Thursday, August 13, 2009

Divine Intervention?

Probably not. Watching the news from my former homeland is like beating my head against a wall. It only feels good when I stop. I agree with Bill Maher who was asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer "if I thought Sarah Palin could get elected president, and I said I hope not, but I wouldn't put anything past this stupid country." Of course the blow back from those who disagreed was hysterical. In a transcription of Maher's response to the response on The Huffington Post, he said: "Until we admit that America can make a mistake, we can't stop the next one. A smart guy named Chesterton once said: 'My country, right or wrong is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying... It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.' To which most Americans would respond: 'Are you calling my mother a drunk?'"

Over on Truthdig, Chris Hedges wrote that "Nader Was Right: Liberals Are Going Nowhere With Obama." I posted his column on my Facebook page, and some of my friends and family disagreed. Hedges, who I think is one of the most perceptive commentators around, points out that
The American empire has not altered under Barack Obama. It kills as brutally and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as it did under George W. Bush. It steals from the U.S. treasury to enrich the corporate elite as rapaciously. It will not give us universal health care, abolish the Bush secrecy laws, end torture or “extraordinary rendition,” restore habeas corpus or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of citizens. It will not push through significant environmental reform, regulate Wall Street or end our relationship with private contractors that provide mercenary armies to fight our imperial wars and produce useless and costly weapons systems.
His conclusion is that liberals should apologize to Ralph Nadar, Cynthia McKinney and the Green Party because they predicted this. They were right. In an interview with Nadar, the prophet pointed out that
This is the third television generation. They have grown up watching screens. They have not gone to rallies. Those are history now. They hear their parents and grandparents talk about marches and rallies. They have little toys and gizmos that they hold in their hands. They have no idea of any public protest or activity. It is a tapestry of passivity.
He didn't say it, but the conclusion can only be that prosperity and technology have driven Americans stupid, and apathetic. Of course there are also the stupid screamers who troop down to the town hall meetings on health care at the direction of the right wing gestapo and shout down any reasoned and intelligent debate over this crucial issue. Obama, like Clinton before him, cannot seem to overturn years of health insurance industry propaganda that any government involvement in health care, lowering costs and increasing coverage, is "socialized medicine." If this were Obama's only failure, perhaps we could cut him some slack. But what really has changed? People continue to die because of Bush's foreign wars, banks and brokers continue to rip off "bailout" funds, Israel is the tail that wags the U.S. dog, and Guantanamo remains open. It's not enough to argue that the wheels of power move slowly. Who is being fooled here?

The book shown above was one of 8,000 on sale aboard the good ship Doulos, a floating library and missionary effort run by Good Books for All (GBA), a German "charity." Thinking I might pick up a few good volumes (the word "Christianity" did not show up in any of the stories I saw), I took a taxi to the Khlong Toey Port yesterday for a first look at the harbor on the Chao Phraya River not far from the Gulf of Thailand. According to publicity, the ship was built in 1914, two years after the ill-fated Titanic, and it did look a bit worn. It claims to be the world’s oldest ocean-going passenger ship, and I believe that. Over the past 30 years, MV ("motor vessel") Doulos has stopped at over 100 countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe, Australia and the Arabian Peninsula. More than 21 million people have come on board to visit her "famous floating book fair." Before Bangkok, the Doulos had stopped at Sihanoukville, Cambodia, for 12 days. The ship's crew numbers over 300, all apparently fresh-faced young Christian youth from different countries who volunteer for the journey and the opportunity to convert the pagans. Judging by the many Thais loading up on volumes of conservative Christian theology, there are not a few converts in Bangkok. I actually bought a book, a biography of Br. Roger, the founder of TaizĂ©, the only one I could find that didn't threaten hell and damnation.

I'm in a lousy mood today, and not just because the clouds and light pollution of Bangkok made it impossible to see any of the Perseid meteors showering down on the earth last night. After the book fiasco, I went to the Emporium cinema to see "Trail of the Panda," a lovely Disney movie imported from China about a young boy's effort to save a baby panda from capture. (The big news in Thailand for weeks has been about the panda born at Chiang Mai zoo. Over 20 million postcards were submitted suggesting names. The winner was "Lin Bing.") On the way back home I was chewing gum, a rare indulgence, and just after I'd gotten off the SkyTrain at Victory Monument, I bit my tongue. This is not easy since I have so few teeth, but it was a nasty cut and my mouth filled with blood. There was no place to spit, so while waiting for the bus I bought a bottle of water and rinsed, continually. It was the Queen's birthday and a big celebration was taking place at Sanam Luang. On a large TV screen near the monument, I could see fireworks. But by the time my bus arrived and started down Ratchawithi Road, people were leaving and the traffic jam was horrendous, even by Bangkok standards. For an hour I sat on a stationary bus, drinking blood and water and waiting for the traffic to advance. The trip home from the movie took two hours. Today my tongue is fat and sore.

