Sunday, May 10,1998
The Straits Times : Sunday Plus Page 6

Be still -- and be open to constant change

TWO monks were walking along a narrow mountain path when they came to a muddy puddle, across from which an attractive and well-dressed woman was fretting anxiously because she had to find a way to cross the puddle without soiling her clothes.

The older monk simply walked across to the woman, his feet squelching in the thick mud, and lifting her up by her shoulders and legs, carried her over the puddle.

Her tiny bound feet up in the air, the woman blushed, but was grateful for the monk's kind gesture. She thanked him profusely after he had deposited her on dry ground.

The monk and his companion, an acolyte, carried on their journey. The latter was visibly disturbed, but he trudged along, silent.

After they had walked a few kilometres, when he could no longer hold it back, the acolyte asked the older monk: "What you did earlier -- are we not supposed to touch the body of a woman?"

The older monk said: "I left that woman back there some time ago. Why are you still carrying her?"

This is a well-known Zen story which illustrates simply how the teachings of the Buddha need not be dogmas, and it is one of the appeals of Buddhism for me. Or at least the Buddhism I know.

Buddha taught his disciples to see his teachings as a raft to cross the river. After crossing the river, they should not have to carry the raft on their backs for the rest of their lives.

Buddhism, or more specifically, Buddhism that had been adapted in China and afterwards in Japan, asks that you not accept its teachings on faith, but to find out their validity yourself. It encourages a liberal spirit of inquiry.

When Buddhism was introduced to China, Chinese civilisation was at least two thousand years old. Its society was already organised on Confucian principles. One way it penetrated Chinese thought was through Taoism, which provided a counterpoint to Confucianism, and whose teachings were based very much on nature and shared some similarities with the Indian import.

The Chinese adapted it, and made it practical, especially in the Ch'an school, or Zen in Japanese, after it crossed over to Japan. If the Chinese had made it practical, then the Japanese made it austere. The Japanese sensibility was, and still remains, one of simplicity, austerity and rigour. NOTHING is permanent, and everything is in a constant state of flux -- this is a defining theme of Buddhism.

If you accept it as a truth, then it is the simplest of truths. Yet it is the hardest to accept. People resist change, because it is so much easier and safer to cling to known and tried ways.

But now more than ever, the twin drives of technology and globalisation are changing the way we live in a speed that is dizzying at best. People who do not adapt to the changes get dislocated, and find themselves lost, miserable.

The Buddhist mind is an open mind, ever prepared for change. It goes with the flow, as the saying goes, although this has been made cliched and rendered silly by advertisements and self-help gurus.

Or, as writer Gopal Baratham sees it, from a letter of his that was published in the Straits Times last year, to go with the flow and not to go against the grain is to submit oneself to the political order of the day, even if it is dictatorial or inhumane.

But submission is very different from openness and preparedness. And Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on inquiry, is subversive in the eyes of those who believe in the perfection of dogmas and ideologies.

Some people have also told me that Buddhism is a passive religion. They understand the word karma as fate, and if Buddhists believe in fate, then they accept what is, refusing to act on what can be.

But karma is not fate, it is the seed one plants when one chooses a course of action, and to be simplistic about it, one reaps afterwards what one has sown.

In a larger context, one is part of a web life, to use the metaphor of the Internet age, and even as one pushes, one is also pulled, by forces that are all interconnected.

Picture the way stock prices go up and down around the world. Picture individual stockbrokers clicking their computer mice -- even as they are all carrying out their individual acts, they are also being acted upon.

In an even larger context, of course, the self is illusory, there is no one, just One. In the stockbrokers' example, for instance, there is a kind of hive mind at work. But let's not get into metaphysics.

The 1934 prayer written by Dr Reinhold Niebuhr for a congregational church service in Massachusetts -- "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other" -- is applicable here.

I quote this Christian prayer knowing I would not offend the genuine Buddhists, because Buddhism claims no monopoly on wisdom and truths. SERENITY and wisdom -- these are qualities one sees in the face of the Buddha. One sees, too, a sad resignation, yet there is also the hint of a smile. It is the look of someone who has seen everything, but bears no bitterness or is sentimental.

Life is fleeting, transient. The existentialist sees it therefore as tragic but ennobling, but the Zen Buddhist sees it as simply a cycle of moments, and we die and are reborn every moment. This is how I interpret reincarnation.

Because we die and are reborn every moment, we must learn to be alive to every moment, to see what D.H. Lawrence calls "the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment", and not be distracted by anxieties, fears, worries or fretfulness. Otherwise, we do not get reborn, but are trapped in a vicious cycle of suffering. Life passes us by.

To be alert to the moment, one has to learn stillness (jing) and quiet (ding). It is not as simple as it sounds, and we do not often catch that "unattended moment'', as Eliot describes it, which offers us a glimpse of the "awakened" state, a state of grace which exists where time meets timelessness.

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia