Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer 1986 - I am the Buddha

In the summer of 1986 my friend Shauvik convinced me that taking The Princeton Review would be a fun way to spend a few evenings a week and weekends.  Never mind that we were only entering our Sophomore year of high school, we started to take the 1 hour trip down to Princeton University three days a week.  For the first class orientation we convinced Shauvik's brother to drive us down which was way better than having our parents with us like the rest of the students.  While walking around the room meeting classmates I overhead a parent talking to one of the instructors, "My son scored a 780."  I carelessly injected myself into the conversation, "Oh, which part, verbal or math?"  With annoyance she replied, "Combined."  Hmmm.... sorry about that, I'll just be leaving now.

So two evenings a week and all day Saturday we honed our SAT skills and learned about Joe Bloggs, fueled by these huge brown bags full of bagels which I think were included in the course fee.  One of our instructors was Bob Chang, a Princeton University Junior who was both funny and an excellent instructor.  He shared with us what it was like attending Princeton, his experience of taking French with Brooke Shields, and a paper he had written called "The Buddah and I -or- These Walls."  We learned of his childhood growing up in Ohio.  We learned of his path to finding the Buddha within himself.  I shared this paper with so many of my friends, but with my best friend Erin, it resonated in the same way that Atlas Shrugged did for us so many years later.  When something happens that is so meaningful that you are still talking about it 25 years later, it is worth sharing.

Last week Bob and I reconnected and he was kind enough to allow me to republish his paper here.  Bob's contact information is at the end of this message.  Enjoy.

The Buddha and I


These Walls

  The Buddha and I, we go way back.  He's been with me all of my life, but I didn't always know it.  I only discovered it quite recently, within the last month or two.  i was brushing my teeth one morning and when I looked up into the mirror, I saw the Buddha, grinning at me.  I couldn't help but grin back.  Now it's a morning ritual.  I look into the mirror and say, "Hi Buddha," and he says, "Hi," back.  What a great way to start the day.
Things weren't always this wonderful, though.  There were times when I was pissed off at the world.  I felt trapped, as if I lived my life in a room.  And the room kept getting smaller and smaller.  The walls crept in slowly, waiting to crush the life out of me in the same way that it was already crushing my spirit.  And I blamed the world for these walls, not realizing that these walls were mine.  Mine to build and mine to destroy.

I grew up in a small New England college town that had the misfortune of being located in the Midwest, in the middle of Ohio, surrounded by farms and farmers and more farms.  But Granville was above all that.  This little town spent much of its time insisting that we were better than everyone else.  Things like an 0-10 football record didn't bother my small public high school because our SAT scores were above the national averages and light-years ahead of the other schools in our football conference.  And everybody knows that classics and calculus are more important than combines and harvesters.  Why, if everyone in the world would just read classics and do calculus, there wouldn't be any problems.  That there wouldn't be any food was a point overlooked in our argument.  We also had a nifty cheer we shouted after football games.  It went like this: "That's all right!  That's okay!  You're gonna work for us someday!"  And we believed.

Those of us who grew up there were naive, protected by our beliefs.  I think that's why my parents chose to live there, because it was a place where I would be shielded from reality.  So I proceeded through early life, happily overachieving.

My family was the first Oriental family to move into that sleepy town.  Anxious to prove their educatedness, open-mindedness, and generosity, the members of the community watched as we joined the First Presbyterian Church and decided we were respectable, and soon we were all great friends.  And I believed.

Then the bubble burst.  I was in sixth grade and my whole class, trying to enter adolescence all at once, were finding that the door only admitted a few at at time.  We became more aware of ourselves, more self-conscious.  And I began to wonder about things.  Like why I always had this great tan, even in winter when all my friends became pale ghosts, and why there were so many Jones and Smiths but only one Chang.  And the more I became aware of these differences, the more others seemed to notice them.  In Sunday school at church, I learned that pride goeth before a fall.  I was proud.  And I fell.

