Football and Suffering

After Gautama Buddha had his fundamental insights into the mechanisms of the world fabric, the first thing he taught his fellows was the Four Noble Truths. The first aspect to realise is that all life is dukkha. Unfortunately, this is often translated as suffering, sometimes more adequately but also cumbersome as unsatisfactoriness. It is neither a pessimistic statement nor a nihilistic or fatalistic one. It is certainly based on Gautama’s observation that everybody – no matter if rich and wealthy or poor and disadvantaged – inevitably experiences sickness, disease, decay and death, constantly trying hard to avoid and escape these circumstances, but Buddha’s insight goes much deeper than this, as later Buddhists elaborated and explained. Driven by this fundamental fear we constantly crave for manifesting ourselves in pleasant and happy states of mind, body, and spirit. We fall victim of the illusion that there are desirable things in our lives that are worth longing for and undesirable things that we better avoid. These attachments and resistances, rooted in the ignorance of how things really are, form the mind poisons that the second Noble Truth claims to be the cause of dukkha. In this view, dukkha is not only the directly experienced suffering such as diseases, pain, misery, hunger, death, but also any form of dependence of our mental well-being on external factors that are beyond our control. This might be a bit difficult to understand. Therefore, let me give a very current example: football!

Football fans are often suffering. Earlier this year, we saw Dutch and Italian fans crying because their national teams could not qualify for the world cup taking place right now in Russia. When the football season of the German football leagues ended in May, we saw supporters of unsuccessful teams like in Hamburg, Mannheim or Karlsruhe unleash their frustration in violence and vandalism. And just two days ago, we saw German football fans in desperation over Germany’s national team dropping out of the tournament in Russia after the group phase (not making it to the round of 16 for the first time ever in the history of the world championships). The surprising failure of the Mannschaft even made it to the Breaking News with a News Special after the main evening News on TV. An outside observer might find this quite astonishing or disturbing: After all, this is just sports! Nothing really important! How can it have such a huge impact on the life of people that are not even directly involved in playing the game?

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German supporters shocked after the national team lost a match at world cup 2018

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Supporters of Hamburger SV burn fireworks in the stadium after it was clear the team would have to go down to 2nd national league.

Football is a very important and ubiquitous part of the German society. More than 25000 amateur and professional football clubs are registered. Almost every Kid will, sooner or later, be asked to join a football club, and – even more important – to choose a favourite team (or, as we say, “choose your colours”). Since my grandparents lived (and still live) near Hamburg and my family went there very often to visit them, I had a strong connection to that city. This was reason enough to choose Hamburg’s biggest and most renowned football club Hamburger SV as my favourite team. In the past, they had been quite successful, and in the beginning of the 1990s it was still a big name (meanwhile they went down to the 2nd national league).

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The iconic logo of Hamburger SV

Yet, I have never been a really big football fan, never went to the stadium to watch a game (my only stadium visit, actually, was in Japan in 2010 to see a J-League match of Nagoya Grampus Eight), and since around 1999 I didn’t express any preference of any football team. Yet, of course, I got in touch with football fans in public, especially on weekends when league matches took place. Many supporters travel by train, often drunk, always loud, and sometimes extremely aggressive, violent and disrespectful. I have encountered vandalism, vulgarities, brutal affrays, and more scary and shocking scenes close to or beyond the limits of the legally allowed. Unfortunately, and certainly also misjudging a large part of football supporters, I can’t deny that my image of (serious, active) football fans is outstandingly negative: stupid, brainless, misbehaving, immoral scum! If you want an advice: Whenever you can, stay away from them!

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Drunk English fans

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Supporter of German team FC Schalke 04 at the end of the day (around 6PM)

From my perspective, making one’s mood and well-being dependent on the performance of a football team is the master example of what Buddha meant with dukkha. There is no causal relation between a team’s success and a supporter’s mental state except the fan’s attachment to the idea of supportership. Football fans often speak of tradition, Heimat (something like home or native origin), connection. Yet, there is no rational or reasonable basis for this idea. Most players of today’s professional teams are from all around the world but not from the city or region where the club is located. Moreover, today’s football clubs are economic corporations that give a shit about emotional connection between fans’ hearts and the logo or image of the club. But football fans, so to say, commit themselves voluntarily to a form of empathy with the club or the team: when the team loses, they are sad or angry; when the team wins they are euphoric and happy. Both are extremes. A detachment from this dependence would result in a more balanced and wholesome state of mind that is not dependent on an external factor. “How boring!”, some will say. “That’s not what life is about! We want that thrill!“. This is where the ethical dimension comes into play: When the attachment and the resulting dependence of the emotional state leads to unethical behaviour like violence (on, possibly, neutral bystanders and innocent third parties) and public vandalism (a violation of social contracts), the football supporters’ dukkha has to be condemned and sanctioned! When the private, personal sphere of dukkha – which can be answered with compassion and forgiveness – is exceeded towards the public sphere, it requires hard consequences.

You see, in any way, conditional commitment to uncontrollable factors like the performance of football teams causes displeasure for the supporters, the bystanders, and even non-involved third parties, caused by the fans’ suffering (dukkha) which, here, does not refer to the experience of sadness and/or anger after lost matches, but to the dependence of one’s well-being on an external factor, a connection that is chosen voluntarily and could, in principle, be different. Just understand what makes you form this unreasonable bond with a football team (pressure from peers? tradition? patriotism? psychological dispositions?) and develop a more mindful perspective (such as no matter how the team performs, your life is not directly affected by it, if you don’t give it such a power). Ideally, better have a degree of mindfulness that makes it irrelevant and unnecessary for you to form a strong emotional commitment towards anything in the world that is outside of your personal realm.

