Thoughts of the Buddha: A Crossroads
by Sao Khemawadee Mangrai
At the age of 80, this crossroads on my lifelong journey, I ponder whether to take the right or the left road. Come to think of it, I don’t need to.
I should go straight ahead, loosen the grip I’ve held on my family and friends, cut off the strings of attachment I have for them, let go of the greed for wealth and fame, and follow the path that the Buddha has taught us to seek.
Back home in Burma, when someone has attained the age of 60, he or she is regarded as old, and is confined to the house, the monastery and the meditation centre. Occasionally, people in Rangoon (now Yangon) would go up to the terrace on the Great Shwe Dagon Pagoda, find a niche for themselves, and then chant prayers, ‘tell’ their beads or meditate.
However, I wouldn’t like to go to a park here in Sydney and be alone, in case I was mugged or attacked in one way or another. I’ve heard of one Burmese woman who sat on a park bench ‘telling’ her beads and her handbag was stolen.
I wouldn’t like to go to the Insight Meditation Centre in the Blue Mountains at Medlow Bath. In winter it’s cold up there, and in summer too hot. I don’t like the idea of sharing a dormitory with other meditators, since I had enough of that in my boarding school life in my youth. Neither would I like to have a room to myself, as I might get stiff with fright if I saw a ghost.
I am so used to having my own way that I am not willing to give up my set life, even though it is not a luxurious life. I can’t meditate, as my span of interest is short and my sense of concentration is poor. I’m easily distracted.
How would I part with my family when I love being surrounded by them? Even when I wash my face in the mornings, I see my mother’s face. I still remember her smoking a cheroot or a cigarette. I still have a vision of my father, romping about, beating rhythmically on the aluminium lid of a Bombay pot with a ladle, when he had had a little too much to drink.
I still have a clear view of my brother Tony leaning against a door frame, with one leg on the floor and the other leg bent and touching his knee like a stork, smoking cigarettes. I can visualize another brother, Bunny, mischievously driving us downhill and uphill and over potholes, just to tease us. My third brother, Tim, was so afraid of ghosts that when he was asked to fetch something from a room he would run into the room, grab the article and hurry out backward, to avoid being chased by a ghost. Sydney, my fourth brother, had me do errands such as buy vegies from the village or the market, riding on a bicycle and bringing home the latest town news. My youngest brother was pampered by everybody. I can still visualise him running to his nanny whenever the older ones teased him, so they would throw mud at them both. All these visions come back clearly now. How could I cut off strings of attachment even for those things past and gone?
I have read the book What the Buddha Taught by Walpole Rahula, in which he writes:
‘It may be agreeable for certain people to live a retired life in a quiet place, away from noise and disturbance. But it is certainly more praiseworthy and courageous to practise Buddhism living among your fellow beings, helping them and being of service to them. It may perhaps be useful, in some cases, for a man to live in retirement for a time in order to improve his mind and character, as preliminary moral, spiritual and intellectual training, to be strong enough to come out later and help others. But if a man lives all his life in solitude, thinking only of his own happiness and salvation, without caring for his fellows, this surely is not in keeping with the Buddha’s teaching, which is based on love, compassion and service to others.’
So – I can feel justified, after all, to stay at home and practise the teachings of the Buddha.
Sao Khemawadee Mangrai is writing on the occasion of the Buddhist Festival of Lights being celebrated on October 5, 2017, at the end of Buddhist Lent in Burma.
Sao Khemawadee Mangrai photo credit: Chris Waters