Thursday, December 29, 2016

Philosophy Thursday: So... Am I a Buddhist or Not?

Buddhism is a tricky thing. It can be a religion or a philosophy or both. It can be metaphysical or purely materialist. It can be laden with ceremony and tradition. Or not. 
 Because of this ambiguity, it can sometimes be difficult to decide if one should or should not refer to oneself as a Buddhist. This is doubly true if you happen to come from a non-Buddhist, Western cultural milieu. 
 I’ve been interested in Eastern thought and Buddhism in particular for many years. I first encountered Buddhist teachings when I was a teenager. My parents and I were staying at a hotel in Hilo, Hawaii. It was mid-afternoon, raining (as it often does in Hilo) and my parents were taking a nap. I had some time to kill but didn’t feel like braving the rain. On a whim, I looked in one of the drawers of the hotel room desk and found a Gideon’s Bible as well as The Teaching of Buddha. This is not uncommon in Hawaii. Some hotel rooms even have copies of the Book of Mormon. 
 Curious, I sat down and read the Buddhist book. I was impressed by the gentle, compassionate nature of the teachings therein. A seed was definitely planted in my being, but it was one that would take a long time to sprout. Soon after I discovered Buddhism I stumbled onto  Existentialism (thanks to a song by the Cure), and my philosophical excursions came to be dominated by Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche, with Gautama Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius sneaking in here or there. Plus, in college, I took several courses about East Asian history, cultural, and thought, so Buddhism never was completely off my radar. 
 As I got older, I became involved in martial arts. I also found myself having to contend with the deaths of some people who I loved very much. It was around this point I started getting more serious about exploring Buddhism. I started reading the usual, classic authors—Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki,  Christmas Humphreys, Thomas Cleary, etc.—before moving on to contemporary Buddhist writers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and others. 
At this point in my life I essentially accept the Four Noble Truths and try to live with a spirit of loving compassion. I meditate, though probably not enough. I’m a vegan who refrains from harming other sentient beings whenever possible. But can I really call myself a Buddhist?

 According to an article written by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche for Lion’s Roar, the answer is “Sorta.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Witnessing Domestic Abuse in Everyday Life

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In his 2016 proclamation President Barack Obama said it was a time to “shine a light on this violation of the basic human right to be free from violence and abuse.”

It is important to “shed a light “ on domestic abuse because it is a complicated issue made even more complicated by myths and misconceptions.

For example, some people think that domestic abuse is mostly something that happens in private, or that it always involves physical violence. On the contrary, domestic abuse can and does occur in public and often doesn’t involve violence.

I know this first-hand. For several years in the '90s I worked in retail at a local shopping mall. While there, I saw a surprising number of acts of domestic abuse. Two examples particularly stuck with me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Recipe Wednesday: Bitter Melon Miso Stir-Fry

Some people shy away from bitter flavors. Others embrace them.

If you are in the latter category, this recipe is probably right up your alley. The principal ingredient is bitter melon, which, as the name suggests, is rather bitter.

Bitter melon is popular throughout Asia. It appears to have originated in the Indian subcontinent, where it is known as karela. From there, it made its way to China, the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.

This recipe is Okinawan in origin. In Okinawa, bitter melon is know as goya, and this dish is called goya no miso chanpuru, which translates more or less to “bitter melon miso stir-fry.” The recipe is a simplified variation of one from Elizabeth Andoh, an American chef who has lived in Japan since 1967.

Bitter Melon Miso Stir-Fry
 (Serves 3-4)
About 1-pound bitter melon, diced (see below)
1 yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons sesame seed oil
10-12 chunks frozen kabocha
12-oz extra firm tofu, cubed
Splash of cooking sake or mirin
3 tablespoons yellow miso
1-tablespoon sugar
¾ to 1 cup of water

Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok on medium heat.

Split the bitter melon down the middle, Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and inner white pith (a grapefruit spoon works especially well for this). Cut the bitter melon into half-moons, about half an inch thick.

Toss the diced bitter melon and onion in the skillet and cook until they both start to soften, about 10 minutes. Stir regularly.

