Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Twilight of Our Empire

This prophetic column by Chris Hedges has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and on Truthout and Common Dreams. Hedges, author of the perceptive War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning and several other excellent books, is the son of a Presbyterian minister who received a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School before beginning a career as a war correspondent in El Salvador in 1983. Although he says he is not a pacifist and has supported intenventions for humanitarian reasons in Kosovo and Bosnia, Hedges calls war "the most potent narcotic invented by humankind." In his numerous articles recently, he has shown a sensitiveness and wisdom matched only for me by Bill Moyers. Rather than link it, I'll reprint the entire piece. Read it and weep.

All great empires and nations decay from within. By the time they hobble off the world stage, overrun by the hordes at the gates or vanishing quietly into the pages of history books, what made them successful and powerful no longer has relevance. This rot takes place over decades, as with the Soviet Union, or, even longer, as with the Roman, Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empires. It is often imperceptible.

Dying empires cling until the very end to the outward trappings of power. They mask their weakness behind a costly and technologically advanced military. They pursue increasingly unrealistic imperial ambitions. They stifle dissent with efficient and often ruthless mechanisms of control. They lose the capacity for empathy, which allows them to see themselves through the eyes of others, to create a world of accommodation rather than strife. The creeds and noble ideals of the nation become empty cliches, used to justify acts of greater plunder, corruption and violence. By the end, there is only a raw lust for power and few willing to confront it.

The most damning indicators of national decline are upon us. We have watched an oligarchy rise to take economic and political power. The top 1 percent of the population has amassed more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, creating economic disparities unseen since the Depression. If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president, we will see the presidency controlled by two families for the last 24 years.

Massive debt, much of it in the hands of the Chinese, keeps piling up as we fund absurd imperial projects and useless foreign wars. Democratic freedoms are diminished in the name of national security. And the erosion of basic services, from education to health care to public housing, has left tens of millions of citizens in despair. The displacement of genuine debate and civil and political discourse with the noise and glitter of public spectacle and entertainment has left us ignorant of the outside world, and blind to how it perceives us. We are fed trivia and celebrity gossip in place of news.

An increasing number of voices, especially within the military, are speaking to this stark deterioration. They describe a political class that no longer knows how to separate personal gain from the common good, a class driving the nation into the ground.

“There has been a glaring and unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders,” retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of forces in Iraq, recently told the New York Times, adding that civilian officials have been “derelict in their duties” and guilty of a “lust for power.”

The American working class, once the most prosperous on Earth, has been politically disempowered, impoverished and abandoned. Manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas. State and federal assistance programs have been slashed. The corporations, those that orchestrated the flight of jobs and the abolishment of workers’ rights, control every federal agency in Washington, including the Department of Labor. They have dismantled the regulations that had made the country’s managed capitalism a success for ordinary men and women. The Democratic and Republican Parties now take corporate money and do the bidding of corporate interests.

Philadelphia is a textbook example. The city has seen a precipitous decline in manufacturing jobs, jobs that allowed households to live comfortably on one salary. The city had 35 percent of its workforce employed in the manufacturing sector in 1950, perhaps the zenith of the American empire. Thirty years later, this had fallen to 20 percent. Today it is 8.8 percent. Commensurate jobs, jobs that offer benefits, health care and most important enough money to provide hope for the future, no longer exist. The former manufacturing centers from Flint, Mich., to Youngstown, Ohio, are open sores, testaments to a growing internal collapse.

The United States has gone from being the world’s largest creditor to its largest debtor. As of September 2006, the country was, for the first time in a century, paying out more than it received in investments. Trillions of dollars go into defense while the nation’s infrastructure, from levees in New Orleans to highway bridges in Minnesota, collapses. We spend almost as much on military power as the rest of the world combined, while Social Security and Medicare entitlements are jeopardized because of huge deficits. Money is available for war, but not for the simple necessities of daily life.

Nothing makes these diseased priorities more starkly clear than what the White House did last week. On the same day, Tuesday, President Bush vetoed a domestic spending bill for education, job training and health programs, yet signed another bill giving the Pentagon about $471 billion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. All this in the shadow of a Joint Economic Committee report suggesting that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been twice as expensive than previously imagined, almost $1.5 trillion.

The decision to measure the strength of the state in military terms is fatal. It leads to a growing cynicism among a disenchanted citizenry and a Hobbesian ethic of individual gain at the expense of everyone else. Few want to fight and die for a Halliburton or an Exxon. This is why we do not have a draft. It is why taxes have not been raised and we borrow to fund the war. It is why the state has organized, and spends billions to maintain, a mercenary army in Iraq. We leave the fighting and dying mostly to our poor and hired killers. No nationwide sacrifices are required. We will worry about it later.

It all amounts to a tacit complicity on the part of a passive population. This permits the oligarchy to squander capital and lives. It creates a world where we speak exclusively in the language of violence. It has plunged us into an endless cycle of war and conflict that is draining away the vitality, resources and promise of the nation.

It signals the twilight of our empire.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How Do You Measure Happiness?

Not with economic indexes, like the Gross National Product (GNP), was the conclusion of speakers and participants at an international meeting being held in Thailand this month. "Happiness is a state of mind," said Ringu Tulka Rinpoche, keynote speaker yesterday at the 3rd international conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH) which began a week ago on the Mekong River at Nong Khai and moved Monday to Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Happiness doesn't depend on the environment, or how much stuff we have accumulated, the Tibetan teacher said, "but on how I experience it. We need a wider understanding of happiness, that what I do is not only for me but for people around me. This understanding is called compassion."

The session Tuesday began with chanting by a phalanx of monks and a children's choir and the tooting of Tibetan horns. Over 500 people from governmental departments, NGOs and universities around the world gathered in Chula's main auditorium to ponder the possibilities of global transformation. The GNH index was proposed in 1972 by Bhutan's king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who had recently ascended to the throne at the age of 16 (he abdicated last spring in favor of his 28-year-old son; youth is clearly valued in the mountain kingdom). As monarch of a poor country that did not fully open to western influence until the end of the last century, he believed that his people's happiness was more significant than their economic success. A nice idea, but how do you measure it? Conferences in 2005 and 2006 came up with "four pillars" of GNH: economic prosperity (you have to have SOME stuff), environmental preservation, cultural promotion and good governance.

The most captvating speaker of the day was environmental activist Helena Norberg-Hodge who spoke more about the primary cause of unhappiness in the developing world: "well-intentioned people who support a system destroying people and the land, through the blind ideology of free trade and blind investment in commodities. Blindness is more at the root of the problem than greed," she said. Because of the widening distance between resources and production, and production and consumption, consumers are ignorant of the havoc their choices create. Local people can no longer afford to buy their own production. While acknowledging that "GNH is an important contribution to a shifting world view," Norberg-Hodge advocated a "localization of globalization" which she argued would be neither isolationism nor protectionism.

For 500 years the dominant world view has been that humans are separate from the natural world, Norberg-Hodge said, and the global trading system contributes to this division. She believes that increased emmisions of CO2 are linked to epidemics of depression, personal debt and obesity in the developed world. The internet, while useful for dialogue, is dangerous, she said, because it enables the destruction of small businesses. Microfinance has helped to fuel a disastrous rural-urban migration, and trade in carbon enables China to hide "the dirty laundry of America." Even democracy has been "a major contribution to the population explosion" because under-represented minorities are struggling to catch up.

Compared to Norberg-Hodge's radical diagnosis of global ills, the other speakers were hard-pressed to trumpet the virtues of happiness. Sheldon Shaeffer from UNESCO urged the preservation of both biological and cultural diversity: "We must allow people the right to remain others." Sulak Sivaraksa, controversial Thai author (his last book was banned) and inspiration for engaged Buddhist activism, agreed with Norberg-Hodge that globalization needs to be localized, and he ticked off the enumerable sins against the world committed by the American Empire (A friend told me he later modified his harsh criticism in a workshop, which is too bad. I thought his remarks were right on target.). Darwis Khudori spoke of his experience growing up in an Indonesia transformed by the successive waves of Indianization, Islamacization and Westernization in order to explain why he thinks of himself as "a little bit Muslim."

In one of the many afternoon workshops, Dhammananda Bhikkuni , former professor and a lone nun in the all-male Buddhist establishment in Thailand, called for "Gross Universal Happiness." Borders, she said, such as between Thailand and Cambodia, are not real; "people are the same on both sides. The world is inter-dependent and inter-related." Fr. Vichai Phokthawee, a Catholic priest who joined Dhammananda in the "Spiritual Dimension of Happiness" discussion, quoted Buddhadasa, the late influential Thai monk, who said "to eat only what is delicious is the root of all evil." But ultimate happiness for a Christian comes only after death, he admitted, while his fellow panelist reiterated that for a Buddhist happiness is the experience of enlightenment (which I think is even more rare). There was some discussion of happiness of the mind compared to happiness of the body, but this seems to me to perpetuate the dualism and the worldly separation that Norberg-Hodge described.

It was wonderful to run into Amanda Kiessel by the registration table. The last time I saw her was in Santa Cruz at Everyday Dharma, my sangha led by Carolyn Atkinson. Amanda was a graduate student of Carolyn's husband, Alan Richards, in the environmental studies program at UC Santa Cruz and she was doing her field work in Sri Lanka. Now she is a program director of Sewalanka Foundation and was attending the conference with a group of people including a group of musicians and the NGO's chairman, Harsha Kumara Navaratne, who chaired a workshop on organic agriculture. Sewalanka works with community-based organizations in almost 1000 villages in Sri Lanka on a range of issues. Amanda has apparently decided to remain in that troubled country, where Hindu rebels continue to battle the Buddhist government for autonomy in the island's north.

While it was exciting to be in the company of an international polyglot group, including monks and nuns in their orange and red robes, and Bhutan gentlemen in their distinctive short dress with long socks (apparently traditional fashion is a state requirement in their country), I could not shake the impression that GNH was a feel-good expression, coined to justify the failure of real structural change, economic and political, throughout the world. While a recent poll found that 68% of Bhutan's 700,000 people were "happy," this did not include 100,000 people of Nepalese origin who were deported because they had settled in the country illegally. Another story I came across details the troubles that have come in the wake of cable television which was introduced to Bhutan in 1999.

Again, how do you measure happiness? It certainly is a state of mind, and we know that people who have undergone great suffering can sometimes experience a more intense happiness than another who possesses all the requisite modern toys but lacks real satisfaction and wellbeing. GNH reminds me of the est Hunger Project some years ago in which people were encouraged to think positively about ending hunger in the world without any particular programs developed to achieve that goal. I think the hedonistic goal of happiness is misunderstood as the carrot for the donkey of progress. We must figure out a better way to condemn the evils of globalization and free trade which damage both people and the environment. It is not enough to say that such pawns in the global game are "unhappy" and that the motive for change and transformation is the uniform happiness of all peoples (as opposed to corporations and governments). What happened to that good old-fashioned word "justice"?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Floating Boats on the Chao Phraya


On Saturday I joined millions of Thais in Bangkok who went down at dusk to the Chao Phraya River to float their boats. It was Loy Krathong, one of Thailand's biggest holidays, and the custom is to float (loy) a small boat (krathong), made of palm leaves and flowers, topped by incense and candles, and in the process let go of all one's emotional baggage to start life anew. The festivities in Bangkok included entertainment on both sides of the river, a parade of illuminated boats, and fireworks. I have never seen such large crowds, and were it not for the Thai custom avoiding physical contact whenever possible (politeness abounds on the crowded Skytrain), I might have panicked.

Loy Krathong is celebrated on the full moon of the 12th month in the lunar calendar. It is similar to Divali, the Hindu festival of thanksgiving to the divine Ganges which includes the floating of lanterns. King Rama IV wrote in 1863 that the festival was adopted by Thais to give honor to the Buddha. According to legend, Nang Nopamas, a consort of King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai kingdom (14th century), made the first krathong as an offering to the goddess of the waters, Phra Mae Nam. She set it afloat on one of the canals of the palace so that it would drift past her lover the king. Thus originated the saying that if two lovers launch a krathong which stays afloat until out of sight, their love will last forever. Beauty contests are traditionally held on the holiday to crown a "Nopamas Queen."

Believing that it was an all day event, I first visited Lumpini Park where I thought Thais might launch their krathongs into one of the lakes. But the park was empty. I did see women making krathongs for sale later. At Siam Paragon, the upscale mall, a lady in traditional garb was setting krathongs out on a table (photo above), and someone had already put a couple into a small pool. Realizing that darkness and the moon were necessary ingredients, my friend and I went to the movies (Ang Lee's new film, "Lust, Caution") and emerged at sunset. We took a taxi to Banglamphu where a large crowd was gathering on the grounds of Prasumain Fortress in Santichaiprakarn Park. The sidewalks were packed with vendors selling krathongs, all kinds of food, and balloons. After dinner at Ricky's Coffeeshop, we dove into the heart of the madness.

All docks and boardwalks along the river were packed with people. Helpers holding long poles with baskets at the end would set krathongs into the river for a small fee. It is considered more auspicious to float your boat well out into the river so many celebrants were boarding special ferries for that purpose. Banglamphu is a backpacker's ghetto and so there were lots of farang participating in the celebration. According to the Bangkok Nation, "This year, krathongs made from natural materials, especially banana leaves and bread, were popular, in contrast to previous years when krathongs made of foam were used." Tables full of farangs and Thais on the lawn around the fort were diligently making their own krathongs from a chaos of ingredients. On two stages at each end of the park, bands were playing Thai rock and roll and dancers were dancing to traditional melodies. Wide-eyed children were holding sparklers and eating cotton candy. And a stream of young Thais in various costumes were posing for the photographers.

While Santichaiprakarn Park was one of the most popular locations in Bangkok for Loy Krathong, the other was across the river in the park at the foot of Rama VIII bridge. There we thought we would be able to put our krathongs into the water without assistance. And so we wound our way through small sois and alleys to the underside of the bridge where another million people appeared to have gathered. A slowly moving stream of people climbed up the stairs to the top of the bridge where we walked across to the other side. Everywhere people were taking photographs of people taking photos. From the bridge we could see the brightly lit boats parading up and down the river. Not far to the south was the rooftop across from the Shangri-La Hotel where I had spent Loy Krathong two years before with Jerry and Lamyai, enjoying a private party thrown by a publisher and watching the fireworks competition between the big hotels. This time I only heard big bangs and saw numerous amateur fireworks displays (up in Chiang Mai I read today that a 12-year-old boy blew off his hand).

In Rama VIII Park there were even more people than on the other side. A large queue of booths snaked alongside the foot of the bridge, offering a variety of culinary treats (for Thais, eating is inseparable from celebrating). On a large stage, more performers were singing and dancing. And on the river bank, thousands were launching their krathongs into the water, a myriad of dancing lights with waving trails of incense. I saw buckets of small turtles and wriggling eels that some put in their krathongs for good luck. I also saw cages of sparrows and small bunnies; I know that liberating birds courts good fortune, but I never did figure out what rabbits had to do with any of it. My friend gave me a look of horror when I suggested putting one on our krathong. Another oddity was the number of people wearing illuminated devil's horns (a popular item on Halloween here).