You see, I was the best.  At everything.  I was always at the top of my class, and if that were the only thing, it would've been okay.  But it wasn't.  I had to be good at everything.  I was the best pitcher, the best soccer player, the best tennis player.  The other kids couldn't handle this "slant-eyed foreigner" being so good at everything.  They began calling me names, things like "chink" and "rice-ball."  At first I responded with anger and struck out.  But 20 to 1 doesn't give very good odds.  So being the pious little boy that I was, I "turned the other cheek" and ignored them.  They didn't know what to do. 

And then it all fell apart.  That day at school, somebody said to me, "Get out of my way, nigger."  I didn't even know who or what a nigger was-- I don't think my antagonist knew either-- but I could feel the hate dripping off his words.   His words bit into me and their poison spread like wildfire through my blood, bringing with it a chilling numbness. I began crying, for part of me had died.

What I saw that day was a bit of the reality my parents had done their best to hide fro me.  Sort of like what had happened to the Buddha, when he first saw a sick man, and then an old man, and finally a dead man.  What a shock for one who had only known health, youth and life.  And what a shock for me, who had never known racism. 

People often ask me about my interest in Buddhism. They ask, "Who is the Buddha?"  I always smile and say, "I am  the Buddha."  Then they look at me strangely and ask the question again.  So I sigh, and tell them about the historical Buddha.  I say, "There was this man named Siddhartha Gautama who lived a long time ago in India.  He was born a prince but gave it all up to discover the meaning of life.  His father had shielded him from the harsh reality of suffering in the world and had surrounded him with dancing girls and other material pleasures.  But one day, Siddhartha went for a walk and he saw a sick man.  On two other trips, he saw an old man and a dead man.  This was too much for his sheltered mind to handle so he left his pleasure palace to find out what was really going on out there."  By this time, the person I'm talking to is bored, so we move onto another subject.  He would have been happier and would have learned more if he had let me talk about my being the Buddha.

My father picked me up from school on that day in sixth grade.  He was at a loss what to say to me, for this was exactly what he had hoped to avoid.  Something like this could not happen in Granville, the friendly town with a heart and a bleeding conscious.  But it had and it was time to pick up the pieces.

I asked him, "Why do they hate the things that are good?"

He thought for a while and then answered, "Those who lack talent cannot rise to your level.  So what they do is they bring you down to their level, by riding on your back.  They shake your hand and pat you on the back and when you are not looking, the place obstacles in your way.  You are in a foreign land, so you have to be that much better than everyone else.  And in a way, this brings out the best in you, because you can do it.  You can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, and that is a great thing to be able to do.  That is why we left Korea, because there, you would not be what you will be here."

So I aspired to be great.  At fourteen, I played violin with adults in the Licking County Symphony Orchestra.  And the tennis and baseball trophies became too numerous to keep in my room.  My success was working.  It seemed that I had won people's acceptance. I didn't realize then that selling excellence for acceptance wasn't a fair trade.  It's like playing poker where you are betting yourself against the few tarnished pennies that your opponents feel obliged to throw your way.  I was living and working for them, and when I realized this, the long string of my accomplishments crumbled into dust before my eyes, taken by these people.  I didn't understand that then that I was the one who gave them permission to take it.  And I was angry because I felt these walls around me for the first time.

     I decided to fool them.  I wouldn't play their game any more.  This was my renunciation.  I wouldn't play their game any more.  In the same way the Buddha turned his back on things that he knew, I turned away from the familiar world of accomplishments.  Around this time, I left home for college.  There are some differences between the Buddha's life and mine.  He left home to purify himself. I left to pollute myself.  I was sure that the way to safety and happiness was not to have anything that they could take away from me.  So I worked at mediocrity.  It was hard at first, but it came to be a little game, not going to classes for weeks and then going in and taking an exam and getting a B and laughing at the people who worked for their A's, and laughing even more at all the people who worked so hard for their C minuses.  It was all a big joke that I was playing on the world. 

     With no classes to go to, every day became a Saturday, and a group of us would stumble home every night bleary-eyed and not wake up until the next afternoon.  And then I began breathing pot into lungs that had once been able to last whole soccer games without a break.  Nothing seemed to matter, and I became unhinged in time and space for a while.  

    I came back to earth one day, and I was sure glad to get there.  The world is not something that can be ignored.  It refuses to take a back seat, but the trick to being happy is to be the driver.  Don't let it drive you. This was my second renunciation: taking the world back, but on my terms.  I had completed the circle and had come back to the world.  It's sort of like Zen, in a way.  They say that before you study Zen, a mountain is a mountain and a tree is a tree.  During your study, they teach you that a mountain is no longer a mountain and a tree is no longer a tree.  When you complete your study, a mountain is once again a mountain, a tree, a tree.  And I was at peace.

   People tell me that I haven't done anything.  That nothing has changed.  That the world is still the crummy place it always was, where if you steal a little they throw you in jail and if you steal a lot, they make you king.  I smile when they tell me this, but it is a sad smile, because I think of the serenity and joy I feel when I look in the mirror and see the Buddha, and then I think of these people, running away from their own reflections, scared of the man in the mirror.

     I had once been afraid of that man in the mirror.  So afraid that I tried to hide myself.  I became furtive with my talent, hiding it as if it were something to be ashamed of, afraid that someone would notice it and take it away from me.  

     Siddhartha, back int he old days, went through something similar.  His father had protected him from the bad things in the world and had not let him see the suffering that people went through.  But he could not keep him in the dark forever, because light has a way of reaching into the darkest and deepest of caves.  And so, Siddhartha discovered sickness, old age, and death.  He renounced his world and entered the world of suffering, seeking to purify himself by suffering more than anyone else in the world.  He almost succeeded in purifying himself to death.  Then that wonderful brain of his that had almost stopped working because of malnutrition suddenly came to a realization: this was not the way.  And he went on to teach people his way.

     My realization came one morning after I stumbled home from a party.  I looked in a mirror, and I saw, not the happy face of someone who had spent a fun night, but the face of a very tired and confused person.  And the man in the mirror asked me, "Is this the way?"  And I answered, "No."

     The people who ask me about Buddhism say, "Isn't Buddhism a form of nihilism?  Don't you believe that the world is one of suffering?"  I smile and tell them the story of this very learned professor who went and asked a Zen master about Buddhism.  The Zen master poured the professor a cup of tea, and kept pouring even after the cup spilled over.  Finally, the professor yelled for him to stop this nonsense, that the cup was full and could take no more.  The Zen master smiled and said, "You are like this cup.  How can I tell you anything when your head is already full of its own ideas."  People like this story and pay more attention to what I say after I tell them this.

     When I answered, "No," that this was not the way, something really strange happened.  These walls that had once stood so strong and tall melted away, leaving me bathed in the golden glow of sunlight.  Seeing this light, I wondered why people hid in the shadows.  And I realized that they hid in shadows for the same reasons that they ran away from the man in the mirror.  In this golden light, people are naked.  In this light, people are.  It is a time before words when people were what they were, before they began hiding themselves in the tangled skein of excuses, explanations for what they were and why they were, as if their existence had to be justified.  What I found was being, arriving at a point before the Original Sin that this Western culture believes in so strongly.  I began to hate the story of Adam and Eve, as the thing bringing humanity down.  They, at the very beginning, started the trendy fashion of being ashamed of what they were.  From that time, people began to hide themselves, first physically behind fig leaves, and then behind words.  People stopped being.  Instead they were worked to let others know what they were.  If they could lift big rocks, they told others that they were strong.  If they could chase game, they told others that they were swift hunters.  Soon words began to replace deeds, where if you told people that you were a great hunter, then you were, being became discredited, by the people who weren't but pretended to be.  People became afraid of truth, of the man in the mirror, because they had become so caught up in their own lies that they were afraid to see themselves for what they actually were.  They built up walls around themselves, shelter from the rarefied, pure atmosphere of being.  The courage to be, traded for security.  It wasn't a fair trade. 

