Buddha with four legsThu 10 May
BANGKOK, 1980: Jenjira
Years ago, when I was living in Thailand and my life was rackety, my friend, Pornsa, arranged for me to meet a monk who was restoring a temple on the Chao Phraya River.
I spent the night before the meeting in a basement in Bangkok singing along to screened performances of John Denver, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen at an American folk club. We had all been drinking Thai Whisky and Coke and the entire audience missed the midnight curfew imposed by the military. It was 5am before we could go home and, by 9am, as I prepared myself for my journey, I was nervy and nauseous and wished I didn’t have to go.
The temple was only ten kilometres up river from my apartment in Bangkok, but on that day the heat was so intense I felt dazed and feverish. When the boat’s motor eventually stopped, the eerie silence revealed a restored temple in a jungle clearing with the mountains rearing up behind. Even then I sensed the source of spiritual power within it.
The central prang had been restored with pale terracotta sandstone, but the smaller towers to left and right were ruins with trees and shrubbery growing out of them. I saw the head of a Buddha and other large pieces of broken statuary lying about in the grass. To the right of the temple was a klong running into the river and beside it a makeshift building made of bamboo on wood piles. The whole place looked deserted.
I stepped unsteadily off the long-tailed boat, rivers of sweat running down my face. I saw a tall, young monk walking slowly towards me wearing the traditional saffron robes and an arctic fox fur around his neck.
I was sure that I was under some delusion, but pulled myself together in time to observe protocol by greeting my host with a low wai and thus coming eyeball to eyeball with the dead fox. It was in fact no such thing. He had a blue-eyed cat around his neck.
“Strewth,” I said, rearing back.
“Temple cat,” explained the monk. He pulled on her back paws and she slid gracefully from his neck – a long pale cat, very thin with light seal points. He held her limp body out to me with one hand held beneath her belly.
“Buddhist cat. No tension. Take her!” he said. “My name is Tu Chalaem, her name is Jenjira.” He was softly spoken but distant. I took his cat because it was an order.
Jenjira seemed almost weightless. Her fur was cool against my skin as she draped herself over my shoulder with her front legs dangling down my back. Her purr was so soft that I would have missed it but for the vibration of her throat against my neck. I raised my hand to steady her and was comforted by the gentle laying of her head against my hand. The smell and the feel of her silky fur was a balm to my ragged nerves.
The sun beat down like a weapon and in a sort of trance I walked with the monk towards the main entrance of the temple. He paused at a small, arched bridge, which appeared to span neither water nor any sort of depression in the earth. As we crossed it together he said, “This is a Naga Bridge. It connects heaven and earth.”
I was not at ease with this unsmiling monk. I had just remembered that when travelling in the remote province of Essan, I had hitched a lift on an ox-cart. There was a monk already aboard, and while we sat together, our legs hanging over the back of the dray, I asked him what monks talked about during the hour that their vow of silence is lifted.
“Two things,” he said. “Women and food. Food and women.” He looked at me with beady eyes and added, “But mostly women.”
We reached the temple. I was fuzzy and shaky and I realised that I should not have come alone. This temple was deserted save for this monk and me.
Once inside the massive temple door I was swathed in darkness but I did as he told me to do: I shook off my shoes, washed my hands in the bowl provided, and followed him blindly until we reached a raised platform. He gestured for me to sit before it. Both my hands went up to steady Jenjira, but also to stop her from leaving.
He offered me some lemongrass tea, which he heated in a pot above an oil flame. I was very thirsty. The tea tasted clean and it revived me. He sat beside me, showing by example how to improve my cross-legged posture. But he was careful not to touch me. When he called Jenjira away, I felt bereft. But she didn’t leave us; she took up a position to my right and in front of the monk, who settled himself on the platform before me. Like a Buddha.
I became rigid. I didn’t think I could hold that position for three minutes let alone three hours. He rang a little bell to signal the beginning. I closed my eyes and started to count my breaths. My head cleared almost immediately and, oddly, my sense of smell became much enhanced. The slight pong of the river mixed with the incense and the scent of the frangipani in the bowl beside the door. Soon, I could smell sweet basil and garlic sweating in a wok, and I could hear the far-off clatter of cooking utensils. So we were not alone.
I opened my eyes and saw, as I sensed I would, Jenjira’s eyes upon me. Her nose was twitching too. We gazed at each other. I went back to my breaths making no attempt to wipe the smile from my face. She moved closer to me, she sat on her haunches and stretched her front paws out in front of her, eyes three quarters closed and her ears pricked. After a while I could hear her breathing and I was aware that my own breathing had become synchronised with hers and that my heart rhythm, which had been racing, had slowed to match my breaths. I closed my eyes and my resistance melted as she took me deeper into her meditation.
I heard the tinkle of the bell, which rang to signal the end of the session, and opened my eyes and saw Jenjira. She stood up and moved towards and past me, brushing her head against my body as she went. I stretched and rose without my usual cracking joints and aching bones. I felt supple and light enough to levitate. I know it’s strange, but I thought that I’d been flying.
At dusk I shared a simple meal with Tu Chalaem and the murmuring acolytes. I sat away from them leaning against a tree with Jenjira lying beside me, watching the bats, like clouds of black confetti, leave their mountain caves to feed in the jungle.
“Can’t I stay?” I said to Tu Chalaem when the time came for the boat to collect me.
“No need,” he said. “You will find your own place of peace.”
Jenjira’s head rested on my knee. She stretched her neck and raised her eyes to mine in a gesture of farewell.
“Well, until that happens, may I take your cat?” I said. “No need,” he said. “When you are ready, she will find you.” Sweet hokum, I thought.