Wednesday, May 18, 2011

We have moved!

In case you didnt know, we have move our blog to another domain. Please click here.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The End

After running OutReach for the past 6 years, I am sorry to announce that we are finally coming to an end.

We shall be embarking on a new journey soon and more announcements shall be make later regarding our new journey to the future.

Anyway, thanks for the supports that you have shown to us for the past 6 years.

with metta

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The ‘Black Swan’ Mara

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, March 6, 2011

Singapore -- ‘Black Swan’ tells the story of extreme clash of conflict in body and mind. A ballerina feels compelled by her idealism and expectations of others to play both the pure and restrained white swan and the malevolent and seductive black swan in a revised version of Swan Lake. In order to embody her roles perfectly, she swings to and from between goodness and evil. Can she play a perfect white and black swan at almost the same time? A whole list of other paradoxical extremes are explored too…

Perfection in dance is not just about hard discipline, but about letting go for natural ease too – even as the black swan. Where does creativity and control find a balancing point, or are the meant to be balanced at all? How much effortful grit is needed for effortless grace? There is control in true letting go and letting go in true control. Can stiff control and wanton passion be moderated? Is a good dancer ultimately repeatedly and robotically precise in the same old ways? If so, how is it original, raw and creative art? Even the revamped take on Swan Lake had to be covered repeatedly in rehearsals, rebirthing through heaven and hell.

Too schizophrenically improbable, perhaps it is not realistic for one person to rapidly and alternatively play both swans. Overly immersed in the roles and challenged by not being used to playing the doppelgänger ‘evil twin’, the ballerina develops psychosis, as she starts to internalise the black swan, who expresses her metamorphosis inside out by hallucinating the sprouting black feathers out of her body. The more she externalises the black swan, the more she internalises the black swan. In a vicious cyclic manner, she become the performance as the performance becomes her. The darker her consciousness became, the more she imagined another ballerina who plays the black swan too to be truly black-hearted too. This is the externalisation of inner demons.

In an artistically sickening way, the more indulgent she is, the more expressive she is. The more punishing her practice became, the more ‘rewarding’ it twistedly became. The creative arts for bettering the psyche can be damning and destructive too when taken to its extremes, as with any other thing. As with other controversial arts and even films, perhaps the Buddha’s teaching of the Middle Path should be heeded – to recognise that nothing should be taken to any extreme. Is this movie an extreme one then, of how the arts can become dark? Yes, in a way, but yet paradoxically extremely good as a cautionary tale!

Perhaps the performance arts for serious actors who become the acting is not karmically neutral after all? If one always plays villainous roles as if they are real, does one create some negative karma? Must drama always be so dramatic to be real, or is real life a subtler and grayer mix of light and darkness? Paralleling real life, she dies in the last scene of as the white swan, with her innocence killed by the black swan within. Seemingly a tragically bleak and beautiful ending, as she exclaims her last dance to be perfect. But is art worth dying for, especially that based on illusion? As her instructor advised earlier, ‘The only person standing in your way [of performing well] is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself.’ But she had lost too much – she had lost sight of her perfect Buddha-nature too, overwhelmed by her inner Mara.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Nun's devotion gives hope to orphan kids

VNS, Feb 22, 2011

Ben Tre, Vietnam -- Nearly 20 years have passed since the Pagoda's doors were opened to orphans under the guiding hand of nun Thich Ngo Mai, an orphan herself. Thu Trang report.

As visitors enter the pagoda, a smiling three-year-old boy with round eyes welcomes visitors and sings, "Grandmother, I love you so much. Your hair is white like clouds... "

Minh Thong is one of the 23 orphans who are being raised at Phat Minh Pagoda in Giao Hoa Commune, Chau Thanh District in the southern province of Ben Tre.

During the past 18 years, nearly 50 orphans have been raised in the pagoda, which is chaired by nun Thich Ngo Mai.

