Archive for February, 2010

“Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly flittering and fluttering around as he pleased. Suddenly he woke up and realized that he was Chuang Tzu. But he did not know whether he was Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. This is called transformation.”

I love this story and when invited to lecture on the art of doing nothing, I often started with this story. I find it most fascinating but I did not quite understand the implication of the story. So today I sat down to contemplate and to read some interpretations focusing particularly on that of Kuang Ming Wu. I think this story is about how often we like to create division between dream and reality believing that we really understand what is real. And this understanding itself causes a form of rigidity that prevents us from flowing and being flexible. We are often held captive by what we believe to be real. And Chuang Tzu would have argued that these things we called real is nothing but “three in the morning” or the things of our very own imagination and creation. Our fixation prevents us from adapting to the flow of life and thus makes it difficult for us to be at a place where we can just enjoy being, flittering and fluttering around like a butterfly.


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Last weekend I was checking my 401K and was shock to realize how much my wife and I have lost during this market downward spiral. Then a friend said to me that while he was worrying about his retirement, he learned that an astroid almost hit the earth. I looked at him and said, well if not the bad market, then the astroid, or else the earthquake. How finite we are. I mentioned this to my students and we all agreed, there is something about our finiteness that becomes meaningful only in relation to that which is infinite. So I’m reminded of Lao Tzu and the concept of li…while we sit down doing nothing, the sun shines, the plant grows, the water flows. Thinking about the economy in the light of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu’s perspective is rather comforting and reminds me of one of my favorite stories. 

A farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to comfort over his terrible loss. The farmer replied, “Maybe, may be not.” A month later, the horse came home bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors came to congratulate for his good fortune. “Such lovely strong horses!” The farmer replied, “May be. May be not.” The farmer’s son was thrown from a horse and broke his leg. All the neighbors came to console. Such bad luck! The farmer replied, “May be. May be not.” A war broke out and every able-bodied was recruited except the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The neighbors came to congratulate the farmer. “May be. May be not?” replied the farmer.

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I was asked to help moderate for one of the movies for Faith and Film series.  I picked Broken English because I do speak broken English.  Turn out, it was not about English but it was about a young lady who experienced numerous disappointments after her love life.  Finally she decided to give up on love.  One evening at a party she met a French man and everything changed for her.  She found her love but then due to fact that he was returning to Paris, she decided end the relationship.  In subsequent discouraging events in life, she decided to go to Paris to find him, the problem was she lost his phone number.  In one of the scenes, she was in a bar talking to another man about love.  He listened to her story and said something to the effect that if you could not find happiness within yourself, you can’t expect to find happiness in your lover as well.  That was a very significant statement for my self-reflection.  Often we seek God’s intervention to create events that we hope can alter our lives and add meaning to what seems to be partial emptiness.  We look for events or expect something to happen that can make a difference in our lives.  And perhaps these events can make a difference.  But may be it is like what this gentleman said, we can’t really hope that events will bring happiness to us if we really can’t find it within ourselves.  In this era when we are so emerged in the consumer culture, it is indeed a challenge to learn to find happiness and contentment within who we are.  And yet if we do not, we will forever be trapped in the matrix and miss the essence of life that God has bestowed upon each of us.

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I have to do a presentation on simplicity  to a group of middle-age professionals.  While it is an opportunity to share, it is also pretty difficult to speak of simplicity.  But here’s a thought from Chuang Tzu that I find helpful.

“The sage leans on the sun and moon, tucks the universe under his arm, merges himself with things, leaves the confusion and muddle as it is, and looks on slaves as exalted.  Ordinary men strain and struggle, the sage is stupid and blockish.  He takes part in ten thousand ages and achieves simplicity in oneness” (translation by Burton Watson).
Chuang Tzu seems to rely heavily on the view of nature as organic.  Nature lives, and moves, and drives, and orchestrates reality and hence within this existential understanding of that which is, one is able to lean on the sun and the moon.  Leaning on the sun and the moon also suggests the ability of its believers to take life as it comes because the sun is not always kind and the moon may not always shine.  It shrinks and reshapes itself and if life is to be lived, one may have to merge oneself with things and leave the confusion behind because if we try to understand that incomprehensible, we may not get anywhere.  The Way is not known.  Not only do we not know, we do not understand how the Way operates.  It does what it does. The way of the world places slaves in the lowest rank within societal hierarchy.  But the Way has ranked life differently.  The slaves may be exalted because the Way does not interpret life within the categories that the norm decides.  The wisdom of the slaves may be that which we have to seek and understand in order to find us along the Way.  This goes along really well when Chuang Tzu speaks of the blockish and the stupid.  Who’s stupid?  When stupidity is not even a category, one achieves simplicity in oneness.

