Journal Reflections

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon

01/23/1998

Journal Reflections from the Thai-Burmese Border

By Elias Amidon

Early morning light breaks through the leaves of the jungle around me.  I have just finished my prayers, troubled ones, and turn this page to try to make sense of what I am feeling.  The flat fronds of the wild banana trees sway and bow to the sound of bird songs, layered like a complex fugue, and to the splashing of a creek finding its way down the folds of these steep hills to the Ngo River – the name means “river of reflection.”

Yesterday I sat by the river of reflection looking into its clear waters.  I saw images of Bangkok, the immense, thunderous city we came from eight days ago.  I saw the two-hundred-year-old Muslim community of Ban Krua set in the middle of Bangkok – a large pedestrian neighborhood without streets or cars, laced with canals like a little Venice.  Ban Krua is now fighting for its survival: a freeway is planned to cut through the middle of it.  I saw Saroj, the Muslim activist who showed me around Ban Krua, as he and I also stared down into the water there.  But the water of the canal we looked into was more like a sewer, floating with trash and the sheen of oil.  He said not more than twenty years ago he swam there every day – he and his friends diving from where we stood.  Now the surrounding mega-city of Bangkok is one of the ten most polluted cities on the planet.

In my reverie by the river I saw the exhausted, roaring air of the city, filled with the blue smoke of trucks, cars, motorbikes, cement mixers, cranes – everywhere construction and dust, everywhere noise and haste.  A hell realm.  The immense weight of it – thousands of concrete trucks filing into the city day and night, pouring out their loads and returning to the harbor for more – the city slowly sinking into the soft delta, engineers devising ways to push pilings and foundations deeper, searching for enough earth to hold it all.  But there is not enough – the Earth will not hold it, the memories of the children swimming in the canals will not hold it, the weight and noise and poisonous air will crush Ban Krua and those memories and no one will believe they had ever existed…

I look up now to see an iridescent blue and green bird sail through the forest, and try to let its freedom dispel those gloomy thoughts.  It is so peaceful here.  I have not heard the sound of an engine, not even a plane, for the past week.  We are two days from the nearest road.  My wife and I are out here helping to guide a group of thirty Thais, Europeans and Americans on a pilgrimage of prayer and spiritual renewal.  We’re here to learn from and be blessed by this place, and to leave behind our prayers for its well-being, and for the well-being of the people who live here, the Karen.  Like the beleaguered urban community of Ban Krua, and like thousands of other communities and villages scattered in the diminishing roadless hills and secluded valleys of the planet, the Karen are engaged in a struggle for the continuance of their way of life in the face of the expanding industrial-consumer society.

On a similar journey last year we witnessed several Karen villages that had been losing this struggle.  Their paths were now littered with plastic bags and bottles, their peace was broken by Thai pop music blaring from boom boxes, their economies shifting from self-sufficiency and barter to dependence on cash.  But cash is hard to come by in these hills, except by selling the soul of the land and the people.  Village after village watches as its forests are cut down, mountains gouged out, rivers polluted, and its families and communities drained of young men who leave for the hope of cash-paying jobs in the city and young women to serve as servants and prostitutes.  Many never  return, and those who do often drift back with broken spirits.  The Karen village headman who accompanied us had initiated a number of projects to reconnect Karen youth to their culture and to protecting the land, with some hopeful results.  “Change is inevitable,” he told us.  “We must try to make the changes positive.”

Positive change – what is that?  What needs to be changed?  What needs to be saved?  What do we love so much we care to save it?  Holding that question in this moment, pen to paper, I once again hear the sounds of the creek splashing in the ravine below.  It is a sweet sound.  I feel the world is in right proportion when I hear it.  But I know that if one day roads and electricity find this place, the sound of the creek may be drowned out.

A few days ago we stayed in a remote Karen village virtually untouched by the modern world.  I remember walking down a path to a similar creek next to that village to fill our water containers.  The path was rough and I needed to take care not to slip or trip on exposed roots.  Later I confessed to a member of our party that if I were to live in this village I would improve the path leading down to the water.  He laughed and said he had the same thought, but he realized it was just that impulse that was destroying these villages.

“Material progress,” he said.  “You and I are slaves to it.  We’d fix the path, then change the water course so it would come right into the village, then pipe the water into the houses, then – there’d be no end to what we’d do until we made another Bangkok!”  I protested saying surely we’d know when to stop.

“Would we?” he asked.  “We men are like that – fixers – we love to tinker with things and show off to each other – and to our women!  We want to make things easier, more comfortable.  There’s no evidence that we’ve ever known when to stop.  I tell you, fixing that path is the path of material progress, and it leads straight to Bangkok, Hong Kong, and New York!”

