Wednesday, May 04, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tolls

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.  
--John Dunne, 1623

My friend Holly Dugan died last Friday.  She was 70.  None of her friends in Bangkok knew she was sick.  From diagnosis of intestinal cancer until death took less than two weeks.  In an email to her long-time friend Pandit Bhikku, the Buddhist monk, she wrote
As it is, I am grateful that I didn’t feel worse before now, because I have a cancer that looks like a whirling globe of fire, burning everything next to it. If they colored up the CAT scan, it could be psychodellic. It’s the power of denial that has fed my delusion that I am a healthy person. And enabled me to ignore quite a number of symptoms. Not that I wouldn’t die. The terminal aspect of the diagnosis is a great comfort in many ways. I am prepared (to my amazement).
Dozens of letters of tribute to Holly, her friendship and her life, are pouring in to the web site of Little Bang Sangha, the Buddhist group for expats and visitors that she helped found with Pandit four years ago.  They recall her wit and wisdom, and her ability to listen and respond to whomever she was with, a predilection for compassion and generosity that made her a fine clinical psychologist.  She studied at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and taught here in Thailand in the graduate division of psychology at Assumption University.

 I first met Holly in her Haight Ashbuy apartment when she was writing her doctoral dissertation, a chore we shared; both of us were late bloomers.  After practicing as a therapist in Los Angeles, Holly moved with her husband Ham to Thailand.  When I was thinking of settling here, she emailed suggestions and advice.  We met again at one of Pandit Bhikku's first talks for Little Bang in 2007 after I arrived for good in Thailand, and she was an invaluable source of help and solace to a newbie expat who wanted to learning more about Buddhism.  We shared coffee, books and adventures.  This photo was from a trip to Chinatown for the Chinese New Year celebration.  Holly was Little Bang's treasurer and in those first years I helped organize events.  Recently I've been attending meetings of the BuddhistPsychos group she started to discuss Buddhist teaching on the psychological self.  I last saw her at the gathering in March when she handed out copies she'd made of Buddhadasa Bhikku's small book Anatta to everyone.  Holly was a tiny lady and always appeared a bit frail and fragile until she began to speak.  I've never met anyone with more spirit and enthusiasm for life.  It's incomprehensible to me that she could ever die.

I've probably taken hundreds of photos of Holly over the nearly four years I've been in Thailand, but most disappeared when I accidentally deleted a cache of stored photos last fall.  Here's one that survived of Holly in the living room of her house off Ruam Rudee Road surrounded by books, papers, furniture and cats in front of her computer.  The house was nestled among a jungle of plants.   She was an excellent hostess, quick with tea or French press coffee, but it was sometimes difficult to find an empty place to sit.  I saw less of Holly when I moved away from Sukhumvit and the coffee bar where we used to meet to catch up on each other's activities.  And after I began teaching and settled down with Nan I was less of a participant in Little Bang, meaning our visits were less often.  She missed the last BuddhistPsycho gathering and the Little Bang lunch and meeting to discuss Osho and gurus in general.  Pandit knew of her diagnosis but thought we had more time.  Her body is now in a sala at Wat That Tong with monks chanting in the evenings this week.  The cremation ceremony will be held on Saturday and I will be there along with hundreds of her friends to say goodbye. There will be a party that evening at the wine bar near her home where she took me once for free hors d'oeuvres.

I chose the quote from the 17th century poet John Donne (despite the politically incorrect exclusive language) to headline this post after hearing of the assassination of Osama bin Laden and feeling uneasy about the celebratory dancing in the streets in front of the White House.  When Michael Moore tweeted the quote ostensibly from Martin Luther King, Jr. --"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy" -- I helped spread it, only later to learn that it was a fake. Still, it expresses a sentiment I and many others felt.  Obama announced that justice was done, but that was a lie.  Justice would have been served by capturing Osama and subjecting him to the rule of law in a court.  His death was a revenge killing, pure and simple.  Demonization is the flip side of our celebrity-obsessed culture (though some figures like Charlie Sheen work both sides of the street). Osama and Saddam (you can add Hitler but he killed himself) are not real people but empty containers for our rage and praise. Hating OBL is like hating the opposing team in the Global Bowl/World Cup. "America, fuck yeah!"

After the World Trade Center was destroyed by radical Muslims apparently following Osama's orders, a few brave souls suggested that we should learn why they hated us so much.  But they were soon shouted down by others filled with blood lust for revenge.  The same one-sided response is happening all over again with Osama's assassination.  David Sirota on believes the celebration of revenge is wrong. "This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory -- he has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed." Everything the U.S. has done since 9-11 has been a recruitment poster for al-Qaeda. "The presence of American imperial bases, dotted, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Doha," Chris Hedges has written, "has done more to engender hatred and acts of terror than anything ever orchestrated by Osama bin Laden."  The commentators I read agree that Osama's death is largely symbolic, a "mission accomplished" on Obama's watch (although the right-wingers are giving Bush the credit since it was his idea to go into Afghanistan to get him).  The long-standing practice of attributing historical events to the influence and decisions of individuals was thankfully overthrown by social and cultural historians in the 20th century I studied who showed that great men were more the product of social forces rather their initiators.  Globalism and corporate colonialism are the culprits, not the spokespersons on either side.

I don't intend to equate my friend Holly's death with that of a religious fanatic who believed innocent people could be sacrificed in pursuit of a holy goal.  But death is on my mind.  I also learned this week that my best friend Mark from junior high and high school and my college roommate at Berkeley in the late 1950s has terminal lung cancer and has been admitted to hospice care.  I had a Skype conversation with his wife Laurie and learned that he's been asking his nurses to help him die.  Doctors tried an unsuccessful treatment that was very painful and remains so even now that medication has been discontinued.  Fortunately I talked with Mark a month ago and we were able to trade old stories about the past and managed to laugh at our teenage foibles.  Mark has rarely been a cooperative patient and his wife is having a difficult time.  He's one of the most charismatic people I've ever met, but sometimes this energy can seem overbearing.  After he served as a dentist in the Philippines during the Vietnam War, we found out our politics had diverged drastically, so we avoided talking about it.  The last time I visited him at his home in Laguna Beach was for a reunion at our Pasadena school.  One drunken night he took me to his orthodontics office and proudly showed me a series of before and after pictures of patients he'd helped with braces.  He was successful enough for he and Laury to take many trips and cruises after his retirement.  I know he will not go gently into the good night, and I hate to see him go.

It's summer vacation from school in Thailand but I've managed to stay quite busy since our trip to Hong Kong.  Yesterday at the Foreign Correspondents Club I attended a press unveiling by Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch's report, "Descent Into Chaos," on the protest in Bangkok last year and the government crackdown that resulted in 80 deaths and 2000 injuries.  While charging the mysterious "black shirts" with killing several soldiers on behalf of the red shirt protestors, the report blames most of the violence on the government which turned a problem of civilian law enforcement into a war zone allowing the military to use lethal force which included snipers and the targeting of journalists and medics.  In attendance at the press conference was the mother of Kamolkate ("Kate") Akkhahad, a 25-year-old nurse who was killed by a sniper while attending to a seriously wounded man in front of a Buddhist temple. The week before I'd attended a talk at the FCCT by red shirt leaders Thida T. Tojirakarn, Jatuporn Promphan and Nattawut Saikua.  All are currently being prosecuted as "terrorists," but managed to joke about it.  They avoided answering directly questions about violence by their followers and accused the government of being behind the destructive fires in Bangkok and the provinces after their demonstration was broken up (HRW disputes this).  Earlier in April, German expat photographer Nick Nostitz came to our discussion group to talk about his two books, Red Vs. Yellow, volumes 1 and 2, which cover the activities of the red shirt movement and its yellow shirt opposition in 2008 and 2009.  He's currently at work on a new book covering the events of 2010.  Also in April, the BuddhistPsychos gathered at a book store to talk about charisma and gurus.  Then Little Bang Sangha invited members to a excellent buffet lunch at the Tai-Pan Hotel followed by the screening of several films featuring interviews with Osho, the deceased Indian guru better known in America as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. "Doesn't he ever blink?" asked one viewer. I noticed his wardrobe and jewelry.  At his Oregon headquarters, followers presented him with gifts of Rolls Royce cars, dozens of them.  But one of our members, William, had visited there and gave us a more favorable view.  The next day, nine monks came to our condominium, Lumpini Place, for a special tamboon in the lobby when we offered them their daily meal.  This was preceded by a ceremony making offerings of incense and food before the spirit house of Phra Phum, lord of the land on which the condo was built.  I was instructed to stick incense into a banana, which I did.

May will be even busier than April.  This is the month that I have to gather documents for renewing my visa and work permit.  I put copies from last year into the capable hands of Phra Jirasak and am hoping for the best.  Last year I had only one day before everything expired to get a signature on a letter from the Rector of my university.  I'm too old for that kind of stress.  Vesak 2011 will be held May 12-14 at my university's campus in Ayutthaya and at the United Nations headquarters in Bangkok.  Several thousand monks and laypeople from all over the world will be in attendance.  Like last year, I will be secretary of the Environmental panel on Protection and Restoration during the conference proceedings on Thursday.  Academics and students of Buddhism from all over the world will deliver papers on this and other important topics, and I'll get to work again with Dr. Colin Butler from Australia.  Although I haven't seen the university's schedule yet, the following week should be the beginning of the next school term.  I'm looking forward to seeing my students again, now in their fourth year of undergraduate study of English.  Finally, May 29th is the second anniversary of my first meeting with Nan and I hope to do something special with her.  I've been listening carefully, but have not yet heard the bell tolling for me.  When it does, I hope to be as ready as Holly.  RIP, my friend.

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