Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Absent Fathers

Sunday was not Father's Day in Thailand. They celebrate that occasion in December on the King's birthday. I spent the day in blissful ignorance, recovering from a hangover resulting from an expedition to Nana with Jerry and Nan the previous night, eating a hamburger at Sizzlers and watching "Up" in 3D (the late night misadventure made it difficult to concentrate, but it's a cute film with lots of dogs). When I came home there were messages by email and on Facebook from three of my four progeny. I know it's a Hallmark moment, but it still warms my heart to be remembered. Over the years I've felt much guilt for the times I was absent as a father, working and playing too hard away from home, pursuing my intellectual curiosity alone, or losing my compass on the internet, all to the neglect of my kids.

But at least I could always be found. Edward has never known his father. He'll be eight in August and he lives with his aunt in Phayao, a northern province of Thailand. His mother died of cancer a few years ago. Edward has been told that his father, Johannes Somers, was from the Netherlands and raised sheep in New Zealand. He and his mom met during a vacation in Thailand, and he returned several times. According to the letters and postcards he wrote, they were in love. But back in New Zealand he was married to a Maori woman with whom he had several children. After telling his wife not long after Edward's birth about his Thai family, a "descent into hell," he wrote, the letters stopped. I learned about Edward from his cousin, Nan, who says he's a "lovely boy" who has just started school. She asked me for help in finding his father and gave me the only letter with a return address which was unreadable. "My mother loves taking care of him," Nan said, "but he would like to know his father." All I had was a name, Johannes Somers, which I suspected was not very uncommon.

Google brought quick results. A Johannes Somers was involved in a Maori court action in 2005 along with Erna Karan Somers. And a search under her name came up with a blog posting that announced her women's bowling team had won a tournament at the end of 2006. I emailed the blogger and he quickly sent me her email. There were not many other hits for Johannes Somers but I did find a man with that name who ran a sweatshop (over 700 workers who made various kinds of clothing) in Vientiane, Laos. The firm's web site gave his email address. Despite the warning of friends that I was poking a hornet's nest, I sent what I thought were diplomatic and tactful emails to each address without giving many details. The blogger had actually talked to Erna so I knew her address was good. I figured that a quick denial would send me looking elsewhere but no response could mean (but not necessarily) I'd struck pay dirt. It's only been four days, but I've not heard back yet.

I can't imagine having a child somewhere and not wanting to know about it. Biology does count for something. And then there is the moral responsibility for bringing new life into the world. Given the availability of birth control, there should be no "accidents," but there is no accounting for passion. I do believe in the "what goes around, comes around" truth of karma. We will pay for our mistakes somehow. I wonder how many illegitimate children there are from the liasons between Thai women and GIs during the Vietnam War when thousands of Americans were either stationed at Thai bases or came to Bangkok and Pattaya for R&R. They would be in their late 30s or early 40s. I've not met any during my forays on Thai dating internet sites, but I suspect they exist. Thais seems to find Thai-farang children quite beautiful so I suspect there is not much discrimination.

Graham Wills was a doting father when he and Pen had twins, Michael and Helen. He was the divorced father of two grown sons and had met Pen during a visit to Pattaya where she worked in a bar. In England he had been a butcher. They went to live in her village in Surin, and he commuted back and forth to Europe where he could find periodic work. But at a processing plant in Norway he cut off part of his thumb, and the expected compensation never materialized. He was unable to find work in Thailand and the injury healed slowly. So he finally returned to his home far away and effectively disappeared. Pen, already the mother of a married daughter, struggled to make ends meet. Google didn't help and a lawyer who volunteered to make inquiries in London fell ill and couldn't make the trip. When I met the twins during a visit to Surin for the marriage of Jerry's stepson, they were almost feral, running naked around the dusty yard before cooling off in the fish pond. You can see the mixed parentage in their faces. How many children are like this in small Thai villages, many being raised by a grandmother or aunt while their mothers seek employment in Bangkok? Their absent farang fathers, who came to Thailand in search of easy sex and a woman unaware of the demands of women's liberation in the West who would care for them, now hide far away.

My children have accused me at different times of abandonment. It is true that I walked out on my first wife and left my two sons to be raised by a clearly disturbed woman ("eccentric" is too weak a description). I was present more often in my second marriage and stuck around until the kids were almost grown. But while my wife was reveling in motherhood, I fell in love with the intellectual life and spent over a dozen years at the university. With only a part-time job, I was home and on duty more often, but my nose was all too often stuck in a book. And now I am an expatriate in Thailand, far from my old California home. The children again feel abandoned by me. Although I have no plans at the moment for a trip back, eventually I will no longer be able to afford the luxury of a periodic visit. What will draw me back? Marriage? The birth of a grandchild? (I'm beginning to give up on that dream) I argue that I'm just a key click away on the internet, but that doesn't seem to satisfy. Maybe we are all potentially absent, locked in our skins of separation. Of course, it happens that mothers sometimes make it impossible for fathers to perform their duty. It wasn't my idea to break up my last family. And the Thai mother of Marcus's son Joseph took him away and has denied him any contact. There are also cases of absent mothers, but I have no stories about that.

