Monday, June 30, 2008

An Emotional Moving Day

Aside from the fact that Pim and I almost broke up the night before, the move on Saturday to a new apartment on the other side of Bangkok went well. Early this morning, after Pim got on the bus to go to work at the post office in Banglamphu, I went looking for a Bangkok Post and came up empty handed. Boromratchonnanee Road is a busy urban thoroughfare with an expressway overhead. There are three major shopping malls with supermarkets, bowling, movies, an infinite variety of consumer items, and fast food restaurants galore, but farang are few and far between. So I suppose English language newspapers would just draw dust. This is the Bangkok tourist rarely visit.

I've been packing for the move for over a week. In the 11 months that I've lived in Thailand, I've accumulated books, clothes, cooking and cleaning supplies, six pepper plants, a briefcase full of tools for teaching English, a new printer/fax/copier, and a roommate. While the new apartment is not a lot bigger than the old one, it's more efficiently designed and everything fit with a little room to spare. The bedroom and kitchen, small though they may be, are separate spaces. The bathroom, which will not quite accommodate two, is well appointed, and the living room feels spacious, with a couch, easy chair, coffee table and another table for dinning. Though the cable is not yet hooked up, the large TV gets all the local channels (I still need CNN and BBC, as well as the movie channels). Roger, the Brit from Nottingham who owns this place with his wife Katsuda, a stewardess for Quantas Airlines, loaned me his wireless router and the internet line from TOT, the government provider, is quite speedy. All the comforts of a modern home.

We paid two security guards from Siam Court to get a pickup truck and move us to Lumpini Place in the Pin Klao district on the west side of Bangkok. Traffic was light in the early morning and it was a beautiful day. There were complications when we arrived, which I didn't quite understand but which Pim soon untangled, and not long after we were unpacking in our new home. There is nothing like the feeling of infatuation with a new environment. After emptying the moving boxes, we walked the short distance across up the street and across the pedestrian overpass to Tesco Lotus, the newest of the neighborhood malls. There we found pillows, sheets, forks and spoons, a pan for cooking stir fries and omelets, and some food supplies. Pim bought the makings for sukiyaki and cooked for me for the first time a delicious meal for lunch. The sheet was too small for Roger's custom-made bed and in the evening I bought a larger one, along with glasses and two small rugs for wet feet. I tried to find cheese for an omelet but the selection was minuscule and expensive. That was the only item lacking on my list. Thai stores seem to stock an infinite variety of goods (except, surprisingly, knives to go with the forks and spoons), far greater than any outlet I ever saw in America. Pim commented, "you always seem happy when you're shopping," and I felt incredibly guilty.

All is not perfect in this Eden. The air conditioning unit on the balcony growls and vibrates, making it difficult to sleep when it is on. The bathroom door sticks and the shower head won't stay attached to the wall. The refrigerator slides forward when you open it and the door is on an inconvenient side for the small room. The expressway nearby is noisy. Our bedroom window and balcony face west which means we get the hot afternoon sun. To get a cooling cross breeze, we must open the front door a sliver. The TV has an annoying purple cloud on one side of the screen. There are two shops doing laundry on the ground floor of the building but both seem to charge rates in excess of the expensive Soi 4 laundry I used in Sukhumvit. There are also coin machines and Pim says she will try them before we paid a thousand baht a month. But the building also has some perks. This morning I handed over two small photos for a card to admit me to the pool and gym.

The night before the move, Pim stayed out late with a friend from Kalasin who had recently married a Belgian and who will soon move to Europe. She'd found something important to do away from home every night that week and it felt like we'd spent little time together. Saturday was our night to watch Academy Fantasia 5, the Thai talent extravaganza on TV, and it seemed like I'd done all the work for the move while she had been playing with friends. What kind of relationship is this? I wondered. I grew lonely and morose. So on the eve of the move, I went up to Nana, got drunk on several beers, and watched bored half-naked ladies dance for the sex tourists. She was watching TV when I returned and I gave her the silent treatment (I'm very good at passive aggressive), going to sleep on the far side of the bed.

The next morning before the move we talked, or rather I talked and Pim cried. I said I felt she was with me for my money and the comforts of my apartment, and that I wanted to be with someone who loved me, not what I could give them. I said I thought she was ashamed to be living with an older man (but first I had to explain the concept of shame). Finally she admitted I was right. She said that her friends and co-workers think she is good and smart, and (though she didn't say why) somehow being with an old man violated their standard of "good." She tried to tell me of how hard it is to live a double life. "They think I am free and can do anything I want," said said, "and they do not understand when I tell them I have to go home early." If they knew about us, she said, "I would lose face." Her childhood friend who just married the Belgian thinks she lives in an apartment with a woman friend, and others believe she is still living in a women's dormitory. Only her mother, sister and her best friend Boy, a gay man, know about me. And that, she explained, is because she is closest to them and finds it harder to lie (though she did for many months).

I could see how Pim is torn between her desire to be with me (which brings her comfort, security, my loving her and the things money can provide) and the appearances she feels she must keep up to conform to the rules of Thai culture. It's OK to be with a farang, even an older one, but the gap in our ages pushes the envelope even here. I know now that Pim and I will never be married (recently she has been dropping hints that she wants me to marry her mother!). No matter how permanent this feels, it is temporary. At some point she will realize that she needs a more acceptable mate, one who can give her children. If I were stronger, I would push her away for her own good. But I too am seduced by the comfort of having her by my side. She told me the other day that when we met, "I thought you were no upset man. But now..." People that don't get upset (like Pim), have a jai yen, or cool heart. I have a jai ran, an abundance of impatience. "But I get over upsets very quickly," I told her. "I don't," she replied.

It is a decidedly unequal relationship. In Thai culture, couples agree to take care of one another in whatever way they can. As a farang, who makes five times Pim's monthly salary, I am expected to pay. Her contributions are domestic, cleaning the apartment, washing clothes, and providing affection (which I am convinced is mutual). But now Pim has asked me to contribute 5,000 baht a month for her mother's upkeep (she was recently divorced and has no visible means of support). If I do not do this, Pim will have to take a second job, and that will kill her social life as well as our relationship. In addition, she has run out of money the last week of the past two months and asked me for financial help. From a western viewpoint, this feels very lopsided. My pattern seems to be to find women who take the bulk of my earnings and keep theirs. I'm sure there is some heavy karma involved. Jerry said that in exchange for his support of Lamyai and her extended family, they will take care of him when he is old and even if he is no longer bringing in money. I cannot expect Pim to care for me when I am frail and senile (perish the thought, as my mom would say). So there is no quid pro quo here.

Pim and I, then, are roommates now more than we are lovers or betrothed. I've told her to feel free in her social affairs, and that I would likewise consider myself unencumbered. That might even involve me seeing other women, I suggested to stony silence. We could consider an "open relationship," I said, and tried to explain what that was all about. This is not what I want, but I have to accept that I am as addicted as she by our affair. We both know it is wrong but we can't let go. Our six months living together have opened up parts of my heart I thought forever stuck shut. I want to be with her totally. But the knowledge that I am a guilty pleasure, confined to only half of her life, makes that impossible.

