A Bowl of Delicious Laksa … 8′)

If there’s such a thing as writer’s block, this is it. I inserted this entry like weeks ago in the hope of pushing myself to pen down my thoughts about emptiness via the illustration of a bowl of delicious laksa, and yet as I sit here weeks later, there is just no impetus to write anything. hmmm ….

I think I’ll just write down what I explained during my workshop about the laksa, instead of making it into a proper article.

So back in August and October, I conducted two four-day workshops on the Heart Sutra. It was mooted by the Youth Ministry of Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery during one of the informal “Dharma discussions”. While the heart sutra is
famous for its “form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form; form is emptiness, emptiness is form” verse, apparently many books on this sutra are incorrect or misguided to say the least. Consequently, many people also have a somewhat tinted idea of what this sutra is about. Hence the Heart Sutra workshop.

This blog entry is not trying to explaining the whole sutra but focuses on one of the examples given during the workshop to illustrate emptiness as simply as can be, and as close to our everyday life as possible, that is via the delicious laksa!

For the uninformed, laksa is a southeast asian delicacy that has two variants. One, the gravy-like curry noodle that has a tinge of spice, sweetness, richness (from coconut milk or diary milk for the health conscious) and other assortments of ingredient. This variant can be normally found in Singapore and … hmmm … I think only in Singapore! … Two, the other variant (or original version depending on whether you are a Malaysian or a Singaporean!) is the Penang laksa, that is basically what is known as Asam Laksa. The soup base is slightly more diluted and has the sour spicy taste of asam curry! mmmm … 😉 … Depending on individual, the two variants have their own fan bases.

The explanation below will work for either variant, but since the workshop was conducted in Singapore, I referred to the Singapore variant, and more specifically the Katong Laksa. The Katong laksa is basically the standard laksa with its rice noodle cut shorter and served in a small porcelain bowl and with only a porcelain spoon. I’ve tried it before and frankly, there’s nothing really sooo special about it, but some swear by it. For those who still have no idea what laksa is, Penang, Singapore, Katong or otherwise, replace it with some food that you find absolutely delicious.

So a simple question to ask is “What does a bowl of delicious laksa comprise?” I threw this question to many different people and got back many similar replies and some … not so similar replies. Here’s what is needed:

  • Laksa (Obviously! *DUH*)
  • Bowl (Apparent as an afterthought but something we usually assume to be present and hence cancel out as a factor)
  • Liking
  • Perception
  • Desire
  • Craving
  • Appetite/hunger
  • Health (Again, apparent as an afterthought but usually not considered initially)
  • Ambience
  • Quantity
  • Price
  • Taster / Perceiver / Us (Someone got to eat the laksa right?)
  • etc etc …

From this simple exercise, we find that a bowl of delicious laksa requires many more factors than one might realise. We could think of many more factors required for delicious laksa to hold true, but from the non-exhaustive list itself, we can already see that it is not as discrete as we may think it to be. Most of the factors are in fact common sense, except that we tend to filter out all these and veer towards thinking that deliciousness exist inherently in laksa. Further, not everyone likes laksa. Some may just feel ambivalent about it. Others may dislike it. So not everyone finds laksa delicious. In that case, does the deliciousness exist in and of the laksa itself, separate from external conditions or does it not? If it really exists in the laksa, then everyone should be able to experience it. But not everyone finds laksa delicious. So does it mean the deliciousness does not exist? But if it does not, then what of those who find laksa delicious?

Steering clear of the two extremes of absolute intrinsic existence and absolute intrinsic non-existence, we say that deliciousness is not intrinsic in laksa. That the laksa is empty of an intrinsic characteristic of deliciousness. The emptiness of delicious laksa refers to this lack of an inherent, intrinsic, characteristic of deliciousness in laksa. Deliciousness however, does arise when conditions
are present. It arises dependent on conditions, i.e. the lists of conditions above. It is what we call dependent arising. Emptiness and Dependent Arising are really two names for the same phenomenon.