Monday, December 03, 2007

If God is Dead, Can Religion be Far Behind?

Religion (or should we call it spirituality?) is alive and well in Bangkok, judging by the responses to my talk on the New Atheists on Saturday before a group of mostly Buddhists from the Little Bang Sangha. We gathered in the upper room above the Baan Suan Phi vegetarian foodcourt where we watched Richard Dawkins' two-part BBC-TV rant against religion, "The Root of All Evil?," ate a selection of spicy tofu, and I introduced the writings of Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. While there was not complete agreement, there was a general consensus that Buddhism is closer to atheism than the monotheistic religions, as both Dawkins and Hitchens (who also has some nasty things to say about Buddhism and Buddhists) argue. If the New Atheists confine their criticism to gods and the supernatural, then Buddhism gets a free pass. Harris is a practicing Buddhist and even believes "mysticism is a rational enterprise" (as compared to religion). But it was my contention that they spread a broader net when they condemn all kinds of faith as antithetical to reason (and science which they all worship equally).

Nitezsche declared "God is dead" in the 19th century and a school of theology in the 1960s took its cue from his contention that morality can no longer be secured by the traditional God but must stand on its own against the challenge of nihilism. Many assumed that the Enlightenment, modernism and secularism would vanquish religion. Instead, the 21st century has seen an increase in religious fundamentalism as a response to globalization. The New Atheists are reacting both to Muslim terrorism and the power of the religious right in America which has breached the wall between Church and State. While Dawkins and Dennett, both firm believers in Darwinism, make a valiant (and fascinating) effort to account for how religion might have evolved to serve a (perhaps misdirected) need, none of the authors can explain why it failed to fade away as predicted by Freud, Marx and other secular prophets. So the answer to the question above is, no. Even the old God, "a psychotic delinquent," as Dawkins describes him, is undergoing a resurrection.

This week's Asian edition of Time features an interesting cover story on "What Makes Us Moral" by Jeffrey Kluger. Apparently we'll soon be able to trace altruism in the brain. God is not mentioned. And Jerry gave me a clipping of an Associated Press story by Justin Pope: "Religion with a side of pasta: Academics tackle the rise of 'Flying Spaghetti Monsterism'." It looks as if the FSM is being seriously discussed this month in San Diego at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. One scholar is using a carnivalesque interpretation from my favorite Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (who wrote much-cited works on Dostoevsky and Rabelais) to understand "Pastafarians" and their internet-spawned religion (just do a Google search). Stuff like this gives me more hope for the future than the pronouncements of Pope Benedict XVI who criticized the French and Russian revolutions as well as atheism and the ideas of Marx in his encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope) released last week (many people reject faith today, the Pope said, “simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive.").

At the World Buddhist University on Sunday, Daniel Henning, professor emeritus of environmental affairs at Montana State University, tried to construct a "Oneness Spirituality" using the teachings of Buddhism, Deep Ecology (DE) and A Course in Miracles (ACIM). Henning, who has campaigned for the protection of trees and elephants in Thailand, is the co-author of Managing the Environmental Crisis, and author of Buddhism and Deep Ecology and Tree Talk and Tales. DE, Henning said, recognizes that "we are part of the earth," and that trade and technology separate us from this connection...Our sense of inter-connectedness is blocked by modern life." But spiritual separation, according to the teachings of ACIM, Henning said, can only be healed by love and forgiveness, or what he describes as "Oneness Spirituality." The philosophy of DE, however, is ecocentric (humans are on a par with all being, equally real) while revealed spirituality of ACIM is anthropocentric (only spirit exists). While admitting that his project was a bit schizoid, Henning did not agree that the earthiness of DE and environmentalism fit poorly with the "all is illusion" line from ACIM. When a spokesman for ACIM declared that the holocaust was an illusion (as are bodies and the earth), a Brit who complained that the talk ignored politics walked out of the room in disgust. Henning's goal -- to heal separation through oneness -- is admirable but vague, and his chosen methodologies are in conflict. He might benefit from a study of the doctrine of advaita (non-duality) in Hinduism. As another speaker said during the Q&A period, Buddhists seem to have a difficult time crossing the bridge from the dharma to social activism. I remember when my advocacy of DE was strongly criticized by a seminar full of Marxists who thought it lacked a political perspective. Perhaps that's what attracts Henning to the equally a-political ACIM.

And now for something completely different: Last week I accompanied Dr. Holly and Toffee to the British Club in Bangkok to see a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Trial By Jury." Audwin Yap, a fellow member of Little Bang, was in the cast and we wanted to lend him support. He didn't need it; the annual production by the Bangkok Community Theater (last year it was "Pirates of Penzance") was a sold-out success. For our $30 ticket, we got a full-course meal from a varied buffet of farang food (I had roast beef) in addition to the evening's entertainment. The British Club, on a lovely piece of property down a private alley in Silom, was founded in 1903 and the two-story clubhouse was built in 1915. We gathered on the lawn for drinks and finger food under a tent and not far off members were playing tennis on a brightly lit court. I met a retired oil executive who lived far out Sukhumvit on an acre of land where pythons were routinely discovered on a weekly basis. "We send for the snake men. If it's up a tree, one climbs up and lets the snake wrap itself around him. Then he comes down and the other man unwraps the snake and takes it away." Sounds simple, doesn't it? In the upstairs theater we sat at long tables covered with starched white cloth; even the chairs were covered in white. My neighbors were women from Bakersfield and Canada married to men in oil and geology, and Holly sat next to an investment banker who raised polo ponies. The room was so packed it was dangerous to breathe deeply. A pianist and bassist did the musical honors and the cast of singers, Asian and farang, were exceptional. Toffee took photos and afterwards we complimented Audwin on his outstanding performance.