For the moment, however, we will continue as before. But this brief respite in our relationship will force me to reexamine the trajectory of my life. I'm comfortable in this new apartment, and in my rediscovered vocation as a teacher. I now have fifty students who look to me for advice and guidance. Quite a few of the books in my expanding collection need reading, and now that I have a comfortable chair, all that is lacking is a good reading lamp. I'll go looking for that today. Pim and I must exercise our independence. It will not be an easy transition.

I have had a busy social calendar lately. Dr. Holly and I went to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand last week to hear historian Chris Baker and Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University, talk on the role of the military in Thai politics. The military here is relatively independent of the checks and balances of civilian government, largely due to the power it was given by huge amounts of U.S. aid during the Vietnam War. There are over 15,000 "golf generals" who have little to do. And after a period of falling esteem and support, the military is stronger than over since its 2006 coup. On another afternoon, Holly, Pandit and I went to an exhibit of paintings by Little Bang Sangha member Sarah Sutro at the Neilson Hays Library where I had an excellent lunch of "steak chille." Sarah's "Palms and Landscape" water colors on display in the café and Rotunda of the 100-year-old building were simple and striking. And finally, the sangha had its third movie discussion event last Saturday. After a sumptuous brunch at the Taipan Hotel, two dozen of us repaired to an upstairs room to watch Jane Campion's film "Holy Smoke," with Kate Winslet as a guru's groupie and Harvey Keitel as the deprogrammer who attempts to set her straight. Pandit presented the interesting perspective of both characters being two sides of a single seeking individual. This helped to make sense of the transference of identities, with each in control at different points of the film. I suggested that "be kind" was the message of the film (and which Keitel wrote in reverse lettering on Winslet's forehead in one scene). After demolishing the deprogrammer's macho certainties, Winslet turns to show him compassion. My only problem with the film was the jarring clash of genres. At one moment it's a comedic farce, at the other a spiritual lesson. In the end, everyone is wiser and happier. But maybe that's the way it should be?

The picture below was taken at Wat Yannawa. Pandit, Holly and I visited a display of Buddhist relics and this is one of several shrines. I expected to see bones and teeth supposedly from The Buddha but instead found what looked like mostly small stones inside of gold and silver holders. Pandit explained that the objects were manifested by the Buddha and true adepts can tell the real from the fraudulent. There were also globes and petrified portions of nagas (sea serpents), and some of the people held their arms out to receive vibrations. We all tried and Holly said she felt something. In this photo I found the rocket shaped lava lamps particularly interesting.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Significant Milestone

Behold the gold in the visa boogie sweepstakes, a non-immigrant "B" stamp in my passport. It may only look like messy bureaucratic ink, but it is my entry ticket for the next race, an equally Byzantine application process to get a work permit. After a short wait in the Immigration office last Monday, the clerk unceremoniously handed me back my stamped passport. I expected to hear trumpets and see dancing girls. But the heavens remained silent. Nevertheless, I skipped a bit on the walk back to Silom and the Skytrain. The visa is good for three months and my exit date is, ironically, 11 September. So I now have eight weeks to get the work permit which will in turn allow me to extend the visa for a year with annual renewals. But getting a work permit is by no means certain. Everyone says the school must file for me, and so far they've been relatively clueless when it comes to hiring farang teachers. With the new visa, I can now open a bank account, I learned from our new landlord Roger last night. But I have yet to receive a paycheck from Mahachula and I'm not sure when, or in what form, it will arrive.

So on Tuesday I gathered together a packet of information on the permit process from the internet and took it to Wat Sri Sudadram to prime the pump, so to speak. But school was closed and classes canceled for the week to make way for a temple fair. Pandit Bhikku had warned me that this could happen without notice. The few bewildered monks walking around the campus had obviously also not been so informed. But I encountered a teacher and an administrative secretary in the office and explained to them my mission. I was told the material would find the proper hands when classes resume next week. And the teacher asked if I wanted to teach on Tuesdays as well as Thursdays. The 3rd year students could use a native speaker, he said. He also knew a medical doctor look for tuition in English. Was I interested? It might be hard to stay retired.

Each week I have a theme from the New Headways text. For the third week it was "The World of Work," and I talked with my students about jobs, brainstorming the English words for various occupations, and I asked them what their family members did for work and what they might like to do after graduation. They broke up into small groups for discussion and then each individually reported back to the class, a method to insure full participation. As I expected, most come from farming families with a few the sons of teachers, and almost all said they wanted to become English teachers. There were a couple planning to disrobe and go into business, and one monk said he wanted to be a tour guide. All are majoring in English and plan to graduate this year.

Last week, during "Take it Easy," we talked about what they did in their spare time. I used a prompt from the text material to encourage small group discussions which asked "How often do you...?" followed by possible leisure activities: play computer games, go to the cinema, go running, listen to music, watch TV, cook, go swimming, sunbathe. When they began speaking, I immediately realized how inappropriate the prompt questions were for monks who follow 227 strict rules governing conduct. But all watched TV (except for one who said his temple did not have a TV set), many listened to music, and most confessed to enjoying computer games. I tried to imagine them running in their saffron robes. A number told me they did exercises in their rooms. The cinema was out-of-bounds, but I expect they see movies on TV and one admitted he bought DVDs. Swimming also is difficult, although when they go home upcountry for visits some said they swam in a lake or river. Sunbathing was an entirely foreign concept to them. Thais avoid the sun and usually swim fully clothed. (Yet last weekend I saw the end of a Sunbathing Marathon in front of the large Central World shopping mall with contestants sitting in deck chairs; at least one farang was among the winning bathers). Only a couple of monks admitted that they liked to cook in their spare time, but all said they were fond of food. One earnest young monk said he liked to engage in "discussions about the Dhamma" in his free time, and also liked to "give sermons." Not a few said they liked very much to shop.

My song for the last class was "Colours" (explaining to them the British spelling) by Donovan. I thought about telling them of my acquaintance with the folksinger, but his glory had faded long before any of them were born. The week before it was Leo Sayer's "More Than I Can Say," a song I did not know suggested by one of the monks. I blank out some of the words and ask them to guess the word from hearing it sung. I'm trying to encourage the students who listen to hip hop in their spare time to suggest some songs for this exercise. This week the class was to be held on Wan Phra (Monk's Day), a religious holiday which coincides with the four phases of the moon each month. I had planned to move class to Saturday, an accepted practice, until I learned of the temple fair taking over the campus. So the students are on holiday for a week, which makes it a little easier for me to move this weekend.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, whose office has been under siege by thousands of protesters for the last week, is facing a brutal grilling in Parliament from his critics. The proceedings, televised non-stop, will end with a vote on a motion of no confidence on Friday. While I cannot understand the words, I learn much from the body language of the adversaries. Leading the opposition is the youthful and handsome Abhisit Vejjajiva, head of the Democrat party (a Kennedy or Clinton in the making), who accused Samak of mishandling the economy and failing to ease the impact of soaring oil prices, interfering with freedom of the press and violating national interests. "Even after four months in power, the administration massively mismanaged the country, with no unity, no direction and no efficiency," Abhisit said during the parliamentary debate. Others called him a puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup. One member, a medical doctor, said "The behavior of the prime minister is considered both verbally and mentally dysfunctional." Samak, an aging politician whose face, detractors say, resembles a pig's, replied, "I am medically fit and I get my checkup every three months."

