Friday, September 30, 2011

If Old MacDonald had a Farm in Thailand

This would be it...

Last weekend we visited The Scenery Vintage Farm in the hills above Ratchaburi, a three-hour drive from Bangkok.  You can go there virtually on their colorful web site.  The place was packed with Thai tourists eager to participate in the American faux farm experience.  I was amazed to see many similar farm resorts along the road in the hilly area called Suan Phung (bee garden) catering to people on holiday whose idea of a good time is to feed sheep.  The neighboring Swiss Valley Farm  (and "Hip Resort") features a European angle and sports a windmill.  Another resort has a Flintstones theme. (All have Facebook pages.) The road was lined with tour buses and, according to reports, rooms are booked solid.  I may have been the only farang at Scenery Farm.  You can only laugh so long at the irony.

LPN, the conglomerate that manages our condo, Lumpini Place, as well as many others in Bangkok, had organized a day trip and we joined four busloads of travelers to take donations to home for mentally disabled children in the province.  Ratchaburi, which means "City of the King (usually shortened to "Rat-Buri"), stretches from the Gulf of Thailand west to the border of Burma. After unloading our gifts into a pickup truck, we filed across the large campus to the dining hall and watched while the boys and girls arrived for lunch.  I felt a little embarrassed at the "show" as the meal was illuminated by flashes from dozens of cameras, but the kids seemed use to it.  We took turns serving food.  Many of the guests sat down to help the residents eat.  Even those able to eat by themselves seemed to enjoy the attention.  Nan found a girl whose appetite was bottomless.  She had three helpings of rice and chicken and several of soup, and all the kids had left by the time she finished.  Some of the vacant stares on the faces of the children were heart-breaking, and I'm glad the government of Thailand has established such centers.  I couldn't translate the school's official name but you can browse their website (in Thai) here.

After the children ate and returned to their rooms, we sat down for lunch at tables in the auditorium of the school.  The entertainment was a surprise.  While we dined on a delicious meal prepared at the direction of the Lumpini organizers, a group of kathoeys (lady boys) from Ratchaburi put on a fabulous stage show.  Lip-syncing to recorded Thai songs, they wore extravagant costumes and danced with professional aplomb.  Vegas girls could not do it better.  A group of the children followed, although several kept wandering off stage, and the entertainment ended with Lumpini personnel and guests trying their hand at karaoke.

Our next stop on the caravan through Ratchaburi was Baan Hom Thien ("Home of Sweet-smelling Candles") not far away in Suan Phung.  It was the epitome of a manufactured tourist attraction, charging a small fee (paid for in our approximately $10 field trip ticket) for visitors to wander through a lovely hillside garden with stalls offering food and drink and shops selling...candles.  In addition to the wax objects in every size and color, there were numerous wax-sculpted sheep.  For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why sheep (which appear to be rare in Thailand) were the focus.  There were little wax sheep and big wax sheep and sheep on lots of different tee shirts.  There were even small rocking sheep for children to ride on.  We didn't buy any candles but we did get a cold drink and ice cream, each in its own bamboo container (which we brought home as souvenirs).

Our final destination was Scenery Vintage Farm.  Spread out over several acres, the farm included several faux barns, an amusement zone with games and prizes (all cuddly stuffed sheep in different sizes), pony rides, an archery range, a non-working ferris wheel ("Coming Soon!"), several gift stores named "Sheepie Sheep Shop," and a herd of sheep who appeared to be ravenously hungry, eating all of the long green leaves the crowd of temporary farm hands were offering.  In the middle of a field was a giant sculpture of a dog, for no apparent reason.  A sign advertised sheep milk ice cream "coming soon!"  I can pass that up.  It was all quite pleasant and decidedly odd.

