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Observing the Conditions… of the Light (the “missing” Sunday post) February 5, 2023

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Art, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Depression, Faith, Food, Healing Stories, Hope, Life, Loss, Love, Music, New Year, One Hoop, Philosophy, Suffering, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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Happy Lantern Festival! Happy Carnival! Peace and ease to all during this “Season of Non-violence” and all other seasons!

This is the “missing” post for Sunday, February 5th, which is also the 15th and final day of the Spring Festival. Most of the information below was posted in some way, shape, or form in 2021 and 2022; however the view may be different now. You can request a related recording via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible.

“Always old, sometimes new…”

– a riddle* (read post for clues, see the end for the answer)

Philosophically speaking, part of our yoga practice is about bring awareness to what we know – or what we think we know – about ourselves and the world around us. Once we do that, we have begun the process of recognizing how what we know or think we know determines our actions, our thoughts, our words, our deeds. Our beliefs influence the we interact with ourselves, with others, and with our environment. Once we really get into it, we also start to notice when – or if – we incorporate new information into our belief system; thereby adjusting our actions as we grow and mature.

At some point, we may start to notice how our experiences shape our beliefs and how our experiences and beliefs determine what we chose to do on any given day. Hopefully, we also recognize that other people make other choices based on the their beliefs and experiences. If we can see that, be open to the reality of that, and maybe dig a little deeper into that reality, we gain better understanding of ourselves (and maybe of the world). In other words, we gain insight.

Vipassanā is a Buddhist meditation technique that has also become a tradition. It literally means “to see in a special way” and can also be translated as “special, super seeing.” In English, however, it is usually translated as “insight.” This insight is achieved by sitting, breathing, and watching the mind-body without judging the mind-body. Part of the practice is even to recognize when you are judging and, therefore, recognizing when you are getting in your own way. This can be seen as a (non-religious) form of discernment – which also requires observation – all of it is part of our yoga practice.

Of course, there are times when what we are feeling and/or the way we are feeling makes it hard to see clearly – which make me think about it the way we think about the weather.

Click here for a more philosophy on how Yoga and Buddhism are connected to a Catholic understanding of discernment.

“From the Balloon above the Clouds

Let this afford some proof, my dear Mr. Thayer, that no separation shall make me unmindful of you, — have confidence, — happier, I hope much happier days await you — pray tell my dear Mrs T. I salute her from the Skies… [this section illegible except for the word “pleasure”]… believe me as I ever have been,

     faithfully yours,

        J. Jeffries”

– quoted from Dr. John Jeffries letter sent via “airmail” to Mr. Arodie Thayer, November 30, 1784, as posted “Attention, Aerophilatelists” by Peter Nelson (on The Consecrated Eminence: The Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College, 4/16/2012)

We talk about the weather all the time – and sometimes with limited knowledge of why we’re experiencing the weather we’re experiencing. Sometimes we are prepared for what’s to come; sometimes not. Sometimes we rely on professionals, and all their science and math and theories, to predict what to expect. Sometimes we trust the almanac (and the history of precedent and “superstition”). Other times, we feel more confident relying on our achy bones; the smell of the air; the pressure in our head/sinuses; and/or a certain kind of restlessness. Of course, sometimes, we observe all that and still ignore the observation.

John Jeffries, born in Boston today (February 5th) in 1744, is considered America’s first weatherperson (even though he was loyal to the crown and would be banished from the new republic because of his loyalties). His birthday is observed (mostly in the United States) as National Weatherperson’s Day, which recognizes professionals in the meteorology, weather forecasting, and broadcast meteorology, as well as volunteer storm spotters, chasers, and observers.

The original Dr. Jeffries (not to be confused with his son, he became a famous ophthalmic surgeon) was a physician, a scientist, and a military surgeon who served with the British Army. A graduate of Harvard College (1763) and the University of Aberdeen, he started taking daily measurements of the Boston weather in 1774. He would eventually take weather observations from a balloon piloted by the French inventor Jean Pierre Blanchard on November 30, 1784 and a second trip on January 7, 1785. On the first trip, the duo flew over London to Stone Marsh, Kent. On the second trip they flew from England to France. In addition to making weather and atmospheric observations, Dr. Jeffries dropped four letters from the balloon on that first trip. Three of the letters were delivered to the appropriate recipients. The letter addressed to Mr. Arodie Thayer is now “considered the oldest piece of airmail in existence.”

“We buy blood oranges and tiny green lentils from a jar, chestnuts, winter pears, winy little apples, and broccoli, which I’ve never seen in Italy before. ‘Lentils for the New Year,’ she tells us.”

– quoted from “Green Oil” in Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

The opposite of John Jeffries “airmail” might be the orange “mail” floating some rivers today. As I mentioned over the last two weeks, some people celebrate the Lunar New Year for a handful of days and then go back to their regular routines. For some, however, there’s the Spring Festival: a 15-day celebration that culminates with the Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival takes place on the first full moon of the Lunar New Year, which is tonight. One of traditional custom turns the event into something similar to modern-day Valentine’s Day. Traditionally, women would write their contact information on oranges and then toss the oranges in the river where men would scoop them up. Then, the men would eat the oranges. A sweet orange meant the couple could potential have a good relationship, but a bitter orange meant the match was best avoided.

The oranges in the river make for a pretty sight, but that’s not the main focus of the Lantern Festival – nor is it the most spectacular. In fact, weather permitting, anyone observing areas celebrating the Lantern Festival would primarily notice cities, towns, and villages adorned in red lanterns and lit up… almost like everything is on fire.

