Apocryphal Zen Stories – Part 2

Bodily Needs

One morning, Hongren and Mazu the nine-fingered disciple sat side by side at the banks of a lotus pond in silent meditation. Slowly, Hongren began to hum. The humming grew in volume, until Hongren’s entire throat began to vibrate in sympathetic resonance. Gradually, the sound of the humming subsided, until they were once again sitting in perfect silence at the banks of the lotus pond.

Finally, Hongren spoke.

“When you feel the need to defecate, do you defecate?”

“Yes, master,” replied Mazu.

“Then the Buddha is a misshapen turnip!”

At this point, Hongren took a sip of tea.

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Apocryphal Zen Stories – Part 1

A Rotting Horse Carcass

One day, a young monk came to Master Hongren’s monastery to seek enlightenment.

“You will achieve enlightenment if you can answer this one question: What is Buddha?” asked Hongren. The monk could not think of an answer, and stood before Hongren in silent contemplation.

“Master,” asked the disciple, “Is there one answer, or are there many answers?”

Hongren slapped his disciple violently across the face. “A rotting horse carcass!” he exclaimed, answering his own question.

At this point, the disciple achieved enlightenment.

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A Thoughtful Analysis of Brand Nubian’s “Allah U Akbar”

In 1993, the rap group Brand Nubian released their sophomore album, In God We Trust. Two members lighter after the departure of Grand Puba and DJ Alamo, the group returned with a more aggressive, militant edge. But unlike the namesake of the departed DJ Alamo, I cannot remember most of these songs, even after repeated listens.

The album closer, Punks Jump to Get Beat Down, is a brilliant song with lyrics so problematic that some lines had to be rerecorded for release on their subsequent Greatest Hits compilation. Still, it is an undeniably potent evocation of the guilty pleasures of beating down punks who jump up for that very purpose. It also features an amazing beat from peak-era Diamond D, with a sample of “Gonna Fly Now” from the movie Rocky that dazzles us with its sheer hubris.

The album opener, “Allah U Akbar” (sic), is equally impressive in its own way. So impressive, in fact, that it deserves a detailed chronological analysis –  If not for its lyrical details, than at least for its weird sonic world and overall concept, or lack thereof.

Listen to the song on YouTube – But check out the timestamped links below for detailed analysis!

Read the lyrics on Genius

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Notes for a Memoir – Part 3

Continued from Part 1, Part 2, and the Addendum

  • Discovering Mexico; Changing My Life (Mexico Trip 1: Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Mexico City)
  • Back to Manila One Last Time, My Friends
  • An Interlude to Discuss the Finer Points of Buddhism
  • The Dissolution of a Friendship, or: Just Admit You’re Secretly in Love With Me, Already
  • Valentine’s Day Regrets, 2017, or: Eating Breakfast Alone at Jollibee on Valentine’s Day Is Not Very Romantic
  • Rooftop Bar Regrets
  • America: Land of Utterly Endearing Insanity (Related posts here and here)
  • Farewell to the Philippines (Hey, I already wrote a blog post about that! Now I just need to rewrite it to include more salacious details)
  • Climate Change and the Inevitable Collapse of Human Civilization
  • G. Bear: A New Friendship
  • The Dissolution of Another Friendship, or: Just Buy Me The Damn Hot Pot, Already
  • You Can’t Go Back: Totally Demoralizing And Utterly Failed Attempts to Recapture Past Glories Around the World
  • Moving to Mexico
  • COVID-19, or: A Great Excuse to Move Further Inward and Also Lose Weight
  • Toronto: The Least Worst Option in the Worst Possible World
  • Halifax: The Much Worse, But Still Probably Least Worst, Option for an Increasingly Bad World

A Little Free Writing

With all the things happening in the world, my reader (sic) might wonder why I’ve been so silent. The answer, to the extent that there is one: I had a fortuitously timed surge in my workload – fortuitous because it coincided with the rest of my life becoming boring and sad, like so many other people’s lives starting a few months into 2020. For a time, work for the sake of work became my primary distraction and purpose in life, which had the added benefit of granting me temporary insight into the lives of normal humans. Now that my workload has subsided, I can again return to a mixture of goofing off, acting insufferably entitled, and desperately grasping for meaning, i.e. by writing.

Now, you might think that half a year after my last post, I’d have a lot to share about the state of the world (both outer and inner) today. But, you’d be wrong – or at least, partially wrong. After half a year of letting my hyperverbal inclinations gather dust and gather rust, the first point of order is to clean out those leaf-clogged pipes and let the verbal fluid flow. And what better way to do that than with some cell phone autocomplete-esque free writing? Ha-hem.

Rickety bark snot consumed and complained of pleasant palpitations in its preposterous spleen additive. The thunderous crumpets of wilting agility snuggled up to the dessicated necktie of all things purple. Waggle waggle snorpity dazoozoozip. The cruel steel of the blade tore into his ambivalent protestations. Add three sticks of worry into the bubbling cauldron of uncertain pedigree, lick the fiery nipple six times to the left and twelve to the orange side, twist twice counterclockwise and five-point-Z times atop the translucent polka-dotted side of your bruised and battered Buddha figurine.

Drip, drip, drip – thus went the drooping dripping of the dreadful dreadnaught. Crispy, creamy, crumbling pillars, decaying ruins of a lost civilization of orange Oreo orangutan organisms. Slippery, dripping, persnickety, waffling waffles, wandering wands. The stream of chocolate vomit shot out from his friendship, angrily splattering across the bow of his amazing aunt. Do doodads do what doo-doo does best? Can your uncanny can-can cancel out the cantankerous cancer of the cantilever bridge? Nobody knows the answer, but almost half of everyone knows the question.

Thank you, and elbows.


The Surprising Benefits of An Easy Life

For the last decade or so, I have single-mindedly dedicated myself to maximizing the freedom and minimizing any unwanted obligation in my life. I became a “digital nomad” so that external factors could not control where I chose to live, and so that nothing could stop me from traveling 12 months a year if I so chose. I have avoided serious romantic relationships and having children in order to avoid responsibility for the happiness of another human being.

I have seen how other human lives are weighed down by worry due to duties – Duties that were imposed, in some cases, by not being born into the comfortable middle class life that I happened to be born into, due to a combination of extraordinary good luck and my parents working harder than I ever will. But in many cases, these duties seem to freely chosen for nigh-incomprehensible reasons. Those around me, including many who weren’t much less lucky than me in terms of the hand they were dealt at birth, seemed to slavishly follow the conventional path of self-imposed obligation – Obligation to a full-time job; obligation to their spouses, their children; obligation to maintaining their expensive houses full of expensive things. I didn’t see much to envy in that kind of life, and mostly I still don’t. You might think my aloof freedom has made me arrogant and dismissive of people who choose more conventional lives of family and professional success. You wouldn’t be 100% wrong there; but I’m also keenly aware that having a ridiculous degree of autonomy and control over my own life probably hasn’t made me much happier in the long run.

And therein lie the hidden benefits of having a life free of obvious hardship, free of obvious external challenges to fight, be frustrated by, and push back again.

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Victor and the Void

The sound was awful. Every morning, Victor was awakened by the screaming of the Void – A shrill, overpowering noise whose awfulness seemed to transcend any normal laws of acoustics. And yet, each morning, Victor plodded over to the edge of the Void and dutifully shoveled in a fresh batch of Void food. After that, the Void’s screaming would become marginally less terrible for a time – or perhaps it didn’t, and it was all in Victor’s head, the mildly diverting delusions of a man who had been feeding the Void for as long as he could remember.

Either way, each and every morning, Victor faithfully executed his duty and fed the Void. He did this because the alternative would have been, somehow, even worse than the status quo – or then again, maybe not. And it didn’t seem to matter whether he fed it a few scant morsels of Void food or a big, generous, heaping portion – within a few minutes of feeding time, the screaming seemed to revert to its mean level of intolerability.

No matter what he did or didn’t do – although he inevitably stopped short of contemplating the bold concept of not feeding the Void at all – the Void’s interminable wailing continued throughout the day. Inbetween the daily feedings, Victor busied himself with crossword puzzles, cooking light meals (of human food, naturally; Void food is for void and human food is for humans), and, occasionally, brutal acts of self-mutilation. In the long run, and on average, ferreting out esoteric synonyms and digging up dusty old pop culture references in the crosswords was no more or less effective a distraction than harsh jolts of self-inflicted pain.