Almost every Thai house and business has spirit houses standing outside to placate bad spirits who might want to come inside.  There are usual two, one for Chao tii, the animist "spirit of the place," on four legs, and the other on a taller pedestal for Phra phum, the "spirit of the land," a deva of Hindu origin.  While most are quite traditional, there are some modern innovations and designs near new Bangkok skyscrapers.  The spirit houses at Scenery Farm are radically different and quite strange.  They appeared to me to be copies of adobe houses somewhere in the Southwest U.S.A., far from the typical farm scene depicted elsewhere.

Outside the children's center there was a more typical pair of spirit houses.   It's important to remember that these ubiquitous cultural objects have nothing to do with Buddhism, although they blend seamlessly with the constellation of Thai religiosity.  Before lunch, the children folded their hands and chanted a prayer to the Buddha.  Every room of the school contains a portrait of the King and Queen, no less religious objects.  Taking gifts to the school on our part was an act of generosity, what Thais call "tam boon," the primary religious practice, more central to their faith than meditation (something that puzzles American Buddhists when they come to study in Thailand).

In my blog post yesterday, I attempted to sketch some of my thoughts about differences in Buddhism so great as to challenge the unitary nature of the world religion's name.  Can all of the various manifestations of Buddhism fit in the same big tent?  When I called myself a Catholic, friends who were atheists would accuse me of heresy because I doubted the Incarnation (was Jesus really God?) and the Resurrection; they were more orthodox in their unbelief than I.  Within contemporary Buddhism, there are skeptics like Stephen Batchelor who doubts the common understanding of karma and rebirth, and some would like to banish them (and other secularists, progressives, punks and pragmatists) from the Buddhist tent.  Who or what determines Buddhist and the authenticity of teachings of the dhamma/dharma?  Traditionalists claim knowledge of the "original" and "pure" teachings from the Pali texts and declare reinterpretations invalid.  In Thailand there is tension and difference between the institutional Sangha Council which centralizes and regulates practices according to political declarations and the localized, hybridized spirituality centered around village temples which borrows freely from animist and Indian non-Buddhist traditions.  Can anyone be a Buddhist without certification of some kind?

A good friend took me to task for my post yesterday, saying the "historical" Buddha was indeed a Buddhist and clearly intended, "from whatever reading of Buddhism you choose," to set up a religion.  He is a serious follower of Buddhism and I always take his criticisms seriously (unless they become personal).  But I believe here it is the voice of faith speaking (which I do not take lightly).  From my study of history, however, I am confident that the English words "religion" and "Buddhism" are of recent invention, perhaps no more than two hundreds years ago, and were classifications created by western academics, sometimes to marginalize Asian spirituality.  We need other descriptions for cultural activities prior to the establishment of institutions, and hundreds of years before there is any historical evidence.  I question whether the Buddha's community of followers, the sangha, counts as a religion in the modern sense.  And I think it's anachronistic to call their leader a "Buddhist."  And finally, while I believe there was probably a real spiritual teacher, Siddhattha Gotama, on the subcontinent in the 5th century BCE, whose teachings were singularly impressive to his followers, I'm not sure the words and stories ascribed to him are true in the factual sense.  I think the search for a "pure," "original" and "universal" Buddhist teaching is fruitless.

Does this get me kicked out of the Buddhist tent?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

This is Not a Buddhist

We celebrated our first wedding anniversary this week by dressing up and traveling an hour by taxi through heavy Bangkok traffic to dine in the Parkview Restaurant at the Imperial Queen's Park Hotel.  The incredibly expensive buffet included passable wine and lots of food we don't normally eat, including foie gras.  Nan wanted to try it.  Later I posted a photo of Nan and her pad of paté on Facebook and received this impassioned response:
As a Buddhist, I think you have a ethical responsibility not to support such horrible cruelty in the name of cuisine ... at least when it's so easy for you to help. Otherwise, I must say, it's armchair Buddhism ...
Now I know how foie gras is made because I saw "Mondo Cane" back in the 1960s, and I classify it with soups made from shark fin and bird's nest.  But it was Nan's experience and I always encourage her to explore the world that most village girls never see.  She had two servings. I took a bite and found it bland. I enjoyed the selection of cheeses with French bread.  The barbecued salmon, Australian beef and lamb chops (a rarity in Thailand) were more tasty and the cornucopia of desserts (dipping watermelon in a chocolate fountain!) were to die for.  We had exchanged gifts before leaving: a shirt for me and a new watch for Nan.  I wore a tie (the only other person with one in the restaurant was the maître d'hôtel) and Nan a slinky dress inherited from her aunt.  We gorged until we were full and I had finished the last spoonful of kiwi sorbet.