There are many other ways of being absent. Nan's parents have been divorced for many years and now her father "drinks too much." He was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago and she went home to see him and ask him, "many times," to stop drinking. The other night her uncle called to tell her that he was drunk again. "I don't know what to do," she said, her eyes full of tears. My ex-wife's father was also determined to drink himself to death, pursued by imaginary demons. She asked him to quit, but he wouldn't, and was taken to the hospital many times before he expired, his dark wish fulfilled. My son Luke suffers under the same black cloud. It's impossible to know whether alcoholism is an incurable physical addiction (a genetic blemish) or the result of poor choices. One of my uncles was an alcoholic and my son's mother has an addictive personality. Those of us standing helpless on the sidelines can only throw up our hands and cry, "Why? Why?"

Yesterday I met at a Thammasat University coffee shop with three Thais involved in the Buddhadasa archives project. Santi is a former investment banker who now raises funds for the facility. His wife Oraya teaches in the English department at Thammasat and showed me the ambitious texts she is using for a class in media studies. Both studied at institutions in Massachusetts and speak excellent English. Accompanying them was Kai who is the general manager for the archives which will hopefully be moved next year from Buddhadasa's monastery at Suan Mokkh in the southern province of Sura Thani to the new location near Chatuchak Park in northern Bangkok, more accessible for researchers. We had a wide-ranging conversation about Buddhadasa's impact on Buddhists in Thailand (mostly on the educated and the elite) and around the world (he remains relatively unknown in America, despite the work of his disciple, Santikaro, at Liberation Park in Wisconsin). A major influence on engaged Buddhism through his student, Sulak Sivaraksa, I find many parallels between Buddhadasa and Thomas Merton, the monk who reinvigorated modern Catholicism (and the current gate keepers have been trying to close the doors ever since his death in Bangkok in 1968). I offered my help with English translations and with spreading the word about the archives to expats in Thailand, and my Buddhist contacts in America. What is urgently needed is a good collection of Buddhadasa's key thoughts for an English audience, similar to the volumes of writings by Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah that his admirers in America have produced.

We were joined by Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, assistant rector for student affairs, who had a lively discussion, in Thai, with Oraya and Santi about creating a class in morality or ethics for incoming students. Prinya was a student leader during protests against the government in 1992 that led to a bloody crackdown. A frequent visitor to Suan Mokkh, Prinya now teaches constitutional law at Thammasat. Santi and Oraya would like to see Buddhadasa's teachings offered to students. After all, the monk was a friend and adviser to Pridi Banomyong who founded the university in 1932. But there are some objections about the possibility of religious indoctrination, which is odd given that "church and state" are not separated as they are in the U.S. I told them about how the religious students department at UC Santa Cruz was disestablished in the 1980s by academics who felt religion could only be taught with scientific objectivity and believed that faith has no place in the classroom, either for students or teachers.

I am following the events in Iran with intense interest and have noticed the criticism that Obama has not been vocal enough in his condemnation of what may or may not be evolving into a revolution, one that would certainly serve U.S. interests in the region (although Mir Hussein Moussavi may be every bit as conservative as Ahmadinejad). I like that he's holding his tongue (something Bush would never do). America has blundered more often than not whenever it meddles in conflicts in other countries. For the truth about America's crimes against Iran, read Chris Hedges powerful article "Iran Had a Democracy Before We Took It Away" on Common Dreams. It's up to Iranians now to decide their fate. They do not need our guns or our cheerleading.

Here in Bangkok, momentous changes are in the air. The all-powerful Electoral Commission has just banned 16 senators for violating the constitution by holding shares in companies that do business with the government. This may mean that 66 members of Parliament, similarly charged, could lose their positions. If so, the fragile coalition keeping Prime Minister Abhisit afloat, will sink dramatically and new elections might be called. But over the weekend the candidate in Sakon Nakhon for the Thaksin-backed Puea Thai Party defeated her opponent by a landslide in a by-election. The loser was a member of the rival Bhumjaithai Party which was founded by former Thaksin associate Newin Chitchob who himself been banned from holding office by the EC. This continuing support for the fugitive PM in the northeast of Thailand must have the power brokers in Bangkok shaking in their shoes. Would they encourage yet another military coup to avoid letting Thais yet again attempt to elect a government of their own choosing?

Further to my post of last week, a continuing critique of the government of Israel. Historian Tony Judt, who in the past has argued persuasively for a "one-state solution" to the problem of Israel and Palestinian (which would remove the nation's Jewish character), has written a brilliant op-ed column in the New York Times, "Fictions on the Ground," in which he explodes numerous myths perpetuated by the Zionists and challenges Obama to "break with two decades of American compliance, acknowledge publicly that the emperor is indeed naked, dismiss Mr. Netanyahu for the cynic he is and remind Israelis that all their settlements are hostage to American goodwill." Anything else "would be the worst possible outcome of the present diplomatic dance. No one else in the world believes this fairy tale; why should we? Israel’s political elite would breathe an unmerited sigh of relief, having once again pulled the wool over the eyes of its paymaster. The United States would be humiliated in the eyes of its friends, not to speak of its foes." This from one of the few Jewish intellectuals to challenge the reigning rhetoric is a must read.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Jewish State Treats Gazans "Like Animals"

Visiting the unreconstructable ruins of Gaza on Wednesday, former President Jimmy Carter said that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were being treated "more like animals than human beings" by Israeli rules that limit travel, ban the import of all but basic goods and prevented rebuilding since a three-week war ended earlier this year. "Never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself," he said. Carter called the situation "a terrible human rights crime," and demanded that this "abuse must cease. The crimes must be investigated. The wall must be brought down, and the basic right of freedom must come to you," he said to Palestinians at a United Nations school during a visit to Gaza.

