Friday, September 18, 2009

She Sang Out for Justice

I had unrequited crushes on all the folk divas in the 1960's. Joan Baez of course was my first vinyl love. "Silver Dagger" on her first LP sent chills up my spine. I saw Baez sing several times in person on both coasts of the U.S. and once got to ask her a question (now forgotten) at a press conference in LA. There were others -- I wasn't faithful: Judy Collins, Buffy Ste. Marie, Carolyn Hester (we once had lunch in London) and certainly Mary Travers, who died yesterday at the age of 72 (how did we get so old?). Her pure alto voice turned the spiritual "If I Had a Hammer" into a cry of rage over injustice at the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, singing it with her partners Paul Stokey and Peter Yarrow. I listened to them and watched that momentous event on a small black and white TV from a Berkeley studio apartment. And Peter, Paul & Mary introduced Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" to a wider audience and made it into an anthem for the new day we thought was dawning in the 1960's before it all turned sour.

While Peter, Paul & Mary might remain most famous for "Puff the Magic Dragon," the children's song that many thought contained drug references (which they jokingly denied), the trio were known for a willingness to promote liberal concerns. At demonstrations for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, from raising awareness of US support for a dictatorship in El Salvador, to campaigning for New York's homeless, Travers and her two friends used their fame to champion frequently unpopular causes. The daughter of labor organizers, Travers grew up in New York and while in high school sang backup for Pete Seeger. They were the most successful performers in the folk revival, and in 1963, three of the top six albums in Billboard's music chart were by PP&M. At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, I stood right in front of the stage in the press section to listen to their music, and I will never forget it. When I learned that David, my teacher and friend at UC Santa Cruz, had a brief affair with Mary while on leave in New York as a young merchant seaman, I was incredibly impressed, and jealous. R.I.P., Mary.

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of the 2006 military coup in Thailand which overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. The red shirt movement, aligned with Thaksin but not totally his tool, has scheduled a major rally in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country. Prime Minister Abhisit has responded by invoking the draconian Internal Security Act which will put 6,500 troops and police on the streets to "insure order." Thaksin was deposed while he was on a trip to address the United Nations, the same journey Abhisit is currently making. Rumors of a new coup are in the air, but as The Economist points out in "Where Power Lies," his government was installed and is supported by the military. The 2006 coup failed to deter Thaksin loyalists who elected their partisans again in the 2007 election and after two administrations were taken down by judicial rulings, the military and power elite managed to put Abhisit and his Democratic Party into power. But Abhisit is apparently in trouble with his coalition partners and has so far been unable to appoint his chosen successor as national police chief. For background, read the excellent blog post by Giles Ji Ungpakorn who is currently in exile in England because of lèse majesté charges. Both articles raise questions about democracy in Thailand. Freedom of speech and the right of assembly are certainly under threat here. Numerous commentators on the left have charged that Amnesty International here is in league with the royalist and military elite to downplay rights violations. According to The Economist (this issue will probably be banned), since 1992 "successive civilian governments failed to overhaul the 300,000-strong armed forces. They still have several hundred active generals, many without even a desk. The tally of 36 four-star officers is just behind America’s 41. But America’s army is four times larger—and at war."
Thailand’s army sees itself as the defender of the crown and suspects a republican agenda among reds. For that reason, the generals will be loth to let go until the succession is over. But repressing a mass movement in the name of a charismatic king is one thing. As Nepal’s army found in 2006, doing the same for an unpopular monarch, as Thailand’s crown prince would be, is a recipe for defeat.
The succession is the elephant in the room for Thai politics. It cannot be discussed openly due to the lèse majesté law and strict internet censorship. Most of the reds claim to support the monarchy, but some, like Giles, are openly agitating for a republic. What the people outside Bangkok think, where government support is weak, is yet to be known. Maybe what happens this weekend will provide clues.

In his series of lectures on the Way of Wisdom (WOW) held in the mirrored room at Planet Yoga during the annual Rains Retreat for Buddhist monks in Thailand, Phra Cittamasvaro has been discussing core issues, like consciousness, the self and karma. Last night the British monk, known to his friends as Pandit, tackled the "most difficult" subject of karma (the Sanskrit word which in Pali is kamma, but never kama as in Kama Sutra because it means lust). The short explanation of the Buddha's teaching is: "You have to be careful of what you do."

Despite how well known the doctrine of karma seems to be, Pandit said it was one of the Buddha's "imponderables," something that you cannot figure out, and if you try your head "will be split into seven pieces." The word means action, and the results of action, and I know that it plays a major role in the Bhagavad Gita. Intention, Pandit explained, is as important as the action that results. It is not strictly speaking cause and effect, but only one version of it; the tree that grows from a mango seed is not the result of karma. Pandit disagreed with a fellow monk who said a heart attack resulting from eating fatty foods was caused by karma. "You can't blame everything on karma," he argued. That would be karmic determinism, and the Buddha included it along with two other "wrong views": everything is caused by God and everything is caused by chance. The Buddha talks about the future, not the past, and karma is discussed in the suttas mainly because of its effect on rebirth. Bad karma, Pandit said, can be easily turned around.