We shopped for krathongs and my friend picked out two that were suitably ostentatious, and we bought a lighter to light the candles and incense. She also added something from small packets that I believe was food for the spirits (there is an animist element to everything in Thailand). It was slow going through the crowds to the steps leading down to the water. There we found dozens of young men and women in the water waiting to assist you in launching your ceremonial boat, for a small fee. They were drenched and smiling, and we watched our krathongs slowly move out into the gentle current of the Chao Phraya.

Getting home was more difficult that making our way to the river. Taxis were changing a 100-baht premium just for the privilege of providing escape from the mass of people. So we slowly and carefully pushed our way back across the Rama VIII bridge to Banglamphu where a taxi finally found us up and returned us to Sukhumvit for only 75 baht. I went to sleep with visions of boats in my head, secure in the knowledge that I had let my cares and upsets go for another year.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks

It's easy to be cynical on America's great feast day.

Not long after the Pilgrims invited the neighboring Indians to dinner they began to slaughter them and didn't stop until the land, "from sea to shining sea," had been turned into a shopping mall. Each year the President "pardons" a turkey in a festive ceremony at the White House, but millions of the bird's cousins are roasted and eaten at gatherings of families and friends (except for Brigitte and John who dine on tofurkey). Ben Franklin nominated the turkey to be America's national bird (but it lost out to the bald eagle). The big bird found in New England was misnamed by settlers for the guinea fowl Turkish merchants had brought to Europe. Noticeably stupid, the turkey will drink rain until it drowns. According to one source, "turkey" has become a synonym for, "One deficient in judgment and good sense: ass, fool, idiot, imbecile, jackass, mooncalf, moron, nincompoop, ninny, nitwit, simple, simpleton, softhead, tomfool. Informal: dope, gander, goose. Slang: cretin, ding-dong, dip, goof, jerk, nerd, schmo, schmuck."

Thanksgiving is also considered a "Day of Mourning" by Native Americans who have gathered for over thirty years at Coles Hill overlooking the famous rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to remember the destruction of native people and their culture that stood in the way of Manifest Destiny. Invited to give a speech at the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing in 1970, Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, an elder of the Wampanoag tribe and a Native American activist, submitted a speech to the sponsors that was deemed inappropriate.
We forfeited our country. Our lands have fallen into the hands of the aggressor. We have allowed the white man to keep us on our knees. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail.
Denied a place at the celebratory table, Wamsutta and his supporters withdrew to Coles Hill where they continue to mourn the first Thanksgiving today.

But cynicism is a cheap shot on a day dedicated to giving thanks. Awakening to a bright sunny morning in Bangkok, after ruminating on the disgraceful conduct of the human species in general, my thoughts turned more specifically to family and friends back in the U.S., all still sleeping at this hour. I think about Sandy, assisted by Gaylian, preparing her annual sumptuous feast, a bounty to rival anything Martha Stewart might dream up. I am sorry I will not be joining them, Chris and Kevin, and their extended family and friends. I remember Shirlee and can imagine her today presiding over a large table loaded with culinary delights, surrounded by David and her children and grandchildren (the great-grandchildren are living out of state). I have spent many Thanksgivings in their company. Luke, enjoying the year's first New England snowfall, has gone to Connecticut for Thanksgiving with his mother and step-father in their rural farmhouse. Molly and Nick are no doubt going to their mother's house in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I can recall dozens of Thanksgivings past, when, as stuffed with food as the turkey had been stuffed with dressing, I rested in the bosom of family and friends, my parents long gone, children and wives now ex, high school and college buddies (some recently deceased), companions of the heart and mind. Gratefulness comes easy at such times. I am thankful for the cards I have been dealt, the lives I have led, the children I have fathered, the friends I have had.

I am not sure if there are any turkeys in Thailand. Ducks and chickens, yes, but turkeys would probably drown here in the rice paddies. Or perhaps they were killed off by bird flu. I did a Google search on "thanksgiving bangkok" and came up with a few restaurants providing the traditional meal. I doubt that Jerry, who has renounced his American membership, in mind if not deed, will want to join me. Dr. Holly is still in Laos. That pretty much exhausts my list of American friends. Probably I will go to the buffet at Bully's Pub for an afternoon meal. I know that I will miss every one of you as I slurp cranberries, gnaw on a turkey leg bone and devour my slice of pumpkin pie.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Don't Worry, Be Happy

In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double
Don't worry, be happy
Don't worry, be happy now
Music & lyrics by Bobby McFerrin

Taken from the words on a poster of the silent smiling guru Meher Baba, Bobby McFerrin's a capella song, a hit record in 1988, is good advice as well as a succinct (though probably unintended) summation of the Buddha's teaching. Worrying about the inevitable anxieties of life just makes them worse. Wisdom like this, with perhaps an academic twist, will be offered at the 3rd international conference on Gross National Happiness which will be held next week at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. The GNH index was invented in 1972 by Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck as a way to define life in a more spiritual and psychological sense than the economic Gross National Product (GNP) can. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. Conferences in 2005 and 2006 were held in Nova Scotia and Japan.

With happiness as my goal, I set out last Friday to visit Koh Samet, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand just off the coast, 4.5 kilometers from the port of Ban Phe in Rayong Province, itself a three-hour bus ride from Bangkok. Samet, named after a ubiquitous tree (also called cajeput, a member of the eucalyptus family) found on the island which is used for everything from medicine to boat building (not to mention producing an aromatic oil), is popular with Thais as well as tourists. In 1981 it was included in the Khao Laem Ya-Mu Koh Samet National Park. This means, among other things, that foreign visitors must pay a 400-baht entrance fee (only 40 baht for Thais). Unfortunately, becoming a park hasn't stopped development of the fragile ecosystem and some of the pristine beaches resemble strip malls full of bungalows, bars and restaurants.

The island (sometimes spelled "Samed") is famous because it is supposed to be the setting for much of the epic poem, Phra Aphai Mani, written by Thailand's Shakespeare, Sunthorn Phu. Born during the reign of Rama I in the late 18th century, the writer led a colorful life which included imprisonment for an affair with a lady at court. Released to marry the woman, he was appointed court poet before becoming an alcoholic, losing his wife and going to jail for fighting. He began his long poem in prison and published it in installments over 20 years. The story follows the title character, Prince Aphai Mani, a hero of Byronic proportions, in his romantic adventures throughout ancient Siam. On Ko Kaew Phitsadan ("vast jewel island," a reference to the white sand), the prince is rescued with the help of a mermaid from the clutches of a female giant whom he defeats by playing a magic flute, and the mermaid and he have a son named Sudsakorn who spends much of the poem looking for his father who has gone missing. A cheesy statue of the prince and his mermaid wife sits on rocks at the end of Hat Sai Kaew, "Diamond Sand Beach," the largest of the 13 coves (ao) or beaches on the east side of the island (the west is mostly barren with only a couple of resorts).

At Ekamai bus station in Bangkok I was able to get a round-trip ticket on both the bus and the ferry from Ban Phe to the island for under $10. A steward provided water and a hand towel, and we were treated to a gory slasher film, "The Hills Have Eyes II," dubbed in Thai, on the overhead TV. There was a short wait for the ferry, which would not leave until it had at least 20 passengers, and the crossing in the ancient boat was smooth. Koh Samet is shaped like a P and most of the ferries arrive at Na Dan pier on the north shore. Passengers are greeted by a fleet of green pickups that serve as buses, and, after paying the entrance fee, we headed south on a bumpy dirt road My destination was Ao Pudsin (or Ao Tub Tim, depending on which of the two places you choose to stay), where I had reserved a funky driftwood bungalow with shower (cold) and fan, and a stupendous view of the sea in front of my porch. A footpath links the beaches and, for reasons mentioned below, I never got father south than the next cove, Ao Nuan.

