2010年9月30日 星期四

Rainer Maria Rilke's (萊納·瑪利亞·里爾克) Autumn (秋)

For various reasons, I have had no time for my study of Spanish poetry. I wanted to resume doing the translations again. But when I tried to do so, I had first to find the various books of Spanish poem collections. But there, amongst the pile of book was one by Rainer Maria Rilke (萊納·瑪利亞·里爾克), a German romantic poet. I bought this book in my recent trip to America when I was looking for Spanish poetry. But there was no special section on just Spanish poetry alone. As I was looking, my eyes fell on two by Rainer Maria Rilke. I was curious, I opened them. I turned the pages of one of them at random and came upon some of the poems. I read them in front of the shelf. I liked them. As they are not particularly expensive, I bought both of them,. On of them was written in his original German, the other in French and both with English translations.  Last night, they hit my eyes again, by another accident. It is as if Rainer Maria Rilke were beckoning to me, winking at me to open his books! So instead of my doing my Spanish poetry translation, as I originally intended, you now have one from Germany. There is a simplicity about his poem that I like. Here it is:

                    Autumn                                                      Herbst                                      秋

The leaves are falling, falling as from afar   Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,     葉子墮下,葉子墮下在遠方

withering in the heavenly gardens far           als welten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;  在遠方天圍中枯萎

they fall with denying gest                          sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.        他們在抗議中墮下


And in the nights falls the Earth's weight     Und den Nächten fãllt die schwerde Erde  夜裡大地之重

from all the stars in solitude.                     aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit          在孤單中從星際墮下


We are all falling. This hand is falling.      Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.         我們正墮下,這手正墮下

And look at the other one : it is in all.         Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.     看看另一隻:它在一切中


And yet there's One who holds the falling    Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen  而仍有一 個,他接着這下墮i

infinite gentle in his hands stops..              unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.     無比輕柔在其手中停下來。


I didn't  like the translation that I saw and have modified it according to my knowledge of German which I learned many many years ago. Perhaps my friend Peter can help.

Perhaps, the falling of the leaves reminds the poet that not only are the leaves falling, but everything else too. He feels that even his own hands, perhaps all wrinkled with vericose veins, like withered leaves, are falling too but in a different sense. In time, not only in space.  The idea of space is connected to the idea of time by the image of the night. To him the night is falling too, with the weight of the whole earth, down the passage of time. But he hopes that there may be some one, perhaps God, who will receive them all gently and stops the univesal falling. Only God will be that gentle, with the infinite gentleness which he alone is capable of.

2010年9月29日 星期三

Electoral Justice for an NT village

Yesterday morning was one of anxious waiting. Last Thursday afternoon, I got an urgent case. Some 24 members of a New Territories village had just had their right to vote at the local election of their village representative stripped away after a hearing on Wednesday. They had 4 days to apply for a review of the decision of the Revising Officer, a local magistrate in one of the New Territories magistracies. They did so and the hearing of the review was set yesterday morning.

At the previous hearing, a member of the opposite clan of the two-clan village opposed the names of members of their clan being put on the provisional register for electing their local village representive or head of the village. Last week, their own leader flew in specially from Glasgow, Scotland to defend the right of their clan members to continue to have their names on the local register of electors. But he lost. He came to us. I took some urgent instructions, immediately looked up the relevant legislation and subsidiary legislation or regulations because I had never done this kind of case before. Then based on my lightning fast reading, I gave him some quick advice on the kind of evidence that he should produce if he wished to have the decision of the magistrate reversed. Years of reading does pay. I just ran my eyes over the relevant legislation looking for key words and merely read parts which appeared to me to be relevant.

He followed my advice, returned on Friday morning with a draft "grounds for review" for advancing their own case. The grounds must be filed in court before 4.30 p.m. the same day. I asked him if he got a soft copy of the grounds so that I could work on the draft. He did not. That meant that I got to start from scratch to re-draft the entire grounds and could not make use of the pre-typed factual information contained in his draft. Then an idea occurred to us. Could he email the copy he had on his computer at home to us so that we could download it on to our own computer and then work on the emailed copy? He did so, using my personal computer to access his own account and sent the copy to my secretary.  First hurdle overcome! But it was already about 11.45 a.m. I worked on the draft with our client standing right beside me to answer such questions on the relevant facts I felt I needed as and when I dictated the relevant changes to be made in the draft grounds and submissions to my secretary. I had nearly finished. Then my secretary hit one key and the whole draft was gone! I was really pissed. But being angry never solves any problems. I asked my client to resend his copy to my secretary's computer by using mine. He did so. I re-started doing the second draft. I was nearing the conclusion when the same thing happened again. It was lost for the second time! It was already 12. 45 p.m. There was little realistic chance of it being completed before lunch break at 1 p.m. My secretary asked if it was possible for us to continue after lunch. I told her the completed grounds must be filed before 4.30 p.m. at the registry in a New Territories magistracy at least an hour's journey from our office taking the fastest mode of transport. She knew she could not take her lunch break at the usual hours. The draft had to be done a third time. Another case of  "more haste, less speed"" (愈急愈見鬼")! This time, I asked my secretary to copy the emailed copy of the draft to her own computer and save it as a separate word document first before we work on the saved document instead of the original emailed copy. We managed to finish everything, including photocopying the bundles of exhibits to be attached to the grounds and skeleton submissions by 2.15 p.m. But it was not perfect. It never is. I felt I needed further documentary evidence and told our client to look for them over the weekend and to bring them to me once he found them. He promised. I breathed a sigh of relief. Our client disappeared with the grounds for review together with the copies of all the documentary exhibits. He had to rush to file them before the court registry closed.

Saturday morning, I telephoned my clients' repesentative again and asked him if he managed to find any further evidence. He said he did. I told him to make copies and bring them to me Monday morning. He told me then he went to the wrong registry Friday afternoon and that he was really lucky that we gave him the documents at 2.15 p.m. because he still got time to rush to the right court registry!

I was at the magistracy before 9 a.m. yesterday and spent the time going through the evidence and the relevant law, jotting down in point form the kind of arguments I would later use. Hearing was to begin at 9.30 .m. At about 9.15 a.m. Two persons appeared, a young man and a young woman both dressed in black and the man in tie and all. I thought they might be the lawyers for the other side. I introduced myself. But it turned out that they were merely representatives from the Home Affairs Department. Their department is responsible for compiling the relevant provisional and final register of voters. Under the law, any disputes on who is entitled to vote and who is not must be fully and finally settled before 5th October every year when the register would close for that year. I asked them if they were prepared to stand by what they submitted to the Court at the previous hearing if needed. They said they had no changes to their previous submission and evidence. I felt resassured. Then my assistants arrived. I briefed them on what I was going to do.

About 9.15 a.m., our clients appeared and their representative told me that he had done everything I told him to and brought back the documents required plus some other documents which he did not tell me about on Saturday. I told him that we might have to ask the court for leave to introduce such documents because they ought to have been given to the court last Friday and not at the last minute yesterday. Then I took him into the witness room because I did not want his opponents who were sitting just 6 feet from me on the seats in the waiting area outside of the court room to hear what I was about to tell our client. I outlined my arguments and the kind of points that I wished to urge on their behalf before the magistrate. He said he had full confidence in me. I told him that his weakest point on the papers before the court was that he did not have any direct evidence that his ancestors were already inhabitants of their own particular village back in 1898 and if he were going he lose, he might lose on that point but I told him that I would do my best to urge the magistrate to accept the secondary evidence going back only to the 1930s. I also told him that he might also lose on some other points which his opponent did not even mention in their notice of objection but which I hope the trial magistrate acting as the "revising officer of the electoral register" might not bring up on his own initiative. I told him that if that other point were brought up, I was quite sure he would definitely lose because he simply had no evidence to support that his family members fulfilled the other relevant statuory requirements. But then, as his lawyers, I would certainly not draw attention of the other side to that point myself and that I would fight his case on the basis of the case as it was in the court records at that time. 

