Friday, May 31, 2013

How Not to Run an Airline

How Not to Run an Airline

Miss Salaya, the Grand Inquisitor of Air Asia

I would like to share with my friends a wild and hideous experience I had last week travelling on Air Asia to Hong Kong with my nephew Top, one of Thailand's outstanding young violinists.

I had paid extra money for the privilege of sitting in the front row of the plane, close to the lavatory and with the advantage of being able to be the first off the plane.  At the beginning of the flight, we enjoyed the privilege greatly; I used the loo a few times, Top did so once, we had a meal, and we both fell asleep; it looked like it would be a pleasant flight.

About 40 minutes from arrival, I was awakened by a conversation; the stewardess was interrogating Top.  She was accusing him of stealing the life jacket from underneath his seat and inflating it in the lavatory.  And she was doing so in a manner which suggested that he had murdered someone.

Top had done no such thing, of course, and dozens of people had gone to the lavatory since we had done so near the beginning of the flight.

I said to her, "I watched him go to the toilet.  To remove the live vest, you would have to get up, reach under the seat, and actually physically take it out.  This is not an act that I would fail to notice.  He did not do so."

She said, "But you are travelling with him, and therefore you are lying."

I asked Miss Salaya (I noted the name) whether the life vest was in fact now missing from under his seat.  She said it was the only one missing.  I asked how she knew.  (She had not looked under his seat, or any other seat.)  She said she just knew.  I asked whether the live vests had been properly tallied before takeoff.  She said they had been.  I said, "Do you have a checklist with everything properly checked off?"  She spluttered and fumed.  I said, "Have you questioned the dozens of people who used the toilet after Top, to determine why none of them saw an inflated life vest in the toilet, which must have filled up the space and made it impossible to use the facilities?"  She spluttered and raged some more, and kept insisting that we were lying.  I asked her whether her aggressive and inquisitorial manner might not be an attempt to cover up for the airline's own negligence in not properly checking every item before takeoff.  She insisted that all the evidence pointed to Top as the culprit, and that I simply lying, and that my point of view didn't fit the facts — however, she did not furnish any facts to contradict my point of view.

The stewardess's behaviour went far beyond an attempt to find out what had happened.  It was an attempt to bully me and Top into perjuring ourselves — presumably because if Top did not "confess", the only alternative truth would have been that the airline had not performed its pre-flight check thoroughly enough.  Which is a far more credible possibility than the theory the stewardess was trying to ram down our throats - without even bothering to look under Top's seat, or anyone else's seat, or question anyone else, and merely because Top, a seasoned air traveller with thousands upon thousands of air miles under his belt, looked young and therefore was clearly some kind of juvenile delinquent.  Her posturing and bullying were reminiscent of a bad TV courtroom drama, and had nothing to do whatsoever with establishing any facts.

Indeed, during the entire period of the stewardess's questioning, she was insisting that the life vest under Top's seat was missing, so since we were flying over water this entire time, according to her statement the airline must have been criminally liable for that entire period should any accident have occurred.  However, Miss Salaya, the stewardess, did not consider the idea of looking under the seat, checking whether their system had misregistered, or any other answer other than an assumption of Top's guilt.

After some twenty minutes of this grilling, the stewardess returned to her seat because the plane had to land.  As soon as it landed, she announced that no one was to leave the plane.

Six policemen then boarded the plane and the stewardess spoke energetically to them and pointed furiously to us.  The policemen began barking viciously in Cantonese.  I said, "I haven't a clue what you're talking about — please find an interpreter."

Salaya denouncing the passengers to the authorities.

Eventually a more senior police officer who spoke English showed him.  Once I explained the situation to him, he began to realize the absurdity of it all.  The stewardess was still standing around being accusatory, but the officer could see that they had absolutely no evidence to prove that Top was some kind of criminal.

Unfortunately, they had released all the other passengers so there was in fact no way the truth could now be arrived at, and they never performed a check on any seats to see whether any other life jackets were missing.  Since we were seated in the front row, the stewardess had simply seized on the most convenient suspects before launching into her Torquemada-like rant.

"Your uncle!!! Why??"

We were detained for some forty minutes despite the fact that I paid extra to be the first to leave the plane.  In the end the police officer said, "Of course we cannot rule out the possibility that Top did this, but I don't know them and I don't know you, and there is simply no evidence."  He then let us go.

Well, yes.  I told her so in the first place.

As we left, Top took the stewardess's photo in an attempt to have a record of the situation as we will of course complain to Mr. Bijleveld, the CEO of the company, whose daughter is Top's school friend.  She flew into a rage at that point, leading me to suspect that it was beginning to dawn on her that the airline might indeed have been negligent in the first place and that she might actually get into trouble.   Oh yes, we informed Salaya that we could get to her boss very easily.  In the last 30 seconds of our sojourn with Air Asia, Salaya suddenly became very sweet and told us how we must understand that she was only doing her duty, etc. etc.

Her duty, presumably, must have included ensuring that each seat was equipped with a life vest at all times.

It must also have included being courteous to passengers, especially those who paid a premium in order to receive special services.

It must have also included properly performing cabin checks before takeoff.

Salaya's bad hair day was a disaster for her that far exceeded the inconvenience and annoyance that it caused two of her passengers.  Her actions will undoubtedly cost her a severe reprimand if not her job, and may cause the airline to be subjected to legal action if we are feeling in a vindictive mood.

It's been a few days now and it's become more of an entertaining story than a nightmare for us, but perhaps the nightmare is only beginning for Miss Salaya....

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Another excerpt from NIRVANA EXPRESS (Day Five)

Day Five: Lucid Dreaming

The previous night, I have been attempting, once more, this reclining meditation.  Nothing seems to happen, although I do drift off into a profound sleep.  But, just before dawn, I have an astonishingly vivid dream.

I see a person I’ve never seen in one of my dreams before.  He’s the ringleader of the kids who vandalized my house in Los Angeles, several months before my coming to Bangkok to be a monk.  This is someone who was highly successful in triggering my martyrdom instinct — and who, until I learned what had been happening behind my back, was one of my most trusted people.  I will call him simply the Kid; there isn’t another in this story.

We’re standing in a museum, carrying a Persian rug between us.  And the Kid is complaining about something or other — about how Africa isn’t in the exhibition, I think.  So the museum guard says to us, well, there’s an Egyptian exhibition in the next building; it’s been there for a year and is set to remain for a total of two; and we decide to check it out, still carrying the rug.   Though I have to remind the Kid that Egypt is, in fact, in Africa; he doesn’t seem to have learned that in school.

I enter the museum; the Kid stands in the anteroom, in front of the revolving door, still holding the rug.  I go through, look in the gift shop for more rugs; I decide they’re too expensive.  I don’t remember actually looking at the exhibits; all I know is that the Kid never enters, and when I start to leave, he is gone, and instead there are two lines of graffiti on the wall, written in marker, already fading … medium fine point marker, bright red, the color of blood.

Outside, the scenery has abruptly changed.  I am in the ruins of an ancient temple.  Gray, decaying stone … it’s beautiful, like Ayuthaya used to be in my childhood, before easy-access highways and wandering tourists.  There are stupas, gorgeous statues of stone and stucco; the sky is a ruddy twilight.  I am walking through the grounds, slowly, in a meditative state … more so than I have achieved during real life walking meditation.

