Monday, February 09, 2009

May the Force be With You

Today is Magha Puja (also Makha Bucha), one of the four main Buddhist holidays celebrated in the Theravada countries, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. It commemorates the gathering of 1,250 disciples of the Lord Buddha, each personally ordained by him, at Veluvana Bamboo Grove, near Rajagaha in Northern India. All were arahants, enlightened through the Buddha's teaching. According to legend, they all knew to assemble together without prior arrangement on the full moon of the third lunar month. On that occasion, the first sermon after the Buddha's enlightenment nine months before, he gave an important talk which is considered to be the heart of his teachings. Thais mark the occasion by giving alms to monks in the morning, and processing around the temple in the evening three times, to honor the Buddha, dhamma and the sangha, with flowers and candles which they present on an altar when the circumambulation is complete. Last year Pim and I took out-of-town visitors Kathe and Michael to Wat Pathum Wanaram which is squeezed between the Siam Paragon and Central World megamalls. The temple was being repaired so hundreds of us marched around a construction site holding lotus flowers and trying to keep the wind from blowing out our candles. This year I may go by myself to Wat Ruak Bangbamru through the rabbit warren of sois behind my building. But it is not easy without a guide to know what to do.

I've engaged in several discussions lately about Thai Buddhism and how odd it seems to an American raised on the generic Buddhism we learned back in the States. Not that Alan Watts and Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Jack Kornfield and other teachers who imported what they were taught did not try to give the whole picture. Just as the eucalyptus tree was brought from Australia without its accompanying ecosystem (which causes problems only a tree ecologist can fully understand), Buddhism came to America without the cultural contexts that gave it life in Asia. Not that they didn't try to learn. Gary Snyder and Philip Kapleau spent many years in Japan, and Kornfield and his associates Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg lived and studied in Thailand and Burma. But when they returned home, the Buddhism they presented had been largely shorn of most cultural rites and rituals, particularly the animistic practices that smack of superstitition. My Santa Cruz teacher Carolyn Atkinson, who was trained in both Zen and Vipassana, called her amalgamated version "everyday dharma." American Buddhism is mainly a one size fits all.

I suspect that the average Thai treats the Buddha and his monks as a source of power. They pay their respects with a bow and a wai when passing every temple, spirit house and be-ribboned tree. I cannot help thinking, "May the force be with you!" Most of spirit shrines appear to contain Hindu gods rather than images of the Buddha. Only the half million monks and novices in orange robes stand any chance of enlightenment, according to popular belief. Ordinary Thais are limited to making merit (tam boon) by feeding the monks in order to insure a good rebirth. Laypeople and monks are in a symbiotic relationship; without public support, the monkhood and the sangha would collapse. I've been reading about the history of Buddhism in Thailand in a book by the Ven. Phra Brahmagunabhorn, also known as P.A. Payutto. The split between Theravada (southern) and Mahayana (northern) Buddhist, which includes the Vajarayana version in Tibet, is very real here, and reminds me of the schism between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity during the 10th century. At a screening of "Little Buddha" at Thammasat Uiversity last week during a "Monastics and Film" festival, several monks in attendance voiced displeasure at the story of a search for a reincarnated Tibetan lama in Seattle. If I understood the translation correctly, they thought Thais would be troubled by such a radically different version of their faith.

I'm on the cusp of an argument Marcus frequently raises in such discussions about faith versus intellectual understanding. Perhaps because Korean Buddhism has been a strong influence on him, and faith seems to be more important in the Mahayana schools, he thinks faith is an essential component of Buddhism as a religious path. While I've seen the power and value of bhakti (faith) in Hinduism, it has too often seemed like blind faith in Christianity where the faithful are encouraged to believed the most absurd stuff, like miracles, and that the one God had a single son. I'm an intellectual, and so it has always been the intellect rather than the heart to which I've turned. But I also realize that the poor and the uneducated do not have recourse to an intellectual religion, and must find their way with the aid of rituals guided by faith. Buddhadasa hoped to purge Thai Buddhism of superstitious practices like tam boon and string to ward off evil spirits, but he made little headway among the common folk. I wonder what he would have thought of the generic Buddhism sans ritual and faith in America?

The few days of winter we experienced in Bangkok last month have come and gone, and once again the weather is consistently hot and humid ever day with hazy skies blurring the horizon. A new 24-hour minimart opened up on the ground floor of my apartment building on Sunday and I wonder where it will find its nocturnal customers. There is already an all-night 7-11 around a short distance away. I often purchase cheap frozen dinners (various versions of rice and chicken) from that store which I heat for dinner in my microwave. A better source of nourishment is the restaurant below which delivers to my room, quick and cheap. Sometimes I stir fry already cooked chicken purchased from Tesco Lotus with mushrooms and oyster sauce which I then pour over brown rice made in the cooker Pim bequeathed me. Steamed broccoli completes dinner. I take the leftover skin and bones downstairs and feed it to the wild cats that congregate in front of my building. Sometimes I resent the need to eat now that most of my meals are solitary.

