By CINDY CHANG
Commuters who tuned in to KUCI-FM 88.9 around 9:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday heard an unlikely counterpoint to the high-volume jabber that dominates the morning airwaves. Buddhist monk from India: Equanimity means getting rid of happiness, moving away from happiness and unhappiness.
Host: And what’
s left is calm?
Monk: When you’re happy, you’re worried about what happens when the feeling goes away.
Host: To be fearless of death is to live. While the shock jocks enacted their gross-out skits, the pundits made their pronouncements and the newscasters intoned, Ed Shiang and his guest, a monk named Bhanteji, spoke of enlightenment in calm, measured tones. Each man says he has attained that seven-stepped pinnacle of Eastern spirituality that leaves a person cleansed of earthly desires.
‘The Enlightenment Project,’which airs Tuesday mornings on the UC Irvine campus radio station, Shiang speaks of spiritual journeys with the quiet conviction of an evangelist. He wants to guide others toward the same blissful calm that has pervaded his own life since he became enlightened four years ago. Those looking for a morning dose of celebrity gossip, or the latest body count from Iraq, will turn the dial. But there might also be a listener or two who stops by Barnes & Noble after work to pick up a primer on Buddhism.
In addition to gurus such as Bhanteji, ‘The Enlightenment Project’ has presented Asian American activists, a progressive chief executive, a homeless man and others with no obvious connection to spiritual quests. Shiang believes that the enlightened person should be a scholar of world affairs as well as of inner states.
Despite his NPR-eclectic guest list and ultra-low-key demeanor, Shiang shares the same sense of mission, and the same view of the media as proselytizing tools, as Christian preachers such as the Rev. Billy Graham. ‘The Enlightenment Project,’ which began airing early this year, is the first prong of what Shiang hopes will become a network of Web-based radio channels, including one devoted to Asian American issues.
He also hopes to start a series of enlightenment workshops staffed by instructors schooled in his methods. “I’m not focused on the radio show,” Shiang says. “In the bigger picture, I want to offer enlightenment to as many people as possible. It involves many paths, Buddhism being just one.”
With his thick glasses, floppy salt-and-pepper hair and nerd-casual clothes, the 48-year-old Shiang looks every bit the MIT-educated engineer he is. Only his preternaturally calm demeanor is a tip-off that his interior monologue is not a typical mishmash of conscious and subconscious desires.
His on-the-air voice is steady and soothing, and his facial expression seems to hover somewhere just short of a smile. Even the rambunctious behavior of his two young sons never fazes him, he says. But with an MBA from UCLA and years of experience in the business world, Shiang has the know-how to potentially make his vision of broad-based spiritual transmission a reality.
“I like how Ed has this practical component,” says Tom Clark, a friend who appeared on the first episode of ‘The Enlightenment Project’ to discuss relationship issues. ‘He has a deep spiritual side, but of course this is America, this is capitalism. The guy went to MIT, and there’s nothing wrong with having money as long as you’re doing something good with society.
Shiang says he stumbled onto Eastern spirituality in the late 1990s as an antidote to the hollowness of corporate life. He was sick of his job in sales and sick of using money as a measure of success.
At a library in Portland, Ore., he found a book called ‘Meditation Made Easy.’ He started meditating for two minutes before every sales call, and the anxiety he used to feel was replaced by a ‘calm, centered’ feeling.
With knowledge pieced together from that and many other library books, he says, he began a self-guided tour away from the pursuit of money and toward inner happiness. He adheres to no particular school of thought, combining elements of Buddhism with anything else he finds useful.
His engineer father and schoolteacher mother were both immigrants from northern China, but Eastern religions were not a part of his upbringing, Shiang says. Growing up in a suburb of Boston, he attended Catholic and Protestant churches with his mother.
While he used to curse at traffic jams and feel contempt for Chinese immigrants who didn’t speak English well, he is now such an expert at thought control that he can transport himself to a quiet mountaintop whenever he feels his anger rising. Instead of seeing the world as a frustrating place that I needed to control, and that I needed to make a whole bunch of money to make me happy, I don’t need to control anything anymore. It’s just about being myself,” Shiang says.
His interviewing methods, too, are go-with-the-flow. He does a little background research on his subject but never enters the studio with a set list of questions, instead letting the on-air discussion meander where it will.
“I just come in with two or three points, and if the conversation goes in a different direction, I follow,’ he says. ‘The interview is about exploring and not controlling, seeing where it goes. Otherwise you tend to skew things ‘ it’s better to let nature take its own course.’
Shiang still puts in time every week as an engineering consultant. But what drives him now ‘as far as one who is not supposed to have drives can be driven’ is the desire to guide others who are seeking the same larger meaning as he was when he picked up his first meditation textbook in that Portland public library.
“I’m aware that what I’m doing is just a job,” he says of his engineering work, “and I’m aware of what I want to do with the rest of my time so I can help people.”
The Enlightenment Project can be heard live at www.kuci.org on Tuesdays at 9 a.m. Archived shows are at www.elife-solutions.com.
Cindy Chang, a former reporter for the Pasadena Star-News, freelances for the Los Angeles Times and strings for The New York Times.