Saturday, December 13, 2008

'Tis the Season

Last year I found it curious. This year I found it absurd. Why is it that Thais have embraced Christmas as their own? This is a Buddhist country with a tiny Christian minority. And the merchants are not simply pandering to a tourist mindset (if you can find any December visitors these troubled days). The gigantic tree at left (actually a simulated tree, like all of the Yule monsters) is in the Central Pinklao mall near my apartment and there are few farang living in this neighborhood to impress. There is a mechanical Santa in the Tesco Lotus across the street and Thais take their pictures standing in front of it. Artificial trees, fully decorated, are on sale in many stores. In Starbucks and in the supermalls in the Siam district cheesy Christmas music can be heard on the PA systems. I've been in that area the last two nights and the illuminated Christmas displays are bright enough to blind bystanders. It's disturbing. Jerry says he refuses to set foot in a department store until January. Of course, it's Christmas without Christ, a secular holiday. Just as Hindus absorb every religion into their Sanatana Dharma ("the universal law"), Thais adopt many western holidays (but not all: Valentine's Day and Halloween, yes, but not Thanksgiving or Groundhog Day). Tinsel, fake holly leaves and real Poinsiettia plants are everywhere, even in the red light districts. Deck the halls with beer and condoms: the Christmas season in Bangkok . I used to adore the idealism of Christmas, peace on earth and good will to all. but that was before gift giving became an obligation and shopping the primary ritual of the season.

Lest the reader think I have abandoned my roots, last night Dr. Holly and I went to a performance of Handel's "Messiah" by the Bangkok Combined Choir with a large symphony orchestra. It was held at Holy Redeemer, the Catholic church on Soil Ruamrudee near the American Embassy that I occasionally attended when I lived in Sukhumvit. Our friend Rex, a fellow Little Banger, sang bass in the choir of 75 singers. He told us afterward that the oratorio written by Handel nearly 270 years ago was originally four hours long but that they'd cut it to two hours and rehearsed for two months. The chorus has performed the work here every Christmas for over 50 years. The music was exhilarating: I love a big choir with a full complement of strings, and I particularly like the high trumpet notes toward the end. The program included the lyrics from Bible passages and I read again the story of death and resurrection. Holly, influenced by a disbelieving dad who attended sunrise services at the race track (mine "worshiped God" on the golf course every Sunday), asked me what "with His stripes we are healed" meant. Marks of the whip? I speculated. And I wondered again how the servant of God could "save" humanity by his suffering. It makes no sense compared to Buddhist teaching which puts the responsibility for ending suffering on each one of us. Why do we need a savior? It was a moving story when I belonged to a community that believed it. But now, like the bright lights of Bangkok each December, I found it a bit preposterous.

Not that the dhamma (which also means "universal law"), one of the "three jewels" of Buddhism, is that easy to understand. Last week, Phra Bhasakorn Bhavilai came down from Chiang Mai where he teaches at Mahamakut Buddhist University to speak to the Little Bang Sangha about karma. The author of Karma for Today's Traveler, the monk who had been a physicist and a photographer before ordination gave a standard interpretation which depends upon the doctrine of rebirth. Existence is a chain of causes and effects which transcend individual lives. Past actions can have consequences in future lifetimes. What we do now may be rewarded or punished after we are reborn. It's a tidy answer to the question of why the bad seem often to be rewarded and the good punished, and Phra Bhasakorn illustrated it with Power Point slides. Unfortunately, only half had been trandslated into English. The talk, based on his book, is a four-hour lecture which he had difficulty shortening (Handel was easier) to a one-hour presentation. A brief Q&A session barely touched on possible problems raised by the teaching.

I find it difficult to integrate karma and rebirth with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. Unlike in Hinduism, where the individual self, the atman, is seen as indivisible from Brahman, the universal self, or Christianity, which teaches the each individual soul has a single lifetime in which to prove itself, Buddhism teaches that the self is a fiction created by clinging to a bundles of identities. I find this idea consoling, and very materialistic. Realizing that we fragile brains in a body are all in the same boat engenders compassion, kindness, and sympathy for others, as well as a calmness which helps us to endure the inevitable swings of fortune. But if this interpretation is true (and The Buddha suggested we explore for ourselves rather than take his words on faith), what can possibly survive the death of the body? If I violate one of the five precepts (no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, or indulging in intoxicants) during my life, how can the penalty carry over after my death to someone with another brain and body? It seems as if all religions must avoid the problem of evil by positing some eternal ghost that escapes material limits. I didn't get to ask Phra Bhasakorn about this, so I will read his book for clues. My Christian friends could never explain to me what happens to their faith if heaven and hell are fictions to insure morality. For now, I'll stick with Buddhism as the ultimate explanation of how the mind works.

