Thursday, September 27, 2007

Self on a Hot Tin Roof

Desire is the hot tin roof of Tennessee Williams' play. Only instead of cats leaping around, it is the chimera of the self that steps lively from one desire to the other, ever seeking happiness and never fully satisfied. This is the picture that Phra Cittasamvaro painted in the fifth of his six talks at the Baan Aree Library in Bangkok this week. (My choice of illustration is the "Allegory of Gluttony and Lust" by Hieronymus Bosch.)

Pandit gave a nuanced view of tanha, the Pali word for desire or craving, which, in his Second Noble Truth, the Buddha said was the cause of dukkha, or suffering. The problem, as Pandit tried to point out, is that not all desire, in a broad sense, is bad. Aspiration, for example, is the form of desire that motivates the search for enlightenment or that seeks loving kindness for all creation. How can we distinguish between desire that enslaves and desire that liberates?

In the Sakkapanha Sutta, the Buddha dialogues with Sakka, a manifestation of the divinity Indra (who is called "Ruler of the Gods") and tells him that desire "arises from thinking… when the mind thinks about something, desire arises; when the mind thinks about nothing, desire does not arise." This seems not very helpful because, as biological creatures, born to live briefly and then die, part of our nature, due to an active brain, is to think. Non-thinking is for those with prefrontal lobotomies.

Desire causes suffering, Pandit reminded us, but he said that, as with all of the Buddha's teachings, this needs to be investigated. "The Buddha says what to look at, not what to do." The dhamma, from this perspective, seems to me not so much a recipe as a road map. It does not offer a prescription for every illness, but rather it helps us to become physicians.

Cognition keeps slipping away, Pandit said. It's hard to keep the mind on topic. But this instability of mind does not seem to be really suffering. The slip sliding away of thoughts is an invitation to see what is really there. Difficult change, like going to jail in his youth for an unnamed offense, Pandit said, can often be positive and help to redirect unsatisfactory behavior. Meditation can help as well, but the problem of craving remains after the meditation ends. Pandit illustrated the ways the mind submits to desire by telling stories of his love for power tools and of his need to justify himself in the face of criticism. The best solution in each case was to step back and observe the workings of the mind rather than to be driven by them.

"You don't have to bash desires on the head to get rid of them," Pandit told us. You don't even have to give up sensory desires. But you do have to look at them, observe them. When we see our capitulation to desire, we are like scientists watching laboratory rats as they control their movements by stimulating pleasure centers in their brains. We can be the parent watching their child in a supermarket reaching out a hand for every colorful package on the shelf. And we can stay two feet behind our own outstretched hand. In this way, our desire begin to lose their ability to control us.

"We can enjoy pleasant things," Pandit said. "The trick is not to need them."

Buddhism has been called a "psychology of desire." "Like a monkey swinging from tree to tree in a forest," The Buddha says in The Dhammapada, a person's desires keep him leaping from life to life pursuing every-illusive satisfaction." But, as Pandit explained with the desire, or aspiration, for enlightenment, all desires are not the same. Eknath Easwaran translates the Pali tanha as "selfish desire" to distinguish between desires that promote and enhance (dare we say create?) the ego, and transforming desires that seek to extinguish or transform the ego or self.

Christianity and Buddhism seem on the surface to have very different understandings of desire. Desire for the Christian is wrong or sinful if the object of desire is not God, but rather something that serves only the self. In Hinduism, bhakti, or devotion for the divine is one way to the truth, co-equal with the paths of action and knowledge. Both Buddhism and Christianity, as well as other spiritual traditions, point toward a transcendence of the self-centered ego which can lead to an identification with all creation and concern for others. Desire, then, can be either a preoccupation with the self and its own well being or a thirst for release from the demands of the self. Either enslavement or liberation. In this sense, both the abandonment of the self in Buddhism and the mystical union with God in Christianity are similar in that each promises relief from the petty ego and all its drama.

Desire, of course, is best known in its sexual form. Because desire in general gets a bad rap, sex is inherently seen by fundamentalists as sinful, evil, the source of bad kamma. Why must Catholic priests and Buddhist monks be celibate? Why is it forbidden in some forms of Theravadan Buddhism for women to hand food or gifts directly to monks? Sex is a two-headed sword: It enables us to produce babies and propagate the planet, and it also allows us to indulge in our most self-centered activities, obtaining physical pleasure through the use (often mutual) of another. But it is also possible to transcend the self through love of another and through its physical expression in the sexual act. I find nothing inherently liberating in the idea of sexless love. Arguments for celibacy generally focus on the model (Jesus was a single man, Buddha left his wife and family) or the function -- priests and monks are more effective when their thoughts are undivided by messy relationships. By conceptualizing desire as a unitary notion, we lose the infinite nuances of human motivation.

I think Pandit was trying to express this by telling us several times that we do not have to give up desires, and we certainly do not have to constantly bash them over the head to make them go away. We can enjoy them. "The trick is not to need them."

The discussion of desire always hits close to home. A friend of mine who does not mince words recently wrote me that "I can only suspect that your sex addiction dominates your life." She calls Thailand "the brothel of the world" and believes that its charms for old men like me can only be the result of its available (for a price) women. Methinks she protesteth too much, for our relationship, in the end, was more an intellectual engagement than a physical one. I was also a disappointment to her when I chose Thailand to begin a new life rather than somewhere more unusual and challenging, like the Arabian Desert. And it is true that romance and sex is a component of my motivation. My aspiration (lets leave enslaving desire out of it) has been to find happiness and fulfillment in the arms of a Thai woman. Is that a "sex addiction

I prefer to think that I am seeking beauty in all of her forms. Beauty for a Thai is jai dee, a "good heart." Perhaps I am addicted to the idea that this lumpy, aging body of mine is just as viable and beautiful as a young one, and that what is important about me are not my thoughts, my identities or my accomplishments. It is what's inside my heart that counts. There, in the cave of my heart, I trust that divinity resides; I will know this for certain only when selfish ego concerns are put away. What my friend calls "sex addiction" is more like blindness of the heart, and a preoccupation with the superficial self that finds physical release in the objectification of others. Where we stand on this continuum is always shifting, but I hope and pray that my thoughts and deeds be ever kind and compassionate.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Big Questions

Why are you in Bangkok? What do you want?

These questions have been asked of me lately by a variety of friends, old and new. I can't answer them easily. But I know I must make a stab at it. So today, on yellow Monday, when the street vendors take a day off and the sidewalks are unusually clear, I will sit in Starbucks while my apartment at Siam Court is being cleaned and see what comes up.

I am living in Southeast Asia, the mysterious Far East, because it is different and unusual. "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore!" I have lived in the United States for more than sixty years, and it was time for a change. Though I love the land, and the soul of the people, the fraudulent government in Washington is not to my liking, and I did not see things getting better. Many Americans are spoiled by success and the country is ripe for a fascist takeover. Perhaps it is underway. A rude awakening is coming, an economic crash, the slow bleeding of another generation from the wars abroad, maybe another natural disaster with which the authorities cannot cope. My leaving is a statement of noncooperation.

I have returned to Thailand because I once tasted the sweet fruit of romance on the island of Koh Samui and I want that feeling again. In the United States people my age are invisible to anyone younger. Here, it seems (and appearances can be deceiving), my age and physique do not count against me. Love always involves negotiation, and I have no illusions that I am a Brad Pitt or even Sean Connery. Because I can afford to travel here, I am wealthy by Asian standards. Old men have jai dee, I have been told again and again, a "good heart." The Thai women I have met are looking for a foreigner with white skin to take care of them, their children and their extended family. Many have suffered from broken hearts. "Thai men gamble and drink too much," they say to me. "They are butterflies, they go with many women." Old men are perceived to be stable and faithful. Unlike their young counterparts, old men are seen as less sexually demanding, more willing to offer security in a Thai economy with vast disparities in wealth. Another reason for marrying an older farang, I recently learned, was because "they die soon." That certainly is part of the equation. In exchange, these tiny long-haired beauties, who dislike their own dark skin, offer western men care and comfort not unlike the Total Woman ideal promised by conservative American wives in the distant past.

I am not unaware of the strings attached. Love between farang men and Thai women is a minefield. I have heard about the casualties first hand from my friend Marcus whose Thai wife left him within weeks after the birth of their son, and refuses to grant visitation rights. The internet forums are full of horror stories. Love here means marriage, and the husband must pay the girl's family a bride price, or reverse dowry, which can amount to thousands of dollars, higher of course for western men who are often seen as walking ATM machines. Sometimes it is just for show, to keep up appearances, and the full or partial amount is returned to the couple. Jerry is just back from Surin where his wife's son is to be married, and they have agreed to pay 150,000 baht, a third of that in gold. This means Lamyai will not get the truck she has wanted. But helping her son is more important. I find it a curious and unacceptable custom, but when in Rome...

Romance is not all I am seeking. I want to deepen my understanding of Buddhism and I would like to learn the Thai alphabet, enough to be able to understand some of the street signs (a modest goal, I think). I would also like to see more of the country and the region, and my trip to Laos next week will further that curiosity. Holly encouraged me to think again about teaching and I may look into it as something I could do when I return from India in January. It would certainly solve the long-stay visa problem.

Still, I see that these answers, which have been evolving, do not say enough. Hell, I want to be happy, just like anyone else. I don't want to grow old in a rocking chair, and I sure as hell don't want to end my life drooling into a pillow in a nursing home somewhere. Live fast and die free. Was that someone's motto? I know it's not enough to dedicate my life to taking photographs in foreign countries and writing wordy blogs about my travels, but for now it seems to be sufficient. The universe has yet to give me a more complete answer.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

You've Got Mail!

My cup of joy overflowed yesterday when I found a letter in the mailbox on the second floor of Siam Court where I live from my dear mentor and friend, Noel Q. King. Not only was it a welcome gift, but it was the first mail I've received here (hint, hint, distant friends) and it helped to certify my legitimacy as a Bangkok resident. While I've never much cared for chatting at length on the phone, I have always loved receiving mail. Even junk mail means that someone, somewhere, cares about you. When I was laid up in bed for four months with a broken femur in the late 1950s, I used to send away for college catalogs and travel brochures, and the mail poured in like a cornucopia. Noel writes that he remembers attending Sikh services at the gurdwara near the Flower Market, "so I can imagine something of your surroundings." The other day I passed the market while riding on the Chao Praya River boat taxi. Now I can close my eyes and remember Noel in his study, surrounded by the clutter of papers and books. It's nice to hear from you, my friend.

For the past two days I have been busily making new friends and renewing old acquaintances. On Thursday I spent the afternoon with Marcus who is finishing up a position teaching English at a school here and will leave for another similar job in Seoul, Korea, next week. We met in a discussion of Buddhism on the internet and have been attending the talks by Pandit at the Baan Aree Library. We had lunch at Ricky's Coffeeshop in Banglamphu, the district where Khao San Road, the backpacker's ghetto is located. At the end of our long conversation about the need for more this-worldly passion in the dhamma, as well as talk about wives, children and girlfriends, Marcus took off his shirt to show me his magnificent tattoo. It incorporates two old tattoos, a Winnie the Pooh on his left shoulder and a red star commemorating his Communist upbringing in England on the right. The new design incorporates magical combinations of numbers and Siamese symbols from Buddhist temple architecture. I was jealous and am now contemplating a suitable design to mark my 70th birthday. Ideas anyone?

From Ricky's, Marcus and I took a tuk tuk to Wat Suthat not far away. I wanted to see the Giant Swing (Sao Ching-Cha) in front of the temple which had been rededicated by the King last week. It was originally constructed in 1784 during the reign of Rama I for the ceremony of Tri-yampawai or the Swing Ceremony. The first thing you notice is that there is a huge red frame made out of a number of large teak logs but there is no swing. The ceremony was based on a Hindu legend. According to Wikipedia:
After Brahma created the world he sent Shiva to look after it. When Shiva descended to the earth, Naga serpents wrapped around the mountains in order to keep the earth in place. When Shiva found the earth solid, the Nagas moved to the seas in celebration. The Swing Ceremony is a re-enactment of this story. The pillars of the Giant Swing represent the mountains, while the circular base of the swing represents the earth and the seas. In the ceremony monks swing, trying to grab a bag of coins placed on one of the pillars.
But too many monks were killed during the ceremony when they fell off the swing, so it was discontinued in 1935 and the swing removed from the frame. The swing, considered an important Bangkok landmark, has been rebuilt several times and the latest incarnation was rededicated with much pomp and cirumstance last week. I caught a glimpse of it on the TV in the salon where Nong was giving me a haircut.

Inside Wat Suthat, Marcus and I admired the collection of Buddhas (pictured here, along with someone taking a nap), and sat before the large central Buddha. Young Marcus is able to bend his legs correctly while my knees gave me grief. He pointed out the pillow under one elbow of the Buddha which can only be seen from the side. Daily the monks gather for chanting and I hope to come back soon to hear them, remembering the pleasure of early morning chanting with the monks at Wat Pah Nanachat. From the temple we walked past the swing and crossed the large square in front of the Bangkok city hall to a tent where a brisk sale of amulets was taking place. I bought one with the Suthat Buddha on one side and the swing on the other. Marcus bought a couple more to add to his collection of dozens. Amulets make great gifts and I recall handing out a number of them to my friends at Everyday Dharma Sangha back in Santa Cruz after my first trip here in 2004.

From there we walked through a maze of streets (narrow sidewalks, scarey traffic) to the Golden Mount which could be glimpsed briefly between buildings. The artificial hill is the result of a failed attempt during the reign of Rama III (1824-51) to build a large stupa which collapsed because it was too heavy for the soil. Rama IV (1851-68) constructed a small stupa on the rubble, and Rama V (1868-1910) expanded the structure to house a Buddha relic from India given him by the British Government. We walked through the grounds of Wat Saket at the foot of the hill and up a path that wound around the artificial mount. Up at the top, around the dome pictured here, is a platform with a magnificent 360-degree view of the Bangkok cityscape. Although the skies were dark and promised rain, it was possible to see for miles in all directions. There were three large temple compounds below, interspersed with tin-roofed houses, blocks of shops and crowded thoroughfares. It was not possible to see the river, but I could spot the skyscapers of Silom, Siam and Sukhumvit. Marcus showed me in the distance where he lived in a small room a fourth the cost of mine, but an hour and a half bus ride to the north. A small group on the platform were gathered around a monk in an orange robe while a camera filmed them. Tourists walked discretely around them, gazing at the incredible view. Marcus pointed down the hill to a modern building which he said was the Queen's Art Gallery. The coffee shop had great iced coffee. So we walked back down the hill, ringing the bells on the way, and across an unbelievably dangerous intersection, where my life nearly ended several times, to the museum on the other side. There we looked at some wonderful modern renditions of Buddhist-influenced art. One work, in black and white, told the story of the bandit who collected the thumbs of his victims, stringing them around his neck, and who was enlightened by the Buddha. Hidden in the large painting were representations of Osama Bin Laden as well as Van Gough's sunflowers and "Guernica" by Picasso.

After ice coffee, my last adventure of that day was a ride on a khlong (canal) taxi. Because I was far from the river and the Skytrain, and I didn't want to catch a taxi during the traffic-jammed rush hour, Marcus directed me to the Khlong Saen Saep stop. There I jumped on the long boat, paid the helmeted ticket taker 8 baht, and we were off. According to my Lonely Planet guide, this "canal is seriously polluted and passengers typically hold newspapers over their faces to prevent being splashed by the stinky water. Climbing in and out of the boats can be a little tricky and should not be attempted when decked out in heels and pearls." What isn't mentioned is the reckless speed of the boats which stir up the brown waters into a froth. Side curtains must be hoisted up by the passengers to stay dry, making it a little difficult to view the fascinating life of those who live alongside the khlong. I saw a mynah bird in a cage outside one canal bank dwelling. It's also difficult to determine where one is, the stop signs being poorly marked. Luckily a passanger with a indeterminate European accent told me where to get off near the Siam Square malls and the Skytrain station. I must say I found the smell of the water more curious than offensive. Riding the khlong taxi was more of an exhilarating plunge into the unknown than risky business. I'll do it again.

