And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Excess yin, fresh new yang.

The Winter Solstice...today or yesterday, whenever, is a moment of pause and transition, central to Taoism and other spiritual traditions.  We marked it, as usual with a wedding anniversary dinner at a favorite restaurant, our table.  Perhaps because it was Saturday, the weekend, the place was more crowded than usual. A loud holiday party next to us was a bit of a spoiler.  But it seems like anywhere I go these days there is a loud crowd in the way.  On the highway, in shops, on-line, too many people with too much to say and do.

Does no one appreciate quiet any more?

I've been thinking about snowmen lately. (Not something we really get to make in Hawaii.)  Quiet, ephemeral creatures, somewhat Taoist..."like ice about to melt" and with stable bottoms. With three dantians, they resemble the neijing tu.  I put this little guy on the Christmas tree yesterday, not a moment too soon or too late, along with all the other traditional symbols, whimsical memories, and glittery light-reflecting things, collected over 45 years.

"And I will call him San Dantian."
In a Korean drama I am enjoying right now, the beleaguered young king, when he wants to discreetly leave the palace and travel incognito among his people, often summons his ever-present loyal eunuch to make him a snowman by gathering fresh, untouched new fallen snow. He usually has to climb up on the roof to gather it, giving the king time to escape with his ultra-attractive swordsman/bodyguard (with whom the ministers think he may be having an affair because the king won't sleep with the court-selected queen).

Bodyguard played by Song Jae Rim;
a swordsman who likes cats.
The king is changed into street clothes and out the gate before the eunuch returns with a little snowman on a lacquered tray.  There may be symbolism here that I'm missing in the Korean, or it just may be a whimsical plot device, but it seems like a metaphor to me. (The name of the drama, Moon Embracing the Sun,  seems just right for the solstice.)  The drama actually has a plot about black and white magic performed by shamans and Taoists.  The court wants to abolish the shamans and Taoist office of rites!  Well, wouldn't they, now.  The ministers are manipulating the Confucian scholars to help their own interests along, which are, of course, not the interests of the savvy and benevolent king.

How like the little snowman we are.  Created by unknowable forces for unknowable purposes for a brief moment in time.  The worldly intrigues and disasters occur around us.  Are we made to melt, to only hope to revert to fresh-fallen pure snow, are we countless unique snowflakes coalescing once again into a pattern, the same always, but never to be repeated precisely?

Those in the past who were good at practicing Tao,
Were subtle, mysterious, dark, penetrating (wei miao yüan t'ung),
Deep and unrecognizable.
Because they were unrecognizable,
I am forced to describe their appearance (yung).
Careful, like crossing a river in winter,
Hesitating, like fearing neighbors on four sides,
Reverent, like being guests,
Dissolving, like ice beginning to melt,
Thick, like uncarved wood,
Open, like a valley,
Chaotic (hun), like murky (cho) water.
What can stop the murkiness?
Quieting (ching) down, gradually it clarifies (ch'ing).
What can keep still for long?
Moving, gradually it stirs into life.
Those who keep this Tao,
Do not want to be filled to the full (ying).
Because they are not full,
They can renew (hsin) themselves before being worn out (pi).


(TTC 15, tr: Ellen Chen)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sit-down Comedy: A Running Gag (Part 2)

Traveling back to someplace always makes you reference previous visits, and this latest to Wudang is no exception. Novelty is replaced by routine and ordinary, but no less wonderful.   I'm sure my companions got tired of my constant comments,  "When I was in Beijing in 1988..." and "This hotel used to be moldy..." and "When I broke the hermit's stool...".  That last reference has to do with my big western butt overwhelming a delicate wooden stool provided to me by the famous Bee Taoist. In the middle of a solemn little talk about Tao, my stool suddenly collapsed, put me on the ground in a big sudden shift in yin/yang, and provided the hermit with some new bits of firewood.

When one of our companions this trip was having some trouble getting a proper ticket from Beijing to Wudang with the rest of us in hard sleeper, he was encouraged to do what countless desperate Chinese must do: buy a little portable stool to sit on during the nearly 24-hour overnight journey in a crowded cattle car. (There are hawkers roaming the station selling stools for just this purpose.)  I joked about my stool adventure, and we decided that we would make a trek to present his little stool to the hermit as a kind of offering...assuming he would remember.
 
