sure-footedness

POSTCARD#308: Chiang Mai: Headache stabs me in the Right Occipital Nerve, on the walk back from the market with backpack full of vegetables, and living things I wash and slice and eat, whispering to myself forgiveness, in the discomfort and heat of the day. Yes, I could stop, fumble in pockets and squeeze out two capsules from their crinkly enclosures, bring to the mouth and swallow with a practised swig from my bottle of water I keep in an outer pocket of the backpack. But not yet, balancing backpack, stumbling slightly on these unfinished side-walks, lumps of concrete roughly rendered, landscapes of pavements we encounter everywhere in the ‘Developing World’ – tell me, is there ever a time when a country becomes ‘developed’, or is it an on-going state of development? Just look at Trump and American politics – okay, enough already… forgiveness.

If only… if only we had the sure-footedness of youth… I almost slip on the wet shiny tiles some fashionable shop has proudly cemented in place in the threshold of its brand new frontage… forgiveness. I shall not, today, slip and fall into the road, and be run down by a heavy cement truck careering through the narrow streets, as they do, on the way to, and coming back from a construction site somewhere in the centre of the town. Not today shall I meet my end under the muddy wheels and tarmac thoroughfare, forgiveness, forgiveness, said in a whisper of unvoiced consonants, over and over.

Then later in the day, comfortable in my room, and what is it? There’s always something about the question that’s gently pondered, not posed, poised, considered… the pause before the dancer consciously walks across the stage; left foot point toe, place on floor, right foot point toe, and so on – complete the action swiftly. It has to be exactly the right question, but always not quite decided upon; what is it? Could it be that the contemplation of what this question is, is enough to begin to know it, without actually knowing it, for all intents and purposes? It just begins to be known, somehow… a kind of indirect situation that just falls into place, as we recognize it and see it thus, induced then deduced, who can say?

Words don’t hold meaning for very long, the question gets forgotten about, or possibly it’s still there in the detached state, just not functioning as a specific inquiry now, more like a wide-openness that’s waiting for an answer. In the same way as there are answers, lying in their own wide-openness waiting to be discovered. A non-verbal alertness, a strange familiarity, a passing recognition that seems to go on opening and opening and opening.


Photo taken from the aircraft window of the Bangkok flight yesterday. Excerpts from an earlier post: Somewhere in a former life

 

samsara of advertising

POSTCARD#307: Bangkok: Everywhere in shopping malls, magazines, TV channels, images exerting the ‘pull’ 24/7 so that we can easily, unknowingly enter into a world of choices – the idea that ‘I’ can have a personal preference, thus am I caught in ‘self’. The Western model, reshaped by East Asian style and adapted to fit Thai cultural behaviour. Stories acted out by adults who look like children; cute faces, attractive personalities, charm. Products presented as if it were a game, makes it all seem quite real and acceptable; the high-voltage sales strategy is unseen, cloaked in naivety – preparing for a whole new generation of consumers, a new Thai society – the corporate entity engaged in long term planning.

I can get caught by it, drawn towards the TV screen, something I see in the advert triggers it, and the who-I-am thing arises, and a voice inside me says: I LIKE THIS and it all gets to be really important, relevant, vivid and intense. I feel suddenly energized, compelled and, I WANT TO HAVE IT, ready to start discussing with sales staff at the retail point and proceed with the purchase; the plastic in my wallet getting hot, I’m being swept away by the samsara of advertising. Too bad because I can apply the brakes at this point, as it is in the patticcasamupada, remembering the way to stop craving (tanhã) arising, is to cut off the conditions that lead to its beginning; interrupt the sequence before craving happens, and bring the whole thing to an end. I know it will cease of its own accord if I can allow it to become nothing, and fortunately it’s all in a language I can switch off from so it all fizzles out…

To become the owner of a purchased product, I have to believe in it – I have to consciously engage with it. To become me, I have to think ‘me’. The ‘me’ that I believe in depends on me thinking it. I am conditioned to be attached to my opinions, my emotionality, and the sense of self in all kinds of ways. I can manipulate the conditioned world so that, from this perspective of thinking, I see (my) self situated favorably – or it could be unfavorably if I’m caught in being the victim (but there is always a way out). Everything arises due to causes and conditions, then thinking about it, excessively and often enough to have it appear to be embedded in the fabric of this self construct I recognize as ‘me,’ subject to its perceived whims and waywardness, as some kind of fictional character.

