Oriental memoir

As some Siamese Bonze once told me: “I am very rich, in things I don’t need.” He seemed, indeed, to be surrounded by treasures.

This was in the capital of what is now called Thailand. The gentleman in question, enrobed in saffron cloth, and in possession of a brass begging bowl, offered the best conversation I can recall about Buddhism with a “native speaker.” That is, he was raised in an entirely Buddhist rural environment, schooled in a village monastery through his childhood, and had become fluent in English with a disturbing Oxbridge accent. This he had acquired I’m not sure how. I forgot, or forget. Were it forty years later, one might look him up on Facebook, I suppose.

Many people are more interested in themselves than in others, as intellectual engrossments go. Let me start with what he had to say about “me” — the Westerner. His monastery, or wat, was becoming something of a hippie hotel, owing to its custom of hospitality to travellers. While not a hippie, nor an habitual wat guest, I was at the time a bit of a traveller. I was curious to hear an educated Bonze’s view on all these hirsute, dope-smoking white juveniles. It was both sympathetic, and unfavourable.

He was sympathetic to what he thought often a sincere quest for “transcendence,” but one that had got off on the wrong foot. The spiritual resources of the West were formidable, he said. They should have started their journey there. While he welcomed an appreciation of Buddhism, they did not tend to have very much, and most of what they knew was not true, but Western-hippie bosh. They were more consumers than participants in religion — by instinct, aloof in quite the wrong way — and really, if they were more serious they might have researched monasteries on the continent they came from. Here they were just voyeurs, and (I am paraphrasing, as so often), too smug and conceited to be good voyeurs. By contrast, having met several, he put in a good word for Catholic priests.

We discussed Buddhist versus Christian monasticism. There are differences in belief that can’t be whimsically bridged, he said. But large parts of the two “monastic experiences” were fairly identical, including the line that is drawn between monastery and “outside.” One doesn’t cross that line wilfully. One does not come in to shop, as it were, for spiritual trinkets.

The young Buddhist who enters the monastery intentionally, for a few months before settling into a secular career, knows he isn’t shopping. This institution, found throughout Theravada Buddhist nations, could instead provide a brief training in “the discipline of compassion” — including what it is and isn’t.

It is not a “nice feeling.” It is a discipline to be acquired, and my Bonze echoed Newman in saying (as I later realized) it begins with the art of getting out of bed in the morning.

Other acquisitions follow, some of which may prove more difficult. Let us consider, for instance, the skill with which we started: detachment from Things. We, from the West, used to be good at this. (In past centuries.) We did not so much own things, beyond kitchen utensils, as hold them in consequence of our station in life, to be passed along in due course. Now we’ve forgotten how this works. Only superficially does this mean a life of poverty. Only superficially does one give away everything one owns — although the monk must do this, to show his commitment. At a much deeper level, one must cease to crave for possessions, including that craving for immaterial things: fame and suchlike. The task is rather to be free; to escape our bondage to transient things.

But God, Heaven, Hell; angels, devils, saints. … One of the most intriguing things I remember from Montri (the name of my Bonze acquaintance), was his casual use of such terms. “Westerners think Buddhists don’t have them, that we are some sort of atheists, but look at Buddhist art.” Buddhist attitudes towards them might be inexplicably different, but there they are.

I’ve neither seen nor heard of him for decades; and he was already old, so that he is probably now dead; yet Montri remains, for me, a Catholic inspiration.