Further down the Trackless Path

I.

And so it has come to pass, as quietly as it has begun.

The book launch for my book Trackless Paths this Saturday went ahead without much fanfare. Just a small gathering of friends at a cafe belonging to a friend of my publisher Hoe Fang. Hoe Fang gave a short speech; I gave a longer one, answered some questions, autographed some books. (Wished I had more time to catch up with everyone who turned up though.)

This wasn’t the first time a book bearing my name was published; neither, I believe, would it be the last. But Trackless Paths will always have a special place on that worn out coffee-table in my living room. Because up until I submitted the final draft of the manuscript (about four months after I finished the illustrations), I had no idea if the book would ‘work’. I mean, we all have certain ideas what a book is, or isn’t… and for the longest time, a collection of illustrations based on sayings that isn’t mine, with reflections from someone (i.e. me) who hasn’t quiet lived enough just doesn’t sound like ‘book material’ to me. Or as my inner scriptwriter goes, “Where’s the story?!”

That's me in the spotlight losing my religion.

That’s me in the spotlight losing my religion.

And yet somehow it all fell nicely in place. From some of the responses so far, the book made sense. For that I own a debt of gratitude to Hoe Fang who saw the first few drawings I had done a year and a half ago – drawings which I was hoping to turn into greeting cards – and suggested to do a book instead. There were other ideas that were perhaps more ‘book-ready’ I was presenting to him, and they all had plotlines. But the drawings resonated with Hoe Fang, and I decided to go along with his gut feelings.

So in November 2011, I packed my laptop and my trusty drawing tablet and after a week of temple-hopping in Siem Reap, I arrived at my sister’s home in Phnom Penh where I would spend the next two and a half months drawing and painting in the day and falling in love with the city at night. I was to return two more times in 2012, before finally deciding to rent a place for six months in April this year. And yeah, I met my girlfriend in Phnom Penh also.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Trackless Path changed my life. I suspect if it wasn’t Trackless Path, there would be some over reason I would look for to make that trip to Phnom Penh. When our hearts wants change, they will find a way. But I’m a sucker for a good story, even if the story keeps getting revised as new events happen that contradicts the initial story angle. So I would say that even as I was working on the book without quite knowing if the book makes sense, I was venturing into my very own trackless path… and it’s only beginning to make sense…

II.

There is a difference between head knowledge, and experiential knowledge. Both are equally important. But I believe the one that truly makes a difference, the one that transforms a person and leads him/her to transcend his/her former self is the latter form of knowledge. For a large part of my spiritual journey, I arm myself with the former. There is a great sense of security in being intellectually knowledgeable. One of which is that you don’t actually have to go out and experience it.

Before I decided to move beyond my comfort zone, my head knowledge tells me I don’t have to. Didn’t all the spiritual masters say that happiness is found within you and not outside of you? How foolish are those people who travel to the ends of the world looking for that elusive happiness when the happiness is always present with them… if only they choose to see! But there is a difference between being told your home has always been right where you are standing, and knowing it, nay, feeling it in your very bones. (In fact we can’t even call that a form of knowledge anymore. It just is. I guess that’s what it is meant when they say the more one lives, the lesser one knows. Knowledge  chatters non-stop because it is terribly afraid of all that emptiness when it stops talking. Wisdom stays silent.)

I had this conversation with an American friend I got to know in Phnom Penh. He said that one can never experience everything he or she wants to experience, even if he or she lives forever. As long as there is change, there will always be something new to experience. I agree. At the end of the day, the desire for experience can become just another attachment, another step one takes on the hedonistic treadmill. But without going out on our own personal pilgrimage – and it will always be a round trip, metaphorically speaking – we will remain discontent, dissatisfied with the head knowledge.

The major religions of the world tend to see this state of discontent as a result of our own ‘faults’. Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed God. Buddha teaches that the root of our discontentment lies in our attachments. We are already complete without knowing it, rebellious children that we are. But I think that this sense of initial incompleteness is not a defect, but a gift. True happiness may be a state of realization that there’s really nothing to attain, but life is robbed of all meaning if we start out already knowing there is nothing to attain.

The journey, not the destination has always been the reward.

III.

Actually, I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘spiritual’. I use it only to make what I write or say more easily relatable. But I think the word has a tendency to divide instead of unite. It’s just like the schism between theists and atheists. Nobody truly knows ‘God’ – which is why one of the names of God amongst Muslims is ‘The Ineffable’. I think when we say we believe, or disbelieve in ‘God’, it is the ideas about God that we have, and not God itself that we are addressing.

It’s the same for the word spiritual. It suggests all sorts of stuff and discipline – meditating, chanting of sutras, yoga, reading of Scriptures, regular visits to the place of worship; it suggests there is an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ life. And when you have a ‘spiritual’ life, it is like a badge that you wear on your chest to show your superiority – like you know something more than the average person.

You don’t. I don’t. Life is life. It does not separate itself into categories. Our minds do that. Some people like to keep their ‘spiritual’ life separate from their daily lives. Others want to bring the ‘spiritual’ into all aspects of their lives. I’d like to believe my journey is to banish the word ‘spiritual’ from my life altogether. It should be neither ‘spiritual’ nor ‘unspiritual’. It should just be what is it meant to be – Life.

Now that’s gonna be one heck of a trackless path.

Elephantracoondog

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