But the biggest stick they have to beat up Samak is a national sovereignty issue that may be enough to topple the prime minister and his cabinet. At the center of the current flap is a thousand-year-old temple on the Cambodian border that has been an object of contention for nearly a hundred years. Built by the Khmers to honor Hindu deities, Preah Vihear is situated atop a 525-meter cliff between the two countries. In 1904 the French who ruled Cambodia got together with Siamese officials to map the border between the two countries, following the watershed line of the Dângrêk mountain range. The map, perhaps incorrectly, showed showed Preah Vihear as being on the Cambodian side. Thai forces occupied the temple after the French withdrew in 1954, and in 1962 the World Court ruled in The Hague in favor of Cambodia, since Thailand had never protested the map. After much objection, Thailand appeared to accept the ruling. The site was occupied in the 1970s and 1980s by the Khmer Rouge and many mines remain in the area. In recent years the countries had agreed that only the temple was in Cambodia while the surrounding grounds are in Thailand. The main entrance is from Thailand, and if you enter from Cambodia you have to climb a steep cliff.

The Samak government had approved Cambodia's recent application to request World Heritage status for the temple from UNESCO. But when the PAD street demonstration began to falter, after Samak apparently agreed to many of their demands, the leaders played the nationalism card by claiming that Samak had given away national sovereignty in order to benefit Thaksin's business interests in Cambodia. Suddenly the press here is full of outraged national pride. Samak's explanation that previous governments, including the military coup leaders, had supported Cambodia's claim, simply did not wash. The opposition wants his head and will settle for nothing less. As Jonathan Head wrote for the BBC in a very perceptive article, "Democracy in Thailand has always been messy. Perhaps never more so than now." Cambodia has closed the temple and has reportedly sent troops to the border. According to a Reuters story, "Fears of a major fallout over Preah Vihear are not fanciful, given that a nationalist mob torched the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh in 2003 over purported comments from a Thai soap star that Cambodia's Angkor Wat actually belonged to Thailand."

Dr. Holly and I had coffee the other day with our friend, Richard Rubacher, from Little Bang Sangha, and he brought with him a chilling show-and-tell. For five years in the 1970s, Richard was a pen pal of Charles Manson, and twice visited the convicted mastermind of the Sharon Tate murders at his California prison. He showed us a couple of the letters and although I didn't read much it was apparent that Manson was in charge of the conversation. Richard has written a couple of plays about his subject and is working on a screenplay. He told us it took him 30 years to realize Manson had been more forthcoming in his letters than in any of the other published sources on him. For a brief time Manson and Timothy Leary shared adjacent cells and apparently the two icons did not get along. Richard has a letter Manson wrote to Leary and asked him to forward, but which he kept instead. He also received a letter intended for Sandra Good, a member of Manson's diabolical family. Richard is a bon vivant who chose to retire in Bangkok where he dances the tango and goes to foreign films (current he is attending the Italian Film Festival).

I've decided to boycott Starbuck's. I know, you're saying it's a little late. The Seattle coffee giant, like a number of American fast food franchises, has blanketed the Bangkok metropolitan area. You can't turn around without seeing the Colonel or Ronald, or the unappetizing picture of a cardboard pizza. I went into a new Grill & Chill in the Siam Discovery Center only to discover it was owned by Diary Queen. The food was absolutely tasteless and filled with carbohydrates. An obesity epidemic should hit Thailand any day now. But I needed something quick and so I succumbed to the urge. There is no denying that Starbucks provides a comfy environment to sip cappuccino and read the newspapers, and I have been willing to pay the 70 baht price ($2.25) for a regular cup. But now that they've raised the price to 75 baht, I will take my business elsewhere. I actually had a cappuccino (50 baht) at one of the trendy McDonald's McCafés the other morning. Most of the other franchise cafés (Danube, True, Black Canyon and Coffee World) charge 60 baht for a regular, although I learned last night that whipped cream on an iced cappuccino costs an extra 15 baht at Coffee World. I've thought about writing a letter to the English papers on Starbucks' price gouging, but then I thought the tourists who usually sip there probably will not even notice. I should probably either give up caffeine or start buying it from street vendors (where I expect it's dirt cheap).

George Carlin, R.I.P. The comic, who dared to say the dirty words that couldn't never be said on radio or TV, has died at 71 of a heart attack. “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth,” reads a message on Carlin’s web site. "In his always irreverent, often furious social commentary, in his observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language," according to the New York Times, "he took aim at what he thought of as the palliating and obfuscating agents of American life — politicians, advertisements, religion, the media and conventional thinking of all stripes." In 1973 he won a grammy for his comedy album (in the days before CDs), "FM & AM." It was released on his Little David Records which was distributed by my employer, Atlantic Records. Carlin was appearing at a club in Lake Tahoe the night of the Grammy ceremony in Hollywood and I was deputized to pick up his award if he won. He did, and I went on stage at the Palladium in the non-televised portion of the awards show to pick up his Grammy from presenters Burl Ives and Leslie Gore. I was in my electric blue Carnaby Street suit and had hair down over my shoulders. Later, not a little drunk, I hung out the window of my friend's car, waving the Grammy statue at all the hippies and down-and-outs on Hollywood Boulevard. This one's for you, I shouted. According to my friend Lee, here are some words from Carlin's last interview:
There is a certain amount of righteous indignation I hold for this culture, because to get back to the real root of it, to get broader about it, my opinion that is my species -- and my culture in America specifically -- have let me down and betrayed me. I think this species had great, great promise, with this great upper brain that we have, and I think we squandered it on God and Mammon. And I think this culture of ours has such promise, with the promise of real, true freedom, and then everyone has been shackled by ownership and possessions and acquisition and status and power.

And perhaps it's just a human weakness and an inevitable human story that these things happen. But there's disillusionment and some discontent in me about it. I don't consider myself a cynic. I think of myself as a skeptic and a realist. But I understand the word "cynic'"has more than one meaning, and I see how I could be seen as cynical. "George, you're cynical." Well, you know, they say if you scratch a cynic you find a disappointed idealist. And perhaps the flame still flickers a little, you know?
I expect that Carlin is up there in Heaven now trading words with that recently deceased icon of the right, William F. Buckley.  Until Gore Vidal passes on, Carlin should prove a worth adversary (take a puff, Bill).

