Sunday, June 7, 2009

Western Baggage

He'd already visited me twice, but this time was special. I accepted the sacred text with both hands, briefly leafed through it, then pulled up a chair to place the text on the sahn. Looking back, Khun John began breathing faster and his eyes bulged more than usual. Young farangs are quite excitable. But he smiled and gestured to continue. The little jasmine wreaths were already fresh, so it was only necessary to light the incense and recite a quick prayer. The atmosphere in the room changed.

What did you pray about? I told him that I wanted good luck for my family, refraining from mentioning the means by which this was to be obtained (the lottery). In fact, a glance through the Bible suggested new possibilities for number-selection.

He spoke Thai. Do you believe in God? I reminded him of our English-only agreement. His tone was quite direct today, but the gift entitled him to that. I answered "yes". The flitting motions of his pupils slowed. This was the correct answer. If Tom Hanks had responded this way in "Angels and Demons", he'd have spared himself a lot of trouble.


My respect for the boy had been growing. He was not birdshit farang. His grooming was immaculate, he knew when and how to wai, and sat straight on his two-stroke motorcycle. He had taken vows of sobriety. He worked without hope for material reward in a land far from his own. Our own monks lack such conviction.

It was odd, then, to discover the weakness of his semati. As had become habit, he initiated our session with prayer. It was clear that he was speaking the language of the pra, so there was no point in trying to understand. Instead, I silently repeated a mantra. He had already finished his own incantation, but I felt compelled to continue, as stopping on the fourth recitation would be inauspicious. Khun John stood patiently, exercising the perfection of khanti. The telephone rang. With my eyes only half-shut, I could see him flinch.

What did you pray about (as always)? I really couldn't say, of course, since the syllables were in Pali. I had learned the mantra in my childhood in Isan. We'd take jam-packed song-taews to the wat on auspicious occasions, regardless of the weather. The women would gossip and sing on the way. I salivated over the kanom in their bags. The men hung off the vehicle's railing, still managing to light and maintain cigarettes. Inevitably, the ceremonies had already begun. Everything changed instantly as we shed our shoes and passed through the door. Important work was being done. Oh, I digress...

"You pray and you don't understand the meaning of your prayer?"

A difficult question. Was it a "prayer"? I tried to keep things easy: "Yes, I don't."

"Yes, you do" or "No, you don't"? He muttered something about bananas.

A discussion of English grammar ensued. We agreed that "No, I don't" was the response I had intended. It was difficult to understand the logic behind this mode of speaking, so we both agreed it would be better to memorize the structure and dispense with analysis. "Leave it", as we say.


On our next appointment, he returned to question of belief in God. This time, however, it was "God, creator of the universe." I got the feeling that he conferred with a higher pra; restating questions from previous sessions was one of his patterns. Over time, it had become apparent that believing in this and believing in that was essential to Khun John, so I answered his question as directly as possible:

"I don't know."

From the time of my youth, I had been taught that these sorts of questions were best left to science. He seemed unsatisfied with the response. In some esoteric texts, Mt. Meru is considered the center of this particular universe.

"Do you actually believe that?"


Khun John had the mind of a scientist. He concerned himself greatly with beginnings and ends, sizes and locations, logic and contradictions. He thought a lot.

He had positioned himself directly beneath the sahn. A little chunk of incense broke off and landed on his scalp. The heat was spent, but he sensed a disturbance as he spoke, attempted to remove the particles, but wound up smearing them on his nose and left cheek. For the rest of the session, it was difficult to suppress a laugh. You'd have to have been there.


"What did you pray about?"

This time, I had practiced semati, not prayer. My English was improving. "It wasn't a prayer."

"Well, what did you think about?"

"I try not to think."

"That's impossible."


As it neared time for Khun John to complete his mission, I began to understand. This was a powerful god, capable of creating universes in a fraction of a kalpa. Yet the ten rules and other scriptures showed this god to be subject to the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Jealousy was his strongest attribute; this explained why Khun John would never wai my spirit house, even with his impeccable good manners.

Perhaps this god was a rudra. 6,000 years offer a fraction of the lifetimes needed to reach full awakening, especially via slow paths, so one shouldn't be particularly critical. If, on the other hand, this rudra had a timeless existence (as is sometimes implied), there was really no excuse. Another possibility was simply that this being had incarnated at a high position in the sixth realm, explaining his flamboyant ego.

My English had improved, but I was sad to say goodbye to Khun John. He vanished down the soi, necktie flapping over his shoulder.

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