Essay: The young man in Jakarta: was he a saint or an idiot?

The world’s great teachings have been passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years.  Before they arrived at what they are today, they have gone through different interpretations and systematizations by different individuals against the backdrop of various social, historical and political contexts.

However, the essences of these teachings do not seem to be very different, probably because all of them were born in human society after all and because fundamental characteristics of peoples do not differ much.  While individual differences may exist, most people go through life perplexed or suffering due to their unfulfilled desires concerning material possession, power, fame, jealousy, as well as their other worldly desires and weaknesses, regardless of their racial, ethnic, educational, socioeconomic, cultural or sexual backgrounds.

Many people incline to certain religions or ideas with a hope of attaining, before departing from this life, the state of higher consciousness where they might be able to enjoy both physical and spiritual freedom as promised by such great teachings.  I also considered in the past how I could escape from worldly desires which I recognized as the sources of my suffering.  Aiming at becoming a spiritually more advanced individual, I used to read books on the subject, but how much I was able to reach a higher plane was doubtful.  On the other hand, I have glimpsed in the past some clergymen suffering from worldly desires, which they had not yet overcome, just like many ordinary people, so I do not feel pessimistic about myself.

I have never come across anyone who, as far as I could see, has succeeded in freeing him/herself from earthly desires, but I once knew someone who made me wonder if he could be the one who no longer had any attachment to money.  I knew him about 20 years ago, while I was posted in Jakarta, Indonesia, as an international civil servant.

He was a good-natured young man of about 20 years old named Ahmed.  Soon after arriving in Jakarta, I found a huge, fully-furnished, brand new house to rent and he then happened to be employed by my landlord as the house-sitter.  Apparently he had recently come to Jakarta from West Java in search of work, and the landlord had expected his tenant to retain him as a household employee.  Indeed, the house was the largest one I had ever lived in, but there was only one room for a domestic help to live in.  By that time, I had also decided to employ, through an acquaintance, a young woman who had come from East Java in search of work with the help of her relatives already in Jakarta.  I therefore had to tell the landlord of my inability to retain his employee in my household.  In other words, he was to lose his job and the place to stay as soon as I moved into the house.

Feeling a bit sorry for the young man, the landlord asked me if it would be possible for me to hire him, even for one day a week, possibly as a gardener.  Though the front yard was not very big, there was a courtyard as well as a small inner garden at the edge of a large living room.  So I agreed to engage him as a gardener every Sunday.

My rented house was located in an upper-class residential compound which was in the process of development.  It was surrounded by high walls with a few security guards stationed at the compound entrance around the clock.  About one-third of the plots there already had brand new houses standing, while the other ones were either still left as empty grassy lots or where more new houses were being built.  There were a few barracks to house young construction workers engaged in the compound.  Luckily, Ahmed managed to find work and a place to sleep in one of these places, however low the wages he was to earn, which enabled him to stay on in Jakarta to survive.

Ahmed came to my house every Sunday.  He worked from 9 until noon in the morning and put in a few more hours after a lunch break.  But because grass did not grow rapidly, even in the tropical climate, there was little yard work to do.  Therefore I asked him to do various things that could be done only by climbing the ladder, such as cleaning windows high up or changing electric bulbs in high ceilings that often burned up.  Since my domestic help was afraid to climb the ladder, his presence was much appreciated.  When there was no more work I wanted him to do, I released him early in the afternoon with the day’s pay.

During lunch break, he went outside the compound gate to get lunch, such as the Indonesian-style fried noodles or noodle soup, being sold by street vendors.  One Sunday, however, there was no sign of him leaving the house for his lunch break.  I found him lying on the well-polished, marble floor in front of my main entrance, as if he was trying to take a nap.  I asked him why he would not go out for lunch.  He answered shyly that he did not have enough money for it.  So I asked him how much it would cost to buy lunch from a vendor out there.  He explained that the cost would differ depending on whether he asked for a fish dumpling in it or not, for example, but he would need to pay at least 700 Rupiah for a bowl of noodle soup or a plate of fried noodles (in those days the exchange rate for $US 1 was about 1,600 Indonesian Rupiah).  I asked him how much he had on him.  “This is all I have,” he replied, showing me five 100 Rupiah bills out of his pocket.

Thinking that work in the afternoon without having any lunch would be too tough, I cooked for him a Japanese-style noodle soup with an egg and lots of vegetables mixed in it.  He emptied the bowl appreciatively, and after a bit of rest began working again.  However, there was not much to do, so I asked him to take me to an art shop where I could buy a frame for a painting.

A few days earlier, I had returned home from a mission to Bali, where I had bought a lovely painting I desperately wanted to have, though it was a bit expensive.  I therefore wanted to frame it and hang it in my living room as soon as possible, but I had no idea where to look for a frame shop.  Luckily, Ahmed knew of such a shop at a particular spot in a large market not far from where I lived.  So I drove my car, as he navigated, and arrived at the market.  Inside, the large market building was a bit dark; hundreds of tiny shops selling all kinds of items were crowded and lined one after the other.  It would have required some courage for me to go deep inside the large, dimly-lit market building with low ceilings all by myself.  So I appreciated his accompanying me into the place.

A frame shop was at one corner deep inside the market, as Ahmed had indicated.  I went in and spread the painting I had bought in Bali and began discussing with the shop owner which frame would be best suited for the art work.  At that moment, a woman beggar holding a baby appeared at the entrance of the shop and began pleading with us inside the shop to give her some money.  I then remembered some Indonesians saying that women often borrowed a baby from their relatives or neighbors to go begging so that they would be better able to appeal to the sympathy of ordinary people to earn more money.  I ignored the beggar as I was too busy consulting the shop owner.

However, to my great surprise, I saw Ahmed, who was standing at the shop entrance, taking his money out of his pocket, giving her 300 Rupiah and putting the rest back into his pocket.  Seeing this incredible scene, I felt my mouth going wide open and staying open for a while.  Despite the fact that he had only 500 Rupiah for himself, not even enough to pay for a meal, he had just given the beggar, possibly a bogus one, more than half of what he had, without the slightest sign of hesitation.

What is he?  I was totally puzzled.  If I had had only such a little amount of money, I definitely would not give it away so easily.  I wondered if he, as a person, was far more advanced than me spiritually and had no desire for, or attachment to, money.  Suddenly, he appeared like a saintly being and I even felt having seen a halo-like light shining upon his back.  But when I looked at him again, he also appeared like a stupid young man who had no capacity to manage his own finances and was simply irresponsible with his money.  I dealt with him during the three years I was assigned to Jakarta, but my question of what he really was remained a mystery.

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