Chiang Mai holy man
It is 5am on a Tuesday morning and I am sitting on a red, plastic stool in the old Chiang Mai market, lost in a dream, watching a young Thai man eat a bowl of soupy noodles and another man chewing on deep fried pork rind. It is still dark and the ripped, cloth awning at the front of the market throws faint fluorescent light back onto the small stalls selling flowers, food, meat and fruit. At the back of the market caged chickens cluck in alarm, seeming to realise their impending fate.
Local Northern Thais are talking and laughing as they bargain for field fresh produce, their voices bouncing like bell chimes, as red chillies, yellow mangos, small, sweet strawberries and brown garlic are wrapped and exchanged for hard won, Thai baht.
Freshly killed chunks of pork hang from hooks, as plastic fans discourage the gathering flies and push the cool air up from the beds of ice below.
I am well and truly out of my comfort zone.
Can my back get any closer to the wall? Can my legs be crossed any tighter? I am hugging my body as I dare not let go because I feel deeply unsettled.
Clean, sober and loved so I should be grateful, but self-doubt rings clearly off this cracked cement and tile floor.
As I gaze around, on another plastic stool, to the front and right there is a bloke holding a skateboard talking to an absent, invisible mate about his love of music and at the top of his voice, straight out of the blue he says to me in broken English;
‘If my people have got some where to live and somewhere to eat, they have hope.’
And I ask him;
“Where can you ride a skateboard in Chiang Mai brother? The roads are not smooth enough for cars!”
“There are places at night. I can show you.” He smiles and shows his broken, brown teeth. “All you need is a heart, a plank and ya ba.”
Aaaaahh. Ya ba! Brown Thai speed….
The thought of amphetamines triggers forgotten urges and the need courses through my body but bang, I thankfully snap back to the now. My sorry, self-indulgent musing makes me swallow spit in my immaculately manicured mouth. I am often barren but my soul is brought back by the young skater in his fraying LA Dodgers cap and ripped Ramones T shirt. An ancient, small woman walks by me with feet that seem too painful to be upright on, as an old Thai man with a long pony-tail and a Mao Tse Tung hat wanders past me and starts playing a chipped flute in the camouflaged corner behind. A haunting, beautiful ballad of longing, loss and love. Just moments before I was casting Western superiority over everyone in this bustling market but quietly I come back into who I am as a man, and humanity in the space around gives me peace.
You see, they are alive and I am vanilla, watered down by commitment, timetables and debt.
The young skater with his wispy, black beard continues to argue with an imaginary brother in his head. He wants to talk to me but he knows I have nothing more vital to say. I do not need to talk, just smile and listen to the bustle around me and the false promise of a distant, harbour city falls away.
Yes, the propaganda we collectively believe in is a lie.
Our Western lives are battlegrounds.
Our cities are war zones.
We Westerners speak a language of distance yet implore people to believe our social media philosophy of meaning and success, but in moments, rare and haunting, we know we pedal lies. Truth is in the women, men and children of this market. It is not a truth than can be said nor believed, but only embodied.
This is a community.
Chiang Mai is a thriving city and its markets are the heart, the lungs and the stomach.
So I stop for a moment and breathe, and listen again, and how I feel and how I act does not matter, and I understand my discontent, understand the irritability.
The dust and spice of Chiang Mai floats around the narrow, busy streets, like a halo of forgotten, childhood whispers.
An old fella wakes up from a fitful sleep on a bending stool propped up by the wall beside me, and he scratches a grey, dirty beard and mentally prepares himself for another day. He looks at me and smiles a small, accepting smile. I nod and smile back. It is all I can offer. Anything more would be hollow.
My mental game of solo is interrupted by a humble, young woman in yellow robes.
She is suddenly standing before me and says with a smile that would light a warrior’s heart;
‘Ton bun is ready to see you.’
Her English is tilting and musical.
Her jet black hair is shining.
My heart, this mended heart, skips a beat and I rise in anticipation and anxiety, and she leads me down a dark alley that runs beside the left side of the market. We weave around motor bikes, up a set of frighteningly, old wooden stairs to meet the man whose spirit magically guided me to Northern Thailand and the river city of Chiang Mai.
This ton bun (holy man) and I have things to talk about but I know the silence between the words will have greater meaning.
His name is Yoshi. A humble monk born in Kyoto, Japan but living in Chiang Mai. A prophetic voice of the alleys, terraces and markets that are sheltered by the ageing temples, shops and backpacker hostels that surround the old city.
He has gifted me an audience, and as I reach the top landing before the turn to his rooms, the self-doubt returns.
