Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf

ferdinand the bull

This was one of my favorite books as a child.  The story is about a bull, named Ferdinand, who grows up differently from all the other bulls.  Instead of fighting, he likes to sit in the meadows all day long and smell the flowers.

When it comes time to pick the biggest, baddest, meanest bull to fight in the ring, the people who pick bulls see Ferdinand kicking and giving off an awesome display of madness because Ferdinand just happened at that moment to be stung by a bee.  So they cart him off and put him into the ring.  Everyone is clapping and all the fighters are very scared.  But Ferdinand goes to the middle of the ring and sits down amongst all the flowers the beautiful women have thrown.  No matter what they do to prod him, they can’t get Ferdinand to fight.  So eventually they cart him back to the meadow, where he goes to sit under his favorite tree and is happy.

I love this story to this day.  I love children’s books more than many because the best ones often contain lessons about life with few words and lots of pictures!  When I re-read this book recently, I thought, not only is it a wonderful story to share, but it struck me that there are many similarities to Taoist principles.

According to Tao, one does not force oneself to do things that are unnatural.  There are popular sayings in the West, too, such as – “Do not try to fit a square peg into a hole.”   Many of us know the saying – take some time to stop and smell the flowers.  What does this mean?

Ferdinand is not lonely when he sits by himself in the meadows.  He is not doing anything but enjoying his surroundings in the moment.  He may be solitary when he does this, but this is a solitude that brings him happiness.

We have so many distractions in our lives today.  Personally, in the past year, I have found myself wasting too many hours on my smartphone, surfing the news, playing games, etc.  This fills the space in my mind temporarily with distractions.  More than that, it takes away from my quiet time and space to simply be still and silent so that my mind is open and relaxed.

When we find ourselves in a quiet space of the mind without distractions, we can be more creative and feel inspired.  If we are constantly busy, trying so hard to fill the empty spaces with tv, games, news, whatever it is available in front of us to keep us “busy” without purpose, we often end up missing feeling in touch with ourselves, others, and our immediate surroundings.  As I am writing now, I stop and feel the breeze coming through my window.  I notice the light.  I feel quiet and content.  But if I’m on my smart phone, I often don’t enjoy or appreciate this at all.

As for fighting, we fight in our minds.  We fight ourselves, if not others.  We get angry because people don’t live up to our expectations.  We lose touch with nature and ourselves, which is easy to do when we are pummeled by advertisements and a constant pressure of what life should be, instead of listening to ourselves and following our instincts and being truly in touch.

So take the time to stop and smell the flowers.  Put down your cell phone, turn off the tv and stereo.  You might be surprised at what you find.

A Passage from Lao Tzu about Simplicity

On my way to work the other day, I found myself thinking of this passage from Lao Tzu which I have always liked:

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours cloy the palate.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Rare goods tempt men to do wrong.

Therefore, the Sage takes care of the belly, not the eye.
He prefers what is within to what is without.
*

In this passage, Lao Tzu tries to tell us that too many distractions can lead us astray from living simply. 

To live simply means that we get rid of things that “muddy” our lives and make us feel confused and less peaceful.   Too many desires or too much desire can make it easy for us to get carried away or become disappointed.  But when things are simple, we can find happiness from “what is within” rather than “what is without.” Simplicity allows us to enjoy the smallest things in the present moment.  If our minds are too busy, it’s difficult to enjoy the taste of tea or whatever is in front of us.  We’re too busy thinking of what we need to do or, perhaps, regretful of what we didn’t do.

My father told me that there are two kinds of happiness.  One is when we forget ourselves because we are caught up in excitement (as when we attend a rock concert), and one is when we forget ourselves because we feel peaceful.  The difference between the two, he said, is that when we feel excited, it tends to be fleeting, but a feeling of peacefulness tends to be longer lasting.

Now, if there is too much disorder around us, we may first have to get rid of the chaos in our environment.  Some people choose to leave their environment and take great risks in doing so.  When our environment is not orderly or is full of ups and downs, we spend a lot of time and energy worrying about our health and our safety, and it drains us of energy.  If basic necessities like food and shelter cannot be met, then it is indeed difficult.  Once our environment is more stable, our bodies and minds can relax.

To live simply means that there is order.  Orderliness allows us to see more clearly. Our rooms, for example, become messy if we don’t clean them regularly.  Then we often can’t find what we are looking for and can feel easily overwhelmed, tired and frustrated.  It’s easy to say, I’ll clean later, but later, the rooms are just as messy.  But if we start putting away one thing at a time, then we arrive at a sense of order.  We may have to take a little time every day to keep the rooms neat, but, in the end, cleanliness and neatness give us a sense of calm.  The less things you have, the easier it is.

