Monday, February 21, 2011

Will the Real Buddha Please Stand Up

Under the bright full moon of the third lunar month last week, I joined Nan and three of her co-workers in the evening at Ratchaprasong to venerate the Buddha by doing tumboon (making merit) before three shrines in the shopping district and at Wat Pathum between Siam Paragon and Central World.  It was Makha Bucha, a major Buddhist holiday in Southeast Asia which commemorates the talk Buddha gave to 1,250 enlightened followers, nine months after his own awakening, laying down the principles of his teaching.  The crowds were enormous, and the smoke from candles and the smell of incense was almost overpowering.  I saw very few foreigners among the throngs of Thais of all ages carrying lotus buds, yellow candles and sticks of incense and pacing garlands of yellow flowers at the base of the various icons, most of which were of Hindu gods.  For a lapsed Catholic who learned of Buddhism as a philosophy or psychology (but without a god, certainly not a real religion) through the practice of meditation, the inclusion of so many Hindu elements in Thai Buddhism has been confusing.

For example, in front of Central World we paid our respects before two large shrines.  The one on the right contains a huge golden image of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, "remover of all obstacles," my favorite Hindu deity.  The one on the left, Nan told me, is "Trimulati," whom she believed to be female, and who Thais, leaving bouquets of red roses around the icon, consider "The God of Love," according to many stories published around Valentine's Day.  A little research, however, identifies the statue as Trimurti (probably male), a manifestation of the three principle Hindu gods: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. No one knows how the Trimurti shrine, built in 1989, became associated with love or why Thais pay their respects with red roses in the hope of finding a spouse, but I think it's an example of the fruitful spiritual creativity of Buddhists here who incorporate animistic practices and beliefs along with the rituals of Brahmanism in their synchronistic faith.  The Buddha is even seen as a reincarnation of Vishnu by some people, Hindus as well as Buddhists.

Across the street on Makha Bucha Day, devotees congregated at the Erawan Shrine in front of the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.  We walked clockwise around the icon, a representation of a four-faced Brahma, leaving a burning candle, flowers, and three smoking incense sticks at each of the four sides.  The shrine was built in 1956 to eliminate the bad karma believed caused by laying the foundations of the hotel on the wrong date.  In 2006 a man vandalized the image and was killed by bystanders.  Two nights after our visit, Princess Ubolratana presided over a large ceremony at the shrine attended by 200 senior monks "to pay homage to the Lord Brahma statue," according to the Bangkok Post, the first such ceremony in 50 years. This shrine and the two in front of Central World are examples (on steroids) of the omnipresent spirit shrines or houses (saan phra phum) in Thailand which can be found outside almost every home, store and urban skyscraper.  A mix of animism and Brahmanism (Buddha is rarely present), the shrines are intended to propitiate the spirits of place and passers-by place flowers and offerings of food and drink to show their respect.  When Thais walk or drive by these shrines and spirit houses, as well as trees defined as sacred by the colored cloth wrapped around them, they will wai, or bow, respecting the power (saksit) contained within

It's all a bit much for a Westerner to understand, much less imitate.  Here is the shrine atop the bookcase in our apartment, with two Buddha statues, Kwan Yin, Ganesha, and a small Christian St. Francis cross in the back, with numerous amulets tucked underneath the larger icon's throne.  The candle holders were brought from Wat Pathum the other night.  We lay garlands of flowers around the four icons every Wan Phra (Monk Day on the four monthly phases of the moon) and Nan places offerings of water (Ganesha prefers red) in front of three of them.  I readily accompany my wife when she goes to a temple for tumboon and I mumble along with the monk's chanting and accept gratefully the blessings of water and an occasional string tied around the wrist.  Religious practices in Asia are all consuming compared to the sabbath-only sterile religiosity of the West.  I first experienced the popular piety of the masses when I went to India in 2004 and visited numerous Hindu temples where I was surrounded by a variety of devotees, particularly families with children, who imbibed the sacred mysteries in the darkened inner sanctum in a tumult of sounds and smells by firelight.

The path to understanding what is not so much a religion as a way of life begins for a farang in the head.  I've been gathering with expats in Bangkok for several years to listen to Buddhist speakers from different traditions and to discuss among ourselves the meaning of the teachings.  Recently I met with the BuddhistPsychos, a group seen here wrestling with an understanding of "emptiness," a Buddhist notion that leaves the ego diminished if not destroyed.  What's left of the self, we ask ourselves.  We're reading and discussing Heart-Wood From the Bo Tree by the Buddhist monk and reformer Buddhadasa Bhikku who has little patience with animist superstitions and Hindu accretions.  Yet there seems to be a wide gulf between such cerebral debates about doctrine and what Thai followers of the Buddha are doing at shrines and temples. I wish more visitors and expat residents could have the experience of Buddhist worship, the rituals that American Buddhists have pretty much discarded.  I wonder how much of the baby is in the bath water?

