Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thai Democracy in Crisis

The struggle for democracy in Thailand will be "long and arduous," predicted political professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, "so we have to pace ourselves." It could even take until 2032, the 100th anniversary of the end of absolute monarchy, for "I have always felt that the crisis we have is a 100-year crisis," he said.

That Thailand is not yet fully democratic was the consensus of the three panelists last week at a forum to launch the English translation of Chaturon Chaisang's book, Thai Democracy in Crisis: 27 Truths, held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok. Chaturon was a member of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government and was banned from politics for five years after the 2006 coup for his participation in the outlawed Thai Rak Thai party. "You're a victim of the abuse of human rights," said panelist Alec Bamford, a long-time NGO worker in Thailand, who complained that the book lacked a chapter on human rights, perhaps "the 28th truth." Bamford, like the other two participants, faulted the book for its uncritical appreciation of Thaksin, while applauding its theme that democracy is in trouble here. Extreme partisans of color, the yellow and red shirts, are struggling without compromise to define the future for Thais, and a standoff between a rising middle class in the provinces and an elite in Bangkok composed of militarists and monarchists awaits the uncertain outcome of the royal Succession. "Under Thaksin farmers wanted to drink wine and play golf," Thitinan said. "That had to be stopped."

Thitinan, whose frequent op-ed columns in the Bangkok Post reject both the radical right and the radical left, said that he was "not a fan of colors," and lamented that there was no longer any middle ground. Providing some historical background, he said that after the move to a constitutional form of government, the monarchy was at its lowest ebb. But from the 1950s there was a symbiotic relationship between the military and monarchy that kept Thailand from communism, a stability which promoted a long period of economic growth. The price to be paid for authoritarianism and repression is that today "the law in Thailand is about power, not about justice," and that there are few institutions to prevent abuses. "We have become victims of our own success." The academic, who is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Faculty of Political Science, at Chulalongkorn University, said he was very puzzled about why so many "intellectuals in Thailand are right wing and conservative." Despite an "overwhelming pessimism," Thitinan cited two sources of optimism: "Foreigners love Thailand so there must be something good," and though Thais "are poor at preventing problems, and nothing works the first time, they are very good at solving them."

While Thitinan praised Chaturon's book, he said he had declined to write a blurb for it because he didn't want to be identified as an anti-government "Red." He criticized Chaturon for soft-pedaling the allegations of corruption against Thaksin and his government which the author described as "irregularities." The complaints by the military and the right are difficult to answer. Chaturon has hedged his bets by not mentioning it. Thitinan said he tells the generals, "yes, the politicans are corrupt, but it is not your job to take away their job." Finally, Thitinan said there are two key problems to be addressed. The Thai media dumbs down the debate, and the Thai educational system leaves students, who learn by indoctrination, little prepared to analyze complex issues. Both the author and the two Thai panelists were all partly educated in the United States.

Supavud Saicheua, a financial analyst and director of Phatra Securities, also referred to the long period of economic growth in Thailand under authoritarian regimes, and said Thai businesses expanded and developed, but not politics. Many politicians became wealthy through contracts and concessions with the government, and conflicts of interest are built into the system. There is a need to change "from know who to know how." With 17 attempted coups since 1932 (12 were successful), Thailand is the land of "user friendly" coups, Supavud said, but "even a well-refined coup doesn't work." It got rid of Thaksin but not popular support for his policies. Even though the judiciary tends to favor coups, the commercialization of agriculture has encouraged the rural electorate to believe that the majority should rule. However, "Thaksin made populism look too good." Policies that have caused damage in Latin America create a burden. The autocratic Thaksin could control populism, and the level of public debt to GDP actually dropped, but the current governments copycat programs are uneconomical.

The ringer in the group was Bamford, a long-time officer of Amnesty International, who attacked Chaturon for neglecting human rights and for his benign view of political parties. He spoke of three well-known violations of human rights in the south under Thaksin's reign, the massacre of 32 Muslims at the Krue Se Mosque by the military in Pattani, the deaths by suffocation of 78 prisoners stacked like cord wood in truck by police, and the unexplained disappearance of Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, all in 2004. While no one was punished, there was impunity. "This is not democracy," Bamford said. "You must play by the rules." Another issue was the drug war initiated by Thaksin in 2003 which resulted in over 2,000 extra-judicial killings, many of them perhaps innocent and not involved in drugs at all. "Democratic governments need to be elected," Bamford said, "but this does not mean that all elected governments are democratic." The political parties Chaturon mentions, Bamford said, are less altruistic than political calculations to win votes with little discussion of the issues. And when the yellow shirts formed a new political party recently, there was only one candidate, "Kim Il Sondi!" Finally, freedom of expression is even worse today than under Thaksin, with "the Lèse majesté law going bananas."

[Apologies to a fine blog, Absolute, for stealing your excellent photos of the event, and for that writer and Bangkok Pundit for helping me supplement my notes with their reflections.]

Having recently joined the FCCT (most, but not all members, are journalists), I had a ringside seat at this absorbing discussion of crucial political issues in Thailand. The Thai political scene is fascinating to a guest in the Kingdom like myself. The right wing/left wing divide is not always easy to discern, with radicals from the 1970s joining both the yellow and red camps. I remain mystified by the power and independence of the military, with its huge ratio of generals. And, of course, coming from America, the monarchy is an enigma, the elephant in the Thai political room. (JCK Lee has an interesting article on the Succession and "Thailand's Political Muddle" in Asia Sentinel which can add a sense of urgency to the FCCT remarks, if it wasn't there already.) I had been somewhat sympathetic to Thaksin because of his populist program, until I finished the recently updated biography by Chris Baker and his wife, Pasuk Phongpaichiti. They show without doubt the widespread corruption by Thaksin and his ministers which, while typical of Thai governments in history, was particularly outrageous during his rule (and his goal to be a long-term autocratic dictator was undeniable). Our IDEA group is reading the authors' (under the pen name Chang Noi) Jungle Book: Thailand's Politics, Moral Panic, and Plunder, 1996-2008, collected from columns in The National English newspaper. Much of the primary data for the updated biography is contained therein. It paints an appalling picture of a country where the rich are getting richer, and the poor, poorer. I am inclined to support the red shirts, not because Thaksin is an important symbol for their anti-government campaign, but because I am convinced they have the moral high ground in seeking democracy and justice. Most agree that Thaksin supporters would win once again if an election were called, so Prime Minister Abhisit will probably remain in office because of his powerful backers, not the people's will. The streets have been quiet since the Songkran "riots" last April, not because of the draconian Internal Security Act which is declared every time a red shirt moves, but because the pro-democracy movement is slowly building support throughout the country, waiting until the time is ripe.

