Category Archives: Taiwan

Walking with G’d


In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge. They become aware of their own vulnerabilities, their nakedness, and see to cover it up. When G’d calls them forward, they are afraid, and hide, instead of walking with Him.

I had a chance to share this story with some Aikido students of mine, where I explained that the great tragedy here is not that they ate from the tree of knowledge (face it, they didn’t know any better), but that they hid instead of owning up to it, and were afraid to walk with G’d when he called. I ended saying “Do not hide. Bravery is when you realize you are weak, but still say what needs to be said, or do what needs to be done, and in so doing, walk with G’d.”

I see the students weekly, and through the medium of Aikido teach trust and respect. One of the teachers has taken an interest, and helps in class.

This teacher recounted what happened last Sunday. Sunday is their off-day. No classes, and teachers will take them out of the orphanage to eat a boxed lunch and to see a museum or have fun outside. It was proposed that they go to a certain museum. One of the students, C.C.., said he did not want to go, and would not say why.

“Then offer up an alternative.” said the teacher. C.C. offered no alternative. “Then if you don’t say why you don’t want to go, the other students will go, and I can take you back to the school [the orphanage] to do homework.” Yet this still did not satisfy him, and his gloomy silence persisted over lunch, which C.C. refused to eat.

Finally, the teacher said. “Have you forgotten what [the Aikido teacher] said? ‘Do not hide.'”

And C.C. said without tears or agitation that the museum was the last place where he had seen his grandmother and his father, and the place where his father had abandoned him.

And the teacher asked “Do you think, being brave enough to say this, that you are also brave enough to go to the museum?” And C.C. said “I think it is worth a try.”

But it came to be that the time had passed where they could go to the museum that day, so the teacher said “It’s already afternoon, so we’ll play some badminton instead of going to the museum today, but next time, you can tell us you want to go, we will all go together.”

[… and so doing walk with G’d.]

My student is growing up 🙂 Also, what a great teacher she was, to have persisted in asking for the answer.

Psalm 19:8-10

The Torah of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul.
The decrees of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.
The mitzvoth of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.
The decrees of the LORD are firm, and all of them righteous.

Because I have shared the mitzvah of studying the Torah, I have participated in this story.

Every mitzvah counts.

Why did I start reading the Torah? Because I missed Chabad Japan ( Donate!). After many years of living away from Japan and not studying the Torah with Chabad Japan, I tried to find some people to study with, but was dissatisfied with their interpretations, but what could I do but study by myself? This led to finding commentaries online, to studying with my family, and to sharing the story of Genesis 3 with the children of the orphanage.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, once said that every setback is a chance to grow by spurring us to draw on untapped resources. So it was that my disappointment led to me to finding ways to study by myself. So it was that C.C. is learning to surpass his abandonment by not hiding from it.

If I have done nothing else in Taiwan, I have at least played a part in this story. Yet after hearing this story, I begin to see possibilities, and that there is so much more to do.

We are living in the time of the redemption, where there are many tools by which we can amplify good. Every mitzvah counts. May we through our actions shine the light of lovingkindness out into the world. May we thus make the world more joyous and habitable. May we not fear that our shortcomings will prevent us from doing so. May we direct our attention and energies outwards as G’d bade Adam and Eve. May we make straight the road for the Messiah. And may He come quickly in our time.

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.

六月我因日本朋友來而請假, 陪他們在迪化街散步. 路過在執行藝術展的一棟樓. 走入看到有兩個學生坐在一間茶屋裏在飲茶. 她們看到我就出來解釋作品.

作品名叫「圄」. 圄字意「吾於框中」. 感到压迫時, 常因自己作了個圍牆而把自己置於內. 命品為「圄」是希望碰到該樣心況時能借此茶屋學個不同的看法. 是把自己置於不同的框子而找所処難況的出口.

作品制造者是銘傳學建築部的四名女子大生. 她們為了作茶屋和倒茶的研究, 去了農場, 由摘葉至烘焙學了制茶的流程. 又學了茶屋建築的歷史同應用. 甚至門框的高低. 日本的茶屋門框矮, 以使人低頭入屋. 銘傳大學生的茶屋亦該樣.

我及四個日本朋友, 加銘大的學生, 坐入茶屋, 賞飲茶. 話提講到茶, 天氣, 來自的地方, 要去的地方,  有時不談而賞微風股, 讓我覺得我回到人類的基本. 沙漠裏遊牧民在遠行中入當地包裏亦會聊般的. 學生招待我們飲茶, 我們共同取靜, 除之外暫無地位, 對屋主的儘力招待感謝.

四泡茶, 約二十分鐘後, 我和我的日本朋友出去, 継續逛街. 後來逛到無時間食午餐. 朋友說還好有幾會於茶屋取靜, 否則最後感情會漂浮.

送好朋友上車去機場後, 我回到藝術展再和學生欱茶. 那時, 有一位中年女氏也一起欱. 她一直不停地講哪裡買了房屋, 哪裡旅遊過, 親戚在國外的那裡住, 房子有幾坪. 她很好意地想要分享她的経驗, 但是我覺得還是大學生人格較大, 不必借財物地位講話. 不只是那樣, 自己周圍置的財物及地位會擋住她是視野, 阻止她和其他人溝通. 今世的社會勸我們更專業化, 鋪設條漂亮的路而寫履歷書, 賺更多錢. 但我常覺得那樣不過是給自己做個圍牆, 把自己放在裏面.

大學生的熱心的招待不是為著爭地位或爭錢, 而純是為著要斟一杯好茶. 那樣全面地研究, 純心地執行,讓我感動. 但願那些大學生可以継續那樣純真的.

Echoes of the Military State

On my way to work today, I walked past Heping High School. There was a school assembly. The students sat in the field in the middle of the track, in the sun. (It is 34 deg C now, and no doubt hotter in the sun.) A man made a speech through a megaphone. There were some teachers standing on the periphery, and a man in a blue security guard’s uniform walking among the rows of sitting students.

Maybe there was no auditorium for the students to gather in. Maybe the officer was concerned as to whether the students would suffer heatstroke.

To me, though, it looked as if the students were being indoctrinated and presented for military inspection. When I described the scene to a coworker of mine, he said the officer was likely a Xiaojing – a school guard – essentially a member of the army posted to the school.

It was not long ago that Taiwan was a police state. It was a publicly discussed a few years ago, as to whether to do away with the Xiaojing system, but it since passed out of discussion, with no change in the status quo.