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The more I ponder Chuang Tzu’s the more I realize the profound wisdom and such spiritual insights into life and ways of living.  To understand Chuang Tzu is to finally realize what freedom really means, what it is like to live a true authentic life.  It is also coming to a gradual recognition that it is very difficult indeed to realize how caught we are in the web of illusion that he talks about, to laugh along with his analogy of the metaphor “three in the morning” and the monkeys and see that we are these monkeys, the object of our laughter.  The web is so intricate, so intertwined, so complicated that it is hard to see and realize.  It is the matrix that we find difficult to see in ourselves, let alone to disengage.  I am reminded of the song “Hotel California” where, once you are in you can check out but can never leave.  Once you are there, you are caught in the power of materialism be it literal or spiritual.  The wording of the song is so appropriate:

“Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
‘Relax,’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!'”
When we have a slight insight into Chuang Tzu’s we will finally see traces of the door created from human imagination that isn’t really there.  There is no place to run to.  There is no need to leave because the beast we can never kill is the ghost of our own device.  

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For many years I struggled with internal conflicts. Perhaps my melancholia has contributed to that constant sense of guilt and the quest for its resolution. But often I was caught within the moral sense deep in my psyche and finding it difficult to get out, to look beyond, to transcend even meaningless guilts or conflicts. Perhaps it is also from this very context that Chuang Tzu’s nothingness becomes even more meaningful to me because through his paradoxical perspectives of life, I find a glimpse of freedom, a place and space for my soul’s rest. Here’s one such an example. “You forget your feet when the shoes are comfortable. You forget your wait when the belt is comfortable. Understanding forgets right and wrong when the mind is comfortable. There is no change in what is inside, no following what is outside, when the adjustment to events is comfortable. You begin with what is comfortable and never experience what is uncomfortable when you know the comfort of forgetting what is comfortable” (translated by Watson). I think often we start with what we ought to be or socialized to think how life is to be lived. Perhaps it is better that we start from where we are. What fits for us. Starting from what fits lead us to do what is best without the constant nagging temptation toward right and wrong dichotomy.

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I’ve just returned from three months of research on human trafficking in Thailand.  I have done 26 interviews with individuals working on the issue of human trafficking from government agencies, to UN, to NGOs in Central and Northern Thailand.  I also had the priviledge of talking to a girl who was a victim of sex trafficking and two wives whose husbands fall into the category of human trafficking as well.  These three months meeting different people have given me hope about humanity.  There is a deep admiration on my part for those I interviewed, the commitment, the passion, the determination, the saccrifice, the amount of energy invested to help and assist and protect.  And for the “victims” I met, they were more than  victims.  They were people determined to make things work even though the odds were against them.  They intend to fight until they can solve their unresolved situation.   This study is not only a study.  It is about people and about humanity and how my life has been influenced by their stories and how I come to regain a sense of hope in the midst of human tragedy.

I’m in the process of writing and alth0ugh this writing project is mainly about organizing information and critically reflect, I still think about the people I have met, and the stories they told, and the lives they’ve touched, and the determination not to give up on people.

The issue of human trafficking, the further you explore, the more complicated it gets.  It is not just about preventing people from migrating, or prosecuting pimps and traffickers, or designing good anti-trafficking laws, or implemeting policies and resolutions.  And all the numbers that have been mentioned in relation to the issue are often not as reliable as we think they ought to be.  The issue lies alot closer to home than we realize or want to acknowledge because it disrupts our comfort zone.  At the very core of human trafficking is exploitation.  And when we explore what actually constitutes exploitation, the line is no longer distinctive.  When we take a very close look at exploitation, it has a life of its own and often there are sociological, cultural and psychological factors that feed into its life.   It stands as a critique of the very existence of our civilization or perhaps our ideal of a civilized society from which we all are a part of.  And traffickers are just one extreme form of factors among many other players in this movement toward our understanding of civilization.

I asked Plew, a police officer in Chaing Mai, how can we best address the core of this issue.  Her answer was profound and simple, “If we all could live a simple life…”

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