My Boulder Creek friend Nick Herbert has finally entered the realm of the bloggisphere.  If there is anyone better able to analyze the passionate reality of it all, I would be surprised.  Nick, poet and physicist and lover of creation, calls his blog Quantum Tantra: Investigating New Doorways into Nature.  Take a look.

Now that I'm almost a legitimate (working) resident of Bangkok, let me count some of the ways in which I am constantly surprised here.  By public bathrooms, for example.  All of the new shopping malls have European toilets, but there are only two stalls at Wat Si so appointed.  The rest have squat toilets and my bones just won't bend that way.  At the upscale Siam Paragon, there are sinks and soap for washing but no paper towels and not even one of those annoying hand blowers which are so common.  Sometimes you can find ordinary tissue paper for drying one's hands, the kind that disintegrates upon touching anything wet.  And most surprising of all, there is nearly always a cleaning woman in the men's rooms I visit.

Bangkok is a shopper's paradise.  Everything is on sale here, and usually with a multitude of choices.  Take white out, the liquid paper for erasing mistakes.  At the stationary store in Siam Paragon I found an entire aisle devote to various kinds of white out, in different shapes and sizes.  I looked up and down for a clip board and eventually found dozens of them, but in unrecognizable shapes and sizes (mostly plastic).  Sometimes I can't find the simplest things, like file folders.  I'm not sure what substitutes, but they're hard to find.  Abundance and scarcity, a dynamic duo that preserves surprise.

That America's are more religious than anyone else (save the Islamic terrorists) is well known. But that they are exceptionally tolerant about the beliefs of others is not.  A new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that while an overwhelming majority of Americans claim a belief in God, they also believe in large numbers that other religions might "lead to eternal life," including majorities among Protestants and Catholics, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus.  According to the New York Times, the findings "seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are."  Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University, told the Times:  It's that we believe in everything.  We aren't religious purists or dogmatists."   Perhaps it's the gatekeepers, the priests and pastors, who want to tell their devotees  that their particular religion has an exclusive claim on the truth.  And they are just not being followed anymore.

"Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters."  --Bob Dylan

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Thailand on the Verge

I wimped out yesterday.

Instead of attending the huge demonstration to unseat Prime Minister Samak, when tens of thousands of yellow-clad protesters surrounded Government House, the political center of Thailand, I took the advice of friends to steer clear of a potentially explosive situation and watched events unfold on my TV set. Like the armchair football fan, I'm sure I could see more of the action than those on the ground. And although there was much pushing and shoving, only a few cuts and scrapes were reported. The expected and feared violence did not materialize. The 8,000 police assigned to protect Government House, were easily fooled by the well-prepared crowd who climbed over barriers and between trucks designed to stop them in order to get as close to the seat of government as possible. There they set up several stages with sound systems and settled in for the long haul. Police adopted a hands-off policy. Civil servants stayed home and essential services were moved to the Defense Ministry headquarters. The besieged Samak Sundaravej is the minister of defense as well as prime minister. But his administration is in trouble after four months in power. Maj-Gen Chamlong Srimuang, a PAD leader, declared victory in front of Government House. "The PAD movement today is an historic event and a great credit to the country. In the face of such a phenomenon the government will have to get out within a few days," he said.

The street demonstrations, begun three weeks ago, are led by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a loose-knit group united by its hatred of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications mogul who was elected prime minister in 2001 but deposed by the military in 2006 after similar noisy protests. Although Thaksin is back from exile and now faces corruption charges, he has sworn off politics. No one believes him. His banned party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thailand), was given a makeover and emerged as the People's Power Party which overwhelming won an election in December. Samak is widely seen as a proxy for Thaksin and his administration has done little besides advocate changes in the constitution, written by the coup leaders, which would protect Thaksin. The Thai stock market has dropped 15 points since the street protests began, but rose Friday when violence did not take place.

The raucous rallies have been telecast non-stop by ASTV (Asia Satellite TV) which is not included in my True cable package. But the cable at Comsaed River Kwai Resort got it, and last weekend between meditation sessions, I watched what appeared to be a Thai Woodstock with political speeches interspersed between the singing. Tom said his Thai wife has become addicted to watching the rallies daily. She told him that the speeches were quite rude and disrespectful of Samak and the current administration. One government minister has even threatened to ban ASTV. Of course I couldn't understand the message in the speeches, since it was all in Thai, but the fervor and intensity, not to mention the joyfulness with which Thais season all their gatherings, was obvious. Even yesterday, when the demonstrators and the police were in each other's faces, there was much smiling. But it's impossible to forget that in similar face-offs in 1973, 1976 and 1992, many people marching in the streets for change were killed.

I've tried to express my understanding of Thai politics in previous blogs, so I won't rehash those arguments. Suffice it to say that the white hats and the black hats cannot be easily told apart. The great divide is between Thaksin supporters and Thaksin haters. Samak and the PPP were overwhelming elected in a fair election, and PAD would like the results to be annulled in the name of their version of "democracy." They claim the PPP, whose support is primarily among the poorer classes in the north, purchased votes and was elected illegally. I think there is some truth to these charges, but in Thailand vote-buying is common (didn't Bush buy Florida?).

Both sides claim to be acting to protect King and country. Yellow is the King's color, and PAD leaders are fervent royalists. Some say they would prefer democracy to be managed by the military and the monarchy; others question whether this would really be democratic. Samak met with the King the other night when he presented two new Cabinet ministers to take their oaths of office. He was told:
I expect that you will do what you have promised and when you can do that, you will be satisfied. With that satisfaction, the country will survive. I ask you to do good in everything, both in government work and other work, so that our country can carry on and people will be pleased.
Could this be considered support for or criticism of the Samak regime? Commentators had a field day deciphering the enigmatic pronouncement of the 80-year-old monarch, who speaks in very soft tones.

The 73-year-old Samak now has few options. A censure motion by the opposition Democratic Party apparently prohibits him from dissolving Parliament and calling for new elections (which would undoubtedly re-elect PPP candidates). There are increasing calls for him to resign, and suggestions that Thaksin's brother-in-law be appointed interim prime minister, a move that would obviously not satisfy PAD demonstrators. Much of the dissatisfaction with the government is caused by rising fuel and food prices, not to mention rapidly rising inflation, which are caused by outside influences. Farmers, fishermen and truck drivers are threatening to strike. No one will be able to satisfy their demands. The military has pledged to remain neutral. After all, their last intervention (coups d'etat have been common in Thailand) was a failure. But any violence would likely provide the spark for the military to consider staging another coup. "It bodes ill for Thai democracy that a limited and narrow street-based movement has the upper hand in overthrowing an elected government,'' said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

As an America in Bangkok, it is interesting to compare politics in the U.S and Thailand. What impresses me here is the willingness of Thais to respond to their government's actions (or inaction) with their feet. People feel their voice matters, and they raise it proud and loud. What happened to that spirit in America, that belief that injustice could not be tolerated? While the crowd was not always on the right side, at least people once cared about their government and demanded accountability. I remember the anti-Vietnam War movement when college campuses were alive with political activity, and our marching in the streets led to the downfall of two presidents (as well as the martyrdom of Martin, John and Bobby) and the end of the war. Things are much, much worse today and the American public appears apathetic. Obama will make a difference, but he still appears to be a tool of the corporate elite, rattling sabers for Israel like the worst of the right wingers. Only action by the people will save America. A little of the spirit I see alive in Thailand, despite its many challenges, would make a difference.

