Category Archives: Enlightenment

To Learn

I finished listening to James Gleick’s biography on Richard Feynman. In Feynman’s office, there was a blackboard on which was written a few personal mottos:

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
“Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.”

On the board nearby, under the heading “To Learn,” a running list of topics.

He died before he could get to them.

We can’t do everything we want, but maybe if we’re lucky we can do everything that’s important.

Entering the Fray

Monday morning, I am poised on the cusp of entering the fray. I imagine that my ancestors would have felt something similar in anticipation of the hunt. What will it bring?

We are at war with perceptions: customers that can never be satisfied, advertisers that seek to disrupt our tranquility to take away our money, Pokemon fantasies that hook into ancient warrior instincts to vy for our attention. The latter are as intrusive or meaningless as pornography, a super normal stimulus that hijacks our instincts. Intrusive when it is a picture of a beautiful woman, meaningless when you see it as a piece of paper.

We are seeking the completion and fulfillment of desire. Breathe and feel safe. Modern battles are waged in a largely abstracted environment, along battlefields that we can largely select. 

Once, I was enamoured of retirement, decided to try it for a year, and quit my job. I soon got so bored that I started training martial arts every day, something that I reveled in, but had not planned. Did I really believe that I could retire from the din of the world?

A bone without stress grow porous and brittle. An unworked muscle withers. An unused bicycle goes to rust.

So then I found myself on the roofs and sides of buildings in Tokyo, erecting and dismantling scaffolding, learning to be in harmony with danger – danger that sharpens the senses. Life happens fast. Pay attention. “Yang!” I would hear, and look to catch a bracket thrown my way. Every afternoon at three the supervisor would yell 「一服!」 (breather!) which we would transmit by shouting to the next man along the wall, and more than once from where I stood, I breathed and looked out over rooftops, and thought – “I am building this city,” before climbing down to have a coffee.

What is the purpose of a break than to become stronger?

A mentor once taught me a story: a young man walked up the mountain to seek out an ascetic. He found the old man carrying firewood on his back. 

The young man asked:”Teacher, please tell me about enlightenment.” 

The ascetic placed the bundle of firewood down, stood straight, and stretched. “This,” he said, “is enlightenment.”

Excited, the young man asked. “What comes next?”

Whereupon, the ascetic took up the bundle of firewood again, and continued on his way.

My mentor’s point was to teach me to ask “What comes next?” so as to keep from becoming fixated on a goal.

I have been looking for the source of this story on the internet, but cannot find it. Instead, there is a similar attested teaching of Zen that the path to enlightenment is「運水搬柴」, literally “to carry water and bring firewood,” which in ancient times were the main chores of the day, which is to say that the path to enlightenment is doing ordinary things.

There are meditations that take us out of the world, and there are meditations that take us into the world, and the goal of becoming human is to be able to wake up not just in the dojo, the dance floor, or the yoga studio, but in the course of the mundane – while we are engaged in our Work.

What comes next after enlightenment? Picking up the firewood again. After the weekend? Going back to Work. After a sabbatical year? Going back to Work. Our souls may stretch to a higher plane, but we are physical beings, and after a time we find ourselves standing where we are, finding the laundry must be done, the furniture dusted, the floor swept.

My biggest spiritual challenge now is to learn better to harmonize with difficulty. I recall several times when I have been in a meeting where someone was being rude, and saw another respond with firmly with respect, and after some back and forth, the rude person volunteered help. The strong harmonizer is my model. Life would be less interesting without rude people.
Harmonizing, not fighting, is the right feeling. Difficulty and danger are ingredients, not waste products. The danger, adrenaline, and exertion of being on the scaffolding let me sleep better, let me better taste my food, and gave me morning wood like I hadn’t hadron with high school. While my white-collar friends paid for gym memberships and cross-fit classes to resurrect atrophied muscle and correct bad posture, buying fitness watches to feel more motivated to walk or climb stairs, I was getting paid to do full body resistance and coordination training, more intense than martial arts boot camps  I have attended, and more spirited in team work. My enthusiasm at the time is well-captured in this Craigslist posting. The posting got us a new teammate for a few weeks, of whom the team leader said 「あいつは日本語が下手過ぎて、面白かった。」 “that guy’s Japanese sucked so bad, it was hilarious” – again, smiling and harmonizing with danger. Laughing, crying, and looking out for each other.

By and by, after a year and a half away, I returned to desk work, but I am nostalgic for scaffolding. In the three and a half years since, I have lost muscle, and my posture is not as good. Can I have both an exercised mind and exercised body?
I began this post this morning on a bus to work. I am ending it this evening over a beer at home. One of my teachers touched off this train of thought because she just left for a month-long trip away from Taiwan to reconnect with people and to reflect, so I dedicate this to her.

Enlightenment is setting down our burden. What comes next is also enlightenment. Can I hold on to this clarity? Probably not. But next time, when faced with a difficult situation or person, maybe I can smile a little inside, and say “That’s interesting. What comes next?”


To listen is to close the mouth, open the ears and eyes, and to see. It is to quiet the mind, to breathe and dwell in this moment, to study what is before you, as well as the breathing and sensation of the body you inhabit. In doing so, to touch the oneness from which things were born.

In this silent breath there is not only receptivity, but also action.

Zhuangzi wrote that the experienced butcher hardly needs to sharpen his knife because its edge moves through the spaces between the bones. From the parable「包丁解肉」the butcher says:


“Now, I see with the spirit and not my eyes. My senses and thoughts stop – I move with the spirit. In line with nature, I cut in the big spaces.”

In Japanese, “to ask,” “to listen,” “to effect,” and “to be effective” are the same word.


When we quiet our minds, perception and action become two aspects of the same thing, just as we breathe in and out.


With a co-worker, he was explaining theory. I wanted to know about application. I had been trying to ask a question, initiating with body language and verbal grunts. “Does that mean…” “um…” “hey…” “well…” with increased frustration, until I said to him firmly. “I have a question – do you want to hear it?” And he said “No.”

“You don’t want to hear my question.” I said, stating it more than asking it.
“No.” He shook his head.
And this was a bit of a relief. He had helped me understand the theory, which I had not done on my own, but he was not interested in understanding its application. I’ll take what I can get, I reasoned, and find the rest somewhere else.

I recalled Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Huit Clos” in which the characters involved make each other miserable because of their personalities. Compromise is not possible because they cannot set their self-image aside. I recalled James Nalepka’s “Capsized,” where three crew a boat that capsizes in a storm, and they drift, surviving on fishing, gathering rain, and food stores until they hit land again. Their personalities bump against each other because there is no way off of the boat, but they are united by their common goal.

The latter is how I like to think of my company – united by a common goal.

The boat has been weathering a storm recently, but letting go of the urge to protect myself has enabled me to see more clearly.

Two weeks ago we were in a meeting. My boss called in. We hit a rough spot. My boss panicked, jumped in, and took control of the meeting. A few days later, my boss told me that I was being taken off the customer. I was upset, but agreed. We made plans to transfer the customer to my boss, and I offered to remain as backup help, internally working with our engineers to get answers. I viewed it as nothing personal – just a judgement of my ability to culturally handle this customer. The next day I was reinstated to the account. I now have a co-worker (not my boss) playing the role of cultural intermediary. He’s a top gun, switching in and out of dialect and talking the exact style with the exact phrasing that the customer wants to hear. We can say exactly the same thing in terms of content and get two very different reactions from the customer. They love him, which is fine. All I have to do is get him what he needs to answer questions.

I have been working overtime to get those answers from our engineers. They have been working overtime, too. Everyone is under pressure due to the product launch, but I handle it by being unattached to the outcome at this customer. Maybe we win, maybe we lose – I’ll give it my best shot.

That’s what Japanese warriors would tell themselves. They would train for life and death encounters, try to avoid conflict if at all possible, until for reasons beyond their control – shifts in balance of power of the land that led to war – they had to face off with an opponent who had also trained similarly. They would train to face this with equanimity. Maybe he’d lose, maybe he’d live, but he’d give it his best shot.

Giving it one’s best shot is all that matters. Accepting where you are. For example, not being ashamed of your current capabilities. I have a friend getting married in Japan to an accomplished martial artist. She practices, too, but has not yet attained a high level of training. To celebrate the occasion, their teachers will be present. With teachers and students all counted, there will be some seven black-belt Aikido practitioners, four of which are 4th-degree black belt or higher, and there will be a martial arts demonstration as part of the festivities. We were talking about this, and finding this really funny – “It will be less a reception than… ‘Sensei presents – team Aikido!'” My friend has asked me to be the “uke” – the “follow” – so to speak for her fiancé as he performs. Why not you? I asked. She’s afraid that she’s not good enough – and wants someone more skilled and better matched to her fiancé’s level. I told her that that was the wrong reason – that we are the sum of our training, and that for the amount she has trained, she has nothing to be ashamed of. I would do it to help her celebrate, but not because I have trained more. This leads me to another thought – why we do something does not have to be for the same reason that someone believes we should do it. The action is the same, but the narrative that we assign to it can be different. Maybe I’ll write more on this later.

Accepting where you are includes being in the present moment. Fear or striving both bring us out of the present moment. Anything that takes us out of the now leads to poorer results. Dancing makes this very clear. If I am dancing, and trying to play it safe, it’s boring. If I am trying to impress, I’m forcing it, which leads to loss of harmony.

The ego is the source of the should-bes and might-have-beens that cloud our judgement and separate us from the reality at hand. Strength is not in the rocks that can stand against the river. It is the river itself – water that flows, finding the easiest way moment by moment, and in time, wearing down the rock. This is a prayer that we might be less like the rock, and more like the river. At moments of conflict, or more frequently, let us let go of the ego which projects us where we think we should be. Let us see ourselves and others where we are. Only then, relaxed and with power, can we give it our best shot.






「哦, Chechnya。你不是意思是烏哥蘭?」


Simple Answers

Numbers: Met with 15 family members (immediate and extended). Got 2 people at the grocery store in downtown Vancouver to remember me (why grocery store, and not a bar? haha!) Met 5 factory engineers I currently work with. Ate lunch with 10 other engineers. Flew 5 flight legs, having now 2 more to go till I get back to Taiwan. Trained 3 hours of Aikido with 5 beefy and 2 skinny North Americans at a Vancouver dojo.

Invigorated by interacting with new people and living with family again, I have reflected and compiled this list of things learned or remembered. Maybe I’ll write in more detail about some of these.

Answers I give to other people when simplicity is easy for me:
Usually, the answer stems from relying on an internal resource, like health or creativity, rather than an external resource.

When I am packing lightly.
Q: What if it gets cold outside?
A: Walk faster to create more heat.

When deciding where to park a car.
Q: What if we park and it is far from where we want to go and we have to walk?
A: Aren’t we here to take a walk?
Q: What if the kids get tired?
A: I guess we’ll have to walk back to the car.

When deciding whether to eat to preempt hunger.
Q: What if you get hungry later?
A: I don’t feel like eating now, maybe later.
Q: What if you get so hungry that you eat fast and overeat?
A: I’ll chew carefully so as not eat too fast.

When deciding whether to pack a dinner.
Q: What if you get hungry when you get to the hotel at night?
A: I’ll have some tea and go to sleep.

When deciding whether to move to Japan from the states.
Q: What if you have trouble communicating with people?
A: I like Japan. I will be friendly and do my best.

When deciding whether to move to Taiwan.
Q: What if you can’t get used to it?
A: I guess I’ll have to leave.

When deciding whether to go on sabbatical.
Q: What if you can’t find as good a job?
A: I will leave with gratitude and respect and burn no bridges in case I need to come back, but there are other things I want to do now.

When trying to find a job after graduation.
Q: What if you are unemployed for too long and become unemployable?
A: Seriously? I just graduated.

When trying to find a job after sabbatical.
Q: What if you are unemployed for too long and become unemployable?
A: Seriously? I just had a bunch of unique experiences from my sabbatical.
Q: What if you run out of money?
A: I have money saved, plus as part of my martial arts training, I’m doing construction work. I am actually getting paid to train.

When deciding whether to pack something.
Q: Do I need this?
A: If I am having to ask this question, the answer is probably no.

When being asked about my martial arts skill level.
Q: What if someone pulled a gun on you and asked you for money?
A: I’d give him my money.

The voice of consumerism.
Q: Should I buy this toy?
A: No. It wouldn’t help her to grow. Give her a toy that improves her thinking skills, or let her learn to improvise something.

Questions that make me hesitate, and answers that I wish would come faster.
Usually they stem from a fear of failure.

When I need to ask permission.
Q: What if he says no?
A: So what? Ask.

When I need help.
Q: What if he will not help me?
A: So what? Ask in a friendly way.

When I fear rejection.
Q: What if she doesn’t say yes?
A: She won’t say yes if I wait.

When I am afraid of fear.
Q: What if I mess up because I am afraid?
A: So what? Learn the triggers and learn to relax.

When deciding whether to start.
Q: What if I don’t have enough time to finish?
A: Time is going to pass anyway. Do as much as I comfortably can.

When my opinion differs from others.
Q: What if I offend with my opinion?
A: What do I care what other people think?

When I am deciding where to sit in the office cafeteria and I don’t see anybody I know
Q: What if I am intruding?
A: If they wanted privacy, they wouldn’t be sitting here.

When I am debating whether to invite myself along with some people.
Q: What if I am intruding?
A: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Q: What if they say no?
A: So what?

When about to go into a situation or interaction that requires improvisation.
Q: What if I am unprepared?
A: The wrong preparation, plus over-thinking, could blunt my instincts. Do it now. Pay attention. Relax. Smile. Improvise.

Resources I am confident of:

  1. Health and strength
  2. Discipline
  3. Creativity
  4. Simplicity and improvisation as opposed to complexity and preparedness.

Resources I am less confident of:

  1. Being a jerk. I care too much about coming across as nice, but I should allow myself to be a jerk. Both “nice” and “jerk” imply inappropriate reaction to the situation at hand. Instead of losing a nice-guy attribute, I should think of it as gaining a jerk attribute and expanding my range of expression.
  2. Improvisation skills in a conversational setting. I should treat small talk like dancing or aikido and go for flow rather than precision. This does not mean not paying attention. Mistakes and bumps are made almost unnoticeable by timely redirection, and this is a cooperative effort.

Both these skills/resources require calibration as outlined in this article (分かるように調整する). Unless I make mistakes, I will not develop the right calibration. Mistakes should be interesting instead of something to be avoided. Interesting is a good word because interesting things can be looked at in a relaxed and insightful way.

Five principles for action: Do it now. Pay attention. Relax. Smile. Improvise.


Ups and Downs in Taiwan

In Taiwan people are mortally afraid of the downs. For example, the public health service makes doctor’s visits cheap, enabling people go to see the an ENT specialist every time they catch a cold, which they do.

Here’s a recent conversation:

“I have a cold.” I said.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“You should go see a doctor.”
“I don’t typically see doctors for colds. They rest a little and are over it in three days to a week.”
“I guess rest will do the trick, but in Taiwan, we like to get well immediately.” He sat upright to suggest vigor. “Here, you should try this. I have a cold, too. I took this this morning, and I feel better already.”  He handed me some herbal medicine.

It seems I have not gotten used to the air and water here, as I have had two colds and a case of food poisoning since arriving in October. In none of the cases did I see a doctor, but made a quick recovery with rest and tea.

It’s not just that people really believe that they will get well faster with a doctor’s visit and some medicine. They are in a veritable rush to get well. “Get well immediately.” is a phrase often bandied about. Another conversation:

“Don’t you want to get well as soon as possible?”
“The infection is still there, the medicine just masks the symptoms.”
“But don’t you want your nose to stop running?”
“The nose is running to flush out the virus. If you mask the symptoms it could take longer to get well.”
A pause. “You have a very interesting way of thinking.”

So it seems to me that people are afraid of the down that a sickness gives, and want to put their bodies on the up, using whatever artificial means available.

There is a definite lack of negative space compared to what I am used to. Often when I am speaking with an a customer about something complex, he leaves no down-time for thought, and no verbal confirmation of “Do you get what I’m saying?” He does not even detect my body language when I am trying to gather my thoughts or when I am trying to say something.
I have to quite literally while he is talking say “Stop. Give me a moment to think about that.”

And then there is that incident that I wrote about here (in chinese), a phenomenon where people are really afraid of apologizing.

I would think this is an isolated incident, but I was speaking about it with a foreign friend of mine who has been in Taiwan for three years. Being a foreigner, people saw him as a neutral party, and he literally had people come into his office crying because someone else at the office was mean to them.

“It’s like their egos are really fragile, and they’re afraid that any little admission of wrong will cause their entire psychological edifice to come crashing down.”

Which brings me to the thought that the admission of downs as well as ups into one’s world requires a bit of fortitude and perspective, without which the downs will appear crippling. It is according to this is a belief that I have tried to cultivate myself: to rest when my body is telling me to rest, give pause to allow someone else to think, apologize when I have done something mean, and shrug when someone has said something that I’d like to ignore. All of these things require a silencing of the ego. I feel like this is something that I learned from Japan, and I feel like I’m bumping up against a society of people that hasn’t had as much practice.

For an example of how ego gets in the way, yesterday I was on the phone with the customer for nearly an hour an a half while he presented 11 slides about a problem and his proposed solution. The trouble was, he was so confident of his proposed solution that he brought it up frequently, and the entire presentation had a spin toward his proposed solution. It was hard sort through what was opinion and what was fact. At one point, I had to say. “Look, I know you feel that that would solve the problem, but I don’t understand what the problem is. Can we please talk about the problem first? Then, we can talk about proposed solutions.” I made my frustration very evident in my voice, and exaggerated the relief in my voice when I finally understood the problem.

Then, what he took 11 pages to explain, I typed up a 1-page email with two graphics that and sent it to our engineers.

I have been struggling with many things here, but I woke from a dream Monday with a thought that has made things slightly better. I noticed when I felt wronged, I often rehearsed what went wrong, and ended by rehearsing several alternate scenarios for putting them in their place and regaining the upper hand. My thought was – what if I rehearsed forgiveness? What if I ran through the entire scenario, and figured out what to say or do to put the other party at ease, build a bridge to lead him across, or simply shrug and send him off?

This sounds like a small change, but it’s been a revelation to me, and I wonder if I can hold it, where it will take me.

But I still yell at the motorcyclists when they pass too close (they speed away without looking at me), and I’ve noticed the motorcyclists and cars pass a little farther away when I am wielding a folded golf umbrella like a baton.

Frontier Spirit

I spoke with my boss today about some debug issues that we’ve been dealing with at a customer. One issue has been dragging on for about two and a half months now, though I’ve been working on it for only a month. My boss gave me some good advice: some direction in terms of lines of investigation and people to enlist for help. But then she went on a frequent tangent.

“Be careful,” she said. “I can see that you’ve been working on it, but the project engineers at the customer have a habit of naming names. This issue has been open for two and a half months. The fact that it’s unresolved has already drawn the attention of one of their middle managers. If it drags on much longer, they could get impatient. If they get impatient, they might get frustrated. If they get frustrated, they could complain. If they complain, they might complain up to the our business unit. They might attach your name. And then, well your reputation, and then…”

I cut her off. “And then, we wouldn’t win their business, would we?”

“Not only that. Your job could be at stake.”

I considered this. A difficult engineering problem that I’ve been coordinating work on between the customer and our engineers leading to my job being at stake. And I shrugged. My boss gets on to this tangent nearly every time we speak about work.

I appreciated her concern for me, but I had this thought: “That’s not me.”

I have been fortunate never to have found myself in such situations on the job, but in my personal experiences and in the experiences of my friends, family, and co-workers, I find that it’s not unusual, even if one puts his best forth, to be misinterpreted or even to be cast out. When judgement time comes, there are those who try to play someone else’s game: they try argue and prove themselves, or they agree too easily with others’ estimation of them, and then there are those who walk away, to another department job, or other frontier. While grit is important, the latter don’t look like they ran away from their problems so much as outgrew them.

It is a characteristic of societies, be they on the level of a company or a nation, that the more developed they become, the more advancement becomes dependent not on ability, but on cunning political maneuvering. Rome and Enron are extreme examples. Such silliness can be avoided by heading for the frontier. There are difficulties in adapting to the frontier, but there are also difficulties trying to play someone else’s game. Haruki Murakami said it best: “We cannot avoid suffering, but we get to choose its form.”

This post is dedicated to my friends of frontier spirit, many of whom I met in Japan, and many of whom, in the search for their own blue ocean, have moved on to other places. I love you guys. I miss you. When we meet again, let’s swap stories and say to each other “That was a good ride.” 🙂

Seeing Again For the First Time

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began, and know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot

I arrived back in Japan for a few days for work. When I used my IC card to beep through the ticket gate, it worked. Smooth. I swapped out my SIM card, and there I had a working phone and internet.

The simple miracle of these two things working struck me. I was away from Japan for six weeks, and in that time I have: found an apartment, sorted through my things to discard a tenth, been sad about moving away from Japan, made new friends, had a housewarming party that drifted into the next morning, and traveled to four dojos in the city to train – enough experiences that I have changed a little, such that I can see Japan afresh.

On the train platform, I felt a tingle in my skin and a smile creep to my face. I bought a hot tea from the vending machine, stepped onto the train, and thought to myself that this simple action was not possible in Taipei; there is no drinking on the trains in Taipei, under penalty of fine.

At work, during meetings, I saw the familiar turn-taking during discourse, and wondered at how people intentionally leave pauses after making a statement, so that people can think or respond, instead of trying to fill all of the silence.

After work Tuesday, I go to my old dojo, it is filled with the familiar smells of charcoal-scented air freshener in the toilet, and the smell of sweat and deodorant in the changing room. I bowed in, said hello to the teacher, and had a good practice with old friends. I felt after practice that I could go back to my apartment in Ebisu, and it might still be mine. I would sit down with a beer and mess around on the piano, like I used to do sometimes after practice. But of course, I no longer live there.

One other sign of things changing: both my teachers at my old dojo said that my technique has become too eccentric. That it has changed is certain. These six weeks, the teachers at the dojos I have been to in Taiwan have been training the students to perform at an aikido exhibition, leaving me and others who chose not to participate in the exhibition to practice by ourselves. With the lack of instruction, it has been a time of experimentation and discovery, with previous limits removed. I have learned to move with greater ease, stability, and effectiveness, as it suits my body. Maybe I will return to their way of doing techniques, but I will return with new understanding, and free of dogma.