We entered the court room.  I talked to the magistrate's clerk and asked her to place the new evidence in the magistrate's file. The case opened. I apologised for the last minute submission of the further evidence. I made my submissions. I did my best to present our clients' case. I told the magistrate that my clients were honest. They even admitted that they did not have any direct evidence that their ancestors were already villagers of their village back in 1898 but only oral double-hearsay evidence but that there were other very strong secondary evidence they are descendants from some one who was already at that village back in 1898 and that previous challenges by their opponents back in 2006 and 2009 had been unsuccessful and that although theoretically the trial magistrate ought to examine the evidence anew every time some one challenges the status of an elector on the current register, such affirmation of their status by their brothers on the bench, whilst not legally binding on him, should be taken into account and also the fact that their parent had been a vice village representative for more than 20 years although in law, a village representative needed not be an inhabitant of the relevant village and further that there were very strong evidence that all the children were born at the place of shown on a photograph of their shop which had been operating there since the 1930s until the building was torn down in the 1980s and there was also evidence in the form of marriage certificate stating clearly the names of the parents of our clients' parents establishing their link to their grandparents whom our clients say had been around as far back as 1898. Then the other side produced a statutory declaration from their 92-year-old parent to the effect that our clients' parents only first appeared in the village in the late 1930s and that prior thereto they had never seen any of our client's parents nor any of their other relatives. I submitted that that was merely a bare assertion and that the declarant did not appear in court to be cross-examined as to his credibility or the reliability of his memory and asked the magistrate attach little or no weight to it and in particular, bearing in mind the history of continuous disputes between the two families, that there were very strong grounds to believe that that kind of statutory declaration of bare uncorroborated assertion was made by someone with a very strong political motive to take away the rights of our clients to vote at their village election and in particular the magistrate should take into account an earlier meeting between the members of the two family mediated by the Department of Home Affairs in which the opposers affirmed the status of our clients as legitimate voters. I submitted that they are either the direct descendants of some one who had already been there since 1898 or not. They could be a legitimate descendant the day before yesterday, not a descendent yesterday, again descendant today and not a descendant tomorrow. Facts do not change by virtue of what people allege about them. They are either true or false, once and for all. I urged the magistrate to accept the very strong secondary evidence. Of course, I made various other submssions in regard to the other supporting evidence.

The magistrate then adjourned the case to 12.30 p.m. for a judgement. However, shortly before the hearing resumed, our client brought in some fresh evidence in the form of a statement made by his 92 year old father back in 2006 before he died for use in the 2006 proceedings. The statement was to the effect that his own parent ( our clients' great grand parents) came from Wei Yeung, China to the old Tai Po Market before the British took over the town. etc. I told my clients' representative that that was really too late but still I would try to ask for leave to introduce such evidence from the court. I did so. But the magistrate disallowed it. I think I have an idea why. He had already made up his mind that our clients would win! Allowing such evidence to go in at the very last minute when he was already all set to pronounce judgement in our favour will only give the other side a possible ground of appeal later. He felt he already had what he needed to award a judgement in our clients' favor.

Needless to say, our clients  were extremely happy at the result. Their representative said that perhaps he was really blessed by his ancestors that he did not come up with the relevant evidence by himself at the hearing last week but merely told the magistrate then that he had no evidence because he was under the impression that the court was already in posession of the results of the two previous challenges and rulings and would automatically rely on them. He said that had he done so, he might still have lost because he simply did not know how to argue and would have "wasted" all the evidence. It would have been the worse for his family because then, he would no longer have a second chance to present such evidence the way I did and moreover  would have allowed the other side more time to introduce other evidence in rebuttal. He repeated the old Chinese sayings,"塞翁失馬,焉知非福" or "錯有錯着" ("a blessing in diguise). At the lunch at the restaurant nearby, he tried to shove some money into my hands under the table. I refused to take it. He insisted that it was just a token of appreciation. He felt so grateful! I told him it was not my habit to take money that way. I told him that although we merely charged them a concessronary fee, it was an agreed fee and we already got paid. He invited me to visit him in UK. He is the head of the biggest Chinese school in the UK. Now I got another friend. 

Letting go of God

Last Sunday afternoon I had a very pleasant experience. I went to a tiny flat in Wanchai. It was an eye opener. It was one of if not the best designed small flats that I have seen in my life. Each available inch of the tiny space is used: the space below the raised floors of the two rooms, the overhead space skirtng the walls beneath the ceiling, all the other space beneath the kitchen and bathroom sinks being used for storage, the spaces between columns,  as cabinets, shelves, as stores, with mirrors placed at strategic locations to increase the illusion of size, with narrow strips of wood nicely attached to wooden panels on the wall to break its monotony and to create a sense of texture. The color scheme is good too. It is predominantly white to increase the brightness of the space but suitably mixed with light greyish brown to give a sense of cosiness and a metallic look at the kitchen area in silver and black to add a certain "coldness" and "clincally clean" feeling by contrast to the warm glow of the wood panels.  The whole space is lit with lights on one half of one side of the long walls of the oblong shaped flat hidden in a lighting trough coasting the ceiling so that the light was shining towards the ceiling and then reflected back down, supplemented with one or two standing lights of burnished steel of lean streamlined look and white lily shaped lamp shades also shining upwards towards the ceiling. The entire space is neatly divided into 4 sections:  the bedroom and the walk-in wardrobe, library cum store room on the long arm of the L-shape and the toilet cum bathroom on the short arm. Then outside of the toilet is an open kitchen, fully fitted with hotplates, refrigerator and storage cabinets, spice racks etc opposite to which is the working area with a writing desk, computer and flat screen monitor. Then the open space continues towards the windows facing  the street below, with the "sitting room" area where squats a three seater sofa on soft brownish beige fabric of rough texture against the wall and facing the partition wall separating the bedroom from the "sitting room" area. To save space, one sliding door serves both as the door to the bedroom and the walk in wardrobe cum store room.  On the partition wall hung a flat screen TV below which is a shelf for placing DVDs which actually intrudes into the space under bed inside the bedroom! Really clever design! That precious bit of Wanchai real property belongs to a member of the UUHK, a late 30-ish female free lance journalist of Hispanic origin from Bronx, New York, writing for one of the local English language magazines who just rented it about half a year ago. She told us that the designer is actually a close friend of the landlord. No wonder so much thought was put into the 430 square feet flat. She simply loves the design. Who doesn't?

In her flat were 7 other members of the UUHK: an American professor of economics specializing in Chinese economy and teaching at the HKCU and his friend, a free lance PR consultant who gives courses to staffs of the PCCW, another management staff of one of the very active local NGOs in Hong Kong, a young officer of the Human Rights Monitor whom I frequently meet in my talks at the HKSHP and a senior Government radiologist and his wife. We were there to see a DVD belonging to the PR consultant. We had been planning to do so for quite some time but the details of the meeting were only finalized last Saturday! The DVD is one by a very famous American comediene, Julia Sweeney, who hosts the long running TV talk show ¨Saturday Night Live¨. The DVD was called ¨Letting Go of God¨ which traces her journey of discovery from being a young girl from an all Irish Catholic family from Spokane, Washington,  born, educated in an all-Catholic school to eventually becoming an atheist. It was really hiliarious the way she described how that happened, receiving rather surprising but non-committal but worldly-wise replies from her parish priest who was forced to tow the official Church line, with less than full conviction, as she began to ask certain embarrassing questions at various stages of her growing up and her encounters with certain Mormon proselytizers in business suits eager to save her soul for God.  She is a really good actress. I love the way she mimicks the facial expressions and the tones of voice of the characters she describes. Simply superb!

The following is her brief biography downloaded from the Internet.

Benevolent, sweet-faced, actress and comedienne Julia Sweeney, who was born in 1959 in Spokane, Washington, is normally identified with one single, highly unappetizing androgynous character. This sniveling, chunky-framed, springy-haired, plaid shirt-wearing, grotesque-looking character named Pat was the basis of many hilarious sketches that toyed with revealing his/her true gender. The oldest of five children, Julia demonstrated an early talent for mimicry but downplayed any interest in performing for serious college studies. She first came into contact with the show business arena following graduation. Behind the scenes she worked for five years as an accountant for Columbia Studios in Los Angeles. Developing the courage to realize her dream, she started taking classes on a whim at the famed Groundlings Theater. After fine-tuning her skills in improv, character development and sketch-writing, Julia was escalated to the big time when she was selected to join "Saturday Night Live" (1975) in 1990 as a featured player. Though she became a regular cast member the following season and found an instant audience rapport with her creepy Pat character, she was vastly underused, which seemed to be the case for many of its distaff team at the time. "Pat" would outshine practically everything else she did on the show, including her timid wallflower type named "Mea Culpa," whose character became the basis of a stage show co-written by Julia and actor/writer/husband Stephen Hibbert called "Mea's Big Apology" in 1992. Discouraged, Julia parted ways with SNL in 1994 and worked up a feature film version of It's Pat (1994) while her irons in the fire were hot. She co-wrote the script with Hibbert and co-starred with Dave Foley who played Pat's equally androgynous partner "Chris." The feature film did not generate great buzz, however, as it was basically a one-joke premise stretched to the limit. Following this and a few other insignificant character cameos on film, life turned extremely dark for Julia. Divorced from Hibbert, brother Michael developed lymphoma. She and her family vainly tried to nurse him back to health. Following his death, Julia herself was forced to fight a life-threatening illness -- cervical cancer. The whole process triggered an outpouring of writing which evolved into a hit one-woman stage show entitled, "God Said, Ha!" Applauded for its candor, wit and humorous handling of such painful subjects, the monologue debuted in San Francisco in 1995, and was playing Broadway by November of the following year. Preserving her work on film, she wrote and directed, with Quentin Tarantino in the producer's chair. While embracing this second career-defining moment, Julia won an Audience Award at the New York Comedy Festival in 1998 for her efforts, and earned a Grammy nomination for the CD version. She went on to complete a trilogy of personal sojourns. "In the Family Way" (2003) recounted her experience adopting a daughter as a single parent, and "Letting Go of God" (2004) traced her religious roots from devout Catholic to atheist.