Suddenly, a huge gray pagoda rears up in the sunrise.  I spot two kids half-way, on a ledge, graffitiing with spray cans.  I am furious.  I run up the steps, I scream at them: “Don’t you realize this place is unimaginably ancient, it was lifted stone by stone from an archaeological site and brought here to be shared by all the world?  Thousands of years of history and you’re ruining it … there’s a place for what you’re doing, but not here!”

Chastened, they slink away.

Startled, I awaken.

I’m sure it is almost dawn, but I get up and look, in the dark, at the clock; it seems to say that it’s 11 at night.  I try to get back to sleep.  Dogs are barking … as they do in movies when a ghost or spirit passes.  My whole body is tingling … as though I have recently been possessed, and the alien presence’s breath is still exuding from me.  I can’t or won’t find the light switch; I am groping about in a strange half-dark.  This Twilight Zone-like weirdness persists for a very long time; I lie down, trying to return to sleep, vaguely aware that I’ve had a very powerful dream that is trying to teach me important lessons about my past, my future.  

I close my eyes for a moment, and then —

Jumping out of bed, I find that it’s after six!  I have to run out with my begging bowl!  Seizing my bowl and robe, I run out of the door just in time for a helpful monk to put it on for me.  
It has just been raining, and I tread along the wet street, absorbing more unfamiliar sensations — the slick cobblestones, the grit, the agglutinating particles of earth.  It is a beautiful experience sharing the love and generosity of people I have never met or known.   I wish I could walk among them all the time.  I am at the same time a stranger to these people, and the most familiar icon in their perception of the world.  

It is breakfast now, and they have decided that the four of five pieces of the Khunying’s famed chocolate should be offered to me all once.  I decide to take the entire plate to the novices’ table.  They are, after all, children, and children love chocolate cake … don’t they?  And I can have the Khunying’s cake anytime … this succulent recipe that brings in a million baht a year.
In my room, I notice, suddenly, that the clock by my bed is upside down.  That explains the confusion over time.  It was the wee hours before dawn when I woke from that peculiar dream, and that is why I seemed to have overslept.

I sit in the mother-of-pearl chair, trying to analyze the dream.  Though its basic meaning is pretty clear.  My life has become a sacred place.  Those who interfered with it in the past no longer belong.  They can be sent away.  The visit to Africa/Egypt has all sorts of mystical connotations, from the “darkest” Africa of my childhood adventure novels to the Egyptian symbology of death and resurrection.  A rug is a relationship … one that has proved, it seems, too expensive to be worth continuing.  The ancient temple dug up stone by stone and moved to the new setting … that must be the ancient wisdom that has now been transplanted into the landscape of my new consciousness.  And the kids, expelled from this new paradise … that too is obvious, indeed so fraught with symbolic logic as to seem to have been cooked up by a novelist.  Well, look who’s talking.

Using images from the unconscious mind to teach my conscious mind important lessons — is this what my attempts at the sleeping meditation are beginning to achieve?  If so, it is surely about time.  The human psyche so frequently walls off parts of itself from other parts.  Lines of communication are weak.  I’m very encouraged.  I seem to have blown open a channel and forced the people inside me to talk to each other.

I’ve blown open another kind of channel as well, this morning; something has disagreed with me, and an upset stomach keeps me from attending morning chapel.  Indeed, the Seer tells me I’d better not go to meditation class at all this morning; I wouldn’t want to have a little accident while off in an adjacent universe.

The Seer insists that I take plenty of medicine and sends word to the Guru that his recalcitrant new monk won’t show up this morning.  I do hope that the Guru won’t be annoyed.  There is, you see, a subtle tension between the two, although I have not yet learned enough of the temple’s politics to get all the nuances.

Now, all day long, people inquire about my upset stomach, even people I have never seen.  Later I am told that the Guru has announced my diarrhea to the entire throng of meditation students.  Imagine that happening at my old English boarding school!  I would be the butt of jokes for weeks.  But here, there is the greatest concern.

 One monk after another comes to my room to show sympathy.  One particular monk shows up at my door with a herbal remedy in his hand.  This monk is very youthful, pale, always staring off into the distance, and he tells me that he knows things about me that others do not know.

“For instance,” he tells me, “I know that you can see into the heart of the Guru, and that you have sensed a certain darkness there … I know because I have seen it myself … but we won’t speak of it, because it’s enough that we both know it is true.”

It is a strange thing for one man to say to another as he presents him with herbal remedies for diarrhea, but this monk is unusual.  Thais do not like to say things directly; they speak in understatement and misdirection, out of the desire to protect others from losing face, out of a fear of losing face themselves; this monk says things straight out, insightful things that perhaps one would rather not speak about.  
He sees things.  I tell him I have a friend who sees things — I’m talking about Sharon, on her mountaintop in Georgia, and the spirit Tomm who seems to speak through her.  “Yes,” he says, “I understand that completely.  And you are like that, too.”

 I don’t want to say that I’m very doubtful that I have any such abilities, so I simply smile.  I will call this monk the Psychic.  He is a new monk, but appears very otherworldly, as though he spends large chunks of his existence exploring other dimensions.  He tells me that he has a genuine relic of the Lord Buddha in his room, and invites me to go and see it one day, when I’m feeling better.
I’m deeply moved at the gentility and compassion everyone shows towards me.  There is also a certain chivalry that is rarely evident in the world outside, a certain profound respect for personhood; this is a community that lives by the principle of compassion.

During the lunch break, my parents show up; my dad will return to San Francisco tomorrow.  My mother has brought the housekeeper from home, and insists that she clean my bathroom; she’s worried because she doesn’t think I’ll succeed in doing it myself.   A professional is needed.  But there are problems, as a woman may not touch certain objects used by monks — “intimate” objects such as towels.   At first, my mother tries to put away the towels herself, but our family chauffeur, who once served time in a monastery himself as a novice, tells her that the monkly towels are out of bounds.
In the afternoon, I rush back to meditation class to discover the walking meditation in full swing.  Unable to find an unobtrusive spot to walk back and forth, I am compelled to traverse the very platform where the Guru himself is sitting, lost in some transcendental state upon his sermonizing chair.  It is very strange.  As I walk slowly back and forth, I close my eyes, trying to measure out the steps by feel alone … wondering if this is how the blind walk … trying to feel the space by some means of extrasensory perception.

But it is hard to concentrate.  I imagine that Big Brother, in the form of the Guru, is peering down at me from his High Chair.  And of course, behind him, there is also the towering golden Buddha of the beatific, enigmatic and utterly tranquil smile.  And I admit that it is a little scary, and I can’t find that tranquil spot within myself at all.  I imagine the Guru’s baleful stare and I squeeze my eyes tight shut and hope for the buzzer to go off soon … the buzzer which, like an oven timer, tells me that it will soon be time to come out of my meditative state.

Of course, the Guru probably isn’t even staring, balefully or otherwise.  But I feel it nonetheless, like an overactive superego.

Later on there is the sitting meditation, too — thirty minutes of it — but someone it doesn’t feel quite as long as before.  I must be getting used to it after all.  My body is still not entirely attuned to it all, but there has clearly been improvement.

And still later, I get myself into a deep conversation with my fellow sufferer, the Skeptic.  It turns out that he has major issues with what the Guru has been saying which go to the most basic concepts in Buddhism — the true nature of reincarnation, for instance.  I myself do not wish to argue the niceties of philosophy.  I don’t want to know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  I only want to know that they do in fact dance.  That, I suppose, is the major difference between us.

