Wednesday, September 21, 2005


In search of Saturday morning fresh air, I visited the coastal amusement park at Ancol in North Jakarta. The sky was sulky grey, the sea was oily dark, and the golf course, the art market and the fun park seemed spookily lifeless. It was like a down-market resort in Florida after a winter storm.

The park was not entirely deserted. Near the marina I discovered that one section of the public still seemed to have money. On an open-air stage in front of a pavilion, there was booming karaoke music: officers from an elite regiment, and members of their families, were enjoying a day out. Keeping some distance away from the seated audience I stood and watched the spectacle: many of the women were grossly overweight, like certain citizens of Florida, and some of the men had the sinister and dangerous look associated with the military in parts of Central America or Central Africa.

Tiring of the music after a few minutes, and not wanting to attract attention to myself, I decided to visit the nearby Horison Hotel. Having set off along the road I noticed a stray soldier striding towards me, from the direction of the golf course. As he came closer, he took his dagger from its sheath and began waving it in my direction. The smirk on his face suggested that this was some kind of joke. Until he had passed, I felt nervous; but not as nervous as a citizen of East Timor would have felt.

The not-so-young Horison Hotel is a large, off-white concrete shoe-box with round-shaped balconies; from a distance it could be mistaken for a car park. As I approached through the imposing main entrance, a gong announced my arrival. I entered the dark and rather gloomy lobby, which was filled with the sound of soft gamelan music, and made my way to the Sunda Kelapa Coffee Shop which has views of the hotel gardens. I sat myself down near a window and ordered a beer from a tired-looking waitress.

A young Indonesian family, consisting of father, mother and two preteen boys, came in from the lobby and took the table next to mine. The slim, glamorous mother had a tight little dress and a face that suggested ambition. The cherubic boys were dressed in smart new American-style T-shirts, shorts and baseball caps. There was something about the cheerful, open-faced father that somehow seemed familiar. The man glanced in my direction and seemed to give a smile of recognition. Where had I seen him before? It suddenly dawned on me that he was one of the doctors from the government-run Dipo hospital. I had visions of a leaking roof, the lifeless body of a child attached to tubes and a television with the volume turned up.

When I had finished my beer I stood up and approached the doctor. "Dipo hospital?" I asked, trying to sound at ease.

"Mr Kent," said the doctor, glowing with friendliness, "How are you?"

"Stressed," I said.

"What makes you stressed?" asked the doctor.

"The May riots came as a shock. All these Chinese-Indonesians getting attacked."

"You don’t need to worry," said the doctor. "There is simply a division among the rich. You know the Chinese are involved in these matters."

The doctor’s wife whispered something in her husband’s ear , nodded politely in my direction and took her two boys off to the garden.

"The Chinese?" I said.

"You know some Chinese businessmen are linked to businesses run by the army. The Chinese are involved with the army and its militias."

"I didn’t know that."

"When Megawati’s HQ was attacked, that was probably paid for with money from businesses run by Chinese-Indonesians. And those people involved with the May riots? In the past those people may have been financed by one of the Chinese conglomerates."

"And the elite are still divided?"

"Yes." The doctor grinned and looked totally relaxed.

"There are factions within the army? "

"It’s all to do with money. A paramilitary group that seems to be Moslem may have been set up by an atheist general with money from the Chinese-Indonesians."

The doctor’s wife came back, looking bored, and the doctor shook my hand and departed in the direction of the swimming pool.

I called in at Panti Bambu, the overcrowded prison-like institution which is on the edge of Jakarta and which was home to Suli, Hari and Saryun, aged between about ten and twelve. A jaunty young man in the office led me across the courtyard to the shed-like buildings that house the inmates. When released from her crowded room, barefoot Suli, still wearing the same torn dress as on the last occasion, shyly approached me and hugged me round the waist. Imp-faced Hari gave me a grin. The boy called Saryun, who had to share his bed with a man, looked too tired to smile. He was wearing a girl’s dress.

"Why the dress?" I asked the man from the office.

"I’ll find some trousers," he said, putting on a relaxed smile.

A pair of ragged adult-sized trousers were extracted from a cupboard in an adjoining building.

Have these children’s parents been found yet?" I said.

"Suli’s grandmother came to visit her," said the young man. "But the grandmother didn’t want to take Suli home with her. Suli has epilepsy."