But the situation here changes hourly. PAD upped its demands and called on the entire Cabinet to resign along with the prime minister. Samak told the press Saturday afternoon that he would not quit, and that he expected to return to work at his office which is currently surrounded by thousands of protesters. He pledged to answer his critics on his weekly television show Sunday morning. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Thoughts About Thinking

Thinking is the nemesis of meditation. Nothing gets in the way of an empty mind more than the gaggle of thoughts which invariably attack the meditator with the persistence of angry mosquitoes. Last weekend, 15 members of the Little Bang Sangha in Bangkok went on retreat to the environmentally-friendly Comsaed River Kwai Resort to ponder the problem of thinking under the guidance of the Venerable Pandit Bhikku, accompanied by Phra Nick from Australia.

We gathered Friday morning in the parking lot at Wat Yannawa next to the Taksin bridge near the end of the Skytrain. This 19th century temple on the banks of the Chao Phraya River has a very interesting cement ship, modeled after a Chinese junk. It was constructed on the orders of Rama III who saw steam ships replacing the old junks, and wanted his people to remember the old ships that had originally bought so much prosperity to the kingdom. The "ship" is now a small temple with Buddhist icons, including a rare fat smiling Buddha more common to Vietnam. We piled into two vans and headed southwest of Bangkok for 50 kilometers to visit Songdhammakalayani (The Temple of Women who Uphold Dhamma) Monastery, the home of Bhikkuni Dhammananda, one of only several ordained nuns in Thailand.

Formerly known as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a respected scholar and teacher of Buddhist philosophy, Dhammananda, who is in her late 50s and the mother of two sons, was ordained in 2001 in Sri Lanka, the first Thai woman to receive full ordination as a Theravadin nun. The country's laws and Buddhist clergy forbid women to ordain as samaneris (novices) or bhikkhunis. Women can become mae chees, who shave their heads, wear white and take only eight vows (monks take 227), but they are not allowed the full 311-vow ordination of a bhikkhuni in other Buddhist countries. In Thailand, the problem with reviving the order of nuns today stems from a rule requiring that women must be ordained first by five bhikkhunis, then by five bhikkhus. Since no bhikkhunis no longer exist in Thailand to perform the ceremony, no bhikkhunis can be ordained. Catch 22.

Dhammananda is abbess of the temple which was built 40 years ago by her mother, Voramai Kabilsingh, who received bhikkhuni ordination in the Mahayana tradition in 1971 in Taiwan. She was the first Thai bhikkhuni, and her daughter has now become the first in the Theravadin Buddhist tradition. Her mother bought a field of rice paddies near the city of Nakorn Pathom from the consort of King Rama VI in 1960, and had the land converted into temple grounds, with a meditation hall and library. Our group brought a variety of practical gifts (tambon, for making merit) which we presented to the Bhikkuni (and some even more useful cash which we donated upon leaving). After greeting us, Dhammananda took us on a tour of the monastery property, showing us the newly opened vihara with its blue Medicine Buddha, and the spacious high-ceiling library which is almost finished. The previous library suffered a flood and many books were damaged. Both of the new structures are beautifully designed in what seems to me to be non-traditional styles (the blue Buddha is Tibetan). After the tour, she and the monastery's one other nun treated us to a wonderful lunch prepared by their community of supporters in the monastery's open-air dining hall. I was sorry to hear that after being ordained, the nun was no longer allowed to hug her sons; Thai Buddhism's restrictions on contact between the sexes continue to puzzle me. But we left with confidence that if anyone can move the official Thai Sangha towards reinstating the tradition of bhikkunis, it would be Dhammananda, a strong and articulate spokesperson for the Buddha's inclusive attitude towards women.

The Comsaed River Kwai Resort spreads along the banks of the Khwae Yai River which merges downstream with the Khwae Noi river to form the Mae Klong River at the town of Kanchanaburi. Both streams come out of the limestone hills to the west that define the border of Myanmar. Originally intended to be a plantation of comsaed trees (a species I have yet to find in my research), when the original backers pulled out, a new buyer landscaped the property and constructed two-story vacation homes. The next buyer turned the property over to a Thai ecologist to manage as a resort. Everything possible is recycled. Garbage is turned into methane gas and cooking oil filtered into bio-diesel fuel for tourist vans. Cows nibble the grass. Gray water is cleansed through a series of fields, ending up in a rice paddy. A paddle wheel pumps water from the river. Ovens produce charcoal for cooking and wood vinegar used in non-toxic pesticides. The resort has developed a line of organic perfume, shampoo and body lotion. The extensive grounds, which include several swimming pools, are beautifully landscaped. During the weekend, a number of giant tour buses deposited large groups of day visitors and the many new cars parked on the lawn indicated that the resort is a popular destination for wealthy Thais from Bangkok.

Our host was Buddhist layman David Holmes, a Canadian who has spent much of his life in Europe, where he taught philosophy and literature in Germany for the University of Maryland, and in Thailand where he lectured for over ten years at Chulalongkorn University. He was an editor for the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka for many years, and now is in semi-retirement beside the swiftly moving River Kwai, coming to Bangkok occasionally to speak with interested westerners about Buddhism. The owners of the resort are devout Buddhists and have constructed shrines, parks and meeting halls for groups of students and meditators. Our group was offered three houses and several rooms at a significant discount. Excellent vegetarian meals were included at no charge.

The purpose of the retreat was to look at thinking and thoughts. Pandit Bhikku had posed these questions: "Who is the thinker? How do thoughts arise? Why does thinking not stop in meditation?" He gave four talks and we sat in meditation until past ten in the evening, awakening very early to sit in the hall at dawn (5 a.m.). In the afternoon we did walking meditation in the garden outside the hall. Pandit suggested that we count our breaths and focus on thoughts that arise as the object of our meditation. The goal was to stop a thought halfway through before it was fully verbalized in the mind. This, as anyone who has tried it knows, is extremely difficult. He offered five ways to control thoughts from a sutta by the Buddha: 1. reflection on a different thought; 2. pondering the disadvantages of a thought; 3. pay the thought no mind; 4. the stilling (or slowing down) of thought formation, and, 5. the sledge hammar method ("crush mind with mind"). There was a lively discussion about thinking. Do animals think? Do we think during sleep? (not if we want to avoid watering down the definition of thought, I argued.) I questioned the notion of pre-verbalized thought. What is a mental notion without words attached to it? Does an infant think? A chimpanzee?

