2011年7月31日 星期日

Who are you ? (II)


There are all sorts of questions we may reasonably ask about the nature of our "self". Depending upon our initial presuppositions and starting premises and depending upon the level at which we are dealing with the problem, we may get different answers. Since it is Sunday today, I naturally turn my attention on what spiritual people generally refer to as my "soul" and which a-religious people would refer to simply as my "self". I picked up a book which I bought a few days ago at the recent Hong Kong Book Fair.  It's called "The New Man" (1961) by Thomas Merton (1915-1968), one of my favourite spiritual writers. Ever since having first laid my eyes upon the Chinese translation of his book "Inner Experience", I have been looking for other books by this contemplative monk who nevertheless had been most actively involved in the "secular" questions of this world until his untimely death after an East-West monastic dialogue conference in Bangkok on Dec. 10, 1968, the 27th anniversary of his entry into the Trappist (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance ) Abbey of Gethsemani. But I only managed to buy just one other book by him, called "No Man is an Island" . It seems that his books are not that popular in Hong Kong. .

According to the official website of the Thomas Merton Center of the Bellarmine University, Merton is "arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the
twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over
one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote
over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from
monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race." He was the son of two artists and was born in Prades, France and after "a rambunctious youth and adolescence", he converted to Catholicism whilst at Columbia University and then in 1941 entered the Abbey of Gethsemani. He stayed there for 27 years and whilst there, considering that race and peace as the most urgent problem of our times, he became the "the conscience of the
peace movement of the 1960's" but for this "social activism
Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who
assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk". In his last years, "he became deeply interested in Asian religions,
particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue...The
Dalai Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism
than any other Christian he had known."

Photograph of Merton by John Lyons.

In a chapter entitled "Spirit In Bondage", Merton sets out his views on the spiritual plight of the modern man. He goes really deep. In fact, all the way back to the original "sin" of Adam. According to him, Adam's principal sin was that he fell for an illusory "self": "the sin of Adam which robbed him and us of paradise was due to a false confidence, a confidence which deliberately willed to make the option and experiment of believing in a lie."

Merton saw no reason why Adam should be so foolish. "There was nothing in Adam's perfect peace that warranted this playing with unreality....There was no weakness, no passion in his flesh, that drove him to an irrational fulfillment in spite of his better judgment. All these things would only be the consequence of his preference for what 'was not'. Even the natural and healthy self-love by which Adam's nature rejoiced in its own full realization could gain nothing by adding unreality to the real. On the contrary, he could only become less himself by being other than what he already was." But why did he still do it? His answer is: pride: "For pride is a stubborn insistence on being what we are not and never intended to be. Pride is a deep, insatiable need for unreality, an exorbitant demand that others believe the lie we have made ourselves believe about ourselves. It infects at once man's person and the whole society he lives in.

Adam's pride had an effect: concupiscence: the convergence of all passions and all sense upon himself. I remember first coming cross this oddly sounding old fashioned word when I was still in Form 1. The "Brother" who was teaching us "Ethics" was not able to explain what exactly this word meant. I don't blame him. How do you expect a boy of twelve to understand such a profound concept. According to Merton, pride and selfishness then react upon one another in a vicious circle, "each one greatly enlarging the other's capacity to destroy our life." This pride led to "a form of supreme and absolute subjectivity. It sees all things from the viewpoint of a limited, individual self that is constituted as the center of the universe". Isn't this what we see everyday around us: people who would or could think of nothing and no one but themselves,  people who think that the whole universe should revolve around their personal needs, their personal whims and desires and that everyone and everything else have only one purpose: to satisfy them when, where and how they wish. Listen to what our children are asking of us and their school and their "friends". Listen to what our politicians are asking for on behalf of their "constituents. and you'll get a pretty good idea of what I mean.

Merton understands why we are the way we are. He says, "now everybody knows that, subjectively, we see and feel as if we were at the center of things, since that is the way we are made." But pride adds something else on to this general and understandable mistake: "pride ...elevates this subjective feeling into metaphysical absolute. The self must be treated as if, not merely in feeling but in actual fact, the whole universe revolved around it." Concupiscence, enlisted in the service of pride, tells us, "If I am the center of the universe, then everything belongs to me. I can claim as my due, all the good things of the earth. I can rob and cheat and bully other people. I can help myself to anything I like, and no one can resist me. Yet at the same time, all must respect and love me as a benefactor, a sage, a leader, a king. They must let me bully them and take away all that they have and on top of it they must bow down, kiss my feet and treat me as god." This is a most childish attitude.

