Friday, May 29, 2009

Debating Democracy

Sometimes only humor can dispel the clouds of gloom circling the globe. South Korea's former president, beleagued by scandal, commits suicide and North Korea tests another nuclear device in the face of world condemnation (while threatening to attack the south for objecting). California's high court affirms the voter's rejection of gay marriage, and the state's economy goes into the toilet (Paul Krugman thinks my old homeland is becoming a banana republic); gays and the soon-to-be unemployed take to the streets. Heroine Aung San Suu Kyi is tried (again) by the military junta in Myanmar and faces additional time in prison while the world's diplomats wring their hands, powerless to help her. Israel announces it will expand its illegal West Bank settlements to allow for "natural growth" and Obama wrings his hands (they should be dismantled, not "frozen"). Suicide bombers continue to kill innocent civilians in Pakistan and Iraq. The H1N1 strain of flu marches from country to country, sickening and killing thousands. Sri Lanka refuses to allow aid works to help hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees displaced by the recent bloody conflict. Obama's choice of a Latina for the Supreme Court draws howls of rage on the ravenous right. Italy's Fiat buys Chrysler and GM teters on the brink of bankruptcy. Numerous British members of Parliament have been exposed for using public money to pay for private expenses. Millions lose their jobs as economics around the world continue to slide downward.

Can we do anything else but laugh?

Muslims are an easy target. The Bangkok Post reported this week that a 22-year-old unmarried Bangladeshi woman was caned 39 times for alleging that a neighbor was the father of her son. The neighbor, holding a Koran in one hand, swore to the village clerics that he was innocent. The mother was hospitalized with critical injuries. Fundamentalist Muslims (I despair of find any others -- if there are moderate Muslims, they remain silent) are fond of caning and stoning and beheading as punishments for those who transgress the law of Allah. They (it's a male-dominated religion) clothe their women in shapeless black, and these walking shrouds (not unlike the nuns above) are a frequent sight on the sidewalks of Sukhumvit. All fundamentalists are a threat to post-Enlightenment freedoms. After the leader of a Sikh group was assassinated in Austria last week, riots erupted in India among various factions of this less than peaceful religion. The new prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, appealed to all people in the Punjab to avoid violence and maintain peace, and claimed that "Sikhism preaches tolerance and harmony." The dead Sikh lead a sect composed primarily of Dalits, or untouchables, and apparently caste differences were at the root of the dispute.

I've been having an argument on Facebook with Ellen, my old friend who recently came to visit me in Bangkok. After Rush Limbaugh and ex-veep Cheney declared Colin Powell was no Republican, and Rush and Newt Gingrich declared court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a "hack" and "reverse racist," I wrote on FB that I was tired of "all the ignorant crap that comes out of the mouths of Republicans in the USofA. What don't Limbaugh and his lunatic followers move to North Korea or Burma?" But then I pushed it one step forward and wrote: "I forgot about Iran and Israel, two other places where democracy is nonexistent and the radical right would feel at home." Ellen took exception to my charge that Israel was not a democracy. I won't repeat her response (I think you have to have an account on FB to read it), but I'd like to restate my position.

Israel is by a design a religious state, and religious states like Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others) are by definition undemocratic. Only members of the dominant religion have full rights as citizens. Those who do not share the religious beliefs or the enthnicity of the majority (Jews are defined by blood and descent rather than belief) are minorities, like blacks under apartheid in South Africa, outcasts in their own land. I do not believe that Arab residents of Israel, Christians as well as Muslims, are at all equal to the Jews. In response to the argument that Palestinians want the eradication of the state of Israel, I believe that they primarily want the eradication of oppression. This is necessary, as well as equal rights in a land they must share with the Jews if there is ever to be peace in the region. THAT would be democracy. Settlement "natural growth" and high walls will never end the conflict there. I was also told that "Jews" is not a proper way to refer to Israelis. But this is precisely my argument. Only Jews, secular as well as religious, are full citizens of Israel with equal rights. Religion is also a problem in Thailand where to be Thai is often defined as being a Buddhist. But in the south of the country, near the border of Malaysia, a Muslim country, an insurgency has been fighting for independence for hundreds of years, ever since Malay principalities were absorbed into Siam. Because they are Muslim rather than Buddhist, they suffer from not being full citizens of Thailand.