Add the tofu and the kabocha along with a splash of cooking sake or mirin to help prevent sticking. Continue to cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring regularly.

A quick word on the kabocha: I use frozen kabocha for the simple reason fresh kabocha can be something of a hassle to work with. If you choose to go with fresh, I commend you. Just be sure to adjust the cooking times to make sure the kabocha cooks through.

Meanwhile, mix the miso, sugar and water in a small bowl. Place the bowl in the microwave and heat at 30 seconds intervals until the mixture can be easily whisked together into a consistent, slightly creamy sauce.

Pour the mixture into the skillet with the rest of the ingredients and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, still stirring regularly.

Remove the skillet from heat and allow to rest for about 5 minutes.

Serve the bitter melon miso stir-fry over rice, ideally with some green tea or, if you are concerned about caffeine, a nice cup of mugicha (barley tea). And then there's beer. There is just something magical about the combination of bitter melon and beer.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Philosophy Thursday: A Buddhist Look at Death and Loss

I'm not really good with death. Over the years, I've lost one pair of great-grandparents, two pairs of grandparents, an aunt, my uncle, my mother, my father, my best friend, and too many animal companions to mention. While my losses don't compare with those who have survived wars, natural disasters, or other tragedies, it doesn't change the fact that every death of a loved one is painful. In the case of my mother, it was downright devastating.

Since I know dealing with even more death is inevitable, I try to find ways to prepare myself and accept the inevitable.

Some find solace in Abrahamic religious traditions, but that doesn't really work for me. It's not that the idea of Heaven isn't appealing. It is. I just can't quite make the leap of faith required to actually believe in it except in a vague sort of way.

On the other end of the spectrum, I don't fully accept the New Atheists and their denial of any transcendence either. 

Somewhere between the theist and the materialist lies the Buddhist, specifically the more philosophical, less religious Buddhism I find myself drawn to.

What do I mean by "more philosophical, less religious Buddhism"? As Stephen Batchelor explains in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, it is quite possible to live in accordance to Buddhist philosophy without necessarily believing in karma, rebirth, the Pure Land, etc. Personally, I neither believe or disbelieve in those things. I just don't find them relevant to my daily life. 

The best book I have read so far about the Buddhist approach to death and dying is No Fear, No Death by Thich Nhat Hanh. This is a deeply compassionate work, as is every other book I've read by Nhat Hanh. Very early on, he outlines the basic idea that will inform the rest of the book:

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Books Read, Midway Through 2016 Edition

Since we are about midway through 2016, here is a list of the books I've read in the first half of the
year in alphabetical order.

  • The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip
  • The Caller by Juliet Marillier
  • Chalice by Robin McKinley
  • Cybele's Secret by Juliet Marillier
  • The Dancers of Arun by Elizabeth A. Lynn
  • Dreamer's Pool by Juliet Marillier
  • Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins by Emma Donoghue
  • Pax by Sara Pennypacker
  • The Promise by Robert Crais
  • Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier
  • Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier
  • Tower of Thorns by Juliet Marillier
  • Walking Dead by Greg Rucka (reread)
  • Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn
  • A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham
  • Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
  • The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories by Emma Donoghue

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Recipe Wednesday: Penne Arrabiata

When it comes to pasta—and Italian food in general—I have a strong preference for the dishes of Southern Italy. (Consider, for example, my love of spaghetti all'aglio, olio e peperoncino.) Conveniently, Southern Italian cuisine, with its holy trio of garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes, is also way easier to veganize than the more meat and dairy based staples of the North.

With summer now officially here, it's the perfect time for a zesty, tomatoey pasta, especially if you plan on spending time in the sun: tomatoes contain lycopene, which helps prevent UV damage to your skin. One of my favorites is penne arrabiata. This simple dish is especially popular in and around Rome. In Italian, "arrabiata" means "angry." Why is the sauce so angry? Because of all the peppers! Personally, peppers make me happy, not angry, but I suppose it would be a bit arrogant to change the name of penne arrabiata to penne contento.

