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The Zen of the Hubble Deep Field

Find an empty space in the sky and stare into it. Anywhere. Up there, over here, left of somewhere or right of over there, it doesn't really matter, just pick a spot and stare, stare and stare. What you find might change the very universe. And it will almost certainly blow your mind… In 1995 astronomers, perhaps after staring a little long at the sun, or with a few too many stars in their eyes, got the slightly left of gravitational field idea for an experiment with the Hubble Space Telescope. Let’s point the telescope at an absolutely empty patch of sky they decided, a section with less stars than the New Zealand cricket team and just about as much interest; no known galaxies, clusters, supernovas or anything else remotely capable of a spectacular explosion. Then, while perhaps listening to The Dark Side of the Moon over and over, or watching back to back screenings of Derek Jarman’s 1993 psychotropic classic Blue— 79 minutes of an unchanging plain blue screen—let’s keep it pointed there. Fall asleep, wake up, it’s still pointing at the same patch of sky. Fall asleep, wake up… the same empty blank piece of space, less than 0.005% of the night sky. Over and over for days. Why? Because they could? The Hubble Telescope was only two years old at this point, and a bit like teenagers with newest, most powerful multi-billion dollar car in the neighbourhood, you can just imagine astronomers were chomping at the bit to put the pedal to the floor. Or in the more sedate, orderly procession of the equinoxes fashion of their profession, stare semi-excitedly at nothing for an extremely long time. Hubble Deep Field location For ten days the Hubble took 342 images of the blackest black, captured photographs literally one photon at a time, often not seeing anything with its sensors for minutes on end, and at the end those photos were stitched together to reveal quite significantly more than nothing. There were only five faint known stars in this area of the sky until the unlikely idea came along to look for something in the depths of nothing, and like magically pulling a rabbit from an empty hat, or more accurately, several million rabbits, Hubble revealed quite considerably more—considerably more and then some. Every point of light in the image the Hubble Space Telescope captured, and the image contained thousands of them, wasn’t just a new star but a new galaxy—thousands upon thousands of new galaxies discovered. Some, to use the mind-boggling arithmetic of astronomy, were just a few million light years away; some were over ten billion light years away. Hubble Deep Field When astronomers began picking their jaws up from the floor, parked their extremely valuable car back in the garage, they learned from this one single photograph, known now as the Hubble Deep Field, that there are one hundred billion galaxies in our Universe. At least. To attempt to put the completely incomprehensible even further beyond perspective, each of these galaxies is comparable to the home of our own Sun, the Milky Way, a galaxy which contains nearly a trillion stars. Think about this figure for a while—one hundred billions galaxies each containing a trillion stars—and you'll be no closer to understanding than when you started, and quite possibly in need of ten days in a very quiet room. It’s a bit zen really, and enough to make one reach for a holy book and turn to religion—staring for a long time into emptiness and eventually finding fullness; everything found in the very lap of nothing. Maybe, in deepest, darkest empty space, we can finally hear the sound of one hand clapping.
The address Of God's Heart Is Infinity's Silence. —Sri Chinmoy, Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees, Part 11
Source: Starts with a Bang: Hell Yeah, Hubble!

Prime Ministers’ wives are from Venus

miyuki-hatoyamaJapanese Prime Minister-elect Yukio Hatoyama did the impossible last week, a landslide victory won for his Democratic Party of Japan, an unprecedented reversal of election fortune over the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party, who have ruled Japan for all but 11 months since 1955. Retired actress, author, lifestyle guru and wife of the Prime Minister, Miyuki Hatoyama, has also done the impossible, breaking through boundaries of reason and possibly sanity as well to go where no First Lady has gone before—completely out of this world. “I have been abducted by aliens” says Japan’s first lady of involuntary space travel. But maybe not from the same planet as the rest of us. In a book published a year ago, Very Strange Things I've Encountered, the interstellar Prime Minister’s wife confided that she was abducted by aliens while sleeping one night 20 years ago.
“While my body was asleep, I think my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus. It was a very beautiful place, and it was very green.”
Not content with watching reruns of The Last Samurai or Top Gun, the 62-year-old explorer of greener pastures also claims to have known Tom Cruise in a previous life, when she says he was also Japanese, and looks forward to sharing billing with him on a Hollywood blockbuster. “I believe he’d get it if I said to him, ‘Long time no see’, when we meet,” she confided about the diminutive leading man in a recent interview. An author of a book on cooking, Hatoyama recently revealed on daytime TV an unusual breakfast snack—“I also eat the sun” every morning. “Yum, yum, yum” she said as she closed her eyes and demonstrated the act of consuming tasty solar treats from the sky, adding, “I get energy from it. My husband also does this.” Perhaps she acquired a taste for yellow main sequence stars during a nighttime fly past to Venus? Men may be from Mars, but Prime Minister’s wives are now from Venus. Source: The Independent