I found that the kinds of questions she described in her inimitable ways were exactly the those that I asked and to which I have never been able to get any satisfactory answer. Although I have got  nearly conclusive answers to many of such questions in my almost decade long sporadic reading on the subject of my dwindling "faith", it is still a struggle for me whether it is necessary for me to quit the Church altogether or whether I would do more good to act as a bridge between the traditional "God" of the Catholic Church and other Christians on the one side and other world religions and atheists on the other. Whatever the ultimate course that I shall eventually take, we had an enjoyable evening chatting about the kinds of problems the other members of the UUHK, who are either practising or ex-Catholics or ex-Protestants or Buddhists, are facing in their respective quests for spiritual fulfilment under the dim lights amidst the clatter of forks against dishes of colorful enchilladas, quesadillas and the clanging of glasses in toasts of margaritas, sangria and beer with another of our host's female friends from Texas who had arrived in HK to visit her, at the attic of a nearby Mexican bar-restaurant against the mildly exciting salsa or rap rhythms of various Latin American Spanish songs in the background.

2010年9月26日 星期日

A new kind of music: Chen Xiaoyong.

On Saturday night, I attended my second HKPO concert of the season. It was full of surprises. But they were all pleasant surprises. I discovered a new Chinese composer and ...a new Chinese pianist! The "new" Chinese composer was Chen Xiaoyong. The "new" Chinese pianist was Chen Jie. The evening's programme consisted of two lighter pieces and two bigger works. And there was an encore piece. For the first half of the evening, we had Interlaced Landscapes by Chen Xiaoyong and Reflection of the Moon on Erquan and then the Yellow River Piano Concerto by Hua Yan-Jun and arranged by Yin Cheng-zong, Liu Zhuang, Chu Wang-hua, Sheng Li-hong, Shi Shu-cheng and Xu Fei-xing. For the second half, we had Symphony No. 9 in E mior , Op 95 by Dvorak.

Chen Xiaoyong (b 1955) first studied violin and then composition at the Central Conservatory in 1980 to 1985, then debuted in Europe with  his 1st String Quartet in 1987 at the Donaueschingen Music Day and the same year started to work as a music instructor at the Asia-Africa Institute of the Hamburgh University.In 1989, furthered  his studies with György Ligeti at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Hamburg and is now a freelance composer there. In 2005, he became a member of the Freie Akademie der Kunste and the following year became a professor at the Shanghai Consevatory. He taught from time to time in Hong Kong ,Taiwan and China. In 1992 he premiered his orchestral work DYEH commissioned by the Southwest German Radio in Baden-Baden and in the same year, won the prize for composition  of West German Radio's Young Composers' Forum for his composition "YÜN" for soprano and 11 instrumentalists, perfromed by Peter Eötvös' Ensemble Modern first in Cologne, then in Leipzig and Dresden. He wrote three more commissioned work Warp (1994), Evapora (1996) and Invisible Landscapes (1998) for the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen in Amsterdam and Vienna. The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie produced the portrait CD entitled Invisible Landscapes in 1999 in cooperation with Radio Bremen which won the highest honour in all five quality categories in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. The work which the HKPO performed Interlaced Landscapes was composed by him in 1999, commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the following year, he wrote Fusion for the cellist Yo-Yo Ma for his Silk Road Project. The composition XI-FUSION III for ensemble was given its world premiere as a commission from the Asia-Africa Institute of the University of Hamburg in June 2002. Chen has worked with numerous orchestras and ensembles including the Southwest Radio Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden, the KBS Symphony Orchestra Seoul, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, State Philharmonic Orchestra Hamburg, National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan, Gulbenkian Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble 2e2m Paris, Ensemble,Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, Silk Road Ensemble New York, Auryn Quartet, Arditti String Quartet, Kairos Quartet, etc. He is now working on several commissioned works for the ensemble acht (Hamburg), Art Point/ensemble Musica Temporale (Dresden), Norrkörrping Symphony Orchestra (Sweden), RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra, etc. He received the Christoph and Stephan Kaske Prize in Munich in 1993 and the Bach Prize Stipend of the Hansestadt Hamburg in 1995. Since 2006, he was a professor of composition at the Shanghai Conservatory and a composer in residence of Danube U of Austria since 2009.

According to the programme notes, he has some very special views about composition: "What esepcially fascinates me about a sound body's vibrations is the natural development of its individuals partials. This pehnomenon becomes even more interesting when the sound body produces not one, but several fundamental tones, the partials of which vibrate in asymetrical proportion and melting into each other. Starting from here, through the new ordering of the individual tones, I try to form a sound texture that had previously existed only in my imagination. For me, listening to music is not limited to the audible tones. Inaudible elements can change in certain relationships to each other, thus gaining even more meaning than audible ones. By reducing the mateiral, I would like to enable the listener to contact and sense his own imagination, thereby experiencing the sound in an individual way." If he were not a composer, I could easily have thought that he was a hi fi nut. He is concerned more with the quality and texture of sound than the quality of music, understood in the conventional sense, just like some of my hi fi friends.

Interlaced Landscapes was inspired the scenery described by a Tsing poet  Chen TaiCheung in his s poem Mounting Little Solo Hill 登小孤

蜀江萬里浮鴻濛  洞庭勢挾彭蠡雄 小孤突起插天半 百川泜柱為之東 磴道虛無動寒色 漁舟一葉傍絕壁

蛟鼉正畫吼風霾 泱漭孤雲天地白 參差樓觀麗朝霞 鏽鞶珠箔顏如花 隱岩咫尺蓄雷雨 怪樹千歲盤龍蛇

吳楚雄關此第一 析戟沉沙莾蕭瑟 凴欄决眥倚半酣 盡卷乾坤入詩筆 隔江清霞有彭郎 銀河帶水遙相望


Mammoth mist drifting over ten thousand miles of the Szechuan River

The Tung Ting Lake appearing magnificent with the Peng Yung

Little Solo rising abruptly to stab half the sky

A hundred rivers dashing against rock pillars going east

the mountain paths silently stirring cold colors 

A fishing boat coasting close to a cliff

Sea serpents drawing roaring storm clouds

Beads of the embroidered sequined belt blooming like flowers

A thunderstorm brewing beneath shadowy rocks close by

Snakes and dragons entangling a queer thousand-year-old tree

The first amongst the giant gates of Wu and Chor

Buried sand speared by waves into shivering confusion 

Leaning by the bannister with half drunken eyes

Rolling everything onto the paper with a poetic brush

A fisherman opposite the river in the clear morning cloud

The Milky Way guiding the waters to gaze at each other in the distance

Hearing the boatman's vanishing voice whilst waving hands

Horse crossing as quickly as the South wind.

In line with his composition philosophy, the piece was written using contemporary techniques, a bit cold, abrupt, distant, alienated, with isolated notes which only come together in unison from time to time and then quickly withdrawing each into themselves again. It is no longer the concerted sound of the 19th or early 20th century music which despite occasional or even deliberate dissonance were still joined by themes and motifs which were introduced, developed, repeated with slight variations by different sections of the orchestra in turn, interwoven into overall patterns, with some of the motifs repeated in different movements or joined by refrains. The dissonance were there only to emphasize, by acting as contrast, only to add to the dramatic tension of the music. Here, the notes come together too, but only sporadically but each section of the orchestra are merely concerned about their own fundamental tones of the slow and long notes which they are producing and their harmonics or what Chen calls the "partials", It almost sounded as if the winds, the strings are the music servants of the master percussive instruments, putting in appearances only for the purposes of providing a background either to break the monotony of the single but long notes produced at rhythmic intervals by the drums, timanis and to provide a bit of color to the principal actors of the piece, the different kinds of Chinese drums, bass drums, tams tams, timpanis, tom toms, kettle drums, the triangles, suspended cymbals, wood blocks, temple blocks etc.  The "music" is carried mainly by the different rhythms of the percussion, sometimes big and heavy, sometimes light and fast, sometimes long and hesitant, sometimes quick and decisive, with ample time for the harmonics of the fundamental tones of each individual heavy hit to linger in the air and to blend into the fundamental notes of the next hit etc. I did not actually count. There must have been more than 10 percussive instruments used in the piece. It sounded to my ears more an experiment or exploration of the blending of the harmonics of the various tones of the percussive insruments than a coherent piece of music in the traditional sense. The "music" is not propelled by melody, only certain "motifs". I am not sure what exactly the composer is trying to do. Whatever it is that he is attempting to achieve in this piece, I think one of the motifs must be the thundering sound of the waves as they pour through the steep gorges, hitting against the sharper edges of various rocks, creating sprays (depicted perhaps by the partials) sparkling at dawn, as seen through the half drunken eyes of the poet,  as they plunge forward downstream, with the strings depicting the clouds and the sky described in the poem, the force of the waves contrasted with the serenity of the lone boat which the poet saw on the opposite bank, depicted by quiet sounds or even silence.There were bigger waves and smaller waves and those in between, hence the use of different types of drums. I can never forget my shock when the piece opened. There were two huge bangs of the drums  I nearly fell out from my seat! My friends said they did not know what the composer was doing. I said I was not sure either. But I thought I had some inkling. So I found the piece slightly more meaningful than they did. But the above are merely my personal impressions.

