The Ash Tree

The Ash Tree

Far away to the east a sensitive man sat underneath a wide and sprawling tree, thinking about the world. If he had known, Odin would have narrowed his remaining eye and made his thoughts keen. He would have disapproved of the man’s soft body and mind, but he would have been very curious.

Odin was a very curious man, although his cold hard face made him seem forbidding.

His own tree was not so different to the tree of the man from the east, although Odin walked around it apprehensively. He would never sit down underneath it until he was too old to stand. Resting was tantamount to death.

(Or so he liked to make himself believe, but the old god was glad to find a bed of leaves or lush grass to sleep on after a long day’s wanderings.)

One gnarly hand was clutched around his staff as he paced, the other was fingering the noose that Frigg had woven for him. She probably was not the only wife in the world who, when confronted with the fact that her man was going to hang himself this evening, stopped and said, “I will weave the noose,” but she was the only one who did it out of love.

Odin and Frigg – now that’s a story.

She was beautiful as the dawn, as light caught in frosted branches, and he was the broken branch that gathers lichen and frost and the blow of axes. They loved each other, each in their very distinct way, but neither knew exactly why.

Perhaps because she made him a noose when he needed to hang himself, Odin mused with a grim smile.

But it was rather that she never minded it when he left on his interminable wanderings and that she was a place where many threads ran together only to continue onward, each in its very own direction, the end of which only Odin himself knew…if he did.

He was so used to being on his own that it startled him when she made something for him, even if it was just a bowl of hot soup.

The branch up there looked promising. Odin looped the noose and threw it. It was a good throw and the loop slipped over a broken stub and held tight.

Why was she on his mind now, when it should be blood and bone? He was about to go into the realm of the dead – it was a new journey, even for Odin – so why did he think about home and hearth?

The wind picked up and blew snow in Odin’s face.

His sons had counseled him to protect himself with witchcraft. It was always them, Thor the simpleton, and Loki, the schemer, who gave such mindless advice while the women just stood aside and laughed.

There were a thousand rites and rituals for protection, but Odin cared not about a single one of them. The noose shimmered in the dark and he imagined Frigg closing her hand around his throat and throttling him.

She had strong hands, long fingers.

The darkness would be good.

Huginn dropped from the sky and sat on the branch, next to the loop. Muninn cawed somewhere in the night sky. His two ravens were true companions, but this journey would require different company.

They came from the hills as Odin put the noose around his neck. Two large wolves; one was grey and the other black with white patches all over. They moved with the sureness of many hunts and the world around them changed.

Odin felt a tinge of fear and it made him laugh. This was the moment. Would he be able to go through death and return? He was a god, so it was not unlikely.

He remembered the many humans he had seen on his wanderings, the many slain, the many desperate, the sick and those who would have done everything, everything for another breath of air.

The black wolf looked at him with a strange intelligence and Frigg’s noose began to work its magic. It tightened around Odin’s throat and began pulling him upward.

The staff fell to the floor, its tip touching the paw of the grey wolf, as Odin’s hands clutched at the rope, then fell, limply, to his sides.

The old god was dead.

The other world was not so different from this one. Frigg’s noose was a silver thread around his neck and the ash tree, Yggdrasil, was bone white. The wolves came and smelled and licked his hands and Odin smiled grimly.

This was a journey he had never taken and he was looking forward to it.

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The Story of Siddhartha

 

Buddhism is a child of India. It was born in the form of Prince Siddhartha. It was also born out of desperation, because the Vedic system had become a prison, encapsulating every living being in a fixed and unchangeable form. You are born a beggar, so you will be a beggar until you die and then are reborn as a gnat.

So the great achievement of Buddhism was this: humans can change.

The prince himself was changed numerous times and every time this change brought him great pain. He went out of the palace of his parents, a pampered youth, somebody who believes the world is at his feet or in the palm of his hand. Up until this day he had known nothing but riches, three lavish meals a day, soft clothes and the beauty or anger of his own thoughts. This image is most of us, who have not seen suffering or have never been forced to change…we live in a prison of our own thoughts, beautiful and frightening mirages that we take to be our lives.

The first time the prince went out he saw a beggar. What did he do? Probably ignored him or did not know what to do with the man clutching his hand with such a hard grip until some attendant shooed him away, kicked him maybe, berated him or gave him a coin to get rid of him. But he couldn’t understand. Weren’t all people rich and well-fed? The gaunt and hungry face and the burning eyes of the man followed the prince deep into his own dreams. He felt unwell until he understood that he had begun to accept the beggar’s suffering. He had taken it into himself. This could be us, if we begin to accept what we don’t want to accept. We will suffer, yes, but this is simply change.