Short Black Temper

Monday morning, 9am, back on the contracting treadmill again, contestant and collaborator in the nine to five daily grind, my services as an Art Worker required and hired by an inner city design studio. It has been a while since I've worked in an office—my work is mostly from home and for my own clients these days, a design business run out of what is “home office” to those who employ me, smoke screen and smoked glass desk removed just a bedroom to me. I think I will need the hard stuff to get up to speed, something black and finely ground in a double-sized cup it will be. Taking my leave as my day’s work has yet to be briefed in, I borrow a colleague’s swipe card and pass modern art “features”, steel and glass reception area through security door to the chill of the outside, worst winter in a half century my cold comfort on way to café. The area where I am working would once have been industrial, but now is “industrial chic”, former warehouses and good, honest workplaces replaced by advertising and design firms, a hard days work renovated and re-branded at a through the glass ceiling hourly rate. I shouldn’t be too judgemental though, judge a book by it’s $200 an hour, designed and glossy cover. Marxist roots from my younger, porridge and empty cupboard university days aside, this industry now pays my wage. The café, not the nearest but location of only choice for those with discerning tastes, is unusually anarchic and open plan—one single, banquet-style table down the middle, counters and sliding cabinets of gourmet sandwiches and baking either side, just tell the girl at the counter what you've ordered and pay, pick it up when they call your name. As I queue to order my double-shot, needed doubly beverage, two women of middle age but less than middle awareness stroll blithely past, rushing words between breaths sharpened by the brisk walk between hair salon and café, attention divided between trim and soy options and a conversation started hours before, awareness of others in the world none at all. Minds half parked in second garage and professionally managed share portfolios, these later-day house-wives didn’t precisely jump the queue to the counter, rather they drove right past as if there was else on their private road. It was liked being robbed by a bank manager, money removed from your account with a smile and hidden fee. I didn't realise they had not seen me, were actually going to cut me off until their Bulgari purses were open, credit cards proffered for over-priced milky brew. They walked right past me like I was the hired help. Something started to smoulder, something other than pesto and camembert panini was toasting, burning. Legs planted wide, shoulders stiffening, bristling, fury and anger black was brewing, boiling inside, double strength cup of scalding wrath to be thrown rather than swallowed. I was not going to let this injustice just walk by, let total unawareness and ignorance of others stand unchallenged. “Excuse me, you see behind me, that empty space, that is a queue, where you should be standing!” My tone and force of speech were the verbal equivalent of a pointing, shaking finger. Shock, mile-wide eyes spinning, reeling embarrassment, silence in the whole café, nowhere to hide “You know how I'm standing here?” My tone was raising, volume increasing, voice on cusp of scream and yell, question posed but no answer expected, for it was clearly known. “Well maybe you don’t know, seeing how you've walked right past me, but it’s called a queue...” I lowered my tone, softened volume but not intensity, the pressure in the room doubling like the calm before a raging storm. “...and... it... begins... with... ME!” I am walking closer and they are backing, stumbling away. I'm so angry and direct that the force of my words are like stomach punching, air stealing violent blows. But... Standing on the cliff-top of indignation and righteous, fully justified anger, something prevented me from jumping off. I thought all these words, cocked tirade’s trigger and took aim to fire, but in the end did not. Something made me holster my weapon, hold my tongue against weight of common sense and wounded pride. I could have illumined those two women of their ignorance, could have jolted them out of their middle-aged double-rinsed and blow-dried complacency as if fingers in a socket, but I didn't have the heart to do so. It wasn't weakness. It simply didn't feel right. The spiritual life has rules and guidelines plenty, philosophies and treatises on life and how to live it stacked high enough to build libraries, let alone fill shelves, but one phrase and guiding principle is enough to be keystone and pole star to them all, summary and closing sentence to all the words in the world: listen to your heart. Beyond reason and logic, philosophy and law, your heart will always tell you the right thing to do, reveal, through intuition and feeling, the correct, clear path ahead, the road to happiness straight and true. The heart is the mouthpiece and vouchsafe of the soul, immutable diamond and infallible guiding light at the core of your being, inner pilot and guide through this life and every life. Practise listening to your heart, hone your ears to its still small voice and guidance, and you will never walk astray. I ordered my coffee, took a seat at the large central table, let my boiled blood settle amidst the scream and squeal of coffee being made. Seeing clearly instead of red, I took a deep breath, calmed myself, let inner peace as it always does, dissolve life’s raging tumults and storms. My clouds of anger were chased away by a cool, clear-thinking heart, dissipated by the rays of the inner sun, and happiness, clouded for a while, began to shine again.
Your mind may not know What will make you happy, But your heart does know How to make you happy. Listen to your heart. —Sri Chinmoy, Twenty-Seven Thousand Aspiration-Plants, Part 172

