Sunday, November 28, 2010

Another Interruption: Public Service Announcement

I had been planning to post another story of when the kids were little, but as I was reading through the New York Times online today, I came across Nicholas D. Kristof's op-ed column entitled "A Woman. A Slave. A Prostitute." In the article Kristof describes the story of Yumi Li, a young woman from China, who paid smugglers $50,000 to bring her to the US. Yumi is educated; she has a college education. She thought that she was coming to an accounting job in the US, but instead she was forced to work for three years as a sex slave in Manhattan, NYC.

The story is here for those who are interested:

I decided to post about this because over the course of my two decades among the Chinese-American community, I met a number of women who had used "snake heads" or people smugglers to come to the US. All of them had been in terror of being sold into sex slavery because they either personally knew women who had been sold as sex slaves or they knew people who knew women sold into the sex trade. Most of these women were willing to pay a premium to the smugglers of $25,000 to $35,000 (US dollars) to ensure that they would escape that fate. In addition, they usually worked out elaborate arrangements with male relatives or friends both in the US and China to be sure that the "snake heads" kept their part of the bargain.

This is a big problem of which most of us mainstream Americans (of all races) are not aware. And as the Congress takes up issues like illegal immigration, we need to keep these things in our collective consciousness in order to make good choices. Unfortunately, there is a market in America for women sex slaves. And also unfortunately, Chinese society has terrible income disparity. (See Accepting Authoritarianism: State-Society Relations in China's Reform Era by Dr. Teresa Wright for more on the income disparity problem.) Women are not privileged in Chinese families because they cannot carry on the family name. If a family is struggling, the young women are more apt to be sent abroad to work because it does not matter in the family ancestral hall if they are lost, and because girls tend to be more responsible than the spoiled boys of the one-child era. Despite their unprivileged position in the family, women do send money back to their struggling relatives in China.

I don't have a ready answer to this problem, but I agree with Kristof that it needs to be brought to the light of day and into public discussions on immigration here in America.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My "Almost-Passing" Answer to the Midterm Koan

We got our midterms back. I did very well. The professor announced at the beginning of class that one person almost passed. So for your edification and enjoyment:

In their book Paths to Liberation, Robert Buswell and Robert Gimello posit that “the doctrine of emptiness [shunyata] [is] audible in any form of Buddhism if one but listens for it … and is still coursing through the Buddhist universe like a low-frequency basal pulse” (p. 375). In this essay I propose to answer all questions in one search through the five sutra texts for the basal pulse of emptiness [shunyata] noted by these modern American Buddhologists. I will begin with a definition and description of the concept of emptiness and then examine the sutras in the order of 1, 3, 4, 2, 5 before reaching my conclusion about 6. If I am able to find the thread of emptiness in all five texts, the premise will have been proven for this subset of Buddhist texts.

Robinson defines “shunyata” in the Sutra Pitika as “an attribute of phenomena—stating that they are empty of self or anything pertaining to self—and as a mode of perception, in which phenomena are viewed simply in terms of what is absent or present to awareness, without adding or taking away anything … Nagarjuna later expanded these two meanings … phenomena had no “own-nature” [svabhava]; as a mode of perception, it meant the relinquishment of all views” (327-328).
In his explication, Robinson relates emptiness to the third realization in the Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment experience. After passing through the four dhyanas (levels of meditative concentration), Shakyamuni first saw his lives and past lives and the causes of his rebirths. Then in his second insight, he saw the causes of rebirth for all the sentient beings in the cosmos. From there he was able to work out the concept of dependent co-arising [pratitya-samutpada], that nothing is permanent and that there is “no self” [anatman]. All things arise because of past actions, words, or thoughts with intention; all things pass away when the effect has run its course. Thus, there is no reason to cling to anything because everything is suffering in the constant cycle of samsara. With this vision of the emptiness of existence, Shakyamuni was able to extinguish the outflows [asravas] and be awakened. Because he found a pattern amid the chaos of samsara and identified the twelve steps from ignorance to death, rebirth, and suffering, he was able to teach people how to be free. Gethin notes that in Buddhist practice, practitioners work their way up the eight steps of mental concentration to see the same thing as Shakyamuni and thus free themselves from samsara. This insight can be considered the view of emptiness and success in the steps of mental cultivation can be called the practice of emptiness that is hinted at in Robinson’s definition.

