Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Religion in Thailand: The More, The Merrier

I arrived in Thailand with a head full of ideas about religion based on years of reading and academic study, an on-again/off-again meditation practice for over 20 years, an equal amount of time as a Catholic convert and disciple of Thomas Merton, and several visits to a Christian ashram in southern India where I experienced popular piety up close and personal in smoky, crowded Hindu temples.  But I was not yet prepared to understand the many everyday cultural symbols, practices and beliefs in this country that fall under the heading of sasana (teaching of) Buddha: Spirit houses in the shape of miniature temples full of Hindu gods and various animals (zebras are popular), amulets featuring images of popular monks traded like rare stamps, sacred string around wrists and buildings and tattoos that guarantee protection, royal rituals from India, sacred trees wrapped with colored cloth, political demonstrations led by a Brahmin priest, penis icons that promise fertility, a temple in the shape of a Chinese junk, altars with offerings of red soda and incense in every store, shop and taxi, superheroes (and David Beckham) portrayed in temple art, horrifying "hell gardens," and the liberation of birds and fish to earn merit towards a good rebirth.  And that's far from a comprehensive list.

In the nearly four years that I've been dwelling among Thai Buddhists, I've come to see that most Westerners have little idea of Buddhism as a lived tradition.  For them, Buddhism is mostly a philosophy or a form of psychology with meditation as an effective technique for stress reduction, a weak gruel sometimes with a patina of borrowed ritual.  They, on the other hand, would observe the above list as a motley collection of superstitions, not the true Dhamma taught by the Buddha.  This view was even shared by the Thai reformist monk, Buddhadasa Bhikku.  One person's fervent belief, however, can often be another person's superstition.  As someone who has long been fascinated by what people say and do concerning metaphysical matters, I think the typical Western idea of religion based primarily on text and doctrine is misguided.  Anthropology is a better discipline than theology and even history for understanding religious practice, but in seeing its field study as an object, it too fails to get inside the believer's heart.

I picked up Prapod Assavavirulhakarn's new book, The Ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia,  in the hope of better appreciating why Thai Buddhism is so different from what I had learned of the Buddha's teaching when I lived in America, and I was amply rewarded.  Theravada (a particular school of Buddhism which is sometimes called Hinayana ("lesser vehicle") means "doctrine of the elders," and the term is used to distinguish southern Buddhism from the northern Mahayana ("greater vehicle") school of China, Japan and Korea, and the Vajrayana ("diamond vehicle") school of Tibet.   In addition, the Theravada canon of sacred texts was written in Pali, a language similar to that probably spoken by the Buddha.  Theravadins believe their version of the teaching is pure and original and get angry at the what they see as the derogatory Hinayana label.  The title of Prapod's book is ironic in that he argues that the assumed "ascendancy" of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia in the 11th century, as most histories claim, is not supported by the evidence; it was a continuation rather than an introduction of a Buddhism that was brought west in the 1st or 2nd century BCE by merchants, missionaries and pilgrims.  The form of Buddhism they spread was a mixture that included Brahmanism from India which blended smoothly with the indigenous animism they encountered. Theravada is a label he no longer finds useful for categorizing beliefs and practices.  Few Thai Buddhist, he says, are even aware of the distinctions among the different schools.

Religion in Southeast Asia is polylithic rather than monolithic, Prapod argues. The attempt to identify any one school as dominant "seems pointless, since both epigraphic and archaeological data reveal that in actual practice different beliefs were held at the same time."   In fact,
There was no need to subscribe to one particular religion.  Insofar as religions had something beneficial to offer, Southeast Asians might think, "the more, the better."  In the later period, if Christianity had not been so insistent on one God and one faith, it took might have been accepted more readily into Southeast Asian religious life.
While ostensibly a history of early Buddhism in the region, Prapod, a professor of Eastern languages at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, has written a book that challenges received wisdom on the category of religion and how it can be examined.  He has little sympathy for Western methods of studying religion.  Scholars "focus on sacred texts and normative literature to the exclusion or neglect of the actual lived tradition."  From the texts, they develop a conceptual model of religion, creating labels like Hinduism which "is a purely academic construction."  What the people actually do is viewed as a "debased version of what is written in the canonical texts."  Rather than recognize the symbiotic union of religious practices, they seek out differences.  "The flaw in applying such Western approaches lies in resorting to categories like Hinduism or Buddhism as prepackaged preconceptions before making an effort to understand the unique practices and belief systems of the people."  Superimposing concepts from a monolithic religion like those in the Middle East "only generates a distorted image of religion in Southeast Asia, and, by extension, in the East as a whole."

