Runners and Demons

John Burdett writes amazing books.

They’re not what you might expect an ancient monk such as yours truly to enjoy.

They’re about Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Royal Thai Police detective who works in the red-light district of Bangkok. Many of the characters in the books are active in the sex trade, including Sonchai’s mother Nong, a retired prostitute who runs a whorehouse for elderly Americans, called The Old Man’s Club.

I love these books. They’re funny and suspenseful, even though they’re not without a certain “edge” for me due to their content. There’s actually not much prurience in them, but the environment is hardly one that supports my spiritual practice.

Yet I can’t help but feel that my spiritual teacher guided me to them. The thing is, Detective Jitpleecheep is a Buddhist, a former monk who’s the only completely honest police on the force (that he knows of). And it’s not the sex-laden environment of Bangkok that I admire, but Sonchai’s Buddhist perspective.

It’s a different world-view from the western black-or-white take. Sonchai sees life as a river, in which some people are paddling upstream toward nirvana, and some are drifting downstream toward greater suffering, but all are ultimately striving toward final liberation. And because our common aim is the same, he finds no grounds for judging others.

At one point, he shares a passage from the diary of Chanya, a highly paid courtesan who was in America on September 10, 2011, when she had a sudden insight about the difference between Americans and Thais:

From the start something very specific has impressed her about Americans, even the humblest: it is the way they walk. Even bag people walk with purpose and energy and with total certainty about the direction they want to go in, which is a lot different to the way Thais walk in Bangkok or Surin, where the need for purpose and direction has not much penetrated the collective mind. Now she has seen quite a lot of the country, and in the process a germ of awareness has slowly grown.

They don’t know where they’re going, they just know how to look as if they do. They walk like that because they’re scared. Some demon is whipping them from inside. Chanya will never walk like that.

For a moment she feels she understands everything about Saharat Amerika; it coincides with a decision to go home to Thailand sooner rather than later. She doesn’t want to marry a frightened man who has perfected the art of going nowhere with such zeal and determination. To admit that you are lost seems closer to enlightenment and a lot more honest. More adult, even.

As a runner, I can’t help but feel that Chanya is right. In my running, I’ve seen that a too-firm sense of purpose can interfere with my getting what I truly want.

P. G. Wodehouse, the English humorist, observed that there are two kinds of American businessman – the hale and hearty fellow who’ll slap you on the back, shove a drink in your hand, and tell you two off-color jokes before you can sit down, and the kind who worships at the altar of the dollar and sits grimly at the head of the table, his expression radiating disapproval of, well, just about everything.

I’ve known runners who seemed constitutionally incapable of taking the sport lightly. They were serious about it all the time. For them, it was hideously important to wear the right clothing, create strict schedules, and track the behavior of their physical hearts on a computer.

Every moment of each workout had to be serious. When they weren’t grimly doing their quarter-mile repeats, they were talking about stock options and retirement funds. They were runners who wanted desperately to get ahead, and for whom morality and sport were fundamentally intertwined.

Joseph Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar, wrote an amusing essay years ago on “virtuecracy.” The virtuecrat is the type of person,  often found in newspaper editorial offices, who compulsively ranks other people on his private scale of virtue and vice.

The virtuecratic runner is prepared to judge your shoes, your race PRs, your hair, your car, your girlfriend, and your income. You’ll never be able to run with a virtuecrat, because he’ll be driven to stay a step or two ahead of you.

It’s an approach to running that, whenever I try it, continually trips me up. Only yesterday, I ran 20 minutes and found myself, in that short time, falling into the trap of virtuecracy – measuring my level of virtue as a runner, and feeling that there wasn’t nearly enough of it.

What happened is that I had taken several days off and felt that I should be well-rested and able to run fast. But I felt crappy, and I judged myself severely. I couldn’t escape the thought: “This is inadequate. You’ve done something wrong. You’ve made some mistake. You are a bad runner.”

Consequently, the quality of the run was destroyed. If I had accepted reality and simply slowed to a jog, falling into the spirit of the run and drawing the maximum of enjoyment from each moment, I believe that I’d have been able to go home with a smile on my face.

In fact, that’s what’s wrong with mixing virtuecracy and running – it kills the fun.

I recall a dried-up, very grim older American runner who, catching sight of my battered ’82 Honda Civic before the start of the Clarksburg 30K race, curled his lip and frowned like Ebeneezer Scrooge. Get it together, his vibe said – by any standard, you shouldn’t bring such a crappy car to a race where the values of proud yuppies prevail.

The Civic was a wonderful car – it got great gas mileage and had no extra doo-dads that required fixing. It was beneath the contempt of car thieves, could park like a SmartCar, and expressed a monkish view of life based on simplicity and detachment from worldly things.

Yesterday, I watched a wonderful documentary filmed by an Irish TV network about Brother Colm O’Connell, the monk who started the Kenyan running revolution and who has coached dozens of elites. You can watch it here.

A feature of the Kenyans’ training is that it is relaxed. If a day goes badly, and the energy isn’t there for a long session of repeats, they accept it as the natural ebb and flow of things and run accordingly.

Mike Kosgei, the Kenyan national coach for 15 years (1985-95, 2001-04), says:

After having a bad workout, a European might think about it for many days. It can really affect him, And he might lose days of good training. A Kenyan will forget about it immediately. If I was not strong today, I will be next time. It started with our great-grandfathers. When they had to look after the cattle, they used to wrestle to pass the time. So when you wrestle and your opponent puts you down, you don’t believe he has beaten you. It is only that he took it today. Kenyans have transferred this philosophy to the track. When you break a Word Record, they say, okay, tomorrow it is my turn. (From Run to Win: The Training Secrets of the Kenyan Runners, by Juerg Wirz.)

From the perspective of American Grim, these words seem irresponsible. Yet I wonder if they aren’t more in the spirit of the natural way of running as God intended.

After all, the reason for running is neither the product or the process, but a little bit of both. At any rate, I enjoy my running the most when I can free myself from demons whipping  me from inside.

Postscript: After reading several more books by John Burdett, I continue to be amazed by his skill as a writer.

However, I do find fault with his worldview. I don’t believe that people in the sex trade can ever be quite as cheerful and happy as he portrays. The saints and sages warn of the dangers of “sex, wine, and money” for good reason – namely, that they are self-involving. Especially when too much indulged, they contract the human spirit and lead us away from joy.

Burdett is the editor of a compilation of Southeast Asian porn. While I continue to admire his generous heart, I have to say, that is a book I will never read.

I also have trouble with the fact that Sonchai Jitpleecheep goes downhill with each novel, seemingly more lost than enlightened. Yet, I take from the books the good and quietly skip over the bad.

My spiritual teacher says that the traditional monastic rules – Poverty, Chastity, Obedience – need to be adjusted for our times, when the inner teachings of spirituality are available to householders as well as monks and nuns. He taught that the new way is “Simplicity, Moderation, Cooperation.” But he is strict in his interpretation of the rules for monastics – those who, from inner feeling, are ready to embrace a life lived completely for God.

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