Saturday, May 10, 2008


I used to love the song "Tradition" from the classic musical "Fiddler on the Roof" until I listened carefully to the lyrics. Tevye, a Jewish milkman in a village in Tsarist Russian, has five daughters. They need husbands and the Jew-hating peasants who surround them need scapegoats for their poverty. Survival, Tevye sings, depends on obedience to ancient traditions, like patriarchy and Jewish insularity. But the daughters defy their father and marry for love and the village's Jews are evicted in a pogrom. So in the end, adherence to tradition is no life raft.

In Thailand, however, tradition rules. Yesterday morning, as an armchair tourist, I watched on television the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony on the field of Sanam Luang across from the Grand Palace. A tradition which may (or may not) go back to the time of the Buddha in India was reenacted before Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and his wife, and a very select audience. Two sacred white oxen were led around the field by the Phraya Raekna ("Lord of the Plough"), coincidentally the secretary of agriculture, who scattered rice seed that had been blessed the night before from gold and silver buckets carried by four consecrated "angels" (four female employees of the Ministry of Agriculture). Astrologers had chosen the day and time of the Brahman ceremony. After the symbolic ploughing, the two beasts were offered a selection from seven different bowls of food and their choices enabled soothsayers to predict the future. Because they picked rice and grass, it was determined there would be an abundance of food this season and bountiful rice yields. The Phraya Raekna also chose one of three folded pieces of cloth of different lengths. Because he picked the one of medium length, it was announced that this signified an average rainfall this year. At the close of the ceremony, members of the public who had been kept at a distance (hence my decision to watch it on TV) raced into the field to pick up some of the sacred seeds which might help them with the double threat of falling prices and food shortages that economists, using more mundane evidence, are predicting.

Historians cast a jaundiced eye on the notion of "tradition." Most traditions are historical; they had a beginning in time, and were usually developed to preserve the power of elites, either males in the case of patriarchy, or governments like the one in Thailand where to question the alliance of military, merchants and the monarchy is a punishable offense. On the other hand, state rituals like the ploughing ceremony are colorful and fascinating, a field day for cultural anthropologies, even armchair ones. I recall studying political rituals with Tak Fujitani at UC Santa Cruz 17 years ago. Our text was The Invention of Tradition, a terrific collection of papers on the topic edited by Terence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm. Tak's field of study were the rituals that defined and protected the Japanese Emperor. The Royal Ploughing Ceremony (which is also celebrated in Cambodia) was a big event in 16th century Sukhuthai, but it was discontinued by King Rama VII in the 1920s. It was revived in 1960 by King Bhumibol Adulyadej during the military dictatorship of Sarit Dhanarajata who attempted to unite the country under his "Nation, Religion, King" motto. Elaborate rituals that inspired awe and obedience were the glue that held them together.

If Burma had a king, perhaps the military might be more tempered in its oppression of the people (it is believed that King Bhumibol, AKA Rama IX, has restrained his soldiers several times, in the 1970s and 1990s, from a wholesale slaughter of his subjects). But the last king of Burma was deposed when the British took over in 1885. Now that sorry country not far to the northeast of here is suffering under the double whammy of a repressive military regime and a major natural disaster made worse because of the government's secrecy and ineptitude. In 1989, the ruling junta changed the name of the country to Myanmar a year after thousands were killed in a popular uprising. Much of the world, including the UN, has accepted the name change, but Britain and the U.S. avoid it to support Burma's now almost invisible democracy movement. The generals are currently promoting a sham referendum on a constitution designed to legalize their 46-year domination, but voting is delayed in the Irawaddy delta where a large percentage of the land is now under water after the destruction force of Cyclone Nargis which has killed probably over 100,000 potential voters. The UN and the EU and Asian states should take over and liberate that poor country. But that's about as likely as Bush admitting that Iraq was a mistake.

Claudia had just returned from Burma when our Little Bang(kok) Sangha met on Thursday for a talk by Steve and Rosemary Weissman at the Baan Ari Library. During the Q&A session, she spoke of her anger at seeing the devastation there and the government's inability to cope, and asked the popular vipassana meditation teachers how to handle her feelings. "There is a form of righteous anger," Steve said, "which we call 'wise aversion' to distinguish it from aversion caused by fear and hatred." I was happy to hear them approve of strong feelings provoked by witnessing injustice wherever it is found. This is the teaching from the dhamma that motivates the engaged Buddhism that I like, one that encourages active compassion for others rather than a retreat into nirvanic escapism. Steve from the U.S. and Rosemary from Australia have been leading 10-day meditation retreats for twenty years at Wat Kow Tahm (Mountain Cave Monastery) on the island of Koh Phangan next to Koh Samui (it's no doubt popular with full moon ravers who moderate their partying with a dose of spirituality). Steve spoke to the Bangkok English group about the 10 qualities or perfections: generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, loving kindness and equanimity. And Rosemary emphasize the necessity to balance compassion with loving-kindness, and vice versa. I found their teaching full of simple truths which bear repeating, and the presentation was obviously one they had given many times in the past. The experience of meditating on a Thai island with them would undoubtably be more inspiring than a talk in the big city.

