A snake was resting comfortably in its hole when an elephant wandered up and needing rest, unknowingly sat on the serpent. Just before having the life completely crushed out of it, the angry and poisonous snake bit the offending pachyderm, causing its death as well. A hungry fox, passing by this scene of death, feasted greedily on the elephant’s carcass, thereby gorging himself to death.
This sad tale of three unfortunate characters concisely summarizes the cause of mankind’s suffering. The parable was recounted to my family by a Buddhist monk showing us the sites of the Burmese pagodas, or shrines, in Bagan, Myanmar, the country also known as Burma. The cause of the demise of the three characters in the proverb were the elephant’s ignorance, the snake’s anger and the fox’s greed; character traits that of course are not limited to the animal kingdom. This gem of insight into the cause of suffering of the human condition was one of our first encounters with the Buddhist philosophy which seemed to so govern the life, much more so than its oppressive government, of the peaceful people of Myanmar.
My wife is an inveterate and indefatigable traveller, although she had never before been to southeast Asia. She is also an unabashed feminist and admirer of Aung Sun Su Kyi, the fearless and steadfast face of democracy in Myanmar against the stifling oppression of military dictatorship. A viewing of the movie ‘The Lady’ made it inevitable that this heretofore rarely-touristed and isolated land would become our next destination. First stop: Bangkok. It has been sung that one night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble, but that wasn’t our experience. It can, however, make a naïve man wary, even though the deals that can be had, from men’s suits to chicken satay, can brighten the day of any man, hard or humble.
Bangkok, of course, is modern and western-friendly compared to Burma. One incident in particular stands out from four weeks of experiences in south-east Asia.
The Burmese train ride had been cramped, bumpy and hot. The only diversion that had added any interest to watching the dry landscape pass by was our encounter with pink-robed, head-shaven female Buddhist monks. Our pidgin conversation about making peace with our souls stopped abruptly when the train noisily slowed and lurched to a dead stop. From the coach behind us came a stream of prisoners, garbed in blue prison suits, shuffling in their ankle chains and manacles, before dropping to the ground in total submission, their foreheads pressed against the earth.. Shouting guards waved sawed-off shotguns over their heads.
It was riveting, and totally unexpected, but like a twelve year old boy with ADHD my attention couldn’t help but be diverted for an instant. What was the reaction of my fellow passengers ? Most sat stock-still, gazing straight ahead. Not so my wife, however. Her camera clicked constantly. I was aghast, but my hissing instructions to put that freaking thing away were no more obeyed in that Burmese coach than any other previous directions given anytime else throughout our blissful time together. One of the female monks caught her eye, and drew her index finger across her throat. A guard, outside the window but just inches away, tapped his rifle butt harshly against the glass. The train lurched, and slowly chugged into motion.
No Burmese we met throughout the rest of our trip knew what might have eventually happened to those submissive souls, nor seemed particularly surprised by the incident.