What gave me pause in the plea from my Facebook friend was not guilt over contributing to the suffering of geese (all my consumption choices contain that risk), but the assumption that I was a Buddhist.  The headline for this post, for those who flunked art history, is a reference to the Magritte painting of a pipe containing the words, "Ceci c'est pas non une pipe."  He titled it "The Treachery of Images," and it serves to remind me that icons and symbols are not transparent but have a history.  Just as Jesus was not a Christian, the Buddha was not a Buddhist (and the images and representations of each figure are further removed from that label).  Am I a Buddhist?  I have never taken the refuge vows which most agree are necessary to assume that identity.  Last year the Pali scholar from Oxford, Richard Gombrich, told a conference audience here that he was "not a Buddhist, but I very much admire Buddhism and especially Buddhist ethics.  I am not a Buddhist in a technical sense."  I like that.  Does it mean then we're only "armchair Buddhists"?

The day before our anniversary, I accompanied students of English from my university on a field trip to Ayutthaya, the capital of the Thai kingdom from 1350 to 1767 when it was destroyed by Burmese invaders.  All that remained was a field of red brick and headless Buddha statues.  Some of the brick was used in building the new capital at Thonburi and then Rattanakosin in what is now Bangkok.  Much of the city an hour north of the present capital has now been painstakingly reconstructed for tourists and students of history, although not all of the 500 temples have been rebuilt in the city Europeans described as the Venice of Asia because of its canals (the center is an island at the confluence of three rivers, and is consequently often flooded).  Ayutthaya was a Buddhist monarchy with the identity of its people affirmed by each pillar, then as now.  For Thais, the dhamma is inseparably linked with rule by a devaraja (god-king), a concept from India by way of the Khmer empire in Cambodia.

My students have come to Bangkok, and now the new campus in Wangnoi outside Ayutthaya, from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, south China, southern Vietnam,  and Shan State in Burma.  They have to be taught the unfamiliar English words "Buddhism" and "Buddhist."  In Thai, they follow sasanaput, the teachings of the Lord Buddha.  "Religion" is an abstract concept, hard to grasp, although they learn to think of Buddhism as a religion equal to the Christianity brought here by missionaries over the last 500 years (converts in Thailand are slim pickings). My students on the field trip clambered over the ruins and took photos of each other.  June, our Thai tour guide, gave a history lesson in English on the bus but the monks chatted with each other, listened to music on earphones, or slept.  I couldn't hear much over the rumble of traffic and squeaking of the bus carriage.  History taught in Thailand is celebratory rather than objective.  There is a big flap in the news here at the moment over students at a middle school in Chiang Mai who dressed up for an activity day as Nazis, apparently unaware of the history of National Socialism in Germany and its tragic consequences.

Since "Buddhism" and "religion" have become reified and commodified through use, it's difficult to talk about the living practices, beliefs and customs on view everywhere in Thailand and other Asian countries without recourse to these labels and the discourse that surrounds them.  I'm attempting to put together a conference paper on the differences I've observed between "buddhisms" (traditional vs. modern, Asian vs. Western, for starters) and whether or not it's possible to unify them all within one "big tent."  I got this idea from reading somewhere that it was more accurate to speak of "christianities" than an abstract Christianity which doe not in fact exist.  I started by reading the voluminous literature on American Buddhism; one writer called it "Ameriyana" to contrast it with "Theravada" and "Mahayana," the two generally accepted schools of Asian Buddhism.  Westerners reject ritual and monasticism to focus on meditation and what Thich Nhat Hahn calls "inter-being," an interconnectedness with people and nature.  This makes understandable a much-told joke about the Dalai Lama asking a hot dog vendor to "make me one with everything."  But when the Tibetan leader was told the joke, he found it incomprehensible.  The dhamma generally teaches elimination of self rather than an expansion of the self.  But in the west the romantic notion of mystical oneness prevails.

Buddhism in Thailand is a hybrid cultural practice combining Brahmanism and various forms of Buddhism, brought to Southeast Asia by merchants along sea routes from India, with local animist beliefs and rituals.  There is little enforced orthodoxy, although Buddhist teaching relies on the Pali Tripitaka, considered to contain the earliest sayings of the Buddha (although not written down for hundreds of years after his death).  Like "Hinduism," an institutional structure based on the traditions of brahmin priests, Asian Buddhism absorbs everything in its path. The bewildering variety of icons and symbols I found in Thailand were nothing like the rather austere zen and vipassana Buddhism I knew in California.  How could these buddhisms coexist in the same tent?

For the first 2,000 years of its history, teachings and practices centering on the perhaps mythical figure of the Buddha spread out of India south to Sri Lanka, east to Southeast Asia, and north to Tibet, China, Japan and Korea.  There was little contact and interchange between different sects and schools which intermingled with local cultures to create different blends.  European visitors lumped all their observations into the category of "heathen" and compared it unfavorably with the three monotheistic "world" religions.  But in the 19th century, linguists working as colonial administrators discovered and translated sacred texts of the Far East, thereby creating "Buddhism."  At first the texts were seen as evidence of  "pure" Buddhism while living practices were viewed as corruptions of the original religion.  Then two Theosophists from the U.S. went to Sri Lanka, became Buddhists and reconstructed the religion, making it more "protestant" and anti-colonial in the process.  There is now a large corpus of literature on "Buddhist modernism," which, with the connivance of Asian teachers, made Buddhism more rational and scientific, countering an earlier European opinion that it fostered nihilism.  Homegrown modernists (and King Mongut in Thailand, when not fighting with Anna, did his part) tried to purge Buddhism of superstitious accretions and promoted an intellectual understanding of the dhamma over a devotional one.  A wide variety of buddhisms from different Asian countries presented teachings acceptable to American susceptibilities at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893.  From the Transcendentalists to the beats and hippies, America welcomed Buddhism with open arms, first zen and more recently the vajrayana tradition from Tibet which has achieved a popularity all out of proportion to its size in the Buddhist universe.

At the annual Day of Vesak celebration and conference held by my university, several thousand Buddhists from all over the world representing most traditions gather for three days of talks and ceremonies.  The monks and nuns in their many-colored robes and the laypeople speaking a Babel of languages is most impressive.  The large hall at Wangnoi is certainly a big tent able to hold all views and opinions of the dhamma despite superficial differences.  One big difference, however, is the respect accorded the Thai monarchy.  Nowhere else is royalty so intertwined with religion.  One delegate describe it critically as "the thaification of Buddhism."  But at least religious imagery and devotional ceremonies were on display, unlike in the West where perhaps, in their zeal to purge Buddhism of Asian rituals and superstition, the baby might thrown out with the bathwater.

My paper on buddhisms in the big tent is far from finished.  I've accumulated a foot of printouts and my leaky memory already makes any coherent organization of research impossible.  I want to write about the dispute in the pages of Mandela between the secularist Stephen Batchelor and the traditionalist B. Alan Wallace, both trained in the Tibetan tradition, over what counts as authentic teaching and what can be doubted (perhaps karma and rebirth).  Then there are the punks and progressives, mostly younger Buddhists, who criticize the first generation of Buddhist converts in America with their wind chimes and hippie ways.  In Thailand, Buddhist reformer Buddhadasa tried to eliminate superstitions while affirming modernist ideas, though his student, Phra Visalo, believes some superstitions are helpful.  A new generation of Asian academics, like Prapod Assavavirulhakarn from Chulalongkorn University, are contesting accepted Buddhist history written mostly by Westerners and even claiming that "Theravada," the recognized term for southern Buddhism, is inaccurate and useless.

