Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Feelings, nothing more than feelings

No, I am not talking about the song that everyone loves to parody. I am talking about the emotional and passionate reactions we have to real life (and often imagined) experiences. The common wisdom in Buddhism is that feelings, usually translated as "cravings" from the Pali tanha which means "thirst," are bad. In his first teaching after enlightenment, "Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion," the Buddha taught four "noble truths" which, according to the traditional interpretation, are: 1. Suffering exists in life; 2. suffering is caused by craving; 3. to eliminate suffering, eliminate craving, and, 4. to eliminate craving, follow the eightfold path. But this understanding leads to the goal of an escape from life, or at least from the cycle of rebirth, through the negation of joy and sadness, hope and despair, and similar responses to the messiness of existence. This has caused critics to call Buddhism "nihilistic" for its proposal tthat nirvana, "extinction of the flame," solves the problem of suffering.

I am troubled by spiritual paths and practices that denigrate life, that see existence as a mistake, a way station on the road to something better. Religions of The Book (the monotheistic triad) portray life as a fall from paradise, and religious rituals and rites as a way to return, not in this life but after death. Christians strive towards heaven and away from hell, discounting the present creation. This has the effect of disparaging life, and in particular the body, as temptations to be avoided rather than a blessing which prompts gratitude. Popular Buddhism, as I've observed it in Asia, is largely a matter of "making merit," performing deeds and rituals to insure a desirable rebirth in the next life. In this view only monks (and only men) can attain enlightenment, so the best we can do is help them by donating food and flowers, thus assuring us the minimal reward.

So it was with some excitement that I read David Brazier's heretical interpretation of Buddhism in The Feeling Buddha: A Buddhist Psychology of Character, Adversity and Passion. Brazier, a British psychotherapist, wrote the book in 1997, after publishing a work on Carl Rogers and another called Zen Therapy. According to Brazier,
The not uncommon interpretation of Buddhism which takes the message to be that, if you are sufficiently non-attached, you will be immune to grief because you will not care enough about anything to grieve over it, will not do.
In its place, Brazier reinterprets the Buddha's Four Nobel Truths:
Life itself naturally and inevitably involves the experience of affliction. Affliction gives rise to feelings. The energy of feelings can be harnessed if it can be sheltered from the wind of greed, hate and delusion - "the ego wind." The spiritual life is the path which unfolds when our energies are tamed in this way.
Rejecting received wisdom that Buddhism implies the elimination of feelings, Brazier believes that the second Noble Truth "tells us that feelings are facts and as such they are completely natural and acceptable. Problems do not arise from the fact of having feelings. Problems arise from what we do with them or from our attempts to avoid having them." The truth, he argues, is not that life is suffering but that "suffering will always be a part of our lives." Buddha’s teaching is “centrally concerned with the question of living meaningfully in an afflicted world.”

In a this-wordly Buddhism, enlightenment "is not the end point. Enlightenment is the beginning." The Buddha taught that "a radical change is possible in the way a person lives their life and sees their world," according to Brazier. "This radical change is called enlightenment.”
The fire of enlightenment is kindled from the fire of our passion. It is only strong authentic emotion that has the power to penetrate to the core of our being. No intellectual procedure will ever reach deep enough.
This perspective downplays rebirth and nirvana. Rebirth, says Brazier, is a Hindu idea, not one from Buddhism which puts more importance on this life than the next.
Nirvana was something that the Buddha said was immediately available to all of us here in this very life simply by penetrating into the full implication of the Noble Truths and putting them into practice…I suggest that it is a practical term describing the art of mastering the fire within us.
The Feeling Buddha was loaned to me by Marcus before he took off for a teaching job in Korea. We'd talked about our disagreements with the traditional view of Buddhism and Christianity, the teaching that life is something to flee from and that all the possible rewards will come later. Neither of us believed that existence, with its joys and sorrows, was a mistake, a wrong turning. The question is: how to live now? Buddha spoke of the afflictions of birth, aging, sickness and death. These are inevitable consequences of life, not errors of judgment. Even the Buddha, after enlightenment, suffered from sickness and death. Meditation and merit provide no escape.

But Brazier's heresies are not appreciated by the faithful. Read Marcus' own positive view on his blog in the April 27th journal entry, and see the controversy he started on E-Sangha. Brazier himself comes under fire for different reasons from a former member of the Amida Trust, the organization he and his wife Caroline, also an author of several books on Buddhist psychology, started in England. Writing in E-Sangha, Matthew, moderator of The Irreverent Buddhist, charges that "what the Braziers practice is not very recognisable as Buddhism and is very centered around the ego-centric visions of one man and his wife." The writer said that David Brazier, now known as Dharmavidya, "seems to believe he is enlightened and needs no relationship with another teacher." His most recent book is The New Buddhism, and it "removes the Buddha's kind of enlightenment (i.e an ontologically different way of being and perceiving oneself and the world) from the map entirely."

When I read Brazier's biography on the Amida Trust site, I found these remarks disturbing:
I feel at home in Buddhism since it gives descriptions and explanations of things that are imprinted on my heart. At the same time, I have never felt entirely at ease in the secularised forms of Buddhism that are popular in the West...I have increasingly taught in a more uncompromisedly faith-centered way, waking people up to the true meaning of their existence...My deepest realisation is that however many realisations you have, blind passion is fathomless. Therefore there is no value in striving for enlightenment through one's own efforts alone. It is by faith and devotion that one can find a true refuge even in the midst of one's own foolishness and vulnerability.
This makes it seem as if Brazier's form of Pure Land Buddhism, is a matter of faith and devotion rather than intellect. While I think bakhti is all right in its place (particularly in Hinduism), I view it with suspicion in Buddhism. Buddha's teaching is experiential. He asks you to try it out and not depend on belief or blind faith. His understanding of the mind is unparalleled, and I believe that following the Eightfold Path is a prescription for living nobly in the world amidst the inevitability of adversity. I am less and less interested in figuring out mysteries and more intent on accepting life and living it to the full. Placing incense and flowers before images of the Buddha is not my style. So I doubt that Amida Buddhism is my cup of tea, whether the Braziers are power-mad cultists (in their critic's opinion) or not.

A very different approach to Buddhism was presented last night by Bangkok businessman and newspaper columnist Danai Chanchaochai in the last of a nine-week series of talks in English on Buddhism organized by Phra Cittamasvaro at the Baan Aree Library. Author of "Dharma Moments," a column in the Bangkok Post and now collected in one volume, Khun Danai said the beginning of his interest in Buddhism and the monarchy began when he was 17 and an exchange student in St. Louis where he was called upon to explain Thai culture to Americans. He began to practice Vipassana (insight) meditation and through the experience of the fruits of his practice, eventually coined the label DQ to explain the "dhamma quotient," similar to the IQ index for intelligence.
To be complete, happy, you should have a high DQ. This means you see things as they are, without bias, prejudice or interpretation. We make judgments naturally, but with DQ you look at others and given them all equal scores. Without DQ, the world circulates around us; with it the communication gap shrinks. DQ is about the Big Self in the world.
To illustrate the role DQ plays in his own life, Khun Danai told several stories, about an angry employee who apologized after he felt he was heard, and about a German office neighbor who flattened Danai's tires when he parked in his spot. Danai's response was to send him flowers, and the man said he was sorry. He agreed, when I asked, that DQ was very similar to the Asian cultural practice of "saving face."

When we give everyone equal opportunities, equal scoring, Khun Danai told the audience of mostly expats, "the subject drops out. Action and results remain. But there is no 'I' to own complements, to get the credit." A number of listeners agreed that if there were any openings at Danai's PR firm, they would like to work for him.

Danai is an engaging and earnest young man who sounded like a gentle efficiency expert that had learned the value of being nice to others. What comes from the dhamma is good for business. I doubt that his primary goal was financial success, but clearly the Buddha's teaching was effective for him. The DQ sounds to me like good common sense. How about CQ for "Christ-like quotient" or MQ for "Muslim quotient." Catchy and cute, but not very inspirational. I was reminded of listening to speakers from est pontificating in hotel ballrooms and wondering where the mystery went. A few chants and some incense would help.