I took the three children for a short drive into the mainly rural area on one side of Panti Bambu and we had a very brief walk. Saryun looked pale and miserable and he was eternally struggling to hold up his trousers.

Down the road from Panti Bambu there was a small shop attached to a fair-sized house of simple construction; I bought some biscuits and milk for the children and got into conversation with the young and slightly unhappy-looking woman behind the counter. She was vaguely pretty.

"Panti Bambu is not getting any better," I said sourly. "The children have to share cells with adults."

The woman did not respond. Perhaps she did not like criticism of Indonesian institutions by foreigners. Perhaps she wanted to get back to the hutches where she had been feeding some chickens, prior to our arrival.

"The army still seems to be running this country," I continued. "There’s been no reform."

The woman gave me a menacing look. "My husband is in the military police," she said, breaking her silence.

The following Saturday morning, I arrived at Panti Bambu for another visit to the children. The sky was dull and the air was humid. Outside the open entrance-gate there was the usual homemade food cart, selling hot snacks. As I approached, I was addressed by the gap-toothed young man who was the cart’s owner.

"Saryun is dead," he said, with the sort of Indonesian grin that often accompanies bad news. "Drowned in the toilets. There was some kind of rumpus. They found his body in the early morning."

"Dead?" I said. The usual sort of numbness gripped me.

"Dead." He grinned even more.

Outside Panti Bambu’s office I was met by the young woman who, on occasions, acted as nurse at the institution. She was slim, attractive, smartly dressed and had the gentle manners associated with some of the educated middle class.

"We found Saryun on the floor," she said in a quiet voice. "He was in a sitting-up position."

"He was drowned?"

"No. We don’t know what he died of."

She stuck to her story.

I wondered if any staff had been on duty at the time of the incident. I wondered also if further visits to Panti Bambu would do more harm than good. If I took the children for walks and bought them ice-creams, would that lead to jealousy from other inmates?

Was I completely recovered from my recent illness? I paid a visit to the swish Indah Hospital for a checkup. The grey-haired doctor was like a kindly Saint Bernard. He assured me that I no longer had a virus. His advice was to relax and get more exercise.

"Do you think Jakarta is making me too stressed?" I asked. "I’m still not feeling too good."

"It’s possible," he said, very gently.

"My main worry is the security situation."

"Destabilisation," said the doctor, with a hint of a grin. "When a country like ours starts to become more powerful and independent, someone begins destabilisation."

"Who is that someone?"

"Think who has destabilised countries such as Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Russia and many more?"

"The USA?"

The doctor shrugged, unwilling to name names.

"But don’t you think Indonesia’s problems are due to internal conflicts?" I asked.

"Someone could be exploiting our weaknesses."

"When are things going to calm down?"

"Have things calmed down in Afghanistan or Iraq?"

As I was leaving the hospital I bumped into John, the father of one of my best-behaved, best-looking and most enthusiastic female students. John was a slim, soberly-dressed, Singaporean businessman in his mid-forties; his face looked a mixture of Chinese and Indo-European; his manner was studious and calm.

"How are you?" I asked.

"Dental checkup," said John. "No problems. How are you? I heard you’d been in hospital."

"I think it’s stress."

"I used to suffer a lot of stress, but I was helped by a course I did on Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity and Zen Buddhism. It changed my life. The Taoist-Buddhist-Hindu part doesn’t conflict with Christianity. It’s just a way of making life easier. I’ll get my daughter to give you some of the literature. Have you time for some tea?"

We sat down in the hospital cafeteria, which has gentle pastel colours and views, from its large windows, of tall trees and sky.

"Where did you do this course?" I asked.

"Here in Jakarta," said John. "I saw an advert for it in the supermarket. It was a free course, run by a retired academic, an Englishman called Mark. I think he now lives in some other part of Asia. The poster in the supermarket referred to ‘the problem of evil’."

"Like me, you’re puzzled by why bad things happen," I said.

"Why, as Voltaire pointed out, do hawks always eat pigeons?"

"You’ve read Voltaire’s Candide?"

"At university," said John. "As you know, Voltaire was shocked by the deaths of many thousands in an earthquake in Lisbon. He concluded that this was not the best of all possible worlds. The Christian Church was wrong about God."

"Some Christians would bring ‘free will’ into the argument," I said.

