POSTCARD #117: Chiang Mai: Walking to school with M and we pass this 30 foot high sculpture of a cat with a moustache and a small handbag… too much. That’s how it looks to me, thinking of the many poets who died for love of the metaphor – and is this a monument to their too-muchness? But that’s only how I see it, a European living in Thailand. I ask M if she knows what it’s supposed to be? And look down at this small person walking beside me, backpack bouncing slightly always out of sync with the motion of her walk. She tells me something at length, but I can’t hear properly, so acknowledge with hmmm, really? Wait to see if there’s a follow-up response, but we’re focused on going to school and besides, we’re in this public place.
It’s too much – me being here, walking with this eleven-year-old Thai child holding my hand, and she with her Thai cultural behavior. When I ask M if I’m walking too fast, because she’s so small maybe I should slow down? She says, no Toong Ting, is okay and places her cheek against my forearm as we’re walking along in the heavy traffic, no pavement … it’s that too-much thing again. She’s on the inside all the way until we get to the main road and turn right. Then I need to change hands so I’m on the outside shielding her against the traffic and little M is on the inside. Three people on a small motorbike go past us, looks dangerous – but I’d be wrong to say that’s too much; it’s ordinary low budget. For them, it’s just right. What’s too much is that I think it’s too much, and my views and opinions are not relevant here.
A few people recognize us, smile; night shift security guards salute… too much; I’m not sure how to react when I’m being saluted at. We get to the school; other kids are there, the familiarity of it. M takes her shoes off, waves bye-bye and enters the building. I set off back the way we came, my too-much reaction is unavoidable and have to struggle to see it just as a reaction. For the Thais it’s different, there’s this built-in sense of ‘too much’; food is too spicy; too many colours in a room interior… that’s what they call ‘too much’. The word is bprung dtàeng, ปรุงแต่ง. There’s the mind form of it too; thinking too much, ‘conceptual proliferation’ the Buddhist term papañca. Human beings are like this; the reaction to follow thought is as automatic as the eyes see, nose smells… thoughts proliferate.
“It is quite amazing to watch as the mind takes the simplest thought, jumps on it, and runs off in all directions. Just as the ear hears without any effort (and in fact it takes a lot of effort to make the ear not hear), the mind proliferates effortlessly, and it takes a lot of effort and/or training to hold this tendency in check. It’s the unbidden “going” of the mind to so many different subsequent thoughts that is important, rather than the diverse places it goes […] By becoming masters of the directions in which our thoughts proliferate, we can achieve freedom. The Buddha recognizes that the mind’s tendency towards Papañca is unavoidable, and instead of fighting the inevitable, he teaches us how to ride (and tame) the tiger.” [Leigh Brasington]