Saturday, January 29, 2011

Zazen and Brain Physiology

From time to time, my friend Paul sends me articles that speak to actual physiological changes taking place in the brains of people who meditate. Follow this link to one of these articles. The sample size is tiny so not sure this study proves much, but I'm certainly not surprised by what they found.

I have no idea whether what I do while sitting in zazen is 'mindful meditation' (or what that term even means). The part of the article that initially struck me was this quote from the lead researcher: “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.”

I wonder what 'practitioners' this researcher spoke to, because her statement suggests very little understanding about what meditation is all about. I think it's a common misconception that meditation (or 'sitting in zazen' for us Zen folk) is about finding 'inner peace' or relaxing. New Age mystics have kind of hijacked the practice of meditation from Zen Buddhism and turned it into a substitute for Valium or ritualized it so it's little more than window-dressing. Zen meditation is not about finding inner peace. According to Zen philosophy, every one of us already has inner peace. Inner peace is not something you have to search for; it's something you have to learn to stop running away from.

Similarly, relaxation is not the goal of sitting in zazen. While meditating definitely leads to a calming of the mind, this is just an ancillary - albeit a very positive - benefit. The goal of Zen, and therefore of Zen meditation, is to discipline the mind, to focus it, to rid it of clutter, to gain control over it. Far from trying to relax (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one), Zen meditation is about attaining an acute alertness. It's an alertness that is completely in the moment, focused, and serene. You are never sleepy or dreamy or zoned out while sitting in zazen. On the contrary, you are alert, sitting with erect posture, fully awake and conscious, and completely in control.

This alert but relaxed state is called samadhi. By learning how to go into samadhi, we're able to learn how to control our minds and by extension how to relate effectively to the world. This control and discipline is not harsh, rigid, or austere; it's a control that comes from simply being aware of ourselves, focused, and undistracted. It's carrying the sense of ourselves we find during samadhi into our everyday lives. When we can achieve this, it's extremely powerful because it enhances patience, clarity, focus, endurance, and prevents us from being derailed by people, situations, and emotions that are not relevant.

Attaining samadhi on a regular basis leads to all those positive things people often mistake as being the point of meditation: happiness, reduced stress, and a sense of relaxation. However, if you try to attain those benefits through meditation without learning to discipline your mind, you will find the benefits short-lived and lost within hours.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ong-Bak (The Thai Warrior)

Ong-Bak (or The Thai Warrior) is the film Tony Jaa made before The Protector. Viewers for the The Protector, which is a definite must see martial arts film, will certainly see similarities between the two films. For one thing, the basic plots are almost identical. Tony Jaa plays a rural villager who goes to the big city to recover something stolen from his village. In The Protector it's two elephants, and in Ong-Bak it's the head of the village god.

In both movies, in trying to recover the object he's after, Jaa's character falls into a much bigger web of criminal activity. He ends up facing off against a corrupt crimelord and his martial arts trained right hand man (Johnny Tri Nguyen in The Protector and Atthapong Pantanaunkul in Ong-Bak).

While these similarities are certainly not to the credit of The Protector, which came after Ong-Bak, the two movies are very different in the way they unfold and the kinds of fight sequences that are delivered. Ong-Bak isn't the sheer frontal assault that makes The Protector so amazing to watch, but that fact also means Ong-Bak is a more economical film (and that has pluses).

There are some amazing acrobatics on display in Ong-Bak, most notably in the scene where Jaa and co-star Petchtai Wongkamlao (who also appeared for comic relief in The Protector) are running from a crowd of goons. Also, there is an early scene in the village where Jaa is 'practicing forms', which is a nice way to have him show off his skills early on. However, the movie also contains the straight fight scenes fans of the genre want, most notably between Jaa and several adversaries in an illegal Bangkok fight club.

Jaa the actor is much less prominent part of the mix here. In this film, Jaa is primarily a martial artist. In fact, I question whether the number of lines of dialogue he is given gets very far into the double digits. Most of the speaking is handled by the always hilarious Petchtai Wongkamlao, supported by Pumwazree Yodkamol playing a tomboy street urchin whose relationship to Wongkamlao's character is something I still can't quite figure out.

