Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Breaking News: Some Pig

There are times when tragedy can only turn into farce. And humor, as we all know (i.e. Patch Adams), is the best medicine. The "BREAKING NEWS" on CNN this morning is the spread of swine flu from Mexico to the rest of the world. It has crowded out all other news stories, or turned them into versions of the flu story ("Investors Snap Up Flu Drug Stocks" and "Shares Drop Amid Flu Concerns" seem almost contradictory). Obama's upcoming 100-day mark is scarcely noticed, the recent right-wing tea parties organized by Fox News and the Texas governor's threat to secede from the union are now forgotten. Iran and Iraq, the Taliban's takeover in Pakistan, the collapse of peace hopes for Palestinians, even North Korea's rocket rattling, are all yesterday's news as scenes of face-masked Mexicans and deserted streets fill the TV screen. All I could think of was the insult to pigs by calling the threatened pandemic "Swine" flu -- "Take that, you swine!" The label "porcine" would be a lot less negative.

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel, wrote that the domestication of livestock was a "lethal gift" for civilization, and, along with crowded cities, the cause of most deadly plagues that ravaged Eurasia in the early modern era. These diseases also made possible the conquest of the Americas, for the Indians did not have animals to domesticate and so were not immune to the fatal illnesses that spread through both animal populations and urban areas. Their conquerors had developed immunities, the ultimate weapon. Bird (avian) flu and porcine flu owe much to the practice of factory farming, according to Dr. Michael Greger, who calls such farms a "Fast Track to Disaster."

Pigs get a bad rap. Something impossible will only happen, we say, when (fat) pigs can fly. I used to love to watch the piglets playing at the yearly Santa Cruz County Fair. And I'm ashamed to say I enjoyed the greased pig contest, though I always rooted for the pig. I am a big fan of Miss Piggy (although I am shocked at the "nip slip" photos available online where she rivals Janet Jackson's Super Bowl faux pas), and I adore little Wilbur who was saved from slaughter by Charlotte the spider when she wrote "Some Pig" in his barn. When I was a kid my parents gave me a piggy bank to encourage financial responsibility (it didn't work). I even liked Porky (the stuttering )Pig when I was a young boy addicted to cartoons, and my mother shopped at the Piggly Wiggly store in North Carolina where we lived. How could these creatures be damned as "swine"?

Life, of course, is not fair. The current flu epidemic may turn out to rival the 1918 epidemic, although we have more drugs to combat it now at our disposal. I may wash my hands more regularly but I don't intend to put on a mask, no matter what the news bulletins say here in Thailand. Bird flu was in season during my first visit here five years ago, and even though there were dead chickens on the ground at Jerry and Lamyai's farm in Surin, I remained unconcerned. Just foolish or reconciled to my fate, I do not know which. I suppose mu (pork) will disappear from the Thai menu here shortly. My friend Ellen arrives tomorrow night and will have to pass through the thermal sensors at Souvarnabhumi Airport which are designed to catch people running a fever. I wonder how it can tell the difference between a fever and the suffocating hot-and-humid air?

Life certainly sucked this week when it took Pedro Araya, a lovely man and a member of the Wright-Byrd-Troxell clan that I consider my extended family. A native of the Canary Islands, Pedro was the son-in-law of my friends David and Shirlee Byrd. Dead at the age of 61 from an apparent heart attack, Pedro would have celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary this week with Sarah, David's daughter. He was the father of Fiona, Ani and Carly. They lived in Arroyo Grande in central California and Pedro worked for many years at Rosa's a restaurant in Pismo Beach. He was a born bon vivant, a friend to one and all, always ready with a smile and a story. I treasure the conversations we had and wish his family well.

Since I'm on a negative streak, let me tell you about the week's financial problems. ATMs are a godsend to expats. My Social Security check is deposited into my Bay Federal account in Santa Cruz and I withdraw funds for expenses from one of the many ATMs available found everywhere in Bangkok. I never cease to marvel over the miracle of getting cash out of a machine. But last week I was given notice by one bank that 150 baht ($4.25) would be charged for every international debit card transaction. I'm already paying $2 to Bay Federal for most ATM withdrawals. I soon learned that almost all Thai banks had added the new charge, said to be the highest in the world, as a way to recoup losses from the global economic meltdown, I suppose. On the Thaivisa internet board I discovered that at least two banks had resisted the surcharge and I took money from one of them on the weekend. This comes at a time when Thailand is ostensibly worried that tourism will suffer irreparable damage from the economy and political troubles. Gouging tourists for ATM withdrawals does not sound like a nice solution. I keep my savings in another California bank and do my banking online, but last week the home banking page would not load. Queries to the bank produced no help. Then I tried a friend's computer with a different IP and, lo and behold, the page loaded. This means that TOT, the government utility that provides my internet service, is blocking that particular address. I know for certain that they are censoring many sites for perceived slights to the monarchy, but I cannot see why home banking is a threat.

The "Breaking News" about porcine flu came at a time that I found my interest in news from America on the wane. Jerry and I talked the other day about how the failure of Americans for eight years to challenge Bush over his disastrous policies can still make our blood boil. He's been an expat for more than a dozen years and I'm heading toward the two-year mark, but we still identify as Americans to some degree. Why? I'm reading Thailand: the Worldly Kingdom, a good book by Maurizio Peleggi, a historian in Singapore, and he focuses on the construction of identity, using the postmodern analysis made popular by Foucault and others who see all ideas and ideology as historical products of power struggles. History is the view of the winner. Even though the Thais consider their culture, their religion and the monarchy to be unique and essential (i.e., ahistorical), Peleggi argues that Nation, Religion and King, the three pillars of Thai identity, are all the result of contestation and struggle; there are winners and losers in this game. This goes for America as well, as historians like Howard Zinn demonstrate so shockingly. Political rhetoric seldom relies on impartial historical fact (facts are carefully selected by the spin doctors on each side).

Is it possible to survive without a particular identity? In the past week I've attended a couple of very interesting talks on the nature of the self from a Buddhist perspective, by U Vamsa, a Canadian monk ordained in Burma, and by Phakchok Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk. Each emphasized that the self is a historical construction, no less than the eternal verities we cling to for our identities, nation, culture, religion and our political views. U Vamsa quoted Mark Twain: "I've had a lot of trouble in my life and not much of it has really happened," to illustrate the suffering produced by the imagination. Life is hard enough as it is. Living happily ever after is not an option. While I found his appeal to "absolute reality," where there is no self, problematic (is there an unchanging reality, an escape from samsara?), I liked his advice that you have to have a self in "relative reality" before you can go beyond it. Thomas Merton said much the same thing to the novice monks under his care. Rinpoche, whose understanding comes from the Mahayana tradition (as opposed to the Theravada which dominates in Thailand), spoke of the Buddha nature within us all as something to uncover rather than to achieve. In his telling, however, it seems to be something essential, ahistorical. He told a delightful story about Milarepa and the demons to illustrate that what you see is what you are (when Milarepa saw a demon as his mother, he responded from compassion rather than fear). It all seems to boil down to right view.

