Paradise Within > IDEAS & IDEALS

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  IDEAS & IDEALS

Paradise Within

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                                "The mind is its own place, and in itself
                                    Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."

                                                                                               from "Paradise Lost" by John Milton

            In my first sightseeing trip to Singapore in December, I saw and encountered many amusing, interesting and admirable things in that small country. First of all, to find myself in hot summer weather just after a six-hour flight from the freezing temperature of winter in Seoul was a strange sensation and a novel experience. The abundant exotic tropical and subtropical flora and greenery to be found everywhere around, from Changi International Airport to the very heart of downtown of this city state, made me feel as if I had come to a huge park or a garden, as the country's nickname "Garden City" fittingly suggests.

            And, I was amused and intrigued immensely by the name of the hotel I came to stay in: Shangri-La. It came, I remember, from James Hilton's popular novel "Lost Horizon" (1933). I happened to buy the book in a second-hand bookstore in Seoul about forty years ago, when I was a college student. Judging from the signature at a corner of the back cover, it was definitely a throwaway book whose owner was most probably an American soldier who had served here during the Korean War. I read it haphazardly with my poor English then, and have forgotten most of the plot and characters in the story ever since, but Shangri-La remained in my memory. The book, a Pocket Book edition, is still with me in a very tattered condition with the front cover and several pages missing.

          In the novel Shangri-La is depicted as a beautiful and imaginary place, an earthly paradise, a utopia in a hidden valley somewhere in Tibet, where life approaches perfection with eternal peace and youth, and completely free from the pressures and complications of modern civilization. Like one of the four men in the novel who had been brought to Shangri-La against their will, I was also led, as it were, to a paradise unexpectedly. There are so many hotels in the world, but few have, I think, a better name than this one in its sound and meaning. It had never occurred to me at the time of reading the novel that I would ever stay in a hotel with that name in my life. Life is a strange and mysterious thing indeed, as the story of the novel is.

          Apparently, Singapore, which I saw fleetingly as a tourist, was the envy of all my  traveling companions. To my eyes, it was simply a paradise on earth, not an imaginary one like Shangri-La in the novel but a real and practical one, a state, a nation we have on the map. Though very small in size, Singapore is better off economically, well run politically and well kept environmentally. Clean, beautiful and peaceful. I don't know exactly what the Garden of Eden was like, but I am sure it was not much different from the so many parks and gardens in Singapore such as the Botanic Garden, the Jurong Birdpark and the Orchid Garden, to name just a few. And the temperature never dropped below zero in paradise, as it never does in Singapore. I wished, even for a moment I had been born in Singapore.

          But, by the time I finished my four-day tour, I, being accustomed to four distinct seasons, began to feel weary of the ever unchanging greenery and perennially warm weather. I began to miss the rugged mountain ranges, cold wind, snow and the desolate scenes of winter fields at home. I began to yearn for the noises, the crowded streets, turbulences and big scandals that I had been accustomed to. I began to ignore the hard and harsh realities we were confronting. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Milton's "Paradise Lost’’ are said to have left paradise weeping, but I left Singapore feeling much relieved and happy. I hastened to be back home.

          Walking through the paradise-like parks and gardens in Singapore I thought of Adam and Eve and of their everyday life in the Garden of Eden, and concluded it must have been very dull and boring for them. The beautifully cultivated, ideally constructed and efficiently maintained parks and gardens in Singapore were definitely paradises for orchids, butterflies, birds, plants and animals, but for man it was simply impossible and unbearable to live with them in it for good. However attractive and beautiful it might be, we cannot admire a beautiful flower or an exquisite bird everlastingly. Though amply provided with food, shelter and security, they could definitely be a prison for man, as palaces could be for some princes. Life means constant exposure to change and challenge, harm and danger, luck and chance. Life fixed, guaranteed, and predetermined, is no longer life at all. Adam and Eve might have walked out of Eden on their own will, as I would have.

          But, now, back at home for three months or more, nonetheless, I miss again and yearn ardently for the beautiful gardens I visited in Singapore. They are before my eyes and in my mind and would not go away. A paradise has been formed within me in the image of the beautiful, tranquil and peaceful ambience of the Orchid Garden in particular, and I find myself returning to it, whenever I hear sad and lamentable news, and see or foresee things unbearably tragic and terrible around me in my country. It beckons and allures me to return to it and have rest, peace and happiness there.

          But I know there is no paradise to be found anywhere on the earth. Even if there were one, I know I would not be happy there. The only paradise I know of and I can have is the paradise within me, not without. But the problem is that the seat of my inward paradise, my mind, is not solid or firm as I eagerly wish it to be. It is so fragile and delicate that it, like still water in the pond, can be easily troubled and disturbed by the wind of my inward emotions as well as outward influences.

          The good thing about the mind, however, is that it has also as much tenacious and miraculous power and capacity to restore and regain its original seat of peace, happiness, and hope. Recently, I have found my paradise gone and lost at the incessant bad and tragic news at home and abroad, and I fell into the hell of despair and disappointment, but I regained it this afternoon when my six-year old granddaughter, seeing me waiting to take her home from kindergarten, jumped into my arms with an innocent big smile. I shall always be blessed and happy in my paradise so long as I might be useful to someone in my small way.
                                                                                                                                                          (March 10, 2003)

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