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.


Roxanne said...


Here you go --

Beatles at 64Or:

Beatles at 64Roxanne

Dr. Will said...

Thanks Roxanne, but no, that's not the art work I remember. There were four separate portraits of the aging Beatles, pop art style. Did I imagine it? (like the Richard Avedon portraits, only older).

Janet Brown said...

Where is Baan Nang-sue?

Dr. Will said...

Close to Mo Chit and Chatuchak Park.