     If this were all they did, it wouldn't be so bad.  But they encouraged others to build walls, and they gathered followers, until soon, it became strange not to have walls.  You became an outcast if you had the courage to be.  Many of those with the courage to be succumbed to these pressures.  They gave in and built up walls, because they thought it was the way. But they wouldn't accept credit for their wall.  They would proclaim loudly to any who would listen that these walls around them were built by society, the man down the road, anybody but himself.  And when they refused responsibility, they surrendered their courage to be and became like the others.

     Sitting under the fig tree, Siddhartha became enlightened.  He became the Buddha.  He came to understand the workings of the world, and how to be happy in the midst of all the suffering that he saw.  He created a formula for others to pursue in their search for enlightenment.  It is my turn to say what I have learned.  Siddhartha, in his teachings, talked about Nirvana that was the final goal.  People understood Nirvana to be a different place of existence from the earth.  I say that Nirvana is the earth.  Nirvana is this world.  Only you don't know it, and that's the problem.  this world is Nirvana for the people with the courage to be, for those without walls around themselves.  For those who aren't afraid to stand in the golden sunlight for all to see them for what they are, and for those who themselves aren't afraid to shine.  To shine in the glory of their own pursuit of excellence.  Excellence in anything and everything they do.  That is Nirvana -- the courage to be.  Take a look in the mirror some time.  Take a look at the Buddha.

To contact Bob:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Aug 2011/ Spring 1995 - Give me the damn Tic Tacs

Every time I come to the Los Angeles area I have dinner with my old friend Oliver, so for this trip I booked a hotel room in Marina Del Rey so we could go out.  Unfortunately he had to cancel due to work commitments so I did some research and found a sushi place in LA called Sushi Zo.  The reviews were fantastic, describing this amazing culinary experience that included some very strict rules about how you actually ate the sushi and rules about mobile phones.  One review even noted that a woman was told to sit down and eat the piece of sushi in front of her before going to the bathroom.  Sounds like my kind of place.

After a quick drink with Kendall and Maria @ the Marina Del Ray Marriott I headed over to Sushi Zo, parking in the strip mall lot.  Walking past Papa John's, a Chinese Take-out place and then Starbucks I stepped up to the entrance, walked in and was greeted by one of the waitresses.  

"May I help you?"

"One for sushi please."  

"Sir, this is Omakase restaurant."

"Yes!  I read the reviews online.  This place is the best!"

She offers me a seat at the sushi bar or a table.  I should have sat at the bar, next time.  After washing my hands with the washcloth, my beer arrived and the sushi dishes started to flow, one at a time.

"Sir, Oyster with special sauce.  No soy sauce please"


"Sir, Yellowfin Tuna with scallion and wasabi.  No soy sauce please."

The plate had 4 rectangular pieces of melt-in-your-mouth yellowtail.  With every dish came a description of what it was and instructions on how to eat it, whether or not I was allowed to use soy sauce.  There were two or three dishes where it was a little ball of rice topped with some fish I had never heard of and sprinkled on top was a truffle salt.  This had to be the closest I would ever come to experiencing what it is like to dine at El Bulli, the now closed restaurant in Spain which once hosted a Dom PĂ©rignon sponsored 47-course dinner for guests helicoptered in for the affair at a cost of 125K.

My three favorite dishes were the Monkfish Liver, Uni and Ikura.  The quality of the fish was even better than what I've had in Tokyo, and that sushi is pretty much out of this world.  The whole experience was about an hour long and left me feeling satiated, elated, happy.  One of the top five meals ever.  My only regret was there was no one with me to share in this experience.

