Category Archives: Taiwan

Personal Ecosystem

There is a jumping spider about the size of my thumbnail who lurks in the area around my bathtub. I saw it this morning as I took my morning shower, close to the drain, and afraid that I might flush it accidentally down the drain, I made it crawl onto my hand, by putting one hand in front of it, and pushing it from behind with the other. it crawled on, and after crawling a bit, must have become scared, as it played dead. I put it down at the back of the bathtub, which is connected to a shelf on which there is a Listerine bottle behind which I have seen it hiding. (The Listerine bottle being translucent, I can see if the spider is hiding behind it.) Scattered around the bottle are various corpses of ants and flies, remnants of its previous meals.

It playing dead, and my hands being wet from the shower, it stood face down in a bead of water where I had left it. After my shower, fearing it might drown, I took the edge of my towel and wicked the bead of water away. The spider still played dead. “It’s alright buddy.” I said. “Take care, now.”

This is the longest friendship I have had with a spider. I check for it when I shower, and I see it once a day at least. Jumping spiders I have seen at Hongu Taisha Shrine in Japan are very tame. They would jump on my arm and let me pet them, but the one in my shower will shy away, though it will turn around a look at me. Jumping spiders, like praying mantises, have good binocular vision for hunting, and to have an insect look back at me gives me to odd sense of it having a personality. My bathroom has a resonant frequency, and if I hum a little tune that has notes at the resonant frequency, the spider will move a little. Maybe it knows my voice.

I have two other web spiders of different species, the web of one of whom I have found the corpse of a cockroach, at first looking freshly dead, and then a couple days later its exoskeleton shriveled and empty-looking.

I have discovered recorded sounds of the forest on Youtube, and for the past two nights I have listed to this track while I fall asleep. I find it deeply relaxing. When I have headphones on, I am transported to the stereo soundscape of a forest, in the rain, with chirping crickets, hooting owls, and the occasional crow. It is expansive. I feel that I am in a space where I can hear for hundreds of meters around, the insects and owls off in the distance watching over things, and signaling to me that it is safe. There are no predators. I can breathe easily.


When biking in Hualien, my friend and I passed by the Honglim Smoke House (鳯林菸樓). Built during the Japanese period, it is in a Japanese mud-daub style, and was built for drying and pickling vegetables using technology that the Japanese brought to Taiwan. After being restored by the Taiwanese government in the 90s, the private caretakers have basically left it to rot, and it is now filled with surplus building materials, trash, and guarded by two rather mean dogs. They barked at us from inside, as we were peering inside the window of the smokehouse, and when we circled around, they stepped out and stood in the middle of the street. I wanted to cycle around to see the entrance of the smokehouse. I incanted. “You keep to yourself, and I’ll keep to myself. You don’t bother me, and I don’t bother you.” Then I signaled this in my body language and rode forward past them as if they weren’t there. They lay where they were, and pretended they didn’t see me. Up till then they had been very territorial. Once I had seen dog trainer legend Cesar Millan tame an aggressive dog by acting like a high-status dog: calm, unaggressive, not making eye contact, but moving confidently into the aggressive dog’s territory as if it were no big deal. This really works.


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?”


「少個身體的帶動。感覺上你用手,沒用動身體 。」她師範帶動了幾步。
「了解 。」


心與體行。心者現於體,體亦響於心。 吾友覺吾作之異,是不只覺得吾心態,且示調之之道。


Ghost Subsidy


“I am not afraid of ghosts.” I said. “In fact, if I were afraid of ghosts, it would be a luxury.”
“What are you afraid of?” She asked.
“I am afraid that there will not be enough time – that the end will come, and there will be things left undone.”

「 其實,我有點想看得到鬼。」

I chatted with a friend:

Me: i wish i could see them!
H: I used to, When I was little. Now I just know they are there
Me: really! you never told me
H: Yeah. I can hear them to when I allow it. Always been like this
Me: that’s interesting. I’ve never tried listening
H: ☺ Maybe you shouldn’t
Me: you don’t recommend it?
H: If you open that door it’s hard to close it

In my neighborhood there are many funeral homes. I have never felt any bad energy from them. Actually, my rent is cheaper than usual for a place of this size in Taipei. The reason is that Taiwanese believe in ghosts, and this results in roughly a 20% discount on my rent. Or, I can think if it as the ghosts subsidizing 20% of my rent.

