UNIVERSAL DHARMA

So Many Roads ~ SOUTH-EAST ASIA

"The first key to wisdom is assiduous and frequent questioning ... For by doubting, we come to inquiry, and by inquiry, we arrive at the truth."

~ Pierre Abelard, French philosopher, 1079-1142 ~

After two months of this, our spell at the army-base came to an end and, my finances bolstered somewhat, I was ready to move on, so said goodbye to Jo-Jo and Chris and flew out to Portu-guese Timor, a desperately-poor place, where I couldn’t see how people survived, but somehow they did. I spent a few days in a place on the beach at Dili that the authorities had set aside for travelers, then boarded an old prop-job Dakota for Kupang in Indonesian Timor, on the other end of the island, where I had my first taste of Indonesian cuisine, and liked it; there are plenty of vegetarian dishes for people like me (and after my last trip in India, I had finally become committed).

Now, Kupang ~ of Captain Bligh of The Bounty fame ~ is at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, and we had to take whatever form of transport we could get from there, and after some inquiries, those of us who were going ~ half-a-dozen or so ~ were able to get passage on a naval cutter that was going to Lombok. It was a pleasant-enough and relaxing trip of two days. We had to sleep on deck, but this wasn’t a problem, as it was warm, even at night, and steaming into the lagoons of Flores and Ende in the early morning, with volcanoes overshadowing the harbors and flying-fish and dolphins in the clear placid water around us, were memorable experiences. Food on board wasn’t very appetizing, but I guess you can’t have everything for long.

Disembarking at unspoiled Lombok island, we crossed to the other side by bus, and got a ferry to Bali several hours away. Bali at that side is dominated by the still-active ~ and at times cataclysmically so ~ Gunung Agung volcano, but at this time it was quiet. Again, we crossed the island by bus, through the palm-groves and meticulously-terraced hillsides, to reach the capital, Denpasar. There, I found a hotel for a few days, and hung out at Kuta to watch the mesmerizing dances that were staged for the tourists; I was fascinated in particular by the Kris Dance, in which the entranced performers staggered and fell around with krisses (wavy daggers believed to have magical properties) pressed against various parts of their anatomies, in-cluding their faces, without sustaining hurt ~ very convincing!

With a Sydney guy named Mal who I’d met earlier in Dili, I took off on a trek into the interior, through the artists’ village of Ubud and up into the mountains to Kintamani, from where we de-scended to the lake at the foot of Gunung Batur, another active volcano. Here, there are hot springs to soak in, an always-relaxing experience. Climbing back to Kintamani on the ridge, we then returned to Denpasar via Singharaja in the north. During our time in Bali, we sampled various kinds of fruit that I’d never seen before, including rambutan and salak ~ pear-shaped and rather dry and astringent, with a skin like that of a snake, which was easy to peel off; there was also the rose-apple or jambu, from the kind of tree that Prince Siddhartha was said to have sat under as a child and had his first taste of enlightenment upon becoming aware of the suffering of life around him.

From Bali, we crossed to Java by ferry, on which we met some-one named Soeharso, who invited us to stay with him in a hill-town named Malang, not too far away. We accepted his offer and on the way, at a place called Banjuwangi, he pointed out the site of a mass-grave of many thousands of people killed during the anti-communist fury of 1965; I was shocked, unable to visu-alize this. We were treated kindly at his home, and it was there that I had my last-ever beer, out in a boat on a lake where our friend had taken us; that was in August 1971. The next day, we hitch-hiked to Jogjakarta where we went to stay with Soeharso’s younger brother, Semsul, who was living with some fellow-students near Gajah Mada University. They were a bit surprised when we turned up, as they were not expecting, but welcomed us anyway when we presented Soeharso’s letter of introduction, and gave us one of their rooms. They also lent us a motorbike on which to visit Borobudur some 30 miles outside of town. This stupendous Buddhist monument in the form of a mandala ~ a stylized representation of the cosmos as conceived by Buddhists and Hindus ~ was built almost a thousand years ago when Java was Buddhist-Hindu, but covered and concealed by volcanic ash from an eruption some centuries ago, and thus spared desecration at Muslim hands, until ~ surprisingly enough ~ it was discovered and uncovered by the British during their brief control of Indonesia in the early 19th century.


Borobudur Stupa, Central Java

We spent some time there examining the sculpted walls of the various tiers that lead upwards to the culminating great stupa on the summit ~ so long, in fact, that our student friends became worried that we’d either got lost or made off with their bike, and came to look for us; they found us halfway back at a restaurant where we’d stopped to eat.


