Friday, September 30, 2011

If Old MacDonald had a Farm in Thailand

This would be it...

Last weekend we visited The Scenery Vintage Farm in the hills above Ratchaburi, a three-hour drive from Bangkok.  You can go there virtually on their colorful web site.  The place was packed with Thai tourists eager to participate in the American faux farm experience.  I was amazed to see many similar farm resorts along the road in the hilly area called Suan Phung (bee garden) catering to people on holiday whose idea of a good time is to feed sheep.  The neighboring Swiss Valley Farm  (and "Hip Resort") features a European angle and sports a windmill.  Another resort has a Flintstones theme. (All have Facebook pages.) The road was lined with tour buses and, according to reports, rooms are booked solid.  I may have been the only farang at Scenery Farm.  You can only laugh so long at the irony.

LPN, the conglomerate that manages our condo, Lumpini Place, as well as many others in Bangkok, had organized a day trip and we joined four busloads of travelers to take donations to home for mentally disabled children in the province.  Ratchaburi, which means "City of the King (usually shortened to "Rat-Buri"), stretches from the Gulf of Thailand west to the border of Burma. After unloading our gifts into a pickup truck, we filed across the large campus to the dining hall and watched while the boys and girls arrived for lunch.  I felt a little embarrassed at the "show" as the meal was illuminated by flashes from dozens of cameras, but the kids seemed use to it.  We took turns serving food.  Many of the guests sat down to help the residents eat.  Even those able to eat by themselves seemed to enjoy the attention.  Nan found a girl whose appetite was bottomless.  She had three helpings of rice and chicken and several of soup, and all the kids had left by the time she finished.  Some of the vacant stares on the faces of the children were heart-breaking, and I'm glad the government of Thailand has established such centers.  I couldn't translate the school's official name but you can browse their website (in Thai) here.

After the children ate and returned to their rooms, we sat down for lunch at tables in the auditorium of the school.  The entertainment was a surprise.  While we dined on a delicious meal prepared at the direction of the Lumpini organizers, a group of kathoeys (lady boys) from Ratchaburi put on a fabulous stage show.  Lip-syncing to recorded Thai songs, they wore extravagant costumes and danced with professional aplomb.  Vegas girls could not do it better.  A group of the children followed, although several kept wandering off stage, and the entertainment ended with Lumpini personnel and guests trying their hand at karaoke.

Our next stop on the caravan through Ratchaburi was Baan Hom Thien ("Home of Sweet-smelling Candles") not far away in Suan Phung.  It was the epitome of a manufactured tourist attraction, charging a small fee (paid for in our approximately $10 field trip ticket) for visitors to wander through a lovely hillside garden with stalls offering food and drink and shops selling...candles.  In addition to the wax objects in every size and color, there were numerous wax-sculpted sheep.  For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why sheep (which appear to be rare in Thailand) were the focus.  There were little wax sheep and big wax sheep and sheep on lots of different tee shirts.  There were even small rocking sheep for children to ride on.  We didn't buy any candles but we did get a cold drink and ice cream, each in its own bamboo container (which we brought home as souvenirs).

Our final destination was Scenery Vintage Farm.  Spread out over several acres, the farm included several faux barns, an amusement zone with games and prizes (all cuddly stuffed sheep in different sizes), pony rides, an archery range, a non-working ferris wheel ("Coming Soon!"), several gift stores named "Sheepie Sheep Shop," and a herd of sheep who appeared to be ravenously hungry, eating all of the long green leaves the crowd of temporary farm hands were offering.  In the middle of a field was a giant sculpture of a dog, for no apparent reason.  A sign advertised sheep milk ice cream "coming soon!"  I can pass that up.  It was all quite pleasant and decidedly odd.