Carter's has been one of the few American voices of sanity for years on the deplorable situation in Palestine. His most recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, paralleled the oppression of Palestinians by Israelis with the years of white occupation of blacks in South Africa. In the 2006 book he wrote, "Israel's continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land." He could have added that this instability has poured fuel on the conflict between Muslims and the West. He was, of course, accused of anti-Semitism. In a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed column, Carter wrote: "The ultimate purpose of my book is to present facts about the Middle East that are largely unknown in America, to precipitate discussion and to help restart peace talks that can lead to permanent peace for Israel and its neighbors. Another hope is that Jews and other Americans who share this same goal might be motivated to express their views, even publicly, and perhaps in concert." Obama's recent speech in Cairo, however, raised fears that the Israeli tail continues to wag the American dog. While he urged a "freeze" on current settlements and reiterated the U.S. call for a "two-state solution," voiced even by George W. Bush, he did not explain how a viable Palestinian state could ever be constructed in the West Bank if numerous Israeli settlements and the wall took up much of their land.

Obama's feeble suggestions were answered with a resounding "No!" by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He rejected demands for a settlement freeze and declared a Palestinian state would only be acceptable if it were "demilitarized" and recognized Israel as a "Jewish state." Calling this his "vision of peace," Netanyahu referred repeatedly to the West Bank, the territory presumed to comprise the bulk of a future Palestinian state, by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria, declaring it “the land of our forefathers.” He rejected the Palestinian demand for a right of return for refugees of the 1948 war and for their millions of descendants, and insisted that Jerusalem remain capital of a Jewish state (although an estimated 20 percent of the population of Israel are not Jews). The chief Palestinian negotiator argued that Netanyahu did not really accept a Palestinian state. "Instead, he announced a series of conditions and qualifications that render a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian state impossible,” according to Saeb Erekat. He"left us with nothing to negotiate as he systematically took nearly every permanent status issue off the table.”

Will the Obama administration fall for this (Muslims are already charging that his Cairo speech lacked the support of any concrete actions)? The White House reacted positively to what it called “the important step forward” of Netanyahu’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Huh? Just because he used the words "two states" is meaningless if the definition he uses continues to maintain the apartheid of an occupied people who are denied the basic necessities of existence by a cruel overlord. And the the illegal settlements in the West Bank must be dismantled rather than frozen as countless United Nations resolutions have demanded. Anything less makes Netanyahu's "vision" of two peoples living "freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect" hypocritical nonsense that only successive U.S governments have thought realistic. Watch Obama very closely in the coming week to see if he can take his eye off Iran long enough to call Netanyahu's bluff.

Obama's host, Egyptian President Hosnu Mubarak, whose country signed a peace treaty with Israel three decades ago, says Netanyahu's demand for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state "aborts" any possible peace agreement. The Arab League, which endorsed a 2002 initiative seeking land in exchange for peace with Israel, criticized the Prime Minister for imposing what it described as “impossible” conditions on the Palestinians. Neither Egypt nor Jordan, the only Arab states with full diplomatic ties with Israel, were required to recognize it as a Jewish state before signing treaties. A newspaper in Lebanon said the Israeli leader’s remarks were more “like a declaration of war than an offer to negotiate.”

Recently an old friend told me it was unacceptable to call Israelis "Jews." It is true that the population includes Arab Christians and Muslims but it is not at all clear to me that they have equal rights with Jews. However, Neltanyahu's assertion of the Jewish character of Israel makes that argument moot. I believe that nations defined by the religion or ethnicity of its dominant residents is a luxury the world, with it's limited land, cannot afford. Benedict Anderson famously calld nations "imagined communities." There are two dangers: the tyranny of the minority, and the suppression of minority views by the majority. Israel can maintain its Jewish character only by denying the rights of return of Palestinians forceably expelled during the country's bloody establishment after World War Two. Western nations eased their guilt over denying refuge to Jews persecuted by Hitler by giving them land occupied for centuries by Muslims, Christians and Jews. Zionist terrorists (by any definition of the word) did their best to ethnically cleanse the land they say was promised them by God (a dubious claim). Homes and olive groves were plowed under and the new residents "made the desert bloom."

A lifelong student of religion and spirituality, I hold many Jewish scriptures and wisdom texts (including the mysticism developed in 12th century Spain) in high regard. What the Christians called the Old Testament, however, is rife with ugly passages where God's favored brutalized the residents of the "promised land." Bede Griffiths was forced to edit the Psalms for his ashram in India to remove obnoxious passages. Of course all religious scriptures smuggle in ugly cultural views and need to be interpreted carefully.

The irony is that many Jews in Israel (most?) are secular rather than religious. They identify as Jews (just as some New Yorkers identify as Yankee fans) based on beliefs about the continuity of ethnicity handed down by their ancestors. They imagine their community. Nothing unusual about this; it is the way human beings socialize (there are no real universal or earth citizens). Unlike gays, however, Jews have no physical basis for their unity. Despite hateful tracts, Jewish blood is no different than Christian (or Muslim) blood. Biologically, we are the same. But just as Native Americans and Hawaiians try to justify their rights by reference to "blood quanta," as if biological descent can confer privilege, Jews determine their identity through matriarchal descent. I know some Jews, though, who hang onto their identity through a father that married a gentile mother. Even though criticism of Jews is usually called anti-semitism, Jews do not identify with their fellow Semites, the Arabs. Which just goes to show that all ethnic or religious identity is ultimately political.