This makes the ghosts feel very close, and I am thankful, rather than fearful. It as if I have invisible helpers. Yet, with this feeling of gratitude, it feels like I opened that door a crack. When I showered that night, it was as I usually do this season, with only the night light on and with cold water. The yellow sodium lamp from outside provides more light. I felt a presence. I looked. It was only my shadow, cast by the street lamp outside against the shower curtain. Funny that I had never noticed my shadow cast that way before. I breathed, and said a silent “thank you” inside. If there are spirits, I am thankful that they are subsidize my rent, and that we live together so well.





























I stood on the coast of Hualien at night, the beach illuminated by the the yellow sodium lamps behind us, looking out onto the ocean. The ground before me sloped about 30 degrees downward some two meters to where the dark night waters of the Pacific disturbed the marble rocks that were like oddly-shaped chicken eggs, making a soft rumbling sound as they rubbed against each other. Occasionally a large wave would come and the water would rise, foaming as it pushed the air out from between the rocks, and reach the small ridge that marked the highest extent of the waves, where we were standing, causing one of my companions who had stood on the ocean-ward side of the ridge to leap back, surprised at the swiftness of the rise of the foamy dark waters, to avoid getting wet shoes. As the wave retreated, it disturbed the rocks, and as the rocks rolled against one another, they rumbled softly at length. The sound was so beautiful that another of my companions brought out his phone and made a go at recording it. “How is it?” We asked. “I can’t capture it – the microphone isn’t big enough. He said.” It reminded me of the beach at Kumano, except that the rocks at Kumano were fist-sized, and rumbled with a deeper sound.

My other companions had retreated three steps back toward the shore below the ridge. I took my sandals off, and stepped on to the smooth, clean, marble rocks, stepped to the top of the ridge and knelt in seiza. Two bows. Two claps. Head slightly lowered, and chanted the Amatsu Norito, a Shinto prayer for protection and purification. As I chant, I am listening to the rhythm of the waves and the rumbling on the rocks, and matching my breathing. I feel as I am looking out onto cool shimmering darkness of the Pacific that we are breathing together. Two bows, two claps, and I stood up, turned, and realized that my travel companions had stopped talking, and were looking at me. The man who had tried to record the sound of the ocean breathing asked. “What was that?”

“A Shinto prayer. It’s a sort of ritual in Japanese Shintoism that you can do when you think that something is great.”

“So what if you see a hot girl?” He asked, and we all laughed.

I stood on a trail cut into the cliff wall at Taroko Gorge and looked out along the canyon that the river had carved. It was quiet. The only sound until then had been the crunching of the sandy gravel underneath my feet. I was wearing thin-soled shoes that had the big toe separate from the other four, which protected my feet from sharp rocks but allowed me to feel details of the terrain beneath me. I stood, feet shoulder-width apart, feeling the ground on which I stood, hips, spine, and head finely balanced, listening to the barely audible sound of wind as it flowed through the fine hair of grass and flowers on the cliff. I felt, for the first time, my vision becoming a hemisphere. I could see, all at once, without moving my head or eyes, the silvery reflection of the sky on the winding river below, from which rose the steep V of the canyon walls, to steep to support trees, but able to support some grasses and small shrubs. This was the wall-like portion on which the trail I had been following stood. Above this, the V opened out less steeply, and trees could grow. The difference in steepness also marked by the step in color from pale marble to green. Above this, the mountains at the top of these cliffs were shrouded in white cloud. Seeing all of this at once, standing balanced, with relaxed shoulders and perfect posture, fingers spread, hearing the gentle breath of the wind through the grasses where I stood, and feeling the wind on my skin, breathing softly and deeply, and hearing my breath mix with the wind, I felt I was drinking deeply from a well as deep as the valley on which I gazed.