Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Mysterious Luoyang Local Eating Sweet Potato

You want nightlife? Gongguan--Across from Taida

National Taiwan University--Taida臺大

Monday, January 30, 2006

Open Letter to Chris Matthews

If you haven't seen the Open Letter to Chris Matthews, it's time to check it out.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Why Democrats keep losing? Please read!!!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Smiling Faces in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Did I write it?

I don't usually write poems--at least since high school when I used to write them during math class, I haven't. The style I choose to go with when I write is normally more prose-like. However, every once in a while I jot down some thoughts in a way that resembles, in my mind, more of a verse in nature. I don't know what it is, maybe a matching of the moment, a correspondence with some happening that is too subtle for me to express in another way. A cosmic concatenation. A heartfelt wimpering. A series of direct and indirect causes, some remote and some near at hand. A response to something read or heard or felt or smelt. Something inner needing to transmit to the outside or something outside targeting my inner core? A resonance if you will. Or maybe it is just a passing of time, in the way that I now write, in the way I would seek to solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book, or watch a sitcom or reality show. Just a passing of time.

Well, today I was looking through a box of my books and I found a notebook that I used while I was writing my dissertation; it must be from 2003. About a third of the way into the notebook, I found a page with the following:

Bourdieu intro 1-25, 32-34

P106.B6813 1991

Then, below that are written these words:

Reflected in your heart
Is a pure treasure,
a shiny oasis, glittering alive.
From your inner recesses
Glows a transformation, into art.

The bumpy experience that you face--
Undaunted by the hazy dreams of anguish;
wild themes, concentration petrified--
Vanishing, melting away,
Lost without a trace.
Wow, perhaps I should read more Bourdieu. Now, I make no claims or admissions about the quality of these words, but I don't even have any recollection of having written them. Did I write them? Being the good academic that I am, I would by convention cite the source if it indeed was a quote. It certainly isn't Bourdieu. P106.B6813 1991, by the way, is the UPenn call number for Bourdieu's, Language and Symbolic Power, but the words of my verse, at least the ones written on the page in my notebook, do not seem to reflect any notions in that book, as I understand it, consciously. What else was I then reading? What was happening to me and in the world? What was I thinking?

So, where did those words come from? A mystery.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Motley or Colorful Life

One day in December soon before Christmas, I was browsing in a New York bookstore on 42nd St., across from the park behind the Public Library, which on that day was full of vendors selling jewelry and other crafts (there was snow on the ground and cheerful voices in the air), and I picked up a book on Kandinsky's interests in shamanism which intrigued me-- Kandinsky and Old Russia: The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman. It is a really cool book (and I wish I had bought it considering it was on sale for about $30 and now that I know what it costs on Amazon). Before looking at that book I had never seen Kandinsky's earlier works, and I discovered some of them are pretty amazing. I particularly like the one known in English as the Motley Life and as the Colorful Life (Too bad I don't know Russian. To me it looks like the magical life. Or maybe it's just life in a vibrant community). The painting must be a representation of some kind of religious event--a festival--with both shamanic and Christian symbols and characters (If not that, then what is going on?). I believe the author--Peg Weiss--made a similar point (That's probably why I am now making it), and that it emanated from one of Kandinsky's ethnographic trips or from his reading of an ethnographic account (Why didn't I buy the book? Sorry Peg). It sure looks like the figures in the foreground are aware they are being painted, almost as if they are posing--some smiling--for a photograph. Maybe it's just me. All I know is that I wish I could be within that frame, in that scene. Couldn't you envision a wonderful novel about that scene:

(Click on the picture to make it larger)

It's all about the money

David Sirota has an excellent post over at The Huffington Post on the hidden story behind the Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, congressional scandals that are sweeping Washington D.C., and what is wrong with the political/media establishment in general. He also explains why the likes of Chris Matthews do not really represent the mainstream:

In other words, the opinion makers - the pundits/commentators who play one of the key role in creating the boundaries of the political debate - are often bought off. Many of these people, not surprisingly, come out of the bigger world of corporate-funded think tanks that dominate Washington, D.C. These are the propaganda machines who the media and politicians loyally rely on for background research and overall debate framing, rarely - if ever - thinking about or reporting on who actually is funding the institutions in the first place.

So, for instance, if you read the newspapers or listen to a congressional hearing, you might think that organizations like the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute are just naturally occurring organizations sprouting up from the a supposed overall extreme conservative economic slant of the American public. These institutions - which D.C. is teeming with - are cited as official-esque sources, described only in ideological terms as "conservative." They are almost never labeled according to which industries fund them, just as the politicians who spew corporate PR are almost never identified in the media as having taken huge sums of cash from the industry being shilled for. It is as if naming the funders would be to offer the public too much truth about who owns their political debate - a major Establishment taboo.

