The Dead Monk.
“There’s always the urge to see somebody dead that isn’t you.” Stephen King.
To encounter death, to see and accept it, to treat it as a part of life, to look at it without fear or revulsion is an ability largely absent from western societies. Close the eyes, cover the body, draw the curtains, dig out the dark suit and the black tie, talk in hushed tones, hide it in a well sealed coffin then bury it or burn it, get rid of the evidence.
Even the church who claimed inside knowledge of the happening seemed to want to dispose of the physical remains as quickly as possible, emphasising the departure of the soul from the body, the rejection of the physical man in favour of the spiritual. I never thought or questioned this until a day came when I was to find and study death, without fear or revulsion, quietly and gently. It was the first day of the north east monsoon.
Early morning and I was seated on the terrace of my house drinking coffee and wondering when the rain would come. Although only seven o’ clock the heat lay over the house and garden like a heavy suffocating blanket and I could feel the sweat running down my face and chest.
Nan, the Burmese house girl appeared in the doorway, she was dressed in what constituted for her the ‘Sunday Best’ that is to say immaculate white t-shirt and pink shorts, with pink plastic flip-flops on her small brown feet with pink painted nails.
‘Nan go temple now, go see Buddha man. OK Papa?’
‘OK Nan, go temple, but tell Mama you go.’
Nan grinned ‘Mama say OK. No problem.’ “No problem” was the latest phrase she had picked up to supplement the other dozen or so words in English she had learnt in the month since she came to us. Nan was sixteen and had never been able to attend school in Burma, before fleeing to Thailand. Arrested by the police she was luckily spotted by my landlord, the local chief of police, who was looking for a house-girl for our home.
We were quite used to her slipping off to visit the temple. It seemed there was always a reason for a visit, not just the day of the week but maybe a special date, an auspicious planetary conjunction, a birthday, a wedding, a blessing, and usually a couple of visits a week were required and Nan seemed to enjoy her trips out.
It was half hours walk into the village, the first kilometre through the jungle before the road emerged into the rubber plantations, and I hoped the rain would hold off until her return. I stood up and walked to the edge of the veranda to look up at the mountaintops to the east. They were cloaked in darkness, the peaks hidden in dense churning black clouds and as I watched I saw a brief flicker of lightning.
‘Nan!’ I called after her, ’Wait, it looks like rain, I’d better drive you.’
Nan turned, looking up at the sky her head on one side. ‘No problem Papa, Nan walk quick.’
I went into the house and grabbed the car keys, shouting to Catherine that I was taking Nan to town.
I parked in front of the Temple busy with villagers bringing offerings for the monks and let Nan out. It seemed dark for the hour, the sun invisible behind the clouds massed over the mountains, and inside the temple hundreds of candles cast wavering shadows over the gilt and gaudy walls. I waited in the doorway as Nan knelt in front of the Buddha statue and made obeisance, kneeling and touching her head three times to the ground before placing burning incense sticks before the golden icon.
‘Ah! Papa! I am so happy to see you.’ A voice from behind me made me turn. Ae was a young monk I knew and who took every chance he could to practise his English. He was 27 and had been a monk since he was 14, he lived in a tiny cell and his sole possessions were 2 robes, a brass begging bowl, and a portable phone. He was quite the happiest person I had even met. ‘I too am glad to see you Khun Ae, you must tell me why there are so many people her today.’
‘Yes! It is true, many people. They come to see Holy Man, do you want to see too?’
‘Maybe I will, why is he special this Holy Man?’
Ae laughed, ‘Oh! He is special, very special, he is dead.’ I was both baffled and intrigued as to why anyone would want to look at a dead monk. ‘But why is he not cremated, I thought that had to be done very quickly when a monk died?’
Ae took a more serious tone. ‘This monk very good man. Live very holy life, long time very holy and become very pure. So, when this man die he so pure no need to burn him. He stay same same all time.’
‘You mean he doesn’t decay, decompose, you know what I mean?’
‘Yes. No rot, no smell, nothing. Stay same all time. So now he live in glass box, people can see, see how holy and pure this man is.’
Ae led the way through the crowd to a small open sided building next to the temple. On a dais inside was indeed a glass coffin like object containing the form of a robed monk.
His robes covered most of his body leaving only his face and hands visible, and I realised with a shock that I recognised him. I had often seen him walking in the Temple grounds, his head bowed over a book.
