Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Yes, there it is. The word we never say. Like ‘decrease’ it is not supposed to happen, at least not to us. Whereas ‘decrease’ happens slowly, ‘failure’ takes no prisoners. It is the ultimate decrease. And we are left standing around with our pride, self-esteem, hopes and plans scattered about our feet in pieces. When this happened to me, it had the effect of kindling an interest in philosophy, especially oriental, as I cast about me for answers. So, in the end, failure led me to discover treasures of knowledge and understanding about the world and about myself. Treasures that I would perhaps never have known otherwise. Isn’t that always the way?
One of the books that helped me enormously through those difficult times is ‘How would Confucius ask for a raise?’ by Carol Osborne. Don’t be fooled by the title, this is a book to take very seriously. It is based on the philosophy of the I Ching and raises the big questions of ethics, inner excellence, risk and leadership not only at work but in life. The I Ching, it so happens, addresses these questions admirably and Carol Osborne sets out the principles in a smooth, interconnected and often poetic fashion.

The I Ching teaches us that difficulties throw a man back upon himself. The inferior man bewails his fate, thrashing about in self-pity and despair. The superior man views the obstruction as an occasion for inner enrichment.
Can you be this generous with yourself? This invocation is rich soil in which to plant the seed of recovery.

Invocation for one who has failed

I am where I am and it’s all right.
The goal I sought represents a commitment to a process, including success and failure along the way.
When I fail, I replace judgement with observation.
I trust myself to correct what I can. Forgive myself for what I can’t.

My worthiness does not depend on my achievements or the things that happen to me.
My worthiness is not up for question.
Knowing there is more I want for myself does not invalidate what I already have.

Regardless of how much at a standstill I feel myself to be right now, the currents of my destiny continue to work on my behalf, moving me forward to an even greater future than I have yet envisioned.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The power of 'So what!'

You may have read the Tao Te Ching or another book about Taoism, non-action, non-desire and the like and wondered ‘yes, yes, this all sounds very well and good, perhaps for a monk living in ancient China. But how can I possibly apply it in my modern daily life?’ I know you may have thought this because I certainly have. And I am here to tell you of a book that will show you how.
The ‘Barefoot Doctor’s Guide to the Tao – A Spiritual Handbook for the Urban Warrior’ by Stephen Russell takes the precepts of Taoism and relates them to modern situations and emotions that everyone can identify with. And on top of this, he does so with a distinctive, humorous style that belies the profoundness of what he is telling you. In vain have I searched for a sequel to this book. But, in the end, no sequel is necessary.
Here is a powerful ‘urban warrior’ self-defence move against any disappointment attack. Trust me, it works.

So you’re disappointed. So what! Disappointment’s only disappointment. It will be transmuted into its opposite by the immutable law of yin and yang anyway.
So, so what! May sound impolite or downright compassionless, but really, so what.
The thing about “so what!” is that it’s got an edge, a small portion of anger released every time you say it. That’s its advantage over “never mind”, which is also good and valid, but only when you truly don’t mind. Most of the time, though, especially when the disappointment’s just recently dropped, you do mind. So with that faint hint of churlish delinquency, stand up, release that irritation and boldly proclaim, “So what!”
So when you experience frustration, disappointment and self-doubt, as your brilliantly conceived plans go astray and leave you stranded, try a “so what” session for yourself.

One by one, think of the things about your life that are pissing you off or causing you undue stress and drop a “so what”: ‘But I’ll lose my job – so what!; but Charlene/Charley will leave me – so what!; but I’ll die – so what!” That’s it, be brutal, gently brutal, until you’ve cleansed yourself of all attachments; and then you can sit down and call yourself the Buddha.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Karma does not crush

'It's my karma’, ‘it’s the way I am’, ‘it’s the story of my life’ and ‘you can’t escape your destiny’. We have all heard or even said these things, as if we were in the grip of some inevitable outside force. But karma is not inevitable and it is not an outside force. It is more like a law and its effect is dependent on us. Our karma is therefore always changing according to what we think, what we say and what we do. If we uplift our thoughts, our words and our acts we will inevitably uplift our karma. Here is a simple and clear exposition of karma from a book on my ‘rare book’ shelf, ‘A Study in Karma’ by Annie Besant (first published in 1912).

Karma does not crush

Now karma is the great law of nature, with all that that implies. As we are able to move in the physical universe with security, knowing its laws, so may we move in the mental and moral universes with security also, as we learn their laws. The majority of people, with regard to their mental and moral defects, are much in the position of a man who would decline to walk upstairs because of the law of gravity. They sit down helplessly and say: ‘That is my nature. I cannot help it’. True, it is the man’s nature, as he has made it in the past, and it is ‘his karma’. But by a knowledge of karma he can change his nature, making it other tomorrow than it is today. He is not in the grip of an inevitable destiny imposed upon him from outside; he is in a world of law, full of natural forces which he can utilize to bring about the state of things which he desires. Knowledge and will – that is what he needs. He must realize that karma is not a power which crushes but a statement of conditions out of which invariable results accrue. So long as he lives carelessly, in a happy-go-lucky way, so long will he be like a man floating on a stream, struck by any passing log, blown aside by any casual breeze, caught in any chance eddy. This spells failure, misfortune, unhappiness. The law enables him to compass his ends successfully and places within his reach forces which he can utilize. He can modify, change, remake on other lines the nature which is the inevitable outcome of his previous desires, thoughts and actions; that future nature is as inevitable as the present, the result of the conditions which he now deliberately makes. ‘Habit is second nature’, says the proverb, and thought creates habits. Where there is law, no achievement is impossible, and karma is the guarantee of man’s evolution into mental and moral perfection.

Photo by Dimitar Janevski

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Yogi of Action

The following text from Mahatma Ghandi has been stuck to the back of a door in my bathroom for 5 or 6 years. This does not mean that I have integrated it into my everyday life. (Is it possible?) It does not even mean that I understand it fully. But it does mean that I have read it 100 or so times in that period, and that perhaps, when someone shows me disrespect for example, my reaction is different today from what it might have been. Perhaps I still get upset, for a second or two instead of an hour, or for an hour instead of a day. And that’s not bad, is it? I think it was a pretty good idea 'I had', to stick it on the back of a door in my bathroom...

The Yogi of Action

He is a devotee who is jealous of none,
who is a fount of mercy,
who is without egotism,
who is selfless,
who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery,
who is ever forgiving,
who is always contented,
whose resolutions are firm,
who has dedicated mind and soul to God,
who causes no dread,
who is not afraid of others,
who is free from exultation, sorrow, and fear,
who is pure,
who is versed in action yet remains unaffected by it,
who renounces all fruit, good or bad,
who treats friend and foe alike,
who is untouched by respect or disrespect,
who is not puffed up by praise,
who does not go under when people speak ill of him,
who loves silence and solitude,
who has a disciplined reason.
Such devotion is inconsistent with the existence at the same time of strong attachments.
Photo by Barun Patro

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Decrease - more is less

In today’s consumer society, more and better is the norm. We expect constant improvement and we are conditioned that constant improvement is practically our birthright. And if better cell phones, better cars and better widgets are not forthcoming in the natural course of events, we are prepared to mortgage future earnings in order to have them now. If better performance, better jobs and better relationships are not forthcoming, we push harder to get them or else wonder what is wrong with us. But this is not the natural law, and we are part of Nature. Nature has cycles of birth and death, expansion and contraction, increase and decrease. And so do we - so should we. There is nothing to be ashamed of in this. In fact, facing and accepting this decrease sincerely instead of trying to ignore or deny it is the only way we can learn the lessons it brings us and move on naturally to the next stage.
This is explained so much better in that classic book, the I Ching. When I first read the commentary of the 41st hexagram ‘Decrease’, I had a profound ‘aha’ experience combined with something like relief. I hope you will find it equally revealing (from the Wilhelm/Baynes I Ching):

