Journey into Taiji

When I was younger I used to think it hyperbole when they said that you’d need seven years to master Taiji (or T’ai Chi if you used the old Wade-Giles spelling).

Now, after having taken up Taiji for coming close to three years, I am inclined that you’d take considerably take more time – like a lifetime – if you want to master the art.

But first, what is Taiji? Many people have the impression that Taiji is the slow-motion half dance that old people in pajamas do at public parks. Part of Taiji is that – an exercise you do for health benefits – but it is much more.

Taiji was originally conceived as a fighting art. Legends say that the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng came up with Taiji in the 12th century. The next historical record seems to trace Taiji as an art practiced by the Chen Family in Henan province since the 17th Century.

Whatever the truth of it is, the art was a closely held family secret until Yang Luchan took the art and taught it to outsiders in Beijing. From there taiji spread and many different styles developed from there, among them the Yang, Wu, Chen and Sun styles.

My journey into Taiji started because I wanted to rekindle my love for martial arts (practiced Karate in school and university) but I wanted to do something that didn’t only rely on youth and strength to prevail.

As anyone’s won’t to do these days you go to the internet to see what you can learn. I alighted on Yang Chwen Ming because he was most searchable on Google and Youtube. I then bought his training DVD and proceeded to learn Yang Style Taiji.

His style is fluid but not having anyone to teach you in person was difficult for anyone to learn. And after trying to look for a Taiji school in South Jakarta I managed to hook up with a group of people that practiced the cumbersomely named Chen Style Practical Method of Taiji.

Since then it has been a journey of satisfaction, frustration, many sprains and falls as well as some rewarding moments. In other words I’m hooked.

What I find so fascinating about Taiji is how counter-intuitive it is to you we react to physical challenges. It is purely an understanding of physics, body bio-mechanics – and the difficult part – training your body to do what your mind theoretically knows.

Although we have someone here who has been well-trained, the Grandmaster of the style, Master Chen Zhonghua makes a visit to Indonesia each year to conduct a workshop and teach the students here:

Here’s a workshop in Jakarta from 2015:

 

As you can see the Taiji being practiced here is anything but soft and slow. It involves students understanding the principles of Taiji and then putting them into practice. There is a lot of push hands (Taiji sparring) in this style because Master Chen believes that you can only learn to apply what you have learned if the opponent’s moves are unpredictable.

Master Chen will be conducting another workshop Jakarta, actually in Tangerang, on December 2 and 3. It would be a treat to watch the man in action and to learn Taiji principles and their application from the man. Beginners and experienced martial artists  will be able to learn something from these workshops that are conducted in English and Mandarin and translated into Indonesian.

 

 

 

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Things I learned last Christmas

This Christmas season was different. We’re not Christians and don’t really observe Christmas but like many of our friends join in the festivities and merry making that also marks the season of the ending of the year.

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When the old stop eating the only way to nourish them is through tube feeding

 

Normally, our family would go somewhere for a holiday but this year things are different. My 93-year old aunt has fallen ill and has been bed ridden in hospital since the 16th. She’s special to my sister and I. She was the one whom we were closest too when we were young because our mother would be out of the house teaching. She has been stayed with us ever since I, the elder of two siblings, was born. She had married but her husband died from an illness soon after the wedding and she’s been part of our family since.

It was a no brainer then that as a family we’d forgo our seasonal holidays to spend time with her and Mum, who’s also pushing 84.

The decision turned out to be timely. Two days before we were due to fly to Malaysia, my aunt was readmitted to the geriatric ward of the hospital. Her lungs had been clogged up and she hovered between delirium and unconsciousness.

Since coming back my sister and I have been taking turns together with our maid, attending to my aunt. Other family members visited when they could. It turns out that my aunt was infected with Klebsillia, a contagious bacteria that causes all sorts of pandemonium to the body, including pneumonia.

These are the things I learned while being a caregiver over the past few days.

Being a caregiver is hard work – I had thought that the job comprised of one sitting by the bedside, opening up the computer and surfing the Net or reading a book, and occasionally attending to the patient. Wrong. In my aunt’s case, on many days she would moan and groan ever few minutes or complain of pain.

You don’t know how much of the pain is actually experienced by her or it’s in the imagination but you care for her so you try to find out and to reassure her. That leaves you little time for anything else and at the end of the day you’re dead tired mentally and physically.

