The Buddha in
The Jungle

Kamala Tiyavanich
(Silkworm/University of Washington)
The Buddha in the Jungle consists of forty-four tales from pre-industrial Thailand when it was known as Siam (the name was changed in 1941). It was a time when monks (and tigers and elephants) wandered through the villages and the wats were used not only as places of worship for the monks but were available as free room and board for those passing through (except the tigers and elephants).

You'd think Thailand would be a paradise a century ago: great canals in Bangkok, water buffalo in the countryside, children playing around the rice paddies, unspoiled forests, gentle people guided by the principles of Buddhism.

Only there were a few botherations that you and I would never think of nowadays. A traditional saying of the time was "Go by land, you meet a tiger. Go by river, you meet a crocodile."

In addition, there were mosquitoes, mud, no highways --- not even roads. Bandits. Fire ants. Snakes. The author tells us that

    ...snakes sometimes slip under the mat on which you are sleeping. When you put your hand in your pocket, a scorpion stings you with its venomous tail.

Thus, The Buddha in the Jungle tells of a less paradisical and more parasitical Thailand. It's the real thing, or, better, a real world of bugs and raptors and venomous creatures mixed with innocents, holy men, and pure magic.

Tiyavanich has gathered here a myriad of documents, books, and letters from Westerners passing through, along with writings by those who lived there at the time. She traveled to Thailand herself, interviewed monks and their children and their children's children and came up with a bewitching mix of fantasy and reality.

Take elephants. Elephants can move one along on loping express-train rides across an impossible countryside. But every now and again male elephants go into something called "musth," where a previously benign creature will turn dangerous, trying to kill anyone on sight. At those time, he must be securely shackled to a tree.

The cure? You call an elephant doctor who brings arrows and a secretly-formulated powder. You dipped the arrowheads into the powder, shoot them into the legs of the elephant who then becomes "so lame that he will scarcely be able to move at all, at which your servants the coolies and mahouts will surely have the chance to rope him."

Or you could call on the monk Ajan Khao. He was meditating one night and an elephant stuck his trunk in the window of his hut so that Khao "could feel the elephant's breath above his head." The beast also stole some of his tamarinds. Khao stepped out of his hut and explained to the elephant "that the practice of moral discipline --- sila --- insured that we will be reborn as a human or a deity.

    Listen to me carefully. I am teaching you with compassion. Your brother-monk will give you the Five Precepts. Please understand the precepts so that when you die you will go to a higher realm. At worst you will be reborn in a heavenly realm. In any case, it's better than being reborn as an animal only to be a vehicle like a horse or a beast of burden like an elephant. If you can't work hard, people will beat you.

He also explained why the elephant shouldn't steal tamarinds. "Villagers gave these tamarinds to me so I could polish my [begging bowl] lid. Since you did not know the precept you won't get bad karma this time. I just want to let you know that it is not right to take tamarinds without asking permission from the owner."

It is said that the elephant "stood still the whole time."

    Once the monk finished, the elephant turned around and walked away. Its footsteps made the earth shake from the force of its weight. The elephant did not return to the forest hermitage for the rest of the rains retreat.

§     §     §

Each of these forty-four tales has its own special delight. One tells of Ajan At, the abbot at Night Heron Village. He was blind. The villagers called him "Venerable Father Dark Eyes."

A Norwegian visitor tells of the way the Siamese dealt with their dead. Laypeople and bhikkus would take them to the charnel grounds where the dogs, the crows, and the vultures could have at them.

An official would cut the body open with a sharp knife, and the vultures would close in, chasing off the dogs and the crows, flapping their wings, uttering "their well-known sepulchral scream, jumping about in restless anxiety."

And then, there was the problem of the tigers, who could eat you up. A monk by the name of Ajan Phu fell asleep in the jungle, but he woke with the feeling that somebody was touching his head. "He opened his eyes. With mindfulness he looked up and saw that this somebody was a tiger licking his shaved head."

    It was a big striped animal about three and a half meters long. As it turned away, Ajan Phu could hear the tigers "ankles" crack. The thedong monk did not know how long it had been watching him. Being mindful and not making any abrupt moves probably saved Ajan Phu's life.

These are tales not unlike koans --- to be savored, a few at a time. The best of it is that not only do they tell us something about the abbots and lay-people and Buddhism, they give a comprehensive feel for what it was like to be in Siam in that innocent time. It isn't Anna and the King of Siam. It's forty-four times better.

--- Wing Luke

What Was
She Thinking?

[Notes on a Scandal]
Zoë Heller
Sheba Hart is forty-two years old, married, with two children. She teaches pottery at St. George's School in London. Early on, she gets a thing about one of her students: Steven Connolly who is fifteen and blonde.

One thing leads to another and someone squeals to the headmaster of St. George's, who calls the police. Sheba then has to deal with an irate mother trying to beat up on her in front of her husband, Richard. Her world falls apart: Richard departs with the children, reporters park out on her lawn, there's a major scandal in the newspapers, television jumps on the story with glee.