As April draws to a close, the rainy season has begun. We've had a couple of rip roaring thunder and lightening storms that, according to Marcus, took the paint off the walls of his apartment balcony. The polarized political scene is quiescent, but possibilities bubble under the surface. There seems to be no middle ground between the royalist elite backed by the military and the red shirts from the countryside who seek to reclaim the democracy they feel was stolen from them by the yellow shirts and the politicized court system. In addition to Thaksin, several leaders are on the run and delivering manifestos about revolution. The King remains silent.

Jerry and I attended Janet's soiree last week on behalf of ThingsAsian Press to launch her book, Tone Deaf in Bangkok, as well as two travel books, To Vietnam With Love and To Myanmar With Love. I met Kim Fay who created the "With Love" series and who writes an interesting blog called Literate in LA. It was her mention of Eve Babitz that led me to Janet's blog and book (don't ask). And I also met the other Janet who designed their books. During the evening I had interesting conversations with a man who does web design for Father Joe and an English teacher living in Japan who has contributed to the travel books. The party was held at a disco on Sukhumvit Soi 12 and featured a tasty spread of food as well as free booze. The Bangkok literati were in attendance, inluding the everpresent Joe Cummings of Lonely Planet fame. I could only handle a couple of hours of socializing before heading off to my bed in the other side of the city.

Next week I plan to attend a three-day conference held by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University where I teach English. The annual international gathering of Buddhist institutions is co-sponsored by the UN in Thailand and marks the Vesak holiday which commemorates Buddha's birthday. Scholars from all over the world will be giving papers, and I always like a good academic shindig.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Love is All You Need

There's nothing you can make that can't be made.
No one you can save that can't be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you
in time -- it's easy.
Last night I taught Mot the names of the Beatles. "Is that Paul?" "No, that's Ringo." "Oh, I think that one is Paul." "Yes." "He is very handsome, I think." Then we watched "Hard Day's Night" together. Richard Lester's marvelous black-and-white film was made in 1964, many years before she was even a twinkle in her father's eye. I recall going to see it in Manhattan, shortly after it was released. The Beatles had come to New York City the previous February and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show was accompanied by unprecedented PR hoopla. Beatle wigs were sold on the sidewalks of Times Square. On the Sullivan show they sang two of their monster hits, "All My Loving" and "She Loves You." I thought they were silly, their music derivative, and the screaming teenage fans ridiculous. Watching the film again last night, a mocumentary spoofing the Liverpudlians outrageous success, I remembered my conversation from skeptic to admirer to fan that summer of 1964. They really were something new. And no one ever limned the joyous angst and optimism of young love so well as songwriters Lennon and McCartney.

Now, 45 years later, I can still feel the thrill. At first I tried to show Mot "Across the Universe," that wonderful film which uses Beatle songs to construct a story of transatlantic love. But when I realized how little she knew about them (she did recall that John Lennon had been shot), I put on "Let It Be," the 1970 documentary of the Beatles rehearsing the songs for the album of the same name, their last original release together. It ends with a rooftop performance that is duplicated in "Across the Universe," reference taken to the extreme. It was their final live act. Three years before, the Beatles had performed "All You Need is Love" on TV for a global audience of 400 million (the YouTube clip above). By the Spring of 1970, they were no more. Rather than explain the breakup to Mot, I played her "Hard Day's Night."

The Beatles loom large in my legend (which is what John said in the film about Ringo's drums). I've tried for an hour to locate the pop art poster of the Fab Four as they might look at age 64 (I think it's either by Milton Glaser or Peter Max) but Google has failed me. John Lennon died from an assassin's bullet at 40, George Harrison from a brain tumor at 58. Only Paul McCartney (66) and Ringo Starr (68) have made it to the fabled age ("Will you still need me, will you still feed me?") of 64. I also showed Mot a clip from "Yellow Submarine" (some people collect stamps, I collect films), supposedly inspired by the work of Max, but it didn't hold her attention like the boys' debut movie (definitely inspired by the daffy humor of the Goon Show, for those old and British enough to remember). Today rock is no longer just a young man's game. Sir Paul opened the 10th Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival last Friday. He dedicated songs from the Beatles and Wings to his late wife Linda on the 11th anniversary of her death, and sang Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" and Harrison's "Something," playing the latter on the ukulele as he did in the concert for George. Jessica Gelt reported in the Los Angeles Times that she cried "no fewer than four times" that night.

Like Gelt, I am "already prone to crying bouts at inappropriate moments." Like watching a dumpy 47-year-old spinster with bushy eyebrows from Scotland singing "I Dreamed a Dream" on a cheesy British TV talent show. I won't reproduce the YouTube video, since over 30 million have viewed it so far in the week since it appeared. I've seen it a half dozen times and wept copiously each time, even though I HATE reality shows, and talent shows even more. Just the song from "Les Miserables," sung by Fantine, the tragic unwed mother, does it for me, but coming from this lonely woman with the angelic voice, it pushed me over the edge. Having spent her youth taking care of aging parents, she truly lives this song. "I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I'm living." Now Susan's hell may just be the boredom of a single woman past her prime in the suburbs, but the dream is real. Everyone gets it, the talent show judges included, that books cannot be judged by their covers. And thanks to the internet, Susan has become an instant global sensation, destined to make platinum CDs and perform around the world. I hope she doesn't trim her eyebrows.

No matter how corny it sounds, love and dreams do make the world go around. And not in the sense of samsara, the monotonous drudgery of existence, the suffering cycle of relentless rebirths, that Buddhists want to escape. I continue to read about and study the evolution of Buddhist rituals and practices, from India to Southeast Asia and points north and west, paying particular attention to how religious beliefs become an important component of individual identity. My antennae remain alert to any hint of world-denying asceticism, or hierarchical notions that the common people are somehow less than monks and priests. At the suggestion of a comment here, I bought Democracy and National Identity in Thailand by Michael Kelly Connors who teaches politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne and writes the blog Sovereign Myth. I hope to find some insights about Thai identity, "Thainess," that I can add to those I received from anthropologist Niels Mulder's short but excellent book, Inside Thai Society: Religion, Everyday Life, Change. Connors' book seems particularly important now when the word "democracy" is used and abused by both sides of the red-yellow divide.

My dreams these days are rich with symbolic gems, if only I could recall them after coffee. And I continue to look for love in diverse places. The other day I had lunch with Aom who works the night shift as a receptionist at a condo complex. She's from Nan, a remote province in the north, where twin 16-year-old sisters live with their mother. She worries about the sisters coming to Bangkok next month for school, leaving their mother alone. Mom has kidney problems and has to go to the hospital every month, Aom confided in me. I told Aom I might someday need to hire a nurse/maid cook, and could pay 10,000 baht a month. Oh, that's too much! she said, and revealed that she makes only 9000 working all night (about $250 a month). The other day I had coffee with Lila and her friend Cat. They want to improve their English and were trying to recruit me to be their teacher. Home for them is Korat, the "doorway" to Isan (but we are not Isan girls, they said) and like Aom they did not return for Songkran this year. Lila said they wanted to open a business, selling things (the occupation of perhaps 75 per cent of all Thais, particular the poor of Isan). My closest friend these days is Mot (Thai for ant) who returned from celebrating Songkran in Roi-et in tears. Most of her widowed mother's seven siblings live nearby in the village "and never offer to help her." A sister was jailed for possessing an illegal underground lottery ticket and 5000 baht needed to be raised. "My mother is always helpful but they look down on her," Mot told me. An uncle next door constantly compares their family to his, unfavorably. The reputed communal solidarity of rural Thailand apparently is lacking in Roi-et. If her relatives knew she had an elderly lover in Bangkok, she and her mother would lose even more face in the village. So I shall continue to remain nameless, a guilty pleasure.

After the Songkran riots, things settled down momentarily in Bangkok. Until a couple of days later a drive-by shooting sent yellow-shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul to the hospital with a bullet in his skull. He, a driver and a bodyguard all survived the early morning assassination attempt, even though the gunmen sprayed their car with over 100 bullets. Limthongkul is a controversial figure, a Thai media baron and co-counder of the right-wing People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Surprisingly, early speculation did not name the red shirts even though Sondhi is unpopular with the Thaksin crowd even though he was once a supporter of the exiled prime minister. But apparently he had enemies elsewhere, and some though the military was involved. This was way too complex for me. The Abhisit government continues to punish the red shirts by jailing their leaders without bail and shutting down their media outlets. It escapes no one's notice that Sondhi's ASTV cable channel continues to spew right-wing propaganda, and the hospitalized yellow shirt along with other leaders have suffered no punishment for their months-long sit-in at Government House and the closer of the country's main airport for a week.

There is the sense that a time bomb is ticking in Thailand and that it could go off at any moment. Observers around the world are writing that despite the peaceful resolution of last week's rioting, Thailand with its lawlessness and deeply bitter political divide is beginning to look like a failed state. In less than three years there has been a military coup and four different prime ministers. Lack of security from an inefficient and corrupt police force has allowed different groups to shut down Parliament, the airport, and force the cancellation of an important international conference. Through it all the King has remained silent, and the military only redeemed itself at the last moment after refusing to obey orders from two different prime ministers last year. Who is in charge here?

If you want to know, there are a number of good suggestions here: Independent journalist Gwynne Dyer writes about "Class War in Thailand" for The Korea Times. "The red-yellow divide is looking more ominous than ever," Peter Alfrod writes in "The raw colour of acrimony" for The Australian in Sydney. In "The Rage Before the Rampage," Chang Noi writes in his regular column for The Nation that if "the red and yellow movements can be translated into parliamentary politics, they could begin to drive out money politics. If they cannot, the prospects are dire. Building a Great Wall around Bangkok won't work. The Trojan Horse is already inside." Thai academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak writes an op ed piece in the New York Times explaining "Why Thais are Angry." Don't be fooled by the calm, he says. "Until Thailand becomes a true democracy, we can expect more chaos in the streets."

Thais frequently ask me: "And what will you do today?" It's a rough translation of the often heard "bai nai?" which inquires: "Where are you going?" Somehow sitting at the laptop or watching the news on TV does not seem like much, and I am loathe to reveal my daily nap to relative strangers. I sip cappuccino at Starbucks and shop at Tesco Lotus. This is a full day. But some days I go on adventures, like the road trip I took with Pandit Bhikku and Dr. Holly last week. Pandit is always looking for new venues for the Little Bang Sangha. First we stopped at The British Dispensary, a company manufacturing health care products which is owned by Anurut Vongvanij, President of the Young Buddhist Association of Thailand (YBAT) and the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth (WFBY). He and his son and a group of friends recently were temporarily ordained monks in a ceremony held at Buddhist sites in India, and we were treated to a slideshow of the event of wonderful photos take by Anake Wongpaitoonpiya. Pandit has led retreats for YBAT.

Arms laden with gift packages of British Dispensary products, we drove to the northern suburbs of Bangkok to visit Wat Phra Dhammakaya. This controversial Buddhist temple was established in 1970 by Chandra Khonnokyoong, a nun known as Kuhn Yay who studied with Luang Por Sodh, the abbot of Wat Paknam. His celebrated technique has come to be known as dhammakaya meditation. I won't begin to describe what I don't understand, but it involves meditation objects, such as crystal balls. Luang Por Sodh died in 1959 and his body is preserved at Wak Paknam. Kuhn Yay commissioned a gold statue of him for her temple which rivals that of the Buddha. She was given an 80-acre rice field on which to build her temple, and today her establishment is comparable to the megachurches in America where thousands worship. Except that it is much, much bigger. At a recent ceremony, 500,000 devotees in white worshipped around the flying saucher-shaped central structure. She was assisted in building her religious empire by a student, Phrarajbhavanavisudh, who has been in charge since Kuhn Yay's death in 2000. The temple has been enormously popular with midle-class Thais who shower money on it, enabling the incredible construction program that we witnessed. The facilities resemble airplane hangers, lots of them. We saw a giant meditation hall, and acres of tables and chairs in a dining area. Pandit, who has attended an event there, said everything is organized to an nth degree, with every visitor knowing his or her place, where to sit, where to eat, and where to pee. It reminded me of the site in Nuremberg, Germany, for Leni Riefenstahl's film "Triumph of the Will" which celebrates the unified hysteria of a mammoth Nazi gathering. The temple's aggressive collection methods have brought charges of corruption against the current leaders. Sulak Sivaraksa criticized the temple's abbot for promoting greed by emphasizing donations to the temple as a way to make merit. Others have called the temple a cult and compared it to Scientology. There are additional detailed criticisms of Wat Phra Dhammakaya here and here. The only question I have is why is it so popular and what does it say about Thai spirituality (and sense of identity). I may find the answer in Rory Mackenzie's book, New Buddhist Movements in Thailand: Towards an understanding of Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Santi Asoke (Routledge, 2007).