Decrease does not under all circumstances mean something bad. Increase and decrease come in their own time. What matters here is to understand the time and not to try to cover up poverty with empty pretense. If a time of scanty resources brings out an inner truth, one must not feel ashamed of simplicity. For simplicity is then the very thing needed to provide inner strength for further undertakings. Indeed, there need be no concern if the outward beauty of the civilization, even the elaboration of religious forms, should have to suffer because of simplicity. One must draw on the strength of the inner attitude to compensate for what is lacking in externals; then the power of content makes up for the simplicity of form. There is no need of presenting false appearances to God. Even with slender means, the sentiment of the heart can be expressed.
Photo by Marco Michelini

Friday, May 9, 2008

The last great pagan philosopher

Marcus Aurelius was one of those rare and desirable things, the philosopher king. Well, philosopher emperor then. He was Roman emperor from 161-180 AD and it is said of him that he was one of those very few rulers whose sole aim was the welfare of his people. Whenever I read him, I am struck with the thought that I have neglected him. All I can say in my defence is that he is not a very congenial soul. He is apt to say things like ‘stop your whining, if its so bad then do something about it or die.’ But if he didn’t say things like that I suppose he would not be a stoic.
They call him the last great pagan philosopher. You will find in him no references to a Christian God or to life after death. But he might as well be talking about God when he speaks of the universe and universal nature. In my opinion, it is another face of the same mountain that all religions and philosophies are climbing.
Here is a diamond of truth from Marcus Aurelius that I carried in my agenda for many years (from 'The Mediations of Marcus Aurelius' translated by George Long):

If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain? – But some insuperable obstacle is in the way? – Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on thee. – But it is not worthwhile to live if this cannot be done. – Take thy departure then from life contentedly, just as he dies who is in full activity, and well pleased too with the things which are obstacles.

Photo by José A. Warletta

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Noble behaviour

Here is the second text mentioned in my previous post ‘Modesty and kindliness’. There is a reference to the Talmud which gives us a clue to the possible source. For my women readers, I call upon your generosity in ‘swallowing the impure with the pure’ when you see yourselves mentioned in the same phrase as ‘arrogant people’. You will be somewhat soothed later when you read that a wise man spends above his means on honouring his wife and children (especially if he is not careful how he expresses himself!)

Noble behaviour

A wise man does not shout when he speaks, but chats with all people pleasantly. He meets everyone with a friendly greeting, so that all are kindly disposed towards him. He judges all men favourably, praising his fellow and never blaming him. He loves peace and pursues peace. If he feels that his words are helpful and heeded, he talks; otherwise, he keeps quiet.
A wise man does not attempt to pacify an angry person before the latter has calmed down and set his mind at ease. When his fellow is in disgrace, he looks away and does not show himself to him. He never misrepresents, neither overstating nor understating, except when peace is involved. In brief, he speaks only on subjects of learning and kindliness.
A wise man does not walk proudly, with head held high; nor does he step mincingly like women or arrogant people; nor does he run about in the street like a madman; nor does he stoop like a hunchback. The manner of a man’s walking shows whether he is wise and sensible, or foolish and ignorant.
A wise man should dress decently, and must not wear his clothes stained with grease and the like. He should not dress flashily to attract attention, nor shabbily to suffer disrespect. His garments should be modest, appropriate.
A wise man manages his affairs judiciously, eats and drinks and supports his family according to his means. The Talmud recommends that one should spend on food less than his means, on clothes up to his means, and on honouring his wife and children above his means.
Men of intelligence first acquire a livelihood, then a home, and then they marry. Fools, on the other hand, marry first, then they acquire a home if they can afford it, and at last they seek a trade or appeal to charity.A wise man is honest in all his transactions. When he says ‘no’ he means no, and when he says ‘yes’ he means yes. He does not encroach on another man’s occupation, and never mistreats anybody. In short, he prefers to be rather among the offended than among the offenders.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Modesty and kindliness

The following text was given to me by father in the form of an old printed glossy sheet with ‘Courtesy of: Weider Sports Equipment Co Ltd’ stamped on the back. It must be very old because it is a long time since my father (84) bought any sports equipment! There is no indication of where the text comes from, though it has a Middle Eastern ring, and if anyone recognizes the source please let me know. The presentation is very simple, almost naïve by today’s standards, but I find it all the more effective for its simplicity. I think it deserves to be read again. (There is another text on the back called ‘Noble behaviour’, which I will post next).