The time comes for the evening meditation and now I find myself standing in the outer vihara under the stars — what passes for the stars in Bangkok — and all of sudden comes a light sprinkle, which, as I begin the walking meditation, turns into a storm.  Thunder and lightning and a raging wind, yet somehow I don’t find myself running into the cloister to seek shelter.  I keep my eyes closed, I keep walking.  This time, Big Brother is not watching.  Bud-dho, Bud-dho, I repeat in my mind, the mantra for stilling the inner storm.  It doesn’t work.  I walk.  Rain flecks my face.  It is beautiful; the air is pungent with the smell crushed jasmine.  I taste it on my lips.  The wind whips against my robes.  I feel all these things and revel in them, yet I am also very far away.

It is not the word Bud-dho, buddho that keeps ringing in my ears.  Instead I hear a voice that whispers again and again a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets :  “the still point of the turning world.”  It is this motif that helps me to locate my inner center, and not some Pali mantra.  Over and over these words sound in my inner ear, the “t”-sounds of still and point and turning punctuating the mantra much like drops of rain.

Can a poem by a Bostonian-turned-Englishman really substitute for the ineffable name of the Enlightened One as a formula for inner peace?   I do not know, but I already from my study of the Guru’s teaching that words are in themselves nothing more than the empty air.  It is not the words that precipitate the states of inner mindfulness.  The Guru has said that even simple words like “in, out” or counting from one to five would work, if only the mind is ready for them to work.  But for my over-educated cranium the Buddha comes to me in the voice of T.S. Eliot, and then, later, in words from the King James Bible — for the voice that whispers the words of Eliot seems to me to be none other than the “still, small voice” alluded to in the Old Testament.  Is it hubris to believe that such mighty powers might be speaking directly to oneself?  I do not know.   Buddhism does not, in the end, believe that such mighty forces are real; like the corporeal world itself, they too are parts of a great dream, though perhaps from a higher plane of dreaming than our concrete cosmos.

I feel myself detaching from my body.  I feel myself at the eye of the tempest.  The world rages; I am calm.  I know that I have been searching for this stillness for a long time.  But the stillness has stolen up to me, has ambushed me; I am so surprised to be holding the grail in my hands, even for a fleeting moment, that before I am aware of it, I have already let go.

When I was a child, I was in love with the wind.  I felt that the wind spoke to me.  I had a very strange adventure with the wind once; I wrote a poem about the wind when I was eleven, which poem ended up, by a strange string of coincidences, being published in the Bangkok Post.  Even more oddly, the American actress Shirley MacLaine was passing through Bangkok at that moment, and for some reason the poem seemed to make an impression on her, although she did not apparently know it was by some child.  Perhaps the very awkwardness of its expression made it look as though it were the inadequately translated work of some ancient sage.  Or perhaps, with the instinct so many artists seem to possess, she saw past the silly words straight into the soul of an alienated, anguished child.

Be that as it may, years later the poem about the wind appeared as the epigraph to Ms. MacLaine’s autobiography, Don’t Fall off the Mountain, and my childish words about the wind have sold more copies than all my “real” books put together.  

Mistaken for an ancient sage at 11, here I am now, perhaps trying to pass myself off as a sage after a few days of monkhood!  There are ironies here to be sure.   I once told this story to a reporter for a well-known psychic magazine in the States, and she said, “Well, since that Shirley MacLaine book can fairly be said to have kicked off the New Age, that makes you the godfather of the entire New Age, doesn’t it?”   Scary.

But seriously now, there are things all children know, things they forget when they pass through the flames of adolescence and enter the grownup world, where imagination must sit in the back of the bus, where the touchable is confused with the real.  These things we knew as children can be rediscovered as adults, but often only at the end of arduous voyages or after much pain.

The wind that whispered to me in my childhood and gave birth to a rather dreadful poem has spoken to me again, and this time I recognize it as a friend, and am almost ready to call it by name.

When I return to the vihara for the sitting meditation, the wind is still carrying on outside.  I decide to continue my communion with nature.  Resolutely, I pick up one of the little plastic chairs I have been using to meditate in, and place it by the window.  A gorgeous window, paneled wood, black and gold lacquerwork, covered with images of gods and demons; it is ajar, and I push it wider, thinking, here, in the safety of the vihara yet exposed to the roar of the wind, I will once more hear the voice of God.

But wind does not help me at all.  It howls, it batters my face.  I am hopelessly distracted.
Profound inner experiences, it seems, can neither be manufactured nor preordained.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Participate in Mahler 8 in Thailand this summer!

July 20-24, 2013

Dear Choirmaster, Voice Teacher or Individual Singer:

The performance of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” taking place in late July in Thailand is an incredibly historic event.  With already about ten choirs from four continents sending representatives, it is the first performance of the largest work in the standard classical repertoire in Thailand.  Singing in “Mahler Eight” is a life’s dream for many choristers around the world and it is only possible in Thailand because we are working with the Festa Musicale’s international choir festival in Pattaya, and are able to bring choirs participating in this festival into our concert.

We currently have about 250 singers, local and international, involved, with a core group of around 75 plus a large children’s choir rehearsing regularly each Thursday. But I could use about 100, or even 200 more local singers in order to make sure that we have enough to balance the 130-piece orchestra that Mahler has written for.

In view of this I am writing to heads of music departments, music schools, and choirmasters in Bangkok to invite your participation.

This concert is undoubtedly the most ambitious classical music event in Thailand’s history.  People who love to sing often dream of participating in the “Symphony of a Thousand” and this would be the first time the opportunity is ever made available in Thailand.

We would very much love to have you on board whether you are in Thailand or from abroad.  Many choirs have already joined or are sending representatives — choirs from as far away as England, Czech Republic, Indonesia, and the United States.  We’re working on trying to get singers from every continent to make this a true reaching across the globe.

If you are an international group or outside Bangkok, the idea is that you would study the work in advance and arrive in Bangkok in time for the final rehearsals.  These rehearsals will take place in the last week, from July 20th onward.  We can give you access to all sorts of aids to help you learn the work, such as learning mp3s and so on.

Because the performances of the Symphony of a Thousand are in part subsidized by the Department of Cultural Promotions of Thailand’s Ministry of Culture, we are able to offer an extremely cheap land package, based on double occupancy, at a convenient hotel in Bangkok.  The first hundred people to sign up will receive their land package gratis; for the rest we ask for a contribution of only 100 Euros, which includes your hotel, transportation to and from the rehearsals, and most meals.

If you are local to Bangkok, you will have the ability to rehearse along with the Orpheus Choir, which meets every Thursday evening in a convenient location next to the Thong Lo BTS station.  

A children’s choir is also being formed in Bangkok which will join with children of the Montfort School in Chiengmai and the Bonifantes choir from Pardubice, Czech Republic, to sing the children’s choir sections of the work, so children from age 8 or so may also join this group.

An online form is available to join up at  Or you can write directly to Athalie de Koning, the choir master of the Orpheus Choir, at  

Please join us and become part of this historic event.  We look forward to hearing from all of you!