My guiding principle, or morality if you will, is to oppose injustice wherever I find it. There's plenty to go around in the world. The injustice to the Palestinians is particularly blatant. And because U.S. policy for too many years has supported and enabled the Israeli oppression, I consider this case one of the most important of our times.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Life on a Roller Coaster

The Vortex is no ordinary roller coaster, as this video from YouTube illustrates. What was I thinking? The Big Dipper in Santa Cruz, perhaps. There's one of these death-defying machines at Great America in Santa Clara. There's also one at Six Flags (which just filed for bankruptcy, fun being no longer affordable). That we were securely strapped in as if taking off to the moon should have been a clue. I teased my friend when she threatened to close her eyes. We began to move and slowly climbed to the top. The rest is a blur. I was barely able to open my eyes, much less see anything. I screamed, we all screamed. "I thought I die," Nan said afterward. I nearly tossed my cookies.

And that's how life is, right? A slow climb, then a jerky and heart-racing middle passage with many strange and scary twists and turns, followed by a gradual slowdown as your car nears the end of the track. A neat metaphor, but it doesn't seem to apply to me as I race down the track in Thailand. I should be listening to a slow tune on the merry-go-round now that I've reached the sunset years, my efforts to grab the brass ring over and done with. I suppose the big impending seven-oh colors everything. A shrink would say that my association with young Thai ladies is a blatant attempt to hold onto my youth. Other seniors hit the treadmill or the tanning salon. I went with my new sweetie to Siam Park on Saturday, Bangkok's answer to Disneyland, and rode the Vortex and other assorted amusements for thrill seekers (she refused to get on the Boomerang).

Siam Park wasn't exactly a disappointment, but it's day had clearly passed. I expected big crowds on a weekend, but you could hardly gather a quorum on the rides. We rode in an enclosed revolving platform up to the top of a 100-meter Si-Am Tower for a magnificent view that included the skyscrapers of Bangkok in the distance, and we spun around in the Condor's bird-shaped cars at a height of 50 meters. We plummeted from a height of 75 meters in Giant Drop (I was asked if I had heart problems) which took our breath away. And we stumbled in the dark through Big Double Shock as mouth-eaten and dusty cadavers tried to scare us. There were fountains and giant statues of cute animals and Asian warriors and numerous snack stands without customers. Several new rides were under construction including a Log Flume ride that reminded me of the Boardwalk back in California. Groups of teenagers and families with kids strolled the nearly empty lanes. Where were the people? Located on the eastern outskirts of the city, Suan Siam (the Thai name) would be easy to reach by private car. But our journey by bus was a different matter. We took one bus to Victory Monument and then discovered that the bus we wanted to take to the park had been replaced by numerous buses going to Ramkhanhaeng University for Saturday classes. Finally one arrived that would get us to the park, but the entire trip took nearly two and a half hours. Life as a journey to an amusement park?

After a few hot and sweaty rides, we headed toward "Asia's largest water park," a collection of pools and slides that occupied the biggest slice of land in Siam Park. Yes, that's me by the Speed Slide, obviously in need of Kramer's notorious invention. This one and the Super Spiral were loads of fun, and there was no waiting in line for the downhill plunge. The largest body of water featured a machine-generated wave and a wall of waterfalls surrounded the kiddie pond. Sling-back chairs were everywhere, some occupied by picnicking families, and the air was filled with happy screams and shouts (we were too far from the Vortex passengers to hear their cries for help). Canals with rivers of flowing water meandered between the islands where the old people ate and slept. Fat gray rain clouds drifted overhead but the only water I experienced came in the pools and down the slides. Even though we missed Jurassic Adventure and African Adventure, Siam Park was a delightful place to pass a Saturday afternoon.

My son observes that "your recent blogs have been less personal." Sometimes one has to be oblique. Today I wrote to a new woman friend in my age bracket on Facebook who lives in Bangkok that I was "the typical older farang with a young Thai girlfriend." Truth in advertising. That same son does not support me in "dating women so young." Imagine, he suggests, "your father being with a woman so different from your mother," and I confess the image boggles my mind. My father always seemed old. He would come home smelling of booze and fall asleep in his chair before the TV. Maybe a younger woman would have done him some good. My son wants me to "find someone to grow old with, rather than someone to take care of you and be of service." I tried to grow old with his mother but she wasn't having any of it. So I've come to Thailand in hopes of finding someone who would care for me and that I could love until I die. But I will grow old -- am indeed already old -- well before the women I have loved here in Thailand.

I promised Mot when we separated that I would look for someone much older than her to take care of me. I had been seeing Mot for several months and our feelings for each other were deep and mutual. But she made it very clear the first night we went home together that she could not be my girlfriend. She lives on the other side of the city with her sister who is studying law at Ramkhamhaeng and she teaches English six days a week. Besides the logistical problems, Mot felt her mother in Roi Et could never accept such an old man into their family. So our affair was doomed, Romeo and Juliet for the 21st century. During my first date with Nan I discovered that most of what she had published in her online profile was false. Even the photo was of someone else. While younger than Mot, Nan told me that her mother in Phayao had taught her to be independent. She had her nose pierced when she was younger and wore multiple earrings in one ear. And she lived openly with with her boyfriend during college. But he got another girl at the factory where they worked pregnant. "I hate factory girls," she told me yesterday. When she moved to Bangkok to work in an office a year ago, she decided she wanted to meet an older farang. I fit the bill.