I am becoming a bit of a connoisseur of Thai beach destinations, having visited Koh Samui, Phuket and Pattaya (it's a hard job but somebody...you know the cliché). The first thing you notice about Koh Samet is the heavy presence of Thais, and some of them swimming in bathing suits and not their clothes. In addition, this is family-friendly island and there were kids everywhere (I watched one five-year-old boy diligently attempting to dig an anchor out of the sand where the speedboat driver had dropped it before heading off to get something). Farang and Thai children played together in the surf and built sand castles with buckets. And there were almost as many dogs, sleeping on the sand and chasing frisbees. There are bars, mostly attached to resorts, but no discernible bar scene like in Pattaya or Phuket's Patong Beach.

What there is is one long party, from all manner of water sports during the day (including parasailing and surf paddle tennis) to fireworks, outdoor dining, hot air balloons (the small kind, powered by a candle), and fire shows at night. At dusk the deck chairs and umbrellas along the beaches are replaced by mats, Thai pillows and low tables with candles for lighting. Some of the bars, Like the one attached to Naga's Bungalows, feature special prices on drinks (Ladies Night!) and advertise movies to watch. We picked Ploy Talay ("jewel of the sea") Restaurant and grabbed a front row table for the advertised fire show. After dishes of crab, shrimp and clams, washed down with beer, we listened to a cover band from the Philippines and watched fellow diners sucking on hookah pipes (quite a popular addition to the traditional menu). To the north of us, amateur and some more professional fireworks lit up the night sky. Off the coast we could see the lights of fishing boats. And south of us the small balloons (more like lamp shades) rose toward the half moon ("only 250 baht and good luck for you!"). Above our heads a large-screen TV relayed a soccer match from far away. A steady stream of revelers strolled up and down the brightly-lit beach, including an elderly woman, all sinews and bone, whom we nicknamed "The Walker" for her non-stop power walks back and forth from Hat Pudsan to Hat Sai Keaw, a distance of several kilometers.





The Ploy fire show was spectacular (you can see for yourself, and mine is not the only YouTube video of it). Nine performers, the youngest in the low teens, twirled flaming batons and fiery balls at the end of chains to produce a dazzling array of moving images. Playing with fire is universal now. My daughter Molly performed in a fire show at a club in Santa Cruz. And I believe fire shows are popular at Burning Man (maybe the first "man" made a costly mistake?). Several of the boys had bandages on their arms, and all were soaked with sweat and soot by the time the show ended. But they were clearly having a good time. Their tips were richly deserved.

So what does it take to find happiness? It can't be just a matter of sensual pleasure. Besides, the senses become dull and blunted with time. And it isn't just a matter of creature comfort. For much of the weekend I was snuffling and coughing with a cold. And Saturday night I realized the mistake of not using sun block. My chest, back and shoulders were red as a lobster even though I'd pointedly sat in the shade (playing in the water without protection was a mistake). Because of the sunburn, I decided not to hike in the sun the next day south to Ao Wong Deuan, the second largest beach on the island. But none of that dimmed the happiness I felt while spending an idyllic weekend in this tropical island paradise. Even though the rich DO live better than the poor, it didn't cost me all that much money (under $150 I suspect). Perhaps as an elderly retired gent, it's the happiness that comes with an absence of day-to-day stress and the typical concerns of settled life (is there enough gas in the car?). Being single, I have no one to think about except myself. I'm not sure that everyone would appreciate the uncertainties and daily puzzles of travel abroad, living out of a suitcase, but I am thriving . Life in Thailand is infinitely fascinating. And I find that even being unable to speak the language, which means that the simplest signs are mystifying -- being constantly out of control -- is exhilarating. When asked, I can truly say these days that I am happy.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is Religious Faith Irrational?


The New Atheists -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris -- seem united in their belief that religious faith is irrational (and therefore dangerous). Reason is equated with science and science requires evidence to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Supernatural agents, by definition, can be neither proved nor disproved. In the absence of evidence of a supernatural God (or gods), faith can only be irrational and therefore must be abandoned.

The black-and-white dichotomy of faith vs. reason makes me uncomfortable. "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Shakespeare's Hamlet tells his friend Horatio, who finds it hard to believe in the ghost of Hamlet's father. Faith, according to Hebrews 11, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." But, "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope" (1 Peter 3:15). I reach for scriptural support because the debate over faith vs. reason, one of the oldest in theology, is giving me grief as I pour over the texts of the New Atheists.

For a growing number of people coming out of the closet as atheists or secularists, this is a non-issue. There are no supernatural agents, period. The universe began with a big bang, and the variety and complexity of life on earth can be explained adequately by the process of natural selection discovered by Darwin. Religions were created by human beings to provide explanations for the unknown, encourage solidarity within a community, and dictate a standard of morality to prevent conflict. Calling on the "Divine" is a trick to secure obedience to authority, and often religious and political authority were one and the same.

Where does that leave the spiritual but not religious? I have struggled with traditional definitions of religion throughout my life and in this blog. For the philosopher Daniel Dennett, religions are "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” His definition does not include "cafeteria Catholics" like me who pick and choose among the dogmas offered to come up with our own mix. "If what you hold sacred is not any kind of Person you could pray to, or consider to be an appropriate recipient of gratitude (or anger, when a loved one is senselessly killed), you’re an atheist in my book.” OK, I'm an atheist.

Richard Dawkins takes a different approach. Rather than begin with religion (which he will try to define as a by-product of other more useful evolutionary traits like respect for authority), he opens his book with the "God Hypothesis" which says: "There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us." God in this sense, Dawkins says, is a delusion, "a pernicious delusion." Writing critically of the New Atheists in the London Guardian, Madeleine Bunting acknowledges that "scientists have argued that faith was a byproduct of our development of the imagination or a way of increasing the social bonding mechanisms. Does that make religion an important evolutionary step but now no longer needed - the equivalent of the appendix?" OK, I agree. I cannot believe in, nor have faith in, such an outdated supernatural agent. The god with white hair and a long beard who sits in the sky and judges us is dead, as Nietzsche pointed out long ago.

I would rather see faith and reason both as conceptual tools we humans use to explain and understand the data we receive from our senses. As Stanley Fish observed in a discussion of the New Atheists in the New York Times, "the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package.” I remember reading philosopher Michael Polanyi who pointed out that the opposite of reason is not the irrational but the non-rational, a belief or perception that is more or less reasonable, based on probability rather than firm evidence. Love and beauty are among the things we know by non-rational "tacit knowing," according to Polanyi.

A surprising opponent of Dawkins was the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton who wrote in the London Review of Books that even the scientist "lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’."
Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.
Religion and science, then, are two separate realms of discourse. Scientist Freeman Dyson, in his review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, stakes frankly his own prejudices:
As human beings, we are groping for knowledge and understanding of the strange universe into which we are born. We have many ways of understanding, of which science is only one. Our thought processes are only partially based on logic, and are inextricably mixed with emotions and desires and social interactions. We cannot live as isolated intelligences, but only as members of a working community. Our ways of understanding have been collective, beginning with the stories that we told each other around the fire when we lived in caves. Our ways today are still collective, including literature, history, art, music, religion, and science. Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously successful for understanding and manipulating the material universe. Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe. To understand religion, it is necessary to explore it from the inside, as William James explored it in The Varieties of Religious Experience. The testimony of saints and mystics...is the raw material out of which a deeper understanding of religion may grow.
Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times called Dennett's book "a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative…what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.

