Southeast Asia has always attracted me. Maybe it’s the fresh food, full of coconut milk, lush greens and rice noodles. Maybe it’s the smell of freedom in the air or the warmth of its people, a feeling of genuine safety. Perhaps I’m hypnotised by the landscape of rivers that serpentine around steep green valleys or by the elephants, which are so very big and so very amazing. Maybe, I just love being around the Buddhist monks. There is plenty to talk about on the Southeast Asia topic but the story I would like to share isn’t about this specific location but rather about its people, or in this case, one particular person: I call him “Buddha on the sidewalk”.
I was strolling along the streets of Bangkok when I encountered a man that changed my life. He probably doesn’t know the magnitude of the impact that our meeting had had on me as a human being. There were no grand gestures or even much interaction between this man and myself but it certainly caused a crucial awakening.
Sitting on the sidewalk was a limbless beggar: with only a head and torso, yet able to do the most enormous, heart warming smile, you know, the one you have when you receive amazing news. He wasn’t drunk, he wasn’t on any kind of drugs and he seemed of sound mind, sincere and genuinely content. When he saw me he smiled even more and his eyes sparkled as he greeted me. We then exchanged a few words and despite not having any money to offer him, he still wished me a pleasant day with that lovely, warm smile. I walked away almost crying, not because I was sad but because I was touched.
Many would consider his life miserable and desperate. How could it not be? No limbs, almost no clothes, no food (even if he had food he had no arms, hands, legs, or feet to eat it with), no job, perhaps no family, no this, no that, no nothing, no everything. But no! He had something. Yes! He had self-love. Yes, he was happy. And yes, he lived in miserable conditions but no, he wasn’t miserable.
Buddha on the sidewalk taught me that misery is above all an internal condition. It is a choice. Of course, he would like to live in other more privileged ways and no one enjoys being homeless and poor, but being miserable is not about circumstances, it’s about a state of mind. Maybe we know this in theory but traveling, be it Southeast Asia or the supermarket, allows us to move and thus interact and that is really how we learn to evolve. If we choose to.