A Stranger in Paradise

(Eastern Experiences by Western Monk)

Ven. Pajalo (Austria)


I. Suicide on an Island

(published in 'Daily News', Feb. 19. 2000)

"People in a village found out about a deadly poisonous berry and since then they are eating it like celebrating a party," a professor told me recently. But such a statement doesn't surprise anybody anymore, because suicide has become part of this Island's everyday life.

In the past, I spent time with rich people whose wealth nearly killed their hearts, and I traveled among poor people whose children were dying of malnutrition. Yet nowhere else did I come across this deadly phenomena to such an extent as in Sri Lanka.

Once in a while I visit a mortuary. (It is sometimes useful to look at a dead and opened up body, as a reflection on 'beauty' and life.) Suicide is a common cause that turns a precious human life into a dead scientific object. I once went to a hospital, the shouts of a young man who had drunk pesticides were echoing throughout the building. For the doctors, a hopeless, but a common case. I listened to someones family-tragedies of suicide, which sounded like an inherited disease and a mother told me that n her 15-year old daughter had already expressed the same thought. If one is reading the newspaper, or if one is talking to people, it's a subject which one encounters anywhere at any time. Even during the days when I was letting these black, sad thoughts flow on white, clean paper, a friend told me about the suicide of some monks. "Something like that has never happened before!" this faithful Buddhist commented sorrowfully.

"How is it possible that a Buddhist country like Thailand is most known for sex-tourism?" my sister once asked me. What a good question! How difficult it is to find a good answer. In a similar way I started to question others about this deadly phenomena here. The more I learn the people's language the more I learn about their hearts and the motives behind their actions, which are sometimes so surprising, or even shocking for a 'stranger' like me in a 'paradise' like this?

What is going wrong in this beautiful Island whose folk seem to be spiritually rich compared to the materially wealthy environment in which I grew up; where people with such different religions, cultures and languages are - at least to the most part - living in harmony together; where genuine smiles are (still!) lighting up the faces of young and old, in villages and in cities; where one can see, even in the most remote areas, crowds of children go to school, crowds of girls visiting the universities and women in leading positions which are in other countries exclusively for men; where freezing temperatures or unbearable heat, floods or droughts are hardly ever paralyz the rhythm of life, work and relaxation; where throughout the different seasons and regions water is flowing, fields are sown and harvested and trees are giving plenty of fruit; where animal-species, which in other areas on this planet are either extinct or only known from pictures, are still living in nature?

Experiencing this Island and its people in such a way, I carry this question wholly within me; but only incomplete answers come to my mind or come back as a reply; unfinished or ending anew with a question mark.

Too long have I lived as a seeker on a spiritual path among those lost in materiality, as a recluse among Buddhists by heart and by name, as a homeless-one among householders and 'temple-owners', as a stranger and a guest among inhabitants of this or other countries (including my own). So long have I lived as a human among humans that a naïve understanding of life can't hide anymore behind the masks of its 'actors' and the environmental backgrounds, even in all their beautiful faces. Yet this question keeps on repeating itself.

I don't think that the 'Titanic'-boom, so obviously flooding this country, is a coincidence or purely created by clever businessmen. People seem to feel like they are on a sinking ship. Often do I encounter their longing to go abroad - anywhere else so long as it is away from here; It seems that I, who could go anywhere at anytime, love this tear-shaped Island in the ocean more than many of its inhabitants.

What splits this country open - like an iceberg split the 'Titanic' - is the war, poverty, unemployment and other disappointments; money, western luxuries, love-affairs and other unfulfilled (and unfulfilling!) dreams. And this may be one reason why those who don't have enough wisdom or stupidity, equanimity or dullness, might jump too early into an unknown sea which one may call 'Sansara'.

The most secure prison in the world was also on an island, a tiny one in America. No prisoner seemed to have ever escaped alive. They were thinking of changing it into a fancy hotel.

Let's go one step deeper: Nobody ever escaped this prison-like body alive. Yet destroying it in desperation will not get us the desired freedom. Some people especially women (!), try to dress up its iron bars, locked doors and walls in the hope of making it beautiful, attractive and more comfortable. Others try to escape the prison-mood by watching TV or loosing themselves in other useless entertainment. But the escape is only temporary and to wake up in a hard reality from an easy dream world makes life even worse. None of these time-consuming or expensive efforts result in real inner peace and in freedom.

The solution might be to try and change that situation, full of fetters and locked doors, into the happy mood of a fancy open hotel, where not even a liquor-bar and dancing-girls are needed to simply have a good time.

Or, better still: Let's try and change it into a sacred place, a temple, a shrine-room, a church or mosque, where the mind does not get caught up in superficial worldly amusements. Yet with genuine wisdom one may realize that the complete dependence for inner comfort on sacred objects and places is also a bondage. This is the time when the whole world becomes one's home - and any kind of boundaries are nothing but past memories; when all the people of any religion and sect are seen as ones brothers and sisters - and one does not understand anymore what is meant by the words: "They don't not belong to us!" Ones heart is empty from prejudice, full of love, open and wellcoming to anybody at anytime: The beggar and the millionaire, the cripple and the beauty-queen, the fool, the saint and all those who pass by on the safe spiritual path along worldly blooming meadows and thorn bushes.

