Seeing through the veil of ignorance


I wanted out of my tom-blike cubicle and into the sky. He, it turned out, wanted out of his saffron robes.
“Would you want to teach English to a monk?” asked a co-worker at my soul-crushing office job one day. I agreed to the plan immediately. Maybe I will learn to meditate! I pictured a wizened little man, his face crinkled with smiles. He would be my own personal inscrutable sage, and would surely guide me toward a happiness I’d so far found elusive.
This can’t be the right place, I told myself, knocking on the front door of Cambodian Buddhist temple one steamy summer day. The “temple” didn’t seem conducive to any quests for enlightenment. It was a careworn ranch blighted neighborhood of adult bookstores and wrung-out prostitutes. 
The man who opened the door was entirely unwrinkled. He wore a burnt-orange toga and the unlined skin of a 28-year-old, introduced himself shyly as Arun,* and generally looked terrified.
That first afternoon, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how I could help him. I’d brought grammar primers and children’s storybooks, but he shook his head when I got them out. “Just talk,” he said. He answered my questions in monosyllables, his face downcast, never once meeting my eye. 
I thought the “lesson” had been a complete failure, but when he walked me to the door, he asked, “When you come back?”
That’s when the plan came to me. In retrospect, it must have been the worst idea in the history of ESL: Why don’t we watch a movie together, something familiar to him? He could translate the Khmer parts for me. I hoped it would get him talking.
I went to Blockbuster and rented The Killing Fields, then picked him up and drove him to my apartment.
Even during the most horrific stretches of the film, it didn’t dawn on me that of course Arun must have lived through that nightmare. For him, it wasn’t just a movie; it was a memory. After a tense hour, we watched a scene in which the journalist Dith Pran, being starved and worked nearly to death in a Khmer Rouge forced labor camp, sneaks a lizard into his pocket to eat later.
“That true,” Arun said quietly. I pressed “stop” on the VCR. 
Arun’s silence was broken. He’d been about 5 years old in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge forced the entire population of Cambodia into the countryside to work in fields and forests, beginning a three-and-a-half-year reign of horrors that left nearly 2 million Cambodians — around one-fourth of the population — dead of starvation, sickness, or execution. The “revolutionaries” had tried to erase an entire country’s past, reset Cambodian history to “Year Zero,” and mold a new society — even a new kind of human being — out of blood-soaked river mud and mad ideology. Their social experiment had “cleaned the slate” for millions of people, in the most destructive possible sense.
Arun told me about how his aunts ate insects and lizards to survive. He said that the Khmer Rouge had killed his father. My hands went to my face: what had I done, making him relive this? I stuttered my apologies. But his face was placid. 
“It OK,” he said, smiling. “Everybody lose somebody during Khmer Rouge.” He shared this pain with a whole nation, he was saying, and that made it easier to bear.
I soon realized that Arun didn’t so much care about learning English, and I wasn’t really all that interested in meditation. We were, quite simply, both lonely and lost. 
I drove to the temple about once a week and spent an hour with him — no English lessons, no meditation practice. We just talked.
Over time, he told me his story: he’d come from a rural family of rice farmers near the Mekong River. Like many young men from Laos, Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand — countries that practice Theravada Buddhism — he’d entered the monkhood to honor his family and to get an education. He said it was his only chance to learn to read, to glimpse the outside world.
Somehow, the opportunity arose for Arun to join a Cambodian monastery in a big U.S. city. He jumped at the chance. I recall asking him one day what it was like to go from harvesting rice in a tiny Cambodian village to becoming a monk in an American city. “Like frog in well,” he said. “Only see small circle of sky. Then rain fall. Water rise. Frog float to top of well, see whole big world.”
I don’t know much about Theravada Buddhism. But if you only know one thing, it’s probably that the problem of desire is a central tenet: the Second Noble Truth says that human suffering stems from desire, ignorance, unquenchable craving. 
Craving, it seemed, had landed Arun in some trouble. One day he told me why he’d been transferred away from the big-city monastery: He’d fallen in love — with a woman a few years older, who was stuck in an abusive marriage. She’d given him his first experience of physical love. “We had something-something,” was the euphemism he used, giggling, his face coloring to match his robes. And he clearly hoped that the opportunity for more something-something would arise very soon. 
I became Arun’s de facto relationship counselor: he’d call me at work to tell me about tearful and illicit phone conversations with his lady friend. Meanwhile, I shared my own romantic troubles with him. I remember driving him to Radnor Lake one afternoon; we sat by the water for hours, while I told him about a recent breakup that had left me depressed, reeling. 
“Love — like two branches in stream,” he said, picking up two sticks from the ground to illustrate his point. “Sometimes float together, sometimes float apart.”
At the time, I felt like punching him. 
Eventually, I got his point: stated more crudely, @$#% happened, and it was useless to crave something you couldn’t have. And in retrospect, while my depression may have fixed itself on a lost love, its real source lay elsewhere: Like Arun, I felt helpless and imprisoned in a life that didn’t feel like mine. I hated my cubicle job and wanted to finish my flying lessons and start working as an instructor. And Arun hoped to escape his life of isolation and self-denial. He wanted love, a family, a normal life. He craved desire itself.
The last time I saw Arun was on his final day of monkdom. He’d finally decided to renounce his robes; a marriage had been arranged for him. We sat cross-legged on the floor of the temple, sharing a simple feast, talking about the new lives ahead of us. He joked that he wanted to become a country music star “like LeAnn Rimes.” I told him I’d quit my office job and was working nights as a waitress, while I worked on my flight instructor certification. Having finally taken action, I felt a lightness that I saw reflected in his unlined features. 
At one point, his smile faded. “You won’t still like me when I not monk,” he said, eyes down. I assured him otherwise. We’d become real friends, twigs floating downstream side by side, no longer wanting anything from each other except company. Before leaving, I hugged him goodbye. He giggled, then asked for a second hug. “Maybe little kiss,” he added. 
I had the sense that Arun was going to do just fine in his post-monk life.
I’m not sure what I’d expected of him in the first place—most likely some mystical Zenmaster caricature out of a Bruce Lee film. Instead, he was a man, with the only kind of wisdom that’s worth anything: hard-earned. When he was a little boy, everything he’d ever known was erased, ground to dust by what the Khmer Rouge euphemistically called “the wheel of time,” and a new, terrible life was forced on him. 
And here I was, hung up on my trivial little losses.
I still don’t know what enlightenment is all about, and Arun didn’t so much clue me in. But in ways I still can’t understand, he helped point the way toward a happiness that only grew from the first moment we met. Coincidence? Maybe. But I often think about that day at Radnor, and the floating twig parable. Some things you can’t fix, he was telling me. Let them go, and focus on the things you can.
Eight months later, I was teaching people to fly for a living in my very own Cessna 172. Flying led me to far-flung adventures, a fantastic life partner, writing, and a life I truly love. I don’t know how Arun’s new life is turning out. He disappeared, and I never saw him again, out of his robes. 
But I’m optimistic. After a horrific childhood that offered him no choices save unimaginable suffering, Arun had seized one opportunity after another to transform himself — from illiterate rice farmer to educated monk to American with big dreams. He’d re-created himself time after time, according to his own vision and his own wishes. I owed him no less, I felt, and pressed ahead with my own transformations: flyer, wife, writer, radio producer.
I hope he, too, found the happy family life he craved. Who knows? Maybe he’s even writing twangy love songs. Most of all, I wish him a lifetime of frequent, passionate, and highly enthusiastic something-something.
* Name changed

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