Friday, April 29, 2011

The Buddhist Spaniard in a Café Called Peace

"Politeness is the art of choosing among one's real thoughts."

Abel Stevens

In the seconds after the gentleman sat down opposite my inviting, mostly unoccupied table, a brief blackout occurred, plunging the snug little café into night, and had I been more prone to superstitious thinking, I'd consider it an omen equally dark.

"My name is Emmanuel," he told me with a rather pronounced accent. 'Spanish' I thought. Emmanuel is supposed to be the name of the prophesied Messiah and Christians maintained that Jesus fulfilled that prophecy - even though his name was, you know, Jesus and not Emmanuel. This Emmanuel seated across from me looked like he's at an age when midlife crises occur. His eyes were wrinkled with the tell of an easy smiler. I learned that Emmanuel had left his wife and kids back in Spain. He was, in his own words, "taking a holiday from family" and was studying Mahayana Buddhism in McLeod Ganj. Naturally, he enquired after my personal beliefs and I decided to be forthright.

"I'm an atheist," I said and instantly carved an expression of puzzlement on his face. I assumed that his English wasn't too hot.

"Ateo," I repeated in his mother tongue and also wrote it on an old airline boarding pass I was using as a bookmark at the time to elucidate. I have no idea where or when I learned the Spanish masculine word for 'atheist' but it was rattling about in my head along with a few other Spanish terms like muchas gracias, buenos días, burro, enchilada, burrito, taco, chimichanga, cucaracha, Día de los Muertos... and tetas. I learned the last one from Latina porn.

First, he displayed his thrill of finally understanding what I meant (Oh, ateo!), followed immediately by another kind of confusion (Ateo?).

"But I look at your face," he protested, gesturing at my face like he's miming wiping a window. "You don't look like ateo to me!"

I was blown away. There's this urban legend bandied around in atheist circles which paints some religious people as stupid hicks who would respond to the exposure of someone's admittance of atheism by pointing out that the confessor does not in fact have the appearance of atheist. I never really believed it. I always thought that it's just a stereotype similar to the dumb blonde or the smart Asian created to make fun of the perceived ignorance and close-mindedness of the faithful. So it's true, I thought excitedly. These people do exist! What do they think atheists look like before encountering one in the flesh? Did they expect horns, a tail and a suspicious stench of sulphur? Wild hair and a pentagram tattooed prominently on our foreheads?

Point of information (as they say in Parliamentary-style debates): Atheists look just like everyone else. Surveys showed that we atheists are usually smarter, less bigoted, more decent, and better educated compared to the average God-fearing person, but there's really nothing physical to distinguish us from the rest of the human race.

The conversation took a turn into the question of ethical and moral behaviour, and I braced myself for another stereotypical question which rumour has that countless atheists facepalmed at. Emmanuel did not disappoint.

"You are ateo, you believe in nothing. How do you know right from wrong?"

I didn't sigh theatrically, but it was a near miss. I explained briskly the apparent altruistic behaviour in social animals, its basis in evolution, and how it manifests in the mental process we refer to as the conscience. An atheist, like other human beings, have a conscience. In fact, it's a known psychological phenomenon - documented using fMRI - that engaging in moral and generous behaviour lights up the mesolimbic reward pathway in our brains, much like how food and sex do. In English, that means doing good feels good. Mettā, as they say in Buddhism, is its own reward. We as species, excepting the few odd sociopaths, are literally hardwired to enjoy being kind and giving.

Emmanuel was either impressed by that short impromptu lecture or was really good at feigning awe. "Not many people your age knows this much, or is able to explain things so well," he said. I immediately wondered if I was being served a covert insult. Ever since an evolution-denying moron called Kenny told me that I would make a good Christian because of my intelligence, I became sceptical of all compliments paid to me by religious folks.

Peace Cafe, McLeod Ganj
I saw this hanging in the Peace Café. Ironically, you can get Chinese food there.

Have you heard of Karmapa?" he continued, writing the name on my makeshift bookmark right under my 'ATEO'. "He is a great spiritual leader among the Tibetan Buddhists, and he is also young like you. Everyone who met him - Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, even ateos like you - was impressed by his wisdom."

