LEGO: There Are No Cars or Houses

LEGO, the famous toy that kids around the world played with, is a very interesting toy that I grew up with.  In its simpler earlier form, it comprises of identical building blocks, differing only in color and sizes.

The human figures were also modular, meaning that the head-gears, head, upper torso, lower torso were interchangeable. You could have a figure with yellow face and brown hands and any colored legs.  The really adventurous can even swap the limbs, but that would make this article PG-13, so we’ll leave that for another article! 😉

To those who know, LEGO is written LEGO, and not lego, or Lego.  It is officially trademarked as LEGO.  But there is more to the name as well.  According to wikipedia,

The company name Lego was coined by Christiansen from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well”. The name could also be interpreted as “I put together” and “I assemble” in Latin, though this would be a somewhat forced application of the general sense “I collect; I gather; I learn”; the word is most used in the derived sense “I read”. The cognate Greek verb λέγω (lego) also means “gather, pick up”, but this can include constructing a stone wall.[1]

This is very apt in describing the way LEGO is played.  It is meant to be put together or assembled.  It is interesting that while I never knew what LEGO meant in Danish, it didn’t diminish the fun I had in playing with LEGO, the hours I spent assembling the blocks.  It makes me wonder if sometimes, it is so important that we must understand every single
word recited in Buddhist pujas.  After all, not knowing what LEGO really meant still allowed us to have a good time, do we really need to know all the meaning of what we chant, especially when the chanting itself is at times targeted at devotional or tranquility development purposes.  But that is another story altogether … mmm … …

The interesting thing about LEGO struck me awhile back.  Something so obvious staring in my face (yours as well perhaps?) suddenly leapt in my face.  There are really no cars or houses! If you get it already, you can stop reading and go extend this thought / reflection on your day, week and / or life and reflect how there is no intrinsic characteristic in (every)thing!  If you still haven’t get it, read on.

When we build a car with the LEGO blocks, a car appear to exist, albeit a toy car, but still a car!  But when we examine the individual building blocks, there is no “car-ness” in them.  If there were any such “car-ness”, we cannot later disassemble them and build houses with them.

When we build the house, there is also no “house-ness” in the blocks, otherwise we couldn’t use it to build the car we built with earlier or spaceships later on! 😉

This in short, is Emptiness 自性空. The blocks are empty of any intrinsic characteristics, empty of any car-ness or house-ness. The car-ness and house-ness do not exist.

Further, if the individual item has no “anything-ness”, then the combined item also does not have it as well (ie car-ness or house-ness).  What exist is a car and a house that arises dependent on the building blocks.  Yes?  …. No!  Not just that.  It is a car, that arises dependent on the building blocks, our labelling of it as a “car”, our definition and identification of the function of a car etc etc.

This means that while there is no car-ness (before the car is assembled, or even when the car is built!), a “car” arises dependent on many condition.  We say that a “car” do not inherently exist, it exist or arises dependent on conditions.

In short, this is what is meant by Dependent Arising 緣起有.

Ok, let’s recap:

Before the car is built, there is no car-ness.  When the blocks are assembled, a car ‘arises’.  The car arises dependent on many conditions (blocks, our labeling, concept etc). When we later, disassemble the car, there is no more car.  When there are no coming together of such conditions, there is no more a car; there is again no car that can be found.  However, even when the car is built, there is still no car-ness (‘no-car-ness’ == emptiness).  Only a dependent arising car exist.  Emptiness is ‘there’ whilst the dependent arising car exist.  Emptiness in fact, is the dependent-arising-ness!

Hence, dependent arising car is ’empty of car-ness’ (ie empty), the emptiness of car-ness is precisely because the car is dependent arising!  Ergo: 色不亦空、空不亦色,色即是空、空即是色.

The car is not a car, it is just called / labelled a “car”

And finally, reflecting on how the car do not contain any car-ness, but whatever car we can say exist, exists dependent on the conditions, including our labelling of it, as a “car”.  If it was a car, or is known as a “car”, we would not have to further label it “car”.  We would not have to be taught in school “this is a car” or “這是輛車子” or “kore wa kuruma desu”.  It is therefore, not just lacking in any car-ness 性空, it is also not called a “car”, but it is just labelled 唯名 a “car”.

