17 November 2008

Letter 4.23

Dear Mr. Hum,

Please excuse me for having read your letter to Mr. Sam, but when you have read this letter I hope you will forgive me and understand my reason for having done so. I am very glad that we have finally found one of his friends, for we have no knowledge of his family or friends in India.

Mr. Sam appeared here one morning in the middle of a paddy field, unable to account for himself or how he got here. Indeed, he seemed as bewildered about his appearance (which was rather shabby: torn and dirty once-white robes, scratches and bruises, etc.) in our village as we were, but he seemed so harmless and good-natured that we took him in, where he at once took to going from house to house insisting upon doing the washing-up, all the time muttering strange things about either rabbis or rabbits, nobody here was quite sure. Some of the women were very happy to feed him, and soon discovered that he loved above all else our native food, stringhoppers. 'Why do they call them stringhoppers?' Mr. Sam often asked me (excuse me, I should introduce myself, I am Ven. Bodhesako, one of the village monks). 'Because they look like they're made of strings,' I told him. 'But do they hop?' he would ask, to which I had no answer.

Mr. Sam was so fond of stringhoppers that it was inevitable that he should eventually want to learn how to make them himself, after which he extended his services to the village beyond doing the washing-up, and went from house to house looking for opportunities to make the family stringhoppers (and, of course, to share in consuming them), and it was this that led to his downfall. As you may know, Mr. Sam, being an Indian, wore the 'lucky string', a length of black thread that had been blessed by a swami, around his wrist. What happened was this: one morning while making stringhoppers for one of our neighbors his lucky string became entangled in the strings that were being woven to make a stringhopper. Before he noticed it the lucky string (which, in retrospect, may not have been so lucky after all) was thoroughly enmeshed in a stack of stringhoppers, and in attempting to extricate himself Mr. Sam only found himself becoming more entangled. This was his mistake. He could have cut the string, but this of course would be looked upon as terribly unlucky, or he could have called for help, but he delayed until it was too late. First his hand disappeared into the stack of stringhoppers, then his arm, and by the time he called for help there was little of him left. Despite all our efforts we couldn't save him: he disappeared.

Two days later at a neighboring village a woman was preparing her family's meal when she noticed, in the stringhoppers that were being made, a black thread. She attemmted to remove it and throw it away, but found that when she pulled on it a hand began to emerge. She screamed and fainted and when her husband came running in to discover the hand he pulled on it and eventually a wide-eyed and bewildered person emerged who, it was eventually discovered, was in fact our Mr. Sam. Now Mr. Sam does nothing except eat stringhoppers all day long -- he won't touch anything else, not even other foods he used to love -- and he won't do the washing up or anything. When he moves he doesn't walk or run, but makes a strange rabbit-like hopping move. And he now is unable to say anything at all except one sentence: 'Now I know why they're called stringhoppers' -- a phrase which he repeats about two hundred times a day. Please, Mr.

Hum, what does this mean? And please tell us what we should do with Mr. Sam. How can we help him?

With all friendship,



"...In the end, perhaps due to the exigencies of the novel's form, Heller does suggest a solution to Yossarian's dilemma. Whether this solution works artistically is not of concern to us here. Rather, we need to understand why this suggestion of a solution is incompatible with the Buddha's Teaching.

The Buddha's Teaching is concerned with letting go of what can be surrendered within the sphere of the unenlightened (namely, sensuality, hatred, lethargy, agitation, and doubt -- the five hindrances) in order to allow for the possibility of seeing what might be let go of beyond that sphere. This further perception can be indicated by one who has already seen for himself, and must be initially accepted by the practitioner as an act of faith, until he too comes to see it. At that point it is possible for there to be a further letting go, a giving up of what can be surrendered only outside the sphere of the unenlightened, namely, all beliefs concerned with selfhood (sakkāyaditthi, attavāda) and, eventually, the conceit "I am" (asmimāna). Thus the Buddha's Teaching is a course of practice concerned fundamentally with renunciation. Without giving up the world to the limits of one's ability to do so one will never be able to extend those limits: one will instead remain entrapped within the world..."

Sāmanera Bodhesako,
from The Buddha and the Catch-22

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