But even worse than not identifying the backers of these corporate-funded entities is how those politicians/reporters/pundits who cite them - and thus allow them to distort the political debate - don't themselves even consider/care that the organizations are corporate appendages, artificially narrowing the debate not out of some ideological motive, but from a very obvious desire to make sure that economic debates always end with Big Money interests making off like bandits.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Kaifeng Worker in Luoyang

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Psychedelic Fish of Longmen

Friday, January 13, 2006

101-The Tallest Building in the World

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Venturing back into the Tang Capital

Long long ago, when I lived in what was once within the walls of the capital of Tang China (Chang An長安)--the most populous city in the world during its heyday--I would sojourn out of the back gate of the Xi'an Foreign Language Institute. It has been a long time since I have excavated back into this particular mnemic landscape, now for so long forgotten, buried by the shifting sands blown in from the Gobi.

Yes, I would walk out the back gate, and can still see the vague outlines of the people I passed on the street, shadows without form. Now I can't for the life of me make out the paths I walked. The way is like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are all rearranged and out of place. And yet, for brief but passing moments, the way is clear. I am there again. Do you see it? I can see the lifeless crow on the muddy ground--a sight that at the time I saw it reflected an internal mood of mine, a situational vision of remorse. I passed this crow on my way through a narrow passageway where four ladies played cards, to the fields, which I called Sanctuary.

Let me tell you about Sanctuary. I used to go there when I needed to escape, when I felt homesick, when I felt down, when I wanted to just stare off into space, when I wanted to immerse myself deep in thought, and believe me, I spent plenty of time thinking that year spent so far away from home and the familiar.

Sanctuary was a large field--much of it farmed--with paths crisscrossing it and surrounded by villages. I walked along one of the paths to my favorite spot on a hill where I would sit. In one direction was a road where farmers traveled towards the city on carts led by donkeys (or were they mules?). In the other direction, the direction towards which I liked to sit, was the Great Wild Goose Pagoda (dayanta大雁塔).

When I looked in that direction, and avoided the sight of the modern apartment buildings to the left, and focused all of my attention on the pagoda in the distance, I was teleported back to the Tang Dynasty, when the monk Xuanzang returned from his magical mystery tour of India, for it was at that pagoda that he supervised his massive translation project of Buddhist sutras.

I didn't always just look at the pagoda, but allowed my eyes to roam the countryside, and that was one fascinating feature of the location. Xi'an Foreign Language Institute is in the southern suburbs of Xi'an; it is about a 20 minute walk from the city wall, within which is the heart of the city. And yet, a 5 minute walk out either of the campus gates and I was in the countryside. I don't know how Xi'an has changed in the more than 10 years since I left, but in no other Chinese city I have been to since have I witnessed this proximity between urban, suburban, and rural landscapes.

Back to Sanctuary. On more than one occasion, as I sat on my spot, a flood of little giggling children emerged from their daytime classroom, wearing colorful costumes and wielding strings attached to homemade kites that hovered above them.

One time, as I sat there lost in thought, a teenage boy with kite in hand appeared; he was alone and out to play. I sat there as he ran to and fro. Sometimes he approached, observing me with curiosity. I was a little uncomfortable because I wasn't sure if I was trespassing. Then, he started to talk to me. Unfortunately, at the time I could barely say a word of Chinese, except for the names of all the different local delicacies one could purchase from the street vendors, and to say "I want..." and "No thanks..." and a few other smatterings of Mandarin.

Despite my lack of Chinese words and his lack of English ones, we somehow communicated. I don't remember what we said, but there was definitely some kind of verbal exchange. Before I knew it the sun was going down, and we began to walk along the path, and then we said goodbye, as I returned to the Foreign Language Institute and he followed the path towards his home. We never met again, despite my repeated visits to Sanctuary.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Part 2: Dragon Mountain Temple (Longshansi)

If you've arrived here from a google search on "dragon" and you choose to read on after realizing there is nothing in this post pertaining to dragons, then you might want to first read the previous post, of which this is a continuation. You might also want to see this. No, it doesn't have anything to do with what I will write or what I have written (in the previous post, at least), but come now, you have to admit, it is funny.

Now, where was I. Oh...yes...I was walking away from that modern memorial to imperial China and the man who single handedly brought many of its treasures to Taiwan. I was descending into the depths of the MRT station; people were walking everywhere; I contemplated buying an ice tea in a box at the Seven Eleven in front of me (There are Seven Elevens all over the place in Taipei); I heard a clicking sound and knew the train was approaching; my heart started pounding harder and faster; I shifted gears and about faced. Then...I started to run with the crowd--dodging people everywhere. Sorry, sorry, sorry, going down the escalator. Just as I get down the stairs, the doors are closing, and it is off, galloping away into the darkened tunnel. No need to worry, because another train arrives in about 5 minutes. After another 5 minutes I am at my destination, my favorite destination in Taipei: Longshan Temple.

Longshan Temple is the complete opposite of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. Where the latter is defined by imperial order, even though it was built in post-imperial times, disorder abounds at the former, though it was built while there still was a far away emperor, whose reach did not stretch as far as that of his celestial relatives, of whom he was only an apparition, anyway. Oh yes, he had his officialdom who held posts on the frontier island, but their authority was not nearly as effective as the numinous powers that infiltrated and animated peoples' imaginations, and to whom they made their offerings of animals, fruit, and incense smoke.

