Monday, March 10, 2008

A Quietening of Passion

My friend Ted writes that from reading my blog he senses "a subtle quietening of passion for your new 'adventure.' Let's hope the teaching leads to some stability." This raises for me a number of questions to ponder. Like, for example, what is the relationship between passion and stability?

It is certainly true that my consciousness of my surroundings is constantly changing. I am no longer living out of a suitcase and the new is slowly becoming habitual. I live in Bangkok now as I wait to exchange my tourist visa for one that will allow me to teach English to monks in a Buddhist university. I nod to my neighbors on the way to and from the shops up on Sukhumvit. Each day I read the English papers and watch the TV news. Pim and I together are turning a small studio apartment into a home, and last night we bought meditation cushions and a toaster at Carrefour, one of the many "hypermarkets" here (French-owned and the second largest retail chain in the world next to Wal-Mart). But my initial reaction to Ted's comment was: "Oh no! The thrill must be going, going gone!"

Passion always seems to wax and wane. It's not a steady trajectory. On the whole, my enthusiasm for life remains high. Even when I'm sidetracked by random worries and fears, I find the city infinitely fascinating, and diverting. The pastel-colored taxis make the traffic jams an abstract painting. Cross the road, even when the light is in your favor, is always a challenge. While Jerry finds the cacophony of construction sounds across the street from his apartment a nuisance, I delight in the four new buildings going up on my soi and wonder what they will be -- a new hotel, serviced apartments, condos, a massage parlor, perhaps? If I want to get some exercise, I walk the 10 minutes to the top of the soi (where I would see this female construction worker with a drink in a bag), but if I want to baby my feet, I'll ride on the back of a motorbike taxi for 10 baht. (Most women ride side-saddle, but not all -- see the above photo.) Pim pointed out that I always walk fast (because you're short, I said), but I've been noticing the leisure pace of most Thais and have been trying to moderate my own speed (not always successfully). Why hurry? I've been asked, along with: Why worry? Why indeed.

Little triumphs make me smile. Like finding a special container for the microwave at Villa Market that will let me make omelets (and, Pim discovered, a nuked version of a "fried" egg). The plant I bought at Chatuchak Market is surviving, and Jerry potted some aloe cuttings for me that sit atop the air conditioning unit on the balcony, soaking up healing vibes from the atmosphere. I finally printed up photos from the wedding in Surin and put the two sets in albums for the bride and groom and Jerry and Lamyai.

Recently I visited with Douglas (AKA Meath) Conlan, a Catholic priest from Australia whom I finally met at Shantivanam last December after carrying on a long email correspondence. We were instant friends and I regretted having so little time to talk with him in India. We made up for it with a long coffee break followed by lunch by the Ari Skytrain station near the house of his hostess in Bangkok, Emilie Ketudat. Dug, whose home is in Perth, is on a long-term leave-of-absence from his priestly duties. During that time he's received a Ph.D. in counseling, has a practice as a spiritual counselor, and leads tours to India (see his web site at Diverse Journeys). I was thinking of going to north India this year but my bank statement dictated otherwise. During the 1970s and 1980s, he studied meditation with the celebrated monk Buddadhasa Bhikku in Thailand. When Bede Griffiths traveled in Australia, Dug was his host and guide, and he recently published Bede Griffiths: Friend & Gift of the Spirit (Templegate, 2006). In Perth he leads retreats with Ajahn Brahm, one of Bangkok's favorite farang monks (I learned they have been called the "two abbots"). Emilie joined us for lunch and I discovered that the local World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) group meets weekly at her house. They will host a visit next month of WCCM's leader, Fr. Laurence Freeman. She has also come to Little Bang Sangha talks and described herself as "a Christian and a Buddhist." Emilie came from the U.S. in 1961 to teach chemistry at Chulalongkorn University. She is the widow of Sippanondha Ketudat, a prominent Thai scholar, scientist and statesman, and she is currently coordinator for the Campaign to Ban Landmines in Thailand. Dug should be back in Bangkok in June, after circling the globe to give talks and lead retreats, and I hope he will speak with our sangha on his experiences with, and knowledge of, vipassana meditation and Christian mysticism.