When I was listening to the piece, my mind was searching constantly for comparisons. I can recall the way Arvo Pärt wrote his music, building up the sound from massed strings, using them to produce one note at a time and then piling up the sound into layers, as if the whole orchestra were a giant organ. Pärt, too would produce some repeated steady notes which he would seek to vary by adding more and more sound to them. I suppose that's what happens when you hear a completely new piece of music composed in an unfamiliar style. You got to rely upon the store of your own past listening experience and try your best to make sense of what you are listening for the first time by matching  it against the patterns of sounds you have in your musical memory godown  It forces you to think instead of sitting there like a couch potato, completely unlike listening to music which you may have heard dozens of times. To me, it is always interesting to hear something new or something old done in a new way. I shall have to leave the second type of novelty to my next blog. This blog is getting too long already.


A new Lang Lang, female version?

The second piece of the HKPO's Saturday concert was also another Chinese piece. It was Reflection of the Moon on Erquan (二泉映月) which was originally written as an Erwu solo but has been re-arranged for a string orchestra by Henry Shek. The piece has a very interesting history.  According to the programme notes, the original composer was a Taoist priest at the Taoist Temple at Leizundian in Wuxi, China who learned the erwu and pipa and who later became blind and earned his living as a wandeering musician. He was then discovered by a musicologist Yang Yin-liu who recorded three of his pipa and three of his erwu pieces. One of those pieces recorded was Reflection of the Moon on Erquan. Since then the piece has been re-arranged many times and was first adapted for the orchestra by Ding Zhi-nuo and He Zhan-hao in 1958, using only a solo violin and a string orhcestra. But the version we heard on Saturday was one done by Henry Shek and was made popular by Seiji Ozawa whilst touring Asia with the Boston Symphony in which a number of passages of the original piece has been cut. No wonder when I heard it, I found only a vague resemblance to solo erwu piece that I previously heard. Only the main melody had been retained. It was a very "strange" listening experience, not entirely erwu, but not entirely Western violin either. It had become a re-written piece in its own right! The sad, lonely and a bit hollow and wistful sound of the erwu with its subtle variation of tone with the tremolo upon its string peculiar to the erwu has almost completely disappeared. It was no longer the same thing. Instead, the sound became more solid and more complex with the addition of the other parts. You got a distinctly Western feel, no longer an entirely Chinese feel rather like a Chinese in long flowing robe with a paper fan in hand being replaced by a man with European facial features and tall strong body in mock Chinese attire!

The highlight of the evening for me was definitely the fabulous Cantonese pianist Chen Jie's performance of the Yellow River Piano Concerto (1969-1970) originally composed in 1939 by Xian Xing-hai, and as re-arranged by the musicians of the Central Philharmonic Orchestra Yin Cheng-zong, Liu Zhuang, Chu Wang-hu, Sheng Li-hong, Shi Shu-cheng and Xu Fei-xing. The piece was originally written in Yen-An, the place where the Communists eventually settled down amongst the hills after the famous Long March which they undertook to escape being annihilated by the pursuing Nationalist armies. The original melody was created as part of a Cantata by Xian who later re-arranged it for the orchestra and then was further re-arranged and adapted into a piano concerto by the above musicians in 4 sections: Prelude, the Song of the Yellow River Boatman, Ode to the Yellow River, The Yellow River in Anger and Defend the Yellow River. The basic themes  remained the same however. This must be one of the most familiar pieces heard by any hi fi lover. Chen appeared in a dramatic red bare back dress with an extremely long trailing shoulder shawl in gold which at one point the conductor stepped on whilst hurrying behind her in acknowledging the audience's applause. What delighted me most was the way she played. Not only does she have power in her hands. She has a most feminine touch in the soft passages, reminding me at times of the play of Joao Maria Pires but not her flow but then we don't want everyone to play the same way! I told my friends that she is my surprise find of the year, a female version of Lang Lang. I meant it not as a denigration of her as a musician. She definitely has a playing style of her own, less flambuoyant than that of Lang Lang perhaps and slightly more restrained but without a doubt more feminine. But at the same time, the way she handles the contrasts between the strong notes and the soft notes and the almost mercurial swiftness with which she can switch from one to the other is to me very Lang Lang. I love her playing style. She received thunderous applauses. She was apparently quite happy too and played an encore Silver Moon on a Calm Lake 銀月平湖 (?) a much lighter and very romantic piece. She played impeccably.

The final programme of the evening was Dvorak's New World Symphony in E minor. This is another very popular piece written during his trip to America in 1893 and needs little introduction. The HKPO under Liu Jia gave an excellent performance, conveying fully its subtler beauty as well as the feeling of broad and endless vistas of the new continent, and the grandeur and openness of its landscape and the quiet and at times the sustained power of Nature as well as various themes taken from folk tales of the blacks and Red Indian (the Hiawatha theme) in pentatonic scale, as well as themes reminiscent of his own native Bohemia by its very synchronized sound under the baton of its Chinese conductor. We know of course that Dvorak is a great collector of folk melodies and hence his interest in the American folk tradition. The concert left me a very happy man indeed! The HKPO did it again! Even as I am writing, the "partials" of Saturday's sounds are still reveberating in my mind's "ears". 

2010年9月25日 星期六

Near Death Experiences (NDE's)

The question of whether we have a soul is a question of the first importance for all Christians. If we do not have a soul which survives after death and which will be rejoined to another "body" upon the eschatological event called the Resurrection of the Body, an article of faith which all Catholics will have to recite as part of the Credo in the Sunday mass, then an extremely important foundation of his faith will be gone. In the papal encyclical called Humanis Generis (Concerning the Human Genus), Pope Pius XII declared: "That souls are immediately created by God is a view which the Catholic faith imposes on us". It is only insofar as people believe that they are essentially their "soul" that any doctrine relating to what will happen after their bodily death makes sense. What is the relationship between the resurrected body and the soul? Is the resurrected body only a reconstituted body? If so, is it  the soul which gives the resurrected body its "identity"? But let's leave these difficult theological questions aside for the moment and examine whether or not there is any "evidence" of the existence of what is thought of as a "soul. To Anthony Flew, a philosopher who delivered a lecture on "Near-Death Experiences" at the conference "Science and Religion:", sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, Atlanta, Georgia, November 2001, the soul is "the experiencing, planning, deciding, incorporeal, spiritual substance which had been in charge of the flesh-and-blood person whose body it had been."To Jerome W Elbert the soul is "a very special part of a human being, in addition to the body, that gives a peson at least one of the following: life, a personality; or the ability to move oneself, to think and feel, to leave the body, to know right from wrong, to survive death and perhaps to be reincarnated, to exercise free will or to have a spiritual relationship with God." ( From the Mythology of Soul to the Conscious Brain 2001 ) But to me, the soul is something analogous to the software which runs our life, something which we ourselves write and will have to constantly rewrite within the constraints imposed by the motherboard (our genetic programme) during the lifespan of the computer (our body including our brain).

One of the ways believers of the existence of the "soul" attempt to justify such a belief is to rely upon the personal testimony of those who have undergone what has been called "near death experience" (NDE) or "out of body experience" (OBE). Are there any good grounds for such beliefs?  I shall examine Flew's article and also another article "Six Feet Over: A Computer stands by on an operating room ceiling, awaiting near-death experiences" by Mary Roach in her book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005).

To Flew, OBEs, frequently reported by people who have recovered from unconsciousness during an operation, may have no cognitive status higher than that of dreams and are evidence only of the existence of of certain kinds of extrasensory perception (ESP), not evidence of some temporarily "disembodied soul" making an exploratory journey to another realm. "Even if sense can be given to the idea of a disembodied soul, the postulation of the involvement of such an incorporeal explorer would be grossly uneconomical. For having no body, and consequently no sense organs, any information brought back from its alleged travels would have to have been acquired by ESP, " says Flew.. 