Thirty of my forty-four students showed up on Wednesday for the first full day of the new term. I asked them what they had done for the nearly two-month summer holiday, and they told me about trips home to their villages, or a period of teaching Dhamma to children at an upcountry temple. A few stayed in Bangkok "to read English book" they said, but I suspect most watched football games in England on their TV sets. One talked about his daily exercises in the small room where he stays. Over half of my students have come to Bangkok from Cambodia, Laos and Shan State, Myanmar, and they have to learn Thai before they can study English because almost all of their instructors in the English major program use Thai to teach them English. They also must learn Pali to study Theravada Buddhism's texts in their original language. I feel humbled as I struggle to learn to read signs in Thai. This term I will attempt to increase their reading and listening comprehension and try to improve their pronunciation. It's a good thing there is a microphone and speakers in the classroom or I would never be able to hear their soft, uncertain voices. This is my second term with these students and I'm happy to have learned most of their names. They are incredibly earnest, making eye contact and listening intently to my every word (shyly telling me sometimes that I talk too fast). I was very moved and excited to be teaching them again, despite the humid heat that had perspiring profusely under my button-down blue shirt, tie and black slacks. How strange to have finally found my vocation on the eve of my 70th birthday!

I am very happy to be living in Thailand, despite the fact that I've been told by several Thais that "you think too much." Yesterday I made the long march across town by bus and Skytrain to see my friend Jerry, exchanging books and information for the first time in several weeks. I gave him Michael Connelly's excellent new mystery, The Scarecrow, and he gave me Eric Weiner's book, The Georgraphy of Bliss, with a subtitle that explained: "The grumpiest man on the planet goes in search of the happiest place in the world." Jerry pointed out that Weiner's title for a chapter on Thailand is "Happiness is Not Thinking." I can't wait to read it. I've collected a pile of internet reprints on the subject of happiness with the intent of writing a blog post or article about it eventually. I think I want to show that happiness is not all it's cracked up to be, and that the motives for our behavior are often mixed; hedonism is not a universal goal. I've been told that the joy Thais take in sanuk, fun, is the result of a religion that teaches that suffering is the inevitable consequence of life. Thinking can making sanuk difficult, and that is perhaps why some Thais caution me against it.

Last night I joined my friends in the Little Bang Sangha for a talk by Jeffrey Oliver at the lovely new boutique hotel, Ariyasom Villa, on Sukhumvit Soi 1. Jeff, an Australian who took off his monk's robes (he studied meditation in Burma) because he thought he would be a more effective teacher, presented a "toolkit" of techniques to produce "awareness with wisdom." They included appreciation, forgiveness, loving kindness, death and concentration. His teaching is a congenial insightful repackaging of familiar wisdom that bears repeating, and while I shouldn't quarrel with accepted truths, I cannot help but point out several problems.

The beginning of the talk was a discussion of negativity. Since we can't know the future, our fears are about what might happen, not what will. We are "stuck in negative programs," complainers and "negative thinkers" who project our fears, like someone who sees a big, black dog and is certain it will bite. Another example was our fear of seeing someone point a gun at us, surely a justified fear. But the dog might not bite and the gun might not go off. Rather than fear the future we should practice appreciation of the present. This teaching seemed to be in the tradition of the power of positive thinking and the effectiveness of affirmations. But then Jeff shifted his focus to the value of negative experiences. Like Pema Chödrön, who advises her students to lean into pain rather than fleeing from it, Jeff proposed that pain and even cancer can be opportunities for deep appreciation of life as it is. I found this to be two different views of negativity which could, in fact, conflict.

Like most intellectual Buddhists, Jeff's teaching is very mind-centric. In his view, the body seems to fall away and the mind is all. In fact, I think this might lead to solipsism, where there is only my mind and no others, if pushed too far. The biggest consequence, however, is a neglect of the body. What I think we need is a teaching that the mind is physical as well as mental. At one point he said "we don't need friends, just our own mind." I found this startling. What about the Buddha's teaching on interconnectedness (which is stressed by Thich Nhat Hahn). His current teacher, Jeff said, advised him to do anything with his body while watching his mind. This leads to a lessening of importance for meditation which involves focused attention. And it also could lead to a neglect of politics and of social injustice. Indeed, Jeff advised that we should determine if a proposed action is harmful or hurtful. "If it's not your problem," he said, "step back." A Buddhist practice that ignores the body and steps away from politics, including the essential debate about democracy, in Thailand as well as in Israel, is not for me.


Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

Another fascinating post, thank you.

Only one small quibble from me. You write:

"In response to the argument that Palestinians want the eradication of the state of Israel, I believe that they primarily want the eradication of oppression."

Perhaps, but Hamas, who represent the people of Gaza, are constitutionally committed to the eradication of Israel. For as long as that remains the case, peace will sadly be far off.

All the best,


Dr. Will said...

Arafat gave up that commitment and I believe Hamas would as well if there were a sign that Israel wanted anything but the cleansing of Muslims from the "promised land." The Zionist goal to take over the homeland of Palestinians, because of some obscure religious text, has never been disavowed.

hobby said...

Another interesting post - you are very game to post about the Israeli situation, risking incurring the wrath of an army of cyber warriors:)

30 out of 44 students does not sound too good - is there a truancy problem in Thailand, or was there some other explanation?

Reading to your description of Jeff makes me think he might be a prime candidate for Cryonic Neuropreservation:)

hobby said...

Truanting monks?
What sort of example are they setting:)

BillZ said...

Dear Will,

How are you?

Taken my time to get back but here we go.

On Islam. I lived for three years in Oman then Bahrain, and I never met a Fundamental Muslim. In general the women dominated the men, the veil, the clothes were something they seemed to accept. From outside many see the clothes as subjugation, I did until I was there and then saw it as a trade-off to male egos. The nearest I met to fundamentalism was the justifiable anger in Bahrain at the Israeli tanks which were bulldozing homes and killing Palestinians every time a suicide bomber appeared; throughout the Middle East there is a Palestinian diaspora. Good policy supported by the West, 1 Israeli life for 100s of Palestinians and their homes! I am not sure of the actual details but it is my understanding that it is part of the Israeli religion that they must have the land. If that is not a source of intractability I don’t know what is, especially when behind-the-scenes the Americans give the Israelis carte-blanche, public debate aside.

I don’t know much about the Muslim South, but understand that it was its own country, Pattani, in the nineteenth century. I believe that for many the language is different and Thai was imposed so they are disempowered from many jobs. Reminds me of Afrikaans during Apartheid.

But having said this, my greatest concern with Islam is that I believe it is expansionist. I believe that Muslims aspire to follow the life of the Prophet Mohammed whose story is written in the Haddith, wasn’t he an expansionist leader? My limited understanding is that the Holy book is the Koran, then they follow the Haddith, the exemplified life, and then individual countries have their own Sharia, decided by the Imams within those countries. How does the Koran compare with the bible?

Where is the email?

Unknown said...

While my reactions to your description of Jeff's talk mirrored yours, and included many gripes I've had for years in relation to various philosophical and religious tenets, I would like to take what you said about Jeff leaning toward solipsism a step further. I want to emphasize that we are here, now, in these bodies! Unless one is suffering to the point of needing to escape the pain, or living in extreme poverty,and freely admitting that growing even middle-aged in these bodies can be difficult, why try so hard to ignore or escape the reality of the body? While the Buddha spoke of suffering,the reasonings behind denial and even vilification of our bodies has gone way beyond that at this point, and comes at us from many directions and traditions, both old and wearing new faces. Why have so many religions &
philosophies come to deny us, or encourage us to deny, our bodies in one way or several? Other than fear of responsibility (and I believe that truly owning our body entails responsibility on many levels), what reasons do we have to go along with any religion or philosophy in trying to escape our bodies or thinking that our bodies are somehow less-than other aspects of who we are now? Should not the fact that our bodies are "merely temporary" give us cause to appreciate them at the very least equally to other parts of ourselves? What an amazing opportunity to be living as human beings! What could be more special, more worth embracing? Why be in such denial of this most amazing of gifts?!
OK, off my soapbox, for now at least.