Tuesday, July 07, 2009

This too shall Pass

Today in Thailand Buddhists celebrate Asalaha Puja (also transliterated as Asalha or Asarnha) which remembers the first sermon of the newly enlightened Siddhārtha Gautama in the Deer Park at Benares, India. The celebration traditionally takes place in July, on the fifteenth day of the waxing moon of the eighth lunar month. According to legend, the Buddha was encouraged by the gods to teach, and gathered together his former associates, the five ascetics (one seems to be missing from this tableau I photographed on the side of the hill above Luang Prabang, Laos), and "set the wheel of Dhamma in motion" with his teaching of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The first sermon is recorded in the Dhammacakka Sutta. One of the five listeners, Kondannya, received his own enlightenment experience at hearing the Buddha's words and declared: "Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation." I was reminded of the phrase, "This too shall pass," and with a little internet digging I traced it to a Jewish folk tale about King Solomon. Intending to test his most trusted minister, the king ordered him to search for a magic ring, and told him, "If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy." Solomon knew no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility. But the minister found a gold ring and had it engraved with the Hebrew letters for "This too shall pass." Seeing the ring Solomon realized that all his wisdom, wealth and power were but perishable, for one day he would be nothing but dust.

Pandit Bhikku offers another translation of Kondannya's insight: "All that is of the nature to arise, will pass away." And he asks: "Why is it so supreme in Buddhism?" This is a curious question, for this bit of wisdom seems at first so commonplace. Of course nothing lasts, dust to dust and all that. I can also see how it would make a sad man happy and a happy man sad. Pain today will be gone tomorrow, and so will all one's accomplishments. It counsels acceptance of whatever happens. I do not know whether this will give any consolation to the millions of Michael Jackson fans grieving the death of the King of Pop. He died too young! (unlike the actor Karl Malden and the Vietnam war architect Robert McNamara who died this week after long lives). We want what is good to last (certainly if you'd purchased a ticket to Jacko's sold-out concert tour) and the bad to pass, quickly (not a few thought McNamara should have left the scene back in the 1960s).

Wisdom is knowing that nothing lasts. To want it to be otherwise is to suffer. The first sermon in the Dhammacakka Sutta sets out the basic teachings of the Buddha: the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The First Noble Truth is that life involves dukkha, a Pali word that has been translated as "suffering" but is probably closer to "stress" or "unsatisfactoriness." Dukkha, according to the Second Noble Truth, is caused by tanha, or "craving," also translated as "desire" or "thirst." The Third Noble Truth says that we can eliminate dukkha by what the Fourth Nobel Truth calls the Eightfold Path. The Buddha's enlightenment consisted of this realization, in practice rather than theory.

I'm not particularly keen on turning 70 in a week and a half. But there is little that I can do about it. Aging, according to the Buddha, results in dukkha (as does birth, death, pain, sorrow, etc.). It's natural to age; all that comes to be in this world will eventually fade away. What really causes pain is the desire to stop (or even slow) the process. Workouts at the gym, mega-vitamins, tanning salons, new lovers, all the nips and tucks in the world will not do the job. After birth, it's all downhill. This thirst for eternal life can be abandoned, the Buddha assures us, if we but lead a life of right view, resolve, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration (the path to healing the Dhamma Doctor prescribes). It worked for him, he tells us, and we should try it out. His teaching is one of experience rather than theory.

Of course, there is a lot more to Buddhism in Thailand. On Friday, after picking up her cousin at the bus station, Nan and I encountered a couple of monks on the street near her rooming house accepting merit from passers-by. We purchased a couple of dishes full of goodies from a nearby vendor and deposited our gifts in the begging bowl of one. Then we knelt down on the sidewalk and accepted a chanted blessing. Our monk was rather large and I noticed that the back of his robe was soaked with sweat. Then yesterday, we walked back to Wat Ruak Bangbamru behind my building to pay our respects to the monks at the temple before the beginning of Vassa the rains retreat, which starts tomorrow on Wan Kao Pansa, the first day of what has been called the Buddhist Lent. We purchased a transparent orange bucket of donations, including such useful items as rubber sandals, soap and toothpaste, and presented it to a monk seated under a tent in the courtyard. He blessed us with a chant and enough sprinkled water to soak my shirt. Buddhism in Thailand is more a matter of tam boon (making merit) than meditation practice and study. The common belief is that only monks (and certainly not women) can achieve enlightenment, but I'm told that few of the orange-robbed members of the Thai Sangha could be called spiritual seekers or even rigorous adherents of the Eightfold Path.