The stool became something of a sitting joke (as opposed to a running gag) for much of the journey. We never did deliver it to the Bee Taoist, who did remember me, but probably not because of the stool episode.   I gave him a copy of my Chinese-style ink portrait of him and a photo from our previous visit, and inadvertently left my Camelbak bottle on his little terrace, guaranteeing that I had to visit him one more time to retrieve it. (I was dropping and forgetting things all over the place on this trip; some practical lessons in attachment, or just paying attention.)
Bee Taoist Jia Ye (and a tiny Sufi), September 2013. 

I would like to know the story of this. This is like finding a statue of Lao Tzu in a mosque.
Later in Beijing, when I was alone after the last of the group had scattered, I spent an afternoon in the National Art Museum.  I never did find the shui-mo shan-shui scrolls I was looking for, but did stumble into some unusual modern installations, in particular, one involving...stools.  I guess I could call it an instoolation.




So the stool metaphor continued through the end of our trip and then some. If I can consider it a metaphor. (There were not a few stool jokes made related to the previous blog post. You can get very preoccupied with stool in China.)  The train stool purchaser and veritable art critic commented that the installation "represents the non-linearity of the journey of learning that we undertook interspersed by reminders of our humanity within the unfolding humanity of China.  I am glad I was sitting down on my stool at the time I opened these [photos] as I couldn't believe that someone could actually mutilate such objects of beauty..."  I couldn't have put it better.

Sit-Down Comedy: A Running Gag (Part One)

A couple of Wudang Tao study trips ago, in one of our little class sessions, our teacher made reference to the necessity of having "good intentions" in practice. (We've all heard this, especially among those pesky Buddhists.)  One of our group misheard this as "you must have good intestines."  No surprise, since most of us were having serious gastro-intestinal issues, blockages, and guts "being like water," all sorts of internal chaos.

Once again, this year in Wudang, I was initially suffering from blockages. Two years of office work, hours and hours cramped in planes and trains, and changed diet, left me quite constipated.  It's very hard to sit and meditate well with that kind of blockage.

I finally succumbed to a little artificial help to create genuine movement and suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to relieve myself when we were all gathered at a temple to do tai chi practice.
Wudang Tai Chi class in Nanyan Temple courtyard.
I wasn't really participating in that anyway, a little plantar's fasciitis and a gimpy hip from all that previous office and plane sitting,  rendering me the spitting image of Tie Guai Li, (Iron Crutch Li).  I would go nowhere without my trusty green Coleman walking stick and red Camelbak water bottle.  Still, I wanted to watch the tai chi practice, which was interrupted by a Hong Kong film crew who wanted to memorialize the foreigners paying respects in the temple and to film the master and his regular (in so many ways, I'm sure) students.

Good time to escape to a toilet. Cesuo zai nar?  I was directed back to the entrance to the temple, with fears of Yuan Dynasty squatters, but was pleasantly surprised to find renovation of the Temple facilities had resulted in perhaps the finest public restroom in China.  A huge flat screen television! A baby changing room! Sofas. And two rooms of toilets, one stall in which was clearly designated for me:
Disabled people, Tie Guai Li impersonators, and Westerners toilet.

Clean, comfortable, and only lacking toilet tissue.

I spent considerable time enjoying this facility, assuming that in Chinese, "disabled people" means "Westerners unable to squat."  I saw no one in wheelchairs at the temple, which otherwise was in no way handicapped accessible.  (Unless you hired porters with their bamboo sedan chairs.) The only thing missing in the stall was toilet tissue, an apparently precious commodity in China, so I completely used up one of my own precious portable packs of Wet Ones.

I felt bad throwing them into the wastebasket, which was decorated with a Wal-Mart happy face.  I had been advised back at our hotel to avoid putting toilet paper down the crapper, with vague reference to the use of night soil by the peasant farmers.  This was a very hard habit to break.  A few times, in a fit of ecological cooperation,  I actually retrieved my tissue from the toilet which barely filled with water, but my overall contribution to the fertilizer was probably not welcome. 

My hotel bathroom. I used that same towel for 18 days. Hotel policy.

This is not the first time I have been preoccupied with Chinese toilets, having had all sorts of primitive experiences over the past decades, in country latrines, restaurant stalls, and train potties. In cities, you develop a mental map of where the good toilets are.  You can google images of "Chinese toilets" for a hint of what I am not posting here: some things I don't photograph.  I did observe though, on our train journeys, the toilets, even in hard sleeper, were slightly improved.  You no longer could actually see the tracks rushing by below as you squatted over the hole. (You're not supposed to go when stopped in a station.)  This time however, on our return to Beijing, after having reluctantly visited the toilet in the middle of the night, I discovered in the morning that the sole of one of my shoes had peeled off.  I suspect the urine pool in the toilet dissolved the glue.  Ordinarily I would have taken them to my shoemaker, but couldn't bring myself to do that this time. 