Buddhism, for Prapod, must be understood as "a system of practices and beliefs infused with other Indian and Southeast Asian indigenous elements."  Trying to find a pure form of Buddhism is impossible because "there is no 'pure' or 'primitive' aspect of any of the religions, and certainly no 'isms' existed."  The term Theravada Buddhism he identifies as "a Western or, at least, modern construct."  He would use it as a "geographic term for religion found in a certain region, rather than as a religious category per se."  Even the Southeast Asian people to whom it is applied think of themselves only as Buddhists (who may or may not be aware of different beliefs and practices by Buddhists from Tibet to Korea).

I can barely do justice to the interesting information in this book about the religious beliefs and practices in my adopted land.  Prapod has some intriguing insights about the political uses of religion and the role of kingship in creating and uniting a territory or nation.  He discusses the language of religious texts (Pali vs. Sanskrit) and differences between schools based on rules and the Vinyana on ordination of monks.  He explains why Buddhism was a "portable religion" and how restrictions on the travel of Brahmins limited their missionary activity and confined Hindu influence to the royal elites.  His interpretation of past history is informed by how Buddhism is practiced in Thailand today when visitors like me are puzzled by the weird blend of animism, Brahmanism and Buddhism.  But it is his expansive view of religious values and practices that I particularly like.  Early in my study of religion I became disenchanted with "isms" and the great traditions which focused on texts and institutions, and the thoughts and deeds of Great Men.  The methodology of social history has opened up the field of religious studies to an understanding of what the common people (often non-literate) believed and did.  For example, The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg used Inquisition records to discover the thoughts of a semi-literate 16th century Italian miller whose heretical views may not have been all that unusual.  Prapod's view of Southeast Asia's polylithic religious understanding puts the list of "superstitions" at the beginning of this post in proper perspective.

For companion volumes, I can highly recommend both Richard Gombrich's Theravada Buddhism (recently reissued) and The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia by Donald K. Swearer.  Prapod's book is particularly important as it is written by an Asian.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Changes in Latitudes and Attitudes

It's amazing what a difference a change in latitude can make.  Hong Kong is nine degrees north of Bangkok and 1,100 miles away, a two-and-a-half-hour trip on no-frills Asia Air.  They're both major Asian cities (Hong Kong has six million people, a million less than the larger Thai capital).  But oh, what a change in attitude!  Hong Kong is certainly the New York City of the Far East, a frenetic place where you have to be more aggressive, less polite, and shout louder to make an impact.  The inhabitants of this archipelago metropolis, called "Fragrant Harbour" by the original Cantonese for the pervasive scent of sandalwood incense, walk too fast and smile too little.  Like Manhattan, though, it's an exciting city to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

In earlier retirement years, I traveled extensively, to Mexico and Guatemala, Europe, Argentina, and to India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia.  Despite going on several package tours and attending language schools, I abhorred the epithet "tourist" and thought of myself more as a traveler and even explorer. Daniel J. Boorstin explains the distinction:
The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes "sightseeing."
Mass production in the late industrial age, according to Paul Fussill, has "generated its own travel-spawn, tourism, which is to travel as plastic is to wood. If travel is mysterious, even miraculous, and often lonely and frightening, tourism is commonsensical, utilitarian, safe, and social." As a tourist, Fussell says,
you go not where your own curiosity beckons but where the industry decrees you shall go. Tourism soothes, shielding you from the shocks of novelty and menace, confirming your prior view of the world rather than shaking it up. It obliges you not just to behold conventional things but to behold them in the approved conventional way.
A previous travel companion once disparaged my use of Lonely Planet as a travel guide, complained that all the locations we visited had been ruined by the tourists, and lamented the lack of cheap backpacker hostels since the baby boomers had grown up.  I withered under her critique, just as I had when another girlfriend had once called me "conventional."  We hate to have our bubbles burst.

Now that I am a certified expat, living a glamorous and romantic life in the mysterious Orient, I should no longer feel the need to defend myself.  Since settling down in Thailand, though, I've only managed a couple of trips to Laos (not counting last winter's forced excursion to California), in addition to in-country travel. Nan and I have visited numerous islands, but this was our first trip together out of the country.  Unlike me, she is unencumbered by the need to be innovative and adventurous.  For weeks she has been squealing happily in anticipation of our journey.

We  planned our five-day Hong Kong getaway to coincide with the three days of Songkran, Thailand's New Year holiday when Buddha images are bathed and water-fight madness reigns in the streets.  She had the week off from work and school. We packed coats and sweaters and left shorts and flip-flops behind because Hong Kong was supposed to be ten degrees cooler and more formal.  Our flight landed at Chep Lak Kop airport on the island of Landau where we bought Octopus cards (like the Oyster card I got in London) to fund our transportation, and took the sleek and fast Airport Express to Kowloon.  A short taxi ride brought us to The Minden which came highly recommended ("almost boutque") by LP.  Our 18th floor room had a view of the short street for which the hotel was named and the string of singles bars opposite from which late at night we could hear happy/angry shouts.  A block away were the crowded sidewalks and neon jungle of Nathan Road, and a convenient MRT station.  We were within walking distance of the Star Ferry dock and the Tsim Sha Tsui East Promenade with its spectacular views of Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbor (only San Francisco Bay comes close to this Kodak vantage point).

Our three-day itinerary was basic:  Tour Hong Kong, see Disneyland, and visit Macau.  You couldn't get much more touristy than that, but I also hoped to be able to gain some wisdom and take some insights away.  Nan wanted to eat congee and noodles, check out women's fashions and shop for clothes and makeup.  Her goals were more easily obtained.

My expectations of Hong Kong were conditioned by movies and books, James Clavell's Tai-Pan and Noble House, and William Holden as the archetypal westerner smitten by beautiful Asian women in "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" and "The World of Suzie Wong."  On a hazy morning we rode across the harbor in an almost empty Star Ferry boat  and walked around the glass skyscrapers and through the parks in the central business district surrounded by too many men in suits and hundreds of cops in blue shirts monitoring a noisy demonstration outside the Legislative Council building (it's purpose was impossible to determine).  We got a splendid view from the 43rd floor of the IM Pei-designed Bank of China building and toured a few floors of the spacious HSBC Bank headquarters designed by Sir Norman Foster where we patted the two battled-scarred bronze lions in front.  In St. John's Cathedral we heard an alto saxophonist play Bach's "Air for G String in D." We took the famous Peak Tram to the top of the hill, soaked up the views, and ate a ridiculously expensive lunch at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company at the top of Peak Tower.  Back on the Kowloon side, we traveled by MRT to the cheap shopping district of Mong Kok where Nan found bargains in a tiny mall crammed with clothing stalls (Hong Kong girls she found favor leg warmers, which I'd call tights, and boots).  At dusk we strolled the busy waterfront Promenade where the Avenue of the Stars honors the Hong Kong film industry with pavement plaques (we found Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat).  The view from there of some of the city's more than 7,000 skyscrapers was awesome, even more so after dark when the son et lumiĆ©re "Symphony of the Stars" show began, a coordinated display of lights on both sides of the harbor.  From there we took the MRT to the Temple Street Night Market in Yau Ma Tei which contained the kind of junk the Chinese are so good at exporting west, and had a deliciously cheap dinner at a congee and noodles shop nestled among a number of porno shops and nudie bars.

