I have been thinking about this entry for months…at least since visiting Taiwan in 2013. I have been putting it off for two reasons…
- It deals with religion…particularly Buddhism. I know next to nothing about Buddhism.
- It is also ‘about’ my friend Tom who died some years ago. This blog doesn’t quite seem like the place to talk about him…the blog doesn’t usually stray into personal territory. Tom was a Buddhist and he knew I was sceptical and an atheist. I didn’t want to write something about him that was slight. Maybe what follows doesn’t add up to much but now I think it is better to write something than say nothing.
I was going to start with a postcard that I bought in Dens Road Market in Dundee in the mid-1970s. Tom might have been with me at the time, I don’t know. My memory of the postcard was that it was in black and white and showed a group of traveling musicians in Nepal or Tibet. I have just found the postcard after a long search and this memory is only partially accurate. It is in black and white, there are two musicians, two acrobats and a large family group with horses in the background…so they are probably nomadic performers. But the location of the picture is ‘Kirgisen’ which is now Kyrgyzstan. The people in the picture are probably Muslims and not Buddhists. So this opening paragraph, instead of making a direct link to Tom, opens up questions of memory.
I didn’t see Tom between him telling me he had cancer and his death. He thought there was more time than there turned out to be – I wanted to believe him and did. The last time I saw him he left me this card:
‘Nam-myho-renge-kyo’ is a phrase to be chanted. ‘Kyo’ is ‘the sound or vibration that connects everything to the universe’. At Tom’s funeral outside Glasgow there were beautiful unaccompanied Buddhist chants sung by his friends from the temple of which he was a member…suddenly it seemed to me that I had underestimated his beliefs. I regretted not seeing him before he died. I was sad that we often did not see eye-to-eye though I also knew that our friendship had been robust and we never fell out. We grew up quite close to one another before we met and there were, I think, many complicated bonds between us…bonds of difference and bonds of similarity. If Tom had been asked to depict the chanting he might have drawn this:
I might draw this:
In Taiwan, I found myself in a culture where Buddhism and its manifestations were never far away…even though it was probably not the kind that Tom adhered to. One afternoon, as part of the work I was doing there, I visited the University Hospital and there were street stalls selling little ‘Buddha boxes’.
Our guide advised me against buying one of these because she said that they were just for people who were dying. I didn’t believe this (it turned out I was correct…they were being sold at the hospital to give comfort, not to accompany the dying into the next world).
Then that evening we went to one of Taipei’s oldest temples. Compared to any Christian church this place was really lively but there was no music (I am not entirely sure of this…maybe there were prayers). I picked up one of the free cassettes:
Then we walked around the Night Market…if the temple had been an intensive visual and olfactory overload, this was multiplied in the market and had an added layer of cacophonous sound. At a corner near the temple I stopped and recorded a woman sitting on a bicycle chanting the name of Buddha.
Compared to the sound at Tom’s funeral, the cassette tape and even the little Buddha box, this chant is harsh and discordant and it is the flip side of the calm that these other sounds generate.
I think about Tom most days.