Lest I forget, Happy Halloween! (Don't trick-or-treat and drink...)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Animals are Fighting Back

An old friend from the music business daze in the 1970s has reinvented himself as an animal rights activist and posts wonderful links on his Facebook page to stories about animals who fight back, like the bear in a Russian circus troupe that killed its trainer, pet turtles that poison their owners with salmonella bacteria, an elk that attacked a woman walking her dog in Sweden, a chimp that mauled and maimed its owner, and a tourist who died while swimming with dolphins in New Zealand. Other links illustrate the amazing cruelties of humans to animals, like the town that sponsored a dead rabbit-throwing competition for children to inaugurate an annual pig hunt (forced by protesters to cease).

As a vegetarian for a week during the annual Chinese gin jae (eat vegetarian) festival which ended yesterday, I've been thinking once again about the morality of eating animals and their by products (eggs, butter, milk, etc.). I of course include our finned and feathered friends, but hesitate to extend such consideration to reptiles and insects which I tend to avoid anyway (Asians, however, have a much bigger menu of possible food). When I taught Environmental Ethics, I offered Peter Singer's arguments for including animals among the community of those we don't kill or eat. But I was raised to hate vegetables and love meat, so it's been an uphill struggle. As part of a prostate cancer study, I was a strict vegan for nearly three years and there is no question but that I felt better and healthier for it. But when I returned to a meat diet, it was with relish. I do love those rib-eyes! However, when Nan suggested we gin jae, I readily agreed. Food sellers dangled upside down triangle pennants to advertise their meat-free fare (unlike in India, this is a rare cuisine for Thailand) and the stores had displays of meat-substitute products ("Protein bread!" I complained to Nan). So for a week we had rice or noodles with carrots and broccoli along with fake pork, fake chicken and fake calamari. Properly seasoned, it was all quite tasty. Then I watched Robert Kenner's documentary "Food, Inc." and felt truly sick. There is no question that the factory-farmed meat laced with chemicals produced by a handful of huge corporations are harmful to America's health. I've read Eric Schlosser and Michel Pollan's books (both appear in the film) and have even passed along their ideas in classes I once taught about environmental issues. I am certain that a meat-based diet is harmful to the planet (McDonald's is the biggest consumer in the world of beef and potatoes). And yet I continue to indulge my food tastes. There seems to be little industrial agriculture in Thailand and I suspect there is less factory farming. Beef is not very common. And yet there are hundreds of McDonald's and other fast food chains in Bangkok which no doubt are contributing to an increase in obesity and diabetes.

In the lobby of my building this weekend, children and their families were learning to carve fruits and vegetables. It's quite an established art form in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. When I traveled in Vietnam a few years ago, every food buffet featured a a display of artfully carved goodies from the garden. Of course you can also buy beautifully carved soap from stalls on the streets and in the weekend markets. There is a long tradition of carving food in Thailand which originated in elaborate preparations for banquets held by the royal family. According to one story, the art of fruit and vegetable carving was originated in 1364 in Sukhotai when Lady Nang Nopphamat (Thao Sichulalak), who was the chief royal consort, decorated the floating lamp (krathong) with a profusion of flowers and birds, swans, rabbits and many other animals carved from fruits and vegetables. Another tale describes a fruit and vegetable carving contest during the reign of King Rama I when "squashes were elaborately carved to serve as bowls for presenting sweet young rice to monks, and the trays on which the bowls were placed were splendidly adorned with flowers of many sorts carved from papayas colored with natural dyes." Next Tuesday night is Loi Krathong, the holiday on the full moon of the 12th lunar month when Thais head for the water to launch small, elaborately carved and decorated boats to symbolically let go of past upsets in order to start life anew. I need that.

Not far up the street from our apartment is a new store serving espresso with the intriguing English name "At Thirty-Six." I watched its construction as I passed by each day on the way to the newsstand to buy the Bangkok Post and up to the Central Pinklao mall where I drink cappuccino at Starbucks and read the paper. There is little wasted space on the Bangkok sidewalks, and this tiny shop was built right in front of a DVD rental store and next to a restaurant. Even with tables inside (where it is air conditioned) and out, At thirty-Six can hold no more than a dozen customers, and I wondered if there was enough interested traffic in this neighborhood with few farangs to support another espresso stand (there is no lack of competition). So we stopped by when the place opened and found the owner delightfully optimistic. She explained its name by saying "I'm 36." It doesn't have the cozy comfort of my favorite stuffed armchair at Starbucks where I can read for an hour, but it is an excellent alternative on those days when it's too wet to walk very far. And her cappuccino is a third the price, definitely a selling point.

After three terms of teaching English to monks one day a week, I've been tempted to up my work load. Dr. Sman Ngamsnit asked me to "join his team" teaching English to monks and laypeople studying for a master's degree in education administration. Last year I was a substitute teacher one day for him and enjoyed the change of pace. There are two classes, one on Thursday afternoon for just monks who've studied for no more than a year, and the other on Saturday morning for more advanced students. The department's classroom at Wat Srisudaram (where I teach undergraduate English majors on Wednesdays) is air conditioned and outfitted with the latest technology; I can develop PowerPoint lectures and use a computer and the overhead projector instead of the white board to give examples and instructions. The main problem is that computer program instructions are all in Thai. I taught by myself last Thursday and did my best to get the shy and reticent monks to speak up in English. On Saturday, Dr. Sman and I co-taught the morning class and we worked well together. He's the same age as I but manages a heavy full-time work load. His English is very good, since he studied and lived for 15 years in America where he received his doctorate, and he currently teaches communication and public administration at four different campuses around Bangkok. The evening after agreeing to teach with Dr. Sman, I was offered a job on Saturdays in the new Language Center at Mahachula's Wang Noi campus for twice the pay, but I had to turn them down until next term. Being popular at any age is nice.

