New Delhi: Arrived late morning on a flight from Thailand and Shym picks me up at the airport. It’s that feeling of bewilderment; having been scanned by X-ray machines, identified, processed, held in aircraft cabin pressure for 4 hours and transported. Now I’m here, nearly two thousand miles away from where I was, placed on the ground and having to reassemble the parts of who I am in this new context.
Where are we now? Eyes looking out, bright sunlight but not fiercely hot like Bangkok; more like a Mediterranean climate, feels okay. Heavy traffic, drivers with attention-seeking behaviour; the ‘BLOW HORN’ message on the back of trucks says everything. It’s a kind of open invitation to press your horn to say you’re here. Get out of the way! I am coming; it’s me! ‘Self’ is something real, something eternal, according to the Vedas and Upanishads – something that is. Completely different from the Thai Buddhist culture that I’m used to, which says that what we cling to as ‘self’ is really only impermanent phenomena subject to arising, changing, and passing away – nothing of substance.
India is not a Buddhist country, it used to be but the Teaching is more or less unknown today, and the only reason I make the comparison is that I’m often going between these two places, Thailand and India. It’s culture shock, really, happens every time. And now, stuck in this traffic jam, some drivers try to get relief by blowing their horn while we’re all at a standstill. I hear the sound and find I’m vibrating like a bell that has been struck… it’s the argumentative, provoking nature of it: I feel his anger. I forget about this when I’m away – an unavoidable reaction.
Mindfulness, focus on the breath, let it just be there – everything that arises ceases aniccan. In a moment the impact has gone, nothing special. I just need to be careful I’m not indirectly fanning the flames and causing it to blaze up again. I don’t want it to be like this but saying this doesn’t help because ‘not wanting’ (vibhavana) is as much a desire, as ‘wanting it’ is. If I continue to ‘hate’ it like this, I become even more attached to the anger of not-wanting it and cannot easily disengage from that. So, looking for the place that’s somewhere in the middle ground where I can find a temporary abiding.
It’s inevitable that North India looks confrontational when the Thai way is to keep your temper, whatever the situation; the chai yen concept (keep a cool heart). Thais very rarely show their anger. If there’s a problem, Thai people keep it inside… that particular intensity of unexpressed anger, like a pressure cooker that explodes suddenly – it can be dangerous. In 2001 a German motorcyclist, frustrated by the traffic situation, made an obscene gesture to a van driver and was shot dead. The van driver lost his cool. It’s what happens when you don’t manage to hold it anymore, the release is really explosive. In this kind of emotional holding, it can be pretty scary because everybody knows the consequence of a lifetime of intense holding; clinging with tenacity to the refusal to let go, and no safety valve. But not necessarily, Thai children learn about this Buddhist teaching at an early age, and in the right circumstances, most people see it for what it is and allow it to come to an end.
Then some hours later, I’m at the house, and somebody I don’t know is shouting in anger outside my front gate. I go to the window and a man is standing out there under the tree in the shade, talking on his phone in Hindi and waving his free arm. Shym told me the man was expecting to receive some money, seemingly, but didn’t get it and this was his reaction. The fury in his voice was like something Biblical, the wrath of God, I’m immediately intimidated, and the vibration of anger starts up again, it’s like a contagious disease. You just can’t pretend it’s not there – that compelling sense of ‘me.’ After a short while it’s gone, and I’m thankful there’s no ‘eternity’ in my mind: no heaven, no hell. There’s liberation from suffering: the way out, the Third Noble Truth, nirodha, and cessation, no holding. In the emptiness of the moment there is no self, only the stillness of the mind and everything comes to an end…