Learning to know and control myself

Dancer in flight

This heartfelt tribute is by a friend who is a dancer, health care professional, community organizer, rights activist and writer who has contributed to the Angry Asian Buddhist blog, where this essay was originally posted. She frequently comments as Liriel.

I started dance late. I was nearly 13 years old and definitely not Misty Copeland. I had rhythm but not a particularly good pointe. I had flexibility but not particularly good balance. I still can’t do a back walkover to save my life. But I had a dance teacher who taught me to know my self, to care for my community, to understand my limitations, but not to quit until I’ve tested them, to love the dance, and to let it go.

I have so many memories of 羅老師. When she allowed me to perform so soon after my promotion to the advanced class that I didn’t know all the steps to the Ami dance. (She wasn’t worried about me embarrassing her; I showed up, so I was going on.) When she hired a Laker girl to teach us a very different style of dance. (She loved all types of dance and wanted us to have as broad an education as possible.) When she choreographed the perfect commencement dance for me upon my graduation from high school. (She then gifted that choreography to me – just in case I ever need it.) But the memory that returns to me most often is one of a fairly unremarkable class on a Sunday morning.

We had spent the class on the basics, focusing on form, doing across the floor exercises for the majority of the time. And I had had difficulty keeping up. My weight was balanced wrong; my fingers, droopy; my turnout, nonexistent. This last defect had 羅老師 coming up to me when I was in passé, taking hold of my leg, and guiding it to the left as I protested that I couldn’t move that way.

“See? You can move that way. You just weren’t trying.”

After class, as we were changing our shoes, 羅老師 came to talk to me.

“Prajña, dance is the art of knowing and controlling your own body. It might sound stupid. You might think, ‘I know how to control my body, I use it everyday;’ but it’s actually very hard. Most people cannot. But in this class, you need to try.”

This was the quiet, understated wisdom of 羅老師. As a full-time county welfare worker, a Saturday Chinese school principal, and a Sunday dance teacher. Dance never paid the bills for her, and she knew that none of us would ever go on to dance professionally. But she understood each of us and what we could learn from her dance class to carry with us through the storms of adolescence into the uncharted waters of adulthood.

I never thanked her for this, and now it’s too late. 羅老師 passed away last Friday, and I am grieving. But in my heart, 羅老師 left a handful of mustard seeds: “Prajña, dance is the art of knowing and controlling your own body.”

Mindfulness is the practice of knowing and controlling my own mind. But meditation has always been difficult for me. I always feel like a fraud. I always feel so alone. But today I will sit with the memory of 羅老師, tomorrow I will dance in her honor, and I will not be alone, and I will not be a fraud. Because it is hard, and I am trying.

S.N. Goenka passes away


It was my first ten-day retreat, and it changed my life. I used to look down on S.N. Goenka’s vipassana retreats, which all seemed to be just another new-agey approach to Buddhist meditation. But I found myself compelled to attend one such vipassana retreat, after I was overwhelmed with regret for mocking some friends about their dedication to this particular vipassana community. After the retreat, I wrote my friends a long apology and then finally wrapped up my studies to pursue the career I had held off on for so long.

S.N. Goenka’s passing brought me to think about the numerous ways in which he had left an imprint on my life. When I was in my teens, it was S.N. Goenka’s book, The Art of Living, that a Burmese monk at temple used as a guide to talk about meditation in English. Many of my friends, from ordained Buddhist monks to ordained Methodist ministers, have found their meditation practices bolstered after attending Goenka’s vipassana retreats. Having attended a Goenka-style vipassana retreat myself has proven to be an important connection point with many other Buddhists, even if it is not exactly the way I have continued to practice.

Perhaps most important is that S.N. Goenka managed to create an institutional movement that embodies many of the Buddhist values that are dear to my heart. His retreats were dana-based, where none are forced to donate and only those who have attended a retreat are allowed to donate. He valued the Mahasangha and saw his position as a lay teacher in complement—not a replacement—to the monastic community. And his teachings, developed by Asians and based in Asia, have been presented in a format that are accessible enough to global audiences that even Westerners are easily able to embrace them as their own.

S.N. Goenka has not been universally praised and his vipassana movement has attracted criticism. But I strongly feel that he has done a great deal to make the world more receptive to the power of meditation and has strengthened the Buddhist community—even without being Buddhist.

Aung San Suu Kyi, please speak out and help to relieve the suffering in Burma

ImageThe fires of suffering and strife rage around the world,” and continue to rage in the Rakhine state of Burma. Recent sectarian strife between Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim community have claimed the lives of at least 78 people, and displaced over 80,000 fleeing from the violence. With the situation degenerating into a vicious cycle of hate begetting hate, it has come to light that some Buddhist monastics are actively engaged in fanning the flames by calling on lay people to disassociate with the Rohingya and actively blocking humanitarian aid to the refugee camps.