A week ago, Nan and I went to the huge book fair at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center. I used to live within walking distance of the hall and had attended several book fairs there. I've been told that Thais don't read and you certainly see few people with a book or newspaper on the bus, subway or Skytrain (in stark contrast to, say, New Yorkers). But they love books. Bookstores are nearly always full. The exhibit at the convention center on a Sunday afternoon was packed with readers of all ages, and they were buying sale items in bagful quantities. With Nan's help, I managed to find two works in English translation by Thailand's epic poet, Sunthorn Phu, that I'd been long looking for, and she took home over a dozen books, one autographed by its author. Another place you encounter crowds in Thailand, I've discovered, is at skin clinics. There are several at Central Pinklao mall and the waiting rooms are jammed with people in need of a good dermatologist (a whiter skin is probably the goal of many). I took Nan there a few months ago to have two birthmarks on her face removed. The one on her nose easily disappeared but the other one high on her right cheek has so far resisted treatment. She's been back three times with more appointments scheduled. One Monday evening she was 35th in line for the single doctor on duty. The next night was not quite so bad. If I were a Thai parent, I would advise my kid to become a dermatologist.

After watching Bruce Willis in "Surrogate" last Sunday evening (the popcorn was good), we went shopping at Tokyu Department Store in the huge MBK mall. I couldn't find the short-sleeved dress shirts, or brown towels, I wanted, so I bought Nan a pair of Levi jeans. She was delighted, since she buys most of her clothes at street markets, and these were the first expensive pants she's owned. We went across the street to the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC) where I was pleased to see the beautiful new building finally had some tenants, mostly bizarre art-themed shops. Outside we noticed a demonstration underway and discovered that young Muslims were marking the fifth anniversary of the Tak Bai massacre and the 6th anniversary of escalated violence on both sides of the conflict in southern Thailand. A young man came up to me and said they were praying for an end to the killing. Separate groups of men and women knelt in prayer on signs in Thai and English calling attention to the bloodshed. It brought tears to my eyes. While they prayed a group of police on guard duty took photos of each other. After we left I'm sure the rain storm drove them away. I resolved to learn more about the centuries-old struggle of Muslims on the border of Malaysia against rule by Thai Buddhists. Recently Prime Minister Abhisit announced he would seek advice from Sri Lanka, whose government butchered and drove into exile thousands of Tamils, on how Thailand might control its "terrorist" Muslim population. This is not good news.

What is good news to Thais was the appearance of their ailing king at Siriraj Hospital last week, even if in a wheel chair. He was hospitalized over a month ago, apparently with pneumonia, and the announcements about his condition have not been very detailed. Rumors about the seriousness of his illness had caused the stock market to drop dramatically before one of his daughters, on a visit to Europe, told television audiences he was much better. His appearance, on Chulalongkorn Day, the holiday dedicated to his ancester, Rama V, was the occasion for rejoicing. Nan and I had visited the hospital several weeks ago in the area where the king was wheeled around to pay his respects to statues of his mother and father. The king is not very animated at the best of times and it was difficult to tell much about his present condition from the many photos and videos. There have been numerous articles recently speculating on his illness and (no matter what happens or when) the eventual problem of Succession for Thailand. In Asia Sentinel, Pavin Chachavalpongpun discussed the future of all Southeast Asia's royalty. "At a national level," he writes, "the monarchy's endurance is intricately related to its alliance with the military, as exemplified by the Thai military's role in bringing down Thaksin and making sure the deposed prime minister's Republican supporters didn't come to power and bring him back." Shawn W Crispin, writing on the succession in Asia Times, says that, "Whether the monarchy can maintain its current central role in Thai society after Bhumibol's eventual passing will depend largely on how much of his moral authority is perceived by Thais to have been transferred to his heir." Corruption is the "ghost of Thaksin past" that haunts Abhisit, according to Seth Kane's essay in Asia Sentinel. A guest contributor to the web site Political Prisoners in Thailand writing on "The Rule of Law" calls this country a "land of ‘make believe’ democracy with a European fascist will to control every aspect of life as a national security issue." Although the ASEAN conference in Hua Hin and Cha-am last weekend was a success for Abhisit, it required 36,000 security troops to prevent violence from the anticipated protest that never materialized. Freedom of assembly is threatened by such a response. On a slightly different topic, Tim Meisburger, The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Processes based in Bangkok, has written an excellent defense of the much maligned and misunderstood Thai voter whom conservatives here believe is incapable of understanding democracy. "The Thai people long to participate in politics, but right now feel left out of the process," he writes.

Jerry told me yesterday that Graham Willis, the dead-beat dad, has been found by an investigator in England. I wrote about Graham in June ("Absent Fathers") along with a story about the New Zealand dad that abandoned Edward, Nan's cousin . Graham came to the village in Surin where Jerry lives with his wife Lamyai, and he fathered twins with Pen whom they named Michael and Helen. But Graham lost his job in Norway when he cut off part of his thumb and the money dried up. A few years ago he disappeared. I met Helen and Michael when I went to a wedding in Surin and they were two wild children growing up with little supervision. When Graham was confronted a few days ago, he said the kids might not be his, although Jerry says he was a doting father before he left. But last night Pen called Graham and talked to him on the phone, and Lamyai told Jerry that she was very happy. The investigator said Graham was out of a job and broke, and perhaps drinking heavily, so there can be no real happy ending to this story. I guess Pen is just happy that the father of their children is alive.

It hasn't rained much for a couple of days, which may mean the monsoon season is ending. November is traditionally the beginning of the dry season when tourists flock to Thailand, at least by December. Everyone is waiting with baited breath to see if the global economy and the local widely-publicized political struggles will impact tourism, and how badly. The Chao Phraya River is retreating from its annual high water mark which requires sandbags at every pier and elevated walkways. Nan's shoes got soaked last week. The tour buses down below our room continue to rev their engines too late or too early to be acceptable, but we've decided to remain in this apartment for another couple of months, at least until Nan knows where she will be going to school. Aside from the exorbitant rent, compared to what we know is available, I like it here. This weekend is Halloween and I've learned not to be surprised to see Thais adopt this holiday as their own. Maybe we should stock up on some candy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Views That Divide Us

Until I'm able to shed my ego, through death or enlightenment (not much of a possibility at this late stage), I cling to the views and opinions I have developed over many years of engaging the world. Among them are the goals, perhaps contradictory, of both critical understanding and transcendental experience. Is it possible to be both a mystic and an intellectual?