A week ago I participated in a discussion of "Hollywood and the Buddha" at the World Buddhist University organized by Bangkok raconteur and tango dancer, Richard Rubacher. I read the stage direction from a short scene in "As Good As It Gets," with Nui and Matt taking the roles that won Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson Oscars in 1998. In the scene Udall, a neurotic writer, insults Carole, his favorite waitress, and her angry and hurt response prompts his journey back to rejoin the human race. Remember the classic line (I'm sure a lot of studs used it): "You make me want to be a better man"? Richard, an ex-New Yorker, author of Thai Girl, a book of essays, and a retired social worker, spoke about character-driven films that exemplify and inspire the "taming of the ego," Buddhism's goal. Examples he gave, besides "As Good As It Gets," included "Forrest Gump," "American Beauty" and "Tootsie." A number of the members of our Little Bang Sangha are film buffs, and last week we met for a lunch buffet at the Tai Pan Hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 23 to plan more discussions. We're renting a conference room at the hotel on Saturday afternoon, March 22, to show "Marjoe," the Academy Award winning documentary that exposes the techniques of a young charismatic preacher. The challenge will be to relate its message to the teachings of the Buddha (transgression of Right Livelihood, etc.).

I met Peter Driscoll a while back when Jerry took me to hear the British rockabilly singer and his band at the Soi 8 bar. Playing hits of the 1950s and 1960s, he channeled Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, the Everley Brothers, Buddy Holly and a number of others. The son of a musician who gave it up to support his family, Peter did not make that mistake. He has been singing and playing guitar for over thirty years, and back in England performed with Cochran, Vincent, and Jerry Lee's sister Linda Gayle, among others. But it's his knowledge of rock musicology that makes his appearance more than a Greatest Hits night. Each song is introduced with a complete history, but you've got to listen carefully because he speaks softly. The Cruisers, Peter's band, includes the tall and stylish Billie Cuthbertson on bass and Leon Triffic on drums, both from Australia, with a young Thai guitarist, Prin Thonglor, who has all the classic licks down pat. When the Soi 8 gig ended, they moved to the new Jameson's Bar in the Holiday Inn Silom where Jerry and I heard them debut a week ago. Hopefully the crowds will follow. You can hear and see Peter (nattily outfitted in one of his many rock and roll costumes) on his MySpace page.

How passionate can one get about a tooth cleaning? Not happy with the work of the periodontist at the Dental Hospital on Sukhumvit Soi 49 (he was more interested in selling me dentures than in keeping my teeth pearly white), today I went to the clinic at Bumrungrad International Hospital up the street on Soi 3 for my six month checkup, and was told once again that I should floss more (and spend $600 each on two needed crowns). The cleaning by a periodontist took about twenty minutes and cost approximately $50. I miss Lyn, my dental hygienist in Boulder Creek and later Santa Cruz. She would spend an hour on my teeth and make me promise to come back every four months. Such thoroughness and loving care is not a part of dental hygiene in Thailand, I'm afraid.

I continue to follow the news from the U.S., reading of the death of conservative pundit William Buckley (the shadow side of Gore Vidal), the shooting down of a spy satellite about to crash (don't believe that nonsense about wanting to keep people from being hurt), the Hillary and Obama show, Bush's stubborn defense of torture in the service of freedom and democracy, the rising cost of gasoline, and the Britany Spears soap opera. But it stirs little passion. I wonder if Americans realize how little the rest of the world cares about its psychodrama (unless, of course, it impinges on them)?

As my life settles down, with fewer surprises, there is less to write about here with an "oh wow!" flavor. I've checked most of the must-see sites in Bangkok and much of Thailand off my list. This should be the time to go inward and explore what I always meant to say in this blog. What has driven me to articulate the importance of the spirit, and religion, in my life? Why do I want politics to pursue the twin goals of social and environmental justice? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the place of love and friendship in my life?

Sex, now, is the most difficult of my trilogy to write about, for my father always told me that it was "a sin to kiss and tell." In the last season of my life I have achieved the miracle of falling in love, no doubt for the last time. I pinch myself to wake up, but it's real. Much of what I would like to say must remain veiled in this most public of forums. But I can tell you that I've been living with prostate cancer for seven years now, having chosen "watchful waiting" rather than the slash-and-burn treatments given to most PC patients, and it doesn't get in the way. Thank God for chemistry, in particular the blue diamond-shaped pill that has given new life to millions of older men like myself. Sex at my stage of life is a blessing rather than a transaction. This is one place where passion shouts.

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