As I write this, Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party in Thailand, is poised to become the country's next prime minister. But anything could happen, and probably will, this weekend. Abhisit, 44, who was born in England and educated at Oxford, began his political career in 1992 with the oldest political organization in Thailand. It was formed in 1945 as a royalist party in opposition to the liberals who were responsible for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Since the start of parliamentary democracy, however, Thailand has seen 12 military coups and 18 different constitutions. Abhisit's party has consistently lost to parties headed or supported by exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra. But after the "judicial coup" which toppled the third prime minister in three years, the Democrats have cobbled together a fragile coalition of formerly feuding politicians that may give them a majority when votes for a new prime minister are cast, probably on Monday.

Many observers find the latest twist in Thai politics a step backward. One blogger called it a "Frankenstein coalition." The author of Thailand Crisis wrote:
Ladies and gentlemen, the Thai democracy in action! After military coup, judicial coup, silent coup, mini coup, half coup, airport coup, bored coup, here is the bozo coup! Ingredients for this great recipe of “nouvelle cuisine”? Money, betrayal, will of power and a pinch of Lalaland. After hours of negotiations, and huge amounts of money, it seems that this coalition could form the new government. But watch out, the movie has not ended yet… We could have many more developments… And surprises. In any case, what would this “monster Frankenstein” government would be able to achieve ? Nothing of course. Welcome to the institutionalized instability. And when (if) we will have new elections… this “Frankenstein” government will be wiped out. Play it again, Sam.
Jonathan Head, an astute commentator for BBC News, believes that Thailand is reverting to old-style politics after the innovations of Thaksin who came to power in 2001. Abhisit was able to secure his majority by forming an alliance with Newin Chidchob, a provincial strongman from the northeast who publicly renounced his loyalty to Thaksin last week. Newin, according to Head, "simply sells his team of MPs to the highest bidder." Under Thaksin, Thailand's politics entered "a new age with the adoption of a new, populist constitution, and the rise of a new, populist party." But now, Head writes, "when the newspapers are carrying front-page photographs of the clean-cut Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva giving a bunch of roses to Newin Chidchob [above, right], once the mortal enemy of the Democrats and every bit the old-style godfather, it is clear Thailand has come full-circle. After three years of turmoil, old politics is back, where politicians of whatever persuasion can climb into bed with whoever gives them a shot at power."

Maybe. The situation could change dramatically today when a large crowd of Thaksin partisans will pack the 35,000-seat National Stadium to listen to a message by phone or pre-recording from their leader (now living in Dubai). It is expected that he will urge former members of the now disbanded Thai Rak Thai and People Power parties to unite behind the banner of the just-formed Phua Thai Party and elect a new prime minister who will follow in his footsteps. And one who can last longer then Samak (booted from office for hosting a TV cooking show) and Somchai (banned from politics because someone in his party bought votes in the last election).

If that happens, either the military will intervene as expected or the yellow-clad mob of demonstrators will return to the streets and perhaps the airports, which means no rest for the becalmed tourist industry. They have threatened to do so if another "puppet" of Thaksin returns. And their secret supporters will probably write another blank check (for an excellent analysis of the cost and the possible bankrollers of the disastrous recent anti-government protests, see this Huffington Post article). For an interesting perspective on Thailand's monarchy, by W. Scott Thompson, professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and an expert on Southeast Asia now living in Bali and Manila, check out this article in the Los Angeles Times. Thompson defends the King but I doubt that his words would pass muster in Thailand where he would no doubt be clapped in irons.

Eleven more shopping days until Christmas (unless you're in the U.S. and you have 12).

That's enough politics and religion (and its consumer rituals) for today. As for sex, at the moment my lips are sealed. But stay tuned.

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