also didn’t point out that in the Mediterranean Sea, there is the 6th Fleet which, according to the US Navy website has “one or more aircraft carriers, each with an accompanying complement of approximately six cruisers and destroyers. On board the aircraft carrier is an air wing of 65 – 85 aircraft. The air wing is the primary striking arm of the Battle Force, and includes attack, fighter, anti-submarine, and reconnaissance aircraft. Ships accompanying the carrier serve as defensive and offensive platforms with duties involving anti-air, surface and submarine warfare. In addition to its major role of controlling the seas, the Battle Force can also project its power over land.” So who is projecting power?

China is surrounded by US military bases in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, Pakistan, India, and US backed groups have been implicated in stirring up trouble in Chinese provinces. Chinese frequently complain about the  government, however, I ask them how many countries China is currently bombing. The answer is None.

While it is true that a culture of harmony can be construed as a way for authority to say, “Be reasonable…do it our way…or else,” things are not looking so great from a human rights standpoint in the United States. The US prison population is larger than China’s even though the US has 1/4 the total population.

Chinese are, I think somewhat more introspective than Americans, and for sure, they take a much longer view than our instant gratification oriented society. That does not mean that Chinese are frugal. People who have money are certainly spending it. China just surpassed the USA in auto sales this year, and they are spending money on art, liquor, gambling, and so on. It is common for wealthy Chinese married men to have at least one girlfriend on the side. My impression is that their wives have little choice but to look the other way. Is that so different from in the West? I also find that Chinese are extraordinarily generous. When they go out to eat, people literally fight over who will pay the bill. At some temples, the monks pushed my money away when I offered a donation. In fact, there are many temples being built with the generous donations of wealthy Chinese, and the conferences that I have attended were in large part paid for by wealthy Chinese.  One beautiful temple I stayed at in Myanmar, Pau Auk Monastery, with 400 monks in residence was built with donations from one Chinese family.

All this is simply to say, that while Chinese know that they have a lot to learn from the West, on the other hand, they also cling to old ideas and ways of doing things that are not so useful. And at the same time, there are aspects of their culture, the sense of social relations, their devotion to education, art, music and culture that is not as obvious in the West (though, perhaps, it may be that I simply didn’t travel in those circles when I lived in the USA full time, and was busy earning a living. )

Certainly, they can learn from us, but we can also learn from them, especially in terms of social relations. When I praise my Chinese friends about their harmonious family relationships, though, they tell me, “You have no idea how complicated and messed up they are.”

It’s all quite fascinating. But what I want to end with, is the recognition that by immersing myself in Chinese culture and being with Chinese people, I think I have learned something about people and about myself that I could not have learned, absent my trip.

Visit China, be open to making friends. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

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Six Months in China Part Five

Once I arrived in Dun Huang, I had to figure out where to go, I only knew of the Dun Huang youth hostel, which was a good place, since I could connect with other budget conscious  travelers.

It seems that the only way to do any site seeing is by taking a tour. The first day, I took a trip to see the wild desert areas around Dun Huang.

Dun Huang is, geographically speaking, in Gansu Province, more than 1500 miles Northwest of Xiamen. It’s like going from, say, North Florida to Wyoming. The terrain reminded me of the Nevada desert, and the scenery is like Utah.

In fact, this area of China so famous for its part of The Silk Road, is so dry that camels are sometimes used.

China trip 2011 258One of the most popular tourist sites is Whistling Sands/ Crescent Moon Spring, an oasis in a valley formed by sand dunes.

It is a bit pricey to go there, about $22 to look around, and it costs extra money to take a camel ride.

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However, while at the hostel, I met a dreadlocked dude, named William, from Belgium, who seemed to know how to get around the strictures of normal society. We took a city bus, rather than a taxi, to the end of the line, and then hiked in, going around a chain link fence. We climbed up to the top of the sand dune and then down into the park for free.

Later, he came into Chiang Mai, and he told me that after we parted ways in China, he’d gone to Beijing and camped out on the Great Wall, and even lit a fire. All of course totally out of bounds. But we need free spirits like him, dontcha think?

I took a regular tour to some other sites, including the Yardan Landforms, very reminiscent of Utah and the Southwestern USA. China trip 2011 290

On this particular tour, which consisted of going on a bus and stopping for ten minutes to take pictures and leave, we saw an abandoned outpost that looked like little more than a pile of rocks, as well as the very far China trip 2011 271end of the Great Wall, little more than ruins at this time.

One of the best parts of this trip, was being out where the air is really clean and the sky is so blue. Most areas of China, notably Beijing have serious smog problems. Also, the air is much drier than I was used to in Xiamen and points South. So even though the temperature was getting quite cool, especially at night, compared with the temples I had stayed at, down to 36 degrees Fahrenheit by early morning, it was still a lot more comfortable than damp, raw 50 degrees at Lao Zu Si in late September.

Of course the highlight of the trip was the famous caves at Mogao, or Mogao Ku. As you enter the area of the caves, you will see the main building, which houses a 34.5 meter (about 110 feet) Maitreya Budda.

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Mogao Ku postcard 001

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At this point, you may be asking yourself, what is this huge artistic project doing out in the middle of nowhere. The basic story is that the Silk Road from central Asia to the Far East passed through this area. It is how the legendary Marco Polo made his way to China. At that time, starting around the year 300 CE, there was much trade going on, and Buddhism was one of the “imports” from India and Central Asia. China trip 2011 378

Many wealthy merchants were devout Buddhists, as were soldiers and other people. One way that they could express their devotion, was to go to the rock cliff sides, dig out a cave, perhaps even  sponsor a monk who would live in the cave, or simply build a temple, and decorate it with paintings and images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas (Buddhas to be), Arhats (perfected beings who reached Nirvana), and various heavenly (or not so heavenly deities).

We are told that no photos could be taken in the caves, due to the damage that constant exposure to flashbulbs could cause. My personal opinion is that, having had so much of its cultural treasures stolen by people throughout the ages, particularly recently by Western collectors and opportunists, that they feel very protective of the sites.

Fortunately, however, there is a very fine museum, which not only explains the history of the caves, but even has a number of caves reproduced, and photos are permitted.

This picture taken in the museum shows how, over time, due to the type of pigment used, the painting became degraded. The right hand side shows what the painting originally looked like.

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Here is a classic sculpture of Maitreya, the Buddha to be in the next age.

China trip 2011 373This is a photo of the ceiling.


One of my favorite Dun Huang paintings is the story of the deer king. My sister, Jiru, had painted a reproduction of it that appears in the lobby of a hotel in Xiamen. Here is her painting.


I was fortunate to see the original at Dun Huang.

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These are some other pictures from the caves or postcards.

Avalokiteshvara a silk painting

Avalokitesvara, a silk painting found in a cave, along with hundreds of other paintings and manuscripts, including the Sutra of Hui Neng

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A Bodhisattva found in Cave 194

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A Flying Figure, cave 158

Following the trip to Mogau Ku, I still had a lot of time before my scheduled flight back. One evening, I just went wandering around Dun Huang City, and found that there are a fair number of shops selling silk or wool rugs, paintings, sculpture and so on. Prices look pretty good, but of course, you have to get there to bargain. But a full size silk rug can go for about $3000, much less, I think than at a shop in the US. While Dun Huang is clearly a tourist town, and there is an element of “tourist trap” about it, it is still a wonderful place to go, and many Chinese expressed their longing to visit there at some point in their lives.

The next day, I booked a taxi with some Chinese tourists to see some other caves.

These are similar to Mogao Ku but farther away. It cost 4 of us $20 each for a full 8 hour drive.

One of the places was a group of caves that was under a different jurisdiction from Mogao Ku, in a place called Anxi.

