Monday, December 07, 2009

Pretty in Pink

Because Thai astrologers have determined that pink is a healing color, hundreds of thousands (millions?) turned out in that color on Saturday to celebrate the 82nd birthday of their ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Wearing our pink shirts, Nan and I plunged into the heart of the massive crowds in Bangkok to light candles and watch the fireworks display. Not only did I join in the prayers for the recovery of the world's longest-reigning monarch, but I also hoped to get a better understanding of what Thais feel about their King and why he is believed to be the nation's most important source of stability.

King Bhumibol has been at Siriraj Hospital for nearly three months since he was hospitalized for what was originally described as a fever and lack of appetite. Speculating on the seriousness of his illness is a punishable offense here. He has appeared in public twice in a wheelchair on the hospital grounds, but for his birthday (also Father's Day in Thailand) he traveled across the river to the Grand Palace where, sitting on a gold throne and wearing ceremonial white garb, he spoke briefly to the royal family and important dignitaries. After thanking them for coming, the King said,
My happiness and goodness will be preserved if our nation has prosperity and security with calm. You all have an important duty for the country and all Thai people must understand their duty clearly, and have in mind firmly to do their duty the best they can, for public benefit and to help develop the country.
His words will be examined very carefully by the different factions in this sharply divided country where the government of Prime Minister Abhisit, backed by the business community, monarchy and the military, rules from Bangkok while the impoverished rural hinterland continues to see the exiled Taksin Shinawatra as their savior. King Bhumibol's enigmatic utterances have occasionally led in the past to reconciliation between disputing forces, but for over five years the class conflict in Thailand has undermined stability, democracy and the rule of law. It's questionable whether calm can prevail.

A couple of Canadian tourists standing next to us were mystified by the colors (besides pink, many Thais wore yellow, the traditional color for the King since he was born on a Monday, the yellow day) and the pomp and circumstance. They were dazzled by the displays of light, colored fountains, large photos of the King, and numerous booths set up by government ministries along Ratchadamnoen. All roads were closed between the Sanam Luang parade grounds and the Royal Plaza in front of Amanta Samakhom Throne Hall where an elaborate son et lumière performance, "The King of Kings," with a full orchestra will be presented for the next week. We were standing with the Canadians in front of Democracy Monument, designed by an Italian fascist to commemorate the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Thailand calls itself "a democracy with the King as head of state," but the reverential and even religious feeling Thais have for their King is unlike anything seen in Europe where only a few constitutional monarchies remain.

We began the day by joining a neighborhood celebration to feed nine monks in honor of the King's birthday. The night before Nan had prepared separate packages of canned fish, instant noodle soup, and rice to present at the tamboon merit-making ceremony. She had heard that there were to be 99 monks (9 is clearly the auspicious number) but we misunderstood the directions and found the small local gathering instead. The monks sat on a raised platform on one side of the road, united by a string, and chanted for the people who sat on plastic chairs. At a long table, offerings were collected for the nine begging bowls of the monks by a group of volunteers. A tall money tree with contributions to the temple stood at one end of the table. On another table was a pig's head, fruit and incense, something I've seen at Thai weddings. The festivities were occasionally interrupted by motorcycles, cars and even trucks carrying ice for street vendors who had to navigate the narrow street. After the chanting, the monks ate their breakfast while the crowd looked on, some of the participants offering envelopes of money to individual monks. When the monks finished their meal, a communal kitchen served rice soup with pork to all the guests followed by a sweet dessert. It was a lovely way to begin the day and probably was echoed all over Thailand .

Last Friday at our IDEA Group discussion, Jimmy had offered a developmental framework for looking at Thailand's continuing problems by thinking of it as a "newly industrialized country," a socioeconomic classification he found with help from Jeffrey Sachs' book, The End of Poverty, and with an assist from Jerrod Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. While Sachs would like to eliminate extreme poverty with judicious foreign aid and Diamond sees unequal development as the result of geography, Jimmy presented markers on the road to full development using the categories of various thinkers. Patrick, however, pointed out that these categories tended to be Eurocentric and made it difficult to appreciate the uniqueness of Asian development. For example, it's very easy for westerners to criticise religion and royalism, two of the three pillars of Thai nationhood, for holding back both democracy and financial development, without understanding their use. I suggested that Thai Buddhism may be overly superstitious, but it does generate an incredible generosity on the part of believers here. And whatever you may say about religious devotion to the King, the monarchy has provided Thais with a sense of identity and belonging that is exceptionally strong. The upcoming succession will put that to the test.

It's doubtful that I will ever fully understand the attachment of Thais to their King. To speak of it with less than full appreciation is to enter dangerous territory and no doubt I've transgressed that border many times here. "It seems you love points of contention," one reader observed, "evidenced with your toe tapping the Royal boundary lines every week." I began this blog nearly four years ago with a desire to speak about the unspeakable, in particular matters of religion, sexuality and politics. But that kind of rigorous honesty has gotten me into trouble, and I have lost a few friends over comments and criticisms I've made. Lately I've been wondering about my stubborn defense of views and opinions that perhaps do not mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Why am I writing this blog?

