Monday, February 21, 2011

Will the Real Buddha Please Stand Up

Under the bright full moon of the third lunar month last week, I joined Nan and three of her co-workers in the evening at Ratchaprasong to venerate the Buddha by doing tumboon (making merit) before three shrines in the shopping district and at Wat Pathum between Siam Paragon and Central World.  It was Makha Bucha, a major Buddhist holiday in Southeast Asia which commemorates the talk Buddha gave to 1,250 enlightened followers, nine months after his own awakening, laying down the principles of his teaching.  The crowds were enormous, and the smoke from candles and the smell of incense was almost overpowering.  I saw very few foreigners among the throngs of Thais of all ages carrying lotus buds, yellow candles and sticks of incense and pacing garlands of yellow flowers at the base of the various icons, most of which were of Hindu gods.  For a lapsed Catholic who learned of Buddhism as a philosophy or psychology (but without a god, certainly not a real religion) through the practice of meditation, the inclusion of so many Hindu elements in Thai Buddhism has been confusing.

For example, in front of Central World we paid our respects before two large shrines.  The one on the right contains a huge golden image of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, "remover of all obstacles," my favorite Hindu deity.  The one on the left, Nan told me, is "Trimulati," whom she believed to be female, and who Thais, leaving bouquets of red roses around the icon, consider "The God of Love," according to many stories published around Valentine's Day.  A little research, however, identifies the statue as Trimurti (probably male), a manifestation of the three principle Hindu gods: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. No one knows how the Trimurti shrine, built in 1989, became associated with love or why Thais pay their respects with red roses in the hope of finding a spouse, but I think it's an example of the fruitful spiritual creativity of Buddhists here who incorporate animistic practices and beliefs along with the rituals of Brahmanism in their synchronistic faith.  The Buddha is even seen as a reincarnation of Vishnu by some people, Hindus as well as Buddhists.

Across the street on Makha Bucha Day, devotees congregated at the Erawan Shrine in front of the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.  We walked clockwise around the icon, a representation of a four-faced Brahma, leaving a burning candle, flowers, and three smoking incense sticks at each of the four sides.  The shrine was built in 1956 to eliminate the bad karma believed caused by laying the foundations of the hotel on the wrong date.  In 2006 a man vandalized the image and was killed by bystanders.  Two nights after our visit, Princess Ubolratana presided over a large ceremony at the shrine attended by 200 senior monks "to pay homage to the Lord Brahma statue," according to the Bangkok Post, the first such ceremony in 50 years. This shrine and the two in front of Central World are examples (on steroids) of the omnipresent spirit shrines or houses (saan phra phum) in Thailand which can be found outside almost every home, store and urban skyscraper.  A mix of animism and Brahmanism (Buddha is rarely present), the shrines are intended to propitiate the spirits of place and passers-by place flowers and offerings of food and drink to show their respect.  When Thais walk or drive by these shrines and spirit houses, as well as trees defined as sacred by the colored cloth wrapped around them, they will wai, or bow, respecting the power (saksit) contained within

It's all a bit much for a Westerner to understand, much less imitate.  Here is the shrine atop the bookcase in our apartment, with two Buddha statues, Kwan Yin, Ganesha, and a small Christian St. Francis cross in the back, with numerous amulets tucked underneath the larger icon's throne.  The candle holders were brought from Wat Pathum the other night.  We lay garlands of flowers around the four icons every Wan Phra (Monk Day on the four monthly phases of the moon) and Nan places offerings of water (Ganesha prefers red) in front of three of them.  I readily accompany my wife when she goes to a temple for tumboon and I mumble along with the monk's chanting and accept gratefully the blessings of water and an occasional string tied around the wrist.  Religious practices in Asia are all consuming compared to the sabbath-only sterile religiosity of the West.  I first experienced the popular piety of the masses when I went to India in 2004 and visited numerous Hindu temples where I was surrounded by a variety of devotees, particularly families with children, who imbibed the sacred mysteries in the darkened inner sanctum in a tumult of sounds and smells by firelight.