Also last week I went to visit my friend Pandit Bhikku, the British monk Phra Cittamasvaro, at his monastery, Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, across the river in Thonburi. It's a large outfit with some 200 monks in residents, a couple of them farang like Pandit. We visited the main bot with its large Buddha covered in gold worth millions, and found the monks making an intricate string weaving inside the hall and without, probably to honor the King on his birthday this week in some way. The room is covered with depictions of scenes from the Buddha's life (distinctly Thai, the art seems to ignore his Indian roots). Next to the monastery, a huge stupa is under construction. Wat Pak Nam sits at the intersection of several khlongs (canals) and the neighborhood feels more like a small village than a suburb of Bangkok. There were two other big Buddhist temples in the vicinity. One featured a large Buddha seated on three white elephants, each with a realistic penis (it apparently created a stir from the residents). The late abbot of Pandit's temple was the respected Lunag Phor Sodh who resurrected the Dhamakhaya tradition of insight meditation which is now widely taught. The current abbot is number three in the nine-member sangha that governs Thai Buddhism, and a man of some power. I was shown where he kept his Mercedes (his stature is no less than that of the archbishop of Scotland, Pandit told me by way of an explanatory comparison).

On Thursday I met Patrick and Caroline Bladon, a young couple who are traveling around the world for six months. His mother befriended Jerry during his recent visit to Memphis for the Elvis celebration. Caroline had been to Thailand following her graduation from the University of Georgia in Athens where she and Patrick met. So far on this trip they've been to China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos (where they tried to figure out a way to live forever in the wonderful Luang Prabang), as well as Thailand, including a stop at the island of Koh Phi Phi where they found damage from the tsunami still in evidence. In a week they will be traveling to India and I gave them some suggestions of places to visit in the south, including Shantivanam, the ashram where I will be in residence a week from now. I was impressed by their curiosity and openness to new experiences, and I expect that after they return to the U.S. their outlook will be forever changed. How can you keep Americans satisfied with bread and circuses after they've seen the world? If you want to follow the young Bladons' journey, take a look at their blog.

Last night I finally visited the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, one of Bangkok's glittering tourist attractions, where I saw this living statue, a common entertainment in Europe but rare here. It's a large market with hundreds of covered stalls spread over a wide area, and is an upscale version of the huge weekend market at Chatuchak and the nightly street markets at Patpong in Silom and along Sukhumvit. Many of the same goods are on sale: clothes, DVDs and CDs (some of them legal), jewelry, fruit, watches, sandals, art objects and cheap souvenirs. There is a huge beer garden with professional entertainment (pop, rock and hip-hop when I was there) on several stages and a string of foodcourt stalls with Thai fare available. I was impressed by the huge tankards of beer on some tables holding no doubt several quarts, or perhaps a small keg. Asians do enjoy their beer. The Bazaar is relatively new, opening in 2001, and the rumors of its demise are rampant. Apparently all the leases ran out last year but there have not yet been any moves to close the popular palace of consumption down. It sits on property across from Lumpini Park and the new subway has a stop by the entrance. But development is a religion in Bangkok and perhaps the land is needed for a new parking lot or high-rise condo (where can they find occupants for all the new luxury condominium buildings that are opening daily, three alone on Jerry's soi?).

The Christmas season is moving into high gear in Bangkok. All of the big malls are decorated to the hilt with familiar farang icons, trees and tinsel. Then I suddenly saw poinsettia plants blooming everywhere. What is the Thai name for that, I asked a friend. "Ton (tree) Crit-mas," I was told. The management of Siam Court, my building, planted poinsettia plants all along the wall around the pool, and lit up the trees with strings of lights. There are pots of poinsettias around many of the bars around Nana, not to mention Christmas trees and colored lights. Even the bar girls are putting tinsel in their hair as a seasonal fashion statement. There are chestnuts roasting on street corners (but I was told that was a Thai tradition unrelated to the Yule season). I hear Christmas carols everywhere, and may even attend a concert next weekend at an Episcopal church to get my caroling fix. Last season I was in chilly London but the songs always make me feel at home, even if I no longer recognize the sky god. I am leaving a week from today for Trichy in southern India via Colombo, Sri Lanka (with an overnight in that war-ravaged country), and will spend both Christmas and New Year's at Shantivanam where two years ago I dressed up as Father Christmas and passed out small gifts of pencils and bracelets to a hundred children. If I don't get to send you my Christmas greetings, please consider this a card to one and all: Merry Christmas to you!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And Merry Christmas to you too Will! Have a great trip to India!