Nearly a year ago I was asked by a famous mystery novelist to take down from my blog any reference to her deceased husband, a distinguished professor of comparative religion whom I had served as a research assistant for over ten years. "It's kind of peculiar for my readers to follow a google alert that leads them to a blog with Barbie and Ken having sex." (see "Barbie Exposed") I deleted my departed mentor's name from my eulogy and only referred to him as The Professor. More recently I wrote about a comparative religions study group in which I participated, and included photos and some identification of various participants. I received an email from the president of the group's sponsoring organization in which she said I was "damaging the privacy of our members...Let me say it simply, 'this is not done.'" Shamefaced, I deleted the photos and any telltale identification. I have never valued privacy much and am always surprised to discover how important it is to some people. Or perhaps, as the famous writer said, it's the association with a blog that openly discusses forbidden subjects.

Other blog posts have ended friendships. Someone I regarded as a friend wrote that my description of a farang's ordination as a monk was "particularly nasty" because of my uncomplimentary description of his shaven head and the white robe he wore for the ceremony, as well as a reference to his reported pre-ordination peccadillos. I edited the offending remarks, but he said he stopped reading my blog again "after the rather gleeful heading of how you think we monks consider women ("Thai Monks Treat Women as Untouchables"). I was reporting on a talk by Pali scholar Richard Gombrich with whom I was in agreement, but I changed "Monks" to "Sangha" to indicate it was the authorities who had decreed that women could not touch male monks nor become full-fledged nuns in Thailand. He added that I had not done any "actual research into the matter," but when I sent him some confirming data he called me a liar. Soon after he wrote on his own blog a post about "intellectual Buddhists" who "tend to dispute with anyone who will listen. And then congratulate themselves for bravery." Was this me? I am still at a loss to know whether or not I should have censored my views and opinions in order to retain this friendship.

I lost another friend because of the critical remarks I made on another web site about a Burmese monk who had come to speak to a gather of expats. I wrote that he read his talk without animation in a soft monotone I could barely hear and suggested that his less-than-engaging (for me) presentation of Buddhism was probably not helpful for the average English speaker interested in learning more about Buddhism. Someone I had known for two years took great offense at this and in an email asked me to refrain from attending a Buddhist event he had organized out of fear I would criticize the speaker, his teacher. His email to me, laced with ridicule, referred without specifying it to a recent blog I had written on cognitive theories of religion, "Is Religion Natural?" He wrote that he knew "I was not a Buddhist or religious," and that my interest was merely academic, "so you might just be bored." And then he said, "when your cafeteria approach leads you to make public statements attacking Bhikkus for not being engaging enough, how can you expect me to react with delight." While he later apologized for the "tone" of his criticism of me, he said "I stand by what I wrote." I had naively assumed that someone with whom I had many conversations over the past two years would know me well enough not to make what seemed to me an off-the-wall judgment call. And yet it appeared that both friends had imputed to me ill will and evil intentions because of what I had written (and not who I was). I was stuck trying to defend myself as a good guy, with kind and compassionate views and opinions. It didn't work.

Another expat I met here sought to engage me in an email exchange about religion and the deeper quest for meaning. We had a lively exchange that involved several emails a day for a few weeks. He had a particular notion of the religious path and believed that inner experience was primary. While in general terms I do not have a problem with that, it seemed that I gradually became the target he wished to convert to his way of thinking and interpreting spirituality. When pushed back against the wall, I often turn argumentative and I sought refuge in deconstruction where all verbal claims appear suspicious. To him this was a typical use of the intellect, valuing reason over intuition. I began to feel that he was using me as a foil and wanted to pigeon-hole me as "the intellectual" and "the academic," two rationalist roles that he found objectionable. So I politely cut off the conversation and, since ideas seemed so important to him, any possibility of a close friendship between us

In Buddhist teaching, clinging to views and opinions is one of the four different kinds of attachment that lead to suffering, second only to bodily desire. According to Ajahn Chah, "The things of this world are merely conventions of our own making. Having established them we get lost in them, and refuse to let go, giving rise to clinging to personal views and opinions." But conventions are important in this world and we should respect them instead of appealing to a higher wisdom. Avoiding them gives rise to resentment on the part of others. "We live within conventions," the monk wrote. Problems occur because people cling to them." They have a use, "but in reality there really isn't anything there. Even people are non-existent." And Buddhadasa Bhikku in Handbook for Mankind adds, "To cling to one's own ideas and opinions is quite natural and is not normally condemned or disapproved of." Preconceived ideas and opinions we once believed passionately can be destroyed. So "it is necessary that we continually amend our views, making them progressively more correct, better, higher, changing false views into views that are closer and closer to the truth, and ultimately into the kind of views that incorporate the Four Noble Truths."

This blog is a long way from Truth with a capital T. Yet I hope that by exploring my world in words I can separate the chaff from the wheat and come closer to something deep and true. It is only the views and opinions, musings and speculations, of a 70-year-old expat in Bangkok who is struggling with the important issues of love and death and how to be a good person, a good parent to distant children, and a friend to all who would share his joys and sorrows in a spirit of humility and curiosity. Please don't judge me only by my words.


Janet Brown said...

Please continue to be generous with your words, ideas, and insights--I appreciate them immensely and am sure that for every one person who takes exception, there are five who read what you have to say and are glad to think about your point of view--although it may not be close to their own. Thank you, Will for what you bring to this site--

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Jon said...
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Jon said...

Wow - great post. This is the first time I've read your blog but I will definitely be subscribing and returning for more.

[Sorry removed my previously spelling error-ridden post, curse my late night web browsing habits]