The path to understanding what is not so much a religion as a way of life begins for a farang in the head.  I've been gathering with expats in Bangkok for several years to listen to Buddhist speakers from different traditions and to discuss among ourselves the meaning of the teachings.  Recently I met with the BuddhistPsychos, a group seen here wrestling with an understanding of "emptiness," a Buddhist notion that leaves the ego diminished if not destroyed.  What's left of the self, we ask ourselves.  We're reading and discussing Heart-Wood From the Bo Tree by the Buddhist monk and reformer Buddhadasa Bhikku who has little patience with animist superstitions and Hindu accretions.  Yet there seems to be a wide gulf between such cerebral debates about doctrine and what Thai followers of the Buddha are doing at shrines and temples. I wish more visitors and expat residents could have the experience of Buddhist worship, the rituals that American Buddhists have pretty much discarded.  I wonder how much of the baby is in the bath water?

A small group of mostly long-term expats in Thailand meets monthly for wide-ranging discussions which sometimes touch on religion, particularly as it impacts our understanding of politics and culture in Southeast Asia.  Last week, one of the members presented Peter A. Jackson's chapter on "Virtual Divinity" from Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, and the ensuing debate on the interrelationship of Buddhism and Hinduism which forms public perceptions of the monarchy was heated and stimulating.  Jackson, a historian from Australia, has written an excellent book on the reformist monk, Buddhadasa: Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand.  The presenter reiterated Jackson's argument that modernization in Thailand has failed to expunge Brahmanist and magical beliefs from home-grown Buddhism and they are now being used to promote veneration of the monarch as a semi-deity.  I questioned whether Thai religious practices could ever be contained within a box labeled "Buddhism," and argued that "a religion" is an artificial misnomer, the product of academic study.  Another member of the group, with an extensive background in art history, countered that we can know much about Hinduism and Buddhism through their images and architecture.  And I responded, as a social historian, that art is timeless and represents institutional authority, whereas it is extremely difficult to know the actual practices and beliefs of ancient (often non-literate) actors.

In a northern suburb of Bangkok on Makha Bucha, more than 50,000 members of the Dhammakaya sect, monks in orange as well as lay people in white, gathered together in the gigantic facilities, that resemble not so much a temple full of devotees as a Buddhist version of the Nuremberg rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl as "Triumph of the Will," a chilling taste of the fascism that brought war to Europe a few years later.  The Thai followers of Dhammakaya are well off enough to support the huge costs of such mass meetings, and the organizers are astute and relentless in collecting donations.  Another recent movement among Buddhists in Thailand is Santi Asoke, a sect of strict moralists originally influenced by Bhuddhadasa but later to reject his liberalism.  The founder is Samana Photirak who is an ally of Chamlong Srimuang, the charismatic leader of the neo-fascist yellow shirts.  Excommunicated by the Buddhist Sangha Council for his radical views, Photirak recently said the border dispute with Cambodia "is a national problem. The Santi Asoke followers cannot allow the government to continue what it has been doing and see Thai territory being gradually occupied."  I fail to see how the teachings of Buddha say anything about protecting national territory.  If anything, a spirit of emptiness should prompt us to become free from such entanglements as property and national identity. Rory McKenzie, a Christian minister and former missionary who lectures annually at my university in Bangkok, has written an excellent overview of both groups, New Religious Movements in Thailand (Routledge, 2006).

I am rather attracted to a form of Buddhism that promotes kindness and compassion and that values generosity over Brahmanical myths and rituals which encourage patriotism and subservience.  And I experience this behavior constantly in the community and at my school among the students and my teaching colleagues.  Dr. Sman invited me to his 6th cycle birthday (72 years), a most auspicious occasion, and it began in a graduate class of temple abbots studying public administration when he presented refreshments to his students and they gifted him with flowers, vitamin drinks, and Buddhist icons.  That evening, 80 of his intimate friends were fed and entertained by Dr. Sman in an upscale restaurant's private room.  I was fortunate to be the (only) farang guest of honor.  Most of the people there were current and former students as well as fellow teachers.  Dr. Sman is a man of many talents and they were serenaded by his music students who sang songs that he had written.  My own 6th cycle birthday is coming in July and Dr. Sman's party will be a hard act to follow.