Java, 1971

The next stop along our route was Semarang, and we got down from our ride in the middle of town where great crowds were awaiting the Independence Day procession; it was 17th of August. Well, we caused quite a stir ourselves; maybe people took us as part of the procession or even the highlight of it, because hundreds of them followed us as we made our way out of town to Sam Poh Kong, a large Chinese temple built centuries earlier in honor of the famous 15th century Admiral Cheng Ho, who was both a Muslim and a eunuch, and who apparently stopped at this port-city during his several great voyages. We requested permission to stay overnight there and were allowed to; our en-tourage gradually dispersed.

Next morning ~ my 25th birthday, which is how I remembered the date ~ we returned to the town for a look around, and somehow met the chairman of a local Buddhist organization, Pak Sadono, who, learning of my interest in Buddhism and intention to be-come a monk, invited us to stay in his home for a few days. He was very kind, serving us different kinds of Indonesian food every day. He also gave me letters of introduction to several other Buddhist Societies and temples on my way.

One day, while in Semarang, we went to Watu-Gong, a Buddhist temple on a hill outside the town, and walking back ~ it was a long way and we were tired ~ we decided to get a cycle-rickshaw, but I had an idea, and said to one of the drivers, “You sit, I ride; no money; okay?” He agreed, and Mal got in with the driver in front, while I got on the saddle behind. Well, it was fun, with some of the driver’s friends riding alongside us (he was so proud!), until we came to a crossroads, and the lights were red, and I didn’t know how to stop the thing; I pulled on the brake-lever when I should have pushed it, and we were on the verge of going over the lights when the driver jumped down and pushed the brake, stopping us just in time! We did this again another day, when I was confident of being able to pull up ~ or push up!

Mal and I split up in Semarang, and with Pak Sadono’s letters, I went from one place to another in Java and Sumatra, experiencing much hospitality and kindness. One day, outside Bandung, I met someone who invited me to stay with him for a few days, and during my time there, he and some other friends took me up a hill nearby, where I had my second transcendental experience, although my companions were unaware of it; again, the I disap-peared, and was replaced by a feeling of great love and joy. It cannot have lasted long because we soon started to descend and return home, but it was another treasure along my way.

I spent some time in Bandung and Bogor, then passed through Jakarta, not wanting to stay and having no letter to anyone there. From the western tip of Java, I got a ferry to South Suma-tra, and traveled up through that huge jungle-clad island. Again stopping in various places, I got to Medan, and went to stay in a temple there ~ Vihara Borobudur, named after the monument in Java. There, I met another beautiful person: an Indian Buddhist by the name of Kumarasami, who took me, a waif and stray, un-der his wing during the few days I spent there, making me feel like one of his sons. I recall him speaking to me of the love that develops as one follows the Path; he himself manifested it in abundance, and I have since felt it at times and know what a wonderful thing it is, but ~ like humility ~ it cannot be practiced; it must come, as a result of understanding or seeing things clearly.


Mr. Kumarasami

Before I left to go to Malaysia, he also gave me letters of intro-duction to temples in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, but sadly, these letters were not received in the same spirit as they were given to me, as I will shortly explain.

Crossing the Straits of Malacca from Medan to Penang, I had to wait for the Malaysian Customs and Immigration officials to board the ferry and do their duty. I got talking to one of them, and when he learned I was a Buddhist, and had a letter to a Sri Lankan temple, hoping to be allowed to stay there, he said I could stay at a meditation-center, where he was a member; his name was Amigo ~ his nickname; his real name was Oon Teik Leng ~ and he gave me the address of the meditation-centre. I told him I would check it out.

Disembarking, I made my way to Mahindarama, the Sri Lankan temple, and presented my letter to one of the monks there, Ven. Pemaratana. I could see from his expression that he wasn’t very impressed with my appearance ~ some of these monks have a way of looking down their noses without saying anything, but which makes it quite clear what they’re thinking ~ as I was wear-ing shorts, and had a beard. He didn’t say anything, but went off and didn’t come back, leaving me sitting alone for a long time. “If they won’t let me to stay,” I thought, “I’ll have to find somewhere else.” Just then, he reappeared, and I asked if I’d be allowed to stay, as had been requested in the letter. Only then did he say, “Well, the chief monk said you can stay for a few days, but at the weekend, we’re having a festival, so you’ll have to find some-where else by then.” I thanked him and he led me to a room at the back, where I bathed and put on a suit of white Indian clothes that had been made specially for me by Mr. Kumarasami as a parting gift, then went out to the shrine-hall to do some chanting, such as I had learned while staying in temples in Java and Sumatra. Now this caused a noticeably different impression, because in Theravada temples, only people who are in retreat and observing what is known as ‘Eight Precepts’ wear white. Well, I didn’t know about this then, but was just wearing my gift-clothes for the first time, unaware of their significance; having been so long in India, I thought they were just normal. The cool-ness the monks had shown towards me before was less cool.