Hence,  together, 緣起性空 性空唯名, dependent arising, empty of intrinsic characteristic; empty of intrinsic characteristic, is only labelled such.

This is the teaching of Emptiness in the Madhyamika school 中觀.

Didn’t know that the Danes were into Buddhism did you?  Maybe
they didn’t know as well! 😉

Hungry for more?  Tuck in for A bowl of Delicious Laksa.

How to Discipline Your Child (Part 1)

I read a really interesting post about someone learning his lesson as a child and thought it is a really good example of fine parenting.

I was perhaps 9 years old when it happened.

I had a terrible habit as a kid to want to sleep in until the last possible moment. Ok, who am I kidding? I still do that. I’m usually about 30 seconds late for work everyday. But when I was a kid, this drove my mother to the brink of sanity. She put up with it for a long time, always managing to get me roused and dressed, books in hand and out the door for school just in the nick of time. Sometimes she’d peek her head in my bedroom door every 10 minutes and check in, making sure I was on track. And generally I managed to get myself together with seconds to spare. But there WAS that one time…

Mom: “Sweetie, it’s time to get up and get dressed.”
Me: “Uhhhhaaaaaaaaaaamffff…”

Mom: “Honey, we have to leave at 7:30 if we’re going to get you to school on time. Please get up and start getting dressed or you won’t have time for breakfast!”

Mom: “Justin, get out of bed. I mean it. You’re already going to be pressed for time to eat breakfast. We’re leaving at 7:30, whether you’re ready or not.”
Me: “Arrrrggghh…Ok, I’m up, I’m up.”

Mom: “Sweetie, are you dressed yet? I’ve got your breakfast ready…”
Mom: “DAMN IT! Wake UP and get READY!!! I swear to you Justin, we’re leaving here at 7:30. I don’t care if you miss your breakfast. I don’t care if you aren’t dressed for school.”
Me: “Ok, sorry…sorry. I’m up.”

Mom: “Are you still awake? Good…why aren’t you dressed? Get dressed
NOW or you’re going in your underwear.

Me: “Ok.”

Mom: “Alright, let’s go. Grab your backpack.”
Me: “But Mom, I’m not ready…”
Mom: “Tough.”

She grabbed me by the arm and escorted me out the front door. No shoes, no shirt, not a stitch of clothing besides my tighty whities. She held me by the wrist and led me to the car. I can’t remember this very clearly because I was somewhat upset. I do remember that I was crying uncontrollably. Likely pleading and begging in some fashion. She put me in the back seat, got in, and drove away casually as if nothing in the world was out of place. And as I began to calm somewhat, I sat, mostly naked and full of fear, in the back seat pondering my next move. I didn’t have any more outs. I had no clothing and no plan. I was fucked. I was going to school in my underwear.

Never once did it cross my mind that this could be a bluff. My mother didn’t bluff. She wasn’t turning the car around. Heck, we were halfway to school already! Here I was, in my undies and headed toward certain ridicule and major embarrassment of the worst kind, the ridicule of grade-school peers. And all because I’d chosen to sleep when I should have been getting dressed. When I should have been enjoying a nutritious breakfast. I slept this upon myself. I had learned my lesson. It wouldn’t happen again. I’d always get up from now on at first call. Various other reasoning and begging followed. I gazed into the rearview mirror, looking her in the eyes. I grovelled. And she stared back and me, cold and firm in her resolution.

We pulled into the driveway of my school, and up the lane to the front doors; the main car-rider drop off point. My mother didn’t even put the car in park. She just looked at me expectantly in the rearview. Not a speck of emotion. “Well?…,” said her eyes. I began to cry again. She put the car in park, killed the engine, unfastened her seatbelt, and got out. I was completely prepared. I had mentally readied myself to be dragged from the car, in a cliched kicking and screaming fashion. My mother went around back of the car and opened the trunk, from which she removed a brown paper grocery bag. She came back around to the side and opened my door. She stood there looking at me, like I was the worst child ever. And she handed me the brown bag with my clothes inside. “Get dressed.”

Twas indeed the last time I ever failed to hearken to my mother’s wakeup call.