Keeping one’s mind simple is like cleaning a room.  All sorts of thoughts and worries pile up in our minds that can make us feel heavy and tired.  We may be too self-critical or worry too much about what other people think instead of accepting what is and what we have to work with and stop blaming ourselves or other people.  We may feel we don’t know where to start or how to deal with things we have to face.  Some people try to escape reality through drugs and alcohol or other ways which don’t help their problems go away and can make things worse.

To get rid of “noise,” some people close their eyes, even for brief moments.  Some people listen to music.  Others read or knit.  Whatever we are doing, when we are able to shut out more outside distractions for a period of time, we can feel more peaceful.  Our minds aren’t so busy.  We don’t need to feel bombarded or care much about what other people are thinking or doing. 

When we can empty our minds, we don’t worry.  We can actually see more of our surroundings without feeling “pushed” this way or that.  We can see more without being judgmental about ourselves or others or situations.  We can then focus better on what we do.

So every day, I try to set aside some quiet time for myself.  This helps keep me healthy and gives me a sense of peacefulness without drugs, alcohol, or feeling like I need something to numb myself to be happy.  During my quiet time, I read, write, draw and do something I enjoy.  Or I can do nothing at all.  This doesn’t mean the bills I have to pay will go away.  It means simply that I give myself some time to rest and to relax.  Then, when I have to face the things I have to do, I feel I have more energy. 

In the morning, we get up, brush our teeth, get dressed.  We work, eat and go to sleep at regular times. Our bodies exercise and empty themselves of waste.  It’s equally important to give the mind activity, rest and empty the mind of waste.  The simpler and more regular our daily routines are, the healthier and better we tend to be.  The more things we have to juggle, the more difficult it is to keep ourselves balanced. And when our routines become disrupted, it can make us feel very unsettled and usually take us some time to regain a sense of order again.

Now, while I was walking to work last week one day, I felt rushed.  My head was very busy and full of congestion.  Suddenly, I said to myself, Stop thinking.  Just walk. Whenever a thought came into my head, I repeated this exercise, and one thought after the other would appear and disappear until I was just walking.  I felt lighter.  I no longer felt rushed.  I just walked and rode the subway, and by the time I got to work, I was smiling inside.  

When I was little, I once remarked to my father, “Dad, you never take a vacation.” He replied, “I take vacation every day when I drink tea.”  Now, when he drank his tea, he wanted to be alone, and he wanted quiet.  He did this every night.  I asked him why he wanted to be alone and quiet when he drank his tea.  He said, “Because I meditate.”  

At that time, I didn’t understand what he meant.  But today, it is one of the most beautiful lessons he taught me – that if I care to live simply and take a little time to clean out the busy thoughts that are in my head and give my mind some rest – if I can learn to enjoy tea without any expectations of myself or others and just enjoy quiet – I can take a vacation every day.

*Translation from the Tao Teh Ching by John C.H. Wu (Shambhala Dragon Editions)

Speed painting of Roger Federer!

I have watched this video so many times over the years, and it never ceases to amaze me.  

The spontaneity and freedom as a joyous process is so apparent, as well as the the process of having learned to pare down to the essential.  The seemingly effortlessness and simplicity with which the artist creates the piece brings up in my mind the essence of Taoism or “going with the flow.”   (Well, I think it takes a lot of work for most people to get to this point.)  

Three other things come to mind:  1) How do we perceive? (Blanchard is painting a large canvass where he cannot see the whole picture),  2) the process of creating and being, and 3) I bet this keeps the “old” man healthy in mind, body and spirit.  

Enjoy!

Poem by Li Bai (“Drinking Alone Under the Moon”)

Chinese poet Li Bai from the Tang dynasty, in ...

Chinese poet Li Bai from the Tang dynasty, in a 13th century depiction by Liang Kai. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Li Bai (b.701 – d.762) is one of the most famous poets in Chinese history.  He was a contemporary of Du Fu (b.712–d.770) during the Tang Dynasty and the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry.  He wandered from place to place for most of his life, drinking and writing.  Leading the life of a wanderer, a recluse and as a free spirit, Li Bai, in many ways, embodies Taoist philosophies.  His poetry, seemingly simple and effortless, is vivid, spontaneous, full of imagination and exhibits a childlike playfulness. (Du Fu, more of a realist, is regarded as China’s greatest historical poet. In my mind the two can be compared in some ways to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in their different styles.)

Below is of one of Li Bai’s most famous poems (please excuse my translation).  This poem illustrates Li Bai’s ability to seize the moment and transcend the world with nature.  