The visit dissuaded me from ever donning white on a Sunday and boarding one of the buses at Sanam Luang to take devotees to Wat Phra Dhammakaya. We left the airplane hangers behind and drove a short distance to see a guest house down a dirt road surrounded by rice fields and fish ponds. Reverie-Hideaway consists of several teak buildings in traditional Thai style with bedrooms on the raised second floor. We were told that groups of nuns had used the facilities for their retreats, and we were wondering if we could accommodate 20 or so Little Bangers.Since each building had only three beds, visitors would have to make do with floor mats. The rural silence was lovely but the surrounding waterways promised an abundance of mosquitos. It's not far from central Bangkok, however, and the venue was promised. For our last visit, we drove to Mo Chit near the northern end of the Skytrain to take a look at Baan Nang-suu (book house), with its reading rooms and large hall for gatherings. Again, it looked promising, if we can get people to travel this far for a speaker or day of meditation. The setting was lovely and the manager very gracious. I arrived back at my apartment 12 hours after I left in the early morning. Who says that retirement is easy?

All I need is a little love.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Goliath 1, David 0

Riot or revolution, the week-long revolt of the red shirts in Bangkok ended yesterday, not with a bang but a whimper. Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers with M-16s formed a noose around Government House while the several thousand remaining members of the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), many of them in tears, filed past to buses waiting to take them back to their home provinces. Each had to show their ID card and have their picture taken by the authorities. As the troops drew near to them Tuesday morning, protest leader Veera Musigapong had told everyone to disperse. This is not a defeat, he said, but is aimed at protecting the life of the protesters.

This ending was inevitable, given that the anti-government gathering of over 100,000 red-clad Thais I visited and photographed last Wednesday was a collection of Davids battling a Goliath not yet ready to fall. The powerful military, wealthy royalists and "godfather" politicians who run Thailand and who backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's rise to power four months ago have not yet abandoned him. This had been in question on Saturday when red shirts overwhelmed ineffective security in Pattaya to force cancellation of a major summit conference, dealing Abhisit a humiliating blow. Why had the military been unable to prevent this? The soldiers finally emerged on Sunday, not with tanks but with numerous armored personnel carriers, riot shields and guns. Abhisit's relatively peaceful resolution of the conflict which ended four days of rioting and street battles in Bangkok should do much to restore his reputation.

Monday was called "Black Songkran" by the press, for the beginning of the three-day Thai New Year's water festival. Red shirts spread throughout downtown Bangkok, blocking busy traffic intersections with taxis and comandeered buses, and throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at riot control forces. On Sunday, thugs had attacked Abhisit's car, seriously injuring his driver, and the prime minister
declared a state of emergency in the city. I stayed home, glued to the TV, heart sick that what seemed like a broadbased demand for "real" or "true" democracy by people excluded from the political process had descended into anarchy. Red shirts set fire to buses and piles of tires, sending black smoke into the clear blue sky. They even threatened to blow up a gas tanker near an apartment building if solders advanced. In some neighborhoods, residents fought back and two were reported killed by rioters. Others sent driverless buses careening into lines of troops. Later, protest leaders would argue that much of the chaos was caused by agitators and renegades, but it appeared as if the demonstration had spiraled out of contol and turned into a violent mob. "The red-shirt movement is not a military movement," said Jakrapob Penkair, one of the most prominent opposition leaders. "There are several groups who came to join us because of the emotional, ideological similarities," he said. "Their methods might not be desirable or satisfactory, but I maintain we cannot control the people from doing what they feel they have to do." I hoped that the military could end the standoff quickly and with a minimum of violence.

Today the media, aligned with the country's power elite, is crowing over their success. "
The army has become the people's hero," wrote the Bangkok Post. Although government spokespersons said the military used blanks and shot in the air only to warn protesters, TV footage clearly shows soldiers aiming at protesters, and of the 100 injuries reported, many were from gunshot wounds. That the carnage was not greater is more of an accident than the intent of either side. Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister who was overthrown by the military in 2006, had addressed his supporters around Government House by video link and had called for a revolution (which he retracted two days later). In addition to Musigapong, protest leaders Natthawut Saikua and Dr. Weng Tochirakarn turned themselves in to police. Warrants were issued for others, and several went into hiding. "It gets harder and harder to see any way out or reasonable way forward for Thailand,” said Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds. “Both sides have lost sight of reason in their absolute determination to thwart the other.”

What is the result of all this? Peace will be illusive now as hundreds of thousands of seeds for full democracy return to their cities and villages. Many will notice that the treatment of red shirts was vastly different from that of the yellow shirts last year. Other than one feeble attempt to disperse them, members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) were allowed to occupy Government House for months and close down the country's international airport for a week without serious consequences. PAD leaders remain at large, and have threatened to return to the streets if its puppet, the Abhisit government, does not perform as ordered. The UDD television channel was taken off the air while PAD's ASTV continues to operate and agitate for conservative goals. The red shirts, while not all supporters of Thaksin's return, are angry that his elected government was overturned by the military in 2006, and two prime ministers loyal to him, whose party won the December 2007 election, were deposed by the PAD protests and politicized court decisions. Abhisit, whose Democratic Party has never won an election, came to power through Parlimentary maneuvering. The red shirts conclude that democracy is a farce in Thailand and this message may spread, despite their failure in Bangkok to force Abhisit from office.

"I want to save the people," Jatuporn Phromphan, one of the protest leaders, said as he walked up to surrender to police with a grim-faced band of supporters. "But I will continue to fight for democracy." By naming the King's closest adviser as the architect of the 2006 military, coup, Thaksin violated the rules of discreet political discourse in Thailand and released a genie that will not go back in the bottle. The blogger who writes under the name of Khi Khwi (buffalo dung), says that
those who yearn for real democratic change — those whose ideals transcend the restoration of Thaksin to an office he occupied legitimately and abused shamefully — should take heart in the recognition that the events of the last few months may have already undone decades of establishment propaganda. Old taboos are being shattered. Old myths are being destroyed. And, at long last, the iniquity of old untouchables is now being increasingly exposed to well-deserved public disgust.
Some think Abhisit will change his spots and become the reformer many Thais want. Born to rule, the patrician Abhisit has been unflappable throughout this crisis. If he can break free of his handlers, he might attempt to push through necessary changes to the 2007 constitution dictated by the military which bans political parties for the indiscretions of a single politician, the law that brought down Samak and Somchai's People's Power Party last year and which exists nowhere else in the world. But the powers behind him are ruthless. Thailand has the most independent military of any democracy in the world, with a surplus of generals involved in a variety of business enterprises. They do not automatically obey the head of state. Behind it all is the 82-year-old monarch, 9th king in the Chakri dynasty. Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the ruler is by law above politics, but no one doubts the power that is wielded in his name. Most recently, the brutal lèse majesté law has been used to stifle dissent, even though the King in the past has declared that he is not above criticism.

