The Buddha looks down on the inhabitants of a village in northern Laos.
Lying in bed the other night I thought of about Western teenagers playing with their iPads while lying on sofas in brick houses on lonely streets, juxtaposed with the three boys I saw playing hop scotch by the river with their friends in Nong Khiaw, or the five girls jumping skipping rope in Mong Noi in the school playground. No wonder we Westerners are an anxious lot, I thought to myself. We’re largely deprived of three key ingredients, nature, communal life and built-in daily movement. We’re educated, but in important ways we’re moulding minds and emotions that are like stunted plants in little pots. We’ve set up isolated compounds in rows with metalic chariots to move us between them. We’ve put ourselves in one, and put the natural world of rivers and mountains far away. We’ve created electronic boxes to entertain us, and we sit and sit and sit indoors. The village is gone from our streets and our heads and hearts. The animals are gone from the streets and our ears. The paths are paved, and the streets are tarmaced. The sound of laughter and play is not heard on the concrete along the road.
Things are otherwise in northern Laos.
An iPad cannot replace a village. A laptop cannot replace a river. A tv cannot replace a friend. A car cannot replace the obligation to move one’s body.
The tradeoffs many of us in the West have made with our wealth have lead to millions of rich, fat, sick, and sad human beings. Why does Australia give aid money to Laos with the intention that they develop like us?
Laos as a nation is far from perfect. They have one of the most corrupt governments on the planet, a disastrously high birth rate, a level of education so low it is frightening, no freedom of the press to tell things as they are (this morning the front page of the Vientiane Times told the populace that ‘China is a good neighbour to Laos’)… I am not suggesting that Laos is a realm of noble savages living life in Eden. But in the remote rural areas that I visited in the north many of the people maintain some essential ingredients for a full human life that we in the West have lost, ingredients that we mostly even forget to mourn having lost. Until we make our way into this countryside that is…
Streets are so empty of vehicles that children and animals and strolling pedestrians are usually free to wander on it.
The sounds of rivers and streams are never far away.
Objects such as this are not on the list of virtues. Laos has been more heavily bombed than any other country on the planet. The Vietnam War still casts its shadows in some parts of the countryside – although I didn’t see any amputees in the villages I visited, I’m sure there are many.
However… Dogs, kids, chickens, river, trees, sky, silence, birdsong: its a different path to the one which I normally walk along. Consider the implications of our recent knowledge of neuroplasticity: how are the brains of people living traditional lifestyles such as these different to ours?
Thus ends my mountain ministry.