Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In the Shade of a Hilton

A large Hilton hotel dominates the center of Hua Hin, the coastal town where Nan and I spent last weekend, much of it reclining on chaise lounges under an umbrella close to the surf in the shadow of the resort high-rise. Paris was nowhere in evidence, and the bathers in bikinis nearby were mostly older and overweight ("the pot calling the kettle black," my mother would say) Europeans. Hua Hin, which morphed from a small fishing village into a tourist destination after King Rama VII built a palace there, is a sedate alternative to Pattaya, the infamous sin city on the opposite bank of the upper Gulf of Thailand. Our small hotel was several blocks from the beach. We wanted to swim and eat, and there was ample opportunity to fulfill both desires.

Clouds came and went during the weekend with a shower one evening which prevented our eating outside at a restaurant on a pier. But the rain began in earnest just as we reached the bus station Sunday afternoon for the three-hour ride home with the streets of Hua Hin quickly flooding. It was perhaps an advance warning of Typhoon Ketsana which has since devastated Manila. The current path of the storm takes it onshore in central Vietnam where it will move quickly into Isaan, the poor farming region of northeastern Thailand. I expect that we will soon feel its effect here in Bangkok.

Nan's arms were sore when we arrived home from holding the rope while riding the "banana boat" (it looked more like an inflated rocket pulled by a jet ski). I chickened out after watching previous riders tossed off at the whim of the pilot. She turned out to be the oldest passenger and the kids laughed when she was the only one to fall off. Besides bathing in the shallow surf, entertainment on the beach was limited to the boat and a herd of ponies, but there were few riders for the horses, either due to the steep price (600 baht for 40 minutes) or to the obvious lack of tourists. Our hotel was nearly empty and there seemed to be few people on the streets except for the busy night market. Although it is currently the low season, tourism in Thailand has been strongly impacted by several years of political instability which included at one point the closure of Bangkok's international airport by anti-government demonstrators. A recent TV documentary in England, "Big Trouble in Tourist Thailand," has stoked the fire (some politicians have claimed there is a conspiracy by outsiders to smear Thailand as a way to avoid accepting blame).

Since her recent accident, Nan has been a bit shy of motorbikes. So on Saturday morning we took a song tao (pickup taxi) to Khao Takiap, a hill south of the city that contains several Buddhist temples and an army of hungry monkeys. We got out of the truck at the foot of the hill and walked past a dock where fishermen were picking crabs out of a pile of nets, and climbed past the large standing Buddha to the temple at the top. I wanted to show Nan the Chinese shrine around the corner facing the sea with its golden laughing Buddha and large statue of Qwan Yin, but we had to pass through monkey territory. We made the mistake of buying some food from a mae chee in white to feed them, and Nan was attacked by a hoard of simians. The babies were cute but the dominant males growled menacingly. She escaped unscathed and we got to the Chinese temple without incident, although the few monkeys there like this one had no respect for the sacred precincts. Later we attempted to walk north along the beach but ran out of sand and were forced to return on the main road by taxi.

Besides Nan's sore arms, I cut my left foot on rocks under the water. As I recuperated with my foot in the air, I noticed that I was not the only one. I saw at least three bathers hobbling up the sand with injured feet. Walking around my hotel room I nudged the edge of the bed with my leg and a few minutes later noticed blood flowing. The wooden bed sported a lethel splinter. The hotel supplied emergency first aid and we bought iodine and bandages at a pharmacy. On our next vacation, we'll take medical supplies with us for the unexpected emergencies.

The palace on the north side of Hua Hin built by Rama VII, called Wang Klai Kang Won ("Far from Worries"), continues to be used by Rama IX and his family, although at the moment King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 81, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok recovering from a lung infection. Early announcements just said that he was taken to the hospital with a fever and loss of appetite. Yesterday it was announced that he was diagnosed with a lung infection. Now the news is that the fever is gone, he is eating, and is receiving physical therapy (though for what was not explained). The King's illness is of considerable concern to Thais. According to the London Times, "The King’s indisposition, after some of the most tumultuous and chaotic months in modern Thai history, is a reminder of the degree to which the country’s stability depends on his continuing survival – and of the uncertainty that is likely to follow his death." Recently, the red shirts rallied peacefully in Bangkok while a large mob of yellow shirts fought with Thai villagers on the Cambodian border where conservatives claim that a disputed temple actually belongs to Thailand. This violence, which occurred while Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was in New York addressing the UN, is described by the Economist in "Thailand's rowdy royalists: Thugs templar." While the yellow shirts claim to represent the monarchy and the military, current calls for “unity” and “reconciliation” by threatened elites have left little room for dissent from the discontented poor, according to Dr. Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai historian who lectures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (quoted in a "Seismic Shifts Challenge Thai Elites to Compromise" published in The Malay Insider). Those elites include a powerful military involved in politics, daringly exposed by journalist Philip Golingai in "Discussing the Unspoken." For a look back at the good old days in Thailand, check out this story, "Siam: Garden of Smiles," from a 1950 article in Time Magazine.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"The Sigh of the Oppressed Creature"

Most people misunderstand Karl Marx's view of religion. By calling it "the opium of the people," they think he dismisses religion by trivializing it as a needless narcotic. But Marx recognized that religion was a source of comfort in a world where unjust economic conditions created pain and suffering for many. Until conditions improve, solace from pseudo-solutions like religion will be necessary. The full context from his writing in 1844 makes that more clear:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Despite the advocates of science and reason over faith and belief, people still turn to religion when times get tough. Materialism and the atheist's credo do not help much when your house has been repossessed, your health insurance canceled because you failed to report a case of acne, your investments plundered by Bernie Madoff, and you've been called up for a fourth tour of duty in Iraq. What is your opium of choice?

These questions arise because I've joined a study group on comparative religions organized by the National Museum Volunteers, and I've offered to give a presentation a week from Monday on the topic, "What is Religion?" Three men (besides myself, Jimmy from the Netherlands and Jean-Pierre from France), and about a dozen women gathered last Monday morning at the large apartment of an expat from Israel, to plan the structure of the group. I'm the newest member of the NMV which was formed 40 years ago to lead tours in different languages at the National Museum in Bangkok, and the organization now publishes books and sponsors excursions, lectures and seminars on Thai culture, history and art. When I learned of it from a founding member whose daughter is a friend of mine, I wanted to join. The study group on religion was right up my alley.

Since I've been searching for the meaning of the word "religion," academically and spiritually, for much of my life, the topic I chose for my presentation was a no-brainer. Others will explore the relationships between religion and food, science, sacrifice, music and dance, fire and water, prophets and founders and sacred mountains. The group meets for the next six weeks. Among the participants was a woman married to an ambassador and another whose husband is a member of the Thai royal family. A woman from the Ukraine operates a travel agency. Most are in my age bracket and long-term residents of Thailand. The art-filled and well-equipment apartment includes facilities for PowerPoint which gives me the incentive to finally learn this technology. I've already compiled slides containing some of the more well-known quotes about the meaning of religion, such as the one from Marx above.

Jimmy wanted very much to talk about a book he was reading, Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors, by Pascal Boyer, but the precis he provided did not fit easily into the list of topics compiled by the organizers is a cognitive anthropologist, one of many who think religion is an aspect of culture which does not need its own subject heading in university catalogs. I ran across his name when I was studying Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists last year. He uses Dawkins' concept of memes, a kind of cultural DNA, to show how the mind can be programmed to embrace and spread religious ideas. One enthusiastic reviewer of Boyer's book seemed to believe that the author supported his idea that "religion is a collection of fantasies about spirits." I bought Religion Explained on the way home at Kinokuniya, the largest English language bookstore in Bangkok, and quickly read the first chapter on religion's origin. I found his ideas to be provocative and stimulating. “Religion," he writes, "is about the existence and causal powers of non-observable entities and agencies” and is made up of "a limited catalogue of possible supernatural beliefs." These beliefs are counter-intuitive and violate some expectations (i.e., that a virgin could give birth) while preserving others (she gave birth to a human, not a frog).

Many years ago I gave a talk at UC Santa Cruz on "The End of Religion" in which I argued that a religion was the creation of a community that spoke the same language and shared an identity. I found the objects of religious belief (gods, miracles, rules) less interesting than the social context within which people make creative sense of the problems in their world: illness, death, suffering, injustice, etc. I kept the outline of that talk without detailed notes, and now I'm trying to reconstruct my thinking as well as learn about the new debunkers of religion as a substantive category for intellectual and scientific study. I can sense Noel rolling over in his grave. For him the subject of religion was sacred if not its contents (he was less of a true believer than most people thought). Boyer contrasts the well-known claims of religion with some fanciful constructs and asks how we can tell the difference. I'll share my findings in another post.

Last Sunday Nan's younger sister Ann and her boyfriend Surin invited us for an outing to the Naval History Park where Chulachomklao Fortress is situated at the mouth of Chao Phraya River in Samut Prakan about 30 kilometers from Bangkok. Because it's still an active naval facility, you have to pass through a guarded gate, but apparently Surin had the right credentials. In the 1890s, when Britain and France were actively trying to colonize all of Southeast Asia, King Chulalongkorn ordered the fortress at the river mouth to be renovated. Two French gunboats, despite being fired upon, made it up the river and anchored near the French legation in Bangkok, and forced the Thais to cede all Laotian territory east of the Mekong to the French. Thailand, however, retained its sovereignty, unlike its neighbors on all sides.

In addition to a large statue of the king, Rama 5, the park features a boat in dry dock, the H.T.M.S. Maeklong, a warship commissioned from the Japanese shipyards before World War II. There is a gun park showing the history of guns with a variety of samples, large and small, and also a mangrove forest walk. We ate at a restaurant filled with families and children having Sunday lunch overlooking the broad estuary where the river empties into the Gulf of Thailand. Surin, who is a 62-year-old retired banker, ordered for us, mostly seafood. One dish was new to me, crab eggs or roe. Everyone tucked into it as if it was a delicacy and I tried to follow suit. The eggs are a bright yellow mass, easily found on the crab shell, and, for me, had the texture and taste of ear wax. Of course I tried to be polite, but later I told Nan, "Never again!" One family was celebrating and two dancers in what looked like Hawaiian outfits came out to present coconuts and candles to a diner. It quickly became apparent that one of the dancers was a ladyboy, but she was by far the most talented.

After lunch we strolled through the mangrove swamp on an elevated walkway from which the crabs could be seen scuttling around at low tide. There were missing boards which made walking treacherous. After examining the guns, we toured the ship. Ann and her boyfriend of four years were not speaking, and Nan said he'd disapproved of her shoulderless dress which he thought impolite. Surin was quite friendly to me, trying out his English and in the car playing a CD of 50's and 60's American tunes. His son just graduated from the University of Manchester in England and another son, 13, lives at home. As near as I can tell, he's married, but he and Ann, who is a university student, spend some weekends at Nan's old room. Perhaps she's his mia noi (mistress)? Nan says she doesn't know and never asks. Surin has financed construction on grandma's house in Phayao, the woman who raised Nan and who has not yet been told about me. A few nights before the Sunday trip, Ann had come to visit our apartment for the first time and we went swimming in the pool downstairs. Ann was going to sleep over on our couch but when Surin was told he forbid it because he said it would cause us "trouble." A couple of months ago he was quite upset when he heard Ann had visited a discotheque with some friends. I don't fully understand why they are together. But perhaps their relationship and its wide age difference influenced Nan's decision to find her own old man. I've much to learn.

Friday, September 18, 2009

She Sang Out for Justice

I had unrequited crushes on all the folk divas in the 1960's. Joan Baez of course was my first vinyl love. "Silver Dagger" on her first LP sent chills up my spine. I saw Baez sing several times in person on both coasts of the U.S. and once got to ask her a question (now forgotten) at a press conference in LA. There were others -- I wasn't faithful: Judy Collins, Buffy Ste. Marie, Carolyn Hester (we once had lunch in London) and certainly Mary Travers, who died yesterday at the age of 72 (how did we get so old?). Her pure alto voice turned the spiritual "If I Had a Hammer" into a cry of rage over injustice at the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, singing it with her partners Paul Stokey and Peter Yarrow. I listened to them and watched that momentous event on a small black and white TV from a Berkeley studio apartment. And Peter, Paul & Mary introduced Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" to a wider audience and made it into an anthem for the new day we thought was dawning in the 1960's before it all turned sour.

While Peter, Paul & Mary might remain most famous for "Puff the Magic Dragon," the children's song that many thought contained drug references (which they jokingly denied), the trio were known for a willingness to promote liberal concerns. At demonstrations for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, from raising awareness of US support for a dictatorship in El Salvador, to campaigning for New York's homeless, Travers and her two friends used their fame to champion frequently unpopular causes. The daughter of labor organizers, Travers grew up in New York and while in high school sang backup for Pete Seeger. They were the most successful performers in the folk revival, and in 1963, three of the top six albums in Billboard's music chart were by PP&M. At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, I stood right in front of the stage in the press section to listen to their music, and I will never forget it. When I learned that David, my teacher and friend at UC Santa Cruz, had a brief affair with Mary while on leave in New York as a young merchant seaman, I was incredibly impressed, and jealous. R.I.P., Mary.

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of the 2006 military coup in Thailand which overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. The red shirt movement, aligned with Thaksin but not totally his tool, has scheduled a major rally in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country. Prime Minister Abhisit has responded by invoking the draconian Internal Security Act which will put 6,500 troops and police on the streets to "insure order." Thaksin was deposed while he was on a trip to address the United Nations, the same journey Abhisit is currently making. Rumors of a new coup are in the air, but as The Economist points out in "Where Power Lies," his government was installed and is supported by the military. The 2006 coup failed to deter Thaksin loyalists who elected their partisans again in the 2007 election and after two administrations were taken down by judicial rulings, the military and power elite managed to put Abhisit and his Democratic Party into power. But Abhisit is apparently in trouble with his coalition partners and has so far been unable to appoint his chosen successor as national police chief. For background, read the excellent blog post by Giles Ji Ungpakorn who is currently in exile in England because of lèse majesté charges. Both articles raise questions about democracy in Thailand. Freedom of speech and the right of assembly are certainly under threat here. Numerous commentators on the left have charged that Amnesty International here is in league with the royalist and military elite to downplay rights violations. According to The Economist (this issue will probably be banned), since 1992 "successive civilian governments failed to overhaul the 300,000-strong armed forces. They still have several hundred active generals, many without even a desk. The tally of 36 four-star officers is just behind America’s 41. But America’s army is four times larger—and at war."
Thailand’s army sees itself as the defender of the crown and suspects a republican agenda among reds. For that reason, the generals will be loth to let go until the succession is over. But repressing a mass movement in the name of a charismatic king is one thing. As Nepal’s army found in 2006, doing the same for an unpopular monarch, as Thailand’s crown prince would be, is a recipe for defeat.
The succession is the elephant in the room for Thai politics. It cannot be discussed openly due to the lèse majesté law and strict internet censorship. Most of the reds claim to support the monarchy, but some, like Giles, are openly agitating for a republic. What the people outside Bangkok think, where government support is weak, is yet to be known. Maybe what happens this weekend will provide clues.

In his series of lectures on the Way of Wisdom (WOW) held in the mirrored room at Planet Yoga during the annual Rains Retreat for Buddhist monks in Thailand, Phra Cittamasvaro has been discussing core issues, like consciousness, the self and karma. Last night the British monk, known to his friends as Pandit, tackled the "most difficult" subject of karma (the Sanskrit word which in Pali is kamma, but never kama as in Kama Sutra because it means lust). The short explanation of the Buddha's teaching is: "You have to be careful of what you do."

Despite how well known the doctrine of karma seems to be, Pandit said it was one of the Buddha's "imponderables," something that you cannot figure out, and if you try your head "will be split into seven pieces." The word means action, and the results of action, and I know that it plays a major role in the Bhagavad Gita. Intention, Pandit explained, is as important as the action that results. It is not strictly speaking cause and effect, but only one version of it; the tree that grows from a mango seed is not the result of karma. Pandit disagreed with a fellow monk who said a heart attack resulting from eating fatty foods was caused by karma. "You can't blame everything on karma," he argued. That would be karmic determinism, and the Buddha included it along with two other "wrong views": everything is caused by God and everything is caused by chance. The Buddha talks about the future, not the past, and karma is discussed in the suttas mainly because of its effect on rebirth. Bad karma, Pandit said, can be easily turned around.

Karma, Buddhist believe, keeps us tied to samsara, the endless cycle of suffering, death and rebirth, and Pandit made it clear that he thought "samsara sucks. That's why we have to get out of it." But this is precisely what troubles me about this interpretation of Buddhism. Samsara is the realm of existence, of both suffering and ecstasy. I will agree that morality requires us to examine both our intentions and our actions by a suitable standard (the Buddha's teaching here is quite good). But it's obvious that in one lifetime good deeds do not always lead to good consequences or rewards, and that often the bad succeed by sowing injustice while the righteous perish. Reincarnation was invented in India to solve that conundrum. But I do not think there is anything left after the body dies to be reborn, and believe this doctrine conflicts with the doctrine of no (substantial) self. If there is no vehicle for karmic retribution, than we are left with morality and the need to live a good life, precisely because it is good.

Last week Pandit affirmed that "you have a self," and said the ego as the seat of rationality needs to be developed. Destroying the ego, he said, would be nihilism. But behind the ego (below? within?) is a place of pure awareness where we can put our attention, and from which wisdom arises. The problem with consciousness (or what he preferred to call "cognizing," the subject of his talk two weeks ago) is that it puts its attention on sense experience and follows along after it. The self is apparently a construction based on attending to the senses, but this self can lead us astray. “If you put attention on other aspects such as compassion, awareness, perception etc., you train your mind to be calmer and more observant of what is going on. Then things can really change for you." The Buddha said, “By attending to the right things you generate wisdom within you.” It still sounds as if Buddhists want to have their cake (enlightenment) and eat it (develop the egoic self) too. I applaud the attempt to maintain a self that common sense dictates exists. But I still worry that Buddhism want to negate life by denying any positive role to sense experience. And this is still nihilism (if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...).

A week ago I was called on short notice to act in a promotion video for a new Language Center at the Wang Noi campus of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University. My friend Panida, who was involved in MCU's three-day Vesak celebration this year, had been asked to help plan the center which currently is operating from the offices of the International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU) at Wang Noi under the direction of Dr. Phramaha Hunsa Dhammahaso, assistant rector for academic affairs. Assisted by Ratcha and Ben, who will teach Korean at the center, they have designed an elaborate program of courses in a short period of time and are recruiting students to come next month from MCU as well as in the neighboring Ayutthaya district. While not fully understanding the plan, I put on my best teacher's duds and and went off to Wang Noi early in the morning to perform in the educational lakorn (Thai for soap opera).

A cast of students of all ages had been assembled and they were separated into two groups. Ellen, a graduate student in Buddhist Studies at MCU from Washington, D.C., went into one room with the younger students, and I stayed with the adults and a couple of teenagers in another. While the children were being photographed, I gave a mock class before a video camera, putting rules and examples up on a white board. I talked about ways to express future possibilities using the conditional "if" form as well as the words "might" and "will." My students were very attentive, even those who spoke no English. They, however, could understand the instructions of the animated director who crawled on the table to find the best angle for his shots. It was great fun, with a large banquet lunch included at a nearby outdoor restaurant, and I was even offered a job at the new center. But they want to provide 10 hours of instruction per class a week (compared to the 3-hour weekly classes I teach now) and I would have to commute to Wang Noi three days each week. As a gentleman teacher, presently semi-retired, this would mean too much work. And I also suspect that their courses will largely duplicate the curriculum in the Department of Foreign Languages where I now teach, which could present problems.

