Sunday, February 22, 2009

spurious self-isolation

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race,
though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities
and one which makes many terrible mistakes…

And if only everybody could realize this!
But it cannot be explained.
There is no way of telling people
that they are all walking around shining like the sun…

It is because I am one with them
that I owe it to them to be alone,
and when I am alone,
they are not “they” but my own self.
There are no strangers!
(Thomas Merton, Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander)

22 feb 2009

I’m staying at the Shanti Guest House in Bangkok, Thailand. It’s a great place; as I wrote to some friends the other day, it redefines the word “funky,” kind of a cross between Santa Cruz and M*A*S*H. Willie Yaryan, our Sangha friend who lives here now, calls it a typical “backpackers ghetto,” which is probably a good place for a wandering monk. My room is just big enough for the low double bed with about 2 feet of space around it. There’s a warning about standing on the bed because “the fan hurts. And we mean it!”

We had an incredible day yesterday. Willie and I spent the day with a small group of ex-pats visiting the place where Thomas Merton was killed in 1968. We first all met at an old Vietnam era hotel called the Atlantic. There is even a plaque on the wall boasting that “officers planned much of the Vietnam war here.” We sat in the coffee shop, which is very European in style, red leather and dark wood. You could almost imagine a cloud of cigarette smoke in the air, and CIA operatives sipping tea and glancing around furtively with maps of Laos and Cambodia spread out in front of them on the table. Thailand was conveniently located for bomber missions and one of the places that US soldiers also came for R&R.

Our crowd for the day slowly trickled in: John from Scotland and his beautiful Thai companion Fong; then Marcus, from England, who has taught English in Korea as well as here and writes a daily blog column on the Heart Sutra; Janelle from California who is an expert in international health issues, currently working with autistic children and appearing in the Thailand premiere of “The Vagina Monologues,” about which she spoke to us animatedly; Emily, who has been here since she came with the Peace Corps in 1961, married a Thai man and had three children, speaks fluent Thai and has had considerable contact with the royal family and now heads up the Thai WCCM; and finally Lance arrived, our convener for the day. I am not sure how to describe him: he is a freelance journalist (as a matter of fact he was plugged into his computer and working throughout the day) editing for a several English speaking journals and just the kind of guy who can get things done. He had hired a van and a driver for the day, printed up schedules for each of us, edited and e-mailed versions of my latest article for the Golden String and Cathy Redfern’s article on me from the Observer to introduce folks to me, and brought along a cameraman, Ong, from Burma who was taking photos and films all day long.

We headed out about 9 AM and drove across town to the place, which is part of a larger complex called Suwanganiwas administered by the Red Cross. Merton was here for a big pan-Asian conference when he died. Fr Bede was here for the same conference. As a matter of fact I found in his photo album a photo of Merton delivering the speech he gave just before he died, and also a photo of him laid out and lying in state after death. We pulled up near the hut in which Merton had died, and Lance explained to us that he ahd visited the family that occupies both floors and all four rooms of it now, explaining to them that he was going to be bringing a group of people there. But he had not told them about the death there, not knowing if that would be taken as a very inauspicious piece of knowledge for them. We entered the antechamber of the house, and Lance pointed out to us the room to the left which was where the terrible accident had happened. (Merton was electrocuted by a fan after taking a shower.) He wasn’t sure what to do from there and if there was some kind of ceremonial something we could do, but Emily suggested that it didn’t feel appropriate for us to stay too long with the mainly members looking at us on all sides. I agreed but I had had the idea that I would like to sing something, and so I offered to and did the In Paradisum, just in case his soul was not yet at rest. And then we stood in silence for a moment before leaving. I had chills. It all seemed too ordinary. Then we sat around outside around a little pond and had a kind of impromptu service, I did three songs, including a song called “Prometheus” which was inspired by an essay from Merton’s book “Raids on the Unspeakable” that I had written in the mid-‘80’s for my band LUKE St. There were a few readings including that remarkable selection from “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” at 4th and Walnut Street in Louisville, and something from Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. And then we sat in meditation together for a time before looking a little more around the complex, and then going for lunch and lively conversation, to say the least. What an extraordinary group of people. What an unrepeatable unique opportunity.

Willie left me to my own devices for the evening. I wandered over to a Thai Buddhist wat right around the corner from my guesthouse. I actually had to pay 40 baht to get in, not much really but it was a little like being in Florence or Rome and needing to pay to go into a church to pray. There were two meditation halls and the main Buddha hall, bright-orange clad monks all over minding various stations.
I kept looking for a place to sit for a time in one of the meditation halls but every time I settled in someone would come in and start talking, so I finally wound up in the main Buddha hall where there was a golden Buddha around 20 feet tall on a raised platform and jatakas-incredible frescoes all around on pillars depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life. I knew they closed at 6 but around 5:30 a monk came in and started closing certain windows and moving things around, and I asked if I had to leave. Well, “ask” is kind of a strong word since there was no English being spoken there. He indicated “no.” Shortly afterward a group of orange clad monks started to slowly file in one at a time, take their places on the raised platform and then began chanting in front of the huge Buddha for about 15 minutes. And then they sat there as silent as stones for another 10 minutes or so. I was the only other person there, in the whole complex I think besides a woman behind me who was chanting along with them. I could barely breathe by the end of it. It didn’t seem as if anyone spoke English but suddenly I didn’t want to be incognito monk anymore. I wanted to run up to one of them and say, “I’m a monk, too!” and have them to invite me into their house and tell me everything. They mostly looked kind of fat and sassy and spoiled, and the whole thing was probably a show for visitors, but still, I wanted to talk to them.

But I slipped away, and walked a long way up to the huge popular hang out area for tourists and locals called Khao-san Road. As I was walking there, a good long jaunt from Shanti Guesthouse, I passed by three young monks wrapped in their bright orange robes, who seemed to be lost and asking some folks for directions somewhere. They looked a little frightened and very out of place. Khao-san is a crazy place mostly catering to both hedonistic Westerners and hedonistic Asians. There were guys carrying signs that read “VERY STRONG DRINKS!” and others stopping me on the street showing small brochures of naked women, advertising some kind of show or prostitutes. Lots of loud funk and rock playing and people getting their hair braided and hennaed, tattoo parlors and who knows what else.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
I ate some pad thai noodles and mango with sticky rice from street vendors, and listened to some street musicians, walked the whole length once and headed home. The contrast between the two––the quiet comfort of the wat and the fleshpots of Bangkok––was pretty stark but beautiful in its own way. I’m told that for the most part Thai Buddhist monasticism is very well-off, the wats have more money than they know what to do with, and the monks are as well cared for as any clerical caste can be, as most religious are in the Christian West. And everybody else is between.
…spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels...
Later when as I was walking home, I saw a single monk padding silently down the street across from me barefoot, probably heading to that same wat. I might have projected on to him in a flash all that I understand renunciation to be but for a moment I understood why. Sometimes you just gotta say “No,” and you gotta say it really loud or paint it in bright orange to balance the whole world off.
Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud...