Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Waiting for The Princess

Dr. Holly and I got out of the taxi near the entrance to Bangkok's Chinatown on the first day of the Year of the Ox and joined crowds of people clad in red, the traditional color for the Chinese New Year. We walked down a street closed to traffic and joined hundreds of people gathered in the courtyard of Wat Trai Mit Witthayaram, site of the world's largest golden Buddha. In front of us was a giant temple structure that hadn't been there during our visit the year before. It's called the Phra Maha Mondop, and I realized that it was probably going to be dedicated on this auspicious day by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (because of newspaper reports that she would be present at the holiday festivities). The crowd, controlled by police and military who shouted menacingly at anyone pointing a camera, was hushed. In this country where royalty are semi-divine, they were waiting patiently for the Princess.

I had experienced this passive reverence before, when waiting for the King to drive past on his 80th birthday in 2007, and while waiting for Princess Sirindhorn to arrive for an academic conference at Mahidol University a couple of months ago. The movement of Thailand's royalty requires an army of security officers. When they travel on Bangkok's roads, all traffic is stopped by a highly coordinated police force who even close overhead pedestrian walkways (I saw police standing by last night to do just this on the walkway outside Tesco Lotus, but I never saw the familiar motorcade vehicles whizz past with flashing lights and motorcycle escort). In the Middle Ages in Europe the King's touch was considered to have miraculous healing powers. Here I think just seeing royalty is a form of making merit, and improves one's chances for a good rebirth.

Finally Princess Sirindhorn arrived on foot at Wat Trai Mit with a very large entourage, surrounded by dozens of still and video photographers (which makes the prohibition of photography by the general public a mystery). I could spot her clearly, but Holly had trouble seeing over the taller Thais in front of her. She wore a red shirt and a camera was hung around her neck (an avid photographer, an exhibit of her photos opened the new Bangkok Art & Cultural Centre last year). First she went into the old bot where the golden Buddha had been housed, and then entered the new facility. There was much scurrying and positioning by the entourage and news media. Later we would see more of her on the nightly royal news TV show broadcast on every channel. In addition to her camera she carries a notebook in which she is shown frequently writing. I saw this at Mahidol when she took notes during Alan Wallace's keynote address. Holly thought she did not look happy, her expression more intense than pleased. It must be hard being royal; It's a 24/7 job. Later I learned that the new facility would also house the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Centre, a museum for the Thai Chinese community.

When it did not look as if she would reappear from inside the Phra Maha Mondop any time soon, Holly and I walked around the block to the large Chinese Gate which marks the entrance to Yaowarat Road, the main sreet in Chinatown. It was set up for a reception, with chairs, TV cameras and colorful bunting. Clearly the Princess would come there before setting off down Yaowarat for the New Year celebration. Troops of police and/or military had sectioned off the crowd for control but the happy people didn't seem to mind. I saw a sprinkling of farang, like me some were in red, and everyone was taking photos of everyone else (except the Princess who was a forbidden subject). Holly bought a fresh bottle of orange juice and discovered that the child vendor had charged her double what the Thais paid. We bought dragons on a stick with batteries that allowed the eyes to light up; red pipe cleaners in the nose symbolized fire. The sticks were topped with tiny drums that made noise when the sticks were twisted. They were expensive: 200 baht for mine because the dragon was padded, and 150 baht for Holly's (cheapskate). The cops were allowing people to cross the street and so we moved out of an area where we thought we'd be stuck when the Princess arrived for the reception.

The Princess was taking her sweet time as the sun set over Chinatown. Our side of the street was getting more and more packed. There were many families with children, the kids dressed in red Chinese outfits, and even elders in wheel chairs. Young girls were taking each other's photos with their cell phones, their mouths pursed in a pose Asians think cute, their fingers making a V sign. There were large TV screens showing a cartoon ox, and a stage at the entrance to Yaowarat where something was clearly going to take place. Holly and I had our hearts set on seeing the traditional dragon dance. But as the crowds began to press against us from all sides, we wondered if we could last, or survive. Finally the entourage of the Princess began its walk down the closed street while we cheered from the sidelines. And there she was again, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, looking just like her pictures (the few that appear in the press), or in the videos shown nightly on Thai TV. Holly thought she was frowning but I thought she looked intense. The ritual duties of royalty are never-ending and must be hard work.

And then she was gone, into a Chinese temple on the other side of the street which remained blocked by barriers and stern-looking military guardians. So we set off down Charoen Krung Road which runs parallel to Yaowarat. A few cars squeezed past, compressing the throng and slowing our steps. Some yards away we came upon the dragon dancers preparing to perform. It would be an hour, we were told, an hour of claustrophobic waiting, and we were neither as patient nor as passive as the Thai celebrants around us. We rounded the corner and walked back to Yaowarat below the section where the Princess was still at work. The street was lined with food and drink booths and we each bought a herbal liquor that promised health with an alcoholic punch. It was time for food, and as the street restaurants seemed too crowded, we repaired to the mezanine bar of the White Orchid Hotel and sipped cocktails while waiting for our overpriced dinner, and listened to a couple of Asian lounge singers desperately in search of the proper key.