This week I have learned that others probably think not. I've lost a few friends who strongly object to some of what I have written in this blog, and to ideas I've expressed in emails. They accuse me of doing harm and of harboring bad intentions. One pointed out my love of contention and lumped me with "intellectual Buddhists" who "tend to dispute with anyone who will listen. And then congratulate themselves for bravery." All of this has disturbed me deeply.

I'll admit to being contentious, tactless and negative in the sense that critical analysis requires submitting accepted truths to the acid of examination and study. My opinions about the topics in the title of this blog are bound to offend someone. One friend, who has not yet written me off, says that "intellectuals accept a notion of free speech, that intellectuals have the right to form an opinion on anything and discuss it." I'm not sure if free speech is only the prerogative of intellectuals, but I do subscribe to the notion that all ideas can be scrutinized and that none are out of bounds.

And yet I do admit that my views and opinions may seem unduly negative these days. The political scene, in the U.S. and Thailand, is dismal. Although I've not written much lately about sex, primarily because I now find myself in a loving and satisfying relationship with a Thai woman, I continue to find evidence of sexual hierarchy and repression in most religious paths that stem from a fear and even hatred of the body. Why is it that denying the selfish and self-centered demands of the ego all to often is connected to a total rejection of embodiment and the world into which we humans are thrown? A religion or spirituality that renounces life without compassion for the poor souls condemned to live it, those who have little time for meditation or money for religious retreats, is nihilistic and I want no part of it.

But such condemnation and criticism is rarely appreciated. Why do I persist in searching for "the truth"?

I have a wonderful friend in California, one of the kindest people I know, who once told me that his philosophy was "do the right thing" (that it came from a film title says much about his preoccupation). What is the right thing? "You'll know it, when the time comes," he said. And this accords with the research of cognitive psychologists who are showing that very young children soon develop a moral sense, just as they develop language; the brain is apparently primed for it. Religious explanations come later. In a recent letter, this friend said,
I remain a devout atheist...spirituality is just a bunch of synapses firing in a certain way. So is jacking off. But we have to fool ourselves and believe being generous or selfless or soulful is somehow good and maybe get us into heaven, if there is a heaven. We don't know. But why not come down on the side of the good and positive? We have nothing to lose.
I like that.

Of course, this doesn't satisfy the True Believers who need certainty to cement their faith. Pascal Boyer, in his book Religion Explained (he doesn't exhaust the topic but his theories are interesting), speaks of fundamentalist religions as "coalitions" organized around essential concepts demanding belief in which the costs of defection are high. Disbelief is costly and painful to the ostracized heretic. The more people fear a rudderless, perhaps immoral, world without any certainty, the more they cling to the doctrines and dogma that unite them with others of like mind. Fundamentalism fears competition because it makes defection easy.

I was attracted to Catholicism because of the moving Medieval rites and rituals which brought tears to my eyes, and because it contained a mystical tradition that held out the possibility of a transcendental unity beyond the messiness of mundane life. The first was the domain of religion as social and the second the domain of the individual. I gradually came to see that the Christian coalition was too restrictive and I could not subscribe to the truths of faith. As for the latter, I stil have hope that someday the scales over my eyes will fall off and I will truly see. But that hasn't happened yet, because maybe I don't think the right thoughts or perform the correct practices.

I was attracted to Buddhism while growing up in America because its teaching seemed universal, without the kind of gatekeepers that guarded the treasures of the cathedral. The Buddha taught how the mind works and how to be happy, and meditation promised a technique for ending stress and finding the answer through an inner experience that did not require external certification. I tried meditation for years and I lit candles on an altar containing icons from all the religious faiths, but the experience of transcendence (or whatever you want to call it) remained out of reach (wrong technique? wrong thoughts?). On my first visits to India and Thailand, I soon discovered that the faith of the common people was vastly different from the stripped-down version of Buddhism and Hinduism I'd encountered in books and on religious retreats. And after two years in Thailand, I've learned that the gap remains between the temple practice of the people and the uptown practice of expats and educated Thais on the yoga mats and meditation cushions who attend Dhamma talks. Who is the "intellectual Buddhist" here?

When Pali scholar Richard Gombrich came to Bangkok recently, he was impolite enough to criticize the Thai Sangha at a talk sanctioned by that august body of senior monks which regulates Buddhism in this country. I applauded his remarks which hastened my downhill slide from the local sangha of expats. In his talk at the World Buddhist University, Gombrich admitted that he did not call himself a Buddhist, even though he believed The Buddha
to be one of the greatest thinkers -- and greatest personalities -- of whom we have record in human history...I maintain that the Buddha belongs in the same class as Plato and Aristotle, the giants who created the tradition of western philosophy. I think that his ideas should form part of the education of every child, the world over, and that this would help to make the world a more civilised place, both gentler and more intelligent.
Because he did not believe in all of the Buddha's ideas and values, the academic intellectual from Oxford did not identify himself as a Buddhist, even though "I believe that my understanding of his ideas makes me at least as sincere an admirer of the Buddha as are millions of those who identify as Buddhists."

I suppose this must be enough for me now. While I do not currently meditate, I continue to read about Buddhism and its connections with Southeast Asian history and politics, not to mention the analytical tool of cognitive psychology which opens up new realms of investigative possibilities. I am, I believe, a sincere, admirer of the Buddha and most of his teachings as I understand them. Nan says her prayers to the Buddha every night and includes me in them. We refresh our Buddha icon with flowers every Wan Phra and often take gifts to the monks at the nearby temple to make merit. I hope that she has a fortunate rebirth. It's too late to worry about mine.

I may have lost the few readers I once had with these posts about religion, and I apologize. I think the subject is just about exhausted for me at the moment and I'll try to let it rest. Soon I'll resume writing about daily life in Thailand, study groups and street demonstrations, the monsoon's last gasp and flooded river piers, the new school term and unwelcome job offers, ghost movies and romantic TV dramas, a vegetarian celebration (10 days), the busy dermatology clinic and a crowded book fair. Now I must watch the latest episodes of "Mad Men" and "Californication." Lest you missed it, this intellectual has done nothing particularly brave about which to congratulate himself.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Notes from an Armchair Buddhist

My recent remarks about what people commonly think of as "religion," on this blog and on the Little Bang web site, have drawn blood. A new friend got angry with me for defending religion, and an old friend became upset because I abandoned it. Two members of my comparative religions study group were more intrigued by the term "cafeteria Catholics" that I used in my talk on "What is Religion?" than my conclusion that labels were more limiting than useful. Hearing that I'd once been described as an "armchair Buddhist," I've decided to see if that label can help me undermine the others.