You also need all sorts of skills as a caregiver. In the two weeks or so I learned how to feed my aunt through a tube because she had stopped eating, how to change adult diapers when she soiled herself, and how to change clothes and bed sheets for the bed ridden. There were nurses but they were so overworked that unless you rolled up your sleeves you had to wait a long time before you can get some service.

The treatment, level of care and friendliness at University Hospital, a government teaching hospital, is as good if not better than what you’d get at private hospitals. The facilities may not look so spanking new but they are not backward in terms of equipment, level of care, courtesy and medical advice. In fact, listening to the many stories of how mercenary private hospitals have become I tend to think that we get better recommendations and treatment here than in the private hospitals. That’s because the medical staff here want to do their jobs, as opposed to wanting to make lots of money in private hospitals.

 Siddharta Gautama was right. Old age is suffering. My aunt was one tough cookie. When I was growing up I could not recall a single time she want to the doctor. Even well into her early 80s she did without doctors, popping only an occasional Panadol when she felt unwell. Right up to her first serious bout of illness about a month ago my aunt could still walk around with a stroller, albeit we coud see her getting slower and weaker as old age and osteoporosis took their toll.

But she could not go on forever.

So this seems the final decline and it is not pretty. He streak of independence has been compromised, her dignity stripped as she is not even able to change her own soiled clothes. For the first time in her adult life she has had to rely on others.

It is heartbreaking but it is also the natural course of things. Unless we drop dead while still relatively young, all of us are destined to suffer through old age as it robs us of motion, our senses and our will. The only recourse we have left for our aunt is to make sure that she feels as comfortable as possible and, if it is still possible for her, to know that she’s being loved to the end, a reciprocation of the care and love she showered us when we were young. It is a debt that we cannot even begin to repay.

 

Update – It is now New Year’s Eve and my aunt is still in hospital. She’s due to be discharged on Monday. The doctor has said that she should be with family after discharge.

Happy New Year everyone. Do not forget to show your love and appreciation for those who helped raise you in an atmosphere of love and acceptance.

Is wishing “Happy Wesak” a display of misunderstanding the Buddha’s message?

Well-meaning people all around the world are wishing their Buddhist friends and acquaintances a Happy Wesak.

The conventional wisdom is that Buddhists should be happy as they joyously celebrate the birthday, Enlightenment and death more than two millennia ago of one Siddharta Gautama, the “founder” of Buddhism.

There is irony in this, because Siddharta, who came to be known as the Buddha (Pali for Enligthened One) spent his life discovering and then teaching that happiness is an illusion and often a trap to keep us in this cycle of suffering.

Nothing lasts forever. The king who commissioned this Buddha statue at Angkor Wat probably thought it would last till the end of days. What more of your happiness?
Nothing lasts forever. The king who commissioned this Buddha statue at Angkor Wat probably thought it would last till the end of days. What more of your happiness? The idea of the Buddha’s search continues though, although it too will come to pass.

 

The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is that we all suffer because we crave for things that we think are good. When we get them we are “happy.” When we don’t we become sad.

Yet life is a constant flux of changes and happiness is illusive and cannot last forever. So if we go about seeking happiness we are then setting ourselves up for unhappiness.

So what to do? This is where the Buddha’s genius for original thinking comes in. The only solution is to go beyond happiness and sadness (and by extension good and evil, contentment and yearning etc). The way to do this is to let go of you craving.

If you do not crave for happiness then a lack of happiness would not affect you. If you do not crave for happiness then sadness cannot touch you.

But this letting go is easier said than done. People spend lifetimes trying to do this and do not succeed. Introduced to Buddhist doctrine and meditation in his teenage years Unspun himself feels that he has begun only the initial small steps toward this act of supreme courage to let go of all craving.

But he tries because one man showed the way. Siddharta, born to a life of privilege and luxury, had the courage to renounce it all when he recognised that life, as many of us know it, was somehow askew (samsara).

But he didn’t strike it lucky and immediately found Enlightenment because of this one moment of heroism. What followed were years of struggling, going up wrong paths and finding the courage to turn back when he realised his mistakes.

That open mind, that constant search for something more and th courage to see things for what they are – and then act on it- is what, to Unspun, what the Buddha and Wesak Day should be about.

Happy Contemplation fellow seekers.

 

 

Brushing up the past

Today, I taught my 12-year old son how to polish his shoes. He was intrigued by the process and pleased with the outcome of eyeing his scruffy shoes looking much more presentable after a coating of bootblack and brushing.

