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Published: July 20th 2013
Denis stood watching them descend the track below the monastery. They waved before turning a corner that removed him from their sight. Frank sensed they had reminded him of what he was denying himself: the company of his own kind, and he was feeling some pain at their departure.
They descended a steep mountain-side, across yet another river, then up the long steep slope of the opposite valley wall, through a very new and very poor Sherpa settlement, where they bought some rice and eggs and drank some milk, and finally through a rhododendron forest to some high pasture land.
Frank had been saving their precious supply of Lakpa's tooth-breakingly hard biscuits till they were at high altitude where food would be difficult to procure. He decided that the time had come to make use of them, and pulled out the paper-wrapped bundle from his rucksack,
and shared some of the precious stock with his companions. Ungel accepted his share with both hands, but with no words of thanks. His smile was sufficient. They sat for a while, crunching noisily, and watched a hawk hover over its prey, and marvelled at its mastery of itself and its element. While its eyes and mind were locked onto its prey below, every nerve and every muscle was engaged in the task of maintaining its stationary position. Its wings treaded the air with the precision of a pianist's fingers: a picture of perfect mental and physical harmony. Then it folded its wings and plummeted to the earth, and rose again with some creature hanging from its talons, its wings now beating strongly to lift the weight of its impending meal.
“That's it!” Frank exclaimed.
“Go on,” Hamish urged gently in the manner of an expensive shrink handling a troubled patient.
“That bird knows what it is to be a bird. It just does what it has to do. It doesn’t have to think what it should do. Or what it should be for that matter. That's our problem isn't it? We don't know what it is to be human. We want to soar like the hawk, but our feet are firmly stuck in the mud.”
“Aristotle said to be human is to be rational. To be happy you need to do what comes naturally to you as a human, and that means living a rational life.”
“He would, wouldn't he? There's got to be more to it than that. We're not just rational beings. We're a bundle of emotions and desires and passions. We can't ignore our irrational selves if we want to find out what it is to be human. In fact, I doubt there's such thing as a purely rational decision.”
“Mmm”, said Hamish sceptically. “So, finally we've got it: the question you're looking for. What is it to be human? How are you going to find the answer? Follow Denis into the monastery?”
“Nah. He's aiming at something else: the cessation of suffering. That requires the whole Buddhist package. But my goal surely requires self-awareness, and Buddhist-style meditation may help me acquire that.”
“How'll you know if you've succeeded?”
“My guess is that you know when you've achieved perfect self-awareness when you're at peace with yourself and with others; when there’s no more dissonance between who you are and what you want to be. Presumably that would be a moment of truth. Will I feel so at one with myself and the world that I no longer feel the need to seek the truth? I guess that when I reach that state, I'll have discovered my true nature, as a human being.” Frank had been looking down ruminatively, talking to himself as much as to Hamish. He suddenly looked up at Hamish. “It seems you’ve arrived at that blissful state already.”
“Too right, man,” he said with a grin. “I told you before. Fags and booze. That's all you need.”
“So Aristotle was wrong!” Frank teased. “You can manage without reason!”
“Well, fags, booze, and reason,” he said.
“Well, yeah. A bit of sex, I suppose. Well, actually, as much as possible. But my
favourite activities aren't going to help you
“That's the problem. I guess it's a bit like inventing a game, call it 'the game of life'.” Frank uttered the phrase in a portentously ironic voice to pre-empt any mockery that Hamish might be tempted to let loose. “I've decided on the objective, but now have to work out the rules. I suspect that will entail a lifetime of trial and error, unless, of course, I suddenly bump into the truth at the lake. Or find God sitting on a rock and willing to give me a spot of advice. For the time being, I can start by raiding the more appealing off-the-shelf ideas we've been encountering on this trek.”
“Such as?” asked Hamish.
“Well, I think belief in karma
will help. It feels right. Even if there isn't an after-life, it'll keep me on the right track in this life. But the idea of re-birth appeals too.”
“Ah! The grappling hook!” said Hamish mockingly. “Just stick to this life. At least you know that's
“Are you sure?” Frank asked, reminding him of what he had been saying about the nature of reality.
“As sure as I can be about anything.”
They came across a large got
, a crude shelter consisting of bamboo matting draped over wooden supports. It did, however, allow a fire inside, and was quite warm. It was occupied by a handsome old woman, and the children of her younger sister. She had no children of her own and her husband was dead. It was still afternoon and they sat outside and read. As the evening approached Frank and Hamish wandered across the pastures and sat by a deserted house looking towards the mountain cradling Chandrapal Pokhari
to the north. A herd of chowris,
a cross between a cow and a yak and resembling long-horned bison with big bushy tails, were grazing in the meadows.
The shadows were lengthening in the dying sun. The warmth seeped out of the day, and they returned to the got
where Ungel had prepared a substantial meal, heated by dried chowri
manure which glowed with the intense heat of charcoal.
Frank warmed to their elderly hostess. She sat by the fire with such calm, counting off her prayer beads but not allowing her prayers to interfere with her more mundane affairs. She was preparing herself for the next life, and the repetition of the mantra 'om mani padme hum'
created merit that would stand her in good stead. Even the children sat perfectly still, their faces flickering in the gloom by the fire. But they didn't have the serenity of their aunt.
A young yak was brought inside for the night, and they crept into their sleeping bags.
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