Monday, March 31, 2008

Bowling in Bangkok

When the lights went out on Sunday around the planet, I was bowling in Bangkok. Earth Hour, the worldwide campaign to highlight climate change, was not apparent at Major Bowl, the sports emporium at Ekkamai where Pim had a discount coupon that expired the next day, although as you can see in this video the lanes were dimly lit. I read in the paper this morning that the lights on Wat Arun, the ancient temple on the river, were shut off at 8 pm for an hour. But at that time I was working on my strikes (the first shown in the video) and spares, and gave little thought to the earth's impending doom. I have been concerned about the 160-square-mile shelf of ice in Antarctica that is crumbling into the sea, but that's because Jerry and Sylvia were recent visitors to the melting South Pole outpost and I'm glad that they didn't get dunked. While Pim beat me when we bowled last in Hua Hin, this time I won three out of four games and she had to pay for our play. After finishing the match, we watched lightening in the distance from the Skytrain station.

It's not that I'm necessarily against these grand gestures. Raising consciousness about global warming is important. I think school kids around the globe have been taught to think green. The problem isn't the consciousness of common people, however. It's the corporations, military and governments that stand in the way, benefiting in one way or another from wars, hyper-consumption and the wasteful use of oil and its byproducts. Reduce, reuse and recycle is a handy slogan for simplifying our life styles and downsizing our ecological footprint. But, like the fatuous Hunger Project started by Werner Erhard's est, which asked only that people "think differently" about hunger (but not to do anything to relieve it), it will take a lot more than good intentions to avoid the apocalypse of the planet's meltdown. In an article in Saturday's Bangkok Post, Walden Bellow managed to sound an optimistic note:
Climate change is both a threat and an opportunity to bring about the long postponed social and economic reforms that had been derailed or sabotaged in previous eras by the elite seeking to preserve or increase their privileges.
Asking "Will capitalism survive climate change?," Bello, a much-published analyst for Focus in the Global South, an NGO based at Chulalongkorn University, points out the conflict between elites in the developed North who do not want to give up their pollutive habits and elites in the South anxious to pursue catch-up development that is equally dirty, with a "high-growth, high-consumption model inherited from the North."
The end-goal must be adoption of a low-consumption, low-growth, high-equity development model that results in an improvement in people's welfare, a better quality of life for all, and greater democratic control of production.
It's not likely that elites in the North and South will agree to this. But, Bello writes optimistically, "we can be sure that the vast majority [of humanity] will not commit social and ecological suicide to enable the minority to preserve their privileges." He believes that the threat of the apocalypse will result in new social and economic systems, but doubts that capitalism as a flawed system of production, consumption and distribution will survive the challenge. Although he is not specific about how this can be accomplished, I believe Bello's thinking goes beyond the grand gesture stage. Bello's full article can be read here or here.

Bello, from the Philippines, is one of a group of Asian thinkers who are engaged in theorizing radical solutions for global problems in the 21st century. Another is Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand who celebrated his 75th birthday this past weekend. Dr. Holly, Pandit Bhikku and myself were there. The party, held at the Sathirakoses Nagapradipa Foundation's compound across the river, began with a Buddhist ceremony that included chanting and continued with a feast in the outdoor pavilion below the offices which house Ajahn Sulak's NGO empire. The Foundation includes five "sister" organizations: Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development, Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute, Wongsanit Ashram, the Spirit in Education Movement, and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists which Sulak helped form with Thich Nhat Han and the Dalai Lama. Nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Sulak is a gadfly who has several times been exiled from his home for political activity that crosses the line in an authoritarian society disrupted by frequent military coups. He interests me because his political and social vision is based in his Buddhist religious practices. I am reminded of the perspective of liberation theology in Latin America. He believes the sangha, or the community of Buddhist practitioners, provides a pre-European model for a democratic society in which all views are represented. Like Bello, Sulak is a forceful critic of westerner individualism which leads to harmful self-centered behavior. This takes the form of property and profit over individual rights, and results in social and environmental injustice. Since the end of World War Two, Sulak believes Siam (a name he prefers over the westernized "Thailand") has suffered from the influence of the United States which has led to the dominance of the military and an educational system where quantity is more important than quality. At his party on Saturday, Sulak circulated among the small crowd and made sure that everybody got fed from the sumptuous repast, which included mango and sticky rice, the dessert made in heaven.

