The problem with the Buddhist idea that the purpose of life is to become freed from the wheel of life and death, to escape the cycle of reincarnation after reincarnation, is this: that it makes life seem like a curse, something that we would escape if we could.
I was wandering through the grounds of Wat Umong, an isolated forest temple in northern Thailand. Everything in the shade seemed to be covered with moss, everything in the sunlight scorched, baked and faded. As in a lot of Thai temples, many trees are considered sacred, and bear the orange robes of the order. Many more carry little plaques inscribed with pithy Dharma quotations.
It’s an ideal space to have fun with a camera.
I was caught by a strange inscription on the ground, and studied it. As I did so, a young Monk approached me, clutching a piece of paper. Pronunciation exercises. He pointed, and asked in very broken English how to say “cupboard”. He was not quick to take in the new sounds. But he was eager to chat, in any language.
He took me on a tour of out-of-the-way parts of the temple. The broken-down crematorium, the head monk’s quarters. Our English lesson deteriorated; we resorted to Thai and conversation started to flow. So I learned his story, of how he used to wait bars in the den of decadence in Bangkok that is Kao San road, then entered some backcountry monastery before arriving at Wat Umong only that week. He had taken his vows to make merit for his parents, and guessed he would not stay in the order for much longer than a few months. His spirit was wild and not ready for the confines of monastic life.
We parted. Seeing the rich, dark green foliage behind him, and feeling the soft diffuse light of an overcast late afternoon, I risked pulling out my camera.
What do you do when you come up against something that you don’t agree with? Atheist: you meet fundamentalist. Liberal: you meet conservative. What happens when you talk and you find they are the opposite of everything you stand for?
How do you react when someone tries to hurt you, or take from you?
Thomas Merton wrote of a Buddhist story he read:
One evening [a farmer] heard some noise in the garden. He noticed a young man of the village atop a tree stealing his fruit. Quietly, he went to the shed where he kept his ladder and took it under the tree so that the intruder might safely make his descent. He went back to his bed unnoticed. The farmer’s heart, emptied of self and possession, could not think of anything else but the danger that might befall the young village delinquent. 1
This is very, very far from my usual reaction, which might be to throw stones at him, or at the very least, wish that he breaks something when he comes down from the tree. There is so much anger that rises in me at something like robbery. But is this anger necessary?
For peace to be solid, you need to be at peace with everything. This sounds radical, but it’s the only way to be free.
I don’t mean to let the whole world walk all over you. If someone robs you, call the police. But you can call the police without hating the intruder. The integrity of our world does not depend on him being caught and brought to ‘justice’.
There is no deep freedom if our peace can be stolen from us, in addition to our possessions. If a robber can steal our peace too, we are completely at his mercy. I don’t want to be completely at the mercy of robbers.
When we are friends with the world, we make peace with both the pretty and the ugly, the giving and the thieving, and then we are free.
- From Zen and the Birds of Appetite, pg 111 ↩