Thailand's future is full of promise and peril. That's what I find exciting about living here. Nothing is certain. While some of the scenes on TV in the last week showed rage out of control, I find Thais normally to be warm and friendly. I feel perfectly safe here. They appreciated my appearance at their rally last Wednesday and gave me the thumbs up for witnessing their call for true democracy in Thailand. It's not easy to understand a culture so different from the one in which I grew up, a southeast Asian country possessing a political history filled with strange twists and turns. I'm trying to decipher the role Buddhist and animist religious beliefs and rituals play in Thai behavior. And why is the monarchy so important? Looking at life here through the traditional East-West bifurcation is not useful. Asia is no more exotic than America; it's just less familiar. Many Thais are tired of being manipulated by corrupt politicians who buy their votes but withhold real power in determining their lives. This goes for Thaksin as well as Abhisit and the current government. Power controlled by Bangkok and exercised by godfathers in the provinces is not real democracy, and the red shirts that gathered here this week know that. They will not remain silent for long. And I want to be here to see what happens next.

Recent resources for understanding Thailand's ongoing revolution for democracy: Exiled academic Giles Ji Ungpakorn on "The Reds' Fight for Real Democracy" in the London Guardian, Tyrell Haberkorn's "Thailand's democratic crisis" on openDemocracy.net, "Thais on the Brink" by historian Michael J. Montesano in the Malayasian Insider, and Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly on "Thailand's Royal Sub-Plot" in Inside Story.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dangerous Streets

I was prepared to stay off the streets for the next four days to avoid a soaking from locals celebrating Songkran, the Thai New Year's festival that has evolved from a symbolic water blessing for monks and the elderly into an all out street water fight. I didn't expect I would also be in danger from a revolution.

As I write this on Easter evening at 6 pm, the TV stations are showing news footage of a confrontation between red-shirted anti-government protesters and helmeted police and military troops. The demonstration by over 100,000 Thais near Government House in Bangkok that I thought peaceful and even festive when I visited on Wednesday has spiraled out of control. The next day, large groups occupied the traffic circles around Victory and Democracy monuments and created instant chaos. And the day after that, several thousand protesters traveled to the beach city of Pattaya where Thailand was hosting a South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, sending foreign leaders fleeing and humiliating Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Here, a new group joined the colorful mix. Attacking the reds were men who wore blues shirts bearing the slogan "Protect the Institution," code for the monarchy, and who were rumored to be in the pay of a well-known political godfather who is angry at Thaksin. They were armed armed with sticks, clubs and iron rods, but were no match for the more numerous reds.

Despite a heavy security presence, the mob in red was easily able to enter the conference hotel, breaking down glass doors while the troops stood idly by. This was reminiscent of the failure of police and military to prevent the shutting down on Suvarnabhumi Airport by a yellow-clad mob last December. No matter what party is in power, the forces responsible for the rule of law in Thailand have refused to help. What is the definition of a failed state?

It got worse today . The red shirts invaded the Interior Ministry looking for Abhisit and trashed several cars. Abhisit escaped with minor injuries to his arm, but again, the mob was able to move at will despite the police and soldiers standing by. Later Abhisit, calling the red shirts "public enemies," issued an emergency decree which forbids gatherings of more than five people. This may be difficult to enforce when thousands are lining the streets to exchange offerings of Songkran water. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen on the streets this morning, but several of them were immediately captured by the red shirts. Supposedly 1,000 troops are on their way to Government House where perhaps 10,000 red shirts continue to occupy the ground around the seat of political power.

In the online version of one of Bangkok's English language paper, The Nation, Tulsathit Taptim wrote that "The political showdown has reached the point where everyone can only pray and nobody dares to predict the outcome." Thailand "is staring at one of the most monumentous political showdowns in modern history. And interestingly, both warring parties are up against the ropes." The prime minister must shed his Mr. Nice Guy image and hope that the generals will support his attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. Although the red shirts, led by the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra who speaks to them by video each night, promised to end the demonstration by Songkran, it's clear that they can't go home empty handed. Only the end of the Abhisit government and new elections will satisfy them. Abhisit, however, is not going quietly. If I understand the TV images correctly, red shirts are rallying in support throughout the country. A crackdown in Bangkok will draw a quick reaction.

I stare dumbly at the TV screen, watching the images of dissent and listening to words I cannot understand. I check Bangkok Pundit and The Nation frequently for their latest updates. My neighborhood, Pinklao, is quiet, many of the residents having gone to their home provinces for this most popular of Thai holidays. Most of the stores will be closed for the next three days, include those in my building (hopefully the 7-11 will remain open for emergency supplies). I love this country and I do not want to see it split apart by conflicts between Thaksin-lovers and Thaksin-haters, between the urban middle-class and the upcountry poor, between those who thirst for true representative democracy and their opponents who would prefer that the military and monarchy stay in charge. The most likely solution of last resort is for the military to take over once again, although this time the red shirts have indicated they would fight to prevent that.

Mot left this morning to visit her family in Roi Et for Songkran. I had expected the water fights to begin yesterday, and when we went out in the afternoon to the movies I carried only the bare essentials: apartment key, security pass for the building door, and my money in a plastic bag. Last year in Chiang Mai my camera was destroyed and my wallet soaked after a day in the streets. But I was premature, at least in Pinklao. Even this morning there were no squirt guns in evidence. I've come down with a chest cold, so the chance to spend a few days on the couch with books and TV is not unwelcome. Probably by Wednesday I'll have cabin fever and will be ready to test the waters in the street.

I had wanted to write a reflection on Easter today, but I don't know how to connect the news photos of an Australian in the Phillipines who voluntarily underwent crucifixion (use sterilized nails, a doctor advised) with the real struggle for political power here in Thailand. Easter is not among the foreign holidays that Thais honor; they know nothing of the Easter bunny or the western custom of hiding colored eggs in the garden for children to discover. After a year and a half away from the Church and its rituals, the story of God's death and resurrection no longer inspires me. Why must Jesus die for his teachings about justice to be meaningful? If the message is that life involves suffering, the Buddha taught that five hundred years before. The Easter event was responsible for a wave of martyrdom before Christianity became a state religion. Missionaries throughout Asia willingly died rather than renounce their identity as Christians. Why is that something good, to die for belief? Better to LIVE for one.

My Easter wish, if I'm permitted one, is that no one dies here in Thailand for their beliefs, and that the current standoff be settled through a renewed political process in which differences can be resolved through dialogue rather than street demonstrations and tanks.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bangkok Sees Red

Only Thailand would have a color-coded civil war. The streets of Bangkok were filled yesterday with more than 100,000 red-clad anti-government forces, but the mood was more festive than militant. It was D Day for the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) which is calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva along with several members of the King's Privy Council accused of initiating the 2006 military coup. The UDD also wants new elections which it feels will return supporters of exiled Thaksin Shinatra to power.

I couldn't not go. So I put on a brown shirt (because I'm a guest here and wanted to be a witness rather than a participant) and headed across the river Wednesday morning to where the action was. At the corner of Samsen and Si Ayuthya I found a large cowd of reds facing off three columns of police with riot shields who were protecting the neighborhood of Privy Counselor Prem Tinsulanonda who is considered to be the closest confidant of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Last week Thaksin accused him of masterminding the military takeover that removed him from office. While this has been an open secret, such political secrets have been respected in Thailand, particular if they come close to the king. Until now. This, as many commentators noted, is a game changer.

I like the red shirts, even though I think Shinawatra was probably an autocratic ruler who had little respect for human rights and a free press. The movment in red now goes far beyond simply calling for a return of the ousted prime minister. There were many signs in English calling for "DEMOCRACY" and "THAILAND NEEDS CHANGE." Others said Prem and Abhisit "MUST GO." Abhisit, the suave Oxford-educated politician, was lifted to power by the military and the elite backstage forces (i.e. Prem), after demonstrations by the yellow-clad People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) ended the careers of two Thaksin-backed prime ministers in a single year. The red shirts charge that the un-elected Abhisit is a figure-head for the hated anti-democratic alliance that has ruled Thailand for decades.

Several Thai friends told me not to go. One said it would be dangerous. Another warned against "turbulence" (Thais consulting their English-Thai dictionaries sometimes come up with understandable but rather odd translations). I didn't know what to expect, but thought I'd be seen as a tourist who had lost his way from Khao San Road not far to the south. What I didn't expect was the overwhelming warmth and friendliness I received. People smiled, they flashed me the thumbs up sign, and they asked where I was from. That it was America seemed to delight many. They shook my hand. Only one indicated the non-red color of my shirt, but he smiled as he pinched the material.

Since the entrance to Prem's street was blocked by a phalanx of police, I walked in the humid heat down an empty Phitsanulok Road, normally a major thoroughfare, to Ratchsima and around the corner. At the next intersection I could see a throng of people, including trucks full of demonstrators, who were pushing against the police guards in front of Prem's mansion. They were singing and cheering and singing and waving those silly clappers that look like little feet and which were initially used by the yellow mob to amplify applause. I was overwhelmed with emotion, moved by the moment to tears I cannot explain. The red shirts are probably dominated by the rural poor, people most hurt by the global economic collapse, and here they were in the streets cheering for democracy and an end to the tyranny of elites. I thought of the tranquilized Americans I left behind, secure in their consumer comforts, who let a cruel Bush regime trample on freedom and democracy for eight years without taking to the streets as these courageous Thais were doing.

Then I saw something truly strange and wonderful. A line of black-clad helmeted police were passing through the crowd. Obviously they had been withdrawn from the street in front of Prem's house to allow the overwhelming number of marchers to pass by. As they came through the crowd the people cheered, and many bowed to them with hands together, the Thai sign of respect. The police were smiling and some even took photographs. There was no antagonism between the demonstrators and the forces hired to control them. I could not imagine a situation in which any violence between the red shirts and the police would take place. I felt completely safe.

I walked towards the center of the demonstration at Government House but as I got closer the crowds got more dense. On either side of the road booths were selling food, hand clappers, medical care, and red-themed clothing. There was a long line in front of the free food booth. Thais eat all day and everywhere I saw people making space to sit down for a meal. I saw posters of Thaksin as John Wayne, Thaksin as Superman, and Abhisit as the devil. I never made it through the masses of people to Government Houses, but speeches from the stage I could not see were broadcast on loudspeakers everywhere. Also there were large screens where Thaksin's evening call-in would be seen. I saw no farang faces; as far as I could determine, I was the only non-Thai in sight, and, as I mentioned, whenever anyone looked at me it was with a surprised and happy smile. I felt completely welcomed.

I don't know what the future will bring. I don't even know how long the big demonstration will last. They are apparently settled in for today. I expect the demonstrators will begin leaving tomorrow as Songkran, Thailand's country-wide water fight, draws close (it's next Monday-Wednesday but I expect the water throwing will commence tomorrow). A friend who is planning to come to Thailand at the end of the month emails me to ask if "the political unrest will affect a tourist's experience or could it become dangerous there?" I simply do not know. The London Telegraph on their web site claimed that the protesters brought "Bangkok to a Halt." Not true. In the evening I went down the river to Silom for a Buddhist talk, and afterward traveled by Skytrain and bus back to my apartment. The bus came near to the demonstration but there was little evidence of it beyond street closures. Away from Government House there is little trace of any "turbulence" stirred up by 100,000 anti-government demonstrators. Only a big city like Bangkok could swallow up trouble like that.

Prime Minister Abhisit is clearly in trouble. You can't ignore so many people in the streets (although George Bush had no problem with millions around the world marching against his Iraq folly). The cabinet was forced to move their meeting this week to Pattaya and afterward less peaceful red shirts attacked his car in the street, breaking windows. An important ASEAN meeting is scheduled for this weekend, also in Pattaya. I can't see him resigning and calling new elections, nor do I see Prem or the other coup plotters named doing anything to acknowledge the charges. It will be hard for the military to stage another coup, and Thaksin has indicated that if that were to happen he would return to lead the fight against them. Much of the news now is full of overheated rhetoric. I find the struggle perversely exciting. Years ago when I was a journalist I dreamt of becoming a foreign correspondent who would cover wars and revolutions in exotic locations. But all I ever wrote about were school board and city council meetings (I did review records, but that's another story). I don't want to see anyone hurt, but I do think real democracy is worth fighting for. And I love that the color red has come back in fashion (will Warren Beatty rerelease his movie, "Reds"?).

For a good overview of the red-yellow struggle, Asia Sentinel's article today on "Thailand's Hearts and Minds" is an informative read.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Red & Yellow But No Green

The challenge is the same but the colors have changed. Thousands of red-shirted anti-government demonstrators have surrounded Government House in Bangkok, the symbolic seat of political power in Thailand. Exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has called for a massive demonstration on Wednesday and 300,000 to 500,000 are expected to answer his call. Oddly enough, Wednesday is a green day according to Thai cultural rules but that color is absent in the current confrontation of forces here. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power several months ago when a similar mob of protesters wearing yellow shirts brought down two prime ministers loyal to Thaksin, went on national television in Bangkok last night to say his government would "take decisive actions" to prevent a civil war.

