Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Missing the Boats

No, I did not attend Monday's spectacular and colorful Royal Barges procession on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. The expected crowds and the difficulties of travel when roads and river traffic are closed dissuaded me. More than 50 barges and 2000 participants traveled down the river to Wat Arun where His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, subbing for his father the King who is in hospital, presented the Royal Krathin Robes to monks at the Temple of Dawn, marking the end of Buddhist Lent. But I did visit the famous wat last Saturday, crossing the river on a ferry from Bangkok proper, where I took the panoramic picture above of the river (you can see Wat Pho on the further shore where the famous Reclining Buddha is housed) from near the top of the Khmer-style temple tower. The site was established after the fall of Ayuthaya and before the capital was moved east across the river to Bangkok. The Buddhist temple, named after the Indian god of dawn (Aruna), is the third place of pilgrimage in the holy trinity of Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew in the Grand Palace which houses the Emerald Buddha. Construction of the present temple was begun by Rama II in the early 19th century and finished by his successor. It features beautiful mosaics, some using broken Chinese porcelain from the ballast of Chinese ships calling at the port of Bangkok. Given the rare occurrence of the Royal Barges procession, I am sorry that I did not make the effort to see it. But I have been doing my best lately to tick off all the important attractions for visitors in this infinitely fascinating capital of Thailand.

Also on Saturday I visited the Art Deco Democracy Monument which was constructed in 1932 to mark the transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Surprisingly, the designer was Corrado Feroci who cut his teeth on monuments for Italian dictator Mussolini. Feroci buried 75 canon balls in the base to mark the Buddhist Era (BE) year 2475 (dated from the Buddha's enlightenment), or 1932 in the west. In recent years, the monument has been a rallying point for public demonstrations against recurring military coups, most notably in 1992 when several hundred protesters were believed killed. After visiting Wat Arun, I took a taxi south along the west bank of the river to Santa Cruz Church. Descendants of early Portuguese traders, first Europeans in Thailand, built the first church on the site in 1770. Originally called Wat Kudi Jeen, the wooden church was rebuilt in 1835 and renamed Santa Cruz. The present structure was rebuilt in 1913 during the reign of Rama VI. In keeping with Catholic hospitality, the church was locked when I arrived and all I could do was take this photo to mark my visit to the unacknowledged sister church of Holy Cross back in Santa Cruz. Because the ferry was not running on the weekend, I had to walk along the river, splashing over its banks because of unseasonable rains upstream, and across the Phra Buddha Yodfa (Memorial) Bridge, named after the king who was posthumously called Rama I, founder of the Chakri dynasty which rules today. My goal was the Pak Khlong Talat (Flower Market) at the foot of the bridge where several streets were filled with stalls and vendors selling flowers for rituals and beauty. Roses were dirt cheap and older ones were stacked up on the sidewalk to be given away free. I saw monks buying lotus buds for their temples, and mounds of orange and white blossoms to be made into garlands for home and business altars. Reputed to be the best-smelling market in Bangkok, my pitiful nasal glands were not up to the challenge and I had to rely on my companion to point me toward bouquets with the best aromas. I bought a half dozen red roses and a vase in which to put them so that I might add a little color to my off-white room.

Last week I went to visit Wat Yannawa with Phra Pandit to explore the possibility of using one of the temple's rooms for our discussions about Buddhism, psychology, and the criticism of religion by the new cadre of atheists. It is right next to the Saphan Taksin Skytrain station on the river. I've since learned that Wat Yannawa was built in the early 19th century in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood. The centerpiece is a wiharn for Buddha images in the shape of a Chinese junk. It was constructed of cement at the direction of King Rama III because steam ships were replacing the old junks, and he wanted people to remember the old ships that had bought prosperity to the kingdom. The 'ship' contains two chedis where the masts would normally be, and there is an altar in the wheel house above the stern. Across the street from the temple complex is the shell of a skyscraper, one of many that can be seen over the Bangkok landscape. When Asian economies collapsed during the dot com crash of the 1990s, many construction projects went bankrupt. Even though the many-storied building seems not far from completion, no one took it over and it stands like a sentinel to remind people of the vagaries of the global economy. What would have happened to the neighborhood had the baht remained stable and investors secure? Now there is a chaos of stalls and impromptu shops around the entrance to what might have been an upscale office or condominium building. It's now probably too expensive to take the derelict down so it will remain until the Apocalypse.

On Sunday I returned to Benjakiti Park where I captured this peaceful scene in the center of the city. The park is a short walk from my apartment, made longer because the nearest gate is always inexplicably locked. It's necessary to traipse through a Thai residential block of wooden houses, sleeping dogs and playing children, and up a hidden path to Ratchadaphisek Road around the corner from one of the two open gates. Maybe this difficulty of access accounts for the paucity of people enjoying the beautiful facilities. At the south end of the park is Queen Sirikit International Convention Center where I grabbed a breakfast snack before wandering the packed halls of the "Art of Technology" exhibition. It was more like a fire sale, with every conceivable electronic gadget at bargain prices, than a presentation of products. After a short look-see, the empty lawn of the park outside seemed more desirable.

