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Archive for the ‘Buddhism’ Category

What the Cherry Blossom Still has to Teach Us

In Art, Asia, Buddhism, Ecology, Epistemology, Ethics, Health, Hinduism, History, Japan, Lifestyle, Literature, Nature, Opinions, Philosophy, Religion, Sakura, Society, Spirituality, Taiwan, Tradition, Travel, Worldviews on March 2, 2013 at 9:42 pm

From past to present, flowers continuously find purpose in our lives and imaginations.  Besides serving to brighten gardens, flowers fill the air with rich and subtle fragrances. They are used as tokens of affection for those among the living and dead. They remain a constant source of artistic inspiration, as seen in the Indo-Islamic artwork of medieval India and the Impressionists paintings of modernizing Europe. They are used to identify political allegiances and are often employed as powerful symbols of human achievement as well as human folly. From being an essential ingredient of herbal teas to a customary offerings to Hindu Deities, flowers remained a mainstay in the lives of numerous people from around the world. Why do these shapely but fragile angiosperms appeal to us so much?

For Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, the flowers of his royal gardens provided a comforting reminder of Farghana, his beloved but forever unreachable homeland. For poets like William Shakespeare and John McCrae, flowers have been the topic of imaginative imagery and the substance of metaphoric language. While Shakespeare often used flowers to represent human emotions in his plays and sonnets, McCrae described poppies growing on Flanders fields as being torches held by dead soldiers in his powerful poem, In Flanders Field. For Buddhists and Hindus mystics alike, the lotus personifies the successful realization of spiritual enlightenment, with the roots of the flower entangled in muddy water but the blossom rising above the surface in all its captivating glory.

Obvious, people from all walks of life enjoy flowers for a variety of reasons. Although I appreciate many of these reasons, I nonetheless find that the Japan-based Buddhist perception of the cherry blossom, or Sakura, to be among the most relevant and instructive. That might seem like a fairly bold claim, but I cannot think of any flower that can better teach a human being how to think and live in our fast-paced-post-modern world. Up until the last two years, I did not pay much attention to cherry blossoms. It was during a spring visit to Yangmingshan, an active volcano near Taipei, that I first encounter these breath-taking tree flowers. Watching their pink, white, and violet pedals constantly fluttering to the ground, it struck me how sadly and beautifully these marvelous cherry blossoms seemed to come and go. Being surrounded by these falling pedals, I could not help feeling that they had more to offer than aesthetic value. However, by the end of spring, the illusive and mysterious Sakura became lost from sight and mind.

It was during my second encounter with cherry blossoms in Vancouver that my interest became rekindled. Watching how the cherry blossoms rapidly budded at the beginning of spring and gradually vanished by the end of spring, I came to better appreciate the transient but cyclical nature of the Sakura season. While visiting Vanduesen Botanical Gardens, I had the opportunity to see cherry blossom trees in full bloom side by side with pine trees, an interesting eco-cultural experience of West meeting East,  fleeting pink mingling with forever green, flower pedal next to pine cone. It was like simultaneously walking in two worlds with one foot in the Asian Pacific Rim and another in the Canadian North. Now I admit, this observation certainly says a lot about myself; after all, walking in two worlds is not exactly new stuff for a second generation Indo-Canadian. Perhaps I could even be accused of choosing to see something of myself in the Vanduesen blossom trees. Nonetheless, I prefer to think, like the cultural ecologist David Abram, that human beings tend to discover a lot about themselves in what is not human.

While my interest in cherry blossoms has since soared to new heights, it was not until I recently read a thoughtful passage in Neil Ferguson’s Hitching Rides with Buddha that I could finally fully articulate my reason for finding such frail and short-lived flowers so fascinating and inspirational. During his hitchhiking adventures across Japan in pursuit of the Sakura, Ferguson, in one of his reflective moments, observed that:

The imagery of sakura is problematic. It has long been entwine with the notions of birth and death, beauty and violence. Cherry blossoms are central to the Japanese worship of nature… and yet the sword guards of samurai warriors bore the imprints of sakura as a a last, wry reminder of the fleetingness of life… The starkest image of sakura is that of the Ishiwari-Zakura, the stone-splitting Cherry Tree… [that] took root and grew in a small crack in a very large boulder… [eventually] splitting the vast boulder in two like life out of stone-grey death. The power of beauty to shatter stone; as brutal and sublime as any sword.

Although I already learned much about the Japanese notion of Sakura before reading Ferguson’s passage, his personal observation of  its paradoxical meanings did much to broaden and deepen my own awareness of the dynamic nature of these flower trees in a Shinto-Buddhist cosmology. While initially viewing the Sakura season as nature’s way of subtly teaching by gentle example about the “fleetingness of life,” my understanding of the cherry blossom tree gained new dimension as I recognized how it simultaneously teaches us how powerful, stubborn, and destructive the will to live can be. The Sakura season always comes to an end but always with the promise that it will begin anew next year. Problematic imagery indeed.

In a day and age where universal truths are becoming harder to maintain, and what we think we know becomes more easily debatable, perhaps the cherry blossom has something to teach us. In constantly reminding us that things that are seemingly contradictory can co-exist, it visibly demonstrates a way of thinking that is organic, pragmatic, and grounded in a world we all live in. In celebrating the cycle of birth and death on a yearly basis, it also models a natural way of being that balances an optimism for a colourful life with an acceptance of an unavoidable death. These are just a few of the revelations to be found in the beauty and sadness of Sakura.