Last week I played Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" for my third year undergraduates majoring in English at MCU Wang Noi, the new campus near Ayutthaya.  It seemed to be a good choice since old Slowhand was performing that very evening in Bangkok.  They listened carefully to the song twice and chose missing words on the lyric sheet from a vocabulary list.  My students seem to like this weekly musical exercise and I think it helps them with listening and comprehension.  I've asked them to suggest songs and performers for future exercises but this group has so far been quiet.  Finally, one monk raised his hand and humbly asked if I might play music by entertainers who were "not so old."  Why, Clapton is only 65, a comparative youth, I thought.  I gave up my plan to play something this week by the Eagles who performed last night here, looking on the TV news clip like a bunch of old hippie geezers.  OK, I said.  Justin Bieber or Lady GaGa?  I saw their eyes light up.  For my song this week I will playing for them "Bad Romance" by the new reincarnation of Madonna (now an old lady).  I viewed the video for the song and decided it was a bit too over the top for monks.  I hope the lyrics (i.e.,"I want your psycho, Your vertical stick, Want you in my rear window, 'Cause baby you're sick") will pass muster. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pull My Finger

I must confess that I recently taught this ancient trick to my wife and that she found it as hysterical as I did when I was a young boy and had just discovered the repellent joys of farting.  The Thai word for fart is ตด (pronounced dtot, rhymes with boat). I'm told that it's rather impolite but funnier than another Thai word which is the equivalent of "flatulence."  Nan learned the trick quickly and has even developed some intriguing variations which I won't describe (marriage is a sacred and therefore secret bond, don'tcha know).  And for some perverse reason, farting seemed a suitable topic to mark Valentine's Day which the Thais have embraced as their own.  On our outing to the palaces of consumption yesterday, Nan and I posed for photos at various "Love" locations for shoppers like the above scene at Siam Paragon.

Lest you think my humor is in the toilet, let me confirm this suspicion with a photo I took last week.  The other door said "LADY."  As a liberated man, I prefer "gentle" to "gent."  On the subject of farting, I yield to no less a respected writer than Mark Twain, author of "1601," the once-censored short fiction which purports to recount a conversation among the court of Queen Elizabeth over who farted.  As a student at Berkeley in the early 1960s, I heard about this story and read it in a special room in the library where scholars could examine the scandalous manuscript.  The other student in the room was a graduate student from the Soviet Union.  This was the dark ages when Henry Miller's Tropics and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover were still banned in America.  Now you can read or download "1601" for free from Project Gutenberg.  "Born irreverent," Mark Twain wrote on a scratch pad among his collected papers, and, "like all other people I have ever known or heard of--I am hoping to remain so while there are any reverent irreverences left to make fun of." I think the Thais would appreciate Twain's ribald and iconoclastic sense of humor.  He must be laughing about the recent censored editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which "Nigger" was replaced with "Slave," "Injun" changed to Indian and "Half Breed" changed to "Half Blood."

 Nan posed with her newly curled hair at another Love photo op site in the shopping mall.  The hair of most Thais is naturally straight but curls are currently in fashion, and she paid 200 baht for a short-term perm in the morning.  By evening it was determined the experiment was not a total success.  Today, when Thai couples were exchanging chocolates and flowers, the curl had gone.  Each year on Valentine's Day, the press in Bangkok wrings its hands over the sexual license teens might take.  In an official government press release, the Ministry of Public Health expressed concern over the tendency of Thai teenagers to have sex on Valentine’s Day, saying that unprepared sex can lead to the unwanted pregnancy problem. An official survey showed teens would spend time with their loved ones on Valentine’s Day by watching good films, listening to music, having dinner and staying together. The government spokesman worried that such activities "could arouse teenagers to have sexual intercourses very easily for many reasons such as love, emotion, curiosity, satisfaction and mental immaturity." Duh.