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Teaching at university in Taiwan

The semester is over. I was teaching a class entitled Science and Technology Ethics (original title as appearing in the course list: 善與義務:科學與科技倫理) at Tunghai University in Taichung (find the lecture script here, if you are interested). In one of the last classes I handed out evaluation sheets to let the students give me a feedback that I can use to improve my teaching and my class outline. I am very happy to receive a generally very positive feedback! Students pointed out that my classes are always well prepared, that I am always kind to the students and willing to answer questions, and that my way of presenting this philosophical topic (applied ethics though) is vivid, interesting and increasing their interest in this normative academic discipline. Of course, not all students liked my teaching style or found the class appealing, but the wide range of evaluations (some found the pace too slow, others too fast; some said I offered too much reading material, others wished to have more; some would like to have more interaction in class, others felt I waste time with class discussions (more on that later)) show me that I might have found a suitable middle way. On the other side, there have been a few rather negative comments that bother me a lot! In order to get them out of my head I want to write them down here (blogging as a therapy).

Before coming to my point, I’d like to explain the differences between the German and the Taiwanese education system, which is necessary for understanding why my German teaching approach clashes with the Taiwanese university culture. Here is an overview including the linguistic expressions that we use to describe the stages of education that kids and adolescents go through:

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In Germany, children go to Kindergarten at the age of 3 (usually). Here, they mostly play or playfully learn very basic daily life skills like tying shoes, brushing teeth, handcrafts, and socialising. At the age of 6, school starts with 4 years primary (or elementary) school. After that, a kid (or better: the parents) have two options: continuing with a 6-year secondary school (Hauptschule, Realschule) that is finished after grade 10, or a 9-year secondary school (Gymnasium). Only the latter qualifies for studying at a university. The former qualifies for an apprenticeship (accompanied by vocational school, Berufsschule) for craftsmanship, service jobs, labour, all “non-academic” jobs. We refer only to these 10 or 13 years as school where we as Schüler (schoolchildren, or ‘pupils’ in BE) learn what teachers teach us. Only at university we are Studenten (students) and study something. I am aware that in English, especially in American English, study and student are used more generally for all ages, but in the German understanding, study (studieren) sounds very much like sitting down and delving into books and scripts until one gets profound knowledge of something or can even develop creative new insights from it. At school, we never really study, we just learn what the teacher tells us, for example in the form of homework or exercise questions from a textbook. But universities are not schools! They are academic research institutions with the task to educate the future generation of academics. There are no teachers (except for the departments that educate the future generation of teachers, maybe), but professors, researchers, and senior academics. Those giving chemistry lectures, for example, are not chemistry teachers, but chemical researchers and academic experts that have never learned in any formal way how to teach. Students, therefore, are not taken care of like at school, but have to organise their student life by themselves. They are expected to be interested in what they study, to voluntarily go to the library and get the necessary books, and to have a high motivation to sit down and study.

This is VERY different in Taiwan. Kids, here, even study Kindergarten, and when they are 6 they graduate from Kindergarten with a ceremony. Then, they study elementary, junior high, and senior high school. Almost every adolescent continues, then, with undergraduate courses at a college or university. All of these institutions are considered schools. That’s why people here think that I am a teacher. This environment (and linguistic understanding of it) has clear consequences on the study culture. Even at university, students expect to be taken care of like teenagers. They appear much more immature to me than their German peers. Moreover, whereas in Germany the choice of major is already the first step into the direction of the future profession, in Taiwan students can study something which has not necessarily anything to do with their future job. Most don’t even know what kind of career they would like to pursue. The only goal is getting the Bachelor degree, because many jobs – reportedly even bus driver and hairdresser – require a college degree. Therefore, students just study for passing the exams well to get good grades.

Back to my course. Even though it was associated with the philosophy department, it was open to all students of all majors. 39 students were registered for it. One third was philosophy students, another third language majors, and the last third from other majors like international business or sciences. Around 20 students have been present in all classes, some appeared occasionally, and 8-10 almost never showed up. I had 16 classes (each 100 minutes), but 2 of them were midterm and final exam. Since my Chinese is still too poor, I taught the class in English. I admit that this is truly a challenge for the Taiwanese students, but they all knew it from the beginning, so I may assume that they all judged themselves capable of attending an English class successfully, otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen it. In terms of teaching style, I planned to have a healthy mix of lecture and interactive discussion and/or group work. Yet, in the first classes, I sensed that it would be very difficult to gain anything meaningful in an efficient way from involving the students. When I asked questions, there was just no response (unless it was really just a simple brainstorming). Even when I handed out group tasks related to the class content we just talked about, some students had no clue what to do. In the later classes, I reduced the class activities in order not to waste valuable class time. This led to negative comments on the evaluation sheets. It was boring because I just kept lecturing. I should motivate the students more to participate. Some students also wrote clearly that this is not the teacher’s fault, but the unlucky and bad tradition among Taiwanese students not to open their mouths and not to use their brains.

Taiwanese students don’t want to use their brains!”. Since I worked as a postdoctoral fellow and then as an adjunct assistant professor at a Taiwanese university, I heard this statement very often, from senior professors, but also from students. Does it mean, I should adapt my teaching style and my expectations to this fact? Should I challenge them less but reduce the level? One student wrote:

Sometimes I feel the explanations are a bit too much. It would be nice to stay simple. Nowadays, simplicity seems to be a trend. To be honest, I’ve only read a few scripts. I’m not sure if I could grasp the meaning.

