Reflections on Quality of Life at a Buddhist Studies Conference

Raymond Lam

Attendees at the conference.
Attendees at the conference.

Last Tuesday, the Buddhistdoor team returned to Hong Kong from Vancouver after attending the 6th Annual Tung Lin Kok Yuen Canada Foundation Conference at The University of British Columbia (UBC). Jessica Main, the intellectually formidable and ever-kind chair of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Society, kept the conference running at an impressively smooth pace. What really struck me was how she and Ven. Tian Wen, the abbot of TLKY Canada, were so even-tempered and laid-back despite their significant responsibilities. I feel the same about Alan Kwan, Buddhistdoor’s Pure Land columnist and founding editor. He’s an easy-going Vancouverite who radiates an infectious enthusiasm and love of the city (he has plenty of experience showing visitors the best spots, from tourist favorites like Granville Island and the famous Silk Road-themed restaurant East is East to his personal favorite, a Cantonese-style cha chaan teng in Richmond).

Indeed, the whole environment felt relaxed and “chill,” despite the efficient running of seminars and lectures and a general sense of academic, no-nonsense purpose among the scholars at the conference.

I observed the same vibe running outside of UBC. Careful urban planning has resulted in a near-perfect balance of urban buzz, suburbia coziness, seaside harbors and bays, and green mountains and country park. Friendly yet discreet and polite conversations between strangers are common. Shops start closing at around 5pm, which sounds horrifyingly early to Hong Kongers. There’s no sweating the small stuff, but when it comes to the things that matter, the job is done well and life is good.

Beautiful Vancouver.
Beautiful Vancouver.

I’ve got no theory or hard explanation as to why I felt this ambience. Maybe it was a case of the grass being greener on the other side, or a first-time visitor’s initial sense of charm. However, I believe the grass is only greener where you water it. I think that it’s well within our power to cultivate a relaxed attitude to life wherever we are, to be free to let go of whatever sparks tension and generates stress and anxiety.

I think the high-octane, lightning-fast culture of pressure and winner-takes-all competitiveness in Hong Kong prevents us from discerning what we really want when we think of “quality of life.” Families and individuals compete for things both trivial and serious, from first seats on a train to first places in kindergarten, along with a CV for kids before they’ve even left primary school or had the chance to run around on an oval of real grass. Creativity and a love of the arts in schools is quashed, sometimes subconsciously, and many people lack the means to deal with everyday stress and, yes, existential unease.

We shouldn’t import Vancouver’s culture wholesale, but we can look at how the Buddhist values of mindfulness and nonattachment could help. For example, mindfulness could help stop us from falling into negative patterns of inter and intrapersonal strain and unneeded competition in our day-to-day moments. And what about cultivating nonattachment to the things busy people typically chase after to feel validated?

We could still be proud city folk: driven, humming with energy, working hard, and playing hard. We’d just be a lot happier.

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