Street theater so far is the weapon of choice, although there were several deaths as a consequence of the six-month sit-in by members of the yellow-clad People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The current occupation by red-shirted members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) has so far been peaceful, but the rhetoric is rising. Gatherings of UDD supporters have taken place at numerous provincial city halls. The PAD is threatening to regroup should any violence take place at tomorrow's mass rally . Thaksin, in video call-ins to his supporters, has upped the rhetoric by accusing the King's Privy Councilors Prem Tinsulanonda and Surayud Chulanont, as well as senior judges, of orchestrating the 2006 military coup that ousted him from power. Thaksin had previously referred to a “charismatic extra-constitutional figure” who had orchestrated his overthrow, and he also called him "The invisible hand." In Thai culture, you don't name the names of your opponents; you take care of conflict quietly behind the scenes, so Thaksin's revelation was upsetting to many. "The unmasking of the invisible hand has raised Thailand’s political temperature, which had visibly cooled in the days after Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was sworn in as prime minister in December," wrote Malaysian journalist Philip Golingai. While the two former generals named have issued denials of what has long been an open secret, UDD groups have been demonstrating outside Prem's house while PAD members have declared they would defend his honor. Thomas Bell, writing in the London Telegraph, says that
The government is in a funk, panicking about how to block the [Thaksin call-in] transmissions. The army is said to be furious: Thaksin has broken the omerta [code of honor in Mafia culture] and the government could not stop him. Commentators say he has gone too far and newspapers are openly demanding censorship to stop the revelations being heard.
The possibilities for a large-scale clash are numerous.

It's a challenge for me to understand the current struggle and I fear oversimplification. Leaders and members of both groups were involved in bloody confrontations with military power in the 1970's and 1990's. Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, but nowhere in the world is royalty as influential and powerful as it is here in Thailand where the unavoidable accession to the throne is much anticipated but rarely discussed. The big question is whether King Bhumibol Adulyadej's enormous popularity can be transferred to his successor. Shinawatra's success in getting elected and his populist policies appreciated by Thailand's poor were seen as threatening by wealthy urbanites, the military and the monarchy. He and his supporters have been smeared as republicans and communists by the increasingly conservative yellow shirts who claim to be defending the essential Thai values of Nation, Religion and King. My interest in the idiosyncrasies of Thai Buddhism has led me to investigate other important aspects of "thainess."

Although the 81-year-old King is declared to be above politics, his silence on the current confrontation has permitted both sides to be "more royal than thou." But it is the yellow shirts who carry photographs of the King while the red shirts feature posters with Thaksin's face. If the King's closest confidant, Prem, was involved in the 2006 coup, that could be seen as an improper act for a constitutional monarch. It is the conservative elites and their allies who are pushing for greater enforcement of the draconian lèse majesté law which has snagged the high and the low. Last week a 34-year-old father of three was jailed for 10 years for posting "insulting" pictures of the royal family on YouTube. Reporters in court were told not to take notes and no details of the offensive pictures were revealed. One account said he had merely passed on something he had received. The defendant burst into tears after he was sentenced (originally for 20 years which was halved because he plead quilty). A prominent academic fled to England when he was charged, and "engaged Buddhist" leader Sulak Sivaraksa awaits disposition of his case. The King did recently pardon a jailed Australian writer who made untoward remarks in a privately printed novel with few readers.

It's hard to know what will happen next. The military's coup in 2006 essentially backfired. The administration was heavily criticized for turning back the clock and for inaction on a variety of important challenges. Despite the overthrow of Thaksin, a new party of his supporters easily won key offices in the next election. During the long PAD siege, which included an economically disastrous closure of the international airport, both police and the military ignored governmental orders to stop what was clearly illegal activity. If they now respond to Abhisit's orders to control the UDD, it will prove that the prime minister, who ascended to leadership because of court decisions rather than the desire of voters, is merely their tool as many suspect.

As I write, a rowdy thunder storm is roaring through my neighborhood just before dusk, flooding the streets with rain and creating a riveting sound and light show. The rains have begun almost a month early this year, anticipating Songkran. This popular holiday is officially next Monday through Wednesday but the party will most certainly begin this weekend. Songkran, from the Sanskrit sankrānti for "astrological passage," is the Thai New Year, and it is celebrated by the throwing of water, lots of it. Last year I went to Chiang Mai with Pim where thousands lined the city's street conducting water fights with the passing cars, trucks, tuk tuks, motorbikes and bicycles. I was soaked for three days. Insufficient preparation resulted in my camera being destroyed as well as Pim's mobile phone. But it was lots of fun.

Songran is a social event, and as a bachelor these days I lack a partner with a squirt gun to play shootout at the Bangkok corral with me. So this year I've been planning to visit Koh Chang, the second largest Thai island, which is located near the Cambodian border. But I soon discovered that ridiculous high season rates prevailed with many hotels adding a surcharge for Songkran. I also learned that many of the hotels were fully booked. So much for the much vaunted tourist crisis. So I've decided to stay home, confined to my room with a week's supply of food, books to read and movies to watch. I'll watch the madness from my window and stay dry. But it won't be as much fun.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Whose Buddhism?

When I was 16, I discovered Buddhism in a book about world religions given to me by my high school friend Jim Gilbert. The religions of the East attracted me with their exotic otherness, so different from the Sunday School Christianity that formed my spiritual worldview. One dark night, along with other young hoodlums I snuck onto the grounds of Ananda Ashrama in La Crescenta because it was rumored that the inter-religious center was peopled by strange spirits; all we found were noisey dogs that ran us off. Later I returned to attend services there which included teaching from the Buddha. During an Easter week in Laguna Beach, I attended a meeting of Theosophists rather than the drunken party where my high school friends were headed. One of the founders of the Theosophical Society, Col. Henry Steel Olcott, helped create a renaissance in Buddhist studies and practice in Sri Lanka in the 1890s. I didn't know that then; an interest in Buddhism contributed to the outsider identity I cultivated as a teenager.

I learned more about Buddhism from books and articles by D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Baba Ram Dass and Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who helped me to see the ecumenical connections. The Beat Generation's embrace of Buddhism inspired me. When I lived on the east coast in the 1980s, I visited the New York Zen Center where I received a lesson in how to meditate while sitting and walking. At the Integral Yoga Center store in Manhattan I bought a zafu (cushion) and at home in Connecticut, with the help of a small meditation manual written by Ram Dass, I began to sit on my own. At first I used an egg timer and struggled with my thoughts to sit still for at least three minues. The method I used was to count my outbreaths, but it was years before I could make it to ten without becoming distracted and forgetting this seemingly simple task. Like most westerners, I assume that the core teaching of Buddhism concerned meditation.