The huge march of selfish nitwits in Washington last week to protest against socialized health care and every other imagined conspiracy is a stark counterpoint to the uplifting civil rights gathering I speak of above in 1963. Evan Handler posted his reaction on The Huffington Post and everyone should read it. He loves America but not necessarily Americans (my sentiments exactly) and is particularly upset by the anti-immigrant hysteria.
As to those immigrants, and the rage I've seen inspired by them, just give me a break. You're all immigrants. Every one of you. Every one of your pink, overstuffed, jiggly "American" asses is stuffed full of tortillas, or pancetta, or paella, or schnitzel, or knockwurst, or moussaka, or Dublin Coddle, or whatever the fuck your ancestors ate before they crawled their way over here. And, when they got here, someone hated them just as much as you're hating whoever's newest here now, and fought against their having anything you now enjoy.
Like others, he urges readers to write, call and do something -- Carry signs. Gather. Organize. -- "because the greedy and the foolish are ruling the day even after they lost an election." Handler, in his conclusion, laments that America was once "once a nation of such potential. A nation built on the pride of its self-proclaimed superiority. We've been embarrassing ourselves in front of the world since shortly after 9/11, 2001. In spite of a change of leadership, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. Shame on the citizens who are trying to obstruct, and shame on the politicians who pandered to them this past week."

Yes, shame on them. Read the whole article.

Nan and I are as happy as two bugs in a rug, as my mother might put it (an expression I would have to explain carefully to her). She cooks tasty dinners with enough left over for my lunch the next day. I walk her to the bus stop in the morning. One day last week she called from the boat to say her new shoe had broken and I went down to the river pier to meet her with some sandals. The next day I called her to say I had forgotten my umbrella and it was about to rain, so she met me at Tesco Lotus with an umbrella to shelter us home. We have some disagreements. She washes her clothes after one wearing and I've been known to wear shorts for a week. She showers twice a day and such intense cleanliness has required a conversion on my part. Last Sunday she talked me into going to a Thai movie about ghosts, "Phobia 2 (5 prang)," five stories with lots of blood and dead people doing terrible things. But it was just ironic and funny enough for me to enjoy. Nan, on the other hand, said she would tell her friend that recommended it that it was not so good. I held my last regular class last Wednesday and tried to prepare my students for the final exam next week. I'll miss my students; we've been together for two terms now and I know all their names. After a short break, class will begin for the second term of the years. I still do not know when or who (probably 3rd year students) I'll be meeting.

Monsoon storm clouds outside my window a few minutes ago:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reason Vs. Ruin

It's very difficult to explain American cultural values to outsiders. Europeans and Asians find the debate over the role of government in health care rather odd. Since "socialized" medicine is demonstrably cheaper and better than for-profit health care, what is all the fuss about? President Obama gave a "make-or-break" (so the pundits said) speech to Congress Wednesday in which he presented a reasonable case for reform in the health care system, saying that "if we do nothing...our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true."

"You lie!" shouted one congressman when the president said that illegal immigrants would not be covered under a reform proposal already watered down to accommodate conservative lawmakers who abhor government involvement in the private sector (and why should health care be "privatized"?). I fear that the president's reasonable attempt to guarantee equal access for all to health care in America, an effort that has defeated many leaders in the past, will fail, drowned by a tsunami of lunatic claims -- "death panels," "federal funding of abortion," "Obama the Nazi," ad nauseam. It's impossible to predict the sewers into which the radical right will sink. And these crazies are now in control of the Republican Party. Their response to Obama's speech was given by a "pro-life" representative from Louisiana who has supported the "birther" movement which claims Obama was not born in the U.S. and therefore is ineligible to be president. In addition, he once tried to unsuccessfully purchase the title of British lord from a couple of con men. And of course Sarah Palin is waiting in the wings to carry their demented banner.

Speaking of the Americans who can't afford insurance or who lose their coverage because of obscure loopholes enforced by the insurance corporations to enhance their profit, Obama said, "We are the only advanced democracy on Earth – the only wealthy nation – that allows such hardships for millions of its people." If anything, the president was TOO reasonable. He should have attacked medical corporations for engineering the skyrocketing costs. Why is health care so expensive in America? What is needed is a preacher like Martin Luther King who could inflame passions over what can only be described as a scandal. Obama won't convert the lunatics, but he must forgo fruitless bipartisanship to rally his troops. The ideological divide in the U.S. is deepening and polite political discourse is increasingly ineffective.

President Obama referred to his predecessors who created Social Security and Medicare, programs that would never make it through Congress today. They knew, he said, that
the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter – that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
Fine words. I wish that they would govern the health care debate. But I think that the hysterical lunatics of the right will drown them out.