In a way, we have never grown up. The root of all our problems both individually and collectively is that age has done nothing to alleviate this general tendency towards selfishness and self-centered-ness. We continue to behave like a baby all of our life and never learn humility. To Merton, "To grow up means, in fact, to become humble, to throw away the illusion that I am the center of the everything and that other people only exist to provide me with comfort and pleasure." We only got to look at the advertisement bombarding us daily from MTR posters, television, cabled or wireless, newspaper, magazines, huge LED screens erected outside commercial buildings to see if we are ever educated to think of others or whether they are not carefully calculated to feed and even encourage and stimulate our "subjective" but natural desires for making ourselves "appear" better than we are or positively misleading us in thinking or dreaming to be what we are not!

It is obvious that society doesn't seem to help us grow up. To Merton, "Unfortunately, pride is so deeply embedded in human society that instead of educating one another in humility and maturity, we bring each other up in selfishness and pride." We are merely doing window dressing: "The attitudes that ought to make us 'mature' too often only give us a kind of poise, a kind of veneer, that make our pride all the more suave and effective. For social life, in the end, is too often simply a convenient compromise by which your pride and mine are able to get along together without too much friction".  That is why, he says, "it is a dangerous illusion to trust in society to make us 'balanced', 'realistic' and 'humble'. I think he speaks with deep insight when he says, "Very often, the humility demanded of us by our society is simply acquiescence in the pride of the collectivity and of those in power. Worse still, while we learn to be humble and virtuous as individuals, we allow ourselves to commit the worst crimes in the name of 'society'. " We are gentle in our private life in order to be murderers as a collective group. For murder, committed by an individual, is a great crime. But when it becomes war or revolution, it is represented as the summit of heroism and virtue". This is precisely what I have been telling my friends all along. As a society, we are all hypocrites: we apply double or even multiple standards. Why did America invade (or in their own terminology "liberate" ) only Iraq and not some other equally African or Asian dictatorships doing ruthless massacres of what they regard as their enemies? Why did America condone or turn a blind eye towards Israeli atrocities and injustices perpetrated against Palestinian civilians but make mountains out of mole hills of Palestinian atrocities against Israelis. I am not saying that the Palestinians are right. But two wrongs don't make one right. That is a simple reasoning which everybody can understand. They are both wrong, but each in their own way. The leaders of each group are equally guilty of crimes against humanity.

Merton points to another hypocritical subterfuge practised by the modern man. He says, "One would almost think that the great benefit modern man seeks in collective living is the avoidance of guilt by the simple expedient of having the state, the Party, or the class command us to do the evil that lies hidden in our heart. Thus we are no longer responsible for it, we imagine. Better still, we can satisfy all our worst instincts in the service of collective barbarism, and in the end, we will be praised for it. We will be heroes, chiefs of police, and maybe even dictators."

What to do?

(to be cont'd)

Who are you? (I)

"Who are you?" and its reverse or corollary "Who am I?"  may each appear to be the simplest question one can ask. Yet, it is a question which has bothered philosophers and spiritual writers for thousands of years.

When asked that question by others, we would normally answer by giving our name, which usually consist of two parts, our first and middle name and then our family name. We got to do that every time we fill in a form whether it be for our admission to a kindergarten, a primary school, a secondary school, a college, or when we apply for a job. That is also what we fill in when we apply for a driver's licence, a practising certificate for a profession,  a credit card, a library card, a member's card, an identity card, a passport, a birth certificate, a marriage certificate and a death certificate and in the case of our birth and death certificates, our name is filled in for us by others. There is little doubt about what our name should be. In my case, I type in the words "Elzrro927" when I want to access my own blog. It is an assumed name. Others know me by that name.

But, am I my name or my assumed name? Are you your name or assumed name? In the modern world, it is simply impossible for us to live without a name and a document of identification of some sort to confirm we are who we say we are. When you think about it, it seems a bit ridiculous that in a very real sense, you cannot "be" what you actually are without producing some bit of identification paper or plastic to "show" or to "prove" that you are who you say or think or feel you are. Try insisting on refusing to produce your identity card or to give a name to others and you'll find you can't get access to a school, to hospital treatment, to your bank account or obtain a job, get married or be recognized as the parent of your own children, drive or go visit another country or even your own country. Why? The simple answer may be that we live as and within a social group, irrespective of its size: a social or economic unit, a kind of community, a city, a country etc.