Yesterday I spent several hours trading stories with Holly while sampling Danube Coffee's cappuccino along with muffins, and miniature pineapple pieces that she'd brought for our brunch at Phloenchit Center on the corner of Sukhumvit and Soi 2. I'd met Holly and her husband at their apartment in Haight Ashbury about eight years ago. She, Lee and Durl and grown up in Maryland and we met Lee one summer on the Eastern Shore. Holly, like me, was a late academic bloomer and she got her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. After working in the mental health field in Los Angeles, they moved to Thailand where each found teaching jobs. Most recently Holly has been teaching graduate students at Assumption University. She was a fund of information about Thai mores, and I learned that a different color is associated with each day of the week. The reason Thais wear yellow shirts on Monday to honor the king is because he was born on a Monday and yellow is its color. Holly wore blue because it was Friday, and Friday was the day on which the queen was born. We're both interested in Buddhism, but not exclusively. She is the treasurer of the Baan Aree Library lecture series, and knows a number of the farang spirit seekers in Bangkok. But she has also spent uality time at Auroville in Pondicherry, India, and is interested in the writings and philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. On the subject of Catholicism, we found substantial disagreements. Now separated from her husband who teaches English in China, Holly lives with the cat she brought over from the states in an old house not that far from me. I am certain our paths will cross often.

Besides having my hair cut by Nong at her salon a short distance from Siam Court, I also treated myself to a foot massage from the ladies at Naree next door. I've gotten massages here before, on previous visits to Bangkok and Koh Samui, but it has taken me a month to entrust my sore feet and aching body to the hands of the ladies who wave to me every time I pass by. Some of it was nervousness over the ground rules and boundaries. When is a massage supposed to be sexual and when is it not? There are massage parlors where numbered ladies wait expectantly behind a window to be chosen by customers who are then taken to a private room and washed and massaged by the naked masseuse "all over." I just had tired feet. So I dropped by Naree one afternoon and they were overjoyed to see me. They wanted to know where I was from, and where I walked to every day as I passed their door. While a sturdy lady with gentle hands worked over my feet, ankles and thighs, Ali from Nong Khai sat to my right, held my hand and related the fortune she spied in my palm. The massage was terrific. And now the ladies, Ali in particular, greet me familiarly as I pass and try to talk me into the 400 baht oil massage. I somehow suspect that there is more to it than oil and gentle hands. But it is nice to be known in my neighborhood.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Turning Puppies Into Tigers

Phra Cittasamvaro told a story last night of when he went up into the hills above Chiang Mai to meditate for three nights under a tree. There he encountered an old hunter who told him to watch out for the tigers. Meditation was difficult, the monk said. He sat for hours under the mosquito net worrying about the tigers. Then he heard something in the brush and he was certain that a tiger was coming. Finally, able to stand it no longer, he turned on his flashlight. There stood a small dog, so scared by the sudden light that it ran off yelping into the night. Later Pandit learned that tigers had not been seen in that vicinity for years.

Making tigers out of puppies is what we all do. This is the truth of dukkha, the Pali word for what is often incompletely translated as "suffering." Its meaning runs the gamut from torment to dissatisfaction. Dukkha was the topic of Pandit's fourth talk in the Baan Aree Library's Tuesday lecture series.

"The understanding of dukkha got the Buddha enlightened," Pandit told us. It was the subject of his first teaching: what it is, how it is caused, and how it might cease. Suffering is something that needs to be investigated, Pandit said. Our tendency is to avoid it and to develop what the Freudians call defense mechanisms. " The Buddha said, if a dog is shot by an arrow, it bites the arrow; if a lion is shot by an arrow, it attacks the hunter. We must look not at proximate causes but at suffering itself, ther nature of the thing, inside."

In a story from the tradition, The Buddha once asked a student, "If a person is struck by an arrow is it painful?" The student replied, "It is." The Buddha then asked, "If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?" The student replied again, "It is." The Buddha then explained, "In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional." Only five percent of dukkha is real, caused by the first arrow, Pandit said. "Ninety-five percent is made up around it by creating a field of mental suffering." The challenge is to tell the puppies from the tigers. (This puppy was born under the stairs by the pool at the Best Western Ocean Resort in Karon Beach, Phuket.)

Pandit explained to us that there are three levels of dukkha: Dukkha-dukkha (pain of pain) is the inevitable suffering of birth, sickness and death that results from being in a physical body. Viparinama-dukkha (pain of alteration) is the result of change and impermanence. We suffer when we want things to stay the same and they don't. The third level is Sankhara-dukkha (pain of formation) and this is more subtle, beyond me at the moment. It sounds like an extension of the second level, pain caused by the inability to see things as they really are. But apparently the desire for enlightenment arises out of this level of dukkha.

When suffering occurs, it cannot be cured by a "vipassana ray gun," Pandit advised. He had recently learned from an engineer, for example, that stress is inherent in any created structure to preserve balance. Pain can often be the way the body communicates to our consciousness. Often pain is bittersweet, like the tragedy that can only be healed by tears. I found myself thinking about masochists who hold onto their pain as a badge of honor, reluctant to give up their identity as victim. The Dalai Lama was apparently most surprised to learn how widespread self hatred is in the West. The distinction between pleasure and pain can often be blurred.

Sometimes the dhamma seems too cut and dried to me: escape from the wheel of samsara into nibanna, extinction. Blow the candle out. Pandit told a story about a trip to see a spectacular waterfall in New Zealand. Only moments after viewing this wonder of nature he found himself wondering what was in the sandwiches they had brought for a picnic. This story was meant to illustrate the fickleness of mind. When we see our mind playing these games, when we become disillusioned with all mental states, we long "to withdraw to solid ground," Pandit said. But this ground is not physical; it is rather the absence of an ego, the elimination of I and Thou, subject and object. Does this mean we have to give up waterfalls? Too often the ascetical element overtakes Buddhist as well as Christian doctrine. Hatred of the body and physical existence creeps in.

One of my most treasured experiences was going out on pindabat (alms round) in the early morning with the monks from Wat Pah Nanachat. As we walked along the dirt lanes, villagers came out of their houses, kneeled down and deposited their gifts into the monks' bowls. I do not want to give up this memory, or to dissolve it in the fires of meditation. Existence is precious. How can we embrace it passionately for what it really is? Sure, this will quite often involve dukkha. But pain, as Pema Chodron teaches, is a great teacher. Lean into it, she tells her students.
When our emotions intensify, what we usually feel is fear. This fear is always lurking in our lives. In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.
This passage is from The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. I was fortunate to be able to attend the retreat in Berkeley which resulted in this book. Her earlier book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, was of great comfort to me during a very difficult time in my life. The idea that we must "lean into" pain is counterintuitive. But, as physiotherapists know, non-resistance can often lessen muscular pain. It works for the emotions as well.

I'm not trying to propose an either/or kind of solution. But it seems that by becoming enlightened we may have to give up the joys of incarnation. Certainly I want to work on the suffering caused by that second arrow, by the mental states that make ordinary pain even worse, but I wonder if the first arrow is all that bad. The transitory pain of childbirth can lead to incalculable joy. Death as a natural release can be welcomed by some. Even the pain of heartbreak can lead to growth and maturity. Giving up is a prelude to gaining more. And, as my mother used to say when times got tough: "Nervous breakdowns can also be breakthroughs."