What about NDE or experiences by people who came close to dying recalling having been to some places other than being blacked out on the operating table, traveling to the ceiling or hurtling through a sort of tunnel, often towards an all-encompassing light sometimes meeting dead family members or friends or sometimes a transcendental "presence". etc. First of all, such reports are typically made by the living! To constitute evidence of the existence of the soul, it must be shown that the information purportedly brought back by those encountering God or other saints etc. could only have been acquired when there were no evidence of any activity going on in their brain at the time when they were reported to be having such NDEs and that such NDE "were" the causes of their consciousness.

Michael Sabom, author of Life after Life (1975) who interviewed 116 cardiac arrest survivors and found  six such patients recalling specific details they had "seen" during their NDE or OBEs, in his Light and Death: One Doctor's Fascinating Account of Near Death Experiences (1998),  recounted the experience of one patient Pam who in 1991 underwent brain surgery to remove bllod from her brain for an aneurism, with her eyes taped shut, and molded, clicking inserts inside her ears and  reported being aware of each step of the procedure of the surgical team during her operation despite her EEG being flat.  But later, Sabom admitted that he himself was the "world renowned surgeon"  who conducted the operation mentioned in the book and that he himself was involved in the "structured interview protocol" by which the details of Pam's NDE were obtained. If it is possible that the patients heard anything, it is also possible that they might have partway opened their eyes and seen things and they would subsequently incorporate what they saw into their "reports". Some argue that the patients are merely unconsciously combining data from things they have seen or heard or felt together with their memories of TV medical dramas or previous hospital visits.

Numerous studies of the functioning of the human brain have, however, taught us that our brain functions by a number of different sub-systems each specialized in a particular sensory mode or a particular function, including the internal processing and monitoring of information within the brain itself and when we have a thought or a memory, that is just cumulative but "provisional" coming together of neural messages coming from such different parts our brain which happen to be resonating at the same frequency (either as primary wave or as harmonics and some scientists posit the theory that they do so at 40 hertz). Our memory is thus never a "direct" production but is always a "created", "fabricated" or "reconstituted" product. It is thus entirely possible that to explain certain sensations felt by his body during the operation, (in this case, why certain parts of our body "felt" the way they did) despite the knocking out of his "visual system" through the effect of anaesthetics), any "gaps" in the information needed for the generation of a "coherent" or "meaningful" overall pattern will be "filled in" by the brain itself. The brain does this by making use of data coming from other parts of the various sensory sub-systems by forming a "hypothesis" of what the "lost" data could have been through  "extrapolating"  the collective data retrieved from the store of his long term memory of how previously pattern A, pattern B, pattern C etc coming from the various sub-systems would by historical experience "always" happen or occur simultaneously and by matching the current data against such past "collective" patterns and trying for a "fit" for the most likely "explanation", it being known that memory from the different senses always occur in "clusters").The brain does this more or less in the same way that any modern car CD machine will extrapolate data "lost" when the laser head fail to read any data due to temporary break in the data stream as a result of mechanical dislocation of the laser head from the surface of the CD disc during a bumpy ride, to artifically "complete" or "fill in" or adding neutral data to the disrupted data stream to enable  the CD machine to continue to play a non-disrupted stream of music AS IF there had been no such temporary data stream disruption.

In short, what the patient reported as having been "seen" might in fact just be a "hypothesis" created by the brain itself to "explain", why he "felt" certain sensations at the various sites of his body being operated on (relying on the "residual" signals coming from the nerves of those parts being operated on, which continued to function as before the operation and indeed, as they always have been, below the threshold level of our normal "consciousness" or awareness). He therefore "reported" as a "fact" what in fact was merely a fact/experience based "hypothesis" that that "must" have been what he "would" see, had his visual system NOT been disabled by the anaesthetics AS IF  he actually "saw" what he thought he would have seen and without even knowing that that was what he was doing because such "information processing" occurred below the threshold of "normal" consciousness" or "awareness". 

Another criticism of Sabom's work is that he does not have any vigorous independent corroborative evidence of the truth of what his patients claimed when they said they "saw" their relatives. In a much cited example of a patient called Maria who claimed that in her wanderings outside her body, she saw a tennis shoe stuck in the third floor ledge of the hospital building, with a worn patch by the little toe and the lace stuck under the heel and later an investigator found the tennis shoe, exactly as described. But this has never been independently verified. We now also have abundant evidence that the sensation that we are no longer within our body may have been the result of the deprivation of oxygen to the part of the our brain concerned with our spatial orientation called the "visual orientation area".(VOA) The disruption of the normal functioning of the VOA may cause us to have the "feeling" that "we" are no longer within our own body but elsewhere . Alternatively, we may even artificially induce this feeling through the taking of "pleasure" psychotic drugs like ketamine, LSD, mescaline, pot, hash, or other hallucinogens or even extreme stress and endorphins..

In another study by Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper, some people who were blind from birth reported "seeing" their bodies lying below them and some said they "saw" doctors or physical features of the room. If so, these could count only as evidence of ESP, not evidence of the existence of a soul! Besides, the experiences described by their patients were never very clear. One woman described the experience thus: "It was like hearing words and not being able to understand them but knowing they were words". It was just a confused "feeling". . Many of the claims when investigated, were found to have fraudulent aspects..We need evidence, not anecdotes. Roach says, "It seems pretty clear what's going on ...People are experiencing something dazzling and euphoric and totally foreign, and interpreting it according to their image of heaven." These cultural overlays also apply to the reports of "rushing down a tunnel" sometimes reported by those who claim to have gone down a tunnel of light at the end of which they encounter God. The same applies to the reports of the "experience" of being sent back to return to one's body. Mediumship and "ghosts" fare no better! Most cases of mediumship seriously investigated also proved to involve fraudulent and dishonest elements, the spirit "appearances" being shown to be elaborately staged by frauds for monetary gains. Once scientific instruments were involved and a rigorous experimental protocols instituted, the spirit either failed to appear or alternatively the alleged "strange" phenomena could be explained by quite ordinary natural causes or the frauds were exposed.     .

In another famous study by Drs. Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwich in October 2000 at the Southampton General Hospital and later published in the January 2001 issue of Resuscitation, there was no direct measurement of the brain activity during the periods of the cardiac arrests. Another objection is that it is impossible to attribute any experiences recorded up to a week later to be the specific period that a brain purportedly went out of action. Thirdly, it is highly likely that a brain which had shut down might generate within itself some false information to fill in the gap of  what happened during the period of such temporary shutdown. Fourthly, we now have evidence that when the "visual orientation area" (VOA) in the temporal lobe of the human brain is put out of action or where its activity is retarded, then the patient will feel that the boundary between his body and the world will have altered such that his orientation in space will no longer function "normally:" and that may be the source of the patient feeling that "he" can perceive his own body "as if" he were outside of his own body and "as if"  it were floating somewhere above his own body and looking down at what was going on with that body on the operation table. To Flew, "only if the "putative memories" of the patients embraced information about the circumstances surrounding them when acquiring this information before they reported these putative memories would we be warranted to describe such cases as experiences had by the substantial "souls" of the patients. The editors of the Skeptical Inquirer therefore concluded that "the Southampton research showed that out of 63 cardiac arrest survivors, 4 exhibited some for the subjective attributes of NDEs. Not much to write home to mother about, really!"

In an article in the Lancet (2004), W Van Lommel who interviewed 344 cardiac arrest patients in 10 Dutch hospitals, who had all been clinically dead as defined by defrilliation on their EKG, found that only 18% of the patients had NDEs and therefore ruled out oxygen deprivation because if so, then all patients should report an NDE and concluded that " a state of consciousness ...in which identity, cognition and emotional function independently from the body but retain the possibility of nonsensory perception" and encourage practitioners to explore such phenomena. Such studies have been done. But their results are disappointing because the experimental protocols are found to be quite sloppy.

Bruce Greyson, who studied NDEs for 29 years thought that NDE was unlikely to be related to drug use. He noted that people under anesthesia but not close to death have far fewer NDEs than people who came close to death wothout being subjected to anesthesia and so concluded that it is hard to see how the drugs could be causing the NDEs.

Another renowned brain researcher, Susan Blackmore, a research psychologist who spent her life examining OBEs and NDEs and who wrote the books Beyond the Body (1982) on OBEs and Dying to Live (1993) on NDE, concluded in another article "What Can the Paranormal Teach Us about Consciousness" Skeptical Inquirer  March/April 2001, that "the more we look into the workings of the brain, the less it looks like a machine run by a conscious self and the more it seems capable of getting on without one.". In other words, it is not quite necessary for us to function with a "conscious" "soul", let alone one which will survive after our bodily death! This seems to tie in with my own reading of the functioning of the human brain in terms of its physiology, neurology and psychology.


It's Saturday again. End of another hectic week. Time for a little colour and bigger font. This week I shall write on a big topic, "globalization"! It was sent to me by a friend and slightly modified by me. Here it goes.