But back to good intentions...I still laugh about the "good intestines."  But on reading a little booklet edited by one of the Tao teachers I have met on the mountain, I discovered the following tale about Zhang Sanfeng, legendary cultivator and alleged creator of Wudang Tai Chi Chuan, who behaved like an immortal.

"After hearing of his reputation, Emperor Chengzhu of the Ming Dynasty had a meeting with him. The emperor said, 'I would like to learn about Tao. What is the most enjoyable way?'  Zhang replied, 'Having a good appetite and smooth bowel movements is the most enjoyable way.'   The emperor regarded this reply as disrespectful and wanted to kill Zhang.  But at that point, the man disappeared all of a sudden.

"A few days later, Emperor Chengzu felt uncomfortable.  He was unable to eat and suffered from constipation.  Then he realized that what Zhang Sanfeng had said was correct.  Before long, Zhang met an envoy of the emperor on the road and asked the envoy to take a few Chinese alpine rushes to the emperor.  The emperor had them boiled down into a broth which he gulped down as Zhang suggested. All his troubles disappeared instantly.

"As Zhang had once lived on Mt. Wudang as a hermit, the imperial court began to build monasteries on this mountain.  Taoism on Mt. Wudang then began to flourish."

Which makes me begin to believe that what our teacher said was indeed, "You must have good intestines."  Tao cultivation is actually all about "gut feelings."


Lao Tzu recommends, "Take a load off."

So many meanings of "to sit."



Monday, September 30, 2013

Full Circle

What goes around, comes around, they say.  I don't generally like those kind of pop Taoish karmic statements, like "It is what it is" and "Go with the flow" and "Be like water."  But there is some truth in them.

Just a little over a month ago, many months, years even, of planning culminated and I boarded my usual Korean Air flight to Seoul, to connect on to Beijing, and then to wherever.  I got to Honolulu International a little early, out of eagerness, thinking I would just relax in the lounge before embarking.  Who knew that hordes of Korean tourists would be returning home on an ordinary Thursday morning.  The lines were long, ticketing and security was slow, and only because someone in the line translated a Korean announcement for me, was I able to jump the queue because my plane was just about ready to go. Made the gate in decent time though, had a moment to send an email on my iPad before flying, settling into a very cramped window seat in a bank of three.  Nine hours in the air was made bearable by individual movie selections: I watched four Chinese films to get ready for my Wudang adventure.

Usually I'm one of those that waits until everyone else is off the plane before I exit, but by the time we landed in Seoul I was in Beijing-subway-mood: push, shove, there's a line, there's order?  Transited through another security and passport check at Incheon to make another tight connection to Beijing.  Maybe time for another airport-wifi-supported email on the iPad.

I reached in my bag and discovered...it wasn't there!  In my haste to get off the first plane, I completely forgot that I had even gotten it out of my bag.  I told the ticket clerk what happened.  She would try to connect with the plane, on the other side of the terminal. But come boarding time, no luck.  My iPad, loaded with Tao e-books, Chinese dictionaries, photos to share, music, and at least one Korean Drama (the first 18 episodes of Jumong) was not to be found.

For several days my carelessness nagged me, but soon became a lesson in attachment, and finally I stopped lamenting, and even considered buying a new one in Beijing. 
Forbidden Fruit store near the Forbidden City
There is a huge Apple store in Wangfujing, the big shopping area next to the Forbidden City. It's a popular brand in China, as evidenced by this child's haircut, seen on the train, where practically everyone under 60 had an iPhone, or something even better.
The Apple of his mother's eye.
But getting a new iPad felt like buying a new puppy right after the old dog dies. I still had my iPhone, and updated the service so I could make calls and check email on it.  I was even able to post to Facebook from China, altogether a costly proposition, but still, it worked.  I consoled myself by recalling my last trip to China which was a delight, despite (or because of) breaking my camera on the third day of the trip.  It had been liberating, like losing my car radio.  Lessons in silence and the direct pleasures of the moment.

Still, once I returned home, I thought I would check Korean's Lost and Found website one more time.  They have a photo database of all items found on planes: an unbelievable number of cell phones, earphones, children's toys, pillows, books and other weird forgotten stuff.  They maintain the items for 90 days. Still a little attached to my electronic pet, I was pleasantly surprised: lo and behold, there it was.  After a few emails and a phone call to Korean, I got it back in Honolulu, all nicely bubble wrapped and packaged in a Korean Duty Free bag.

