‘Thera-gatha.’ I said, pronouncing the word slowly.
‘Theran-gata’, he repeated.
He couldn’t say the word. He always added a hidden consonant. For this, I thought him a little stupid, or perhaps just dyslexic.
‘What does it say?’ he asked, referring to the previous word, ‘Tathagata’, which sounded similar, a pseudonym for the Buddha, that we’d been referring to before. He was confusing the words.
‘You mean the Theragatha?’ I asked, referring to the poems, picking up on the fact he used the word ‘it’, instead of ‘he’.
‘Well, the Theragatha is a collection of poems by many people, so it’s many people’s take.
‘And the Tathan-gata?’
He meant the Buddha, and I tried not to wince, blinking to mask the mispronunciation.
‘The Buddha lived in a monastery, but spent a lot of time wandering around too, and before he established the Sangha, he was always on the road.’
‘Yeah, see, they spent a lot of time walking around,’ he said, nodding to confirm himself.
He was right, though, they did.
‘Do you have any money?’ I asked.
‘No, I don’t handle money.’
‘Then how do you get by? How do you eat?’
‘It’s always given,’ he replied, tapping his belly softly, and without a trace of doubt on his upper lip, no quiver to betray a lie.
I must admit, I was intrigued. Looking deep into his eyes now, I see this is a man that is simply wandering around, meditating where he pleased, with complete faith that the world would provide him what he needed, when he needed it, and asking for nothing along the way. Or so he said. He was kind of like what they were doing back in ancient India, even today in India with the sādhu culture. Difference was though, the Indian culture has always had a soft spot for wandering mendicants, giving respect to those that want to pursue a life of devotion to spirit. Here, not so much. He had balls, this guy, for that.
‘My friend, when he came with me, he had a vision, he saw angels streaming down at him in one of his meditations, guiding him after he left here, saying he was leading a more-, a better way of practice. Not watered down.’
I nod, taking this is.
‘What’s that?’ I ask, pointing to the tattoo on his forearm, a kind of twisting red shape with a date and the initials ‘TP’ underneath it.
‘That’s for Tom’ he says, looking out across the forest, eyes darting up in recollection. He inhales deeply, and on slow, measured exhalation, says ‘That was a day.’
I pause, watching him recollect it, his eyes scanning the sky, in search of images, now his eyes cast down in feeling.
‘We were free-jumping. Used to jump from the high rises under construction in the city… We’d done it so many times, it was a buzz man, especially at night.’
He pauses, eyes darting, and I let him think.
‘One time we found this new one, not that high, maybe fifteen story, and we’re up there and it’s windy, a lil’ dangerous, but I say fuck it, let’s go, ya know? Took us forever to climb up.’ His arms are hugging his body now. ‘So Tom goes first, and as he jumps this gust flies up the face from nowhere and he’s already jumped, and I can already see it happening.’
‘I don’t know why I did it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I see him leave the edge, and drop, and I rush to the edge of the slab we’re on up there, and I see him falling, right at the end, the chute didn’t even open, he mustn’t have let go when he felt the wind hit him. He knew he wasn’t gonna make it with a drop like that, he already knew, cos he woulda been spinning, tumbling, not knowing which way was up, and when to release it. But he could have taken a chance and tried. Crazy fuck didn’t even try though, he just held on to the bag and waited. I see him falling and see him get spiked on the steel reinforcement below. Watched him there, twisted up.’
We sat, like that, for a while, wing rustling the eucalypts.
‘So I’m leaving today.’
‘This afternoon,’ he says turning to me, and he smiles. ‘You remind me of him a little.’
‘No, Peter, the other anagārika I left with a while back.’
‘He used to say it’s watered down. You feel the same huh? I can see it. You’re not like these people Stephen.’
Something in me was burning. Since coming to the monastery I’d loved much of it, but it was the end of the rains retreat, and my mind was starting to spin. This guy coming here, at this time, with this, and him, and these stories he told me the last few days and although I could tell he was wild, I was feeling more wild myself, and like something in me was burning. I wanted to push past the safety of this place, to feel the chance of walking away, to live on air and hope, to risk. Here, despite me having nothing, and everything, it still didn’t feel enough. I was still yearning. This place was starting to seem predictable. And the stuff I’d been reading lately, the Theragatha, the Sutta Nipata, was infusing my mind with images of monks in the wild, living like animals, yet with a heightened mind, connected deeply to the flow of things, never knowing where they would go, what they would eat, who they would meet, where they would sleep. I was having trouble squaring that with the constancy and glutton I felt at times here.
‘Not many people like you mate,’ I find myself saying, and it feels I’m talking to myself also.
Max is waiting.
‘OK’ I say, and with this he smiles.
A pause, before he adds ‘I’ll come get you later’, and I’m nodding.
He leaves, bundling his rucksack over his shoulder, and sidles through the forest.
By the afternoon I’d packed a small bag and he came.
‘What’s in the bag?’ he’s asking.
I open it and show him. It’s a small collection of clothes, the Sutta Nipata, and some toiletries, water, some edibles, and a small pillow and blanket.
‘You mind? he asks, motioning to the bag, and he reaches in and rummages through the contents. He takes the book, pillow, blanket, and edibles out, and places them on my walking path.
‘Trust,’ he says and hands the bag back. ‘When we walk, pay attention to your breathing. That’s important, so you won’t get tired.’
We walk to the monastery boundary, and beyond, down the road leading up to the foothills where the monastery lies, and down to the highway. Hitching a ride into Serpentine from some brave soul, we dodge turnstiles and catch the train into Perth city, and I’m a punk all over again, dodging guards. The train ride is a series of moving slides, like the old movie shutter speeds, placing new life before me, and it’s like I’m in some space shuttle looking out at the vacuum of space, the city beyond. It’s only when you return that you realise the stillness of the forest. The stillness now replaced by a junkie we see two seats down, scratching his forearms and muttering to some chimerical vision, the baby crying on the lap of a bored, hapless mother, the stink of drink, and the sweet, sticky teenagers, with their jilted, hyperventilating laughter, the girls. The girls. I’m watching a pretty one, her head tilted down, punching thumbs into her iPhone, and he’s watching me watch.
‘Why are you here?’
My head snaps towards him, and I get it, nodding.
‘This one’, he says and we alight the train.
Walking the podium, he’s eyeing for guards, I can tell, I know that look, and there’s none and we slide through. Hitting the street now and I love bohemian Fremantle, the gorgeous little clipped terrace houses, painted in pastel green. Everything is so damn bright, and there’s a sheen to the sidewalk.
‘You’ll need a bottle,’ he says. ‘The one you have is too small.’ And we walk to a health food store and buy a large glass bottle, the lady at the counter doing a double take at the young man before her, wild-eyed, reaching into his bag for small change. She’s looking at my no-eyebrows, and Max is laughing. I still had a little money in my account also, as I’d taken a small lump sum into the monastery to last me the year, not that I was really given opportunity to spend it. I mostly used it up buying select sweets for the monks, at best. But it was there. It was also finite, and I’m wondering what will happen when it runs out.
We walk out and down to a park and I’m asking why and he says you’ll see and we approach a big fig tree with a small, rectangular planter-box framing it, which contains sturt’s desert pea. He reaches into his bag, and produces a small plastic container, and opening it I see it’s coffee grounds, and he’s sprinkling the contents in small clumps at the bottom of the peas. ‘It’s good for them,’ and we continue walking. Ok.
Fremantle seems flayed, raw to the touch, and the people, naked before me. They wander past us, mostly to themselves, and I can see the etched lines on their faces. An elderly couple at the bus-stop are sitting in silence, staring vacantly at the lilting scene before them, two ramshackle ruses scuttling a deal, their faces sunken. I remember now, why I left the city. I see a man that looks like my Uncle, and it strikes me, what if they were to see me now? He wouldn’t be in Freo, though.
‘So,’ Max says, placing a hand on my shoulder. ‘What ya wanna do?’
Dusk is approaching. He seems calm in this question, but thumbing my change in the health-food store has left me feeling exposed.
‘Where are we gonna sleep?’
‘No idea,’ he says, shrugging, and hardly reassuring. ‘You’ll need a bivy though. Let’s go get ya one. We can go from there’.
Once again I’m looking at his face and a flash of doubt crosses mine, and he must see it, because he says ‘Don’t worry mate, you’ll be alright.’ The lines in his face are taught, chiselled in, and I tell myself to be like this, carved and hard against my doubts.
We catch the train from Fremantle into the city, and grating metal on metal brakes, and the oil is licking at me, this plasticine dream seeming more and more unreal by the minute. “Next Stop-” and God is speaking, the street vendor slaying churrios, the cinnamon and sweet, the semi-naked girls returning from the beach, and gyrating faces, I’ve returned to this, this tangerine twilight dream.
