Bargaining With Buddha

13 May 2009

The fat guy smirks at me from behind the narrow counter.

"Eternal happiness? Yeah, I can get you dat. No problem."

Neon light spills in through the barred windows and raises highlights on his smile, making it somehow threatening.

"What's it going to cost?"

"Everything and everyone you've ever loved or ever will."

"That's.. a little steep."

Now he's openly grinning.

"And everything that makes you you. Take it or leave it. I gots plenty of takers."

I've insulted him, and the cramped pawnshop is suddenly too small for me. But I've come a very long way, and I'm not ready to run yet.

"Do you have anything smaller?"

"Yeah, yeah, you can have this little bit. It don't do much. Maybe get you a little bit of peace. It ain't gonna stop the pain, though. You gotta pay on the instalment plan. Ten minutes a day. And maybe just a little piece of you."

It's not much of a deal, but I don't have a lot of options. I make my purchase and hurry back out into the real world.

It didn't happen like that. Tan Dhammaridu is thin and his smile is genuine. He's not a buddha or a pawnbroker: he's a Buddhist monk and I spoke to him while I was living in a Thai monastery.

But twelve seventeen-hour days of inactivity and silence do very strange things to your brain, and it really looked like that to me. Though the Buddhist dhamma has its own imagery - snakes, roosters and pigs, demons and bhikkus, animals and men - I created plenty of my own. Meditation became a computer game, the ship of the self swerving around rising thought bubbles and firing on defilements with weapons of visualisation. The colours behind my closed eyelids changed to match the level or the mode.

Even with my eyes open, deprived of pens, books, or any form of stimulation at all, I was forced to adopt a pet spider. Wat Suan Mokh is a jungle temple, so there were plenty to choose from. When he ran away, I made my own from a fallen human hair, breaking and re-tying intricate knots to get the right number of legs.

And the silence, the silence was the worst. It was the right choice to go on the meditation retreat, but it may have been the wrong choice to go on our honeymoon. At first I desperately wanted to talk to my wife, which was painful. Then I didn't want to talk to her, which was terrifying. Then she didn't want to talk to me, which was both.

But the daily talks were light on dogma and heavy on psychology, science, and practical tools. And so in the midst of all the suffering - the /dukka/, as the buddhists call it - I learned to slow down, to live in the present moment. On day two of twelve, the future is so awful that there's not much of a choice. And I learned to do the mental push-ups that they call 'meditation'. Far from simply counting your breaths, these are brutally, brutally hard.

This is a small measure of strength, an ability to absorb life's crueller blows with grit teeth and grim determination. But the real secret is to duck the blow entirely. The process is very simple: in order to never experience any sadness, you must never experience any happiness. With sufficient skill you will never feel anything at all, and 'you' will cease to exist.

But if ultimate happiness is voidness, what's the difference between Nirvana and suicide?

After twelve days, I couldn't see one. So until I do, or until I want out, real buddhism will sit on the shelf next to hard drugs and the Foreign Legion.