The first sutra text is the story of Channa being taught the middle way. Channa was a Buddhist practitioner after the parinirvana (death of Shakyamuni). He was with other monks at the Deer Park in Benares, and he was quite frustrated at his inability to go up the ladder of mental concentrations and see the emptiness of all things. Without this vision, he was unable to cut off the outflows [asravas] and be freed from samsara. The other monks told him to seek out Ananda, Shakyamuni’s former companion. Channa asked his question, and Ananda repeated the Buddha’s sermon to Katyayana (also transliterated Kaccana). In this sermon, the Buddha restated his doctrine of the Middle Way, which he had first posited as being the way between the extremes of indulgence in sensual pleasures and complete asceticism. This time the Buddha said that the extremes are existence and non-existence. The middle way is to see pratitya-samutpada or dependent co-arising. Things arise from past karma and then pass away. People change, but they are still connected to previous experiences. They do not, however, exist forever. Ananda then repeated the Buddha’s tracing back through the twelve steps of dependent co-arising to show how each factor causes the next, trapping sentient beings in the cycle of samsara. Ananda then said: “What arises is suffering; what ceases is suffering—one who knows this has no doubts, is not distracted.” Channa heard this and realized the dharma.

From this story, we see the importance of emptiness in the early mainstream sutras. Things are impermanent, but they do arise based on intentions, thoughts and actions that have gone before. So we find the seed of emptiness in Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, in his later teachings, and in the teachings of his closest disciple.

As time passed, Buddhist scholars attempted to categorize the components of what arose and passed away. Since Shakyamuni had found order and a pattern in the chaos of samsara, these scholars continued that pursuit. They were the Abhidharmists, and eventually they tried to systematize Buddhist thought in absolute terms. Other Buddhist scholars felt that because the Abhidharmists said that all components of being [dharmas] each had its own nature [svabhava], the Abhidharmists were falling into the error of eternalism. Anonymous Buddhist scholars wrote the Prajna-Paramita sutras to counter this tendency. The Prajna-Paramita Sutra of 8,000 lines, which according to Gethin was the first such sutra, says, “all dharmas are fabricated by thought construction, not born, not come forth, not come, not gone, that no dharma is ever produced or stopped in the past, future, or present.” It also says, “All dharmas are indeed unknowable and imperceptible because they are shunya [empty] and do not lean on anything.” The Abhidharmists of course responded that such an attitude was the other erroneous extreme of nihilism.

A famous Buddhist scholar from the 2nd Century BCE named Nagarjuna jumped into this argument with his text “Root Verses on the Middle Way.” Nagarjuna began each chapter with the objections of his abhidharmist opponents. Then he proceeded to deconstruct those arguments using the concept of emptiness as the middle way. Nagarjuna based his writings on the Buddha’s sermon to Katyayana and on the sutra text discussed above. In Chapter 24 “On the Four Noble Truths,” Nagarjuna repeated the passage in the Channa sutra that the Four Noble Truths involve the arising and passing away of suffering. He argued that if something is to arise and pass away, then it cannot have its own nature [svabhava]. To Nagarjuna the possession of a svabhava is eternalism and means that all beings are frozen and unchangeable. The only way that dependent co-arising [pratitya-samutpada] can exist is if all things are empty of “own nature” [svabhava]. Nagarjuna said, “Interdependent origination—that is what we call emptiness. That is a conventional designation. It is also the Middle Way. There can be found no element of reality [dharma] that is not interdependently originated; therefore, there can be found no element of reality whatsoever that is not empty. If everything were not empty, there could be no arising or passing away … How could suffering not be interdependently originated?” (v. 18-20)

Thus, Nagarjuna strongly emphasized and expanded the earlier idea that all things are impermanent and thus empty. He continued in Ch. 25 to discuss the concept of Nirvana and noted that even this is empty. He eventually concluded that “there is no distinction whatsoever between samasara and nirvana; and there is no distinction whatsoever between nirvana and samsara.” In the end, for Nagarjuna emptiness means that the distinction between the finite and the infinite is blurred. A gloss to the Chinese commentary on Nagarjuna Ch. 25 says, “The tathagatas [Buddhas] at no time and at no site for people preach that nirvana is a fixed/established characteristic.”

