Nirvana misinterpreted

It is the first day of 2016. The sun is high on the blue and clear sky. I am listening to France Culture just to absorb the beautiful language. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot lies on the table, waiting for me to open.

Three days ago I went to a small village near Trang Bom, Dong Nai to attend the funeral of my grandfather’s younger sister. I used to live in the neighbourhood in the very first months I arrived in this Southern part of the country. As the bus was moving from the centre of Saigon to the outskirts, I was reflecting how the landscape changed before my eyes. In many parts of Thu Duc District, small houses covered by tole roofs become a norm. And local residents are also accustomed with drying their clothes with those toles. It was Saigon as I see. It was not the flamboyant and modern city centre as I used to know. I don’t know how I could barely notice these things before.

When I changed to another bus at Suoi Tien terminal, memories came flooding back as I was watching the dust floating in the aslant sunlight. I remembered the first days I was here. Back then, I had nothing to worry about, no job, no lover. I just came to see something new with the pure belief that there must be something in the world for me to do, and there must be someone for me to love. There must be a future in my hands. My imagination ran wild in those days, and most of the time I was optimistic but once for a while I was so morbid.

The land is vast, the tamar road was scorched under the sun heat. I was walking alone while birds chirping and twittering around. It seemed that I was the only one on the road.

My mind was wandering as a monk and some other Buddhist believers were reading scriptures to wish the dead one have a smooth journey to the ideal West. I was thinking about Prince Siddhartha, and imagining how a young prince walked through woods with his bare feet, how he ate, and how he sat under the sacred fig to think about the world.

People kept talking about the ideal West, and about Nirvana. In their opinion, Nirvana must be a kind of paradise, something as presented in Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, in which Buddha would sit calmly on a bright lotus with many followers around ready to serve his needs and wills, and in which there also exists a hierarchy of bodhisattvas who have various kinds of power over the world. The paradise should be for those who usually do good deeds in their lifetime and those who read Buddhist scriptures often. Yet I think it does not conform with Siddhartha’s thinking. Nirvana, however, should be understood as the profound state of peace in mind and the complete understanding of the world and of oneself, as it is originally defined in Pali or Sankrit languages by primitive Hinduist and Buddhists. Moreover, Siddhartha pushes forward his idea that one can reach Nirvana in one’s lifetime, and that it is not a kind of paradise one can hope to go to after death. He also proposes the idea that Buddhism should be a way of thinking and a philosophy rather than a religion. Because once a religion is formed, a hierarchical system is created too. And where there is such system, there must be inequality and corruption, which he does not seek. It is pertinent to observe that Prince Siddhartha should be regarded as a liberal humanist, if it is ever needed to categorise him into any kind of schools.

Nirvana, misinterpreted as the ideal West, has become a kind of incentives for those who believe in doing good deeds they may hope for the future after death in the paradise. Would they still do so without the belief in such kind of paradise? Would they do so just because it is the right thing to do rather than that the action would be a ladder bringing them closer to Buddha? Would they do good things without any incentives? It is hard to say.

During numerous funeral rituals, I was told that the bereaved had argued about how old the dead person was. I was also told a story about my grandfather’s youngest brother, who was shot to death by American guys during the Vietnam War, out of nothing but arguments, even though he was not committed in any Communist forces. His wife had sold their only son to some American shortly after the Southern Government fell down. The wife has lost her mind for several years, and she keeps mentioning the child saying that “They stole the baby.” I was thinking about the dead person, whose name I did not know until then, who I share some blood with, who I met only once in all my life yet who was somehow attached to me. I was thinking how her body would be burnt in the crematorium.

Back to the city, I was in rush to sort things out to move to a new house. I came back the one that is now my old logement for the last time in yesterday afternoon to collect some knick-knacks and a small plant. I stood right in the middle of the flat, imagining myself sitting in front of my computer staring out the windows. I thought about how I would never sit in that room, how I would never sleep there, how I would never stare out of those windows. I wondered how my mind works as far as memories are concerned for when I rode back, the road has already become strange to me, the road I used to ride hundreds of times has now become somewhat unfamiliar yet I have just lived one day in the new house. I thought about my former houses, how I lived in them.

I stare out the window in the new house to see a bush of bougainvillea. Those days I have been learning to sing L’hymne à l’amour by Edith Piaf. I finished reading Narayan’s The English Teacher, which is really original, impressive and lyrical. One day I will write something about it.


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