So this morning I'm talking to my old friend Scott while driving up the PCH to Oxnard.  Scott and I met while working for a computer telephony start-up back in 1994.  He and I would often do side work to make some extra money and one of our clients was through another old friend of mine Pamela.  Pamela worked for a lobbyist in DC and as a result of her job ended up with tickets to all sorts of DC events.  Scott and I were down doing some work in the Spring of 1995 and Pamela's boss gave her 4 tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof so she invited Scott and I to join her and her now husband.  

We shower up, get dressed and it's about 6:30, the show is at 8:00.  At 24 years old I wasn't much of a fine food connoisseur yet so when we walked into The Capital Grille on Pennsylvania Avenue on a Friday night without reservations the hostess sort of laughed at us.  She then told us that she had a table, but it was in this private room and that there was a party of 50 coming in at 8:00 so we had to be out of there before then.  I promised her that we would be gone by then as we had to make it to the play.

She walks us through the restaurant and into this room, completely encased in floor-to-ceiling windows which looked like french doors.  We sat down and it was a surreal experience to have this whole room to ourselves, separated from the rest of the patrons who were staring in to figure out who were these kids getting the special treatment.  The waiter shows up a few minutes later and asks us if we are friends of Senator D'Amato.  Confused we answer no and he tells us that we are sitting at his table.  Scott and I enjoyed this amazing meal, a very guy meal, fried calamari with the hot cherry peppers, two beautiful steaks and some creamed spinach and baked potatoes.  We ate, drank some nice red wine and scooted out of there at 7:50 with just enough time to make it to the theatre for a great performance of Fiddler.  

Scott and I made many trips to DC in 94/95/96 and usually when we did work for Pamela she would take us out to dinner.  This is where the Tic Tacs come into play.  One night the three of us are waiting outside the now closed California Pizza Kitchen on Connecticut Avenue when this maybe homeless guy comes up to us and asks for $5.  Now I'm not going to just give him $5 and we have a lot of time to kill until the buzzer goes off for our table so I start a conversation with him.  

"I'll give you $5 later.  What's your name?"


"I'm Chris, this is Scott and that is Pamela."  

"Can I have $5?" 

"Later.  Are you from around here?"

Ashad wasn't at all annoyed, just a little flustered trying to figure out should he hang around for the $5 or should he take cut his losses and just move on.  He decided to do both.  While we were talking and I was finding out about how he plays saxophone in a band he would periodically turn away to ask the people walking by for money.  Another person walks by ignoring his request for money and Ashad turns to us and says: 

"After dinner go to this club on X street (I forget the location), knock on the back door and tell the guy who answers that Ashad sent you.  He'll take care of you.  Can I have my $5 now?"

I counter with, "Ashad, where did you grow up?"

Another person walks by, Ashad asks for money and another person says no.  I pull out of my pocket some Tic Tacs and offer them to Ashad.  

"I don't want your Tic Tacs."  

"But Ashad, maybe you have bad breath.  Maybe the Tic Tacs will help."

Ashad ignores me and we talk a little bit about his childhood in DC, learning how to play the saxophone, and hearing in his voice the passion he has for music.  About 25 minutes have passed and we keep going back and forth about the Tic Tac's after each person passing by either ignores him or flat out says no.  Finally Ashad reaches his breaking point as he grabs the Tic Tacs out of my hand and yells:

"Fine!  Give me the damn Tic Tacs."  

He pops a few in his mouth and up the street comes this 40-something guy walking alone.  Ashad says, "Can I have $5?"  The guy stops, opens his wallet and hands him $5.  Scott, Pamela and I are completely shocked.  Ashad looks at us as the guy is walking away and says, "Well, how about that." And the four of us start laughing.  

Our buzzer buzzes and it's time for us to have dinner.  I shook Ashad's hand and gave him $20.  

"Hey, can I have $5 more?"