The Rising Son

First Son is turning 40 in a few days’ time.

A simple sentence, yet it hit me hard yesterday. We call him ‘Boy’, he being born a boy. We Chinese are so exact in our simplicity. Had The Mrs given birth to a girl, I would have called the baby ‘Girl’. There is no need to muck around – unless they were twin boys or twin girls. Calling my twin sons by the type of sex organ they have would be a useless way to get either to help with a chore. Calling them ‘Twins’ did’t work either – no one answered. So, “Boy” was reserved for First Son. Sometimes, he was “Boy-Boy” when The Mrs was in a good mood.


Boy is turning 40. The focus should be on him, right? Yet, the selfish gene in me could only think about myself. He’s turning 40 means I’m not turning old. I am already old! How did it happen? I hate to use the old cliche, but it is truly just in the blink of an eye. Yesterday, the painter working next door said I looked young, but by young he thought I was about 53 years old. This morning, the window cleaner working next door thought I was the same age as he. When his question about my age was simply met with silence, he said I looked 54. All I said was my son is turning 40 in a few days’ time. So, he asked me what my secret was. “The blue zone,” I said. “Okinawa,” I suggested. He being Italian suggested Sardinia. Fair enough, “just learn from those living in the blue zone,” I concluded. He said he practises Intermittent Fasting once a week. “Once a week is really intermittent!” I said. “I do it intermittently, daily,” I added with a silly pride in my voice. Well…. it’s ok to be happy, I reminded myself.

Introducing Alberto, a world famous bass guitarist, to The Urghhlings

The painter looks like he’s always out in the sun, with a sun-baked smell sweetened by a hint of paint fumes and ruffled hair drenched in sweat that is alarmingly exposing much of his forehead. He goes by the name of Alberto Pancotti. Alberto Pancotti is also his stage name. He has been painting my neighbour’s timber windows and doors all week. They obviously love timber features in their house. “All week just to paint the windows and doors?!” my neighbour asked, pretending to be ignorant of the timber features so that maybe they can hope for a lower bill from the painter. I invited Alberto in for a cup of coffee a couple of days ago. He tried some “love letters” for the first time in his life, and loved them. I told him he’s the first man I’ve given love letters to. We have “love letters” only during Chinese New Year. Better known as “kueh kapit’, these delicious coconut crepes are so flaky and crispy that I have yet to find someone who doesn’t like the Nonya invention. Alberto the Painter looks unkempt and grotty with random paint splashes all over his white shorts much like a Jackson Pollock work of art. His hair is sparse at the top, so you won’t find him nodding his head much. He saw the photo of my sons performing at Carnegie Hall proudly displayed on my four-foot aquarium. So, we started talking about music and how lucky musicians are, “working” when they are in fact enjoying; getting paid to play on stage and fulfilling their passion for music. Alberto then told me he is also a professional musician – he plays the bass guitar and double bass which he self-learned and mastered in six short months. Wow! I could not imagine him on stage as a rock star, not when he is wearing Jackson Pollock pants and a simple white cotton tee. He is actually a member of The T.I.C. Band. “Tic?” I asked without tack. Tributes In Concert Band is a very sought-after band for music festivals the whole world over. You will know them if you are an Elvis Presley fan. They are well known and a must-have band in any Elvis festival. Little Adelaide never ceases to surprise me, it may be just a small dot in the world yet, we keep producing world-class people who are the best in their field. The Sydney Elvis Festival promoted them as the world’s best Elvis band. They got a rave promo spiel in America also. See