Now we are getting to know each other, and a rocky road (or a jerky roller coaster) it is proving to be. I've discovered that it's very easy to talk about myself. Of course we converse in English. But I know less about her. Yesterday she told me rather abruptly that she had to go back to her room to see her younger sister. Ann is a college student with a Thai boyfriend not all that much younger than me. Nan took her belongings and left, saying she would come back in the evening. I began to think she had other plans, even a date with another man, and angrily sent her an SMS telling her not to return. Then I wrote her an email detailing my worries and upset. A few hours later she sent me a long email (her ability to write in English is vastly superior to that of others I've met), explaining that her sister and boyfriend were fighting over the sister's visit to a disco last night and she had to mediate between them. But she had been unable to explain the complexity of it to me in English. In the evening we talked on the phone. She laughingly called me "Mr. Upset Man," not the first time that label has been applied to this temperamental farang.

Speaking of age differences, I've been doing some research into the lives of Anna Leonowens and King Mongut of Siam, also known as Rama IV. In the spirit of intellectual inquiry, I downloaded and watched all three films based on their encounter in the 1860s. The first, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison, came out in 1946, and the last, with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, was released in 1999. The best known film was "The King and I" starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, which was released in 1956. All three were based on the diaries of Anna, the governess to King Mongut's many children, including Prince Chulalongkorn, and the novel based on the diaries by Margaret Landon. According to Wikipedia, the King was born in 1804 and Anna in 1831, which makes their age difference 27 years, and the King was 58 and Anna 31 when they met. But their movie counterparts are closer in age. Dunne was 10 years older than Harrison, and Brynner a year older than Kerr. Foster was 7 years young than Chow Yun-Fat. After seeing all three films, I sympathize with the Thai decision to ban the film and the books from which they were created. The King in all of them is a bit of a buffoon (less so in the more recent film) and Anna is portrayed as a beacon of western civilization, come to bring culture and knowledge to the Asian barbarians. It's a clear case of "orientalism" (as Edward Said has explained it), an attempted colonization of the culture. The equivalent would be a film with Abraham Lincoln tap dancing with Suzie Wong.

Last week I played "America" by Simon & Garfunkel for my class of monks. The theme of our unit was "The Way We Live" with a focus on America. I explained that Simon was writing about a couple traveling across America by bus and told them the meaning of "turnpike," "Michigan,""hitchhike" and "scenery." This week there is a section on James Bond and I'm going to play them Lulu's version of "The Man With the Golden Gun." Finding songs to play for my students is a kick, and I'm glad I've got a selection of over 11,000 on my iPod to choose from. Their suggestions are from the English pop library that young Thais seem to prefer, Britney, Robbie Williams, Maroon 5 and Mariah Carey. Last week I asked them to talk about what they missed from home. Most of my students come from countries bordering Thailand -- Cambodia, Laos and Shan State, Myanmar. Even those from within Thailand come from distant villages. Typically, they missed their family and friends, and perhaps the local cuisine (Isan food is distinct, and I learned about the tastiness of Shan noodles). When I asked if they missed their language, many of them got the connection. Some of them, particularly from Burma, had to learn three languages just to be able to study English as a fourth. They are extremely versatile.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Born Aware? Or Just Bad to the Bone?

The distinction between Mahayana and Theravada, the two major branches of Buddhism, is quite important on this side of the Pacific. The Theravada tradition is the oldest school (the name means "Teaching of the Elders"), and it moved from India to Sri Lanka and from there to Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Mahayana (the name means "Great Vehicle") developed perhaps five hundred years later in India as a reform movement and moved north to China, Vietnam, Japan and Korea. Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle") was influenced by Mahayana and evolved its own character in Tibet. While each claims to follow the Buddha's teaching, they study and venerate different religious texts. And although enlightenment is the common goal for Buddhists, practitioners of the different schools often disagree on how one gets there. In order to understand the Buddhism of my adopted home, I have tried to sort out the differences with some difficulty. I need more years than I have left. It's the story of the blind man and the elephant, mostly a matter of perspective.

I've seen grown men almost come to blows here over the use of the term Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle") when comparing Theravada with Mahayana. The primary distinction came up again on Sunday when I attended the monthly forum in English held by the World Buddhist University at their headquarters in Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit Road. Dr. Tavivat Puntarigvivat, a Buddhist academic schooled in Western philosophy, spoke on the different theories of human nature developed by each school of Buddhism and argued that they were essentially the same. The structure of his argument was simple: In the encounter with Taoism and Confucianism in China, Mahayana Buddhist developed the idea that humans are born with "Buddha nature." This is the idea that everyone is born with "natural awareness," or what I might call "sentience." In the Theravada tradition, however, all are born "ignorant." Enlightenment for the Theravadin is the reduction of ignorance, while, for the Mahayanan, it is an increase in and deepening of awareness.