 One goal Sunday was to see "Portraits of Asia," the new exhibit of photography in the plaza in front of Central World.  The portraits by Eric Lafforgue of people in Thailand, New Guinea, India, China, Burma and elsewhere in Asia were large and dramatic, a breathtaking view of the varieties of human cultural experience.  Self-taught, Lafforgue began taking pictures just five years ago, posting his travel photos on Flickr, where they became an instant sensation. The annual exhibit is sponsored by Central World, the annual Francophile festival La Fête and Zen Department Store (which is under reconstruction).  In recent years it has been "Planet Ocean" by Laurent Ballesta  and "The Earth from Above" by Yann Arthus Bertrand.  The exhbit's layout was somewhat constrained by the construction site and shared the plaza with a "Floating Market" that floated on little more than hard cement. 

We also stopped by the Bangkok Art and Culture Center and sampled a couple of the current exhibitions, including "Soft Power," an display of photography of women by Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, daughter of the Crown Prince, who has made a career for herself designing clothes.  She's currently undergoing an internship at Christian Dior and Bulgari in Paris.  According to publicity for the exhibit, the photos showcase her latest "innerwear" creations, an interesting euphemism for lingerie.  The Princess could give Victoria's Secret a run for its money.  Some of the assemblages featuring scantily clad women bordered on the scandalous.  Shades of Mark Twain!

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Many Thai shrines contain zebras (along with other animals and Buddha, Brahma and Ganesha), but this herd in the center divider of Ratchadaphisek Rd in Lad Phrao is outstanding. What's up with the zebras?  I've yet to receive an authoritative word.  Apparently someone tried putting a toy zebra in a shrine (here it's a tree wrapped in colored cloth) and their wish was granted.  So others added to the collection with more wishes and more zebras.  One Thai friend suggested that piggy banks could start a new trend.  It's certainly got little to do with Buddhism.  I tried praying to the zebras but it didn't help my friend and I find the courtroom where the trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of independent news portal Prachatai, was being held on charges of lèse majesté, a landmark case for internet freedom and all freedom of expression in Thailand.  The directions we had were incomplete.  We thought about trying again this week (the zebras might help), but learned that testimony has been delayed for six months.  So much for speedy trials in Thailand.

I was horrified to see the entire Skytrain car in which we rode yesterday covered in ads for KFC.  One panel contained attractive phrases like "feel so good," "taste so good," "look so good," "smell so good."  It was enough to make a vegetarian gag.  In the poster behind my head you can see a pair of Thai twins gorging on the crusty stuff.  According to an article in the Bangkok Post, "Thai youngsters are growing up loving fast food and junk food despite how unhealthy it is, which is leading to an obesity epidemic. Over the past five years, there has been a 40% increase in obesity among Thai children under the age of six. About 22 million people over the age of 15 are considered obese, according to the Public Health Ministry."  In a couple of years, those cute twins chowing down on Kentucky Fat Chicken will look like a couple of sumo wrestlers.

But, as my mother used to say, people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.  I've been fascinated by the success of Krispy Kreme donuts in Thailand.  The first store was opened in the high-class Siam Paragon last year and crowds were enormous, with people waiting hours for the privilege of purchasing the premier item in America's national cuisine.  We checked yesterday and saw that lines were still quite long, and many people, most of them Thai, were buying many large boxes of the donuts.  "Mai khao jai," I said, showing off my limited Thai; "I don't understand." Nan quickly set me straight:  "They're buying them to sell."  Of course!  Thais are born entrepreneurs.    And sure enough, on the way home in Pinklao last night we spied a woman selling donuts that she assured us were fresh, purchased that morning at Siam Paragon's outlet.  I couldn't resist and bought three.  They were selling at 3 for 100 baht, a profit of 19 baht over the single price of 27 baht.  And they were aroi maak (delicious)!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

