Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Where Was God?

For a week we've been listening to the tragic news and seeing the horrific images of the earthquake in Haiti that may have caused as many as 100,000 deaths, untold injuries, and the almost total destruction of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Aside from the lunatic Christian preacher Pat Robertson, no one seems to be asking: Where was God?

I long ago discarded any belief in an omnipotent and omniscient supreme deity who knows all and controls the fate of the universe. To think that such a patriarch (for God is almost always masculine) with a long white beard exists is absurd. If the word "God" is meaningful at all, it must be in a metaphorical sense (for example, the divine might symbolize the "highest good" in our thoughts, intentions, aspirations and actions). A god that intervenes, however, who hears and responds to our prayers, can only be the creation of projection and wishful thinking. In Haiti, when a lucky few are pulled from the rubble several days after the city came crashing down, grateful relatives thank God for answering their prayers and the rescue is invariably termed a "miracle." If God can be praised for the miracle of saving one or two, then He must also be condemned for the senseless murder of thousands, particularly the young innocents in Haiti who never got a chance at a decent life while growing up in one of the world's poorest countries.

Natural disasters, like the Haitian earthquake and the 2004 tsunami, pose a special challenge to philosophers and theologians. What is the meaning of suffering, particularly the suffering of innocent children? If God is all-powerful and knowingly permits such suffering, then he must be evil. Deists try to escape from this conundrum by claiming that humans cannot understand the mind of God and that all that happens does so for divine reasons. As Liebniz said, this must be "the best of all possible worlds." Muslims consider whatever happens the will of Allah, to which we must submit rather than intellectually understand. Unfortunately for Christians, there is only one lifetime with no possibility for the slaughtered innocents to get a second chance at life. Buddhists at least get innumerable rebirths, but then they do not believe in a personal God whom they can blame or absolve for evil, but only a impersonal Dhamma (eternal law) which governs all existence.

What does it take to shake the consensus of belief in a benevolent God? Just such a challenge occurred on Nov. 1, 1755 when an earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of Lisbon, Portugal. It was estimated to have been 9 on the Richter scale (compared to the 7 quake in Haiti) and many think the death toll was in the tens of thousands. Felt as far away as Finland and North Africa, the Great Lisbon Earthquake shattered the religious certainties of Europeans and was much discussed by Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau. Some think the paradigm-changing effects of huge disasters are similar to such unnatural events as the Holocaust and 9-11. The destruction of Lisbon was the result of people living in cities, wrote Rousseu, who used it as evidence for his back-to-nature, noble savage, philosophy. For Voltaire, the Lisbon quake disproved the optimism of Liebniz and he devoted his humorous masterpiece of sarcasm, Candide, to demonstrating the futility of looking for divine benevolence. One of the disasters the protagonist witnesses in the book is the Lisbon quake. There is no point in looking for the hand of God, Voltaire concludes. In the end, all we can do in the face of suffering and evil is tend our own gardens.

"God" is a most useful concept when one needs to cast blame or point fingers. John Wesley, the Methodist founder, attributed the Lisbon tragedy to "sin," to "that curse that was brought upon the earth by the original transgression of Adam and Eve." Televangelist Pat Robertson, who has said that God caused Hurricane Katrina because of legalized abortion in America, told his viewers after the earthquake that Haiti was suffering because it "swore a pact with the devil" to break free of French rule in a revolution that achieved independence in 1804. "Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another," Robertson claimed. The late Christian evangelist Jerry Falwell once announced that "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." Russ Limbaugh, never one to summon God to assist his overblown ego, said that Obama will use Haiti for his political advantage by improving his standing with "the black community, in the both light-skinned and the dark-skinned community, in his country." And on his radio show he said that he wouldn't trust that money donated to Haiti through the White House Web site would actually go to the relief efforts. He said Americans don't need to contribute to earthquake relief because they already donate to Haiti through their income taxes. The White House spokesman called Limbaugh's remarks "stupid" and even George Bush, who said during his time in office that God spoke to him, defended Obama's relief moves. The problem with attributing either miracles or disasters to God is that he's not talking, and such arguments are unprovable, in this world at least.

