11 years ago I was employed as a travel writer and touring Sri Lanka. It wasn’t an easy job and I can only just state that I was employed as the pay was nearly non-existent, yet I loved it all the same. I enjoy struggle, I like life when I feel my back against the wall and outcomes to be uncertain, for to me that smells of reality, of how the world is, was, devoid of the veneer of insecurity we humans place over it.
Hiking through jungle in the sort of humid heat you encounter in Sri Lanka was certainly testing; there was much ground to be covered each day, and many hills to climb (and consequently many beautiful views to be had).
We weren’t cutting new trails as there was no need, villagers and animals had been treading the jungle floor for centuries and there were always paths, albeit paths covered with leeches (but I’ve no problem with leeches, I think of myself as a mobile blood bank when they latch on, they drink your blood and fall off, no harm done and many appetites satiated, theirs for food, mine for helping). As well as the views some of the sights seen at ground level, under the trees, were glorious, and more than made up for what some would consider the physical hardships of the treks.
A main aim of mine was to visit jungle monasteries. It had been mentioned to me that the monks in the cities, who wore orange robes, weren’t totally committed to Buddhism. They ate meat, they had families. But it was said that the jungle monks, who wore brown robes, were the real deal, and they sounded like the sort of people who I’d want to mix with (I never was much good in the Cafe Flores, preferring to talk and do as opposed to talk and think with a heavy dose of faking-it thrown in, as thinking and faking-it have never been my forte).
Often we would come across abandoned stupas and other ruins of prayers past, they excited me for primitive reasons that are now lost to my own history.
At Ritigala I spent hours with the monks, enjoying their smiles and gentleness, watching prayers and them preparing lotus blossoms for Puja.
But it was at Sagala that my story really begins. We’d been walking for 2 hours and it had rained, hard, that sort of monsoon rain that reaches your core within seconds, and then the clouds had cleared leaving a clear sky that was unanimous in it’s brutality. The heat was burning me, I could feel my forehead frying. We hurried from shade to shade – often there were clearings in the forest and it was here that we suffered most – and it was with relief that we, soaked in sweat and near exhaustion, reached the simple monastery. The monks had built their cells into the overhanging rock.
And in front of that rock was a swept path.
A monk was walking to and fro, meditating, concentrating on a skeleton in a box at the end of the path. It’s funny, when I told this story recently to a friend I said the skeleton was hanging from a tree, but looking back over the photos now I can see that this was just me projecting what I’d wanted to scene to be like. The reality was this.
And I learnt that the monks there meditated on death every day for an hour or so, to remind themselves that life is transitory and must be dealt with accordingly.
I took from that simple Sagala monastery a lesson. I didn’t want to confine myself and live in a monastery but I did want to understand that life is fleeting and to live my life in accordance with that knowledge. Yet, it’s one thing to know something with certainty, and quite another to take that knowledge and inject it into everyday routine…
Recently I moved to Toronto. I have known great emotional upheaval since I first stepped onto Canadian soil and life has at times seemed grim. And often I have thought of Sagala, and I have tried to make myself appreciate things when really all I wanted to do was hide, perhaps fade, away. Yet I failed so many times in my living, and wasted day upon week, and this annoyed me, has in fact seemed like some sort of crime. For life is beautiful, how dare I waste it in sorrow.
By chance I looked at a tarot design recently, it was a tattoo on the back of the leg of a friend of mine. It felt good to look at it. It was the tarot card of death and it was explained to me that the death card can mean a time of great transformation, of a change to a new life. The card design looked somewhat like that skeleton in Sagala (why wouldn’t it, in death we all look alike), and I felt once again at the moment that I would do well to remember all that I have learnt in my travels. To not take a single minute of any wonderful day for granted.
This time though the knowledge did not fade within me. I returned to my apartment and scoured the internet for tarot card designs. One old French card appeared. It appealed to me, it was a cool design, this tarot card, a little antique, somewhat woodblock, heavy with feeling, and right there and then I knew that I should get it tattooed on my arm.
So I did just that (and a bonus to me was that the tattoo shop I chose uses vegan ink and played Bowie and Led Zeppelin all the way through the procedure Find them at http://www.ilovemomtattoostudio.com/index.html ). This image was taken immediately after I’d got the work done.
I know that life can often seem good and often bad, if you let it. But whatever it is, it’s not really anything at all, it’s indifferent to every one of us, is just how you see it and nothing more. Despite knowing this, however, I don’t always find it easy to understand my control over my perception, on a day to day basis.
I’m a master at pulling the wool over my own eyes, at least I have been, historically. Yet now things are different.
Looking in the mirror everyday and seeing this motif – the reaper standing over the lopped heads of King, Queen, Jester and everyday person alike, no-one is immune – on my arm tells me that today could be my last day, and that I’ve a duty to myself to get out among it, to give it all I’ve got and to be the best I can possibly be.
It tells me that life may not be how I always dreamed it would be but it’s what it is and I’d be a fool and a criminal not to turn up to it on top of my emotions, to not twist the amp up to 11 and put the pedal down til I’m cruising along at 120, until 120 becomes too comfy and then it’ll be time to ramp the effort up in accordance with my abilities.
Everybody dies someday. The morning of every tragedy is always a normal one. There will be no warnings, I expect, when each of our time is up. This knowledge does not depress me, and this mark on my arm helps me to maintain a positive, sensible and respectful attitude in that respect.
It makes me look carefully when I stand in front of the bathroom mirror just after waking. I say, ok, you may feel great, or shitty, today for so many reasons but pull yourself together and centre every emotion, for life is a gift and it would the biggest crime ever committed – now that you know that to be a fact – if you were not to treat it as such.
Be kind to others, leave your loved ones, friends and strangers with the right words and actions, as if every time you parted you knew you were never to see them again, do the right thing as far as you can understand what the right thing is, the clock is ticking, life is beautiful, go out there and give it all you got, smile and be the best you can be.