These are Turbulent Times

Paradise doesn't stand still.  If I thought that coming home would pacify all of my concerns, I was mistaken.  Events near and far have ruffled my waters.  First, my dear friend Jerry collapses in the street and, after being taken to the cardiac care unit at Bangkok's most prestigious medical tourism site, has a heart attack.  He's recovering nicely, and seems less discombobulated by the adventure then I, uncomfortably reminded of my mortality.  Then I learn from the Facebook page of the son of my former brother-in-law that his father has been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare, degenerative, and invariably fatal brain disorder.  David's blog has been charting its rapid and heart-breaking progress.  I remember Kenny (we share the same birthday) fondly as a generous and energetic friend, husband and father, and I grieve for his family. 

As if to echo personal tragedy, the world is changing rapidly in unexpected ways.  For two weeks I have been following events in Egypt, particularly through the complete coverage by Al Jazeera's English web site (where streaming video can be seen).  First the government in Tunisia was driven out by street protests, and then Cairo erupted with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demanding that the dictator Mubarak, a faithful lackey of the U.S., leave the country and return the billions he stole from the people.  It's still too early to know if people power can actually overturn an entrenched autocratic regime like Murabark's; After all, they failed in Beijing's Tianamen Square over 20 years ago.  But the courage of the Egyptian people, particularly the women, is inspiring.  Maybe democracy might work after all!

In Thailand, the conservative yellow shirts, members of the People's Alliance for Democracy, are once again wagging the tail of the dog they put in power after a military coup five years ago deposed an elected prime minister and a disastrous sit-in two years ago closed the international airport and helped to unseat two subsequent prime ministers.  This time the yellow shirts and their allies, the Thai Patriots Network, are demanding that Cambodia return a small plot of land that contains an ancient Khmer temple despite the fact that an international court awarded them the border territory 50 years ago.  The long-running dispute resulted this month in shelling by the military on both sides with  the deaths of a number of villagers and solders.  Yellow shirt founder and media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul even suggested to the 5,000 demonstrating in the streets of Bangkok that Thailand should invade and capture Angkor Wat in retaliation for Cambodia's occupation of the Khmer temple land.  Because Prime Minister Abhisit has not yet declared war, the yellow shirts are calling for his ouster, or, better yet, a fresh military coup.   Insanity.

So what is one to do with such a mixture of hope and despair?  Head for a tropical island.

Our trip to Koh Chang over the long Chinese New Year weekend was made possible by an exceptionally generous wedding gift from two old friends from high school, Ernie and Mark.  It allowed Nan and I to have a second honeymoon (the first was last October to Koh Samed) and we made the most of it, flying via Bangkok Airways to Trat rather than endure the long bus ride, and staying in a "VIP Double" at Sofia Garden Resort halfway down the west coast of the island in Khlong Prao.  The hotel was owned by a man from Finland and featured a sauna as well as a pool, Finnish dishes on the restaurant menu, and it was populated by refugees from the cold northern European winter (a large number of whom were driving classic motorcycles and sported elaborate tattoos).  The cable TV include several European channels and we sampled a bit of "Titanic" and "Back to the Future" dubbed in Russian (which appears to the third official language of Thailand now).  This "resort" was not located on the beach, however, and we had to walk around a swamp and down a lane that passed a couple of luxury hotels to get to the sand and palm trees. 

Koh Chang is the third largest island in Thailand and is close to the Cambodian border (from which, thankfully, we were not shelled).  It's mountainous and the curvy road is no doubt treacherous in the rainy season.  Renting a motorbike seemed dangerous, so we traveled up and down the coast by song thao, the ubiquitous pickup truck taxi (which charged higher fees than transport on other islands I've visited), and sampled the waters at Kai Bae, Hat Tha Nam (Lonely Beach) and Halt Sai Kho (White Sands).  On the first day we paid our respects at the local Buddhist temple, receiving a blessing and a string bracelet, and a couple of nights later we visited an elaborate Ganesha shrine on the main road.  The east coast is dominated by uninviting mangrove trees while the west, where most of the resorts and hotels are located, lacks the wide beaches of some other islands, but the many trees offered welcome shade.  Although it's the peak of the tourist season, we only noticed crowds at White Sands where the only Thais Nan saw were vending items up and down the beach and giving massages.  Thankfully, we saw no jet skis or banana boats.  The other beaches, including even recently popular Lonely Beach which resembles more the backpacker haven of Pai rather than Koh Samui, were sparsely populated.  I doubt that the many accommodations, from shaky A-frames and guest houses to luxury oases, were anywhere near capacity.  Development, it seems, has maxed out.

While the surf is low key, the water around Koh Chang is warm and clear, and colored many shades of turquoise.  Liberally protected by sun block, we made the most of four days of relaxation.  Although I kept in touch with email, Facebook and Twitter on my iPod Touch (when the Sofia's wifi was working), I didn't keep up with the news (I did check in with Al Jazeera's cable channel occasionally).  We ate well at a variety of restaurants, from KATI Culinary which features a cooking school, the first evening to Iyara, an exceptional seafood restaurant (you knew it was good because most of the customers were Thais) in a old building on a lagoon where the after dinner treat was a gondola ride inland to see fireflies.  On the final night we traveled down to Bang Bao at the southern tip of the island where a long covered pier sports a number of restaurants and a generous helping of tourist shops.  We ate at Chow Lay, and although we'd enjoyed this restaurant's cuisine in Hua Hin, the Koh Chang branch was not up to par.  Iyara spoiled us for anything else.

The high point of the weekend was an all-day trip on Sunday by boat through the islands of the Koh Chang archipelago.  Conducted by Thaifun, the large boat held close to 50 travelers who swam off the beaches of Koh Wai and Koh Maak and snorkled among the coral around the tiny atoll of Koh Loan.  There were a couple of Thais among the guests but most spoke variations of guttural northern Europe languages that sound like Greek to me.  Lunch was an on-board feast and our guide Nok (she pronounced it "knock") kept everyone informed and amused with information and games, and at the end of the trip she encouraged us to throw food at the inhabitants of Monkey Island off the tip of Koh Chang.  The sea was flat and the sun was glorious.  Under the clear water, I saw numerous spiny sea urchens and waving fields of anemone.  Nan spotted what she delightfully called "cartoon fish."  Koh Maak is flat and can be explored easily by bike.  It's on the list of future possibilities, along with the much larger Koh Kood to the southeast which we did not visit.  There are 52 islands in the archipelago (used to be 53 but one was blown up during World War Two; I missed the details about that).  At least one, Koh Kham, is privately owned, and I saw a couple where I could easily live out the remainder of my days (if we win the lottery).

The trouble with coming home is that the turbulence of life you avoided by taking a vacation resumes.  Nan is back at the office and I gave my 28 students a midterm exam yesterday.  Today I'm going to the birthday dinner of a Thai colleague and tomorrow I plan to join Ian at the trial of the moderator of an internet chat site who is accused of lèse majesté for allowing comments allegedly critical of the monarchy.  It's an important test for freedom of expression in Thailand.  I received a Social Security payment this month but for less than I expected, and learned this morning by long-distance phone call that I was billed for Medicare payments after I'd withdrawn from the system (it can't be used over here).  Hopefully this will be straightened out with next month's payment.  Because Ajahn Aphivan covered for me while I was in California, I got paid for the first half of the school term even though I wasn't here.  Now I'm covering for her.  This means that for the first time in nine months we might be able to live within my income.  Hallelujah for that!