And what of mystical knowledge, that chimera on which I've pinned my hopes for many years, seeking to develop a spiritual practice that would allow me to break out of the time-bound self to experience "Truth"? Support for this comes from a strange source, Sam Harris's book The End of Faith, the first of the New Atheist gospels. “Mysticism is a rational enterprise, religion is not,” he writes in the book's final chapter where he discusses his own practice of meditation. But this drew fire from his own tribe. Meera Nanda, writing in The New Humanist, says that the "bilious attack on faith, the aspect of the book which has received all the attention, only sets the stage for what seems to be his real goal: a defense, nay, a celebration of Harris' own Dzogchen Buddhist and Advaita Vedantic Hindu spirituality." Nanda, who grew up a Hindu and rejected it, writes that
Harris appears oblivious to the authoritarian implications of the one-ness he worships. Shedding one's 'I-ness' is a recipe for group-think and authoritarianism. The individual in her everyday life is treated as an illusion of no consequence when seen from the mystical highground of one-ness. Of course the Gnostic vision of one-ness is not supposed to be available to all. The enlightened have always constituted a spiritual aristocracy in deeply unequal Eastern societies. When one-ness is made into the highest religious ideal you get the 'holism' of caste society.
To defend his advocacy of "rational mysticism" from such criticism, Harris published an explanation in Free Inquiry. Meditation, he writes, "is nothing more than a method of paying extraordinarily close attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience of the world. There is nothing irrational about doing this." It is the only basis upon which we can make first-person claims about subjectivity.
Our conventional sense of “self” is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation, analogous to the discovery of one’s optic blind spots.
Arguing that this is not "New Age mumbo jumbo," Harris says that "any serious practitioner of meditation knows, there is something to the claims that have been made by mystics over the ages…there is a kernel of truth in the grandiosity and otherworldly language of religion."

This is an astounding statement from one of the quartet of New Atheists, and one I am not sure Dawkins and Dennett, who both praised Harris highly for his book, as well as Hitchens, would agree. Harris ends his book with this gentle dichotomy:
The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil's masterpiece.
"As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God," writes Jim Holt, reviewing Dawkins' book in the New York Times, "a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds." It is poignant to think, Holt continues,
that believers will never discover that they are wrong, whereas Dawkins and fellow atheists will never discover that they are right. As for those in between — ranging from agnostics to “spiritual” types for whom religion is not so much a metaphysical proposition as it is a way of life, illustrated by stories and enhanced by rituals — they might take consolation in the wise words of the Rev. Andrew Mackerel, the hero of Peter De Vries’s 1958 comic novel The Mackerel Plaza: “It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.”
In his blog last month, Cyprian Consiglio writes about an anonymous Carthusian monk who thinks "in one sense only the atheist can truly believe in God; meaning, he thought that for all of us God has to die at a certain moment." In "The Wound of Love," the monk goes on to list the God that must die:
the God who stands alongside the cosmos as some ‘thing’ else,
the God who stands alongside my neighbor as someone else;
the God of whom it suffices to know the general moral rules
in order to do his will;
the God infinitely above creatures' pains
in a transcendence beyond reach;
the God-judge, who punishes in accord with
a justice conceived along human lines;
the God who blocks the spontaneity of life and love.
Cyprian comments: "But the one that sticks in my craw is this: he says that the God of our imagination must die too, the God of our projections and desires must die because that God is quite often nothing other than our own ego deified." Perhaps through meditation, what the Christian mystics also call contemplation, it is possible, as Harris argues, to see through the conventional sense of "self," the "self deified," and behold the wisdom of the mystics.

I remain on the fence, poised between the dark chasm of the scientific reductionist's brute materialism, and the blind faith of the true believer who is forever bowing to authority and subject to almost certain manipulation by unscrupulous gurus and priests. How can we distinguish between personal faith (given that "the self" is a tenuous and limited construction) and religion as a social system, created by humans and containing the faults of any institution? A plague on all their houses?

I am not sure, but I think this excursion into atheism, this exercise of stripping away all certainties, all religious and spiritual beliefs, all conventional "God talk," is beneficial and healthy. These gods must die. During my retreat next month at Shantivanam in India I hope to find my own level of reasonable faith from the bedrock up.

This weekend: an idyll on the island of Koh Samet.

Monday, November 12, 2007

It's Easy Being Green

Thais seemed surprised that I did not know the day on which I was born. For them the day is more important than the date. So I went to the internet which knows all and discovered that my birth day was Wednesday. Ah! said the Thais. Your color then is green.

Whoop ti do. I've always liked green. It's the color of nature, the hue of an environmentalist. Does this mean I need a new wardrobe?

Thais color-code the week. You can almost tell what day it is simply by seeing what colors people are wearing. According to Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, "The tradition originated with astrologically-divined battle tunics before being taken up by the court and those who could afford a diverse wardrobe." Thai day names relate to the gods of the planets in ancient India astrology, each of which has a color.
Sunday is red for the sun god Phra Arthit. Monday is yellow for the moon god Phra Chan. Tuesday is pink for the Mars god Phra Angkarn. Wednesday is green for the Mercury god Phra Phut. Thursday is orange for the Jupiter god Phra Pareuhat. Friday is sky blue for the Venus god Phra Suk. Saturday is violet for the Saturn god Phra Sao.
I learned about yellow first because a large percentage of Thais wear yellow shirts on Monday to pay their respects to the King who was born on a Monday (his wife, the queen, was born on a Friday and Thais wear blue every Friday to honor her). The practice of donning yellow began two years ago to celebrate the anniversary of his ascension to the throne 60 years ago. Now it marks the King's birthday year, an event that will be culminated on December 5th. I decided to buy one and a week ago went to Robinson's, a large chain department store with an outlet on Sukhumvit. All the brands make yellow shirts for the Thai market. I opted not to pay over $30 to Arrow and bought a locally-made one on sale for around $10. Last Monday I went out in public for the first time in my new shirt. As I passed the massage parlor up the soi from my home, one of the girls said: "Oh, he loves our king too!" It felt strange to pass among the crowds of Thais not as a stranger, a farang tourist, but as a member of the community.

But an even stranger thing has happened. Last Wednesday, by all rights a green day, the king was released from the hospital where he had been recuperating from a blood clot in the brain. He wore a pink shirt and a pink jacket, and photos of this unprecedented sartorial event were prominently displayed in all the newspapers, Thai and English. Had he planned to be released the day before, Tuesday, a pink day? Thousands of his subjects were waiting outside the hospital to cheer him upon his release. Almost all were wearing yellow shorts. From the Bangkok Post:

Pink is the new yellow in Thailand as revered 79-year-old king sparks new fashion trend


"People across Thailand have started wearing pink shirts in tribute to their beloved 79-year-old king, who checked out of a hospital this week dressed in a blazer and a dress shirt of that color."

"Astrologers have determined pink to be an auspicious color for the king's 80th year... A royal emblem, using pink among other colors, was specially designed for his birthday. Pink T-shirts went on sale earlier this year, just after the emblem was designed. But business is expected to boom following the king's recent public appearance leaving the hospital."

Manufacturers report a run on pink material and stores quickly sold out of their existing stocks of pink clothes. On Sunday, Ajahn Amma, doyen of the abhidhamma class, was dressed in pink, and she explained that pink was exceptionally good for healing (the abhidhamma texts, Buddhism's equivalent of reductionist science, cover subjects of this sort).

Pink has never been my color, and I don't expect to jump on board this trend. But I am looking for a nice green shirt to mark my natal day.


It's not easy writing about politics in the United States while I'm living in Thailand. I'm too far removed to care as deeply about political issues (and the poor selection of candidates pandering for votes in the current selection campaign) as I did when living in Santa Cruz and participating in demonstrations against the Bush administration and its misbegotten wars in the Middle East (I include Israel where U.S. support has prolonged the misery of the Palestinian people). This photo, however, gave me pause. Last week Bush visited the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan reportedly receive better care than at Walter Reed, the military hospital racked by scandal when its poor treatment of veterans was publicized. I'd like to know what this badly scarred soldier is telling his commander-in-chief. In other photos, Bush can be seen with horribly mutilated vets. Does he have a twinge of conscience? Does he feel any responsibility? Is he human?

Last week I saw "Lions for Lambs," the heavily criticized film from Robert Redford who attempts, with the aid of superstars Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise, to make a strong case against politicians, the media, and alienated youth. Redford plays a college professor (would that I were he!), Cruise a smarmy Republican, and Streep is excellent as a journalist who comes to the realization that she has contributed to the present chaos. Opening in Bangkok the same day as it did in the U.S. (a rare occurrence), the film fails to engage the audience (me) as drama but talks and preaches what any thinking person must know, that politicians misuse the media for their personal ends, that journalists were complicit in the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascoes, and that while some college students pursue ideals (making sacrifices in vain), most of the others could care less about anything other than partying (my 18-year-old students at UC Santa Cruz largely lived up to the stereotype). At least Hollywood is trying these days to be relevant, with "Babel," "Rendition," "In the Valley of Elah," "Michael Clayton" and others (I can only read the net, none of the newer films having come here yet). I respect Redford and it's a shame his collaboration with screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also wrote "The Kingdom" which is showing her -- I have not seen it) does not tug at the heart as well as the head (recall "Network" which still resonates as criticism of the media).

Some of the best protests against the terrorist wars are contained in documentaries which have reached a new standard set by master protester Michael Moore. Among the best have been "Gunner Palace," "Iraq in Fragments" and "The War Tapes." Recently I saw "No End in Sight," an excellent film about Iraq written and directed by Charles Ferguson, a former political science scholar at M.I.T. (and a dot.com millionaire) turned documentarian because of his disgust for the war. The film focuses on events after "Mission Accomplished" when the U.S. was supposedly stabilizing and reconstructing the damaged country. In it, Ferguson documents the catastrophic decision of Bush appointee L. Paul Bremmer to de-Bathify the government and disband the military, thereby putting a half million men, many with guns, out of work. Ideology trumped expertise. The insurgency gained momentum which has yet to stop with that disastrous policy, one which was universally criticized by Americans working in Iraq and even by the U.S. military, as Ferguson's film clearly shows. From this distance, it is difficult to understand why Americans do not seem to respond to the greatest threat to freedom and democracy since the Civil War. A country pacified by infotainment and technological toys rolls over and plays dead. But then, as Howard Zinn has amply documented, "freedom" and "democracy" are pretty much myths in a land where greed and corruption prevail.

Far away, under the watchful eye of the military, Thais watch as the election campaign builds up steam. The bewildering number of parties and politicans has me baffled. The other day at Bumrungrad Hospital, as I waited to have my chloresterol levels checked, I watched what looked like a game show on the lobby TV, with lovely ladies taking numbers out of a box and data being posted on a large board. I learned from the paper the next day that it was a process whereby candidates were given places on the ballots in provincial elections. At least I think that's what was happening. I was distracted at Bumrungrad by the Christmas music on the PA system, "chestnuts roasting," and all that. Why do the Thais love "our" holidays so much? Halloween was a big deal, particularly in the department stores. I saw a giant Christmas tree being erected outside the Emporium yesterday. Christmas music can also be heard at all the Starbucks branches (there must be thousands in Bangkok alone) where they are selling "Pass the Cheer" special concoctions. Stores are putting up colored Christmas lights (or are they just a version of the weekly colors?).

One thing you notice about the Bangkok Skytrain, besides the total absence of graffitti, is that no matter how crowded the cars might be (and I rarely get a seat), no one pushes. Crowds are amazingly polite. I think touching is a no-no in Thai culture (public displays of affection, outside of park lawns, is rare), and so passengers make a great effort not to jostle and prod their neighbors. People stand politely on the platform to the side of the doors until all of the car's occupants leave. I took this for granted until last week when I ran into several Indian women in saris while exiting a car. They were determined to get on before I got off and smashed into me with a vengeance. Remind me to never take a subway in Delhi.

Very Thai is full of good information about Thai street culture and urban legends. Besides explaining the colors of the week, author Philip Cornwel-Smith unravels the mystery behind little pink napkins, drinks in a bag, insect treats and power drinks. He discusses Muay Thai and katoeys, the sniff kiss and amulet collectors. It's a wonderful book, full of great photos by the author and John Goss which put my humble efforts to shame. I would keep it in my bathroom for meditative reading if it weren't for the fact that the room gets soaked whenever I take a shower. But every now and then I uncover a mystery that Very Thai does not seem to notice. For example, why can I not find a scotch tape dispenser? Tape is widely available, but never with the little plastic dispensers you find in the States. No one I've asked can give me a good answer. Another mystery is the absence of paper towels. Where you usually find it in America, next to the toilet paper in the markets, it is missing. Instead, I buy paper napkins, but they're not the same. What sort of cultural or economic prohibition might prevent the sale of paper towels?

This morning, while waiting on the sidewalk at 6:30 for a taxi to take my friend to work, a couple of monks came walking up Soi 4 with their begging bowls. I had not seen monks on pindabat in the neighborhood before, since there is no Buddhist temple I know of nearby. I had no sticky rice to give them, and it didn't look as if they were having much luck. So we stuck 20 baht notes in their bowls while kneeling and wai'ing. They were amazingly grateful and treated us to a chanted blessing and some dayglo orange wrist bracelets. It turns out they are trying to travel south and we were the first to offer them money. In the deep south of Thailand, however, Muslim separatists are assassinating school teachers and policemen. I pray their journey is a short one!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Is That All There Is?

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is
Written and sung by Peggy Lee

In my bleakest moments, this is the question that I ask. Who am I and what am I supposed to do in this world into which I've been thrown? Is this or that all there is?

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the other provocative proponents of the "New Atheism" movement say yes. There is no god, no inexplicable mystery and no supernatural escape from the vagaries of matter in motion. We humans and the present natural world are the end result of natural selection, the process described by Darwin, which is all we need to understand the evolution from simplicity to complexity. Evolution and not an intelligent designer produced the world. What we make of it is a psychological, social and political question, not a religious one.

Who does that answer satisfy? I've been looking for metaphysical solutions to the conundrum of existence for most of my adult life. In my youth it was flying saucers and Theosophy, in middle age , General Semantics, quantum physics and est, and now I've settled on a mix of insights from Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism to quell my curiosity. The answers won't last. They never do.

The respective positions are oversimplified by their opponents: Faith vs. reason, superstition vs. the scientific method, myth vs. reality, deed vs. creed, evolution vs. creationism (AKA intelligent design), etc. [insert here your favorite binary oppositions] The funny thing is, I find myself swayed by whomever I am reading. The writings of Thomas Merton and many others persuaded me that there is a divine dimension to reality that science cannot detect. But while reading The God Delusion and God is Not Great during the past week I found myself laughing along with Dawkins and Hitchens and agreeing with their trenchant criticisms of religion.

I've never thought that one's religious practice or spiritual path is primarily a matter of belief, of assent to linguistic propositions. The churches, temples, synagogues and mosques are full of people striving to be good according to the dictates of their faith tradition. They participate in long-hallowed rituals and rites, hoping to heal and cleanse themselves of imperfections through chants, songs, recitations and prayers. The test of faith for me has always been its evidence in the world. Through a relationship with the divine, faith begets good works: God-intoxicated people feed the hungry, clothe the poor and take care of the sick.

The New Atheists, on the contrary, believe that "religion is poison" (Hitchens) and that the religious education of the young is child abuse. Believers in God down through history have been more likely to commit evil in the name of their Lord or Prophet. The Crusades, Inquisition, Jihad -- name your crime and religion was behind it. Even the moderately religious are complicit, according to Sam Harris, because they provide excuses and give cover to fundamentalists for extremism. The critics ask: Why is religious faith privileged in polite discussion? Such excessive tolerance is tantamount to condoning terrorism in the name of God or Allah.

