Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nonviolence in the Streets

Anti-government mobs roamed the streets of Bangkok on Monday looking for a way to topple the government. But the government, like a good martial artist, avoided their thrust. As the Bangkok Nation described it, "their aggression was met with carrots rather than sticks by the Somchai government, which instructed the police to avoid any clashes and give way to the protesters." The violence of the previous weeks which was threatened yesterday was cleverly avoided.

Organized by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the yellow-clad protesters, estimated at somewhere between 18,000 and 30,000, were participating in what leaders called, once again, a "final showdown" (the last one several weeks ago obviously did not do the job). They surrounded Parliament but were frustrated when lawmakers postponed the session. Then demonstrators blockaded the old Don Muang airport, where the Prime Minister had moved his offices after the PAD occupied Government House three months ago. But Thailand's PM, Somchai Wongsawat, was in Peru attending the Asia-Pacific economic summit meeting. Police guarding the temporary government headquarters allowed the crowds to gather without attempting to prevent their ultimately futile show of force. Pro-government supporters were thankfully absent.

Several stories in the local press illustrate the PAD's desperation. Armed men calling themselves PAD guards hijacked a bus at gunpoint to take them to the action. But police shot out the tires of the bus and arrested them. A truckload of protestors was stopped at a toll booth on the expressway to the old airport and tied up traffic when they refused to pay the fee. Power to various police and political offices was cut off by some protesters. The Education Ministry closed several local schools, and keepers at the nearby Dusit Zoo relocated some of their more tempermental animals - kangaroos, wallabies and elephants - to quieter holding areas.

Because violence was in the air, I stayed glued to the TV screen Monday morning, watching news reports on the Thai channel but understanding little. All seemed quiet except for mobs in a party mood wandering the now empty streets. There were no scenes of police firing tear gas like the clash that left demonstrators dead and wounded several weeks ago. Score 1 for the government, 0 for the PAD. The endless anti-government protest begun six months ago, which aimed in the name of "democracy" at shutting down a democratically-elected administration, appeared to be running out of steam. The expected crowd of 100,000 did not materialize; and the group's ability to attract followers seems to be diminishing. Their strategy of of provoking violence to produce a military coup has, for the moment, failed. But no one has the key to ending the stand-off.

On Sunday Marcus and I traveled the short distance from our digs in Pinklao to Mae Chee Brigitte's Phra Sanhachai International Meditation Center in Taling Chan. The Austrian mother of two is a nun who came to Thailand in 1989 and was ordained a year later. She began teaching meditationin 1992 and her center is located in a colorfully painted house on a quiet residential street on the outskirts of Bangkok. A half-dozen students speaking English and German, including a young woman from Brown University in Rhode Island, were staying in the guest dormitory.

We had come to see Phra Ajahn Sahapan, a former engineer who has been a monk for over 30 years, spending long periods on retreat in the caves and forests of Thailand. While his Thai was peppered with English phrases, his words were translated into both English and German by Mae Chee Brigitte. Frank, a Little Bang regular, had attended a previous afternoon talk and gave the Ajahn high marks. Rather than a prepared teaching, Phra Sahapan encouraged questions from the group of 15 who had come to hear him at the center. It included Thai men and women as well as farang. His answers, delivered in an energetic voice punctuated by smiles, covered a wide range of the Dhamma, the wisdom and insight taught by the Buddha.

A question about yawning during meditation led to a discussion of the five hindrances that prevent seeing things as they really are: desire, anger, doubt, anxiety and boredom. The two main forms of meditation, concentration and mindfulness, were described and their comparison dismissed. Both are valid. It is important to go deeper, he stressed, to understand cause and effect, kamma, and to know what true nature is. There is only movement, the kamma wind blowing, and not particular movements. This is our first duty, to obtain a clear undertanding of what we are experiencing.