Oh, and Happy Halloween from Pattaya where I photographed this zombie nurse in the shopping mall and these masks on sale at a stall on Beach Road. It strikes me as a bit odd that the Thais have taken to Halloween, but then most of the films produced here seem to be about ghosts.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sin City

In the interests of research into one of the topics of this blog, I journeyed south to Pattaya, the original Sin City and the prime destination for international sex tourism. For three days and nights this past weekend, I wandered through the crowded streets (garishly lit by neon at night), browsed in several upscale shopping malls, waded in the surf and swam in a pool, reclined in an umbrella-shaded beach chair to read and watch Thais swim in their clothes, and visited various open-air beer bars and dimly-lit go-go dancing emporiums to see if Pattaya lives up to its fabled reputation. In short: it does. But two days would have been plenty.

Pattaya is a two-and-a-half-hour ride from Bangkok in an air-conditioned bus. For years it was a small fishing village on the western shore of the Bight of Bangkok until the Americans set up an air base nearby forty years ago during the war in Vietnam and it became the favored location for R&R (rest and recreation). Wherever GIs congregated, Thais saw a way to turn a profit. Bars were built and girls came from all over the country to give solace to the weary American troops. When the war ended in the mid 1970s, Pattaya reinvented itself as the sex capital of the world, a strange feat given that prostitution was then and is now illegal in Thailand. A construction boom followed that has yet to let up. Americans have been replaced by flocks of males from Japan and Korea, as well as Eastern Europe, especially Russia (many of the restaurants feature menus in Thai, English and Russian). The gently curving bay shore dotted by palms is lined with high-rise resorts, hotels, condominiums and serviced apartments. On the water is a flotilla of speedboats, yachts, jet skis, restaurant ships, and parasailors. There are ferries and boat rides to several offshore islands. Snorkling and diving can be done. In central Pattya city, a tiny strip of sand between the road and the sea is filled with umbrellas and deck chairs and a paved beach walk along the street is peopled with vendors, joggers, bicyclists, and ladies of the night (who also ply their trade at dawn).

Despite the the presence of couples with their kids and the increasing number of family-friendly activities promoted by Pattaya to attract a wider range of tourists, the city's raison d'être is undoubtedly sex. Most of the visitors seem to be my tribe of older men in all colors and sizes, but mostly out of shape and unattractive according to their home country's standards. In Pattaya they find love, temporarily and at a price. There is an enormous number of women working to serve their needs; in most of the city's hundreds of bars they outnumber the customers 10 to 1 (judging by my random sample). Pattaya is the mother of all sex towns, even the red light districts in Bangkok, Phuket and Koh Samui (which I've seen) seem puny in comparison. Even the seedy enticements of Tijuana are not in the same league. The morality crusade of the former prime minister (ousted by the military for alleged corruption) had some effect on the raunchiness of sex shows, according to reports, but there is a wide variety of "entertainment" available. Jacuzzis and simulated lesbian sex seem to the currently for jaded hedonists. In some places most of the girls are naked, and in others they wear bikinis and lingerie copied from Frederick's of Hollywood. Often the girls wear numbers (when they're wearing anything), for making a request I suppose. There is a gay-friendly area called "Boyztown," but ladyboys with enhanced breasts can be found also in the straight clubs and bars, perhaps attempting to fool the male customers with their exaggerated femininity. On the streets old men and young Thai women can be seen walking hand in hand (a no-no ordinarily in Thailand outside the big cities where public affection is frowned on). Women stroll the beach-side path, saying "hello, how are you?" to the passing males, and "Can I go with you?". Tourist police on Walking Street, the most concentrated section of the nighttime Disneyland of Sex, maintain a presence to prevent crime while illegal activity surrounds them. Pirated DVDs of the latest films and a wide range of porno videos (also illegal) are on sale openly.

It was good to smell the sea air again, even if polluted by gas fumes from the boat and four-wheel traffic. After a easy (if cramped on the crowded bus) trip ($3.50) to Pattaya from Ekamai station in Bangkok, I jumped on a sawngthaew (pickup truck bus with facing rows of seats in the back) for the ride down Beach Road to the Ma Maison Hotel I chose from Lonely Planet on quiet Soi 13. Central Pattaya is a collection of 16 or so side streets between two major roads. Walking Street is at the south end of town, but the nightlife is spread out from one end to the other. My hotel was perfect, a small collection of rooms ($25 a night) on two floors surrounding a pool with a restaurant-bar in front. The beach was minutes away but most of the bathers I saw were Thai, who frolic in the water fully dressed, and not tourists who most likely spent the daylight hours nursing hangovers. While sitting in a deck chair (rental: 75 cents) one morning I watched a stream of vendors file past selling balloons and other beach toys, some unidentifiable fried food, sunglasses, steamed shrimp and dried squid, cotton candy, newspapers, caged sparrows (for gaining merit from their liberation) and the always-popular foot massage. Inner tubes could be rented, but the surf, where boats and jet skis came and went with abandon, looked dangerous to me.

When you get bored with the beach, and you're not yet ready for the bar scene (which never seems to sleep), the Royal Garden Plaza Mall is directly across from the water in the center of town. Air-conditioned, it provides a respite from the hectic streets and crowded sidewalks where shoppers browse stalls selling every kind of knock-off brand objects, from clothes to electronics and the ever-popular watches (care for a Rolex at a bargain price?). One popular item is a silly putty tomato that splats flat on the ground before reconstituting itself. You could even buy a taser gun from a merchant on a motorbike. Inside the mall was every kind of brand name store imaginable, along with a movie theater and a Ripley's Believe It Or Not exhibit. All of the usual fast food imports from America were on hand, including Sizzler's. On the top floor a fine view of Pattaya Bay could be seen from the Starbucks deck. Outside the mall, a couple of enterprising Thai women were letting tourists hold cuddly little monkeys for a price. And on Road 2 on the other side of my soi a new mall called The Avenue is in the process of opening. It has yet another cinema multiplex (the city's third) along with a bowling alley on the top floor. Of course it will include a Starbucks (I saw at least five in Pattaya, and several Golden Arches).

My visit to Pattaya was short, and obviously my sampling of the city's charms was limited and partial. There is a large expat population, perhaps many of them Vietnam vets reliving their R&R glory days. They've chosen to live out their days far from home in a hot and humid climate, sometimes cooled by tropical breezes, among smiling Thai women who affirm their desirability: "You handsome man...I like old farang...they have warm heart." Can we blame them?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Panties for Peace

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Women in several countries have begun sending their panties to Myanmar embassies in a culturally insulting gesture of protest against the recent brutal crackdown there, a campaign supporter said Friday.

"It's an extremely strong message in Burmese and in all Southeast Asian culture," said Liz Hilton, who supports an activist group that launched the "Panties for Peace" drive earlier this week.

The group, Lanna Action for Burma, says the country's superstitious generals, especially junta leader Gen. Than Shwe, also believe that contact with women's underwear saps them of power.

To widespread international condemnation, the military in Myanmar, also known as Burma, crushed mass anti-regime demonstrations recently and continues to hunt down and imprison those who took part.

Hilton said women in Thailand, Australia, Singapore, England and other European countries have started sending or delivering their underwear to Myanmar missions following informal coordination among activist organizations and individuals.

"You can post, deliver or fling your panties at the closest Burmese Embassy any day from today. Send early, send often!" the Lanna Action for Burma Web site urges.

"So far we have had no response from Burmese officials," Hilton said.

(I think this item combines sex, politics AND religion, don't you?)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Sex, and More Sex

From last week's Bangkok Nation:

American tourist dies apparently of generic Viagra overdose

Pattaya - An American tourist died while having sex with a Thai bar girl in this seaside resort town late Sunday night, police said.

The bar girl told police that Ronald Kipu, 58, took three pills of Kamagra before having sex with her.

She filed complaints with police at 12:30 am that the man collapsed and stopped breathing while having sex with her in his room on the sixth floor of New Star Apartment in Chon Buri's Bang Lamung district.

Kipu just arrived at Pattaya Sunday afternoon and took her to his apartment from a bar in the evening, she said.

Police said there was no trace of fighting or assaulting on the man.

Police found a four-pill pack of Kamagra with just one pill left.

The mans' body was sent for an autopsy.

A new reader writes this to me: "Picked up on the religion and politics parts but still perusing for the sex..."

My father taught me that "it's a sin to kiss and tell." So there are omissions in my narrative of which I dare not speak...yet. Also, I am conscious of the sensibilities of some of my readers. A nun I know is praying that I find a good Catholic girl here in Bangkok. Possible, but not highly likely. This means that sex has been slighted somewhat in this blog lately.

I am not sure who would want to read about the sex lives of seniors beyond other seniors. When I began this blog, I wanted to chronicle the life of a single sextegenarian who had not yet given up on living a full life, despite a diagnosis of prostate cancer. My divorce was still painful. While I had retired from a short teaching career, I remained full of interests and curiosities that kept boredom at bay. A third marriage did not seem in the cards, but I pursued romance in distant places with women of my generation. No relationship lasted beyond a few months and hundreds of emails.

Then I came to Thailand, to the romantic island of Koh Samui, and had a "girlfriend experience" (look it up on Google and Wikipedia). Like Gaugin and a host of artists and writers before me, I was smitten by small South Seas women with dark skin and long black hair. Here, it seemed, I did not need to retreat into a rocking chair, to be cared for, reluctantly, by my kids as I slid into senility. Here I could taste the elixir of youth, even if the bottle was almost empty. Of course it's an old man's dream, but there are thousands of us here in Thailand looking for the same thing. Slandered as "sex tourists" and "fat old farang," my tribe, in ways couth and often uncouth, looks for the fire missing from their incomplete and unhappy lives.

The man in the news story above went a bit overboard and paid for it with his life. Perhaps it was a suicide and he meant to die in flagrante delicto, like Nelson Rockefeller. I do not judge the man because I have taken the very same drug, but in moderation. Viagra, or Vitamin V, is an old man's salvation. Pfizer discovered the drug by accident, Jerry Hopkins writes in his book Asian Aphrodisiacs. They were looking for something to treat angina, chest and arm pain caused by poor blood flow to the heart. Clinical trials did not produce good results. But when the test subjects were asked to turn in their samples, they refused. "Some research subjects camped out on pharmacy doorsteps to see if they could get more of the stuff. It turned out that, as a side effect, Viagra gave erections to men who had long been suffering from impotence."

Many things cause impotence in men, the ravages of age most prominently. Erections are nonexistent or unreliable in many after middle age. Prostate troubles exacerbate the problem. Lack of interest in sex is NOT the culprit in men I've discussed this with. In fact, sexual interest, in men at least, seems to increase with age, perhaps because the entire population of women (being hetereosexual, my view is limited) seems younger and appealing. It was particularly galling to find my limpness an insult to a partner who felt I was indifferent to her charms (after years of "I have a headache" when I was fit and able).

Sexual mores in America underwent a sea change while I was married and raising children. The pill and improved contraception, along with legal abortion, made fears about accidentally getting pregnant (the bane of my high school courtship years) disappear. But AIDs and other STDs made protection, and the more careful choice of partners, essential. Then along came the internet, with pornography and dating sights proliferating in tandem, to remake our sexual world. "Friends, Friends with Benefits and the Benefits of the Local Mall," an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine in 2004 by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, describes the effects of these changes on teenagers, and concludes that sexual friendship is taking the place of courtship and romance. These changes no doubt are permeating the entire culture, for adults as well as teens. Besides the GFE that prostitutes find to be a new selling point, men and women are "hooking up" and seeking "friends with benefits" because such temporary relationships are easier and do not involve messing arguments over commitment. Is this a flight from responsibility or an attempt to remake love under the gun of modern life?

I was married twice. The first time was to a woman I had to have, perhaps because, initially, she didn't want me. I was immature and she had serious psychological problems (which made her mysterious and attractive in the beginning). The marriage was a disaster but it produced two wonderful sons. My second wife was a complete change. Despite profound differences in interests and temperament, we lasted two dozen years, raising a son and a daughter together. In retrospect, I think she married me for the children. After they were born she transformed from a lover into a mother. I sublimated and compensated, giving birth years later to a Ph.D. When she told me she wanted to end the marriage I was devastated. I had bought the argument that long-term relationships, where you grow old together, are infinitely superior to affairs and short-term hook-ups. But she, it seems, wanted a younger man.

So now, twice burned by marriage, I am living in Thailand where my lovers have been less than half my age. Once again, I weigh the benefits of long term marriage versus the fleeting pleasures of sex with friends. I have met some wonderful ladies. We travel together; eat, joke and make love. My partners, however, are looking for the GF-BF experience leading to marriage, which, in Thailand, is a complicated affair involving the wife's whole family. Through them I have gotten to see Thai cultural more intimately (an American woman friend laments that this is blocked to her "because I haven't got a dick!"). I have been asked several times: "But who will take care of you?" They know my exit date is coming before theirs, and they genuinely worry about my dying alone.

When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer nearly seven years ago, I was given two options by the urologist -- cut it out or kill it with radioactive seeds. Each intervention involved the risk of impotency and incontinency. I chose a third option not mentioned by the urologist, "watchful waiting," and participated in a clinical study by Dean Ornish that involved a non-fat diet, yoga and meditation, aerobics exercise and a weekly support group meeting. I don't know if it helped slow the growth of the cancer, but the prostate variety is notoriously unpredictable. My close friend Peter, as well as Frank Zappa and Timothy Leary, died of it. According to studies, 60 percent of men who die of other causes are found to also have prostate cancer. My marriage broke up shortly after the diagnosis. She said it was "bad timing," but I wonder. The fear of impotency, if nothing else, kept me away from conventional treatment. Here I was, single again, and able, with the help of Vitamin V to relive my high school dreams. If I only had a few years, that was enough.

So don't condemn me when you see me with all of the other fat old farangs walking down Sukhumvit holding hands with a beautiful young woman. Despite what the Buddhists say, I think you only live once, and I'm determined to live live live until I die. And that includes sex.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"It's OK to be a mental patient"

I am sure that Anagarika Tevijjo, AKA David Holmes, did not intend for me to focus on that comment in his talk on insight meditation last night before the Little Bang Sangha at Baan Aree Library in Bangkok. But it captured my feeling of schizophrenia on hearing his oft repeated description of "mind watching mind" as a way of cultivating insight knowledge. The realization that our cherished realities are in fact only illusions is enough to drive one bonkers. But the suggested technique of one illusion watching another, mind watching mind, sent me a little farther around the bend.

The comment came while explaining that "one good way to understand mindfulness is to understand the lack of mindfulness. The wild elephant or stallion that resists being controlled. It's OK to be a mental patient." The "mind watching the mind" will help to develop the capacity for discernment. Elephants and stallions have the potential for being trained," he explained, just as mental patients have the potential for being cured. But the binary opposition of mind bothered me.

"Think of it as the worldly mind being watched by the meditative mind, the one who knows," he advised me during the Q&A period. "This was the advice of one of my teachers, Alan Watts, in his book In My Own Way." Well, that's all right for renegade Episcopal priests like Watts and Buddhist anagarikas (someone without home or family ties who nevertheless lives in the world, as opposed to the isolation of a monastery) to say, but for ordinary crazy people like me it is confusing.

In his talk, "Insight Generates Mind Power" (available online at his website, Noble Path), Holmes said that mind watching mind
eventually begins to recognize the illusion that what we, falsely, consider to be 'our mind,' or 'our thoughts' or 'our self' is actually nothing more than an impermanently, fluctuantly-accumulating bunching and bundling of illusive sensations, impressions and desires, We eventually come to realize that what we have always considered to be 'our mind'─ is just another perceptual phenomena which lacks any actual and abiding reality.
OK, I can go along with the idea that the mind, or the self, is a construct generated by conditions, the product of experiences an organism (this one, me) has in the world. But if mind has no abiding reality, how can it bifurcate into two equally unreal illusions that watch each other? Realizing that "the point may be succinct, but it is not so easy to see," Holmes attempted to clarify:
When the mind watching the mind sees that there is actually no ‘our self’ or ‘our mind’ or ‘our thoughts’ existing in any way as an independent entity, and, then, with time and discernment, it gradually comes to realize that there is only ‘the mind watching itself,’ it becomes clear, through insight, that the mind is actually only a ‘tool’ to be used in a process of observation and analysis -- to be laid-down and left aside -- once its task of locating and sorting-out and dissolving the delusions of phenomenal existence has been accomplished.
He cautioned that gaining insight wisdom through meditation is a long and arduous process of development. "It goes against our will and our nature." Holmes quoted his teacher, Luang Por Viriyang, who compared learning insight to someone learning to read and write:
At the beginning, he did not know or understand anything. Later, he began to understand little-by-little. Afterwards, he was able to read and write basic words. At this point, his ability equates with samatha (tranquility meditation). From that point on, he develops through experience and wisdom and knowledge, just as one would in medicine or architecture or engineering or agriculture, until he finally becomes fully skilled in his craft.
Luang Por, now 87, is abbot of Wat Thammamongkhon (also spelled Dhammamongkhol) in the southeastern suburbs of Bangkok. He is also founder of the Willpower Institute with a project of meditation for world peace, he established several temples in Thailand and Canada, and is the author of Instructions for Meditation Teachers which Holmes drew on extensively in his talk.

While acknowledging that total insight wisdom might be out of reach for most meditators, the process of developing mindfulness, of Vipassana, "generates healing power" and leads to the relief of stress in the performance of everyday tasks, according to Holmes. Luang Por said that "meditative mind is an effective rest which promotes positive thinking and management capability." This sounds a bit like an advertisement to me for a do-it-yourself CEO course. It unfortunately will encourage people to meditate in order to achieve certain pre-determined results. I hold with the Bhagavad Gita that seeking results from the spiritual life is a prescription for error. We must practice for the sake of wisdom and relief from suffering and not for any reward or merit in heaven or the next re-birth. But of course that is a bit idealistic, and I am, in fact, a mental patient in this asylum of samsara.

Holmes is an engaging speaker, although his talk last night was complex and academic and is more understandable (at least for me) when read from the printed page. A dialogue with him would be a more interesting format, I think. He is a Canadian, educated at McMaster University in Ontario, and he taught English in Munich for the University of Maryland for many years. Coming to Asia in 1992, he worked at the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka, with the Venerable Nyanaponka Thera, a German monk who founded the publications organization, and Bhikku Bodhi, an American now living at Bodhi Monastery in the states. He edits the BPS Wheel series of publications for the internet. Before retiring, he worked at Chulalongkorn University where he published several books, including Buddhist Perception and Paradox. Currently Holmes lives at a remote retreat in Kanchanaburi province.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rama V: Siam's Modernizing Monarch

It isn't easy for westerners to understand the role of royalty in Thailand. Today is Chulalongkorn Day, the anniversary of the death of King Rama V in 1910. It is a national holiday, and King Chulalongkorn the Great, also called by Thais the "Great Beloved King," is worshipped like a saint. His picture can be seen in businesses and in private homes, venerated like The Buddha and the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX. His portrait graces the common 100-baht note.

After visiting Dusit Zoo on Sunday, I walked down to the King Rama V Monument on Ratchadamnoen, the Royal Way, a wide boulevard inspired by the Champs Elysées in Paris. A statue of Chulalongkorn on a horse was unveiled in 1908 in front of the new Italianate Ananta Samakhom throne hall, built the year before "with Carrera marble, Milan granite, Germany copper, and Viennese ceramics," according to historians Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. In their History of Thailand, the authors write:
Cast in Paris and portraying the king in western military attire, the image was the first use of statuary outside a religious context and a massive statement of the royal presence in the capital.
In front of the statue, Thais place flowers and light sticks of incense, just as they do for the Buddha. Today there will be an elaborate ceremony in the plaza. Stores are closed for "Chulalongkorn Appreciation Day" (will the bars be open tonight?).

Although the term "Rama" was not applied to him until after his death, Chulalongkorn was the fifth monarch in the Chakri dynasty which began in 1782 and continues today, 225 years later. He was one of the children tutored by Anna Leonowens and was apparently influenced by her abolitionist ideas, for he outlawed slavery during his reign. (The mostly fictional Anna and the King of Siam, in all of its artistic forms, is still banned here.) He was 15 when his father, King Mongkut (Rama IV) died and he served under a regent for four years. While ruler, he was the first Thai king to visit Europe, and he returned with ideas about fashion, railroads, architecture and progress, but not constitutional limits on the monarchy. King Rama V was a firm absolutist to the end (that didn't change until 1932). He modernized the financial system and administrative bureaucracy, and successfully prevented his country being colonized by European powers, even while Britain and France were nibbling away at his eastern and western borders. Chulalongkorn had four queen consorts and numerous commoner wives who produced 77 children, 33 of whom were sons. His second son, Vajiravudh, succeeded him as Rama VI.

Chulalongkorn turned a feudal dynasty into a modern nation state, thereby earning the title of "Modernizing Monarch" by setting permanent borders and transforming a conglomeration of different ethnicities into the citizens of Siam (30 years before it was renamed "Thailand), "reinvented as members of the same race," according to the historians. His administration, led mainly by relatives, used education and the military to erase differences between people and cement unity, helped by "histories" that invented a continuity from the empires of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya to the Chakri kings of Bangkok. King Rama V had learned well from examining the same kind of nation building (i.e., invention of tradition) in France and England.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) has been in Siriraj Hospital for the past ten days. He was admitted with an "inadequate blood flow to the brain" but his condition since then has been described consistently as "satisfactory" and "improving." The King celebrated an unprecedented reign of 60 years last year and on Dec. 5 his 80th birthday will be celebrated with widespread pomp and circumstance throughout Thailand. His only son, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, paid his first visit to his father yesterday. The Crown Prince has been married three times, twice to commoners (one an aspiring actress who, after giving him five children, left him to live in America). The King and his Queen also have three other children, all daughters.

After viewing the Rama V statue, I traveled east to Banglamphu and the Chao Phraya River and walked across the imposing Rama VIII bridge to a beautiful park on the other side. Centerpiece of the park is a large statue of Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), King Bhumibol's brother. As I entered the gate past a guard with my camera at the ready I was told it was forbidden to photograph the statue (so instead you get a photo of me in the park with the bridge in the background. Mahidol, a grandson of Chulalongkorn, became king when Rama VII abdicated in 1935. He was born in Germany and was living in Switzerland when the government (now a constitutional monarchy) appointed him king at the age of 9. He visited Thailand for the first time four years later, and only came to live there in 1945 after studying for a law degree. Six months later the young king was found shot to death in his bedroom in the Grand Palace. The mystery has never been solved. Several servants were executed for his "assassination" but his brother, who replaced him as ruler, is thought to disbelieve this story. The published evidence suggests suicide was an impossibility and other candidates have been proposed as the murders. But the full truth is unknown.

I've lived in England and now reside in Thailand, both constitutional monarchies. But the admiration and love accorded the King here is far and away greater than any I saw in London. There the royal family is an objective of curiosity and grudging respect. Here, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit are universally worshipped as supreme paragons, and their faces, together or separately, are seen everywhere, including the sides of buildings and on large altars in front of businesses. A film about him with music is shown in every cinema before the main feature and everyone is expected to stand. Her birthday is celebrate as Mother's Day, and his as Father's Day. Their social and environmental work is admired internationally. The baseball cap I wear has the King's symbol on it, and every Monday Thais were yellow shirts because the King was born on a Monday and yellow is that day's color.

There are other stories and rumors about the King's family which I will not report here. It is a serious crime to criticize or ridicule the King and his family in Thailand and I'm not about the battle the Thai net police who recently shut down YouTube for showing a video deemed disrespectful. The King is obviously in ill health and his death will be a national disaster. No living monarch has ruled as long as he and certainly none in any country has won such love from their subjects (except perhaps Princess Diana). The transition to Rama X will be a sad but fascinating process to watch.

Monday, October 22, 2007







Saturday, October 20, 2007

Teeth and Shoes

To all of you dear readers who think I live an exciting life here in Bangkok, capital of the mysterious Far East, let me recount for you a couple of my adventures this past week.

A few weeks ago I went to the Dental Hospital (yes, that's it's full name; who do you think they are catering to?) on Soi 49 to get my teeth cleaned (I wonder how Lord Jim or Kurtz kept their pearly whites polished?) The multi-story facility was the very model of efficiency. Over a half-dozen ladies in brown uniforms staffed the reception desk. The large waiting room featured floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a garden, and both an indoor and an outdoor pond with Koi. During the few minutes of waiting, I watched an English language news broadcast on a large overhead TV set. My appointment began right on time, and the man who cleaned my teeth was a periodontist, not a dental assistant. He told me what I already knew, that I had deep pockets in my gums around one tooth on the lower right. Last year I weathered an infection there, and more were probable. My dentist in Santa Cruz suggested I pull the tooth; the Thai dentist proposed surgery to save it. If I ever want to get bridges so I can chew my food again on the right side, it would be well to have real teeth to anchor them. So I set up an appointment.

On Wednesday I underwent a "gingival flap procedure" with Dr. Jirapong. He quickly, with a few painful pinpricks, numbed up my jaw and began digging away in my gums. Although his English seemed fine, I did not ask him to detail what was involved, preferring it to be over quickly. It took an hour of scrapping, digging and sewing. There was no chit-chat between the dentist and his assistant, her face hidden behind a safety mask. A few times I wanted to ask, "Do you know what you're doing?," but wisely withheld my tongue. Since it was numb and useless anyway, I doubt that he would have understood. After an eternity, the procedure was finished, and I was briskly escorted to the reception desk where I was presented with antibiotics and pain pills (not Vicodin, which I would have preferred, but some Thai version of Excedrin, I think), and a bill for 6,342 baht (about $210). In the U.S. it would be almost free since I have dental insurance. But it was an adventure! Aren't you jealous?

For a couple of days I've had a golf-ball sized lump on my right cheek. After the first night, when I took the last Vicodin I brought with me from my last dental expedition in the states, the pain was manageable. Next week I get the stitches out. And in January I will weigh the pros and cons of getting bridge work done for around 100,000 baht. Let's see, new teeth or a trip to Bali? Which would you choose?

I can eat all right by chewing on only one side of my mouth, but I need two good feet to walk, and walking is my main form of exercise these days. But my feet and my right knee, in particular, have been troubling me for some time. I suspect arthritis is the major culprit. But I notice that different shoes produce different sensations in the bothersome knee. And so I suspect that if I can just find the perfect shoe my knee problem will disappear. In addition, I notice that occasionally the front pads of my feet are extremely sore after a jaunt down the street. For nearly four years I've worn Chacos, wearing out two pairs. Now that I'm in Bangkok, land of the cheap shoes, I've been experimenting with various kinds of footwear, looking for the Shangri-La of foot comfort.

First I tried this spiffy leather pair (about $30), but quickly developed blisters along the top of my foot where the shoe rubbed. Because you remove your shoes often here, to enter some stores and all temples, I wanted something easily removable. But they felt too loose. So I bought the brown leather sandals with velco straps on the heel. There was some padding on the bottom and they initially felt comfortable, but it soon disappeared and my feet felt like they were stomping on concrete. Also, the heel strap was extremely awkward to remove and my temple-hopping friends were always having to wait for me. The next possibility I tried was Thailand's national shoe the flip-flop (or, as it used to call it in Southern California in the 1950s, the zori). I got a pair in Luang Prabang with an unfortunate camouflage motif. Since I've become an adult, my experience with them has been that they hurt my big toe and often produce blisters. A pair I bought in India two years ago lasted several days before I donated them to the poor. This time, since I don't wear them every day, I think I'll get over the break-in hump. Not the shoes, but my feet. Finally, I went to the huge MBK shopping mall yesterday and bought the gray rubber shoes pictured above. They're a close second to becoming Thailand's national shoe. I see them everywhere and have wondered about their comfort. Well, they are terrific. There are little spikes on the inside soles that provide a constant foot massage and the loose fitting is surprisingly comfortable. I did notice last night that the left shoe was rubbing annoying against my foot and later found a blister. But I have band-aids for that. I think they may become my footwear of choice. But I have many options.

I used to laugh at my first wife who was living in poverty in Pasadena but had over two dozen pairs of shoes in her closet. Every pay day she went looking for new shoes. They made her feel good. With me it used to be books. I would buy a new one whenever I was feeling the slightest bit down. But now I'm trying not to accumulate possessions, books among them. And I suddenly find myself acting out my ex-wife's solution. If the body is aching or I'm feeling old, buy a new pair of shoes. I'm looking now for a nice comfortable pair of moccasins.

The Bangkok Post is a fountain of information ofnthe mores and customs, and general weirdnesses, of Asia. Here is a recent winner:
Snake bite kills drinker
PHNOM PENH: A Cambodian man who took off his trousers, tied the legs at the bottom and wrangled a two metre cobra into them died when it bit him through the fabric, it was reported yesterday. Chab Kear, 36, saw the reptile in a river outside Phnom Penh during a drinking session and captured it in the hopes of selling it. He tied the animal inside his trousers and a scarf around his waist, but as he continued drinking the snake managed to bite Kear three times. Media reports said his last words were: "Don't worry, it's nothing a drink can't fix."

Here is another:
Woman's 27-hour car kiss drives off rivals

HONG KONG: A Beijing woman won a car after kissing it for 27 hours and 40 minutes to beat 120 other competitors in a bizarre contest. Zhang Chunying was allowed two 10-minute breaks and had to stand on one leg after 24 hours were up in the contest run by a shopping mall. With six contestants left after a full 24 hours, one contestant collapsed from dehydration after 25 hours of kissing the Chevrolet Lova. The four other contestants dropped out over the next two hours, unable to remain kissing and standing on one leg. "I can't walk now," Ms. Zhang said. "My legs are numb and my waist is aching, but I'm happy I got the car." The contest is one of a number of bizarre stunts and promotions organised to promote the luxury shopping centres that have sprung up around booming Beijing in recent years.

Herman Melville would never have imagined the depths of the Heart of Darkness in Asia. He must be rolling over in his grave.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Psychology for the Selfless

A "Buddhist psychology" would seem to be an oxymoron, since the Buddha taught that there is no permanent, enduring self. Yet a Google search turns up 96,800 entries for that term, reflecting my sense that psychological theorists are particularly attracted to Buddhism because of its well-developed explanations for how the mind, however temporary, works. At Assumption University in Bangkok yesterday I attended a lecture in the graduate Department of Psychology by Phra Cittamasvaro, a British Monk living in Thailand, who argued that while there can be no fusion of Buddhism and psychology, the two can fruitfully borrow from each other.

"The goals and methodologies are different," Pandit explained to the cosmopolitan audience of faculty and students who are studying to be counseling psychotherapists. "In Buddhism you are taught to leave home and family, put on rags, and sit at the foot of a tree. You can't squeeze a psychology out of that." The goal of Buddhist practice is nibanna, enlightenment, while the goal of psychology is normalcy, relief from mental disorders and anxiety. It's important to keep the goals separate, Pandit told the group.

Some Buddhists, like Ajahn Sumedo, take a dim view of psychologists, Pandit said, believing that all they do for their clients is help them rake over the past. Another said that psychology was rubbish because it can't take you to enlightenment. The Dali Lama apparently said that Buddhism provides all we need, and that psychology is unnecessary. Although Pandit (who admitted he disagreed with the Dali Lama) did not detail a critique of Buddhism by psychologists, it's obvious that many no doubt think enlightenment the delusion of a disordered mind. In his handout to the seminar, Pandit quoted Pope John Paul II's view of Buddhism as "an atheistic system which aims to make its devotees perfectly indifferent to the world around them."