Shame on any monastics who would use their moral authority to suade others in enhancing suffering. While their Arakanese identity may compel them to act in ways that hurt others, they also wear the ochre robe and carry with it the freedoms and responsibilities of their monastic precepts. Their renunciation embodied by the first precept has now been made useless. By their own actions, these monastics demonstrate that they do not deserve to wear the ochre robe.

I realize that the situation is not so black and white. However, the Arakanese and Rohingya alike are sharing in pain. The face of suffering is the same among all people and the cycle of violence rings throughout history. In the late 1960’s, my parents, their families, and many of their Toisan community were driven away by the Burmese and fled into Maoist China. Though the conditions were not great, at least they had a state which would accept them as Han Chinese and would provide a home.

The Rohingya have no state advocates and have shuttled back and forth between Bangladesh and Burma for many decades. Burma’s Presidential Office has stated that “It is impossible for Burma to accept people who are not ethnic to the country and who have entered illegally.” Their situation grows more desperate as the violence continues, as more people are displaced, and as more languish in camps without the infrastructure or supplies to support them. Organizations that have stood up for the Rohingya include the UN and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. Unfortunately, as the violence continues, the Rohingya’s list of advocates now include the Pakistani Taliban, who have said, “We will avenge your blood.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, in your Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, you acknowledged the ongoing strife in your native Burma. We all celebrate your release and your continued work for democracy in your country. This means that you are again a politician for your constituents: speaking on their behalf, and sharing their concerns. Your freedom to speak as you choose is also delicately tied to the whims of a state still emerging and fragile in its transition towards democracy. Nevertheless, the moral authority you possess reaches across national boundaries as we lend you our ears. Please speak out. Your voice as a mediator are needed in this conflict. Lend your compassion with the humanitarian aid organizations  and help to relieve the suffering in Burma.

Let’s Go Clubbing with the Buddha

This picture frustrates me over and over again. It’ disrespectful, insensitive, and offensive.

My friend tells me that I’m overreacting and taking it too seriously.

But would they say the same if a Christian person complained about their religion taken out of it’s context and being used for commercial purposes?

Why, for some reason, do some religions in America seem to carry more legitimacy, treated with more respect and sensitivity, over other religions in America?

Can you imagine a scenario in which Las Vegas opened a new nightclub called “Trinity” that themed all it’s decorations and advertising material around Jesus and other Christian icons? Would Christians (and Americans in general) find that disrespectful and offensive? Would their feelings be treated as melodramatic and inappropriate?

Religious nightlife indeed.

I find that this doesn’t only happen with Christians or Americans. I went on a tour bus trip from Los Angeles to Yellowstone National Park. On our way back to Los Angeles, we stopped in Utah to visit their famous Mormon church. We had several tour guides who gave us a brief tour of the church and basics about the Mormon faith.

One of the tour guides was a girl from Korea who is spending about a year and a half studying and volunteering at the Mormon Church. She was younger than the other “Sisters” who helped lead the tour. Halfway though the tour, it became obvious that many of the men on our tour were intentionally trying to talk to the Korean tour guide or get a photograph with her. I heard men around me talkinabout how pretty she was, encouraging their friends to also take a photo with her. In comparison, the other two tour guides who were just standing to the side, apparently not interesting or attractive enough for the tourists to interact with.

I found this to be greatly disturbing – the idea that people were flirting with one of the religious representatives of the Mormon faith. Those men didn’t seem to care or see anything wrong with what they were doing. But would those men treat representatives from their own religion (monks, pastors, nuns, etc) in the same way?

How come we cannot follow one of the simplest pieces of advice taught to us as toddlers – to treat others the way we’d like to be treated?

Happy New Year!

If you’re from one of the reddish areas, Happy New Year!

Map South and Southeast Asian regions celebrating an April New Year

My first post was a similar new year greeting nearly four years ago. Since then I’ve gone off to be the Angry Asian Buddhist and let my own writing here die down as my talented co-bloggers John, Oz and kudos have taken up some of the slack. There is so much that I have learned about writing and the Buddhist community in these past four years, from my earlier writing on Buddhist Americans to what turned out to be Dharma Folk’s most popular post ever.

Hopefully in this new year I will make more time to write here. There is much that I’d like to share about my practice and my community. For example, this year’s New Year was the most exciting new year that I’ve perhaps ever enjoyed, and being replete with Buddhist themes, it’s an experience I would love to share on this blog. But before then, we Dharma Folk might focus our energies to apply a more unique theme to the site.

Stay tuned.

Do You Love God?