Can changing your thoughts change your life? This is the thesis of Louise Hay, an 81-year-old mega-successful author of self-help books the New York Times has called "The Queen of the New Age." On Saturday afternoon we watched "You Can Heal Your Life," a video based on a book by Hay which has sold over 35 million copies. She is joined on the video by a host of New Age authors (like Doreen Virtue, described as a "Spiritual Doctor of Psychology" and an "Angel Therapist") who are published by Hay House, her media conglomerate. While I found some of the self-absorbed claims reminiscent of the babbling of flying saucer believers I read in my youth, Hay herself proved to be a admirable subject. She was abused physically and sexually as a child, gave up a child for adoption, became a New York model without graduating from high school, and turned to the Church of Religious Science when her husband left her. There she absorbed metaphysical and self-help literature and published a small pamphlet listing the spiritual causes of different diseases ("One of the mental causes of cancer is resentment"). This grew into You Can Heal Your Life, a book that combined spiritually intuitive (and I would add "questionable") diagnoses with healing affirmations (stand in front of the mirror and say "I am perfect just as I am").

Mark Oppenheimer, in the New York Sunday Times Magazine, describe the lineage of New Age teachers and positioned Hay firmly within it.
What they all have in common — Christian Science; its cousin Religious Science; [Norman Vincent] Peale’s 1952 megaseller; and contemporary best sellers like Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” — is a conviction that proper thinking, rather than religious faith or fervor, is the key to metaphysical power.

Where it seems Hay transcends the jargon is in her emphasis on the healing power of forgiveness. When the AIDs epidemic broke out in the 1980s, she was living in Hollywood and gathered together gay men in large groups for "Hay Rides" during which she encouraged them to forgive themselves and the parents who had rejected them. "I forgive myself and set myself free," she taught them, having been through the process herself. "Enlightenment," she says in the video, "is letting go of what we believe are barriers to life." For her disciples, however, this seems to become a gross empowerment of the self, while for Hay it leads to an abandonment of self out of compassion for others. Oppenheimer compared her to the "suffering, tragic divas of old, Maria Callas or Judy Garland, say, but with a much happier ending: La Scala with an MGM finale."

In the discussion that followed the film, Pandit suggested that change is possible and that we can turn the mind around very quickly. He borrowed a page from the "teleological psychologists" to argue against the binding power of karma. "You are the creator of your future and not the victim of your past," he said. The Buddha was forward-looking and did not say that karma kept us tied to the past. The mind, for the Buddha, was the sixth sense, and Pandit wondered what it would be like to think with the body rather than confine thinking to the mind alone, an interesting thought.

The mind is complicated. Pandit recalled that in the new "Rambo" movie, when John Rambo, played once more by Sylvester Stallone, is asked why he stayed in Vietnam after the war there ended, he replies: "It's complicated." The mind is a commentator, a little homunculus in the head that never stops supplying us with "shoulds." "Buy it!" he tells us, and then when we take it home he whispers into our ear: "What a waste of money!" Using a Biblical image, Pandit called the mind "a broken cistern that cannot hold water." We must let go of good thoughts as well as bad ones, he concluded, for "we cannot get enlightened through knowledge."

Sitting for long periods in meditation is not easy for me. My right leg does not bend easily because of a broken femur when I was 18 years old. Arthritis is slowly working its way through my joints; getting up is increasingly difficult. But I can count my breaths easily from 1 to 10 without getting distracted by my thoughts which keep up a gentle murmur until I stop counting. Then they hound me with memories and projections, clamoring for attention. Despite Pandit's advice, I cannot isolate single thoughts in order to cut them off at the pass. My thoughts come in constellations, idea connected to image, image connected to idea. When I recognize them for what they are, I am usually deep within, too late to nip them in the bud. I despair of achieving any progress, and wonder even if progress is available in the realm of the spirit.

But it was a splendid weekend, even if the sun rarely came out of its cloud cover, and I never got to use my bathing suit. The food was delicious and the company of spiritual seekers a delight. On the way back home (11 of us rented a van for about $110 to drive the two-and-a-half-hour trip) we stopped at a large store selling kanoms, Thai snack food. It's apparently a traditional on road trips to stock up on snacks. And the Thais have discovered innumerable ways to process sugary and salty treats from fruit and fish. Dozens of people strolled the aisles with baskets full of goodies. I brought an armful back home to Pim.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Daily Grind

In the mornings I walk Pim a short distance to the motorbike taxi stand for the beginning of her commute across town to work at the P.O. I wonder what the security guards at Siam Court and the taxi drivers waiting for tourists outside the Woraburi Hotel next door think of the old farang and his young girlfriend who, because she is dressed in pressed black slacks and a yellow, pink or red polo shirt, is obviously not a lady of the night. We do not hold hands because she is still concerned that a relative who lives not far away might see us and ask embarrassing questions. Even though her mother and best friends now know about us, we are not yet fully public.

Daily life for me in Bangkok is no grind, not in the sense of a struggle to polish the stones one is given. It is more of a joie de vivre, like the bump and grind of an erotic dancer, a celebration of possibilities.

After Pim leaves, I saunter back down the soi (trying to master the distinctively slow stroll of a Bangkok native) to the small store where I buy a copy of the Bangkok Post and, if needed, bottled water, milk and bread. I am now a regular customer, and she listens to my fractured Thai with good humor and helps me to master at least the prices (today it was roi yee sip et, 121 baht). I nod sawasdee kap to the man opening the food stall in front of Siam Court. He told Pim he saw me every day but was too shy to say hello. This morning he laughed and responded in kind. As I passed the pool, I noticed a family of Indians I had not seen before. The pool is rarely used in the morning by regulars. We had intended to go to the small gym on the second floor this morning but woke up too late. This month, in a quest to counter the effects of too much ice cream, we've been twice to use the treadmill, stationary bike, and weights. But regularity in the exercise realm is a challenge.

I'm going to miss this neighborhood when we move in less than three weeks. In the nine months I've lived on lower Soi 4, I've grown accustomed to the people I see most every day -- selling, working and walking -- and the landscape of tall buildings interspersed with the large mansions of the very rich, all which seem like home. I'll miss Nong who cuts my hair, the women across from the Omni who do my laundry, the hand-in-hand Thai-farang couples, the vendor who sells me sliced pineapple, the sidewalk seamstresses (male and female) who take care of my sewing needs, the girls by the bar doors with their "Hello! Welcome!," the home-brewed whiskey seller and the curbside restaurants, the beggar who always gives me a smile and a hi5 even when I contribute nothing, and the convenience of the 7-11 (there are now two of them on Jerry's Soi 8). I'm sure I'll find similar facilities and faces in Pin Klao, but it will take awhile to recreate the comforts of home.