China trip 2011 402China trip 2011 392The site is quite remote, and stark. New walkways have been built, and the tour guide spoke pretty good English, however, it cost $50 and the cave paintings were in pretty

sorry shape.

The combination of weathering and vandalism, especially during the Cultural Revolution was quite evident.

However, we then went to the Yulin Grottos, which were quite reasonable in price, about $7 for a tour of 5 caves, and the quality of the pictures were very good. For an additional $15 I could have seen ONE other cave which was supposed to be a really fine specimen, however, I felt sort of pictured out for the day and didn’t take them up on the offer. My Chinese companions did, and I got the feeling that it was so-so.

The grottoes are cut out from the walls of the canyon, where a river flows through otherwise barren terrain. The style of artwork is similar to that at Mogao Ku.

Here is a large, 4 foot high incense bowl in front of one of the caves. China trip 2011 437

The Chinese Character on the front is “Buddha”, or “Fo”, as spoken in Mandarin Chinese.

China trip 2011 431This painting was on the outside of a doorway to the caves. It is quite weathered, faded and barely visible.

It appears to be that of a hermit, probably Bodhidharma, though I am not sure.

I had planned to stay for a week in Dun Huang, thinking that there would be a lot more to see, however, I realized that, although one could go back to Mogao Ku, or the other caves, there was not a lot more to see. One morning, I started to talk with a fellow I had met at Mogao Ku, and he told me how easy it would be to take a bus to the Provincial Capital, Jiayuguan. Which just happens to be my friend, Cheng Rong’s home town. It is also the last major station for the Great Wall, and since she had encouraged me to visit there, I cut my stay at Dun Huang short, and changed my train ticket, and took a bus to Jiayuguan.

When I got there, I had no idea where to go, and the bus left me off on a road side. As luck would have it, a group of young Chinese travelers were in the same situation. They did a considerable amount of haggling with a couple of taxi drives, and we proceeded to look for cheap hotels. Several hotels would not take foreigners, so my group visited several until we found one that would. Three men, including me, shared one room, and the women shared a second one. The price, once I split the cost with the other two guys was only about $8. However, there was a problem with the showers. We had no hot water. It turned out that there was hot water but you had to go upstairs to another hotel room. I didn’t understand that, but finally got my hot shower after 30 minutes of mutual misunderstanding with the hotel manager.

Before dinner, we all went looking around at the local market for dried fruits and nuts, which are very popular, and grown in that region. Almonds, walnuts, raisins apricots all delicious for a very reasonable price. And also directly benefiting the local economy. The next day, we arranged with the drivers to take us on a one day trip to the Jiayuguan Fort.

I’m told that when someone fell out of favor with the Emperor, he would banish them to this place. They’d be taken to the fort, and then told to leave. They may have been brought in this type of prison chariot. China trip 2011 451

And left off here, at the gorge beside the Fort.

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The fort was recreated to look the way it must have 500 hundred or so years ago, with many exhibits.

Here is a podium where the Generals would give orders to the troops.

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. Here a view of the outside walls of the Fortress.

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Here I am with my Chinese companions

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The Chinese have a very pleasant way of asking people not to pick or walk on the flowers.

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This is one of the entrances to the fort.

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Here is an exhibit of someone advising, a General, most likely.

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I guess if you were a rich merchant, you probably wore clothes like this in Ming Dynasty (500 to 700 years ago).

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There were quarters for the officers as well as rank and file soldiers, also quarters for family. Here, perhaps an officer’s wife in a room devoted to calligraphy. Amazing that nowadays I still see rooms like this.

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Outside the fortress lay the Great Wall of China, itself, which stretches from Beijing all the way to Jiayuguan, about 1000 miles. Mao Ze Dong himself has said that “Anyone who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man”. Well, I didn’t know about this quote at the time, but I had felt like climbing the Great Wall is something that I just HAD to do.

So I went outside the fort and started climbing. It is several hundred steep steps, I counted about 700.

