Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Years ago, when I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, a passage instantly jumped out at me.
Dostoyevsky tells a fable through the mouth of one of his characters. But it wasn’t just the story itself that struck me. It was also the fact that I had heard it before.
In Dostoyevsky’s telling, the story is of Russian Orthodox origin, and it goes like this:
Once upon a time there was a peasant woman, and a very wicked woman she was. She died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God: “She once pulled an onion in her garden,” he said, “and gave it to a beggar woman.”
I was recently reminded of this story. First because I have yet to track down how it was that I heard of it as a child in Taiwan, long before I knew what Russian Orthodoxy was. The way it was told to me when I was little, the story was said to be Buddhist.
And a few details were different. Instead of peasant woman, it was a man. Instead of a guardian angel, it was a bodhisattva, the Buddhist being of mercy. Instead of God, it was the Buddha. And instead of giving an onion to a beggar woman, the bad man’s one good deed in life was to rescue a spider from getting trampled on (this might be the only truly notable difference, representative of Buddhism’s respect for all life forms instead of primarily homo sapiens).
But the overall story is the same. The bodhisattva brings the spider to the mouth of hell. The spider drops a thread down into the lake of fire. The sinful man grabs on and starts to be pulled out by the spider. But then the other lost souls try to grab onto him to be pulled out together. He begins kicking them, crying that this is his salvation, not theirs. And right then the thread breaks, and he falls down to eternal damnation.
The similarities between the two stories — really two versions of the same story — are so striking that it’s always seemed to me obvious that they shared a common origin. Between Buddhism originating in India (as transmitted to China) and Orthodox Christianity in Russia? I made the further inference that the ultimate source of the shared fable was probably something predating both religions, something lost in the mist of ancient Indo-European culture, a shared repertoire of songs and stories, before the Sanskrit-speaking people who invaded northern India separated from their Caucasian siblings who migrated into Europe. And I have always thought how cool it would be if I could actually track down their common source.
In the years since, I have come across no clue whatsoever of such a common source. But I was recently reminded of it in connection with my immigration woes.
As many of you know, I had moved to the US for my education and stayed on to work. But eventually I was unable to secure a Green Card and had to leave. I wrote about this experience with America’s unreasonable immigration system back in 2015.
After I said my piece, I heard from a number of readers. Some insisted that I must have been lying, that I must have secretly been a “criminal alien” working with Mexican drug cartels while pretending to be a law-abiding noncitizen, and that ICE must have found out about my secret identity, which was why I was being asked to leave.
Some others sympathized with me but complained that the US immigration system was favoring “illegals” or the otherwise “undeserving” while leaving Ivy-educated “right kind of immigrant” out to dry.
Isn’t it ridiculous, a partner at a major international law firm said to me, that I had to make my way to the exit while the day laborers, the hotel maids, the pizza delivery guys, the fruit- and vegetable-pickers, “who don’t even speak English,” got to stay?
The first kind of reaction I laughed off as obviously ludicrous. The second kind reminded me of this Orthodox/Buddhist fable.
Am I truly more deserving than the man who used to bring me my Thai food? Do I really have more “merit” than a poor family braving all manners of dangers for the sake of what what they see as a better life?
Of course I feel that I should have been allowed to stay. But the more I have thought about it, the more uncomfortable I am in deciding who shouldn’t be. Not least because, though I may have the “right” education, I am not of the “right” race. And my race is clearly reason enough for many to wish to exclude me.
Scene: Yale Club of New York, 2004. “Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” said the Hispanic waiter, probably an immigrant himself, seeing that I was wearing jeans and therefore in violation of the club’s dress code. “It’s not a problem with the right sort of person. But with the wrong sort…”
The Orthodox/Buddhist fable, one of foundational Indo-European morality, teaches that it is immoral to save oneself while casting others down. It also warns us against mistaking luck, or what Christians call “grace,” for what we deserve. I try to remember both lessons.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."