I quickly learned that my 71-year-old body is no longer adept at exploring a city by walking without some pain.  The next day was easier.  I've been going to Disneylands in California and Florida for over fifty years, but it was all new to Nan.  Opened five years ago (and celebrating it), Hong Kong's version is on Lantau island near the airport, easily reached by MRT and a special connecting train equipped with mouse-shaped windows and strap hangers.  The park is smaller than those in the U.S., France and Japan (Shanghai opens in 2014), and the all-day ticket at $67 is relatively cheap.  On a bright sunny day (we had little use for the cold weather clothes we'd brought), crowds were sparse and there was no waiting for Space Mountain.  We went on the Jungle River Cruise, the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride and sang along with "It's a Small World."  We met Snow White and one of her dwarves, watched the afternoon parade, ate a tasty Asian-themed lunch at the River View Cafe in Adventureland, and took lots of photos.  Sure, it's a manufactured experience, but we had fun anyway.

Our third excursion was to Macau.  Although China took over the Portuguese territory in 1999, it still required getting our passports stamped when leaving Hong Kong and again on entering Macau after the hour's ferry ride (packed on the way over by a tour group of elderly Chinese wearing red Nike hats).  I didn't know what to expect other than the famous ruins of St. Paul's, the first Christian church in Asia.  We signed up for a tour around the island aboard a double-decker bus with an open top.  Macau is full of gigantic hotels and gambling casinos (which we avoided like the plague) and apparently has left Las Vegas behind in the dust as a paradise for punters.  We drove by the graceful Kwan Yin statue, which resembles the Virgin Mary, and past the Macao Tower where people were preparing to bungee jump, and around the corner of the main island near the A-Ma temple dedicated to the  goddess of the city.  We could get on and off the bus route and I chose the wrong stop, far from the old quarter of Macau.  Competency fears bubbled up.  Nan quickly learned of a city bus that would take us there, but I was stubborn.  "You never listen to me," she said.  I finally relented, guilty, knowing she was right as a tried to be a macho man even in old age.  A short while later we found St. Paul's surrounded by hundreds of tourists gathered at the site all the guide books recommended.  The only adventure was in discovering the best camera angle.  "Mai pen rai," as we say in Thailand.  We enjoyed the no-doubt reconstructed Portuguese architecture and strolled the cobblestone streets, flanked by McDonald's on one side and Starbuck's on the other.  In a lovely second floor restaurant, we enjoyed a delicious meal of Portuguese-influenced Macanese cuisine, codfish soup in a bowl of bread for Nan and African chicken for me.  Afterwards, we bought a dozen egg tarts, ignoring the greasy meat jerky on sale everywhere, before heading back to Hong Kong.

Our hotel was on a street behind the infamous Chungking Mansions which Wong Kar-wai fictionalized in his film, "Chungking Express."  Our friend Janet stays there but thought it a little rough for Nan.  The neighborhood was filled with Indians, Arabs and Africans, with numerous men, in groups or singly, standing around doing nothing.  It was vaguely menacing.  We sought shelter in the elegant new ISquare Mall across the street and had another delicious congee and noodles dinner in the aptly named restaurant, Praise House Congee & Noodles.  Afterwards we decided against seeing the new 3-D soft porn film, "Sex and Zen" (tour buses from the mainland were coming over to view a film the Chinese would ban).  Walking the sidewalks was scary.  In Bangkok people flow smoothly but in Kowloon we were jostled, nudged and pushed.  Pedestrians glowered when you caught their eye.  It was not cold but we were no longer in the tropics.  "Indolent" is not a word you could use to describe the Hong Kong Chinese.

After living in Thailand for over three years, perhaps I'm inoculated against the exotic.   An American or a European leaving home for the first time would probably experience the delicious disorientation I felt on disembarking in Bangkok (of course some first-timers never recover their balance and flee back to the certainties of home).  What I noticed were similarities, the ubiquitous brand names and the omnipresent technologies.  Being a minority amongst Asian faces was nothing new.  It was the too-loud voices and the unsmiling waiters and waitresses that jarred.  The surfaces of Hong Kong are clean and modern but you can find the dirt if you look, just like in Bangkok.  Pico Iyer, in an excellent essay on "Why We Travel," writes that the real distinction is not between traveler and tourist but "between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't."  A tourist is one who complains, "Nothing here is the way it is at home," and a traveler grumbles, "Everything here is the same as it is in..." wherever they're from.  For me, Hong Kong was both different and similar.  Iyer also says that "every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you're left puzzling over who you are and whom you've fallen in love with."  What our getaway to Hong Kong helped me realize is how much I love Bangkok and Thailand.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

May You Live in Interesting Times

Is this a curse?  Or encouragement?