As an ESL teacher, I spend several hours a week individually tutoring a first grader named Thomas. I started working with him because his mother, who was taking adult ESL classes at the community college I was volunteering in, approached me with concerns about his ability to acquire English reading and writing skills at the same pace as his peers, namely because he only uses English at school while his peers use English at home as well as school. In communicating with his parents, Thomas knows how to speak Cantonese, Taishanese, some Mandarin (from Sunday Chinese school), and of course English. I usually have Thomas read picture books to me, practice writing sentences and spelling words, or work on school work that his mom can’t help him with. Though from my perspective, he is a bright kid with a very active imagination and a good mind for actively learning what he is interested in, all his mom seems to see is a troublesome, naughty, unstudious child, characteristic of the troublemakers (especially guys) that are usually in every class.In line with his mother’s concerns, when he doesn’t enjoy what he is learning, he becomes stubborn, apathetic, and sometimes even silly in terms of not taking the study materials seriously. I try to make the books we read and the activities we do fun and interesting by shaping them in the form of games, rewards, and storytelling, largely based on his own interests. I treat him like a little brother and his mom treats me as her son. I rarely go home after a tutoring session (usually late afternoons) empty-handed in terms of a nicely packaged tupperware of whatever she has cooked for dinner that night. I see so much of my own youth in terms of family cultural dynamics and diversity of linguistic exposure in Thomas’ life, and that is what motivates me the most to spend time working with him.

So in having set the context, I was reading a book with Thomas on how polar bears and penguins would never meet because they live on opposite ends of the world. Essentially, they were learning about the North and South pole, the Arctic and Antarctica, and the wildlife in each region. I don’t remember how we transitioned from this topic to the next but Thomas ended up asking me, “Do you love God?”

Continue reading “Do You Love God?”

“Fidelity” – Relationship Advice from Our Very Own

I went through my first breakup last November, around the time of Thanksgiving, and anyone who has been through a breakup knows what that feels like. For those that don’t, I felt like my mind split into two halves: one side able to understand the situation and why it was the best for both of us to end the relationship mutually while the other side cringed in misery over missing him and wondering if things could have turned out differently “if only I had ____”. I couldn’t sort out the thoughts driven by emotional angst from those formed from reason and logic. I felt like I had no control over my thoughts or emotions, which as a practicing Buddhist can be a frightening experience. As with many problems and frustrations that arise in my life, I sought to try and find an approach to deal with this through Buddhism.

And yet, the mere thought of turning to Buddhism for relationship advice seemed laughable. Getting caught up in a relationship seemed to break the golden rule in Buddhism: that attachment leads to suffering. And I knew what Buddhism would say: (1) true happiness starts with non-attachment , (2) attachment causes suffering, (3) I became attached to him, therefore, (4) I would suffer. Everything seemed to play out just like the concepts in Buddhism claimed they would. Without really even trying, I turned away from Buddhism as a source of advice, expecting the dreaded feeling  of “I told you so”.

Just a few weeks ago at the library, I came upon a new book from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh called Fidelity. The brief synopsis on the back cover of the book asks questions like “How can we get a new relationship off to a strong and stable start?” and “How do we take care of our jealousy, restlessness, and loneliness?”. For many Buddhist-themed self-help books, I find the information esoteric and difficult to actually apply to my own personal life. Buddhism itself is very complicated and can even upon understanding the teachings, application can require whole other stage of fluency. What I found pleasant about this book is that for a subject that seems so distant from what Buddhists “should” be thinking about, there is actually a lot Buddhists have to say about how not to think about it.

Continue reading ““Fidelity” – Relationship Advice from Our Very Own”

Working Your Way into the Buddhist Community

Over the years this blog has had plenty of questions and comments from people asking how to join a Buddhist community, or sharing stories of their failed attempts. Truth be told, it is not always easy to become part of a Buddhist community. For many people who do not live near major cities, the nearest temple or meditation center can be far, far away. But even people who have a temple in their own backyard can have a difficult time joining a community when they don’t have a friend to guide them into the fold.

A tip from someone who has stumbled through a number of communities: to become part of the community, sometimes you have to work at it. Literally. Continue reading “Working Your Way into the Buddhist Community”

The Importance of Doing Yoga First

Most of my early meditation education happened in the shade of a tree. But in place of lotusly postures, I was sprawled, my legs some variety of akimbo. My body was emanating wavy lines in the summer heat, and I was covered in painful yellow cartoon lightning bolts.

I had just experienced my first yoga class. My car was a mile walk up a steep hill, and I was not going to make it.

I wouldn’t meditate in a serious way until a year later when I went to university, but the first day of laying in a destroyed heap was an underline beneath the lesson I would learn over the coming months: breathing mattered. Continue reading “The Importance of Doing Yoga First”