The week following my talk, I was told by a heated interlocutor that any support for religion, any kind of religion, gives support to the enemy. The enemy of course are the fanatics, in particular the Muslim terrorists as well as Christians who murder abortion doctors. This is an argument that Harris and Dawkins and the other New Atheists have made. But they believe even liberal religion (what we might call "spirituality") hides the excesses of fundamentalism. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for God, and advocate zero tolerance in order to break what they believe is a taboo against any criticism of religion. Harris wants "to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance--born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God--is one of the principle forces driving us toward the abyss." I disagree.

When pressed to define "religion," my new friend said he meant institutionalized religion, the five (or so) "great" religions. People who believe in spirituality, he thought, are not so dangerous. I told him about my conversion to Roman Catholicism through the writings of Thomas Merton, and how I had met conservative Catholics who thought Hinduism and Buddhism were "cults." So I became a "cafeteria Catholic," choosing the aspects of Catholicism I liked (ritual, mysticism, work for peace and social justice) and rejecting those I found wrong or incomprehensible (i.e., the virgin birth, resurrection, and the Trinitarian god). "Then you were not a Catholic," he said emphatically. This is not the first time I've encountered a non-Catholic, even an atheist, who is certain they can determine who is or is not a Catholic.

Two ladies in the group told me they liked the phrase "cafeteria Catholics" and said it described them. Both were disappointed in the few churches in Bangkok that serve English speakers. One traveled frequently to Chiang Mai and liked the modern, red-bricked Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (which I've visited), particularly because of its outreach to hill tribes. The other told me about the large and modern ("it has seats like a theater") St. John's Church in the northern suburbs of Bangkok which serves primarily a Filipino congregation. Neither commented on the argument in my talk that the term "religion" is meaningless.

Which brings me to my old friend of several years, an intensely serious Buddhist and vegetarian with high moral standards. I've known for some time that our differences in approach to Buddhism and religion have put some distance between us, but I respect his position and have learned much from his articulate writing about where he stands. Still, I was not prepared for his response to my blog posts and the criticism (perhaps nit-picking) I had made recently about a Burmese monk who read a Dhamma talk to our English-speaking group in a soft monotone voice I could barely understand. In an email addressing my expressed interest in an upcoming ceremony and talk by an American Zen Buddhist, he wrote:
I know you're not a Buddhist or religious and it's merely academic to you, so you might just be bored, especially by the ceremony...of course if you want to come along and do more research next's up to you (it's a public event after all) - but I do hope you won't be offended by the delivery. The sound system there is not very good and a lot of the ritual and speeches will not be in English. I know you dislike this. Of course you have every right to turn up to a public event and then use the Internet to be critical afterwards, but you'll understand my fear that you may do the same again at this event. I suppose that having academics attend the ceremonies and talks of practitioners and then writing negatively about them afterwards is just to be expected. But it's still - in my honest opinion - unwelcome.
A further email admitted "I know this has done irreparable damage," and added "the wish that you have success in your search and find contentment and peace."

Rather than speculate on his motives for these words, I would rather write about my approach to "religion." It's quite clear that I have failed to communicate this very well to either my old friend or my new one, or to the two "cafeteria Catholics." I know that close friends in California believe I have abandoned Catholicism and lost my faith, even as I think I have broadened it to include the Hindu perspective of the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmanic and animistic practices of Thai Buddhism.

The writer opposes "academic" and "practitioner" as if they cannot be easily combined. And it is certainly true that I became addicted to research during my many years in the academy where I was taught the important tool of critical analysis. Today the internet and Google allow me to research anything and everything, but the wealth of unfiltered information available means critical analysis is more necessary than ever before. I know some may find my many interests unpalatable and wonder why I cannot retire from the fray. I am motivated by a curiosity that won't let up, and a skepticism (but not cynicism) that prevents me from leaving my mind at the door. Life has been a series of practices: vacation Bible school, high school Christian camp, belief in flying saucers, Theosophical study, a variety of forms of Buddhist meditation, the Catholic mass, etc. I learned much from the many interests of Thomas Merton, and from studying liberation theology in Latin America which taught me the perils and potentials of combining religion and politics. I became a Catholic while majoring in philosophy and religion at the university, and each role was a practice.

Probably the term "practitioner" means something deeper for the writer, a serious practice as opposed to the fancies of a dilitante who dabbles in spirituality. And I confess that I have often felt like a dilitante as I followed my curiosity to monasteries in Massachusetts, England, California, India, Italy and Thailand, and while attending mass in churches throughout Latin America and Europe. Others always seemed so much more dedicated, even the guests in white at Wat Pah Nanachant in Ubon Ratchatani who were more interested in the pecking order of monks than the fine points of walking mediation. Practitioners give up important things like ordinary clothes, meat and sex which make it harder to defect from their chosen path (as Pascal Boyer writes in Religion Explained). No, I wasn't as serious as the others, and I always retained the right to withdraw from a way that I believed was mistaken (like the group of believers in flying saucers when I was 19 who decided that skin color was a sign of spiritual advancement).

I was an Armchair Christian and now I suppose I am an Armchair Buddhist. This negative term was directed at Americans and Westerners in general who discovered and studied Buddhism in the 19th and 20th centuries, even the noble Thoureau as well as the pessimistic Schopenhauer. According to historians of American Buddhism, the Beat Generation writers were the first to take Buddhism seriously, and a few, like poet Gary Snyder, did their apprenticeship in Asia. People in armchairs read books, but who is to say they can't meditate there as well? I have a comfortable armchair in my apartment in Bangkok, where I've read many books on Buddhism, though I have not meditated very often since I arrived here two years ago. I first took up meditation in the early 1980s and kept at it, off and on, for many years. My experience, however, was never more than nothing much. Perhaps I wasn't serious enough.