Some of them went to high school with me. When we connected online, they sent me email filled with extremist conservative propaganda until I begged them to cease and desist. We were once good friends and I wasn't willing to write them off over political differences. My closest friend in high school was a dentist during the Vietnam war and has dropped hints that he worked for the CIA; we've agreed to disagree and avoid sensitive topics. I've found several old high school friends on Facebook. Betty, an heiress who drives a Rolls Royce and lives in Nevada, wrote on my Wall that she was a fan of Rush Limbaugh and wondered if I would talk to her. I've been in touch with Gary for a few years and we share an interest in jazz, having once played in a band together. But a week ago he responded to the title of this blog by writing to me in Facebook that there was already too much of my topics online. In another comment, he criticized my support of health care reform and said he wanted to keep government out of the doctor's office. When I asked if he enjoyed the benefits of Medicare, he replied, "None of your business," and disappeared. He defriended me on Facebook.

We all need friends, even ones who disagree with us, and his rejection hurt. Maybe virtual friendships are an illusion made possible by the smoke and mirrors of the internet. The longer I remain in Thailand, the more friends and even family members drift away, unable to feel the intimacy of in-person contact. Few people, it seems, are as able as I am to engage in the give and take of written conversation. Intimacy at a distance requires effort. A hundred years ago I would have written dozens of letters a day while lamenting that not many kept up their end of the correspondence. So as old friends fall away, my community here in Southeast Asia becomes all the more important: Jerry, George, Eric, Pandit, Holly, Marcus, Bill, Rubby and others. But the brightest light of my life now is Nan.

Last Friday I flew up to meet her in Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of Thailand which borders Laos and Burma in an area known as the "Golden Triangle."The statue at left is of the much venerated King Mengrai the Great who founded Chiang Rai in 1262 as part of the Lanna kingdom; it didn't become Siamese until 1786. Nan's village is in Phayao province to the southeast and she made the three-hour journey to meet me at the airport in a Ford truck driven by her mother, Yuan, along with her 15-year-old half brother, Nok, and Edward, 7, the son of her mother's sister, Ban Yen, who died of cancer several years ago. The grandmother who raised Nan has still not been told that she has a farang boyfriend for fear she will pester me with requests for money. Thais are used to foreigners bringing gifts; her aunt brought several boyfriends to the village who were generous and now it's expected. Besides paying many of the expenses of our two day visit, I made a contribution to the extended family's welfare. Differences of cultural values over money are contentious in Thai-farang relationships but not, I believe, insurmountable. Time will tell.

Chiang Rai is a smaller, mellower version of Chiang Mai, it's cousin to the west. We stayed at an almost empty guest house with a garden, feuding cats, and an AUA English school at the rear. One night there was a large festival in the streets several blocks away to celebrate something important, with entertainment on several stages (break dancing!) and hundreds of food booths featuring northern cuisine like Chiang Rai noodles and "knee chicken" (wings). On the afternoon of my arrival, I picked a restaurant out of Lonely Planet that proved to be exceptionally expensive, but it gave Edward his first taste of pizza (he'd seen it on TV but had never eaten it). There was a smattering of farang in the streets and shops (why are so many fat?) but I do not think the city is a major tourist destination. Most probably pass through on their way to Laos or Burma. In the evening we browsed through the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar which I enjoyed more than similar markets in Chiang Mai and at Suan Lum in Bangkok; less crowded, cleaner, and with a better quality of goods. We listened to some beautiful music made with shaken pipes that I'd never seen done before, Nan had her fortune told (things are looking up, as she recovers from the death of her father and a motorbike accident), and we watched the dancers at an outdoor pavillion and ate roasted fish.

Nan's relatives were able to stay the night with a cousin and her mother offered to drive us around to see the sights. I was very interested in visiting Wat Rong Khun 13k south of the city, the "White Wat" designed and built by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The all white temple, sparkling with tiny mirrors, features unique touches, such as the hands of demons from hell reaching up around the gateway and paintings inside that include Spiderman and planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Under construction for 12 years, when finished the temple complex will include nine structures, only two of which appear to be completed (the second is a brilliant gold). The next morning we drove to Mai Sai on the border of Burma. I could not go across the bridge linking the two countries without a re-entry permit, so we explored a vast market near the river which divides Burma from Thailand. Burmese traders, their faces marked with powder they consider beautiful, were selling a variety of goods, including roasted chestnuts. I bought Nok a cowboy hat, Edward a box of dinosaur transformers, Nan some sandals and her mother a set of sheets and two blankets from China which is not all that far away. There were many beggars and lots of street vendors who insisted that I was interested in their fake Viagra. Yesterday, in class, I learned that my students from Shan State in the Union of Myanmar, which is right across the border from Mai Sai, are not allowed to cross there and must return home via Rangoon (which the generals renamed Yagoon). But I could not understand why. Those people I saw in Mai Sai who appeared to be Burmese (and facial features seem to differ from typical Thais) seem to be quite poor and dispirited. Or was that just my imagination?