The dilemma of senseless suffering is raised to high art in Dostoevsky's epic novel, The Brothers Karamazov. There Ivan Karamazov, the rationalist, talks with his younger brother, the monk Alyosha, and explains why he rejects a world that contains any suffering permitted by God, where peasant children can be torn to death by dogs at the whim of a feudal landlord. In a sense, the nihilist Ivan agrees with Robertson and says in "The Grand Inquisitor" story he tells his brother that the church has made a pact with the devil to protect its followers from the burden of free will. "So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship," the Inquisitor tells Christ who has come back to earth in Seville during the time of the Inquisition when heretics were burnt at the stake. In response, Christ kisses the Inquisitor on his "bloodless, aged lips" instead of answering him and is allowed to disappear into the city while the church remains in the control of the priests. "We shall triumph and shall be Caesars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of man," the Inquisitor trumpets. At the end of Ivan's parable, Alyosha, the spiritual soul of the novel, kisses his brother, indicating to me that in a world where God is helpless before innocent suffering, only the possibility of selfless love, freely chosen , can suffice.

That hopefully is what is happening right now in Haiti as dozens of countries around the world send assistance and aid to prevent starvation, provide medical help for the wounded, and begin rebuilding the infrastructure which, in this case, means from the ground up, since all basic services, never good to begin with, are now in ruins. If the old benevolent God no longer exists, perhaps humans with compassion and kindness towards the victims of human suffering are the "hands of God." Unfortunately, disasters also attract predators eager to make a profit from the misery of others, as Naomi Klein points out in The Shock Doctrine which I am just beginning to read along with other members of the IDEA Group. Citing stories after Katrina and the tsunami as evidence, Klein calls these "orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, 'disaster capitalism.'" Rather than freeing the market from the state, she finds political and corporate elites merging to "trade favors to secure the right to appropriate precious resources previously held in the public domain." The hand of disaster capitalism, pioneered by the late economist Milton Friedman and his neocon followers can be seen in Pinochet's Chile as well as in Iraq, in China after Tianammen Square and in Yeltsin's Russia, in addition to Thatcher's Britain after the Falklands War, and in Asia in the wake of the financial crisis of 1997-8. In all cases, the mantra is: privatize, deregulate and cut social spending. Obama's administration, of course, will handle things differently. Or will it? "U.S. Mulls Role in Haiti After the Crisis" reads the headline of a story in the New York Times today. Obama says that the U.S. will be there for the long haul. Some are already warning that the "shock doctrine" will used as an excuse to take control of Haiti's resources. Others are citing the long history of U.S. involvement in Haiti which is largely responsible for the country's chronic instability and poverty (Tracy Kidder calls it a "Country without a Net").

The Haitians are a very religious people and practice faiths as varied as Catholic Christianity (80 per cent of believers) and vodou which can be traced back to the African homeland of slaves who were taken there to harvest sugar cane. On the television news shows, many could be seen in fervent prayer, kneeling down in the rubble-strewn streets. I don't know how many raised their fists in anger at God or Loa, the primary vodou deity, demanding an explanation for the destruction of their country and the deaths of their friends and relatives. It was an equal opportunity earthquake, leveling churches and hospitals, government buildings and schools. Even the homes of the wealthy (rich Americans, like the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, had vacation palaces there) were flattened. I'm sure no one felt singled out by an angry god. For most, the fantasies of their faiths probably gave them some comfort. A meaningless death is much harder to take. The children have gone to a better place where they don't have to suffer the degradation of poverty any more. I wouldn't want to take that from them now. Marx was right; religion really is an opiate for the masses, a drug that anesthetizes our pain while blinding us to the truth. It's not God that will save us but other human beings who will provide compassionate care when the walls come tumbling down and who won't demand that we sell out our future to the disaster capitalists.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Perils of Benjapes

Many Thais believe that reaching the age of 25 ("Benjapes," from the Pali word for 25) brings the potential for bad luck. Its numerical power is similar to 13 (in my condo the 13th floor has been renumbered 12A). While not all that superstitious, Nan immunized herself against danger by donating gifts to homeless children last Sunday and performing rites at the large Chinese Buddhist temple in Chinatown, Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, on the morning of her 25th birthday Tuesday. I helped by taking her on a dinner cruise down the Chao Phraya River in the evening. As we passed the lights of the Grand Palace, I gave her a diamond ring.

In his best-selling book Mind Management, the popular Thai monk Phra Wor Vajiramedhi, writes that Benjapes "casts its long and ominous shadow on Thais." Somebody approaching 25 "goes through a stage of agitation with the heart palpitating strangely for fear of some unknown, unproven myth, pushing the envelope to see how they will survive the ominous age and land safely at 26." Some even indulge in "weird rituals" which they hope will break off kamma and diminish misfortune. Rather than looking outward to find blame for any bad luck, the monk advises, 25-year-olds should look inward and accept the maturity they have achieved through a quarter century of life.

Both Nan and I consider ourselves very lucky since we met for coffee and dinner seven months ago after first meeting online. She had grown up in a small village in Phayao, a northern province, and worked in a factory after two years at the local college. She came to Bangkok nearly two years ago in search of a better life, and after working with a cousin selling mobile phones she found a good job in the office of a company making packing materials where her computer skills, organizational abilities and English facility could be put to use. Nan's experience with Thai men had been disappointing. One boyfriend got another girl pregnant. It is not easy to be a country girl in Bangkok where dangers lurk, and she'd had her heart broken. Her younger sister had been with an older Thai man for four years, so Nan determined to look for an older farang. And she found me.

I was much older and she was quite a bit younger than the partners we sought, but from the moment we met there was an undeniable attraction between us. She was cautious: the photo she used on the dating web site was of someone else, and some of the details in her bio were invented to disguise her identity. I had met many Thai women online and was weary of the dating game. Soon we were revealing truths about our lives to each other than few others knew. We had fun together. We laughed alot, and when her father was sick, we cried together. We went to movies, to the zoo, strolled in Bangkok's parks, watched a puppet show at the Suan Lum night market, rode scary rides and went swimming at the Suan Siam amusement park, took a weekend trip to the island of Ko Samet together and another to Hua Hin, and we ate at expensive restaurants as well as cheap sidewalk cafés. We slept in each other's rooms. She celebrated my 70th birthday with me, and we consoled each other when her father and then my son died.

After my marriage ended seven years ago, I lived alone in California. While I enjoyed the freedom independence gave me, traveling unencumbered throughout Europe, Latin America and Asia, I missed the joy of sharing a life with someone. The Catholics and the Buddhists have it all wrong when they tout celibacy as the necessary door to enlightenment and salvation (however much theologians praise the laity, it is the sexless priests who are privileged in both religions). We humans are made to live together, and love is our highest art. When I first came to Thailand I tried sex alone and found it insufficient. On my third visit I met a working woman on Ko Samui and lived with her for two weeks. This "girlfriend experience" confirmed for me that it was a full relationship that I ultimately wanted and not serial sex with strangers. I became adept at online dating and met many wonderful women. One of them I lived with for ten months, but we finally separated because she felt my age could not be accepted by her friends and family (from whom she'd kept our affair a secret). This failure did not deter me, and I continued to look for love, despite the advice of a monk who suggested I should be preparing for death rather than pursuing pleasures of the flesh (celibates can only see desire as a threat).

It's not easy being a cliché. Thailand is full of older men in search of younger women. An extreme May-December romance that would be condemned in Europe or America is more acceptable here (although, as noted above, not by all). Men are attracted by a social ethos akin to the 50's in the west before women sought equality to men; here in Thailand, at least apart from urban elites, the gender roles remain separated: women care for the men who provide for them (at least in principle). For women from poor backgrounds, an alliance with a foreign resident or visitor can provide opportunities only dreamed of. I've been tutored in Thai-farang relationships by my friend Jerry who has been married to a wonderful woman from Surin for over 10 years. And I've read numerous books and articles of advice. At times it seemed as if love in Thailand was little more than a business transaction, one involving a solitary foreign man on one side and an extended Thai family on the other.