The second time the prince went out he brought coins with him and distributed them to the beggars. Then he saw a woman with sores, gruesome wet and slimy-looking wounds over her legs. She refused his coins, just looked at him with eyes full of pride and pain. So again the prince returned and again his dreams were troubling and painful. He looked at the bodies of those around him and saw on them those wounds, blooming like the most frightening of flowers. They came out of nowhere and caused such great pain. He went to the palace doctors, obsessively so, and had himself checked over and over again and took pills and tinctures with him. This could also be us, if we accept suffering but become afraid of it.

The third time the prince went out he had with him coins and medicine and was awfully nervous and fussy, making his caravan stop anytime he saw someone malnourished or pale so he could give and give in order to feel better. On this trip he came across something that would frighten him very badly: a woman holding a bundle. He went up to her, inquiring whether he could help her and her child and he saw the empty face of the woman and realized that the child she clung to was no longer living. He hurried away, full of fear, but this was one fear that he simply could not conquer by fussing about it or by changing himself to accommodate it. Gradually he lost all interest in the beautiful pastimes of the court, stopped smiling at the young women who visited him to talk to him or hear him recite poetry and lost himself in gloomy, pensive moods. This is us, if we get lost in what we call today a depression.

The prince realized that would have to change something else. Not the clothes he wore, not the words he said, not the things he ate. No fasting and no gluttony would help him, no drugs and no medicine. He would have to change himself, be a prince no longer. So one morning he left his name behind the way other people leave a finished book on the bedside table.

He left the woman who was his wife behind, too, and that is something many women rightfully complain about. Couldn’t he have explained himself to her? Maybe she would have understood. Maybe she would have come with him. At least she would have deserved a choice.

Her name, by the way, was Yashodhara. But this is as it is. He did not give her that choice. He also left his son behind and that, perhaps, is damning, but it is what he did. Could Siddhartha have become Buddha if he had gone with his family or would he have had to give up his quest in order to take up a plow or learn a trade to feed the two?

I wonder what a woman would actually say to this…Yashodhara, in her material situation, probably wouldn’t have been too bad off. The son, especially if he was fond of his father, might have been a problem, but she could have lived a comfortable life even without Siddhartha. I wonder as well if women consider all that talk about giving up your desires about as silly as they consider men’s talk about going to war and about honour.

Perhaps his mother and wife got together after he left and talked about how silly he was just to comfort each other…of course this wouldn’t bring him back, so eventually they would have to reconcile themselves somehow.

Anyway, what was his quest? This quest that drove him from all comforts his world offered to him? What made him give up food and sex and warmth?

To understand life and death. To understand change. To understand now and forever.

Is that a worthwhile trade? Perhaps…perhaps not. After all the ultimate fates of a man who chooses a life at home with his family and the man who remains alone in order to gain understanding don’t differ too much.

Whatever you or I may think, Siddhartha – although he was no longer Siddhartha, but just some guy named either Nobody or That One, depending on whom you believe – chose that lonely path and went into the woods to meditate.

Meditation back then meant a lot of physical self abuse. Punch nails through your tongue, eat dirt, hang on one limb from a tree. The same stuff that an old one-eyed wanderer did in Europe’s North when he hung himself from the ash tree. Denial of the body – asceticism.

So That One lost a lot of weight until not even his wife and mother could have told the difference between him and a skeleton. He also gained a lot of scars. But he was none the wiser for it.

After a few years of that he decided to start eating rice again and he found that he genuinely liked it. He could have eaten a hundred bowls, but he moderated himself. He realized that if he stopped doing something he liked at a certain point the enjoyment didn’t overtake him completely, nor did it disappear entirely. That was something to remember.

He made himself a robe of old linen that was given to him by a petitioner and wore it comfortably. He clumsily carved himself a bowl and ate from it. After all this self-torture and constant pain such small things seemed an inestimable comfort to him.

Some people say he was fasting and meditating for fifty days, but really it came quite suddenly to him. He had found a tree that he liked and sat underneath it and rested for a bit.

Actually he had given up meditation by this point or – as more romantic souls say – everything had become meditation to him.

Very dimly he remembered a wife and a son, a young man who would by now have become a prince and he felt at peace.

The animals speaking to him? Now that’s a tricky bit. Just like St. Francis…are they meant to represent something, perhaps the lower urges of men that he had learned to curb? Or are they actually animals because he has become so silent that he now understands the speech of all things?

So under that tree a curious thing happened to him. He hadn’t fallen asleep yet – and he really liked to sleep because he was becoming older – but all of a sudden he woke up. How strange that was. He knew so many things he didn’t know and contrariwise there were so many things he had thought he knew that he actually had no clue about.

