Note about the image: Ravana, huge demon-like effigies, are created for the Dasera festival which was held in India recently. The effigies are packed with straw and the highlight of the event is when they are set alight [Link to: The Hindu newspaper]. What I’m writing about here is the attachment we (Westerners) have to effigies such as teddy bears and the inclination to personify objects as a way of supporting the concept of an individual ‘self’ separate from the world.
Bangkok: I’m in a townhouse in the centre of the city; arranged to meet some people about a school-kids party event. Na Uan is here and the room is full of huge plastic bags containing something… is it teddy bears? Yes, teddy bears. She says, they were donated by an Australian NGO to be given as prizes for the main quiz event. And my first reaction is, how cute! Then that feeling falls away; they’re just teddy bears, a lot of them, packed together in these large plastic bags. I see them all squashed up inside the plastic, upside down, sideways and limbs all tangled together and faces pushed flat against the tight surface of the stretched bag. They’re looking particularly unloved; not cute at all. I ask Na Uan, shouldn’t we take them out of the bag? No, we can’t because they’ll get dusty if we do. Seems like not the kind of thing to do with teddy bears, keep them in plastic bags, they can’t breathe… ? I have to remind myself they’re not living beings.
But the best is yet to come, Na Uan rolls out another plastic bag containing the largest teddy bear I’ve ever seen, it is about 4 feet high in the seated position, squashed up, golden furry body and wide-eyed inquiring alertness about the face, everything flattened tight against the polythene surface, and totally suffocated like the others. Why am I going on so much about teddy bears? It’s because I spent the night there and had to sleep in the same room with all the teddy bears, trapped inside their plastic bags. I got to sleep in the end; woke up in the morning and there they all were again, looking out at me in their appealing way..
It’s this thing about ‘self’, there’s just no getting away from it. We take the mind to be self but it’s a succession of mental elements nāma rising and falling away and seeing, hearing, thinking is the same; the body too, rūpa, one day here, next day gone. The five khandhas – it’s doubtful if they were of any substance in the first place. Sounds like a sad story and I suppose that’s why there are teddy bears we can hold on to – and other things. We try to bring our sense of ‘self’ into reality with these personifications, images of ‘self’, but that falls away too. None of it works, there’s just this great emptiness where the individual self supposedly resides and the great big teddy bear looking at me now from across the room cannot convince me otherwise. It doesn’t work like that.
Interesting to see Na Uan’s attitude about all this; individuality creating existential anxiety; it’s a Western thing. It has no meaning; there are many things like this that happen here in Bangkok that Na Uan doesn’t understand and that’s ok, not important. She is one of eight sisters and brothers, an integral part of a community that takes support from each and every individual present, one way or the other. Yes all kinds of stuff Na Uan didn’t have to learn and get involved with when she was a kid. Good for her. The ‘self’ problem is still there, though, but maybe the Thais are very much less attached to it than we are.
There’s a question about what remains after you see through everything that is not the ‘I’ you take it to be. There’s a quote by Sri Ramana Maharshi: ‘… the one who eliminates the ‘not I’ cannot eliminate the ‘I’… find the source and then all these other ideas will vanish and the pure Self will remain.’ It’s possible to have assumptions about the ‘pure Self’ and about what ‘will remain’. The Buddha’s teaching is that if you can completely deconstruct the ‘I’, nothing is left behind, ‘no remainder’. This must be a teaching about tanha, the natural inclination to hold on to the very end – as we do with teddy bears and everything else. All there can be is the clear-minded investigation of this.
Sometime after that I was having breakfast, pa tong ko, deep fried dough pieces in the shape of an X and soy bean drinks with dried fruits and somebody arrives in a pick-up truck and takes the bags of teddy bears away. It was like they were never here.