Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Goes Round, Comes

Will it go round in circles 
Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky 
Will it go round in circles 
Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky

These orphans are putting on a show for three busloads of condo residents on a Sunday field trip who descended on their group home, SOS Childrens Village, in the province of Samut Prakan recently to make merit and see the sights.  Making merit, or tamboon in Thai, is the central practice of people's Buddhism in Thailand (as opposed to what monks do),  and it essentially means "doing good."  It's quite similar to the Hebrew mitzvah, a moral deed performed as a religious duty.  After the hula hoop dance, one elderly woman handed out 20 baht notes to the kids, which they dutifully gave to their teacher.  While some Thai Buddhists may do good in order to get something in return (a winning lottery number, happiness, a good rebirth), my perception is that cultivating the habit of giving to those in need, which is on display everywhere here, results in a culture of generosity.

After lunch at a seaside restaurant, the bus caravan continued on to Siri Wattana Cheshire Foundation home for developmentally disabled adults where the residents put on another show for us.  This performance included these three ladies in wheel chairs who danced with their hands to a karaoke song sung by one of their guardians.  The graceful dancer in their middle is a katoey.  With that smile and without the chair she could have been the star of the famed Calypso ladyboy show in Bangkok.  While some of the other residents clearly required care, her disability was nowhere on display.

The day trip began with a visit to the Erawan Museum with its giant three-headed elephant, the heavenly Airavata of Hindu mythology.  The large building on which the statue rests contains art and sculpture commemorating all religious faiths, and it is surrounded by a lovely garden featuring numerous statues of Asian religious figures.  Part tourist attraction and part Buddhist temple, before going into the museum we lit candles and incense and lay flowers on an altar outside.  The culmination of our journey was a visit to the Crocodile Farm, an aging and somewhat seedy combination zoo and croc hatchery where thousands of them are bred for leathery items.  The elephant show featured pachyderms demeaning themselves (riding a bike, standing on two feet, gorging on bananas supplied by audience members), while the croc show was unexpectedly thrilling.  First, the handlers showed the ferocity of crocodile jaws slapping shut with a loud "pop," and then they tempted the creatures with hands and heads to bite.  I suspect some kind of hypnosis was involved.

School's out for summer!  Summer in Thailand, that is.  I finished giving final exams to my two classes and will turn in grades for them on Saturday.  Here is a video made by my 4th year students majoring in English who will graduate after this term. I taught them English for two terms, and this term I taught a new class in translation.  Since the native language for up to half of them is not Thai, it was a challenge. Because the source language for the translation was a mystery to me, I did my best to help them produce a smooth version in the target language, English.  I'm told they enjoyed the class.  I encouraged them to keep in touch after they graduate.  One monk from Laos plans to disrobe and become a policeman in Luang Prabang and I said I hoped I could visit him someday.  I love his city.

Teachers and students now have a two-month vacation.  Not Nan, however, who plans to take three evening classes in summer school at her university.  My goal for the vacation is to prepare a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation for my talk on "Big Tent Buddhism" at the Day of Vesak conference on June 1 at my university.  Since the paper I wrote is two dozen pages, shrinking it won't be easy.  Dr. Dion has been trying to convince me to ordain with him as a monk for the month of April, but I had to explain that my knees would no longer permit me to sit or kneel in meditation.  His point is that ordaining is tamboon, an act of merit which can be dedicated for the wellbeing of others.

Others certainly need it.  My friend Bev tripped on uneven pavement and broke her ankle in three places. Ian and I visited her at the BNH Hospital on Convent Road the other day where she is recuperating in a luxurious room from an operation to pin her bones back together.  She must spend the next six weeks confined to her apartment to allow the bones to heal.  Yesterday I dropped in on Jerry and borrowed one of his walking canes which is becoming a necessity.  I found him sorting pills, a 10-day supply, to keep his pacemaker in good order and avoid another heart attack.  An old friend from my music daze surfaced on Facebook and mentioned she had MS.  Another is battling leukemia.  It's a war zone out there.

Nan is going home to Phayao for Songkran in two weeks, the traditional Thai New Year which is celebrated as a secular water-throwing festival.  I was introduced to it in 2008 when I went to Chiang Mai and spent three days in the streets with the crowds.  I got soaked and ruined a camera, but it was lots of fun.  Last year we stayed dry by vacationing in Hong Kong.  Nan told me that although there would be a big tamboon in the temple, the holiday in her village is celebrated by drinking and partying and I might feel uncomfortable since I might be asked to supply the whisky.  So I'm staying home.  She will see her brother for the first time since the motorbike accident that put his girlfriend in the hospital.  Nan had to sell her gold to pay for the medical bill (140,000 baht/$4,600), which did not make us happy.  In Thailand, family comes first and she was the savior.  Since our trip to Phayao during the floods last November when we celebrated Loi Krathong, the other secular Thai water festival, the possibility of eventually retiring in the country is looking less likely.  The house I thought was ours really belongs to Nan's cousin Edward, and my fantasies of the rural life have dissipated.

I'm not convinced that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds punished. but most religions seems to recognition this basic moral transaction.  I side with Ivan Karamazov who rejected a god that would permit peasant children to be torn apart by a master's dogs, or (to update) rogue soldiers in Afghanistan who would slaughter women and children.  A brain trauma, or bad chemicals, is not a satisfactory excuse.  Americans at least are up in arms at the murder of a black teenager wearing a hoodie in Florida who was shot by a voluntary security guard in a gated community.  Although the older vigilante claimed self defense, the teen's only weapons were a bag of candy and a bottle of green tea.  In other depressing news from the U.S., former veep Dick Cheney got a new heart (many thought he never had one), the Republican party has declared war on women in its attempt to control reproduction (read Frank Rich, "Stag Party"), the filmmaker of the viral video Kony 2012 had a public mental breakdown as did a pilot for a JetBlue flight to Vegas, the Sierra Club was discovered accepting money from gas firms engaged in environmentally destructive fracking, the Supreme Court is about to rule against Obamacare, and "Mad Men" has returned to TV for its fifth season (when the present is too horrible, retreat to the 1960s).

Here in Bangkok, life goes round in slow tropical circles.  I've written little about the politics of Thailand recently because most of what I hear or read are rumors and innuendo.  Will Thaksin return or won't he?  Why won't the Pheu Thai party, brought into power by the red shirts, stop imprisoning people for speaking (not slandering) about the monarchy?  Will Thailand ever have 3G service (more suggestions of corruption behind the scenes)? Twice this month I've gone to listen to the guru of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, once at a conference on "Democracy and Crisis in Thailand" at Chulalongkorn University along with Thongchai Winichakul whose book, Siam Mapped, I spoke about at the last monthly meeting of our IDEA discussion group. Both academics gave me the idea of researching the ideology of "Thainess" and its role in political strife and change in Thailand.  Aside from such weighty subjects, this month we attended the elaborate engagement party of Tony and Chuti and went to see "Mirror Mirror," the semi-successful satire on Snow White.  Oh, and I enjoyed reading Robert Crais' The Sentry.

In my last blog I wrote about identity and my experience of being "un-American."  I didn't speak of religion which is a powerful badge of identity (trumping even one's favorite sports team).  Here was a group of Muslims I stumbled upon this month in the large shopping mall down the street from my apartment where they had chosen to perform their daily prayer amongst the shoppers, a very strange sight.  Thainess is based on the trilogy of: Nation, King, Religion.  Since Buddhism is the dominant religion, Muslims in the south along with Christians and Taoists in the northern hill tribes can never be fully Thai.  I once felt the need of a religious identity and became a Catholic Christian because of the influence of the writings of Thomas Merton.  It was an on-again, off-again affair, with several intense periods, but when I moved to Bangkok and stopped going to mass, I dropped it.  Despite my fascination and appreciation of Buddhism, I doubt that I will ever adopt the label of Buddhist.  I no longer feel the need of describing myself in that way.  Another identity I'm resisting at the moment is that of elderly.  When Nan saw me walking with Jerry's cane she was shocked, and said "you look old!"  Too true, but that's what's come round this time.


Roxanne said...

Hi, Will:

I am so sorry about the house in the country falling through. It seemed like you were really looking forward to that.

The video made by your students is wonderful. I really enjoyed watching it.

I, too, am not (at all) convinced that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds punished. I do not recognise this "basic moral transaction," as you so aptly described it. After I escaped my daughter's abusive father, he continued to torture me and caused what little money I had (including my retirment plan) to be absorbed by court costs. I found it very unsettling, nauseating even, when people tried to cheer me up by saying, "Don't worry; he'll be punished by God in the afterlife." Um, although meant well, somehow not very comforting.

Take care,

rich.1 said...

Yes it's a shame the house in Phayao may be no longer available. However, Bangkok is a great place to be. I'm a great fan of Saxophone jazz club at Victory Monument, and the great (cheap) foodstalls and restaurants to be found there. And despite unhealthy levels of consumerism and the overt materialism, I still like the energy and 'busyness' of Siam. You can get the best of both worlds!

ps I fully understand your escaping Songkran last year for the delights of HK. Even travelling by bus can be 'dangerous'. The potential for soggy clothes and dead cameras can take the gloss off the festival for me.

rich.1 said...

Oh and I also meant to say that your references to events and stories from back home in the US (recent as in Afghanistan and past as in the life and crimes of John Foster Dulles) are appreciated. Although as a Brit (now in New Zealand) I am in a weaker position to comment on United States issues than yourself maybe, I do share your concerns. I also know how it feels to feel separated idealogically as well as geographically from your native land.I found this quote recently:
"The important thing to remember about American history is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children or the easily bored. For the most part it is uninspected, unimagined, unthought, a representation of the thing not the thing itself. It is a fine fiction.
Neil Gaiman
American Gods

Again warm regards

Anonymous said...

sorry to hear about your future house no going through

You will still retire in Thailand though?

Enjoy your writings!

Elizabeth said...

What a great video that your students made! You must have the best teaching job, I am very envious...

Thai Buddhism and culture really has me stumped sometimes... will continue reading for other opinions and points to ponder, thanks!