Even a small and not too difficult task, I felt good, having passed on to my son something that my father taught me when I was a kid. Till this day, whenever I polish my shoes the smell of the bootblack and the brushing and polishing to coal a dull sheen from the leather always reminds me of me being fascinated by this thing that my father bought me.

It was a boys’ thing, something passed from father to son for generations. Many years from now, I hope that my son will feel this way too.

Did you father teach you how to polish your shoes too?
Did you father teach you how to polish your shoes too?

The Monk who gave up (potentially) a few hundred Ferraris

Respect. Ajahn Siripanno looks like one of those rare individuals who either have a huge amount of courage, or are disturbed enough by the dhukka in this world to renounce a life where Daddy’s millions of dollars would guarantee him a comfortable of not lavish life.

Of great interest to Unspun is the catalyst that started Ajahn Siripanno on the Middle Path – Ajahn Chah. If you haven’t heard of the man or his teachings you an now access them in English through a podcast on iTunes (link here). Unspun, ever life’s pilgrim, came across Ajahn Chah from his disciple Ajan Brahm who wrote a marvellous book on meditation and has podcasts of his own as well.

Heartening to see that in there are those who show us the way. One day we might gather enough courage to follow these footsteps.

Modern Age Siddharta Gautama – Giving Up Billions and Lead a Life of Monkhood.

With his father, Ananda Ajahn Siripanno is a humble Theravada Buddhist monk from Thailand. He was educated in the UK and can speak 8 different languages. He is the one and only son of the second richest man in Malaysia, T. Ananda Krishnan, a low profile successful businessman that has business interest in media, oil and gas, telecommunications, gaming, entertainment and property. A

nanda Krishnan is estimated to have a net worth of US$9.6 billions according to Forbess 2012 world wealthiest people. He ranks the second richest man in Malaysia while at the number of 89 in the world.Ajahn Siripannos mother is a Thai and he has two other sisters.

It was during a retreat in Thailand where he wanted to pay homage to his mothers family and took up temporary ordination as a Thai forest monk. He was eighteen then 1989 and growing up in UK has made him quite open to different culture and to him the temporary ordination could be something fun. That was the first time he encountered Buddhism, something that was very new to him.

It is a culture for the Thais where the male will join the Sangha not compulsory for a short period of time before returning to ordinary life.With his father, Ananda. His aim during that time was simple and according to a talk that he gave at Maha Vihara, a Theravada Buddhist Temple in Malaysia, some years ago, his initial plan was to stay in the forest for just two weeks. He had never thought of becoming a forest monk would be his life career.

What had really moved his heart was none other than visiting and learning how Ajahn Chah had done to the Sangha community during that time.Ajahn Chah was a well-known Theravada monk and he had many followers/disciples from the West. Some of his most famous diciples include Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Khemadhammo, Ajahn Brahm and Jack Kornfield a notable author and meditation instructor.

However, his hope of learning directly from Ajahn Chah shattered because this great master was already very ill. He could hardly talk and needed aids moving around on his wheelchair. Ajahn Siripanno only had the chance to meet him once but the impact that had on him was huge. It was a life changing moment!

What he experienced during the stay at the forest temple had totally changed his perception towards Buddhism and monkhood. The initial two weeks plan had now become a permanent one. He had never look back and after more than two decades, he is now an abbot of Dhao Dham Monastery, located in National Forest Reserve near Thai-Myanmar border.

Ajahn Siripanno is still in contact with his father and, which his father will visit him from time to time. It is the top priority for all Buddhist followers to practice filial piety and monks are not exceptional too. There was a time when Ajahn Siripanno travelled in his fathers private jet to Italy as he was requested by his father to spend some time with him for his 70th anniversary.

This humble monk with only a robe and a small tote bag drew quite a lot of attention during the stay in one of the finest hotel in Italy. The story that you might have read over the net about a monk that travelled in a private jet was none other than Ajahn Siripanno.

Nothing VS EverythingCan you imagine how a young man could give up everything billions and lead a simple life as a forest monk?

Note that a Theravada tradition monk only eats once a day and after 12 noon, they are prohibited to consume any solid food.It is quite normal for a young man from rich family to enjoy his luxurious life; driving a sports car, wearing fancy clothing and of course with a hot lady sitting at the side.

However, an exceptional one will truly choose an extraordinary path of life and Ajahn Siripanno is one of the least examples of the Modern Age Siddharta Gautama.Below is the talk that given by Ajahn Siripanno at Maha Vihara, Brickfields, Malaysia, 2010. There he shared about the teachings of Ajahn Chah and what he encountered during his first visit at the forest Shangha community. The title of the talk is Timeless Teachings of Ajahn Chah.

Impressions of Sister Jie Land

Guillin, China, has been a tourist hub for thousands of years. Over the Christmas break Unspun and family thought they’d try to go to somewhere cold but when we got there it was freezing at a daily average temperature of ) to 3 degrees C.

The cold notwithstanding Guilin is a fun tourist destination. Things are clean. Downtown Guilin is modern with a busy pedestrian mall that sell lots of stuff, especially outdoor clothing and gear. The food is also tasty and cheap begining with 3 Yuan (about Rp5,000) for Guilin’s national dish of noodles, some meat and vegetables. The Guilin Mifun is a very simple dish and the noodles look more like spaghetti and surprisingly very delish, especially when you come in from the cold.

There’s also lots of things to do in and around Guilin and the tourist town of  Yangshuo, four hours away by slow river cruise.

Our tour guide told us that Guilin and Yangshuo receive 15 million tourists per year. In spite of that, perhaps it was in the low season, things were not over the top commercial, you got hassled by vendors but not too much and the infrastructure makes you wish Bali would learn from them and get its act together.

In and around Guilin are several attractions. We went to Reed Flute Cave, about 20 minutes drive from the town center. It’ a huge cave complex with all sorts of limestone formation that the overworked Chinese imagination throughout the ages have identified as shapes resembling everything from lions to stage curtains and Kuan Yin. Some of the lighting was quite well done and in the main chamber we came across this:

Staglagtites reflected in a pool inside Reed Flute Cave

The highlight of the trip was a four and a half hour cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo along the river Li. There we were supposed to find one of China’s most picturesque scenery of haunting and limestone outcrops shrouded in mists, the stuff of  Chinese poems, usually inspired by bouts of drinking the local brew. The scenery is so beautiful that there is a part about 2 hours into the journey where the scenery is immortalized in the 20 Yuan note.

The scenery doesn’t disappoint and here are a few photos to share with you:

Here’s another photo:

At Yangshuo, you walk some distance to the town center, which is actually the old town restored. There are two things at least that you should do in Yangshuo. The first is taste the local dish, Beer Fish. It was good but nothing to write home about. The other is to go to see the Zhang Yimou (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) stage production of The Impressions of Sister Jie. I’m not sure if stage is an appropriate word but what do you call a spectacle whose “stage” is the river, shoe backdrop are the limestone outcrops hundreds of meters away, and a cast of hundreds of villagers including their boats, cormorants and oxen?

It was apparently the most spectacular production in China but has now been bumped to the third place after the Olympics and, if I’m not mistaken, the Asian Games opening ceremonies. Still it was something and we were lucky because it was the second last day before it closes down for winter.

It was drizzling during the show, which was in the open air, so they supplied the thousands of spectators with rain ponchos. It was bitterly cold and the plot escapes my plebeian mind but the  show was a true spectacle of lights, a cast of hundreds, beautiful costumes and imaginative choreography.

Here are other impressions of Guilin:

A bypass in life III – the postponment

Over the past month in the leadup to my bypass operation, I had been very careful about not falling sick or contracting any infection.

But as luck would have it, I ran a fever yesterday, the eve of the operation. The surgeon, on discovering my fever, said he could not operate as it would be an unnecessary risk for such a major operation.

I was lucky though in that another patient who was scheduled for a bypass Thursday could not go through with it until he had his kidney stones cleared.

So now Thursday is the day.

We still have a problem though: getting enough blood donors.

My surgeon is very insistent that we should have only fresh blood and blood of the same blood group. This creates difficulties, especially when you blood group type is AB+ which is relatively rare. The fact that the hospital requires donors to be screened prior to donation also adds to the difficulties as they would have to make two trips during office hours – once for the screening and one more time for the actual donation on the morning of the bypass itself.

The fact that I have not been living in KL for the past two decades also doesn’t help as I know much fewer people than in Jakarta.

Nevertheless, my sister has been doing a super job harnessing her network of friends and Facebook contacts to get us some sponsors. I am humbled by the kindness and generosity of the donors wo don’t know me from Adam yet have taken the trouble to give their blood. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

We are still a few donors short though so if any of you know anyone with AB+ blood living in KL or near Subang Jaya who’s willing to donate on Thursday morning please let me know.

In the meantime, with my fever abated I feel fine and look forward to the bypass.