Image: Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma
Image: Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma

Land of Illusions

In this scene from AMY TAN‘s latest novel, the cynical ghost of murdered San Francisco socialite Bibi Chen tells the story of her friends’ trip to Burma.

CROSSING THE BORDER into Burma, one can spot the same pretty flowers seen from the bus window in China: yellow daisies and scarlet hibiscus, lantana growing as plentifully as weeds. Nothing had changed from one country to the next, or so it appeared to my friends.

But in fact all had suddenly become denser, wilder, devouring itself as nature does when it is neglected for a hundred years. That was the sense I had in crossing that border, as if I, like H. G. Wells in his time machine, possessed the same consciousness but had been plopped in the past. Moff and Harry immediately took to calling each other “Rudyard” and “George,” after Kipling and Orwell, the chroniclers of old colonial Burma. Like my friends, I, too, have found the literature of yesteryear intoxicating, engorged with the perfumes and pastiches of the exotic and languid life: Victorian parasols, stern pith helmets, and fever dreams of sex with the natives.

As for the more recent stories about Burma, how they pale. They are mostly distressing reports. The stories go more or less like this: Miss Burma is now married to a lunatic despot who has changed her name to Mrs. Myanmar. She has gone to live in Oblivion, so no one knows where she is. The husband is vile and beats his wife. The children have been abused as well, and now they bear scars and are hiding in corners. Poor Miss Burma, the former beauty queen, she would be gorgeous still if it weren’t for the gaunt limbs, the missing eye, the lips mumbling the same babble.

Naturally, we all have great sympathy, but who wants to read stories like that? Memoirs of sacrilege, torture, and abuse, one after another—they are so difficult to read, without a speck of hope to lift you, no redeeming denouements, only the inevitable descent into the bottomless pits of humanity. When you reach the end of such stories, you can’t sigh deeply and say to yourself, “Oh my, how glad am I to have read that.” Don’t tut-tut me. I know it’s an utterly ugly sentiment, and I would never have admitted it in public while I was alive. Nobody would, if they had any common sense. But tell me honestly, who does read political books on horror-ridden regimes except scholars of history and those studying that particular part of the world? Others may claim they have, but more likely they skim the descriptions in the New York Review of Books, and then say that they are informed, qualified to make judgments. How do I know? I’ve done it. I just never saw the point in spending days and days reading stories only to disturb myself with problems I was powerless to fix.

The truth is, I’ve always preferred the old fictions about any ancient land. I read to escape to a more interesting world, not to be locked up in a sweltering prison and find myself vicariously standing among people who are tortured beyond the limits of sanity. I have loved works of fiction precisely for their illusions, for the author’s sleight-of-hand in showing me the magic, what appeared in the right hand but not in the left, the funny monkeys chattering in the tree branches and not the poachers and their empty shell casings below. In Burma, despite the sad reports, it is still quite possible to enjoy what is just in the right hand: the art, first and foremost, the festivals and tribal clothing, the charming religiosity of taking your shoes off before stepping into a temple. That’s what we visitors love, a rustic romanticism and antiquated prettiness, no electric power lines, telephone poles, or satellite television dishes to mar the view. Seek and you shall find your illusions through the magic of tourism. Illusions, in fact, are practically sanctified in Burma, or rather, the notion that all is an illusion. That is what the Buddha taught after all, that the world is illusory, and since nearly ninety percent of the Burmese are Buddhist, I would say most live in a Land of Illusions. They are taught to shed their human desires like a snake sheds its mortal coil, and once free they can achieve nibbana , nothingness, the ultimate goal for those who follow the old Pali scriptures, or even a military dictatorship. Granted, it’s mostly only the monks who follow this Theravada Buddhism in its strictest sense, yet the illusions are still there and can disappear at any moment—people included.

Let me hasten to add that although I was raised a Buddhist during childhood, it was a Chinese kind of Buddhism, which is a bit of this, that, and the other—ancestor worship, a belief in ghosts, bad fate, all the frightful things. But it was not the Burmese version that desires nothing. With our kind of Buddhism, we desired everything—riches, fame, good luck at gambling, a large number of sons, good dishes to eat with rare ingredients and subtle flavors, and first place in anything and not just honorable mention. Certainly we desired to ascend to heaven, the topmost level in the wheel of life. O hear me now: If there is anyone listening with influence in these matters, please know that oblivion has never been high on my list of places to reside after death. Don’t send me there!

Can you imagine anyone wishing to be obliterated for eternity if there were another choice besides hell? And who can honestly desire nothing—no aspirations for fame or fortune, no family jewels or great legacy to pass along to the next generation, not even a comfortable place to sit with your legs crossed for hours on end? Well, then, if you don’t want anything, you’ll certainly never get any bargains, and in my opinion, getting a good bargain is one of the happiest feelings a person can have.

All this talk of oblivion, of wanting nothing and becoming nobody, seems rather contradictory from a Buddhist sense. The Buddha did all this, and he became so much a nobody that he became famous, the biggest nobody of them all. And he will never disappear, because fame has made him immortal. But I do admire him for his attitude and discipline. He was a good Indian son.

Not that all Indian families would want such a son—famous but desiring none of the rewards. Most of the Indians I know are Hindu, and they tell me Hinduism is an older religion that includes many of the precepts in Buddhism, and a lot to do with getting rid of illusions and desires and all that. But I must say, all the Hindus I know are vastly fond of their twenty-four-karat gold jewelry. And they desire that their sons and daughters go to Oxford or Yale and become radiologists, not beggar monks. They see to it that their daughters receive more than glass bangles at their weddings and their sons at least a Rolex and not the other watch that ends in an x. They want them to marry, if not within their caste or higher, then at least someone with a family home in a good area. It is not my opinion. I have seen it.

All I am saying is, no matter what the religious beliefs in a country, a certain degree of acquisitiveness is always there. And Buddhist though Burma may be, there is still plenty to acquire in the Golden Land. Look here, the country is studded with six thousand stupas and elaborate pagodas! They’re certainly ironic monuments for a religion based on ridding itself of worldly attachments. At almost every stupa, where they store relics of their dead holy ones, you can find a vendor who will sell you nibbana goods, a miniature pagoda, a hand-carved Buddha, or green lacquerware, that art of patient layering. You can get them at below half the asking price, which is practically nothing compared with what you would have paid back home. The trinkets are a means to different ends, one for the seller, one for the buyer. We all need to survive, we all need to remember.

Published with permission of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Saving Fish from Drowning, 2005 by Amy Tan.

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