An experience I had when I was an undergraduate is still vivid today. On one breezy autumn afternoon, I was strolling around the campus between classes. In a community centre I saw a poster advertising a series of religious talks, one of which was on Buddhism. Since the Buddhist talk was just half an hour away and I had some time to spare, I decided to go and find out what the speaker had to say.
The speaker was a Buddhist monk, and he was going to talk about the concept of “yuan”. The notion of “yuan” was indeed interesting. Many native speakers of Chinese seem to have a concept of it, but only a few of us can translate it into another language. We often link this concept to romantic love, friendship, and relationships with other people in general. When we bump into a friend on the street we say that the two people are 有緣 “you yuan” (we possess yuan between us). When we break up with someone we say we are 緣盡 “yuan jin” (the yuan between us is exhausted). “yuan” is very much related to people and their emotions, but we often find it hard to explain precisely what it actually is, and have difficulties translating this concept into other languages.
The speaker, however, gave me (and possibly other members of the audience) a new perspective toward this notion. He said “yuan” can be roughly translated into English as “conditions”. For an event to take place, certain “yuans” (if they are countable) are necessary. He used the growth of an apple tree as an example — for an apple tree to grow, it requires a number of conditions (e.g. soil, sunlight, water, and, of course, an apple seed). These conditions are all “yuans”. When these “yuans” come together, the event (i.e. the growth of an apple tree) takes place. But when one or more of these “yuans” ceases to exist (e.g. there is no more water), then the event will not continue (i.e. the apple tree dies).
So, “yuan”, according to Buddhism, is actually not as romantic as I took it to be. While we can apply this notion in describing events between people (e.g. by saying that my secret crush and I meeting each other is 有緣 “you yuan”), the use of this notion is certainly not limited to only human beings. Any and every event that takes place requires a certain number of “yuans” — one’s birth in one’s family, the building of a skyscraper, the establishment of an institution, and even the growth of a flower. When these conditions come together, things happen; when one or more of these conditions leave, things stop happening.
This is the reason why the one-hour talk has stuck in my mind. It is the understanding of “yuan” that makes me realise that every one of my failures, my successes, and achievements takes more than myself to accomplish. My efforts and my hard work are of course important “yuans”, but they are by no means the only ones. If I see myself as too important to every success or failure, I am not seeing reality in the right way, and in these situations, suffering ensues (see my previous post titled “Buddhism, Selflessness, and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”).
This revelation truly puts things into perspective for me.
Just like an average person, Vinton Poon assumes many different identities. To name a few (not in any particular order), he is a son, a lecturer, a badminton enthusiast, an extrovert, an elder brother, a debating coach, a semi-Buddhist, an academic, a friend, a hypochondriac, a volunteer, and a pursuer of good tea. [Click here to read all entries by Vinton.]