A Wooden Buddha and a Sip of Tea
This story was initially written in July ’11 as part of an assignment for a writing course, and now that I’m back in Thailand I thought it fitting to re-visit it once more.
My first thought, as usual, is to make a pot of tea. Five years ago, I recall, I couldn’t sit down to write without a bottle of red wine beside me, but now my “companion” during the lonely yet poignant creative process has become a golden hued high mountain Oolong, or perhaps an earthy Sancha green. As I take the first sip, my daily mantra comes to mind: “This day – no matter what it brings – will be entirely determined by the attitude I take.”
Indeed, a lot has changed since my red wine days. Over the past five years I’ve discovered that happiness and contentment are not determined by anything external. Happiness comes only from within. Contentment is not a wish to be granted but a decision to be made, and it takes significant effort and a whole lot of time to be developed. A glance at the old wooden Buddha statue I bought in Thailand five years ago reminds me how far I’ve come.
On that very day, five years ago, I was a lost, desperate, depressed individual. I drank to numb painful feelings of inadequacy while trying to “work it out” through unceasing and often pitiful written “conversations” with my journal. Searching for answers, I bought the Buddha statue at Bangkok’s crowded Jatujak Market, and later that same day I stumbled into a chance encounter with a Thai Buddhist monk somewhere off Sukhumvit Road.
When I asked him how to overcome my sadness and find some direction for my life, he responded at first by looking into my eyes with a piercingly intense yet warm gaze, until – finally – he spoke: “Sit. Follow your breaths,” he said. “Don’t worry about anything else. When a rainstorm hits the earth, does the earth get sad? When a piece of shit sits on the earth’s surface, does the earth say ‘Ooh, that’s gross?’ Be like the earth.”
Keeping these words close to heart over the next several years – day by day, little by little – my life transformed from the inside out. I worked hard not to lie. I learned to truly listen. I began sitting in meditation everyday. I became patient and present through every nook and cranny of life. I stopped concerning myself with the judgments of others. I realized I was only torturing myself by trying to control things, including my own feelings. I started consciously being kind to people, even if they “rub me the wrong way.” I let go of arrogant contention, and opened to selfless humility. With tears in my eyes and a bottle in my hand, I made the decision to quit drinking. On my eleventh try that year, I succeeded.
Today, five years since my meeting with the monk on Sukhumvit, I finish the pot of tea and take a walk to the laundromat down the street from my Burlington, Vermont apartment. A man driving a flashy little car while talking on his cell phone nearly hits me as he hastily pulls into a driveway. I don’t get angry. I reflect on the frantic stress the man seems to be under, and I feel sorry for him. I continue walking – as calm and serene as a Gulf of Thailand sunset – and it’s effortless.
Laundry done, I sit down to check my email and a tiny fruit fly crawls across my desk. I try to slide it away with my hand, but I inadvertently squish it with my thumb. As far as I know, it’s the first living thing I’ve killed since last August when I mistakenly itched a mosquito to death. Still stuck to my thumb, I pensively carry the insect’s minuscule black body to the bathroom. There, I stare at it for several minutes, feeling sorry for causing its death; but not regretting, just reflecting and accepting. I consider how my own body is also fragile. One day, perhaps today or tomorrow, it too will be squashed under the thumb of the universe. I feel compassion for myself. I feel compassion for that tiny bug. In my mind, we are one and the same.
Tonight, I read the instructions for the writing assignment I’m fulfilling right now. It instructs to recollect “a day or event that you think about often – something that happened while you were traveling, or simply a key event in your life.” As I read those words, a tear of joy forms in my eye. I’m not trying to be sappy – just telling it like it is. On that day in Thailand, when that monk told me to “Be like the earth,” I was given the key to a life so powerfully vivid and rich that it utterly transcends the word “meaningful.”
On this night, at this moment, I look again at the peaceful eyes of my old wooden Buddha. Right now, a sip of tea.