Modesty and kindliness

Where words abound, sin is not wanting;
He who controls his tongue is a wise man.
Whatever an evil man fears will befall him;
The desire of the righteous will be granted.
A kind man does good to himself;
A cruel man does himself harm.
A fool is sure his own way is right;
A wise man will listen to advice.
A man of quick temper acts foolishly;
But a man of discretion is patient.
A gentle answer turns away wrath;
But harsh words stir up anger.
He who returns evil for good,
Evil will never leave his house.
A happy heart helps and heals;
A broken spirit dries up the bones.
Even a fool is counted wise if he keeps silent;
With closed lips he is thought intelligent.
A good name is a better choice than riches;
A good reputation is more than silver and gold.
If your enemy is hungry, give him food;
Give him water if he is thirsty.
You see a man wise in his own eyes –
More hope for a fool than for him.
The door turns on its hinges,
And the lazy man upon his back.
Whoever digs a pit shall fall into it;
The stone a man sets rolling rebounds upon himself.
Let others praise you, not yourself;
Not your own lips but someone else.
Happy the man who lives in fear of sin;

Reckless men will come to grief.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Why did the stream dry up?

I came across the following poem by Rabindranath Tagore in that excellent French language edition of the Tao Te Ching, Tao Te King, Le livre du Tao et de sa vertu (Éditions Dervy, Paris). In the explanatory notes, the translator quotes the poem as a parallel example of the Taoist virtue of 'non-desire' in another philosphic tradition.
The poem moved me greatly when I read it. How true it is that we often ruin a relationship, a project, a situation, by smothering it with our selfish desires instead of allowing it to unfold naturally.
Here is my own English translation of the beautiful French version of the Bengali poem found in this book.

Why did the lamp go out? I covered it with my cloak to shelter it from the wind… That is why the lamp went out.
Why did the flower fade? I pressed it against my heart full of love and anxiety… That is why the flower faded.
Why did the stream dry up? I put a dam across it to keep the water for my use alone… That is why the stream dried up.
Why did the harp-string break? I wanted it to play a note that it could not attain… That is why the harp-string broke.
Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1941

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Guidelines for emperors

I like to browse old bookstores and many years ago I came upon a book, ‘The Story of Oriental Philosophy’, by L. Adams Beck. It was published in Philadelphia in 1928, long before Zen, Taoism and other oriental philosophies were much known in the west, still less mainstream as they are today. The book is full of treasures, not least of which is an account of Confucius and his disciples visiting the emperor’s court in the city of Lo in Ho-nan. He is greeted by one of the ministers of the emperor who shows him the Hall of Light, where past emperors gave audience to the feudal princes.

(Confucius) walked about, examining with deep content all the arrangements handed down from antiquity, and sighed with pleasure.
‘Now I know the great wisdom of the Duke of Chao and how his house attained to the imperial throne!’ he said with deep satisfaction…
In the hall of the ancestral temple was a statue of a man with three needles fastening his lips. The disciples grouped themselves about it, while the master read aloud the inscriptions upon the back, of which I give a part:

Do not be overanxious for relaxation or repose. He who is so, will achieve neither.

If a man does not resent slight injustices he will soon be called upon to face giant wrongs.

Heed words as well as acts; thoughts also; and remember even when alone that the divine is everywhere.

A sapling may be easily uprooted. With a tree an axe is needed.

Do not glory in your strength. There is always a stronger.

The masses and ordinary men have small prescience or power in dealing with the unknown and can only follow a leader.

Heaven has no favourites.

The ocean is full. Yet inflowing rivers do not overflow it.

My mouth is closed; I cannot speak. Do not consult me. I cannot solve your doubts and I have nothing to ask. My teaching is enigmatic and true.

I stand elevated above you, but no man can harm me. What mortal can say so much?

A house may be burned by smouldering fire, when a fierce flame would have shown itself and have been easily extinguished.

A river is the flux of many streams.

The union of many threads makes an unbreakable cord.

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond