The object I am about to describe was probably made in Nepal. It has been in my possession for several years, and I can’t remember where I bought it. Certainly not in Nepal, a country I have yet to visit.
The object is a wallet made of coarsely woven hemp and reinforced with raw cotton bindings. It was obviously made for the tourist market; I know this not only because of the numerous zips and Velcro strips used as fastenings, but from the convenient slots for credit cards, which I think would be redundant for all but the very rich in Nepal.
The most striking feature of this artifact are the startling blue eyes emblazoned on the front. They are machine embroidered in royal blue, pale blue, black and white silks. They resemble the eyes you see staring down at you from almost every stupa in Nepal, and are, of course, the Buddha’s eyes. Above the eyes are two perfectly arched eyebrows. Beneath the eyes is a shape rather like a question mark, which I took to be a stylised nose, but which I have recently discovered is the number 1 in Nepali script, and symbolises either the unity of all things, or the teaching which is the one way to Nirvana. (Scholars differ in their interpretation).The remaining symbol above the eyes in the shape of a teardrop, represents the third eye – the all-seeing wisdom of the Buddha.
The effect of these ubiquitous all-seeing eyes on the population can be imagined. However, it should be understood that the Buddha’s eyes are not meant to be intimidating. They are a gentle reminder to persevere on the path to enlightenment.
Finally, the wallet is equipped with a long finely woven rope, which you can hang over your shoulder or, better still, round your neck for safety while travelling. This rope is far too long for me, so I knot it half way to shorten it.
I have never used this travel wallet for its original purpose, but it has come in handy in two other ways.
Normally it hangs from the top knob of a big white chest-of-drawers in my bedroom, the eyes staring out at me as I sleep, read or stroke the cat, reminding me of the important things in life. I don’t find them at all threatening or I would have removed the object from its mooring long ago.
At one time it served as a piggy bank, and received £1 per day whenever I did not eat chocolate, until I had accumulated enough to buy a goat for my grandson from Oxfam Unwrapped. It took a long time, and I will concede that the eyes did reproach me gently for my backsliding. Fortunately Buddhism does not do guilt; I just vowed to do better next day.
Recently I took the wallet with me on a trip to Cambodia, and stored my digital camera, my spare battery, battery charger and extra memory cards in its capacious pockets. It hung round my neck when I was out sightseeing. I’m not sure the eyes would deter an Asian pickpocket, but I hope so.
After visiting Burma, I couldn’t help comparing the eyes of the Buddha with the pervasive eyes of Big Brother, in George Orwell’s novel 1984, eyes which his anti-hero Winston could only escape in the bathroom; this leads me on inevitably to think about our own rash of CCTV cameras which follow our movements more or less everywhere outside our own homes. I am really not worried about them. In fact I rarely notice them, and I think on the whole they are a useful tool for deterring shoplifters and identifying miscreants, such as football hooligans and Saturday night drunks, and on occasion, helping the police to trace the last known movements of a missing person.
What alarms me much more than CCTV, is the thought of cyber eyes in my pc, which can access my emails without so much as a ‘by your leave’, and thus get into my head and read my thoughts as I type them. Who knows, perhaps somebody is reading this. May it bring them joy! More likely they will be bored out of their wits, but that is not the point. I am now vulnerable as never before. The only way I can protect my privacy is to desist from sending emails and writing memoirs and essays like this. It’s a dilemma!
But getting back to the object of this ramble, my Nepali wallet. Because I know something about Buddhist thinking, I am not intimidated by Big Buddha’s eyes watching me. The Buddha is benevolent, not vengeful. The eyes remind me that all I have is here and now. This life is it. It’s not a rehearsal. I need to seize the day.
Christine Hawkridge was made Chair of Universiy of the Third Age in June, 2013. She leads three Buddhist philosophy groups, writes and publishes novels. She also works with Victim Support and Amnesty. A recent interview can be found on the latest edition of Clarion online.