Wisdom from the Orient

festival dell'orienteThe Festival of the Orient is happening in Milan right now. I am pleased to see so much interest in knowing the world of Asia here in Italy.

When I was growing up in Texas, having Chinese origins seemed more like a weight that a gift. It was something that could incite ridicule if not violence, more than interest and respect. Only when I moved to Berkeley, California for university, where many Asian people live and there is a big fuss about diversity, I first began to perceive the beauty of my origins. I enrolled in a Chinese language course after renouncing it at age six, and I reclaimed the habit of eating with chopsticks, which I have maintained until now, and it always seems to draws attention and curiosity.

So many people identify me as Chinese, though is that even accurate? Do I merit it? What do I know about being Chinese? I can speak Italian fluently enough to describe micro-attractors, the arrow of complexity, time territories and recomposing the mirror of the human primeval divinity, yet ordering food in Chinese sometimes ends in disastrous misunderstanding. The ideograms I can recognize are limited to those printed on Mahjong pieces. Most anyone you find on the West Coast of the US probably knows more about Chinese medicine, Taoism, feng shui and the I Ching than me. My parents haven’t passed so much eastern knowledge on to me, as they are scientists with western academic specializations (microbiology and medicine), and they have a very pragmatic vision of life. After having lived in Taiwan during the era of the Cultural Revolution genitori di Quagliain China, I think they have put aside whatever impulses toward spirituality they might have had. And well, my father seems more European than Chinese, and he has surely had some past life here in Italy. He studies Verdi operas and eats tomatoes with basil and mozzarella every evening.

To reach the essence of Asia, I needed to hop a generation and reconnect with my grandparents. My paternal grandmother (whom I have not met because she died young) was a Buddhist, and my father tells me that she meditated every day and was always in service for the poor, even though she was quite poor herself. On my mother’s side, my great-grandmother founded a Pure Land Buddhism temple for women in China, where there are still nuns praying and studying. After I visited this temple, I decided to live in the San Francisco Zen Center, and I understood my connection to this world of Buddhism and meditation in a new light. I also have my Berkeley English professor Maxine Hong Kingston to thank for bridging Chinese mythology and living poetry to me through her non-fiction novels and writing courses.

templeYet, despite the westernized life and values of my parents, I think they have succeeded in passing me a few treasures of Chinese philosophy in a secular way. Here are some of them:

1. Order. Cleanliness inside and out. Everything is a temple. My parents’ house, and every home I visited in Taiwan and China is extremely clean and orderly. Always. Even brooms and dustpans get washed. I remember when I was young, my father scolded me because I was studying at a desk with a lot of clutter on top. He said: the state of your desk is the state of your mind. If it is cluttered, then your thoughts will be cluttered too.

2. Indifference. Non-attachment to material things. My parents have demonstrated a capacity to accept things as they are, even if they may have strong opinions. They have surfed many highs and lows of life with grace. They seem to not be afraid of death, speaking of it and preparing for it with tranquility. Deep down, they accept my life choices and those of others, even if they don’t resonate with them.

3. The Middle Way. The way of equilibrium in the tao. Avoiding extremes and excesses. Whenever I had some fervent argument about revolutionary politics and the downfall of Capitalism, my mother would remind me that change takes time. I felt frustrated in not having a sense of critical urgency mirrored back to me, though in hindsight, I see that she had a point. Any movement, whether around community, politics, art or sexuality needs to contain the yin and the yang, a full spectrum in order to come to completion, to make a difference over time.

Ayoto Come Ko ChenMy parents have passed me other Asiatic characteristics that have been useful in my life, especially as a Damanhurian: responsibility, determination, discipline, the capacity to delay gratification instead of satisfying desires instantly, as is often taught by American culture. Generosity, sharing. More than once I have felt embarrassed by my relatives fighting with each other to pay the check at a restaurant, though I came to appreciate the spirit of it when I noticed that this rarely ever happens in circles of the Western world. Often at the center is food as an alchemical element of nature, nourishment as a symbol of love, and in a Chinese home, there is always a serving of fruit or other foods at the ready to offer friends, family and visiting guests.

Quaglia Cocco, the Befana

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ITALIANO

Ho visto che c’è il Festival dell’Oriente a Milano adesso. Sono felice di vedere così tanto interesse in Italia per conoscere il mondo orientale. Continue reading

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Gifts of love and eternity

A thought on holiday gifts from the Apprentice Befana

Wdream catchere are on the threshold of Nativity and other winter festivities – a time of the year when different customs for gift giving are expressed, as it has become a universal tradition. It’s really fascinating, the culture around gifts, the act of giving and receiving, giving of oneself, expressing generosity, creating a circuit of emotion and energy through the gift.

There’s also the risk that from a sense of obligation to demonstrate love through gifts, we fall into habits of consumerism, accumulating unused objects, uselessly spending money, seeking affordable prices and in doing so, supporting inhumane labor conditions and an unsustainable consumption of resources.

I would really like to see us strengthening a Damanhurian culture of gifting, valuing the deeper exchange that the gift represents. Gifting an experience together, an artistic or culinary creation, things made by hand, using materials from our lands or ones that are reused or recycled. Maybe even gifting something that I have in my possession, which is even more precious because it is permeated by my personal frequency and has a story behind it that I can tell. If the gift is something that is purchased, it would be a Damanhurian object (we could even commission our artists to make a personal gift!), or if it isn’t, it’s anyhow local or from a fair trade and organic source, or it’s something that will be valued and used for a long time. We could also transmit these values to our children, gifting them with what will last in time, attention and spending time together, beyond the desired objects of the moment.

giveHere are some things that I found stimulating for applying a different logic in thinking of gifts:

The Five Love Languages is a book written by Gary Chapman that defines five main modalities of expressing and receiving love: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service and devotion, and touch/intimacy. He believes that each of us has a primary and secondary modality that opens us to love. It’s pretty common to express love through the modality that I like to receive, instead of the one that is primary for the other person. It’s true that at times, a gift is more fulfilling to the person gifting it than the person receiving it!

Jennifer Harbury, a human rights lawyer who was married to her late husband Everardo, an indigenous Mayan resistance leader from Guatemala, tells that in some Mayan tribes, the tradition for weddings is not to exchange rings but to exchange spoons between husband and wife. The spoon is usually made by hand from wood, with a colored band that codifies specific achievements and spoonevents in the person’s life and in the life of the tribe. It makes sense: what would you do with a gold and diamond ring in the Guatemalan jungle, even if there were the economy to acquire it? Though you use your spoon everyday, so it’s infinitely more precious.

Another anecdote about utensils and marriage: when my cousin was married, she and her husband received many gifts from my grandparents and family, like a beautiful ceramic tea set, jade jewelry, silk scarves, and then she received a set of wooden chopsticks. She was surprised by this simple, inexpensive gift among the more extravagant ones. My grandparents explained that chopsticks are a traditional Chinese wedding gift, because in Chinese, the word for chopsticks (kuai-zi) if divided into the two components, means “quickly” (kuai), “give birth” (zi), so more than the physical worth, it was a play on words with a linguistic-symbolic value. (Let’s forget about the fact that “zi” means a having a baby boy, not a girl.) So, perhaps chopsticks would be a fitting holiday gift for those who are desiring to have a child.

Taking the time to think about a gift, it’s an opportunity to offer a piece of ourselves to others, to get to know each other more and deepen our relationships.

 

Un pensiero sui regali dall’Apprendista Befana… Continue reading

great compassion and great suffering

templeHere is one of my favorite sketches from China. The Buddhist temple that my great-grandmother founded. It was converted to military barracks by the communist regime for a period of time, then restored to its previous function as a sacred space of service and chanting, presence and compassion.

“breathe in the hardship and pain of others and gain liberation of the spirit”

It reminds me of my origins and mission.