Our third destination was Doi Tung ("flag mountain"), a series of modest peaks where the King's late mother built her Royal Village, a summer palace that is now a museum. The all-wood home is constructed from pine and teak, much of it beautifully carved, and is designed to remind its occupant of Switzerland where she spent many years and the King was educated, as well as of the distinctive architecture of Lanna. Shorts were not permitted and I was asked to don a pair of wrap-around fisherman's pants which felt several sizes too large. We walked up a long hill magnificently gardened, and past the helicopter pad to the villa to join a short tour. The views of the countryside from the peak were impressive. Afterward, we toured the lush Mae Fah Luang Garden and Arboretum (the King's mother was called Mae Fah Luang, in Thai แม่ฟ้าหลวง, which means "Royal Mother from the Sky", or "The Heavenly Royal Mother," by the hill tribe people she tried to help). The Golden Triangle was once the center of opium production in Southeast Asia, and the King's mother, and now the foundation in her name, has attempted to find and develop alternative crops (some would say the area is best known now for the production of methamphetamine, or yaa bah). The gardens were full of whimsical touches like waterfalls, fountains and sculpture and the grounds were immaculately groomed. Edward only slipped and fell by one leg once into the water of a pond. I also had my daily fix of cappuccino made with Doi Tung brand coffee grown in the area at a refreshment stand outside the arboretum.

Nan's parting gift for Edward when the group left on Saturday evening was a new bicycle which she bought for him at the Big C shopping center on the edge of town. We spent Sunday and part of Monday exploring Chiang Rai, visit Wat Phra Kaew where the Emerald Buddha was once kept (it's now in a temple with the same name in Bangkok), Wat Phra Singh with its magnificent contemporary carved door panels (one demon has a penis), and Wat Jet Yot which has a wooden ceiling over the veranda featuring an unusual astrological fresco. We visited the Hill Tribe Museum and Study Center and ate lunch next door at Cabbages & Condoms, a weak imitation of its scandalous Bangkok sister. We also got foot massages to recover from all that walking, and saw more of the Night Bazaar. Before our plane left for Bangkok on Monday, we took a tuk tuk to a temple near the Mae Kok River built probably in the 14th century, and ended our trip at Hat Chiang Rai reclining in a hut on the river bank where swimmers were absent due to the fast flowing rainy season water. We watched divers fill a boat with rocks and were told that a full load would fetch 1000 baht. By the end of the weekend I felt I had a good sense of Chiang Rai's possibilities. I also liked very much the hilly scenery in this northern outpost of Thailand.

Now back at my small apartment in Lumpini Place, Nan and I are beginning our life together. I spent the first day back preparing for my class. I gave my students an oral examination by asking them to talk about why they became monks (the reasons included poverty and the desire for an education with only a few citing love of the Lord Buddha and the dhamma), and I played them "Love is Color-Blind" by TQ and Sarah Connor and talked to them about prejudice and the civil rights movement in America. Nan returned to her old office to help train her replacement and was asked to work there through December. We have decisions to make, where to find a bigger yet cheaper apartment, and where she should go to school, probably starting in May. The current term ends at my school in two weeks and I'll have nearly three weeks off before the next one begins. I hope we can take one or two weekend trips together as we cement our relationship and learn how to live together. She has cooked some wonderful meals for me this week, including a rice soup with pork for breakfast this morning. I am already so spoiled! Today is the sixth in a series of eight talks on "The Way of Wisdom" at Planet Yoga on Sukhumvit in Bangkok given by Pandit Bhikku for the Little Bang Sangha and guests. I hope to say more about this and the last lecture in my next posting. For now, I'm enthralled in domestic bliss.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

In Defense of Desire

"Never let go of that fiery sadness called desire"
-- Patti Smith

A central tenet of Buddhism is that tanha, the Pali word translated as thirst, craving or desire, leads inevitably to unhappiness and suffering. For Christians, sin does much the same. The solution proposed by the Buddha was to renounce tanha. For monks in both religions, this means a radical turning away from the things of the world; the temptation of desire or sin is everywhere. Lay followers of Jesus and the Buddha are left to interpret these teachings in ways that enable them to live productive and satisfying lives within the context of their faith. I believe, contrary to accepted spiritual wisdom, that desire is an essential part of what makes us human, and the attempt to escape it can be a form of nihilism.

Phra Cittamasvaro presented the case for "What's Wrong with Sense Desire" last week during the fourth in a series of talks to English speakers in Bangkok curious about Buddhist teaching. Acknowledging that advocating giving up sense desire is a "hard sell," the British monk, known to his friends as Pandit Bhikku, proposed restraining the senses (in Buddhist thought there are six, including the mind) rather than renouncing them all through ascetic practices. This soft approach means "you are not trying to live your whole life without any sense pleasures. It is ok to enjoy nice food, good company or stroking your pet cat." Refined desires (for Picasso and Mozart, et al) and aspirations (i.e., for enlightenment) escape the net of prohibition. But if some desires can be approved, what is the standard for identifying "bad" desires? Perhaps it is not tanha that brings suffering but the object to which it is attached; or, more likely, the delusion that the satisfaction of desire might be permanent.

Using several suttas from the Theravada tradition to illustrate his point, Pandit prowled around the edges of desire and asked his listeners to seek the happiness that comes from freedom from craving. "Getting what you want is not good," since it leads to overdosing on sugar, fat, guilt, etc. "Insight comes when you're willing to give things up," he said. "Getting what is good is what you should want." The kind of renunciation he suggested took place during meditation rather than in the world. This brings a happiness superior to sense pleasures "which are really only a temporary cover for a deeper discomfort in the heart. Mindfulness brings more peace than getting what you want."