The teacher said he could only offer a map for realization but that we had to do the work and decide where to walk. I was particularly encouraged when he said that the enlightened one still had to function in the world. So much teaching leads to the conclusion that the world must be abandoned, while I increasingly feel that my salvation can only be here, in the existence that I have been given. Thai people, Phra Sahapan said, echoing Buddhadasa Bhikku, do not understand Buddhism when they rely on rites and rituals. They need to cut off the belief that rituals can bring enlightenment. Marcus finds this difficult to accept because it sounds like an elitist position that demeans popular religiosity, and I tend to agree with him. Poor farmers and shop keepers have little time or energy for a rigorous meditation practice and the intellectual analysis of the Dhamma popular among wealthy westerners.

The truth is already in us, the monk said, sounding very Socratic. There is no hurry, and we must not work for a particular result. The more you want, the less freedom you get from the three temptations, anger, greed and delusion. Meditation, he said, should lead to the obsevation of change, impermanence; concentration makes this hard to see. Everything is change: we grow old with every breath. There is no need for us to change, but just to notice when change occurs, when liking and disliking arise with our perceptions, and to be aware that nothing is me or mine. Seeing the labeling of liking/not liking is the essence of morality, sila.

The aim of realization, he told his students, is not to be born again. This can be achieved not by erasing past kamma but by understanding now the workings of cause and effect and to see deeply into reality. When separation disappears with the understanding of no-self, Phra Sahapan said, then there can be no broken heart, no grief for the dead, no difference between a car and a child. Marcus and I found it hard to accept the absence of need for compassion in everyday life and we cling to the Bodhisattva ideal of helping others, particularly those who have lost a loved one and find no-self little solice for their grief. For the monk, however, compassion seems to arise with understanding, with seeing things as they really are. His teaching was certainly offered us in the spirit of compassion.

A week and a half earlier, Jeffrey Oliver, former monk and now meditation teacher from Australia, spoke to a gathering of the Little Bang Sangha at Bodhgaya Hall in Bangkok. His talk on "How to Meditate" was a preparation for a one-day meditation workshop the following weekend and it was simplicity itself.

"You cannot empty the mind, so don't try it," Oliver advised. The practice is to remove yourself from your story and your attachment to it. Be aware of thinking, and it will stop by itself. The insights from Vipassana or mindfulness meditation are an experience and not intellectual understanding. The chief insight is impermanence, the realization that we can't own or keep anything. A mind calmed in meditation is able to realize true nature without concepts. "We have all gone to thinking school," Oliver said to his audience of mostly western expats. Thinking, he implied, gets in the way of the present moment, since it is so often attuned to the past and the future.

Oliver, who found it "not convenient to teach as a monk" during 10 years of wearing a robe, and who now calls himself a "freestyle meditation teacher," took his audience through a basic meditation practice. First, relax; second, be aware of breathing through the nostrils, and, third, count the out breath from one to five (my first practice was to go to ten). After a few minutes of this exercise, we were told to no longer observe the breath and to stop counting. Just sit in the present moment.

It's important to know why we meditate, Oliver said, and he ticked off a list of possible benefits: become a good person, find the truth, get rid of stress, develop wisdon, understand life, become free of suffering; and he added a few controversial ones: develop psychic powers and talk to the dead. Nonsense, Marcus said to me later. "We don't need to know why we meditate. We just do it, or not. It isn't an intellectual exercise." A fan of Pure Land Buddhism such as he encountered it during his last year in Korea, Marcus believes faith is an important element of Buddhism and, like me, is inspired by the pure faith of the common people. Thailand is a land steeped in religious faith that takes outward form in rites and rituals. Reducing Buddhism to meditation is a way for the west to colonize and absorb Asia's religious heritage. But it might just miss the point.

Oliver explained his technique for "motorcycle meditation," and said that he closed his eyes when riding on the back of a bike driven at break-neck speeds down a Bangkok soi. Yes, I said, but your body was not calm. I expect you were holding on for dear life. Someone mentioned the objective of perceiving the spaces in the mind between thoughts, the place where bliss supposedly resides. But, I argued, if you focus on the spaces between words, or the white space surrounding black letters, you cannot read. What is needed is something like a gestalt of enlightenment that permits us to experience reality fully while chopping wood and carrying water in the real world.

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