I moved closer to the glass and looked down at his face. In the failing light of the approaching storm his face seemed to merge with the robe, the folds and creases of the cloth echoed in the lines and wrinkles around his mouth and eyes, the soft colours of the robes echoing the tones of his face. He could have been asleep save for a slight dullness to his brown skin and the total stillness of his features. A stillness that seemed to create an aural around him, deadening the sounds of the people in the temple, the voices becoming distant, and colours muted.
And I felt his presence still, the feeling that he had not left, this was not his now empty shell. For sure he would no longer walk in the gardens, chant sutras in the evening service, talk with his fellow monks, for he had changed, evolved, but he had not gone.
A sudden breeze stirred the leaves of the tamarind trees and making the candles dance and flicker, giving the ghost of a movement to his face. He seemed so right laying there, so much a part of that world. This unchanging body was no miracle I realised, this was the normal course of his life. He fitted perfectly into the picture, the temple with its monks and worshipers, gods and demons, the spirits and ghosts of the forest, the mountains cloaked in their mysterious jungle and crowned with the monsoon laden clouds.
Nan appeared silently beside me, then knelt and made obeisance. She too seemed part of it now, a fragment of life next to death. She stood up and tried to see the monks face, but she was too small, and even on tiptoe her eyes were just level with the base of the coffin. She turned and smiled at me and said something in Burmese. I looked from her to the monk, the one face smooth and smiling, the fragile impermanent perfection of youth, that seemed to glow in the darkness, fed by the hopes and joys of a young world, and the other carved as if from teak, imprinted with the passing of the years, seasoned like the bark of a tree, the imperceptible changing. Life and death wedded together in harmony, the one merging seamlessly into the other in the mysterious cycle of being.
There was a sudden patter of rain on the roof and I heard the deep distant thunder rolling down from the mountains. Nan tugged gently at my sleeve. ’Papa go home now? Nan make coffee, bekfast?
I returned many times over the next two years to talk with Ae and visit the monk in his glass case. I could detect no change in the appearance of the holy man, save perhaps a slight hollowing of his cheeks. On my last visit I found Ae sitting next to the coffin reading aloud from a newspaper. He was reading from the sports page, the English football results.
‘Oh! He like Man. U. so much, I always tell him when they have match.’ He said simply when I inquired what he was doing. ‘ Man U. three, Chelsea one. He is very happy to hear that I think!’
Talang, a two street village stranded between green mountain and sapphire sea,
Under a cobalt dome two dirty roads with broken pavements and leaning electric poles,
A junction without significance,
Save for me, my home.
At the crossroads the solitary policeman conducts the gentle chaos
Wearing white gloves and dark glasses his arms a semaphore,
With imperious piercing whistle telling all to stop, to go, to turn.
And by the crossroads the temple stands, shaded by Tamarind trees
Bright and light with gaudy golden Buddhas, Chinese deities, and Indian gods.
Saffron robed monks sit silently watching the shadows creep across the courtyard
Freshly swept by boys with shaven heads
While from the neighbouring school, two rooms with open windows
Buzz with children’s chatter, and the chanting of the lessons.
A scatter of simple cafes line the streets,
Plastic topped tables and unsteady chairs
Smells of fried rice, Pad Thai, Massaman Gai,
Cold Thai beer in tall brown bottles frosted with moisture.
Fat smiling women stir mysterious multiple pots
Shouting to each other across the stream of passers by,
As woks explode in flames with smells of spice, garlic, chilly,
And ladles frantically flip and whip in a blue aromatic haze.
Dark under a low wide roof the busy market lies
Cloaked with a miasma of over ripe fruit, spices, strange fish on beds of ice,
Meat from unknown monsters, chicken bits in buckets.
Stinking durian, green coconuts, purple magosteen, yellow papaya, and crimson rambutan.
On the edge of the village as darkness falls the karaoke bars awake,
Ribbons of coloured bulbs guide solitary men to dim rooms and comfortable chairs,
Doe eyed, almond eyed, nubile teens from distant villages across the plane smile the smile,
Hold your hand, pour your beer, look longingly into your eyes:
One more beer what your name love you my darling no money no honey.
While by the bus stop on the Chalong Road a solitary street lamp surrounded by a golden cloud of moths illuminates
Two wrinkled monks with rolled umbrellas,
An old lady with a cage of birds, a teenage girl chewing gum,
A woman with a suitcase tied with string a baby at her breast,
Waiting patiently for the midnight bus to Bangkok or somewhere else.
Fourteen hours away.
Like them I left
Like leaving a lover
Bitter regrets and sweet memories.
Sometimes, in the dog hours before dawn
I hear the voices clear again
I walk the dusty streets again
I smell the scents and taste the dust
And sit an unsteady chair in a simple café