"Same Same" as the expression goes here (a popular tee shirt slogan). But is it? Is ignorance simple unawareness? Is awareness a diminution of ignorance? Are we born good and only need to get better, or are we born bad and must either be saved or succeed by our own efforts? Perhaps this is the nature vs. nurture debate in a different format. I recall the distinction made by early Jewish and Christian theologians and mystics. One side believes human beings are infected by original sin and something must be done to purify this fragile vessel in which we abide. The other side focuses on God's "original blessing" (in the phrase coined by Matthew Fox), and sees human beings as inherently good, possessed of the sparks of God or the Holy Spirit. For this group, if the glass windows in our house are cleansed,then the light of the divine will shine brightly within. The doctrine that humans are born bad or good has consequences.

I asked Dr. Tavivat what consequences the different theories of human nature would have for the practices of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. But the professor, who chairs the department of comparative religion at Mahidol University, seemed more interested in harmony than further discord between the schools. Mahayana Buddhists tend to be more socially active, probably because of their belief in Bodhisattvas who forgo enlightenment until all beings are fully aware. Theravada Buddhists are more concerned with their own individual rebirth and enlightenment. Can this be the result of their different views of human nature? What is it that makes some Catholics as well as Buddhists more concerned about the suffering of others than their own fate? If we think human nature is irredeemably flawed in actually existing people, then we might be more concerned about saving their souls and our own for a future heaven, or working towards a satisfactory rebirth. We will be less interested in improving life for all here and now. But if we believe humans and their bodies are good and holy, and damaged only by cruel and unjust social structures, then we will engage with the issues of our time to improve the life of all. So one's theory of human nature DOES make a difference, and conflicting theories cannot easily be harmonized.

I was interested in meeting Dr. Tavivat because his bio mentioned that he'd studied economics in Thailand, philosophy in Hawaii, and at Temple University in Philadelphia he wrote a Ph.d. dissertation on "Bhikku Buddhadasa's Dhammic Socialism in Dialogue with Latin American Liberation Theology." That got my attention. Buddhadasa, who died at 86 in 1993, was an influential and prolific Thai monk who argued for the reform of many aspects of Theravada Buddhism. He included laypeople in the definition of the Sangha (formerly reserved for ordained males alone) and incorporated aspects of Mahayana thought in his understanding of the Buddha's teaching. Unfortunately, he is more accepted here by educated Thais than the rural poor whose practice is restricted to rituals and tamboon (making merit) to insure a good rebirth. One of Buddhadasa's students is Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai spiritual gadfly who, along with Thich Nhat Hahn, helped to develop the practice of engaged Buddhism. I had always looked upon liberation theology, the teaching spread by activist European priests in Latin America in the 1960s, as a kind of engaged Christianity. Even though condemned by the Vatican (in particular, by the current Pope), the work of Catholics for social justice in Nicaragua, Brazil and Peru, made it possible for me to convert to that faith twenty years ago. Unfortunately, this side of Catholicism is rapidly disappearing. So now I look for an explicit practice of compassion and justice in Buddhism and find it in Buddhadasa's teaching. I'm hopeful that Dr. Tavivat will let me read a copy of his 1994 dissertation, as well as an article scheduled to be published in a forthcoming collection, Liberation Theology in the World's Living Religions.

Last week I read in the Bangkok Post that the Buddhadasa Archives will open in a new facility here next year. Two web pages were mentioned in the story and I tried both, only to find them in Thai with no translation. So I sent an email off to the secretary of the archives foundation and offered my services. Given a rough translation from Thai, I could turn it into readable English. I received an immediate reply, and then another, from two different officers of the archives. They suggested a meeting and I hope it will take place soon. The archives will be located in north Bangkok near Jatujak Park where the mammoth weekend market is held. It's easily reachable on the Skytrain which ends at Mot Chit next to the park. When I retired from teaching over five years ago, my intention was to continue to study the relevance of religion to economics and ecology. Maybe that goal can be fulfilled.

On the way home from Dr. Tavivat's lecture, I stopped at Central World to see an outdoor exhibit of photography of the sea and its creatures. Planet Ocean: a Voyage to the Heart of the Marine Realm opened last Friday and is co-sponsored by Zen, the large department store in Central World, and the French Embassy which is putting on its annual cultural festival, "La Fête." (Also this month the Italians are having their own cultural festival which includes the showing of films at the Emporium cinema.) The incredible photographs were taken by marine biologist and professional diver Laurent Ballesta and show a variety of strange undersea denizens as well as garbage and other noxious effects of pollution which endanger the world's oceans. Ballesta's book, Planète Mers (Planet Ocean) was published by National Geographic and 88 of his photographs have been enlarged for the show which is on display until August 12. Captions on marine biodiversity and the conservation of the marine environment were written by co-author Pierre Descamp.

This just in:

Apparently that lunatic preacher Pat Robertson said on his TV show, The 700 Club, that if proposed hate crimes legislation was passed, then perverts who like to have sex with ducks (or children) could be protected under that law.

A couple of women activists for gay marriage, Riki "Garfunkel" Lindhome and Kate "Oates" Micucci, took him seriously and created this fantastic video.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Mystery for the Grasshopper

It's difficult to know what happened to actor David Carradine in his Bangkok hotel room earlier this week. Carradine became a cultural icon in the 1970's TV series Kung Fu as Caine, the half-Asian Shaolin monk on the run from pursuers in the 19th century American west. Master Po, his blind kung fu master, had called the young student "grasshopper" because he could not yet hear the sound the insect made. While evading capture, Caine used his skills to perform acts of social justice when not meditating or playing tunes on his wooden flute. One author called the show "TV's first mystical eastern western." Perhaps the Ninjas finally caught up with the Grasshopper, a friend speculated in an email to me yesterday from the U.S. Carradine, in Thailand for a film role, was found dead in his hotel room closet, a shoelace tied around his penis and a silk rope twisted around his wrist and neck.