Inspiration-Letters: Destiny Edition

sri-chinmoy-authorThrift stores, cheap chocolates and masterpieces by Van Gogh and Cezanne—so begins the 16th edition of Inspiration-Letters, magazine style forum for inspired writers of the Sri Chinmoy Centre. A fitting beginning it is too, for all the authors are koan-carrying members of a meditation group espousing a philosophy of merging the heights of spirituality with the here and everyday, and what could be more lofty and lowly than the two masters of post-impressionism rubbing shoulders in a one dollar shop? All the world may well be a stage, and we the players therein, but some of the sets are truth be told, less than top-drawer. The Inspiration-Letters editor, in possession of red pen and hugely discounted bargains, proceeds to the check-out, continues his introduction:
“As the cashier was checking me out, I happened to glance at her name tag: ‘Karamvir’ it said. I knew ‘vir’ means hero in many Indian languages. I asked her what ‘karam’ meant. She told me that ‘karam’ means fate. So ‘Karamvir’ means ‘she who is the master of her destiny, the one who is victorious over her fate!’ Apparently she had never thought about the meaning of her name before, so she just nodded, smiled shyly and handed me my merchandise.”
checkout-operatorI am reminded of a supermarket closer to home, where checkout operators are likely as not to be Indian, lowly in station but sweeter in nature than the most expensive chocolates, and names hand-picked from the loftiest spiritual literature. While shopping for bread and milk I have been charmed and served by the entire pantheon of Indian goddesses—Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga included. The topic for this latest issue of Inspiration-Letters is “Destiny”, and it was the destiny of seven writers and myself to contribute, stories all of the moving and workings of nature’s most mysterious force—fate, and its invisible hold on our lives.

Home Is Where The Heart Is

Inspiration-Letters opens with top-drawer writer Sumangali Morhall’s Home Is Where The Heart Is, a tale of time spent in Thailand and the titular lesson learned: home is where the heart is, no matter where mind or body may roam. Sumangali is a master of poetry and lyricism—her gentle evocation of landscapes inner and outer sing a tale of destiny as sweetly as a nightingale’s call, and moved one reader to comment “no one describes nature better than her. Her description of monsoon rains will rise like steam in your memory every time you get caught in heavy rain ever again.”
“I arrived at the start of monsoon. From a veranda I would watch the sky as it jealously gathered navy blue cloud with long grey fingers, until its arms could hold no more, and the whole hoard was spilt on the earth at once. The traffic thickened and curdled, borders between road and path were eaten away by hungry torrents, where sandalled feet sloshed towards any cover they could find. It was at those times I liked to go for a walk.”

It Is Written

Alaskan Palyati Fouse weaves in It Is Written the working of destiny with film of the moment Slumdog Millionaire, and recounts a recent discussion with someone described only as a genius:
“I had a lengthy discussion with a genius recently about destiny. I asked many questions because, at first, I did not agree with what he had to say.”
I for one am highly curious to discover the name of the genius, for it is not written. Perhaps he is unnamed deliberately by the author, lest lost sheep like myself beat a grassy path to his isolated mountain top. Telling of living alone like a beacon in the dark, just her and destiny on the uppermost edge of the American continent, Palyati talks and inspires with her account of swimming against the spiritual tide, and deserves more than just the respect of some distant shaper of destiny in doing so.