In my attempt to harmonize the different paths, I've often thought about the various explanations for suffering in the religious traditions. Christianity and Judaism see suffering as historical, brought about by mythical deeds and moral allegories. Original sin, with the suffering of limited existence as the consequence, was the result of incorrect choices made by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Christians see Jesus as the wounded healer mentioned in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, taking on the sins of others as a scapegoat. In Christian theology, his suffering on the cross makes salvation from the consequences of the first sin possible. Buddhism is a-historical by comparison, despite its mythologies. The second arrow of dukkha is the result of ignorance and can be eliminated by the eight-fold path. While each religion has its proponents of social justice, those more sympathetic to the real-life sufferings of others, there are aspects of each world view that justify suffering with an explanation too simplistic to satisfy me. And each path has been somewhat historically hostile to the flesh, making it a disreputable vehicle rather than a chariot fit for a king.

Less guilt, please, and more waterfalls!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Politics as Usual

OK, this is a test: Is the picture above from the demonstration in Washington last Saturday, or is it a photo from the archives of one of the many other marches for peace in Iraq held over the last six years. How can you tell?

Alert readers will have noticed the paucity of political rants in this blog since I settled down in Bangkok. Religion & sex trump politics in the Land of Smiles. The military coup that toppled the civilian government of Thaksin Shinawatra took place a year ago this week. Since the rewritten constitution, which favors military control, was passed by the voters last month, the English press has been full of news about political realignments in anticipation of elections to be held in December. Much of it bewilders me, but I read the news and editorials faithfully in hopes of eventually understanding the players with long, unpronounceable names and their often obscure (because I don't yet understand the culture) motives. The present military government is seeking extradition of Thaksin from England on charges of corruption, and the political fault line here seems to divide between Thaksin supporters (the poor northeast and some business interests) and his detractors (the army and most of Bangkok's middle and upper classes).

But what about my homeland? I try to keep up with events, reading Google News faithfully every morning, along with the New York Times,, Common Dreams, Truthout, and a number of other sites. I know about Britany's latest missteps, and I've seen the nude photos of "High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgens. Is nothing sacred? And isn't the arrest of Idaho's Sen. Larry Craig a hoot? Is he or isn't he? O.J. is back in the limelight. The big news here this morning is the crash of a plane carrying tourists to Phuket at the airport I flew into two weeks ago, killing 88 people. It was the worse air disaster in Thailand in almost ten years. This puts the celebrity-obsessed U.S. journalism in perspective.

I am appalled that Bush is still in power. Despite the departure of Powell, Rummy, Rove, Gonsalves and others, the out-of-control train keeps roaring down the track while Americans who long ago lost any sense of reality continue to applaud the engineer. Don't they see? Can't they tell that he and the Republicans clinging desperately to the last vestiges of power are destroying the country? The Washington Post said "thousands" attended last weekend's march and die-in in Washington; another source said upwards of a hundred thousand. We know by now that numbers make no difference to the President and his deluded supporters. A few hundred were arrested; will civil disobedience, Martin Luther King's way of "speaking truth to power," make any difference? The government has a monopoly on violence and it is using it indiscriminately in the Middle East. What a sad state of affairs.

British columnist Robert Fisk, an astute observer of the Middle East, links the west's obsession with violence to the martyrdom of the Muslim extremists. Writing after Al Quaeda assassinated a Sunni leader favorable to U.S. interests, Fisk said “we believe in violent death. We regard it as a policy option, as much to do with self-preservation on a national scale as punishment for named and individual wrongdoers. We believe in war. For what is aggression - the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example - except capital punishment on a mass scale? We “civilised” nations - like the dark armies we believe we are fighting - are convinced that the infliction of death on an awesome scale can be morally justified.” How much difference is there really, between Bush and Obama?

Paul Krugman in the New York Times has figured out that Bush's policy now is nothing more than a delaying tactic to get himself off the hook. “All in all, Mr. Bush's actions have not been those of a leader seriously trying to win a war. They have, however, been what you'd expect from a man whose plan is to keep up appearances for the next 16 months, never mind the cost in lives and money, then shift the blame for failure onto his successor."
In fact, that's my interpretation of something that startled many people: Mr. Bush's decision last month, after spending years denying that the Iraq war had anything in common with Vietnam, to suddenly embrace the parallel.

Here's how I see it: At this point, Mr. Bush is looking forward to replaying the political aftermath of Vietnam, in which the right wing eventually achieved a rewriting of history that would have made George Orwell proud, convincing millions of Americans that our soldiers had victory in their grasp but were stabbed in the back by the peaceniks back home.

What all this means is that the next president, even as he or she tries to extricate us from Iraq - and prevent the country's breakup from turning into a regional war - will have to deal with constant sniping from the people who lied us into an unnecessary war, then lost the war they started, but will never, ever, take responsibility for their failures.
Although I thought it a mistaken cliché, history is certainly repeating itself now. The sins of Vietnam are returning to haunt its children. Bush and Cheney, who avoided rising their lives in Vietnam, are now overseeing the destruction of another generation. The dead are the lucky ones; the maimed (a larger number than we are told) will carry this tragedy forward into the future.

Bush's legacy is doomed. Even Colin Powell has admitted he made a mistake at the United Nations. Now Alan Greenspan, retired chairman of the Federal Reserve, has charged Bush with promoting politics over policy in a new memoir, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. According to Greenspan, described as a "libertarian Republican," and a disciple of that apostle of greed, Ayn Rand, the Bush administration was so captive to its own political operation that it paid little attention to fiscal discipline. The first two Treasury secretaries, Paul H. O’Neill and John W. Snow, Greenspan writes, were essentially powerless.

The President was never willing to contain spending or veto bills that drove the country into deeper and deeper deficits, as Congress abandoned rules that required that the cost of tax cuts be offset by savings elsewhere. "The Republicans in Congress lost their way. They swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither. They deserved to lose” in the 2006 election, when they lost control of the House and Senate.

About Iraq, Greenspan writes: "I'm saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war is largely about oil." He later clarified this by telling the Washington Post that removing Saddam to secure the world's oil supply was a "good" thing to do. Rand would be proud.

Greenspan's harsh criticism should have some impact on the fiscal conservative base of Bush's support. The cultural conservatives are untouchable, as they dream of Armaggeddon and rattle their sabers at Godless Iran and applaud the recent bombing by Israel of Syria's suspected nuclear supplies.

When all else fails, I listen to the indefatigable Cindy Sheehan, the Mother Theresa of peace:
The only thing that will stop BushCo is when we the people put unbearable pressure on Congress, Inc. to de-fund the war and impeach the crooks.

We have marched the marches; signed the petitions; called, emailed and faxed our politicians; and the situation only becomes more desperate with each passing day.

It is time to put our bodies on the line so our children and grand-children and the children and grand-children of Iraq won’t have to. The only thing that has ever made any kind of positive impact in this country is people power.
The problem with America today is there are too few Cindy Sheehan's.

I may be on the sidelines now, but I'm cheering you on.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The King of Fruits

No, I am not talking about Liberace. Or even RuPaul. The topic of today's lesson in Thailand 101 is the durian. I finally summoned the courage to sample the popular fruit, and I can attest that it does indeed taste like rich, sweet custard with an hint of almonds. But the odor, akin to rotten onions, was almost overpowering. what a culinary mixture of beauty and the beast! I made the mistake of leaving some of it in the refrigerator over night and the next morning everything inside smelled bad. Now I know why airplanes and hotels go out of their way to forbid the odiferous fruit on their premises. It also seems to be sold here only from carts like this one. I couldn't find it at Foodland, one of the major supermarkets, no doubt because it would offend customers looking for something more traditional, like the strawberry (imported from Watsonville) and the pineapple (home grown, everywhere).

The British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin's rival, had this to say:
The smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable, though less so when it has newly fallen from the tree; for the moment it is ripe it falls of itself, and the only way to eat Durians in perfection is to get them as they fall. It would perhaps not be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of subacid juicy fruits such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the Durian and the Orange as the king and queen of fruits.
According to another source, the durian, an ancient fruit, has been giving off its stench for millions of years. Duri is the Malay name for "spike" and refers to the fruit's hard spikey shell. They are large and can weigh up to ten pounds when ripe; death by durian is not an uncommon event (watch where you walk -- even the benign coconut can also kill). Another danger is from tigers and elephants who love its taste and smell them from far away. A yellow-white hunk of durian (seen above) is expensive, about the cost of a cappuccino at Starbucks. But the Thais love it.