With each name is attached a certain history, a personal biography. We are so accustomed to giving and using our names whenever we come into contact with others that imperceptibly we may come to think of ourselves as what others  "perceive" or "acknowledge" ourselves to be. To that extent, we are "alienated" from our true self. In a sense, we have "become" what we are in the "eyes" of others or as "verified" by some "administrative" or  "functional" systems or other. We have a "public" or "social" or "administrative" self, a so to speak "objective" self.

Are we our public or social or administrative self or objective self? In the eyes or within the system of the others, we certainly are. But is that all we are?  We know ourselves or at least we would like to think that we do: what we are, who we are, what we have done or intend to do, what we think, what we feel, what we like or dislike, who we know, whom we love or hate or fear or are angry with or envious of in a way others or other systems can never know or expect to know. In that sense, we know ourselves in a way more directly and more intimately than any other person or persons or organization in the world. We may thus consider that only "that" is our "real" self. And we constantly complain that others simply "don't understand" us!

In fact, part of the attractions and fascination of a love relationship is the gradual revelation and unfolding of that "real" or "true" self to the one we regard as our beloved. That is what most girls dream of doing. They would stop at nothing to "reveal" their "true" self to the one whom they think deserve to "know" them better: telling themselves with the greatest difficulty not to reach their hand out for that extra piece of chocolate or another scoop of that delicious looking ice- cream, bending up and down tens of times to reduce those extra inches from their waist or lifting dumb bells to firm up their arms or leg muscles, lifting their legs and feet and putting them down again thousands of times to the monotonous rhythm of the treading machine to lose those extra calories, jostling with each other in "crazy" spring, summer, autumn, winter, Easter, Christmas, "renovation" or "closing down" sales or "pre-sales" of their favourite boutiques or department stores or scrimping on their meals to buy what they regard as the latest fashion: that "must have" dress, handbag, necklace, bracelet and innumerable  shoes, scouring the internet or magazine or newspaper daily to the latest "beauty" treatment for their body or skin or taking "dancing" or even other more academic or professional courses to upgrade their "marketability" in the "love market", taking the greatest pains to be "seen" in the "right" or even not so right social occasions, fretting and losing sleep on what to wear and what kind of perfume to spray upon their neck, behind their ears and chest etc. before the "big" day when they are about to meet what they hope would be their dream mate. 

Are we what we present to the world? Are we our "image"? If we are what we are to the world, are we not also what we are to our "self"? If we are what we are to our "self", then what does that "self" consists of?  In what sense should we understand the concept of "self"? Is the concept of the "self" a meaningful concept? If it is a meaningful concept, in what way is it "meaningful"? What is the "meaning" of "meaning" in that context?

(to be cont'd)

2011年7月30日 星期六

A Weekend of Love

Just got back from a short trip to Macau. Somehow I couldn't get over the fact that nowadays, churches are no longer what they used to be. I still remember learning from a lecture on French culture in a summer course in Nice many many years ago that in the Middle Ages, no building in any town or village are legally permitted to rise above the level of the tip of the bell tower of its church! Since it's time for our week end fun, how about a short joke on church bells.

Hearing that her elderly grandfather has just passed away, a girl goes
straight to her
grandparent’s house to visit her 95-year-old grandmother.

When she asks how
her grandfather died, her grandmother replies, “He had a heart attack while we were
making love on Sunday morning.”

Horrified, the girl says, “Two people nearly 100 years old having sex! Surely
that’s asking for trouble?"

“Oh no, my dear,” replies granny. “Many years ago,  we realized that we
should slow down. By trial and error
and perhaps by the grace of God, we found the best time to do it was just as the church bells start to

"They have just the right rhythm. Nice and slow and even. In on the Ding
and out

on the Dong..."

Wiping away a tear she continues, “And if that goddam ice cream
van hadn't shown up, he'd still be alive today!"

Just as I was about to close off this blog, I got another one from one of my friends which is too good not to pass around. This time it's not sex to church bell. It's something rather more exotic. What do I mean? Read.

It's year 2222. Charlie and Maureen have just landed on Mars after accumulating enough Frequent Flier milage.

meet a Martian couple, talking about all sorts of things.
Charlie asks if Mars has a stock market, if they have laptop computers,
how they make money, etc.

Finally, Maureen brings up the subject of sex.

'Just how do you guys do it?' asks Maureen.

The Martian responds, 'Pretty much the way you do.'

discussion ensues and finally the couples decide to swap partners for
the night and experience one another...

Maureen and the male Martian go
off to a bedroom where the Martian strips... He's got only a teeny,
weenie member about half an inch long and just a quarter-inch thick.

'I don't think this is going to work,' says Maureen..

'Why?' he asks. 'What's the matter?'

'Well,' she replies, 'it's just not long enough to
reach me!'

'No problem,' he says, and proceeds to slap his
forehead with his palm. With each slap of his forehead, his member grows
until it's quite impressive.

'Well,' she says, 'that's quite impressive, but it is still narrow.'

problem,' he says, and starts pulling his ears. With each pull, his
member grows wider and wider until the entire measurement is extremely
exciting to the woman.

'Wow!' she exclaims, as they fell into bed and made mad passionate love.

next day the couples rejoin their other partners and go their separate

As they walked along, Charlie asks, 'Well, was it any good?'

'I hate to say it,' says Maureen, 'but it was wonderful. How about you?'

'It was horrible,' he replies.

'All I got was a headache. That stupid bitch just kept slapping my forehead and pulling my ears.'

Have fun! It's weekend already!

2011年7月29日 星期五

Out and About in Macau

After sampling some of the architectural delights of a few of the hotels in the City of Dream cluster, I had a relaxing lunch of sardines, choricos and grilled prime ribs done Portuguese style together with freshly baked bread and butter, all washed down with a Portuguese beer at a popular small restaurant called "Little Jumbo"(?) at Taipa.

I started to stroll lesiurely up the sleepy streets of the old town a short distance from the restaurant to go to the famous Lotus Park close by which houses 5 exemplars of old Portuguese architecture (Casa da Museu), being the former residences of high Mecanese officials and local dignitaries. But even before I reached the park, I could already see 18th or 19th century Mediterranean style architecture in bluish-green and white corner stones with dainty lamps in black cast iron. Must look very pretty at night Below is the Taipa Museum..

The street was deserted. The tourist crowd were presumably busy jostling with each other around the baccarat, black jack tables, hoping for the favors of lady luck or eagerly awaiting the sound of coins cascading down the metal dish at the base of of the "one arm bandits" , their eyes glued to the flickering screens above, their fingers tired with the "unstoppable" pulling at the levers.

                  The Museum of Taipa and Coloane History

Soon I found the granite steps leading up the street to the park, in colonial Portuguese style  against the bricks of two South China houses in a curious blend of East-West  harmony. The sky above was a glorious navy blue.

A school girl on summer vacation and a young house wife with an umbrella to shield her baby from the scorching heat of the afternoon sun were waiting patiently for their bus.


The tangled roots and the sizes of the circumference of the trees lining the gently up-hill street  told me they must have stood there for hundreds of years, surveying the passers-by below with utter indifference to the color of their skin or their social status.


Macau is not Hong Kong. It was a curious sight to see men's and ladies' underwear hanging out to dry in the sun outside the ground floor window of an old timer's tiny house,  completely oblivious to our "modern" notions of privacy and "decency". Perhaps privacy and "decency" had no place and no meaning for them in that secluded corner. They belong to another time and another kind of world.

I passed by another house which looked like something which but for the "No Entry" sign keeping out trespassers to the private alley, could very well have come from the palette of a Pisarro: so tranquil, so calm, so serene, so peaceful in the afternoon sun.


If the other photo still had a minor jarring detail, this one would be perfect! A European house front of a very European street. Sure it was somewhere in the Orient?

I passed by further European style municipal houses, now turned into various kinds of museums.

                                  The Museum of Civil Affairs

I turned a corner. My eyes were greeted with the stump of an ancient tree guarding a  crossroad at the park, one leading up and another down. It was a soothing sight.


I entered the park proper and found on my left a massive looking toilet, one of the most solidly built toilets I have ever seen! Looks a bit like a modern day pyramid, doesn't it?