This is an employment contract. And even though I can't read the fine print (or any of it, actually, save for my name), I signed it. Pim tried to translate it for me but the technical lingo, even in Thai, defeated her. It does say, she told me, that I've been hired for a year at a salary of 12,000 baht a month. At 6 hours a week, that works out to about 500 baht an hour, more than twice what the average laborer makes in a day, and a couple of hundred more than Pim's salary for six days a week. Finally my Ph.D. comes in handy. At a minimum it will pay for rent (not including internet, TV cable, electricity or water). One of my fellow teachers, an Indian, was horrified and presumed I lived in a huge apartment. No, I said, but it's furnished. I wrote the other day about the special trip to the head office of Mahachula to get the contract. Tuesday I discovered it had finally been signed and was awaiting pickup. I collected the assembled documents and rushed in a taxi to the Immigration office across the city. The hall outside Room 303 was full of people standing, sitting and sleeping. But my room was almost empty, and soon I sat opposite a grim-faced man in a pink shirt who gave my papers a cursory look and demanded the fee of 2000 baht to convert my visa from tourist to "non-immigrant B" which will allow me to work. After an additional wait, he handed me a receipt and told me to return in two weeks to retrieve my visa stamp. Oh joy! The worries that had kept me up nights were dispelled in an instant. But knowing my mind, there are always frets and fears waiting in the wings. For example: As soon as I get the visa, I will have 90 days to secure a work permit, and I've been told this is a much tougher and time-consuming process.

My students are beginning to use email to contact me and I think it will help them to extend their conversations outside the classroom. Of course, the flood of stories and requests for advice may inundate me like the villagers in China threatened by the earthquake lake, only this is a quake of my own making. Ven. Sam writes to tell me that he's one of six children from Luang Prabang, Laos. He likes English so much, he says, that he wants to study for a master's degree in linguistics. A little later, he sends me Robert Frost's famous poem, "Fire and Ice," and asks my opinion of its meaning. I tell him that it might resonate with the Buddha's teaching on the dangers of desire and hatred. Phra Sukon gave me a handwritten story of his life (it was my first writing assignment). This 22-year-old monk is also from a village in Laos and he writes of the death of his mother, after which he put on the robes of a novice. When he came to Bangkok to study he had to go door to door from temple to temple to find a place that would take him in. Foreign students, even monks, are apparently not always appreciated in Thailand. The Ven. Loiherng Pannapawga, from Shan State in Myanmar, sent me an essay he's written about a "Chanceless Children Development Center" in Nyaung Shwe township which includes the large Inle Lake, and asked my help with his English. I hadn't heard the expression "chanceless children," but a quick internet check uncovered numerous uses of the phrase to describe children at risk in foreign places. Phra Loiherng, who is 28, wrote that the center was established in 2001 by a group of abbots and laymen to help poor children continue in school past the government primary education. The current economic situation in his distressed country makes it difficult to take the 12 children who have applied this year, he said. The essay is designed to appeal for funds from NGOs in Thailand.

I feel incredibly lucky to have blundered into this job where I can see into worlds I only faintly knew from the news. I've been reading Little Angels: Life as a Novice Monk in Thailand by a former monk from England, whose name when he wrote it was Phra Peter Pannapadipo. It details the lives of mostly teenagers whose poverty forced them into the temples for an education, and to save their families the expense of raising them. Like my students, their parents were mostly rice farmers, or, occasionally, teachers. Most disrobbed following graduation from high school to take a secular job, but a number of them continued on in university where they used their education to help others like themselves. Of the 37 students in my classes I have polled so far, 16 are from countries other than Thailand: 4 from Cambodia, 6 from Laos, and 6 from Shan State, Myanmar.

This is definitely the monsoon season. The daily storms come from the southwest, driven by winds over the Andaman Sea towards Burma and Thailand, although the dark storm clouds I see out my window usually form to the north of here. Every day seems to feature at least one downpour, and sometimes a torrent so heavy that umbrellas are useless. The cloud formations can be gorgeous (with sunsets and dawns to die for), and when the sun shines out of the pale blue sky it's very hot. Last night there was yet another spectacular display of thunder and lightning. I stood on our small balcony and gazed at the natural sound and light show, wondering if the electricity was the cause of the euphoria I've been feeling (or whether it's just the fact that I've jumped another bureaucratic hurdle in my pursuit of working papers).

There's a major football event going on in Europe, and the Thais are big fans. But the matches at Euro2008 in Switzerland and Austria take place after midnight here. A big screen was erected by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to increase attendance at their rally which has closed a major bridge across from the UN headquarters. More than 10,000 come in the evenings to hear speeches denouncing the (democratically elected) government and watch football. I have the dates for the Olympics in August marked on my calendar. I've never been much of a jock, but I do like to see singular events, like the World Cup and the Superbowl. Gerry got me interested in track & field when we were runners together a few generations ago, and I especially like the winter sports events, watching them from the comfort of my home.

What keeps us glued to the screen these days is "Academy Fantasia 5," a reality show cum singing contest in which the audience votes (many times, I suspect) for their favorites. The show is sponsored by True, a communications conglomerate which owns a cellular service as well as the main TV cable company and assorted spin-offs. The contestants live together and their activities are televised 24/7 on channel 20. At meal times we can watch them eat in the well-apportioned mansion where they live and at night see them sleep in their dormitory rooms. We watch them swim in a huge pool and rehearse in the house's studio. Every Saturday there is a televised performance in a large auditorium. None of the current crop seem especially talented to me. They sing well-known Thai songs and each production has a theme Last week it was ensemble numbers with lots of dancing. Next Saturday it will be traditional Thai love ballads. The sets are extravagant and the costumes, to my eye at least, tacky and vulgar (but colorful). So why am I hooked? There is something appealing about a talent show, even if the participants are not destined for greatness. I'm fascinated by the diffusion of the American entertainment aesthetic and how it takes root in different cultures. In Thailand, generosity and enthusiasm somehow dilute the corrosiveness of competitiveness. (Thanks to YouTube for the samples above and below).

After extensive auditions, the season begins with 16 young entertainers, and each week one or more (the low vote getters) are removed. Last week it was Wahn, a sweet young man with buck teeth. Each of the performers has a nickname and number and legions of fans at the show carry mass-produced signs and wear the singer's colors. Academy Fantasia was created in Mexico and is now franchised around the world. Unlike "American Idol" and the ilk, there seems little competition, and the losers are bid farewell with hugs and tears by the remaining contestants, and cheers from the audience. This is week 5 and we're down to ten. Pim likes Tab, an uncommonly large young man (in the hip-hop number above), and I like Green (singing the ballad in the sample below), a girl who is willowy and unusually tall. Last night we heard she had been taken to the hospital for an undefined ailment. In order to vote, we had to buy a True sim card for our mobile for 100 baht. For more on this phenomenon, see the Wikipedia site or the home site for the show.

And now for something complete different: "The Iran Trap" is another incisive piece by Chris Hedges, this time arguing that the Democrat nominee has dug himself a hole with his support of Israel from which it will be difficult to get out.
Obama, in a miscalculation that will have grave consequences, has given his blessing to the widening circle of violence and abuse of the Palestinians by Israel and, most dangerously, to those in the Bush White House and Jerusalem now plotting a war against Iran. He illustrates how the lust for power is morally corrosive. And while he may win the White House, by the time he takes power he will be trapped in George Bush’s alternative reality.
And Josef Joffe , a columnist in the Hamburg weekly newspaper Die Zeit, observes that
The zeitgeist is blowing for Obama -- even if not as strongly in Asia, Africa and Latin America as it is in Western Europe. But an optical illusion may be influencing our opinions: the comforting idea that the real problem is George W. Bush and not America. Out with cowboys and in with change and hope, and then we'll be able to love America once again.

