I paused for a moment in desire. The rising Saturday sun lit my path as I circumnavigated a maze of stone carvings at Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world. With my right shoulder to the temple’s center, walking in the proper clockwise direction, I explored the foundation levels of Borobudur that represent Kāmadhātu (the world of desire), a world humans must overcome in order to reach Enlightenment. According to Buddha, all life is suffering, and suffering can only be eliminated once you are void of desire. This end goal is symbolized by an enormous, empty stupa atop the ten-story Temple, reached only after completing Pradakshina, or the Buddhist practice of circumambulating the Temple.
So although I’ve successfully survived the pains of Blackberry withdrawal and 90 degree heat sans AC, I am admittedly still chock-full of desires, and I climbed on with curiosity.
Earlier on, upon my 6am arrival at the Temple, I had hustled into the grounds, past the lingering tour guides hoping for a mere 50,000 rupiah ($5) in exchange for their knowledge. Too eager to explore this world-renowned monument on my own, my independent spirit surged forth and I began the 10-level ascent without a clue as to what I was looking at. So my ears perked up when – examining the intricate reliefs around me, with a curiosity bordering on confusion- I heard a voice echo from around the corner, explaining a section of the carvings depicting the life of Buddha, and his ascent to Enlightenment.
After a few minutes of comic pacing – ahead, convinced I would find meaning in the carvings on my own, and then back, realizing I would gain little from Buddha’s Temple without biographical background – I walked quietly over to a couple listening intently to this Indonesian guide. Permisi (excuse me), I interrupted, and asked to join their tour, if they didn’t mind. I was thrown off by their enthusiastic welcome, but quickly merged into the small audience as our storyteller carried on.
Panel after panel of etched stone played out the life of Buddha, born Prince Siddhartha into a world of wealth and prosperity. In fact, Buddha had been so protected in child- and adult-hood by his Kingly father that he never once saw poverty, he never saw sickness, he never saw old age nor death. Finally after a marriage and a child of his own, he realized he needed different fulfillment than the abundance of material wealth within his walls. At age 29 he escaped his majesty into the simplicity of an everyday street scene. Here, for the first time, he encountered the sick, the poor, the old and the dead, and in no time was overwhelmed into asceticism.
Now I can’t say I buy into the entirety of Buddha’s path, as my own encounters into the poverty of our world have launched me towards trying to eliminate needless suffering of others, not trying to eliminate my own personal desires (which I don’t think infringe on the well-being of others).
But I did listen up as we reached the stupa-summit, as our guide reminded us that in Buddhism, “whatever one’s path or pace, it is most important to always have a teacher.” I smiled to myself, thinking how less meaningful this very temple trip would have been without a teacher, and just how often I think I know enough to forge my own way, without the help of others. And in most cases, I do figure it out, happy to deal with my own consequences. But too often, I think I miss out on a greater depth of experience by hesitating from asking questions, and risking sounding like my knowledge is sub-par.
Which explains that while I’ve weaned myself off the Blackberry, I am still online as much as possible, soaking up news articles and blog posts, ever-eager to be on top of current controversies, particularly the health care reform debate. Despite my deep appreciation for free speech, the recent protest in DC against Obama’s plan sent me towards suffering!
It’s not that I expect America can reach an ‘Enlightened’ state of health care, void of suffering. In fact, we could never achieve Enlightenment as a democratic society, because our system is kept alive by a consistent clash of people’s desires. We often lack a bottom line, as with any policy, some people will benefit and some will lose. Some desires will be fulfilled and others left wanting. The measurements become moral, and the story becomes complicated, politically heated, and resistant to change. The weight of the problem before us feels as heavy as the ten floor temple itself, and the countless headless Buddhas lining the upward path may even be likened to certain leaders at the moment.
In my final descent of the Temple I paused again before reaching Kāmadhātu, suddenly rethinking the reigning myth of local gossip: if one can reach into a stupa and touch the Buddha within, one’s greatest desire will come true. I watch person after person climb to the empty stupa of Enlightenment only to then rush to and grope around inside the many Buddha-filled stupas, seething with desire. Is the irony really lost on them?
“After Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans, eight years ago on Friday, we went to war and spent hundreds of billions of dollars ensuring that this would not happen again. Yet every two months, that many people die because of our failure to provide universal insurance — and yet many members of Congress want us to do nothing?”
Surely Kristof realizes that Congress acts according to their constituency. And I worry that many Americans are trying to be their own tour guide at this moment- in fear of trusting the government as one – and thus interpret the detailed reliefs of a new health care reform plan with only their own opinions and fears. Consequently, many are losing sight of the bigger picture. Trying to touch that one Buddha instead of understanding the significance of the entire Temple.
Any factual analysis of our system reveals it to be flawed beyond repair. And perhaps anticipating times like these, where trustworthy teachers are few and far-between, Buddha taught his followers to, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
So here’s my humble dose: The American system is economically unsustainable. Among other flaws, individuals with excellent coverage can receive expensive treatments they may not even need while those in need of basic services go without, eventually falling ill to more serious conditions requiring expensive emergency care. Both instances jack up prices exponentially, perpetually promoting a more expensive system and a less healthy society.
It’s not that I expect anyone to shed their desires, I merely expect people to realize how their every desire affects the greater system, and thus comes back to affect them. It is, after all, at the extremes of abundance and suffering that we make the least sensible spending decisions. America wasn’t designed to ever reach Enlightenment but we must certainly be willing to escape the palace walls.