Because no matter what, Victor was there, and the Void was there, and the enormous sack of Void Chow somehow managed to perpetually remain half-filled. That tattered old bag was always at precisely 50% of capacity, and it seemed to scarcely matter whether he plucked the morsels of chow out one at a time, making a game of aiming them straight into the middle of the nothingness; or whether he frantically shoveled them into the Void’s insatiable maw, heaving in fresh heaps until he reached the point of exhaustion. Sometimes, as another completely futile act of self-distraction, he would make a game of tossing each tiny particle of Void food directly into the exact centre of the strictly circumscribed nothingness. But in the end, every day was the same, the Void was always the Void, and Victor was always Victor. The sheer sameness of it all was almost more terrible than the horrible, horrible wailing itself. But no, that unending shriek of unfathomable, infinite, and yet somehow abstract pain was probably still worse.

And then the Void burped. There was a brief lull, and then it resumed its relentless shrieking.

The Singular Frustration of Putting Your Underwear on Backwards

Sometimes I wear boxers, and sometimes I wear briefs. And sometimes, I wear boxer-briefs. Overall, I’m not too dogmatic about my underwear. When I was not yet an adult, I wore tightie whities as some sort of default, in the same way that so much of what we do at a young age seems to be merely by default. Later on, perhaps after being mocked for my tight white briefs by a sharp-tongued female, I started wearing more boxers. More recently, I have swung toward a combination of boxers, briefs and Mexican grandpa underwear. Now, I call them Mexican grandpa underwear because:

  1. I bought them in Mexico, and
  2. A Mexican person told me that they’re the type of underwear grandpas wear.

Left to my own inferences, I would have assumed they were male stripper underwear – The front part covers only the barest minimum, and the back covers scarcely more. By wearing them, I open myself up to all manner of mockery. And yet, I continue to wear them. Why? Because:

  1. On the not-infrequent occasions when I lack access to free or cheap laundry services, I will buy precious time before my next load of laundry by hand-washing a minimum number of shirts and pairs of underwear. Such revealing undergarments involve a lot less fabric, and are thus much quicker to wash by hand.
  2. I believe anyone who sees you in your underwear is already someone who has granted you enough confidence (and vice versa) that you have nothing to fear from their mockery.

I refer to these underwear as Mexican grandpa underwear because I first purchased them in Mexico, but I have no illusions about them being somehow specific to Mexican culture in the same way that mariachis or tequila are. I was later able to acquire a pair in Malaysia, so maybe these types of underwear are endemic to countries whose names start with M, or countries with spicy food.

One reason I value my Mexican grandpa underwear is because they so proudly display an enormous label directly above the junk area. “Here be junk!”, they may as well say, though they in fact provide free advertising for the underwear manufacturer. Mockable though it may be, it at least reduces the risk of putting your underwear on backwards, which is a serious problem that can afflict both boxers and briefs.

The experience of an accidental underwear reversal would not be nearly so vexing if many pairs did not come so agonizingly close to fitting. Unfortunately, some pairs are only capable of swinging both ways to the extent that you can semi-successfully pull them up before realizing that you are now the victim of an underwear death trap. It is a horribly restrictive feeling.

As an added layer of indignity, the mind wanders into unwanted places while being squeezed by an ass-backwards (literally!) pair. The convenient front flap becomes a back flap of questionable convenience when reversed, leaving one to contemplate the logistics of making full use of such an accommodation.

As with so many things in life, an underwear reversal is the type of situation where partial success is infinitely worse than no success at all. There may be a metaphor buried in there,  and a rather pessimistic one. And indeed, these may sound like the words of a defeatist, but if refusing to attempt to put on a pair of underwear backwards makes me a coward, then baby, I don’t want to be brave.



Notes for a Memoir – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Chapter 6: Scared Shitless – My First Six Months Abroad – Arriving overdressed and underprepared in the Philippines. Being young and therefore stupid, and thinking that everything new is automatically awesome, and that all attention is welcome. The beginning of my brief eight-year period when I believed that karaoke is the single greatest activity that a human being can participate in. Being utterly helpless for the first few weeks, and luckily being doted on endlessly by my host organization. Convincing my colleague to take me to the notorious Smoky Mountain housing project, where my presence was not entirely welcome; not yet being fully aware of the moral dubiousness of slum tourism. Beginning an epic war of attrition against my unwanted collagen surplus, with plenty of help from alcohol and the tropical sun.

Chapter 7: Becoming A Shithead – As I become less helpless, so do I become less likeable. Discovering the joys of going out every single night, overcompensating for my former pretentious hyper-intellectualism with desperate hyper-hedonism. Trying and failing to dance. Metrowalk and Tomas Morato Avenue. Becoming slightly less confused and slightly terrified by women.

Chapter 8: Ninh Binh – Leaving Manila and ending up in the middle of nowhere in Vietnam, surrounded by rice wine, dog meat, and people standing inappropriately close. Realizing that my Philippine culture shock wasn’t even real culture shock. Isolation, gradual descent into madness, and the brutality of the northern Vietnamese summer. John, Kate, and how I managed to only go half-mad in Ninh Binh. Learning Vietnamese, somehow. Bicycling everywhere and getting very sweaty. Crazy Hương and the gentle sadness of Hằng.

Crazy 9: Haiphong City – Replacing the spritual and physical assault of Ninh Binh with a full year of gentle boredom and the best seafood I’ve had in my whole damn life. Navy Beer, the greatest restaurant in the world. Keeping the company of the the substandard rascals who are the Haiphong expat community. My mysterious mini-stroke. My highly offensive local translator/liaison officer, and his multitudinous layers of reprehensibility. Power cuts, summer heat, more sweating. Doomed medium-distance romance with an enchanting Filipina expat in Hanoi.

Chapter 10: Back to Manila – Becoming a digital nomad in order to return to my favourite chaotic Asian megalopolis, for some reason. Cultivating my culinary and musical talents in a failed effort to be slightly less of a shithead. First glimmers of attempted adulting. Hanging out with Tyler, the womanizing professional poker player who looks like Ryan Gosling, and looking quite a bit less attractive when standing next to him. My long, awkwardly ambiguous “relationship” with D. Having my gay landlord attempt to lure me into a gay orgy due to his (not uncommon) misconception that I am a closeted gay man.

Chapter 11: Back to Manila, But This Time A Different Condo: A study in the effects of extremely polluted air on an extremely allergic body. Being the sickest I’ve ever been, as an adult, so far, and how it helped me fall in love with SpongeBob SquarePants. Myanmar, Bangkok, and my final schism with D.

Chapter 12: Because I Hate Being Happy, I Moved to Davao City – If it ain’t broke, by all means, do fix it. Leaving my comfortable (albeit highly polluted) life in Manila to begin anew in Davao City, the durian-scented land of death squads. Civic pride in extrajudicial killings. Accidentally getting dogs. Isolation, frustration, and steadily amassed regrets. Eating durian all day, everyday. Regularly drinking palm wine at 8 AM on a coconut plantation.  The slow death spiral of my uncomfortably mismatched friendship with C. Life in a lower-middle-income neighbourhood without fully paved roads. My sweet old neighbours, who shed literal tears when I moved away, for some reason – I don’t know if they’re still alive? Food was good!

Continued in Part 3

An Amazing Radish

It was an amazing radish. Henry stared at it, transfixed. Its beauty sparkled in his eyes like a loose sack of doorknobs.

The pain throbbed in his extremities like an intoxicated goose. With every ounce of his being, he fixated himself on the radish, trying to distract himself from the pain. But although he felt the soothing effects of that vision of purest root vegetable perfection, it wasnt enough to fully ease the pain. Henry was dying, and his body knew it.

The decay had been spreading noticeably over the last few months. Activities that were once merely uncomfortable had become excruciating. Henry took comfort in the radish, but like an addict, he kept needing a stronger radish fix, more and more frequently. His eyes were like an egg, with each eye half an egg. It felt like his entire life had become an endless procession of radish-gazing sessions, always transfixed by the beauty of the radish, but with diminishing returns. Even the most perfect, exquisitely formed radish was not enough to distract him from the constant spread of decay. His nose had nostrils.

And yet, intellectually, brushing aside the distractions of the pain, Henry knew that the radish he was looking at now was truly remarkable. He yearned for a simpler time, when such a flawless radish would have served as an object of chaste contemplation, instead of an imperfect distraction from the living hell that had become his daily life. The game of hockey is high in Vitamin K.

Suddenly, he felt a surge of self-loathing, creeping down his spine from the base of his neck. He roughly grasped the radish, flinging the refrigerator door open and thrusting the radish brusquely into the crisper. The pain now regained his full, uninterrupted focus, undisturbed by the self-deluding distractions of the radish. Soon his agony was so vivid and perfectly formed that he felt a bitter appreciation for its gruesome exquisiteness. Like a combatant yielding to a worthy competitor in reluctant admiration, he slumped down on the ground and let the pain overwhelm him.

He got up, fried an egg, and ate it. Good morning.