Until I met Nan, when the theoretical became real. When I protested that I was too old for her, she countered with "you think too much." As our love grew and took shape, she told her friends and family about me. After her father's death, I flew to Chiang Rai to bring her back to Bangkok, and met her Yuan, her mother, her half-brother Nok and her cousin Edward, the young son of Yuan's late sister and her New Zealand boyfriend. As we left, Nan's mother held our hands and blessed our union. Back in Bangkok, we set up house together and the last four months have been like an extended honeymoon.

Last weekend we went shopping for the ring I gave her on the Chao Phraya River Tuesday night. We call it a "boyfriend ring" to show that she is taken. Her sister Anne has one from her boyfriend who is a married man. It's not an engagement ring, with a promise for the future, but a sign of what we mean to each other right now. To Nan, I am her husband and she is my wife. She knows that I cannot afford to marry her family, the usual custom in Thai villages. I can only be responsible for her (and she can, if she wishes, send her family some of the monthly allowance I give her). We were in fact married in the eyes of Thai culture as soon as we began living together.

There are numerous possible bumps in the road ahead of us. I cannot give her children, which she says is fine because she wants to take care of Edward, now seven, the son of her Aunt Ban Yen who died of cancer several years ago. As for me, my children are not pleased that they might have a step-mother younger than they. I warn Nan that my youthful energy and vigor could fail at any time, and that taking care of an ailing old man will be no bed of roses. She dismisses my concern, and shows a sensitivity to my needs that I've never seen in another woman before. Long-term planning for me seems fruitless, but I worry about Nan's future. When I asked her to tell me her dreams, she said she would like to finish the last two years of university to get a degree in business. So I've agreed to pay for her education. She has enrolled in one of the government schools convenient to her work and our apartment and, because she enjoys working and is encouraged by her boss to get a degree, will begin late afternoon classes in May.

We feel confident now that Nan need fear no bad luck from her Benjapes, and that her year after become 25 will be filled with love, adventure and opportunity. I, too, look forward to my year after turning 70 with optimism and hope, secure in the knowledge that I have found the last love of my life. Our challenge in the coming months is to find a larger yet cheaper place to live, an apartment as conveniently located as our present one. Nan is selling the furniture in her room which we've kept until now to store what could not be moved to my condo. I've been less than frugal these past couple of months, and so we must plan a new economy for the long haul. There is so much I want to share with Nan, and she is eager to learn and curious about the wide world far from her village in Phayao. Lest I give the impression that this is a Pygmalion relationship, let me say that in many respects (aside from years) she is my equal, and that in quite a few she is definitely my superior.

Happy Birthday, Nan.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Out With the Old, In With the New

Our 2009 ended by the pool at Bill Resort on the island of Ko Samui where New Year celebrations included a sumptuous buffet of Thai delicacies, traditional dancing and drumming by local groups, a cabaret performance by katoeys from a club in Lamai Beach, and a show by monkeys trained to climb palms and pick coconuts. It was followed by a spectacular fireworks display up and down the beach as hundreds of sky lanterns drifted over the island under the full moon.

I wasn't too happy about the monkey siting on my shoulder after the show for a photo op, but the fat ladyboy who lip synced to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" was terrific, and the grilled seafood was delicious. Tickets for the pricey party were included in our six-day stay and we were seated next to a Dane with his Norwegian girlfriend who had obviously gotten a head start on festivities. Most of the guests seemed to be from northern European countries which were experiencing their coldest winter in thirty years. Georgio's Bao Bab Restaurant, my hangout on Lamai Beach when I visited Samui three years ago, was filled with Italians who clearly loved their pasta, and on one of our excursions I talked with a couple from Vladivostok (Russians are now everywhere, judging and by the signs and menus in their language).