What is the truest definition of "Globalization"?

Princess Diana's death! Why? You are now reading about an English princess with an Egyptian boyfriend  who had an accident whilst being driven inside a French tunnel in a German car with a Dutch engine by a Belgian driver drunk on Scottish whisky in a panic because they were closely tailed by Italian paparazzis on Japanese motorcycles with Czechoslovakian tele-lenses and thereafter treated by an American doctor using Brazilian medicines whilst an American Indian is trying out a definition on "globalization"   using Bill Gates' technology and you're probably reading this on your computer using Taiwanest chips on a Korean monitor assembled by Bengladeshi workers within Chinese metal cases in a Singaporean plant and transported by Indian lorry-drivers, hijacked by Indonesians, unloaded by Sicilian dockers and trucked to you by Mexicans if you are in America and Chinese if you are in Hongkong and Algerians or Moroccans if you are in France!

Have a nice weekend!


2010年9月23日 星期四

The Illusion of Afterlife




If you find this article contains nothing, ask Yahoo. I wrote this blog twice. Twice it disappeared!

The Illusion of Immortality

Anthropologists and archaelogists tell us that as soon as the human race achieved a measure of self-consciousness, death of their mate, parents, children and friends became a special occasion. In all cultures, burials are accompanied by special rites and often, special articles are buried with or burnt for the dead. This is evidence of some kind of belief that somehow, another kind of life awaits the dead. However, to me, all the evidence suggests that such beliefs are more likely to be illusory than otherwise.

There are a number of reasons why people of all different races, in different societies at different periods in history should all believe in some form of afterlife or other. All such reasons are psychological. I shall explain.

Death, whether violent, or due to disease or old age is never pleasant for the living. If the persons who died are close to us, like our mate, our father or mother, or grandfather or grandmother, brothers, sisters, and other relatives, work-mates or friends and we are emotionally attached to them, their departure will mean a permanent loss. It is an irreversible loss. They will never wake up again, ever. There is something absolute, something definitive, something relentless, something irrevocable about death. It cuts into our heart, like a dagger. It takes a long time for the wound to heal. It is not an enjoyable experience. If possible we like to turn the clock back. We would like to think that it is not true. Hence for the ease of our conscience, we need an emotional and social closure. It is love which drives us to demand for an afterlife. We demand it so that we may have the hope of rejoining our beloved departed somewhere in the future or in some other space. Where there is a demand, we can be sure that sooner or later, someone will think of a way of supplying that demand. That demand has been supplied. It was and still is supplied by magicians of the mind or the psyche. They are called shamans, witches, media, priests, elders, monks and nuns. And the institution supporting them and giving assistance to them is called religion.

In ancient times, people did not have any very clear ideas about what would happen to man after he died. The Greeks and Romans thought that the dead will pass through a river of forgetfulness, called Lethes. What happens beyond the river, no one knows. The Old Testament Jews thought that the dead would go to a gloomy, shadowy and unhappy place. Again, they had no clear ideas what would happen there either. The Red Indians think that their dead will go to a hunting ground far away. No matter what kind of place that is, no one is anxious to go there. The Hindus think that although a man is dead, his spirit will survive him and may be recycled many many times again on earth until it becomes sufficiently purified and in the meantime, depending on the nature and quantity of good deeds that he has done in each reincarnation, will move up the hierarchy of heavens. The Buddhists, a radical offshoot from Hinduism, preaching deliverance from suffering, not just to the Brahmins, but every one, seem divided on the issue with some believing in the Hindu theological cosmology and others undecided whether that would happen but in any event, believe that everyone can become a Buddha, or an enlightened one and reach nirvana, when the cycle of reincarnation will cease. Whatever the relevant religious beliefs may be and whatever the truth of such belief, there is little doubt that the majority would subjectively like all suffering to cease and become extinct, whether in this life or the next. In the same manner that Buddhism is a radical departure from Hinduism, Christianity is a radical offshoot and departure from Judaism, preaching the availability of heaven not only to the Jews but to all gentiles or heathen or non-Jews who are prepared to worship the Jewish God, called Jahweh. However, with time, more and more ingenious and more and more comprehensive explanations are developed in each religion and offered to those who need them. Atheists, those who do not believe in the existence of any God or god and agnostics, those whose minds are undecided whether there is or is not a God or gods, are a minority in any age. You need to be a thinker to become an atheist or agnostic. Not only that, you need to be emotionally strong enough to be one because atheistic thinking offers little or no consolation to the survivors and certainly not the kind of hope the greater part of humanity craves.

There is another reason why various people find it more satisfactory to have a belief in an afterlife. Life on earth at the best of times is full of pain and suffering. We face all kinds of natural disasters like storms, floods, droughts, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and epidemics and all kinds of diseases and illnesses and making a living whether as a hunter or farmer or a fisherman or a petty shopkeeper or craftsman or a clerk etc. for the greater part of humanity thoughout human history has never been easy. In addition, even if not, life is full of all kinds of risks and uncertainties and all forms of injustices which will continue to plague us until we die. And then, on top of all the uncertanties, all the anxieties and all the inevitable pain and suffering, we know that whether our life here on earth is more or less happy or unhappy, we shall all have to die. If our life is happy, we will like to live longer, albeit in another form. If our life is unhappy, we will like to have a second bite of the cherry, in our next life. This is the positive side. On the negative side, we would like all our enemies, and our oppressors in this life to suffer and be punished for their actual or imagined crimes and wrongs and injustices which we believe they have committed against us and thus be rectified.or justified or avenged if not in this life, then in the next. If there were no afterlife, then there will be absolutely no possibility of this psychological imbalance being redressed.

For the oppressed, the Christian religion certainly offers a very attractive hope of eternal happiness for themselves and eternal punishment for their enemies and oppressors. Did Jesus not say that his religion is for the weak, the sick, the weary, the poor, the widow, the downtrodden and that in his kingdom, the last here on earth shall be the first in the next, and the first shall be the last? 

The orthodox religions all tend to side with the dominant classes in society. The hope of a reversal of fortune is psychologically a very attractive belief for the lower classes, which in any society must mean the majority. It will certainly be in the interest of those in control of political power to encourage such beliefs because such beliefs will make their otherwise intolerable living conditions more tolerable in that they know that it will not last forever. When compared with an eternity, our misery on earth may be like a flash in the pan, no matter how scorching. Some of such people living in extreme misery may even long to be rejoined to their Lord in heaven for eternal bliss and happiness as soon as possible! That may be why Marx, an atheist,  said religion is the "opium" of the masses. Freud, another atheist, also proposed his own theory of relgious beliefs as illusion from the psycho-analytic point of view, which I do not propose to elaborate here.

The prevalence of religion-based beliefs in the afterlife has received powerful reinforcement in the popular mind from painters and sculptors who have painted scenes of heaven and hell and angels and demons and done vivid frescos and sculptures depicting various biblical stories adorning the ceilings and walls of numerous churches and chapels and poets like Dante and Milton have given us poetry depicting scenes in heaven and hell in lurid details.

To Jerome W Elbert, author of  Are Souls Real (2000), "our properties and abilities as persons are entirely natural in origin. We possess these properties and abilities because of our evolutionary background. Humans tend to have these characteristics because they have survival value. By accident and natural seleciton, our speicies acquired the characteristics that we bundle into the idea of a "persons"". Since does not suggest that humans are immortal but science supports the view that the bunlde of ordinary human abilities such as consciousness, will, conscience, feelings and emotions are "natural souls" which die with our bodies, in particular with our nervous system.

But to explain why people hold beliefs about an afterlife will not necessarily explain afterlife away. The crucial question is whether we have evidence of the existence of afterlife. We certainly have evidence of people everywhere believing in one form or another of afterlife. But belief in afterlife is not proof of its actual objective existence. All we have are "assertions" or "claims" about afterlife. Before we have made advances in psychology, many people thought that their deceased ancestors talking to them in their dreams constituted evidence of afterlife. We no longer think so. We know better. Certainly, there is no evidence of anyone returning from the realm of the dead to tell us how it is. Those who claim to have seen either heaven or hell or saints in visions, trances, and dreams are not saying that they have been there in person. They saw what they saw in dreams, visions. Dreams and visions are subjective and their "truth" ( except emotional reality) cannot be objectively verified. Then there are those who claim to have seen their ancestors or their spouses or their children in trances or even talked to them in seances.  All we have to rely on is their honesty. We know that honest people can make mistakes just like dishonest ones and strong motives in wanting to speak to or meet with those we love can produce self-generated delusions in our brain. The same consideration will apply to those who claim to have been able to regress to their own past lives in hypnotic sessions. So we are back to square one: no reliable and objectively verifiable evidence!