We exit the station after sliding down the gauze way, him in front, and we’re on the street, city hustle, cars and buses and the hum of traffic. Moving down a few blocks from the station and I’m thin I’m feeling weak, and gangly. ‘This is the place,’ he says, turning back towards me.
We shuffle into a camping store, and my head is retching at the colours, I bump a mannequin and start to apologise before twitching to realise it’s not a person, the face not a face, it has no eyes. Sliding past the shwag, and we’re up the back now and he’s rubbing the polyurethane sheen of an army green bivy, bright between his fingers. My mind casts to all the future nights, and will we find shelter in darkened corners, hiding by night, fertilising small earth like grains of coffee.
He pulls the bivy from the wall as the clerk approaches but we’ve already made the sale and he’s trying too hard now, and missing the moment, you already have us mate, be real, stop trying, I can see his insincerity like looking through a microscope, examining a specimen. I swipe my card and almost run out of the place, I’m breathing fast, and shallow. On the street and I’m tucking the bivy in my bag.
‘You Ok?’ He taps me on the back, like a man, and walks off, like a man.
‘Where you going?’
‘Back to Fremantle,’ he says, walking away.
He pivots and turns, squaring his body with mine.
‘Less speed,’ and he wiggles his eyebrows at me.
I burst out laughing. Less speed? Even the old people seem on speed dial here, and he smiles, cos he knows, and I can see that, and I’m smiling now too. He also knows things I don’t know, like how to live the street, and I’m choosing to trust that.
When we get to Freo we exit the train and now we’re back where we began, and he jumps over the podium railing next to the station rather than take the turnstiles, and it’s quite a drop, but he takes it smooth, and lands on the earth below, hand resting on the earth, before rising, motioning for me to come with a wave of the hand. I jump it too, and land rough, and tumble, but I’m up now, not bruised, and we walk along a small track that hugs the boundary of the railroad tracks and in between that and the bushes which line the freeway beyond them, so we’re out of view. ‘What is this track?’ I wonder. Maybe it’s a secret hobo highway, or maybe some connecting path between the back of the suburbs and the station as a short-cut. We walk along the path as the trains roll by to our right, thick acacia scrub to the left, cargo trains moving slow on a separate track from the commuter trains, they carry loads of coal and ore, shining, open to the air. Beyond the tracks, and out beyond the chicken wire fencing the tracks, is a large power station, humming, looking like some exotic landed spacecraft, all wires and conical tubing, it’s winding forms catching the evening light, and interfacing blue, yellow, blinking lights, flickering in programmed sequence.
‘Here’ he says, and I gather he’s been here before by the way his hand smooths the earth in a small undercover alcove beneath a large acacia, it’s small canopy forming a kind of sheltered cave, our outlook the railroad tracks. We sit, and he unpacks his bag, pulling out his bivy. As he does so, there is a figure approaching in the distance, walking along the path. He’s a young man, dressed in hospitality attire, crisp white shirt, black jeans, with converse. So it is a short-cut. He’s approaching now and as he passes he scrunches his mouth, nodding at us, and we nod back and now he’s passed, but he doesn’t walk some twenty paces before he turns, returning.
‘You guys hungry?’ he asks, and I’m feeling homeless.
He reaches into his bag on approaching and produces two small brown paper bags.
‘I took them from the caf’, but I’m not gonna eat them. You want ‘em?’
‘Please, yes,’ I say, and he hands them over.
‘Enjoy,’ and he turns.
I take the bags, offering one to Max, and he takes it, peeling the paper back, and the wrapping, and munching on it, eyes cast out to the chattel ghetto-industrial wasteland beyond, smoke rising, lights blinking, and the fading hums of cars bleeting.
‘It’s always given,’ he says.
After we eat, and I’m eating after noon but I don’t care, he continues setting up his bivy, and showing me how to with mine.
‘With the water, drink half the bottle just before you sleep, and half after you wake up. That way you’re not thirsty. In the morning we’ll get more…Wanna sit?’
I look around. ‘Here?’
And we sit, in lotus, next to the railroad tracks.
As night is approaching and I have meagre clothes, I’m freezing, and the chill of the air starts to bite into me, cutting my forearms and cheeks. The scratch of passing trains pierces me, and sends shards of sharpened frequency deep into my ears, my head is throbbing. After about an hour of this, I break from the sit. He senses this, and emerges from his also.
‘Ok then. Sleep well,’ he says.
