Sunday, August 12, 2007

Redefining the Spiritual

All hail the Queens of Heaven. Mary, the Blessed Virgin, whose assumption into heaven is celebrated by the Church universal today, and Sirikit, Queen of Thailand, whose 75th birthday is celebrated today by her subjects. Since today is also Mother's Day in Thailand, all hail the nurturing work of mothers.

At the end of this first week in Bangkok, I got up early and walked for a half hour under the unfamiliar sunny skies to Holy Redeemer Church on Ruam Rudee Lane not far from the American Embassy. It is run by Passionist fathers, and I've been there on previous visits, enjoying the mixture of Thai and Christian iconography, and the side open doors which let in the breeze. Most of my fellow worshipers at the 8:30 mass were Asians, with a sprinkling of Anglos and blacks. One man, rather the kneel before sitting down, prostrated himself in the aisle on a white cloth as if he were in a mosque or Buddhist temple saying his daily prayers. I caught the eye of a Chinese baby who was at that age where all life is a delight. We should be so enlightened!

What does it mean to be spiritual or religious? Close readers know I've been pondering my religious identity, and have attempt to strip down to the essentials: love others and live life. What about the usual sins and distractions that shake our control? Jesus, after all, consorted with sinners, tax collectors and even prostitutes. Can the divine be found at Nana, the entertainment palace up the street from my new digs? And what if I taste forbidden fruit? Can it be done with love and respect?

Here in Thailand, everything seems to be included in the spiritual. Spirit houses, refurbished daily with food and flowers, are outside most houses and commercial buildings, as well as inside the Nana complex of bars. Everywhere wears protective string and bands on their wrists. Pictures of the King and Queen are omnipresent, like so many royal shrines before which Thais bow, wai, and show respect. Is royalty divine here, or has the line between the human and the divine become blurred? At times it feels as if my pilgrim's path is a tight wire and I dare not look down.

At other times, like in the "Family Bar-B-Q" restaurant last night, I find joy in the nitty gritty of the physical. I went with Jerry and his wife Lamyai, along with her daughter Pok and a friend. Inside the barn-like structure, large groups of mostly Thais barbecued hunks of meat and fish on braziers of charcoal at each table, adding vegetables and noodles and strange items I could not recognize. I was pretty poor at toasting my meat (which looks pretty gross when raw, you must admit) and watched the teenagers to pick up their technique. My food kept slipping off the domed grill into the watery moat, which I filled with shrimp. Syrupy Thai pop music played loudly and several large TV screens displayed a soccer game for the bar-b-quers. Waiters and waitresses circulated filling up glasses. Pok and her friend giggled and offered me a blue frozen popsicle, made Thai style mysteriously in a big bucket. Lamyai's daughter has a nose piercing and, according to Jerry, a tattoo, pretty advanced for a girl from a small village in the province of Surin.

I also felt joyfully embedded among humanity at Chatuchak Market at the end of the Skytrain line yesterday morning. Spread over a number of acres, the covered stalls were packed with sellers and buyers, and every manner of goods, from clothing to puppies and kittens. It was possible not to get lost among the jammed aisles, which was part of the fun. Around one corner I found two Thais dressed in cowboy outfits and playing bluegrass on a guitar and banjo. Around another was my favorite stall selling Communist chic, clothing and posters with now-outdated symbols and slogans (except for the abundant anti-Bush paraphernalia). The "Internationale" played continuously. I also cheered for the artistry of the Thai iced tea maker who stirred his concoction by tossing the liquid from one container to another through the air; a pack of Japanese tourists took photographs but I'd neglected to bring mine, so the moment goes unrecorded.

After a couple of hours the heat began to get to me and I hobbled to the Skytrain station on my arthritic knee for the ride back to Sukhumvit. At Asia Books, one of the large chains that features English offerings, I bought the new Lonely Planet guide for Thailand which had just gone on sale. And I also bought a discount card for future purchases, since I plan to be around for awhile. I filled out the form, got a temporary card, and the permanent one will be sent to my new postal address. It made me feel like more of a resident, a homie rather than a tourist.

There are two English language newspapers in Bangkok, the Post and the Nation. Only the Post had apartments for rent classified ads, and so I've been buying it daily for the last week. I suspect that the other paper is more of a government mouthpiece, but that remains to be verified. The Post is a good read, with hard and soft news from all over the world. There has been much lately about the financial crisis in the west which is spreading to Asian markets. Now economics, the "dismal science," is not my field. I'm having a hard time understanding the significance of the dollar's drop against the baht which means I get less bang for my buck. Apparently it means also that Thais have a harder time selling their now more expensive goods to the Americas, and so economists here are trying to figure out how to lower the value of the baht. I'm rooting for them. But the present financial crisis, apparently sparked by the collapse of the U.S. housing market, is affecting all the stock exchanges. It is a "liquidity" crisis, whatever that means. Not enough money to go around? Wealth is drying up? I've always thought the stock market was a legal crap shoot anyway. Jerry worries for his children who expected to see their houses increase in value. Gambling on real estate seemed to me to be somewhat unethical. Nature should be the patrimony of all. But then I'm just a dammed tree hugger.

Today I return to Siam Paragon for a date with a new internet acquaintance. My first date, with another woman, was at the same place earlier this week, and after dinner she took me next door to Wat Padum Vanara which is nestled between the towering temples to consumer shopping. Within the large hall, filled with icons of the Buddha and various honored monks, we sat on chairs and meditated while chanting filled the air. It was peaceful and restful, an anecdote to jet lag. Even though my meditation discipline has been weak in recent weeks, the stillness descended like a comfortable security blanket, and I resented the wakeup call 15 minutes later. Another new friend has been gathering information for me on retreats and meditation centers that offer teaching in English. As soon as I settle down in my new 7th floor monk's cell on Soi 4, I hope to find a regular sangha with which to sit.

This, along with Sunday mass, will begin to define the contours of my new spiritual path here in Bangkok.

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