Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Yin and Yang

Jakarta, by thebigdurian

Sometime in May, Anne and Bob, the parents of Pauline, invited me to dinner at their home in Menteng.

"How’s life treating you?" Bob asked me, as we tucked into boeuf bourguignon, at a table lit by candles. "Still enjoying Jakarta?"

"Yes indeed. In spite of the traffic. I still love my walks in the countryside. And most of the people seem much happier that the British."

"What about your waifs and strays?" said Anne. "Min and the others."

"I enjoy their company," I explained. "I’ve been able to meet lots of ordinary Indonesians because of them."

"They’re nice people, the Indonesians," said Bob. "I mean the ordinary people. Not the elite or the crooks or street toughs."

"They’re always hospitable," I said. "Always polite, always putting you at your ease. They’re not all like that, but most of them are."

"It’s the Buddhist culture," said Anne. "It has an influence even today."

"I see you’ve got some Buddhist art here." I had noticed a gold-lacquered statue of Buddha at one end of the room. It was next to a Bronzini print showing a naked Venus and Cupid.

"You can be a Christian and a Buddhist at the same time," said Anne.

"Buddhism isn’t really a religion, is it?" I said.

"It doesn’t necessarily deny the existence of God," said Anne. "God is ultimate Reality, something that can’t be fully understood by our tiny minds."

"You mean God doesn’t have a personality, like a human being?" I said. "He’s not an old man who gets angry and who insists on his pound of flesh?"

"Something like that," said Anne. "Something we certainly can’t understand or describe."

"Why do babies get battered?" asked Pauline quietly. "I mean, if there is a God or some Buddhist Ultimate Reality or Karma, why does a baby have to suffer?"

"Some Christians might say it’s because we have free will," said Bob. "Babies get battered because God has given free will to the parents." Bob’s slight smile suggested this was said partly in jest. "Or maybe it’s because God is spirit and can’t intervene unless people work with him?" Bob sounded more convinced by this latter line of thought.

"The Buddhists say the baby may have done something wrong in a previous life," said Anne.

"I think we just don’t know," said Pauline, sounding fierce. "We don’t know the answers to these kinds of questions."

"I think you’re right," said Bob, very calmly. "Even the atheist can’t explain why things have come into existence out of nothingness. They may one day explain how, but not why. Why should a molecule of oxygen come about? Why should molecules be able to make copies of themselves? Why should cells come into existence and why should they be able to reproduce? Do molecules have free will? Why should Claudia Schiffer exist?"

"The point is," said Anne, "that Buddhists and Christians have a similar view on what we should do to get out of our troubles."

"Are you sure?" said Pauline. "Religions and sects disagree about loads of things. Was Jesus fully human or fully divine or what? Did Buddha believe in angels? I pay attention during religious education classes."

"But there is some agreement about the path we’re supposed to follow," insisted Anne.

"So what does Buddhism say?" I asked.

"Help people who suffer," said Anne, putting down her glass of wine, sitting back, and looking serious. "Helping people brings lasting happiness. We’re all brothers. And sisters. We shouldn’t separate ourselves from our fellow creatures or from God or Ultimate Reality. We reap what we sow. The more we give the more we get. And so on." She took a deep breath.

"Sounds like Christianity," I said. "It’s a pity the world is full of warring religious sects."

"One of the problems with sects," said Bob, "is that they get it wrong about what it’s most important to believe."

"Meaning?" I said.

"Sect number one says you’re only saved if you believe its self-righteous priests have a monopoly of the truth about such things as worship and diet. Sect number two says you’re only good if you attend its particular boring church or temple."

"Strong stuff, Bob," I said.

"Sect number three," continued Bob, "says you only get to heaven if you believe certain controversial facts about the life of its favourite prophets." He looked pleased with himself. He had got some things off his chest.

"Imagine," said Pauline, eyes brightening, "if the churches said that being a Christian, and joining the church, means the following." She paused.

"Go on," said Anne.