Does this mean I cannot be a Buddhist, or cannot think of myself as "religious," using the common sense of the word? I have not taken the Refuge Vows which most agree are necessary for one to become a Buddhist. But I would, if the opportunity were offered, since I do believe in the Buddha as an exemplary teacher, the Sangha as the global community of spiritual seekers, and the Dhamma as the way things are (much like the Tao). When I applied to become a Catholic, I had to wait for a year as a catechumen, taking regular classes, before the parish priest anointed me with blessed oil and permitted me to participate in the mass (I also got a letter from the Bishop attesting to my confirmation). Am I still a Catholic? The Dalai Lama has said you cannot be both a Christian and a Buddhist -- "It is like putting a yak's head on a sheep's body" -- and encourages his followers to return to the religion in which they were born. But I am a cafeteria believer, I take what is good and seems true from the religious traditions I have encountered. In India and Thailand I have been impressed by the everyday faith of a popular piety that never takes a day of rest. Alas, I can never be an Indian or a Thai (yet there are many Westerners who seem to think they can become Tibetans). As Popeye said, "I yam what I yam." I claim the right to decide for myself what is religious and whether that is what I am.

So why do I continue to think about religion in all of its permutations and forms? Despite the many crimes committed in the name of institutionalized religion down through the centuries, I respect and share the human thirst for transcendence. Not to escape from the world but to transform it into something deeply meaningful that will help us make selfless and compassionate choices in our daily lives. I believe people create transcendental ideas in the same way that they write symphonies, poetry and craft beautiful art. The human imagination is not constrained by physics or biology. You cannot find evidence to determine what is the right thing to do. Love is not a fact but a deed.

I do not know if there is an ontological being, an omnipotent mind without an observable body, that we can call God, but I doubt it. I do believe the metaphorical notion of God is useful. A Mexican Marxist theologian, whose name I have forgotten, wrote somewhere that "God comes to be in an act of justice." I like that, and I hope that this idea can help us recognize injustice, the absence of God. I do not know if some part of each of us lives on somewhere after death, but I doubt it. Despite the popular piety which focuses on rebirth, I remained convinced that the Buddha taught that our notion of Self is seriously flawed and contributes to unhappiness. I can understand neither the concept of karma nor the belief in the Last Judgment. But I think we make our lives meaningful by the good deeds we perform, and by the love we give and receive. To postpone reckoning for the harm we do until after death is wrong.

It's difficult but not impossible to remain a Catholic if you do not accept that Jesus was the son of God, his resurrection from death, and the real presence in the host at mass. Cafeteria Catholics can do it, but it's a slim diet. I also think it's difficult but not impossible to be a follower of the Buddha even if you do not accept karma, the Sangha as an organization only for monks, the renunciation of meat and sex, and even the historical existence of the teacher (or the Savior for that matter). If that makes me a dilitante and academic researcher rather than a serious practitioner, then so be it. I don't need any true believers in my church of one, just good friends with whom to share experiences on the journey.

I am in agreement with Karen Armstrong, former nun and accomplished writer on religious subjects, when she said in an interview last month with on NPR Radio in America with Terry Gross:
All the world religions say that the way to find what we call God or Brahman, Nirvana, or Tao is to get beyond the prism of egotism, of selfishness which holds us in a little deadlock and limits our vision. That if we can get beyond that, especially in the practice of compassion, when we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, we live much more richly and intensely.

And if religion - your experience of God speaking to you or whatever, compels you to live a more compassionate life, then it's doing its job. And if it's filling you with respect and awe for the natural world and for all God's creatures, it's doing its job. What we call God comes to us in many ways. I couldn't make the personal God work for me. But that's not to say it won't work for other people. We all experience the inimitable, limitless God in as many different ways as there are human beings.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Is Religion Natural?

"Gods and spirits are parasitic," argues cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, "because representing them requires mental capacities that we would activate, religion or not." Religion is natural but nothing special, a by-product of human minds that over eons evolved specific "mental capacities that would be there, gods or no gods."

Boyer is the author of Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors, published in 2001, which I have just finished, and I find his approach to the understanding of religious beliefs and practices exceptionally thought-provoking and challenging. Not since my investigation several years ago into the arguments of the new atheists -- Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett -- have I been so excited by unfamiliar and sometimes even disagreeable ideas. The way to find value in religion, for me, is to clear away all that is wrong about institution, doctrine and dogma. While Boyer is not as wildly destructive of accepted religious verities as the new atheists, his argument that religion is natural (his first book in 1994 was called The Naturalness of Religious Ideas) both deconstructs ontological claims and contradicts the naysayers.

For Boyer and many anthropologists who use discoveries in evolutionary science and cognitive psychology to analyze the creation and transmission of religious concepts, "it is by no means clear that there is such a thing as 'religion' in the abstract." These social scientists assert that religion is cultural. "People get it from other people," Boyer writes, "as they get food preferences, musical tastes, politeness and a dress sense." Religion as a special domain, he argues, was invented by specialists, the priests and Brahmans who came into being along with complex states, literacy and guilds for various craftsmen. They created "coalitions" (an important technical term for Boyer) which promoted the ideas that
first, there is such a thing as ‘religion’ as a special domain of concepts and activities; second, that there are different ‘religions’, that is, different possible ways of practicing religion, one of which is more valid; third, that adopting a particular religion means joining a social group, establishing a community of believers, emphasizing the demarcation between us and them.
What distinguishes Boyer from critical historians of religion, however, is his argument that our minds have evolved in such a way as to be able to easily accept concepts about non-observable agents (like spirits, gods and ancestors) who possess strategic information about everything and who can be placated by detailed and repeated rituals, as well as maintain beliefs about life after death and morality insured by an all-knowing witness. These "inference systems" were evolved to enable early humans to avoid predators and pollution, recognize friends and trust others, create social stability, and come up with causal narratives. Religious concepts "invariably include some strange properties of imagined entities or agents, which leads Boyer to conclude, "First, the religious concepts violate certain expectations from ontological categories. Second, they preserve other expectations." There are a limited number of ontological categories, or mental "templates," such as: Animal, Plant, Tool, Person, Natural Object, Number, which allow us to make inferences and produce expectations about any object we encounter. Counter-intuitive expectations are more memorable and longer lasting. We interpret Gods and spirits counter-intuitively as minds (preserving expectations about Persons) without bodies (which violates our expectations about Persons).
Human minds did not become vulnerable to just any odd kind of supernatural beliefs. On the contrary, because they had many sophisticated inference systems, they became vulnerable to a very restricted set of supernatural concepts: the ones that can jointly activate inference systems for agency, predation, death, morality social exchange, etc. Only a small range of concepts are such that they reach this aggregate relevance, which is why religion has common features the world over.
Unlike scientists who have proposed a "god gene" and others who speculate that religious behavior may be adaptive and therefore a product of evolution, Boyer believes religion is a "mere consequence or side-effect of having the brains we have."
There is no religious instinct, no specific inclination in the mind, no particular disposition for these concepts, no special religion center in the brain, and religious people are not different from non-religious ones in essential cognitive functions. Even faith and belief seem to be simple by-products of the way concepts and inferences are doing their work for religion in much the same way as for other domains.
The capabilities of our mental system allow for envisioning hypothetical situations and imaginary friends. The real work is done in the "basement" (he avoids speaking of the "unconscious") by our implicit inference systems. "What is contained in the explicit thought – what we usually call a ‘belief’ – is very often an attempt to justify or explain the intuitions we have as a result of implicit processes in the mental basement. It is an interpretation of (or a report on) these intuitions." We are not "hard-wired" for God but rather our mental wiring lets Him in by the back door.