But there is a way out; everything that arises falls away. Let it go and it’s gone. The simple truth is don’t mess with it, don’t think it into being, and it won’t arise. Maintain a proximity-to but distance-from position: the Middle Way. There is viññāṇa, conscious awareness, self-sustaining; I don’t create it. There’s the body, moving through the population, minding its own business, other than that, no personal essence given to me by (some external force); nothing added, nothing extra. The simplicity of this seems to immediately throw everything to do with ‘self’ into disarray; enough to cause it all to come tumbling down; a house of cards. Knowing this, we can rebuild the concept with an awareness of its parts. Leading to a more enhanced sense of ‘self’ if that’s what seems preferable… nothing wrong with personality, it’s the attachment to it that’s the problem…


Excerpts from my earlier post: March 28, 2013. Photo image: Coke ad Ploenchit

contained spaces

POSTCARD#305: Bangkok: There’s a dream I had once and, as soon as I woke up, I wrote it down on a scrap of paper I found in my wallet. That paper was with me for years, and when I found it again, it was indistinct and the writing, a hard-to-read scribble. So I keyed it in before it was reduced to a fragment of paper and disappeared. Then a few years after that, I found the document and created a post with it, titled: before after’, published on April 12, 2016. There were a few comments including one from Michael who suggested an alternate ending. So, nearly 2 years later, I decided to rewrite the dream and have Michael’s idea stitched in near the end. It goes like this:

I’m standing at a bus stop, waiting for a bus. The bus arrives, stops at the stop, and I get on. Instead of ordinary bus seats, there’s furniture, sofas, armchairs, a small coffee table, TV, curtains on the windows, and it’s laid out like a room interior. I find a place and sit down. Other passengers on the bus are sitting in unmatched furniture, everybody looking around for the person who comes to get orders for snacks and drinks. Nobody comes, there’s a long interval of nothing happening at all and after a while I start to think maybe it’s because the bus hasn’t left the stop yet.

At the same moment I remember I left my shoes outside the door at the bus stop. This is because in all houses in Asia you have to leave your shoes outside when you enter. In the dream, there’s something I’m not sure about here, how to resolve the issue of leaving the shoes and never seeing them again? Okay, so I can just leave the shoes there and when I get off at the next bus stop, I’ll take someone else’s shoes (it happens in Buddhist monasteries).

Yes, but this still doesn’t feel like a satisfactory resolution, and I’m walking towards the door of the bus to bring my shoes in, even though I know they can’t be there because the bus has left the stop. There’s the feeling of motion, chairs and sofas all-sliding around slightly in the movement, and the sound of the bus as it is going along.

But when I look out the back door, there are my shoes lying on the pavement where I left them, and the bus hasn’t moved an inch! How could it be that the inside and the outside of the bus seem to have their own rules of logic? It’s like, I get on the bus, the door closes, and the inside of the bus is moving along – I can tell because there’s the feeling we are moving, the furniture is sliding around. But when I look outside, we are still in the same place.

Is it because stepping into a world contained inside the dream, means you are an observer in another dream – a whole other situation, with its own characteristics and its own context… a dream inside a dream? Shortly after that I wake up, and there’s the enigma of it, there’s the world as I perceive it, but outside of that, there’s another completely different world, just going along as things do? The example of the chicken hatching out of the egg, pecking it’s way out of the world of the egg and into another contained space, another world…

Everything changes once we identify with being the witness to the story instead of the actor in it. [Ram Dass]


 

the karma of getting there

POSTCARD#304: Chiang Mai : 7am: The sound of a text message wakes me; Jiab arrived in Bangkok. Overnight flight from Delhi – and… what’s this? “Have you ordered a taxi yet?” Hmm? Taxi? What day is it? Oh no! I’m leaving today, not tomorrow… a flash of movement, brush teeth, shower, fling clothes in bag… quick tidy-up of rooms, swallow a headache pill, into taxi and it’s a struggle to stop the rushing and bumping into things in my head, breathe slow and deep and just let the driver take me to the airport.

Okay for time, as long as nothing untoward takes place, like what happened on the way to the airport once, in a taxi stuck in a long line of cars. A very strong smell of something like an omelet… what’s going on? We get to the obstruction, a collision of some sort involving a pickup truck filled to the maximum with trays of eggs… broken eggs everywhere, egg shells floating in puddles of egg all over the road surface. The egg-man in the middle of the sea of raw eggs sitting on the edge of his truck, head in hands.

Reminds me I have my headache to think about, and how best to manage that having swallowed a pill before breakfast – slightly dizzy, just to make things worse. We are at the airport, and embark on the karma of this route; the directional momentum through escalators, corridors, doorways – catch a glimpse of other people in their karmic paths. I enter and exit enclosed airport spaces that contain me in their capacity for a moment then I’m gone. Passing through other portals, and down the narrow tube that brings me to my small seat area, looking out through the window, under the blue dome of sky, pink-white heavenly clouds: at 35,000 feet and this is your captain speaking, we are now descending to Bangkok where the weather is sunny and bright with a temperature of 34° Centigrade and 94° Fahrenheit.

I feel stretched, part of me is 367 miles away, back at the condo in Chiang Mai having breakfast and listening to the birds interrupt the silence. Another part of me is gone with M, to New Zealand. M is my Thai niece now aged 14. She looks like a miniature adult. It was the day before yesterday, I went with her to the airport, we all had lunch, me and M and her mum and after that, I’m in the back seat with M, bags everywhere, a leisurely drive to the airport, laughing and chatting.

Suddenly mummy says something in Thai about a passport, M replies, saying she doesn’t have it! Car swerves across the highway, U-turn at the next opening and we are headed back the way we came. Mummy driving like a mad person, steering with one hand on the wheel, and with the other, calling the teacher who is going with the kids to New Zealand to say sorry M might be a little late.

So we got there, Mummy runs into the house to get the passport and while she’s away, M says to me quietly that they had to leave their house that morning exactly at the auspicious time given them by a ‘holy’ person, and mummy forgot the passport then, because she was too busy with getting the exact time precisely  right.

Enough said about that, another wild race back to the airport. Meeting the others and it all ended well, M waved to me at departures, went to New Zealand and took a part of me with her.

It’s the karma of getting there, I’m just mindfully aware of the direction and being propelled through the portals and gateways: this and then that, and the next thing. Some people, burdened with their superstitions for better, for worse need to be blessed by the holy person – and I suppose some would regard the egg-man as an example of someone who should have gone to receive the blessing but he didn’t and there you are.

There are the waves and there is the wind, seen and unseen forces. Everyone has these same elements in their lives, the seen and unseen, karma and free will. [Kuan Yin]


 

monuments to playfulness

POSTCARD#300: Bangkok: Writing this in the house we’ve had for fifteen years. It’s in the suburbs, a gated community, mature trees, landscaped, and the birds and critturs moved in, settled, as if they had always been here. “Return To Go”, we come on the weekends nowadays, this is the nearest thing to home, our point of origin. Feels like home, looks like home, although most of its history the house has been empty, except for a cleaner coming once a week and D, our nephew, acting caretaker. He got married in 2014 and I wrote a post about that. Now there’s a boy-child in the house too, born 20th December 2017, almost the Christmas story but not quite.

On a Sunday morning there’s only birdsong and beneath that silence, I’m fathoms deep in sleep. Then I hear the child crying downstairs… a reminder I’m not seeking a forever state of contentment, just content with the state of things as they are. Not easy, even though, but I am deeply glad, grateful too that I don’t have to go and tend to the child – sympathies for his parents, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep.

No reason for Jiab and I to go beyond the joy of having a baby at home, into the harder reality of it all, because we are only there at the weekends and on Monday morning, we’re back in our very small rented downtown apartment. Only 10 minutes on the Skytrain from there, to the glitzy shopping malls and huge exotic foodhalls, I go there nearly every day, buy one fresh bagel for our breakfast and a few things I can pack in my small back pack, then home again.

So I’m learning how much everything has changed in Bangkok these days, after being away for 7 years and before that, temporary residency since 2003. Astonishingly elaborate Mall architecture, monuments to playfulness, shrines to maya (Sanskrit: illusion). More and more of these in Bangkok, new spending to suit a lightweight upbeat city culture, low labour cost and lavish “investments” … construction projects are ongoing.

It becomes more and more like a world-class city as the years go by, typically Asian, company staff dressed in bright floral uniforms hand out gifts to passers-by at the Skytrain exits. Usually I decline the offer but the other day it looked like they were giving away packets of shampoo, so I accepted. Then, laughter… a second woman took them out of my hand, saying ‘No, not for you,’ and gave me what she was handing out – hmmm, I don’t know what that was about, but this must be men’s shampoo, I thought.

When I got back to the apartment, I was putting away the bagel and things from the mall, then there were the brightly coloured packets – no product name displayed… oh-oh, not shampoo! Packets of contraceptives! I didn’t need to open the packet, could easily feel the contents with my fingers. So they all got flung in the bin.

I don’t understand how the first lady could have mistakenly offered me the product used by the female gender. I’m so obviously male, head and shoulders above the women, and a bristly, untrimmed beard. It’s the kind of mistake Thais make when they are ‘sapsong’ (confused)… maybe she was new to the job?

My mistake really, the sort of thing that happens when I don’t understand the language well enough, and anyway I’ve never had to use the Thai word for contraceptive ‘toong’ – in fact it’s the same word as plastic bag (it does what it says it does). I sometimes hear giggles when I buy something and they ask me, do I need a bag for that?


 

a window opening

POSTCARD#297: Bangkok: 6pm: A coffee shop near to Banglampoo, plugged into an iTunes track, when another sound breaks through; someone calling my name – there’s a man coming towards my table. I stand up too quickly and the headache stabs me, one earbud yanked out, and the phone spins away on the other one still attached, falls off the surface and hits the table leg; crash, bash.

Reaching for phone suspended on-cord-pulled-tight, thus thrust into real time, all-around sound… a face without a name appears. Mind-rush-through-memory-files, searching for nearest match. A hand extends into my space: ‘I saw you in the window!” he says, by way of explanation. It’s Jim! Remember me? How’re ya doin’ pal? – How long has it been? I shake his hand held out for handshake, warm firm grip.

Yes, it’s Jim, same face, older, threads of hair combed carefully over a bronzed skull with brown age spots on smooth old skin held at the corners like curtain folds beneath which, enquiring eyes look out… an unfinished sentence. Recognition starts to kick in, laughter – good-looking teeth, I see a row of white back molars, and for an instant, the smile seems to go all the way round 360 degrees, so that the upper half of his head becomes separated from the lower.

This is too weird; I manage to swallow a headache pill with a swig of water. How is it possible, running into each other like this after a decade or more in old Bangkok? He tears a piece off my paper coaster and writes his phone number on the back in large emphatic numerals. Sorry but he is on his way to somewhere else right now but I have to remember and give him a call. We shake hands again and he’s gone in the crowd.

Running into someone I know from decades ago; small world, I suppose – now I’m resident here until who knows when. My coffee cup balanced unevenly on a torn coaster, and in the centre of my vision, the other part with his phone number written on it. Should I call him tomorrow? It’s been so long, so much water gone under the bridge. What to say? Tell him about my headaches? Nope, that’s a whole discussion in itself. I pay the bill; get up and out into the huge sound of evening traffic.

All kinds of changes since I’ve been away, a proper place for pedestrians to walk, these streets seem to have moved into gentrification. Either that or I’m becoming part of recent history. My old buddy Jim would remember how it used to be, streetlights with bare wires twisted together in junction boxes, broken paving stones and the infrastructure of the city poking through into ordinary reality.

There’s always been a particular care in Thai behaviour, but these days there’s a civic responsibility that wasn’t there before. Streetlights show the patina of small slippered-feet-shuffle over smooth sidewalks. The handrails on pedestrian over-bridge, polished and worn smooth with Thai palms, fingertips, sliding along – I feel I’m part of them, holding on.

Should I call old Jim? Would it be relevant to him, me saying that I just moved back to Bangkok after a great number of journeys between here and Delhi, North India? Nope, that’d only confuse things; he would assume I’d been here all this time. Why go anywhere else, he’d ask. We are refugees from the West embedded in Thai society, gratitude to the population who just move over and make space for us.

What is it then? Under what circumstances do our paths cross here in this part of town after nearly 3 decades? Maybe it’s nothing, no reason… a window opening onto karmic flows, and for a moment we can see the functions of our relationships with each other – always a ‘birth’ of some sort in the creative unfolding, and then it moves on.

I should tell him, a child was born downstairs from us, 22nd December 2017, like something biblical. The baby son of Jiab’s nephew, I held the tiny being in my arms, a haze of soft black hair. We never had a child of our own; maybe we can borrow this one for a while. Recognition of body heat, breathing, moisture of mouth, the small weight. Eyes slide open at the sound of my voice, a blue glaze of filminess. Could be an ancient artifact – the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself: anicca dukkha anatta.