When I was a boy growing up in Ohio and North Carolina, struggling to breathe through asthma attacks that sometimes required hospitalization in an oxygen tent, I dreamt about another life, one filled with adventure.  It could be in the wild west, within the skyscrapers of Manhattan, or on another planet.  Where the excitement occurred made little difference, so long as it was away from the familiar.  I took my cues from books about heroes, radio drama, the movies and Saturday morning serials at the YMCA.  "Interesting times" was anything that carried me away from the dull and unhealthy present.

Dreams do come true.  Today I live in one of the largest capital cities in the Orient, surrounded by exotic sights, sounds and smells.  My wife speaks another language, and monks call me professor.  In my long life I've been a journalist in several countries, a press agent in Hollywood on intimate terms with celebrities, and a student and teacher at universities in California and Thailand.  My children lead equally interesting lives.  The elder son is a successful pioneer in e-commerce, my daughter is a singer and dancer currently designing and making clothes in Bali, and my youngest son recently played drums with rising star Hanni El Khatib in Austin, Paris and London.

Speaking solely for myself, I want to say that I had little to do with the architecture of my life.  That it turned out well is an accident, the result of a series of blunders.  My successes are public, but my mistakes are hidden in the closest.  Buddha was right: the outcome of one's life is determined by the habit of fleeing unpleasantness and racing towards pleasure in all of its many forms.  That I'm now a survivor is a matter of luck.  I'd like to say that I regret nothing, but that would not be entirely true.  The personal, however, is the political, as feminists pointed out in the 1970s.  My choices and my triumphs are due to privilege.  I am a white man who grew to maturity in California in the 1950s.  Only a tiny percentage of the global population can make such a claim, and most of them are probably long dead.

In the Chinese curse (which may be apocryphal rather than traditional), "interesting times" is a disaster resembling the Biblical end times with wars and rumors of wars.   You would not wish this scenario on even your No. 1 enemy.  But for most of the world, the 20th century was just such a time, and the 21st is turning out to be worse.  In North Africa and the Middle East, the poor and powerless are rebelling against oppressors and tyrants, some successfully while others are slaughtered.  The United States, either the chief bully or policeman of the world depending on your ideology, has just begun its third regional war.  Japan last month was shaken by one of history's most severe earthquakes followed by a devastating tsunami, with tens of thousands dead, wounded or displaced, and out-of-control radioactivity from a damaged power plant is poisoning a large area, perhaps for thousands of years.  Radically conservative politicians in Europe and the U.S. are drastically slashing social programs while cutting taxes for the rich and boosting corporate profits. A movement is growing in response to protest curbs on union bargaining and the gross inequality of rich and poor. Even in Thailand, the dreaded 2012 is arriving much too soon: Unseasonably cold weather this "summer," coupled with earthquakes in the north and deadly floods in the south, has troubled the country.  Recurrent rumors of a military coup are preceding a national election planned for May (which some predict will never happen).  Politics in Thailand is driven by an inequality of wealth between the elite in Bangkok and the rural poor almost as great as that in the U.S., or Egypt.  Americans, however, seem more anesthetized than angry, at least outside of the city limits of Madison, Wisconsin.

The political is also personal. I didn't feel the quake on the border with Burma (Nan's family were shaken in their northern village) but I was disturbed by my friend Jerry's second hospitalization in two months.  This time he lost consciousness and fell in his apartment.  The cause of this and an earlier fall was determined to be an irregular heart beat and a pacemaker was quickly installed in my bionic pal's body.  His face was severely bruised in the fall and I advised him to pretend he'd been mauled at muai Thai.  Jerry's wife Lamyai rushed from Surin to his side to take care of him, as is the custom here, and a swift recovery is predicted (although their bank account was severely impacted).  The illnesses and disabilities of my friends affect me. I feel older and I worry more.  Despite having medical insurance (an as yet not fully tested policy), the prospect of the need for medical intervention scares me.  Am I imagining the slight pain in my left jaw, or the ache in a wobbly knee?  Our health, or lack of it, can determine our attitude toward the world.