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The Wall at that section is designed as a loop, so that you can climb up on one end and come down on another end. I thought we were a little short on time, so I had to hussle. But my Chinese friends told me to slow down. It didn’t matter, I love hiking and the vista was great once arriving at the top. Down below, I could even see a caravan walking along.

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Of course, once I reached the bottom again, I could see that it was not a real caravan, just an example, but you get the idea, anyway, it was fun.

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Also, when I reached the bottom of the Great Wall, there was a place where you could get a gold (not real) medallion, that had your name engraved on it. My English name didn’t fit, so I had her do one with my Chinese (Buddhist) name, in two short Chinese characters.   So now, having climbed the Great Wall,  I can say that I am a true man. I have arrived!

Here is one medallion, a large one, that says, “If we fail to reach the Great Wall, we are no heroes.”

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The next day, I met Ma Hai Ge, a friend of Cheng Rong, who has a small lingerie shop in the city of Jiayuguan. He graciously took me around to see some of the sites, as well as treating me to one of the local delicacies, barbequed goat meat. Followed by a heaping plate of thick Gansu province noodles. When he invited me for dinner after those two appetizers, I demurred. I was stuffed. He was too! He was showing the standard Chinese friendship and hospitality, which I have found so often in my travels. From Jiayuguan, I was set to go by train, first to Xi’An and then take a second train to Wuhan.

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Six Months in China Part Four

Since I had gotten an invitation to go to Beijing from Lily, I decided to head there, before the cold weather set in in Beijing, and to my pleasant surprise, the weather in Beijing early October was actually perfect, clear skies and warm days. The tea house, called the Autumn Moon Tea House is used as a meeting place; it also has art for sale.

The tea room entryway. The calligraphy says, Zhao Zhou Tea House.

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Here is the  Chan Tang at the Tea House.

China trip 2011 208      China trip 2011 209A painting of the founder of Zen, Bodhidharma

Here is the tea room, note the presence of Gu Qin, an ancient instrument, along with modern art.  China trip 2011 207A picture of Kuan Yin, outside the Chan Tang.

The tea house has an upstairs space where the Chan Tang and other facilities for holding retreats are located. A monk leads the retreat, and every day after lunch, there is a question and answer session. Since my Chinese is not good enough to understand the talk, I didn’t go, but I did have a chance to talk with the monk at one point. These discussions are always enjoyable and give a chance to explore the Dharma together.

The retreat lasted for 6 days, however, one afternoon, Lily had invited me to go to the highly respected professor’s birthday party, mentioned above. There was a pot luck lunch, followed by presentations by his students. Lily practices Beijing Opera, other students performed Chinese flute or Gu Qin, others did calligraphy. A few spoke some English, so I was able to get a feel for what they were doing. I feel refreshed being around people who are interested in art and music, even though I am not schooled in that.

Here, Lily (right) and a friend sing Beijing Opera, which is sung it seems from the throat, in a very high pitch, rather than the deeper tones of Western opera.

Playing traditional Chinese wooden flute.China trip 2011 196

My last night in Beijing was rather special. The week of the retreat, October 1-7 is the national holiday marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China. A couple of acquaintances who had attended the retreat took me downtown where thousands of people were milling around. Hundreds of thousands of people from villages all over China come to Beijing for this event, since there is no work that week.

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One of my long held dreams was to go and pay my respects to “the old Buddha”, Zhao Zhou, or in Japanese, Joshu. Lily also encouraged me to go, and arranged my train from Beijing. Beijing is so huge, that if you don’t know the city and don’t know Chinese, it is quite difficult to get around. Lily, ever the most gracious hostess, took care of that for me, as well as taking me out to eat and getting a hotel for me, during my stay, since the Tea House retreat was during the day, and most people commuted there from their homes.

I took a train from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei Province. Train quality varies a fair amount in China; this train was very clean, comfortable, and fast, as good as any train I have been on. When I got there, someone from the temple was to pick me up at the train station, and fortunately again, I was able to find an English speaker, who could translate for him and me, and after a few minutes, we found each other.

Bai Lin Si, means Cypress Forest Temple, however, it is not in a forest, but in a fairly typical Chinese smaller city. The temple is the main attraction, and many people come to visit.

Here is the entryway, which says, Cypress Forest Chan Temple—Bai Lin Chan Si

This is Zhao Zhou’s memorial tower, or Stupa. It was damaged by an earthquake 20 or so years ago, but was rebuilt with donations from Singapore Chinese.China trip 2011 249

At first, I had thought to stay for about two weeks, however, once there, I found myself thinking more and more “Dun Huang…Dun Huang…Dun Huang.”

Many years ago, I had gone to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and

was captivated by the thousand year old cave paintings that had been reproduced and brought to America. I had hoped to find my old friend, the painting reproduction shown here.Bosston museum dunhauang

I was not able to find it at Dun Huang, however, I like it a lot. We see some Buddhist saint, surrounded by various other entities, the ones in the lower right are probably other enlightened beings, as indicated by their halos. Some are probably lay donors, the one with the largest halo may be a Bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be. Notice that they are all looking off to the right, probably to a Buddha figure not shown here.

What I like the most is the very strange looking beings, at the top of the picture, perhaps Yakshas, sort of a mythical monster. Yet even though they are really weird looking, they, too are experiencing reverence for the object on the right. I take this to mean, that in a Sangha, or Buddhist community, you will find all kinds of people at various levels of spiritual development, and there is room for everyone, dysfunctional or saintly! We should take this to heart, and be more tolerant of people we think are weird, that is the message I get from this picture.

I had my heart set on seeing Dun Huang, and doing some real adventure outside of the more populous Eastern part of China.

When I first got to Bai Lin Si, the office manager introduced me to Ping, a 30ish fellow taking time off from his hectic job, so he could study Buddhism.China trip 2011 233 Since he speaks English quite well, he served as translator and helper. He asked the office manager if he could take me on a tour of the monks’ area, including the Chan Tang, or meditation hall reserved for the monks. The answer was a polite refusal, since only monks are supposed to go there. However, when I told Ping of my desire to go to Dun Huang, and my early departure from Bai Lin Si, the acting abbot, Ming Ying Fashi (Ming Hai, the abbot, is now in a three year solitary retreat, like Jin Wu Fashi had done) got in touch with me through Ping.China trip 2011 239

Ming Ying must have heard about me through Ming Ji or Jin Wu, or Lily, because he apologized for not meeting with me earlier. We arranged a meeting time the morning that I had planned to leave, and he took me on a personal guided tour of the temple, including the sacred Founder’s Hall, dedicated to Zhao Zhou and Xu Yun, and also the monks’ Chan Tang.

I feel so very grateful to the many monks who have been so open and supportive of me, a mere “Barbarian from the West”.

He arranged with Ping to get me to the airport for a flight to the city of Dun Huang, and off I went.

It turns out that the weather in Shijiazhuang is frequently foggy. My driver and I started out at 7:30, thinking it would take over an hour to get to the airport by 9 AM, giving me plenty of time for my 10:30 flight. But the fog was so thick that he could hardly see the road, and traffic was heavy, too. He tried an alternate route, but that didn’t work, and we didn’t get to the airport until after ten, which meant that I missed my flight!

But fortunately, the flight itself was delayed, the airport staff said it would be two hours late, so timing was perfect. Not!

At noon, I checked in again….no news. At this point, I was getting antsy. Since my time in China was drawing to a close, and my visa was running out, I’d decided to take airplanes to Dun Huang. The only way to go was through Xi’An, the former historic capital of China. But if I missed my flight to Xi’An I would miss my flight the next day to Dun Huang. I didn’t mind the overnight stay in Xi’An. I wanted to spend the day there, too, since Xi’An has many famous sites as well, like the famous Terra Cotta Warriors.

Every hour or so, I asked the airline about the flight. They said, don’t worry, it will fly they just didn’t know when.

There was another problem, I had booked a room at the Xi’An youth hostel, and learned that it was over an hour from the airport, and my flight was at 7:30 AM. That made it impossible to catch a taxi at 5:00 AM, to arrive on time. What to do?

Finally, having exhausted politeness, I demanded to see the supervisor. A nice attendant had graciously allowed me to stay in the VIP lounge, but that didn’t solve my problem. So I insisted on getting an answer.

After much hemming and hawing, the manager, who spoke as much English as I speak Chinese agreed with me. He acknowledged that they should have let me know a lot sooner. I took the plane at a much higher price to avoid a ten hour train. So instead of sitting in a train for ten hours, I paid three times more money to sit in the airport. Not to mention the hotel problem in Xi’An.

He agreed finally to get a room at the airport hotel, just 10 minutes from the airport, and put me up for the night free.

It is always emphasized that in China, you never ever lose your temper.

EXCEPT if you want to get something done!

I finally caught my flight at 9:30 PM, eleven hours late, arrived in Xi’An and, after a few more mixups, got a shuttle bus to the hotel.

The next day, I caught my flight and arrived in Dun Huang.

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Six Months in China Part Three

It was very fortuitous for me to have met Mingji Fashi this time. They say there are no accidents.

I got to Lao Zu Si just in time for a big ceremony and celebration, officially opening the Temple.

There were several hundred people there. This wasn’t a time to do a lot of meditation, but that was OK, because of this special event. When I arrived the weather was perfect. Lao Zu Si is high enough in the rural region of Hubei Province to be pleasantly cool, while the lower areas are sweltering in the August heat.

Since last year, there had been a lot more construction, including the placement of a 35 foot Kuan Yin, or Avalokiteshvara statue. Kuan Yin is revered in China as the Enlightenment Being, or Bodhisaattva, who practiced the Perfection of Wisdom in the Heart Sutra, thereby alleviating all suffering and distress. People also worship Kuan Yin, who is sometimes depicted as male and sometimes as female, when they are feeling troubled or in danger.China trip 2011 077

One of the most important monks in China was there to preside over the ceremony, Jing Hui Fashi. I had previously met Jing Hui Fashi last year at Si Zu Si, where we had a dharma dialogue that I’ll never forget. You can read about it in my post from last year.

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At that time, he presented himself as a very powerful Chan (Zen) Master. You knew by meeting him that he is “the real thing”. People were lined up to have their picture taken with him, so I took a chance and moved up next to him, and gave my camera to someone to take our picture.

Apparently, the collar on my temple clothing was a bit out of line, so just before the picture was taken, he verrry gently reached over to arrange my collar. I felt like a little kitty kat being licked by his mom. Rather than a harsh, “Fix your collar, Eric”, he taught me in the most kind way to be a bit more mindful in wearing my clothes. He was also showing me how to correct others in a kind and gentle way, and indeed, his teaching was three fold, “fix your collar, be mindful, be kind, not critical when pointing out others’ mistakes.”

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The ceremony attracted several hundred people from all over China, one of whom is a strong supporter of Buddhism, named Lily Lee. She donates time, energy and money to conferences and is a strong believer in Chinese culture, and Harmony. Harmony is a common theme in Chinese culture, and manifests in different ways, such as in the relation between humans and Nature, as well as within the family, and in society. In fact, you can even see the word on billboards, both in English and Chinese.

One time, I was on a bus in Xiamen, and was watching the TV that is on most buses in China.

They’re a mix of short cartoons, advertisements, skits and so on. In that case, there was a rendition of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. There was a cartoon of bombers and other weapons, and then a Chinese guy with long hair—a Chinese Bob Dylan, with a Peace sign for a necklace. I didn’t understand the words he was saying in Chinese, but the meaning was clear enough. “War is NOT a good thing, folks!”

So I really appreciate Lily’s work in this area. She invited me to come to Beijing, where she lives, and invited me to come for a Chan week, held at a tea house, where they have a Chan Hall, that seats about 40 people.

The conference went on for a couple of days, and I had the chance to meet a few Chinese, though most spoke little or no English. However, since I was the only foreigner there, save for one fellow who showed up for a short time, I was treated a bit like a celebrity. One of my Chinese friends tells me that when she was just a child, in school, her teachers impressed on them the importance of treating foreigners with great respect and deference. I certainly have felt that, and now I know why. This is a bit of a paradox for me, because, China was treated very badly by foreigners, especially the British, who forced the sale of opium on the Emperor at the point of the British navy gunboats.

It is also well known that at one time, China had the largest navy in the world, and could easily have projected power and colonized the whole world. But at one point, the then Emperor decided that China did not need anything from the outside world and the “barbarians”, and had the whole fleet destroyed. Had he not done so, I surmise, the British could not have forced China to accept the opium, and China, which before that time had the world’s largest supply of silver, would not have been reduced to poverty and humiliation at the hands of the West, and later, Japan.

Staying at the temple, I really got the feeling of what a refuge it is. One young woman I met, a software engineer, had just stopped working and lived a simple nomadic life. She told me she had experienced a lot of anxiety due to “some bad things” that had happened. Another fellow, a 27 year old telecom engineer, had lost his father a couple of years before, and was staying at the temple. He had also left his job at a major internet company in China. These are some among many people, who could come and stay the temple for free or for nominal cost, typically about $3 a day, for room and food.

In fact, no one even asked me for money at all, even though I was staying in a more private room reserved for honored guests. Where does the money come from? In some cases, the government helps out. For example at Tong Bo Yan Si, they are building a retirement space, so that poor Chinese who have no children to sustain them in their old age, can stay at the temple. Despite decades of disparagement of Buddhism as mere superstition by the authorities, and serious problems during the Cultural Revolution, there is still strong support and reverence for Buddhism. Even to the extent of government support for the retirement facility. They correctly recognize that old people want to stay at a temple.

But in a time of rising prosperity throughout China, people are looking towards their cultural roots, and as a refuge from the hectic nature of modern society. So there is a huge amount of new temple construction going on, with donations from newly rich Chinese, as well as smaller donations from the population at large.

I stayed at Lao Zu Si for 35 days of meditation practice. The first 3 weeks I practiced alone in my room, going to the dining hall for meals, taking walks in the beautiful countryside, and talking with the monks if an English speaker were there, or getting by on my minimal Chinese.

Since tea is a major part of Chinese culture, one of the monks invited me to have tea with him and two other laypeople, both of whom spoke some English.

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Other times, a monk invited me and others to go for mountain hikes, usually to visit hermits living off by themselves.

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On a trail to a monk’s hermitage, which was rebuilt recently. The original is several hundred years old.

The Daoist nun and me at her hermitage. She is about 90 years old and I hear she is a very fast mountain hiker! She smiles and laughs a lot, and has been living there about 20 years.China trip 2011 142

As summer ended, it was time for the Full Moon Festival, which took place in September. After an evening chanting, tables were set up in the courtyard in front of the Buddha Hall, right under the full moon. This was a real temple party, complete with extra food and (nonalcoholic) toasts. This is a picture of the drum tower of the temple, with the full moon sitting on the peak. Several of us tried catching the moon, too.China trip 2011 123

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As autumn set in, it was time for Chan Qi, or Meditation Week, which could last from 3 days to up to 70 days.


At that time, in this temple, everyone, monks, nuns (if any were there at the time) and lay men and women all did zuo chan, or sitting Zen in the Chan Tang or Meditation Hall.

The Chan Tang at Lao Zu Si

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The Chan Tang seats 80 people on the platforms at the walls, and more people could sit on the floor, with cushions provided. One period is one hour, starting with 15 minutes of fast walking around the altar, a traditional Shakyamuni, followed by 45 minutes of sitting.