A small group of mostly long-term expats in Thailand meets monthly for wide-ranging discussions which sometimes touch on religion, particularly as it impacts our understanding of politics and culture in Southeast Asia.  Last week, one of the members presented Peter A. Jackson's chapter on "Virtual Divinity" from Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, and the ensuing debate on the interrelationship of Buddhism and Hinduism which forms public perceptions of the monarchy was heated and stimulating.  Jackson, a historian from Australia, has written an excellent book on the reformist monk, Buddhadasa: Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand.  The presenter reiterated Jackson's argument that modernization in Thailand has failed to expunge Brahmanist and magical beliefs from home-grown Buddhism and they are now being used to promote veneration of the monarch as a semi-deity.  I questioned whether Thai religious practices could ever be contained within a box labeled "Buddhism," and argued that "a religion" is an artificial misnomer, the product of academic study.  Another member of the group, with an extensive background in art history, countered that we can know much about Hinduism and Buddhism through their images and architecture.  And I responded, as a social historian, that art is timeless and represents institutional authority, whereas it is extremely difficult to know the actual practices and beliefs of ancient (often non-literate) actors.

In a northern suburb of Bangkok on Makha Bucha, more than 50,000 members of the Dhammakaya sect, monks in orange as well as lay people in white, gathered together in the gigantic facilities, that resemble not so much a temple full of devotees as a Buddhist version of the Nuremberg rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl as "Triumph of the Will," a chilling taste of the fascism that brought war to Europe a few years later.  The Thai followers of Dhammakaya are well off enough to support the huge costs of such mass meetings, and the organizers are astute and relentless in collecting donations.  Another recent movement among Buddhists in Thailand is Santi Asoke, a sect of strict moralists originally influenced by Bhuddhadasa but later to reject his liberalism.  The founder is Samana Photirak who is an ally of Chamlong Srimuang, the charismatic leader of the neo-fascist yellow shirts.  Excommunicated by the Buddhist Sangha Council for his radical views, Photirak recently said the border dispute with Cambodia "is a national problem. The Santi Asoke followers cannot allow the government to continue what it has been doing and see Thai territory being gradually occupied."  I fail to see how the teachings of Buddha say anything about protecting national territory.  If anything, a spirit of emptiness should prompt us to become free from such entanglements as property and national identity. Rory McKenzie, a Christian minister and former missionary who lectures annually at my university in Bangkok, has written an excellent overview of both groups, New Religious Movements in Thailand (Routledge, 2006).

I am rather attracted to a form of Buddhism that promotes kindness and compassion and that values generosity over Brahmanical myths and rituals which encourage patriotism and subservience.  And I experience this behavior constantly in the community and at my school among the students and my teaching colleagues.  Dr. Sman invited me to his 6th cycle birthday (72 years), a most auspicious occasion, and it began in a graduate class of temple abbots studying public administration when he presented refreshments to his students and they gifted him with flowers, vitamin drinks, and Buddhist icons.  That evening, 80 of his intimate friends were fed and entertained by Dr. Sman in an upscale restaurant's private room.  I was fortunate to be the (only) farang guest of honor.  Most of the people there were current and former students as well as fellow teachers.  Dr. Sman is a man of many talents and they were serenaded by his music students who sang songs that he had written.  My own 6th cycle birthday is coming in July and Dr. Sman's party will be a hard act to follow.

Last week I played Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" for my third year undergraduates majoring in English at MCU Wang Noi, the new campus near Ayutthaya.  It seemed to be a good choice since old Slowhand was performing that very evening in Bangkok.  They listened carefully to the song twice and chose missing words on the lyric sheet from a vocabulary list.  My students seem to like this weekly musical exercise and I think it helps them with listening and comprehension.  I've asked them to suggest songs and performers for future exercises but this group has so far been quiet.  Finally, one monk raised his hand and humbly asked if I might play music by entertainers who were "not so old."  Why, Clapton is only 65, a comparative youth, I thought.  I gave up my plan to play something this week by the Eagles who performed last night here, looking on the TV news clip like a bunch of old hippie geezers.  OK, I said.  Justin Bieber or Lady GaGa?  I saw their eyes light up.  For my song this week I will playing for them "Bad Romance" by the new reincarnation of Madonna (now an old lady).  I viewed the video for the song and decided it was a bit too over the top for monks.  I hope the lyrics (i.e.,"I want your psycho, Your vertical stick, Want you in my rear window, 'Cause baby you're sick") will pass muster. 


Anonymous said...

"Bad Romance" - what terrible words !!

I hope you change it to something more enlightening for the monks, than the original words ... Haha

sam said...

Just found these notes I made when I first read this post.

Will the Real Buddha Please Stand Up? Is there one, and if there was would s/he? I have my doubts on both counts.

It's all a bit much for a Westerner to understand, much less imitate. I can understand trying to understand, but imitate something you're not, why would anyone want to?

...trees defined as sacred by the colored cloth wrapped around them I got warned off once when trying to photograph one of these. Was my interest piqued or stifled?

...shrine atop the bookcase Westerners who use Buddhas as ornaments on the floor do not offend the tolerant Buddhists of my acquaintance. This is a plus.

...sabbath-only sterile religiosity of the West This is a bit harsh, surely?