Religious Studies and Buddhist Studies: Research that matters, especially now!

Category: Food (page 1 of 1)

Performance in a Former Bomb Shelter Made into a Lively Peace Sanctuary

On Saturday, January 17, 2015, I had the privilege to attend a performance by the art group of Meimen. This performance was titled Bǎirěn zhī yè 百忍之夜 , which literally translates to “The Evening of a Hundred [Forms of] Forbearance.” We will see, however, that the Chinese word rěn 忍 can be interpreted in a myriad of different ways and that it may have been intended here to mean something different from its usual meaning of “endurance, patience, or forbearance.” First, something must be said about the location called Meimen Garden (see, only in Chinese). This in one of the restaurants belonging to the Meimen Qigong group, right next to the former City Hall (Zhōngshāntáng 中山堂). The fact that it is situated underground results from its former function as a bomb shelter (fángkōngdòng 防空洞 ). The founder of the Meimen approach, Master Lee, reinterpreted these three characters to mean “preventing the human heart from being hollow” (fángzhǐ rénxīn kōngdòng 防止人心空洞), which is also why it has a stage where various heart-filling cultural events can take place. This is how the sign in stained glass posted above the entrance leading underground looks now: DSCN1463 I will abstain from attempting to interpret this piece of art, which obviously suggests the convergence of various religious approaches. The caption on their website explains that it was created by Yóu Shūfēn 游淑芬 and “symbolizes the world where all phenomena return to the one” (象徵萬法歸一的境界). Let me rather return to the performance. It was made of six sections, each referring to one of the functions of the six consciousnesses (the five senses, plus the mind). From what I heard, this is linked to the teachings given by the founder about the Method [to Cultivate] a Mind of Great Endurance (百忍心法). I will post further info about this when I learn more. At first sight, it involves much more than “patience” and seems to carry the nuance of “appreciation” as well. In any case, as a performance, it was really impressive. Each of the six sections made a distinctive point about the six aspects: 1. sight (guān rěn 觀忍), displaying an enthralling dance performance, 2. hearing (tīng rěn 聽忍), expressed through two mini concerts, one with violin and the other one with the traditional èrhú 二胡, 3. smell (wén rěn 聞忍), expressed through danse, 4. taste, involving amazing sleights of hand culminating with the magic apparition of a guava juice (pǐn rěn 品忍), 5. touch (chù rěn 觸忍), which featured acrobatic martial art combat, and 6. thoughts (yì rěn 意忍) conveyed through songs. A video excerpt from the martial art section is visible here: Video. Regarding the technical term rěn 忍 and its use in Buddhism, although it is widely understood in modern Chinese in the sense of the verb rěnshòu 忍受, to endure or to bear, or as the adjective or the noun rěnnài 忍耐, patience, endurance, ancient Buddhist texts used it as a translation for the Sanskrit kṣānti, with slightly different nuances. Recently, I came across the following fascinating article by a Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the State University of New York: Cho Sungtaek (趙 性澤). “The Psycho-semantic Structure of the Word kṣānti (Ch. Jen).” (online article, no date) Although this is fairly technical, his discussion focuses on the expression wúshēng fǎ rěn 無生法忍, and its equivalent in Sanskrit, anutpattika-dharma-kṣānti, which indicates one of the forms of awakening assuring avinivartanīya, the non-retrogression stage of the bodhisattva. He claims that “the earlier usages of kṣānti in Buddhist texts will show no relation to the word ‘patience’.” He further asserts that, “as a Buddhist technical term, it denoted an attentive ‘intentionality,’ or various modes of such mental states.” If you had the patience to read up to this point, what do you think about the Chinese word rěn 忍? What does it suggest to you, and do you see any good translation into English that would avoid the largely negative nuances associated with verbs such as “to endure”?

Well, since I raised the question and asked to members of the Meimen movement how they perceived this technical term, here are the few elements of answers gathered so far.