Beggars are everywhere on the sidewalks of Bangkok. This little girl was positioned by the stairs leading up to the Phrom Phong Skytrain station. Her mother and little brother were not far off. She smiled just after I took her photo and I gave her a big contribution, 10 baht. Usually the beggars sit (never stand) right in the line of traffic so they can't be missed. One older woman, with an indeterminable disability, sits not far from the entrance to Nana and she gives me a big smile every time our eyes meet. Of course I contribute. The other night she gave me a high five. Across the street was the tableux pictured below. The plight of some of the children can be heart-breaking. I have also seen them laughing and playing. One common sight is a blind singer with a portable sound system being led down the sidewalk by a friend. Unlike Mexico City, however, I have yet to see beggars on the Skytrain or subway. So I am sure there is a law that is rigorously enforced. I am always amazed at the ingenuity of the poor in third world countries (and developed Thailand is poor at the street and village level). Jerry thinks the lepers are bussed into the city every morning by a syndicate. You usually see them in the same spots every day. There is a misshapen fellow that I have seen on both sides of Sukhumvit and I am puzzled as to how he ever manages to cross the street, a dangerous feat for four-limbed folk. I have also seen a legless man dragging himself along face down on the ground amidst pedestrian traffic. Each evening mahouts bring elephants to the entertainment centers. At Soi Cowboy I saw one set up to give drunken revelers rides down the neon-lit street. I can't imagine the pachyderms being pleased.

Last night I continued my study of Buddhism by attending a lecture at the Siam Society. Dr. Andrey Terentyev, who translated for the Dalai Lama during his visit to Russia several years ago, tried to cram an overview of his life's study into an hour, admitting that "the ocean of Tibetan Buddhism cannot be crossed in such a short time." His talk, and the slides that accompanied it (Terentyev is an expert in Tibetan Buddhist iconography), wetted my appetite for more. I was surprised to hear that Vajrayana does not encompass the whole of Tibetan Buddhism as I thought. Apparently it is only one strand. Terentyev also distinguished wisdom teachings (identified with Nagarjuna) from methods (the forte of Asanga). Renunciation, according to the speaker, was not specifically taught by the Buddha, but was a development from within Buddhism by teachers like Atisha. I found most interesting his discussion of the Bodhisattva ideal which is not emphasized by Theravadan Buddhism as found in Thailand. The popular notion is that the Bodhisattva refused to enter nirvana until all beings could join him. This is a misconception, Terentyev told his audience. The Bodhisattva did not refuse to become a Buddha, but rather was filled with compassion for those not yet enlightened. Apparently the emphasis in the general understanding of the story is misguided. I still like the idea of a Buddha who sacrifices his own needs for others. It brings him closer to the image of the suffering Jesus.

The audience of about 100 at the Siam Society headquarters on Asoke appeared to be mostly well-heeled westerners. I heard French spoken and I talked with a banker from Canada who arrived in Thailand at the same time as I, and who takes lessons in Thai every morning. The lady sitting next to me who took notes as I did was British. The Society was found in 1904 by Thai and foreign scholars. It publishes books and journals and its property includes a large library and a full-scale example of a traditional northern Thai teakwood house from the 19th century. Membership is expensive, however, and non-members pay 200 baht (twice the cost of a movie) for attending lectures. The Society also organizes trips to historical sites in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia, as well as trekking in Nepal. Costs are high and clearly are aimed at affluent foreign expats, like the Canadian banker. While those with cars and drivers left the front parking area, I walked across the street to Soi Cowboy to have a beer and sample indigenous methods of entertainment.

I really feel like a resident now. Yesterday I got a haircut from Nong at her salon not far up the soi from Siam Court. I have to say it's one of the better cuts I've received and it cost, with tip, about $5. Today I'm going to the Dental Clinic on Sukhumvit Soi 49 to get my teeth cleaned. It's been three months and I know Lynn, my favorite dental hygienist back in Santa Cruz, would not want me to slight my teeth while on safari. You can tell by its name that the Dental Hospital is aimed at the market of medical tourists who come to Thailand for dentures and more. All I want today is a cleaning, but I will explore options for my mouth which, due to the absence of teeth on the right side at present, is operating at 50 per cent efficiency. I've never much cared for spending money on teeth however (which is probably why I have so few now). Given the choice between having false teeth screwed into my jaw and a trip to Tibet, I'd probably choose the latter. I remember our neighbor in Brookdale who had all her teeth pulled and implants put in for $50,000. If God had meant our teeth to last, he would have come up with a better solution than the gum-and-enamel chewing machine that breaks down so easily.

I have to say that my health seems better here than it was in California. My sinuses are clear, despite the abundance of air pollution (which the rain nicely washes away for a little while each day). My knee feels pretty good and now I'm blaming the pain I had on my poor dear Chacos which are almost worn out. The leather slip-ons I bought, and even my New Balance tennies, do not seem to aggravate the arthritis in my knee. I'd like to report that I'm losing weight, but ice cream and chocolate, and a cornucopia of cookies, is easily available here. The main problem I'm having is swollen ankles and feet. Lying in bed with my feet up seems to ease the swelling. I suspect that spending too much time sitting down at the computer is at least one cause, and so now I put my feet up on a chair, or lie in bed with the laptop. Necessity is the mother of a thousand...oh well, you get the picture.

And here's a photo of me and my friend Marcus before the lecture at Baan Aree last Tuesday. Marcus writes a great blog, so take a look. Unfortunately, he's leaving Thailand in a few weeks for a new job teaching English in Korea where the pay is better and he can afford to live. The photo was taken by Panida, whom I met online through her sister, Jasmine. Panida is a chef for a new hotel which will open shortly and here is a picture of her testing food in the still-incomplete kitchen. She is a serious Buddhist and has given me a wealth of advice. Now she's attending the lectures in English to improve her use of the language and perhaps to hear some insights from the British monk.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma

It's an old joke, but Pandit included it in his presentation of the role of action/choice in Buddhist thought, helping to lighten what can be a complex and heavy subject for many. The only problem is that "karma" is a Sanskrit term and Theravadan Buddhists like Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu (also known as Pandit), an ordained British monk in Bangkok, generally use the Pali word "kamma." The joke might work if you were a Bostonian and drove a "caa."

A half hour before Pandit's talk, the third in a series of six Tuesday night programs at the new Baan Aree Library, the skies opened and the rain poured. Even though proceedings were delayed a half hour, many of the seats were empty. Others were filled with people soaked to the skin. When the deluge is accompanied by gusts of wind, umbrellas are of little use. Was it my good kamma that I arrived early to have dinner with Panida and coffee with Pandit and the two Marcuses (one from England and the other from Australia via Japan), and therefore stayed dry? Did the attendees who looked like drowned cats have bad kamma?

Pandit quickly disabused the audience of two misunderstandings. The first, a western notion, looks at kamma as good or bad luck: "I've got good traffic light karma," is one version (I know people who have "parking karma" -- when the spot is needed it will be there.). But kamma doesn't affect the physical world, only our mental reaction to something. People die for physical reasons and not because of bad karma. Burmese monks were recently beaten by police because they protested political policies, and not because their kamma dictated it.

The second misconception is the idea that everything happens because of: God's will, chance, karma. According to Pandit, the Buddha said all of these explanations are mistaken, ways to avoid responsibility. I found this to be a very meaningful insight, for it also took in the Christian predilection to praise God for saving one person in an airplane crash without blaming him for slaughtering the rest; you can't have it both ways. Religious explanations of natural events (or atheist in the case of chance) often turn out to be deterministic, and fail to account for human choice and responsibility. The Buddha eschewed most big explanations. The basic reaction to suffering, said Pandit, is that "samsara sucks! Samsara isn't fair!" You can't explain it away.

