“Oh Rollo, if you truly knew what the gods have in store for you, you would go down now and dance naked on the beach. (LAUGHING)” ~Seer’s oracle, The Vikings
The fortune-teller glanced down and stated to silently read my prophesy. And just as quickly as he started, he immediately slammed the small booklet of Khmer palm-leaf writings shut.
“No good,” flatly said Thalay, our Cambodian tour guide, without any further explanation or elucidation.
“Well that’s not good, not good at all,” I thought to myself. Good thing I had two more choices at my fortune’s revelation!
We were visiting the Silver Pagoda, located adjacent to the Royal Palace in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. A couple of lessor shrines here specialize in fortune-telling, a common belief throughout the Far East, and I was eager to indulge myself.
We watched as a young, well-dressed man received his fortune. The teller was located in small library just outside of the Silver Pagoda proper. Here were stored many old and historic Buddhist manuscripts written on palm leaves using Sanskrit, preserved in glass-faced cabinets, which were also lined with more modern translations in bound books. Thalay explained to us that this student was here to get his fortune regarding the future of his studies. Apparently, and unlike me, he got a fairly good one.
And on his first choice. Lucky.
Palm leaves have been used for millennia both for writing and painting because of their thin and flexible qualities. From the first millenia up to the 16th centuries, manuscripts were written on palm leaves called Tādapatra. They provide an excellent surface for writing which is easily preserved and transported as rolled bundles. The rolled palm leaf manuscripts here were stored in small boxes, themselves placed inside modern steel and glass cabinets to further protect them from dust, dirt and thieves.
The mystic had a small bundle of fortunes written on palm leaves but in the more modern Khmer script. The leaves were bound top and bottom by a hard covering of bamboo, and the entire collection was held together with what appeared to be a hemp-like cord.
Before my first attempt it was explained that one must clear their minds entirely and focus on the one thing for which the fortune would apply. On my knees in front of a sacred bull, I closed my eyes, bowed my head and took a few deep cleansing breathes to help clear my thoughts. Then I started to hone my mental energies in order to focus the fortune’s predictions.
I wished to know the prospects for my health in the coming years. Last May, almost exactly a year previous to this fortune-telling, I had started to become very seriously ill (see Offshore Okinawa: A Scuba Diver’s Paradise to Lose). And my condition, one which I will remain “stuck” with over time, is also one for which the Western medical establishment has no clear answers…or cures. When I felt my mental energies were sufficiently engaged and fixated, I was ready for my second attempt at better providence.
The Silver Pagoda is a small walled compound adjacent to the Cambodian Royal Palace complex, both located in the busy riverside district of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. It features a royal temple commonly referred to as Wat Preah Keo (Khmer: វត្តព្រះកែវ), which houses many national treasures, most notably the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia, a small 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha, as well as a near-life-size standing Buddha figurine encrusted with 9,584, diamonds dressed in royal regalia. The Pagoda itself is inlaid with more than 5,000 silver floor tiles, most of which remained covered for their protection.
This time I placed the bundles of fortunes on my head as I saw the student do. Attached to the bundle via a worn and fibrous string was a small wooden dowel, which is used to select the fortune in question.
“You can use your left hand,” said Thalay. I was using my right hand to do the choosing. After thinking about her somewhat odd comments, it suddenly dawned on me. Maybe I was doing it wrong.
“You mean I should use my left hand?” “Yes,” came her reply with a smile. Ah, perhaps I had discovered the cause of the first fortune failure. At least that’s what I chose to believe.
I select my fortune and hand it over to the seer. He silently reads the fortune. And continues reading for quite some time. I look at the palm leaf, and this fortune is quite long; the beautiful twists and twirls of the Khmer language written small and without margins right to the edge. I attempt to read his tells during his contemplation, and I’m struck that again he is not happy. I turn to Thalay and give her a rather pleading look.
After an extended discussions with the fortune-teller, Thalay starts to give me her interpretation. I can tell that this is not easy for her, and she is struggling with an explanation after two or three false starts. Finally, after even more discussion with the oracle, she comes up with this analogy:
“It is not good, but not bad,” she starts, obviously trying to diffuse the growing anxiety that she clearly sees on my face. “It is like this: a fisherman can work hard all the day all his life, and at the only short time that he relaxes, the fish he wants swims by….”
Now for my third attempt. And my last. I took a few extra moments to center my mind and spirit. And again I take my chances with the bundle of what has only been, for me, bad or sad news. I turn over my choiced chance to the soothsayer.
This time the slightest of a smile comes across his face. So, either he is amused at my exceedingly bad luck over three attempts, or actually I finally found a fortune worth having. What was it this time?
Well, after another difficult translation, it apparently comes down to this: that what I seek will require a life-long struggle, one that is fated to be not easy over time, and that will require the active support of my wife Jody. Jody, Thalay and I all make light of the situation, finding the obvious humor in having my health in the hands of my nurse-wife (literally – she’s a nurse). But of course, for me, in the recesses of the darker parts of my consciousness, this resonates true. Maintaining my health may not be easy as I age, but with Jody’s help I will in fact keep aging. Which is a good thing.
Most of us are drawn to having our fortunes predicted, as it has been throughout time. Almost everyone at some time or another wishes to know the Kismet with which we have been blessed…or cursed, and have the opportunity to confront the unchangeable fate to which we are bound.
But most of the time, it’s better to not openly know. Let the gods plan and scheme; we, like the Viking Rollo, simply strive to make the most of the lot we have drawn, waiting for our destinies to take hold. We never really know what the gods have in store. We should dance naked anyhow.