Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Baby and the Bathwater

Living in a Buddhist country for the last five years has given me a close look at Buddhism and religion in general, and nothing seems the same.  The label "Thai Buddhism" hardly does justice to the multitude of activities, artifacts and attitudes revolving around monks and temples, much of it having little to do with the Buddha or his teachings.  Even the term "religion" feels inadequate for defining what Thais do in their religious as opposed to their secular lives; there is no such division that I can see.  As culture, it's fodder for anthropologists, but they too are often trapped by a terminology that wants to make distinctions that do not exist in Thailand.

Lately, I've taken to using the expression "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" to describe the possible ill effects of attempting to modernize and purify teachings of the Buddha by separating them from the superstitious and magical elements of the cultures in which they have been preserved.  This is a bit ironic for a lapsed Catholic who finds it almost impossible to affirm metaphysical verities.  Yet it seems to me that a buddhism yanked out of its cultural ecology is not much more than a self-help technique.

What surprised me most when I moved to Thailand was the confusing entanglement of Hindu, Buddhist and animist objects and symbols I found everywhere I looked.  Often the primary icon in the ubiquitous spirit houses outside every house and building was Brahma and not Buddha.  Thais wear string around their wrists and amulets around their necks blessed by monks for good luck and protection against ghosts and evil spirits.  Hell "gardens" throughout Thailand portray graphically the terrible consequences one can expect from bad deeds.  Ancient trees wrapped with colored ribbons and statues of Kwan Yin and Ganesha are venerated equally by Thais with a bowing wai and sometimes a prostration. Sacred symbols are tattooed on people's backs and painted on the walls of stores and ceilings of taxis. Although meditation is growing in popularity, it is engaged in mostly by the young and educated; Thais as a whole practice tam boon, or "making merit," with regular acts of symbolic and actual generosity usually taking place at a temple.  Rather than reaching for enlightenment, their highest aspiration is usually happiness and good luck now for themselves and their families, and a fortunate rebirth.

Thailand is not unusual; in other Asian territories where Buddhism spread from its origins in India, there are similar cultural imperatives, activities and festivities .  Born in the womb of Brahmanism, Buddhism was carried east and north by merchants (since Hindu holy men were not permitted to travel) and it infused itself with the local indigenous animisms.  While Buddha might be highest in the pantheon, he was accompanied by other Indian deities.  I also assume that in other Asian countries these practices are considered a way of life rather than what Westerners think of as "religion," or a separate sphere of life, one increasingly diminished by modernity and scientific thinking.  Christianity has been purging itself of "superstitions" for centuries, although these usually are defined as the unsavory practices of other believers.  If you define superstition as "a belief in a non-physical (i.e. metaphysical (supernatural)) causality," as does Wikipedia, then all religion is a form of superstition.  One person's enlightenment is another's superstition.

My move away from America included a departure from the Catholic church which I'd considered my spiritual home for over twenty years.  Reading the mystical and ecumenical writings of Thomas Merton, as well as enthusiasm for the social justice teachings of the church, which inspired liberation theologians in Latin America, had kept me connected with like-minded friends in our local parish despite disappointment and disgust with the institutional church.  At the same time, I participated in a Buddhist group led by a teacher schooled in Vipassana meditation and Zen.  Even though the Dalai Lama had declared you should not mix religious traditions, I felt comfortable with both Christianity and Buddhism, and it was the communities of wonderful people that tethered me to both.  When I moved away from these two groups, the freedom I felt was exhilarating and scary.

The first few years in Thailand I tried to make sense of the religious chaos I encountered: What, I wondered, was Buddhism, what was Hinduism, and what was animism?  But whatever string you pulled, it was connected to the others.  Some writers talk of syncretism, but that implies you can, at least theoretically, separate the different strands.  In my studies I'd learned that "Hinduism" was largely created by Western translators and academics and was accepted by Indians as a means of defending their culture against the insults of Christian missionaries.  You can't be ridiculed as a "heathen" if you have an established and accepted religion. Nationalism as well as religious practices were used as defense mechanisms to prevent or throw off Western colonialism.  Siam's kings successfully avoided being colonized by modernizing dress and religion; Western styles were adopted (no more topless ladies!) and superstitions were purged in order to show France and England that the Siamese were civilized.

Since then, I've been to countless temples to make merit, I've listened to monks chanting, attended weddings and funerals and ordinations of monks, and I've observed ceremonies at shrines and altars where sales clerks, office workers, and even prostitutes, begin their working day by paying respects, lighting incense, and laying out drinks (red soda is popular) and food for the hungry spirits.  In a sense, everything is sacred for Thais.  And superstitions abound.  Just as I was taught to avoid ladders, black cats and breaking mirrors, Thais do not cut their hair on Wednesdays, never make jokes when eating so that a ghost will not steal their rice, avoid smelling flowers offered to a monk for Buddha, and never sweep at night.  But while we joke about Caspar the friendly ghost, their stories feature terrifying spirit creatures that will steal babies if you say they're cute.