It was like a Korean Drama, really, with a happy ending. I had suggested that the iPad could be identified as mine (as if any other had been left on the same flight) by a red sticker on the case, a cat named Chairman Meow, representing a website, http://www.obeythekitty.com/

What the South Koreans thought of a parody Mao cat is beyond imagining, but I did get the following emails:

**"REF.NO 9459 iPad KE072/30AUG goods are goods that are learned from. It also reaffirmed record and offered hope with photo please check the board."
**"I’m writing this e-mail to you on behalf of Korean Air Lost & Found Center at Incheon Airport. We see that there is a sticker of red cat "Obey the Kitty". 
**"We will send the item(ICN9459) to the Korean Air office in HNL airport through KE051/28SEP flight."

I was thoroughly impressed with the honesty and service of Korean Air, which I have been flying for years into Asia, watching as this once lowly carrier has become one of the best in the skies.

And now, iPad back in hand, I have a different feeling about my trip, which had been a little tainted by my careless stupidity.  Even now, the scams, cheats and pickpocketing I endured in Beijing seem trivial.  All is well. Everything is back where it started, and now I can review my trip.

And as Korean says: goods are goods that are learned from.  And I might add, "Obey the Kitty!"

Korean jet getting ready to leave Beijing for Seoul.

Day 1 in Beijing: it was remarkably clear, you could see the Western Hills all the way from Beijing West Rail Station.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Another Cycle, Endings and Beginnings

A busy intense hot summer with some travel, work, painting, too much Facebooking, neglecting the TAO 61s.  Over two months just flew by.  Then the  kolea returned and I booked my flight. I am about to leave, in two hours, returning once again to Wudang for three weeks.  

It feels familiar, this pilgrimage, but I know it will bring new insights and new people into my life, if only for a few days. (I will also be visiting some lao pengyou, old friends.  At last night's painting class, someone brought dim sum, so it felt like the kickoff for my journey.  I was attempting images of the Eight Immortals, especially fond of Tie Guai Li, with his iron crutch and gourd.
A little distorted, but he WAS crippled; teacher says, "You paint in the style of Li Keran."
So I am off, with my own gourd and walking stick.  Although over the summer I was troubled by a gimpy hip, like Tie Guai Li (in my case from too much seated desk work), I put myself to the test a couple weeks ago while visiting Mount St. Helens on the way back from a Washington, D.C. conference.  All these mountains --the Cascades, Wudangshan -- seem to have lots of stairs leading to forever views.
Stairway to heaven.
The Cascading Shan.
I passed the test and it even seems to have corrected my hip problem. Athough now I'm tending a little chronic plantar's fasciitis (one damned thing after another, cycles of pain and cycles of painlessness)...it will work out, but not sure if a coveted Chinese foot massage will be too brutal for my inflamed heel or will actually help.  Whatever, in just a few hours, my next adventure begins.
A message left in a scenic spot in the Mount St. Helens  area.
I ripped out the relevant dated pages from my ancient falling-apart copy of Deng Ming Dao's 365 Tao and packed them, in the equivalent gesture of trekkers who might cut the handles off their toothbrushes. Now that I think of it, I may not have actually packed toothpaste.  Something to do at the airport while I wait.

In any case, the message from Mt. St. Helens is pretty much the same as the one I get in Wudang.  Things are destroyed, but return.  To witness and accept these changes is magical.  Where there is life there comes death; where there is death there comes life.

Felled trees from the kinetic energy of the blast 33 years ago; new trees taking their places.
Trees not felled, but stripped by the energy of the blast.
The magnitude of resurrection.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Pieces of Time

The Wizard mentioned today that his faithful and handsome Bulova Accutron, a railroad-approved watch with a conventional face that I bought for him maybe 20 years ago, is losing five seconds at a time, instead of one. One was livable, but I guess five is too many. Oddly, he knows this by monitoring the atomic clock on the internet.  He took it to a watchmaker, thinking it needed a new battery, but the watchmaker said some part within is broken. A part that is no longer available.

We began talking about watches then, and their associations with status and practicality.  The great and less-than-great-but-adequate names in watches, like Rolex, Omega, Longines, Bulova, Wittnauer, Timex, Swatch, Casio...and watch advertising that is as irrelevant to its product as fragrance advertising is to its. When I think of front-page advertising in newspaers (the WSJ and the SCMP) it is always about watches. Time is money, they say.  The advertising is selling something fleeting, indescribable, and, well, priceless. (We both, the Wizard and I, have vivid memories of advertising in Star Ferry terminals in Hong Kong, one for a Ted Lapidus perfume called Creation, a big surreal ad that was on the wall in the waiting area in the now gone Central terminal for years and years--and another, a working clock actually, for Longines, as you pull into the Kowloon dock. I think it's still there.)