While I could have lived without the Bangkok motorcycle-taxi chase scene, Ong-Bak is an entertaining ride. I'd probably say The Protector is the better movie, but Ong-Bak is the shorter, lighter, and more direct film and is definitely worth seeing.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


We've had wind chills overnight of -30 and single digit highs during the day, but I'm not talking about only the weather.

My sinus issues continue to keep me from going to martial arts. I plan to go and then find myself not getting enough air and getting tired or having a headache. Kind of depressing. This problem is also either stopping me from working out...or my increasing inertia is snowballing and just killing my drive to do anything. Lastly, there's decisions being made at work relating to whether or not I get a well-deserved promotion that will make a big difference in my choices career-wise. Until all these different things are resolved, I'm kind of frozen. It's not a good feeling for me, and it's slowed me down in meditating as often, writing (no haiku lately), posting on this blog, planning our vacation, meeting up with friends, etc.

Part of it is the upcoming surgery, which I know will knock me on my back for at least a week. Part of it is not knowing about the promotion. Part of it is the weather. It all is creating a kind of burned-out feeling, as if everything in my life is 'on pause'. Of course, I can't blame anyone for this except myself. I should have enough spine to just get up off my ass and change the direction of things if I don't like it, but I honestly don't seem to want to (which makes me feel even worse).

I'm probably being way too hard on myself. With all the unknowns and a surgery coming up, maybe I'm just instinctively cocooning myself. You know, just bracing myself for the big changes (good and/or bad) that I know are coming.

Anyway, that's why my postings have slowed down a bit lately.

The good news is that everything should be resolved fairly soon. The surgery will happen within a month (including all the pre-surgery doctor's visits and tests), and I think in the next couple weeks I'll know whether I have a career at my present employer or just a job. I may not be able to do anything about the weather, but winter should be less harsh about two months from now. So I guess I'm just allowing myself to slow down a bit and chill (no pun intended) and wait for the better times ahead since there's nothing much I can do to make the wheels spin faster.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sinus Issues Continue

As mentioned in an earlier post, I've been having issues with breathing and sinus infections. Got in to see my ENT doctor, and they did a CT scan to see what's going on with my sinuses. As it turns out my septum is pretty badly deviated. It was quite bent to the right, which explains why that nostril is pretty much closed off much of the time now. Additionally, there is a bone spur jutting from the septum to the right. With all the tissue around this stuff, it's no surprise that any allergic response or cold or anything that inflames those tissues leads to my nostrils closing up.

The doctor explained the surgery to me, and I think it's a better option than just taking allergy shots or nasal sprays for the rest of my life. Of course, this will be the first operation I've ever had. I'll be put under and everything. Luckily, it's outpatient and the recovery time isn't long. Will definitely be off work for a few days though. In the meantime, I'll just have to make it until mid-February.

Given that this is going to be settled imminently, I'm trying to gear up to get back to hapkido. It's tough because there are definitely days when I know that my nose is too closed for it to make any sense to go. Hopefully, this will all be over soon. I'm really looking forward to being able to breathe like a normal person!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Fatal Contact

I have never seen an unassuming martial arts movie go so bad so fast. Fatal Contact stars Wu Jing in an ill-defined role in a very thin plot line about underground fighting in Hong Kong. That's not a huge problem though because there's a lot of charm and grit to the majority of Fatal Contact. The movie allows plenty of opportunities for Jing to show off his skills, and there's a good, off-kilter supporting performance from pop star Ronald Cheng. As a martial artist, Jing is certainly impressive. His speed is amazing, and I was repeatedly struck dumb by his spinning kicks and back kicks.

Despite all these positives, it's difficult to give this film even a half-hearted recommendation. Up until the the final match, the movie is decent and seems to know what it wants to do. Jing's character (Kong) is convinced to join the Hong Kong underground fighting circuit for easy cash. As he does so, his abilities lead to higher and higher stakes and he becomes conflicted by his increasingly violent use of martial arts.  The final straw comes when he is ordered to throw a fight.

At this point, the movie has set up a great finale for a penultimate fight sequence. Will Kong throw the fight? Will he realize that he's not using his skills in appropriately? How will he extricate himself from the underground fight scene he's joined? Further, I liked the cautionary aspects of the story in terms of what happens when you mix with the wrong people (the 'fatal contact' of the title?), and there were also some subplots with secondary characters that were interesting enough to make me want to see how them resolved.

No spoilers here, but as soon as the match Kong is ordered to throw ends (complete with rain falling on cue - yuck) you may as well shut the movie off if you're a martial arts fan. The action is over, and all that's left is a lot of cheesy melodrama until the film drags itself - a half-dead rotting carcass - to the rolling credits. Worst of all, the movie fails to satisfactorily resolve any of its plotlines or characters. It takes the easy way out across the board or simply doesn't even bother.

What happened? While director Dennis Law does a great job filming his movie, his talents as a screenwriter are slender and he is clearly incapable of resolving even modest character and plot conflict without resorting to over the top dramatics. Kong's inner conflict vanishes as if it had never existed, and Law should know better that to end a movie in this genre with a lot of weepy scenes as if it were a chick flick. It's not an exaggeration to say that Fatal Contact turns into an entirely different - and very, very bad - movie as it enters its last 20-30 minutes.

So the question is, could I watch this movie and just shut it off after the final fight? If so, I could haltingly recommend it. Unfortunately, the martial arts aspects of the film are not sufficiently wrapped up (nor are they ever). So despite really great performances by Wu Jing, I cannot recommend Fatal Contact. Wu Jing, however, has the goods as a martial artists and I'd love to see his skills highlighted in a (way) better film.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Memories Of Warmer Times

It's cold in Illinois these days, and it's going to get a lot colder before we get around to the warm weather again. My mom sent some pics to me from when Jim and I visited them in Panama City Beach, and I had to share as a way to beat the winter blues.  The first one is me and Jim down by the beach, and the second is me on a deep sea fishing boat. Didn't catch much this time around, but still had a good time. I can still remember my deep sea outing before this one. I caught something like eight fish. By the end of the six hour trip, I was grubby with sweat, fish slime, squid skin, and fish bait. There's a part of me that is still a little boy and likes to be dirty!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Fist of Legend

The last movie of my martial arts marathon is an absolute classic that I never get tired of watching: Fist of Legend.

Since Fearless is my favorite movie of all time, you'd think it would also have to be my pick for the best martial arts movie of all time. However, if I'm to choose the best example of the genre, I'd have to go with Fist of Legend. It's really everything that you want in a martial arts movie: a thin but serviceable plot, decent characters, acting that may sometimes seem stiff but never makes you completely gag, and - most important - lots of great fight sequences. Further, the film is directed and shot in order to best highlight the moves of the martial artists. Sometimes this makes for a rather crude look but it's just a sign that the director has his priorities straight. The master/student dynamic receives screen time, including some discussion of martial art technique and philosophy. What more could you ask for?

Of course, since the movie was made in the early nineties before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ushered in the age of more technical martial arts films (both wire-fu and true genre films), there is also ill-fitting music, cheesy sound effects, and strange dubbing. Personally, I do not watch martial arts movies with the English dubbing, though sometimes it's tempting so you can watch the moves more closely. I did check out Fist of Legend's English dub and the voices were not too bad (as far as that goes). Actually, I'm not sure what language this movie was originally shot in because the soundtrack in Mandarin and Cantonese does not match the lips of the actors any better that the English version! Strange!

In terms of fights, you will get your money's worth. You get not one, but two scenes of Jet Li taking on a crowd of adversaries. Add to that a fight between Li and co-star Chin Siu Ho (Tai Chi Master). By the way, Ho also gets some great action scenes of his own, which is great. There's a fight between Li and a Japanese master, as well as the final showdown with the Japanese villain. The plot is amusing enough to hold your attention until the next fight scene, and none of the fight scenes are overlong. Warts and all, Fist of Legend  is pretty perfect.

Another thing I like about this movie is that - even though it was filmed more than a decade before Fearless - it is actually a kind of sequel to that film. Li's character Chen Zhen returns to China to uncover the conspiracy behind the death of Huo Yuanjia, the master Li played in Fearless. Of course, the movies were not planned to fit together so there are plenty of things that don't gyve. Ho plays Huo Yuanjia's son, which will throw people who watched Fearless as in that movie Huo Yuanjia only had a daughter. Also the name of the Japanese martial artist who challenged Huo Yuanjia is different in this movie and his fighting skills are in question.