Mai, whose real name is Nguyen Thi Lieu, was born in Sai Gon. Her father died when she was only three years old and she was later abandoned by her mother.
Mai, enrolled at Bo De School – a Buddhist school and eventually became a Buddhist nun at Anh Quang Pagoda in District 10.

Eighteen years ago, she moved to the Phat Minh Pagoda when the structure still lacked running water and electricity.

Nun Ngo Mai partnered with charitable organisations and began reaching out to street children. She decided to open the pagoda's doors to down and out juveniles.

To date, Mai has helped raise about 50 orphans. Some of the children's parents died, while others left home because of abuse or neglect.

Nearly 20 years have passed since she opened her doors and some of the children that she helped raise have married, while others are studying at vocational schools and some have become Buddhist nuns and monks.

The first child to be raised at the pagoda, whose religious name is Minh Chi and real name is Nguyen Dinh Tien, now is a student at the Land Forces Military Academy No 2. Currently, there are more than 20 children living at the pagoda and studying in nearby schools.

Two siblings Dieu Tam and Dieu Tuong, whose real names are Nguyen Thi Nguyen and Nguyen Thi Thanh Chi, are from Dac Lac Province. They are happy living in the pagoda.

Tam is three years older than Tuong, but they are both third graders at Giao Hoa Primary School.

"I want to become a doctor or a nun because I love Ngo Mai so much," said 10-year-old Dieu Tuong.

Three ethnic minorities siblings H'Nhien, H'Lin and H'Uk also love Ngo Mai and there other mothers here.

"Sometimes I return home to visit my family, but I want to live here forever," said H'Nhien.

Older children often take care of the younger ones during meals and studying hours. They consider each other to be family. In the pagoda they also have fathers and mothers who provide the pagoda with donations. The donors set up a volunteer team with 20 members, 15 women and five men. The team helps Ngo Mai care for the children.

Ngo Mai said that watching the children eat and play brings her joy.

"Bringing happiness to others makes me happy," she said.

Although she raises several children, Ngo Mai lives off limited means. Phat Minh Pagoda is located in a remote area so few people visit the grounds. Moreover, local residents are not rich so their donations are modest.

A Buddhist named Hue said that every month, donations to the pagoda amount to about VND1 million (US$50).

"Ngo Mai has had to ask for donations from everywhere to have money to raise the children," she said.

Ngo Mai also recites Buddhist scriptures and cooks vegetarian food at parties to earn money.

She has suffered from heart disease, which required her to have surgery, but this set back has not dampened her enthusiasm.

The nun is not afraid to ask for money if the pagoda runs out of rice or if diseases break out among the children.

Ngo Mai said she worries the most about outbreaks.

"Last year, was the hardest year so far at the pagoda," she said.

Within a few months, a boy developed appendicitis, another was hit by acute gastritis, and nearly 10 children were hospitalised with fever. The pagoda did not have money to pay the hospital fees, so the Buddhists had to borrow money to make ends meet.

Some people used to ask Ngo Mai if they could adopt her orphans, but she refused.

"I do not want the children to be abandoned again. Although I have to work hard, the children still eat and can go to school," she said.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Something Big is coming!

Something Big is coming. 

Stay tuned for more updates!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some ‘Shaolin’ Showdown!

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, Feb 17, 2011

Singapore -- As usual, reflective of the prevalent Chinese Buddhist custom, the monks in the movie ‘Shaolin’ (which is an independent ‘sequel’ to ‘The Shaolin Temple’ made in 1982) chant ‘Amituofo’ (the name of Amitabha Buddha) a lot, in the face of various challenges, come what may. (This was also the case in the first Shaolin movie!) Also reflective of prevalent erroneous English subtitling, the words say ‘Buddha be praised!’

This is an improvement from ‘Oh my God!’ - that I witnessed in another Buddhist film! Who is Amituofo? His name means ‘the Buddha (fully enlightened being) of immeasurable light (of compassion and wisdom) and life (due to his immeasurable merits). ‘Namo Amituofo’, which is also commonly chanted, would mean ‘Praise to, or refuge in Amituofo’.