On Tuesday, Dr. Holly and I went on a field trip to visit Wat Dhammamongkol far out on Sukhumvit and a good distance up Soi 101 (I live on Soi 4). We took the Skytrain to the end of the line at On Nut (construction is underway to extend it to the new airport), and jumped in a taxi to see the famed wat with the huge tower and the jade Buddha. When Phra Viriyang Sirintharo, abbot of the temple, arrived in 1963 after 20 years as a forest monk, the area was a swamp (some say the airport was also built on the swamp and it is sinking) where his only neighbors were snakes. The monk was given five Buddha relics by the Supreme Patriarch of Bangladesh in 1979, and he constructed a 95-meter high chedi to house them, a modern version of the Bodhgaya Chedi on the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. Dr. Holly and I took an elevator to the top of the chedi to pay our respects to the relics at the top and enjoy the tremendous view of the east side of Bangkok and the skyscrapers in the distance. On the walls were paintings of the Buddha's teachings on the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination. The elaborate altar pictured here on the top floor apparently houses the relics but we could not tell where. On the lower floors of the chedi we saw displays of broken pottery surrounded by money in international denominations, a sort of wishing well museum. And there were dozens of different status of the Buddha in all of his/her permutations.

From the top of the chedi we could see the large Jade Buddha Pavilion below. In 1987 Phra Viriyang had a vision of a jade Buddha, and four years later was able to purchase a 32-ton jade block discovered below the waters of a river in British Columbia. The only carvers he could find were in Carrara, Italy, where marble is the material of choice. Two artists were brought to Thailand, given special equipment to cut the hard jade, and finished the figure in 1994 along with a smaller sculpture of "Guanyin" (I've seen her named spelled many different ways), the Chinese goddess of mercy. Dr. Holly and I entered the Pavilion from below and found a large series of rooms filled with compartments, like different sized post office boxes, for ashes of the deceased. Some doors were quite fancy, others rather plebian; Thailand is, after all, a hierarchical society. Upstairs the large hall built to showcase the beautiful jade sculptures was mostly empty, except for a man sleeping by the window; no one was meditating or praying on a weekday morning. We could hear the shouts of children from the school next door. Next to the Pavilion is the construction skeleton of a huge temple which will eventually replace the existing one at the foot of the chedi. We saw groups of young monks walking single file and followed them to find the souvenir shop where bits of leftover jade were carved into miniature figures for sale. (In the distance behind the monks you can see the chimney of the crematorium.)

Inside the shop we found the indefatigable abbot himself, saying goodbye to monks and workers before traveling to Canada the next day. Phra Viriyang is 87 and since coming out of the forest he has founded, in addition to Wat Dhammamongkol, a dozen other temples in Thailand and five in Canada (plus another in Dallas). His Willpower Institute organizes retreats and promotes a "Meditation for World Peace" project. As a result of his experience looking for artisans outside Thailand, the monk decided to start a design institute in partnership with an Italian organization, and Thais are now able to study fashion design at a school on the ground floor of the chedi. Phra Viriyang gestured to the two farang visitors to kneel beside him and he chatted with us in passable English. Although he leads meditation retreats in Canada, there are no current plans to teach English speakers in Bangkok. Learning about this had been one of the objects of our pilgrimage to the temple. Although disappointed, the trip was nonetheless an unforgettable experience.

Our final destination was Assumption University's Bang Na campus (soon to be changed to Suvarnabhumi campus since it is in the swampy vicinity of the new airport). I wrote about ABAC (its nickname because it was once primarily a business school), or AU, it's initials (the symbol for the mineral gold) when I visited the graduate campus in Hua Mark some distance away where Dr. Holly teaches in the department of psychology. That institution, with its high-rise classroom building and sumptuous gardens around a lake, was impressive. But nothing Holly could say would have prepared me for the spectacular facilities at the undergraduate campus, resembling more a movie set for a faux Europe than the grounds of a university.

The campus is dominated by the "Cathedral of Learning," a 27-story building flanked by palace-like wings containing offices and classrooms (named after the three archangels). The corridors look like they belong to a medieval monastery. Underneath this edifice is a huge mall and food court servicing the 20,000 students, most from middle or upper-income families. Dr. Holly and I had an excellent lunch at a dim sum restaurant (my first taste of this tapas-like Asian cuisine). Another mall is located under the dormitories a short distance away; students travel back and forth via a tram that looks exactly like a San Francisco cable car. Everywhere there are statues of Christian saints. The grounds also contain several lakes, a Buddhist sala and a Catholic church, as well as an auditorium-conference center. I didn't visit the gigantic sports facility that looked set up for an Olympics. Since the campus is miles from anywhere, there are numerous vans and buses in a large transportation center to ferry students between the school and home.

Assumption University was founded by the Brothers of St. Gabriel, a worldwide Catholic religious order, founded in France in 1705 by St. Louis Marie De Montfort. That I'd never heard of them meant little, but I was astounded that a French religious order could have the deep pockets to build two such large university campuses in Thailand. Clearly money was flowing from somewhere. In Europe the old religious orders are dying, the medieval buildings are in decay and cathedrals, patronized by a few old women, have been turned into tourist attractions. But here on the outskirts of Bangkok, on swampy open land that was once rice paddies, Catholic education, and indeed medieval and Italianate religious architecture and iconography, has been resurrected.

All of the students I was told are required to take an ethics course. Since I'd taught environmental ethics in the past and had made ethics the object of some of my research, I looked for textbooks in the bookstore. To my surprise, the course was apparently designed to instill ethical values, ones based neither in Buddhism nor in Christianity (that was at the discretion of the teacher, I learned), rather than teach about ethics. There was no mention of consequentialist or deontological ethics, or even of Aristotle's virtue ethics.

I thought briefly about what it might be like to teach in such an idealized institution. Thai students are taught to memorize and rarely engage in critical thinking unless pushed. Teachers barely make a living wage, but cheap housing facilities are available on the Disneyfied campus surrounded by immaculate groomed lawns, gardens and palm trees. Getting anywhere off the campus would be difficult and expensive. I think it would drive me insane.

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