But these are minor quibbles (and are actually part of the endearing charm of this rough gem). Fist of Legend  would be my pick for best martial arts movie of all time, and I recommend it as a starting point for people who want to see a real representation of the genre as Li and Ho are in top form!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Thievery Corporation - It Takes a Thief

I've been listening to Thievery Corporation for about a decade now, and I have become more and more impressed with the intelligence and quality of music they bring to the table. I have also been thrilled with them of an example of how quality can rise to the top outside the straight jacket of unimaginative major labels and radio, the latter being little more than a promotion arm for the major labels. Also, Thievery Corporation's interest in global politics and speaking about what is going on in the world is arresting without crossing over into fierce polemic or pompous holier-than-thou attitude.

Aside from enjoying their work a great deal, Thievery has brought me into contact with many other artists that I also follow closely: Bebel Gilberto, Federico Aubele, etc. The ESL label that releases Thievery Corporation's work is in my list of links on this blog, and it's one of the places I check in for new music on a regular basis. Finally, during the last year, I realized Thievery Corporation is my 'favorite artist'. This was an odd realization as I hadn't had a 'favorite' musical artist for years nor cared much to discover one. I listen to so many different artists in different genres and from different countries and have done so for so long that it just didn't make sense to me to have a single 'favorite'. (Hopefully this realization is entirely about the music and only marginally informed by my tendency to pause when I see Eric Hilton posing impassively in a suit...niiiiice!).

Anyway....since I have all their albums (barring a few of the remix albums since I've always been most excited about their original full-lengths), I didn't need to do anything with It Takes a Thief - their 'very best of' retrospective - except download 'The Passing Stars'. But I'm glad Thievery Corporation released something like this. They deserve a retrospective because they've come a long way and their music has certainly changed over the years. At the same time, It Takes a Thief will come off very much as an 'album' rather than a disjointed set of tracks because Thievery Corporation is one of the few artists whose musical vision (and their actual chops in delivering on that vision) has been consistent and consistently solid even while exploring their vision and evolving it over time.

With all that said, It Takes a Thief is still a collection and is therefore bound to succeed for some and doomed to fail for others. As a sampler' of Thievery Corporation's sound, it does a great job and it's a definite good buy for someone who wants to get a feel for what these guys sound like. The album covers a lot of different moods and styles, and I like how they mixed up the tracks rather than presenting them in chronological order as this emphasizes the strong composing and musical performances that are par for the course with Thievery Corporation.

On the other hand, the set is probably doomed to fail for others because it is dubbed 'the very best of...'.  Excuse me, says who? This may be 'the very best' according to Garza and Hilton, but any collection of tracks pulled from their albums isn't going to live up to that moniker for most people. "Why didn't they include this song or that song?" is probably the quibble most listeners would have. However, this is really more of a compliment to Thievery Corporation than anything. When an artist has been putting out great music as long as these guys have, the term 'very best of...' becomes meaningless.

If you've ever had any interest in giving Thievery Corporation a listen, this is a great opportunity and a fantastic collection of tracks. I think I read on their facebook page that they're working on their next studio album. I can't wait to see what these guys do next!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mumonkan, Koan 10: Seizei Is Utterly Destitute

Seizei said to Sozan, "Seizei is utterly destitute. Will you give him support?". Sozan called out: "Seizei!". Seizei responded, "Yes sir!". Sozan said, "You have finished three cups of the finest wine in China, and still you say you have not yet moistened your lips!"

No one who has experienced something can be 'utterly destitute'. Only a man who has never had a drop of water or wine, can be utterly destitute in terms of his thirst. The drinking of wine being a metaphor for Zen.

Sozan is clearly Seizei's master, and his scolding about how Seizei has tasted fine wine suggests Seizei is somewhat advanced in his studies and has experience with zazen, kensho, and maybe even satori. Therefore he is (and should be) capable of supporting himself. If he has reached a place where he feels 'destitute', then he must find the way out of that based on what he has learned so far. His master is there to guide him, to teach, to challenge, to mentor, etc. He is not there (nor is any teacher or master) to 'support' him. The same goes for all of us.

In a sense, Sozan's answer was the equivalent of saying: "Don't be a drama queen!"