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Chaos is defined as the state of disorder and confusion, and chaos can mean different things to different people. Regardless of the chaos, the disequilibrium and disruption can cause anxiety, fear, sadness and emotional, psychological and physical illnesses in the long run, if left unresolved. On a similar note, chaos can too offer the opportunity for discovery and growth.

In a Dharma talk by Venerable You Min on 26 February 2022, 8pm-9.30pm, titled “ Embracing Chaos”, he shared the Buddha’s teaching using parables and anecdotes to make the profound teachings relatable. Undergirding the different stories was the common theme on response to chaos, with the overarching question, “In times of chaos, how do we respond to the unexpected changes?”.

Turning Unexpected Chaos into Success

Venerable You Min started the Dharma talk with a recount of The Köln Concert held on January 24, 1975 – a live recording of solo piano improvisations performed by Keith Jarrett at the Opera House in Cologne, Germany. The Köln Concert  was organised by a 17-year-old – Vera Brandes – then Germany's youngest concert promoter, and at Jarrett's request, Brandes arranged for a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano for the performance. However, due to some confusion, a much smaller Bösendorfer baby grand piano meant for rehearsals was delivered for the actual evening’s concert. As this baby grand was intended for rehearsals, it was not only smaller in size, it also meant that the sound quality was thin in the upper registers and weak in the bass register, and the pedals did not work properly – obviously not ideal for the performance.

Also, Jarrett was already tired after an exhausting long drive from Zurich, Switzerland, where he had performed a few days earlier and had not slept well in several nights as he was in pain from back problems, having to wear a brace as well. After trying out the piano and learning that a replacement instrument was unavailable, Jarrett nearly refused to perform. As if the situation wasn’t bad enough, things could not get any worse as the tired Jarret was starving too due to a mix-up for the reservation at the local Italian restaurant, causing him to be only served much later where he ended up having only a few mouthfuls before having to leave for the concert.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Jarrett decided to perform and it was later known that it was largely because the recording equipment was already set up and he did not want to disappoint the team, especially Brandes who went through much to prepare for the performance – the first ever jazz performance at the Koln Opera House and also the large numbers of concert-goers who bought tickets to support this, making it a sold-out concert.

To make up for the lower sound quality of the baby grand, Jarrett used ostinatos and rolling left-hand rhythmic figures during the performance to give the effect of stronger bass notes, and concentrated his playing in the middle portion of the keyboard.

The concert was not only a success and later, ECM Records producer Manfred Eicher said, “Probably [Jarrett] played it the way he did because it was not a good piano. Because he could not fall in love with the sound of it, he found another way to get the most out of it.” The recording of this concert remains Jarrett’s most popular recording and continues to sell well decades after its release. And this was the essence of responding to unexpected chaos, Venerable You Min highlighted as he cited how Jarrett instead of succumbing to the dramatic events that unfolded, he overcame them against the odds, by adopting a different mindset – playing it differently, doing it for others – performing for Brandes and the team who set up the convert, and doing it for a greater cause – performing for the audience who supported the jazz community for their breakthrough feat, the first-ever Jazz concert at The Koln Opera House.

Correct Mindset

After the trip back to the past, Venerable You Min directed the talk back to the present – how we are facing our daily challenges every day, especially in times of uncertainty. In this first part, he explained how it is important to have the right view (正见) using life stages as the reality we face in life, such as facing unavoidable. Death is a natural process of human life – just as birth, aging and sickness, and these 4 stages of life is a reminder of the impermanence of life taught by the Buddha. Venerable You Min explained, “Life is like pages in book, we just need to know when to turn the page”, and when we experienced loss, grief and pain, it is important to have the correct mindset to respond to them.

Citing the Buddha’s teaching, he used the parable of the mustard seed as an example of how Buddha helped a grieving mother accept the loss of a child. Venerable also used the 5 Stages of Grief Model to explain the 5 stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance of the situation (e.g., loss), and also highlighted that the stages of grief is not a linear and predictable progression. Hence, understanding Buddha’s teaching of forming the right mindset in responding to different situations gives a good foundation to creating the stability when facing disequilibrium.

Photo credits:

Chaos by Brett Jordon via Pexels

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

During Buddha’s time, a young mother, Kisagotami [Kisa Gotami] lost her only child – a beautiful son. In her grief and out of love for her dead son, she carried him, and went from house to house asking for medicine to revive him. Then, one of the Buddhist mendicant seeing her actions, thought "She does not understand," said to her, "My good girl, I myself have no such medicine as you ask for, but I think I know of one who has."

"O tell me who that is," asked Kisagotami.

"The Buddha can give you medicine. Go to him," was the answer. She went to the Buddha, paid  homage to Him said, "Lord and Master, do you know any medicine that will be good for my child?"

"Yes, I know of some," said the Teacher. Then, it was the customory for patients or their friends to provide the herbs which the doctors required, and thus, she asked what herbs were needed.

"I want some mustard seeds," He said; and when the poor girl eagerly promised to bring the common seed, he added, "You must get it from some house where no son, or husband, or parent, or slave has died."

"Very good," she went off still carrying her dead child. People were eager to gift her mustard seeds but upon hearing her second condition, they answered, "Lady, what is this that you say? The living are few, but the dead are many." From one house to another, she heard… "I have lost a son"; "We have lost our parents"; "I have lost my slave”… At last, not being able to find a single house where no one had died, her mind began to clear, and summoning up resolution, she left the dead body of her child in a forest, and returning to the Buddha, and paid him homage.

He said to her, "Have you the mustard seed?"

"My lord," she replied, "I have not. The people tell me that the living are few, but the dead are many." The Buddha then expounded  the impermanence of all things – and after learnt and accepted her lot, she became a disciple and entered the first path.

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