Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Getting a Job (sha na na na)

An unseasonable storm is drenching Bangkok as I write this post. None of the internet weather sites that I checked this morning had predicted this (although the dark clouds at dawn did offer a clue). But the three-hour downpour (so far) has filled the sois up to, and over, the high sidewalks. Dodging the waves generated by cars and motorbikes moving up and down the temporary rivers is difficult. Coming home from dropping off laundry and buying groceries, I waded across one soi with the dirty water almost up to my knees. Who knows what unholy microbes were swirling in that toxic mix! It has been cloudy and windy for the last few days and Jerry had warned me that rain in January was rare but possible. Mother Nature is acting up all over: record cold and snow in China, heavy rains in Tamil Nadu when I was there, and storms in California that are causing flooding and landslides. Why didn't we listen to you, Al?

It was hot enough yesterday to make me sweat through the new blue Oxford-cloth shirt I bought last weekend, part of the $100 wardrobe I purchased to appear presentable as a potential teacher. Besides the button-down long-sleeved shirt, I chose black slacks (Italian, on sale), a black belt (over-priced, but I was on a roll), comfortable black loafers and socks. Jerry gave me a Jim Thompson silk tie with an elephant design, perhaps a little wild, but I needed some sign of rebelliousness. Fitting a conservative image goes against the grain. But Pim, when we met at the end of the day, said that I looked splendid, the spitting image of a farang teacher in Thailand, even though the shirt was damp with sweat, the tie loosened and my sleeves were rolled up.

Earlier, Pandit, my friend the British monk, had taken me across the river to the undergraduate campus of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (also known as MCU or Mahachula) at Wat Srisudaram Woriwiharn (also known apparently as Wat Si) where we met Supo, a teacher in the English Department. Pandit, who studied there four years to get a bachelor's degree and who is now studying Buddhism and psychology in the master's program at the main MCU campus next to Wat Mahathat, had sung my praises there the week before and was told they would be happy to hire a native English speaker part-time. Although the head of the department was not in, I gave Supo my CV, and, with Pandit translating the trickier questions, we discussed work visas and permits.

We continued this discussion with other administrators after going back across the river on a ferry and walking a short distance past the amulet market to Mahathat and the international office for Mahachula. If all goes well, I will teach conversational English to the young monks at Wat Si for five hours twice a week. Since few of them have studied English before, and only a couple on the faculty speak rudimentary English, it should be a challenge. Plus the school is a good distance from Sukhumvit and will require taxis, tuk tuks, buses and river boats to get there. The next term begins in May. Once I sign a contract to teach for a year, that paper and a letter from the dean at the Mahathat campus should secure me a non-immigrant business employment visa. Then I need to get a work permit to complete the process. Renewable yearly, the visa and permit will enable me to stay indefinitely in the Land of Smiles, so long as I stay employed by MCU. Pandit told me that even though the government-supported Buddhist university is only for monks, many young men ordain temporarily to get a cheap education, and when they are finished they disrobe and look for a real job. Now I wait for my official interview at Wat Si which should take place, hopefully, next week.

On Monday I went to the Thai Immigration office in Sathorn, a healthy hike from the Sala Daeng Skytrain station. The large facility was packed with visitors from every country and it took me awhile to get my bearings and follow the required steps. Last July I bought three two-month visas from the Thai consulate in Portland, Oregon, and I was under the impression that each could be extended for one month without leaving the country. While that is true, I soon learned that only the current visa can be extended and I was on the last one. If I hadn't gone to India, I might have used two extensions, but since the third visa must be used within six months of issuance, there was no way all three could be extended (this nuance seemed to escape the nice lady at the information booth). So I took the single extension, paying the steep 1,900 baht fee, and now I'm legal until April 5. Hopefully by then I'll have the teaching paperwork in hand and can make a quick visa run to the border. I want to be back in Thailand for the Songkran holiday when the New Year is celebrated with in the streets with wild water fights. Hard to believe that I've been gone almost six months.

Before the visit to Wat Si, Pandit, Dr. Holly and I met for lunch to discuss future plans for The Little Bangkok sangha (little bang as opposed to the big bang; Pandit's humor is subtle). Since monks cannot eat after noon, it was actually a brunch, and since their choice of food is rather limited, Pandit ordered freely from the menu (monks also cannot handle money, so it was our treat). We talked about a variety of events, including movie nights (Pandit wants to show and discuss "Marjoe," the documentary about a child preacher prodigy who reveals the secrets of his unethical trade). Also possible are guest speakers, like Ajahn Sumedho, a friend of Pandit's, and study groups on topics like Buddhism and psychology, and the Buddhist suttas. Pandit is also considering "Introduction to Buddhism" talks for English-speaking tourists at various Bangkok hotels, and perhaps another six-week series of lectures similar to those he did last fall. Another possibility is a several-day retreat at the ecologically friendly Comsaed Conference Center in Kanchanaburi which he recently visited with David Holmes.

Holly and I had gone a few nights before to hear a talk by Ajahn Brahm, the British monk who leads Bodhinyana Monastery in western Australia. The former Peter Betts had received a degree from Cambridge in theoretical physics before coming to Thailand where he was ordained at the age of 23. A friend had described Ajahn Brahm's approach as "Buddhism light" and his talk before a huge crowd of mainly Thais in the large auditorium at the World Fellowship of Buddhists headquarters focused largely on happiness and bliss (he wants to reframe the Buddha's Four Noble Truths as a way to achieve happiness rather than just the relief of suffering). Much of what he said struck me as a Buddhist version of the power of positive thinking (a la Dale Carnegie or Norman Vincent Peale). Ajahn Brahm got lots of laughs from the crowd; if he hadn't been sitting in a lotus posture on a raised platform (with moving colored lights around the head of the large Buddha behind him), I would have thought him to be a stand-up comedian.
"Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow, because you might die tonight."

"There is no limit to the amount of happiness you can experience."

"You must exercise the body but keep the mind still to restore your energies."

"I wasn't born a monk. I had a girlfriend until I discovered I was more happy with meditation than with orgasms."

"Buddhism is a religion without punishment. You send yourself to hell."

"You have plenty of (g00d) karma in the bank but have forgotten your pin number. By accepting praise, you remember your pin."

"Compassion is more important than some of the rituals we keep."

"There were two chicken farmers. One collected the chickens' shit and stored it in his house, and the other collected their eggs. What are you collecting? Shit or eggs?"

"The past takes care of itself."

"Life is out of control."
On the way to Wat Si yesterday, Pandit, Dr. Holly and I visited the headquarters of an NGO empire established by Thai social and environmental activist Sulak Sivaraksa. I was very impressed with his critique of capitalism and globalization when I heard him speak at the Gross National Happiness Conference in November and I've just finished Trans Thai Buddhism, a small book of talks he gave at Smith College in 2004. Now 74, Sulak is the founder of the Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation, a network that includes the inter-religious Commission for Development, Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute, Wongsanit Ashram, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) and the Spirit in Education Movement. The NGO publishes a quarterly called "Seeds of Peace" after the title of one of Sulak's books. The founder has been in trouble with the government several times over his writings, forcing him to go into exile for a few years. He is famous for his argument that the name "Thailand," coined in 1939, be dropped and the original "Siam" be returned to its rightful place. There wasn't much happening at the compound, but we looked at a meeting hall we might be able to use for a sangha gathering, and we browsed in the impressive library where Sulak's collected writings in English alone take up a whole shelf.

From Trans Thai Buddhism, I understood that the author sees Buddhism in its universal form as an alternative to global capitalism. He believes the concept of "sangha," the name for Buddhist community, incorporates the ideal of a moral democracy. Buddhism can provide a model for what he sees as faith-based resistance to the travesty of democracy promoted by the corporate-controlled states, east and west. This alone makes me want to read more of his writing. Hell, I'm reading to move into his compound! (there are rooms above the offices for guests and we saw a carload of monks disembark while we were there to stay while attending a conference). And even more interesting, Sulak was a disciple of the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a monk who has inspired many Thai political and social activists with his ideas that Thai Buddhism should be purified of superstitious rites and rituals because he believed that all religious paths comprised one dhamma. I am currently reading his Handbook for Mankind, in which he writes: "Buddhism has nothing to do with prostrating oneself and deferring to awesome things." But rather, Buddhism "is a system designed to bring a technical knowledge inseparable from its technique of practice, an organized practical understanding of the true nature of things of 'what is what.'" In 1932, he founded Wat Suan Mokkh in southern Thailand near Surat Thani, and before his death in 1993 he established the International Dhamma Hermitage Center where a meditation retreat is held on the first 10 days of every month. When the seeker has "penetrated to the essential nature of his religion," Buddhadasa wrote, then "he will regard all religions as being the same." This universalism appeals to me, and that it could inspire social activism in Thailand is even more interesting. I want to look into the ideas of both Sulak and Buddhadasa more deeply.

The rain has stopped and Bangkok is now fresh and clean, the streets nicely flushed of dirt and garbage (although where it ends up -- in the river, I afraid -- I'm not sure).

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