Sunday, March 01, 2009

Alfred Russel Wallace and Indonesia

Having bid farewell to little Marni, I motored along the coast, westwards of Pelabuhan Ratu, and very soon came to the pretty kampung village of Cisolok. As I strolled along the quiet tree-lined streets, I photographed gardenia, peacock flowers and ornate little cottages with pillars and verandahs. The sun was coming out. Bright eyed children skipped along the paths beside the misty green fields of rice. Fishermen were painting their wooden boats.

Following a narrow, leafy path inland, and signs advertising a ‘volcanic area’, I reached a shallow river. I watched a section of river bubble and boil and, in one spot, shoot up a jet of water. Java is at the dangerous meeting point of two of the plates that make up the earth’s thin skin . I felt a little nervous. Two hungry-looking boys approached and offered to sell me some semi-precious stones. I bought a small sparkly pebble for a few coins.

Beside a bamboo bridge I met a tourist, a short haired, bespectacled, young Chinese-Indonesian student. His name was Rahayu, he was from Central Java and he was studying physics.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Just out for a stroll," I said.

"I’ll join you."

He looked harmless, spoke good English, and at times was silent as a monk. I learnt, during bursts of conversation, that his father taught science at university level.

Following a well-worn path we reached some woodland, at the edge of which, giant, curving, sensuous leaves shone bright amber and mauve and lemon, against a background of a hundred different dark-grey greens. Further along the track, the forest was crammed with wet mosses, fan shaped ferns, and thick dangly lianas. The Jack-in-the-Beanstock trees, so immensely tall, were hairy and furry like orang-utans. Hobgoblin roots and branches twisted and turned in ways I could never have imagined. Resting on a web was a multicoloured spider as wide as my hand.

"It’s beautiful around here, isn’t it," said Rahayu.

"Yes, apart from the spider," I said, and a period of silence followed as we continued our trek.

I gaped and wondered how all this had come about. When Mother Nature began her work, was the resulting jungle a mixture of the random and the non-random? In other words, was it all an accident, or did God play some limited part, or did God follow a blueprint designed in heaven and get everything perfect?

"Have you read about Wallace and Darwin and natural selection?" I asked Rahayu.

"I have. Wallace spent time in Indonesia. He helped produce the theory of natural selection."

"The idea that the butterfly with the best camouflage is the one most likely to survive," I said, vaguely remembering lessons on evolution. "Or that in Africa, giraffes developed because the longest necked creatures could reach the highest up leaves on the trees."

"Creatures are continually taking on new forms," said Rahayu.

"Is it random?" I asked. "Is it all an accident? Is the scary appearance of the spider the result of random change? Is the neat shape of the ferns just an accident?"

"Natural selection is non-random," said Rahayu, without elaborating.

There followed another period of silence. I began to consider the question of whether or not there was any divine intervention in the creation of the beautiful butterfly’s wing?

"Do you think God plays a part in all this?" I asked. "I mean, is it true, as they say, that God’s fingerprints are all over the universe?"

"God’s fingerprints?" Rahayu had apparently not heard the phrase before.

"Well, let’s imagine you are playing poker and keep on winning. That’s because you get good cards and because you apply your brains. But, is the fact that you keep on getting all the aces because the angels are on your side?"

"Scientists would say that if there are an infinite number of universes, then someone is bound, some day, to get all the aces."

Our path seemed to be curving and taking us back towards Cipanas.

"I was thinking of artists," I said. "Is the world like a painting? Let’s imagine the painter has an idea of what he wants. He starts applying his brush to the canvas. The paint goes all over the place. Now, is the finished painting partly something that was planned, and partly the result of chance?" My goodness, the heat of the jungle was doing funny things to my poor brain. Maybe I should go back to the hotel and have a nice cup of tea, and a lie down, and stop worrying about things that were beyond me.

"You mean the artist is like God," said Rahayu, "but can we be sure the artist exists?"

"You’re not sure?"

"I’m a Buddhist," said Rahayu. "The Dharma, the law of nature, is the only solid thing we can be sure of."

"I don’t understand. We can be sure that trees exist."

"The trees, and your body, are made up of subatomic particles and empty space. You probably know the subatomic particles are not really solid. They exist for only a trillionth of a second."

"I didn’t know."

"The particles continuously arise and then vanish. They come in and out of existence. The trees have no real being."

"They look solid to me." I stretched out my hand to touch a branch.

"That’s because you can’t see what’s really happening."

"What about spiders? What about all the suffering in nature?" I asked. I was thinking of Marni and thalassaemia.

"Suffering is not due to chance. There are causes. Our actions are the cause of suffering."

"Isn’t it possible," I said "that everything has come about by chance?"

"No. Mind precedes all phenomena. Everything is mind-made."

"When a baby dies, or an insect is swallowed up, could it just be bad luck?"

"Everything must have a cause," said Rahayu.

"But what about when a baby dies? How can you say its actions are the cause of its suffering?"

"Karma. The baby’s previous life. People who cause pain to other living things experience a lot of sickness. There’s a path leading to happiness and one that leads to suffering."

We turned a corner, and were suddenly returned to civilisation. Rahayu shook my hand and set off to the nearby boarding house where he said his girlfriend awaited him. I was not sure that I had been enlightened. I should have asked Rahayu more about this Dharma.

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