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February 29, 2012

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Meditating on the meaning of life

CARP, bright like the autumn leaves that swirl against the gray sky of the murky pond water, swim serenely, swishing gossamer tails as they drift back and forth. They swim to one side of the pond and then, swim back - forgetful of where they came from - seeing but not understanding.

I throw stale bread at the nearest one, pearly white with red-flecked scales, as it swims into the shadows under the platform, reminiscent of splinters and bare feet. Outside this little niche of pond water and carp and 12-story apartment buildings, reside the skyscrapers and streets jammed with harmonious cacophony of pedestrians on phones, ringing bicycle bells and frustrated taxi drivers. Perhaps the carp in the pond are the same, living their seemingly tranquil lives in their own mysterious city under the dim waters, hidden among dirt and remains of bread crumbs, waiting for people to walk by and sporadically feed them - like the blind musician who wanders Nanjing Road, whose dirt-crusted fingers wrap around his erhu in desperation, chipped bowl half empty with coins resting before him amid the trampled dust. Fingers on one hand ghost the strings as the other hand pulls the bow - left, right, left, right - that sings of his sad desperation hidden under the fa?ade of a happy melody as he sits on the side of the road, eyes never seeing the strangers that take pity upon him, straining to hear the telltale clink of coins or the rarer flutter of bills. Day after day, he relies on the compassion of the nameless. I throw a coin into the bowl, and as he hears the ringing, a smile ghosts his ashen lips and he nods.

Stranger after stranger passes by the old man; some, lost in their own world, don't even notice him. Others spare a cursory glance down and walk past. The former, unaware of reality; the later, conscious of their surroundings but lacking awareness and interest - for the mind is manipulative, prejudiced in its selection of knowledge, directing our thoughts to the path it wishes to take. At times, it is not disinterest that creates ignorance but pride, our own selfish hubris that requires us to maintain appearances, to never listen to the musician's story.

Walking down the crowded street, I see a sea of black hair and pastel parasols that belong to these people. Some weave in and out of shops, sunglasses perched upon their noses as they stroll with shopping bags in hand; others, browned and wrinkled by the harsh summer sun, stoop and pick up cans and bottles from the ground and stuff them inside plastic bags, in hopes of hard-earned money. An old lady walks up to me, coaxing me to hand her an empty bottle casually held in my hand. Mutely, she points at it and holds out her hand; stopping, I hand it to her, puzzled at why she would want a plastic bottle, something most would consider trash. A bottle could not possibly be worth money of any use, but perhaps if she collected enough, they could feed her for a day.

The mind na?vely wanders the world, but along its life-long sojourn, little by little, it gains a wealth of understanding and knowledge; like the bottles, these little bits may seem insignificant, but as the seconds pass, their worth amasses. The old lady grabs it and stuffs it inside a cheap plastic-weave bag as if it were a treasure, something to be prized and protected, and walks off towards another man who holds his girlfriend's empty coke bottle and numerous shopping bags as they saunter, side by side, hands interlaced.

I was born luckier than most, luckier than the children who wander the streets and subways of Shanghai, begging for money, for compassion, and I am ignorant. Of course I know of them, but merely knowing is not enough for I did not, could not, cannot understand their life. The fortunate cannot understand the unfortunate, and there will always be some things that the mind cannot understand as there are things that the mind will never experience.

The carp do not know where they are swimming to, though they may have a vague notion. Perhaps we are like that, walking down the path life has chosen for us, unknowing of what just happened or what may happen.


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