This is a university class! Complex matters like the ethical evaluation of scientific and technological development and their impact on society are not simple! My presentation slides for one class almost never exceeded 10 slides, and I always put simple graphic overviews and illustrations on them because I don’t like too much text on slides that I will say anyway. From my perspective, the class content is already as simple as possible! But sure, students that sleep or play with their smartphones in class miss the point, of course, and then find it difficult to grasp the meaning. It also means, obviously, that students expect that the teacher (even though university lecturers are not teachers) will refine and present all the content in entertaining and easy-to-swallow bits and portions. They won’t read more than 2 pages of lecture script, not to speak of going to the library and looking for any of the books I recommended throughout the course.

Among the questions on the evaluation questionnaire that required a rating on a scale from 1 (very good) to 6 (very bad/insufficient), one of the worst average ratings (2.8, still not super bad) was received by the question whether the student can see the usefulness of the class content for the future job. I tried hard to explain in every class how they can apply the strategies, concepts and thought patterns in their later jobs, whatever they will be. It seems to me, many students have no imagination of their future job life. It is too far from now for them. The following comment from a student’s evaluation sheet illustrates another phenomenon widely observed in Taiwan:

Overall, this is a course people can learn something from, but the practical usage of it is not clear to me. Some of the strategies taught in class are really helpful for critical thinking!”

Well, isn’t critical thinking a very practical usage for all kinds of activities? According to my wife (a former High school English teacher) and many other Taiwanese friends that I talked to, the Taiwanese education system doesn’t encourage critical thinking, but sometimes even punishes it. Possibly rooted in the times of martial law in which the Chinese Nationalists that ruled Taiwan (Kuomintang, KMT) wanted workers but no intellectuals, practical doing is much more appreciated than thinking which is considered a purely theoretical activity. It can be perfectly possible that my class impressed some students by showing them for the first time what it means to think critically (in case I may believe some comments like this from other students’ evaluation sheets). But for many, apparently, this is nothing in which they see value, and certainly no practical value. Even though this is a university class, I obviously have to assume that the students attending it are not in any way of the intellectual type but rather looking for instructions on how to perform particular work operations or how to finish tasks. But this is impossible in an applied ethics topic!

I will, of course, try harder to make the classes appealing for all the students, get them to participate actively, and to leave every class with the motivating feeling of having learned something useful. But I won’t change my idea of university classes, expecting (and imagining) students being interested in the class content, being ready to read topic-related articles or books, asking questions and thinking through the essence of my take-home messages. I won’t go with the low-level mainstream flow that students prefer. My class should be a challenge, only then would it be a good university class! I want students to learn how to think. If they refuse to do so, they shouldn’t be at a university at all, but get a labour job! But here I enter political terrain and better leave it to other people.

Taming an Ox

We often recognise in daily life that something goes wrong with us. Sometimes our body sends signals that something is wrong, especially when a part of the body feels pain or when an organ doesn’t function well. Also, our emotions may be sources of unease or imbalance sometimes, when we often feel gloomy, lose temper too easily or when too enthusiastic happiness or joy makes us do things that we later regret or regard as stupid. Finally, the most difficult to detect among these three, our thoughts disturb us, cause insomnia, circle around the same things again and again, make us doubt, worry, complain, etc. I guess nobody (except Buddha and some Bodhisattvas) can say that everything in life goes well. When we recognise, understand and accept this fact, we are a big step further!

Imagine you are driving a car at high speed and something is wrong with it. You hear a strange noise or it trembles suddenly. It would be very dangerous and also impossible to find out the reason for the malfunction while driving high speed. Instead it would be reasonable to stop the car, get out of it, walk around it and find the problem (maybe a loose wheel, or something like that). Meditation is the same procedure for the malfunctioning of ourselves. When we recognise something goes wrong with our body, emotions or thoughts, it would be very difficult, almost impossible, to examine, identify or even heal the problem while driving high speed, that means in daily life when we use body, emotions and thoughts as usual. Meditation means to stop, hold on, get out of oneself and observe from outside. That’s what mindfulness is good for. Get out of ourselves and into our mind. Feel and recognise our body signals, not only pain, but also breathing speed, muscle tensions, heartbeat, and so on. Detect emotions and their sources, how they take control of us. With some training we can notice how the pure primary emotions (positive, negative or neutral feelings) are turned into secondary emotions (anger, hate, sadness, happiness, joy, boredom, etc.) by processing those original perceptions with our experiences and habits. We can also observe our thoughts from the outside, which is most difficult, because people tend to think a lot even during a meditation, and can’t imagine how to capture thoughts without thinking about them. In order to explain this matter I found another picture from real life. Imagine you give a party at your home. At 8PM the first guests arrive, you open the door and let them in. With everyone you start a conversation, talk about this and that, debate, tell the latest News, etc. If you proceed like that, many guests will have to wait outside until they have a chance to pass you, and you will be very busy. It would be better to open the door, let everyone in, recognize everyone, but not to talk to everyone for a long time, so that everyone can come in. There will still be time for further talking later. Now transfer this to the situation in our mind. There are always many thoughts that rush into our mind. And usually we spend a lot of time on each and every thought, discuss, debate, follow a line of thought, consider consequences, analyse implications, etc. By this we can never have a clear mind, because all the thoughts that are still waiting for their turn make us feel stressed and overstrained. During the meditation you let all thoughts in, like the party guests, but just recognise them and don’t let them start a deep conversation with you. When all thoughts are there, you have an overview and can say “Aha, these are the things I am thinking. Well, those thoughts are ill-logic and make no sense, so I won’t spend more time on them. These thoughts over there are interesting, I will focus on them later…”, and so on.