But Buddhists and psychologists can borrow from each other. Psychology has borrowed meditation techniques for stress reduction, using concentration and mindfulness methods to relieve both ordinary anxiety and clinical depression. Other psychologists, like Martin Seligman, are designing therapies for positive goals like happiness. Buddhist teachings about promoting wholesome states of mind through "right efforts" like dana (giving), sela (morality) and bhavana (development) are useful in psychotherapy as "stabilizing practices" that encourage positive thoughts and habits. Rather than fix the past, as in traditional therapy, they involve action in the present leading to a better outcome in the future. Also, the teaching on karma can help show how bad habits grow from wrong choices. "The Buddha never talked about the subconscious," Pandit said, "but it may be that the subconscious mind equates to karma, or bad habits."

On the other hand, Buddhists can benefit from psychology, Pandit said, by recognizing that it has "expanded outside its original purpose and is now a broad institution." People speak of "applied Buddhism" which includes economics and politics, even though the Buddha had nothing to say on these subjects. Monks are now teaching in schools, and they are counseling people in temples with little or no training. "The Christians are good at this," he said, "training priests to be counselors. Much bad advice is being given to people by the monks." He said that Buddhism could make use of the concepts of "constructs" and "defense mechanisms" to explain how the mind attempts to avoid anxiety, "a better translation of the term dukkha." Buddhists like Jack Kornfield are recognizing that people need to have a certain degree of mental stability before undergoing a meditation retreat, and psychology may be of some help here.

Psychology aims at replacing unsatisfactory emotions with others more conducive to mental health. But Buddhism, Pandit said, would give up all constructs and replace them with emptiness, shunyata. "The mind is naturally self-ordering," he said. "If we stop replacing one thing with another, letting all cease, then things would become clear."

But contemporary psychology abhors a vacuum as much as so-called nature, and the "emptiness model of mental health" is not likely to catch on very soon with the popular imagination. I'm still troubled by the model of selflessness that I get from my Buddhist studies. The human mind, it would seem, is adept at generating a self. Can there be mind without self? If not, then psychology, the study of the mind, would be an exercise in delusion. There is much in Buddhism that goes beyond the purview of psychology: rebirth, the divas, and the hell realms, for example. Of course there is much in Thai Buddhism that goes beyond anything that I experienced in American Buddhism (spirit houses, amulets, protective string, etc.). But I have long thought of Buddhism as a psychology rather than a religion. Stripped of ritual, as Stephen Batchelor describes in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs, Buddhism is a system of teaching that promotes health, physical, mental and spiritual, through right understanding and practice (that's pretty sketchy, but my copy is not close at hand). All of this would seem to require at least a mind and at most a self to direct it.

After all, the hubris of writing a blog is the consequence of a self deluded that anyone is reading.

I was invited to Pandit's talk by my friend Dr. Holly who teaches and advises students in psychology at Assumption University's graduate school. She showed me around the modern campus (one of two, the undergraduate campus is some distance away) which includes several high rise buildings as well as a Buddhist temple by a lake full of fish and turtles (a large basketball court is in front of the temple, not seen in the photo). Holly received her Ph.d. at the California Institute of Integral Studies and has been living and teaching in Thailand for several years. Walking around the garden-like grounds and through the academic halls , I watched feelings of jealousy arise in me (good mindfulness training), and thought how nice it would be to teach in such a pleasant place. Run by the Brothers of St. Gabriel, a worldwide catholic religious order, founded in France in 1705, the obviously well-funded university was established in 1969 as a business college and, since becoming a university in 1990, now gives advanced degrees in philosophy and religion, as well as psychology, computer science and tourism. While I would love the intellectual stimulation of teaching there, a few minutes reflection helped me to see that full-time retirement remains a better option for this aging religious philosopher whose field of investigation is much wider than the Halls of Academe.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

I took this photo at the Museo de Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico, where bodies buried a hundred years before were discovered to be somewhat preserved by the climate and soil conditions.

At the Baan Aree Library in Bangkok last night, the Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni , the only currently ordained nun in Thailand, chose to talk about Buddhist relics rather than her revolutionary attempt to bring democracy and equality to Thai monasticism. This interest no doubt comes from her nearly 30 years as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, professor of religion and philosophy at Thammasat University. But the subject of relics makes me uncomfortable. Surely the Buddha did not teach that we should hold onto the dead by any fragment of bone (or the True Cross)?

But despite my discomfort, I found Dhammananda to be a wonderful storyteller, starting with her son (she was married before becoming ordained in 2001) who "doesn't believe in anything," but became excited by relics because "it was the real thing." Veneration of relics is important in Buddhism and tall stupas dot the landscapes of Asia to house them. Her primary goal last night, it seemed to me, was to explain the presence of relics of the Buddha in the Golden Mount in Bangkok. These sacred objects were given to King Rama V of Siam by Lord Curzon, British viceroy of India, after they were discovered in the 1890s by an amateur British archaeologist, William Claxton Peppe, under a stupa near Piprahwa, a town on the India border of Nepal. Much of her narrative had to do with the dispute over the location of the city of Kapilavastu. The Buddha was born in Lumbini near Tilaurakot in Nepal which some think is the legendary Kapilavastu, land ruled by his father the King. Others, particularly Indians, claim Piprahwa to be Kapilavastu. For Dhammananda, the evidence is conclusive: Piprahwa is Kapilavastu and the relics under the Golden Mount in Bangkok are genuine.

But, I asked at the end of her talk, how are relics to be understood in relation to our practice, our following of the eight-fold path in order to end suffering and attain enlightenment? In other words (and someone later thanked me for asking the question), what different does it make to me whether they are genuine or not? Why should we care about relics at all? Of course, the broader question is: what if the Buddha (like Jesus) is only a myth and not history? Does that invalidate the teaching?

Her answer was wonderful: "Don't worry. Whatever you believe or do not believe about relics is not important. Only your practice is important for you. There are many controversies. For example, some people now are arguing over the number of steps the Buddha first took when he was a baby." And Christians in the Middle Ages used to debate how many angels would fit on the head of a pin.

The historical Buddha is of interest to academics, and the existence of relics might offer evidence that he really lived, where he was born and where he died. Dhammananda made the argument that archaeologists should read Buddhist scripture in order to find where they should dig. Accounts by two Chinese visitors to Buddhist places of pilgrimage in India in the 7th century have been invaluable in locating some sites important to the Buddha's life, like Lumbini. Scripture is supported by history, she said, and recounted various struggles in the Sakyan Republic during the final years of the Buddha who died at the age of 80. As a trained historian, I share her excitement about uncovering facts and constructing interpretations.

But for a lecture to Bangkok residents eager to hear the dhamma explained in English, the Buddhist nun's topic was interesting but not of much help in answering the big questions, like "Who am I" and "What shall I do." Venerating and worshipping dry bones does not appeal to me, although it might be important in this ritual-conscious society where I now live.

In Sienna I saw the head of St. Catherine (her body is in Rome), and I prayed by the bones of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi. So I am not immune to the charms of relics. Pieces of robes worn by the late Pope John Paul II, a candidate for sainthood, can be purchased on eBay along with "the air that Christ purportedly breathed, the supposed wing of the Holy Spirit and the alleged hand of Saint Stephen," according to information from one web site. Simony, or the sale of relics, was one cause of the Reformation in the 16th century. Along with usury and the sale of indulgences, it has now been banned by Roman Catholic canon law. For a long time I had the antler of a deer found in the forest on my altar, along with statues and icons of deities and saints. In the outside sala at Wat Pah Nanachat, there is a full sized skeleton hanging next to the altar, not because it's owner was a notable practitioner, but because Ajahn Chah believed we should almost be reminded of death when we meditate. I understand the yearning of Dammananda's son for "the real thing," something tangible that can be associated with divinity in whatever form it may take. But I also understand the saying: "If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him." As Jesus would say, "let the dead bury their dead." Living faith and practice is more important than preserving the past.