Karma, Buddhist believe, keeps us tied to samsara, the endless cycle of suffering, death and rebirth, and Pandit made it clear that he thought "samsara sucks. That's why we have to get out of it." But this is precisely what troubles me about this interpretation of Buddhism. Samsara is the realm of existence, of both suffering and ecstasy. I will agree that morality requires us to examine both our intentions and our actions by a suitable standard (the Buddha's teaching here is quite good). But it's obvious that in one lifetime good deeds do not always lead to good consequences or rewards, and that often the bad succeed by sowing injustice while the righteous perish. Reincarnation was invented in India to solve that conundrum. But I do not think there is anything left after the body dies to be reborn, and believe this doctrine conflicts with the doctrine of no (substantial) self. If there is no vehicle for karmic retribution, than we are left with morality and the need to live a good life, precisely because it is good.

Last week Pandit affirmed that "you have a self," and said the ego as the seat of rationality needs to be developed. Destroying the ego, he said, would be nihilism. But behind the ego (below? within?) is a place of pure awareness where we can put our attention, and from which wisdom arises. The problem with consciousness (or what he preferred to call "cognizing," the subject of his talk two weeks ago) is that it puts its attention on sense experience and follows along after it. The self is apparently a construction based on attending to the senses, but this self can lead us astray. “If you put attention on other aspects such as compassion, awareness, perception etc., you train your mind to be calmer and more observant of what is going on. Then things can really change for you." The Buddha said, “By attending to the right things you generate wisdom within you.” It still sounds as if Buddhists want to have their cake (enlightenment) and eat it (develop the egoic self) too. I applaud the attempt to maintain a self that common sense dictates exists. But I still worry that Buddhism want to negate life by denying any positive role to sense experience. And this is still nihilism (if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...).

A week ago I was called on short notice to act in a promotion video for a new Language Center at the Wang Noi campus of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University. My friend Panida, who was involved in MCU's three-day Vesak celebration this year, had been asked to help plan the center which currently is operating from the offices of the International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU) at Wang Noi under the direction of Dr. Phramaha Hunsa Dhammahaso, assistant rector for academic affairs. Assisted by Ratcha and Ben, who will teach Korean at the center, they have designed an elaborate program of courses in a short period of time and are recruiting students to come next month from MCU as well as in the neighboring Ayutthaya district. While not fully understanding the plan, I put on my best teacher's duds and and went off to Wang Noi early in the morning to perform in the educational lakorn (Thai for soap opera).

A cast of students of all ages had been assembled and they were separated into two groups. Ellen, a graduate student in Buddhist Studies at MCU from Washington, D.C., went into one room with the younger students, and I stayed with the adults and a couple of teenagers in another. While the children were being photographed, I gave a mock class before a video camera, putting rules and examples up on a white board. I talked about ways to express future possibilities using the conditional "if" form as well as the words "might" and "will." My students were very attentive, even those who spoke no English. They, however, could understand the instructions of the animated director who crawled on the table to find the best angle for his shots. It was great fun, with a large banquet lunch included at a nearby outdoor restaurant, and I was even offered a job at the new center. But they want to provide 10 hours of instruction per class a week (compared to the 3-hour weekly classes I teach now) and I would have to commute to Wang Noi three days each week. As a gentleman teacher, presently semi-retired, this would mean too much work. And I also suspect that their courses will largely duplicate the curriculum in the Department of Foreign Languages where I now teach, which could present problems.

The huge march of selfish nitwits in Washington last week to protest against socialized health care and every other imagined conspiracy is a stark counterpoint to the uplifting civil rights gathering I speak of above in 1963. Evan Handler posted his reaction on The Huffington Post and everyone should read it. He loves America but not necessarily Americans (my sentiments exactly) and is particularly upset by the anti-immigrant hysteria.
As to those immigrants, and the rage I've seen inspired by them, just give me a break. You're all immigrants. Every one of you. Every one of your pink, overstuffed, jiggly "American" asses is stuffed full of tortillas, or pancetta, or paella, or schnitzel, or knockwurst, or moussaka, or Dublin Coddle, or whatever the fuck your ancestors ate before they crawled their way over here. And, when they got here, someone hated them just as much as you're hating whoever's newest here now, and fought against their having anything you now enjoy.
Like others, he urges readers to write, call and do something -- Carry signs. Gather. Organize. -- "because the greedy and the foolish are ruling the day even after they lost an election." Handler, in his conclusion, laments that America was once "once a nation of such potential. A nation built on the pride of its self-proclaimed superiority. We've been embarrassing ourselves in front of the world since shortly after 9/11, 2001. In spite of a change of leadership, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. Shame on the citizens who are trying to obstruct, and shame on the politicians who pandered to them this past week."

Yes, shame on them. Read the whole article.

Nan and I are as happy as two bugs in a rug, as my mother might put it (an expression I would have to explain carefully to her). She cooks tasty dinners with enough left over for my lunch the next day. I walk her to the bus stop in the morning. One day last week she called from the boat to say her new shoe had broken and I went down to the river pier to meet her with some sandals. The next day I called her to say I had forgotten my umbrella and it was about to rain, so she met me at Tesco Lotus with an umbrella to shelter us home. We have some disagreements. She washes her clothes after one wearing and I've been known to wear shorts for a week. She showers twice a day and such intense cleanliness has required a conversion on my part. Last Sunday she talked me into going to a Thai movie about ghosts, "Phobia 2 (5 prang)," five stories with lots of blood and dead people doing terrible things. But it was just ironic and funny enough for me to enjoy. Nan, on the other hand, said she would tell her friend that recommended it that it was not so good. I held my last regular class last Wednesday and tried to prepare my students for the final exam next week. I'll miss my students; we've been together for two terms now and I know all their names. After a short break, class will begin for the second term of the years. I still do not know when or who (probably 3rd year students) I'll be meeting.

Monsoon storm clouds outside my window a few minutes ago: