Sunday, July 21

In search of perfection

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“HAVE you heard of airwater?” Well, at least that was what I thought Yeoh said.

“Airwater? You are kidding right?” Yeoh was my university mate. I caught up with him again after over 30 years.

We were sitting in a Dim Sum restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown, filling in the gaps of the intervening years.

Yeoh was not kidding; he was referring to Ayahuasca (pronounced as aya waska), a sacred hallucinogenic drink brewed from some native vines of Peru. It has been consumed for thousands of years by the indigenous people of South America as a means for physical, psychological and spiritual detoxification.

It is administered as part of a shamanic ritual. Of late, ‘Ayahuasca tourism’ emerged to cater for persons seeking to clear emotional blocks, and to gain a sense of peace and spiritual clarity. Yeoh was one of the ‘Ayahuasca tourists’ last year. He journeyed into the Peruvian jungle to partake in a modified service geared specifically towards nonindigenous persons.

He described the experience as extremely intense both physically and psychologically. The intense vomiting induced by the potent brew, while purported to rid the body of parasites, was just a prelude to a hallucination, which he described as a journey to hell and back. He felt that he had emerged with a clarity of mind and spirit, which he had never felt before.

How typical of Yeoh, he has always been a perennial seeker of knowledge, and is a perfectionist to boot. I first met him in London when we were studying for the Bar (the legal type). He was not satisfied with a Barrister-at-law degree and got himself disbarred so that he could sit for the Law Society examinations in order to become a solicitor.

He worked as a solicitor for a few years before he decided to take an undergraduate course in Economics. He did so well that he went on to do a PhD.

He spent a good four years on it before he branched into a study of Psychology. While completing his course (in Psychology) in San Francisco, he decided to obtain a stockbroker licence.

After practising as a stockbroker for a few years, he called it quits and became a schoolteacher, but not before he did a short stint as a lay minister of a church. When I caught up with him in San Francisco, I realised that philosophically he has practically run the whole gamut — from being a Marxist to a capitalist, a Christian, and now a New Age spiritualist. I have a hunch that he has not reached journey’s end yet. Yeoh is one of those people who takes Leonard Da Vinci’s concept of ‘Curiosita’ to heart. ‘Curiosita’, the insatiable approach to life and the unrelenting quest for continuous learning, was regarded by the genius Da Vinci as one of the seven principles to a full life.

While I admire Yeoh’s thirst for knowledge, I feel that his obsession with perfection is a flaw. It was this obsession that led him to abandon his PhD study, though people who read his draft thesis were impressed with his work. It was the same story when he was on the editorial board of the Law Students’ magazine. He just refused to consider his articles finished. We finally had to go ahead and publish one of his pieces despite his protestations and it turned out to be the best contribution of that issue.

I learnt about the futility of waiting for perfection from two unlikely sources: a farmer and a carpet merchant.

Many years ago, I visited a farm in rural Sarawak. I noted that in the yard of the farmhouse was an untidy pile of logs and planks.

“Why don’t you stack all these pieces of wood up neatly,” I said in typical naïve city slicker fashion.

The farmer gave me a pitiful look and said in Chinese, ‘kong pi ming chang’, which I take to mean ‘work is longer than life and that no matter how we try, we can never cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s in our lives’.

Once I was in Istanbul, walking down a street that specialised in selling carpets. I was standing there admiring the displays, when a merchant said sweetly, “My friend, it is a hot day, come in here and enjoy a glass of apple tea. No obligation, no obligation.”

Once I was inside, he seated me in the most comfortable chair and served me apple tea (a specialty of Istanbul) in a dainty glass.

“Do you like beautiful things?” If ever there was a rhetorical question that was it.

“Come let me share with you …” and proceeded to lay carpet after carpet in front of me.

“Stop me when you see something you like,” he said, heaving away.

I knew I was in a trap, sitting there drinking his delightful tea and watching him working up a sweat.

Then when my eyes lingered longer on a particular piece, he stopped.

“You like this? Isn’t it beautiful?” and proceeded to tell a story from the design. The carpet was beautiful and the story was beautifully told. I began to feel desperate.

“Hey, there is a flaw in the weaving,” I said, pointing to a kink in a line.

The carpet seller looked me squarely in the eye, “This is a work of human hands and humans are imperfect. It is this imperfection that makes it unique and beautiful.”

I felt rather small, and to rub it in, he said, “If you want something perfect, I can give you one, machine made from Belgium. Every line is perfectly straight … and lifeless. It costs only onethird of this carpet.”

Game, set and match it was. I left the shop, a heavy bundle in my arm and a lighter feel in my pocket.

Does this mean we should stand still and never attempt to seek knowledge and strive for perfection? I think not. I have always been fascinated by myths and legends, and many carry profound lessons.

The Chinese myth ‘Xi Yu Chi’ (Journey to the West) tells the story of the monk Tang Cheng who went on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Buddha in India to receive a sacred scroll. He was accompanied by three disciples. One of them was the monkey god, Sun Wu Kong.

The journey from China to India was an arduous one.

They had to cross treacherous rivers, climb high mountains and confront man-eating monsters.

After years of enduring such hardship, Sun Wu Kong was fed-up. So he pleaded with his master, Tang Cheng, “Master, why don’t you just climb on my back and I will transport you to your destination in a blink of an eye.”

For the monkey god, Sun Wu Kong, was a really super god. He could ride the clouds, cover 10,000 leagues in one step and reach the ends of heaven in 72 somersaults.

“Dear Monkey,” said the Master “I am disappointed with you.

After all these years with me, and after studying all the scriptures, you still do not grasp the point. The journey is the mission.

The mission is the journey. It is the journey, not the reaching of the destination that will transform you into the enlightened one.”

Perhaps, my friend Yeoh is right after all. It is his constant search for knowledge and perfection that makes his life meaningful. His students are fortunate to have him as their teacher and I, for one, feel privileged to have him as a friend.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]m