sadness of passing things

POSTCARD#288: Chiang Mai: It’s all coming to an end here, I go back to Delhi tomorrow and today is the 5th of November… remember, remember the fifth of November. Scary things, monsters and Halloween coming to an end too, for my Thai niece M aged 13 who is not interested in it any more. Not interested in witches hats and dressing up – dressing up maybe yes, interested. Or dressing down, torn jeans and earbuds in, and deaf to the world. It’s about how one is seen, ‘selfing’ like an actor playing a part, and the audience is swept away. “Bye-bye Toong-Ting, see you in December”, and she’s in the car and gone. I go downstairs to get something, along the lane to the main road, warm air, tall buildings create shade. Sadness; remembering M as a cute kid holding my hand and skipping along beside me… these days are gone.

Sadness still, over the passing of the King, noticeable in the absence of remembrance wreathes that were there everywhere in the town (and all over the country) for a year of bereavement. The feeling that something important has been taken away; this is how it is all through Thailand these days. A sense of his presence remains in the hearts of the population, manifest in all of the thousands of rural projects he initiated over a lifetime. I feel the presence too, it’s simple, the King lives on… he was a devout Buddhist, and the way I see it now, he reached enlightenment – I thought, surely it must be that everyone else can see it this way too, but then understood such a thing was best left unsaid.

This is how the experience was for me; I’d been watching the cremation ceremony on TV until quite late, and in the morning I felt his presence all through the apartment, out on the balcony, in the sky, the clouds, reflected light in the fields of paddy and all the way, it must be, to everywhere in the country. I feel his presence in the air, assimilated in the structural elements of materiality; the buildings and all through my surroundings now walking along the lane, as I used to with M as a child, holding on to one of my fingers as if it were the branch of a tree.

Out of the shadow, into the sunlight. Same sunshine we all feel as it strikes the retina… reaching for my sunglasses. A wetness in the eye, vestiges of mourning almost gone with the experience of the passing-away of someone dear to us. A large part of the Thai has simply gone… yet things just go on. Behind me comes the sound: toot-tootle-toot! And a man on a three-wheeled bicycle gets my attention with his little horn: toot-tootle-tee-tootle-too. He’s selling pieces of cut fruit – inquires with raised eyebrow if I’d like to buy some. I fell drawn to it but politely decline, thanks no; I’m just looking around.

As silence is not silence, but a limit of hearing.
As some strings, untouched, sound when no one is speaking.
So it was when love slipped inside us.
As this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it.
The heart’s actions
are neither the sentence nor its reprieve.
Salt hay and thistles, above the cold granite.
One bird singing back to another because it can’t not
[Jane Hirshfield, Come, Thief]


Photo, Buddha Rupa Ayutthaya: http://13966960783_a630225cb8_b.jpg

last of the world’s kings

POSTCARD#287: Chiang Mai: Thailand is in mourning today, the funeral ceremony for King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Everywhere in the land, Buddhist ceremonies combined with Hindu and Animist beliefs are taking place, and TV coverage in all channels of the ceremony as it’s taking place in Bangkok.

A quote from Sir John Gielgud, narrator of the 1979 BBC documentary, ‘The Royal Family of Thailand’, describes the Thai king as, “the last of the kings of South East Asia” and, “one of the last of the world’s kings” – unknowingly descriptive of our time, 48 years further on, and the mourning day for the late king. There’s a new king of course, King Vajiralongkorn, the only son, but naturally there’s a feeling right now that with the old king, the lineage of historical kings has come to an end.

It’s this sense of ‘the end’, for me, a Western resident in Thailand since 1984; ‘the end’ is present in all our thoughts, bringing everything to a close. A sense of release and the sudden discovery that the death of the king is another teaching for the people who have followed him all their lives; a bridge from life to death for all of us and we knew it already, everyone and everything comes to an end; there is death and the passing on.

Another quote from Sir John Gielgud: “Thailand, one of the last countries in the world, still in touch with its past. Where ancient traditions can be adapted to suit the pressing needs of today’s world. A well-loved king, distinguished successor to ancient ancestors, who made use of his ritual sanctity, and his personal popularity to get things done to improve the people’s welfare.”

There’s no doubt in the minds of the population; the king lives on in the form of all of the projects he initiated. HM began the royal-initiated projects in 1950, and now there are thousands, all over the country, agriculture, water management, training, education. One of these is the artificial rain-making project for farming communities dependent on seasonal rain to grow crops, having to face severe drought conditions in the dry season. HM read research work on meteorology and weather modification and in 1955, HM used his own funds to launch the Royal Rainmaking Project.

Kukrit Pramoj “The monarchy is the soul of the Thai people. The king is more than a ceremonial head, he is the head of the clan; the father of a very big family of Thais. He is the source of Thai culture, everything emanates from him; behaviour, his way of life; the Buddhist religion seems to us, to emanate from the king and the monarchy.”

Ninety-five percent of Thais are practising Buddhists. “Thailand’s devout Buddhism is both a strength and a weakness. The weakness is that Buddhism encourages an acceptance of the status quo, for each person has many lives and the next one may be pleasanter. The strength is that there’s a moral and philosophical unity here that very few countries in the world now possess.” [Sir John Gielgud]


The night before, sleeping in the rain.
Cremation of the king

are birds free?

img_5495POSTCARD #242: New Delhi: Early afternoon flight yesterday, from Ch’mai to Bangkok gets in around 2pm, and Jiab was waiting for me at Arrivals. She had travelled up from the south that same morning. So we go by taxi into town, planning to get there for the 4pm appointment at a central Bangkok hospital to have the needle in the scalp, right occipital nerve (PHN nerve block treatment).

Clear road, all the way in, elevated highway, seemingly afloat without support, and pointing in a line between these tall skinny glass/steel buildings on either side, reaching up into the sky from foundations somewhere down below – a futuristic sci-fi city perspective image drawn with straight road penetrating into the urban landscape reducing down to a single vanishing point. Our exit comes up about 45 minutes into the drive, and the outside lane slopes off down into the shadowy gloom of street level – traffic yes, but no hold up at all. Good, it’s that time of day when lunch hour is finished and school-pick-up traffic not yet begun.

Suddenly we’re in town and what struck me was, so many people wearing black. Everywhere… you could say the entire population was dressed like this. I’d forgotten the country is in mourning. TV announcers wear black, the backgrounds against which they sit are in shades of black. Blackness is a tangible thing, a world devoid of color, now into the third month since the death of their exceptional King.

The city functions as it normally does and for us, a clear pathway opens up through traffic, green lights all the way. Into narrower streets, and narrower still, then the one-way urban lane (soi) network, typical of Asian cities, with minimum clearance between walls on either side for cars and motorbikes traveling at high speed.

The acceleration and rapid gear change sounds, insistent GPS voice on the driver’s phone in Thai and on Jiab’s iPad in English, overlapping each other, causing them to have to shout to be heard – identifying the turnings to take, no, not this one, the next one the urgency and confusion of it was exactly the wrong thing for my headache. But we’re there in no time, arriving at the place exactly 4pm.

Tumble out of the taxi, along the corridor, into the small neurology/pain management outpatients, and my name is called just then, as if I’d been sitting in the waiting room for half an hour. Good to not have that nervous anticipation of worrying as the clock ticks on. So I get up on the gurney and into the lying-down position, left side, with head on pillow. The nurse pulls curtain: shweesh, all the way round: shweesh, Doc is saying; now you may feel a little pain here. Needle slides in… the initial shock of it is astonishing, barely a hair’s width, narrow-gauge hypodermic, and I’m aware of pressure; he’s pushing it around, trying to get the nerve, then the time it takes to void the syringe. Everything moves up a notch, jaw clench, rigid body and holding in the mind – is this what hell is like? Immediately the small ‘self’ leaves the body. A voice says now take a deep breath, and the needle comes out.

The ease of the anesthetic kicks in immediately. Euphoria and laughter, the silliness of rubbery knees articulating legs, and shock of feet unexpectedly impacting with floor as we walk along the corridor and wait there for a while. It’s over; I’m folded into another taxi home, and must have slept all the way through. Awake again at 3 am for the first flight over here to New Delhi. Anesthetic has worn off by this time and there’s the pain of the bruise where the needle went in and I don’t remember much about that journey, only later I realized the headache came along too.

One good thing is I’m getting nearer to an acceptance of it; the actual pain, and what I make of it, are two different things. At the start, September 2015, all the doctors I spoke with said it would get better after a year, and when you pass the 5-year milestone, it would be much easier. The sort of thing prisoners doing a life sentence might depend on, I thought at the time. But it is true – hectic it may be, I can see in the interval of time passed, the headache seems to be not as bad as it was, because there’s no memory of what life was like without it.

Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me, “How good, how good does it feel to be free?” And I answer them most mysteriously, “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?” [Bob Dylan, Ballad in Plain D]


 

light in the darkness

img_0050POSTCARD #229: New Delhi: The photo on the left is from our Thai social network, continuing sad imagery mourning the death of the King. The allegory of light in the darkness is significant in many countries in the world. Here in India at this time of year there’s the festival of Diwali – the date is calculated according to the position of the moon and the Hindu lunar calendar. This year (2016) Diwali occurs on 30 October, one day before Halloween on 31 October which would have had the same lunar date in ancient times.

The Diwali festival is observed by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, celebrating the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. In the days prior to the festival, it is traditional for business contracts to be completed, homes to be cleaned and anything unfinished must be brought to a satisfactory close.

The Halloween festival in 21st century Western society marks this lunar event with a playful portrayal of the spirits of darkness and evil coming back to life. At a glance, it would seem to be the opposite of the Diwali festival. Halloween is about dressing up like the dead who wander the streets, knocking on doors and seeking hospitality from the living. Whereas, Diwali is about lighting up your home with candles, color and brightness, exchanging gifts, wearing new clothes and receiving guests.

In both cases, however there is this imagery of a light in the darkness. For the Halloween festival (Celtic Samhain), the dead emerge from darkness into the light and remain here for 24 hours then disappear, a time of great significance in pagan religions of the West. Similar mythology for Diwali surrounding Amāvāsyā, and the dark moon lunar phase, the period when the moon is invisible against the backdrop of the Sun in the sky.

Diwali and Halloween both take place on a ‘cross-quarter day’, the halfway point between a solstice and equinox – a time of seasonal change marked by the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. For the ancients in both East and West, the invisible moon became part of a spiritual teaching; the unity of opposites, life and death, and why things are the way they are. Spirits were (are?) a tangible presence, benign or hostile, and gather at this time of year when food and drink are shared among the living and offered as a gesture of appeasement for the dead.

Here in New Delhi on Diwali night, people light up diyas (lamps and candles) inside and outside their home, and participate in family puja (prayers). There are also huge firework displays, which recall the celebrations believed to have taken place in the legend of Lord Rama and his wife Sita returning to their kingdom in northern India after defeating the demon king Ravanna in 15th century BC.

Significant also for all Thais, although Diwali is not celebrated there, this lunar event marks the passing away of the much loved monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej at the age of 88, the world’s longest-serving head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history, serving for 70 years, 126 days.

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images of mourning


POSTCARD #227: New Delhi: Seen from the air, mourners gather and take their positions to form the Thai numeral 9. The formal title of the Thai King, Rama IX. Found on our Thai social network page, dated 19 October.

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Source of the Thai song: https://ilovethaisong.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/homage-to-the-buddha-the-buddhists-song/