By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
After the samlohr driver dropped me off back at the Nan Guest House, I was tired from walking a lot but not sleepy. It was only 3:00 in the afternoon, so I found a chair on the porch and just sat in the pleasant late afternoon air for a long time. It reminded me a little bit of Kampan’s porch in Chiang Mai.
I’m not sure how old the pre-toddler was who caught my eye. His mother was holding his two hands from behind as he made exuberant attempts at walking. His walking was even worse than my waddling, but he was loving the learning process.
He had a big grin on his face as he made his five meter dashes across the small lobby before collapsing in a heap on the floor with a squeal. Ten seconds of catching his breath and he’d hold up his hands to his mother to try it again.
The little tike and I had some things in common. We both had trouble walking and both of us fell a lot. His falls, however, didn’t hurt as much as mine, because he had a lot shorter distance to fall and his body was a lot more limber than mine. So, when I’m out doing my penguin waddle, I’m constantly aware that with my next step I might trip, fall and hurt myself. Walking is no longer pleasurable in itself. It’s something I have to do in order get where I want to go.
I was again reminded that a big part of aging or dealing with a disability involves letting go of abilities we used to have.
In contrast, the little fella I was watching found the process of learning to walk a joyful experience. He was acquiring abilities and seemed to never tire of the thrill of learning new skills. His mother got worn out before he did.
Not having his “training wheels” anymore, he resorted to crawling, exploring every corner of the lobby. At one point, he crawled under a table. His mother, who had been watching his every move, realized that if he stood up, her child would bang his head on the underside of the table top. She got up from her chair, moved over to the table and held her hand above her son’s head, so if he did stand up her hand would cushion his head as it hit the immoveable object directly above him.
For the second time in an hour, I thought of Jesus’ reference to himself as a mother chicken who cares for and protects her little ones. But, then I got to thinking. Was that mom unintentionally cheating her son out of a chance to learn about reality? I mean, if the little guy would stand up without her protection, he’d experience pain for sure, but no permanent damage would be done, and he’d never forget the important lesson that when crawling under tables, always look up before you stand up.
As I was pondering what the Buddha would say about the mother’s behavior, another guest named David joined me on the porch. Turns out the guy was about my age, had a U.S. passport and lived in Beijing with his Chinese wife. He presented an air of cosmopolitan sophistication. Several social classes above me, I figured.
To my surprise, he engaged me in a conversation, and after chatting for awhile, he asked me what caused my slurred speech and stiff gait. For some reason, I almost always enjoy talking about my neurological disorder, so I explained that it is something like ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but is not fatal, and that I’d had symptoms for at least fifteen years.
He listened to my story intently, and when I had finished, he said, “You seem to be handling your misfortune very well. You aren’t depressed and have a great attitude.”
I had heard comments like David’s often, so it didn’t catch me without an answer I could have given him—a kind of talking point ready to hand out on cue. Nevertheless, I found myself thinking about his statement for a moment before responding. “I’m only in a good place now, because I’ve done my grief work,” I said.
When I saw him raise his eyebrows, I continued, “What I’ve learned is that you can’t jump from a loss directly into a happy adjustment. The leaders of my divorce recovery group years ago kept telling us that the only way out of pain is through it. I think they’re right. I’m not depressed now, partly because I allowed myself to feel depressed for awhile early on.”
I was feeling pretty satisfied with my response to David until I heard the Buddha talking to me in the back of my mind. “You see what I mean? Attachments cause suffering. No exceptions to the rule. If you want to be finally free from suffering, you have to accept deep in your psyche that everything is impermanent and then detach. OK, you’re feeling better right now, but you had to suffer to get where you are. And it’s only a matter of time before you. . . .”
I thought about what I had just told David and the Buddha’s critique of what I had said for a moment as we sat in silence on the porch and the shadows lengthened on the soi. Is it really true that it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?
I considered revising my statement to my new and temporary friend but decided against it. Instead I suggested that the two of us and his wife go out to dinner together. Word of our plans made its way around the guest house quickly so that by the time we were ready to order, our little party had grown to six foreigners: a Norwegian man named Lars who had married a Thai and spent his winters in Thailand and summers in Norway, a French woman who had just spent two weeks in Myanmar, a guy from Canada, David’s Chinese wife, David and me.
Assuming that all Norwegians are Lutherans, I made an attempt at connecting with Lars by saying that I, too, am a Lutheran. Contrary to my plans—once again—my statement triggered a five minute rant by Lars about how religion is to blame for all the evils in the world and that it’s simply a means for the powerful to control the masses. He was an atheist, he said, but if he were to practice a religion it would be Buddhism. You never hear of Buddhists starting wars, he said in conclusion.
I could have lectured Lars on the history of wars between Thailand and Burma to the west and the Khmer kingdom to the east. I could have ticked off a long list of the good things for which Christian missionaries are responsible in Thailand like schools, hospitals and social service agencies, but I held my tongue.
When I was twenty years younger I would have felt like I had to respond to Lars’ rant, to set him straight, to adjust his attitude. The reason I kept silent was not because I lacked confidence. I had earned a Doctor of Minister degree and had a lot of intellectual ammunition with which to assault him.
I didn’t say anything, because I had learned over the years that people see “reality” through different kinds of mental lens. Some call it their world view. Others refer to it as a plausibility structure. It’s why, for example, I tended to see the good things that happened to me earlier in the day as gifts from a loving Father, while the Buddhist monk I had talked to back in Bangkok’s train station would say the good things were the result of my kaama (karma).
If you look at life through the lenses in a microscope, for another example, you will see realities like single cell critters which other people never notice, but you’ll never, ever see the stars. And, if someone told you that billions of stars existed, you might suspect that they were making it up at best or delusional at worst.
Lars’ cynicism about religion made me think back to my futile attempts at explaining grace to those young monks at the monk chat at Wat Chedi Luang. I was taught that the dictum, seeing is believing, is true. More and more I have come to think that what we believe determines what we see.
I was taught to not judge other people until I had walked a mile in their shoes. That means, it seems to me, that the shoes you walk in shape how your eyes perceive what is real and what is illusion, what is plausible and what is not. So, if I want Buddhists to understand grace, how do I bridge the psycho/social/cultural gap and give them the experience of walking in my Western shoes, of viewing reality through biblical lenses? Especially, if that’s the last thing they want to do?