2010年9月22日 星期三

A Bridge between the True and the Good

There is no society which does not aim to be a "good" society. All men  long for what is good and shun what is evil. But to attain this ideal, we must have knowledge. That's where truth comes in. Good is an ultimate value. What is true, however, may have only instrumental value. Whilst what is true may be one of the highest values of human civilization, what is good is an even higher value. Hence, what is true must seve what is good. 

Whilst it may be true that what is true may serve what is good, the relation between what is good and what is true is not one exclusively that between a master value and a subservient value. Even for determining what is "good", let alone whether what we find measure up to the relevant criteria of what is "good", we need knowledge. What is good in a specific set of circumstances is certainly a matter in which knowledge can play a very big role indeed. This is where science may help. In fact, originally "science" merely means knowledge. It is only after what has been called "the scientific revolution"  in the 17th century that "science" came to have the kind of more restricted meaning that the word carries today.

Not to be unfair to what is true, it must however, be observed that in addition to being the handmaid of the good, it may be argued that in some sense, what is true and especially in the specific form of science, may also be an independent value. Its existence may be justified by what it is and what it does, in its own right. This is so especially in regard to what may be called "scientific values" i.es. its trust and belief in the scientific method, scientific reasoning. being honest, courageous, persistent, open-minded, prepared if necessary to contradict and to challenge its own previous beliefs, its wilful refusal to bow to political or religious pressure, its staunch defence of what it regards as the "truth" discovered by a strict adherence to the scientific method of observation, hypothesis formation, verification through experimental means, constant self-criticism by peer reviews. In the scientific search for the truth, nothing is declared out of bounds beforehand. Even Einstein had to concede defeat to Niel Bohr's quantum theory despite his most vigrous initial objections.

Traditionally, science deals merely with physical objects and traditional science has been called natural science because it seeks to understand empirically the nature and structure of various materials and how they interact through forces like atomic, nuclear, chemical, mechanical and biological forces. Scientists describe them, measure them, classify them, generalize them to basic principles and seek to discover the laws governing their behavior. After having found the relevant principles, they then go on to apply such principles to explore newer and newer areas not previously examined in the relevant scientific domains. Now we have physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, astronomical science and within each, there are further specializatons. In addition, there are also more pragmatic sciences concerned with their application of the findings of fundamental science like engineering, architecture, medicine through scientific technologies. The careful, patient, systemmatic exploration of the natural world has yielded an extremely rich harvest and the phenomenal success of the scientific method has thus encouraged men to extend the scientific method to the study of man himself, whether as an individual or as group or as a society. Thus we now have social sciences like history, economics, sociology and psychology. But behind natural and social sciences are certain basic assumptions which have guided their development, exploring what is possible and what is not possible to be discovered by various scientific methods and the limits of validity of the methods of various different branches of science, including the social science in which the philosophy of science is particularly important.

One of the areas of examined by traditional philosophy like metaphysics, philosophic values and ethics are now being examined by social scientists. They seek to apply the scientific method found to be so successful in the natural sciences to the study of value. The methods employed are like the other sciences, empirical. Social scientists gather data, observe what is going on when people make moral decisions, examine the results of their action, try to form hypothesis of how or why they do or fail to do what they do and attempt to predict what people are likely to do under certain specific circumstances. They study human moral behavior systemmatically. As a result of such studies, we now know a great deal more about how people make moral decision and we have a great deal more data on the result of the use of certain technologies and can examine their impact on the environment.  

Aristotle was amongst the first to explore the relationship between human sensations, knowledge and technology. According to him, people wish to have knowledge either because it helps them solve practical problems or knowledge itself gives them a kind of intellectual satisfaction. In the same manner, scientific knowledge has vastly expanded our ability to both to understand the workings of Nature, and in the form of all kinds of production and manufacturing and tranportation and communication technology helped us solve numerous problems of and improved our material life and to that extent, vastly increased our ability to dominate Nature and in the form of information technology like books, magazines, journals, TV, cinema, hi fidelity sound equipment and other digital audio-video discs has provided us with the means of enriching our cultural life. But on the other hand, it has also polluted our air, fresh water, sea and land, destroyed the delicate ecosystem, depleted our natural resources, created weapons of mass destruction like all kinds of atomic, nuclear, neutron bombs, chemical and biological weapons and provided many nations with weapons to destroy the earth many times over. The internet has turned the entire world into a global information village and the global economy is not far behind and the heavy concentration of power in the hands of those in control of vital economic and financial information have created monster products the failure of which have pluinged the entire world into financial crisis and global recession. Our ethics have apparently not caught up with our technological development. The problem of genetic engineering, organ transplants, artificial insemination, test tube babies, articficially induced abortion, the use of laboratory animals for research, stem cell research,  have also created moral problems the world had never previously had to face. The moral crisis regarding the control of technology is literally unprecedented.

Some of our technology adopted by capitalists in our production methods in the form of factory production or assemly line has also created a kind of dehumanizing working environment parodied by Charlie Chaplin in his ground-breaking silent movie Modern Times  in the 1920s. Such working conditons are an affront to human dignity and have alienated millions from their work. They feel no longer human but just so many nuts or bolts being jolted along in the inexorable rumbling of the industrial machinery They have been turned into slaves of technology instead of its master. How to properly use our technology to create a better world, a more human world, a more habitable world, more sustainable economies shall be the task of all 21st philosophers of science. The value of science is ambivalent. Science has become both our slave and our master. Present indications are that science and technology are fast becoming more our master than our slave. Science has empowered us but in the process it has also empowered itself at our expense. The time for audit has arrived. The time for sitting down calmly, coolly and reflecting upon how we may once again become the master instead of the slave of science has arrived. It's really up to us whether we have the will to tackle the problem and seize the bull by the horn. The signs are that technology is now developing at an ever accelerating pace. If we wait too long, it may well be too late! The bridge between what is true and what is good must be built now. There is no further time to waste! 

2010年9月21日 星期二

Giving a Body Back to Spirituality

In the previous blog, I mentioned about Thomas Merton's criticism of certain aspects of contemporary spirituality in some circles by excluding or ignoring or otherwise minimising or even denigrating the human body. But the body should be interpreted more widely as including not just our physical body. It may be extended to all that the body needs. In other words, it may be extended to our physical needs for food and clothing and not just food and clothing for our mind and our heart. This aspect of Christianity is emphasized by a theological movement originating mainly in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s of the 20th Century. It is called liberation theology

According to the Wikipedia, liberation theology is a "movement in Christian theology which interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of liberation from unjust economic, political or social conditions" or "an interpretation of the Christian fatih through the poor's suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor".  The term "liberation theology" was invented by a Peruvian priest called Gustavo Gutiérrez in his book A Theology of Liberation (1971). The movement's other leaders are Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Jon Sobrino and José Porfirio Miranda of El Salvador and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay.

To me, man has an insatiable desire for freedom and for liberation. This desire expresses itself in his yearnings for transcendence. Man longs to transcend the limitations imposed not only by his physical body but also by the social, economic and political conditions which restrict his freedom. Yet at the same time, he has an equally insatiable need to connect to someone, something, some ideal larger than himself. Thus he seeks union with a member(s) of the opposite sex, with other people, with his community,with his race, with his nation, with Nature and for some, with the spirit of the Universe. Hence, whenever any of such needs are not satisfied, he feels incomplete. When any of such needs are denied, he feels frustrated or even angry. And if his needs are denied satisfaction for prolonged periods of his life, he becomes sick, either physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Thus any religion which fails to address these issues or which fails to give proper weight to each of such needs for liberation and for connection is bound to be perceived as unsatisfactory. Likewise, any spirituality which fails to take into account or fails to meet man's apparently contradictory needs for freedom on the one hand and for connection on the other, are bound to be found unsatisfactory too. Such contradictory human needs have been vividly portrayed by D. H. Lawrence in his novel Sons and Lovers.

Spirituality has traditionally been considered as belonging to a higher sphere, above man's mere animal nature, as something which is a mix of the rational, the intellectual and the emotional and in the worst cases reduced to some abstract "intellectualization" of certain otherwise intense almost "visceral"  "religious" emotions, as a form of "decorporeality" of the mystical emotions if sense of union felt in moments of deep meditation or sense of awe people vis a vis displays of the power or the magnificence of Nature in the form of high mountains, the huge waves pounding upon rocky shores, the thunder and lightning during storms and tornados etc. or even the delicate beauty of Nature.  Yet while man needs to transcend his animality, his spirituality can never be entirely divorced from his animality either. After all, we must never forget, as I am fond of saying, that we have got feet of clay! We should not oppose our body to our spirituality. Rather we should incorporate our body into our spirituality. That's why we should pay as much attention to our bodily or physical needs as our spiritual or religious needs.

