. . . however, when Milarepa returned to his cave, he found it full of demons with eyes as big as saucepans and bodies the size of thumbs.
—Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
How to travel in a tainted land without getting tainted oneself?
A couple years ago, we were in Mandalay — where, pace MGM Resorts International, there is no bay — and trying to find a comedy troupe called the Moustache Brothers. Two of them had spent half a decade at forced labor after telling politically incorrect jokes. Our guidebook informed us that they were now free and performing again, but only to foreigners.
We encountered them in their garage, over which hung a lighted sign displaying their name in English. A few trishaw drivers lingered nearby, waiting to take the small audience of Western tourists home. They kept a safe distance. Some delicate, probably unspoken agreement was evident here, some tacit understanding as to just how far all parties might go. Of course the trouble with such understandings is that you can never really be sure.
We had wanted a taxi to take us to the Moustache Brothers. The cabstand attendant had asked us to wait, crossed the street, and returned with two men. One was to be our driver. The other seemed to be talking bits of Chinese to himself between exchanges in Burmese with the other men. I decided to try my atrophied Mandarin on him, and he obliged. After reciprocal pleasantries, I asked for a fare. It seemed outrageously high, no matter where the address we had given him might be, so then I asked—
“Why so expensive? Half should be enough.”
“We don’t like the Moustache Brothers.”
“Maybe you don’t like them. We like them.”
He laughed, but repeated that the comedians were not liked.
“I understand,” I said. “You mean it’s risky for the driver to take us there.”
“Correct. But it’s not far. Why don’t you walk?”
An excellent, cost-saving suggestion. He kindly offered directions. Further pleasantries were exchanged. He asked where we were staying, and I gave the name of our hotel. It was all quite friendly, as were our goodbyes.
Then, after a beat, as we walked away, came his voice:
“Mingtian jian.” See you tomorrow.
“See you tomorrow,” I answered reflexively, then took another few steps. And then thought: What?
Not a word had passed between us about services to be rendered on the morrow. Questions sprang to mind. Who was this Chinese man? Why had the cabstand attendant summoned him? What, exactly, did he wish to convey by saying that the Moustache Brothers were not liked? Burma was supposed to be crawling with informants — had we bumped into one? Or a foreign agent? Or an optimistic businessman? Or merely a jokester?
We never saw him again. But it was he who caused the seed of paranoia much earlier planted in me to germinate, and its noxious perfume eventually filled my vacation. When once this happens, nothing before or after looks quite as — perhaps — it should.
For example, the sign I’d seen in my first hotel room: “Don’t worry. No CCTV in this room. No camera in this room.” I had dismissed it, even found it funny — but was it?
Or the friendly army officer who stopped by the cabin of our train from Mandalay back to Rangoon. He communicated in pantomime — I think this is what he communicated — that he would be grateful for any English books we might be willing to part with. We offered none. Was that okay? Did he want to learn English, or to ascertain what we were reading?
Or the university students in Rangoon, boarders at a monastery, who befriended us. We sipped tea and visited shrines, and I put to them a question about Buddhist thought (how can the doctrine of anatta, according to which there is no enduring self, be reconciled with the idea of reincarnation?). They returned the next day bearing a text (the Milinda Panha) and said they had discussed my question with three monks. I took them to the bar at our hotel, where we drank water and talked. As they left, I offered a small donation for the orphanage at which they volunteered. And why did the bartender give us the evil eye? Was he annoyed that we hadn’t ordered a drink? Did he think them too poor to be there? Or was he suspicious of locals who show texts to foreigners who then give money? Did he work for anyone besides the bar? Would somebody see my friends tomorrow?
Unlikely, but I worried. I worry still. In a country where anyone might be an informer, or an enforcer, you end up doubting everyone. Now I read that some of the monks are taking up swords and going to see their Muslim compatriots. Saffron robes, like military uniforms, turn out to be no proof of enlightenment.
Paranoid suspicion is a bit like philosophical skepticism: Once you let it in, it can swallow up the whole world, and no evidence or testimony can ever lay it to rest. It always points back to you. I planted its seed in myself, I now realize, the moment I applied for my tourist visa. The authorities often deny them to writers, I had read, so I lied and gave my occupation as “musician.” “Musician!” the customs officer said brightly as she stamped my visa at the airport. Was her smile ironic? Impossible to say.
Global paranoia is a limiting extreme of the way in which, if you fear or desire something greatly, you fixate on it to the exclusion of all else. It becomes impossible to notice what’s actually happening — and that’s when you get clumsy. You show the world your fear, and the world tends to answer. What you desire escapes, because you can’t be bothered to stop and look. You hurt other people, who have practically ceased to exist.
There is no solution at this point but to make friends with your situation: not in the sense of resigning yourself to fate, nor in that of indulging impulse (to pursue, to flee; to attack, to defend; to hold on, to let go), nor still in that of going to sleep. Rather, you must clear your mind enough to see yourself, other people, and the overall environment without the distortions of hope and fear. This is the precondition of the alert tranquility in which inspiration tends spontaneously to arise — or, if you prefer, to be given. The continuous changeable flash of the now might then come into focus, and the path become clear.
In Bangkok, on my way back, I found in my hotel room’s nightstand The Teaching of Buddha, placed by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, a sort of Japanese Gideons. The hotel staff gave me permission to take it home. I am looking at it now. Let us read: “There is nothing more dreadful than doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.”
And let us reflect: Who is doubting?
How to travel in a tainted land without getting tainted oneself? I have no idea. But we might look into obviating the question.