When fellow Buddhist greet one another with an exclamation of ‘Amituofo’, this expresses one’s wish for another to be aligned with Amituofo’s blessings, and with one’s own Buddha-nature, which is not different from Amituofo’s Buddha-nature. This is why his name is recited both in times of rejoice and empathy, for there is simply no moment when it is not beneficial to be mindful of Buddha. Ultimately, faithful single-minded mindfulness of Amituofo leads to birth in his Pure Land, where enlightenment is guaranteed. So prevalent are the Pure Land teachings that it becomes a catch phrase of the Chan (Chinese Zen) Shaolin monks too. Tragically yet inspiringly, many monks, including the abbot, are featured uttering ‘Amituofo’ as they sacrifice themselves to save the masses.

In the story, a power-crazed warlord, played by real-life Buddhist Andy Lau who wrote the film’s thoughtful Dharma-themed song ‘Awakening’, strives to wipe out every potential enemy, including his sworn brother. Despite the self-delusion that he is in total control, he was really controlled by his immense greed, hatred and suspicion, that gave him no peace of mind. In his words on his enemy, ‘If he does not die, I cannot sleep.’ What he needed to eradicate were his defilements, not anyone else. As his paranoia goes overboard, he endangers his family, the very ones he wanted to protect… leading to his daughter’s death and separation from his wife.

Stripped of his status and wealth, he remorsefully returns to Shaolin for refuge – both in the physical and spiritual sense. He becomes thoroughly humbled by the magnanimous monks, whom he had arrogantly ridiculed earlier. As we can guess, the path to true redemption from his grave negative karma isn’t going to run too smoothly. While he releases his grief and anger through training in the famed Shaolin martial arts, his past returns to haunt him, and he has to confront the archenemy who betrayed him. There is no escape from one’s conscience and karmic consequences! It wasn’t exactly with guns and swords this time though, but with power of the Buddha’s teachings.

Earlier as a warlord, he had budged into the monastery in murderous pursuit of a man. About to kill him, he was interrupted by the abbot, who advised that if only he lets go of his fear (of losing power) and deluded thinking, and abides in kindness instead, he would be able to see everywhere as a Pure Land, thus not ‘needing’ to kill. Rebutting him, he asked the abbot where Pure Land was, since war is raging right at the gates of the monastery. Indeed, this is tension between the ideology of an internal and an external Pure Land. One might be able to abide in peace and calm personally, but what about the countless others in turmoil and those who cause it? Recognising this, the monastery steps up its social engagement with its humanitarian efforts to help the needy.

It is challenging indeed to influence everyone to realise their internal Pure Land, which would make this world an instant Pure Land for all. This suffering ridden world is no Pure Land to most of us, which is precisely why we aspire to be reborn in an actual one adorned with Amituofo’s blessings. Between the desire to escape and that to stay to help is the Middle Path of doing one’s best to make this world a Pure Land, even as one practises to be born in a real Pure Land, so as to train swiftly under the tutelage of the enlightened, and to swiftly return to Samsara to guide the rest to the same liberation. In the Mahayana sutras, Amituofo’s Pure Land is universally recommended by other Buddhas to be the best spiritual school. This explains his great popularity!

The warlord renounces his worldly ways and becomes a diligent monk who finally redeems himself by showing his enemy that he needn’t become the demon he once was, that there is an alternative, by choosing to make peace with oneself and others. In saving the villain from himself, he also redeemed himself from the villain that he once was. In the Shaolin showdown that unfortunately destroyed the monastery, what left indestructible was the Buddhist spirit of selfless sacrifice for the greater good. The story also exemplifies how difficult it is for monastics to steer clear from convoluted human politics. Even Shaolin is not a Pure Land. There is no hard line between worldliness and spirituality. Yet, it also shows how fugitives of unjust law can always take refuge in the laws of the Buddhadharma. ‘Amituofo!’

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Thousands of visitors throng Buddhist temple for Chinese New Year

The Star, February 5, 2011

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple in Brickfields was abuzz with visitors on the first day of Chinese New Year (CNY).

“Usually, we get a few hundred visitors a day, but on CNY, the temple receives about 2,000 visitors,” said Sri Lankan monk Rev Witiyala Bodhi Vathana Theo.

The monks organise prayer services daily, but for special occasions like CNY and Wesak Day there are several services held throughout the day.

The monks also organised a charity luncheon to raise funds for the temple, where only vegetarian food was served.

“I’ve been coming here for more than 10 years, not just on CNY,” said Chang See Chew.
Chang came to the temple to pray for a good year ahead.

According to Rev Witiyala, scented joss sticks are believed to clear the air of last year’s ill fortune and encourage better luck.

Devotees can also light special lotus shaped candles to bless their families.

In the spirit of the Year of the Rabbit, there were several rabbits on the temple grounds that visitors could pet.
Originally founded by the Sinhalese community to provide a place of worship for their Sri Lankan Theravada tradition, the temple has since grown from a humble hall and now includes a shrine, a prayer hall and even a pagoda.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Where Is Your ‘Hereafter’?

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, Jan 24, 2010

Singapore -- ‘Hereafter’ proposes something ‘simple’ yet mysterious. It speaks of the great possibility of existence hereafter, which seems certain to exist, yet being beyond the scope of our clear understanding.

Even the protagonist psychic featured, who is masterful in communicating with the deceased is unsure of where they go to after ‘hanging around’ for a while. In the Buddhist teachings, ‘hereafter’ can be many places indeed, for there are 31 planes of existence, which are more broadly classified into 6 main realms. And there is no fixed hereafter in the ‘forever and ever’ sense, due to the cycles of rebirth and dynamic changes in karma. This is why it takes more than an ordinary psychic to be able to discern the whereabouts of long deceased ones.

While the nihilistically ‘pragmatic’ might feel that the question of what lies hereafter to be the most irrelevant existential question of all, a sound answer does however gives us crucial spiritual bearings. As uttered in the film, ‘a life about death is no life at all’. True, but to really live life is to be concerned with death too, for it puts this short and vulnerable life in perspective. 

The Buddha spoke against the erroneous romanticism of the hereafter as eternal nothingness (that’s nihilism), and as eternal heaven or hell (that’s eternalism). Well, the subtle life force that is the consciousness is too powerful to be simply snubbed out at the end of this physical life, and what natural or supernatural justice is there to deserve everlasting pleasure or pain due to limited good and evil done?

The hereafter depicted in the film is one that is supposedly experienced by many – of blurred silhouettes against bright white light. In the Buddhist context, these figures can be other denizens of the in-between, of the weightless bardo state (when the consciousness stripped free from the body), or even the (de)forming manifestations of personal demons and guardians. With many coloured lights representative of various spiritual tendencies, a precarious state this is, as described in great detail in the Bardo Thodol (‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’). When one follows the lights or beings one is attached to, one would be reborn accordingly. In the Mahayana teachings, the safest way out is to be mindful of Amituofo (Amitabha Buddha) by reciting his name with utmost sincerity, to which he will manifest and lead one to his Pure Land, where enlightenment is guaranteed.

Dying is not universally blissful, as often relayed by those with Near-death Experiences (NDE). If death is always nice, there would be no encounters with woeful wandering spirits! Though there are many culturally conditioned NDE accounts due to collective perceptions, there are many other different ones too. Those with unpleasant experiences seldom return to share them. This is due to the intensity of their negative karma, that barred them from second chances at the expired lives. Perhaps accidentally, the film might promote the use of psychic services to communicate with the deceased. While this can be comforting as a means to relay final messages, it can be dangerous if attachment and regret on both sides of the living and dead is reinforced, which might prevent the deceased from taking a good rebirth. And yes, as the story warns, beware of false prophets, fake mediums and pseudo psychic scientists!

On the science of the afterlife, the recently deceased Dr. Ian Stevenson of Virginia University had meticulously documented more than 3,000 cases of those with recollections of their past lives. Many children were discovered with such detailed memories, which upon rigorous investigation, correspond to persons who lived before they were born. In over 40 cases, there were discoveries of unusual birthmarks and birth defects, which matched post-mortem records of those the children claimed to have been. They even displayed familiar habits towards their previous surviving family members. While playing, many would also incorporate elements of their claimed past professions! Tellingly, they also had phillias and phobias linked to their manner of death.

Curiously, the director Clint Eastwood featured a scene where a boy shook his head upon hearing a preacher say there is nothing to fear about death if one believes in Christ. Perhaps he is open-minded enough to explore the possibility of making his next movie based on the phenomenon of rebirth? Still skeptical of the existence of any hereafter (and the worth of doing good)? Here is a sound fourfold way of reasoning to solve this problem, as advised by the Buddha in the Kalama Sutta. Firstly, if there is afterlife, and if there is the law of karma, you will have a good rebirth if you do good. Secondly, if there is no afterlife, and if there is no karma, you will live happily now, as you are free of ill will (since you do good). Thirdly, if evil befalls the evil, it will not affect you as you do no evil. Fourthly, if evil does not befall the evil, as you do no evil and do good instead, you are pure both ways. There you have it, the very assuring Four Assurances!

Original article here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Music in Buddhism

The Bangkok Post, Nov 26, 2010

Bangkok, Thailand -- The first impression the general public may have of Buddhism is how it turns its back away from worldly pleasure. While that might be true, there is a role for music, one of life's worldly and heavenly pleasures, in Buddhism.

For example, when Prince Siddhattha left his worldly life behind and became an ascetic, he first studied under many respected gurus of the time and found no effective way to reach the end of all physical and mental sufferings. That was when he decided to embark on his own path and tried different experiments.

During his time, there were two major schools of thought regarding how to reach the end of sufferings. The first school taught that, in order to conquer all your mental defilements and thus reach the end of sufferings, you have to follow your heart's every desire. Their reasoning is that, once you have fed your desires to one point, you will feel bored of it all and would not have any more desires and become Enlightened.

But Prince Siddhattha was a crown prince who has had it all and still felt that he is nowhere near Enlightenment. Therefore, it was natural for him to choose the second school of thought, which is to deprive yourself of all worldly pleasures and to torture yourself to the extreme. This school of thought believed that, when you have deprived yourself of everything, your desires will become weak and eventually disappear.

Being a very determined man, the Prince took to his task seriously. It could be said that he took all the extreme measures of torturing and went even further. At one point, he went as far as not eating more than one single pea a day in order to starve his body and hopefully to kill his desires.
Again, as we now know, that extreme measure did not work. In fact, Prince Siddhattha was on the verge of dying as he collapsed one day. The Devas, heavenly sentient beings, saw what happened and thought they had to give the Prince some clues. So, one Deva disguised himself as a young man travelling on a boat along the river, passing by where the Prince was collapsing.

And what did the Deva-cum-young man do? He played a harp. At first, he tuned the strings of his harp too tight and the sound did not come out right. The second time, he tuned the strings too loose. Naturally, the sound was also awful. It was only the third time, when the young man tuned his strings just right _ not too tight and not too loose _ that the music came out perfect.

Upon hearing what happened, Prince Siddhattha , with his innate wisdom, knew instinctively what to do. He realised that neither the harshest way nor the most lax would yield the best result. It's got to be the Middle Path _ not too harsh, yet not too lax. That was when he decided to eat again, but moderately, and tried cultivating his mind along the same idea, meaning not getting too deep into the samadhi, or concentration, but merely observing things as they are in the present moment. The latter practice is vipassana meditation and is also the heart of Zen practice.