The Foundation's store was open, and in addition to a tee shirt with the slogan "everyday we can change the world" on the front and a list of successful Thai social and environmental campaigns on the back, I purchased a few more of Sulak's privately printed (because he is too controversial here to find an established publisher) books, including Religion and Development and The Quest for a Just Society, a volume he edited of articles about Buddhadassa Bhikkhu, the monk who helped to form Sulak's this-worldly Buddhism which eschews superstition for social justice. I've already read his classic Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (published by Thich Nhat Han's Parallax Press in Berkeley in 1992). Last week I went in search of more books (so much for my resolution to cut back) at the 36th annual Bangkok International Book Fair at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center. Pandit had told me that Thais do not read, but the mammoth crowds packing the Convention Center made that hard to believe. There were hundreds of booths displaying thousands of books and the aisles were packed with people, including a large number of children, carrying full shopping bags. Most of the publications were in Thai, but there were a handful of publishers with books in English, including the wonderful Silkworm Books which produces a sizable collection of challenging works of history, politics and economics on the region. Some are so controversial that I wonder how they escape the censor. But as long as you avoid defaming royalty, expression in Thailand is relatively free. My purchases included a couple of wall charts to help me learn Thai numbers as well as the names for days and months which I found at a booth containing children's educational supplies.

I've received the disturbing news that the men's group in Santa Cruz of which I was a part for a number of years is on the verge of disbanding. The members are all Catholics, but they differ in their views on dogma and authority, and the role of religious faith in their lives. Several, like me, have found that the old Judeo-Christian stories no longer have any relevance for them. A couple of others are dismayed by what they interpret as attacks on their beliefs. One long-time participant has resigned from the group because he found the discussions too "toxic." Apparently the Easter week topic was life after death, and for him the afterlife was an idea he found consoling and necessary. That some others did not was interpreted as criticism.

Having been in a couple of men's groups over the years, I know that there is always a struggle between members who seek a group of like-minded friends and those who want to work on issues and are not inclined to socialize outside of the group. Because our group possessed a religious theme (we would read and comment on the weekly liturgical readings), it was also important that we shared a commitment to "God talk," a discourse limited to church culture. But a few of us no longer found the terms (or the old gray-bearded "God") meaningful, and this created strains in the conversation. It seems those strains have widened into cracks and the group is breaking apart.

How unfortunate that we cannot dialog across the prejudices that divide us! A faith separated from the concerns and experience of everyday life can be a badge of identity that promotes intolerance rather than integration. At its best, the discussions in our men's group confronted real issues: the death of Pat's father, Gene's wife who is descending into Alzheimer's, frustrations of political protest, the drinking problem of another man, sexual temptations: dilemmas sometimes to difficult to talk about outside of a small circle of friends. At its worst, we resorted to analysis, detached criticism, and dogmatic pronouncements. For some, it was difficult to confess personal issues; for others it was easy to talk about anything (and we often monopolized the conversation). Whatever the challenge, we continued to talk, each in his own way. Now it seems, some are more drawn to the security of religious promises rather than the comfort and understanding (and sometimes arguments) of good friends. That seems very sad to me. I hope the secessionists will realize what they will miss.

Maybe I should have called today's blog "Breakfast in Bangkok," for this was our morning feast today. The fruit Pim is peeling is almost, but not quite, a pear. Its name is sapodilla, or lamut in Thai. It was native to Mexico and was introduced to the Philippines during Spanish colonization.

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