While it feels as if I spend too much time in my apartment on Facebook and Twitter, life in Bangkok this past month has been a full plate.  I went to the Foreign Correspondents Club with friends from my political discussion group to hear Steve Crawshaw, co-author of "Small Acts of Resistance," and Bangkok Post columnist Voranai Vanijaka talk about revolution in the Middle East and Thai politics.  Michael, a new Facebook friend, invited me to ArtBridge 2011, a fascinating exhibition by local and international artists at the Poh-Chang College of Art, where I met Susan, another Australian, a proponent of "laughter yoga."  After turning in final grades for the term, I was asked to be the moderator of an English debate at my university between monks and students at Bangkok University.  My job was to introduce the teams and their members  (for three semi-final rounds and a championship match) and clap my hands twice when the speakers were almost out of time.  In the middle of March, Bob and Vivian stopped off in Bangkok on their way from the islands to Santa Cruz and we took them to dinner at a huge outdoor barbecue restaurant on the banks of the Chao Phraya River  ("Real Thai food," I claimed, but a Thai friend corrected me and said the popular DIY barbecue places were brought here by the Chinese). As if to test this, Nan and I met one night last week after she got off work and took the bus to Chinatown where we joined a few thousand others at one of the many sidewalk restaurants for dinner and a stroll.  The food seemed very Thai (no barbecue).  Later I tried without success to find some Chinese sausage for which the district is supposedly famous. 

How do our mundane daily activities relate to the momentous changes in the world, the natural and the political upheavals?  Some commentators think the new social media distract us from communal involvement and siphon off our energy for challenging the systems that belittle us.  Others believe that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt would not have happened without Twitter.  Certainly many citizen journalists on Twitter kept me apprised of events during the insurrection in Bangkok last March and April.  In the doldrums, I find the tweets a bit boring.  Nan is much less addicted to Facebook than I (and has not yet tried Twitter), but she plays a game whose Thai name translates as "Happy Pigs."  When not doing homework during the current summer intensive session or watching the latest lakorn (soap opera) on TV, she tells me "I have to feed my pigs," and I can hear their squealing as I post another political link on my Facebook page.  I worry about the New York Times pay wall that was erected last week but have yet to encounter it.  A large number of my links come from NYT stories.  "It's more like a pay fence," claimed one commentator in a podcast, and a hacker has already figured out how to build a ladder to climb over the 20-article limit imposed by the newspaper to make a profit out of its digital contents.  Like most of the digerati, I'm used to getting my content (news stories, columns, music, videos and movies) free, although in principle I believe content providers should be reimbursed.  But the Times monthly/annual fee for internet viewing is outrageously high.

I recently read a blog post by an expat in Thailand that told the story of a neighbor for whom "the novelty of living here had worn off."  So he left his wife, kids and home for greener pastures.  The blogger was appalled by this behavior, as was I.  And yet the idea of "novelty" sounded uncomfortably similar to "interesting times," at least if you look at it as encouragement and not a curse.  I would rather not think of my current life as containing novelties that might some day wear off.  "Interesting" does not have to mean only "stimulating."  Nan is already planning our retirement in her village in Phayao where we will live in her aunt Ban Yen's house.  Recently her mother installed a water heater for us in the house which is next to hers.  The closest big city is Chiang Rai three hours' drive away, and Central, the big shopping conglomerate, just opened a new mall there complete with a Starbucks.  The only kink in our early planning is the difficulty of getting a high-speed internet signal, without which I would be uncomfortably isolated.  But that is far in the future.  In the interim, we're preparing for a trip, our third honeymoon, to Hong Kong on the 12th of this month for a five-day holiday.  Nan has been doing a little shopping.  In addition to an expensive bar of soap that guarantees to turn the user's skin white, she has purchased a pair of blue contact lenses along with new shoes and a few outfits.   We're getting excited.  From one perspective, at least, this might seem to be yet another novelty that one might someday tire of.

But it's certainly an interesting life!