All well and good. It is certainly true that we are attached to our sense pleasures and avoid the unpleasant via an inventive and endless quest for distraction. We want happiness to last forever and suffering to remain stillborn. This, on any account, is impossible. Our desires "slightly exceed our ability to fulfill them," Pandit gently noted. You can't always get what you want (or even what you need), but is it possible, as Buddhism seems to advocate, that you can get rid of wanting?

And why would we want to do that? Without desires, without wanting anything (even happiness) we are dead. Desire is the lack and the hope that impels us to act. It is the longing or appetite for something which does not yet exist. Powered by energy and will, desire motivates us to complete that which is only yet imagined. It led our ancestors to multiply and come out of the sea where they formed communities and discerned what was edible and what was not. I am not arguing that all objects of desire are equal or that their achievement (like the invention of agriculture) cannot have dire consequences. But I am agreeing with philosophers like Hobbes who said the "fundamental motivation of all human action is the desire for pleasure," and with Spinoza that "desire is the essence of man." Bertrand Russell thought "all human activity is prompted by desire," and Montaigne said "desire and hope will push us on toward the future."

Desire seems inseparable from thought, so maybe we should just give up thinking. In the Rig Veda we hear, "Thought gives rise to desire." During his talk, Pandit spoke of the streams of data that come from the senses, and how thoughts are always ongoing. The mind follows after them, he said, and he advised us to observe our thoughts in meditation rather than become caught up in their content. In an earlier talk in the current series, Pandit cautioned that "thinking will get you in trouble." Many people have the idea that in meditation thoughts stop, or else flail about harmlessly. My own experience is that it is impossible while conscious not to think, and the most I can do is change the subject of the my thoughts, relentlessly.

The Tao of Lao-Tzu says that "there is no calamity greater than lavish desire," and suggested:
Reduce selfishness
Have few desires
I interpret this to mean that our desires should be moderate. Live simply is advice more acceptable to me than stop thinking or give up desires. The Buddha renounced home and family and taught his monks to do the same. Although he taught the Middle Way between sensual indulgence and ascetic denial, it's difficult to reframe for a lay audience his rigorous teaching appropriate for monks without cutting corners. In a traditional Buddhist country like Thailand, there is a patriarchal and clerical attitude that the body is bad, particularly if it involves sexual relations (or even touching). Although individual monks and teachers like Pandit Bhikku may soften the blow by offering the carrot of enlightenment to all, the very existence of the Sangha of monks proclaims that, just as for Catholic priests and nuns, this is the better path. Only the truly dedicated can become free of desire and thoughts.

The effect of this flight from the body as the seat of desire is to declare that the goal of enlightenment is beyond or within, somewhere else rather than in the bloomin' buzzin' confusion of the world where we all live. For Christians, salvation comes in heaven. This favors the neglect of social and political problems (unless by a slight of hand the enlightened one becomes the savior, but that is usually only in northern Buddhism ). When Buddhism becomes otherworldly, it resembles the Catholicism of punishment and reward that I left behind in America. By denigrating the pleasures brought by the senses, we demean the transient value of marveling at a beautiful sunset, the scent of cookies baking, the taste of mango, the sounds of a moving sonata or rock opera, and the love between two people that delights in physical expression. When restraint leads to renunciation, we not only withdraw from life but we exult in its denial. This is nihilism.

I apologize if I have used and abused Pandit's teaching on desire to climb atop my own soap box. In my limited understanding of the Dhamma as passed down from the Buddha over the centuries, I have found a helpful and useful way to look at the world and my place in it. In the process I have had to test and prune various teachings of of what I see as harmful and misleading accretions. I recall that Fr. Bede Griffiths edited the Psalms for his ashram in India by removing violent and bloodthirsty passages that exalted in the conquering of Canaan. Here in Thailand I've gotten help from the writings of Buddhadasa Bhikku who attempted to purge Thai Buddhism of superstition and ritualism. For him, there was no particular benefit in being a monk if your goal was enlightenment, and, along with his disciple Sulak Sivaraksa, he taught the wisdom of an engaged Buddhism in the world where enlightened action is sorely needed.

All of this is my way of struggling by means of words and ideas to understand who I am and what I must do, a task which began as I recall when I was a teenager. I have pursued mystical insight in "the cloud of unknowing," and I've sought the wisdom that surpasses understanding. Resisting gurus and unable to shed a persistent skepticism about all established truths, I've stumbled from flying saucers to Theosophy, and through the New Age into the postmodern period where grand narratives are no longer acceptable. The thought that I cannot see the promised land that others see is a lingering frustration, but I'm thankful for the steps I've taken. Buddhism has taught me to question the very reality of "me," while Christian activists have shown convincingly that the Gospel message must be lived through service in this world to others. The time is now, in this present moment, and it takes place with love and compassion. Without any desire for the Truth, would I have gotten this far?