Monday, January 26, 2009

The Year of the Ox

Obama is in the Oval Office and the Israeli army has retreated from Gaza. Life on this first day of the Chinese lunar new year, the Year of the Ox, has slowed to a crawl. My friend Michael Harrington from Santa Cruz leaves this morning for Chiang Mai after a week in Bangkok, a visit unexpectedly extended when the lack of a visa prevented his planned trip to Ramana Maharshi's ashram in India.

I've enjoyed Michael's company and the opportunity to show off my adopted city. We hit all the high points: dinner on the river his first night here, and a long circle tour one day from the Grand Palace and Wat Pho down the river to Saphan Taksin and the Sky Train. We ate lunch in Silom, walked through Lumpini Park up to Siam for a visit at the Erawan Shrine, and then had cappuccinos at one of the watering holes in Siam Paragon, that sumptuous palace of consumption. From there we walked through a few more supermalls and up the street to the khlong for a watery boat trip to the Golden Mount where, after a steep climb, we had a spectuacular view of the Bangkok cityscape.

Back in California, Michael is a caregiver for a retired professor of comparative religion for whom I was a research assistant for many years. He is also studied and practices Thai massage, yoga and acupuncture, and recently published Medicine of the Heart, a book about his experiences learning traditional healing techniques in Thailand. While not an experienced traveler, he earned my respect for journeying on his first day here to the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province where monks at a forest monastery care for over a dozen tigers they have rescued from poachers. For a small fee he was able to snuggle with one of the big guys. The wat is several hours by bus and taxi from Bangkok. After our tourist excursion, Michael treated me to a two-hour body massage by the pool at Charlie House near my apartment. And at our farewell dinner last night, he bought me a cheeseburger at Sizzler. It was my third stint as a tour guide for folks from back home. Next up: Fr. Cyprian Consiglio comes to Bangkok at the end of next month.

I'm sorry to report that my friend Marcus from England has decided to discontinue his Journal (listed at right). We met at a Little Bang meeting last year before he moved to Korea for a year of teaching English there. Now back in Thailand, he lives not far from me in Pinklao and when he has a little time off from six days of classes, we occasionally meet. Marcus is a serious Buddhist with a practice I envy, and extensive knowledge of various perspectives on the Buddha's teaching, from Pure Land to the Mahayana heresy (at least from a Theravadan point of view). I learned much from his articulate and very human discussion of life as lived by a westerner in Buddhist lands. This isn't the first time he's given up blogging and of course I hope he reconsiders. But his motive is good, to devote more time to working on a book about his experiences and his understanding of Buddhism. I wish him chok dii.

Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is in trouble after only a month in office. Young, handsome and charming (although his critics prefer "vapid" as a more apt description), Abhisit has extolled democracy and the rule of law among his guiding principles. But a hapless Australian was just sentenced to three years in prison for a paragraph in a self-published novel that sold less than a dozen copies which supposedly maligned the monarchy ("supposedly," because the offending passage cannot be mentioned in Thailand). Universally negative news stories from outside the Kingdom about the sentence note that protecting the monarchy seems to be the new administration's highest priority (thousands of web sites have been censored for alleged lèse-majesté and Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, the justice minister, is creating a 24-hour “war-room” to monitor online threats.). An article in the Economist about the Australian, "The Trouble with Harry," has blocked that magazine's distribution in Thailand for the second time in two months. And a left-wing academic, Giles Ungpakorn, was charged this week for defaming the monarchy in a book on the coup in 2006 that deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, then prime minister. A petition signed by 128 academics from several countries calls for charges against Ungpakorn to be dropped. He will probably be more vocal in his defense that poor Harry who pled guilty and cried at his sentencing. For more information, see this story from the Sydney Morning Herald. According to the Economist, "If this were Myanmar, governments like Australia’s would line up to denounce the arbitrary use of archaic laws and defend the rights of dissidents. Instead, it is meekly waiting for a royal pardon so it can spirit its citizen back home."

A more serious crisis is brewing over the military's treatment of illegal immigrants. According to reports, as many as 1,000 Rohingya boat people from Burma were captured, beaten, and pushed back to sea without engines or sufficient food and water. The refugees were escaping from the Burmese regime's persecution of ethnic minorities. More than 500 are believed dead or missing. The men are all Muslims and survivors said four men were thrown overboard with their hands tied. United Nations officials wanted to check on over 100 remaining boat people but were told "these people have been escorted out of Thailand" by Thai Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Thani Thonpakdi. Abhisit promised a thorough investigation, but also issued a blanket denial of abuse on behalf of the military. His deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, even suggested the entire episode was cooked up to besmirch the country's image. "We are not going to see the Abhisit government going after the military because it was instrumental in his assumption of office," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The military has substantial leverage. The Democrats have made a Faustian pact that Abhsit has to live with," he said. BBC commentator Jonathan Head, who is also facing lèse-majesté charges for a story he wrote several months ago, says Abhisit's government "has found itself floundering amid public relations disasters over which it has very little control." Both incidents, according to Head, "undercut the promise of fairer, more open and more accountable government made in the new prime minister's early speeches."

The nominations for this year's Oscar awards have been announced and I'm doing my best to see all of the films. My choice for best film and director is, hands down, Danny Boyle's magnificent "Sumdog Millionaire"; second choice would be Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon." Last night I viewed "The Reader," and although I found it a moving story of lost love and redemption, I think I preferred Kate Winslet's frustrated housewife role in "Revolutionary Road," an inferior film (too much of a cartoon 1950s) to the one for which she was nominated. The night before I'd seen "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" and thought it a more crushing indictment of that pure evil known as The Holocaust. I haven't yet seen Sean Penn or Mickey Rourke, but I liked both Richard Jenkins in the marvelously low key "The Visitor" and Frank Langella's terrific portrayal of President Nixon. I would give the Oscar for best actress to Kristin Scott Thomas for her incredible role as an ex-con in Phillippe Claudel's first film, "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime" (renamed "I've Loved You So Long") but she was only nominated (and did not win) a Golden Globe. I'd like to see Anne Hathaway's film because I think she is an excellent actress, but probably Meryl Streep will get it for another memorable performance in "Doubt." Either Viola Davis, the distraught mother in "Doubt," or Penelope Cruz, the loopy ex-wife in "Vicky Christina Barcelona," should get the supporting actress award. For best supporting actor, the expected win will be by the late Heath Ledger, but I liked Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt" (and anything he does). But why is his role only "supporting"? Hopefully I'l be able to see the awards which begin at 8 am Bangkok time on Feb. 23.

My students are studying for their Pali exam this week and my classes with them have been canceled. But on Thursday I will hold the first of several days of individual interviews with each student. I've asked them to bring their corrected homework and I will return to them the midterm exam I gave last week. Hopefully, I can individualize my advice to them on improving their English and can get to know them a little better. Last week I had asked them to write a job application letter and many of them were similar, and ungrammatical. When I asked what they had used for a model, they told me it came from another teacher, a Thai man. "It's a good thing your teacher is a native speaker," I told them, and handed out my corrections. Next Monday I will be interviewed by Dr. Saen, another English teacher at Mahachula (hopefully not the author of the mangled job letter), who has a TV show every weekday evening. He wants to talk with me about my experiences in Thailand compared with teaching undergraduates in California, and Pandit Bhikku will join me to discuss our Little Bangha Sangha for the English-speaking community.

Today I'm meeting other Little Bangers for a lecture at Chulalongkorn University on Buddha in the 21st Century by former Harvard professor Craig Warren Smith. Afterwards, some of us will go to Chinatown for the big celebration to usher in The Year of the Ox.

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