My knowledge of karma has come from a long study of the Bhagavad Gita where karma is one of the three yogas or paths to the divine, along with jnana (knowledge) and bhakti devotion). The paths are not separate, however, but intermingled. Karma is one of the key concepts contained in the Upanishads. Buddhism accepts most of them but rejects the notion of atman, the divine Self. Karma in the Gita is the law of cause and effect. It's the basic law underlying creation. But the important moral message is that although one has no choice but to act, this action must be without any concern for the results. The Buddhist notion of making merit, doing something in order to win a reward (which may have something to do with animism), is totally foreign to the Gita.

Choice, rather than action, is the term Pandit said he preferred to define kamma. "The Buddha changed religion, away from who am I to what should I do. He put the onus on us." We are purified not by heredity or ritual, as in the Brahaministic Hinduism into which the Buddha was born, but by our actions, our choices. Kamma should not be used to explain the past or the present. "What matters is what you do, not what amulets you wear." It's about planting seeds for the future. Good choices train the mind. This sounds to me much like viritue ethics, the ethical philosophy (from Aristotle to Alasdair MacIntyre) that character matters more than rules or consequences. I've always been attracted to this notion, and it influences the way I look at prayer. I believe that prayer has more affect on the pray-er than it does on God the Ultimate Mystery, and it seems to me that thinking of others can also help to fertilize and grow community.

The Buddha, according to Pandit, classified kamma as one of the four imponderables and said that the "head would break into seven pieces" while trying to figure it out. His followers, however, did not listen and tried to understand it in more detail, helping the original group to break into 18 different schools. Right view, the first step on Buddhism's Eightfold Path, holds there are actions and they have consequences. As for what we should do, Pandit suggested Monty Python's Meaning of Life: "Be nice, don't worry." Kamma, he said, does not lead to enlightenment.

This sounds remarkably similar to the Christian theological point that good works are not sufficient for salvation. The grace of God is necessary, and that cannot be earned. I've always had some trouble with this notion, emphasized by the Apostle Paul. It seems to downgrade good deeds and undercut support for social justice. The Calvinists thought success in business was a sign of God's grace and forgot the model of his mercy, allowing sweatshops to exist. If kamma is necessary, but not sufficient for enlightenment, what then is the relationship between good deeds and release from samsara, the wheel of suffering? Perhaps the answer is similar to the Gita's, that actions must not be performed for the sake of a result, but only as dictated by one's dharma.

In the Q & A period after the talk, Pandit compared the Buddhist idea of kamma with the Christian doctrine of sin, saying the first is dynamic and the second is a matter of rules. Sin, of course, is now seen mostly as a stain on the soul, either self-inflicted or the result of The Fall, and not by the original understanding of "missing the mark." Pandit did not discuss the affect of kamma on rebirth, which he promised to come later. And he also indicted that the role of forgiveness in Buddhism would be a future topic. There was some talk about merit and the possibility that merit could be transferred (metta?), but Pandit resisted the idea that there was a cosmological accounting scheme. His loose and flexible approach to Buddhist doctrine is very helpful and I look forward to future talks and perhaps a workshop where some of the more difficult ideas can be chewed over and debated by the apparently large audience (although not on a rainy night) hungry for teachings in English.

I encountered another approach to Buddhism last Sunday at the monthly abhidhamma class held at the World Fellowship of Buddhists headquarters in Benjasiri Park next to the Emporium shopping mall. Abhidhamma, according to Wikipedia (my online guru), "is a category of Buddhist scriptures that attempts to use Buddhist teachings to create a systematic, abstract description of all worldly phenomena. The Abhidharma represents a generalization and reorganization of the doctrines presented piecemeal in the narrative sutra tradition." An important component of Theravadan Buddhist, abhidhamma has been called a Buddhist psychology or, better yet, Buddhist science. It attempts to describe all of material and mental reality in Buddhist terms, giving just the sort of big explanations that Pandit cautioned about.

I walked into an ongoing class and was immediately confused. The discussion leader, Amara Chayabongse, speaks excellent English and moderates the WFB web site. But the thick sheaf of papers I was handed was filled with unfamiliar terms and it was all I could do to keep up with the topic (or even know what it was). Dhamma, I heard, consists of "things as they really are...the truth of what exists." One of these things is the illusion of a self. Abhidhamma apparently classifies reality independent of selves that supposedly perceive it, counting 89 different types of citta, or consciousness, infected by lobha (attachment, greed), dosa (aversion, hatred) and moha (ignorance). Amara pointed out that the Buddha predicted there would be eight quarks at the sub-atomic level, which science apparently has now confirmed. It reminded me of Christians who believe the future was foretold by Old and New Testament scripture.

There was a lively discussion by the Thais in attendance and a half-dozen farang who expressed skeptical interest in what appeared to be a recitation of claims rather than a class in which pedagogical methods help students discover new truths. I've heard that Thailand's education style favors memorization over critical analysis, and it seemed to me that in order to understand abhidhamma one must memorize a galaxy of glossaries and take certain statements as gospel truth ("The meditator can hear certain sounds of a celestial being," was one opinion expressed). In the literature I've come across, some Buddhists believe abhidhamma is a later addition to the canon, one that perhaps violates the Buddha's caution about big explanations. But at the WEB I was in the presence of fundamentalists, true believers who seemed to think that panna, or wisdom and right understanding, could lead to enlightenment, perhaps more quickly than meditation and mindfulness training. I will return next month to try and learn more with an open mind.

One good outcome of the afternoon was that I met four old farang like myself and we went off to have coffee and sit outside to talk while watching the passing parade on Sukhumvit. Herb, 76, has been here a couple of years after a career in the mental health system in Los Angeles. He has a long-term retirement visa and an occasional girlfriend, but isn't much interested in traveling outside Bangkok. Bill and Tom are both in long-term marriages to Thai women and are raising their families here. Tom is a Canadian who got a Master's in ESL in Calgary and now teaches English, film and drama at the Ekamai International School. I didn't hear much about Bill except that he has an accent of some sort (Russian?). Frank is helping Amara to translate some of the abhidamma texts. He and I talked a bit about Berkeley in the 1960's when he was present during the People's Park uprising. Like Herb he is unmarried and a connoisseur of Sukhumvit night life. Only Tom showed up at Pandit's talk last night so I can only assume the rain kept the other three away.

Tomorrow night there is a discussion of Tibetan Buddhism by a Russian scholar at the Siam Society headquarters. My dance card is filling up!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Not a Toy

The Lingam Shrine in Bangkok is not easy to find. You have to be either a dedicated connoisseur of the strange and weird, or a young woman seeking help from the supernatural to get pregnant. To get there, one hot and humid morning (is there any other?) I trudged up Wireless Road from the Ploen Chit Skytrain station, past the fortress-like British Embassy, to the Raffles-owned Swissotel Bangkok. Then, following Lonely Planet's directions, I walked into the hotel's underground parking garage and out the other side where the employees do their secret work (I saw a melting ice sculpture, probably the centerpiece of the previous night's banquet). At the end of the drive is a shady grove on the banks of a khlong (canal) filled with stone and wood carvings of the male sexual organ.

The shrine was originally built by Nai Lert, a millionaire businessman, to honor Chao Mae Tuptim, a female goddess believed to reside in an old tree. Someone who made an offering soon found herself pregnant and the shrine began to attract other women hoping to become fertile and bear fruit. According to a sign:
The origins of Chao Mae Tuptim are obscure. It can only be recalled that a spirit house was built by Nai Lert for the spirit who was believed to reside in the large Sai (Ficus) tree.

The basic offerings are fragrant wreaths of snow-white jasmine flowers, incense sticks, pink and white lotus buds. Chao Mae Tuptim has received yet another, rather unconventional kind of gift, phallic in shape, both small and large, stylised and highly realistic. Over the years they have been brought by the thousands and today fill the area around the shrine. Confronted by the extraordinary display the shrine has automatically been concluded to be dedicated to fertility.

The grove was empty the morning I visited but fresh food and drink had been put on the porch of the spirit house. They seem to favor red bottles of soda, complete with straw, along with rice, eggs and various goodies (last night I saw a large rat at Nana trying to get at the spirit's food).