His words troubled me.  Was he right?  I looked around the Karen village – these people seem to have “stopped” at a very simple level of comfort, though they appear happy and their land is still whole and beautiful.  The plant dryland rice on the steep hillsides in patches that have been cleared and burned – each patch is used once and then left fallow for six years.  There is no erosion, and the surrounding forest seems to survive well with this level of agriculture.  Their major resource, bamboo, is used for nearly everything.  The house we stayed in was entirely bamboo: foundation, floor, walls, roof, fasteners.  The family heated water in a bamboo “pot” over a fire of bamboo sticks and served in bamboo cups.  The only metal implements I spotted in the village were a few cooking pots for rice, some spoons, hoes and machetes, and the wire strings on a homemade harp.  They have been living close to this level for a millennium of more.  Have they “stopped” here purposely because they found a way of life that is satisfying, or are they caught in an evolutionary backwater destined to dry up and die out?  And what might we, in all our zeal for progress, learn from them?

I looked around the village and found two types of human-powered “machines,” both of them used by women: simple looms and see-saw contraptions used for pounding rice.  Each household has a rice pounder – the dryland rice is delicious and retains its nutrients only when prepared daily.  At dawn each day the village comes alive with the thump-thump sounds of the rice pounders, as reassuring as a heartbeat.  The young women stepping on and off the rice pounders have a calm, even meditative look.  Certainly this machine represents “material progress” over a hand-held pestle, but there is a quality about it which does not betray the pace of life of the village as a whole.  Perhaps that’s a clue to what they measure as “progress” – those things which do not destroy the pace and experience of the present moment.

Later in the day I watched the older women set up their looms beneath the shade of the porches.  They had grown and spun their own cotton and now stretched the warp in front of them with their feet, humming to the clicks of the shuttle as it passed back and forth.  Again with these “machines” there was an unmistakable peacefulness that seemed only to be reinforced by their use.  I watched the simple over-under, over-under of the warp and weft weaving both cotton and the weaver into time and place, hearing the shuttle whisper, “There is no hurry, everything takes the time it takes, this way we are woven, over-under, each thread helping each thread to stay in place, becoming whole cloth, becoming the fabric we share.”

But I caution myself not to romanticize these people – they undoubtedly have many faults and weaknesses.  Nevertheless they seem to live relatively satisfying lives immersed in the beauty of the natural world and somehow manage not to destroy it.  This is more than our culture can claim.  What direction is “progress” anyway?

One night in that village I sat with an old grandmother as she cooked rice and chewed betel nut.  At one point I asked her what she thought of the future of her people – what problems did she fear were threatening the survival of her village and their way of life.  She was silent for a while.  The poet Roger Dunsmore refers to this typical moment in one of his essays: “We must imagine this silence,” he writes.  “It appears in all accounts of questioning exchange between those from European backgrounds and those from native backgrounds and is inseparable from the contents of any answers that are forthcoming.”

Finally the old woman answered through our interpreter that this question was not a real question.  “It is not right to talk about the future,” she said.  “If there is a problem, we will solve it when it happens.  We don’t need to talk about it before it happens.”

What?  What about anticipating imminent threats to their way of life?  What about planning and protecting?  These questions no sooner rose up than they evaporated.  Her little Zen arrow pierced my Western conditioning and I realized that her village was still whole precisely because the community had stayed loyal to what they loved in this place and in this moment.  Their lives were clear examples of Rumi’s advice, “Let the beauty you love be what you do.”  It is only here and only now that we can love what we love.  If we are always hurrying on to improve things or guard ourselves against what might happen, we risk losing the touchstone that keeps life in proportion.  How can we know what changes are positive or what progress is or even what is worth saving if ninety-nine percent of our attention is focused on things that only exist in our minds?

My world cracks open again as I recall her words.  Once more I hear the sound of the creek below me, that sweet sound, water flowing over the stones.  That sound has been gracing our planet for countless millions of years and will undoubtedly continue to do so for countless more.  Of course, there is a place for improving conditions and for protecting what we consider valuable, but these only make sense when we remember what we value most is here and now.  I listen to the sound of the creek and let it remind me.  The banana leaves sway and bow.  How beautiful the world is – when I notice it.

It is some weeks later now – I am back in Bangkok – the roar of the city pouring in through the window of this funky hotel room.  The human family here is still going about its business, faster and noisier than ever.  (May they learn to love what they love!)  The sweet music of the creek cannot be heard, but I have not forgotten it.  It holds me at this brink of time, gesturing toward the world of peace.

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