We roll over and into the fleeting warmth of the bivy, and I feel the crunch of the ground beneath me, the grating rocks and twigs and round, sliding pebbles, but I don’t care, my body is wrecked, and my nerves need release, and I feel the body soften and the earth soften through the body, and I sleep.
I don’t know for how long but it feels a few hours, and I’m awake again, the cold waking me up. Poking my head out of the bag and Max is some yards away, his body back towards me, still, unmoving, no sound from him.
I glance up into the sky, and see the smudged stars. I feel my heart. My heart is glowing, it’s on fire, and this is what has woken me. I remember Ajahn. I remember the Sangha, and the smiling faces of the laypeople who visit us, and the teaching. I remember the love. I feel the love. It is calling to me.
I’m lying, shivering, next to the railroad tracks, cargo rolling past, and I can’t believe I’m in this place, with this man, in this moment.
Slowly I rise from the bivy, being careful not to scrunch the plastic sheeting, and peel myself from it, squatting next to it. I stop there for a moment, watching Max. He hasn’t moved, but is he asleep, or listening to me? In that moment I’m scanning my mind, searching for options, and who is this man? What am I doing here, sleeping next to him in some backward tract in Freemantle. What am I doing? What am I actually doing? If he wakes, I can say that I’m needing to piss, so I have an option there, but if I pack the bivy, and he hears that, and wakes, then that may cause something, and it’s just me and him out here. I wait for an approaching train to pass, and in the screeching sound I swiftly pack my bag and slowly step from the acacia cover, then I’m on foot, bag in tow, and glancing behind me to see if he moves. He’s not moving, and when a short distance away I use the cargo car screech to mask my step, and run hard and fast and straight and not looking back, towards the nearest opening in the bush which will give me a break to the road behind it. Darting through it, pulling away sharp acacia leaves and scratching my arms a little, and I’m onto the freeway behind it, and warm neon lights, bugs dying in the swarm of them and I skip the concrete railing next to the road and walk right alongside it, just left of the outer lane.
Almost as soon as I’m on the road, a small, beaten up Hyundai passes me, then abruptly stops ahead. There’s a brief pause, before the car hazard lights come on and a man steps from the vehicle, his driver door roadside, and there’s no cars, but it’s kinda dangerous nevertheless because it’s a freeway. He’s walking, saying something, I can’t hear what it is.
‘Anagārika?’ Am I hearing him right? He’s still scuttling towards me, hugging the side of the concrete railing.
‘Anagārika?’ he asks again, and I hear it this time clear for sure.
‘Anagārika!’ again. What is this?
He’s beaming, and I see now he’s closer that he’s short, a Thai no doubt, due to his broad features. Short, stocky, and soft in manner.
‘You are from Bodhinyana?’ he asks
What is this?
‘What are you doing here?’ he asks, chuckling, rubbing his arms to warm himself. A car is approaching now and he motions me to the side as it passes.
‘Can you help me?’ I ask, hugging the barricade.
‘Get in, quickly now,’ his eyes scanning back up the freeway.
Now we’re driving, and there’s tinny music playing softly on the stereo, some teary Thai ballad. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asks, eyes wide, scanning between my face and the road ahead.
‘How did you know I’m an anagārika?’
‘I recognise you,’ he says. ‘I see you, you know, at Bodhinyana. I recognise you. You walking there, I think, what is this young man-‘, and with this he squeezes my biceps ‘-doing here on the road? For goodness sake!’ and he says this last bit with a kind of forced affectation, a faltering semi-English accent, and he’s laughing hysterically.
‘Are you going back?’ he asks through his tears, eventually.
‘How will you get back? It’s late. Not many train.’
‘I don’t know…’
‘Here,’ he says, ‘Can you-, you can use this,’ and he reaches into his pocket, and takes his wallet, fishing it open above the steering wheel, and produces a card. It’s a train card.
‘Only train now is to Mandurah I think.’
I know Mandura. My Nan and Pop live there. It’s about half an hour by car to Serpentine, and by Perth road time, that’s a long way to walk back to the temple.
‘What time is it?’
He points to the dash, and I see I haven’t seen the small, green, halogen clock. It reads ‘1:11’
‘Buddho, Dhammo, Sangho, no?’ he’s saying, smiling, and my eyes are fixed on the clock.
This man is a Deva, a Guardian Angel. He must be. I can’t see any other way around it. How is it the moment I step on to the freeway in the middle of Freo, in the small hours of night, he pulls up and gifts me passage home?
Join me next week where I’ll finish the story.
Mettā and Peace
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