Ascending from the depths of the MRT, this is what you see in the not so far distance:

What I love about this site is not so much the architecture, though that is certainly part of the effect, but the life that flows in and out and all around it--the lifeflow of the temple. You could come on any day and bear witness to a fascinating scene. Do you remember that scene in the movie, Smoke, where the guy explains how he takes a picture every day from the same spot, with the camera alway pointing in the same direction, at the same place? An album full of pictures of the same location from the same perspective. Well, this would be a brilliant place to perform such an excercise.

People talking, people praying, people with incense sticks, people making offerings, people chatting, people taking pictures, people playing cards, people out on a date, people laughing, people crying, people reading sutras, people alone in thoughtfulness, people standing around the urn, the incense smoke enveloping them with fortunate qi.

I must have been fortunate the last time I visited Longshan Temple because the offering tables were out. What was the occasion? It is not everyday that the offering tables are displayed, and the residents of Taipei--that is, those who still believe in the orthopraxic (or even heteropraxic) efficacy of their ancestral rites--come out in full force to make their presence known and present fruitful (and that is a pun) offerings to their gods and ancestors:

As you can see, fruit is the most common item on display. However, it is not the only food to be offered. I have seen cooked food, but also more modern delicacies, such as cans of sour cream and onion pringles. Better offer something that you like to eat yourself because nothing will be wasted. It is as if there is an agreement made between those making the offering and those receiving it: "You can have the subtlest essence; we will eat the rest."

Nothing re-presents that essence better than the incense smoke that fills the air (and your lungs) as you float about the grounds of Longshan Temple. Even when their are no offering tables in sight or on site, you will always catch a glimpse of waves of bodies carrying incense sticks. If the central ceremony of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial is the marionette soldiers wielding their rifles and folding the flag, then the main attraction of Longshan Temple is the worshipping residents bearing their incense sticks and making the rounds, visiting their favorite deities--most likely all of them, just to be sure all of the bases are covered:

And there I was...running about...madly...with camera in hand--capturing the moment, lest it get away. Nobody seemed to mind, for they were too involved in the moment, in their communication with divinity. For instance, look at this woman, so involved in her recitation of the sutras:

Do you think she took heed of me?

That, by the way, is another activity you will see at Longshan Temple: sutra recitation, either by individuals in their personal nooks, or communally inside and in front of the central worship hall (the Buddhist one) in the complex:

What is different about this congregation--if it really can be called a congregation--is that it is not led by professional monks, but by lay practitioners. There are those in the hall, mostly women, who are dressed in black. They perhaps belong to a club or society, but are not, as far as I can tell and as I have been told, ordained, and certainly are not, as on the Mainland, registered with the government, as all monks and priests there are. What is more, during recitation time, anyone can join in.

If you want to become a participant-observer to this righteous display, you must arrive at 7:30 in the evening; that is when the party gets started. For six months, I went almost every night. Printed copies of sutras in Chinese were passed around and we would chant--Namo A-Mi-Tuo-Fo--for about half an hour to 45 minutes. One time, as I opened the sutra handed out that night, and began to read, I recognized the words of the Diamond Sutra (See also here for a translation) and was ecstatic, for I had recently read the Diamond Sutra in a course on reading Chinese Buddhist scriptures, which I had attended at Berkeley.

The first time I attended one of these miraculous events, something amazing happened. After we finished our chanting, guess what took place. The women inside, dressed in black, smiling, were handing out something. What was it? Manna? Before I knew it, one of the women looked at me and placed it in my hands. What was it? Nothing out of this world--it was a cookie purchased at a convenience store, probably in the area. A cookie. It was beautiful and it made me so happy. I really can't explain the feeling, why something so small and so simple and so ordinary filled me with such joy. I soon discovered that every evening they handed out something like that, and every evening I looked at them expectantly. Some days they noticed me and some days they did not. In the end, it didn't matter, but on those nights when one of them made eye contact with me, smiled, and reached out her hand from the holy hall, with a little gift in it, a very very special feeling would well up in my heart. Was it some kind of embodiment of the sutra itself?
If you really want to experience Longshan Temple, you just have to go there after the sun goes down, when it is dark; that is when it lights up. Sorry, I don't have any pictures, so you will just have to close your eyes, and: visualize it. Every one of your senses is attacked--sight, sound, smell, touch, and so on and so on and so on. The wild building itself and the colorful lights and plaques that represent donors to the temple, the countless faces, and of course, the incense smoke, are all a feast for the eyes. The nose inhales the fragrant scent of the vanishing haze. In your ears manifests the intermingling of human voice and Buddhist chant. You feel bodies bumping up against your own, as well as the faint but noticeable touch of the breeze sweeping in from on high.

On one occasion, walking away from the sutra reading, I looked up at the sky and watched the smoke in the air, appearing and disappearing and then re-appearing, and then I likened it to my thoughts, doing the same: "There they go." Just as the Buddha says to Subhuti in the Diamond Sutra:
All composed things are like a dream, a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning. That is how to meditate on them, that is how to observe them....