In an attempt to understand the facts of her story, I went on the web this morning to research early Buddhism and the discovery of relics and pilgrimage sites in Nepal and India. The man who declared Lumbini to be the Buddha's birthplace was Dr Alois Anton Führer, a later discredited (for creating relics) German archaeologist working for the British. He is the subject of a long article called "Lumbini on Trial: the Untold Story" by T.A. Phelps that I found on the web. Peppe made his discoveries at Piprahwa under the influence of Führer. Another useful source of information is "Buried with the Buddha," an article in the London Sunday Times from 2004 by Vicki Mackenzie. I also found a curious article by Ranajit Pal that argues for Iran, not India or Nepal, as the birthplace of the Buddha and the location for his enlightenment and teaching. The whole story of the discovery of ancient Buddhism in India by western linguists and archaeologists is a drama not far removed from The Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones movies. A good perspective on all this comes from articles in the important volume, The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger.

I suspect that Dhammananda Bhikkuni the faithful academic might have some problems with criticism of the authenticity of Buddha relics. But as a nun and dhamma teacher, I believe she would say: "Don't worry about it."

Dhammananda Bhikkuni's monastery, Songdhammakalyani Temple, is located in Nakhon Pathom and her web site is (in English and Thai).

On another matter, my son Luke marked his 40th year yesterday. There were times when it wasn't certain he would make it, but today he is creating a new life for himself in Boston where he feeds the penguins and turtles at the Aquarium, among other things. And unlike his brother or myself, he appears able to grow a beard. This picture taken recently shows the beginnings of a good one. The rest of us Yaryans are a little weak on the testosterone. Congratulations, Luke! Last year I was able to fly back to Boston and join him on his birthday where we feasted at restaurants in the suburb of Waltham where he lives, an intercontinental culinary zone. Since Luke is an amateur chef of some accomplishment, the choice of a place to live was auspicious. Hopefully by next year he will figure out a way to come to Southeast Asia to celebrate his 41st.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Expedia SUCKS!!!!

Until three months ago, I was a satisfied customer of, the online travel company. During the last few years I have purchased numerous plane tickets from them to many destinations around the globe. Their service was efficient and convenient. I didn't care much for the extra fee for Fedex delivery, but in these days of electronic tickets it seemed nice to have something on paper.

Then, in July, I reserved round-trip flights on SriLankan Airlines from Bangkok to Trichy, India, via Colombo. The cost was $494.80 (which included a $5 "service fee") for itinerary number 120460525267. The tickets came a week later. Then, the next day, I received a second set of tickets, duplicating the first. When I checked my credit card account, I discovered I had been billed twice for the same flights. And I'd been charged over $20 for each Fedex delivery. I sent frantic emails and I called the company. When I finally reached a real person (I think) in Customer Service, they were most apologetic, but could not explain the mistake.

Since the matter was most obviously Expedia's error (the computer must have hiccuped), I expected a quick resolution. At their request, I mailed back the second set of tickets sent to me. Each month I checked my credit card company online to see if a refund had been posted. Nothing so far. Now that I am in Thailand, it is harder to communicate by phone (and no doubt more frustrating), so I continued to send emails. The form responses came quickly but contained no information. Until Sept. 5th, when "Gem" (each form email carries a different name) wrote to me:
I have retrieved your case in our system (case id 35300433) and seen that your request for refund is still in progress as of this time. We do understand your concerns as we are seeing that it is taking much time more than we have expected and we would like to apologize for the inconvenience it is causing you. The case is still in progress and it is already forwarded to the appropriate department.
My case has an ID number! Oh joy! No matter that I had been waiting two months to receive back nearly $500 that Expedia had taken without authorization from my credit card. And never mind that the odd English indicated that Gem was probably emailing from Bangladesh. I was in the system.

That was over a month ago. I am no longer so optimistic. Since returning from Laos, I have fired off several emails, each one receiving a form email response from a different person in "Customer Service." What a euphemism for stone-walling! None of their emails indicates that my emails had been read. I despair of ever receiving my money back and do not know where to turn. Any good lawyers out there? This week I will visit SriLankan Airlines in Bangkok to make sure the tickets I have in hand are valid, since I no longer trust Expedia with anything. Perhaps they can put pressure on Expedia to refund my money for the duplicate tickets.

Because of my troubles, I looked online to see if anyone else was complaining. Yikes! The whole world agrees that Expedia's service sucks. The wonderful graphic above comes from the Marketing Shift web site where their problems are detailed. I intend to link this complaint with theirs.

So, if you're looking for airline reservations, AVOID Expedia. Unless you like to throw your money away.

And now, back to our program which was so rudely interrupted...

My first impressions of Udon Thani, which I visited last weekend after returning to Thailand from Laos, were not good. I could not understand why the expatriates I met were so enthusiastic about living there. It seemed like just another big city, and not as user friendly for farang as Bangkok, a day's bus or train trip away. But over the course of Saturday, my view changed. The streets are clean, the roads wide and well-paved, and the traffic was light. After a few bumps, I found easy access to the internet and a number of shops where a good cappuccino could be made. In the late afternoon I was taken to Nong Prajack Park, a large area of greenery cheek by jowl with a broad pond. Joggers and bikers were traversing the 4k path around the lake, families were feeding fish and groups of aerobics exercisers were hard at work at two different locations. At dusk, after work, the crowd swelled to revolutionary size. Along a side road there were outdoor cafes and massage parlors. Children were learning art at a number of identical shops that featured Disney ripoffs. We bought barbecued fish balls and other Thai goodies and had a picnic on the grass overlooking the water. Clearly Udon was a happy place. In the evening we went to a large restaurant that resembled a road house, named after a "sweet smelling tree," and ate soft shell crab and fried rice while listening to a guitarist with harmonica around his neck a la Dylan who played Thai songs as well as James Taylor's "Handyman."

On my last morning in Udon, I was taken to the Sanjao Phuya Chinese Temple on the edge of Nong Bua Lake in the southeastern section of the city. We were the sole worshippers at that early hour, and we went from station to station (kind of like Stations of the Cross) with fistfulls of incense to pray to our ancestors through the intercession of Chinese deities. It's hard to tell where Confucianism leaves off and Buddhism begins. Both are connected via animism or spirit worship. I tossed a container of sticks until one fell out on the floor. It was number 17 and I took a slip of paper from that numbered box to read my fortune. It was no good, telling me that my prayers would not be answered, so I was encouraged to try again. This time number 49 came out, and the fortune read: "Your family is happy and graceful by virtue of a lot of good deeds in the past. Merit will pile up their happiness every day and night. luck, fame and prosperity will overflow without doubt. Your pleasure and progress will endlessly prolong." Can't get any better than that. I watched some kids riding their bikes in front of the temple. In the basket of one sat an infant, enjoying the ride.

I enjoyed Udon, and its sister city Nong Khai on the banks of the Mekong River and I shall return.

On the short Nok Airlines (their logo is a gecko) flight back to Bangkok, I witnessed with awe the most beautiful clouds I have ever seen, a veritable Grand Canyon of the air. Surely the first pilots must have been astounded at the view from above. Down below it was not so good, flooding everywhere. Thailand is getting more late rain than it's had in years. Jerry says the dikes around rice fields in Surin are overflowing and the fish cultivated for food are flopping out. I saw wide areas of flooding in the area around Khorat. Even here in Bangkok the canals are at the high water level and taxi boats have been suspended for fear of splashing water into dwellings along the canals. A storm late yesterday afternoon was hellish, with zero visibility, drenching rain, lighting and thunder. I took a nap and slept through the worst of it.

Back home at the Siam Court, I have been downloading music (the new CDs from Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock and Steve Earle), and reading Google News. It's hard to feel involved at this distance, reading about Gore's Nobel prize (I still don't trust him), the retired general who says "no end in sight" in Iraq (duh!), Nancy Pelosi's jeremiad against Turkey for the genocide of Armenians (why is this a big issue now when it's been around for years; she should say something about the genocide of Palestinians), Condi's Middle East negotiating failures, the pitiful presidential race (the outcome of which will change nothing, since all candidates are corporate sponsored). In desperation, I've started looking at baseball and football scores and standings. Then there are the reviews I read of new movies, most of which I cannot see over here unless I purchase pirated DVDs from the night market stalls on Sukhumvit. And you know I do not want to break the law.

