"We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness -- make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it." The Buddha

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Criticisms, Mistakes, and Other Blessings

How's your Monday? (Credit: Owen Slater)

Several weeks ago, I was sharing my Cuong.com fountain pen article online, and I received this message from a reader:

"[Cuong.com] is the most 2001 looking website I've seen in years. Mind blowingly awful."

Initially I was hoping this reader would find my fountain pen interesting and enjoy its artwork and craftsmanship but instead I received a different response than I anticipated. But I seriously considered the criticism. Indeed the format of Cuong.com isn't modern. He or she is correct there. Is it "mind blowingly awful"? How was that measured? I can't determine that without further elaboration.

Although he or she is at least partially right, I am also at least partially right: in my opinion, Cuong.com is a functional personal website powered by Google, a favorite company of mine. I'm more concerned about what I write than how it's being presented. So our two opinions offset each other. Ultimately, however, I tip the balance in my favor because I own Cuong.com. I have an additional right to choose how the website looks and who I host it with.

Other criticisms I receive, however, have undeniable merit.

For instance, one of my favorite animals is a honey badger, but I made a bad mistake regarding its invincibility.

The honey badger was named the "most fearless animal in the world" by the Guinness Book of Records due to its toughness and incredible ability to overcome adversity. One nature video shows a honey badger eating a cobra, where earlier it defeated the cobra but not before it was bitten by the snake. After the venom worked through its body, the honey badger passed out. Miraculously, a minute later, it woke up, and proceeded to eat the cobra like nothing happened!

Given my admiration for the honey badger, I shared that photo above of the badger with porcupine quills sticking out of it. In the words of a famous YouTube commentator, "Honey badger doesn't care."

Or does it?

I soon received this message from a reader:

"This seems minor, but it's unfortunately likely fatal for the badger if they weren't removed. Those quills have barbs that make them very hard to pull out. They will however, keep migrating in eventually causing an infection or piercing something vital. It's actually the porcupine that don't play in this case. Sad."

How I responded was this:

"Oh man that sounds horrible. I love honey badgers and hope this guy will be ok. They're tough but by your description they're certainly not invincible. ๐Ÿ˜ฅ"

Then I did more searching online about porcupine quills. I was surprised by what I learned. According to Discover Magazine, "Each [porcupine quill] is tipped with microscopic backwards-facing barbs, which supposedly make it harder to pull the quills out once they're stuck in."

I initially thought porcupine quills were no big deal for a honey badger but apparently I was completely wrong. The title I used, "Honey badger doesn't care," now seems callous. As a result, I wrote a second response:

"After thinking about what you said, I'm going to delete what I posted [with the title 'Honey badger doesn't care']. I thought I was sharing something cool thinking this honey badger will be ok but it is indeed hurt. I'm sorry I posted this. You're right. I'm wrong."

[UPDATE (5/24/20 11:51pm): Good news! After receiving even more feedback from other individuals reading this article, it looks like those quills were from the crested porcupine, which are larger than the quills of North or South American porcupines and do not have backward-facing barbs, so they don’t continue to migrate into tissue. Given that fact and the honey badger's incredibly tough hide, there's a great chance our honey badger will be just fine. Those quills will eventually fall off or be scratched off. (Special thanks go to Arthur Dayne for the new information and big sigh of relief!)]

The above two criticisms are relevant examples of life itself. Everybody receives criticisms from time to time. Because we are social creatures, we work with other people. Within the process of working with others, it is inevitable our interests will clash. This is normal.

What isn't normal are effective responses and approaches to try to get along and make progress.

Marcus Aurelius, a famous Roman emperor, noted similar life scenarios encountered by his predecessor Antoninus Pius almost 2000 years ago:

"Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus. Remember his constancy in every act which was conformable to reason, and his evenness in all things, and his piety, and the serenity of his countenance, and his sweetness, and his disregard of empty fame, and his efforts to understand things; and how he would never let anything pass without having first most carefully examined it and clearly understood it; and how he bore with those who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return; how he did nothing in a hurry; and how he listened not to calumnies, and how exact an examiner of manners and actions he was; and not given to reproach people, nor timid, nor suspicious, nor a sophist; and with how little he was satisfied, such as lodging, bed, dress, food, servants; and how laborious and patient; and how he was able on account of his sparing diet to hold out to the evening, not even requiring to relieve himself by any evacuations except at the usual hour; and his firmness and uniformity in his friendships; and how he tolerated freedom of speech in those who opposed his opinions; and the pleasure that he had when any man showed him anything better; and how religious he was without superstition. Imitate all this that you may have as good a conscience, when your last hour comes, as he had."