Like Dawkins, et al, I am scared of religious fundamentalism, whether from the no-nothing Christian right-wing hordes that permitted George Bush to hijack America or from Muslim fanatics who blow themselves and others up to win entry into Paradise. Since the French Enlightenment, atheists have become increasingly vocal, according to Jonathan Miller's comprehensive and insightful BBC-TV documentary, "A Rough Guide to Disbelief." But despite the success of science and technology to explain and exploit the natural world, people today seem to be MORE religious rather than LESS. While the global corporate economy homogenizes the world, populations fragment into ethnicities with competing religious identities. How many can explain the different between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims?

Without fully understanding how natural selection works, I am satisfied that the earth was created billions of years ago, and not four or six thousand, as the fundamentalists believe. My belief has more in common with the deists who see God as a first principle rather than a meddlesome divinity who listens to and answers individual prayers, or who saves some from calamitous accidents but condemns others to random mutilation and death. I cling to the idea of purpose in the universe and search for evidence in manifestations of love and beauty rather than in things.

When it comes to living in the world, I suspect there is not much difference between me and the New Atheists. I do not think you need to believe in God to be good. And, as Dawkins and Hitchens argue, people who claim direction from God are often very bad. There is a social and political dimension to morality often missed by the religious (like the pro-lifers who ignore the plight of hungry kids or who advocate the death penalty). Religion is concerned with why the world is, and what we should do, and science with how the world is and what we can do.

All of this sidesteps a discussion about religious institutions, hierarchy and authority. Without Constantine, Christianity (if it existed at all) might look very different. If religion is a cultural universal, it appears almost invariably hand-in-glove with authority, and has been used to justify subservience and oppression. The Spanish conquerors of America carried a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. Plantation owners in the south used Christianity to pacify their slaves. The horror story goes on. But not always. Liberation theology in Latin America inspired peasants to overthrow military regimes supported by the Catholic church. Followers of the social Gospel sought a this-worldly Kingdom of God rather than one with rewards and punishments in the next. The abolitionist and civil rights movements in America were led by faithful Christians.

An evolutionary psychologist told Madeleine Bunting, who reviewed Hitchens' book critically in the London Guardian last spring, that the "durability and near universality of religion is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking.” Some of the New Atheists make a stab at it. Dawkins thinks it might be the by-product of useful behavior, like obedience in children. "But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility," Dawkins writes, which could lead to religious faith. Another possible cause is that children innately assign purpose to everything, and this could lead in maturity to "viruses of the mind" that imagine a divine purpose dictated by a creator. Even love, misfiring, is a cause. "Could irrational religion be a by-product of the irrationality mechanisms that were originally built into the brain by selection for falling in love?"

At the beginning of next month, some of us will gather in Bangkok to view Dawkins' excellent two-part BBC documentary, "Root of All Evil?", and discuss the pros and cons of supernatural explanations and descriptions of reality. One member of our sangha has already said that he believes in the metaphysical beings described in some Buddhist texts, and that he thinks an exploration of the atheist position will be of no use to his Buddhist practice. Perhaps. Certainly the bare bones of the Buddha's teaching is existential and experiential; he tells us that his words must be tested in practice and not blindly believed. Indeed, he seemed to have little patience for the big questions about cosmology and ontology, and perhaps would have found debate about the existence or non-existence of God irrelevant for the path to enlightenment.

For me, the question of God has most often been a linguistic question: Is the word "God" meaningful? If it stands for a being, with all the characteristics of a person, then I cannot believe. Some I respect, including Martin Buber, think of God as a relationship rather than a thing, and point to the idea of the Trinity which symbolizes that divine community which includes the believer as well. Jose Miranda, the liberation theologian, wrote that "God comes to be in an act of justice," which makes "God" a verb rather than a noun. I feel as if my intellectual and spiritual world would be impoverished if I were denied the language of faith and belief, but this is not the same as affirming any dogmas of Christianity (why do we unify this as a Religion when clearly the competing sectarian definitions are so different?).

It is good to listen to the critique of the New Atheists, hysterical though their language seems at time, just as it is good to have an annual spring cleaning of the mind to determine what ideas and thoughts are important and which ones can be discarded as fossilized and arthritic holdovers from the past.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Missing the Boats


No, I did not attend Monday's spectacular and colorful Royal Barges procession on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. The expected crowds and the difficulties of travel when roads and river traffic are closed dissuaded me. More than 50 barges and 2000 participants traveled down the river to Wat Arun where His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, subbing for his father the King who is in hospital, presented the Royal Krathin Robes to monks at the Temple of Dawn, marking the end of Buddhist Lent. But I did visit the famous wat last Saturday, crossing the river on a ferry from Bangkok proper, where I took the panoramic picture above of the river (you can see Wat Pho on the further shore where the famous Reclining Buddha is housed) from near the top of the Khmer-style temple tower. The site was established after the fall of Ayuthaya and before the capital was moved east across the river to Bangkok. The Buddhist temple, named after the Indian god of dawn (Aruna), is the third place of pilgrimage in the holy trinity of Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew in the Grand Palace which houses the Emerald Buddha. Construction of the present temple was begun by Rama II in the early 19th century and finished by his successor. It features beautiful mosaics, some using broken Chinese porcelain from the ballast of Chinese ships calling at the port of Bangkok. Given the rare occurrence of the Royal Barges procession, I am sorry that I did not make the effort to see it. But I have been doing my best lately to tick off all the important attractions for visitors in this infinitely fascinating capital of Thailand.

Also on Saturday I visited the Art Deco Democracy Monument which was constructed in 1932 to mark the transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Surprisingly, the designer was Corrado Feroci who cut his teeth on monuments for Italian dictator Mussolini. Feroci buried 75 canon balls in the base to mark the Buddhist Era (BE) year 2475 (dated from the Buddha's enlightenment), or 1932 in the west. In recent years, the monument has been a rallying point for public demonstrations against recurring military coups, most notably in 1992 when several hundred protesters were believed killed. After visiting Wat Arun, I took a taxi south along the west bank of the river to Santa Cruz Church. Descendants of early Portuguese traders, first Europeans in Thailand, built the first church on the site in 1770. Originally called Wat Kudi Jeen, the wooden church was rebuilt in 1835 and renamed Santa Cruz. The present structure was rebuilt in 1913 during the reign of Rama VI. In keeping with Catholic hospitality, the church was locked when I arrived and all I could do was take this photo to mark my visit to the unacknowledged sister church of Holy Cross back in Santa Cruz. Because the ferry was not running on the weekend, I had to walk along the river, splashing over its banks because of unseasonable rains upstream, and across the Phra Buddha Yodfa (Memorial) Bridge, named after the king who was posthumously called Rama I, founder of the Chakri dynasty which rules today. My goal was the Pak Khlong Talat (Flower Market) at the foot of the bridge where several streets were filled with stalls and vendors selling flowers for rituals and beauty. Roses were dirt cheap and older ones were stacked up on the sidewalk to be given away free. I saw monks buying lotus buds for their temples, and mounds of orange and white blossoms to be made into garlands for home and business altars. Reputed to be the best-smelling market in Bangkok, my pitiful nasal glands were not up to the challenge and I had to rely on my companion to point me toward bouquets with the best aromas. I bought a half dozen red roses and a vase in which to put them so that I might add a little color to my off-white room.