Further down the path, I discovered more old trees guarding the 5 houses which formed the "Casas da Museu" which were supposed to the main points of attraction of the park.. The sun was showering its gold upon the verdant leaves of its luxuriant undergrowth .

If you are big and strong, you better expect some free riders!

But your own offsprings can sprout practically anywhere along your trunk. How and why should you mind? They're your own, aren't they?

Once I turned the corner, modernity asserted its silent but domineering presence in the form of towering structures of glass and steel against the limitless blue of the sky .

But history answered back, in its own way, in dignified silence but hiding a little coyly  behind clumps of trees.

Opposite the sea of lotus, stood a towering symbol of the invincible march of "progress". History, this time in the form of the old church or town hall (?), was reduced instantly to a dwarf at its feet, its bell tower making a desperate but feeble attempt to assert its former glory. 

Before the construction of the gargantuan Venetian, it stood proudly at the side of the Lotus Pond like this.

But the trees were indifferent. They sprouted fresh leaves in sunny exuberance.

And of course. we should not forget the flowers! See how bright and happy they welcome the afternoon sun!

2011年7月28日 星期四

Inside Macau

It was sunny on Wednesday. An excellent day to be up and about. Why not go and take a look at some of the "new" hotels in Macau which were constantly on the lips of some of my friends and practice a little my skills in amateur photography just taken up in mid-April? I never really had time to visit them although I had been in Macau a number of times in the last couple of years in connection with my work.

I was in for some pleasant surprises. Obviously some serious thought had been put in to make the environment as pleasant and enjoyable as possible.

Let the photographs tell their own story.

I like the parabolas described in the air by the jets of water of the wavy fountains outside the City of Dreams, now high, now low, rising and falling in synchrony with the rhythm of the  of force driving them. 


I like the shimmer upon the surface of the water as the ripples radiate out from where the jets of falling water first hit the surface of the pool and get progressively weaker as they move further and further from where the waves started until when they reach the side of the pool they are  reduced to barely visible tiny wavelets which reflects and refracts the sunlight into miniscule spectra of rainbow colors.

I like the mutual reflection of the water and the window panes on the adjacent steel and glass hotel wall.

Close by, we see the outlines of another hotel. I like the the blue sky and white clouds upon its wall of glass. Standing erect at the bottom of the reflected clouds, we find the outlines of yet another hotel(?)!

I also like the shape of the various blocks forming part of the hotel.

and also the water cascading down its side.

It was a completely different world once you get inside the building.
My eyes were caught by the ceiling lights.

As I moved along, there were other ceiling delights.

As I looked down to my right along the corridor, I discovered other interesting patterns.

At a corner Japanese restaurant, I found my own corner of delight.

As I looked up, I discovered some colored wooden panels rather like those one finds in the works of a Mondrian or an Arp.

It was a world of human artifice where we never see the light of day, a world of plasters, paints, columns, metal and various forms of electronic lights.

I walked further down the corridor and found myself inside a half world of scarlet, orange and yellow reflected from the shiny surface of a huge steel or aluminium-plated round column beneath a forest of orange and yellow ceiling lamps,. It felt like a completely technology dominated world where man can recover a slither of his humanity only in all night boozing, dancing and drug trips, a world in which one wishes that the night would somehow never end and in which nothing and no one can appear except through the distorting surface of that shiny and curved mechanical mirror, a world where the boundaries between dream and reality have become completely fuzzy or even obliterated.  It was a world in which one can hardly distinguish the source of light and other images from its reflection upon either the sheen of the mirror like floor tiles or that on the burnished surface of the steel/ aluminium plated columns.

I wandered further and found myself at the reception hall of the Grand Hyatt. Right in the middle of the hall, there was a huge egg where water was constantly flowing down in film-like liquid cascades.  The light from the ceiling was vying with the light flooding in from the wall of floor-to-ceiling glass windows to create complicated patterns of flickering blues and golds. 

A hint of nature was however permitted to enter in the form of pebbles and bleached sand.

The sun too was allowed in, but only through some artificial lines.

Perhaps to relieve a little the completely artificial atmosphere inside and to try to bring a little of the sunshine from the world of Nature into the hotel lobby, they placed a large number of orchids on a huge table at a part of the reception hall just before the exit for the taxi stand.

I shall post photos of "Out and About in Macau" of this day trip in a separate blog.