Somebody in the book I'm reading right now, Erik Erikson's psychoanalytic study Gandhi's Truth: On the Orgins of Militant Nonvioence, describes the Indian saint as something like a "twenty-four man", a phrase that leapt out at me. Made me think. Made me pause. To be authentically humane at all times, every hour, consistently -- is that what we're here for? Could anyone other than Ganhdi do such a thing?
I don't think there's anything particularly masculine in the phrase; substitute 'woman' for 'man', and although the particulars may change, the overall sentiment remains basically intact. To be all that we, as human creatures, are capable of being; to achieve what we are put here to be.
Can I do that? Can you do that?
Just now, moments ago, a common sight: in the midst of a pouring rainstorm, a young Khmer boy, thin, poor, guides his blind grandfather around by the the hand, begging for change. Often such old folks are playing instruments or singing; sometimes, like today, they are simply there, existing to be used, elderly.
Think of that boy, if you please, and of his life. He probably does not go to school. He probably never will go to school. His life consists of wandering around in the rain, asking strangers for money he will probably not receive, money that will, instead, give his family the means for a meal. I know he does not do this out of the goodness of his heart, and I know that his life, undoubtedly, consists of highs and lows and sorrows and joys that I no doubt surpass my own at times, if not all the time. He is no saint, and he did not ask for these circumstances.
But still. What he is doing. The basic dignity of it. His willingness to do it, even if he abhors it. I do not know if he is being 'a twenty-four man', since he is not yet a man at all, but there must be something dwelling deep within him that would recognize the truth of such a statement. I'm not even sure what that particular phrase means, of course; I'm adding my own allusions and half-baked insights onto somebody else's perceptions. And yet I believe if anyone could embody that aspect of Gahndi, that little boy does. I do not know why, but I feel it. I don't trust my feelings, no, but they are there, and they are real, and that is all I have to go on.
Surrounded by monks on a daily basis does tend to ground one in a certain way. I'm not sure why, and it could be simply my own cultural appropriation of somebody else's religion; the monks, in their purple robes, often wearing glasses, clutching school books, seem possessed of some kind of inner wisdom that I would never associate with priests-in-training. And I know my own perceptions have been proven false by my very own eyes; I've taught monks, and watched them cheat like everyone else, and sat beside them in the student computer lab and noticed that they, too, search match.com, looking for love. But there's something in their discipline, their ascetism, that stands out, that demands to be taken seriously. If they do not attain a higher level of wisdom after years of study, it's not for a lack of trying. Two meals a day, none after noon; flip-flops the only luxury clothes they possess, and often these, two, are absent from their feet. The memory of one of my first students, a young monk who was curious and interested and passionate about the links between Buddhism and Christianity and Hinduism and all of the world's myriad religions, because they were part of the grand human quest for a universal truth that transcended religion itself. It's the vibes that the monks give off, I suppose, more than anything else, a serene desire for understanding that feels so fundamentally delicate and alien in this sun-soaked land, detached but linked to my cold Canadian heritage, as if virtue and truth were a flake of snow fastly melting in this tropical heat.
I don't spend most days or many days contemplating what it means to be good, but I wonder. The last line of Robert Pirsig's Leila, which was the sequel to Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, postulates the concept of good as a noun, not an adjective. Good as a noun, a thing, a Platonic Form. Sometimes my mind drifts to that idea, that good could in fact turn out to be a tangible thing, a touchable force, maybe the Force that George Lucas was talking about. Can we somehow find it, this goodness? Can we grasp it? Can we harness it so that we, too, can become twenty-four people?
I don't know.
But I want to find that kid and warn that kid, the one with the grandfather on his arm. I want to stop him from becoming the young street kid I fear he will be in five, ten years time, the ones that wander around Phnom Penh sniffing glue from plastic bags, the ones who I see while running in the mornings along the banks of the river, the ones who sleep on the grass and take money for sex. I want to grab this young lad by the shoulders and let him know that now, in his current state, he is a twenty-four hour kid, and that he is the goodness that the world is lacking. He would not understand what I was saying, even if I were speaking Khmer. He would only look at me strangely, and grab his grandfather's bony hand a little tighter, and continue on his way down the long and dusty road, bored and tired, angry but diligent, trying to raise money for his family because that is what he has been trained to do. In that precise and fleeting moment he would thus become what I seek.