With a pot of wine amidst the flowers,
I drink without human company.
I raise my cup to the bright moon.
The moon, I and my shadow make three.
The moon does not share in drink.
My shadow only trails and follows.
Fleeting companions, the moon and my shadow.
Still, let us rejoice before the end of Spring.
The moon sways with my singing.
My shadow lurches as I dance.
While sober, we cheerfully celebrate.
After getting drunk, we part ways.
Our union beyond this earthly realm,
May we meet again, I and these two,
beneath the Milky Way stars.

Although he was a technical master of many classical forms of Chinese verse, Li Bai took great liberties and broke tradition often with these forms, a further illustration of his free spirit. As he wandered from place to place, he would meet and drink with other poets.  It was common during that time for poets to gather and celebrate their company and poetry with drink.  The poems, as they were composed, were often sung (sometimes while tapping the side of a table or boat or tapping chopsticks along with the rhymes, which older generations of Chinese still practice.)  Many young children in China can recite his poems.

The Shangyangtai, the only surviving example o...

The Shangyangtai, the only surviving example of Li Bai’s calligraphy, now housed at the Palace Museum in Beijing, China http://www.flashpointmag.com/libai10.htm . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Li Bai’s legend grew during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death.  Du Fu, who met Li Bai, wrote Li Bai on several occasions, and it was clear that Du Fu regarded him with great admiration and respect.  (Li Bai appears to have written Du Fu once.)  And in a fitting end, legend has it that Li Bai died from drowning because, happily drunk, he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water while sitting in a boat.  To this day, during the Mid-Autumn Festival when families have dinner, eat moon cakes, drink wine, and watch the moon, people think of and celebrate this poem by Li Bai and his life.

Albert Einstein, the Taoist

Albert Einstein lived at a time when technology, especially with regards to warfare, made advances with increasingly far-reaching implications.  He said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”  He was not the only scientist who grappled with the questions of space, time and the rapid growth of technology and how humans would cope with these advances.  John von Neumann, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, as well as a colleague of Einstein’s who contributed to the development of the atomic bomb, wrote a remarkable essay in which he tries to assess the course of humanity in the face of rapidly expanding technology. In this essay, written more than 50 years ago, von Neumann also foresees the impact of global warming on our political and social systems. (You can read his essay here.)  Von Neumann, however, does not delve into human nature as a potential answer as to how we can continue to exist with the expanding scope and threat of technology to our social and political systems.

Einstein, as a scientist and observer, tried to answer this question of how we can survive technology and preserve humanity by essentially regarding all things as being interrelated.  In short, he believed that as human beings, we and everything around us are integrated, governed by the same laws, while acknowledging that science may only be a measure in part of what we observe., i.e. what is measurable in scientific terms encompasses only part of the universe.  The nature of being human to him was best if we could come to recognize that integration of self with the universe is key to both individual happiness and greater peace in the world.  To him, science fell short in being able to explain certain truths, such as our wonderment of beauty and our mind’s ability to see beyond certain measurable realities.  Unlike Descartes, who famously said, “I think; therefore, I am,” Einstein did not endeavor to separate mind and body or existence into distinct parts in order to try to prove the existence of God.  To Einstein, to be natural, happy, and peaceful meant recognizing and surrendering ourselves to a greater whole, thereby de-emphasizing the ego and the importance of self, being able to achieve harmony with ourselves and with perceived external realities.  Creativity, imagination and a childlike state of curiosity to him are more important than knowledge and essential to our path to preserving happiness and humanity.

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe … We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.  – Albert Einstein

In Taoism and Buddhism alike (which share an intertwined history in China), as well as in many other religions and philosophies of the world, there is a strong recognition of the self being part of a greater whole.  One of the aims is to be free from the self and be less slave to our emotions.  In this sense, it is quite antithetical to the Western idea of self, passion or ego, where we assign great importance to achievement by the individual (and, on the other side of the coin, assign great blame to individuals for their failures).  In the Western tradition, we separate ourselves from others, from ourselves and from the world in many ways.  This can lead us to believe that we are “better” than others and give us a sense of pride and security when we are doing well or lead to a sense of separation and isolation when we are not doing well.  