Boy is turning 40. I should focus on him. He already made us cry even when he was in a test tube. The Mrs and I had just got married for a few weeks in 1981 when she realised there was something wrong with her. I could have told her that but she never asked me. Suddenly, she had a craving for sausages and sausages only. She was working in the investment arm of OPSM Superannuation Fund near Martin Place in Sydney. One morning, she told the tea lady she didn’t know what was wrong with her, rejecting the Arnotts biscuits offered by the kindly old woman who spent her idle time in the tea room knitting something woollen. “I used to love these biscuits, especially these Butter Scotch biscuits,” The Mrs groaned. “Silly girl, you’re pregnant,” was the tea lady’s uncanny prognosis. So, on the weekend, The Mrs sent me to the chemist to get a pregnancy test kit. It was the same chemist that I was too embarrassed to go in to buy my first packet of condoms, so I sent her to get them instead. She did the test in the morning and being a Saturday packed with fun activities, we forgot to check the test tube until many hours later. I rushed to the bedroom from the kitchen when I suddenly remembered the result was waiting to be discovered. I felt numb and dazed when I saw the brown ring on the bottom of the tube. What? How? Disbelieving it, I trudged uncertainly to the kitchen and handed the tube to The Mrs. My pale wan face was enough to tell the story. She burst out in tears and I joined her in an embrace that told us our world as we knew it had ended. That was forty years and nine months ago. My life changed forever when I brought a new life to this world. Scrubbed out from my lifestyle were the words carefree and careless. Parenthood did not allow me the luxury of being either. Looking back to that moment in my life, I will now admit I was far from ready to become responsible for a new-born. We live with the choices we make in life. The choice I made in the brief moment of frenzied sex was to not bother with a condom. Well, we had just got married for a few weeks. We were young and hungry for each other. We didn’t have the money to buy a new bed for ourselves, so we simply joined our single bed mattresses on the floor. By the time the sex was over, our mattresses were far apart. I guess the earth moved whilst we moved. The sex we had was as steamy, urgent and wild as the sex scenes imagined by D.H. Lawrence. No time for a condom! Wear something for sex? No, take everything off!

Boy was stubborn even in his mummy’s tummy. The Mrs said he made her crave for roast duck. That had replaced the sausages she so desperately needed for many months. I didn’t understand the fanciful whims of a pregnant woman and told her I wasn’t going to spoil her by granting her every wish. Whoa!! I took it back very quickly. She made it feel like it was the end of the world if she didn’t get her roast duck from Sydney’s Chinatown. I made that long journey in prime time traffic to satisfy her urge but by the time I came home with the juiciest and freshest roast duck, her urge had waned. I knew for the rest of my life I’d never ever understand women, especially pregnant ones. The gynaecologist said the baby was a prankster with the worst timing. Dr. Ng’s century egg pork congee had just arrived at her table in a restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown when Boy decided it was time he was introduced to the world. She had waited patiently for some thirty minutes for her congee but before she could dig her spoon into the bowl, her pager beeped for her to return to work. The Mrs had already suffered twelve hours of labour pains by then. No amount of coaxing by Dr. Ng would entice Boy to face the world. The stubborn boy showed who was boss. Dr. Ng in the end pronounced that the mother was developing a fever and the breeched boy had to be pulled out by caesarian section. It being an emergency surgical procedure, the father would not be granted access into the delivery room. So, I missed out on seeing my own creation come into this world; all I did was loitered in the waiting room after finding myself a nice hot cuppa. The Mrs missed out on seeing her baby’s first cry too. A nurse led me to her later in the night, it was already well past sixteen hours after her water broke at five in the morning. She was still shivering violently after coming out of the anaesthesia in a dark lonely corridor. “Just one more child, ok?” she pleaded in a whimpering tone with me. What an amazing woman, I thought to myself. If it were me, I would have screamed “No way am I friggin’ going through this hell again for anyone!” So, I said in a benevolent voice, “Sure, one more and that’s it, luv.” The Mrs didn’t get to see Boy until the next morning.

Boy was a handsome baby. Somehow, he copped a lot of negative remarks about his looks. “Bak pao bin,” my sister-in-law said. For those who do not know Hokkien, it meant “pork bun face”. Hmmmm, delicious. Someone called him “moon face” too, but I didn’t mind. Bert Newton, a huge TV personality, was also affectionately called “moon face” and he didn’t care. Uncle Daniel said Boy was a genius, and I whole-heartedly agreed. Pa said he was going to be a movie star. A star, anyway. Boy was just nine months old when he displayed his amazing brain power by stringing sentences in Mandarin. One afternoon, The Mrs took a few hours’ break from him and caught a taxi to Coogee to visit her parents. Ma was visiting from Malaysia, so she babysat Boy whilst he had his afternoon nap. She sneaked out to the local bottle shop to get a flagon of dry sherry, her favourite drink in those days. As she was opening the front door and before she could take her first step into the house, Boy asked his grandma in Mandarin, “You’ve gone to buy wine again?” 您又賣酒啊?Ma was lost for words, her hand holding the flagon behind her back did not hide the truth.