There Was A Child Went Forth

A reader of my own story, There Was A Child Went Forth—title lifted directly from Whitman—commented that he found me to be a good writer, but my stories somewhat depressing. While not ego-shattering, his feedback was certainly unexpected, and from far enough left field to make me pause and reflect. Am I a depressing person; is there less joy in my writing than there should be; in my life as well?
“The journey from child to man is said to be a passage, but for me childhood and adulthood were separated not by distance but a straight line, worlds cleaved apart as if by sharpest knife.”
There is a simple answer to both question and self-doubt—the true story of my life is a tale far more intense than any written. The experiences I went through before joining the spiritual life were more harrowing than any yet related, and while as prone to exaggeration as any writer, in the case of my own backstory, I am not writing larger than reality. With admirable honesty, Palyati Fouse in It Is Written follows the very same thread:
“Recalling life experiences and my reactions to them before joining this path makes my stomach knot up. There is nothing for me there in the deepest sense. It is the continual inner urge to progress spiritually that keeps me alive.”
Destiny may at times be a blunt instrument, but none can deny the necessity of its scalpel-like role, its work and operation, through trial and tribulation, needed for our ultimate good. Yes this is an intimidating truth, but it is one anything but depressing, for it speaks of perfection, promises a happiness never-ending.

Magical Mystery Tour

In Magical Mystery Tour, professional writer and published author Noivedya Juddery tells of his new preoccupation as film screenwriter, and how the casting of a young aspiring actress really is an act of destiny. At times a treatise on the millennia old debate on determinism, Noivedya writes and winds to the conclusion that life is the greatest mystery tour of them all.
“Occasionally, airlines and tour organisers speak of mystery tours, for which adventurous travellers pay for a tour to a place unknown. It might not be where you wanted or expected to go, but you will hopefully enjoy the destination. Life, of course, is the greatest mystery tour of them all – and however much you might influence your pilot, you never know where he will take you.”

How I Came To The Spiritual Life

In How I Came To The Spiritual Life, Abhinabha Tangerman relates with a Zen-like directness how he came to the spiritual life. To approximate an old Zen saying, if you see the Buddha on the road, you see the Buddha on the road, and in getting lost on a dark Dutch road Abhinabha found his own path to enlightenment—a lecture that would change his life forever.
“The speaker was a Belgian man of about forty years, exuding a marked inner poise. As soon as he started speaking my disappointment vanished. He talked about a spiritual life, a life of peace, love and happiness and the ways to bring these qualities to the fore through meditation. The man was very nice, humble and likeable. And his words were like music to my ears.”
Courageously, Abhinabha shares two dreams of Sri Chinmoy which convinced him to become a full time student of meditation, and concludes that he guesses it was destiny. For me there is no guesswork in this convincing, inspiring story.

Some Thoughts On The Way Forward

In Some Thoughts On The Way Forward, Jogyata Dallas waves the banner and writes a ringing call to arms on karma yoga—the yoga of action and work, and his forceful words are like an Emersonian edict for a new spiritual age. Jogyata is at his best writing of nature inner and outer, poetically intertwining the idyllic landscape of Bali with the sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky contours of the human soul:
“Horizoned and other-worldly, magnified by haze, the grey pencil sketch of Mt. Agung soars up to improbable altitudes, its ragged bulk cloud-garlanded, mysterious and remote from the far-below, scrambling destinies of man. Beyond the shoreline grey skeins of wrinkled seas crest and break—long ocean rollers at their journey’s end. Away from our usual melodramas, Bali’s peace and languor and the heavy gravity of the afternoon conspire, press you down supine.”

Overcoming Destiny

Mahiruha Klein writes in Overcoming Destiny of his first personal message from Sri Chinmoy, and of the message received the very eve of his Guru’s passing: “Hope is sweeter than the sweetest. Sweeter than ambrosia.” Chasing hope like a bee to nectar, Mahiruha is all parts sincere and heart-felt, and his words possess the silent width and weight of the best, other-world inspired writing.
“That was the last time I ever saw Sri Chinmoy. He passed away the following morning, quite early. But his last words to us, that hope is sweeter than ambrosia, touched me deeply. My Master told me in that phrase to keep a positive attitude, to stay happy and well, and to remain hopeful. Sri Chinmoy’s first message to me was to forswear anxiety about what people think of me or how I am judged in the eyes of society. His last message to me was to keep hope alive forever.”
In my case, it is tempting to dwell upon the fact that I had few personal messages from Sri Chinmoy, but like doubt itself this is the path and fiat of a false, never profitable coin. I was one of Sri Chinmoy’s students who had very little outer contact with him—I can count literally on fingertips the times he spoke to me—but to flail now for what will never be would be to miss totally an inner contact that has always been. I can write books of all the messages that have come in quiet moments and dreams, and it this inner communication that is the true currency of spirituality, a wealth of heart and soul that can never be spent, now or when the flickering flame of human life finally burns out. Again where doubt is concerned, memory is without doubt the quickest, easiest to reach for antidote, and I need look no further than my own submission to Inspiration-Letters to be reunited with Destiny’s eternal, inner communion:
“I remember a vivid dream not long after I returned to New Zealand, of a most beautiful young woman who took me to house where many people were meeting, and above the head of each a small, shining speck of light. The woman, whom I instantly felt a deep, wordless love for, explained this point of light as the soul. Her name may well have been Destiny, for that was what I found upon joining Sri Chinmoy’s path.”
There is a sense now that we students of Sri Chinmoy are swimming in lonely seas, all coming to terms with a sudden, unexpected change of course. But how much and what has changed, and what exactly has been lost? In vanishing from sight it can be said that the boatman has merely charged garments, shed his human appearance to become the ocean and sea itself. In staying the course and continuing to sail, even though upon seas uncharted, are we not in the heart of where we have always been? In the Master’s boat. On board an immortal journey of the soul.