Next morning after breakfast, I went in search of the meditation-centre, and found it without difficulty, not far away. It was run by a Thai monk who spoke no English at all. Some people there were able to translate for me, by speaking Hokkien Chinese to him, which he understood somewhat, having been there some years already. Through them, then, I told him that I’d like to learn to meditate, and that if I could stay there, I could earn my keep, as it were, by teaching English to anyone. Without hesitation, he replied: “Yes, you are welcome to stay here, and there are some Thai students who would be glad of some help with their Eng-lish.” The accommodation for me wouldn’t be very comfortable, upstairs in a shed used for building-materials, but I told them it would be fine. Delighted that I’d found a place so easily, I told the monk I would come back very soon.

Returning to Mahindrama, I told the monks I would be going to stay at the Meditation Centre ~ Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Center, known by its acronym, MBMC ~ but they said, “Oh, don’t go yet; we’d like you to stay for the festival on Sunday, after which you may go.” I was quite surprised by this about-turn, but thanked them and agreed to stay. Sunday came, and so did the people ~ great crowds of them, as this was an important cere-mony to offer robes and other requisites to monks at the end of the annual 3-months Rains Retreat, more of a tradition that has largely lost its meaning than anything. And people believe ~ be-cause that’s what they’ve been taught ~ that offerings made at this time will bring them great merit, and so the monks are loaded with things far in excess of what they really need or can use. Well, understanding nothing of this, and being the only European among all the Asians (mainly Chinese, with some Sri Lankans and a few Indians), I felt rather spare there, and did whatever I was told to do, like a dummy. Then it was time for lunch, with the monks being served first, very respectfully, and with lots of bows and salutations, by the devotees, who had brought food in great amounts. I was standing there bewildered until summoned by Ven. Pemaratana, and told to sit at his table, which I did, of course, still not knowing the Theravada custom of monks always eating apart from lay-people. Now, why he waived this custom for me, I really don’t know, but maybe it was because of the white clothes I was again wearing. It must have been conspicuous, however, but no-one said anything, either at the time or afterwards, so I just sat there and ate. Most of the dishes were of meat or fish, but a few were vegetarian, and there were plenty of cakes and fruit, so I was able to eat my fill.

The ceremony over, the people dispersed, leaving the temple quiet again. The next morning, I was packed and ready to leave, when some of the monks presented me with things, both useful ~ like an umbrella, and they had enough of those to stock a shop! ~ and useless, like a peacock-feather fan. I thanked them, and went off to the MBMC. It was only some time later that I learned there was a kind of rivalry between Mahindarama and MBMB, but that, I was to find out later still, was not uncommon, and in fact, is quite the norm.

In MBMC, I learned how to meditate ~ the so-called ‘Burmese method of Vipassana’, watching the abdomen rise-and-fall with the breath. The teacher ~ Phra Khru (his rank, meaning, ‘Venerable Guru’) Dhammabarnchanvud, was calm and quiet and had a nice demeanor, but didn’t give much instruction; he just ex-pected his students to get on with it, and if anyone had any questions that some of the older ones might answer, that generally sufficed, but in other cases, people might approach him through a translator who spoke Thai, as his Hokkien wasn’t that good, either. We addressed him as ‘Luang Pau,’ which is a Thai honorific meaning something like, ‘Reverend Father.’

It wasn’t long before I met Amigo there, and he introduced me to his wife and two teenaged sons; these boys, with plenty of time to themselves during school holidays, showed me around a bit, and it was from them that I learned how to use chopsticks while eating a well-known Penang dish, hot and spicy laksa.

In the temple, meanwhile, I spent time reading to a couple of Thai students, and getting them to read to me; in this way, I helped them improve their English a little. Other time, I spent meditating, sitting, walking and standing, mindfully observing my bodily sensations and watching my mind. This was not at all easy at first, and often, when I sat down, I’d fall asleep within a few minutes. I persisted, however, and struggled with my thoughts for at least 20 minutes before they would calm down enough to allow me to continue, until I could sit for an hour. My posture also gradually improved; at first, my knees would stick up, as many Westerners’ knees do, and later, I could sit in the half-lotus position but with the right knee still sticking up, then gradually, over another period of some days, that knee would get lower and lower until it was resting comfortably on the floor, and later still, I could manage the full-lotus. Of course, I needed the support of a firm cushion for this, otherwise it was hard to maintain an upright posture for long without tending to slouch; the cushion saves the expenditure of a lot of energy.