Best wishes

Somtow Sucharitkul
General and Artistic Director
Bangkok Opera Foundation/Opera Siam


Saturday, July 20:  
    morning: arrive in Bangkok with music already rehearsed
    afternoon: free: Bangkok tour
    evening: welcome dinner and preliminary rehearsal

Sunday, July 21:
    morning: free
    afternoon: piano rehearsal, choirs and children’s choirs
    evening: rehearsal with orchestra and soloists

Monday, July 22:    
    late afternoon: rehearsal with orchestra and soloists

Tuesday, July 23:
    6 pm: sound check
    8 pm: OPEN DRESS REHEARSAL (for video)

Wednesday, July 24:
    6 pm: sound check
    10 pm: post-performance reception

July 25 onward: Festa Musicale Competition and Festival in Pattaya 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Nirvana Express - Day Four

... more from my memoir from a dozen years ago about my brief time in the monastery ...

Day Four: The Begging Bowl

My attempts at sleep meditation do not seem to have borne fruit.  I sleep fitfully.  Partially it is nervousness; in the morning I am to step out of the monastery alone for the first time.   One of the most inviolable precepts of monkhood is that one may not work for, earn, or in any way strive to attain personal comfort.   Eating is a particularly complex issue.  The rule is that one must not take that which is not freely given, and in the case of food this generally means walking around in the morning with a begging-bowl.

For the first three days of monkhood, one is sequestered within the monastery walls, and isn’t allowed to go out foraging in the streets.  Now, you might think that this has to do with a sort of ritual immersion in spirituality … the idea that you need to become wholly and utterly sanctified before setting foot beyond the gate.  After all, three is a magic number in all cultures.  For example, from Neolithic mother-goddess cults all the way to Christianity, any divine being wishing to come back from the dead is expected to grant the living the courtesy of staying down under for three days.  No self-respecting being expects to be resurrected overnight.  You’d think that the three-day quarantine is all about that, but it’s not.  Like many other Buddhist customs, it’s purely practical.

Three days is the average time it takes for a monk to learn how to walk around without his robes falling off.

On the fourth morning of monkhood, I learn that I am somewhat below average in this respect.  My morning struggle with the robes has yet to yield an elegant result.  Nevertheless, after about half an hour, I emerge from my room with the robes more-or-less attached and with the little tail that one uses to twist and tighten it sticking firmly out from under my left armpit.  I’m sure Sigmund Freud would have seen some phallic imagery there, but, quickly remembering that I am supposed to be beyond such metaphors, I quickly dismiss them from my mind.  Gathering up my bowl, I march proudly out to face the secular cosmos.

I don’t get very far.  Only two steps from my room, I run into the Maha, who gazes at my attire in horror.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” he says, “you’re wearing your robe all wrong.”

“No, I’m not,” I insist.  After all, I have followed the instructions pretty faithfully.  And usually there’s a forewarning before the robes drop off — a twitching of the fabric somewhere, a shifting in the folds.  “Don’t worry, I think I can manage a ten minute walk without an embarrassing incident.”

 “Well, you seem to have figured it out all right,” says the Maha, “but you see, when you go outside the temple, you have to wear the robes in a different style.”

Now I suddenly recall one of those 227 monastic precepts — it’s about going completely covered when a monk goes among laypersons.  I had thought that I was completely covered, but in fact, inside the temple, one goes about with one’s right shoulder exposed.  

Presumably, it wouldn’t do to inflame any passing laywomen to see that little piece of shoulder, and so yes, there’s a completely different way of wearing your robes when you set foot outside the gates.  And that, as the dawn begins to break over the temple’s gilded gables, is what I must now proceed to learn — and fast, because after all, the hordes of well-wishers with their offerings of food are not going to hang around forever.

They’ve got skytrains to catch.

A few days ago I already gave one description of how to wear those robes; a second, contradictory description would probably not be very useful.  So, suffice it to say that, beginning with finding the little square of cloth that aligns with the back of one’s neck, there’s a completely new system of twirling and wrapping to be learned, and the end result is that the monk, with his begging bowl inside the robes and accessible only by manipulating a little flap, is totally rolled up inside that rectangle of saffron, much like a piece of ravioli, or rather, I should say, a wonton. 

I had thought that the previous style of monkly couture was a little stifling, but this is positively suffocating at first.  However, the mode of dress lends itself to those delicate, deliberate steps that one always sees monks taking as they move slowly down the alleys in the dawn.  Now I understand why; the full-wrap technique winds up you so tightly that it is impossible to be anything but delicate and deliberate in one’s movements.  

Oh yes, the hands.  The left hand, supporting the bowl so that it doesn’t go bouncing on the pavement, is completely concealed.  Well, left hands, in Asian cultures, are pretty unseemly anyway; one knows what they are traditionally used for.  But the right hand, too, is hidden in this style of dress.  Only by wriggling its way through a tightly wound roll of fabric can the hand create a little slit for itself and emerge to open the lid of the alms bowl or manipulate small objects.

It is with a certain measure of self-consciousness that I finally manage to make my way down the steps of the kuti.  The Maha, who in addition to showing me the ropes, performs the function of a sort of babysitter, leads the way.  I do not wear my sandals.  This is a very strict monastic order — some do, in fact, allow monks to wear sandals for this ritual — but we must, like the Lord Buddha himself, go completely barefoot into the world, heedless of the thorns, snakes, bugs, mud, and gravel that might assault our delicate, city-bred soles.

The back door of the temple leads to a parking lot, and then to a little alley bordered by noodle stands, before reaching the main road.  It is morning, and the Maha walks much faster than I do, so I find myself alone in the alley.  This is it, I tell myself.  This is the “going-forth”, as the English-language monkhood manual so grandly calls it, a descent from Parnassus into the seamy secular cosmos.
There is a moment of panic, but all at once, the technique of the walking meditation takes over.  I take one step at a time.  Slowly, breathing deeply, trying to become aware of each minuscule sensation.  One step, then another.  

Why is it that we are commanded to go barefoot into the world?  To show our humility, no doubt, our vulnerability; to be a living metaphor of the frailty that is flesh.  

These sound like very negative reasons, but there is another, more positive one.  The skin is a living, breathing organ, the organ of the human body that has the largest area, the greatest sensitivity to the outside world.  And the earth beneath our feet is the earth that gave us birth, our mother, the earth that will receive us once our struggle against entropy has ended.  Children may run barefoot in the grass, but as adults we shield ourselves from the earth; the act of putting on shoes is an act of subversion, of resistance to reality.

Shoes?  Why, in Los Angeles, one doesn’t even walk at all.  Not only are one’s feet shielded from the earth, but even one’s shoes; I for one use the drive-through for my ATM, my diet Pepsi, and my car wash.  

Not for a long time have I felt against my feet the sharpness of a cobblestone, squeezed moisture from the moss in the cracks of concrete.  Not for a long time have I swerved to sidestep the squish of excrement between bare toes or the crunch of a dying cockroach.  

I suddenly grasp that these homely sensations, these textures of reality, forgotten since God knows when, are a severed link in the chain of being.  

The journey down the alley, which only takes a minute, is in itself a miniature voyage of discovery.  
Or rediscovery.

Once I emerge from the alley, I see the Maha across the street; he has gone to the newsstand to fetch the Seer’s daily newspaper.  I hug the alms bowl to my chest and twirl the tail of my robe in order to hitch it a little higher so that it won’t drag on the pavement.  Then, taking my life in my hands as all Bangkokian pedestrians do, I cross the street.

The other side of the street consists mostly of shophouses: pharmacies, electrical appliance stores, and newsstands with living quarters in their upper storeys.  In front of one of the ubiquitous Chinese pharmacies, a wooden table has been set out, and there are trays of food: little plastic bags of curry and soup, and cups of boiled rice.  There is a bit of a cottage industry as the faithful line up to buy food which they will in turn offer to the monks.  

