Tributaries: "Original Suffering"

William Lychack

In another existence—and, yes, there are many lives within this one life—I become someone who ends up going to Burma to be a Buddhist monk for a spell. It’s like a dream, no need for explanation, but at my ordination I am given a new name, U Sâsana. I go and live for a time in a forest monastery on the southern Shan plateau.

I will teach about this in my classes back home. I will explain how the Buddhists have this idea of original suffering. This is something you carry with you your whole life. It’s not always obvious what the suffering is to you—or sometimes it’s so obvious you don’t count it as anything—but still every choice you make can be traced to this one single thing. It’ll be your giftcurse, everything touching back to this for you.


One afternoon, driving in our jeep from Mandalay to Yangon—I’ve gone to Burma many times now, the complete opposite side of the world in every way, as far from home as I could ever get—and still I feel I must have been a Burman in a previous life. A Burman, or a Brit, just someone with a great affinity for his station here, someone who found he loved the heat and rain, someone who could go as if by memory along certain roads and rivers. This would make about as much sense as anything to my Burmese friends. No need to spell out such yearning to anyone here.

It’d be enough to say you simply felt drawn to a place. In Burma, if you passed unsatisfied from this life, you’d be reborn on the plane of hungry ghosts, your soul coming back again to complete some piece of unfinished business from a previous existence. It took the Buddha many lives to become the Buddha. With this kind of mind, it’d be easy to appreciate—and to have some compassion for—the way a person might feel compelled to keep going back and forth over a particular piece of ground.

On our drive south to Yangon, we stop at a roadside gas station. There’s a small village nearby, and off to the side a very old woman is selling teak chocks, tall stacks of wedges set out in all sizes around her. She’s no bigger than a little boy, woman inviting us to sit with her in the shade. She offers tea and mango, and the breeze is pleasant off the small pond behind the house and palm-leaf shed. She wants to know the story about us—our heads shaved clean, the three of us explaining how we’ve just disrobed, just left the monastery—and she’s pleased and tells how she’s lived on this hill her entire life.

We’re only there for ten minutes—the space of a cup of tea, the engine of our jeep ticking itself cool nearby—and she tells of her children, her grandchildren, her husband’s death, and how she laughed at her younger brother when she was six years old. She didn’t know any better, the boy in his coffin in the front room of the house, but almost ninety years later she’s still known in the village as the little girl who couldn’t stop giggling at the funeral of her brother. It’s right there in her face, the sadness and shame, the acceptance, the odd sense of pride almost, the old woman relighting her cheroot.

Of all the stories she could have told, that was the one she chose to tell about herself. That must mean something. Of all the things she might have wanted us to know about, of all the things to share with complete strangers, it was that single moment from a lifetime away that she chose (or that chose her), this being the detail that let her situation speak, this young girl reacting to the sight of her brother lying there as if asleep.

My work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize, The Best American Short Stories, and on public radio's This American Life. I am the author of a novel, The Wasp Eater, a collection of stories, The Architect of Flowers, and a forthcoming novel, Cargill Falls. I currently teach at the University of Pittsburgh.