Almost every Thai house and business has spirit houses standing outside to placate bad spirits who might want to come inside.  There are usual two, one for Chao tii, the animist "spirit of the place," on four legs, and the other on a taller pedestal for Phra phum, the "spirit of the land," a deva of Hindu origin.  While most are quite traditional, there are some modern innovations and designs near new Bangkok skyscrapers.  The spirit houses at Scenery Farm are radically different and quite strange.  They appeared to me to be copies of adobe houses somewhere in the Southwest U.S.A., far from the typical farm scene depicted elsewhere.

Outside the children's center there was a more typical pair of spirit houses.   It's important to remember that these ubiquitous cultural objects have nothing to do with Buddhism, although they blend seamlessly with the constellation of Thai religiosity.  Before lunch, the children folded their hands and chanted a prayer to the Buddha.  Every room of the school contains a portrait of the King and Queen, no less religious objects.  Taking gifts to the school on our part was an act of generosity, what Thais call "tam boon," the primary religious practice, more central to their faith than meditation (something that puzzles American Buddhists when they come to study in Thailand).

In my blog post yesterday, I attempted to sketch some of my thoughts about differences in Buddhism so great as to challenge the unitary nature of the world religion's name.  Can all of the various manifestations of Buddhism fit in the same big tent?  When I called myself a Catholic, friends who were atheists would accuse me of heresy because I doubted the Incarnation (was Jesus really God?) and the Resurrection; they were more orthodox in their unbelief than I.  Within contemporary Buddhism, there are skeptics like Stephen Batchelor who doubts the common understanding of karma and rebirth, and some would like to banish them (and other secularists, progressives, punks and pragmatists) from the Buddhist tent.  Who or what determines Buddhist and the authenticity of teachings of the dhamma/dharma?  Traditionalists claim knowledge of the "original" and "pure" teachings from the Pali texts and declare reinterpretations invalid.  In Thailand there is tension and difference between the institutional Sangha Council which centralizes and regulates practices according to political declarations and the localized, hybridized spirituality centered around village temples which borrows freely from animist and Indian non-Buddhist traditions.  Can anyone be a Buddhist without certification of some kind?

A good friend took me to task for my post yesterday, saying the "historical" Buddha was indeed a Buddhist and clearly intended, "from whatever reading of Buddhism you choose," to set up a religion.  He is a serious follower of Buddhism and I always take his criticisms seriously (unless they become personal).  But I believe here it is the voice of faith speaking (which I do not take lightly).  From my study of history, however, I am confident that the English words "religion" and "Buddhism" are of recent invention, perhaps no more than two hundreds years ago, and were classifications created by western academics, sometimes to marginalize Asian spirituality.  We need other descriptions for cultural activities prior to the establishment of institutions, and hundreds of years before there is any historical evidence.  I question whether the Buddha's community of followers, the sangha, counts as a religion in the modern sense.  And I think it's anachronistic to call their leader a "Buddhist."  And finally, while I believe there was probably a real spiritual teacher, Siddhattha Gotama, on the subcontinent in the 5th century BCE, whose teachings were singularly impressive to his followers, I'm not sure the words and stories ascribed to him are true in the factual sense.  I think the search for a "pure," "original" and "universal" Buddhist teaching is fruitless.

Does this get me kicked out of the Buddhist tent?


Marcus said...

Hi Will,

Thank you for responding mate.
I think I see your point about the words Buddhism and Religion.

But what about all the early converts to Buddhism (long long before the religion had a western label).

I mean, people like Asvaghosa, Ashoka (possibly), Menander the First, and countless millions of others who at some point as Buddhism spread across Asia decided to take formal Buddhist refuge and either enter into or support Buddhist institutions?

They never had a western label, but they were clearly moving from one world view and set of institutions into another one.

All of which was a process that began with the Buddha himself as he spent decades spreading his teachings, and building his institution.

As for the tent, it's a very very large one!

Thanks so much for the discussion and sorry if I've misunderstood your point somewhere along the line. I'm afraid I often do!

All the best,


Anonymous said...

Excellent post as usual Will. Enjoy your writing and wit.