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Let Personal Experience and Critical Thinking be Your Guide

In Buddhism, Culture, Globalization, Huxley, Lifestyle, morality, Nietzsche, Opinions, Philosophy, Religion, society on September 1, 2011 at 5:31 am

Are you a vegetarian that finds yourself in awkward situations where, for instance, at a friend’s barbeque night, the tofu dogs are mixed with the beef patties? Are you a Left-a-Saurus that reads Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky by day, but hits that generic Irish-looking pub with the ever-glowing big-screens, ample supply of big-corporate brand beer, and service of over-worked-under-paid waitresses by night? Are you a regular church or temple goer that finds your personal opinions are becoming heavily influenced by non-believers? Are you friends with someone whose sexuality, ethnicity, or belief system isn’t considered ‘right’ according to the values of your family or community?

For those of us that are committed to some personal belief or practice, we’ve all found ourselves in situations very much similar to these. Although at times they can be humorous and trivial, in other instances they can be unsettling and life changing. How are we suppose to deal with challenges to our way of thinking and living when they arise?

Well, the way I see it, there are three options:

Option 1: If a belief or practice is no longer meaningful to you, discard or replace it. When giving up a belief or practice that you truly felt committed to, there is of course the implication of hypocrisy to consider. However, as the author of Brave New World, A. Huxley, aptly warns elsewhere, “too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” This point of view, by no means a new one, is eloquently encouraged in the verses of the Tao Te Ching:

When people are born they are gentle and soft.

At death they are hard and stiff.

When plants are alive they are soft and delicate.

When they die, they wither and dry up.

Therefore the hard and stiff are followers of death.

The gentle and soft are the followers of life

From this point of view, changing opinions, lifestyle choices, and even group loyalties that no longer satisfy you is quite normal and healthy. Confining yourself to a particular ideology or cause can become counterproductive to personal growth, and in more serious cases, even threaten your very wellbeing.

Option 2: Fight for who you want to be. As F. N. Nietzsche outlines in his work Beyond Good and Evil though, it all too easy to conform to social and political pressures that seeps into our lives and very difficult to be a person with a mind of his or her own. This is especially true in a day and age where most human beings live in densely populated societies that are increasingly becoming culturally homogenized on a global scale. Living in a technological “flat” world doesn’t even begin to describe it. For example, what teenagers typically prefer to eat, drink, read, play, buy, listen to, and watch in Yunlin Taiwan isn’t all that different from what youths generally like in Alberta Canada.  Living during a time of unprecedented economic, social, and political integration himself, Nietzsche was aware of how difficult it can be for one to deviate from family, community, and societal expectations. He knew only too well what was at stake. As he admits elsewhere, “[t]he individual has always to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened.” Nevertheless, he confidently adds “no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

Option 3: Let personal experience and critical thinking be your guide. As the musician-poet Bob Dylan simply put it, “all I can do is be me, whoever that is.” Those that sincerely strive to live by certain principles, know that upholding beliefs and practices is a lifelong work-in-progress. Sooner or later, they discover that attempting to force conviction that isn’t there can be just as disastrous in consequence as hastily swinging from one way of thinking or acting to another. They risk not only hurting themselves, but those they care for as well as the very world they live in. So, when, more often than not, you are not sure whether to pursue option one or option two, take option three.

Here are four pointers on how to do so:

  • Prioritize what you personally want and need first. At first glance, this may seem like an awfully selfish thing to do. However, when you try to appease those you love, be they family, friends, or community by adopting ideologies and activities that you do not believe in, there is a huge risk that they may erode your happiness. If this happens, you will not only come to resent them, but the very people that sincerely embrace them. So rather than allow yourself to get suffocated by ideas and practices that aren’t your own, do everyone a favour and prioritize being truthful to yourself.
  • If your conduct becomes at odds with your beliefs, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to throw in the towel. No matter what ideal you pursue, do bear in mind that you are only human. We all say or do certain things that we later wish that we had not. A lapse in faith or conviction does not need to inevitably result in a permanent situation. Admittedly, real world events, unforeseeable incidents, and dramatic changes in health can have an powerful influence upon our lives. Nonetheless, if you are able to read this blog post, then you most likely can think for yourself. So if you let yourself down for whatever reason, don’t lose heart. It is ultimately in your power to decide just how life’s various surprises can impact your thoughts and actions in the present.
  •  Don’t just take someone else’s word for it. As Buddha insisted to his disciples, they should trust their own personal experience and not just accept his teachings, or any other, at face value. In my humble opinion, truer words have been scarcely spoken. No matter whether it is an ancient scripture, popular belief, or a life-long held custom, it should have a unique meaning for you. If you eventually find it lacks any relevance or connection to your own life, then you may want to consider doing some self reflection and self exploration. But only do so if you feel it is necessary and even more importantly, when you feel ready.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a step out of your comfort zone. As the Scottish Philosopher David Hume cynically points out in An Enquiry of Human Understanding, those with religious belief tend to surround themselves with images, rituals, symbols, and figurines in order to sustain their faith. Although there is most certainly an anti-Catholic bias that shades his observation, Hume’s logic is not without merit and can certainly be extended beyond the God fearing. After all, those that associate themselves to some ‘-ism’ or another, be it spiritual or worldly, tend to be surrounded by literature, objects, symbols, customs, audio-visuals, and people that reinforces their belief in a chosen creed or lifestyle. It is very easy to get conditioned to a way of thinking or living that has almost become nearly habit. However, if you find that it is not useful to your life, don’t be afraid to expose yourself to a great big world full of new experiences. They can just as much reinvigorate your old worldview as transform it.