Reading Sala chairs
The last of my mentors died. Police General Vasit Dejkunkorn was 88 years old. He wrote novels and newspaper columns. He was at his desk daily right up to the end. As I sat in Sala in Wat Makutkasatriyarn in Bangkok one Thursday mid-afternoon. Wats run the death business with considerable efficiency, respect for ritual and ceremony. The funeral caught the heat of a baking Bangkok afternoon shortly after a monsoon storm ended. Hundreds assembled dressed either in black or dress uniform to join in the traditional circumambulating the temple. Before the walk started, ten monks, led by a police escort, arrived through a side door. They took their place on a platform and a few minutes later began to chant. The audience sat stoically hands in a wai. I’m no expert in chanting, though of late my abilities have increased from having attended multiple funeral, but this particular chanting had a transcendent beauty, a deeply resonating blend of harmony and melody, and genuine feeling.
I felt my friend’s presence. Not a ghost nor other-worldly apparition. It was his voice, the one I heard over lunch many times over the years. Warm, friendly, matter-of-fact, confident and clear. Every writer’s funeral has a story. Looking around, it looks like there is no one else. He laughed. That is his final story. The Sala is the place where you find one story has ended and another story begins. Pick up the thread and start that story. It’s the one right in front of you. The one you see but don’t see.
That had always been his way of distinguishing a real writer and someone doing an assignment for money, fame, or attention.
What was it in the Sala that I didn’t see: the flowers, the elaborate coffin and royal wreaths on tripods. Other than the wreaths, most of the objects in the Sala looked familiar. That was my friend’s point, the journey of life hugs the shores of the familiar and the longer you’re in the boat, the more the shoreline all looks the same. A writer after a certain age has to make an effort to be surprised by finding some new connections in something that is familiar.
In front of me was a chair. On a small plaque on the back each chair was the name of the person who had donated them to the wat. There were rows of chairs 6 deep. At a glance each one looked identical as if some giant machine with a pattern had manufactured and assembled them as the furniture equivalent of identical twins. The closer examination started to reveal idiosyncratic, subtle differences. Uneven layers of dust suck to the flutes on the back one of chair suggesting neglect and age. The scrolls, channels, flutes and curves on closer inspection were all slightly different. You could see a craftsman had made the chair mostly by hand from a pattern. Within that pattern he was able to create a distinct chair if you bothered to look for the little clues he or she left. Notes indented by nature beneath the smooth, polished, glistening surface of wood all displayed slightly different patterns. It is a safe assumption that all of wood for the Sala filled with chairs came from more than a single tree. It was far more likely the wood was harvested from many different trees. If you are an expert, you can tell from the branching pattern the relatedness with one another. Trees have ancestors and their ancestry, their past history on the planet, their place in the long chain of life was right before in the chair.
I was sitting on a chair with my back to the information it possessed. That was a metaphor for the kind of life you didn’t want to lead. I used it without understanding and thinking very much about something as ordinary as a chair. It had a utility. To hold my weight with comfort. Beyond that the chair had no existence or meaning. That kind of thinking was a redline for a real writer. If you were stuck at the ordinary you weren’t looking hard enough. Look again, my friend said. There were rows and rows of chairs and they would hold thousands and thousands of people who came to that place to say goodbye to a loved one or friend. They would pass like day into night, a constant stream of people dressed in black with their faces wet with grief and sorrow. The chairs held them as they said goodbye. The point is we have such a long history in common. When had we stopped reading the ancestry of trees and finding a common one in the distant past. Like the chair, anyone of us was another chair that found itself in a particular row, holding up someone else over a life, and mourning the loss of each person as unique.
The role of the writer was to describe the chair as both special and banal, and how chance had placed it in one position in a row or one row rather than another one. In doing so he was practicing the art of observing and preserving a portal opening, like the one the chanting opened, that allows one to take for a voyage of discovery through time and space. What makes the human being more elusive is her or his mobility. We are an object in motion with other people, events and things. We sit on chairs. We bounce off walls. We run on the beach. We swim in oceans, fly on gliders, float on hot-air balloons, and dance in the street. Our story, or stories are flights of human beings—they are moving, weaving, dodging, dunking, or crawling. I had come to the wat, it seems to find, that final story he left for me to discover. A final test by a mentor where only the student will know whether his answer will satisfy the criteria of truth. One that captures the magic of movement over many decades. That was his legacy. The story-teller dies like everyone else, but the spirit that moved him to tell all those stories during his life does not die. His spirit lives inside every tale he told, and every reader who opens his books will find his spirit preserved.
He taught me how to read a Sala chair. It was right in front me. Like most things in life, we only see as little as possible. It’s not our intention to do this. It’s our nature. Our attention is short, fragile and scattered, and like our bodies is always on the march over the slope of the past, and through the valley of the future. Never quiet; never still. But it didn’t need to be that way. All it took was taking a little time to concentrate on the message in a Sala chair. Solid, stationary, egoless, the chair makes no demands or promises. Yet it can teach us a great deal about our constantly agitated, self-absorbed selves. Things have been tough for a writer always. They are no easier now. My friend had a wonderful, long life and was loved by tens of thousands of readers. At his funeral he left me with a final lesson, to return back to when I started all those years ago to become a writer when I began to focus on and to notice the clockwork below the surface of things and people. It took many years to understand what kind of attention meant to me as a writer. My friend’s voice reminded me it’s not the devil that’s in the detail; it’s who we are, why we do what we do, and where, if we concentrate and are lucky, we can catch a glimpse of a much grander web of connections, loops and nodes. We can spin the wheel back to the place branching patterns in a tree trunk and human beings shared a common ancestor. Or move forward to the time when AI may read us like a chair.
As the last echoes of the monks’ chanting ended, I understood that a world-class chair reader had passed. But the spirit of his story-telling secret is now declassified for all to read.