Sunday, October 31, 2010

Right Back Where I Started From

California, Here I Come
Right back where I started from
Where bowers of flowers
Bloom in the spring
Each morning at dawning
Birdies sing at everything
A sun-kissed miss said don't be late
That's why I can hardly wait
Open up that golden gate
California, Here I Come
--Al Jolson

Sometimes it feels as if I never left.  Despite the disorientation of jet lag after a 15-hour journey from Bangkok, I resumed almost immediately the life I left behind three years ago, with only a few differences.  Not having a car (or truck in my previous life) was in important one.  David's house was in walking distance of downtown Santa Cruz so I soon hit the pavement.  In a day or two I had shin splints and blisters to show for it.  The first thing I noticed was the cold, 20 degrees less than I'd been used to for three seasons.  Next was the silence.  Compared to the streets of Thailand's capital, I could be in a sensory deprivation chamber.  Sidewalks away from Pacific Avenue were mostly empty.  And the other thing that surprised me was how newspapers had shrunk.  At first I thought it was only the local Sentinel that was thinner by a column or two, and then I noticed that the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury were likewise reduced.  Nothing spoke louder about the decline of print media than this.  Their days are numbered.

I began writing this post in The Abbey, a coffee house opened since my departure in 2007 and operated by Vintage Christian Church with an absence of visible proselytizing. It’s a large room with comfortable tables and chairs and warm lighting, on the bus route to the UC campus on the hill and so patronized by students as well as believers. The Sunday service has just ended and the place was filled with chatter. My room in Annie’s garden is a short ride away on the mountain bike Lyle loaned me yesterday, but my butt is still sore from the inaugural journey I took along the coast. After the morning cuppa, I crossed over the freeway pedestrian bridge that leads to Holy Cross Church to attend the 11 am mass.

Today is Halloween, a holiday Santa Cruz has shamelessly embraced as its own. The refurbished Victorian houses and Arts and Crafts bungalows in the immaculate and muted neighborhoods are embellished with carved pumpkins, tombstones, spooks and artificial spider webs. They resemble the elaborate house decorations of December when residents vie with one another to celebrate the holiday but without strings of outdoor lights and Christmas tableaux. A friend sees Halloween as a celebration of death, a more suitable ritual for these lean and pessimistic times.  But today the downtown streets are closed to traffic and costumed kids and adults are searching for treats from the merchants.  Fences around valuables and a battalion of police are on the lookout for tricks, particularly those fueled by alcohol.  It could be Mardi Gras, a party that the sanuk-loving Thais would appreciate (Halloween is catching on in Bangkok). 

Crossing the Pacific was relatively easy.  I left home at 2:30 am in a taxi and crossed the city in a storm filled with thunder and lightning.  I watched a movie in my laptop on the way to Japan and tried to sleep on the trip to San Francisco.  The armrest controls in my Delta aircraft didn't work so I could neither read nor listen to the sound for the five movies they showed on overhead screens (I'd seen most of them anyway).  After arriving at a reasonable morning hour, the U.S. Customs agent seemed to know more about me than I knew of her, and she gave each item of clothing in my suitcase an extra squeeze to uncover contraband.  David was waiting for me and we drove down the coast in the fog.

I have been overwhelmed by the welcome I've received.  That first day back I bought a $10 TracFone (supposed to be the favorite of illegal immigrants) from the drug store that used to be called Long's and began phoning and receiving calls to add to the cascade of incoming emails.  I've been invited to lunches and dinners, given warmer clothes to wear and a bike to ride.  David fed me his culinary creations, including a fig pizza that was delicious.  Jim drove up from Fresno to spend a night and day with me, and we went to Clint Eastwood's latest film where I ate buttered popcorn that is unavailable in Thai cinemas.  I was warmly welcomed back into the Catholic community even though I jilted them for an infatuation with Buddhism.  On Sunday I attended Fr. Mike's 80th birthday and found that many friends had not forgotten me.  Most of the cheap eats places I remember remain, and in the week and a half back I've had a "Thai" burrito with peanut sauce, a felafel, chicken soup, a delicious hamburger unlike any in Bangkok, and selections from a Chinese buffet.  Last night I went to the Thai Noodle House and had a delicious stir fry with chicken and cashew nuts, and got to practice my Thai with the waitress.

Halloween might be the pinnacle of October events, but within days of my arrival I was joining other celebrations.  First was an event featuring a group of over a hundred people dressed as vampires and zombies who filled a city block to dance to the music of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."  The next day was the United Nations Day parade to mark the institution's 65th birthday.  In a cold drizzling rain I joined my friend Mel and carried one of his political signs.  Behind us was a troop of belly dancers.  The rain seemed to bother no one.  I arrived during the baseball playoffs and the San Francisco Giants won their league.  Fans here are devoted to the Giants and flags and pennants sprouted up around the city.  It's hard to miss the games, and I was exuberantly pleased that the Giants won the first two games.  On Saturday I watched streaming video of the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear from Washington and was particularly moved to hear "Peace Train" sung by Yusuf (Cat Stevens).  I tried to imagine such a rally in Thailand or any other country and I could not.  It pleased me enormously to think of myself as an American.  The next big event here are the elections on Tuesday of which I know little and failed to register to vote (I probably could have gotten an absentee ballot in Bangkok).  The most interesting proposition up for a vote is one which would make marijuana legal in California even though the feds have vowed to continue arresting dealers and users.

Then there were the mundane activities, like shopping at one of the new organic food markets, Whole Foods and the Westside New Leaf, and washing clothes at a coin-operated laundry where the cost for a load (around $5) was more than some of my Thai-bought apparel was worth.  Even Safeway on Mission had a magnificent new edifice with enough selections to boggle the mind.  There are supermarkets in Bangkok, like Top, that feature a wide selection, but nothing can match U.S. stores for conspicuous consumption.  Along with Trader Joe's (two stores), the markets mentioned certainly cannot find enough customers, and some will not make it.  Then again, Americans like to eat and prefer variety to the basics. Free wifi is available everywhere, even at the laundromat, and I've been able to stay easily plugged into the internet as I stroll or ride through the city..

After a week at David's, I was offered a room at Annie's house several blocks away.  She's a lady I've met at Buddhist gatherings and peace demonstrations in the past and she'd just returned after nearly a year away in Kansas where her mother recently died.  We talked it over and she decided I'd be a reliable guest for as long as I have to remain here.  The "room" is actually a lovely hermitage in her garden besides a burbling brook, with full windows along one side and surrounding fences that give it a private country feel.  There is a Kwan Yin on an altar inside the room and another larger figure of the lady Buddha in the garden outside.  It has heat, an internet line, and an ancient apple tree overhead that has dropped the most delicious fruit (sometimes with a bomb-like sound).  She's sharing the bathroom and kitchen and has been a kind and generous hostess.  And she's also a rapid Giants fan so I can keep track of the scores.

Each morning and evening I connect with Nan via Skype.  We can also speak by phone and she can send SMS messages to me which unfortunately I cannot send to her.  It's wonderful to sit in California and see her face and hear her words from our apartment in Bangkok.  The picture clarity varies but it's a miracle to maintain a face-to-face connection so far apart.  We don't have much to say other than to recount our days.  I take photos daily and attach them to emails in an attempt to show her where I'm temporarily living.  She thinks America is beautiful and would someday like to visit.  But her dream is to go to Korea where she might see snow, and I've promised her a trip for a full honeymoon if I can succeed in my negotiations with Social Security.

I'm finishing this post at the Octagon, a coffee house located in a historic building downtown.  The barista is dressed as a witch and two halves of a pear just walked in to order espresso.  Outside the entrance I can see parents accompanying costumed kids on this gloriously sunny day to find their quota of candy.  As most of my regular readers know, this trip was not of my choosing and it still has a forced feel to it.  But since my arrival I've felt joy in returning and optimism about the object of my trip, a successful resolution to the legal and economic problems that have bedeviled me for over six months.  I should learn more this week about the possible outcome and I hope that all can readers can pray, chant, or just think positively about a solution that will unite Nan and I as soon as possible.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bangkok, How Do I Love Thee?

Let me count the ways:

The cry of the koel bird (that sounds like its name) in the cool morning before the day's heat descends.  Toothpicks on the restaurant table and straws for every bottle and glass.  Pastel-colored taxis, and buses painted in blue, red, orange and pink (the green ones were decommissioned).  Gold roofs of Buddhist temples reaching for the sky at night with tiny mirrors reflecting light like diamonds.  Giant photos of the King and Queen, everywhere.  Laundry hanging on balconies of apartment houses.  The absence of angry horns beeping in the controlled chaos of massive traffic jams.  Ladyboys, hips swaying down the street, more feminine than their female opposites.  Sidewalks packed with vendors selling everything: all kinds of edibles on a stick, clothing brand and jewelry knockoffs, incredible fruit, counterfeit DVDs and pornography, flowers and mobile phone accessories.  Tall spirit houses and shrines outside condos, businesses and luxury malls with icons of Buddha, Brahma and Kwan Yin, and covered in offerings of flowers and incense along with red drinks and fruit.  Whitening creams and lotions hawked to anxious Thai ladies who fear their tan skin is too "black,"  Do-it-yourself outdoor barbecue restaurants where raw meat and veggies are distributed cafeteria style and table-top charcoal braziers raise the evening's heat.  Sacred tattoos glimpsed on the necks of women as well as men.  Hoses and water buckets next to European and squat toilets where paper is missing (or, if present, tossed but never flushed).  And ...

Last night Nan and I went to Chinatown where the Gin Jae (eat vegetarian) festival was in full swing.  We've been eating vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, sprouts and fake flesh for a couple of days and vowed to last for five, the minimum commitment.  Stores, shops and stalls feature strings of yellow triangle pennants advertising the absence of meat, even over tables of what are clearly candies and sweets.  It rained much of yesterday and the sidewalk restaurants were covered with tarps that dribbled water at the edges.  We ordered a couple of dishes and one was so good that we ordered another.  A parade of umbrellas passed by in the street as a loudspeaker blared what Nan said was a game with prizes.  Of all the crowded areas of Bangkok, Chinatown is king, but the rain had thinned the ranks of the evening's vegetarians.  In the orange bus on the way home the driver played Isaan music at full blast, the singer's voice bending the notes heart-breakingly in a way that seemed impossible.

This week in a rescue that bordered on the miraculous, 33 miners in Chile buried for two months over 2000 feet underground after a cave-in were pulled up a narrow shaft drilled through the rock to freedom.   I watched some of it online via streaming video from CNN Chile and couldn't stop the tears.  It was a living metaphor for liberation and salvation, made more real by the children, spouses and friends (and politicians) greeting their exodus from the earth with hugs and cheers.  No matter that it became a media event, a reality show par excellence, the whole world was watching like the World Cup or Michael Jackson's posthumous performance.  This is the the direction that defines time, progress and the spirit's path, the movement from dark to light, from entombment to new life.  I identified with those miners because of the cave-in of my life and the current struggle to climb out of the pit into the light. 

Which makes my imminent departure from Bangkok and Thailand all that more poignant.  As I look out my 9th floor window or travel through the city's streets now, I recall the past three years of my life here and marvel at how much I love this place.  My friend Janet, who wrote eloquently of a similar love affair in Tone Deaf in Bangkok, has recently abandoned the city she thought she would live in forever for another love, Penang in Malaysia.  She cites changes in what she loved since her first visit in 1997 and says the recent violence frightened her into thinking it would not end.  I hope she finds peace and permanence in Penang.  My departure is under protest and I promise Krung Thep (the capital's Thai name) that I will return as soon as possible.

Let me count some additional reasons for why I love this sprawling Southeast Asian metropolis: Charity trees festooned with money that no one would think of stealing. White string blessed by monks around wrists and around whole buildings to insure protection. Shoes outside the entrance to temples, schools and apartments.  Slow-moving people on sidewalks and crowded Skytrain cars where no one every jostles another.  Reserved seats at all cinemas and standing for the King's anthem before the show (and also at 8 am and 6 pm at Skytrain stations).  The ubiquitous hot weather fashion of shorts, tee shirt and flip-flops worn by both men and women.  Dramatic monsoon displays of thunder and lightning.  Monks in orange and mae chees (women renunciants but not nuns) in white, all with saved heads.  The graceful and all-but-unreadable Thai script on signs that mean nothing to a visitor from another country.  Flashy karaoke parlors for Thai men and the "entertainment" palaces of Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong for sex tourists from abroad.  Amulets, sometimes dozens, around the necks of devout Buddhist animists.  And ...

When I arrived in Bangkok in August 2007, I had few plans other than to see the country, study its history, steep myself in the culture, and perhaps find someone who would share my life.  A long-time spiritual seeker, I hoped to learn about how Buddhism is lived by devotees rather than written about by western intellectual converts.  I joined an English-speaking Buddhist group and helped organize retreats and discussion events.  Within six months I had a job teaching English to monks and loved it with a passion.  I hung out with expats and listened to interesting speakers at the Foreign Correspondents club, and I joined the National Museum Volunteers to learn more about the arts and archeology of Siam.  With friends of like mind, I participated in a study and discussion group to better understand our adopted country.  I followed the red and yellow politics of Thailand and formed strong opinions about the trajectories of recent history.  I attended massive gatherings for the King's birthday, the Loi Krathong water festival, and the red shirt anti-government demonstration, and I watched from my window both fireworks displays and smoke from destructive fires after the military crackdown of May 19th.

Bangkok is the center, and during the last three years I've also traveled to the various peripheries of Thailand, to Udon Ratchatani and Nong Khai in the northeast (including two visits to Laos), Chiang Mai and Pai, and Chiang Rai and Mai Sai in the north, to Ubon Ratchatani in the west for 10 days at a monastery, and to Phuket, Krabi and Ko Samui in the south, not to mention the "sin city" of Pattaya and the little island of Ko Samed closer to home that has become my favorite getaway destination.  I've seen natural beauty galore side-by-side with the tragedy of poverty, and also have witnessed headlong development that threatens to overwhelm the attractiveness of the scenery to tourists.  I've traveled by bus, train, tuk tuk motorbike and song-tao.  Thai culture is much more complex than the label "Land of Smiles" would indicate.  A smile can communicate anger and sadness as well as sanuk, the Thai word for fun and enjoyment.  As an outsider, I can observe but will never fully understand.  Even that unknowingness is a part of the attraction to Thailand. 

I've been writing about Thailand in this blog and posting photos I've taken here since my first trip in February of 2004.  Yet I've always felt like grasping at straws when I try to describe or sum up what it is about this place that entirely captivates me.  Sometimes it seems it's the excitement I like of living daily in a mystery wrapped in an enigma that is Thai culture.  I cannot fathom the language or the motivations of the people.  Why do they love uniforms so much and submit to authoritarian hierarchies that take away their power?  At other times it's the vibrant street life that I love, so similar to that in other developing countries like Mexico, contrasted with the sanitized order of America where people are perpetually encased in homes, offices or cars and the sidewalks are clean and empty.  It's also the strange loud noises and odd smells that send some visitors fleeing for the exits, not to mention the poverty of the beggars and illegal construction workers, and the school girls who play "Mary had a little lamb" on their recorders for donations.  And it's the jarring contrasts, the luxurious supermalls, palaces of consumption for the rich, which are entered along pathways occupied by buskers, Burmese mothers nursing babies, blind musicians and a leper without arms holding a cup in his mouth. 

Bangkok, I will miss your department store food courts, rides down the Chao Phraya River listening to "Democracy Now" podcasts on my iPod Touch, shrubs along the highway sculpted in the shape of animals, soap opera lakorn on TV featuring dramatic Hi-So feuds and romance with drinking and smoking blurred out by the censor, the respectful wai in the place of shaking hands, Thais plucking facial or underarm hair with tweezers in public, flower sellers with their hand-made garlands for Wan Phra (Monk Day, each of the four phases of the moon), cement pedestrian overpasses without which crossing streets would be impossible, soi dogs desperately in need of attention from a vet and cats with genetically crooked tails, and, finally, a mobile phone at every ear.

I don't know what comes next.  It's all a matter of chance, fate or luck, or perhaps unknown conditions that have already determined future events.  Friends are saying prayers for me and I do not discount their effect.  Perhaps all this is a tempest in a teapot and this blog which occasionally rattles a few cages will continue with new insights from a California sojourn or memories recounted after the fact.  I have put my affairs in order and almost packed my bags.  Nan and I cling to each other with an unexpected ferocity, as if we can imprint our souls like a tattoo.  I prefer advanced planning, heavy on the details, but sometimes events conspire to prevent it.  My bets are hedged with photographs, thousands of them, which will never let us forget even if the memory weakens.  I have loved you, Bangkok, and I love thee, Nan,

 to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
--Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Today would have been the 43rd birthday of my son, Luke.  He died last December from causes related to many years of alcoholism.  Despite his demons, he was a loving and compassionate son.  I miss him.  R.I.P., Lucas Tempel Yaryan.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Leaving Paradise

I said don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
--Joni Mitchell, "Paradise"

If you have an over-achieving imagination like mine, you're gone before you get there.  Paradise is a honeymoon with Nan on the lovely island of Ko Samed this past weekend, and for much of the time I could not stop thinking about what lay ahead for me in ten days time when I fly to San Francisco on a forced journey that can have no happy outcome. 

My bride would have no mopping about and was alert to my preoccupation with what could not be known.  "Thinking too much," she would notice, and she would not leave my hands free for long.  I hung on to her like the rock she has become in my life.  And she told me that no one had ever touched her back before, hugged her, as I did.  Out of all the distance and people in the world, we have somehow ended up on the same shore.  There is no rhyme or reason to our relationship, but it illuminates the dark places in our lives and gives us a comfort that I never believed possible.  Until my thoughts turn to the "what ifs" and "maybes" of what lies ahead like underwater boulders that threaten our ship.

Ko Samed is a small island with a string of white sand beaches in the north facing east that can be reached by ferry from the tiny port of Ban Phe 40 minutes away.  The bus ride from Bangkok takes about three hours.  It's much closer than the better known islands of Ko Samui and Ko Phi Phi and, to my mind, superior in many respects.  Most of the visitors appear to be Thai with foreigners in the minority (a big plus).  The water is warm and without intimidating waves and it rains less  than elsewhere (although this weekend the single dirt road was rutted with puddles that only all-terrain pickup taxis could cross).  I discovered Samed (often written as Samet) in my first year in Thailand and have been five times; Nan and I have visited the island three times, the last trip in March with her mother and nephew.

Our favorite place now is Samed Villa, a relatively upscale resort at the southern end of the beach known as Ao Phai.  Rates for the middle value room in this low season are 1800 baht, or about $60, a night.  This includes a magnificent morning buffet, with tasty Thai and western comestibles.  Although we'd reserved a "garden view" room, the bay could be seen clearly from our balcony just above the open air dining area.  For 30 baht, I got a wireless ID card that allowed me to get email on my iPod Touch, but since that dragged me away from our honeymoon I used it sparingly.  The objective was to enjoy the beach view from a shady chaise lounge, to bathe in the clear and warm turquoise water, to feast on fresh seafood at several of the restaurants spread up and down the beach, and to celebrate our decision recently to make our marriage official.

On the evening of our arrival, we returned to Ploy Talay Restaurant on Hat Sai Kaew, the island's main beach.  It's the biggest and most popular and the fresh-caught sea food is to die for.  On Saturday night we tried Seabreeze Restaurant which is quite close to our hotel.  I've become very fond of barbecued scallops in the shell since discovering them in Hua Hin, so we had them for both meals.  We also had Nan's favorite, squid, called pla mut in Thai which also covers sea creatures as different as octopus and stingray.  We ate broiled whole fish and large shrimp cooked in a peanut sauce, and, at least the first evening, toasted our health with cocktails, gin and tonic for me and a Blue Hawaiian for Nan.  The first night we ended with ice cream on the terrace of Samed Village as waves softly lapped the shore.

Beside heart-thumping trance music cranked up loud from various beach bars, the most popular entertainment on Samed are fire shows.  I suspect Ploy Talay had the first and there are dozens of videos from there on YouTube (including mine from three years ago), but now many of the sand eateries also offer shows.  We were too early at Ploy Talay for the show on Friday but at Seabreeze an incredibly talented twirler of fire risked burning with his graceful antics.  It was the night of the new moon (cleverly branded as "Black Moon") and the beach was as crowded as it would be during high season in January.  Up and down the coast people were launching sky lanterns, called khom loi in Thai, and firing off rockets from long poles. Out in the surf, several men with flashlights and nets were searching for something edible.  Vendors with portable booths were selling banana pancakes. Everywhere the semi-wild dogs and an occasional cat roamed.

On Friday night we were visited by a praying mantis that seemed attracted by the glass-covered candle on our table and refused to leave.  I'd just finished a book by Wally Lamp, The Hour When I first Believed, in which he employed a praying mantis as a symbol of hope, contrasting it with a butterfly which symbolized chaos.  The insect crawled on both of us but seemed particularly fond of the candle's heat, trying to stick his nose (nose?) into the chimney of the lamp.  While many web sites describe the praying mantis as a good omen and indicative of luck, one describe it as a "strange cannibalistic creature" that eats other insects, "with the female often eating the male during copulation."  That evening, however, I felt we were chosen, and reluctantly left it behind on the table in hopes that other diners would treat it as kindly as did we.  A half hour after we returned to our room the skies opened and the rain poured down, and I could only imagine a great scattering and clatter of plates as hundreds of people ran from the outdoor tables to see shelter from the brief storm. 

Most of the guests at Samed Villa spoke languages other than English.  I envied what I imagined were their lengthier stays, when life would slow to an easier pace.  Our two days felt too rushed.  Groups came and went with regularity, some disembarking from speed boats that cozied up to the beach, dragging their trolley suitcases across the hot sand, to our hotel or to the larger and more plebeian White Sand Resort next door.   The day's biggest task was to reserve a chaise lounge and umbrella.  People read books and dogs sought cool shade under their chairs.  A steady stream of vendors hawked massages, temporary tattoos, clothes, shawls for women, barbecued corn and chicken, and refreshing coconut drinks out of the shell.  At times there seemed more ladies offering massage than sun and sea bathers who might benefit from it.  Out in the water, kids and some adults splashed, while further out you could watch wind surfers, parasailers, and groups on a banana boat towed by a speed boat.   It was all very frantic and lazy at the same time.

Few vacationers get up early.  But an army of workers emerges from off the tourist map each day to set up the breakfast buffets and prepare for the ingress and egress of guests.  I know that monks from the temple in Na Dan where the ferries land walk up the beach just after dawn every morning to receive alms and bestow blessings on those fortunate enough to live on Samed year round.  I've seen them.  And I imagine myself living forever not far from the sand and the surf sounds.  Nan can run our resort and I will offer English lessons to the workers who must perform transactions ("May I take your order please?") in this international business language.  And then I remember that I have a ticket on a Delta Airlines flight less than two weeks away that will take me away from all this with only the slim hope of returning and making such a daydream real.

On Sunday at 1 p.m. we ended our honeymoon and boarded a speed boat which rushed us to Ban Phe Pier and the Bangkok bus that left not long after.  But before getting on the bus, we bought some treats for friends and a mobile of assorted sea shells that now hangs above our bedroom door to remind us of an unrepeatable time in Paradise. I hope to see it in my California dreams.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Chaos and Hope

 Chaos is not nothing.

Chaos is when "the world is too much with us," when everything around us is a "blooming, buzzing confusion."  Chaos is when nothing makes sense.  Sometimes chaos gets mixed up with catastrophe.  A catastrophe is an event that occurs with horrible and often unexpected consequences.  We didn't see it coming.  Catastrophe often leaves chaos in its wake.  Each may be unexplainable in ordinary terms or even measured by the yardstick of science.  Nevertheless, we try.  We invent stories to tame chaos and make it predictable, and we apply narratives, with a heavy dose of hindsight, to catastrophes in order to claim wisdom and foresight.

I've been think about chaos and catastrophe ever since reading Wally Lamb's recent novel, The Hour I first Believed, in which he makes use of the real catastrophe of the Columbine High School shootings to propel his narrative toward a conclusion that is both hopeful and puzzling.  One of his characters is a school nurse at Columbine and hides in a cupboard while the two boys are murdering students.  She suffers Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome which leads to yet another catastrophe in the narrative. Others struggle with the resulting chaos in their lives, trying to make sense out of what might just be random and meaningless suffering.  At the end of the book, however, those left standing find of measure of hope and redemption which Lamb symbolizes with a praying mantis (a butterfly was the symbol for chaos).

Lamb has written a big book with subplots aplenty to multiply the pages and supply the reader with numerous digressions, such as the history of Rheingold beer, chaos theory, the abolition movement and early feminism, prison reform, Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, tips on teaching English (using the legend of the Minotaur as drawn by Picasso, for example), how to make donuts, and so forth.  While the author cannot tidy up the catastrophe at Columbine, he controls the chaos of his narrative by ultimately connecting the dots that swirl around his protagonist, the oddly named Caelum Quirk, by illuminating his ancestry and identity which enables him to choose life.  Chaos is ultimately good for Caelum because it pushing him towards a re-engagement with the world.  Before the shit hits the fan,
Caelum is flying back to Connecticut to visit a dying relative when he sits next to Mickey, an expert on chaos theory. Like a prophet from the underworld, Mickey tells him "there's a self-organising principle at the edge of chaos. Order breeds habit, okay? But chaos breeds life."
Lamb, who admits to being a critical Catholic, told an interviewer, "I hold out hope that there is some organizing principle in the universe that somehow is protecting us from chaos. But I have my doubts, just like anyone else." His novel, he said, "is about people who are collaterally damaged by all sorts of trauma and chaos – everything from the chaos of participation in war to having your home flooded out by Hurricane Katrina."  Chaos can even be addictive.  At one point in the book, Caelum wonders if
maybe we’re all chaos theorists. Lovers of pattern and predictability, we’re scared shitless of explosive change. But we’re fascinated by it, too. Drawn to it. Travelers tap their brakes to ogle the mutilation and mangled metal on the side of the interstate, and the traffic backs up for miles. Hijacked planes crash into skyscrapers, breached levees drown a city, and CNN and the networks rush to the scene so that we can all sit in front of our TVs and feast on the footage.
I'll admit to being attracted to catastrophes which do not involve me because it helps to preserve the illusion of my own predictability.  That could never happen to me.  I'm a careful driver.  I would have recognized the danger signs if my child was psychotic and about to slaughter his fellow students.  If she'd been abusing drugs I would have known it.  Why would you end the marriage after 24 happy years together?  We are oh so predictable to ourselves, bastions of the ego against chaos.  Until the walls come tumbling down.

When you live long enough, anything could happen.  You could sit down with a doctor to go over the results of your tests and learn the worst, that you're going to die, sooner than expected.  A friend of mine from years ago recently announced on Facebook that his cancer was terminal; he was going to travel with his girlfriend and run up  credit card bills until his time was over.  Catastrophe might be a knock at the door, opened to reveal a rabble of law enforcement officers, their weapons drawn.  A tornado could flatten your house or a hurricane could cover it with water.  Or maybe as you settle into comfortable retirement in a tropical land, a letter from Social Security announces that your income has been suspended because a warrant has been issued for your arrest half the world away.  These are all forms of catastrophe, unexpected events that turn a nice predictable life into chaos in an instant.  The question is:  can chaos breed hope and a new life?

Like the author, I have my doubts about a supreme organizing principle who can protect us from chaos and maybe even catastrophe if we believe and pray in the right way.  Buddhism asserts strongly that there is no predictability, that all life is uncertain, and that attempts to control and manage chaos only lead to further suffering.  We must somehow become comfortable with the knowledge that our circumstances constantly change because of conditions probably unknown to us.  Perfect predictability, even by science, is impossible.  Trying this idea on for size is not the same as accepting it in action.  Catastrophes breed disorder rather than enlightenment.  Death and Disaster strip us to our basic imprinting and call forth primitive logic that demands an answer.  Why me, oh Lord? 

I do agree, however, with the chaos theorist in Lamb's book who claims that "order breeds habit" and "chaos breeds life."  Predictability is boring; comfortable yes, but deadening to the soul.  As a creature of many habits, I know the seduction of a well ordered life.  Vexing choices can be narrowed down to a precious few and the comfort of knowing what always comes next.  As far as I'm concerned, that kind of a patterned life leads straight to Alzheimer's and the comfort of a straight jacket and Pampers.  I'm not like an acquaintance who raced Porsches in his spare time because he liked the thrill of speed.  And I'm not crazy about diving off high boards into small pools.  But I do like the gift of surprise that comes with a new place, friend, food or idea.  I believe that it's completely human to attempt to tame chaos by searching for hidden causes within the "blooming, buzzing confusion," but I also think it's utterly hopeless.  It's a variant of the Groucho Marx line, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."  I prefer living in a world that is ultimately chaotic and mysterious because it makes me feel more alive.

In two weeks I leave Thailand for a trip to California that I have resisted for nearly six months.  I do not know what will happen after I arrive, although the goal of the trip is to deal with some serious financial and legal problems that have made my life here untenable.  The letter I received from Social Security in May threw my life into total chaos, making it impossible to plan ahead.  Never one for the ostrich technique of sticking one's head in the sand, I struggled mightily to understand the situation I faced and the options available to me.  I expect I accelerated my aging process by ten years.  Ultimately, I bowed to the inevitable and only conclusion, that I must face these demons; not taming or defeating them but accepting them, as the girl does in Picasso's Minotour etching.  Although I try to imagine what will happen -- will the beast devour or befriend me? -- the outcome is at this point unpredictable.

Reality always offers two extreme choices: death or life. Getting married was my way to choose life (I can hear my bride saying, "Tee rak, you think too much!").  Nan and I have received numerous congratulations from friends near and far on our nuptials last week.  I've posted photos on Facebook and Flickr of our nearly year and a half together to show how wonderful my life has become since we met.  This weekend we're off for a short honeymoon on Ko Samed, the closest island paradise to Bangkok.  And I've promised that if a swift a thorough resolution of my problems can be obtained in California, I will return to take her to Korea to see the snow for our real honeymoon celebration.  I wish that this outcome was predictable, but it's not.

Yesterday I took the grades I'd calculated for my students to Wat Srisudaram where I've just completed my fifth term teaching English to monks who are studying for an undergraduate degree.  Last week I gave them their final exam.  At school, I met with Phramaha Suriya, the chairman of the Foreign Languages Department in the Faculty of Humanities and told him of my upcoming trip back to the U.S.  He's been there numerous times and although I still find his English a little hard to understand he likes to chat with me about various places he has visited.  "Are you going to Ohio?" he asked, knowing that I was born there.  "Not this time," I said.  I told him I was uncertain how long I would be gone and hoped to be back for classes in December (last year there were only three school days before New Year).  "Don't worry," he said.  "You can send them their homework by email."  I got Dr. Suriya's email address so I can let him know my return date.

Now that my plane ticket has been purchased and I'm trying to find a ride from the San Francisco airport and a place to stay in Santa Cruz, I feel as if I have a leg in two worlds.  Bangkok is fading to a shadow (it might be the succession of cloudy days and frequent rain) and I am starting to remember people, places and events after three years of storing them away in the cupboards of my mind.  It could also have something to do with listening to podcasts of "Democracy Now," "This American Life" and "Fresh Air" as I walk around the streets here and ride the bus.  It's still impossible to feel more excitement than dread, but I cheer up at the thought of seeing old friends and browsing through the book shelves at Logos and the Bookshop.  What will it be like to experience cold weather for the first time after my lengthy sojourn in the tropics?  Will America feel almost as strange as Thailand did when I first arrived here in August of 2007?  I hope so.  It's that strangeness that brings the promise of new life.  With that life comes hope, despite any chaos and confusion and threats of catastrophe.  And hope for me is personified by Nan.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Pali Scholar Condemns Buddhist Ritualism

"I am begging you to give up obsession with ritual and custom," Richard Gombrich said to a gathering of Theravada monks and lay followers at an academic conference in Bangkok last week to discuss why this form of Buddhism is today less influential in the world than its cousins, Mahayana (Zen) and Vajrayana (Tibetan).  "Ritual has no intrinsic value and must be jettisoned if it gets in the way of living the Dhamma.  We must acknowledge that Buddhism is for all, including foreigners and women."

Gombrich, author of numerous books and founder of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies in England where he teaches Pali and Sanskrit, took the Thai Sangha of monks to task for its "parochial nationalism," its failure to condemn violence against Buddhists inside and outside Thailand, and for its treatment of women.  These failures can be traced to an obsession with ritualism which ignores the Buddha's teaching that "ethical value lies in intention alone...the point of ritual lies in doing, not in intending."  If there is nothing wrong with the message, than the failure of Theravada Buddhism's influence must be due to the messengers, he said. 

Most modern religions, Gombrich told his audience, see their purpose as offering comfort to believers, but "the founders of religion and the great reformers felt the  need to challenge their audiences, to criticise the status quo and to demand that people improve their own lives and the lives of those around them."  Last year, on a similar occasion, the birthday of the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand (now 97 and hospitalized for a long time), I heard Gombrich deliver a scathing condemnation of the Sangha's misogynistic treatment of women and its refusal to ordain nuns.  The applause then was as lukewarm as it was last Thursday at Mahamakut Buddhist University where Gombrich delivered the keynote address on the conference theme, "Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century." 

The Oxford academic describes himself as "not a Buddhist, but I very much admire Buddhism and especially Buddhist ethics. I am not a Buddhist in a technical sense. In one way, you could say I am more of a Buddhist than most Buddhists, because I believe that the Buddha was an intellectual genius and had some extraordinarily interesting things to say. This is something that most Buddhists simply don't take any interest in."  Unlike many modern deconstructionist commentators, Gombrich believes it is possible to read the original Pali scriptures in order to understand what the Buddha actually thought and meant.  He faults the Buddhist Theravada religious establishments (in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Cambodia as well as in Thailand) for their failure to study the texts and for their ritual changes based on custom rather than scripture. 

"I am perpetually horrified by the failure of the Buddhist establishment to understand the Buddha's message, to teach it and to act upon it," Gombrich told his audience, and he called it a "tragic and culpable failure."  The majority of Theravadins, he said, consider only Buddhists of their own nationality to be true Buddhists, and believe Mahayana monks and nuns are "not true Buddhists because they do not prohibit taking solid food after midday."  Mahayanists, on the other hand, consider true Buddhists to be vegetarian (which Theravadins are not).  Buddhism, he argued, "which measures action by ritual and custom can never spread anywhere."  The Buddhist government in Sri Lanka refuses to recognize the Dalai Lama, "the person whom the world regards as the greatest living Buddhist," and the Sangha on that island has never tried to disseminate the Dhamma to its Tamil minority or in mainland India. The Thai Sangha has failed to criticize the persecution of monks in Myanmar where the government treats protesters as if it "were merely squashing a few mosquitoes."  One of the main things that "attracts people to a religion is when it produces figures who are prepared to speak against cruelty and injustice," and he asked where are Theravdin leaders comparable to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.  (I would suggest Sulak Sivaraksa in Thailand fills that role).

"If I am a sincere Buddhist, how can I ask the state to kill on my behalf?" he wondered.  And yet only two Buddhist states anywhere, Bhutan and Cambodia, have no capital punishment.  In Thailand recently, "people seeking refuge in a monastery in the heart of Bangkok were killed by what some call the forces of law and order," and he also mentioned the military coup four years ago and the far south which is not at peace.   By keeping Buddhist monks out of politics when they should be advising leaders on morality, the Sangha's silence fails to persuade people that Buddhism is a religion of non-violence.  "Is it the duty of the Sangha to lead on moral issues, or to follow the crowd?"

Like his talk last year, Gombrich reserved his strongest words for Thai Buddhism's treatment of women.  Only Thai and Burmese Buddhism have a notion of female impurity during menstruation, but "they are going against the Buddha, befuddling themselves with superstition, and in the process insulting women."  This is not the worst crime, however.  "In Thailand the Vinaya has been changed in a grotesque manner, so that the monks may not only not touch a woman, but may not receive anything directly from a woman's hand...from babies to centenarians." This is not just a misguided ritual obsession, but "true misogyny, a horror and dread of women, a fear that the slightest contact with a female is seductive and may inspire lust."  And finally, the rule that the Bhikkuni order of nuns cannot be restarted because it died out is the product of "obsessive neurotics."  Reinstating the order of nuns would be "the one development which, I believe, has the power to preserve Theravada Buddhism for many future generations."

Gombrich presented the Theravadin Sangha monks with a strong challenge that I'm afraid most of the leaders will probably ignore.  The missionary effort of Theravdins in the past has been to establish cultural centers in different countries which service South Asian immigrants rather than reach out to the indigenous populations as Tibetan and Zen monks and teachers have done most successfully in the past.  Western women are often repelled by the patriarchal and even misogynistic rituals and attitudes they encounter in Buddhist countries and have gone on to reinterpret Buddhist teaching to incorporate women when they go back home.  Much of what Gombrich argued was taught years ago by that great Thai reformist monk Buddhadasa Bhikku but his ideas have not yet  spread fully to the laity where I have been told by Thai women that only male monks can achieve enlightenment.

The Buddhist religion I have observed in Thailand is mostly devotional and involves elaborate rituals that include animist and Hindu elements.  It probably provides more comfort than challenge to its adherents.  But this is not to deny that the teachings of kindness and compassion are not part of Thai culture in a deep way.  I find Buddhist piety in Thailand to be deeply moving and impressive and I have only begun to understand and participate in it personally.  As a lover of ideas, I find these discussions about Buddhism stimulating and enlightening.  But I also recognize that ideas are the tangible coin of intellectuals and academics and not of much use to the bulk of devotees who are seeking in their lives to be good and happy people.  When Nan prays before the altar in our home, or when making merit in a temple, she prays the metta prayer, that all be happy.  It's as simple as that.