It’s not hard to feel as if natural beauty rushes down to greet you the moment your tires hit the road. Sunrises peek above the cresting spine of hills, padi root themselves against the tousling wind, and bulls sprawl languorously in the cool mud – all along this gorgeous unfurling road. Having grown up in urban Singapore, I drink it all in.
But I worry about going too fast. I fret about not being present enough, about not looking around with fresh eyes. “Am I just breezing through without fully appreciating all this beauty? Am I becoming jaded?” – it’s this little voice that helps me take the most from the scenery so far. This has been helpful, not doubt, but on one ride I wondered whether this was a bias which left out other types of beauty. Beauty that we often let slip by – too busy or too blind to notice that which is couched in the mundane and ordinary.
Thailand, you are a land of rolling hills and verdant green; but today I will introduce a wonder closer to home and heart but no less awe-inspiring. Human emotion – in its rich weave of textures and colours – is beautiful.
The classifier for the monks in Thailand is ruup, which means picture. Ruup is used because the monks are the images of Buddha. Beyond the saffron robes and the arms-bowl, it is sometimes hard to imagine the person before, or behind, the image of the Buddha – as a man, a son, a grandson, or as the village boy. These relationships and the emotions invested in them became real for us during the three monk initiation ceremonies that we have been invited to (or at least found ourselves stumbling upon). All three have been slightly different, but each has revealed an intimate slice of the confluence of emotions that spills over on that important day.
Like a sunrise, these emotions are revealed slowly to all those who have the patience to wait and observe. We saw cheery greetings and handshakes from friends and relatives from the village or the next. We saw pats-on-the-back and firm squeezes of the arm with the men, and tittering conversation and excited hugs with the women. We saw the proud 70-year old matriarch commanding the entire production line responsible for lunch. We saw the grandfather receding to the background, slowly sucking on a cigarette deep in thought.
We were farangs (foreigners) in spandex and sunblock. We were first fed and fussed over in great hospitality. However, when it came to the most intimate moments of the head-shaving, we inadvertently dropped away. We became invisible observers within the entire village now pulled in a tight orbit around the not-yet-bald heads of two initiates.
Shaving an initiates head is an operation that requires an entire village. There is a buzz and bustle of activity as everyone tries to help. Some manage to help more than others, and clearly no one is an expert. A man snips away with a pair of scissors ineffectively, only to be joined by another with a razor. The razor is dull; he gets shooed away as the men impatiently shout for more razors. In the interim, women seize this opportunity with ceremonial bowls on hand to sprinkle water and flowers on the initiate’s heads. At this point, a whole pack of fresh razors arrive and the operation continues. The two initiates belong equally to the village, and relatives and friends swarm and rotate between both. A mother blinks away a tear in her eye, dipping her head away from eye contact. She smiles bashfully and shakes her head. A younger sister manages to break an initiate’s concentration long enough to win herself a reassuring smile. The initiate returns to his rites or thoughts, as his hair falls soundlessly into the leaf he carries.
Like a sunset, these emotions flash for a glorious instant, and then disappear. The outsider, grateful for her momentary invisibility, blends into the moment without disturbing it. She is bombarded with the unadulterated intimacy of a family’s affairs – each unspoken nuance played preciously over one’s face and hands, every person intertwined with every other person in a mutable web of relations.
The initiates, now with shaven heads and eyebrows, wear white and gold robes. They smoke cigarettes while the conversation mills around them. The first part of their initiation is over. They will soon be accompanied in a procession to the temple where they will fully become monks.
It would be foolish for me to believe that I can fully understand or empathise with the whirl of raw emotion on display that day. Travelling makes one acutely aware of the rift that cultural context can present when it goes unappreciated. I found out recently that it is common for men in Thailand to become monks for a few years (either as a probation period for an extended stay, or as a form of devotion), and that becoming a monk is often an intentional decision to achieve merit for one’s parents, especially one’s mother, who cannot become a monk herself.
While I have the benefit of knowing this now, I will still never know exactly what the mother felt as she shed tears that day. Emotion is ephemeral, vastly personal, and impossible to capture or to claim. It probably doesn’t help that as humans we are terrible communicators of emotion too. We communicate emotion clumsily thorough words, actions or images; we use lego blocks of interior experience to construct crude approximations of meaning only to never find out how accurate we actually were.
It’s strange but maybe this is precisely why emotion is beautiful. We will most probably never be fully competent in accessing and communicating emotion, and we are just as likely to forever keep trying. But when emotion is shared in its special, fleeting, dysfunctional way – whether in the village affair of monk-hood, a mother’s tender gaze, a girl’s winning birthday smile, or in a moment of kinship despite being culturally worlds apart – the beauty of emotion offers its magic to you. The beauty of warmth and love of sunsets, serenity and knowing of the oceans, and the beauty of emotion – the ones that bind us all – waving and rippling on the rolling hills, unfurling on this gorgeous road we call life.
All we have to do is to look for it.