POSTCARD#58: Chiang Mai: Arrived in the early evening and out through the exit tunnel into the airport corridors. Turn the first corner and we’re looking back through a large window at our plane with passenger bridge attached. M says, in her 9-year old voice: take a photo of it… put in your blog Toong-Ting (she calls me that). There’ll be a time when M takes a direct editorial role in this blog… so I take the photo and here it is now. A large reptilian mouth sucking out the contents of a passenger aircraft that has a painted face, intensely happy smile, and it seems okay about what’s happening. M is silent for a moment as she considers the elasticity of this strange stretched metaphor. Then we continue along the corridors to get our bags from the luggage belt. I put everything on the trolley with M sitting on top, push the wheels through the glass doors, opening as we approach and we’re in Arrivals. Her mum is waiting for us, pleased to have M back.
Bags in the car and we’re off. Heavy traffic on the way into town and M, still silent, looking out at it all considering, maybe, how one thing can become another, tells me that cars have gender: boy-car and girl-car. It’s the look of the ‘face’ of the car – that kind of ‘grin’ created by the front bumper and radiator grille. She sees it as the face of a boy or a girl or, if she can’t decide which it is, it must be a katoey, effeminate gay male, third gender, or whatever – she giggles a bit, it’s okay in Thailand. I ask her to identify a boy-car for me, just to see if I can recognise its ‘maleness’ – although I’ve always thought of cars being male. She points at one: that’s a boy-car Toong-Ting (see left pic). I want to say… how d’you know that? But this kind of challenge to her reasoning might be too much, so I’m just going along with it. She asks if I can identify the gender: you tell me, Toong-Ting, it’s a boy-car or girl-car, okay? I have a feeling I’m going to get this wrong… let’s see, there’s one that’s got really male characteristics, I point to it and say that one is a boy-car. No, Toong-Ting it’s a girl-car… looking at me like, how come you can’t see something as obvious as that, hmm?
M spends a lot of time on the road, going to and from her school, a long way from her house. I think she probably knows the brands of all kinds of cars now, maybe not the names, just a familiarity with their appearance and long ago decided some were boy-cars, some were girl-cars, and those in-between were katoeys. As we’re going along I take a photo of the back of a car and show it to her so she can study it in detail: boy or girl? (see pic below) She says she can’t really tell looking at the back of it, can’t see its face, but thinks maybe it’s a girl-car, because she remembers that she decided at some earlier time, that particular make of car was a girl. It’s a case of remembering which is what (or what is which?) or what she had already decided it was when she first saw that make of car.
There’s intelligence in her playfulness, a reality in her personifications that challenges my usual insisting there is no ‘self’, the Buddha’s Teaching on anatta: ‘self’ is an illusion arising from the 5 Khandas. I feel I’m holding on to something I should let go of, with M going around happily applying the attributes of ‘self’ and gender to all kinds of things. She can create an identity and let it go, because it’s one among many. She can escape the entanglements of ‘self’ because she plays with a multitude of ‘selves’, like waves in the ocean and an ocean in all the oceans of the world. Everything in the universe is Self. The ‘self’ I believe to be ‘me’ is an assumed identity – there is no ‘self’, everything I see is ‘me’.
‘Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss. Lila indicates a spontaneous sportive activity of Brahman as distinguished from a self-conscious volitional effort. The concept of Lila signifies freedom as distinguished from necessity.’ [Ram Shanker Misra, The Integral Advaitism of Sri Aurobindo]
I love this post. Perhaps because identity for me was the key struggle of my life that ultimately broke some sort of spell of mistaking the name for the thing. Thingyness is too slippery and names are conventions, conveniences so we can exchange perspectives with one another. Perhaps young children know this and as we age into adulthood, we unlearn it.
Underneath or beyond the words there is “suchness,” which defies definition, but because our human nature allows us to define, it’s better to make our peace with that and understand that nothing is only what or how we think it is. On the other hand, if we were never to use language and perceptions to separate the world into the ten thousand things, I don’t think we’d necessarily be better off.
Who said, “first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is?” That’s probably the most useful way to understand the dilemma, the mystery we all live in.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is… was just thinking about it the other day: ‘caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within’ a song by Donovan in the 60s. It’s an easy acceptance of the mystery, and why not see it that way? The simplicity of a particular kind of focus applied to the ten thousand things without proliferating thought processes – it is what it is. Knowing that brings the investigation to a close.
Something to be learned from children, so absolutely compelled to examine ‘thingyness’ (thank you for this lovely word) in all its slippery forms, acting-out all the identities in the drama and then they get tired, stop for a rest… wake up later and move to something else. It all goes unheld…
Just love reading about your life with M. You once wrote that your dealings with her brought back your childhood for you. That is part of it. But more than that, it is a very special relationship- – a win-win for all involved and lovely to read about.
Yep, studying how to be a kid again and the first thing is that I can’t apply any actual learning systems. I can’t ask M to tell me why she sees things the way she does – even if she could understand my question, the puzzle would be why I need to ask it instead of just getting on with the fun. This is the kind of thing we adults recognize and know deeply – must be a remembering of childhood days far away and long ago…
I laughed joyously on multiple occasions reading this one. There is something delightful about play– just playing. Is that a boy car or a girl car? How is temporarily entering a world where there is deep validity to this question any different than temporarily entering any illusory idea of reality? It undoes a few things in the adult mind to be sure. Gives rise to a smile and a hearty chuckle. Seems a good thing. It really came across to me in your writing– a child’s view of an airplane being sucked free of its passengers with a Mona Lisa like industrial smile on its face– how did we ever take our perceived world so seriously!?
Thanks Michael, yes this is it, the serious business of learning how to be light and easy. There’s a word in Thai: sanuk, it means ‘fun’. You find it used in all kinds of contexts, I hear it all the time! And the opposite is mai sanuk (not fun) rarely heard, a profoundly critical remark, devastating. It remains always unsaid in social affairs, as if to say let’s hope it doesn’t ever come to this. No, the motivation is definitely in the direction of the back-tickling electric charge of a simple loving fun event placed there just for its own sake.
I like how you blog about Chiang Mai and the culture and spirituality you have presented in your blog recently. I was born in Thailand while my parents were working there. I spent some of my childhood there and your posts reminds me of a lot of treasured memories. Thanks for this. 🙂
I see from your website there’s a focus on non-violence, peace, and allowing things to be as they are. I lived in Japan for 3 years and recognize something about that culture in your writing. Wonderful that you were born here in Thailand! You must know about the simple kindness of the Thais, a more indirect way of understanding things than the Western model, less emphasis on the individual. Similarities with Japan. I try to follow an introspective approach in my writing, everything to do with conscious experience as it unfolds. See where it goes from there. Thanks for dropping in. Hope to hear from you again…