So, why is this a mental delusion? First, because anti-Americanism is older than the younger Bush. Second, because Obama (probably) comes, but the superpower stays. America, this modern steam hammer of a nation, is fundamentally a destroyer.
I am very cautiously optimistic about the Obama miracle. Is America really ready to transcend racism and elect a (half) black man for president? Can he preside over the dismantling of the American empire (which is the only act that will satisfying critics outside the U.S.)? Will he be a Gorbachev, or just another Clinton?

And finally, if you want a concise overview of Thai politics today, check out this piece by Jonathan Manthorpe in the Vancouver Sun. He says things that can't be printed here or discussed publicly.

After my class Thursday, I'm off for a meditation retreat on the River Kwai not far from where the famous bridge was built by prisoners of the Japanese during WWII. Unless I get blissed out for good, the next blog will appear next week with pictures and bits of post-retreat wisdom.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

"Such a Lovely Place"

Welcome to the Hotel Bangkok!

"This could be heaven or this could be hell," the Eagles sing in their hit song about that diabolical hotel back in California where "you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave."

For my second English class at Wat Si on Thursday, I gave the monks the lyrics to the song with 17 of the words blanked out. Then I played it on my iPod and asked them to fill in the blanks from a list of the missing words ("highway," "distance," "courtyard," "ceiling," "prisoners," etc.). It was a stretch for them. Last week I did the same listening exercise with Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," and they enjoyed it so much I thought I would try it again with "Hotel California" which one of the monks suggested (he knew a version by the Scorpions, a German band). For a reading exercise I included interpretations of the song from Wikipedia and Rolling Stone. Later, I had second thoughts about giving young monks a song that could be about hedonism and self-destruction on drugs, "the high life in Los Angeles," according to co-writer Don Henley. But they seemed to enjoy the challenge.

My theme for the two sections was families and I introduced the basic English terms. English is simpler than Thai which distinguishes between paternal and maternal grandparents and has different words for elder and younger siblings. The class broke up into pairs and interviewed each other about their families. Then they each described their partner's family to the class. This practice seems to help them overcome their shyness about speaking English. As fourth-year students majoring in English, their knowledge of grammar is (I think) substantial, but they have had little experience talking before native speakers. While errors abounded, I kept correction to a minimum, more concerned with boosting their confidence than with pointing out deficiencies. Most of them are in their 20's, except for one monk who is 42. They come from all over the Theravadan Buddhist countryside, mostly from rural Thailand but a significant number from Laos, Cambodia and Shan State in Myanmar which has, I believe, a bit of autonomy from the repressive central government. I learned from the presentations that most of the large families are involved in rice farming, but also found that a number of parents are working as school teachers. Many of the students themselves aspire to teach English. I hope I can provide them a good example.

Almost all of the monks have cell phones and quite a few email addresses. I would like to use the computer to extend our conversations outside the classroom, and I have received responses from nine monks who are excited about additional contact. Most of those on email, I discovered, also have profiles on hi5, a popular social networking site in Thailand. Recently, according to one report from Fox News, "a self-styled watchdog group — the Network of Civilians to Protect the Nation, the Religion and the King — said monks were using the social networking site hi5 to flirt with women. One user who called himself 'Monk Chat' sent a message to a woman that said '(I) miss you,' reported Thai Rath, Thailand's top-selling newspaper." In Thai Buddhism, monks, who vow to follow 227 strict rules, must maintain a rigid separation between themselves and women. The government said it would look into the allegation and threatened to block any web sites that "contributed to the deterioration of Buddhism." I trust that my students are faithful to the dhamma, online and off.

My nearly six hours in the classroom went by quickly, although my legs ached from standing up most of the time. I was energized by the experience. After picking up documents from the office I've needed for the new visa, I caught a bus on Bangkhunnon, the main road outside Wat Si and met Pim in Banglamphu across the river. But when we got home I discovered only one document in the envelope; the employment contract I'd been waiting for was missing. When I was offered the job nearly four months ago, I figured that was plenty of time to obtain work papers. Wrong. Thai officialdom is overly bureaucratic and inefficient. Rather than accept the unexpected like a good Buddhist, however, I chew on the bone of frustration. By morning I was ready to give up (again). Hell in the Hotel Bangkok.

Instead, I put on my formal clothes and bussed across town to Wat Si where I plunked myself down into a chair and resolved to stay until the missing document was produced. Everyone in the office was very solicitous. Supo, another of the English teachers, made me coffee. Dr. Siriwat from the psychology department and another gentleman whose name I did not catch looked over the list of requirements I'd been given at Immigration and examined the documents I had collected so far. Yes, they agreed, the employment contract was missing. When Dr. Suriya, the head of the Foreign Languages Department and my boss, arrived, they huddled together to discuss the problem while I stood by without comprehending their Thai. Finally, Dr. Suriya said: "are you free?" I grabbed my briefcase and we took a taxi across the river to Wat Mahathat where the main office of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyala University is located.

While Dr. Suriya went in search of the proper form, I was treated to a cup of iced coffee in the office for international students where I had an enjoyable conversation with Dr. Pramaha Theerapan Nanesuwan and his friend, Phra Bun Tam (whose longer name I did not hear). Both spoke understandable English. Dr. Theerapan is leader of the International Meditation Club along with a fellow named Tony and they regularly hold meetings and retreats for English speakers. Phra Bun Tam has lived and taught in Washington, DC, and San Diego where he studied for a TEFL certificate. His teacher, he told me, had instructed him to pronounce "own" as "ong." Was that correct?, he asked me. I told him no, and we speculated that the teacher must have been from the east coast. Later I was joined by Pandit Bhikku and he took me to another office where we examined forms for a work permit. I must file for it soon after receiving a visa that allows me to work, and it will be undoubtedly prove to be even more difficult and time consuming.

Luckily I'm going on a meditation retreat with Pandit and a dozen other members of the Little Bang Sangha next weekend at a resort on the River Kwai (pronounced "Kway" by Thais instead of "Kweye" as they did in the movie about the bridge). Quiet self-reflection will undoubtedly help me navigate the shoals of frustration. All in all, however, I had a fine day waiting for the document to materialize (after three hours we learned that the man whose signature was required was absent; it should be signed in a day or two). I met an interesting German man in his 70's named Ulrich who had recently retired from teaching Buddhist philosophy at Mahachula and who was now living in an apartment with a sea view to the south "where I have neither a desk nor a computer." He advised me to relax and never, ever act as though I know more or better than the bureaucrats. I'll take that into consideration. At the end of the day I felt that the Hotel Bangkok had once again turned into heaven.