Religion, contrary to the new atheists, is not simply a product of ignorance and will not be going away anytime soon. And even the most religious conservative might retort that God can design humans any way He likes and that Boyer's theory simply outlines the divine plan. But for me, Religion Explained, while not totally explaining everything, opens the door to a new way of considering religious beliefs and the "experience" that has illuded me, despite many years of prayer, meditation and intellectual exploration. I'm not too happy when Boyer refers to our brains as "complex biological machines," and with his use of computer metaphors to describe the operation of our mental "processes." It seems too reductionistic for my taste. He never really explains the relationship between "brain" and "mind" and the word "consciousness" is studiously avoided. For the most part he avoids commenting on the truth claims of believers, though he does say that religion as a separate domain is "the foundation of some decidedly woolly pop-theology, to the effect that religion makes the world 'more beautiful' or 'more meaningful', that it addresses 'ultimate' questions.'" And he adds:
Another way of escaping from the conflict is the attempt, especially popular among some scientists, to create a purified religion, a metaphysical doctrine..Metaphysical ‘religions’ that will not dirty their hands with such human purposes and concerns are about as marketable as a car without an engine.
I believe in neither spirits, ghosts, ancestors hanging around after their death, or gods. Nor do I believe I possess an eternal soul, or some other entity that might perhaps be reborn after my death into another (hopefully not yet occupied) body. Religious institutions (Boyer calls them "brands") separate people more often than reconcile them, and religious differences frequently incite violence. I do not think religion necessarily insures social stability, nor do I agree that religious morality is the only way to guarantee good behavior. The thought of an eternal heaven or hell does not give me comfort before the mystery of death. I felt little in common with most Christians I met when I identified as a Catholic, and the mix of Buddhism and Hindusim with animism here in Thailand leaves me out in the cold (intellectuals can rarely adopt new belief systems wholeheartedly). But I believe in religious creative as much as I believe that music and art are among the crowning achievements of human evolution.

Boyer's nine chapters have numerous subtitles which occasionally are more distracting than illuminating. The first subtitle in both the first and last chapters refers to "airy nothing," which I tracked down to a verse from Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream."
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Although Boyer nowhere spells it out, this gives me hope. We humans see shapes in the clouds, constellations in the stars, and purpose in strings of DNA. We are the animal that writes poems, novels, and unreadable intellectual treatises about theories no one can understand. We make movies, design architectural marvels (like Gaudi's spiritual structures in Barcelona) and create iPhone apps. Why do we need gods to justify our creativity and condemn our mistakes?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Thai Sangha Treats Women as Untouchables

A Buddhist scholar from England last week accused Theravada Buddhists in Thailand of being "incredibly uninterested" in studying the words of the Buddha, and said the "most pernicious and dangerous" effect of this neglect is "the scornful treatment of women." Richard Gombrich, founder and president of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, said the Thai Sangha "had taken the extremely retrograde step" of not allowing monks to take anything from a woman's hand, a prohibition neither justified by Buddhist texts nor proscribed even in Sri Lanka where Theravada is also the tradition.

Gombrich made these remarks during his keynote address at a conference in Bangkok on Buddhism and the World Economic Crisis which coincided with the 96th birthday of the Supreme Patriarch of the Thai Sangha. Saying he felt his "paramount duty is to speak the truth as I see it," Gombrich described himself as "a fervent admirer and deeply disappointed well-wisher" of Buddhism. The Oxford don has studied, taught and written about Pali and Sanskrit texts for nearly fifty years, and he suggested that Theravadin Buddhists were ignorant of what the Buddha taught because they ignored the Pali canon.
There is ample empirical evidence that most Thai Buddhists think that making donations to monks and temples is far more meritorious than keeping the five precepts which the Buddha formulated for them. They think this because it is what they have been taught...Showing respect for the Buddha is not sticking gold leaf on a statue, it is respecting his words, the Dhamma.
The treatment of women as lesser than men is a holdover from the Hindu caste system which the Buddha rejected. "If we read the Pali Canon," Gombrich told the gathering of monks and laypeople, "there cannot be any doubt that the Buddha regarded women as spiritually equal to men." In Thailand, he said, particularly in the north, "women are not allowed to circumambulate stupas because their inherent impurity will destroy the power of the relic within. Monks may not come into contact with a woman, even a girl baby or a woman in her nineties." They are "being treated by monks exactly as are untouchables in traditional Hinduism."

Women cannot legally become nuns in Thailand because, according to the official reasoning, the ordination succession for nuns died out here a long time ago. Some women, like the Ven. Dhammananda, have gone to Sri Lanka or Taiwan where ordinations of women are allowed, but they are not recognized as nuns by the Thai Sangha. "All that prevents it is the attitude of those who hold power," Gombrich said. "What is more important: that women be allowed to live as Buddhist nuns if they so desire, or that the Sangha adhere to a rule about ordination procedure?"