  • The character rěn 忍 evokes rèn 認 without the radical yán 言 for “words” and can thus hint at preverbal recognition, such as in the compound  rènmíng 認明 signifying to see clearly or to recognize something for what it is.
  • One person suggested “acceptance” but I am more inclined to favor “awareness.” I understand this as a pointer toward the need for mindfulness, a nonjudgmental recognition of how the sense objects interact with the corresponding faculties and mental factors associated with them.
  • This seems to closely correspond to the early Buddhist discoveries about epistemology, formulated by differentiating between the eighteen components of cognition, made of the six sense faculties, their six objects, and the corresponding six consciousnesses (shíbā jiè 十八界).

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:

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:

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.

A down to earth perspective of Taipei

Chinese religiosity is often characterized through its practical character. It tends toward realism in the sense of being anchored in concrete reality (shíjì 實際), as opposed to the taste for metaphysical speculation found elsewhere.

Thus, allow me to digress with a few practical adventures punctuating the day. It begins with having bought some kumquats (jīnjú 金橘, often written 金桔, kinkan 金柑 in Japanese) in a local grocery store, thinking that they would provide a welcome protection against the colds widespread in my surroundings. Unfortunately, once the plastic box was opened they proved not to be fresh enough to be eaten, and I thought that trying to return the item would provide a good opportunity to practice my language skills. Thus, I went back to the store and explained that because they were not fresh they were not edible, and therefore requested to return the fruits. Mission accomplished: the refund was granted without problem.
Getting used to living in a new country involves myriad of small things to learn, such as the above. Coming from Japan, I was also unused to having to watch for tea bottles labeled “unsweetened” (wútáng 無糖). Who would suspect that most teas including green tea would be full of sugar? Always learning through trial and error (chángshì cuòwù fǎ 嘗試錯誤法 , shikō sakugo 試行錯誤 in Japanese)…

Speaking of first experiences, today I took the subway, also called Taipei Metro, and more commonly known as the MRT (Metro Rapid Transit) or jiéyùn 捷運. Went to Zhōngshān 中山, where the Central Station for trains and buses is located. Very convenient rechargeable “Easy Card” (yōuyóukǎ 悠游卡, literally “leisurely and carefree card”). In the third basement floor of the shopping mall, there is a wonderful vegetarian buffet called Míngdé Sùshí Yuán 明德素食園 (English name: Minder Vegetarian). It is amazing to see that even in a busy food court there is a vegetarian stall: it really indicates that vegetarianism belongs to mainstream Taiwanese culture.

In class, I learned about Kuāfǔ 夸父, the giant who chased the Sun and died in the attempt. The expression Kuāfǔ zhúrì 夸父逐日 refers to someone who doesn’t know his own limits, evoking a form of Quixotism but linked more precisely to the lack of humility (qiānxū 謙虛), a cardinal virtue in the Confucian ethos.

Pictures taken tonight, mostly in the area of Gǔtíng 古亭, with its temple dedicated to Dìfǔyīn Gōng 地府陰公 (a deity of the underworld), have been posted here:

Amazing Taipei

Intensive first day of Chinese classes, followed by the discovery of the back streets around Shida (Taipei Normal University). Guided by the HappyCow app and intrigued by the description of a vegetarian restaurant belonging to a group of Qigong practitioners, I landed in the Meimen Center for Arts and Ethics. Although the restaurant was closed to the public on Monday, a lady invited me to share their meal and provided me with a wealth of information. I ended up learning the basic movement of Píngshuǎi 平甩, and receiving an invitation to come any time or on Saturday during the formal Qigong practice in English. Not too bad for my second day in Taipei! Although this is a huge city whose air is more polluted than the places I am used to, it exudes considerable positive energy and an uplifting vibe. Youth and elderly people seen in the streets mostly look happier than in many other places. I suspect that this may be related to the deep layers of spirituality supporting this thriving culture. Young people may seem unaware of their legacy, with their usual vulnerability to superficial trends coming mostly from the U.S., but they are unknowingly participating in something much bigger, which has the potential to transform the world. I am eager to learn from everyone with great humility.