After the Prince changed to the Middle Path, it did not take long for him to become Enlightened. And since the harp playing helped trigger his wisdom, it can be said that music also held a great role in the Enlightenment of the Prince who would then be known as Lord Buddha.

Centuries afterwards in Japan, music also had a role in the spread of Buddhism. Around the 12th century, travelling monks would recite The Tale of the Heike, a war chronicle teaching the Buddhist Law of Impermanence, to the accompaniment of the biwa, a musical instrument similar to the lute.

Then, between the 13th to 19th centuries, there was this practice called suizen where Fuke monks would play the shakuhachi bamboo flute as a form of meditation in order to attain self-realisation. Fuke monks would play the shakuhachi while wearing a large woven basket hat that covered their entire head as they went on pilgrimage. The idea was perhaps to shield their eyes from the worldly pleasures and helped them concentrate better on their musical meditation.

However, the sect started to see its demise during the Tokugawa Period (1608-1868). Totally oriented to retaining their dictatorship, the Tokugawa government imposed a travel ban on the citizens. They could not travel to other provinces freely and needed difficult-to-obtain travelling documents. The exception, however, was given to the Fuke monks, since they were considered pilgrims. This way, the Tokugawa government disguised many masterless samurai, the ronin, as monks so they could travel across the country as spies.

After the demise of the sect with the modernisation of Japan, Fuke Zen has seen a slow recovery today. If the monks can play flutes as a form of meditation, so can we. Do you play any kind of musical instrument? If so, have you ever considered using it to cultivate your mind and develop your wisdom so that you might attain self-realisation and thus Enlightenment one day?

If you are interested in how music and the power of being here and now can turn your life around, you may want to consider going to a mindfulness meditation retreat first to learn the ropes of what it is like to practice vipassana or Zen meditation.

From there, you can easily apply the idea to your musical pastime. Hey, you never know - Enlightenment might just be around the next few notes!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gulliver's Travels Vs Moggallana's Journey

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, Jan 7, 2010

Singapore -- The movie tagline of the 2010 take on 'Gulliver's Travels' says, 'A magical land. A comedy of epic proportions.' The protagonist's encounter with Lilliput, though fantastical, shares real lessons too.

That's what makes fantasy stories truly magical - when they are creatively practical! Comedic as this version is, it does tell of a common tragedy too, of faulty habitual perceptions, of how we tend to judge one another by appearances. 

Literally 'huge' discrimination by size is featured in the film! Big guys are not always beasts or monsters; they can be gentle or funny giants too. (Oh yes, you won't miss the 'giant' product placement of a mega-sized iPhone as seen by Lilliputians!)

Gulliver the office mailman is used to belittling himself, calling himself one of the 'little people', who should preferably not even be seen or heard while he does his work. When he reaches the land of the tiny, he is forced to be the inverse, the big star, the centre of attraction. And hey, he starts to enjoy his status after being customarily demonised for a while at first. The ordinary guy became extraordinary in an extraordinary environment, simply by virtue of his relative size? He does have a genuine virtues too - a good heart, which is given the chance to shine.

A small nobody can indeed become a big somebody - but only if one's heart is big enough. Size does matter to some extent, but physical size does not matter as much as the size of the heart! This is another way of looking at 'mind over matter'! 
His was a case of reversal of fortune... which reverses to its extreme opposite when he later stumbles into a land of giants. This reminds me of Moggallana, the Buddha's disciple foremost in supernormal powers, who travelled to a distant world system, where he 'came' to be worm-sized, humbled in the mind-blowing presence of giant humans... with a giant Buddha! Buddhism is in tune with the reality of relativity - in terms of cosmic dimensions too. 

And any size is ultimately 'empty' of any inherent significance unless there is relative comparison!

Original article here.