"Being a Christian," said Pauline, "means giving away your wealth to the poor, always turning the other cheek and being patient, kind and non-critical of other people, and always giving up time to things like helping the underdog. That would be it."

"Where did you get that from Pauline?" asked Bob.

"We made it up in our religious education class. Nothing about virgin births or baptism by immersion or eating fish."

"Yes, it would make people much nicer," said Bob. "The emphasis on kindness. Nothing sectarian."

"It would empty the churches," said Anne.

"Why?" said Pauline, making an unhappy face.

"My Buddhist teacher says it takes thousands of lifetimes to get rid of the ego," said Anne. "Can you imagine the people at the local church giving away all their wealth? Or giving up judging other people? Millions of lifetimes."

"We have one Egyptian boy," said Pauline, "who didn’t want the bit about always turning the other cheek. I don't think he understands that Islam encourages forgiveness."

"OK," said Bob, "why not make it that being a Christian, Buddhist or Moslem means being neighbourly, sharing with people, and always being patient, kind and forgiving."

"It would mean," said Anne, "that there would be far fewer Christians, Buddhists and Moslems. How many people do you know who’re always patient and kind?"

"Our teacher," said Pauline, "believes that there is some kind of God or Force and that you need to be tuned into it before you can really achieve anything, such as helping the poor. He also said we sometimes need to have suffered a bit before we can understand things."

"That sounds very wise," said Bob.

"But I still have a problem with battered babies," said Pauline.

"Hindus and Buddhists," said Anne, "believe that in this world you can’t have good without also having evil, just as you can’t have light without dark, or up without down."

"The Taoists," said Bob, "believe that all our actions contain some negative yin and some positive yang. If you have a positive, it has to be balanced by a negative. Think of your algebra. Zero equals plus one minus one."

"Yin and yang," said Anne, "are the passive and the active. Not quite the same as evil and good. Yin and yang each contain an element of the other."

All our actions contain some negative yin and some positive yang. I thought of my actions in trying to help certain sick children. Maybe Bob had a point.

"How does this tie in with battered babies?" asked Pauline.

"If a baby is crying," said Bob, "the parent should accept that that’s what babies sometimes do. Everything is a balance between yin and yang. When parents produce a baby they have to accept the positive and negative aspects."

"The parent who batters the baby," said Pauline, "is trying to totally eliminate the negative aspect?"

"The negative aspect, as they see it," said Bob. "The point is that we should avoid going to extremes."

"So everything is a mixture of yin and yang," said Pauline, her eyes sparkling. "It’s certainly true that boys are a mixture of yin and yang."

"And with boys we shouldn’t go to extremes," said Anne quietly.

"But in nirvana or heaven," said Pauline, "you don’t get yin and yang, or good and evil. So why have evil here in this world?"

"Hindus believe that from time to time God gives birth to the world," said Anne. "God, the One, becomes the Many. Then, after a long period of time, all the individual beings go back to being One again. It’s an ongoing process. It’s even possible that there is no such thing as past and present and that God exists as One and Many all at the same time."

"But why?" asked Pauline.

Anne was silent.

"If we are part of God," I volunteered, "then we are responsible for what happens. We can’t blame a distant Old Man up in the skies."

"But are we all part of God, or only some of us?" asked Pauline.

"Perhaps the Zen Buddhists have the answer," said Bob, who was eyeing the chocolate pudding being brought in by the house boy. "Maybe enlightenment comes only from each individual’s own personal experience of life."

"I think," said Pauline, "that the reason so many of the Indonesians are happy is because they act like religious people are supposed to act. They’re neighbourly, they share things, they don’t criticise and they don’t worry about tomorrow."

"They just get on with cultivating their gardens and don’t worry about theology," I volunteered.

"Mind you," said Anne, "our maid tells me that things are changing in the kampungs. She says there are too many people and there’s too big a gap between the rich and the poor. They’re all becoming less neighbourly."

"The balance between the yin and the yang has been upset," said Pauline.

Bob got up to change the music that had been playing on the music-centre, and Anne changed the subject of conversation to Walton and Ravel.