Hon, I'm not even impressed by the Dalai Lama, my mind's mouth began sassily, and only my well-trained prefrontal cortex stopped that quip from reaching my vocal chords. Also, my suspicions were confirmed - I was being covertly insulted. Emmanuel was likening me to a brainwashed twenty-five year old pretender who thinks he's the 17th reincarnation of a tulku who claims to be a manifestation of the deified Avalokitesvara, Chenrezig, Kannon or Guanyin (depending on which language you speak). I'd sooner swallow a metre-long horse cock than swallow that. This Karmapa fellow is clearly brain-damaged, delusional, or a fraud - far from being the wise, enlightened guru he's posing as. And I bet he doesn't know the Spanish word for 'tits' either.

Besides, there are currently two different assholes claiming to be the present reincarnation of Karmapa. Clearly, this whole reincarnating lama racket is full of shit.

"He sounds interesting," I remarked diplomatically.

"You are still very young," said Emmanuel, referencing the lightness of my age for the second time that night. He actually wrote our ages down side by side to contrast them, my 24 beside his 57. "There's still a lot of time to learn and discover more knowledge."

It was quite oblique but I fully grasped his intent, from experience if nothing else. What's wrong with being an atheist? Kenny the Christian also mentioned his advanced age to me as if that means a damn thing. Different old people believe in different things, and there are old atheists as well. I noticed that old believers tended to try to cash in on their seniority as if a deteriorating mental faculty functions as an asset in discovering cosmic truths.

"A lot of young people in Spain also break away from their parents' religion. Not to become ateo, usually, but they do this because they want an identity apart from their mothers and fathers." He shared this opinion with all the air of a retired schoolteacher (which he was). At this juncture, I was feeling rubbed in all the wrong ways. This is yet another cliché that atheists, particularly younger ones, frequently encounter. It's a trite dismissal of a person's atheism as a rebellious "phase" which one is expected to grow out of. Man, this Emmanuel was certainly proving to be a treasure trove of caricatures in atheist lore. I wanted to ask if he broke away from his parents' Catholic faith because he too crave an identity beyond that of his padre and madre, because he sounded like he's speaking from his long and ancient experience.

I decided to move my queen.

"Do you know that it's Buddhism which led me to atheism?" I began. "In the Kālāma Sūtra, it was told that as Buddha was passing through the village of Kesaputta, he was asked by its inhabitants - the Kalamas - for advice on how decide whose teachings to follow, for there are many holy men and ascetics passing through who endorses their own brand of knowledge while dismissing others."

"Buddha supposedly said: It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.'"

"Buddha espouses empiricism over these other avenues of learning. After reading the Kālāma Sūtra, I started questioning all beliefs, including my own. After discarding everything that isn't rational, demonstrable or beneficial, I became an atheist."

Emmanuel's smile thinned a little. "I have not heard of this sutra," he said hesitantly. I was courteous enough to abstain from telling him that he's not yet too old, and that there's still a lot of time for him to learn and discover new knowledge. I also successfully restrained myself from writing down the number of years I was a Buddhist versus the mere weeks he had considered himself to be one.

"You should look it up," I told him, sipping from my Diet Coke like it's victory champagne.

The Chinese atheist in a café called Peace,
k0k s3n w4i


Ben_CJT said...

you never fail to amuse. *likes*

Zzzyun said...

"I noticed that old believers tended to try to cash in on their seniority as if a deteriorating mental faculty functions as an asset in discovering cosmic truths."

This is an awesome in-your-face reply!! haha. good one.

Rewarp said...

Is it wrong that I want to watch a re-enactment? This sounds like something that would be perfect for a BBC comedy sketch.

McGarmott said...

Terrible lah you, bullying an old man like that.
Anyway, go check out Water For Elephants.

Edc said...

don't worry. you don't sound intelligent enough to be a Christian to me.

k0k s3n w4i said...

Ben_CJT: oh, i try :)

Zzzyun: but they make it so easy!

Rewarp: you mean with all my internal monologues externalised? or segues into flash animated thought sequences with a voiceover and lots of lord privy seals? i don't think it would translate well unless it gets radically rewritten.

McGarmott: the old man was indirectly belittling my worldview. i responded by giving him what he was looking for in mcleod ganj - a lesson in buddhism, free of charge. i'm a prince among men, i tell you! anyway, i am planning to see water for elephants soon. go check out the lost bladesman yourself. it surprised me with some pretty complex themes, even if they were executed poorly.

Edc: silly edc, you don't need intelligence to be a christian! you just need to be baptised without your permission when you're a mindless, drooling baby.