The separation of self can lead us to feel less responsible for the things and people around us and to assign responsibility for both hardship and wellness in our lives to others or to a higher power than ourselves.  You may be surprised, however, to learn that Taoism, Buddhism and other similar philosophies do not foremost advocate that we should feel responsible for others.  Rather, the basic philosophy in Taosim and Buddhism is to attain freedom from worldly attachment and the self.  Recognizing and accepting that suffering and death is part of existence and all worldly things as fleeting allows one to find peace, harmony and compassion.  In Taoism, there is also an emphasis on not struggling with what is natural and, in a sense, reverting to the simplicity of being a child.  If we do what is natural, harmony and compassion will follow.  Taoism and Buddhism also do not advocate that we should not try our best.  The focus is on the act of doing and of being in the present moment.  This, in itself, should give us a sense of fulfillment, and the results, success or failure, are, in a sense, irrelevant and left to “fate.”  Put in another way, if we expect success (and, inevitably, we cannot always be successful), we will often be disappointed and unhappy.

I love many other quotes by Albert Einstein.  I have listed some here and think they express a coherent (and, in many ways, Toaist) view of Einstein’s belief in humanity:

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.

Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one.

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

Until this moment, I never understood how hard it was to lose something you never had.

I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child.

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

Many times a day I realize how much my own life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.

Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.

Tale of a Fisherman (“The Lottery Ticket”)

My father told me a story when I was little about an old man who had a hard life.

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There was an old man who lived in a hut by the sea.  He was very poor.  One of his few possessions was a fishing rod, which he used to fish for food.

The old man walked to town every morning, hauling heavy baskets of grain over his shoulder to sell in the market.  The only luxury the old man could afford was to buy a lottery ticket every week.

One day, the old man checked the board in the public square.  He looked in disbelief because he realized that he had the winning numbers.

He got so excited that he dropped his grain and ran all the way home. He was jumping and kicking his legs together…  And then he took his fishing rod and threw it out to sea because he didn’t need it anymore.  

He kept his lottery ticket in the fishing rod.

My dad was slapping his knee in a fit of laughter.  

This story actually made me feel very sad and almost made me want to cry.  

I asked him, “Why is this funny?”  

My father said, “Because… because it’s irony!”  

Later, I realized why my dad thought this story was funny.  He had had a hard life, too.  He had seen war.  His younger brothers were tortured and put into re-education camps. His mother passed away soon after he left his hometown as a teenager to look for a safe place for them to stay.  His brothers were turned into peasants, smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, were skinny and looked old.  My father was much luckier and eventually came to America and became a history professor.

I think my father found humor in tragedy because he saw that life can be unpredictable.  No matter how much you may wish for something or strive for good things or how hard you may work, sometimes unexpected and even bad things happen.  He liked to say to me, “Don’t expect success.  When you do something, it should be without regard to success or failure.”  I suppose the story was also a lesson on being overcome by one’s emotions.

To be honest, to this day, I don’t find this story to be very funny, but I still love it.

Shòu 寿 (Longevity)

寿 [shòu], has been written in many different ways through thousands of years.  Below, you can see 5 bats surrounding the character for longevity, a powerful motif.   

Chinese bats coin

Old Chinese coin with 5 bats surrounding the character for longevity

The 5 bats represent the five  or the Five Blessings in the ancient Book of History which are:  longevity, wealth, health and peace, love of virtue (or doing good), and a natural death in old age.  

The character for longevity is highly valued and revered.  It represents efficient use of energy and conservation of energy, a key concept in Taoism.  This concept of 寿 or longevity is very important in Chinese culture.  It means, for example, that one does not fight unless necessary.  Or one does not force oneself to do things that are unnatural.  If we expend or use energy unnecessarily, our bodies age faster and our lives become short.  To be blessed with a long life therefore implies that one is able to accept what happens in life and find peace or “to go with the flow.”

Bats are representative of longevity in Chinese art and culture.  Like most animals, they are good at conserving energy and tend to live long lives for animals of their size. Bats also symbolize happiness and prosperity because the word 蝠 [fú] sounds identical to 福 [fú], which means fortune, prosperity, and happiness.

By the way, I found this interesting information about bats on Animal Planet recently, which I think is illustrative of the concept of longevity, as well as the practice of meditation:

Bats that live in cooler climates hibernate through the winter. Their heartbeat slows. Their rate of breathing lowers so much that it can seem as if they have stopped breathing. Their bodies cool to match the temperature of their shelter. They spend the winter in a deep sleep. Hibernation helps bats survive until the weather is milder and food is more plentiful.

Sometimes a bat must wake from hibernation to move from a disturbed roost or to drink water. Waking can cause a bat to use up the energy it had stored as fat for the winter. A bat that is awakened several times might not survive the winter.

So to have a long life, we can observe nature and learn how animals and plants survive.  In nature, animals and plants generally do not fight or use energy unless necessary.  When they use energy, they use it efficiently.  (This understanding also underlies almost all practice of martial arts.)  Mentally, it is also important not to fight with ourselves.  I heard this saying once:  Buddha said, “If you lay down your sword, you become a buddha.”