It seems incorrect to me to call the carved phallic object a "lingam." This is the Sanskrit word for the symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. In every Shivaite temple in India you will find at the center a black pillar to represent the holy of holies. I was told it was not explicitly phallic, although procreation in the spiritual sense was one of its meanings. Shiva is the Preserver as well as the Destroyer. The term in Thai for a carved phallus is palad khik, which means "honorable surrogate penis," and you can find them on sale at stalls on Sukhumvit Road alongside carvings of the Buddha and other nicknacks for tourists. On my first trip here I bought several, made of wood and brass, as gifts for friends. I assumed that they were designed to promote fertility or pleasure, but have since learned that they are designed for men, not women. From the Lucky website:

These small charms, averaging less than 2' in length, are worn by boys and men on a waist-string under the clothes, off-center from the real penis, in the hope that they will attract and absorb any magical injury directed toward the generative organs. It is not uncommon for a man to wear several palad khiks at one time, one to increase gambling luck, for instance, another to attract women, and a third for invulnerability from bullets and knives.
The palad khik amulet is believed to have originated with Shiva worshippers in India and was brought to Thailand by Cambodian monks in the 8th century. Early styles contained inscriptions to Shiva; later ones contain invocations and praises to Buddha. But the belief in the amulet's effectiveness for fertility is less Buddhist and more an element in animism which seems to pervade all aspects of popular piety here in Thailand. Jerry pointed out to me last night that most of the spirit houses contain images of Hindu gods, but the average Thai thinks she is paying respects to Buddha when bowing before the shrine and donating a half-drunk bottle of red soda, straw intact.

I've been in Bangkok now for a month and I'm beginning to have a sense of place. Except yesterday. I was in search of a secret route from Holy Redeemer Church (above) to my apartment at Siam Court. They are quite close, separated only by an expressway. But streets, or sois, which run off major roads are mostly self-contained entities. To get from one soi to another you have to walk up to main road, in my case Sukhumvit. On Google Maps I found what appeared to be a walkway over the expressway. After mass, I looked for and found it. I was the only pedestrian, which was a bit worrisome. It did indeed bring me close to soi 4 where I live, but the walkway was surrounded by a fence and there was no convenient exit. So I backtracked, and got off on a road surrounded by high walls and locked gates. I could see my building but could not get to it. Some of the houses along the road were quite poor, shacks really, perhaps lived in by servants of the wealth nearby. When I asked for directions at one house, the residents let me pass through to the enclosed soi on the other side. My building was a short walk away. I can not understand the penchant here for fences, walls and locked gates. Free access does not seem to be a high Thai priority.

Last week I paid the rent for September, and now I feel like a legitimate resident of Bangkok. Since I wasn't using the cable, I canceled it. Rooms and furnishings are rented separately: the room is 5,000 bath and the bed, TV, refrigerator, microwave, etc., rent for 7,000 baht, for a total of 12,000 (about $400). In addition, I pay 1,200 baht for the internet hook-up, 600 bath for water, and my electricity bill may be as high as 1,500 baht a month. It's expensive for a studio apartment but the location is very convenient and the swimming pool is a blessing on hot and humid days (all of them).

My neighborhood is infinitely fascinating. Soi 4 is lined with various kinds of temporary and movable food stalls, selling everything from baked eggs, boiled corn, chicken satay, veggies and fruit, to full meals with noodles or rice, cooked on woks heated with butane. Last night one sidewalk bistro even had candles on the folding tables for diners. Pastel-colored taxis line up in front of the Woriburi Hotel next door. And in the next block there is always a collection of motorbike taxis, their drivers in tell-tale orange vests, ready to provide a scary ride up the soi to Nana and Sukhumvit for 10 baht. At the massage parlor not far up the soi the girls always wave hello to me, and there are at least five bars, each quite different, owned by someone named Swan. One features "coyote dancing" on tables which I've yet to see, although I know from the girls at the door that the costumes are vaguely western, and coyote bars are the newest trend in sleazy nightlife. Many of the beggars now recognize me. Up near the Nana Entertainment Complex, there are usually a couple of elephants to entertain the drinkers. And at night the stalls selling fried insects of various draw a heft crowd of Thais with the munchies.

Back in Santa Cruz I was the master of the $5 meal, finding cheap eats for lunch and dinner when I wasn't eating ready-mades from Trader Joes. You could get a good pizza, felafel or a burrito for that price, and maybe even the cafeteria lunch at Shanghai. Here in Bangkok I look for the 100 baht meal ($2.50) and frequently I find one for half that price, at the counter in Foodland or at the little no-name place behind the newspaper stand between soi 8 and soi 10. When I want to splurge I go to the food court at one of the malls and look for something under 200 baht. A dinner for two has cost me as much as 500 baht but that includes wine or beer. Then there are the frozen dinners from 7-11 at about a buck apiece. And they are aroi maak (very tasty). One of these days I'll learn how to order from the food stalls without being poisoned or set on fire by the tiny red chili peppers. and then I'll be able to drop my daily food bill down to about $3-4.

That's what this pilgrimage is all about: frugality in all things. With a little bit of excess on weekends.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

On Retreat Under the Flight Path

Planes from the new Suvarnabhumi (pronounced "soo-vana-pome") International Airport were landing and taking off over our head all day, but the friendly voice of our teacher, Metino Bhikhu, made the harsh sounds irrelevant. The Buddhist monk, known as Wimoak, gave his teaching to about 25 Thai men and women and one farang, along with a half dozen young boys during the morning session, in a two-floor sala on the property of two sisters who built it for the purpose of just such retreats which are held on the second Saturday of every month. Each of the eight walls of the sala contained one of the Buddha's eight precepts written in Thai.

And although Monk Wimoak spoke in Thai, occasionally he would turn to me and explain the point he was making to the group in excellent English. Once I could connect his topics of discussion -- consciousness, mindfulness, awareness, thinking, feeling, body -- to the gestures that accompanied them, I could almost understand his Thai. Even without comprehension, the sounds of his voice, and the dramatic way he presented them, were almost musical. "You westerners focus too much on the object of meditation, the breath, the rising and falling of the stomach, so that your awareness goes out to it and gets lost. It is better to find awareness within and then you can be mindful of the whole."

I was taken to the retreat, a 45 minute's drive southeast of Bangkok, by Sal and her friend Wanna. Sal has a car and driver and kindly helped me look for an apartment during my early days in Bangkok. She had given me the link to Wimoak's web site, Vimokkha Dhamma, and promised to let me know when the next retreat was scheduled. Wanna is one of the owners of Faces Bangkok, an upscale compound of restaurants and a spa on Sukhumvit Soi 38, designed and built with wood in traditional Thai style, that Sal had taken me to see. Her cousin, a retired university professor, has a sangha where she met Malee, one of the sisters who hosted Saturday's retreat. Malee, who is a judge, told me that when she was growing up the house was surrounded by rice fields which have been replaced by factories and warehouses. She took a boat to school on a canal by the house now clogged with water plants, and once it was possible to get to Bangkok by boat. The house remains surrounded by a garden and in addition to the 8-sided sala there is a smaller 5-sided sala and a building with 32 rooms which they rent to students and workers. All of the numbers have some significance in Buddhism. Everywhere I looked were windows etched with precepts and sayings of wisdom from the Buddha.