Certainly I'm not. While I continue to poke and probe the Dhamma as I am able to understand it, looking for ways to incorporate some of the Buddha's teaching into my everyday life, I resist renunciation and full commitment, exploring the cracks to see where wisdom that I recognize can be found. In the Dhammacakka Sutta, the Tathagata (the name Buddha used to refer to himself, meaning "one who has found the truth") advocated the "Middle Way" between the extremes of sensual pleasure and asceticism. This advice does not seem to be followed very carefully by many on the spiritual path who condemn the senses and joyously give up even small pleasures. His words in the first sermon were directed at "the one who has gone forth," renunciants like himself who had less trouble abandoning sensual pleasure than avoiding ascetic austerities. In the India tradition, the Brahmins proposed four stages: the student, householder, forest dweller and ascetic. Siddhartha gave up home and family for the life of a wandering saddhu. Although the life of the householder is far behind me, I'm content to remain a city (and occasionally forest) dweller, doing my best to control the destructive impulses of greed, ignorance and anger while enjoying the abundance of sense pleasures this beautiful world has to offer. I am well aware that both the impulses and the pleasures shall pass.

My weekend was filled with good friends, fine food, and an occasional Dhammic insight. On Friday I met at a small Indian restaurant near Sir Mariammam, the Hindu temple on Silom Road, with a few members of the Little Bang Sangha. In addition to our British leader, Pandit Bhikku, there were several Americans including my pal Dr. Holly, several Thais, Tara from Australia who hopes to become a mae chee in chiang Mai, Rubby from Colombia and Jikusan from Chile who spent ten years in a Japanese zen monastery. David, originally from Dayton, Ohio, but now a long-term resident of Southeast Asia, wore a great tee shirt that read: "CANADA, Living the American Dream without the violence since 1867." Also joining us was Yogi Tevijjo, a bearded American in idiosyncratic robes who follows an obscure Thai tradition. For more about him, click here. I'm always suspicious of those who enter their own stream. I ate a plate of talis which reminded me of my travels in Tamil Nadu.

From Silom I headed to Banglamphu for my weekly discussion of books, films, politics and religion with Colin, Marcus and Ikumi at Ricky's 2 Coffee Shop. Colin and Marcus both left England long ago to teach English in Turkey and Korea, among other places. Ikumi is visiting Marcus from Japan. Last week they bequeathed to me one of their favorite authors, Alain de Botton, whose latest book is The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. A quarter of the way through, I can see that it contains some of the same understated and ironic humor they use to dissect Thai life and my true verities.

The following evening, after an afternoon of always enjoyable conversation with Jerry at his apartment, I met Marcus near the Ekamai bus terminal on Sukhumvit and we took motorbike taxis to the Korean Hanmaum Seonwon (One-mind Zen Center). It was the first monthly meeting of a Korean zen discussion group in English and our objective was to read and digest Zen Master Daehaeng Kunsunim’s book No River to Cross. The author founded the organization of which the Bangkok center is a branch. In addition to a number of Korean members of the center, including two women priests, attending with us was Joe Shakarchi, a poet from San Francisco who teaches writing at San Jose City College, and Pedro Rivadeneira, an instructor in music composition at Mahidol University. Pedro was born in Ohio, and raised in Argentina. Before coming to Thailand, he taught English in a small Korean village. He encouraged me to come to the World Saxophone Congress at Mahidol this week. I had trouble hearing the soft spoken Koreans and an American bhikkuni and I stupidly refused to buy the book because I thought it too expensive. But the discussion went deep into the author's interpretation of the Mahayana zen path and I'll probably return next month. A number of us met afterward for drinks and snacks.

Yesterday, after making merit in the neighborhood, Nan and I went to Central Pinklao and had lunch at a Japanese fast food sukiyaki restaurant where the ingredients come by on an assembly line. It's an incredibly popular spot with dozens waiting outside for a place at the long counter. The cuisine popular with Thais has little relation to the menus in U.S. Thai restaurants. They particularly love to barbeque and boil their own meals at the table. I dumped different kinds of noodles, pieces of fish, pork, clams, shrimp, tofu, veggies, beef, and various unknown items into my own personal cooking pot. The price was a steep 290 baht for all you could eat and our lunch had a time limit. After ice cream and jello for desert, I took Nan to one of the several skin care outlets in the large mall and treated her to the removal by laser of two moles on her face.

Even though I know that pleasures are fleeting and all will eventually pass, my life here in Thailand is very full.

1 comment:

buzz25 said...

Beautiful writing and it's fascinating for me to read of your involvement into Buddhism in such a short time that you've been here. The scope of your interests and contacts is also remarkable, and yes, I have always enjoyed the mix of expats and so many multiple interests that one finds living in Thailand.

I'm hope we can meet one day. I'm going to the National Museum for a lecture 10:00am Thursday morning July 16.on Dvaravati (Mon) culture 6-11th C in this region. Maybe you can find the time to join.. Bev