A big lie that too many leaders tell themselves is that they can't appear vulnerable in public. Yet they don't seem to fully realize the difference between appearances and substance. Appearances are meaningless if there is little substance. Along that same line, substance is vastly more important than appearances. I might not prevail today but I can't lose. My position sits on a solid foundation. What will eventually happen is over time substance will win out as events play themselves out.

It's ridiculous when leaders try to appear strong and won't admit to making mistakes when everyone can clearly see they made mistakes. Respect wasn't lost when those mistakes were made -- who among us hasn't made mistakes -- but rather when those mistakes are crudely covered up.

It's not uncommon for me to say, "I'm sorry." I make mistakes regularly, probably because I do a lot of things. When I do things, I have to encounter new situations and learn about them, which means I am going to make bad decisions for a certain period of time. Learning and making mistakes are one and the same.

One time I saw a fellow published author argued with one of his readers for posting a negative review on Amazon about his book. The argument between them was endless and fruitless. What the author failed to understand is logic cannot resolve matters of opinion. That's why debating politics with other people is almost always a waste of time.

In contrast, how I respond to readers leaving a negative review on my book is to thank them for trying out my book, show them I understand why they didn't find it useful, personally offer to refund them the price of the book including shipping (even though Amazon offers the same), and suggest that they give the book to someone else who might find it useful or keep it for later reading.

A mark of strong individuals is confidence even when appearing vulnerable. That's because they are strong in substance, and thus unfazed by whatever happens. Like a honey badger, they don't care much about appearances since they cannot control how others perceive them. They can only work on themselves.

Hearing and addressing criticisms in public can make anyone appear vulnerable. But it is the common sort of man to stamp them out. Unfortunately it only makes him look weak. If he can't take being criticized, how in the world can he be aware of his shortcomings, much less fix them? One must accept being weak in appearance, and in doing so, can he have any hope of being strong in substance.

Besides, appearances can be deceiving. For example, just because an hour-long concert shows the orchestra can play flawlessly doesn't mean they can do it impromptu. Numerous hours of practice and rehearsals -- including a good number of off-notes and adjustments -- were required to produce that one-hour performance. They are talented, but not that talented.

Note that being strong doesn't mean being careless. I am confident of others regarding what they do, but I am extremely cautious about what I do and how I respond. Hence, I can sleep well at night because my integrity is true, not needing to prove it to anyone but myself.

Every day I try not to complain about the small things, because sometimes peace is more beneficial than being right. I try to think bigger, because my time is limited. I try to be more understanding of others, because I had made similar or worse mistakes myself. I try to be patient and allow people to learn for themselves as I had when I was struggling in life. It would be unfair of me to expect more of young people now than I expected of myself back then.

It rarely fails that whenever I was being overly critical of others that with time, I realized that I was being irrational. So when I am being overly critical of someone right now, wouldn't it be the case I am being irrational now as well?

Along the path of doing things worthwhile and making improvements, I'll step on some toes. Of course I don't do so intentionally. And when I do step on toes, I make amends. If making amends isn't possible, then if I'm confident the effort will benefit everyone, I will strive to continue on, hoping those feeling aggrieved will eventually see the light.

Having said that, it can be dangerous striving for the ideal. In theory, everything seems to work perfectly. In practice, there is never one right way of doing things. There are always more than one way of doing them, because the world has an innumerable amount of variables. So if I try to push one way of doing things upon others, I will inevitably hurt those who disagree. Therefore, a practical approach is to stabilize before making improvement changes, then stabilizing again before making further improvement changes. This takes keen observation, patience, and planning.

The best case scenario is an elegant solution that solves the problem immediately without any negative side effects. Unfortunately it's not always possible in the real world, no matter how smart or creative we are and no matter how many different approaches we take. So, use the element of time to make things happen. The world changes quickly and constantly. Changes are good because they provide us new openings to solve old problems.

Likewise, when I am faced with a serious problem, until I understand the situation more fully, my default position is not to say or do anything, thereby preventing making a bad situation worse. Sometimes I can do too much. When I try to force things, it won't work, despite my brilliant idea or logic, because the timing is likely all wrong. The current emotions, dynamics, and overall circumstances are likely all wrong. I'm not dealing with robots but working with human beings. Thus, I will round the wagon again and seek for a better time under more favorable conditions.

As you can probably see by now, the real value in life isn't found in great ideas but in the real-world application and results of those ideas. After all, great ideas can be purchased in a book costing less than $30. So like a honey badger, I don't care about how many books a person owns or how large his library is or even how many best-selling books he had written if he mistreats his spouse, children, and associates. I care more about how he handles his critics and when things don't go well. I want to see how his philosophy, based on his extensive formal and informal education, fares in actual practice.

In addition to receiving criticism, there will be times when I need to critique and provide guidance, but not to tear down or discipline. Frankly I'm not a big fan of discipline. Too often the grief caused isn't worth the benefit. Before I criticize, I know my objective. What am I trying to accomplish? If I don't like the answer to my question, then I don't say a thing. I accept the imperfection as one of life's many quirks, more to be observed than to correct for the time being.

Philosophically, it would seem easier for us to be made like robots. We would do exactly as we were programmed to do, regardless of the stimuli we see, hear, or feel. But no. Human beings are quite imperfect, almost cursed to recycle old mistakes of past generations, albeit with better vantage points. Each of us was born knowing very little and completely vulnerable. We humans go through a relatively long and excruciating process of learning and understanding the world. Alas, even with decades of refinement, we are far from being perfect but are only closer to the realization that we are more imperfect than we first thought! The wiser we are, the more we are aware of our limitations. In essence, the more we learn and understand the world, the more disappointed we are at the glaring problems of the world.

Personally, there are some of my mistakes that when I look back on them, I cringe. They are so embarrassing to even recall. What was I thinking? Or more aptly, why wasn't I thinking? My only consolation is the fact I am mature enough to know now that I was wrong. I am now a different person criticizing my younger self, and grateful to be a better person as a result.

Like most everyone, there are times when I feel down and depressed about things in my life. I'm not immune to it. I remedy this by reminding myself that how I feel inside isn't necessarily reality outside, especially if it's in the extreme. Just because I feel down doesn't mean the world reflects my current perception of things. This makes sense because when I feel happy the next day after a good rest, how is it plausible that the entire world followed my lead? It doesn't. Therefore, I know for certain that how I feel isn't how the world is.

A healthy body isn't stagnant and calcified. It is flowing, flexible, supple. But when it comes to people's beliefs and worldview, there are those who erroneously see being the same as a strength. Yet I see it as ignorance, stubbornness, lacking in intelligence. Since they see a changing world as unchanged, they will make poor decisions, possibly costing lives and livelihoods. How is it reasonable to think that a 50 year old man having exactly the same beliefs and worldview as his 20 year old self is something positive? He essentially hasn't grown intellectually for the last 30 years! He hasn't considered criticisms seriously and thus hasn't progressed in wisdom or education.

Be better. Be open. See criticisms and mistakes for what they are: neither bad nor good but the world reminding us that we are human after all, imperfect yet strong enough to embrace them. ๐Ÿ’›

Friday, May 15, 2020

A hummingbird story

The hummingbird I helped many years ago

One day many years ago, I found a hummingbird on the floor inside my screened porch. It was completely motionless until I got close. Clearly exhausted, however, the hummingbird didn't have enough energy to fly away. I scooped it up and placed it on a soft cloth inside a plastic bucket.

It was probably another plastic container that caused what had happened. This hummingbird was likely attracted to the bright red color of my Folgers coffee carton. Previously I had seen a charm of hummingbirds gathered around it. Thinking it's a bunch of red flowers, our poor hummingbird somehow got inside but couldn't find its way out. Perhaps flying for hours frantically trying to get out, but without food or water, it finally succumbed to exhaustion.

It seemed dehydrated so I mixed some sugar with water in a spoon and offered it to the hummingbird. There was no response. Its entire body was limp. As a last resort, I opened its beak and aimed a couple of drops inside the hummingbird's mouth. Miraculously, after a few minutes, its tongue started to lap the sweet liquid straight from the spoon. I felt like 800 pounds were lifted off me. I then knew it'll be OK.

Half an hour passed when most of the spoon was consumed. Little movements became bigger movements. The eyes looked more alert. The legs stretched out. All the hummingbird parts started to work together.

The photo above was taken soon after when I took the hummingbird out of the bucket. I was standing on soft grass in case it fell. It seemed like an eternity waiting for it to do something. Its eyes and beak were moving but not much else. I even tried to spread its wings. Nothing. Doubts entered my mind. Maybe it's forever injured and will never fly again.

Then, like someone pressed the ignition button, its wings started to flutter and the hummingbird was suddenly hovering over my hand. Yes! Within the next second, it shot straight up, completely vertical like a miniature helicopter. It flew higher than the roof of my house, made one circularly pass around me from above, and finally darted into the blue sky toward the woods.

Although I was so happy because of what I experienced, I never shared this hummingbird story publicly until today. ๐Ÿ’›

Friday, May 8, 2020

There is a crisis. This is no time to look serious.