I was befriended by a young boy named Teoh Eng Soon, who I soon began to call ‘Ashok.’ He used to come to the temple al-most every day, and became my confidante.

I immersed myself in Theravada Buddhism, and the Thai form of it, at that. I read various books, attended talks, and, knowing lit-tle, had ample space to be filled with terms, concepts and ideas; I was eager, like many a newcomer, and mistook such for real knowledge, thinking that because I knew the words, I also knew what they represented, a common, all-too-common, mistake. I saw how people there intellectualized and split hairs over silly things, clearly thinking they were getting somewhere; they re-fused to use the word 'reincarnation' because ~ they said ~ it was a Hindu concept, as it implied the 'passing-over' of an im-mortal soul from one body to another, which Buddhism denies; their preferred word was 'rebirth'. But just an iota of insight would have shown them that, according to the Buddhist concept, this is also incorrect, for nothing is 'reborn' ('re' = again, so born-again). How, then, is the word 'rebirth' more appropriate than 're-incarnation'? Life is a process, a movement, like the sea. The rise and fall of the waves is caused by a current of energy pass-ing through the water; there are no waves apart from the water, and there is nothing static or permanent that passes through the waves, from one to another. So, although Buddhists, for conven-ience, use the term 'rebirth,' nothing is actually 'reborn’, as noth-ing in our mind-body remains the same for two consecutive moments even while we are alive; how much moreso when we are dead? Of course, I didn’t know this at the time.

I met someone there who spoke to me at some length about the endless suffering of Samsara, and in my naivete and beginner’s willingness to listen, I took him to be an authority, overlooking or disregarding his arrogance and conviction of being enlightened; he’d read a lot, and had a group of sycophantic followers, known as ‘The Subha Group’ (‘Subha’ is Pali for ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Good’), which he’d inherited from his late uncle. I became scared, think-ing that I’d had enough suffering in this life already, and didn’t want it to go on and on forever, so I went to Luang Pau and asked him to put me on a meditation-course, imagining that I might become enlightened during it; just see how naïve I was! Well, he put me on a 2-weeks’ course, of about 17 hours’ medi-tation per day ~ one hour sitting, followed by one hour standing, and one hour walking. Meals were eaten extremely slowly (and in silence, of course); bathing too, was done in very slow-motion. The purpose of it all was to enable me to observe more of the many movements involved in each action, and to watch the mind while doing so, too; it was not a matter of doing any-thing different or special, but just to observe what is there, all the time. I was allowed one hour for reading per day.

It was hard-going ~ not to get up early, as I’ve always been an early-riser, but hard to discipline myself to the schedule. I’d start out by chanting for a while, followed by sitting; I made it through the first hour alright, and then began walking, but so slowly that it would take an hour to make one circuit of the shrine-hall measuring maybe 15 meters on each side. That wasn’t so bad, but then I began the standing. It is said that the Buddha stood in one spot, unmoving, for a whole week after His enlightenment, gazing in gratitude at the tree under which he had sheltered, but really, I can’t comprehend that, because as I went on, just an hour resulted in pain such as I had never known before, and when that hour was up, I had to hold onto a pillar or door-post and slowly lower myself to the floor! The sequence would then be repeated.

Now, one afternoon, while reading a book by ~ strangely enough, Christmas Humphries, again ~ I had that experience, and ‘disappeared,’ for the third time! It lasted about 30 minutes, and so, maybe I’d not been so naïve after all, as it was certainly an enlightenment experience, and one which could not be pro-duced or brought about. I did not try to tell anyone about it, be-cause even though people there had been kind enough to me, I didn’t feel sufficiently at ease with them to confide about such things, thinking they might not understand or might even deride them. And, because of the language-barrier, to talk with Luang Pau was not an option; therefore, I kept it to myself. Looking back on it now, I did the right thing; they wouldn’t have understood; their minds were already fixed.