To say nothing of watch time: in most watch advertising, it is always ten past ten, or possibly ten to two because it is the most aesthetically pleasing, those balanced hands.  (Really, look the next time you see a watch ad, I bet it will be ten past ten. Or secondarily, ten to two. Or possibly 20 past 8, if the watch is in a certain position in the display.  If none of these times, the ad designer is clumsy. Though the few exceptions prove the rule.) How we present digital time is more puzzling.  I like the idea of 1:11 or 11:11.  Or 12:34...or any number of numerologically meaningful combinations I notice when I wake up in the middle of the night and look at the digital readout on my Bose radio.

I have a nice conventional Wittnauer, a child of Bulova, that my mother gave me when I graduated from college, engraved with my initials and the date on the back.  It is very similar (but maybe a generation advanced in style) to her own delicate Bulova that now occupies a place on a very personal charm bracelet.  Neither of them actually work well. You must remember to wind them, assuming that the mainspring is still functional. Does anyone remember the caution against "overwinding"? My Wittnauer's mainspring is still intact; the Bulova's is long seized up. Visits to the watchmaker to "clean" them used to be routine, like visits to the dry cleaner or hairdresser.  Now we just buy a new Swatch. (I bought a great Swatch in Korea, in the airport, when I realized in a timely fashion maybe it would be a good idea while traveling in China to have a watch; I really rarely wear one.) Or maybe we acquire a Philippe Patek, which, according to its advertising, is not really for you, yourself, but to pass on to a next generation. (I do not mean to suggest that I actually bought one of these. Or would.  We say time is money, but I don't really think so.)
Mother and Daughter: Mom's Bulova, at left, eternally ten past ten; my 43-year-old Wittnauer, paused at a quarter to four.
Timepieces have a strange place in my own Swiss background.  There was a lovely banjo clock with a pendulum and chimes that graced a hallway of my childhood home. It chimed quarter hours and whole hours. A bronze eagle perched on its top and there was a painting on glass of a schooner on the little door you had to open to wind it with a key.  It demanded regular attention, a special Saturday-night ritual of my father's. My parents bought it as an antique in Baltimore when they were first married, just after the war ended in 1945; there was some legend of a ship's captain down on his luck. The clock appears in the background in many old family photos.  My father said he broke it, dropped it when he was carrying it down some stairs, it shattered into many pieces.  Likewise, the pocket watches of my mother's railroading grandfather were stolen. This was after my mother died and he moved in with an antique collector. I need to let go of my suspicions about the actual disposition of these items. Ah well, the memories are more timeless than the timepieces.

We give such meaning, such attention to these devices that measure something that isn't really real.  What is time anyway?  My Bose clock radio mostly tells me, without an alarm, that I wake up at more or less the same time every morning.  It confirms that I am ready to go to sleep when I feel sleepy.  No clock has ever changed my arrival or departure time, has ever granted me more time to accomplish something.  Although the Wizard has that odd habit of setting the clocks ten minutes fast to deceive himself, he who is bothered by losing a few seconds now and then.  Odd for an IT guy who should have a sense of "real time."

He is in the market for a new Accutron.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer Solstice, Big Moon, Again

Pivotal moments. Cycles continue. Summer solstice, another super moon.  Next cyclical event of interest to me will be the late August return of the kolea from their hopefully fruitful summer in Alaska, heralding my own planned departure for a cyclical China retreat.

The trees that were trimmed a couple years ago have burst forth with new growth; you can't tell that they were cut. And the condo association is marking new trees and shrubs for drastic pruning.  It's a good thing, I guess, but I always feel the tension in the battle of chain saw and leaf blower against the natural burgeoning of the trees.

The beautiful if invasive albizia have been exceptionally profuse and fragrant this year.

These are REALLY big trees, this viewed from my 10th floor balcony.
Despite a mild allergy which gives me sinus headaches and a vague asthmatic feeling, as does the vog (lucky we live Hawaii), I still revel in the blooming.  But something is wrong this year.  Usually I can see and even hear the honeybees as they work the tiny white blossoms. Sometimes they even wander into my apartment though the open lanai door.  But there are no bees in the trees this year. This is truly disturbing. And this morning I found this on the news feed...25,000 dead bees in an Oregon parking lot, likely because of pesticides.

I treasure the cycles of sun and moon, the migration of birds, my own in and out breathing, the constancy of change, but when we disrupt the cycles, we invite danger and disaster.  How I long for the sting of a bee.