Menu Close

Category: Education

Tremendous Emphasis on Reading and on Education

Although most countries put a heavy emphasis on the economy coming first, Taiwan stands out as a privileged place where culture and education occupy a central place. The level of knowledge displayed even by young children is impressive and the fact that this largely results from a national policy is visible from various angles. It is a private enterprise but let me begin with the remarkable example of the bookstore called Eslite (Chéngpǐn 誠品), which is open twenty-four hours a day and attracts flocks of people of all ages. Many of them enjoy reading in a cosy atmosphere, sustained by refined classical music.

Here is an exterior view of the building:

The twenty-four hour bookstore called Eslite (Chéngpǐn 誠品)

Now, as an example of public policy, it is rather surprising to find a branch of the Taipei Public Library in the subway mall, appropriately called “Intelligent Library” (Dōngqū Dìxiàjiē Zhìhuì Túshūguǎn 東區地下街智慧圖書館). This type of intelligence, however, also refers to the insight cultivated in the Buddhist tradition (prajñā). In any case, encouraging people to read books with the explicit aim to help them expand their knowledge and their wisdom is inspiring. The Chinese verb used for “to study” is niànshū 念書, which also has the meaning of “reading books” (kànshū 看書). A government pushing its citizens to become more educated or even literate deserves to be praised. Maybe the American policy-makers could learn something from Asia!

A section of the Taipei Public Library in the subway mall

Here is a picture with a better definition.

The discovery of true shame removes the root of all conflicts

Today, first guided class of qìgōng 氣功 at Meimen, focused on the píngshuǎi 平甩 exercise, followed by a meditation. Wonderful people and warm atmosphere. After spending some time sipping their special tea in the tea house, went to their restaurant called Meimen Tea Pavillion (Méimén shuǎichálǔ 梅門甩茶滷), which promotes the ideal of “nourrishing one’s life [energy] with strong tastes” (yǎngshēng lǔwèi 養生滷味). The dining hall is a reconstituted ancient school, displaying traditional mottos on the wall under the portrait of Sun Yat-sen. Here is a picture:

Inside the Meimen Tea Pavillion

For a better definition, see here:  http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-CvGHkrH/0/L/i-CvGHkrH-L.jpg Now, curiosity demanded to transcribe these characters and to seek their meaning.

The translation below has been adjusted thanks to several readers’ comments but I would appreciate further suggestions for improvement.

禮尚往來 lǐ shàng wǎnglái

義在合宜 yì zài héyí

廉得其情 lián de qíqíng

恥化干戈 chǐ huà gāngē

Courtesy calls for reciprocity

Righteousness derives from what is appropriate

Thorough purity and lucidity leads to obtaining such sensibility

The discovery of true shame removes the root of all conflicts.

The first sentence can easily be traced back to the Book of Rites (Lǐjì 禮記), and I believe it has a lot to do with the current importance given to preserving one’s “face” or reputation (miànzi 面子) by reciprocating gifts or favors. The last sentence, however, is the one that struck a nerve, especially given recent events. The Confucian exemplary person (jūnzǐ 君子) radiates power and virtue that originate from a profound awareness of his or her own limitation, so profound that it leads to what I have translated as “true shame,” an indirect way to indicate realization. The presence of such persons will lead those who surround them to cease conflict and drop all weapons. Furthermore, the microcosm interacts with the macrocosm and, by extension, a realized person will contribute to make warmongers and trigger-happy folks realize their foolishness and help them realize that violence toward others is harming themselves.

Aside from the Confucian classics emphasizing the importance of this deep self-awareness, Chan recorded saying also include the telling example of the Linji master Wǔzǔ Fǎyǎn 五祖法演 (1024?–1104) who expressed his deepest insight by modestly saying he had “discovered true shame” (zhīxiū 知羞).

Inner peace begins with food and dedication

In a world shattered by senseless violence and fanaticism, it is comforting to see a society exuding poise at almost every corner. Without overrating the Taiwanese social fabric, which has to deal with its own set of problems, it manifests signs of equilibrium and purpose in unobtrusive ways. Two of these striking features are the average people’s relation with food and the degree of dedication to traditions exhibited in small stores everywhere.

Regarding food, vegetarian and vegan restaurants abound. One of the most remarkable ones, which makes my life here much easier, is the restaurant  Sùshí Tiāndì 素食天地 (The Heaven and Earth of Vegetarian Food) near Shida (National Taiwan Normal University 國立臺灣師範大學, abbreviated as Shīdà 師大). It provide an affordable buffet for lunch and dinner, which costs on average between 100 and 200 Taiwanese dollars depending on the weight (100 Taiwanese dollars roughly correspond to 3 US $). There are about 50 different dishes available every time, and they are different from day to day. Here is a view showing inside the restaurant, with a statue of the Bodhisattva Guānyīn 觀音 presiding over the buffet:

Inside Sùshí Tiāndì 素食天地

For a picture with a better resolution, see: http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-qxXWLsb/0/S/i-qxXWLsb-S.jpg

Regarding dedication to traditions, examples are visible on main avenues as well as in the tiny back alleys. Here is one illustration: a dry cleaning store with its striking bright altar.

Nearby dry cleaning shop with its altar

For a picture with a better resolution, see: http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-396j6HB/0/L/i-396j6HB-L.jpg

In relation to the delicate topic mentioned at the beginning of this post, displays of senseless violence feeding the media frenzy, today’s language class included an interesting exchange. As we discussed the premisses of the Buddhist tradition, I was asked whether even “bad people” such as “terrorists” also possess the Buddha nature. My unequivocal reply was that wúmíng 無明, “ignorance” or “nescience,” constitutes the root of all negativity. This entails asking the complex question of what can be done to remove the layers of ignorance covering the minds and hearts of the largest portion of mankind, beginning with oneself. Since providing a verbal answer will not suffice, this awareness ought to translate into action, educational, pedagogical, humanitarian, engaged, or otherwise.