While in MBMC, I met some other ‘outsiders’. First, there was an American named Bobby, who wandered in with her 7-year-old son, Sean. They’d been traveling around the world for several years already, Bobby teaching English where she could, to sup-port them both. They were staying nearby, and came in, at-tracted to Buddhism and meditation. We became friends and were to meet again later in Bangkok. Then there was Ray Seibel, who was with the RAAF ~ Royal Australian Air Force ~ at its Butterworth base, on the mainland. He lived with his wife, Judith, and their two children, in Penang, and sometimes visited the temple with another friend, Dorothy Brimacombe. They in-vited me to stay with them in their home once or twice.

Now and then, a friend of Laung Pau’s came to visit, a Thai-Chinese monk who stayed in a cave-temple in Ipoh, a town 100 miles to the south. I came to know him as Reverend Tong, and he asked me to visit him sometime, saying there was an English monk staying with him. I accepted his offer, curious to meet the Brit monk, and found his cave quite comfortable, the floor having been cemented and electricity installed. A lady from a nearby village came to cook for the three monks there, including Lodro Thaye, the Brit, who was a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, spe-cifically, the Karma Kagyu (otherwise known as ‘The Red-Hat’ School because of the red hats they wear during their ceremo-nies, as distinct from the Gelugpas or ‘Yellow Hats’). As a child, he’d been stricken with rickets, leaving him with short legs. But he was a friendly-enough fellow and I got on alright with him.

I soon fell into a routine, rising early, and after my morning chanting and meditation, swept out the temple, cleaned the al-tar, removed the old incense-sticks and offered fresh flowers from the garden. Because of this, Reverend Tong liked me, but not so the other monk there ~ a local Chinese who’d become a monk in his old age. He clearly disliked me (maybe jealous of the abbot’s approval of me), and made life hard for me, criticiz-ing and scolding me, and bad-mouthing me to others, some of whom believed he had some psychic powers that he wouldn’t hesitate to use against anyone who displeased him. Whether this was so or not, I can’t say, but I was quite miserable for a while, and I considered leaving and going elsewhere. I could have become angry and scolded him back, but remembering what the Buddha had said about hate not being overcome by hate, and what I’d learned in primary-school about two wrongs not making a right, I didn’t do so. Instead, one morning, as I was putting fresh flowers on the altar, I thought of another way, the way of judo, which enables one to overcome another by using his strength against him, instead of one's own. So I prepared an extra dish of flowers, took it to his room, and knocked on the door. When he opened it, I offered the flowers to him, without saying anything, and he accepted them, also without a word. He was never angry with me after that, and later, when I left that temple to go elsewhere, he gave me RM50! If I had become an-gry and scolded him, he would have hated me more. But be-cause I knew there are other ways, I was able to win him ~ not defeat him, but win him. I felt good, he felt good, and we both benefited.

Because no Dharma-talks were held at that temple, and be-cause I felt hungry for such, often, on Fridays or Saturdays, I would hitch-hike to Penang to attend the Sunday-evening talk at MBMC, and the next day, return to Ipoh.

Then, Lodro-Thaye had arranged for one of his teachers ~ Urgen Rinpoche, a highly-respected lama from Kathmandu ~ to visit and give teachings in Ipoh; he came to stay in the cave, with one of his assistants, Lama Nishang Sonam, with whom I became friends. I should say here, for those who do not know, that ‘Lama’ is an honorific meaning ‘teacher,’ not ‘monk’; there are married lamas, with families, and Urgen Rinpoche was one of them. Well, the Rinpoche was very nice and kind, but I didn’t feel drawn to Tibetan Buddhism. I knew, of course, that the ritu-als were all meaningful, but I preferred something simpler, and still do.

The Rinpoche had brought with him some relics ~ supposed to be of the Buddha ~ tiny, pearl-like objects, for distribution to the faithful. I’d never even heard of such things before, but Lodro-Thaye got his teacher to kindly give me three.

While in Ipoh, I met a wealthy businessman ~ one of Rev. Tong’s supporters ~ and went with him to Kuala Lumpur, where he lived. There, he took me to the main Sri Lankan temple or Vihara. I greeted the incumbent monk, Ven. Dhammananda, and gave him the letter that Mr. Kumarasami had addressed to him, requesting him to let me stay in a corner somewhere so as to learn more about Buddhism. He refused, but gave no reason. The businessman wasn’t happy at this, and took me to a Chinese temple by the name of Ho Beng See, in Chow Kit, where I was welcomed and treated kindly. I spent a few days there and then went back to Ipoh, until I felt ready for the next step: ordination. I returned to Penang, but before I could ask Luang Pau, he asked me: “Do you want to become a monk?” I had the feeling he could read my mind, and replied, “Yes, I’m ready now.”

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