When I was growing up, I never liked men who were serious and mean. I still don't. Their scowl doesn't make them look more intelligent. It only makes them look weak. Because when I boil it all down, their concern is invariably on control and authority -- not empathy, improvement, wisdom, leadership, compassion.

True strength comes from understanding the situation and knowing what to do in response. If that is the case, why the cruel behavior? Only incapable people engage in cruelty to irrationally compensate for their deficiencies and unfavorable results.

What would be the demeanor of people who are capable and effective? I know the answer to this question because I've seen such individuals in action and their extraordinary results: they are caring, helpful, respected. Not fake friendliness but real acts of support. Whatever the circumstances, they can produce the best results because they can sustainably extract and employ the best within people. They unite and consolidate people's efforts by treating everyone like valuable fellow human beings who can contribute to the goal, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, economic status, physical limitations, etc.

Suppose there were some moral-depraved scientific method of proving one person's value over another, how much is that difference anyway? That's why arrogance is really ignorance. We're all living on a rock traveling at 67,000 miles an hour through space, our lives occupying an infinitesimal sliver along the infinite spectrum of time. This fact doesn't belittle life but should bring us to the ultimate realization that we need to look out for one another and take care of each other while we are still here. We are all, frankly, vulnerable.

Are there times to be serious? Sure. But that doesn't mean I need to look and act mean. In times of crisis, for example, what's important are ears to carefully listen, eyes for keen observation, and the sophisticated skill to get everyone to work together. Even if you're missing the first two, you can still succeed if you possess the last one. Human beings didn't evolve to work alone. That would be our one weakness and vulnerability. Therefore, when we work together as a team, community, and society, there are few things we cannot accomplish. ๐Ÿ’›

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Vietnamese artist Lien and other flowers in the dark

Today I would like to introduce you to a talented young Vietnamese artist by the name of Lien. Lien is going to be a future star in the art world.

To convince you of my bold prediction, let me first take you back in time to give you some context and background.

On March 27, 2020, I received a card from my friend Hoa, a staff member at Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged children in Vietnam. It is fast becoming one of my favorite charities.

The card was a painting of a pair of blue wings. Nothing special at first glance. However, something about it made me pause for a moment. It was upon a closer examination that I noticed the brush strokes, deliberate shading, white outlining, and asymmetric watercolor application. Interesting, I thought to myself.

I then sent an email to Hoa. My question was direct: "What is the name of the artist?"

This is Lien's story:

"Lien became deaf after her fever when she was only 2 ... When Blue Dragon met Lien, she could hardly read or write and was bullied at her school. We enrolled her in a sign language class, and after half a year, she made a great improvement in her communication skills. From a timid girl, she confidently got on the stage to make a presentation in sign language. She also loves drawing, so we encouraged her to follow her passion. Lien's never been to an art class, but her painting looks amazing, isn't it?

"Below is a photo taken at our event called Blue Got Talent. Lien did a live painting in 10 minutes and was sharing her ideas behind it. She said that was what she viewed LIFE - vivid, colourful, and so many beautiful things to explore. Many of us cried when listening to her."

Lien explains her painting

Art is subjective. I can be blunt about that fact. But there is a clear difference between liking a painting and appreciating it.

My appreciation for art didn't start until I was in college. I volunteered at a medical center of a major university I was attending. The medical center manages one of the largest art collections in the nation. The purpose of the art collection was for patients to enjoy while they recuperate. It's such a wonderful concept!

The person I was working for in this art program knew everything about each and every one of the art pieces -- some they owned, some on loan from generous benefactors. She didn't only teach me the technical aspects of works of art but also why they are ultimately enjoyable and thus intrinsically valuable.

Because I didn't have much money back then, I started out collecting prints. Then gradually I was able to acquire original paintings. I visited as many art museums as I was able to. When I first saw an actual Vincent van Gogh painting up close -- no glass or rope holding me back -- I nearly cried. I was absolutely mesmerized. Those prints didn't do him justice.

There were embarrassing mistakes I made along the way. For example, one time I was doing a home remodeling project and placed some original art pieces on the floor. I was in another room when I heard multiple clacking sounds made by my toddler son. He's just playing with his toys, I thought to myself. It wasn't until the next day when I discovered he had taken a claw hammer to three paintings! Nothing I could do but hugged my son, explained to him in great detail why he shouldn't do it again, and considered it an expensive education for myself.

What wasn't a mistake was when I commissioned Lien to do a painting for me last month. The idea was completely mine, something I'm sure the charity wasn't used to. After a month of eagerly waiting, below is the painting. It is called "Blooming in the Dark."

"Blooming in the Dark" by Lien

Thanks to Hoa's coordination, the video at the top of this article accompanied the painting. In the video, Lien enthusiastically explains what the painting means to her. I highly suggest you watch it.

Here are three of my thoughts about "Blooming in the Dark":

(1) Immediately I noticed the resemblance to Vincent van Gogh's "Irises." I'm not going to make a bigger deal out of it than it currently is, but it's uncanny considering Lien's lack of formal training. She has tremendous potential. So with more formal art classes, practice, refinement, and exposure, I firmly believe she will be a notable name in the art world in the future. Similar to how quickly Lien learned sign language, her improvement by learning new art techniques will be profound.

(2) The boy in the painting could be me. If I didn't have my parents, and if they weren't loving and kind to me, and if others in my life weren't loving and kind to me, I would be a flower in the dark, soon to wilt and suffer like countless children all around the world are suffering as I type these words.

(3) Lien is a guide and has given you and me a window into something many of us hardly ever see or hear about. She is a star in more ways than one. We think we have stresses in our lives, and surely they are tough, but I can't imagine anything tougher than being a helpless child in the streets who would inevitably be preyed upon by unscrupulous people, not to mention the struggle of finding safe shelter and enough food to eat. To think these are vulnerable kids left to fend for themselves! They are indeed flowers in the dark. All flowers deserve sunlight so they can bloom.

Therefore, I will continue my support of incredible charities like Blue Dragon. When I say "incredible," I don't say so lightly. Founded in 2004 by Michael Brosowski, an Australian teacher, Blue Dragon has helped over 2000 street children, of which 403 children were rescued from their places of slavery. They also rescued 930 people from human trafficking, of which were 527 women in brothels or forced into marriages. These are astounding results, especially considering the funds they have to work with. Furthermore, their value and values can be summed up by the extraordinary work of Vi Duy Do, who has been with Blue Dragon for over 10 years.

If you want to learn more, visit their website, or you can google for their IRS form 990, which I reviewed as well. The money donated were spent on those in need, not on extravagant executive pay, unlike a few popular charities I found out the hard way. As an FYI for tax time, they are a tax deductible 501(c)(3) charity organization. Their Tax Identification Number is 45-3771750.

You should know me by now, but for the sake of transparency, Blue Dragon didn't pay me or even requested I promote them in this article. This article is entirely of my own volition. I am recommending them because I believe in their cause, and I hope you do, too. ๐Ÿ’›

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Buddha and the Gods

My tiger Emperor fountain pen in cross sections

Yesterday I spoke about being a Vietnamese refugee when I was a boy. Our escape was a perilous one. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died at sea, or as many as 70 percent of Vietnamese died in their attempt to escape from communist Vietnam.

Those are terrible odds. Casinos would give you better odds.

My grandmother, like my grandfather, was born in a village near Hanoi, Vietnam. After my grandfather died, she and my mother migrated south to Saigon during the 1950s. She was old school. She was elegant and dignified. Although she had beautiful long black hair, in public she always put it up in a silk Vietnamese turban. She never went outside with her hair down.

There was a time when I lived with my grandmother at her house. As elegant and dignified as she was, every morning she nonetheless would cradle me in her arms to give me lots of hugs and kisses.

My grandmother was also a devout Buddhist. I tagged along with her to Buddhist temples. I hated it. The rooms, filled with incense and somber chanting, were hot and stuffy. I felt Buddha himself would not have liked it.

There were many Buddhist rituals I witnessed that were absolutely fascinating, especially when there were delicious food involved, but I am not educated enough to speak about them beyond generalities.

However, there was one praying session I specifically remember the day before we left Vietnam. My grandmother prayed to the tiger god. She made offerings and asked him to follow us along our trip to protect us.

I know this tiger god well. As a boy, I was terrified of him -- so much so that I tried not to make direct eye contact. He was fearsome. You wouldn't find me in the room alone with him.

Fast forward to my family and me on a small fishing boat with many other families. We were put in the engine room. The room was hot and stuffy.

On a tiny boat traversing a vast ocean, we all understood our route out of Vietnam would take days, if we made it at all. Along the way were many dangers. One immediate danger for me was the engine itself, which was a mere foot away.

Tired and hungry, I remember being very sleepy and nodding off. As I feel myself falling into the engine compartment, a bright flash raced across my eyes. That flash was of a tiger. Not any tiger. It was the tiger god! He accepted my grandmother's request! Then I find myself being lifted up and placed right back to where I was before I nodded off. I was thus awakened by what transpired.

I am a man of science. But I am also a man of Buddha and the gods. ๐Ÿ’›
"Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves." The Buddha