Which Part of “All Conditioned Phenomena Are Subject to Change” Do We Not Understand?

So we started off with wood for our tools and made many things with it.  We chose the trees that are strong and durable.  That was good for awhile.  Then we dried them, treated & processed them and made them last longer.  Along the way, we also used stone.  Oh, stone is so much harder and last longer.  But it was not as malleable as wood.  So we used both for a long time, complementing each other.

We then discovered smithing and started using copper, tin, bronze,  iron and many others.  Along the way, we developed and learnt how to make them stronger and more durable.  With each innovation, we found a way to prevent them from rusting, from breaking down.

Beyond wood, stone and metal, we also used glass and clay.  Unlike wood, glass and clay can be molded into various shapes needed.  Strong and yet lighter than metal, it was great.  But they were brittle.  Very brittle.  Modern tempered glass can be made stronger, but then it is heavy.

Then we invented a magical material.

It was malleable and yet hard.  If you needed, soft variants can be made.  You can make it into thin strands like cotton thread, or have them shaped into bigger stronger structures if needed.  And it was durable.  It would not decay or rot like wood, nor rust like metal.  It was water resistant and can have high heat tolerance if needed.  You can even shape it the way you want it.  Exactly.  Precisely.  It was the perfect, magical material.

We invented plastic.

Now we have the ideal material that allowed us to do whatever we want.  Perfect ideal material.  Magical.  Only problem:  We are too successful in our pursuit.  Most plastics will outlast several generations of human beings.

Some people say that we should bring our own bags when we go to the market or mall.  I agree.  But I think many Singaporeans reuse that *ntuc* plastic bag as trash bag.  If we bring our own bags, we will end up buying trash bags, which we are presently not buying.

The problem is that we cannot see across time and space.  We can only see what is near, so it is hard to visualise how the whole earth is changing because of our habits.  We also cannot see these changes to our environment because we do not have the patience, energy or ability to watch over a span of several months or years.  And even if we could, we mostly lack the ability to see the patterns within what we observe.

We are unable to link our habits (cause) with the environment harm (results).

The same goes for the Law of Karma.  Untrained, it is not easy for us to see directly the functioning of karma.  But if we train our mind to be more observant, calm and mindful, we can start to see the patterns emerging.  Patterns of wholesome actions
leading to happiness, peace and calm, and patterns of unwholesome actions leading to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress and despair.

To observe the long term effects of our actions on the environment, scientists take sample data from various environment metrics to develop a model.  Through this model, they can approximate and project the possible impact of our actions before it occurs.  So far, the picture is not a pretty one.  We are going into our 59th minute or 11th hour.  Our time is running out.

The world as a whole need to rethink how we use the earth’s resources.  It is not an finite source unlike the US dollar (or other currency) which the US treasury can simply print more green back and flood the market with it.  If a certain natural resource run low or run out, we cannot simply produce more of it.  Natural resources cannot be manufactured so to speak.  It can only be replenished over time as nature take its course.  A broken wooden chair when left to the element, decay and rot over time.  Its constituent parts, be it the four elements or its hydrocarbon molecules, break down as it interacts with the environment.  Over time, a chair that is untreated will totally disintegrate and so call ‘disappear’; the ‘chair’ disappeared’ but the elements move on in this earth, is absorbed or combine with other entities.  This process of decay and decomposition do not speed up just because scientific advances allowed us to speed up the manufacturing process. 

Scientists are also trying to speed up the decomposition by tweaking certain bacteria to act on certain ‘protein’ in plastic, and a teen managed to do just that.  “The Waterloo, Ontario high school junior figured that something must make plastic degrade, even if it does take millennia, and that something was probably bacteria.”

It all boils down to control.  We want changes that suit us.  But nature has other plans.  This very physical world has other plans.  It will change, not according to our whims and fancy.  It will change only according to conditions.  In a simplistic sense, science is really about understanding this world so that we can steer how it changes in order to satisfy our needs and wants.  When we want it not to change, we paint it, lacquer it, glaze it, electroplate it, wrap it with vinyl, enshrine it in glass or make it chemically inert.  If we want it to change, we heat it up, toss it around, dissolve it, charge it, or even send our bacterial minions to do our bidding.

Scientists in some ways are like the Buddha.  They try to know and understand this world to make our life easier, better, without so much stress and suffering.  Difference is that the Buddha discovered that the nature of this world is that it is impermanent, subject to change and cannot be controlled by any single entity, but goes in a constant flux of transitions according to conditions.  Instead of changing the world, the Buddha realised that we have to change ourselves.  By reducing our craving and attachment, our suffering reduces, by realising the true nature of all phenomena, one’s habit of delighting, craving and attachment / control subsides and ceases.  With that, suffering also ceases.

Scientists instead went the other way to change the world.

As I type on this keyboard, made mainly of plastic, I wonder how we can balance between changing the world and changing ourselves.  Each of us have to find that balance that work for us at this moment.  I just hope we find that balance sooner.

So, which part of “All conditioned phenomena are subject to change” do we not understand?



Our Favourite Cup, Dress, Shirt or Otherwise

We all have our favourite something.  If it is a cup, we drink from it.  Not that drinks taste exceptional with it, but we kinda get used to it over time.  We drink from it everyday.  It is our favourite cup after all.

One day, maybe our favourite cup is broken.  At first it is a small crack and we still use it.  If it is repairable, we should repair it so that we don’t hurt ourselves using it.  But if it becomes so broken that it cannot be repaired and we are hurting just by drinking from it, we have to ask ourselves if we should still hurt ourselves this way.

This is when we should reflect on how this cup has
served us well but that it is no longer suitable for us to use the cup anymore.  We don’t have to smash it up or start getting angry with the cup.  It does not make it any better.  Put it aside (or recycle it?) and move on.

If we cling onto the cup, identify with the cup and grasp onto it strongly, then we end up hurting ourselves.

When we are thirsty, find a cup, drink, put the cup down.  Don’t bring it to the loo.

A Short Sharing on Dependent Origination & Emptiness

Thanks to a question by a student, here’s a short sharing on Dependent Origination & Emptiness that I emailed her.

All phenomena are not independently existing in and of itself. Eg, a table that we use, comprises parts that were not table, and have not “tableness”. If the wooden parts had any “tableness” in them, then the tree from which these parts were made from cannot be made into anything else except a table.

Because the parts do not have any tableness, the ‘table’ that we use, arise dependent on the parts + many other factors as conditions. There is no coming, ie no independent table that exist, created or formed.

When the table is taken apart, there are parts that resemble a table, but do not form a table. So once again, there is no tableness in the parts and without conditions, the table ‘disappears’. It disappears in a sense that no table ceased nor was destroyed. Beyond the parts, there is no table that got taken out and thrown away or ceased.

The last part that even while we are using the table, there is still no inherent table, within the ‘table’, the parts or outside of them.

The same applies to all phenomena, to the five aggregates, to our relationship with our family & friends, to our role as a student now and a certain profession in the future. Precisely because all these
relationships and roles are dependent arising, that is why we can be a student, a daughter, a friend, a teacher, a granddaughter, a beloved one at different times, and sometimes simultaneously. However, we do not realise this sometimes. Clinging onto certain roles and how exactly they should be, we sometimes feel lost or out of place when in reality, conditions have changed, and the role we use to play have changed or is no longer suitable.

Realising dependent arising is to realise emptiness of all these, and to realise that with pervasive impermanence, none of these roles are inherent, intrinsic or permanent. On one hand, we learn to appreciate each moment of uniqueness of the relationships’ and roles’ development, thereby cherishing them. On the other hand, we see that no single moment or state of the relationship or roles can be clung on or attached to.

We learn to grow with it, watching mindfully, reflecting on the best course of development that would benefit ourselves and others best.

There are much more applications of this teaching we can apply in our life. I hope this answers your query.

May this understanding aid you and your friends and love ones on your path towards Buddhahood!



Cook Like a Chef!

Just because you are not working in a restaurant, it does not mean you cannot cook like a chef!


So yesterday I was at a neighbourhood eatery with Charles.  I commented how the dish would be very different if they had sliced the cucumber thinly.  Then we half commented that it is not a restaurant after all.  I’m not sure if it is such a mindset or sloppiness that welded the chef’s knife yesterday, but It dawned on me that we can have such fixed mindsets at times.

We box ourselves up into fixed roles that we identify with and become limited by such identification.   The only thing that comes from this is that we restrict our own growth.

But we didn’t start off this way mostly.  Sometimes, it start off due to external factors.  When we were young, or when we first started work, bright-eyed, we may have tried to do things and try things like there are no boundaries to what we are capable of doing.  Then we hit our first brickwall.  Our
first “No”.  Our first “rejection”.  The first “do what you are SUPPOSED to do”.  There.  The first block of the impenetrable stronghold of I-Cannot-Do-It is laid.

Instead of trying our best, and besting even our best, we tell ourselves “I am just an ABC, so I can/should only do XYZ”. We do that for one day, for two days, for three. We do that to ourselves for one week, for two weeks for three. We do that to ourselves for one month, for two months, for three. We do that to ourselves for years on end. In the end, we fulfill our own prophecy, that we can only do XYZ.

At some point, we unknowingly tell others that as well, that they should just stick to known territories and not try anything beyond.  “Don’t rock the boat”, “Don’t spoil the market”, “The overgrowth gets trimmed”.  Or so they say.  So we may end up perpetuating the very negative limiting cycle that got us boxed in at the first place.  But it does not have to continue this way.

Every day is a new start.  Every moment, the old mind and body ceases and a new mind and body is born.  With each new arising, there is a possibility of change.


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.

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