If we take into account our physical needs, then it becomes inevitable that our religion should concern itself not only with our souls, but also our body and the associated economic, social and political conditions under which we lead our lives. Hence all religions, whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist should not refrain under appropriate conditions to lend its support to various movements for the advancement of the ideals of political and economic equality and of social justice. For this reason, it is not right thinking to dissociate our spiritual life in the form of our prayers, our contemplation, meditation, our retreats, our worship from our work and our material needs and the conditions for their satisfaction, including on suitable occasions, throwing our weight behind the relevant social and political movements. For this reason, liberation theologians have reinterpreted the Christian experience as the experience of God incarnating himself into human form, suffering with man concretely in history, dying for us on the cross to bring home to us the message of love and forgiveness. God has become man. He is no longer seen as someone abstract, remote, perfect, up there in the sky. God intervenes in human history to liberate man from sin. God acts with us, here and now. The church's role is to help God to liberate man from his sins, of man's inhumanity to man, not the least of which is the way the rich exploits the poor, the way rich nations and multinationals exploit 3rd world countries and its people. The Church should no longer be segregated from the world: it must actively help Jesus achieve the liberation of man, help its faithfuls to struggle for justice, for a fairer share of the fruits of economic production and for human rights, here on earth  Theology should no longer reamin a matter of purely cold dry analysis, clarification and sytematization of abstract theological insights and doctrines about a static and remote God. It should a dynamic and on-going practice or praxis fitting theology to its historical contexts and the active personal struggle of the theologian sharing in the people's (especially the poor people, the marginized people like women, black, homosexuals) battles for liberation. Loving God should no longer be distinguished from loving our neighbors. 

Quite apart from making theology relevant to people's social, economic and political life, it is also about time that theology should recall to the mind of its faithfuls the "spiritual" dimension of activities not "normally" considered spiritual e.g. our work, our day to day contact and social interaction with members of our family, our fellow workers at the factory, office, shops, our customers, our clients, and others whom we meet in the myriad social interaction with others in our ordinary day to day living. That spiritual dimension may consist in the first place in our being "aware" and being "mindful" at all times of the ultimate interconnectedness of each of us with all the others, with the world, the entire universe, and of our folly in erecting and then "pretecting" and "defending" the "false" boundary between our "self" and "others" and between ourselves with that supreme being or entity we call God, as if we could ever exist independently of each other. If this awareness is present, then we will more likely treat the others less as "enemies", "competitors" or complete "strangers" having nothing but antagonistic relationships with us and more as partners in the joint enterprise of  realizing our common aim of freedom in union. We would then find it much easier to treat our daily work and our daily relations with fellow human beings as a form of "prayer" or an "offering" to that mystery we call either Life, Universe, God, the Tao, the One, the Absolute etc. We should then as Thomas Moore says, "re-enchant" our daily life with elements of "ritual" and of "myths" and thereby to restore to it a little of the magic which ought to be attached to this most mysterious and awe inspiring process called "Life". Our life will then have restored to it its original sacredness and holiness.

In my opinion, religion should no more be exclusively "spiritual" than that secular life should be completely devoid of "spirituality". It is as wrong to consider religion as merely "spiritual" as to consider our daily life as merely "secular". There should always be a spiritual dimenion to our life but in addition to a "private" spirituality, there should also be a social dimension to our spirituality. In the end, we can never achieve spirituality alone, although that is sometimes necessary because of the need for silence and for temporary withdrawal from the world.  In short, we need a more holistic spirituality. Is that not why Merton alternated his life between silent meditation and work within the Trappist monastery and  speaking out in public and writing about social issues?  Is that not the reason why the great Buddha after having achieved enlightenment himself continued to teach others the wisdom which he had won after countless personal struggles for more than 40 years until his death?

2010年9月19日 星期日

A Big Nail on the Head of institutionalized "Spirituality"

Whilst writing on the Heart Sutra, I had to dig up a book on the subject. Unfortunately, the book that I needed was at the bottom of a pile of books. To lay my hands on it, I had to remove the whole of some 20 books above it and place the other books on the floor. But in the hurry, I upset the temporary pile. A book fell out. Its two sides lay on the ground with the book cover leaning obliguely against the side of another pile of books. It was open. Its pages curved out like two little wings  fluttering in the draught created by the airconditioner above or two little open arms beckoning me to look at them. Without thinking, I reached out my hands. I picked it up. I flapped its cover down. It was a book by one of my favourite writers. He is Thomas Merton. He was a Catholic monk who spent his life in a curious mix of quietism and activism. He was a Trappist monk. He belonged to the same order as those in Lantao Island who produce and sell those "Red Cross" cartoned fresh milk that we sometimes find on the dairy shelf of some local supermarkets. But he also wrote extensively on the prayerful attitude to life, the care and cultivation of our soul, our social responsibility to the secular world and on certain aspects of world politics. 

I read him a long time ago. In line with my reading habit, I have marked with a highlight marker pen, usually in green ink, various passages of the books that I find insightful. His book is filled with many pages with such highlighted lines. The name of the book is "The Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" , an Image book published by Doubleday 1968, 1989. Out of curiosity, I read the opened pages. Once I set my eyes upon them, I could not take them off. I stood reading, my feet rooted to the ground, in front of the airconditioner, besides the speakers in my tiny sitting room. It was an excellent passage. I had certainly read it before because it was highlighted in green but it still felt as if I was reading it for the first time!  What he said there remains as valid today as it was so many years ago. I do not know if this counts as an instance of what Jung calls "serendipity" because at that moment, my mind was filled with thoughts about Buddhist spirituality. But I do know that I do not want to summarize what he said because I don't think I can do him justice. I better let him say it in his own words:

"      Many of the problems and sufferings of the spiritual life today are either fictitious or they should not have to be put up with. But because of our mentality we block the "total response" that is needed for a fully healthy and fruitufl spirituality. In fact the very idea of "spirituality" tends to be unhealthy in so far as it is divisive and itself makes total response impossible. The "spiritual" life thus becomes something lived "interiorly" and in "the spirit" (or worse still in the 'mind"--indeed in the 'imagination"). The body is left out of it, because the body is "bad" or at best, "unspiritual". But the "body" gets into the act anyway, sometimes in rather disconverting ways, especially when it has been excluded on general principles.

       So we create problems that should never arise, simply because we "believe" with our mind, but heart and body do not follow. Or else the heart and the emotions drive on in some direction of their own, with the mind in total confusion. The damnable abstractness of the "spiritual life" in this sense is ruining people, and it is also one of the chief reasons why many modern men and women cannot endure a lifetime in a monastery or a convent. All is reduced to "intentions" and "interior acts" and one is instructed to "purify one's intention" and bear the Cross mentally, while physically and psychologically one is more and more deeply involved in an overworked, unbalanced, irrational, even inhuman existence. I do not speak for myself now, my life is all right. I think of the lives led by thousands of nuns.

      The peculiar suffering of some deeply spiritual people--and it is very acute suffering indeed--is due to the fact that their mind and will reach out to God but this is not yet a total love. One's whole being has to obey God, and there is no way of it doing so when in fact one's life is involved in the exhausting and stupid external routines of academic and social life (in one case I am thinking of) or of the convent. Merely wroking out the spiritual equaiton that says, "this must be God's will" is no satisfactory answer. These people remain paralyzed, inarticulate, incapable of helping themselves. I am sure that in spite of everything they can gain something from this experience, and it can indeed be "purifying". But the glib doctrine that makes this out to be the "best way" to union with God is an affront to God as well as to man. One may have to put up with the situation out of necessity, but I refuse to believe that the spiritual life, as willed by God, is nothing better than organized masochism.

      Perhaps we ought to be a little more critical of this whole concept: "the spiritual life".

      As long as thought and prayer are not fully incarnated in an activity which supports and expresses them validly, the heart will be filled with a smothered rage, frustration, and a sense of dishonesty. When one is not able to experience this consciously, then it comes out in masochistic tribulations and even in sickness."

Merton stated in the clearest terms what is ailing modern spirituality. It is divorced from the body!  It is confined to the realm of the spirit, as if we had no bodies. It is a disembodied "spirituality". And as Merton said, it may be something worse: it may have life only in the "imagination"!  What he advocates is what he calls "a total response", one involving not only our soul, but also our body!  We need a spirituality which is fully engaged with all aspects of our life as it is in contemprary society, with personal, private, contemplative, interior aspects as well as secular, social and public aspects and one which involves and engages not only our mind, or our emotions but also the whole of our personality (physical, emotional, psychological, and social perhaps even political). In particular, we must never exclude our body in this enterprise. His ideas seem to tie in nicely with those of the great Buddha, for whom the Dharma, the Bodhi, must be a "lived" experience, and must not be restricted to merely an "intellectual " understanding! If it were not so, then our "spirituality" will be an "empty" shell, merely clever and seemingly "sagely" and apparently "profound" but ultimately "empty" noises we pronounce at talks, lectures with no "real" meaning for our actual spiritual life!