In addition to stretching the meaning of emptiness and its implications, Nagarjuna used a schema that became popular among Mahayana Buddhists. He said that there are a conventional knowledge and discourse and an ultimate knowledge and discourse. He felt that the Abhidharmists had gone wrong because they took the conventional notion of “own nature” [svabhava] and made it absolute.

As time went on, Mahayana scholars took Nagarjuna’s teachings to an extreme and taught nihilism. So the story of Sudhana was written to show that within emptiness there is fullness and that all things are interpenetrated. Sudhana traveled all over India seeking teachers. In the end, the bodhisattva Maitreya showed him a vision that within one pore of the bodhisattva Samantabhada there was a cosmos containing an infinite number of cosmoses. This works going infinitely small and out infinitely large. Only emptiness makes this work. This is how nirvana and samsara interpenetrate each other.

Escaping from samsara was no longer the most important thing to Mahayana Buddhists. They wanted awakening [bodhi] to transcend samsara and then in a state that straddled the divide, they wanted to cross over all sentient beings. To achieve this goal they required wisdom [prajna] and tactical skill [upaya]. Tactical skill gives a teacher the way to enlighten or awaken others or to at least awaken in them “bodhicitta” or a desire for awakening. The Mahayana Buddhists said that the Buddha gave his teaching in three stages: first he gave a lower way, then the way of emptiness, and finally the teaching of the conventional and the ultimate.

The Lotus Sutra is a Mahayana sutra that according to Tenabe embodies the concept of emptiness. The entire sutra is a long discourse of praise for a sutra that is about to be, but never actually is taught. Thus, we find emptiness at the core of the Lotus.

The story given from the Lotus Sutra is the story of the three carts and the burning house. This story represents a skillful means of awakening bodhicitta. The story talks about children playing in a burning house. The father coaxes them out with promises of dog carts, goat carts, and ox carts. When the children get out, the only cart given them is an ox cart. We all are symbolized by the children. The burning house symbolizes samsara. The father symbolizes a Buddha. The Buddha uses any means to save his children, but in the end, the only path is the Mahayana, the path of the bodhisattva.

The Vimalakirti Sutra is another sutra that uses skillful means to teach its readers the Middle Way. Vimalakirti is a pattern of a person who lives in emptiness. He straddles all things, but is attached to none. He eats and drinks, but delights in meditation. He goes to brothels to show the follies of lust. He is able to deconstruct the teachings of all the great bodhisattvas. And in the end, after all have given their views on how to enter the gate of oneness, Vimalakirti remains silent. This might mean that the others have spoken well, and Vimalakirti will not refute them. Or it means that he cannot, and his life is empty, too. Or perhaps it means what Manjusri just said, “When you can neither speak nor talk of any event, when you neither indicate nor know anything, when you pass beyond both questions and answers. This is to enter the gate of oneness.” So Vimalakirti takes the middle way of silence and enters that gate.

Thus, we see that sutras 1, 3, and 4 specifically speak of dependent co-arising or emptiness. Sutras 2 and 5 do not mention emptiness explicitly, but the concept is there. Thus, emptiness can be called the basal pulse of these Buddhist texts, at least, and the 6th quote can be considered proven.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Trips to Taiwan and Miami

After Labor Day of our second year in America, we had enough money to take the kids back to Taiwan for a visit. Since we had been living abroad for two years, we were expected to bring back all kinds of gifts. Fortunately, shampoos that were cheap in America were considered to be expensive and of better quality than Taiwanese products. We went to K-Mart and bought out the shampoo and conditioner shelves for Yuni’s sisters and nieces. The older generation had discovered the benefits of Ben-Gay for sore muscles after Third Maternal Uncle had visited the US on a trip sponsored by the Lions Club. We bought out the super-sized tubes of Ben-Gay for all the aunts and uncles. Then we got bags of candy for the little kids.

Yuni only had a week’s vacation, so we left late Friday night and stayed until the following Sunday. Ma felt that it was not nearly enough time. I was inclined to agree with her because every night we visited different relatives or got invited out to dinner by someone in the clan. It was a whirlwind visit that was quite fun for all, but it was truly exhausting.

I did not realize it at the time, but later Ma told me that Yuni had discussed with his father our moving back to Taiwan since my grandfathers had both passed away, and my grandmothers were now stable and happy. That idea was soundly rebuffed to Ma’s great disappointment because Pa had been spreading face-saving tales among the family. He said that Yuni was about to buy his own house and start his own company, and that he would be getting his Master’s degree in architecture from an American university. After we returned to the US, I assumed that Yuni’s grumpiness stemmed from having to return immediately to work with a mega-case of jet lag.

A week or so after we had returned to the US, Yuni began to set the conditions for his return to Taiwan in motion. One of our friends from church was a wealthy Taiwanese businessman with factories in both Taiwan and China. He had been appalled at our neighborhood and had been looking for a house in Bellevue that he could buy and rent to us. Yuni had some discussions with him after church, and the upshot was that he would put up 50% down payment and we would get a loan for the other 50%, and we would buy a home for us together in Bellevue. We went to the bank and got preapproved for the loan. Then we used my grandmother’s lawyer and drew up the agreement. Next we started house hunting.

We found a place that was just perfect. It had a large backyard, rooms for our family and Fei, and it was close to the freeway to Yuni’s work and my grandmother’s as well as to my dad’s place. We made our offer and waited for the loan to close. 60 days later, the underwriter still had not decided. Fortunately, my aunt was a vice president in the bank, and she was able to get several reviews done because we had gotten a letter of pre-approval without any problem. Our measly little loan was decided by several vice presidents and a branch manager. Our earnest money was safe, and we moved into our first house in America.

A few weeks later, Hurricane Andrew tore through Florida, and the call went out at church for skilled masons and tile setters to help families rebuild. Yuni’s work was getting slow, and he arranged with his boss to take voluntary leave instead of getting laid off so that he could go to Florida to help rebuild the church hall and houses for church members. There was a huge problem in Florida of people having insurance money, but not being able to find a contractor to fix their houses. The congregation in Bellevue chipped in to buy Yuni’s ticket, and he set off alone on a plane for the first time in his life. He did not yet have a cell phone.

Yuni arrived in Florida without mishap, and he found a pay phone to call his contact in Miami for a pick up at the airport. The person asked him where he was, and all he could say was “Airport.” The driver said, “Which airline?” Yuni answered, “Airport.” Finally, I got a call from the church elders asking me for his flight information. Yuni waited at the airport for an hour before they found him and took him to the family with whom he was to be billeted. There were only two Chinese families in the church group there, and both their homes had been laid to waste. Yuni was staying with a Caucasian family who spoke no Chinese. It was time for him to put his English lessons to use.

The family lent him a bicycle, and he cycled around Miami laying tile, fixing boundary walls, and doing other projects for numerous families in the church there. He worked for three months and made quite a bit of money. The first time he decided to send me money for the mortgage, he got a long white envelope and stuffed it with $3000 in cash. Then he sent it by regular mail. I almost had a cow. He called home once a week from a pay phone to talk to me and the kids. I told him that he had an ATM card and should deposit the money directly into our bank account. He had never done that before because I had been doing all the books and things requiring English. We rehearsed the ATM prompts on several different phone calls, and the next time he got paid, Yuni deposited the funds himself. His time in Miami really gave him confidence that he could survive on his own in America. He learned to buy his own materials, to use the bank, to order his own meals, and to deal with English-speaking customers and insurance companies. It was a very profitable three months for him in many, many ways.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Koan of a Midterm

This week, I can only add a few sentences to my story of our family. With the addition of Fei to our household, things got better and better. Yuni got into advanced English classes at the community college. He began to learn how to mix the precast concrete and do other technical things. He got raises every time he came up for evaluation. My translation and tutoring businesses flourished. The kids grew like weeds. Peace began speaking all at once in full sentences (a common occurence among children in bilingual households). The girls and I continued with our regular excursions around Seattle, and a whole year went by in peace and prosperity.