I was surprised to find so many children at Bill Resort (seeing my old name stenciled everywhere felt a bit odd), and even a few babes in arms. In the first hours of 2010 (2553 here in Thailand) they were on the beach helping their parents to send aloft the candle-fueled sky lanterns (called khom loi in Thai) and waving sparklers while the thunder of fireworks resonated far out to sea. The tables for the outdoor food stalls in the center of Lamai were filled with families, right next to the brightly lit bars with their bikini-clad pole dancers. Although the sand and the sea are spectacular, the little village of Lamai is quite tawdry, catering to every tacky tourist taste. It was about a 15 minute walk from our resort, which was nestled within a hillside jungle, and we went to visit several times to purchase necessities and vary our diet. The whole fish with lemon sauce at Black Diamond was aroi maak (to die for). We bought tee shirts that promoted Ko Samui and new sandals for Nan and sampled ice cream at several shops (one serving Buds "from San Francisco"). The alternative to walking was to take a taxi for the short drive home, but the rates were outrageous; a 35 baht ride in Bangkok would cost 350 baht from Lamai Beach. Even the songthiews charged two to four times the rates we're used to. It was a seller's market.

Nan brought three bathing suits, two bikinis and another one a bit more demure. She was shy partly because Thais are a rarity among the beach tourists and locals who keep to themselves swim in their clothes. The surf at Lamai is a bit rough normally so we spent most of our sun time by the pool. On the second day, well-lathered with sun screen, we walked a short distance down the beach to a large collection of rocks to see Hin Ta and Hin Yai (grandfather and grandmother), geological formations that resemble a penis and a vagina and which are hugely popular with Thai tourists. There were dozens of visitors scrambling over the rocks to get a good view and a photo of the sexy curiosities. Nan found herself to be the only woman in a bikini and was sorely embarrassed, covering herself as best she could with my shoulder bag. After that the bikinis were put away.

This was my second trip to the island and Nan's first. Last time I visited the nearby Ko Pha-Ngan, host of the famed full moon parties, and this time I wanted to see the Ang Thong National Marine Park, fictional location of "The Beach" (which was filmed near Phuket), and Ko Tao. I signed up for two day trips. The first promised kayaking and snorkling in Ang Thong, a beautiful archipelago of 42 small islands with limestone cliffs and hidden lagoons. Our guide on the overcrowded boat was chatty enough to be on yaba (the Thai amphetamine). We stopped on Ko Wua Talap at the park headquarters while the crew unloaded kayaks. Nan and I were joined by a Japanese man who did not understand English or rowing instructions. By the time we set out, the sky had darkened and winds had made the sea choppy. Within five minutes my back was killing me and the Japanese man was taking us straight into a cliff. Rain made it an unforgettable experience. Back on the boat we ate fried chicken for lunch and watched the other kayakers struggle in. Somehow the time for snorkling disappeared. But we did visit Ko Mae Ko and climbed through a limestone passage to view the lovely landlocked turquoise lagoon. From the top of the island we could see in all directions this pristine islands park that survives despite the daily influx of packed tourist boats. Leo was nowhere to be found, having left the beach.

The next day we set out in a speedboat from Bo Phut pier to the nearby island of Ko Tao, the diver's paradise. This highly organized tour made the previous day's excursion seem amateurish. Our boat sped past Ko Ph-Ngan which is much bigger than the southern spit of land where the monthly parties are held. Our first destination was Mango Bay where we donned mask and goggles to oggle brightly colored fish among the shoreline rocks. It was delightful! The last time I snorkled was at Hanauma Bay on Oahu over twenty years ago. A number of boats docked in the bay, some with divers in full gear, so we got to watch them watching fish on the sea floor below. I think we saw just as much and didn't have to bother with heavy oxygen tanks. After a couple of hours in the water, we sped around the island to Hat Sai Ri, the main town on Ko Tao, and were served a tasty set lunch in a sea view restaurant. Afterward, we explored. Even though the island attracts mainly divers (training and certifying more of them than anywhere in the world), it's a lovely place for anyone and we resolved to return for a longer stay.