It's only then that one's heart is able to accept the positive and also the negative side of the same precious coin: Richness and poverty, company and solitude, health, sickness, and even the end of that drama's chapter 'life' on a stage called 'earth'. Far away is fear when death shows its shadow, yet far away is the thought or even desire to search for it beforehand. But, few have gone that far and most of us are caught up to a greater or lesser extent in wrong views of life and, as a result, also of death.

If a so called nihilist, somebody who doesn't believe in life after death, commits suicide, seeing therein the only solution to desperation, I could somehow relate to it; also, if a faithful believer in god would act in the same way, in hopes of replacing worldly suffering for eternal heavenly bliss. However, if someone who has--even to a small extent--faith in Buddha and his Teaching, faith that action and reaction are the laws through which one moves towards happiness or suffering, faith that the chain of births and deaths exists and can only be ended through genuine wisdom, if this person ends his or her life intentionally that is a real puzzle to me.

It seems - if this critical remark is allowed - that only few of those who are representatives of a religion, derive their knowledge from direct experience or from the original texts. Unquestioned yet questionable rituals are often their resources to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the common folk. If the original taste of a truth or of a deep teaching is not practiced and experienced anymore by its 'believers,' then they will look for other escapes from life's problems. Entertainment, TV, alcohol or drugs may seem more attractive than 'old-fashioned' spiritual guidelines; and, in a dark hour -- or even a monent -- of despair, suicide might appear as just another kind of solution.

In my childhood, I enjoyed a harmonious family-life, good education, freedom and luxuries seldom seen on this Island. Yet, not any of these fortunes could prevent me from experiencing times of deep darkness.

It may sound paradoxical but often because of such happiness one has to go through tough times and because of dark days one actually has the chance to work ones way skillfully towards brighter joy not known to the average man. It is exactly this superficial happiness which often kills the effort to develop a deep state of mind, unshakable by worldly happenings.

Observe children and one can see how close tears of happiness and sadness are joined together; observe Sri Lankans and one can see anywhere teeth as a result of their ability to smile. Yet seldom do I notice the same 'white' for the opposite reason: anger. But unfortunately it does happen, as some natives assure me. Yet being a monk, such dark situations at dark places in dark hours, are seldom experienced by me.

Here people can wait for hours at a bus-stand - nobody complains; the electricity goes off - "No problem!", as one of the most common terms literally means; a public service is on strike - soon the public is used to it; the harvest is lost or there is shortage of water - somehow one can survive without it; etc.

I know too well how people who are used to a better functioning world react impatiently in such situations. "These things are not of much value to Sri Lankans," a Sinhalese monk told me once, "but about family, cast, a love-affair or property, people here get really emotional."

We Westerners often get asked and not seldom annoyed by questions like if ones parents are still alive, how many brothers and sisters one has, etc. We just don't care much about that. But here, they may even kill each other or themselves because of such issues.

I feel touched by how people here care for their family: the parents for the children and the children for the parents. And, in a small village one may get the impression that it is one big family. That the elder-ones are getting 'stored' in old peoples-homes or that children are only embraced through material 'love' is hardly a known phenomena in the East, especially not among the poor.

This care and love for the dear-ones brings happiness; but having grown into attachments, suffering will surely show its ugly features, often unexpected and never wanted. Then, waves of emotions will flood the spheres of wisdom and equanimity. And, only in such an unreflective state of mind, can spontaneous disastrous actions, like suicide, be committed.

We in the West tend to think, think a lot, think too much. Before one transforms a thought into action, which may also be the thought of killing oneself, it has been carried around for a long time, changed, left aside and taken up again. In the case of suicide, the heart is being slowly and invisibly killed, long before one kills the body. But in Sri Lanka, different, and for us foreigners more illogical - psycho'logical,' laws seem to form the rhythm of life and death.

Nobody likes to have suffering as a 'teacher.' But, if wisdom is not enough, suffering becomes the only 'companion' able to inspire us to grow towards real happiness. Those overpowered by it and those who do not have enough spiritual or even worldly grounding, see the solution in the destruction of their body; a disastrous act which only dissolves the very base to overcome the problem of life.

"Every day is like a butterfly", a friend once wrote to me, and killing oneself means to kill that butterfly. It's a useless deed which robs the morning-dawn the hope for a sunny day, the noon's heat the hope for a cooling breeze, the evening-mood the hope for a good rest, and sleep the hope to wake up refreshed for a new day similar to a colorful butterfly and its unpredictable flight - up, down and across the wide and bountiful garden of life.

. . . But what's the use to understand this irrational phenomena rationally concerning those who have already carried out their decision to 'leave'? My hope is that there might be some benefit for those who are left behind in a world where suffering can cause opposite results: To get transformed by it into a heap of misery, longing for life's end, or to transform oneself through it towards a deeper and clearer understanding of life and the joy which springs from it. This pure spring is in every one of us; we just have to learn the art of drinking from it.