We adults did not understand how much we disappointed our kids. I mean, we didn’t even know the names of the computer games and movies they played and watched. So detached were we from their interests. It was the era of Police Academy, Return of the Jedi, The Protector, Duck Tales and Commando, and in games, the rage was Donkey Kong 2, Greenhouse, Alley Cat, Striker and Parachute. When Boy was 8, he wrote in his diary he wanted to buy a “good book” in a book store just opposite the mall from his mother’s shop. So, he asked her if she could get it for him. “Mum just ignored me,” he wrote. See, from a child’s perspective, he felt his mother ignored him. Maybe The Mrs was busily serving customers or ordering stock? Maybe her mind was miles away worrying about her ill mother? I disappointed him too. He thought I knew everything, I think I may have told him that. I bought him a joystick and left him to install it himself. He rang me to tell me there was no input socket on his computer for the joystick. I told him that joystick would fit any computer and to wait for me to fit it when I got home from work. All three boys were so excited and greeted me wildly as I stepped into the house, they had waited all day to play with the joystick. The reason is withheld but I had to bring it back to Tandy’s the next day. Disappointing!

There was also the time when I lost a bet and forgot to pay him. His mother had allowed him to go to TTP with her, a shopping centre in Modbury where she worked. But, he woke up too late and missed the outing. When we got home from work, we told Boy and his two brothers to dress up for Thea’s anniversary party. Thea Dubois worked for us as our house cleaner. We loved apricot season, as she would bring a big bag of apricots from her garden for us every week. Yummy. I forgot the way to her house and kept reaching the same wrong street. Boy said to me I had gone too far up, but I was sure I was right. So, I asked him to bet $10 if he was so sure. Boy said he didn’t have $10, so we agreed on a dollar – he told me he was sure he had that in his money tin. I turned the car back and surprisingly, Boy won the bet, he was eight years old. We found Thea’s house!

Boy reminded me of the day they almost died. In a passage in his diary, he wrote 4th Aunt took them to the Cottage, a cinema that was showing Jack and The Beanstalk. She left the three brothers and her two kids in her car whilst she ducked out for a “short meeting”. But, she had an argument with the person she was meeting, and they were stuck inside the hot car for a long time. “We couldn’t breathe because there was no air. The doors were locked and the alarm had gone off. The electric windows were up and they could not wind them down. 4th Aunt quickly turned on the aircond for us when she arrived.” Jack and the Beanstalk was boring by comparison.

Boy was a confident boy. He usually beat his brothers in chess, but come to think of it, he used to beat and kick them all the time too. On the odd occasion that he lost to them in a chess game, he would tell himself he lost because he was watching John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Monica Seles play at The Australian Open. Boy was the eldest by two years and therefore the most alert. Uncannily, he would be the first to know lunch was ready in the kitchen. Gung-gung, maternal grand-dad said he would call out to his brothers to let them know, “Come, eat!” but after he had scoffed down a few mouthfuls first. It is therefore not surprising that he was always bigger and taller than his brothers.

Boy has grown into a confident young man. I was hesitant to use the word ‘young’ since I am not convinced turning 40 is appropriately considered young. He is attuned to how the most successful people think and do. I suppose it is a good method to adopt, follow the path of the clever, the righteous and the wise ones. Follow the wise, I like that he does that.

“Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially the wise, what they run away from and what they seek out.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.38

Unfortunately, it does mean he therefore doesn’t listen to my advice as much as I like. I do not have the right credentials, see? The 1987 and 2008 sharemarket crashes saw to that. Besides, he complains I need to be stoic. I learned about stoicism when I was a scrawny teenager, reading about the heroic tales of the Spartans. Soldiers who fought fearlessly and loyally, who stood their ground without complaints against impossible odds to rise up victorious – that’s stoic. The Agoge, a state system that emphasised duty, discipline and endurance would have suited Boy, so much respect he has for their philosophy. He bought me a book for Christmas. It has daily messages or reminders about being stoic, containing daily quotes by Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Seneca and Epictetus. Two Romans, one Greek but all three, superb philosophers and thinkers. Marcus Aurelius was also the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of peace and stability for the Roman Empire, perhaps reflecting his stoic philosophy. But, I do wonder if Marcus Aurelius minded his opulent and sybaritic lifestyle, being an emperor? It would be quite easy to preach stoicism and encourage us not to sweat the small stuff whilst immersing himself in pleasure and treasure.

One of the most important reminder from Boy is to keep to the path of serenity. I have stopped chasing fame and fortune a long time ago. Most things are ephemeral, anyway. They don’t last, especially fashion and material wealth, perfect weather and luck. So, there’s no need to pray for them. The only true thing we possess is our ability to make choices; our mind is the only thing we control, everything else is outside our control – even our physical body can be marred by illness or impairment. So, it is truly simple – all we have to mind is our mind.

“There is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice.”

Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.39

So, maybe by the end of this year, I will be a rising Stoic also. He is already one, my rising son. A saying I love from the book he gave me is this:

“No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.14

Similarly, no one should be able to deprive us of our peace and happiness since that’s not theirs but ours to hold dear.

May 1983. At the Sydney Opera House. It may be in the past, but the memory is still a present in the present.

Thinking About Thinking

Thinking aloud is allowed. Unfortunately, the noisy chatter is annoying my neighbours. The Mrs had not sat down to watch a movie with me ever since the pandemic caused such a panic. Last Friday, she caught a glimpse of Line of Duty Season 4 Episode 5 with me, and promptly sat down to finish the episode with me. It was intense! Some of you may think it was the close proximity to the woman that I meant. Perhaps. I had planned to commence Season 5 this week, but she wanted to watch from the very beginning, from S1E1. So, dutifully I am re-visiting the stories. A most compelling story about AC-12, the anti-corruption unit of the U.K. police, Line of Duty. Is it my duty to accompany her though? So, it got me thinking about the concept of duty. I am known to be a filial son, yet the things I did for my parents were acts of love, not duty-bound. I think there is a big difference between an act of love and an act of duty. A duty is a moral or legal obligation, but sitting down with a spouse watching whatever she likes is an act of giving, willingly, happily and unconditionally. Definitely not a duty. I half-expected The Mrs to lose track of the little details or hints of who the baddies were or what they were up to, but no. She was superb and I think she exceeded my own ability to notice the little nuances of the story – especially the part about the DCI’s secret affair with a woman. She nailed it well before I did.

Can we both be right? Just thinking aloud

Mandatory or not, mask-wearing has seen loud and somewhat violent protests, especially in the U.S. and they aren’t even mandated there. There has been much kerfuffle even in some parts of Australia about the forced limitation of movement and the requirement to wear masks. The tussle between ruling for the greater good vs rules to protect individual freedom and rights has continued unabated in Victoria. I think in the not distant future, people will read with disbelief that mask-wearing during a pandemic to save ourselves was such a challenging proposition.

Two days ago, the Federal government announced a A$3.5 billion upgrade to the NBN (National Broadband network). We have spent some A$60 billion for what will surely become an archaic system once 5G is universally available. Even before the first dollar was spent and the first bucket of soil turned, we already said it was a farce to invest in cables in the ground for the future. Free Wi-Fi was already available in some cities around the world back then at speeds that were not much slower than the promised speed of the NBN. This latest upgrade will deliver “super fast” speed to those who want them, said the Minister for Communications. Both my office and home internet have recently changed over to the NBN, after some coercion and threat of losing internet altogether, if we did not. Since then, we see a lot of the spinning circle on our computer screens and iPads. Is the operating system busy suddenly or has the NBN broken down again? Nope, our productivity has not improved at all with the promised higher internet speed. The NBN is a broken system, which has seen my staff busily making coffee and tea to keep themselves busy. I read that by 2023, the A$3.5 billion will deliver us FTTP. Impressive, with the media parroting about the promised “super-fast speed” without questioning how fast fibre-to-the-premises actually will be. At the moment, our NBN is fibre-to-the-node and then copper to the building. It delivers 100Mbps, i.e. slow. With FTTP, it will become “super fast”, i.e. 1Gbps or ten times faster. Yippee! Until I read that 5G’s speed is 20Gps – that is right, today’s 5G is already 20 times faster than what our NBN will be in three years’ time. It is no wonder Malcolm Turnbull banned China’s 5G from coming, on the pretext of security concerns. I think he meant it was to secure our NBN’s lifeline, to prevent it from becoming a white elephant before the project is even completed.

A very good mate, Mak, sent me a video-clip about the Dhamma’s way to find happiness. He apologised for regularly sending me talks on Dhamma or Buddhist teachings as a way of life. Usually, unsolicited lengthy messages are frowned upon – especially when we are pre-occupied or disinterested in the subject matter. I told Mak, no worries. I enjoy these Dhamma clips, initially out of curiosity but now as a source of knowledge. I was brought up by my mother to pray with joss sticks but there were no deep teachings and philosophical ideas imparted by the adults to a young boy, e.g. why pray when there is no deity in Buddhism? Who was I praying to? Also, the opposite premise was as equally troublesome for me. If the all-knowing God exists, why do we need to pray? Are we not too presumptuous to think the all-knowing deity needs us to tell Him all our woes, wishes and wants? Why waste His time and tell Him what He already knows? Please correct me if I have used the wrong gender pronoun. (Why are there no gender-neutral pronouns for God?) Anyway, back to Mak’s Dhamma clip. I couldn’t get past the first two sentences that asserted we only find happiness when we stop thinking. Peace of mind brings calmness and this is the core of happiness. Sounds easy. Stop thinking and we find happiness? Luckily, with a free morning, I was able to prod Mak for more answers. That required thinking for both of us. I don’t know about Mak, but I think I got some happiness out of our discussion. Thinking about thinking. Why does the Dhamma teach us that thinking will lead us away from our goal of finding happiness? We did not cover the next subject of the video-clip which was about wisdom. The core of wisdom is in the Four Noble Truths. To enlighten ourselves, we need to understand what is suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to end the suffering. To end the suffering, we have to get to Nirvana and it is all paved for us very clearly in the Eightfold path. The path is all about goodness. Wholesomeness. Good viewpoints, good values, good speech and good action. Coupled with good livelihood and effort, we are well on our way once we also heed the teachings about good mindfulness and good meditation. We will reach Nirvana if we stay on this good path to truth. We didn’t discuss wisdom at all because I couldn’t get past the idea of the need to stop thinking. The message rings unabatedly in my mind. “When the mind stops thinking, that is when you find real happiness”. Mak added it is the proliferation of thoughts and the mindless chattering of the unwholesome types that crack our calmness. Unwholesome thoughts will lead to unwholesome actions and words. Eventually, that person’s life is unravelled and misfortune will strike. I suppose that is the theory behind it, and who can be happy after that? I suggested that “contentment” has to be a big part of the equation for happiness. If we are not contented with our lives, how can we be of calm mind and spirit? I honed in on Mak’s remark that it is “unwholesome” thoughts that lead us away from happiness. I reckon the evil ones can also be happy with their unwholesome thoughts, right? As long as they are contented, baddies can still find happiness, irrespective of what makes them contented. It cannot be true that bad people are all unhappy, surely? Can baddies have peace of mind? That, I don’t know. As long as people, good or bad, are contented with their actions and thoughts, they will still have a chance to find happiness. That’s what I think. Proliferation of thoughts is discouraged in the Dhamma. When the mind stops thinking is when we find happiness. I can’t understand that. Isn’t the opposite true? That we cannot be calm if we can’t think and discover the answer? Did the Buddha not have to think a lot to discover the Four Noble Truths? If we all choose not to think and our contentment leads us to complacency and inaction, what will humans become? Stupid and lazy? Unproductive? Unprofessional? Regressive in technology and medical knowledge? I suppose there is a counter argument that technology has not done humanity any favours with all the destruction and death that technology in the wrong hands brings. Medical knowledge has also been abused with the use of biological warfare and accidental releases of deadly pathogens. Is it the heedless, mindless and undisciplined thinking that the buddha discourages? There has to be a mindful way of thinking then. A conscious reflection on thought itself? Yet, in reality when we try to focus on a thought, that very attempt makes it elusive to capture it in a mindful way. Isaac Newton revealed that it was sitting under an apple tree that gave him that “AHA!” moment in defining the law of gravity. There is no evidence that an apple fell on his head but it was his observation of falling apples that helped to inspire him to eventually develop his law of universal gravitation. It was already said that the apple tree is the tree of knowledge – precisely why Eve ate the apple despite God’s command not to. The other important tree for us was of course, the Bodhi Fig tree for without it, we have to wonder where Siddartha Gautama would have got his enlightenment.