"It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. God has ‘free will’, and God presumably does not do evil. So why does God not produce a man who is identical to God, incapable of doing evil? Why does a perfect God need to create man?"

"Your course gave you some answers?"

"Mark, our teacher, told us about Godel. Have you heard of Kurt Godel?"

"Afraid not."

"Godel was a mathematician. He produced a proof of the fact that every logical system must contain a premise which it cannot define without contradicting itself."

"So, you can’t prove anything."

"We may be making wrong assumptions about God."

"What’s your view on God?"

"The philosophers usually tell us that either God is not all-powerful or God is not all-good, or God is not all-knowing, or God does not exist. Or, it’s all a mystery beyond our understanding. Mark told us about a writer called Alan Watts. Watts tells us we don’t need to see the world as a machine made by an engineer."

"Was Mark opposed to Christian ideas?"

"No. Mark said that his own religious beliefs can be summed up by the words of Jesus when he said: ‘Consider the lilies of the field and how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’. In other words, if we get in tune with God, we can be like the lilies. Mark emphasised the importance of the parable of the loaves and fishes. You help one person and that individual may go on to help two more. And they in turn may help four more. Mark said that compassion is the Law of Laws. The compassion, though, has to be spontaneous and in tune with God. Mark likes the views of Marcus Borg, the theologian. Borg believes the Gospels contain not just the words of Jesus but also words that were added later by various supporters. Borg thinks Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah. Borg sees Jesus as a spirit person, medium and wise prophet. It seems that Jesus didn’t expect all our problems to end as the result of his death."

"Mark doesn’t see God as an engineer who made the world as a machine."

"That’s right."

"What are the alternatives?"

"There’s the view of the late French theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He saw God, the God that is within the world, as an evolving being. The psychiatrist Carl Jung also thought that God was evolving."

"What about other religions?"

"Mark told us about the Hindu writings called the Upanishads. According to these writings, God always exists. God creates us out of himself.Is God immanent or transcendent? The answer is yes, both. God is both in the creation, immanent, and outside the creation, transcendent. God is both in us and outside us. It may be that the God that is in the creation has to deal with all the usual physical things, like hot and cold, light and dark, joy and suffering. We are meant to evolve until the God within us becomes one with the God outside us. And the creation of things happens more than once. It goes on and on eternally."

"Why would God want to create things?"

"The standard answer is: the creation brings joy."

"But how about the suffering in the world?"

"Why is there suffering? The Hindu idea is that a perfect world must contain some mystery and danger. It may be that you can’t have perfection without having some element of the unpredictable. If God was playing golf, it wouldn’t be a real game if he always got a hole in one and there were no bunkers."

"I can see the point of bunkers. But do we need a world with more extreme difficulties, such as typhoid and cholera?"

"Some people may have a taste for a world of great adventures, a world that is very unpredictable, and where there can be great mystery and extreme beauty and danger."

"Some people? We might not all want to move from golf to rock climbing."

"Ah. But, suppose we have a choice. If we take control of our minds, we can choose the world of golf or the world of rock climbing. You presumably chose to come to Indonesia. The Hindus would point out that things such as nobility and compassion and self sacrifice arise out of suffering."

"Hinduism sounds a bit different from Christianity."

"Some Christians believe that in some sense God was in Jesus and was experiencing the world of dangers. God may be in all of us, sharing our feelings."

"You like the Hindu ideas?"

"Some of them, but, I also like what Mark told us about Taoism. You know that Taoism comes from China. The Tao can’t be described in words. But you can see it as being God. Not the old man in the sky who reportedly created mosquitoes. The Tao is said to love and nourish all things."

"How is the Taoist idea of God different from the idea of the engineer creating the world as a machine?"

"The Taoists say that the Tao which can be described in words is not the real Tao."

"What about the things that go wrong?"

"The Taoists would agree that not everything is positive."

"Taoism is about Yin and yang?"

"That’s right. Yin and Yang. The Taoists might not want to get into an argument about this being the best of all possible worlds. What they would say is that the positive can’t exist without the negative. Once you invent the word ‘healthy’ you have at the same time invented the word ‘unhealthy’. When you use the word ‘love’, you are assuming the possibility of something called ‘hate’. If there is ‘good’, there is ‘not-so-good’. If you describe something as ‘up’, that assumes there is also ‘down’."

"Male and female. Hot and cold."