With the help of meditation we can understand ourselves much better and we can make strategies on how to behave in a healthy way in daily life. We can understand which behaviour is unhealthy (for example negative emotions that pull us down, or thoughts that keep us awake all night long), so that we can find ways to free ourselves from those patterns. It sounds so simple but is yet so difficult. I guess it takes years to gain an obvious effect from meditation (those 20-30 minutes every evening at home) on our daily routine (all the rest of the time, at work, in the subway, in the supermarket, on holiday, at home, etc.). Another analogy: In my very first swimming class, I didn’t enter the pool but practiced movements on a mat besides the pool, a dry practice. When the teacher was sure that I got it right, he let me enter the water. Meditation is the dry practice for the deep waters of daily life.

The goal of meditative practice is a clear pristine mindfulness, a being-in-the-moment, here and now. With this ability we expand the state of floating – the psychological term for indulging deeply in a hobby or pleasant passionate activity for some time, for example  two hours that feel like 15 minutes – to the entire life. The practice itself is not easy and requires continuous and steady exercise. Among laymen, there is the common misconception that meditation is a form of relaxing, a kind of retreat on a pillow to step out of the stressful daily life. They underestimate that the attempt to disconnect the mind from default emotions and thoughts and to re-configure it in awareness of how things really are is a notoriously difficult and exhausting endeavour. The Buddhist traditions refer to a huge canon of instructions with detailed description of sitting positions (like Zazen), emphasising the importance of unhindered flow of Qi for the liberation of the mind. A central element of different forms of meditation is an object of mental focus that serves as an anchor or fix point whenever the mind drifts off into thoughts and emotions. Some meditations suggest real items like a flower or a Buddha statue, others employ the most natural constant clock that we have: our breath. In Zen meditations, whenever we notice a thought protruding into our pure awareness, we should draw our mental attentions back towards the flow of our breath.

Experiencing these difficulties makes many beginners give up soon after starting the practice. Progress seems slow and the efforts are not rewarded in the same way as for other exercises (like piano lessons – everybody can play at least a simple song after a few classes – or basketball exercises – everybody will hit the basket sooner or later). What even is progress or success in meditation, and how can we notice it? In Korea (maybe also other East-Asian countries, but I don’t know about that), the idea and progress of meditative practice is often described with 10 graphic illustrations that show the stages of herding an ox. It dates back to the 12th century (Song dynasty) when a Chinese Master called Gao-An Shiyuan composed the oldest known ox-herding series. Since then, every influential Master designed his own series of drawings and composed poem-like verses to describe each scene. Here, I’d like to explain meditation with the help of such a series of ox-herding pictures. I use illustrations by the skillful artist Peter Mahr.

  1. In search of the ox

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Beginners of meditation often feel like someone who heard of rumours that somewhere out there is a wild ox, lured by the idea to have his own tamed ox, but having no clue where to start looking for it. Same as the man in the image may ask himself after some time whether the rumours are true, you may start doubting the usefulness and meaning of meditation. You start to consider various different ways of improving the practice. You find yourself at a complete loss as to what you should do. Maybe, after struggling for a while, you reach a point at which you consider giving up altogether. Although you have tried to practice, you cannot see any progress at all. To alleviate this sense of frustration, some people turn to other kinds of practices that seem easier, like praying to the Buddha, repeating the Buddha’s name, or reciting some sutras. By doing this, they lose the original goal of meditation out of sight. Therefore, for someone who is really interested in reaching a stage of increased mindfulness (in a symbol from the Matrix movie: someone who chose the red pill), it is of utmost importance to continue the frustrating practice! No worries, the next stage will come!

  1. Discover the footprints

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Efforts in meditating can only be achieved with strong will and perseverance. You will face many obstacles that interfere with the practice, for example the people around you, your family, or some harmful friends telling you that you may as well drop the idea of meditation since it doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. By resisting the temptation to just give it up (like the man deciding to go back home and live without a tamed ox), you will achieve the first small successes. When there is no progress, it is simply because you are not exerting sufficient effort yourself. To think otherwise is foolish. It is ridiculous to complain that no one is helping you when you yourself are not making any effort.

At this point you may also start to notice that here and there are footprints. Maybe you suddenly realise that you were sitting without any thought for 10 minutes, feeling like only 1 minute has passed. The time between two thoughts is increasing, and you get a feeling for what it means to have a clear mind. A spoor! This may lead you to believe that now you are surely on the right path. Your task is to follow these footprints. You have to proceed entirely on the basis of your own effort. You may proceed slowly or quickly, but no matter how you proceed, you have to go on your own. You only find your own ox by following your own track. Other people found other oxen by following their own tracks.

  1. See the ox

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As you persevere in following the tracks of the ox, you finally begin to glimpse its tail or a horn behind a bush now and then. In this way you first catch sight of the ox. After practicing for some time, you gradually start to make progress. Occasionally, a little insight will light up for a few moments, die, light up again, and then die again. But, even the slightest experience of the pure mind, the Buddha Nature that the ox here stands for, is a proof-of-principle. It works! What you experience at this stage is something that you have never heard or seen before. Recognising now that such a thing exists, you reflect that it is probably correct to keep going in this direction. At such a moment the mind has to make an important decision: Continue or go home? Neo or Cypher (in terms of the Matrix movies)? Facing the ox may frighten the man. Find one’s Buddha Nature – a non-self – may be shocking for you. Only when you don’t give up now, when you don’t let the ox slip away again, when you proceed with confidence, you will be merited with your own ox. Although you are encouraged to continue, this is still an uncertain and ambiguous time.

  1. Catch the ox

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To attach a rope to the ox is incredibly difficult and exhausting, requiring the endurance of physical and mental hardships. The fiery nature of the ox is hard to control. Whatever you do, the ox will always try to retreat quickly and run away. After you have caught the ox and pulled it toward yourself with great effort for a while, it will suddenly pull you off in another direction. You try to pull it back, but again it manages to drag you elsewhere. It goes on and on like this.

What exactly is this difficult time? It refers to the stage when the meditation is composed partly of the state of clear mind, partly of distracted thoughts, and partly of sinking into dullness. At this time, these three factors seem to be competing with one another: at some time you find yourself in a state of dullness, at other times beset with distracting thoughts, and at other times in deep concentration. Our strong ego, manifested in solid patterns and habits that formed over years and decades, rebels against a free and clear mind since that would lead to its destruction (which is the actual goal of all these efforts). This is a very difficult period because now you are really fighting with the ox, like Neo fighting with Agent Smith.

  1. Tame the ox

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It is at this stage that you learn to handle the ox in the right way. Yet, this stage is still very critical. You become aware of the danger that the ox may be hurt or injured by your exerted forces with whip and bridle. In that case, all trust would be lost in a moment. At the same time, you don’t want the ox to break lose again and escape. This can be a very frightening time. From here, you can’t go back to a worldly life like before. You faced your Buddha Nature and can never ever again pretend that it is not there. People who reach this stage and stop here often drift off into nihilism or madness.

If you exert a great deal of effort for a while, then you will pass the critical moment. Thereafter, the ox comes following you voluntarily. This is the turning point. From an ox-less person we become an ox owner. We turn from a blind person into a seeing one. Once such a firm resolve has arisen in the mind, then you truly seize the abode of the meditative retreat. Now that the ox is being tamed in this way, the serenity of the mind is firmly held and does not move. The ego (as an external power over your mind) gives way to the Buddha Nature as the guiding force. Having passed over the critical moment, the ox now obediently follows without your having to grab hold of it and pull it.

  1. Ride home on the ox

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The fight is over, we can go home. Now, when you sit meditating, your wandering mind stops roaming around. You are here. When you sit, you sit. When you eat, you eat. When you walk, you walk. You are at a point where meditation also works in the supermarket or at the workplace. You play the flute while riding the ox, because there is nothing that could shake your firmness, nothing to be concerned about. Left to himself, the ox will just follow the way it has to go. Now that it has been tamed, however much you ignore it, it will no longer go anywhere that is not allowed. As for yourself, no matter whether you are sleeping or moving around, standing or lying down, no one else will be aware of the inner composure you have attained. At this sixth stage the practice really begins to develop with every step.

  1. Forget the ox, take a rest

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Now the ox is gone. First, you had to make an effort to hold on to the ox; then, after some time, it began to follow you with its own accord. At this stage, you do not have to pay any attention to it at all. It proceeds correctly along the way by itself. You are your Buddha Nature. Now, you can rest, doze, sleep, or whatever you prefer to do, because what costs you effort before, now proceeds constantly without any extra bit of mind power. Resting in balance and equanimity becomes part of our daily life. Even vigorous activities like working, driving a motorcycle, playing a music instrument or performing sports are, somehow, a way of resting in the Here-and-Now. Like in Daoism the wuwei (literally doing nothing), this form of inner stillness must not be mixed up with laziness and complete inactivity. It means that now you don’t do anything as the result of your fears and mind poisons (delusion, attachments, resistance), but as the result of your free and clear mind. There is no more waiting, since there is never nothing going on. There is no such thing as wasting time, since there is only this moment. Anyone coming and saying “Do something!” is just stirring up sand since you are doing the highest of all things all the time: Resting in mindful awareness. 

  1. Man and ox are both forgotten

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Both the ox and the man have now been forgotten, and you are sitting in silence and emptiness. Everything has been identified as constructs of your worldly default mind. In your initial deluded state, all phenomena – including space and time – are experienced as existing. But at this time, space and time collapse, there is only here and now. Finally, you grasp the real essence of what this means. Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness. Conventional and ultimate truth become one. This is finally the moment of awakening. This is the moment of complete freedom of mind. It is fine to come and fine to go. It is fine to lie on your back and fine to lie on your belly. Whether you are in hell, among the hungry ghosts, or amid the animals, everything is fine. If you find yourself in hell, in heaven, or in the Buddha lands, all you know is smiling mildly.

  1. Return to the origin

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Finally you realize that you have recovered your very own treasure, which you had forgotten all about. When you quietly reflect on it, you recognise that all of the exertions you put into the practice were actually unnecessary. Now when you simply open your mouth, this is a teaching of Dharma; when you walk along, this is also a teaching of Dharma. All of this has been there all the time, but you had to walk a long detour and get rid of all the luggage, the ballast that you accumulated since birth. In fact, it would have been better, had you been blind, deaf, and dumb because then you would not have been dragged into doing so many useless tasks. But you saw, heard, and thought, all coloured and deluded by desires and fears under impact of the mind poisons. Now your seeing, hearing and thinking have been cleared so that everything you do, say and think is filled with the Dharma.

  1. Teaching on the marketplace

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Now you are a Bodhisattva, a Buddha-like being that chose to remain in the world of Samsara rather than entering Nirvana in order to be of benefit to sentient beings. You cultivate the way of the bodhisattva in sharing your insights and gently hint others at wild oxen so that they can start their awakening process. You perform the deeds of a bodhisattva and embody the virtues of the Dharma (the Eightfold Path). Your mindful equanimity is unshakeable: If circumstances are favourable, you smile; and if circumstances are unfavourable, you still smile. With a laugh you take things as they are. In this stage, you are supporting all sentient beings in beneficial ways. Your karmic imprint on the world is tremendously positive! This is the highest state of mind you can reach.