Quite by accident last week, I turned on CNN just after Barack Obama had just won the North Carolina primary. I haven't been very interested in the primaries in America. The seven-year reign of George Bush has made me ashamed to be an American. And the lack of enthusiasm for regime change (why aren't Americans undertaking mass, non-violent protests as they did, successfully, during the Vietnam misadventure?) has convinced me that hope is no longer alive in the country of my birth. Hillary is a clone of Bill, a pro-business, pro-globalization politician who does not have the best interests of the masses in her heart. I didn't think much of Obama, particularly after he disowned his pastor, a man whose right on, anti-American sentiments reflect my own. But I was impressed by the speech I saw after winning in North Carolina. He called himself an "imperfect messager," a wonderful admission to hamstring the mud slingers.
The other side can label and name-call all they want, but I trust the American people to recognize that it is not surrender to end the war in Iraq so that we can rebuild our military and go after al-Qaida's leaders.

I trust the American people to understand that it is not weakness, but wisdom to talk not just to our friends, but to our enemies, like Roosevelt did, and Kennedy did, and Truman did.
That's terrific stuff, coming from someone who has to beat the despicable John McCain to take back control of America from the neo-cons and their ilk.
Somewhere along the line, between all the bickering and the influence-peddling and the game-playing of the last few decades, Washington and Wall Street have lost touch with these core values, these American values. And while I honor John McCain's service to his country, his ideas for America are out of touch with these core values. His plans for the future, of continuing a war that has not made us safer, of continuing George Bush's economic policies that he claims have made great progress, these are nothing more than the failed policies of the past. His plan to win in November appears to come from the very same play book that his side has used time after time in election after election.
It looks like I will register to vote after all.

Next week is crunch time in the race to get a new non-immigrant B visa which will allow me to work and to begin the complicated application process for a work permit before the school term begins at Wat Si (full name: Wat Srisudaram Worawiharn). On Wednesday Pandit Bhikku and I met at the school for undergraduates of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (try saying that with your mouth full), the Buddhist institution that seems to think a Ph.d. from California will be a feather in its cap. Since it was between terms, the campus was like a ghost town, with only a few orange-clad student monks about. I've now got an offer of employment from Dr. Suriya, the head of the foreign language department, which invites me to teach two three-hour classes (or perhaps three two-hour classes, it's not clear) in "Listening & Speaking English III" on Thursday afternoons. After a long wait, the faculty dean at Wat Si signed a letter asking the Immigration Office to convert my tourist visa into a working visa, but the final letter must come from the dean of the university which is headquartered across the river in the precincts of Wat Mahathat. He was not in the office that afternoon and the school would be closed for a four-day weekend to honor the Buddhist quarter moon holiday. Besides, the letter we presented for him contained two different dates. After having the letter retyped and the offending date removed (it was all in Thai so I couldn't read it), we gave it to a typical power-hungry administrative secretary who asked me to call next Tuesday to see if it had been signed (hopefully, with Pim translating). Apparently some students recently have encountered difficulties in trying to convert a tourist visa to a student one, and it's possible the university dean may decline to sign the letter, Pandit advised me, in order to save face. And even if he signs it, the Immigration Office may decide not to honor it. In which case, I must quickly return to Vientiane where the visa application should be successful (though nothing is certain the Byzantine world of Thai bureaucracy). With the visa in hand, then I can seek a work permit. But since I'll probably begin teaching before it's granted, I'll ultimately have to pay a fine.

Since the school term begins at the end of next week, my first class should begin May 22nd. But Pandit, who got his undergraduate degree at Wat Si and who has taught there as well (I've apparently taken his bread-and-butter job away from him this term), warns me that many students frequently fail to show up for the first couple of weeks. In addition, classes are frequently cancelled for the many Buddhist holidays. No matter. I purchased a set of the New Headway (3rd edition) Elementary course books, published by Oxford University Press, for teaching English to non-English speakers, and now I am attempting to turn the 14 units into a 16-week lesson plan, with a midterm and final exam, with points and percentages for grading. As usual in putting together a course syllabus, I waver between improvisation to encourage spontaneity and surprise with the students and a rigid outline which will protect me from indecision and, perish the thought, failure (the west's version of loss of face). Sangha member Mark, who is studying with Pandit, lived in Japan for many years and he gave me a variety of techniques and games to play with students. One that appealed to me involved playing hip hop songs on my iPod and getting them to recognize the lyrics (even I will have trouble with that). Whenever I start to worry, Pandit and Dr. Holly counsel me on staying loose and letting my teaching career be led by the Thai mantra: "Mai pen rai" (which can be freely translated as "never mind, whatever...").

1 comment:

mark2u said...

Hi Will:

Today, I finished my 20 day "early retirement" annual requirement for this year. I will continue to put time into the classroom until mid June which will then count towards my 20 days next year. This was my first year of five since my retirement and to put it into a monetary perspective, affords me an additional (before taxes) amount of $500 per month (times ten months). Prices on all consumer items (except maybe the kosher polish hot dog at Costco) have gone up... and noticeably.

Reading of your venture into teaching English in a couple of weeks is of particular interest... and something I will follow with great interest. Thank you for sharing your evolutions and machinations on the topic... much appreciated. Also really enjoy the piece on your evolving relationship with Pim!

Inspiring! -Mark Levy