On Journeys Through the Australian States

Time passed writing about passing time in an airport coffee shop... Coffee at Melbourne AirportTravelling. Again. In Melbourne Airport, for four and half hours, but not my final destination, or even second to final in this marathon, budget airline leapfrog across the Pacific, Tasman and Indian Oceans. I am in an airport café sipping the oh so treasured caffeinated chocolate beverage I swore yet again to give up. And shall swear again, once the well of heart-quickened words dries, trails to a final period, final drop of coffee swallowed at the end of this page... I am flying to Bali today, a Christmas holiday come a month late but not a moment too soon. A break from work and yet more work, a break of some considerable force to my cheerfully forgotten, paid just on time bottom line. Work to live or live to work? In truth I would prefer neither, but forced to choose I am working to be alive, and right now is the time for living. It is not such a bad place to be stranded, this sun-burned, lucky land. I have always liked Australia—more so than anywhere else on Earth save the United Kingdom, it is just like home—albeit a sun-drenched, sun-worshiping version of such. Hotter of temperature and temperament than New Zealand, it is our louder, brasher “across the ditch” own. I admire the self-confidence and assertiveness here, rare in my home of birds that do not fly and single lone predator—the Katipo spider, a pint-sized beast of passive-aggressive hostility at best, likely to bite only when pushed into corner or shoe. New Zealanders, more like the sheep who outnumber us twenty to one than killer spiders, tend to follow the herd, herd instinctively to the back of a pen. Like the damp, green pastures from mountains to sea, we are softer round surface and edge than Australians; we shrink from a person of loud, sure hand. Australia has a vastness not just of its land, although perhaps learned of it; of wide open spaces and limitless, continental horizons—a vastness of heart and mind less sighted in smaller, skinnier isles. “Mateship,” the word for universal friendship between blokes really exists in Australia. The airport security officer who gave directions not with authority but airless amity; the student who made my coffee neither embarrassed to be serving me, or by way of compensation, haughty—such is far from common in less secure, narrow lands. It took a while, several hours in fact, and all of the previous words, before untold Australian flags, t-shirts and hats of yellow and green led me to realise that today is January 26, Australia Day, the one day of three hundred and sixty-five that Australians take even more pride in being themselves than their unabashed norm. Serendipity has a way of following me around, especially when writing...
Salutation To The Soul Of Australia My aspiring heart is saluting you. My illumining soul is loving you. In you I see the perfect combination of the body's service and the vital's dynamism. Your soul is at once the embodiment of the ancient sun and revelation of tomorrow's dawn. Your body's consciousness is the expansion of vastness. Your heart's delight is the perfection of illumination. Slowly and steadily your body walks. Pointedly and unerringly your mind runs. Devotedly and unconditionally your heart dives. Eternally and supremely your soul flies. Your life's greatness-dream is humanity's transcendental pride. Your life's goodness-reality is humanity's universal treasure. —Sri Chinmoy, My Heart's Salutation To Australia, Part 1.
* * * During my first year of university, a time now so long ago tales of such begin increasingly to sound like they belong in the history books I read there, one of the highlights of each week was the student newspaper, more read by the student community than any tiresome book or text. I would in maturity and time end up working for this newspaper—my first ever graphic design and typesetting role, and my first ever writing—but for now, unaware of greater horizons ahead, I admired those vaster in others. In the writing of the editor and staff of this newspaper there was an assuredness of thought and pen that I, just out of high school not yet out of teenage angst, desperately, instinctively craved—an assuredness of self I sought the words for but could not actually name. Meditation would eventually provide that name. That year the editor wrote the same editorial twenty-six times, every week of publication drafted different versions of the same theme—how to get to the end and find the words to fill his long past due, inspiration long past gone editorial. It was an editorial on writing an editorial if you will, and was often surprisingly funny. Some fifteen years later I am reminded of this editor’s confident, stream of consciousness notes about nothing, for it seems I too am writing a story about writing a story—a feat I literally thought myself incapable of once upon a distant time. Like running a race I expect this story will have an ebb and flow, tired and energetic patches, and in time, one foot and word in front of the other, a second wind. Then, hopefully and finally, second cup of coffee consumed, an end. * * * Hours are passing slowly, words less easily in this airport coffee shop, sitting in a corner surrounded by no-one, monopolising a power outlet meant not for laptop but lamp. My coffee is finished, once confident pen not so loud or bold, its flight near grounded and my plane, hours yet to board, not yet departed. They say the most common opening sentence in blogging is “Sorry I haven't written for a long time...” Is this the internet era version of every English teacher’s most hated closure, “And then I woke up”? I certainly hope, as my pen leans into a drifting doze, that unlike newspaper reading students in a university lecture, my readers are still half awake... It's a funny thing, the waxing and waning of creativity, writing’s ebb and flow. When you ”want” words they often do not come, for writing is a horse that can be ridden but not controlled, a ship to be sailed rather than boat to be rowed. Like meditation, you don't “do” it—it is a state that comes to you when you forget to ”do,” cease to strive and struggle, control and command. Becoming a good writer is often described as a process of finding your “voice;” an analogy to the meditative discipline of listening to the still small voice within. Like true meditation, good writing comes from a place deep within, beyond the noisy, scattered and often directionless voice of the mind. So am I doing good writing? I hope so, but can a writer truly judge his own cover? Such is surely the prerogative of his readers, not pejorative of a caffeine-addled ego, and to know the answer to this question it surely would not hurt to listen longer to the writer’s voice within...
“We can listen to the dictates of the soul, or feel the presence of the inner voice, without being guided by a very deep meditation. Even in the hustle and bustle of life we can hear the inner voice, but if we meditate, then it becomes extremely easy to listen to the voice within. Without practising spirituality we may hear the inner voice, we may even see the soul, but we will doubt our experience. We will say, “This cannot be the soul; this voice is not coming from the soul.” But if we have a very good, deep meditation, we can hear the voice, we can see the soul with inner certainty.” —Sri Chinmoy, Sri Chinmoy Answers, Part 13.
January 26th, Australia Day, 2009.