But I may not finish (I've already said as much in an earlier blog post).  The research is fascinating and illuminating and I've always liked it more than crafting an argument.  This post is a way to run through several of my ideas to see if they make sense in print.  I've even got some thoughts on methods to actually unify the disparate elements of a hijacked tradition.  Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblance might be useful, as is the concept of hybridity developed by anti-colonial theorists.  And Buddhist historian Robert H. Scharf has some interesting suggestions about conversation as the unifying element.  I love the title of Tomoko Masuzawa's 2005 book, The Invention Of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved In The Language Of Pluralism.  I've only read her chapter on Buddhism but her thesis is provocative and persuasive.  The struggle over what counts as Buddhism seems to be a very-unbuddhistic fight for control.  Why does "religion" have to be universal anyway?  The Thais I see who daily pay respects to the Buddha and to Ganesha and who practice generosity to gain a favorable rebirth have no need of being theologically correct.  Few have the luxury to pick and choose beliefs from the spiritual marketplace as do western spiritual searchers.  Their devotion is more simple and honest, and I prefer to stay in their big tent.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Not Working on Myself

The old man in the elevator shook my hand and asked my age.  When I told him, he said: "I'm 81."  As I walked Nan to the bus stop, our daily ritual, he said to her in Thai that he did yoga every morning.  As he strode off in front of us to buy the morning newspaper, his strong legs moved agelessly under the shorts.  Nan went to class this morning feeling sore from a half hour on the treadmill in the gym yesterday.  She was happily sweaty when I came home from teaching yesterday, proud to have exercised by herself in the small facility three floors below our apartment.  Any urge to do something for my body is missing in inaction.  I move slowly between couch and refrigerator, computer and toilet, noticing the stiffness in my bones.  Decades of a guilty conscience whisper incessantly in my ear but I ignore the advice.  I've retired from all self-help regimens.

Of course the alternative to not working on one's self is a slow death.  I give it maybe 85 years (the old man looked pretty spry).  That's enough for one lifetime.  My last wife was addicted to fitness, and I think it's a fine thing to want to improve yourself, body and/or mind.  I even tried African dance with her until I injured my neck and couldn't turn my head for weeks.  She lifted weights and I bought some not-so-heavy dumbbells to keep in my office.  But they gathered dust.  I did take up jogging in my 30's and bought a subscription to Runner's World.  I ran in some races and got up to 11 miles, thinking I might train for a marathon.  But when my favorite columnist died of a heart attack while running, and work forced me to run before or after dark, I gave it up and resumed smoking.  I was heedless in my youth.

My brother has been obsessed with his health.  He's up on all the latest diseases, conditions and treatments and is regularly checked for newly discovered ailments.  He's very knowledgeable about vitamins and popular supplements and when my mother was in her 90's he did his best to change her diet.  The food he bought sat unused in her refrigerator and on her shelves while she consumed sweet and fatty items that the natural foods press claimed would kill you.   We ate ice cream and cookies together on my visits, read the National Enquirer and watched trashy TV shows.  There was lots of advice in the supermarket tabloids on how to live a long, healthy and blameless life, but we ignored it.  She broke her hip in a fall, went into the hospital and never came home.

Reading books, joining gyms and listening to self-help gurus of every stripe is a preoccupation of the well-to-do.  People for whom living is a struggle, like the illegal Burmese in Bangkok who beg on the pedestrian bridges and work on construction gangs building the high-rise condos, have no time to improve themselves.  Psychotherapy and meditation (which seem to have blended together in the modern mind) are luxuries indulged in by people with money and time on their hands.  They've come to think that something is not quite right and they must act to correct the problem, whether physical or mental.  Behind the urge to change is a feeling of lack or incompleteness.