The applause for Gombrich's speech seemed lukewarm. In the hall afterward, I heard the words "impolite" and "arrogant," referring to an academic who would dare criticize the Thai Sangha on the occasion of its leader's birthday celebration. I, however, found his blunt words refreshing, and they rang true for me. While no religion treats women as the equals of men (and I saw ample evidence of that in my Catholic past), I was shocked when I came here to learn that many Thai women believe that only male monks can achieve enlightenment. Thais as a whole focus more on making merit to obtain a good rebirth rather than practicing meditation to seek the awakening that the Buddha taught was available to all. In my experience, women are far more numerous in Thai temples than men, just as they also appear to dominate Christian congregations despite their often second-class status. Gombrich was speaking of Theravadin countries when he observed that "women are far more conspicuously pious than is women who seem to keep the religion alive." I think it might be universal.

This weekend marked the end of Pansa, the three-(lunar) month rainy season retreat that is sometimes called Buddhist Lent. There were religious processions in different cities, even a water-buffalo race in Isaan, and the Naga fireballs rose on cue from the Mekong River near Nong Khai. Sunday was Wan Phra -- Monk Day -- and a full moon one at that. Flower sellers were plying their trade on the sidewalks. We bought a plastic bucket of goodies (toothpaste, tea, etc.) the night before at Tesco Lotus for our donation to the temple. Going out before 7 the next morning, we first purchased some food from a stall and gave it to three young monks on pindabat up Boromratchonannonee (I've never got figured out how to spell this tongue-twister) Road. Then we went in search of lotus buds at the morning market on Charoensanitwong several blocks away. Though they seemed in short supply, we eventually found a dozen of them. From there it was a short walk to Wat Ruak Bangbamru. I expected a special celebration because of the confluence of important dates, but I was surprised to find a large market within the precinct of the temple. There was little space to walk and everything, from close to fresh meat, was on sale. I thought about Jesus and the money changers in the Jewish temple, but decided that offering space to poor people attempting to earn a living is a good use of religious property. People on motorbikes pushed their way through the crowd and you had to watch your back. Everywhere monks were accepting gifts of food, flowers and money from kneeling devotees (there is no other word to describe the attitude of laypeople to monks). Inside a small cottage at a corner of the temple compound, an old monk in a wheel chair was accepting donations. Nan and I put our gift bucket and a few lotus buds on a small piece of cloth so the monk could avoid being contaminated by a woman (it's OK for me to hand it to him directly). While not particularly busy, there was a steady stream of donors presenting a variety of gifts. Afterward, we returned home with a few lotus buds which Nan opened and put in a glass below our Buddha icon which we keep festooned with flowers.

In the afternoon we went to pay our respects to the King at Siriraj Hospital, one stop up the Chao Phraya River from Pinklao Bridge, a short bus ride from our apartment. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, at 81 the world's longest reigning monarch, has been hospitalized for two weeks with an unspecified ailment, perhaps pneumonia. All of the official announcements have been upbeat, the King is getting better, he can eat and sleep, he's off antibiotics, the inflammation has lessened. He's also receiving therapy, but no reason is given. It's rumored he has Parkinson's, and he has looked weak in rare public appearances during the last two years. Talking about what happens when the King dies is taboo in Thailand (the Independent in London has an informative article on the subject) and the upcoming succession is the elephant in the room whenever Thai politics are discussed. There have been a flurry of rumors about the Crown Prince in Germany recently and I've seen a photo from a German newspaper taken at a festival where he is wearing jeans and a tee shirt (at home he is only photographed in full dress uniform), accompanied by a Thai girl who dies not resemble his (third and current) wife. Printing that photo in Thailand would merit a long jail sentence. His father the King is revered by Thais and I wanted to go to the hospital to pray for his recovery and the well-being of Thailand. Nan and I were ushered into a large room with many tables and guest books, and we each signed our name. Outside there were small groups of people before a shrine in front of a statue of the King's father, Mahidol Adulyadej, a doctor who is regarded as the father of modern medicine and public health in Thailand. Some people sat holding pictures of the King and others scanned the surrounding buildings for signs of where the King might be staying.

The political scene in Thailand at the moment is confusing to say the least. Of course I can only read the English press, but Bangkok Pundit and affiliated web sites keep me somewhat informed. The political coalition of Prime Minister Abhisit seems to be unraveling and his powerful backers close to the palace and the military may be pulling the plug. His attempt to appoint a new national police chief was apparently thwarted (though his nominee is now "acting" chief) and a close aide to the PM resigned. The courts come up with indictments and acquittals that many see as politicized decisions. A series of industrial projects were put on hold for supposedly environmental reasons and Abhisit claims that tourism, suffering from last year's airport closing as well as the poor economy, will take up the slack (which no one believes). One current project is amending the constitution written by the military after the 2006 coup which might being it closer to the popular "people's charter" passed in 1997. The voters, whose electoral choices have been denied time and again, will probably get to vote on changes in a referendum. One good source for information is Chang Noi's occasionally column (the pen name is believed to shield historian Chris Baker) in The Nation. Most recently he wrote that the old discredited power and money politics have returned with a vengeance.

Yesterday I delivered my first PowerPoint talk to the comparative religions study group organized by expat volunteers from the National Museum. The subject was "What is 'Religion'?" and I was the first to speak. There will be three presentations at each meeting for six weeks. After me, Jean-Pierre spoke on "Founders and Prophets," and Tracy talked about "Sacrifice" with photos of rituals from her visits to Indonesia. I don't know why I've taken so long to learn PowerPoint; it was great fun putting the talking points together with photos, and not all that different from writing this blog, a kind of creative assemblage. The nucleus of my presentation was a talk I gave perhaps fifteen years ago at UC Santa Cruz on "The End of 'Religion'." I used ideas from Clifford Geertz, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Jonathan Z. Smith, and emphasized that the term "religion" was a 19th century invention by academics, as well as elites in Asia attempting to resist Christian missionary efforts by showing they already had a "religion." But I gathered new data, particularly from Pascal Boyer's fascinating book, Religion Explained, which Jimmy had recommended to me at the first group meeting. And I also downloaded a transcript of Terry Gross' NPR interview with Karen Armstrong two weeks ago that provided a more positive slant for the ending. Boyer believes we're hard-wired for religion beliefs and ritual activities but that this does not prove the existence of non-observable "transcendent" entities and agencies. Armstrong thinks the essence of religion is compassion, and I certainly agree that this is an admirable goal. I can't help comparing religious observance in the west unfavorably with the popular piety I have experienced up close in India and here in Thailand. But I am incapable of such complete submission to the spirit of the universe. Which means I must remain always outside as an admirer and often skeptical well-wisher.

And now for something completely different: