A testament to the achievements of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Hagia Sofia is simply breathtaking and majestic. I stopped in Istanbul and took a quick trip around the Old City. Although it was drizzling, families were strolling around the fountain in the Blue Mosque area. Istanbul combined historical architecture with a modern day feel and a fusion of religious and secular cultures, with some of the friendliest and hospitable people with old world charm.





Asians in South Africa

Fascinating life story of Roderick Lim Banda, one of my colleagues, who is a South African of Chinese and Filipino descent. He is such a generous, kind and incredibly knowledgeable man. He and his wife are a power couple of sorts.

In my most recent trip to Capetown, I had the pleasure of learning more about his life. He knew that I was especially intrigued with his life story because I had conducted research on Chinese and African workplace relationships, although my work focused more on recent migrations.

His parents were both missionary doctors who lived in Africa for most of their lives. His mother was Filipino and his father was Chinese. His father came from a poor Protestant background and his mother, a wealthier, Catholic one, but they were united by their mission to serve the sick and poor in rural areas in African countries.

Their first mission was in Nigeria in the 1970s. For part of the time, his father served alone. His mother and the children went to the United States to attend primary and middle school. Roderick and his siblings spend the first part of their education in the 1980s in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, his father in Nigeria had been abducted by politicians who promised their people medical care, but did not have the trained staff to provide the care, so they did it through kidnapping people and using them for forced labor. His father was kept in the Southeast side of Nigeria where the regions had been decimated due to wars.

When his mother did not hear back from his father, she went in search of him and was kidnapped as well. They were prisoners for a total of 2 years and eventually escaped to Spain. The experience was traumatizing for them, but they became even more dedicated to living and working in African countries.

They went southward and travelled all over the southern parts of Africa. Roderick and his siblings joined them. Every two years, they were assigned to work in a new remote locations. Then, the Namibian government hired them to work as doctors in rural areas. Roderick’s mother focused on women’s diseases and later, HIV/AIDS, and became very famous for her programs and his father worked on men’s diseases, TB and psychiatry (an interest that developed after the trauma of being kidnapped). Their main goal was to develop their practices and programs around African families.

The Namibian government wanted them to retire in the 1990s and granted them citizenship. They ended up carrying on for another 10 to 15 years. When they passed away over a decade ago, so many people attended their funerals. They had touched countless lives over the years.

His parents were passionate about seeing Africa transform. They spent their entire lives living, working and eventually retiring on the continent.

Meanwhile, Roderick says that the experiences he had were invaluable even though it was difficult moving every two years and starting over again. Because he was constantly moving around, having gone to 9 different schools in 12 years in different parts of the world, he learned to be strong and independent.

He also spent part of high school and university in South Africa under apartheid, where he was given Honorary White status. This was politically and economically motivated. Since the SA government wanted investment from the Taiwanese, South Koreans and Japanese, they gave them Honorary White status but Chinese South Africans from the mainland were classified as Coloureds or Asians until 1984. This was inconsistently applied.

Although Roderick was given Honorary White status, he says that it came with challenges, as he was typically the only non-white person in most environments and was often often bullied. He also remembers SA in the 1970s and 1980s as a police state, where people were treated in ways that were just brutal and dehumanizing. He said, “A thick oppressive air just hung around all the time. It was a horrible time.”

His mother taught him that if he ever felt sad, he should visit hospitals and talk to the sick children and treat the staff as if they were family. That was his mother’s motto. This has influenced Roderick’s decision to work as an IT specialist in the nonprofit and education world and spend his free time mentoring and teaching young children IT skills.

When asked about his identity, he said “In education, there’s the American side of me. Culturally, I’m African, South African; this is home. It will always be home.”

For more on his TEDxTalk in Capetown on creating Software Factories in Africa, check out his video:

For more information on the Chinese in South Africa, check out A Matter of Honour by Dr. Yoon Jung Park.


Walter Evans-Wentz nomad-anthropologist

I’ve been reading about Walter Evans-Wentz, an American anthropologist who was the first to publish an early translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927.

He was called a “gypsy-scholar” by his professors at Oxford, not without some truth, since he spent an enormous amount of time in Mexico, Europe and the Far East. This predates contemporary pioneers of Western Buddhism such as Bob Thurman, Uma Thurman’s father and Leonard van der Kujp with whom I had the pleasure of taking Tibetan Buddhism back in my Boston days. We are talking about the year 1919 when Evans-Wentz arrived at Darjeeling and began translating the text.

He was a practicing Buddhist and a yogi. Like some anthropologist who “go native,” Evans-Wentz wanted to permanently stay in India, but was compelled to return to the US during World War II.

According to Harry Oldmeadow in Journeys East, he was a “puritanical and isolated man,” who spent the last 25 years of his life in a motel in Sam Diego, following a strict vegetarian diet, and becoming rather involved with Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship in California. Oldmeadow writes: “He spurned public life and never took on the role of spiritual teacher…of his life he wrote…he had ‘striven to love all mankind of all nations and races and faiths…dwelt in the solitude of the deserts, of the jungles, of the mountaintops….” The underpinnings of his theosophical views are evident in his description of himself.

In the Foreword to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is stated that Evans-Wentz was more of a practitioner of Hindu yoga than Tibetan Buddhism. He never did learn Tibetan, but did claim that he was the recognized disciple of a Tibetan lama, maybe even the first Western one.

It is also noted that the Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral in the way that it was originally intended to be read.

Bardo as the Intermediate State between Death and Rebirth

My grandmother passed away last Sunday night (Taiwan time) and since then, I have been reflecting upon her life and her wishes that her family and friends follow the Buddhist tradition of chanting and praying for a positive rebirth. I returned to my book collection on Buddhism, particularly The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. 

I wanted to delve into the transitional realities known as bardos. According to Sogyal Rinpoche, bardos are “occurring continuously throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened.”

He continues: “The bardo teachings shows us precisely what will happen if we prepare for death and what will happen if we do not. The choice could not be clearer. If we refuse to accept death now, while we are still alive, we will pay dearly throughout our lives, at the moment of death, and thereafter. The effects of this refusal will ravage this life and all lives to come. We will not be able to live our lives fully; we will remain imprisoned in the very aspect of ourselves that has to die. The ignorance will rob us of the basis of the journey to enlightenment, and trap us endlessly in the realm of illusion, the uncontrolled cycle of birth and death, that ocean of suffering that we Buddhists call samsara. Yet the fundamental message of the Buddhist teachings is that if we are prepared, there is tremendous hope, both in life an din death…For someone who has prepared and practiced, death comes not as a defeat but as a triumph, the crowning and most glorious moment of life.”

In my reading of it, bardo is the chance to seize limitless freedom. Death in many cultures, including what my grandmother believed, was liberatory. One could finally be free from suffering, but only if he or she has cultivated a strong understanding of non-attachment to the body, to this life, to the people in this life, and to one’s thoughts. I watched a video with the Dalai Lama and he exclaimed that he could not wait to die, and he said this genuinely with happiness. His reason? So that he could finally put into practice all those years of non-attachment to his self, his body, any illusions associated with human life. Bardo is the state in which one has the chance to put the cultivated consciousness into practice in order to let go and leave one’s previous life behind.

I also ventured into the film What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams — a film that I did not especially like, but was ingrained in my mind when I contemplated on death. The notion of consciousness in the film struck me when I first watched it. For example, Robin William’s character dies and enters a bardo-like situation created by his own fantasies and projections. Similarly, when his wife commits suicide, she lives in a hell created by her troubled consciousness. She could not let go of him, of her sadness, of her pain in losing their two children, and of her previous life. I thought the movie did a good job of provoking more questions than answers — for example, what is the soul, spirit or consciousness and what transitional states occur after one dies?

Rinpoche talks about potential obstructions to liberation. He says that we tend to react to past fears, habits  and old reflexes. They are steeped in negative emotions and habits that are residues of lifetimes of suffering. Although our physical state of mind weakens in the process of dying, the fear and ignorance remain even after death. In sum, “the results of our negative karma, which have sprung from the darkness of ignorance, are stored in the ground of the ordinary mind.”

In Tibet, bodies of the deceased are kept in peaceful environments. Bodies are not moved for at least three days. In my grandmother’s case, it is seven days.This is supposed to encourages departure of the consciousness rather than attachment to the body during the bardo period.

What exactly happens during the bardo state? Rinpoche explains the process:

1) You take on a body of light. Space dissolves into luminosity.