Thailand's chief coroner, Porntip Rojanasunan, said Carradine's death may have been an accident resulting from auto-erotic asphyxiation. Men indulging in self-gratification often deprive themselves of oxygen, the doctor explained. They can lose awareness of the fact that they are running out of air, which exposes them to the risk of suffocation and untimely death. Another local forensic specialist said people who engage in auto-erotic activity usually get high from virtually suffocating themselves. They can go into a state of half-sleep, and die if the brain lacks oxygen for several minutes. Carradine's death, then, was neither murder nor suicide, but an accident during a masturbatory ritual gone terribly wrong.

The practice of auto-eroticism is popular among bondage and sado-masochism communities, according to Kathryn Ando, a member of San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture who did her doctoral thesis on the topic of what has been termed “breath play." She studied 350 people who used some form of air restriction in their sex play. Despite the possible dangers, she said, practitioners can be highly motivated in pursuit of a more intense sexual experience. “It can be trust building and still induce fear in partners,” she said. She meant “fear” in a good way. According to a doctor in Kentucky, coroners in just about every county in the U.S. see at least a case a year of accidental auto-erotic asphyxiation. For more on this risky behavior, click here.

One early report said there was a "penis shrine" in Carradine's hotel. I may have a unique perspective on this. He was staying at the exclusive Swissotel Nai Lert Park Hotel on Wireless Road not far from the British embassy. At the rear of this hotel, next to the San Saeb Khlong, is a small forested shrine dedicated to the goddess of fertility. I visited it during my first few months in Bangkok, and wrote about it in Not a Toy. In that blog post you can see the photos I took of a variety of phallic objects, called palad khik, which means "honorable surrogate penis." These wooden dildos can be found on sale in Bangkok, particularly in areas frequented by tourists. But the Thai I'm told take them seriously for their help in inspiring pregnancy. The shrine behind Carradine's hotel was originally built by Nai Lert, a millionaire businessman, to honor Chao Mae Tuptim, a female goddess believed to reside in an old tree there. Someone who had made an offering soon found herself pregnant and the shrine began to attract other women hoping to become fertile and bear fruit. The day of my visit the shrine grounds were empty. I wonder if Carradine took a look during his stay next door.

The 72-year-old Carradine played a variety of roles in his long career, but never erased his original reputation as a mystic in street clothes. His love affair with Barbara Hershey in the 1970s made them the poster couple for hippies. After that unwed bliss, he was married five times. Perhaps his other greatest role was Bill, the title character in Quentin Tarantino's two Kill Bill films released in 2003 and 2004. According to IMDB.com, he had filmed a dozen movies so far this year along with a couple of TV parts. I recall once seeing his father, the noted character actor John Carradine, in a Hollywood restaurant. Since I rarely watched TV in the 1970s, David (actually born as John Jr.) was just that distinguished actor's son to me, and his brother Keith, perhaps a more accomplished actor, John's other boy.

The circumstances of Carradine's death will probably overshadow his long life. Hollywood has a long list of fallen stars, many of them chronicled in Kenneth Anger's classic Hollywood Babylon. I don't want to be the pot calling the kettle black, as my mother would say (from her large storehouse of clichés). We all might have our hidden sexual foibles. Certainly Bangkok is full of men who follow a different drummer when it comes to sexual morés. At the end of his life Carradine continued to pursue the illusive goal of sexual satisfaction, in ways the textbooks might call deviant (the Bangkok corner called him one of them). It's sad not only that he died accidentally but that his private fantasy has become public smut. I suspect that it was no accident that Carradine was staying in that hotel near the phallic shrine. Of course, we'll never know for sure. If only the Grasshopper were around to help us solve this mystery. R.I.P., Kwai Chang Caine.

The most noteworthy thing for me about President Obama's speech to the Muslim world from Cairo this week was the absence of the term "terror." Does this mean that Bush's "War on Terror" has been put to rest? In its place is the specter of "violent extremism" he mentioned several times, which I found easier to digest. By any definition, the Americans have been terrorists in Iraq and perhaps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they could hardly be guilty of extremism. (The killing of the abortion doctor last week was the act of an extremist.) My first impression of the speech was very positive. Finally, a sane U.S. president. Dialogue in any form is better than the ignorant saber rattling of the prior Republican administrations. Most of what Obama said about seeking a new beginning between the United States and Muslims was sorely needed after years of discord, but is quoting from the Qu'ran enough to settle deeply-held fears?