He had finally changed and That One became Buddha – the Awakened One.

In his heart perhaps he preferred to be That One or No One, but now there were so many things to do and the world was so full of people that he got up from underneath the tree and started walking again, trusting his feet to know the way, his tongue to know the words and his eyes to see what was truly there.

Nice Hair…on Scams in Kuala Lumpur

Photo by Paul Gadd  (http://blog.paulgadd.com)

Drugs are banned in Malaysia, under punishment of death. One is reminded of that when flying into Kuala Lumpur, presumably in order to go and smoke the last bit of weed on the toilet. It does seem a kindness extended to all potential drug smugglers or medical drug users, but it is emblematic of a certain strangeness of Southeast Asia. Before you cross this line we will be the most polite people you have ever met, but if you cross it, you will suffer and die.

This is an extreme way of putting it, of course, but not an entirely wrong one. Shadows and darkness of Asia, however, are my own peculiar fascination, perhaps to counter the images of exotic paradises conjured up by travel agencies. My goal is always to see a country with the eyes of the people living there.

From the airport, which has a Muslim prayer room, toilets gleaming with water from the many hoses screwed to the walls, pizza and probably also a Starbucks by now, it is a long ride across featureless and slightly dreary rice paddies, occasional palm trees and bright modern mosques with a peculiar decorative insanity which would not be entirely out of place in Las Vegas, to get to the city. The sky is either overcast or ominous. Thunderstorms are spectacular in this latitude.

The city, which seemed so teeming, so crazy before I ever went to India is actually…placid. Fringed with suburban middle class homes and car repair shops that spill metallic innards all the way to the street, it seems quite familiar. In the early 2000s it had tinges of what was considered futuristic in a certain cleaned-up Blade Runner way – a creaking and gleaming monorail gliding through the center, huge neon billboards along house-fronts that were all mirror and glass and reflected sky, gigantic luxury malls that seemed to me (the Westerner out of his depth for the first time) like momentary returns to the world I knew. But there were enough signs of otherness; the mustachioed watchman with a gigantic black shotgun strapped to his back who paced around his plastic chair at the entrance of BB Plaza; the nervous agitation of the Chinese man handing out flyers for acupuncture treatment and who would convulse into something approaching an angry internal tantrum every once in a while; the catcalls of scammers looking for their foreign prey.

Scams in KL (as the city is called by locals) range from the frustrating, to the amusing, to the ingenious and back to the straight puzzling. “Nice hair,” is a favoured entry-phrase and from there everybody has a brother or sister that happens to be studying exactly where you happen to live or who at least wants to study there. In one rather amusing instance this sister – who, usually, remains a mythical creature and is only alluded to – was actually produced, right in the flesh and in front of me. “This is my sister,” the young man said and a slightly demure girl in grey and blue was suddenly before me. Unfamiliar with this particular variation I could only mutter, “Nice to meet you,” and hurry away before whatever unfolded would unfold.

Usually your typical scam runs like this. Somebody strikes up a conversation, invites you for a drink and at some point during the friendly conversation he calls up some of his friends who he’s meant to meet. Malaysians aren’t very forward people unless they know you and if someone approaches you, they want something. So these friends are actually not going to let you leave but will invite, hound you even to come with them – although they know perfectly how to calibrate the mood so that you will feel pressured but because you think that you really want to meet the friends of this friendly person, after all you are here for an adventure and what’s nicer than hanging out with locals. So you meet your new friends and they have to go somewhere, but they do have a car and so you hop in. The conversation is kept going and everybody is easy-going and smooth, so soon you pull up at a house and you’re led in to meet other people, other friends or maybe even family – because you half-remember some platitudes about Asian hospitality that doesn’t strike you as strange (and indeed it isn’t strange in many parts of the world to be invited like that) – you don’t even realize that most of the friends (your “handlers”, actually) have already left and you are now in the clutches of the main actors of this perfidious drama. A middle aged man with an aura of weary power, very gregarious as everyone up to this point. The house is very clean, it would seem barely lived-in if you took the time to think about it, but you’re kept engaged by an offer for food and coffee which, by some strange quirk of fate, is just about ready. There are also two vaguely pretty women, but they stay in the background – so far – only serving you food while the main man is serving up his tale. You casually chat about travelling and about the beauty of his country. He’s a biker, he says, quite dangerous and adventurous, he means to imply. He lifts up his right hand and you notice that he is missing three fingers, due to a bike accident a few years back, he says. Now he works as a croupier in a casino, he says, and suddenly you get the vibe of chance and high stakes that has been tingling in the air before but that you didn’t really notice. Do you play? Not really. Ah, so he will teach you a few tricks, after all he knows them all and if you ever sit at a table in a casino his tricks will help you cheat the dealers. He probably winks but it is hard to tell since he’s wearing tinged glasses.

