On Good Friday, Christians connect with God. But as I ran across Flinders Street station and raced down the stairs while clutching a bag of donuts and a take-away cappuccino spilling everywhere, I found myself drawn to a Buddhist monk on the Werribee train, headed for Melbourne’s outer western region. He was a calm figure amidst the noisy carriage. For the first two minutes, we looked all around us, making eye contact occasionally. Neither of us said a word. I offered him a donut in an attempt to start a conversation, forgetting that monks do not eat after midday. But my faux pas broke the ice. This is how I befriended I Saw (pronounced Ee-sor).
“I have not seen my family since I was 15. My parents let me leave home to study as a novice monk at a monastery in eastern Burma. Every day, I would wake up at four a.m. and collect food from residents. We would visit their homes or they would line up to donate food as I walked past with the other novices,” I Saw told me. He said that rice, curries and meat sandwiches were his favorite foods. Unlike senior monks, novices were allowed to eat meat, I Saw said, and this helped get him through a long day. He did not mind the classes, but found the sunset chanting and meditation sessions challenging.
“Whenever a novice broke the rules, a senior monk hit us on the leg with a stick; it hurt very much. Nowadays, such practices have become less frequent because parents complain about bruises appearing on their children’s legs,” I Saw said. He did not say how many times he was punished, but just thinking about being struck on the shins with a bamboo stick made me shudder. If I was in class, I would definitely have had the most bruises. I admitted to I Saw that I could not sit cross-legged. “Show me,” was his response.
My face grimaced as I tried crossing my legs into a bow, making a spectacle of myself in the process. A few painful seconds slowly passed before I began to fidget. I Saw leaned over and whispered, “Okay, no problem. You sit on your knees like woman.” The public humiliation of showing my inflexibility now over, it was time to return to our conversation. What did he like to do in the minimal spare time he was allocated each night?
“For one hour, we were allowed to read before the senior monk would switch off the lights. So when the lights went out, I hid under the blanket and switched on my torch to continue reading stories and comics—about Buddha, or famous people in Karen history. I like the story about Pa Da Mei, the first Karen monk,” I Saw said. Taking a quick glance, I noticed that our conversation had attracted the attention of others. A child sitting in the next allotment of seats asked his mother something about why I Saw wore a mustard and burgundy robe. His mother explained that a monk was similar to a priest. A second passenger asked I Saw if he had met the Dalai Lama. The initial look of excitement on the passenger’s face disappeared when I Saw said no before providing an in-depth response of Buddhism’s meaning, obviously not the answer the passenger was hoping for. I shared his disappointment, if only because it was costing me valuable conversation time and a chance for me to arrange a second meeting. In the end, I Saw and I hurriedly exchanged phone numbers and promised to catch up again.
On a cold and windy Sunday two weeks later, we met again, this time at Southern Cross railway station. The arranged time was 12 o’clock. I glanced at my mobile phone; five minutes to go and no sign of I Saw. I ran between platforms and the coach departure dock. Twenty minutes had passed and I Saw had still not appeared. In between frantic dashes, I missed four phone calls because my phone did not have reception. When my phone finally rang, I asked where he was. The anxiety in my voice made me sound like a parent looking for their lost child. I Saw calmly said, “David, I am near some food places. Go up the stairs and you will find me.” After running up a flight of stairs, I could not see him. Then out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of I Saw’s robe. He was sitting down at a table in the food court area.
When we finally saw each other, I did not know whether to express relief or frustration. “You look tired, David,” I Saw said to me, noticing the sweat dripping down my forehead. He apologized before saying, “I came here early. I live in Wan….Wan…Tarrr.”
I reached into my bag and pulled out a pen and notebook so he could write down the word he wanted to say.
“Wonthaggi,” I said, referring to a town in country Victoria.
“Yes, David. That is where I live. It take me four hours to get here. Last night I stay with my friend, and I go home this afternoon.” I smiled because I admired his commitment to honoring our agreement. The least I could do was ask if buy I Saw wanted something to drink. He asked for a cappuccino.
For a short time, we stared outside the large tinted windows overlooking the platforms, sipping on our coffees while watching adults and children dressed in their favorite football team’s jerseys, armed with matching club flags and other paraphernalia, walk towards Melbourne’s Docklands Football Stadium.
“David,” I Saw began, “In Burma, one cup of coffee can cost up to 2,400 Australian dollars.” I snorted in amazement because I thought I misheard him. Maybe he meant Burmese kyat, so I asked him to repeat the price.
I shook my head in amazement. “How do you like the taste? Is our coffee here worth $2,400?” I asked.
I Saw smiled. “It is like tea, only bitterer. When I buy a cup, I make sure the senior monk does not catch me,” he added with a smile.
Another awkward silence ensued. I Saw knew what I was going to ask him about, and must have been prepared with an answer.
“David,” I Saw began, “You probably know about the war in Karen State, and the political situation and human rights matters in my country. That is why you wanted to ask me on the train, so what I say will not be anything new. But you are curious and ask a lot of questions.” He then proceeded to describe about life sleeping in dense forests, hiding in villages from Burmese Army soldiers. But I Saw was lucky enough to make it into a Thai-Burma border camp, where he taught Karen language and Buddhist chants to children, and developed a close link with another family in the camp who looked after him. They still speak by telephone occasionally. When I asked I Saw about his prospects of seeing his birth family again, he remarked, “this will only happen when my homeland is peaceful.”
In spite of everything that has occurred, I Saw has always maintained a positive outlook. For example, I Saw told me how much he loved adding bamboo bark to soups or curries in dishes he cooked at the camp. Bamboo bark, he said, gave dishes extra flavor. He also spoke enthusiastically about life in Wonthaggi.
“Every evening after English classes, I walk along the beach. It is very soothing. On Saturdays I take driving lessons. I have been learning for a few months. It is nerve wrecking, but I am getting better,” I Saw said.
It seemed like I Saw and his life in the small Victorian country town were really coming together. “What is one thing about life here that fascinates you?” I asked.
“When I first came here, I loved to sit in the cafe and watch people exchange money when buying a coffee or food. Monks do not need money in my country. We require only happiness.”
I looked into the paper cup and saw the frothed milk clinging to the bottom, a sign that our meeting was nearly over. Before we parted ways, there was time for one more request. “David, there is so much knowledge to discover in the world. Come to Karen State and document life in the villages and forests. You will get all the happiness you want.”
With that, we shook hands and professed to meet again in the future.
Hopefully, I will have as many chances to gain more wisdom as I have opportunities to consume cappuccinos.