The root of the conflict between the west and the Islamic world is the dispossession and oppression of Palestinians by Israel. Without peace in the "Holy Land," war will continue elsewhere. What did Obama say that was new? He declared America's commitment to the "two-state solution" and said the construction of settlements on Palestinian land "violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." These two positions, however, have been America's stated policy for years, but never have U.S. governments used their muscle to insure compliance. Moreover, all the illegal settlements must be dismantled rather than growth merely frozen. American financial aid has long paid for Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Will Obama use the power of the purse? Muslim's can easily see the contradiction: How can Palestinians have a viable state if their territory is cut in two, and if 500,000 Jewish settlers are currently living there (not to mention the wall and roads forbidden to Arabs that cut the remaining land into little pieces? Until Obama and Clinton come up with new policies, or put teeth into old ones, the Muslim world will rightly perceive that American continues to favor Israel (the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid). And the violent extremists will continue their bloody resistance.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

"Getting to Know You"

It's a very ancient saying,

But a true and honest thought,

That if you become a teacher,

By your pupils you'll be taught.

I love this thought, from the Rogers & Hammerstein song, "Getting to Know you." But I skirted the bounds of impropriety yesterday by playing it for my students. The musical from which it is taken, very loosely based on historical events, has long been banned in Thailand. On Broadway and in the first Hollywood film, Yul Brynner played the role of King Mongut, ruler of Siam from 1851 to 1868. But despite winning an Academy Award, Brynner's portrayal of the strutting, bare-chested monarch has been considered offensive by Thai authorities. The latest non-musical version of the story, with Chow Yun Fat playing the king with Jodie Foster as Anna, was also banned. "From the beginning to the end," Thailand's chief censor announced, "the film is viewed as humiliating to the Thai monarchy. It also distorts history. It is against the good morale and culture of the nation." One Bangkok critic said the film makes King Rama IV (King Mongkut) appear "like a cowboy," and also "distorted the authenticity of Thai culture, especially the accent of the language and Thai traditional music."

Earlier this week I watched a illegal bootlegged copy of the 1956 film with Deborah Kerr appearing opposite Brynner as Anna Leonowens, the British widow who came to Bangkok in 1862 to teach King Mongut's 39 wives and concubines and their 82 children. It's a silly story, typical of Hollywood musicals, and it makes little pretense at realism. The king is a caricature of a polygamous, despotic monarch, the classic Asian barbarian, and Anna is a stereotypical feminist and abolitionist come to set things right. She encourages empowerment within the palace harem and gains lasting influence through her tutoring of the young Prince Chulalongkorn, the future Rama V. Watching it with me, my friend was surprised that there were so few Thais in the cast (mostly the children). The songs are quaint and sweet and the story line hints at a respect between the king and the teacher that is never quite consummated. Hardly a blow across the bow of monarchy in Thailand.

"The King and I" has a long history. Anna Edwards was the daughter of a British soldier in India who married her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Leon Owens, and lived with him in Australia and Singapore before becoming a widow with two young children at the age of 28. In later life she would manipulate the facts of her biography, hiding her Anglo-Indian roots. Anna was teaching the children of British officers when she received the offer to go to Siam, replacing a missionary tutor. She served for six years as palace teacher and legal secretary to the king, but was in London when the ruler of Siam died. Anna spent the rest of her life in America and Canada as a teacher and popular writer on feminist themes, including the subjugation of women in Siam. She met King Chulalongkorn when he came to London in 1897 and he reportedly thanked her for influencing some of his modernist decisions (prostrations before royalty were banned, but have apparently resurfaced). She published two volumes of memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and Romance of the Harem (1873); both were considered full of exaggerations and unflattering by Thai observers. Anna's son Thomas returned to Bangkok where he married the daughter of a British diplomat and took a Thai second wife. He founded a company to log teak that still bears his name.

It was a novel, Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon, a former missionary to Thailand, that popularized the story. This best-selling book was published in 1944 after Landon moved to Washington, D.C., where her husband was an expert on southeast Asia with the State Department. In turn, it inspired the 1946 film of the same name starring Irene Dunne as Anna and the very British Rex Harrison as the king. Trying to set the record straight, Thai intellectuals Seni Pramoj and Kukrit Pramoj published The King of Siam Speaks in 1948 which criticized Landon's fabrications based on Leonowens's sensational memoirs. But the train had started and would not stop. An agent for Landon sent the book to Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence whose manager suggested a musical version for the stage. It was offered to Cole Porter who turned it down, while the successful team of lyricist Richard Rodgers and composer Oscar Hammerstein II accepted the challenge, although having some reservations about Lawrence's limited vocal range and tendency to sing flat. Harrison, Noel Coward and Alfred Drake were offered the role of the king but none accepted. Brynner, who hosted a weekly variety show on CBS, took the part. It opened in New York in 1951 to rave reviews and one critic called it "an original and beautiful excursion into the rich splendors of the Far East."

Singer Mary Martin, who had starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," was one of the show's investors. When Lawrence wanted to include a song with Anna's students, Martin suggested that Rodgers write new lyrics for "Suddenly Lovely" which had been cut out from "South Pacific." With some changes, it became "Getting to Know You."

Every week, I choose a song for my students and give them a sheet of lyrics with many of the words blanked out. I play the song for them and they fill in the blanks with the missing words. Usually my choices are English songs popular in Thailand (many suggested by my students), by artists like Westlife, Richard Marx, Avril Lavigne and Mariah Carey (I occasionally slip in some of my favorites by the Eagles, Bee Gees, Donovan and even Louis Armstrong). The theme from the text for my class yesterday was "Getting to Know You," and even though I thought they might find the music strange, I decided to play the song from "The King and I," in a version by Julie Andrews. I also sketched out the history of the musical and explained that it was banned in Thailand. No one seemed disturbed by the risk I might be taking.