The 108 Steps of Perfection

Karate, kata, perfect form and perfectionism in Japan

Newlands Karate Club, Wellington, New Zealand, 1983At the age of seven, the result of an I don’t know from where interest in Japan, I began learning karate, lessons undertaken at my own insistence, my mother’s weary acquiescence. Perhaps she sensed that it would be either breaking blocks of wood or chopping bones on a rugby field, and thus surrendered to my desire to learn this more refined, disciplined form of violence. The early eighties were a slightly unusual time to learn martial arts. The Bruce Lee, one-inch-punch inspired craze of the seventies had faded, perhaps on a pair of roller skates, while the ninja craze of straight to video fame had yet to take strangle-hold. I was therefore the youngest student at my local Japanese karate dojo, the only without sideburns or handle-bar moustache, trading punches, blocks and kicks with teenagers and adults who had started learning while the star of Enter the Dragon had still been alive. I had not even been born when Lee mysteriously died. bruce-leeFrom time to time younger students like myself would join our small neighbourhood group, but few would last more than a fistful of lessons; the iron discipline of stretching, exercise and practicing technique, over and over again, was less attractive than computer games or television, and actual sparring sessions—the tofu and potatoes of martial arts, where long-honed technique is finally put into wrist snapping, high kicking practice—were few and far between. Unlike Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, few ever graduated from “wax on, wax off...”
Pure Zen Quote from The Karate Kid: The Karate Kid: Hey, where do these cars come from? Mr Miyagi: Detroit.
Perhaps all those cranky, letter to the newspaper editor writers are right. Discipline and patience are, high-scores on a Playstation aside, mostly foreign to my generation. Hanashiro ChomoRather than fighting an actual opponent, karate lessons would culminate in hours learning kata—stylised, dance-like movements performed in a series and, initially at least, in slow motion. Kata is said to represent the technique required to simultaneously fight and defeat an overwhelming number of opponents—a theory of combat put into action most famously by master Japanese swordsman and strategist Miyamoto Musashi. It was a little like learning to swing a golf club or a tennis racket—learning the correct form, through repetition, to master perfection in physical action. There are around 100 kata in total across the various disciplines of karate, with the ultimate said to be Suparinpei, a word of Chinese origin which literally translates as “108”—the number of actions in this supreme kata. For those who, like the subtle flavours of a sushi roll, prefer to find meanings wrapped inside meanings, the number 108 is not only an “abundant,” “semi-perfect,” “tetranacci” and “refactorable” number in mathematics, but a total of great spiritual significance.