We see all this through the eyes of Barbara Cove, history teacher, a friend in her sixties --- what we used to call in the old days "a spinster." Sheba tells Barbara everything, so she is in on the very beginning, what she claims is the coming together of two innocents. Barbara thinks that both Steven and Sheba are children, although

    Sheba says I couldn't possibly understand what it feels like, after twenty years of faithful marriage, to be kissed by someone other than your husband; to feel the pressure of a stranger's mouth on yours. "Things fall asleep in a marriage," she told me once.

Other things fall asleep in her marriage, too --- like Sheba's inability to cool it. She starts getting jealous when Steven takes up with girls, those who were born around the same time he was. Sheba begins sending him love letters, stalks him, goes to his house, throws pebbles at his window, calls him on the telephone. Naturally, she gets caught with her hand in the cookie jar.

§     §     §

What Was She Thinking could be a sizzling take on a hot topic, but Ms. Heller doesn't seem to have what's needed to make this one cook. The biggest mistake is that we are seeing all this through the eyes of Barbara Cove. She strikes one as dull, older, chilly, and somewhat prim.

Apparently she's never had a siege of passion in her sixty-some years. In fact, after a bitter discovery at the climax, Sheba yells at her, "Listen. Let me tell you something. You're nothing. A bitter old virgin from Eastbourne. You aren't fit to shine Richard's shoes."

And yet in the last few pages, there comes --- for the reader at least --- a delicious discovery. It's one of those jobs where you think it is going to drift to a stop and all of a sudden the author sneaks up behind you and tosses a grenade and all that you thought you knew about the plot goes topsy-turvy. It's O. Henry with a vengeance.

The last few pages turn this from a mildly interesting chronicle of a teacher who finds herself in deep shit to a chronicle of a teacher who not only finds herself in deep shit, she finds out that she has been confiding in, living with, and pouring out her heart out to not a friend but a genuine Iago. An Iago who uses not a handkerchief but a memoir --- that is, this very book --- to get more from Sheba than one could ever expect.

Like her body and soul and, possibly, her heart.

--- Lynn Cleveland

Book I
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
(New Directions)
Dear Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

What are we going to do with you? There was a time when you were the dry and funny and the somewhat mordant observer of the world --- a world you captured in your poetry like a colorful fly trapped in a hunk of ancient and loving amber.

That was forty or fifty years ago, when you wrote poems about Congressman Doyle and the dog who walks freely in the street and the world being a beautiful place and waving hats and dancing.

Then you grew --- some might say you grew up, others might say you grew old --- and suddenly you were worrying about the world, not viewing it with a sly and gentle (and sometimes almost shy) innocence, but anger, an anger not so forgiving, an anger filled with The Horrors: Kristallnacht and the Blue Rider and "fellow man killing fellow man" and a "subversive raid upon the forgotten language of the collective unconscious."

I know, I know, I know: these things must be addressed --- Adolf and Krupp and sturm und drang and JFK "gunned down in Dallas" and "The weight of the world is hate." These things must be addressed; we must worry about them; we must try to change whatever it is that gave such a case of the creepy horrors to us and the 20th Centuries.

We know all this, deplore it as you do, but sometimes... sometimes we wish for that sly (almost shy) poet from back then, the one there at City Lights, living in the store there at the corner of Broadway and Columbus, long before it (and you) became Historic, long before you got caught in the sticky web of fame, long before that, like when you sat yourself down in front of a battered Royal with its worn black-red ribbon (almost frayed through), and you equipped yourself with a good glass of mountain red, stared at the newsprint paper you used back then, stared at the blank face of it for a moment, and then you started:

    Yes the world is the best place of all
    for a lot of such things as
    making the fun scene
    and making the love scene
    and making the sad scene
    and singing low songs and having inspirations
    and walking around
    looking at everything
    and smelling flowers
    and goosing statues
    and even thinking
    and kissing people and
    making babies and wearing pants
    and waving hats and
    and going swimming in rivers
    on picnics
    in the middle of the summer
    and just generally
    'living it up'


    The dog trots freely in the street
    and sees reality
    and the things he sees
    are bigger than himself
    and the things he sees
    are his reality
    Drunks in doorways
    Moons on trees
    The dog trots freely thru the street
    and the things he sees
    are smaller than himself
    Fish on newsprint
    Ants in holes
    Chickens in Chinatown windows
    their heads a block away
    The dog trots freely in the street
    and the things he smells
    smell something like himself
    The dog trots freely in the street
    past puddles and babies
    cats and cigars
    poolrooms and policemen
    He doesn't hate cops
    He merely has no use for them
    and he goes past them
    and past the dead cows hung up whole
    in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
    He would rather eat a tender cow
    than a tough policeman
    though either might do

--- A. W. Allworthy
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