So you are being led to the next act. An upstairs room with a poker table. A quick rundown of the rules. He tells you that he will count the cards and give you a sign if the cards are favourable enough for you to bet high. He is a good actor, managing to make you feel like you’re being prepared for some sort of spy/secret agent drama. The whole atmosphere seems heightened, like in a movie. If you were to think you would realize that it is just the whole fake setup, but in this mood you’re ready to go for it. Somewhere into this atmosphere pushes another story, a sappy one. A telephone rings, the man answers, talks and hangs up, visibly distraught. His wife is highly pregnant but there will be complications, the doctors have said. He has known this for a while. But you see, he is in debts and he will not be able to pay for the treatment if anything goes wrong and the kid will not really grow up the way it should. How about a deal, then? He seems to debate this with himself but then he decides to trust you – to trust you, a complete stranger. How about that…we rip off rich people in the casino together? I will teach you all you need to know and we can split the money.

A tense moment, but he can see in your face that you are inclined to agree. Next stage. You know, he says, there is a woman who comes here sometimes and she likes to gamble. Very high stakes, you know, but she can’t help herself. In fact, she said she would be here today. We can practice and when she arrives, she’ll be the first target.

Well, as the bell rings the seams actually start to show. It is all too well staged, but for some reasons this also means that I want to play my part properly. She arrives, the gambling woman, and I feel suitably nervous about my first assignment. She is middle aged, wears glasses and exudes middle class prosperity – a bored wife who likes to raise the stakes. These people actually are marvelous actors – or maybe I just want to believe it, caught up in their play

We chat a bit. Apparently I look a bit like John Lennon to her. Of course she wants to play and we sit down. The croupier is telegraphing me his moves, winking at me with the subtlety of a tombstone and I win a few rounds. We have been given chips, meaningless chips, because there’s no value behind them, no weight. The gambling woman seems to want to go higher, so the stakes are being raised until she challenges me. This is not a real game. I like real games – what can you bet? Suddenly the atmosphere changes. She says she will put 50, 000 Ringgit on the next hand. I feel how the croupier is deserting me, changing sides. What can you bet? I’m pushed into a corner, so I take out my credit card and put it on the table. Now the game is on. The two are like vultures, each for their own reason. The croupier calls for a break and the marginally pretty girls from earlier take care of the gambling woman.

Listen, he is insistent now, urgent. We can beat her. I will help you. You just have to raise the money and then we split the result. You have to do it, we got her! He can see the money in my mind now and he thinks that he has me. The more insistent he becomes, the more detached I feel. A part of myself is caught up in the game, but the other part is removed, studies the whole drama being performed here.

The gambling woman is whisked off the stage – she has to think about it, they say. She is replaced by the two marginally pretty girls, all relatives of our main performer, it seems. Sisters, wanting to study in Vienna? The cynicism catches them off guard for a moment, but they recover and the prettier one tries to mollify me. She attaches herself to my side and tells me some encouragements. We need to go to a jeweler’s to get something of value because the gambling lady will not continue if all there is on the table is some worthless piece of plastic.

So off we go to the jeweler’s. The first man, the one who chatted me up, is back as our driver. Two ladies at my side and a shrewd looking woman behind the counter. It is a small counter is some nearby shopping center and they have their eyes on some exorbitantly expensive gold chain. I know my credit card will not cover the price, so I go ahead with it. The woman at the counter takes my card and returns a minute later, putting it down before me. Doesn’t work. I smile and watch the ladies around me getting restless. We need cash, they decide, so it’s off to an ATM. Enter the highest number, they insist. Again I know that there is a limit on the card and it will not work. I enter a ridiculously high amount. Refused. I shrug. The ladies are close to a tantrum.

We go back to the car and they ask where I’m staying. The game’s almost at an end. They are none too happy. In the car the prettier one shows me an image of her taken ten years before. She was beautiful. Is it an attempt to seduce me? At that point it’s just too much. Isn’t that all a bit too much, the story with the pregnant wife and all, I say as we talk about the croupier who is not with us now. The temperature drops steeply. Too much? I feel them mentally recalibrating their drama, seeing it as overwrought for a moment.

They drop me off near BB Plaza, close to where I had been picked up. Can you at least give us something for the petrol? I feel the drama’s worth something – after all they’ve been amazingly dedicated performers – and fish a blue 50 ringgit note out of my pocket. I watch them drive off. On the way home I stop at a street kitchen for some food and smile incredulously at another woman who approaches me. “Nice hair!”