My first benefactor is a man I’ve seen, all in white, at the meditation class; I’ve seen him sitting not far from me, lost in thought.  I wonder if he even recognizes me.  I am, after all, not a person anymore, but a metaphor, and a pathway for his own karmic journey.  Gingerly, I lift the lid of the bowl.  He empties a cup of rice into it, and puts in a bag of curry.  My eyes remain downcast, as is seemly.   I do not proffer thanks; that too is improper in this ritual.  It  is the strangest thing to me that I cannot show him this common courtesy, but it would diminish the karmic value of his gift to me.  

I see the Maha in a dark alley nearby.  I follow.  Suddenly, I am in a marketplace, hidden from the street by the fa├žades of the shophouses.  It is so early that many of the stalls are still untended.  Still, there are people everywhere.  Dawn is the time to make merit before picking up the groceries for the kitchen back home.  This isn’t a shiny American-style supermarket, where the odors of fresh food are carefully masked by layers of Saran wrap.  Here, every kind of scent assaults one, from the noxious fumes of leaking petrol to the fragrance of jasmine of rose petals.

A bleary-eyed woman turns chicken drumsticks on a grill.  Another arranges flower garlands on rattan trays.  The market is dingy; the dawn has not penetrated, and here and there a naked bulb sheds harsh light over a pile of durian or an old man blending milk and coffee in a glass urn.  The concrete paving is moist and warm; grit works itself between my toes.  There are monks here, each one moving in a sort of bubble of solitude, for though shopping in Bangkok is very much a contact sport, the throng parts each time a monk moves through.  

As I follow the Maha, his shaven head bobbing up and down in the distance, I too sense the parting of the crowd; I am like a mini-Moses breasting the Red Sea.  The yellow robe really does make me something other than myself.  There is an unseen radiance that envelops me.  

When I have given food to monks in the past, I have often been distracted by the thought that hey, maybe they won’t even eat it, or perhaps they’re not even going to like it, or some monasteries are so bloated with offerings the leftovers must surely end up in the garbage.   But as I accept the people’s offerings, their piety overwhelms my skepticism.  I am of course precisely repeating the footsteps of the earliest Buddhist monks.  I feel the weight of history; I feel like a tiny pattern within an immense and ever-turning mandala; and this sense of belonging somehow subsumes my doubt.

Well, back the kuti, it occurs to me that when the bags of food arrive at the breakfast table, they’re not the same bags that were offered to me in the marketplace.  In fact, the food seems a lot more to my liking now than it did then.  In fact, those little muffins on the tray by my place at the table … well, I don’t remember receiving those at all.  They are a sort of Chinese variant of those blueberry muffins that are such a fixture of breakfast in American greasy spoons.

I am not, of course, allowed to evince any kind of preference for one kind of food over another; but I suspect that there’s been some Machiavellian maneuvering in the kitchens of the kuti, and that someone has conspired to mix up the bags so that this Thai monk who isn’t quite Thai can be allowed to eat some farang food that isn’t quite farang.
Having successfully avoided several large piles of dog turds during my perambulation of the marketplace, I run into an extremely large pile during the Guru’s morning lecture on meditation.  He chooses to use shit as a metaphor for karma.  Once again, I am impressed with the ubiquity of bodily functions in Buddhist philosophy.  The King James Bible seldom mentions excrement; I can think of only one instance offhand, and that’s in the Old Testament.

The Guru tells us a parable.  In ancient times, he says, in India, naturally, the land of parables, two indigents are walking down the street, each carrying an empty basket.  They see an enormous pile of dried excrement in the road.  “We can sell this as fertilizer,” they tell each other, and they eagerly fill their baskets, place them on their heads, and go off through the forest, on the road to the nearest town.
They come across a pile of dried wood.  One of them, the cleverer of the two, presumably says, “Well, let’s trade in our shit for this dried wood, which will fetch a much higher price in the town.”

His friend says, “I’ve been carrying this shit for so long; I think I’ll wait until something better shows up.”

The wander through the forest some more, and they stumble on an abandoned cart filled with bolts of expensive silk.  Well, you can see where the story is leading.  From silk to silver to gold to piles of diamonds, the clever one keeps upgrading his basket, while the other one, faithfully plodding along, says, “I’ve been carrying this shit for so long, I think I’ll wait just a bit more.”

They reach the city at last, and the clever man turns in his precious cargo for a huge fortune and lives happily ever after.  His stupid friend doesn’t really mind; he’s not the jealous type; he’s not a bad person, you see, and he is perfectly happy to trade in the basket of dried excrement that he’s been carrying on his head for so very long.  But just as he reaches the fertilizer shop, it begins to rain.…
With this repulsive image fresh in our minds, the Guru then says, “Now, students, I’m going to add another five minutes to the clock … and I want you all to empty your minds and meditate for thirty-five minutes.”
Lunch today features one of the most famous chocolate cakes in Bangkok, made by the hand of M.R. Malinee, a friend of my mother’s and creator of this well-known recipe.  My mother and sister have surveyed the various offerings in the kuti, and have decided that the roast duck down the alley is probably a better deal.  They vanish for a while, leaving me alone with the Seer and the chocolate cake.
The Seer looks at me and says, “You shouldn’t go back to America yet.  Your chart shows a cloud that extends over your life all the way until at least February 2002.  Becoming a monk has mitigated what could have happened — it was a sort of surgical solution to your inner turmoil.  But you’re in danger until at least October, and the shadow will not utterly pass until February.”

“But I do have commitments,” I tell him.  “Books to write and whatnot.”

“Other factors will intervene,” he says.  “You will be fine here.”

I do not know how clearly he sees into my heart.  I do not entirely understand why, only two weeks ago, a voice whispered in my ear that I must begin this inward journey.  I am troubled by things left undone, by my condo in Los Angeles left in disarray, even by the fact that — now that I think of it — I didn’t turn on the dishwasher before I left California.  And yes, the dishwasher thing has been gnawing at me from time to time.

“Let it go,” says the Seer.  “You can buy more dishes.”

The Seer has endowed an upcountry temple that specializes in the teaching of novices, many of them poor kids who would not otherwise have a chance to go to a decent school.  He suggests to me that perhaps, if I stay at the monastery, I could be placed in charge of the entire kuti, and he could spend more time at the rural wat, where, I suspect, his real heart lies, for he was born and raised in Thailand’s deep south.

The idea of being placed in charge of an entire division of a monastery when I have in fact only been here for a few days is strange to me.  On the other hand, the Seer seems to suggest it in all seriousness, and I realize that even in a few days, I have become accepted here, eccentricities and all; being a monk is not, despite the shaved heads and identical robes, about conforming.  Every monk here is on a unique journey, and every journey is equally deserving of respect.

I decide that I will, next time I get near the internet, transmit this to Sharon and Tomm; perhaps they will have another perspective on it all.

It is now time for the afternoon session of the meditation workshop, and piti is the word of the day.  My companion-in-suffering, the Intellectual, tells me he hasn’t managed to achieve any kind of piti whatsoever.  He has tried and tried.  The aches and pains of an aging body, forced to hold weird positions for long periods, have militated against piti.  I ask him if he’s tried the chair thing.  I know I couldn’t have done it without a chair.  

He whispers in my ear, “Seriously, though, I think there’s another reason why it’s never worked out.  You see … I don’t entirely … believe.”

But I don’t entirely believe either … at least, I don’t think I do.  But piti has still descended on my doubting mind.  Before I can argue this point, though, he says, “I’m too angry.  That’s it, I’m just too irritated at all the superstition.”

I believe that the Intellectual is experiencing some disillusionment.  It’s because of what I mentioned briefly in the chapter defining piti.  The fact that levitation in the imagination was bandied about in the same breath as levitation in actuality.  The Intellectual doesn’t buy this, and it colors his perception of the entire process.

“You know,” I say, “maybe it’s better not to think about these things too much.  We should take from this teaching what we are able to accept, and let the rest go.”

“I know,” he says.  “But it’s a bit of a leap to go from penetrating psychological insight to — fables and hearsay about people flitting through the air like in low-budget Indian epics.”

There may be many doubters, but the Intellectual is the only one with the courage to express doubt openly.  His honesty touches me.  

We continue to listen to the discourse on piti, but I am too distracted to enter a deep state of meditation; I am haunted by images of my home in Los Angeles, and by the Seer’s obscure predictions of a shadowed future.
After the evening chapel, I have a surprise visit from my Uncle Mai, his friend, and my cousin, and I show them around my quarters — I feel like a little boy again, you know, when friends come over and your mother says, “Now, why don’t you show Little Jethro your room?”  They prostrate themselves and present me with several dozen containers of fruit juice — the best quality — as well as the Oriental Hotel’s prized cookies.  Then they proceed to admire the furnishings — the air conditioning with its remote control, the private bathroom that even has its own urinal despite the fact that it is against the 227 rules for monks to pee standing up.

After they leave, my nephew, Pup, comes by; he’s been studying for a test at Mahidol, and he has his homework with him; he asks me a few questions about four-part harmony.  

The Littlest Novice shows up.  He has the VCD he told me he wanted to watch on my computer.  To my amazement, it is a pirated edition of the Spice Girls movie.  Heavens!  Is this too lewd for a young novice to watch, I wonder?  I decide that to let the kid be a kid, and I put it on while Pup babysits (or is it the novice who is babysitting my nephew?) and then I am summoned for the evening meditation.

That’s where I have my miraculous experience of the day.  It is during walking meditation, and it has started to drizzle.  All the monks and supplicants have scurried to take cover under the roof of the cloister or inside the vihara.  But for some reason I don’t notice this at first, so concerned am I with the act of putting one foot in front of the other.  

The wind begins to blow.  It’s a warm, moist wind; in the tropics, in the midst of the rainy season, the wind that presages rain is not a hurtful wind.  It plays with the hem of these robes, but I walk on.  It billows a little, but I am only dimly aware of it at first.

The rain comes.  A little at a time.  I become conscious of each individual raindrop as it glances off my skin.  I breathe, I walk, I stop, I turn.  The marble pavement becomes slick, as though stone itself were sweating.  The rain falls harder now, and as it pelts down I feel what I have rarely felt in my adult life — I feel enveloped in, caressed by the forces of nature.  Nothing can harm me.  The rain spins about me a silken cocoon of being, of immediacy.  This is another piti:  not an experience of inner reality, but a more profound embrace of the external world.   There is an aspect of Buddhism that emphasizes withdrawal and detachment, but tonight I am feeling the opposite; I am the plaything of the earth and sky, a figment of the world’s imagination.  Though nature is vast and I am small and helpless, I feel nurtured; I feel loved.

Well, after that, my sitting meditation is something of an anticlimax.  And when I ask my friend, the Intellectual, whether he has finally achieved any piti, he says to me, “I appear to have snoozed off.”

“Don’t worry,” I say to him.  “It’s only, what, the third day of the meditation class; we have four more to go.”

He smiles ruefully.  “That’s true,” he says.  “Well, maybe my karma just isn’t up to it.  Or maybe it will be all the sweeter for coming at the eleventh hour.”

Monday, May 13, 2013

Siam Community Orchestra's Bruckner 9 - Complete

I decided to post the entire concert from last week...enjoy!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Nirvana Express Day Three: A Momentary Ecstasy

*** continued serialization of Somtow's "Nirvana Express", the diary of his brief monkhood which he kept in 2001

Day Three: A Momentary Ecstasy

The dawn brings the delivery of a delicious honey-roasted pork from my mother.  The plate, piled high, awaits on the lazy susan at breakfast, but of course I am not permitted to show too much enjoyment.  Eating with gusto is one of the many things forbidden in the 227 rules of monkhood — along with chewing loudly, taking large mouthfuls, and covering up one’s curry with rice so that it appears that one has no curry, and thus tricking one’s benefactor into ladling out some more — I kid you not, the latter is actually an official prohibition.

I show no visible gusto, but I do end up with a bit of an upset stomach.  Perhaps, I think, meditation will cure it.  After all, the Buddha specifically states that walking meditation helps regulates bowel movements.  

I spend the hour before morning chapel in my room — I suppose I should call it a cell, as Catholic monks do, but I find it hard to feel any sense of imprisonment when the room has both air conditioning and a private bathroom,  There is a beautiful chair in the room, inlaid with mother of pearl and doubtless worth a hundred thousand baht.  Although the room itself is spartan in its furnishings, each simple object is an exquisite work of art.  A lot of love and thought has been devoted to this room.

In the chair, alone, without two hundred others meditating around me, I try once more to empty my mind.  I think it is starting to work … no Mount Kailasa, no flashes, but a pervasive calm.

Morning chapel is an ordeal, still.  I wonder why “arthritis” is not among the list of diseases they interrogate you about in the ceremonial inquisition before you become a monk.  After all, they ask you if you’re a leper.  Today, we know that leprosy is only infectious amongst a tiny percentage of the genetically predisposed.  They also ask if you’re a cripple.  That would never fly in politically correct America.  Asking whether you’re human or not — well, that I can understand.  You never know what kind of demoniacal being might want to seek refuge in a monastery.
Had they asked me, in Pali, about arthritis, I could have answered with a snappy “ama bhante” and ended up with a medical release from monkhood.  But no.

So here I am, with my romanized manual before me, last monk on the far right in the back, chanting up a storm.  The chanting begins with standard phrases about Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, but then enters unfamiliar territory with long sections chanted half in Thai and half in Pali.  The Thai is supposed to be the translation of the Pali, so it is hard to understand why a single Pali word can be followed by an entire sentence of Thai.  Presumably it because Pali is one of those languages in which a little utterance can mean a lot — ancient languages all seem to share that characteristic.  I remember from struggling through Ovid in school.

The odd thing is, much of the Pali chanting bears a certain similarity to Latin.  (Sanskrit, I understand from a brief look at a few textbooks, is somewhat more like Greek.)  Pali has the rhythms of Latin, with the verbs chiming in at the end, with the cases, persons, numbers, and tenses lined up in neat little rows with their endings all matching; it’s almost like Latin with an Indian accent.
The chanting is addictive, hypnotic even.  But I notice that attendance at morning chapel doesn’t seem to be that strictly enforced.  Monks wander in and out, and seem automatically to glide into their proper place.  Behind the monks, the novices are supposed to sit, but only one has shown up, and another is drifting in.

It’s not really polite to stare at the spectacle around me, but I can’t help myself.  I force myself to resume chanting.  

Suddenly, a high-pitched, boyish treble voice joins in the chanting.  Whoever it is knows the words perfectly, chants with utter confidence, his voice soaring above the others, adding a bell-like resonance to the masculine bass that roils about the chapel.  I glance behind my shoulder and see that the Littlest Novice has finally shown up — the one who wanted to create a video game and monks battling demons with weird martial arts.
Now, inside this sacred place, he is a completely different boy.  The chant flows from his lips as from the lips of an angel.   He is transported.  This place does change people.  The street urchin has become divine.

As I prostrate myself, later, before the Guru in readiness for the morning meditation class, I thank him for teaching me the wherewithal to see the vision of Mount Kailasa.

“Ah,” he says, nodding knowingly.  “That vision was a nimit.”

What he means by that is that I did not see the true Mount Kailash, but an image manufactured in the depths of my unconscious mind.  He tells me that nimits can be both beautiful and dangerous, and if I find myself distracted by one, I must act as though it isn’t there.  He sends me back to my chair, and proceeds to address the subject of death.

Death, along with love, is what human beings are most preoccupied with.

What is death?  This is what the Guru chooses to discourse on, at length, before the daily meditation begins.  We learn that the flesh is inherently degenerate, that our body is a graveyard for the corpses of pigs and chickens.   We listen to an enumeration of the thirty-two unpleasant parts of the body, spending as much time on excrement and mucus as on prettier organs such as skin and hair.  

We learn that death is the very definition of life, for what is a living thing but a piece of earth that has somehow fended off death for a few brief moments of existence?  Well, this is all very depressing, and I understand why some people think Buddhism is overly pessimistic: nothing exists, we’re all going to die, the best thing we can hope for is go out like a candle instead of being endlessly reborn and suffering … a few thousand lifetimes can really get on one’s nerves.  So, when we reenter the inner world to begin the morning’s meditation, I am not a happy camper.

And yet … today’s journey into the unconscious is a roller coaster ride.  Yesterday it was all effort, and my reward was a momentary glimpse of the abode of the gods; today, I slide right in, my mind draining instantly, like a colander of fresh spaghetti.  

First, in the darkness, there is a face.  I see the face dimly at first.  It’s dark, but its outlines radiate a certain energy.  There’s the faintest hint of a moustache, and great brooding eyes.   The chair I’m sitting in faces the left side of the great golden Buddha that dominates the vihara; on either side, there are huge statues of arahants, their gaze permanently fixed in adoration of the great master.  The face in my mind’s eye seems to match the faces of these arahants, faces I have never seen because the statues have their backs to me, because they are gazing upward at the Lord Buddha.  The face’s features are somewhat Indian, I think to myself, wavering in the shadows.  Is this an ancient sage, or is it again a nimit, a figment of my imagination?  I sink deeper into the meditative trance.  I see pagodas shifting in the mist.  I see stone ruins, minarets, walls covered with bas-reliefs.  In niches and nooks, tiny stone devas are frozen in elaborate dance gestures.  
A kind of warmth steals over me.  An inner warmth, different from the heat that pervades the vihara, intermittently alleviated by a turning electric fan.  This warmth has a color to it as well, a deep red, and begins with a glow at the tips of my fingers and toes, works its way up the limbs, seems to center itself on a spot somewhere in the middle of my forehead.  This must be what mystic call the Third Eye, what others refer to as the pineal gland.  This is the spot where Hindus traditionally place those caste marks that have caused some in the west jeeringly to refer to them as dotheads.  This dot is positively glowing, radiating energy.
And growing, too. The dot becomes a circle.  It shifts from red to white, from lukewarm to incandescent.  I can barely keep my eyes closed, there’s so much light.  And then, within the light, I begin to make out the silhouette of some ancient personage.  It is someone sacred.  I am sure of it.  I am certain that if I can let go just a little bit more, I will even hear this personage speak.  It is not the Buddha himself — I do not think so — though the apparition stands serenely, his hair spiraling upward as though aflame, one hand reaching out, palm forward, as if to bless, to touch —

And then there is a touch.  On my shoulder.

Startled, I open my eyes.  It is the Guru, who has left his preaching chair and has been wandering around the vihara, looking over his charges.  “Your posture,” he says mildly.  “A little straighter.  That’s it, that’s it.”

Was it the Guru that I sensed, hovering in the circle of light within my inner world?  He is standing exactly where the ancient personage seemed to appear in my vision.  Is this some kind of cosmic joke, or did I somehow have a brief encounter with the Guru’s spiritual essence?

All I know is that I have been jolted out of the meditative state.  I struggle to suppress a certain irritation.  After all, I was about to be addressed by some ancient sage, only to find myself being curtly spoken to by an earthly guru.   Clearly, however, this is another lesson in humility.

Later, it is lunchtime, and a little huckster stand outside the vihara does a brisk business in the Guru’s self-help books as I, the Intellectual, and the other new monks enjoy a simple but abundant meal of honey-roasted pork, duck, satays, Chinese pasta, and exotic fruits.  Well, they are exotic to me, at least.  You can’t find a decent mango in America.

After we eat, all the monks chant a prayer of extraordinary beauty — the yatha varivaha.  It is only later that I realize just how beautiful it is; at the moment it is mere nonsense syllables, and it seems that even to many of the new monks, they have little meaning save for the hypnotic quality of the sounds themselves.
But later I am to learn the meaning of this blessing, chanted by monks, somewhere, every single day in Thailand in every single place where monks are being served by laypersons, a blessing so commonplace that children can repeat it word for word like parrots, a blessing whose translation few people know.  

As the rivers full of water
flow into the great ocean,
so let the merit you have made 
benefit the dead; 
may what you have wished
come quickly to pass,
may your wishes grow to fulfillment
as the moon that waxes on the fifteenth night,
as the jewel that grants desires.

The monks chant enthusiastically, and I, knowing neither the words not their meaning, feel ever an outsider, ever an alien.
But then, that afternoon, there comes the payoff.  The Guru has added another five minutes to the clock — bringing the total to thirty minutes of concentrated breathing — a longer span than I have ever imagined I could do.  But this time, the visions come immediately.  The circles of light, the arahants gazing on their Lord in eternal adoration, whirling about, circles within circles … all these images drift through my mind with renewed clarity.  The irregular movement of the electric fan, the beading and coalescing of drops of sweat on my brow, the sighs of an elderly gentleman as he wheezes through the breathing exercises … yes, I have become aware of all these things.  And then, without warning, I push through to another level.  The circles of light spin ever faster, and then, all at once, there are waves of light, breaking across my consciousness, torrents and tides of blinding whiteness.  And fireworks!  Coruscating, scintillant rainbow rivers spiral and twist and whirl.  

I am lost in wonderment, lost in an ecstasy that far exceeds that of any hallucinogenic experiment I may or may not have undertaken in the 60s (which if I did, I surely can’t remember now!)  So this is what it’s all about — this is the psychedelic symphony of light described by such mystics as Coleridge and Blake. 

Abruptly, the little beep-beep-beep sounds, signaling the end of the thirty minutes.  

“Come out of the meditation slowly,” the Guru’s voice cautions over the vihara’s speaker system.  

Slowly, slowly, the vision subsides.

The Guru warns us not to be seduced by the beauty of visions.  They are nimits, he tells us … sometimes they can mislead … entrap.

And yet, I know I am on the verge of something big.
The evening is a bit of party night.  My nephew, a music student at Mahidol University, drops by; my parents pop in for a visit; and as the sun sets, the Seer, surrounded by a small congregation of my relatives, decides to tell us inspiring stories from the life of the Buddha; his memory is limitless, his narrative technique worthy of an ancient bard, singing tales at the dinner table of a Viking chieftain or a Mycenaean King.

One question has been bothering me since I stumbled across it in my English language manual, the one that gives all the translations of these quaint Pali texts.  “Why, Lord Seer,” I ask him, “am I agreeing that I can only bathe every fifteen days?”

My mother says, “Oh, nonsense.  How could the Buddhist texts possibly tell one to refrain from bathing?  The ancient Buddhists weren’t dirty.”

The Seer laughs.  “Well, yes, there is such a prohibition,” he tells us, “and it came about because, one day, the Buddha was preaching in a remote place, in which there was only one small stream available for bathing.  The members of the nobility who had come to hear the sermon couldn’t get back to their city before the gates closed, and the stream was clogged with the disciples of the Lord Buddha.  Out of consideration for the supplicants, the Buddha created that rule … but you see, it only applies in that one location, in that particular circumstance.”

It seems, then, that the monastic regulations are a sort of mishmash of precedent and custom.  Rather like the English common law, they have grown over time and developed into a rather complex, even hairsplitting code.  

It calls to mind a discussion that the new monks were having over lunch.  The Guru, you see, was telling the faithful supplicants that there are certain loopholes in the Five Precepts which all Buddhists are asked to observe.  (Contravening these precepts is not sin in the Judaeo-Christian sense, but it may lead, perhaps, to a negative progression in one’s karmic journey.)  “Let’s suppose,” the Guru has been telling us, “that you are sitting in a room, and the mosquitoes are starting to become a nuisance.  You desperately want to slap a few, and eventually you open fire with the old aerosol, leaving a dozen dead souls on the floor.  And so you’ve destroyed a dozen lives just because of your momentary annoyance.  But what if you didn’t intend to kill them — what if you offer them a way out?  Let’s say you leave a window ajar, and instead of letting fly with the airborne poison, you just spray a bit here, a bit there, like a delicate sort of farting?  You will have annoyed the mosquitoes, and most will choose to depart through the window … and those who do in fact end up whizzing, openwinged, into the embrace of the fumes, well then it’s their own karma, not yours, since you did not spray to kill, but simply to … influence their choices a little.”

At lunch, I have been saying, “Yeah, that may be a loophole, but some of those insects are just as dead as in the other scenario.  And no matter what you say you intend, you’re still trying to get rid of them and you still have a bit of the executioner’s motives clinging to your mind.”

A monk I have not yet met, tall and pale, somewhat older than the new monks, says, “There are really three different levels of moral law.  The first is the law as laid down by humans, the most imperfect.  The second is the law embodied in the precepts or silas, such as that we must refrain from taking life … but what you say brings us to a third level of moral law: the law of dhamma, which allows even less wiggle room than the others.…”
At eight o’clock comes the special late-night meditation in the vihara.  And now, something really weird happens to me.
I try to repeat the success of the afternoon.  At first it seems easy enough.  I slip quickly into the state I was in just before the big fireworks and the tides of light.  It’s about ten minutes or so in, I guess.  

Then yes — again — that blinding incandescent light —

And then — complete emptiness.

I know nothing until I hear the beeping, telling us that it is time to come slowly forth from the inner world.

I know I was not asleep.  I know this.  After all, I have woken up several thousand times in my life, and now what it is to have just slept.  This was not like that.  This was not a state of sleep.  It was nothing.  Nothing at all.

Was this, in fact, at last, the momentary Nirvana so rapturously described by the Guru the previous day?  If so … why can’t I remember anything at all?

It’s like that poem by Keats.  You know, the one where the knight meets a gorgeous elfin lady who takes him to her grotto and seduces him until —

And I awoke, and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

Is that one of the attributes of the state of ultimate nothingness — that the nothingness is so absolute that nothing can remain even in the remembrance of it?

I do not know.

I resolve to try a fresh tactic tonight.  In the Guru’s instruction manual, of which I have an English-language copy, there are four postures of meditation: sitting, standing, walking, and … sleeping. We have not yet tried the sleeping style.  It doesn’t look like the Guru is going to cover the sleeping meditation in this seven-day course.

And yet, there comes a time in any journey when one must leave one’s guide behind and take a few tentative steps alone.  

Tonight, I decide, I’m going to try it for myself.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Bruckner - Last Night....

What an enjoyable concert last night ... in only its second concert, the Community Orchestra showed itself a truly viable player in Bangkok's musical scene....

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why Bruckner? Reasons to come to Mahisorn Hall this coming Wednesday

Siam Community Orchestra •
in rehearsal

The Siam Community Orchestra, on its second outing, is tackling one of the biggest, most monumental works in the symphonic repertoire, and one that has never been played in Thailand ... Bruckner's Ninth Symphony.  Apart from the "because it's there" answer, I ought to explain why.  

I created this orchestra because I wanted to bring together people from across all segments of society in Bangkok who yearn to play BIG music - those pieces that they would never normally get a chance to play unless they were already part of a major symphony.  And so that audiences would get a chance to experience these BIG works - live, played by people who are of the community, sharing their enthusiasm.  

I've been overwhelmed in rehearsal by the passion with which these people have imbued Bruckner's Ninth Symphony.  

Richard Wagner once said that Bruckner was "the only composer who can stand beside Beethoven."  That is a wild claim to make when so many great composers exist, but when you listen to the Ninth, you can believe it.   There are indeed a lot of connections between Beethoven's Ninth and Bruckner's Ninth apart from being in the same key ... the numinous, shifting beginning that seems to gel out of chaos into a tremendous unison statement of an elemental theme seems to portray the very act of creation ... not a wave of the hand sort of creation but the birth of a universe out of darkness and terror.  Both symphonies follow with a scherzo that is savage and vehement and pounding.  And then a slow movement of incredible depth, fashioned out of two alternating themes, one a little faster than the other, and the heavens opening up to the sound of trumpets ...

You can see that one ninth is modelled firmly on the other.  And then there is another Ninth to come - Mahler's, which also has connections to this one, most clearly in the Adagio movement.  

What's different about Bruckner's Ninth is the sense that block by block, stone by stone, a cathedral is rising around you, and your ear is inexorably drawn up and up toward what can only be the voice of God.

I have lived with this symphony for about 45 years now and I had always felt that the work was "complete" the way it has been left to us.  In the Adagio, in particular, Bruckner builds up on two occasions times a powerful and sweet crescendo which climaxes in what sounds like the very heavens opening up and us seeing the face of God ... first in incredible splendor then a second time as though veiled, "through a glass darkly" as it were.  The third time this music comes, there is no climax, only a dying away into music that sounds like distant church bells, sinking into nothingness.  

In the past my interpretation of this was always that Bruckner wanted to show us that God dwells behind veils of impenetrable darkness ... that we can never catch more than a glimpse of the Holy Grail, and the more we approach it the more elusive it becomes.

Yet, I've recently listened to the reconstruction of Bruckner's last movement, which has now been done to what seems to be just this side of perfection after years and years of controversy.  

And I see now that Bruckner didn't mean to hide God from us but to save the blinding revelation for the final movement.  This finale changes everything and makes every note of the first three movements have a completely different meaning.

On Wednesday we will play the symphony with the old meaning attached.  But it is my hope that in 2014 the Siam Philharmonic will give the Thai premiere of the other version, with all the meanings turned upside down.  

Meanwhile please show your support for Thailand's passionate musicians by coming to our concert on Wednesday the 8th at 8 pm, Mahisorn Hall.  Pre-book by emailing, or just show up.