I've avoid reporting recently on the Thai political scene, mostly because I cannot understand it. But next week could be important. The red shirts will submit a petition with four million names on Tuesday to the Palace requesting a pardon for exiled Thaksin Shinawatra from the King. Another petition from Thaksin haters opposes it. Legal suits have been filed on both sides. The rhetoric over these moves is hysterical (Thailand's counterpart to the town hall screamers). Also next week the police "reshuffle" will take place. I'm not completely sure what this is, but it involves promotions and demotions within the national police leadership, and it can be extremely political. The assassination attempt against media mogul and yellow shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul several months ago is still under investigation and some suspect moves to bloc it as well as potential arrests for the closure of the airport last year by the yellow shirts. And finally there are court decisions on corruption charges which could change the makeup of political alliances. The words "coup" and "violence" are being muttered. The 77-year-old Queen in her annual birthday message said the 82-year-old King is healthy and takes daily walks on the balcony of his palace in Hua Hin. She was accompanied at the celebration by her son, the prince who could become the next king.

But these are not the only reasons for my discontent. When Nan arrived at the hospital in Phayao on Saturday she learned from the doctor that her father probably has only six weeks to live. He is dying of cirrhosis of the liver after a lifetime of heavy drinking. So she made the decision to stay with him and take care of him until the end. She quit her job in Bangkok and will have to give up her room after this month, unless her sister Ann, a university student in Nakhon Pathom, decides to keep it for liasons with her boyfriend. While I understand and admire Nan's desire to be with her father (as of the other day he could not recognize her), it presents a moral dilemma for me I cannot shirk. Despite the disparity in age, I had thought I had found in Nan someone I could love who would take care of me in my retirement. Not only was she affectionate, but she was also a great cook. She cleaned the room, washed and ironed my clothes, and was attentive to my every need. In exchange, I had agreed to pay for her two final years of university. She wanted to study business computers and we were researching different schools. The location would determine where we would move to find both a cheaper and bigger apartment. I'm still waiting to learn when my classes will move to the new MCU campus in Wang Noi near Ayutthaya. Ideally, we would move to the northern suburbs of Bangkok, definitely a new and different experience. But now I have not heard from her for over 24 hours. Mobile phone reception in her village is poor. Maybe she's run out of credit on her phone. I can accept uncertainty, but only up to a point.

Everything is on hold now. Nan's return is tied with her father's death, and I do not want to wish for the death of anyone. A six-week absence (if not more) after a two-and-a-half-month courtship is difficult. With her gone, I'm back to living alone in my room, reading and watching TV, occasionally leaving to teach or meet with my Buddhist group (tonight is the second talk in Phra Pandit's Rains Retreat series at Planet Yoga on Sukhumvit). This is exactly the situation I tried to avoid by finding a girlfriend and I have spent many months looking for the right one. Nan was unashamed of my age, told her friends and family about us, and held hands with me in public. But now she's gone. For how long? At my age, I have little time left to delay gratification. While I still believe the move to Thailand was the right one, I am feeling the stress and dissatisfaction that the Buddha referred to with the Pali word dukha (more popularly translated as "suffering"). There is little question that staying in the world risks dukha, and it would be better in some ways for me to prepare myself for the end and become a monk. But I think the Buddha was mistaken in offering humanity only an escape through renunciation and the joining of a monastic sangha. Certainly life involves suffering because of birth, death and illness. There is no escaping it if you choose to live in the world. Running away from this reality through the numerous distractions available (our modern life is pretty good at inventing them) is a mistake because it increases suffering ultimately rather than relieving it. I don't mind suffering because I've loved Nan who is presently gone from my life. I accept that everything changes. I just need to decide what to do next.


steve said...

Re your dissatisfaction ... Traditionally the origins of Vajrayana Buddhism are thought to have been in the Buddha's response to a king who told him he could not become a monk.

Although it now includes monastics, the Nyingma sect is very much influenced by its history of individual yogis.

The famous stories of Tilopa, Milarepa and Marpa are meant to (among other things) show how in the Kagyu sect (or specifically a Mahamudra practitioner) one needn't be a monk.

I'd spell this out more, but I've been up all night.

Janet Brown said...

Will, her father is dying,her family is in some degree of turmoil, and she is now on village time. Cut the girl a little slack and hang in there, if you really love her.
And thank all that makes it possible for you to put yourself out there and love--it's a skydive...