Last week I went to visit Wat Yannawa with Phra Pandit to explore the possibility of using one of the temple's rooms for our discussions about Buddhism, psychology, and the criticism of religion by the new cadre of atheists. It is right next to the Saphan Taksin Skytrain station on the river. I've since learned that Wat Yannawa was built in the early 19th century in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood. The centerpiece is a wiharn for Buddha images in the shape of a Chinese junk. It was constructed of cement at the direction of King Rama III because steam ships were replacing the old junks, and he wanted people to remember the old ships that had bought prosperity to the kingdom. The 'ship' contains two chedis where the masts would normally be, and there is an altar in the wheel house above the stern. Across the street from the temple complex is the shell of a skyscraper, one of many that can be seen over the Bangkok landscape. When Asian economies collapsed during the dot com crash of the 1990s, many construction projects went bankrupt. Even though the many-storied building seems not far from completion, no one took it over and it stands like a sentinel to remind people of the vagaries of the global economy. What would have happened to the neighborhood had the baht remained stable and investors secure? Now there is a chaos of stalls and impromptu shops around the entrance to what might have been an upscale office or condominium building. It's now probably too expensive to take the derelict down so it will remain until the Apocalypse.

On Sunday I returned to Benjakiti Park where I captured this peaceful scene in the center of the city. The park is a short walk from my apartment, made longer because the nearest gate is always inexplicably locked. It's necessary to traipse through a Thai residential block of wooden houses, sleeping dogs and playing children, and up a hidden path to Ratchadaphisek Road around the corner from one of the two open gates. Maybe this difficulty of access accounts for the paucity of people enjoying the beautiful facilities. At the south end of the park is Queen Sirikit International Convention Center where I grabbed a breakfast snack before wandering the packed halls of the "Art of Technology" exhibition. It was more like a fire sale, with every conceivable electronic gadget at bargain prices, than a presentation of products. After a short look-see, the empty lawn of the park outside seemed more desirable.

On Tuesday, Dr. Holly and I went on a field trip to visit Wat Dhammamongkol far out on Sukhumvit and a good distance up Soi 101 (I live on Soi 4). We took the Skytrain to the end of the line at On Nut (construction is underway to extend it to the new airport), and jumped in a taxi to see the famed wat with the huge tower and the jade Buddha. When Phra Viriyang Sirintharo, abbot of the temple, arrived in 1963 after 20 years as a forest monk, the area was a swamp (some say the airport was also built on the swamp and it is sinking) where his only neighbors were snakes. The monk was given five Buddha relics by the Supreme Patriarch of Bangladesh in 1979, and he constructed a 95-meter high chedi to house them, a modern version of the Bodhgaya Chedi on the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. Dr. Holly and I took an elevator to the top of the chedi to pay our respects to the relics at the top and enjoy the tremendous view of the east side of Bangkok and the skyscrapers in the distance. On the walls were paintings of the Buddha's teachings on the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination. The elaborate altar pictured here on the top floor apparently houses the relics but we could not tell where. On the lower floors of the chedi we saw displays of broken pottery surrounded by money in international denominations, a sort of wishing well museum. And there were dozens of different status of the Buddha in all of his/her permutations.

From the top of the chedi we could see the large Jade Buddha Pavilion below. In 1987 Phra Viriyang had a vision of a jade Buddha, and four years later was able to purchase a 32-ton jade block discovered below the waters of a river in British Columbia. The only carvers he could find were in Carrara, Italy, where marble is the material of choice. Two artists were brought to Thailand, given special equipment to cut the hard jade, and finished the figure in 1994 along with a smaller sculpture of "Guanyin" (I've seen her named spelled many different ways), the Chinese goddess of mercy. Dr. Holly and I entered the Pavilion from below and found a large series of rooms filled with compartments, like different sized post office boxes, for ashes of the deceased. Some doors were quite fancy, others rather plebian; Thailand is, after all, a hierarchical society. Upstairs the large hall built to showcase the beautiful jade sculptures was mostly empty, except for a man sleeping by the window; no one was meditating or praying on a weekday morning. We could hear the shouts of children from the school next door. Next to the Pavilion is the construction skeleton of a huge temple which will eventually replace the existing one at the foot of the chedi. We saw groups of young monks walking single file and followed them to find the souvenir shop where bits of leftover jade were carved into miniature figures for sale. (In the distance behind the monks you can see the chimney of the crematorium.)

Inside the shop we found the indefatigable abbot himself, saying goodbye to monks and workers before traveling to Canada the next day. Phra Viriyang is 87 and since coming out of the forest he has founded, in addition to Wat Dhammamongkol, a dozen other temples in Thailand and five in Canada (plus another in Dallas). His Willpower Institute organizes retreats and promotes a "Meditation for World Peace" project. As a result of his experience looking for artisans outside Thailand, the monk decided to start a design institute in partnership with an Italian organization, and Thais are now able to study fashion design at a school on the ground floor of the chedi. Phra Viriyang gestured to the two farang visitors to kneel beside him and he chatted with us in passable English. Although he leads meditation retreats in Canada, there are no current plans to teach English speakers in Bangkok. Learning about this had been one of the objects of our pilgrimage to the temple. Although disappointed, the trip was nonetheless an unforgettable experience.

Our final destination was Assumption University's Bang Na campus (soon to be changed to Suvarnabhumi campus since it is in the swampy vicinity of the new airport). I wrote about ABAC (its nickname because it was once primarily a business school), or AU, it's initials (the symbol for the mineral gold) when I visited the graduate campus in Hua Mark some distance away where Dr. Holly teaches in the department of psychology. That institution, with its high-rise classroom building and sumptuous gardens around a lake, was impressive. But nothing Holly could say would have prepared me for the spectacular facilities at the undergraduate campus, resembling more a movie set for a faux Europe than the grounds of a university.

The campus is dominated by the "Cathedral of Learning," a 27-story building flanked by palace-like wings containing offices and classrooms (named after the three archangels). The corridors look like they belong to a medieval monastery. Underneath this edifice is a huge mall and food court servicing the 20,000 students, most from middle or upper-income families. Dr. Holly and I had an excellent lunch at a dim sum restaurant (my first taste of this tapas-like Asian cuisine). Another mall is located under the dormitories a short distance away; students travel back and forth via a tram that looks exactly like a San Francisco cable car. Everywhere there are statues of Christian saints. The grounds also contain several lakes, a Buddhist sala and a Catholic church, as well as an auditorium-conference center. I didn't visit the gigantic sports facility that looked set up for an Olympics. Since the campus is miles from anywhere, there are numerous vans and buses in a large transportation center to ferry students between the school and home.

Assumption University was founded by the Brothers of St. Gabriel, a worldwide Catholic religious order, founded in France in 1705 by St. Louis Marie De Montfort. That I'd never heard of them meant little, but I was astounded that a French religious order could have the deep pockets to build two such large university campuses in Thailand. Clearly money was flowing from somewhere. In Europe the old religious orders are dying, the medieval buildings are in decay and cathedrals, patronized by a few old women, have been turned into tourist attractions. But here on the outskirts of Bangkok, on swampy open land that was once rice paddies, Catholic education, and indeed medieval and Italianate religious architecture and iconography, has been resurrected.

All of the students I was told are required to take an ethics course. Since I'd taught environmental ethics in the past and had made ethics the object of some of my research, I looked for textbooks in the bookstore. To my surprise, the course was apparently designed to instill ethical values, ones based neither in Buddhism nor in Christianity (that was at the discretion of the teacher, I learned), rather than teach about ethics. There was no mention of consequentialist or deontological ethics, or even of Aristotle's virtue ethics.

I thought briefly about what it might be like to teach in such an idealized institution. Thai students are taught to memorize and rarely engage in critical thinking unless pushed. Teachers barely make a living wage, but cheap housing facilities are available on the Disneyfied campus surrounded by immaculate groomed lawns, gardens and palm trees. Getting anywhere off the campus would be difficult and expensive. I think it would drive me insane.