My favorite recipe for penne arrabiata is based on one that originally appeared in an issue of Cook's Illustrated. I've simplified it a bit, making it a quick and tasty meal option.

Penne Arrabiata
(serves 4-6)
1 pound penne pasta
1/4 to 1/3 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup diced pepperoncini
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 15-oz can diced tomatoes with juices
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the pasta until al dente ("to the tooth"). Pass the time with a nice Campari cocktail. Right before you drain the pasta scoop out half a cup of the cooking water and put it to the side.

In the same pot you used to cook the pasta, add the olive oil and reduce the heat to medium. Add the garlic and stir frequently for about two minutes. Add the pepper flakes, pepperoncini, and paprika. Continue to stir.

Add the canned tomatoes. Use an immersion blender to blend into a smooth sauce.

When the sauce starts to bubble, toss in the cooked penne and the pasta cooking water. Stir and toss until everything is hot and the penne is well-coated with sauce. Be careful not to overcook! Gooey, overcooked pasta is an insult to Italians everywhere. 

Serve the pasta immediately topped with nutritional yeast to taste, fresh ground pepper, and perhaps a nice bottle of Citra Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, one of the world's tastiest inexpensive wines.

There are a few ways to tweak this recipe if you so desire. An easy one: more stuff! More garlic, more pepper, more oil... whatever you want. For a smokier flavor, use smoked paprika instead of regular paprika. Similarly, using fire-roasted tomatoes will give the sauce a bit of smokiness. 

I often listen to one of the excellent Cafe del Mar chillout compilations when preparing and enjoying this dish. Granted, Cafe del Mar is based out of Ibiza, Spain, not Italy, but the mood still matches. There are more than 20 volumes in the series. My favorite is probably Cafe Del Mar - Volume 8which features Goldfrapp, Dido, and Lamb, as well as this catchy, summery little tune by Afterlife.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Q&A About FMA

I was recently interviewed by writer Caitlin Basilio for an article about Filipino Martial Arts that appeared in a local newspaper. (You can see the article here.) As is often the case, only a small portion of the interview was included in the finished article. For those who might be interested, the text of the full interview is below. Enjoy!

What are the philosophies behind Filipino Martial Arts?
FMA is all about practicality and flexibility. Methods and techniques are not written in stone. It’s very open ended. You personalize the art and do what works to defend yourself. Adaptability is key. A big part of FMA philosophy is learning to see things as potential weapons. For example, people wonder why bother learning to fight with sticks. Look around you; the world is filled with sticks and stick-like items: car antennas, longneck bottles, rolled-up newspapers, etc.

It’s important to remember that FMA has its roots in warfare. The Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands with countless tribal and ethnic groups who were often in conflict with each other. If the village a few miles away periodically sends war parties to raid your village, you develop some effective, easy-to-learn combat techniques.

When did you begin practicing? What drew you to it and what keeps you interested? 
Ii started training with Burton Richardson about 15 years ago. Even before taking up FMA, I was interested in the art based on what I’d read. The integration of both weapon-based and empty-hand techniques fascinated me. And I’ve always been interested in hand-to-hand armed combat. It goes way back. My father was a fencer, and his dad was a U.S. Marine Corps saber champion who learned machete techniques from Filipino guerrillas while island-hopping across the Pacific during World War II. I was playing around with real fencing foils and quarterstaves from when I was a kid. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Me! In a Newspaper! Talking About Filipino Martial Arts!

Yours truly was interviewed for an article about Filipino Martial Arts that appeared in Marine Star, a local newspaper. The PDF is available here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Recipe Wednesday: Ful Medames

In the United States, legumes are often regulated to lunch or dinner while various cereals, breads, meats and eggs dominate the breakfast table. However, in other parts of the world they have staked their claim as early morning staples.

Consider, for example, the fava bean (no Hannibal Lecter jokes please). A part of the human diet since at least 6,000 BC, fava beans are commonly served throughout the Middle East at breakfast. They are especially popular in Egypt, where they are the stars of what is often called the Egyptian national dish: ful medames (“buried beans”).

Ful medames is also widely consumed in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Sudan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Like any dish eaten by so many people in so many places, there are countless variations on the basic recipe. Mine is pretty simple, and more or less representative of the average ful medames recipe you are likely to come across.

Ful Medames
(Serves 2-3)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 15-oz. can fava beans, rinsed
1 teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons tahini
Salt to taste

Preheat the oil in a medium size skillet on medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Toss in the garlic and stir for a couple of minutes.

Add the fava beans and cumin, stirring until everything is nicely mixed. Remove from heat.

Empty the contents of the skillet into a sturdy mixing bowl. Use a fork or potato masher to mash everything to together. Add the lemon juice, tahini and salt and stir well.

Ful medames is sometimes served with fresh tomato or eggs. I like to have it with a big dollop of hummus on top. It is pretty much always served with a flatbread such as pita. Hot, strong tea makes the perfect accompanying beverage.

If you’re feeling especially operatically-inclined while enjoying your ful medames, cue up Giuseppe Verdi’s classic “Aida,” which is set in Egypt and first premiered in Cairo in 1871. It remains one of the most performed operas in the world, just as ful medames is one of the most popular dishes in the Middle East.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Don't Be a Hero: The Risks of Employees Resisting Robberies

I won't bother recapping the story, as it's pretty short and you can quickly read it yourself. 

Not surprisingly, lots of people are all bent out of shape about this, rallying behind the fired veteran. I'm not usually one to play apologist for large corporations, but there are valid reasons employees are told not to resist robbery attempts.

* According to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, "When faced with an employee who chooses to actively resist and is in a face-to-face confrontation, robbers may resort to injuring the worker to avoid apprehension. Higher injury rates are consistently found to be correlated with measures employees take during the robbery."

* A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that, "Resisting the perpetrator of the crime was consistently related to increased risk for injury for both employees and customers, and the risk was higher for robberies than for all violent crimes combined." The study also found that customers are especially at risk when an employee resists a robbery.

*A 2015 study published in the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine concluded, "Customers had higher injury risk when employees resisted the perpetrator, compared with robberies where employees did not resist. Employee resistance against a perpetrator during a robbery increased customer injury risk. Businesses can train employees to not resist during a robbery, providing benefits for both customers and the business itself."

I'll conclude with some wisdom from self-defense expert Marc 'Animal' MacYoung at No Nonsense Self-Defense... 
The—and we use this term loosely—good news is that robbers tend to be more 'job oriented.' They want what they want and and if they get it, then they are done. In many ways this makes them safer to deal with—if you cooperate. 
That is to say their motives are based on financial gain rather than  gaining the more subjective and fluid 'props'  common among the younger, less experienced and dysfunctional criminals. As far as robbers are concerned they are offering you a choice, cooperate and give them what they want or be hurt. If you cooperate there is no reason to hurt you. In fact, if the target is the business money you may be no more involved than being ordered to the floor while the cash is collected. 
This is why—unless you are ordered to a secondary location—it is advisable to cooperate with a mugger/robber who has gotten the drop on you. This gives your best chance of not being hurt.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review: Slavery Inc. by Lydia Cacho

I've done a few book-related posts (here, here, and here) over the last few weeks, so I decided to take things one step further and start writing the occasional book review.

Since I'm a pretty avid reader with rather diverse tastes, I will try to limit my reviews to books that have some relevance to the overall themes of this blog.

So without further ado, here are my brief thoughts on Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking by a writer by a writer Amnesty International called "perhaps Mexico’s most famous investigative journalist and women’s rights advocate," Lydia Cacho.

What does this book have to do with this blog? I've touched on the subject of evil before, and this book is indeed about evil. Personally, I believe that part of 'being a better person" is understanding the bad things going on in the world so we can be prepared to do our part—no matter how small—to make things better.

Obviously, a book such as this is not especially pleasant to read. Accounts of the sexual exploitation of women and children are hard to bear. Fortunately, Cacho writes elegantly and with compassion, managing to convey the stories survivors tell without being graphic or sensationalist. I don't need to hear specific details about a child being raped. This simple yet heartbreaking quote from Yeana, a 10-year-old sex trafficking survivor, sums up the horror quite well...
"Violence is not good because it hurts and it makes me cry."

Thursday, February 11, 2016

More on Meditation: Three Ways Meditating Has Improved My Life

A little over a year ago I wrote a post about Self-Hypnosis and Zen Breathing which touched on meditation.

Since then, I've become way more disciplined in my meditation practice. While I'm still not super hardcore about it, pretty much every morning I meditate for 10 minutes and go through 10 minutes of yoga poses before moving on to make workout. If pressed for time, I'll skip the workout but not the mediation and yoga. Those 20 minutes just have such a profoundly positive impact on the rest of my day.

My way of meditating is pretty basic. I sit cross-legged on a couple of my cushions on the floor, relax, rest my hands on my knees, and close my eyes. My spine is straight, and my tongue is lightly touching the area behind my two front teeth. While I used to use a  simple "one-two" method for my breathing—Inhale ("one"), exhale ("two"), repeat—I now tend to favor the method advocated by Robert Aitken (1917 - 2010), founder of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society he founded in Honolulu. He advocated the counting of breaths to people who were new to sesshin, or intense Zen meditation:
If you are counting your breaths, then count "one" for the inhalation, "two" for the exhalation and so on but let the count do the counting.  In other words, let that point one count one, let that point two count two, let that point three count three and so on up to ten and then repeat.
Inspired by Thích Nhất Hạnh's book Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, I've started making an effort to smile with every exhalation. As he writes,
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment!
I won't go into all the potential benefits of meditating. There are plenty of books and articles about that. Instead, I want to share three of the benefits I've noticed personally.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

This One Goes to 11: Favorite Books Read in 2015

As a follow-up to my Books Read, 2015 list, here's a list of my favorite 11 books in two categories read last year, in no particular order. 

  • Abhorsen by Garth Nix
  • Lirael by Garth Nix (These are the final two books of Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy. Technically YA novels, I was impressed by the characterization, world-building, and interesting take on death.)
  • Dreams of Dark and Light: The Great Short Fiction of Tanith Lee (Lee died in 2015. She was a master of strange, dark fantasy and science fiction.)
  • Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre (An almost psychedelic, woman-centric apocalyptic SF classic.)
  • Godslayer by Jacqueline Carey (Preceded by Banewreaker, this is the conclusion of Carey's Sundering Duology, which is essentially a morally ambivalent retelling of Tolkien from the point of view of the villains.)
  • Mort(e) by Robert Repino (Incredibly original, emotionally powerful story of animals declaring war on humanity and the adventures of one really badass cat.)
  • The Southern Reach Trilogy byJeff VanderMeer (Brilliant yet hard to describe. Maybe John Le Carre meets H.P. Lovecraft with a dash of Jules Verne?)
  • The Woman Who Loved the Moon and Other Stories by Elizabeth A. Lynn (Dreamy, slightly surreal stories from an author who sadly no longer writes.)
  • The Word for World is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (Radical political SF from a true legend.)

  • Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World by Trevor Paglen
  • Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins by Andrew Cockburn
  • Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
  • The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic by Chalmers Johnson (These four books are all excellent primers on modern U.S. history and foreign policy. The books by Paglen and Cockburn are especially relevant to current events.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Books Read, 2015

I love reading. I've loved reading ever since I was a kid. And since I don't watch television, reading is my go-to form of entertainment and enlightenment. 

A couple of years ago I decided to log every book I read and then compile a master list at the end of the year. In the past, I haven't posted the list because I wasn't sure if anyone would be interested. However, some people have told me they would be interested, so without further ado, here's my Master Reading List for 2015, in alphabetical order by title...

  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  • Abhorsen by Garth Nix
  • Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Angel with the Sword by C.J. Cherryh
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
  • Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb
  • Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Bad Men by John Connolly
  • Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Dreams of Dark and Light: The Great Short Fiction of Tanith Lee