2) The brilliant light is seductive. There are rays and colors al around. This is known as the luminosity dissolving into union. This occurs over several days. There is such intensity in the vision that if we are unable to recognize it, it can appear to be frightening.

3) This is the stage where you have the chance to gain stability. It is also called “union dissolving into wisdom.”

4) The final stage of the bardo is wisdom dissolving into spontaneous presence. The whole of reality is presented. Peaceful and wrathful deities make their appearances. You will be able to see everything clearly, your past and future lives, see into people’s minds and have knowledge of all six realms of existence. The key is to keep stabilized so that you are not drawn to these captivating illusions that appear all too real.

“Now when the bardo of dharmata dawns upon me,  I will abandon all fear and terror, I will recognize whatever appears as the display of my own Rigpa, And know it to be the natural appearance of this bardo; Now that I have reached this crucial point, I will not fear the peaceful and wrathful deities, that arise from the nature of my very own mind.”

Liberation is achieved at the moment when consciousness realizes that its experiences are nothing other than the mind itself. The “energies” manifested as images are merely releases of the fettered mind. The key again is to remain stable and devoid of fear or hope.

In the bardo state, we go through all the experiences of our past lives and we revisit our our homes, our families, loved ones, trying to inhabit what was once our life. At this point, we are still attached to our bodies. We fall prey to old habits. If we generally worried a lot in our previous lives, we will do so in the bardo state. Bardo lasts for a total of 49 days. The first seven days are critical and in the first 21 days is when we have the strongest impress of our previous life. Some people wait for the full amount of time in bardo until their next rebirth; others are reborn immediately, depending on karma. The more negative and destructive the previous life, the longer the wait, resulting in a bad rebirth.

“The overwhelming power of thought, then is the key issue in the bardo of becoming.”

That is why family members and loved ones are encouraged to be happy for the deceased during the cremation and funeral. Expressions of sadness, such as wailing, can distract the consciousness of the deceased and cause undue suffering. Any negative occurrence can cause a negative reaction in the consciousness of the deceased and lead to a negative rebirth situation. A single posit thought in the bardo state can propel one to enlightenment  or a single negative reaction, even an irritation, can plunge one into depths of suffering. As Rinpoche recommends, “if in life, you have developed the natural reflex of praying whenever things become difficult or critical, or slip beyond your control, then instantly you will be able to invoke or call to mind an enlightened being, such as Buddha, Christ or the Virgin Mary. If you are able to invoke them fervently…your mind will be liberated into the space of their wisdom mind.” Training during previous lives will aid in process.

Because the bardo stage is a troubling time, there are powerful spiritual practices that can help the deceased during the 49 days. First, prayer is exceptionally powerful. The intensity of our love and depth of our connection felt in our prayers will assist the deceased. Another thing to do is to say Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of Buddha of Compassion which extinguishes any negative emotion, when the deceased person emerges in one’s mind. Directing good thoughts towards the deceased will help. Second, sponsoring retreats by good spiritual practitioners is also vital. Offering light of the deceased person, or saving lives of animals or freeing people from suffering inspired by the deceased will facilitate a better rebirth. Third, it is important that loved ones of the deceased are in harmony and peace during the bardo stage, so as not to disturb the peace of the deceased. For example, family members quarreling over inheritance matters may incur negative thoughts in the deceased and propel them towards a bad rebirth. The deceased is omniscient during this time so every thought we have is recognizable and felt by the consciousness of the deceased. Finally, loved ones can use their spiritual practices with the deceased in mind and invoking their name to help. Chants and prayers, rituals at church or deeds of service done with compassion and with the deceased in mind can be immensely beneficial.

Tibetan practices include these beneficial rituals, among many. One of the rituals is a weekly practice that occurs every seventh day after death. Prayers and lights are offered and alms are given to the poor in the name of the deceased weekly. In Tibet, the whole community of friends and relatives take part during the 49 days and provide support for each other. Grieving is not a solo process and this helps mitigate the pain of losing a loved one. There is so much we can learn from these two books and from the process of dying practiced in other cultures. I am finding that going to the temple weekly and sending my grandmother loving light and prayers has made losing her tolerable.

As Rinpoche concludes, “above all, look into your life to find ways of sharing your love more deeply with others now.” This is how my grandmother lived her life, full of compassion and love and the best way I can honor her life and help her consciousness during the bardo process is to extend love and compassion to others.

My Beloved Grandmother


Today, the world lost a compassionate and intelligent soul. My family and I lost the glue that held us together. My beloved maternal grandmother passed away last night in Taiwan. I cannot find the words to express my sorrow because it feels like there is a deep hole in my heart.

I should let you know that my grandmother endured two major wars in history – the Japanese invasion of China and the Chinese Civil War. She was from a well-to-do and loving family, but had to leave them behind at the age of 19 as a refugee with her new husband, my grandfather, to Taiwan when war erupted in China in 1949.

I should also let you know that life was not easy for her, but she resolved to be strong and resourceful. She formed a community of women in her neighborhood for support and extra income. She took odd jobs whenever she could — sewing clothes for people, working at factories, and raising farm animals, growing vegetables and any sort of side job she could take on to to support her family with supplemental income. During typhoon season, when the water reached above waist level, she lifted her bike on her back and trekked home for 10 kilometers everyday from work.

As the matriarch of the family, Grandmother was strong and she was also the most compassionate person I knew. She helped raise all six grandchildren. When our parents were busy working, my grandmother took care of us. My fondest memories consist of spending the week at her house while she cooked for us, played with us, told us stories (she was a dynamic storyteller) and disciplined us. Her stories were always imbued with wisdom and life lessons. As a devout Buddhist, she especially emphasized the importance of compassion for all sentient beings. She talked to us about her aversion to war, poverty, abuse and any kind of suffering.

My eyes well up with tears when I recall the countless times she took care of me when I was sick. She would bring me ginger soup and eggs for quick recovery and check on me every 20 minutes. She was our favorite person to come home to because she would prepare our favorite snacks and games and she truly enjoyed listening to our stories. During Christmases and New Years, our families sat around and played cards and Grandmother’s eyes sparkled from strategizing her wins and sweeping the games.

Although there was much love, joy and laughter in her life, I think that my grandmother could never accept the loss of independence that comes with aging. She was feisty, independent and strong, and I think the thought of having to rely on others, even her children, to take care of her as her body deteriorated, frightened her. She expressed sadness to me when talking about all her friends and my grandfather who had already passed away. Her happiest moments in more recent years was when she moved to Chinatown in Los Angeles to an apartment complex for seniors. She liked to go shopping, play cards with her neighbors and do art activities with other seniors. She had freedom and she relished it.

There is a deep hole in my heart that will never be filled. It is a hole full of love that only my grandmother could fill. Despite my sadness, I know that my grandmother is in a better place. She left this world peacefully without suffering. As a believer of reincarnation, she asked that her loved ones refrain from weeping and help her transition to the next life as smoothly as possible by praying for peace. I went to the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles and prayed for a smooth transition. I could not stop crying, even though I had promised her months beforehand that I would not cry. Just the thought of not seeing her again or hearing her laugh or listening to her stories in this lifetime made my heart sink to the bottom. The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that she is no longer suffering. It also comforts me to know that she was proud of me (she was so happy when I got my PhD) and all her grandchildren and wished for our happiness. She was our biggest cheerleader. Just having her in our lives was a blessing – a blessing that I hope will serve as a reminder of our joyous moments together and fill the hole in our hearts with gratitude and happy memories.

Keeping in mind anthropologist Kelli Swazey’s TED talk on a part of Indonesian society that honors life even after death, I vow to honor and celebrate my grandmother’s life every single day.


A Glance at Attribution Theory

One of my friends, a psych major, directed me towards attribution theory. This term basically alludes to the preconceptions we have about people and their characteristics and the process by which we attribute them to our “reality.” Our attributions, or preconceived notions about other people, are responsible for how we behave, how we interact with others, and what we feel.

An example provided by the Psychology Handbook in which I’ve been engrossed, involves an experiment, whereby volunteers were assigned to work on a lab project (Norton Hunt 428). During the project, they were informed that they needed the help of two other people, a graduate student and a freshman. Eventually, the volunteers requested help from the graduate student and freshman. When asked later why they thought the two students helped out, they said that the graduate student wanted to help them but the freshman felt obligated to do so. These attributions had more to do with their own assumptions about status and power than any objective reality.

The implications of this theory become significantly far-reaching and influential when we think about why poor people and other victims are so often blamed for their unfortunate circumstances. Most disturbing of all are the studies that demonstrate the more dire the circumstance, the more he or she is likely to be blamed for it.

We tend to attribute people’s unfortunate circumstances to their own actions. Psychologists explain this need to blame victims as a security blanket people cling to when the world seems to fall apart. Our need to believe that the world is orderly and just is so strong that it compels us to blame others for situations over which they have little or no control.

The world is orderly and just; therefore, if you were raped, you must have been dressed in a provocative manner. To admit that it was not your fault is to disrupt my own need to believe that the world is orderly, and then I would be left with chaos in my mind and nothing would make sense.

Of course, this still doesn’t explain why women jurors tend to be the most judgmental of female rape victims. In my observation, a form of dissociation must occur in judgmental behavior. Part of needing to believe that the world is just and orderly entails separating ourselves from any indication that it could be otherwise. This means an act of separating ourselves from the victim – in thought, we justify to ourselves, that this could never happen to us, I would never wear a miniskirt, so I would never be raped and I would never engage in irresponsible behavior so I would never be poor – takes place concomitantly with judgmental thought and behavior.

The closer the identity to the victim, by implication, the greater the possibility that this unfortunate circumstance could happen to the person who judges, I believe, the more intensely he or she will attempt to dissassociate from and blame the victim. Thus, female jurors judge female rape victims more harshly than male jurors because as women, there is a greater chance that they would be raped as well, so they must work harder at disassociating themselves from women like that. Hurling insults and harsh judgments at victims gives them a sense of security, because in the end, all they’re concerned with is that this unfortunate circumstance would never happen to them, especially in the just world that exists only in their mind.

Now, if we really wanted to generalize on this matter, we may attribute judgmental behavior to self-centeredness. Certainly, unless one has been diagnosed as a sociopath, each person must embody some sort of empathy for others, as it is required for human interaction. After all, perhaps the female juror who harshly judges rape victims is passionate about helping orphans, for instance. In other words, we may be selective in who we extend empathy to and who we judge harshly based on our own interests. We care for our own. We lend a helping hand to our own cause, our own special interest groups, those we care about, but it stops there.

Of course, we are confronted with limited time and resources to maximize our commitment to others. So we help our own. We devote all our energy and emotions to the energy crisis in Venezuela, even more so if we are Venezuelans and our parents are activists in Venezuela, but the genocide in Sudan must wait. Well, I guess some communitarians like Alasdair Macintyre and Michael Sandel would applaud helping our own communities because improving the world must start small, at the grassroots level, among “our” people first and foremost. The idea is that if everyone did the same for their own communities, engaging in political and moral discussion and helping each other at the local level, this would engender a wave of change throughout the world. But I wonder, wouldn’t cross-pollination be even better? Shouldn’t empathy for one group also enhance one’s ability to be empathetic towards all?

Social psychologists believe that we make errors when making attributions. We have a proclivity to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and attribute negative characteristics to others than to ourselves given a similar situation. That is, we tend to attribute something negative and stable to other people’s behavior – he is poor because he’s irresponsible – while perceiving our own behavior as situational. In the case that I become poor, I’m likely to blame external structures around me rather than myself, but that other person is poor because he’s irresponsible. Could certain strands of communitarianism simply encourage this kind of thought and behavior? Quite likely, I presume.

Social psychologists acknowledge complexity in attribution theory due to personality traits and other differences among people, but one thing is clear. Constant attribution is learned behavior and can be unlearned. Trying to identify with those who are different from us is one step. Recognizing the situationality and temporality of difficult circumstances is another crucial step. Refraining from labeling ourselves as “incompetent” and attributing negative internal and stable qualities to our actions as well as to other people’s actions allows us to go beyond blame, and move towards positive change.

I now understand that their judgments are rooted in their need to believe that the world is just and orderly and that they are disassociating and differentiating themselves from me, out of fear and insecurity. I also recognize that I am not so different from them, for I also make judgments about others and attribute negative qualities at times to negative behavior. Now that I am mindful of my tendencies, I can question my “reality” and probe my thoughts further. I can acknowledge to myself that attribution stems from preconceived notions I have embraced and proceed to challenge these assumptions and therefore change them.