The problem I see in many cases of parent-child discipline issue, is that the parent either do not follow through with a prior ultimatum (eg, “if you do ABC again, I will …”) or out of anger, frustration or bad mood, simply scold, cane or punish a child even if it is not warranted.

Don’t say something you won’t do; don’t do something you didn’t say.

Be well. ^_^

Sending an Engineer, an Accountant and a Lawyer to Fix a Burnt Lamp

In a fictitious company, “OverKillRUs”, a ceiling light just went dead, and so an engineer, an accountant and a lawyer was sent in to take a look. The engineer took a look and said “This is a 100W bi-pin lamp that runs on balast housing.  The ballast and starter looks ok, it is the fluorescent tube that is burnt out, we need to replace it”.

The accountant took the tube in hand, checked his notebook for inventory and started punching in some numbers.  After some time, he declared “This tube was bought 3 years and 5 months ago, and if amortized over its intended five years would have brought in an … … and therefore, considering everything, we should replace this tube with a cheaper tube so as to defray the overall maintenance cost.”

At that, the lawyer quipped “I say, we sue the manufacturer!”

The above is based on an email joke that I read a long time ago.  It was funny then and even funnier now, as I believe I must have inevitably upgraded it a bit.  Funny how things get remembered over time.  But that is not the point in this post.  Today, I just want to write something short about mental conditioning.

After becoming a monk, when I recalled the above email joke, I read it differently, with
slightly more connection with mental conditioning.  While the above is a joke, the principle is rather true in real life.  We often see how nurses or doctors look at everything with caution, noting how germs and bacteria may be present, while some teachers may act like everyone else is a student or a kid, waiting for a lesson to be dished out.

Other times, it may be a gambler who see all numbers as part of a winning sequence, or a green tree-hugger who sees everything in terms of carbon footprint.  This is all because of the mental conditioning that we go through daily, consciously or unconsciously.

Religion can also be a form of mental conditioning, enabling or crippling us, depending on your views, to see things in a new perspective.  So, depending on your beliefs, scoring As can be because we worked hard, or because we worked hard enough, or harder than the average person, or because the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas guided us, or even through some divine intervention.  Or it may be because you are really that good.

By now, we should be quite convinced that mental conditioning affects how we may perceive relationships, things and events around us.  It affects how we perceive this world.

Although I am a Buddhist monk, or perhaps even more so because I am a Buddhist monk, I won’t go so far as to negate other belief systems nor discredit the beliefs.  Instead, I want to focus on the impact of such mental conditioning.  I am more concerned with the result of it.

If we learn a certain teaching or adopt a certain set of belief, and it leads towards more contempt towards others, more anger, more hatred or disdain towards others and their beliefs (either because they and their beliefs are different or viewed as wrong), and leads one to act in ways that is harmful towards others and oneself, then we should perhaps relook at either a) the teaching / belief, or b) the way it is being taught, or c) the way we are adopting it.  I am assuming that we all want to have peace, happiness and harmony unanimously and that teachings or beliefs that are targeted at destroying others, oneself or both are not in the consideration here.  Sometimes such teachings are masqueraded as being peaceful when it really is not, and through the above review, we would have to reconsider it under (a).

If the above review find that it leads toward more want, more coveting, more greed, more grasping, more craving and so on, and it leads one to act in ways that is harmful towards others and oneself, then again, we should perhaps relook at either a) the teaching / belief, or b) the way it is being taught, or c) the way we are adopting it.

If such review find that it leads toward more ignorance, more uncertainty, more guessing, more blind-believing or blind faith, more unquestioning submission through dogmatic indoctrination, and it leads one to act in ways that is harmful towards others and oneself, then again, we should perhaps relook at either a) the teaching / belief, or b) the way it is being taught, or c) the way we are adopting it.

So I say, since we are conditioning ourselves anyway, instead of conditioning ourselves to believe that buying that condo or car is going to make us happ(ier)y, adopt a “mental conditioning” that help us develop kindness and empathy (or sympathy at least) towards others.  And don’t stop there, adopt more mental habits or conditionings that are helpful to our mental health, such as learning to want to smile at others, or wanting to be happy.

Try today, retrain your mind!


AnguttaraNikaya 3.65   PTS: A i 188 Thai III.66
Kalama Sutta: The Instruction to the Kalamas