Asians do not like to be alone, but I think Holly and I both found the large crowds too cozy for comfort. I breathed a sign of relief in the taxi which I eventually found on a back road, and my empty apartment was paradise. I showed my dragon to the lady who sells me the Bangkok Post every day and she asked: "Chinatown?" According to the Post, folks born in the Year of the Rabbit like me will solve money problems in the first quarter and can expect "significant financial success" in the second quarter. Whoopee! But even better, "There'll be adventure in romance. Singles can expect to meet a partner or renew an old flame." The year is starting off slow. Bee has decided to be my English student rather than a girlfriend, and the other women with whom I'd been in touch have apparently gone away for the holidays. If truth be told, I'm finally becoming adjusted to living alone in my cozy 10th floor Lumpini Place Hermitage.

Marcus, whom I reported yesterday as retiring from his blog, has once again had second thoughts. That's good news for those of us following his adventures in Asia under the guidance of the Dhamma. He's back, with an occasional post. Check him out (see right for link). Marcus joined other members of the Little Bang Sangha yesterday for a talk on contemporary Buddhism by David Warren Smith at Chulalongkorn University. Smith, in residence at Chula's Center for Ethics of Science and Technology, was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and a founding teacher at Naropa in the 1970's. His talk laid the groundwork for a series of lectures this year and featured eight provocative premises: 1. Contemporary Buddhism began 40 years ago in America when "the swans came to the lake." 2. The three traditions of Buddhism came together as a secular philosophy rather than a religion. 3. Buddhism has been "the dominant intellectual influence in the west for the past 20 years." 4. The notion of reform is changing into holistic and transformational renewal. 5. Buddhism has had a secret influence, "known only by those who know." 6. Buddhism is is always disruptive, and aims to overcome scientific materialism. 7. Buddhism has influenced fields from poetry and the arts to psychology, health care and business management. 8. As the global economy shifts to Asia, "there are new opportunities to revision Asian spirituality."

Dr. Smith spoke without notes and I was impressed, until he got carried away with point 6 above and wandered off on a couple of tangents. Point 7 seemed only a consequence of 3 which was too broad, I think, to be proved. Still, I liked his audacity. My question afterwards concerned which Buddhism he was discussing. Like "Christianity," there is no monolithic "Buddhism," but rather there are the three main traditions -- Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana -- and numerous, often widely-divergent, variations molded by local culture. While a follower of the Tibetan path, it was clear Smith was speaking of the generic American Buddhism I had learned. Thai Buddhism in practice is quite different; it is hierarchical and full of Hindu and animist traces. The reform tradition I appreciate here was taught by Buddhadasa Bhikku, but it is followed only by elites and academics. It is an intellectual Buddhism. The speaker's agenda, I suspect, was to propose that an integrated, generic Buddhism from American had something to offer Asian Buddhists. But he did not make that strong claim yesterday.

Among the small group of attendees at the seminar was John Butt, a retired Presbyterian minister who has lived in Thailand for many years, and is a founder of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University, a Church of Christ institution in Chiang Mai. I look forward to getting to know him and his work which sounds intriguing. And I look forward to visits from friends in California next month. Fr. Cyprian Consiglio will be here for a weekend late in the month and his arrival coincides with a brief stopover by Jerry and Sylvia Deck who are touring Vietnam. Their daughter, Kristin Cote, is there now with her family and I've been giving her advice about the few days they will stay in Thailand. And, hopefully, my youngest son Nicki come visit in March.

It's painful to be a father from a distance. My daughter Molly is upset with me for complaining at Christmas that I only hear from her when she wants something from me. Rather than accept my plea for information about her life, she accused me of breaking her heart, and effectively cut me off. I learned from a friend that her new music group, the Sirens, recently performed in Santa Cruz, and that they had gone to Bali to record a CD. I doubt that they will drop by Bangkok for a visit. Luke is angry at me for revealing here that he is drinking again after six months of sobriety. He accuses me of being judgmental and taking a holier-than-thou attitude. What, I ask him, should I do? I can't watch him slowly commit suicide, even from a distance. He has gone to Florida to be with a friend and he sends me outraged messages by email from his iPhone. But at least there is communication. Chris, my eldest, and his wife Sandy are mourning the death of a treasured cat, and fearing for their other aging pets. The Pottery Barn, Chris's company, is suffering from the economic slowdown and there is uncertainty among the work force.

Rest in peace, John Updike.

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