The afternoon's treat was Ko Nang Yuan, several atolls linked by a sandbar and close by Ko Tao. Indescribably beautiful (that's why I take photos), we found dozens of boats unloading hundreds of day trippers. A steady stream of them rounded the first atoll on a wooden walkway to cross an inlet on a shaky pontoon bridge before reaching the prime snorkling lagoon. More divers with tanks and wetsuits were receiving instruction as we paddled around the rocks looking for fish. On the other side of the lagoon, even more swimmers disembarked from another half-dozen ferries. The tiny island features accommodations and an outdoor restaurant with exhorbitant prices. After our swim and snorkle, we lay on the sand for a short while and listened to the melange of foreign languages spoken by the sun bathers. It seemed as if it was rare to hear English. I had rubbed my toe on a jagged piece of coral and it was beginning to throb. But before our speedboat left, we wanted to climb the island's highest peak to get the view you see in the photo above. It was steep and arduous, and the last few meters required scrambling up and over big rocks with no steps. As below, it was also crowded above, and we had to wait for others to leave before we could take in the scene. From such a height, the overcrowding seemed unimportant. We didn't notice the dark clouds forming on the horizon. By the time our boat got underway, it had begun to rain and there were whitecaps on the sea. It was a white-knuckle ride, interminable and terrifying, but, amazingly, no one threw up. Nan vowed never to ride in a boat again.

On our final day, we hired a car and driver and took a sightseeing trip around Samui, stopping to see the tall Laem Sor Chedi on the southern coast, Nam Muang Waterfall inland where Thai boys swam under the falls whose waters had been reduced by a long dry spell. We attempted to reach the top of Khao Yai, highest peak on the mountain, but the road was no longer passable. So we went to Nathon, the island's largest city which is mainly a transit point for tourists who take the ferries from Surat Thani on the mainland. We walked along the small harbor where the fishing boats were at rest and visited a market where the day's catch of shrimp, calamari and various kinds of fish was being sold. After a hot cappuccino and a cold drink for Nan, we drove to the north coast where Ko Pha-Ngan is clearly visible across the waters, and stopped at Fisherman's Village in Bo Phut. There old shophouses have been turned into charming restaurants and stores. After a shrimp cocktail and fruit drinks at an Italian restaurant on the bay, we visited the spectacular Wat Plai Laem with its 18-handed Buddha, numerous temple buildings, lagoon, and assorted statues and art, a veritable Buddhist Disneyland. Close by this temple is the Big Buddha at Wat Phra Yai on an artificial island just off the coast. We climbed up the steep stairs and rang the temple bells. Planes to Samui fly right over Big Buddha and it was only a short drive to the airport which has been completed renovated since my last visit. Large and elegant, it is now clearly a world-class international airport, although I believe it is still only serviced by one airline, Bangkok Airways.

I made no New Year's resolutions and felt neither happy nor sad at seeing 2009 fade into history. Its final month will always stay in my mind because of the death of my son Luke. Friends continue to send me condolences, and remark how difficult it must be to lose a child. The loss is still too close to analyze; his memory comes to mind in the midst of both fun and fear. I learned a bit more about my body's limitations as the aging process takes hold. No more kayaking, and no more climbing over rocks (but snorkling is just fine). Unlike Nan, I think I'll still be willing to get on a boat, but not in stormy seas. After six days of holiday, life returned with a bang. We arrived home late Tuesday night and the next morning I had 30 homework papers to read before my two English classes with the monks that afternoon. In addition, I was asked to take Dr. Sman's Saturday classes for the next month and teach his graduate students in education administration how to talk about the Five Precepts of Buddhism in English. Since most are monks and know the precepts quite well (although in Pali), it will be a challenge, and I struggled to quickly prepare a PowerPoint lecture which I think went over well.

Nan's birthday is tomorrow and to celebrate it she has wanted to offer donations to homeless children. She learned from a friend about Ban Kru Noi, just such a place for underprivileged children in the Ratburana area of south Bangkok. Yesterday we bought a taxi trunk load of stuff (soap, toothpast and brushes, shampoo, milk and chips) at Tesco Lotus and arrived not long before lunch. Kru Noi is a woman who started helping children in her home after she suffered a stroke in 1980. Since then she has assisted over 800, some poor who remain with their parents, and some homeless orphans who now live with her or in the neighborhood. When we arrived with our load of gifts, it was chaos in the small yard with a large number of Sunday visitors, and children of all ages running and screaming. Since Ban Kru Noi has received considerable publicity, the children are used to attention and seemed rather blasé when approached. They dipped their heads and held their hands in a wai after receiving Nan's gifts. Kru Noi, presided over her menagerie with a lovely toothless smile. It was a grand beginning to Nan's birthday celebration, which concludes with a dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River Tuesday evening.