‘How can I be so awkward? Why do I feel the need to talk about myself when I connect with a real other?’ But I push the doubt down, because I am aware that the drive to be accepted becomes the fracture to the spirit and to be authentically IN spirit is when I am connected with another human being.
I hold my breath and my guide opens the door, and ushers me in with a delicate, caramel hand.
My eyes adjust to the dimmer light of the draped surroundings and there he sits on a tatami matted floor, wrapped in a Thomas the Tank blanket.
Yes, a child’s Thomas the Tank blanket!
Life radiates off him.
He shines and the darkened room is alight with his presence.
He nods and smiles, and quietly asks;
“Do you want herbal tea? It stops me eating bean curd” and he cackles a joyous laugh and I laugh with him, and all is well.
Just for this moment.
He points to the floor in front of him and says; “Come, sit with me and tell me what is occupying your busy mind.”
In my awkward Western way, I collapse to the floor and jump right in….
‘Ton bun, how do I calm myself and find a way to truly connect with another human being? How do I translate my own victory over addiction to a peaceful journey of the spirit?’
“You don’t muck around do you? I am very well by the way but fair enough, philosophy it is…”
I drop my head a little, but I sense this is fertile ground for the monk and it is only a moment before he begins.
“Do we need to translate anything in order to be captured by the web of life? Life is always present in those around US. The ME does not need to be defeated. The ME is merely the familiar thought processes that take place when everyone and everything is our object. However, in the presence of true love and full acceptance the battle is over, or more accurately, never begins. We do not disappear rather we come to life and become fully ourselves in the presence of the other.”
‘So, you are saying communion of the spirit lives naturally in the group and not in the individual but my experience has shown me that the quiet voice of God and the subsequent gift of freedom of choice exists in the silence between the stimulus and the behaviour. In the gap between the I and the ME…..in other words, freedom of choice.’
He nods and tries to speak, but I jump back in because I sound so wise, so developed…
‘And taking this further, if the natural state of the human being is discontent, surely the success of connection between ME and You is dependent on both human beings being removed from discontent by practical meditation and prayer?’
He chuckles quietly; “Aaah, a Buddhist too! Yes, the solo act of stepping out of the ME into I is via prayer and meditation, but I would say there is no technique that achieves meeting. The web of life is something by which YOU are captured, not something that IS captured. There is a place for prayer and meditation, not as a technique to achieve something else, but as an act that is the very purest example of love.”
“Your Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again. Death and resurrection was an act of love between Father and Son. He died so you might live. When you go to Him in prayer you are resurrected. Pure love!”
He has the knack of framing powerful concepts in simple words and I come back into myself. My younger self wants to argue, wants to push back and he sees my inner conflict and lets me think this through before we speak again.
His helpers frequently come to the room and whisper in his ear.
“This one I have to solve,” and he walks out to an adjoining, small room overlooking the alley below.
As he talks softly in Thai to a woman in the room adjacent, I resume my internal argument:
‘It’s ok for you’ I say to myself ‘but the choice to engage with YOU when my freedom of choice is often solitude can make the ‘joy’ of connection a task.’
I choose not to meet with YOU and I becomes ME, so ME fights willingly to retreat into the darkened safety of a corner where the cobwebs camouflage my real intent.
As I break out of my revelry he re-enters the room, and like a mind reader he recommences the dialogue;
“A loving man has no obligation at all. Duty and obligation is what we render to strangers, but to love is an act of intimacy. Every person encountered in love is no stranger, and when a loving man meets an evil man, MORE love is required.”
“But ton bun, here lies the catch. If I face evil or passive aggression, the fight or flight instinct kicks in and I feel like a cornered wild animal. The last thing I feel like doing is showing more love. It is not just a mental thought but a physical reaction.”
He nods and acknowledges my battle and as he leans forward and opens his mouth to speak he is called on again, this time to talk to a family in turmoil down in the alley.
“I will be back.”
I have more time to think.
So, when the reaction is ‘my freedom is under threat’, YOU battle to win my trust, and time has proven this paradox a firmly applied block to acceptance.
Past messages of loss bounce stubbornly in the shadows.
In the space between the embracing I and the accepting YOU is a block where my blood pools and the anger rises. This is a block I do not have the skill or knowledge to remove, or if emotionally honest, the will to remove.
This block, this wall of self-righteous attitude, can be more powerful than my meditated freedom of choice.
My thoughts are broken by a creaking floorboard outside the door, the door opens and there he stands as if he never left. He shakes his head, again looking straight through to my soul. He knows what I am thinking.
Truly, he is a holy man.
“Why do you fight so hard with yourself? To be captured by the web of life is not a matter of willpower. The web of life is life. The present is present. The present is presence. Why is your reaction self-sabotage when someone else doesn’t see you, because they are too far away or because they are too close? There is no block in you. To be human is to feel melancholy. Feel it. Hear it. See it. It is not failure but preparation for true presence. You are alive and one of the features of being fully alive is often a deep sadness that comes from recognising beauty that is unknown to the person whose beauty may capture You.”
As the blanket covered monk strolls back into the room, his words echo in my ear. Rising from the floor on an elbow, I turn and nod;
‘It is not that hard. Not that complicated. I am a martyr to my own cause’
The doubt convinces me that as much as my intentions are honourable, MY personal victory of being available is also dependent on YOUR personal victory of being available.
The battle of availability is not unique. It spreads like a virus among us all.
If the outcome is dependent on community, how do we step out of personal infatuation?
Is not the solution the problem?
Or is it?
Can we connect as a community yet still connect in that gossamer thread that honours the I and the YOU?
How does a thread become a web if it appears that the variables to creating a web are too great between human beings?
It is hidden in the humanity.
The greatest gift of self-care is the ability to say No but the greatest gift of connection is when WE say Yes. As I slip back into my Buddhist self the sage gently guides me back into the NOW.
“I would think the greatest gift is not self-care, but learning how to stand your ground and be yourself in the presence of another. Someone who wants you because of who you are or because you are the answer to all their dreams or because they need you to believe as they do…none of these people see you at all. It is not an act of self-care so much as simply seeing the person in front of you and to be blown away by their beauty. Accept that you are invisible to them except as a thing to be used or experienced. It is what it is.”
It is what it is!
Freedom from the ME is awash in contradiction.
Yet, it can be won.
When ALL is new, the I and the YOU can be held.
Yes, it can hold fast in passion, love and infatuation.
The fascination of being new holds strong.
The wonder of learning the YOU and letting go of the I, creates the stronger, stickier thread.
But, when the new becomes the old, the regular ME steps between I and You.
The problem becomes the solution and the problem denies the solution.
‘Does the person or feeling need to be held or just merely experienced and rejoiced?’
As the holy man sips his herbal tea, he looks up at me, his bushy eyebrows raised:
“It cannot be held or not for long. The harder you hang on, the faster it evaporates. Your objection is that of a child that thinks sleep is depriving them of life rather than equipping them for life. It is the inclination of the addict who thinks “highs” should be perpetuated. I would say the joy of I and YOU is in love but love is a process by which the ideal dies and the real begins to live. This isn’t a negative process, it is our salvation. The sooner passion or certainly infatuation dies, the sooner you will know it is the other that you are meeting rather than the ideal that you invented. Being disillusioned is not a problem, it is just evidence that you were suffering from illusions.”
Ouch! His delivery is gentle and kind but he hits like a heavy weight boxer. I know in my heart his words are true and I hear his peace but I continue to argue as our tea steeps;
‘Yes, I hear you, but unconditional love is rare. Too rare! And I would say when love dies God is the TRUE friend when the dawn has no friends to show. Only HE can close the gap or fill the void that grows between I and You.’
“The gap IS the holy place. It is the place where the divine fire burns. He is the gap and without the gap there is no relation.”
‘But my problem is ME and history has shown this to be true. Again and again.’
Yet, I see myself as so unique, so valuable but ultimately I am just a speck of wind-blown dust.
‘Does the solution of a meaningful life exist in the paradox of a short life and an infinite death? And there lies our state of discontent?’
“I would say that there is nothing natural about the state of discontent. Common perhaps but not natural. It is an unnatural state and something that we actively work for and achieve when we try to possess the unpossessable – when we cannot accept the natural rhythms of life – when we burn with desire to experience and use and possess.”
‘So, is the nature of man and woman to seek an answer even though we are a pre-planned equation?’
“Who says that death is infinite? If you have died and been reborn a thousand times as your ideal dies and you wake to the presence of the real, why would you not be assured of something quite familiar when on your death bed? Science tells us that energy cannot be destroyed so…who knows.”
‘The answer is a moment. Is it that simple? A moment. Live the moment and move forward with another moment, and another, and another.’
“Maybe. I like the idea that prayer doesn’t happen in time but rather time happens in prayer. There are some moments that contain all moments. When we are fully alive as I and YOU, we have no use of a watch. Ask young people in love to be home by a certain time and see what your language is worth to them.”
Then, as if nothing has changed, but just moved on….he is done. He nods, and drops his head to a book sitting on the tatami mat by his side. Like an addict I want to keep talking, keep hanging on, but he is done and there will be a meeting on another day.
He looks at me one last time.
“Come back next Tuesday morning at the same time and we will make bean curd together.”
I walk down the alley and out onto the busy street. The markets are closing and the sun has just started to rise.
The Earth has turned and another day has begun.