This is not to excuse myself.  I acknowledge a certain laziness when it comes to correcting my faults.  My father was a big man and he did not move in my memory very fast.  Outside of the swimming pool, he was slow and deliberate.  His favorite position was reclining in a big overstuffed chair in front of the TV set.  My brother, on the other hand, was short and shy.  At an early age he set about remaking his body and was quite successful.  He's taller now, more muscular, and he can even grow a better beard than I can, a source of some resentment on my part.  I was persuaded to climb the rope on the gym team in junior high school, but I enjoyed coming down more than going up, and my only reason for the effort was to earn a letterman's sweater I could let my girlfriend wear.

We all have our goals, and mine from an early age was to penetrate mysteries with my mind.  I was a voracious reader and it stood me in good stead, eventually, after some false starts, getting me into the university where I set about becoming an intellectual.  Now, at the other end of the search, I've read lots of books, and people even think I'm a smart and deep thinker (that's been said to me twice lately), a perception I don't particularly share.  For me it's easy to read and scatter my inquiries broadly, but it's difficult -- nay impossible -- to keep my body youthful and my spirit at peace.  After twenty years of meditation practice, on and off, after coming to Thailand four years ago I got up off the cushion and quit.

Is meditation just another form of self-help?  That would be a justification I'm not yet ready to make.  What I can tell you is that although I was able to sit for over an hour at times, I never experienced much peace and quiet.  I've tried Theosophy and Transcendental Meditation, and gone to India to an ashram -- four times!  Always the thoughts intruded, and focusing on my breath only served to make breathing laborious.  The fault, dear friends, of course must be mine.  Most of the famous meditation teachers today began after I first sat many years ago with an egg timer and Baba Ram Dass' little meditation book.  Unlike my hesitant and insufficient practice, however, they kept at it and achieved...what?  I've yet to meet what I could unequivocally believe was an enlightened being.  Many teachers and authors have the gift of gab.  Alan Watts was a master at speaking of the wisdom of the East.  But he died an alcoholic, forgetting or unable to follow his own advice.  So I failed at meditation.  I couldn't give up my thoughts, was unable to sit in the proper position, and during the lecture missed the crucial instructions needed to become an arahant.

As my mother would say, no use crying over spilt milk.  I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that I will not become enlightened in this lifetime.  I'll also never be able to sit in a full lotus position (now I require a chair rather than a cushion to sit at various lectures on Buddhism).  And of course I can't bench press 200 pounds, run in a marathon or play Bach on the piano (I did want to play sax in Stan Kenton's band, but never fulfilled that dream either).  Americans growing up are encouraged to excel at something, and I took the advice to heart.  But I never became an actor or musician, and my attempts to be a published writer came to nought, except in these pages.  I restarted my academic career too late to become a tenured professor.  But now, here in Thailand, I'm a teacher, an ajahn, and I experience the most profound satisfaction from interacting with my students who are eager to learn English and transcend their humble beginnings.  They tell me I help them and I see the gratitude in their eyes.

I've changed my mind about spiritual matters many times over the years and doubt that I'll ever really have a settled position on what we label "religion" (which indicates that I don't think much of that label these days, though I respect the cultural beliefs and behavior it often maligns).  But I do think this:  We don't need to work on ourselves.  What we need to do is love one another and take care of each other.  Everyone makes mistakes: acknowledge them, forgive them and move on.  If I were a self-help guru, I might say: Change is unnecessary.  What's past is done with.  The only moment that counts is now.  Of course we will fail, get distracted and hurt someone.  Humans do that; no one is perfect.  But I feel very hesitant about offering any advice.  We all have different paths, different contexts, different genes.  I can only blabber about what I do, and don't do.

Tom Pepper has written an excellent article on Buddhism and psychotherapy, prompting some of these thoughts, which you can read here.