The Spiritual Significance of the Number 108

  • the essence of the Vedic scriptures, considered to be the greatest heritage of India and foundation of Hinduism, are the 108 Upanishads, or writings which expound the philosophic principles of the Vedas;
  • Japa mala used for repetition of mantra contain 108 beads;
  • Hindu deities are said to have 108 names;
  • Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps;
  • The number of sins in Tibetan Buddhism total 108;
  • At the end of the each year in Japan a bell is chimed 108 times to finish the old year and welcome the new. Each ring is said to represent one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana.
  • There are said to be 108 energy lines converging to form the spiritual heart chakra;
  • 108 is the sum of “the numbers” in the at times mystical TV show Lost (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42). I admit that the spiritual significance of this last fact may be questionable...
There is more to kata than grown men practising martial arts in pyjamas—over and over again. How much more? Wax on, wax off, my friend...

Kata and Perfection Through Perfect Form

The word kata, like karate, was born in Japan, and translates literally as “form.” Kata is more than simple outer appearance, structure or method; it is derived, both in word and concept, from shikata—“way of doing things”. Like “the Way” of Taoism, shikata is synonymous with a striving for perfection: a perfect way of doing will eventually reveal a perfect way of being, just as the course of a river wears smooth the jagged surface of a stone. Japanese garden pathOver the course of centuries kata evolved to the point where there became a perfect way of doing everything. Every facet of existence in traditional Japan was perfected, down to the arrangement of food upon a tray or flowers within a vase. Kata however is more than a purely physical concept, more than action or object of the human hand. Zen Buddhism, which entered Japan from China in the 12th century, introduced into the national consciousness the insight that perfection has an inner component as well; that mental training was just as important, if not even more so, than physical mastery in achieving the perfection of any skill. Illumined by the the influence of Zen, mastery of kata came to mean the attainment of a meditative oneness with the action or discipline practised. A painter would seek not just to paint, but become the brush upon the page; a swordsman become one with the sword in hand.
“Early in their history the Japanese developed the belief that form had a reality of its own, and that it often took precedence over substance. They also believed that anything could be accomplished if the right kata was mentally and physically practised long enough.” —Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese
Kata, the correct, harmonious way of doing things, links the inner and the outer in Japan—it links body and soul, man and the gods. The inner order, which the Japanese call “heart,” is linked directly to the outer, cosmic order by correct form—the spiritual realm manifested in the physical through perfect action.
“To the Japanese there was an inner order (the individual heart) and a natural order (the cosmos), and these two were linked together by form—by kata. It was kata that linked the individual and society. If one did not follow the correct form, he was out of harmony with both his fellow man and nature. The challenge facing the Japanese was to know their own honshin, “true” or “right heart,” then learn and follow the kata that would keep them in sync with society and the cosmos. —Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese
Japanese Zen stone gardenJapanese will not accept a minimum standard as a goal; rather they expect absolute perfection—nothing is considered finished or complete until perfect. Which of course, lofty Zen masters aside, is near impossible for the average mortal to achieve. Hence the Japanese expression Kiga Susumanai—“my spirit is not satisfied.” Trapped between the inflexible postures of kata and insurmountable heights of perfection, Japanese are said to suffer constantly from this chronic spiritual dissatisfaction, a deeply felt discomfort at their inability to be perfect in everything they do:
“This spiritual discomfort burns in “pure” Japanese like an undying flame, constantly spurring them on to do more and do better...” —Boyé Lafayette De Mente, The Japanese Have a Word for It