I do not have time to write about our family's next set of adventures because it is mid-term season. I only have one class with a mid-term: Buddhism, but the professor has told us outright that the exam is impossible to pass. He spread it out over two 1 1/4 hour class periods. Last Thursday we had our Sanskrit vocabulary test. We got the essay portion of the test two weeks early. It will be an open book, open notes, open everything test. We can bring our outlines of the essays, but we must wait until the 1 1/4 hour period begins to write in our blue books. We have to write one-page explanations/interpretations/commentaries on each of five selections from translations of Buddhist sutras and then another one-page commentary on a quotation by an American Buddhologist.

I am listing the questions here for your edification and delight:

We have to comment on the story "Channa is Taught the Middle Way" from a mainstream sutra in Collection of Connected Discourses. For that question we need to focus on the anta-s and the madhya.

Then we need to comment on the "Story of the Burning House" in the Mahayana sutra Lotus of the True Dharma.

Then we need to comment on two chapters from Nagarjuna's Root Verses on the Middle Way--Chapter 24 "On the Four Noble Truths" and Chapter 25 "On Nirvana."

The fourth sutra text is "Sudhana's Vision of the Cosmos" from the Gandhavyuha Sutra.

And the fifth sutra text is a long exerpt from the Vimalakirti Sutra, but we particularly need to focus on Vimalakirti's thunderous silence in answer to Manjusri's question, "How [does] a bodhisattva [enter] the gate of oneness?"

Finally, we have to comment on the following quotation:

"[There is a] deep resonance of the doctrine of emptiness [shunyata] that is audible in any form of Buddhism if one but listens for it. The original Buddhist discovery of the emptiness of all things was a kind of doctrinal 'Big Bang,' the cognitive 'radiation' from which has always been and still is coursing through the Buddhist universe like a low-frequency basal pulse." (Buswell, Robert E. and Robert M. Gimello. Paths to Liberation. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1992)

I do not know how anyone can write all that needs to be written on these six questions in a mere 1 1/4 hours. I had an idea of a way to do it, and I asked the professor after class last week. He got a glint in his eye and said, "That is creative; I like creativity." And I responded, "Well, since you said that the exam is impossible to pass, and because the quote implies that all grades are emptiness, I thought I would try it this way." The other students around us were just scratching their heads. When I get my graded exam back, I'll tell you if I solved the koan or not. Tuesday will be exam day.

We do not have a mid-term in the seminar on Korean pop culture. I do, however, have some recommendations of movies and TV shows for you. We watched the movies The Host, Shiri, and Peppermint Candy in class. All are very good; Peppermint Candy is a little disturbing, but it is also very well done. As far as TV dramas go, I liked the period drama Jewel in the Palace best. And there is a great short film about K-pop fans in Hawaii that is an absolute riot: Ajumma! Are you Krazy? ( Check out this review.) For our final project, we will be interviewing K-pop fans among our friends and writing a sociological analysis of our findings. It should be fun.

We have also sent out the call for papers for our grad student conference next spring. We're pretty excited because we got our first submission within 24 hours of our call for papers going out. Check out our websites. If you know grad students in Asian Studies, feel free to pass the links along.

And finally, my professor and I gave a practice presentation of our research paper on house churches in China at the Poli Sci Department's faculty colloquium on Wednesday. It went very well. We got lots of good feedback, and after my mid-term is over, we will be furiously rewriting to meet our December 2nd submission deadline for the Singapore conference.

No news from Truth this week.