Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Merton & Mindfulness

"Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a little while I leave the hotel. I'm going to say Mass at St. Louis Church, have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, then on to the Red Cross place this afternoon."
-- Thomas Merton, December 8, 1968 (last journal entry, 2 days before his death)


Outside, a thunderstorm rages and hundreds of shoppers on Khao San road are about to be drenched. I'm hiding out with a bottle of water I'm fervently hoping is actually not going to poison me and a dastardly slow internet connection -- the combination is costing me $1 and providing a roof over my head during the storm, so I can't really complain.

Khao San Road and the market that by now covers not just the street itself but the entire neighborhood is Bangkok's backpacker heaven, providing everything that the budget traveller might need: The street vendors alternate Birkenstocks with pot-pipes, silver jewelry with T-shirts, illegally copied CDs with fruit and sweets. The shops behind the stalls cater to the more sophisticated customer: Backpacks and bridal dresses (... never have I seen weddings be an industry quite like in Asia ...), tatoo parlors and hairdressers, bars and massage salons. There's much smoking and even more haggling, all against the backdrop of the National Palace, some of the city's most famous and solemn temples, the democracy monument and the national museum. Much of this tension is of course illusory -- the garish beads on display in the market are reminiscent of the colorful spires of the temples, the persistent smell of fruitpulp and charred meat carries right into Bangkok's holiest halls, and the pushing, shoving and general thronging of bodies and vehicles ebbs and flows throughout the city like tides. At night, the city looks like something out of the Matrix -- sick with rain, the cranes continue to rotate, the cement mixers continue to turn at the construction sites until the wee hours. Traffic never stops, the wheels of the taxis turning as ceaselessly as the prayer wheels in the temples.

I spent this morning at one of the smaller wats -- a minor Buddhist monastery* where writer and theologian Thomas Merton died in 1968, 30 years to the day he entered the Trappist monastery where he spent most of his life. I feel personally, spiritually indebted to Merton, and wandering the grounds on which he died was a moving experience. Merton has singlehanded contributed more to the Catholic/Buddhist dialogue, and more to the renewed appreciation of monasticism in the 20th century than any other person -- his is a name that's simple impossible to circumvent when reading a book related to monasticism, the spiritual disciplines, meditation, inter-religious dialogue ... and that from a man who for 30 years barely left the grounds of the Gethsemany Abbey in Kentucky and spent most of his final and most fruitful days in complete solitude in a cabin in the woods. His passionate writings and corespondences, and his voracious appetite for literature -- and life! -- are humbling and inspiring.

Merton's last decade of life was in part consumed by his love and passion for Asia, a continent that he was allowed to set foot onto for the first time only months before his death -- and a prosaic death it was: Electrocution by a faulty fan. During my own journey, I haven't consciously thought to re-create Merton's travels -- while he desired to go to Japan and had made plans to travel there after Christmas of 1968, our routes didn't overlap, and yet at the end of mine as well as his road into Asia, I find myself in Bangkok (... I have high hopes for making it out alive, though, assuming this shack of an internet cafe is actually protected against lightening. ;)

Before I left nearly a month ago, various friends and acquaintances told me to anticipate clarity and insight into questions I've been facing, and at various points during the past few weeks I have, publicly or not, prodded the recesses of my consciousness for answers. To say that realization is rising from the dark waters like icebergs would be an overstatement, but sometimes I can sense -- feel rather than see -- a peak clear the surface. I'm as encouraged by this as I am disconcerted -- how did it get there? Why wasn't I aware of the gentle shifts and drifts pushing this tip from the sea up into the nightair? How much lies beneath, and will I ever lay eyes on it? Do I even *want* to lay eyes on it?

The rain, for now, has let up, and it's time for me to venture back into the streets. Less time to think, more time for my conscious to work beneath the surface, I'm afraid. Ah well.

* I am deeply gratified to report that Buddhist bookstores are as obnoxious as the Christian counterparts. It's all there: The rows of sermon tapes, the children's corner (... albeit, minus the corresponding Veggietales characters ...), the journals and blissfully irrelevant-yet-edifying texts (... "The Fabulousness of Klimt" is, I think, my favorite ...), the obligatory corner of foreign languages books, where I spent $2 on some enlightening materials I'll be distributing amongst my nearest and dearest. For example, I foresee George benefiting greatly from a Buddhist Sunday School curriculum ;)

1 Comments:

At January 25, 2006 at 5:40 PM, Blogger solitaire said...

Hi there. Great read here.
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