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For more details, further insights, and a great collection of other ox-herding illustrations, visit this website by Gabor Terebess!

Gingerbread Houses (with recipe)

It is a tradition in a bakery culture like the German to make gingerbread houses (糖果屋) as the one described in the fairytale Hänsel and Gretel (漢賽爾與葛麗特), inhabited by an evil witch. This is the recipe for a gingerbread house as my father taught it to me. Strictly speaking, it is not “gingerbread” at all, because real gingerbread is not suitable for houses like these. First, it gets hard and dry after three days standing (and the houses are usually displayed for a few days for decoration), and it also gets too thick and massive so that it is not easy to produce the parts in the right size, especially for more sophisticated designs. The dough described here is based on a recipe for “Spekulatius”, traditional German Christmas cookies. With the right spices, however, it can taste almost like gingerbread. The amount of ingredients, here, is enough for a rather big house (let’s say, about 50cm high, wide and long).

Ingredients:

  • 1000g Wheat flour
  • 750g Sugar (half white, half brown)
  • 500g Butter (can partly be replaced 1:1 by Marzipan, for example 400g butter + 100g Marzipan)
  • 4 Eggs
  • Leavening agent: For special taste and right balance between brittleness and expansion during baking, it is recommended not to use baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), but potash (potassium carbonate) and/or salts of hartshorn (ammonium carbonate). I usually use a mix of the latter two, if available.
  • Spices: Cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, anis, etc… If your supermarket has it, get “gingerbread spice” or “Spekulatius spice” mixes. In Asia (Taiwan, China,…) you may use “Five spice” (五香粉), which also gives it a “christmassy” flavour.
  • For the “glue”: powder sugar, water, lemon juice (or “Citronella”).
  • Block chocolate (“couverture”) for the coating.
  • Candy and anything colourful for the decoration.

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Procedure:

Mix all ingredients to obtain a homogenous solid dough. Homogenous means you have to knead it quite well for quite some time. It is easier when the butter gets a bit warm. However, you know the dough is good when your hands start getting sore. Put the dough into a fridge for at least 2 hours or, ideally, overnight. When it is cold it is much easier to process it.

Now the dough is rolled out (3mm thick) and the pieces that are needed for the building are cut out. It must be planned and measured in advance! This is the design and architectural part of the work. Then the pieces are baked in the oven. Depending on the type and power of the oven, the baking time is 10-15 minutes. Be sure to put the hot and still slightly soft pieces onto a plane surface where they can cool and harden without deformation.

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You can either bake everything first (for simpler buildings where you can estimate the size of all parts beforehand), or start assembling the first pieces before baking more parts (which might be necessary when the size of further pieces depends on how the construction proceeds). The parts are “glued” together with a thick mix of powder sugar in water with a bit of lemon juice for better taste. Without the lemon juice, it will be too sweet (and only sweet)! As an alternative, my father mixed the powder sugar into egg white. It glues very well, and you can also apply it in the form of decorative snow and icicles. However, it turns so hard after a few days that sharp edges and pointy tips can injure your mouth while eating. Therefore, I prefer the softer version with lemon water. Be prepared for needing 500g of powder sugar for a house of the abovementioned dimensions. For 250g you will need only 2-3 spoons of water and a few drops of lemon juice. Apply the sticky mass to the edges of a piece and press it against the edge of the piece that it has to be connected with. Use supports (glasses, cups, boxes, books, etc.) if you are tired of holding the pieces with your hand. It usually takes 5 minutes for the pieces to be securely attached.

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The most difficult part is usually the roof, or any part that protrudes or “hangs”, or is positioned in a slope. Big pieces need support from below, or they will bend and break after a while. When the building is complete it can be coated with chocolate and decorated with candy. Some candy might stick on the chocolate coating directly, others must be attached with a bit of the powder sugar glue. In my opinion, it should be as much candy and as colourful as possible, but in this point everybody is creative in a different way. Moreover, one of my maxims is that everything on and in the gingerbread house must be eatable (except, maybe, the gold foil of those chocolate/caramel coins, and, of course, the figurines of witch, Hänsel, Gretel and the cat)! See examples of gingerbread houses that I made in the past years in the following “background story”.

Background story:

One of my very vivid childhood memories is the annual gingerbread house that my father made, usually around Christmas. We invited all the Kids from the neighbourhood and ate it together. Here is a photo of the house from 1984, and one with the neighbours’ Kids from 1985.

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From the late 1990s onwards, I continued this culinary tradition. I was 16 when I first made a gingerbread house together with some friends. In the second year, a piece of gingerbread broke and we couldn’t build the house as planned. Instead, we improvised and assembled a “bunker” instead of a normal house. An idea was born: Why not making different buildings every year with some funny features? In the following years the designs and constructions got more and more sophisticated. Unfortunately, most of our early houses (like a nuclear power plant, or a football stadium) are not documented by photos. The oldest I found is from 2004 (poor quality though): Two gingerbread towers with a gingerbread airplane crashed into one of them.

candyhouse2004

When the constructions became more complicated and needed much time (it takes me three days to make the houses of the past few years), the preparation and the consumption had to be separated. The annual gingerbread house party with the candy house, additional other food (because just the house would be too sweet!), and a traditional German alcoholic drink called Feuerzangenbowle (fire punch) became an institution in my yearly schedule, usually around Christmas (even though one has nothing to do with the other). In 2005 and 2006 we held this party in the form of a contest with several teams making houses and a jury awarding the best, most creative or most delicious. In 2005 (too bad, no photos…) we had the most impressive and at the same time most disgusting house: as a tribute to hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans earlier that year, a team made a house in Southern USA style, put it into a large box and flooded it with 4 liters of jelly pudding! In 2006, the Korean pagoda made by my friend Doro and me could not compete with the amazing circus of Jonas and Steffi!

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In 2007, I made a gingerbread version of the cathedral of my hometown Münster. I counted 436 pieces of candy on it.

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2008 saw the model of the Tuckesburg, a famous building in Münster that once was the home of zoologist Prof. Landois, founder of the first zoo of Münster.

candyhouse2008

In 2009, I was in Japan for a research project and introduced the candy house tradition to my friends and fellows there. For the sake of simplicity, I chose the most original witch house design.

candyhouse2009

In 2010, I made the castle of Münster (known as the administrative building of the university).

candyhouse2010

By the way, the figurines of witch, Hänsel, Gretel and the cat are still the same that my father used. You can find them in almost all the photos posted here.

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Among all the houses I made so far, 2011 is definitely the building with the biggest number of parts (more than 120). Does it look like Castle Neuschwanstein?

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After staying in a Buddhist temple in Korea in 2012, I tried to build such a temple. However, that turned out to be too challenging because the roof of Korean-style temples is much larger than the construction underneath. This is impossible to resemble even with the best cookie recipe.

candyhouse2012

As usual, this house was consumed during a party with many friends. Not much later, in February 2013, I made another house for my family (parents and siblings, nephews and nieces). It is another small one that looks like my childhood home in the countryside near Hoetmar.

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Later that year I left Germany for Asia. After moving to Taiwan around Christmas, I introduced myself to my new housemates and their friends with a gingerbread version of the Taipei101, until 2008 the highest building of the world. My gingerbread101 with a height of 118 cm was at that time the highest I had ever made.

candyhouse2013Dec

In 2014, Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Therefore, I built the most famous landmark and symbol of the separation of East and West Germany, the Brandenburg gate. The Kimbab (Korean sushi) indicates that the party preparation was already proceeding…

candyhouse2014

A cineastic highlight of 2015 for many people was the release of a new Star Wars movie. For an old fan like me, it was an inspiration to construct one of its most iconic spaceships, the Millennium Falcon (70cm diameter). Unfortunately, due to high air humidity and some construction difficulties (Don’t try to make flat disk-like structures with gingerbread!), the Gingerbread Falcon broke on the day of its construction. But I could get good photos, at least!

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How can this be topped? It probably can’t. In 2016 – still in Taiwan – our gingerbread house party was scheduled on December 24th, Christmas Eve. In Germany, this would be impossible, because this evening is an important family event, so that nobody would go to a party. Taking the opportunity of having such a party on Christmas, I decided to make a Christmas tree, combining the gingerbread tradition with a Christmas custom. With a height of 125cm, it also broke the record of 2013’s Gingerbread101.

candyhouse2016

This year, 2017, we decided not to make a candy house. It would be too much of a hassle to keep a very curious and uncontrollable Kid away from it (and chocolate coated cookies with candy on it are really not the stuff that 22-months-olds should eat…)! Instead, we will make Spekulatius cookies from the same dough with you (Tsolmo) and share them with visitors! When the time is right, there will be more candy houses, that’s for sure!

Real Music vs. Pop

Another story I remember vividly from my childhood is “The emperor’s nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen. I had a nicely illustrated book in German, and now you have an even nicer Chinese version of it.

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Here is a short summary of the story: The Chinese emperor gets knowledge of a bird with the loveliest voice ever. It is a rather plain and ordinary nightingale – and the emperor and the citizen don’t hide their disappointment about this unspectacular appearance – but when it starts singing, however, everybody is amazed by its clear and beautiful melodies. One day, a gift from the Japanese emperor arrives: a mechanical nightingale with gold and gemstone applications that looks really precious and valuable. It’s melodies, however, are not as pleasant as the real nightingale ones. The people and the emperor, obviously more of the visual type, decide to give their admiration to the mechanical bird while the real nightingale is expelled from the palace. There is, of course, a dramatic twist in the story including death and regret, but no worries, it has a happy end! For now, however, this plot description shall be enough to explain a thought that I had after reading the story again.

It immediately reminds me of the contemporary situation of music. On the one side, we have great music, on the other we have good-looking puppets of pop industry. My definition of “great music” is related to its compositional sophistication, aesthetic value, or the creativity and technical skills that are put into it. Orchestral works, chamber music, blues and jazz, funk, reggae, rock, heavy metal, progressive music, even some of the electronic music like drum’n’bass, ambient or acid jazz – in these genres there is a good chance to find “great music” and admirable musicians. Music industry, in contrast, produces pop. The music is plain and boring, but the promoted stars look pretty, handsome, sexy or in any way “marketable”. The latter only exists because people are more competent with their eyes than with their ears and brains. Visual pleasures are easier to acquire than auditory ones. Moreover, music with high quality needs an understanding of music that many people don’t have or are too lazy to train. They are lured by the shallow but blinking and shiny pop business. Those who are really interested in music with aesthetic and qualitative value don’t need to bother, but there is one big problem with it: Acquiring musical skills and creatively producing outstanding music requires time and money. Also musicians need to make their living! However, the field of creative and valuable music is seared by music industry, because all the money is put into visually appealing puppets, because they are more promising for generating profit, because the masses (where the money is) are reached with prettiness rather than with musical quality. This shallowness (as a form of stupidity) will someday ruin mankind, I am quite sure! Music is just one example where it becomes very apparent. In more impacting spheres of society (technology, politics, economy, etc.) it will have devastating effects! Just saying.