The shrine upstairs where the morning teaching was given is inspiring. Wimoak, a very modern monk, videotaped the proceedings which included chanting, prayer and group meditation. The Thais sat easily on thin mats while I found even the chair a bit uncomfortable for my aging joints. After the morning session, I was invited for a one-on-one, but had to sit with my legs bent sideways because you can never point your toes at a monk. It's hard to ask decent questions when you feel like an unwilling pretzel. Still, he helped me to expand my vision. The senses are limited, only sensing what is in front of them. But the Observer, the Knower, can be aware of all, the back as well as the front. On his web site, Wimoak writes:
More than 90% of consciousness is lost outside while we are using only less than 10% of consciousness to lead our lives. The result of consciousness leakage is the poor quality of life of a person, a family, a society and a country. Hence the mindful meditation program is an insight approach to restore one's consciousness which is to be applied to any activities of one's life without any leakage so that it can be developed to Supreme Wisdom.
The first step, he said, was awareness of the whole body, rather than a specific part. He demonstrated by squeezing a fist and said that concentration on the fist would dissipate awareness (which I assume is what he means by "leakage"). Don't focus on thoughts or feelings, he told me. Come from an awareness inside, he said, and pounded his chest. "You mean the heart?" I asked. No, he said. Within. This will bring lightness, happiness, rather than the heaviness of thinking. It is important to balance thinking and feeling, and both with the body. Later we practiced body movements out in the garden where I managed to knock over and break a water glass, thereby demonstrating to one and all my lack of awareness. One exercise involved walking backwards with the eyes closed. I managed not to bump into anything.

At the end of the day four of Wimoak's students arrived to read our minds. It was "a test," I was told. Sitting across from each other, the students meditated together with those who volunteered for the testing and a vigorous discussion ensued afterwards, which of course I could not understand. I'm sure those tested learned something about themselves. The monk invited me to join in, but I declined the test, fearing that the student monks would find a very messy mind indeed inside my head.

It is not easy to find my spiritual bearings here. Much of what I see is familiar. But I've yet to begin meditating daily as I once did up to some months ago. The books I brought with me on Buddhism remain on the shelf here in my room, unread. The other night I went to see the dancing girls at Soi Cowboy with Jerry. This morning I went to mass at Holy Redeemer Church. The words to "Here I Am Lord" brought tears of recognition. This afternoon I will attend a lecture and discussion on abhidhamma at the World Fellowship of Buddhist headquarters in Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit Soi 24. This evening I might go have a beer at one of the bars in Nana. On Tuesday I am going to listen to the British monk, Pandit, speak about karma at Baan Aree Library. But just what am I doing? I'm not about to go put on robes and adopt a vow of celibacy at a Thai temple. I also do not want to become the typical expat alcoholic practicing hedonistic excess in the Bangkok bars. So the Buddhist middle way appeals to me, one that does not require total renunciation, or a total abandonment of pleasure. Although my body is deteriorating as we speak, I am not ready to give it up, and my understanding of both Buddhism and Christianity does not detect any need to hate it as some followers of Jesus apparently do. Perhaps in this place, far from all that I once knew as home, I will find salvation and enlightenment.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Trouble in Paradise

No, I am not talking about the 2004 tsunami. Damage to Karon Beach, pictured here, on the island of Phuket (pronounced poo-get) was minimal. There were a few abandoned buildings to be seen, perhaps out of business due to the big wave. But there was also considerable construction underway, not unusual for the popular Thai tourist island on the Andaman Sea which in places reeks of over-development (Bangkok-by-the-Sea, or Costa del Farang). No, I am talking about the difficulty of relating to someone half your age who speaks limited English learned in chat rooms and who subscribes to the values of a culture vastly different from your own. Talk about challenges!

It's the rainy season in Thailand and for that reason airline tickets and hotel rooms are sharply discounted. I asked for an ocean view at the Best Western Ocean Resort, but, as you can see, the view over the four days we were in residence was frequently obscured by a series of surprisingly-vigorous storms coming at us from the Indian Ocean. In a visit to old Phuket Town, which was established in the 18th century by Arab, Indian, Malay, Chinese and Portuguese traders, we were caught in a squall and stood for a half hour under the overhang of a building. Motorbike riders were particularly vulnerable; umbrellas sprouted, and the gutters filled up, but few seemed bothered by the tropical storm.

At our hotel, in the wall-less dining room, clear shades were dropped to keep rain from falling on my scrambled eggs and bacon. The large resort was far from full. Most of the guests were from Scandinavian or Poland, judging by what we heard, and many brought children who splashed in the wading pond besides one of the three pools on the vast hillside property. A few men brought Thai companions but my friend was in the minority here in her own country. I know she felt uncomfortable about it.

"Phuket" sounds deceptively unified. Actually, there are a series of beaches around the island, the best being on the west side facing India. My first choice was Kata but I opted for an appealing deal at the Karon Best Western, a small mistake. Saturday loomed bright and sunny and we hopped on a sawng thaew (pickup truck mini-bus) for a ride south to Kata Beach where an annual surfing contest was being held. The waves were pitiful compared to what I'm used to seeing in Santa Cruz, but a few good rides were to be had. On Koh Samui beach chairs were free if you bought drinks; here the tariff was a stiff 200 baht so we sat on the sand. Kata is a gorgeous beach, small and clean. The fortress-like Club Med owns much of the property just off the beach but access to the surf is unhindered. Wanting to see the rest of the island, we got back on a bus for the ride to Phuket Town where we walked around to look at the mildewed Sino-Portuguese architecture and have lunch (this girl eating chicken satay was sitting at our table) before getting caught in the rain. I found a bookstore with lots of battered paperbacks in English, but could not locate the copy of John Irving's The World According to Garp that I wanted to give my friend, a devoted fan of Irving's. When the rain let up, we found a small shop with internet and cappuccino, the perfect combo.

From Phuket Town we caught another bus to Patong, the neon-and tinsel heart of Phuket. It was just about what I expected, a beautiful white sand beach and a long strip of businesses catering to the every need of farang tourists: tacky souvenir shops, bars that would not be out of place at Nana or Soi Cowboy, swanky resort hotels and restaurants with inflated prices. On the water jet ski riders swerved uncomfortably close to boogie board surfers. Hordes of tourists tromped in their sandals down the streets while tuk tuk drivers and bar girls competed for their attention. We found an air-conditioned Starbucks and my friend got a mango frosty while I upped my caffeine level considerably. Patong and the northern beaches like Kamala sustained more damage from the tsunami. I read a horrifying account by an American doctor staying in a hotel not far from the southern end of Patong and examined his photos of flooding and destruction. Trying to assess what damage occurred is difficult because resorts and tourist businesses are anxious to keep any negative news a secret (did you see "Jaws"?). Everything looked shiny and new, but the cacophony of sights and sounds was overwhelming and we soon returned in a characteristic red tuk tuk to our hotel, a short but over-priced ride to the south, past the ultra-luxurious Le Meridien which hogs a beautiful cove.

During breaks in the rain over the long weekend, we returned to Kata to swim in the delightful water (which at one point turned a strange shade of yellow which prompted my quick exit). Jet skis darted in front of Ko Pu, a small overshore island, while a parasailor on a surfboard skipped over the waves. A friendly dog came and rubbed his nose on my knee. Not far off several topless ladies soaked up the rays before the rain clouds came. Beach front restaurants offered food from all lands (one flew a Swiss flag). I, unfortunately, chose to try a hamburger from a grill on the main street which came back over the afternoon to remind me to avoid red meat like my companion. Anything without rice should send up a red flag ("gin kow," or eat rice, is the expression in Thai for eating anything). In the evenings we walked on Karon Beach under sunset clouds and in the evenings we sampled different restaurants in the small business district, ending out nights on the terrace of an Irish bar.

Relationships are difficult under the best of circumstances. Maybe the illusion of Paradise in Phuket made it seem easier than it was. Thais often laugh when they are unhappy to cover up sadness or displeasure. Sanuk, fun, is often valued above truth, it seems. My lady has some unfinished business with other lovers, and I think she saw me as an easy way out, a dependable old farang who might give her the comfort and stability she lacked in other relationships. But as the youngest daughter, she admitted to being spoiled much of her life, and it appeared that she wanted me to continue the tradition. While we talked and laughed and told secrets, she was frequently argumentative and stubborn. When she said we would never understand each other's culture, I began to agree with her. Our all-expenses-paid romantic weekend in Phuket became less important to her than some tangible gift, like a pair of expensive sunglasses, that she could show her friends to prove my affection. But I made that mistake before when I bought gold jewelry for the girl in Koh Samui. To me it was a nice gift to show my appreciation for time well spent; but to a Thai an expensive gift is an expression of love, a promise to marry. I was not about to get engaged prematurely a second time.