The Path of My Own Perfection

I was not born Japanese, and have spent no more than ten days there in this life, but the quest for kata and perfection rings true in me without cause or reason, speaks if from an instruction manual to self lost before birth. My path to mastering kata in this life however, quelling the dissatisfaction of imperfection was neither straight nor direct, for I never did get that far with karate. I studied for three years, attained a purple belt and attended, without notable success, a solitary tournament—the experience literally of getting kicked in the face. An extended period overseas then saw my burning desire to acquire a black belt, and I presumed, the eventual attainment of mysterious insight and powers, thwarted. But desire for martial perfection was not lost so easily, and I am to this day, somewhat impracticably and yet to defeat a group of opponents with my bare knuckles and toes, dissatisfied at my imperfection in this particular kata or form. I guess there will be another lifetime... Life, the greatest teacher and master of them all, doesn't give up easily when there is a lesson to learn, and some decade after ceasing lessons in karate I discovered the practise of meditation, first introduced briefly in those childhood sparring halls. In meditation, I found the kata of perfection I had always been seeking, a perfection requiring a form and method within.
“If we say that someone's body is perfect, then we are just giving an overall view. But when we say "perfect perfection," it means that each cell is perfect; everything that is inside that body is perfect. Perfect perfection is the perfection of the entire being. Whatever the being has and whatever the being is, is perfect.” —Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from Philosophy, Religion And Yoga.

Buddha Bob Munden

Bob Munden is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest man with a gun who has ever lived, and we're not talking about a 4x100 metre relay with gun in hand. Of the eighteen world records you can hold in fast draw shooting—the sport of drawing and shooting a gun in the manner of wild west lore—Bob has held all eighteen since 1960, and he holds them still in his ultra steady hand. This fastest gunslinger than the rest has won 3,500 trophies and 800 major championships, and while his picture might be on the back of cereal boxes, his sheriff's badge didn't come out of one. gallery14aIs Bob the fastest man with a gun alive? Yes, but that’s barely grazing the surface of his intergalactic prowess. Friends, humans and countrymen, Bob Munden is the fastest human being alive. Fire away Bob, tell us just how fast you are...
“Fast draw is the fastest thing a human being does...”
Bob Munden is a straight shooter. Being interviewed, he drawls but never hesitates before taking aim, and if certainty was a target, he would hit the bulls-eye every time. Being interviewed, Bob Munden doesn't just tell the television reporter how fast he is—he verbally shoots his questioner directly between the eyes, for so fast is this dead-eye gunslinger, he can answer questions even before they are asked.
“Nobody does anything faster than what I do with guns...”
Which was a statement, not answer or explanation. Like Newton or Einstein, Sheriff Bob is laying down the law—of physics and of time. Bob MundenSlightly slower than Bob Munden on the universal scale of speed, a barely perceptible flicker of doubt fires across the television interviewer’s mind. Suspicious, the reporter takes aim, queries: “Can you give it a comparison to something that would come close?”
“The speed of light...” drawls big shot Bob, laconically, and uncharacteristically slowly. “There is nothing next to it.”
Is this man fast with the truth as well? Is he on a supersonic flight of fancy that only reality can rein in? Bob Munden may talk fast and loose, but his gun is quicker than even his tongue. Already believers, a crowd of Western movie extras gather, stand and applaud his every move at a shooting demonstration, stiffly. In less than two one hundredths of one second, Bob will blow all of their minds.
“It's a number we’re not familiar with...”
Two hundredths of one second is the time it takes Bob to fire and hit a target; draw, cock, level, fire, shoot and hit almost at the speed of light. One day we may build space ships fast enough to go where only Bob has gone before. Bob Munden, star of shooting may go supernova one day, explode into empty space with the sound of his gun his only reminder, like speeding light from a long dead star. Bob Munden lives in moments unexplored by humanity—he shoots his gun faster than you or I can think. Bob may just be consciousness itself—the acme of sense and thought, the sea upon which the human mind floats. Does Bob fire the gun, or is Bob the gun itself; trigger, bullet and mind at one? “He shot two and it sounded like it was one shot,” the reporter exclaims upon viewing Bob burst two balloons mounted meters apart, faster than you or I could shoot one. Faster than you or I could shoot none would be a more mathematically correct description of the scene. “Here's one going into the gun.” Bob Munden may fire with bullets, but he talks with poetry. At the shooing demonstration, but not entirely on the same planet, the reporter again declares that “two shots are going to sound like one.” Is this a moment of Zen, a moment of universal oneness, or a song by U2 from 1983? Stuck with the rest of us in the everyday dimensions of time and space, the television reporter is clearly unable to comprehend the singularity of Bob Munden’s genius. What is the sound of one gun firing? Silence in the infinite forest of Bob Munden’s Buddha-mind.