Returning to the west coast in 1985, I stopped off in Boulder, Colorado, to visit friends who were involved with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's Naropa Institute (now University). I stayed with them for several days at a retreat center in southern Colorado and meditated in the hall full of fearsome Tibetan Buddha images. Settling back in Santa Cruz, I occassionally attended the Santa Cruz Zen Center which had been established in the 1970s as a spin-off from Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi's San Francisco Zen Center, ground zero for members of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. In addition to the Zen Center and a Shambala group inspired by Trungpa, the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains held at least four Buddhist centers, Taungpulu Kaba Aye Monastery, founded by Taungpulu Sayadaw from Burma, and two centers established by followers of Tibetan teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe, Vajrapani and Land of Medicine Buddha. Lama Tarchin Rinpoche's Vajrayana Foundation was located up Eureka Canyon Road in nearby Watsonville. Watsonville also has a Buddhist Temple for the immigrant population which belongs to the Japanese Buddhist Churches of America organization. There are also a couple of local Plum Village groups that look to Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn for leadership, and headquarters of the Rigpa Foundation, founded by Soygal Rinpoche, author of best-selling The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The Theravada tradition was represented by Vipassana Santa Cruz, led by teacher Mary Orr who studied with Jack Kornfield, the best-known American spokesman for the southern branch of Asian Buddhism. A week before the devastating 1989 earthquake in Santa Cruz, I sat in the public auditorium together with several thousand residents to listen to the wisdom of the Dalai Lama (who stayed at Vajrapani during his visit to the area).

Carolyn Atkinson was one of the founders of the Santa Cruz Zen Center and she was also trained in vipassana. Seven years ago she started Everyday Dharma to integrate the two traditions. I participated for a number of years and enjoyed her teaching because it seemed to eschew technical and cultural terminology for everyday language about Buddhist teaching. In recent years, following the tragic drowning of her teacher, Kobin Chino Otogawa Roshi, Atkinson turned more toward a ritualistic zen practice which I found too constricting. Before leaving America for Thailand, I attended several retreats at Spirit Rock, the vipassana meditation center north of San Francisco built in the 1990s by Kornfield and other students of Buddhist teachers Ajahn Chah of Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma. In my western experience, Buddhism was more of a philosophy of mind than a religion.

None of this prepared me for the Buddhism I encountered in Thailand and have been struggling to understand ever since. Although I have been meditating (on and mostly off) for over twenty five years, and despite the hundreds of books I have read and the dozens of Buddhist retreats I have attended, I understand little of enculturated Buddhism in Asia, specifically what Buddhists do and think here in Thailand. This of course is a challenge. It's very easy to find information about general or generic Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, karma and rebirth, the teachings about impermanence and no-self, and, of course, details about the Buddha's accepted biography and the historical spread of his ideas after his death. I have learned considerably more about the threefold division of doctrine into the Theravada tradition in southeast Asia, Mahayana in northern Asia, and Vajrayana in Tibet. The Mahayana strain takes on very different aspects in China, Japan and Korea. And very little Buddhism as practiced by common people in any Asian country resembles the agnostic or secular Buddhism I knew in America.

Here in Thailand believers routinely pay respects to Hindu gods, trees, and spirit houses, in addition to Buddha images in the many temples. They wear amulets around their necks, featuring images of the Buddha as well as prominent monks, and string tied by monks on their wrists to provide protection from unseen forces. Special tattoos provide immunity from evil (and perhaps bullets). Visitors to temples may receive a blessing from the monks with chanting and sprinkled water, not unlike in the Catholic churches I used to frequent. Shrines are filled with yellow candles and sticks of incense, garlands of flowers are drapped around sacred images and small squares of gold leaf are applied by worshippers (not easy to do). Many temples include a tube of numbered sticks which is shaken until one falls out. Correlated with the number of that stick is a fortune in a nearby cabinet (not all good). Some shrines feature phallic images to encourage fertility. And stores sell yellow buckets full of prosaic gifts (soap, tooth paste, etc.) which are presented to monks (as well as food and/or money) on Wan Phra, Monk Day (there are four according to the phases of the moon each lunar month). Giving to monks is called tam bun, "making merit," and Thai Buddhists believe this contributes to a good rebirth. This, rather than enlightenment, is seen as the goal of Buddhist practice by most Thais. Meditation by lay people is relatively rare.

My curiosity piqued, for the past month, I have been researching the internet for useful information about differences between the practice of Buddhism in America and the west, and the popular piety of Buddhists in Thailand. It's a huge subject and it should keep me occupied for some time. I'm not sure if it's as entertaining as the normal sexual and political rant I attempt here, but it will keep my intellectual juices flowing (a sure cure for Alzheimer's, I hope) and it might perhaps further my understanding of the Buddha's teaching which I value. I began my research as a topic for a possible paper to be presented at a conference next month. My school, Mahachula Buddhist University, will host the international gathering at several sites near Bangkok and its themes include Buddhist approaches to the environment, the economy and political conflict. I'm not sure where my interests would fit, and I am concerned that the results of my studies do not in any way demean popular religiosity. I am well aware that for me religion is primarily a head trip. I am culturally incapable of entering the Thai world view. But I may learn to better appreciate it.

After years of studying and attempting to following the precepts of Christianity, I concluded that there was no such unitary entity. There are only a variety of christianities, all of which respect to some degree the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, and some of which even acknowledge him as The Christ, perhaps the incarnation of God. There are many variations of views. I think it is the same with Buddhism. The terms Buddhism and also Hinduism are in a way falsifications of what people actually do. Both were structured in response to western missionary activity and the speculations of Academic Orientalists. Soon after the Buddha's death, his followers fragmented into a variety of sects. When his teaching spread out of India it encountered and accomodated existing cultural practices. In Thailand an existing animism adopted the invader, along with a pantheon of gods from India. According to historian Peter A. Jackson,
Popular Thai religion is a combination of many influences, with animistic and Brahmanical beliefs blending with Buddhist doctrines. However, the existence of non-Buddhist spirit worship, magical rites and the honouring of Hindu deities has not traditionally been seen as conflicting with the canonical message of the religion. Rather, such features have been regarded as part of the overall heritage of Thai Buddhism.
Buddhism came west largely without its cultural context, although many converts paid respects to Japanese and, later, Tibetan cultural trappings. Most notably, the monastic community was left behind in Asia. It did not transplant easily. I was surprised to learn that monks are crucial to Thai Buddhism. It is they who constitute the Sangha, the third of the Triple Tems (after the Buddha and the Dhamma), and they provide the "field of merit" for lay people eager to obtain a better rebirth. That Asian Buddhism was somewhat truncated to appeal to western tastes I found curious. It reminded me of the eucalyptus tree that was imported from Australia in the 19th century to solve the timber famine in America caused by the obliteration of forests to build the new country. But the seeds were imported without the accompanying ecosystem. There were no insects to eat the leaf mulch and birds found the new smelly trees inhospitable. One writer has called the non-native invader "America's largest weed."

But I get ahead of myself. I have much material to digest before I can claim to identify the "true" Buddhism. I think there are probably only varieties of Buddhist belief, but such an ahistorical and agnostic stance will probably upset particular Buddhists. Subsequent blog posts will explore the many buddhisms around the world today, their differences and their significance.