"A little heat or a little cold is no problem," said John. "A little pleasure or a little pain is no problem. But there is a problem when things get out of balance. When you drive, it’s not a good idea to steer too far to the left or right."

"Some people go to extremes."

"That’s it," said John, smiling for the first time. "If you try to wipe out all the things you consider to be negative, you may find it impossible, and may upset the balance of things. Think of Mao’s China. Mao did a lot of good things for China, but he forced things. No flexibility. No working with the Tao. Mao thought Taoism was too fatalistic and passive. Millions of people were killed as a result of Mao’s activities. Mao had no patience. It’s not just Mao. Think of the USA. America has produced fabulous wealth for its upper class. But at least six million of the world’s people have died because of what the Pentagon and CIA have been doing in places like Cambodia, El Salvador, Indonesia and all the rest. No working with the Tao or God."

"You said your life changed after you did this course," I said.

"I was part of the rat-race," explained John, looking rather serious. "I was rushing about and getting stressed. After I did this course, life did not change much at first. But gradually life got easier. On the good days, I learnt to go with the flow. Call it God or angels or the Tao. When I got stuck in that awful Jakarta traffic, I relaxed and told myself that there was nothing to worry about. I’d look out the window of my car and see fascinating things, like children playing in fountains. Or I’d pick up a file I’d been working on and discover some important point I’d previously missed. Suddenly the traffic would clear and I’d get to my destination on time. I’d play the word game called Scrabble with my daughter, who’s usually very skillful at these things. I found I didn’t care whether I won or lost. I simply enjoyed the game. At that time, my daughter was always desperate to win. I’m usually hopeless, but I started to win repeatedly. It was like magic."

"How do you explain it?"

"The main thing I learned was that the purpose of life is to be happy. And the way to be happy is to forget about yourself and to detach yourself from emotions such as fear and anger; to be light-hearted; to be selfless; to have concern for everyone. The Christians, and the Moslems, would say they let God take over. The Taoists would say they let the Tao act through them."

I told John about the death of Saryun at Panti Bambu and asked him for his comments.

"The Taoist might say that such suffering comes about because people interfere with the natural balance of things, by following their own selfish plans. In other words, Saryun’s parents may have abandoned him." John sipped his green tea, glanced in my direction, and then continued. "The Buddhists also would say that it’s a lack of moderation that leads to problems. The Buddhists talk about karma. Maybe it was your karma that led you to come across this situation. Maybe it was Saryun’s karma that led to his experience. This suffering may be the result of actions in previous lives."

"You believe in karma?"

"It’s one way of explaining things. Maybe we inherit the consequences of our actions, but only as long as we are attached to the idea of the individual self."

"We should try to accumulate good karma."

"No. We should not try. Goodness has to be from the heart. It has to come naturally. It has to be spontaneous. We should not go about being ‘do-gooders’, unless it comes from the heart."

"It has to be spontaneous?"

"It has to be in tune with the One or God or the Tao."

"We are trying to find Nirvana?"

"No. According to Mark, Nirvana probably arises spontaneously. There should be no grasping for it. Grasping may lead to Samsara, the round of birth and death. Some Buddhists believe there’s no Nirvana except where there is Samsara; they are part of the whole; Nirvana is Samsara. Yin and yang."

"Difficult to grasp."

"Don’t grasp."

"I suppose I worry too much about negative things. I don’t detach myself from negative emotions, like anger and fear."

"On Mark’s course, we heard a lot about Zen. The Zen Buddhists believe we should not go round in circles worrying about the ‘concept’ of evil. Abstract philosophy and theology don’t have all the answers. We should look at the real world and how to experience real joy. We should keep on repeating to ourselves that the purpose of life is to be happy, like the lilies of the field. And, one final thing: there is the story, as told by Mark, of the Reverend David Kennedy, a Scotsman. Kennedy’s wife died and Kennedy received messages, via a medium, which convinced him that his wife was still alive. At the end of the day it is those sort of experiences that matter most."

Some days later, John’s photocopied pamphlets were duly delivered and I began my reading. Maybe I had a lot to learn. "Everything is paradox," is what John had said. How true. One writer spoke about the need to bend and be flexible like the grass in the wind. He also spoke about decision-making’ and the need to ‘feel’ the situation and act on ‘hunches’. What was my hunch about whether or not to stay on in Indonesia?


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