I have received sad news of the deaths of two good friends from my music business days, Corb Donohue and Diane Gardner, both from cancer. I will write about them, and the golden days of the 1970s in Hollywood, in a later blog.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Udon Interlude

Last night I was drinking a draft of Guinness in the Irish Clock pub in Udon Thani and talking with three expatriates about life in this large city, capital of the province of the same name in the northeast of Thailand. Bob, 58, is a retired lawyer from Berkeley and he was there with his Thai wife and six-month-old son, Patrick. Joining us was Brendan, a 41-year-old Irishman who lives with his Thai wife and child in Wales where he works in construction. They return periodically to visit and Brendan hopes to eventually retire and live full-time in Thailand, although he said that dream is far in the future. Also drinking with us at the bar was Rick, a burly red-faced Australian about my age, who recently separated from his Thai wife. She now has another farang boyfriend. “I’m glad, because now I don’t have to pay her support,” he said. Rick, who came to Udon to visit a cousin eight years ago and stayed, with occasional visits home, is a golfer and he ticked off for us all the courses he’s played in Isan, the name for this corner of Thailand where the Americans had a major air base during the war in Vietnam.

I listened carefully to their stories because from time to time, ever since meeting a lady from Udon in Koh Samui last winter, I have wondered what it would be like to marry a Thai woman and settle down here, in the city or in a village. Jerry certainly seems happy with Lamyai, his wife of four years who comes from a small hamlet in Surin farther to the south. For my Samui friend, Udon was home and she spoke of it reverently; the beach and the bright lights of Bangkok could not compare.

My guide and translator had left her car in Nong Khai and we drove down here yesterday after crossing over the Friendship Bridge from Laos and taking a tuk tuk to where it was parked. There is a wide divided highway for most of the 50-kilometer drive that passes through farming country which looked more prosperous than I imagined since Isan is the poorest area of Thailand. Udon, with a population of over 200,000, seemed big and busy. I saw only a few multi-storied buildings: the bland but well-appointed Charoen Hotel where I am staying and the large shopping center not far off that includes a KFC, a multiplex cinema and a bowling alley as well as computer and clothing shops. It’s the cultural heart of the city, I’m sure. Across the road is a street full of bars, many of which are owned by a single farang, I was told. This tradition of providing a meeting place for men and women began during the American war thirty years ago when the older wing of my hotel was built to accommodate soldiers on R&R. On my walk to the Irish Clock I was accosted by a number of streetwalkers who promised me innumerable pleasures if I would be their “friend.” I have been told that the bars of Bangkok are full of women largely recruited from Isan, Udon in particular.

There was consensus among the drinkers, all of whom were smoking “cheap” Thai cigarettes, that Thailand, and Udon Thani in particular, was a wonderful place to live. Bob talked about how his ex-wife had begun to look like his mother, and Rick said that no young woman in Australia would give him a second look. Brendan acknowledged that Thai cultural values, which encourage women to ignore appearances and serve their men, were important to him. Bob said that he met his wife just after she returned “with a broken heart” from Europe where she was living with another man. “She told me she wanted only two things, to be financially secure and to have a baby, and I’ve given her both.” He said he was aware that it was his resources that made him attractive to her, and not his large midrift and thinning hairline. But the lawyer, who retains his membership in the California Bar, admitted that he missed his high-pressure job back in the states, and that he had some difficulty finding things to do, despite the demands of being a new father (his infant son has three fully-grown half-brothers back in America). Rick encouraged him to play more golf. The men were quick to encourage me in my search for a Thai companion, and I sensed in them a need for agreement to affirm their own life choices.

I left the bar feeling sad and confused. Why, if these men love Thailand, do they congregate in an Irish pub to talk about the weather and politics in Europe and America? Two of them are Catholic and plan on sending their children to one of the two Catholic schools here, both of which are expensive. I doubt that any of them spoke much Thai. Brendan agreed that it was harder, if your woman spoke English, to have the incentive learn their tongue. I suspect that Buddhism was never an option for them (isn’t golf a kind of religion?). Bob told me in an email earlier that he did not want to live in a village but rather preferred the amenities that a city had to offer. He gave me a copy of “The Udon Thani Guide,” but there seemed little in it that appealed to me. Many of the ads were for the city’s bars, a major draw for farang tourists. Aside from life with a beautiful younger woman who seems to ignore your age and potbelly, I’m not sure what roots them in Udon (of course, I mustn’t forget golf).

This morning I had a traditional Isan breakfast, which included a fried egg, pork, and various kinds of sausage, along with fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee. Later this afternoon I will visit a large park and lake around which people congregate in the evening for walking and exercise. Tomorrow I return to Bangkok with a suitcase full of dirty laundry.

Already I miss the louvered windows of Luang Prabang, so reminiscent of French country houses. On Wednesday we rented bikes and rode all over the town, visiting different temples on yet another special day when Buddhists take flowers and other gifts to the wats in order to pay their respects. I thought the day before was Buddha Day, one of four in the month to match phases of the moon, but perhaps it’s a two-day affair in Laos. Thailand has Buddhist wats everywhere, but Laos has twice as many. The architecture and the iconography of all of them, even those crumbling and black with age, is breathtaking and inspiring. Gothic cathedrals can barely compare. Why do I not feel oppressed by the omnipresence of Buddhism here whereas Christianity, particularly in the American south, feels like an imposition, the churches a thumb in the eye of hedonistic culture. Buddhism is not about instilling guilt for being human. While I’m not crazy about the mixing of superstition and fortune telling with Buddhist precepts, it seems to empower its adherent to live fully in this life and not wait for the hereafter (although a good rebirth is the goal of every Buddhist). Maybe this religion does not seem oppressive to me simply because it is different, more a curious artifact that something drilled into my brain. For most Thais, Buddhist moral values are inseparable from the good; there is no distinction between the secular and the sacred as there is in the West. On Wednesday at Wat Sensoukarahm, I listened to the afternoon drumming and gonging by orange-robbed monks in the drum tower and I watched the grandmothers in the temple lighting candles and sticks of incense before a large altar festooned with golden Buddhas in various poses. This image will remain with me, along with another featuring the sound of young monks chanting one night in a wat near the handicrafts market.

Another ubiquitous image in Luang Prabang is the red communist hammer and sickle. I saw it on tee shirts, hats, and small flags atop tuk tuks. Riding past the police station on our bikes, I first saw the Laotian flag and then, on the side of a wall, a giant hammer and sickle. The other image resonant of Laos’s socialist credentials is the face of Che Guevara. His tee shirts were on sale in the handicrafts market, and one day I saw decals with his face plastered all over a khaki-colored jeep parked on the main street. It reminded me of the stall at the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok full of communist chic. In Laos I wore the tee shirt I bought there with the picture of Karl Marx on the front and a quote from the “Communist Manifesto.” I thought it would be appreciated, but as far as I can tell no one noticed. The backpackers are all too young to recognize his bearded face.

Back in Thailand, we stopped by the Sala Kaew Ku Sculpture Park outside Nong Khai. It was created by Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) Boun Leua Sourirat, a Laotian mystic shaman, who died in 1996. He supposedly met a Hindu sage from Vietnam named Kaewkoo who introduced him to the mysteries of the occult. Before the communist takeover in 1975, he began his sculptures at Xieng Khuan (Spirit City), which is now Buddha Park on the outskirts of Vientiane. After the Pathet Lao crushed such subversiveness, Luang Pu crossed the river to perfect his art at the pavilion of Kaew Ku. The park is a smorgasboard of the weird, huge statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities cast in brick and concrete by Luang Pu’s crew of unskilled artists. My guide finds the imagery horrifying and refused to accompany me until I agreed to hold her arm while she kept her eyes closed. The shabby park was empty the morning we visited, the dirt car park surrounded by mostly vacant stalls for the nonexistent tourist crowds. I found the whole scene rather delightful.