August 27, 2010

Cycles and Causality

I had mentioned in a previous post that this trip to Asia was seemingly the completion of a cycle I had begun five years ago. In the summer of 2005 I made my first trip to East Asia, and participated in the Woodenfish program. In the interim years I studied Chinese, Buddhism, returned to Asia and lived in China. Now in 2010, I returned to Taiwan and the Woodenfish program, for which I was doing program coordination (for a nice summary of Woodenfish from a participant's perspective see Justin's blog post, sorry I'm lazy on summaries). At the start of the summer, I left wondering what this path has meant for my personal development and will continue to mean in the future, how do I continually find myself on a plane bound for Asia? I'll begin with an anecdote of a smaller concentric circle formed during this trip, and then my conclusions about the larger 5-year cycle, and some realizations during the program and meditation retreat.

Smaller concentric circle completion: In my summary post of the travel to Asia in June, I mentioned a kind flight attendant who was determined to compensate me for my willingness to change seats for others, and consequently shift from an aisle seat to a middle seat for the nine-hour flight. She was extremely congenial and impressed we could converse in Chinese easily, but honestly I didn’t think much of it. While I refused her offer of ice cream multiple times on the flight, as I was deplaning, she handed me a gift bag.

Fast-forward two months to the first leg of my return flight, from Taipei to Anchorage. Six hours into the flight, exhausted and in a sleepy zombie state in the darkened cabin, a flight attendant began to pass through the aisle with a tray of water and cups. Without looking up at her, I reached out for a cup. She looked down at me and said with excitement, “shi ni ma/is it you?” I blearily looked up at the voice. Our paths cross again. It was the same flight attendant from two months ago. She knelt down to get a better look at me, almost as stunned as I was. She recalled every single detail of my flight, “you are almost sitting in the same exact seat!” she exclaimed, “do you want ice cream?!” My mind was reeling. After all that has been happening recently, in some totally bizarre way, this was only the most logical way I could return to the US. I responded, “you remember me?!” She said, “Of course I do! In 20 years, you were the nicest passenger I’ve ever met.” That really had to be an exaggeration, or is just a serious tragedy (but maybe a reality? re: Jet Blue guy). She left to return the water tray, and returned with a chocolate Haagen-Dazs ice cream for me. I told her about my travels to mainland China and my stay at Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan, she enthusiastically listened while other slightly confused passengers looked on. She couldn’t stop smiling, and neither could I. Finally, she said, “you’ve changed since I last saw you, two months ago your energy and spirit was much lower, it seems you’re now much happier and more spirited now.” What a perceptive China Airlines flight attendant.

Despite my now chronic sleep deprivation and accumulated exhaustion, if I could peel off those layers, what I would likely find is a happier, slightly less-selfish, slightly more well-intentioned self. It's amazing what a few weeks of intensive, constant service to others will do for you. Although we can never act selflessly, the repetitive thoughts and actions I carried out for the benefit of others and myself in the nurturing and rather conducive environment that is a Buddhist monastery was likely the most ego-less state I've been able to reach so far. And it felt great. But I guess that's my ego talking :). I was active in body and mind this past month pushing past previous limitations, and found that as Aristotle said, "happiness is activity." Doing, cultivating, contributing, serving, all a happy me.

As for the larger circle/cycle: It's formation is still slightly wobbly and undefined. However, the nature of my questions have changed based on something important I realized and took to heart throughout the program, and especially during more intensive meditation in the retreat. This new way of seeing and analyzing situations is in fact not new at all. It actually predates anything remotely Buddhist, the law of causality, 因缘, cause and effect.

It's almost so elementary that it shouldn't need explanation, obviously cause and effect explains how things happen! However much I've studied karma and causality, one of the fundamental Buddhist teachings, it's easy to intellectually comprehend something without really, deeply seeing life as a function of it. It's not that I was enlightened (still far from it), but rather that I really, really thought about causality and how and why things happen, and suddenly the hows and whys in life began to make a lot more sense, including habit formation (good and bad), relationship habits, and life tendencies (me and Asia and Buddhism, the US and aggressive foreign policy, New York politicians and prostitutes, it works with everything!) to name a few.

Why did I come back to Asia? Cause and effect. Through various activities and investments of time, energy, and thought, Buddhists and Asia became a part of who is the current me. Nothing more, nothing less. Through over-psychoanalysis or questioning the cosmos for deeper meaning, one will only find more mystery. There is a Buddhist saying, that if you wants to know your past lives, look at your present condition. And if you want to know your future, look at your present condition. To my logical mind, this makes total sense. Even better, causality holds infinite explanatory power about the past and present, and provides some rough ideas about the future. What do you want the future to look like? Do something now to create those conditions that will make it possible. Matters that were before of great importance to me now (what is the best/right career for me) seem like I was just thinking about things the wrong way and asking the wrong questions. It's hard to explain, but my mind has shifted a bit, and I'm seeing the world, and my place in it differently, more fluidly, and at ease. And I think it's for the better.

And then of course, all of these cycles will just keep churning in the greater cycle of samsara, that thing we call life and death. I have no clue what's in store for me, but I know if I keep doing what I enjoy, following the causes and conditions, contentment will follow, and for now, I'll take solace in that.

感谢因缘,因缘能成就一切
随顺因缘,因缘能引导自然.

Be grateful to causes and conditions that help you achieve everything.
Follow causes and conditions that lead to natural results.

1 comment:

ABOUT said...

Great post Jules - I really enjoyed reading. Thanks :)