The Dhamma tells us to stop thinking, whereas Western philosophy is all about critical thinking. It was the ancient Greeks who laid the foundations of Western philosophy, from the search for personal happiness to issues for the greater good, a selfless sense of duty for society. There was also the concept of Stoicism – that we are part of nature, not above it, and should therefore live virtuously. First Son often reminds me we cannot control what others say or do to avoid being hurt. But, what we can control is how we react to them. Be stoic! The French promulgated the idea of freedom and personal rights. Voltaire and Rousseau were the poster-boys for the revolutions in France and America. “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chain”. By that, Rousseau meant that it is the government that takes away our personal freedom for the sake of a social contract with society. In Britain, Hobbes saw the dangers of natural rights for the individual and argued that it is the sovereign state that holds the power to exercise the rights for the good of society. He did not trust the selfish, evil and violent nature of urghhlings. John Locke, the Enlightenment thinker, went the opposite way. Under natural law, we all have the right to property, freedom and life. Under his social contract, the people have a right to rise up and bring down the government if it acted against its citizens. Locke asserts that we have the right of revolution. My favourite philosopher is René Descartes. I am forever grateful to him for proving my existence. We exist because we think. “I think and therefore I am”.

So, why is the Dhamma against “proliferation of thoughts”? Do they mean disorganised thinking leading to disorderly conduct? Mak said, “Proliferation of mind brings about more discontentment as the more you seek, the more desire and never-ending goals you will have. The mind gets agitated as our desire is not satisfied. Contentment breaks the desire for more.” Can desire for knowledge be bad though? So, humans should stop thinking? The ability to think, plan and execute our plan is the special trait of humans. The ability to verbalise our thoughts with language is what has placed us at the head of the food chain in the animal kingdom. It is our ability to think and communicate a detailed plan to our people that has us leading in the evolutionary race to unchallenged superiority. That is, until we created AI. Artificial Intelligence is far superior in the ability to think, research and remember everything, and execute their plans perfectly every time. Ok, the Dhamma is right. All this thinking isn’t very calming! It is clear that we control only a tiny part of our conscious thoughts. The vast majority of our mind is churning away subconsciously. Slips of the tongue, accidental body gestures, day-dreaming and unintentional actions are all examples of the cluttered mind.

Question: What is the core of happiness? What is the core of wisdom?

Ajahn: The core of happiness is calm, peace of mind. When the mind stops thinking, that’s when you find real happiness. And the core of wisdom is the Four Noble Truths. If you understand the Four Noble Truths, then you have the wisdom to overcome all of your suffering, to get rid of your suffering. So, this is what you need, two things. You need complete calm which is samādhi and you need the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Dhamma in English, Nov 14, 2017. By Ajahn Suchart Abhijāto
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Too busy to be thinking about happiness