All week I've been thinking of The Professor, and how he used the mourn the loss of his beloved Rhine wine after his wife and doctor had told him it was forbidden. I'm sure he was a trial and a tribulation as a husband at the best of times, but drunk he could be even more wild and eccentric (if not also happier). I've also been remembering how he would raise his squeaky voice in song at the drop of a reference, be it an Anglican hymn or a ditty from Flanders and Swann who he seemed to prefer to Gilbert and Sullivan. He had a fabulous memory for the obscure quote, even well into his 80s. He was a man without a country, one foot in the Punjab where he was born and one foot at Oxford where he owned a home; I always thought of him as marooned in America. Now I can see that the hagiography has begun. A memorial site has been set up by the family. Some of the memories are wonderful (one mentions his fondness for drink) but a few perpetuate the myth that he was some kind of a guru, dispensing other worldly wisdom to his students along with academic credit. If anything, he was a holy fool. I believe The Professor encouraged his students to follow their bliss (i.e., Joseph Campbell) without telling them what that might be. He offered a smorgasbord of possibilities, but he did not share his quibbles or doubts. He was human, oh so human, and that's what made him such a delight to me.

My TV cable has shut down, at least the channels in English. For a week the BBC and CNN service has been experiencing difficulties. Luckily, True Visions has customer service in English, sort of. I learned that I must pay 500 baht ($17.50) for a service call, even though it is probably not my problem. The cable service is expensive, nearly $50 a month, and I only watch news and occasionally a film. Pim signed me up for a year's contract, so I cannot cancel until the end of June. Without a Thai in the apartment I do not watch the Thai channels. Except for tomorrow night, when I will be interviewed on TNN2 at 6 p.m. with Pandit Bhikku. We filmed the program last Monday with Dr. Saen who teaches English in the classroom next door to me at Wat Srisudaram on Wednesdays. His show five evenings a week is aimed at youth and occasionally is in English, depending on the guest. Since Pandit speaks Thai, they talked about our Little Bang Sangha for the English-speaking community without speaking English, so I have no idea what was said. Dr. Saen's assistant, a young man named Johnson (his grandparents were American, he told me) asked me how I liked Thailand. I told him. Then they continued speaking to Pandit in Thai. I expected to be asked to compare teaching Thais with the young Americans in my Santa Cruz classes, and I had prepared a marvelous response. But it was not needed. The cable technician will come tomorrow morning to put me back in touch with the news of the world.

I'm not sure if I want to know. Aside from the horrendous brush fires in Australia, and the cruel refusal of Israels to allow shipments of concrete into Gaza to facilitate the rebuilding of that destroyed occupied territory, there is little happening at the moment that I want to hear about. Obama appears to have hired a bunch of hacks from the Clinton era, whether they paid their income taxes or not, and his bipartisan approach to the Republicans, whose failed ideology got the U.S. and the world into this mess, has not been very successful. The bankers responsible for the fiscal crisis are extravagantly spending bailout funds but there is little sign that the credit crunch has eased. Will the pork-filled stimulus bill restart the economy without protecting U.S. workers (which means trade protection and sanctions)? Every country in the world seems to be trying it. Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit smiles and says everything is going to be all right here, while the military is killing Burmese refugees and the police are arresting anyone who appears to insult the monarchy. Most Thais are already poor. It can't get much worse for them. Apparently the pound is falling against the baht so that British visitors and residents are suffering. I watch the dollar holding steady at 34.9 baht and discover that I now am earning 10,000 more baht a month than when I arrived a year and a half ago, because of the increase in value of the dollar as well as additional Social Security. This is not bad.

My youngest son Nicky will be coming to visit on March 11 for six days. His sister Molly, who is in Bali recording a CD with her singing group, The Sirens, may join him. So I'm busily planning excursions and adventures to make every minute count. Before they arrive, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio will be in Bangkok for a short three-day trip in two weeks, his first visit to a Buddhist country. He is coming from Singapore and Malaysia where he has participated in inter-religious dialogue with Muslims. I'm planning a trip with Cyprian to visit the site of Thomas Merton's death here in 1968, something I've long wanted to do. We will also probably attend Fr. Joe's mass in Thai on Saturday afternoon in the slum called "The Slaughterhouse." And Sunday night Jerry and Sylvia Deck from Santa Cruz will stop off in Bangkok for dinner with us on the way back from their tour of Vietnam.

The school terms ends on March 4 when I will give my students their final exam. For the past two weeks I've been interviewing them and taking their pictures (photos can be seen here and in the slide show on the right-hand column of this blog page). Having 15 minutes alone with each one of them has been wonderful, and has allowed me to give each one some personalized instruction. A student from last term has asked me to help him with a proposal for funding from NGOs to help support a school he and other monks have started in Shan State, Myanmar. I'm am honored to be able to help them.

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