Gender Construction

A while ago, we all (you, your Mom, me) went to the market together, passing by a baby and children clothes vendor. Since you needed new pants, we made use of a good offer: buying three pants for a discount. When choosing the three pants, it turned out that your Mom and me had quite different ideas of what would be good colours and designs for you. She chose mostly girlish items, pink, cute and with decorative applications. I preferred neutral colours with subtle patterns and designs that support outdoor activities and climbing play structures (you may say: somehow boyish pants). That made me think about gender roles and their formation. As a constructivist, it is out of question for me that gender roles and expectations are the result of socialisation and culture. Nowhere in our biology it is determined that female humans have to be or do like this and that male humans have to be or do like that. Gender shouldn’t even be a big deal! In reality, in many social spheres (education, job life, sexuality and partnership, etc.) it definitely is, but I don’t want to support that by indoctrinating you with such ideology. It starts with simple things like choosing clothes for you, is supported by our choice of toys, by the tasks we give to you and the expectations we have on your behaviour, performance and character, and might even amount to our idea of your partnerships and sexual orientation. I want you to grow into a free, open-minded, self-confident, self-fulfilled and happy person! I wish you will be able to choose freely from all the possible options that come along your way. There must not be any gender restrictions. It doesn’t matter if you dress yourself like a girl or like a boy, as long as you are happy with your choice! It doesn’t matter if your favourite hobbies and activities are typically boy’s domains or rather girlish, as long as you feel satisfied with how you express yourself and your skills. Be creative! Be weird! Be yourself! And don’t let any narrow-minded traditionalist tell you anything different! Gender (which must not be mixed up with biological sexes) is an element of the mind-deluding matrix that limits your freedom and diminishes your life quality. In the Buddhist sense, it is part of the suffering. Better rid yourself of that concept. As parents, we should give you all the support to do so!

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Two important topics are connected to this: Gender disorders and sexuality. Biologically, you are a girl. Maybe someday you will feel something is wrong with it and it turns out you are actually a boy in a girl’s body. This is not a seldom phenomenon. But from my point of view, this “problem” is only amplified by the stress that is put on you in form of gender role expectations. Your identity and personal integrity shouldn’t depend on whether your appearance and biological gender is matching with your actual emotional and cognitive perception. With this mindset, there can’t be any “disorder”, because the “order” is a flawed constructed idea. A friend asked me if I would mind if you were homosexual. Of course not! Who am I to decide who you love or who you feel sexually attracted to?! Again: Make free choices that suit you! Observe yourself and increase the chance that your choices are sustainable and viable! Be happy! What your actual choices are, then, is rather secondary.

Superstition = Ignorance

In the previous letter I mentioned ignorance. This is an important topic that is worth elaborating further. According to Buddha’s teachings – and I fully agree! – it is one of the three mind poisons, besides attachment (or greed) and resistance (or hate). It is even regarded as the root of all mundane afflictions since it produces and amplifies attachments and resistances. Not knowing how things really are – how, then, can beneficial and sustainable decision-making be possible? One of the most obvious unwholesome manifestations of ignorance is a mindset based on the maxim ‘We have always done it like this!‘ as often observed in matters of tradition, customs and especially religious and superstitious practices.

A while ago, your Mom insisted on taking you to a nearby temple of the deity “Mazu” (媽祖), the heavenly goddess and patron saint of fishers and sailors, who was suggested by a fortune teller as your “Ganma” (a kind of patron or godmother). Since you are perfectly healthy and develop more than well your Mom wanted to thank the Mazu and please her with your visit. I know that this is very important for her, so I didn’t stop her and went with you. Actually, for me, these religious rituals, same as horoscopes and fortune telling, are entire nonsense! But, pragmatically speaking, if it makes the family happy, why not?! However, I had one serious objection: In Taiwan, it is a custom to burn tons of incenses and even paper money for the deities and ghosts of their folk religion, a mix of Daoism (the biggest influence), Confucianism and Buddhism with strong impact of shamanistic beliefs and practices. Bringing a little baby to such a smoky and polluted place is certainly not a good idea! Isn’t that ironic? We take you to a temple to pray for your good health and, by that, expose you for a considerable time (20-30 minutes) to highly carcinogenic air, heavily laden with the combustion products of organic material, full of heterocycles, acrylates, and many more. This is exactly my problem with ignorance! Instead of applying rational, reasonable, knowledge-informed considerations to their decision-making and choice of options for their life, people do stupid, unhealthy, counterproductive, inefficient things that are motivated by traditions, believes, fears and unquestioned customs that are passed down from ancient times in which the people really had no better idea. What a humbug!

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Indeed, the ubiquitous burning of ghost money is one of the most annoying things about Taiwan, from my perspective. The air is bad enough, but there is nothing worse than neighbours who burn an entire bucket of paper sheets on each and every possible occasion (the lunar calendar is full of special days of hundreds of deities). Especially in the “ghost month” (lunar 7th month) there is a brown layer of ashes above the city. In Taipei the public burning of ghost money is forbidden, but still many people do it, because for them it is a severe offense to stop them from their traditional customs. Sometimes I wonder if the young generation that has at least some formal education is still really believing in ghosts and spirits and the effectiveness of pleasing them by burning paper. Yes, cultural customs and traditions deserve some respect just for the sake of being a cultural element deeply rooted in a society. However, there is a limit, and that is rational reason! When traditions are found to be entirely counterproductive (like producing air pollution to pray for health), there must be a way to change the custom! Even religious and other spiritual worldviews have to be adapted to contemporary levels of knowledge! Ignorance is NOT bliss! As long as a society doesn’t reach this level of understanding, it will remain an “underdeveloped” one. Sorry, Taiwan!

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