The first Chan Qi had about 5 hours of practice a day, and lasted 5 days, followed after a two day rest period, of a 7 day Chan Qi. By November, in the mountains, it is so cold that the road is blocked with snow. So they hold a 70 day Chan Qi, with no leaving the temple possible. The high humidity and cold temperature, usually below freezing, make it a place for hardy souls only, however, at the time I was there, the weather was quite comfortable, getting no lower than 60 degrees F.

On one of the rest days, my friend Mr. Bai (Bai means “white”), took me to visit the 5th Ancestor Temple, not too far from Huang Mei. As the legend has it, Chan developed in this area of China, and the 4th Ancestor’s and 5th Ancestor Temples are near Huang Mei, where the 6th Ancestor, Hui Neng often gave talks. (I could not find his temple, which I think is in disrepair at this time).

The Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara (Guan Yin) Bodisattva statue at Lao Zu Si.

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It was the 5th Ancestor, Hung Jen Chan Shi (Chan Master), who recognized the poor illiterate Hui Neng, as a true Vessel of the Dharma. And now Wu Zu Si (5th Ancestor Temple) is a busy functioning temple with quite a few monks there.

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The main building at the 5th Ancestor Temple.

When Hung Jen first met Hui Neng, he said, “…you’re a barbarian. How can you become a Buddha?”

[Hui Neng] replied: ‘Although people from the South and people from the North differ, there is no north or south in Buddha Nature…..”

“The Master wished to continue the discussion with me; however, seeing that there were other people nearby….he sent me to work…..where I spent over eight months [threshing rice] treading the pestle.” I am quoting here from The Platform Sutra, Yampolsky translation.

Sure enough, the pestle (or one like it that is used in Asia to thresh rice) was there to view.

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The Dining Hall at Wu Zu Si


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The Wooden Fish, which is struck announcing that it is meal time

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Chinese are crazy about cool shaped rocks, like this one. The Chinese inscription says “Chan Heart” China trip 2011 167

Coming to Wu Zu Si had very special and poignant meaning for me. While I was at Lao Zu Si, I learned that my Uncle Sidney, the last surviving relative of my parents’ generation had died.

This caused me to reflect on my path in life.

As Hui Neng pointed out in the Platform Sutra, his father had died, and Hui Neng’s mother and he suffered extreme poverty. Yet, by great luck, he had heard the Diamond Sutra, one of the most important texts in Chinese and Mahayana Buddhism, which opened his mind. He was told by the monk reciting it, that he should go to Wu Zu Si. But as he says in the Sutra, he was predestined to have heard him, and made his way to this temple, eventually becoming one of the most important Chan Masters.

My own father had also died at a young age, leaving me with my own mother, and we lived if not in extreme material poverty, certainly, in spiritual poverty. Yet, by pure happenstance, or more likely through past good actions, I became acquainted with Zen.

In Asia, I have met many monks, who were brought to the monastery because their families simply could not take care of them. Many monks’ fathers had died, like mine. So they were raised in the temple. Although I had a good education, my inner life was one of great turmoil. And in fact I felt the lack of a wholesome male role model very acutely. So, right after I finished college, I left home, like Hui Neng, and after a few months of wandering around, made the decision to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. While Zen Center had its own problems, it was the first time I was with men who were actually cultivating themselves, and saw personal development as worthy of being a full time job. As poet Gary Snyder calls it, “The Real Work”.

Nowadays, especially in the USA, there are so many broken homes, dysfunctional families, fatherless children with no one to bring self confidence, discipline, or even basic training in how to relate to work or others, men or women. What institution do they have to learn these life skills? The Military waits with open arms, and does provide some skills, but the purpose of military training is ultimately, how to kill and harm, rather than to calm one’s mind, discern the Real, and develop wisdom and kindness.

Is it any wonder, then, that our society is afflicted with so many problems?


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