There are several different legends associated with the Lantern Festival. In one story, the Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty wanted every person in every class to honor the Buddha as the monks would on the fifteenth day of the year. According to another story, Dongfang Shuo (a  scholar and court jester) came upon a homesick maiden from the palace. To console her and lift her out of her despair, he told the young lady that he would reunite her with her family. Then he dressed up like a fortune teller and told everyone who came to his stall that they must beg the “red fairy” for mercy on the thirteenth day of the new year. If they didn’t ask for mercy, everything would burn down in a couple of days.

When the maiden, Yuan Xiao, appeared all dressed in red, people flocked to her. The only thing the surprised maiden could think to do was say that she would take a message to the emperor. Of course, Dongfang had already “tricked” the emperor and convinced him to tell Yuan Xiao to make her trademarked sweet-rice dumplings called tangyuan, because they were the favorite dessert of the God of Fire.

The whole town, and people from surrounding towns, came together to make the dumplings as a tribute to the God of Fire. As word spread, more people came – including Yuan Xiao’s family. And this is why Dongfang Shuo’s plan was so clever: In Chinese, the dumplings are 湯圓 or 汤圆 (pinyin: tāngyuán), which sounds like 團圓 or 团圆 (pinyin: tuányuán), which means “union.” While the round dumplings are enjoyed at a variety of events and festivals throughout the year, they are a staple during the Lantern Festival, which is actually 元宵節 or 元宵节 (pinyin: Yuánxiāo jié) – Yuan Xiao’s Festival.

“‘When you see it, it’ll affect you profoundly…’”

– Wang De quoted in the Feb. 19, 2019, The Strait Times article entitled “Blacksmiths keep alive the flame of China’s molten steel ‘fireworks’”

There are more variations on this theme, but the legend with which I am most familiar, and the one I share in the practice, is the story of the Jade Emperor and his favorite bird, a crane. This crane was beautiful and unlike any other bird or species. In some stories, the ruler of heaven and earth decided to treat people with a glimpse of the exotic bird. In other versions of the story, the crane got discombobulated and flew close to the earth. Either way, what happened next is why we can’t have nice things: Someone shot the exotic bird.

The Jade Emperor was furious and decided to send down fire breathing dragons to destroy the towns and villages. However, the Jade Emperor’s daughter warned the townsfolk and someone suggested that if they lit lanterns, started bonfires, and set off fireworks, the dragons – who are not very smart in these stories – would think everything was already on fire. The trick worked… on the dragons. The Jade Emperor was not tricked, but his anger had passed and he decided to offer a little compassion to the people on Earth.

To this day, people carry on the tradition of lighting up the skies. Traditionally, lanterns are made of paper, wooden, or jade. Some people will spend months designing and creating delicate lanterns that they will enter into competitions. Other people will make simple lanterns or purchase fancy store-bought lanterns. In addition to the plethora of basic red lanterns, there will also be animal-shaped lanterns – the most popular of which are in the shape of the animal of the year. Many of the lanterns will have riddles at the bottom – which adds to the fun, because if you know the answer to the riddle you can go find it’s owner and they will give you tangyuan (those sweet dumplings that sound like “union”) as a reward.

In addition to the lanterns, there are bonfires, fireworks, and a 300-plus years old tradition called Da Shuhua.

Da Shuhua is one of the English spellings for 打树花 (dǎshùhuā in pinyin), which is a 300-500 years old tradition handed down through families of blacksmiths in China´s northern Hebei province. It is sometimes referred to as the poor man’s fireworks, because it is produced from scrap metal that people in the remote village of Nuanquan give to the local blacksmiths. Dressed in straw hats, sheepskin jackets, and protective eyewear, the blacksmiths and their assistants melt down the scraps and then the blacksmiths throw the molten liquid up against a cold stone wall. When the liquid metal – which can reach up to 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,600 degrees Celsius) – hits the cold wall, sparks fly.

The spectacular display looks like a blossoming tree and so the name of the art form translates into English as “beating tree flowers.” Although there are a few other places in China where this art form is showcased, it is traditional to Nuanquan. There is a square in the remote village (“Tree Flower Square”), which was specifically built to hold tourists who travel to the village to see the display. In addition to three days of performances at the end of the Spring Festival, the tradition is also performed during the Dragon Boat Festival. Also called Double Fifth Festival, this second event takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Lunar New Year (June 22nd, of this year).

Although UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) designated Da Shuhua as a prime example of China and Hebei province’s intangible cultural heritage, the tradition may be dying out. In 2019, there were only four blacksmiths trained in the art form and the youngest was 50 years old. Wang De, one of the four, had trained his youngest son; however, like so many of the younger generations, his son moved to the big city and started working in a different industry. His concerns, and hopes, for his legacy are not unlike those of his ancestors.

“‘It’s extremely dangerous and it doesn’t make much money,’ said Wang, who also farms corn to supplement his blacksmith’s income.

[…] Still, Wang De is hopeful he will return to keep the flame alive.

‘When we no longer can pull this off, people can learn from him. I have this confidence that (Da Shuhua) will be passed on.’”

– quoted from the Feb. 19, 2019, The Strait Times article entitled “Blacksmiths keep alive the flame of China’s molten steel ‘fireworks’”

Sunday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “Lantern Festival 2023”]

*RIDDLE NOTE: The riddles at the bottom (or sometimes underneath) the lanterns, are literally called “riddles written on lanterns,” but are sometimes referred to as “tiger riddles,” because solving them (in Chinese) is akin to wrestling a tiger. They often have three parts: the riddle, a hint or suggestion (which is that the answer is in the post), and the answer. In this case, I took a page from Dongfang Shuo’s book and only gave you part of an English riddle so that instead of having one definite answer, there are three possible answers. Highlight the space between the hashtags for the answers.

### The moon (which is the original answer), a bit of history you didn’t know, and a legend from a culture with which you are unfamiliar. Let me know if you got the answer(s)!  ###


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