German sociologist Max Weber observed at the beginning of the 20th century that "the fate of our times is characterized by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world."  But this disenchantment has not taken place in Thailand or perhaps in much of Asia among the common people.  The world is still a wondrous place and existence involves a constant negotiation between the seen and unseen.  "Somehow Theravada Buddhism and the pre-Buddhist animistic heritage," anthropologist Niels Mulder writes, "have collaborated in an enduringly harmonious marriage."  Civic religion is pervaded with Brahmanic state ceremonies (like the recent funeral of the king's cousin).  And Mulder believes that
the common understanding and practice of Buddhism remains animistic in the sense that merit-making is generally understood as a mechanism to ensure safety and auspiciousnes, and thus the institutionalized Buddhism of the masses has become a powerhouse for individual and communal protection.
Educated Thai Buddhists put down the masses for their stubbornness in honoring and propitiating the spirits along with Buddha and assorted Hindu deities.  King Mongut and King Chulalongkorn both led modernisation efforts in the 19th century, and popular monk Buddhadasa Bhikku strongly condemned superstition in the mid-20th century. But according to many observers, outside of Bangkok and the control of the Sangha, animistic practices continue to flourish.  Historians of Buddhism, like Justin McDaniel and Prapod Assavavirulhakarn (reviewed in previous posts), now argue that there was never a pure and unadulterated Buddhism in Southeast Asia; it always came attached to Brahmanism and blended easily with indigenous beliefs and practices.  Attempting to construct an original Buddhism, based on Pali texts written several centuries after the Buddha's death, only serves efforts to control the tradition.

When I was studying the environmental history of California, I learned about the importation of eucalyptus trees from Australia in the 19th century.  But only seeds and individual plants crossed the Pacific; the accompanying ecosystem was left behind.  This created numerous problems for those who thought it would be a miracle crop.  Buddhism is like that.  When it spread out of Asia to the West, both teachers and students tailored it to the American and European psyche; superstition and magical thinking were left behind.  The Buddhism I practiced in California primarily involved meditation.  It was a psychology and a philosophy compatible with modern science.  It was free of metaphysics.  Consequently, Buddhism has become a spiritual product on sale in the religion section of book stores.  It can be, and is, adopted as a lifestyle.  But it can just as easily abandoned. The roots do not go down deep.

"You think too much."  I've heard this comment many times from Thai friends when they see me frustrated and upset (jai ran, a hot heart) about something.  This of course is heresy in the West where thinking is the primary activity of being human.  Can it be that Thais actually think less?  Perhaps this accounts for the difficulty students have with critical analysis.  But it also might reflect a reduced sense of self which, after all, is a centerpiece of Buddha's teaching.  If the self is a construction of experience and convention, and not essential and eternal, why waste time thinking of what might have been and could be?  As for the preoccupation with metaphysical entities, a surprise for Westerners who prefer an atheist Buddhism, I'm beginning to see that this is a trick of language.  Philosopher Owen Flanagan, in a recent Partially Examined Life podcast, makes a distinction between conventional and scientific language.  The two are often confused by critics of religion.  In order to construct and communicate meaning, we often speak poetically and metaphorically.  "God," as an object of a cry for help, is not an ontological statement claiming metaphysical reality, but rather a way of speaking about what concerns us deeply (Paul Tillich understood this by defining faith as ultimate concern).

Religion in the west is a badge of identity, and conversion is a rite of passage.  The buddhism I'm surrounded by in Thailand is not a style but a way of life.  It encompasses all that Thai people do and believe.  I'll never be able to inhabit it after a lifetime of analysis and cynicism, but I can appreciate it for what it offers the people and how it informs their lives.  To do otherwise, is to toss the baby out with the bathwater.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Body Image: That's Not Me!

The other Bill Yaryan
If you search on Google for the name by which I was known most of my life you will come across this picture on a website devoted to the "Ultimate Beer Gut."  According to the caption next to the photo, "Bill Yaryan sent us this picture.  We are transfixed by the beauty of his massive, monolithic appendage!  We challenge anyone to top this."  Of course I was horrified; what if someone I knew thought it was me?  The web page is dated 2001 and I've uncovered nothing else about the other Bill Yaryan.  Perhaps he died of a heart attack, diabetes, or any one of a number of conditions made worse by obesity (and drinking beer).  But the sad fact is, since 2001 my own stomach has grown apace, although not to the proportions seen here.  It's hard to see my toes (or anything else) when standing, and my innie (navel) has become an outie, much to the amusement of my wife who claims she prefers me fat to the skinny kid I used to be and still am inside.  One's body image rarely keeps up with reality.

The Bill Yaryan that was me
This is how I once looked, and still do in my mind.  The picture was taken during our weekly volleyball game on Venice Beach in 1973 when I would join my friends in the music business to smash the ball around and pretend we were athletic.  I was 34, in the prime of my life.  My hair was long, as was the custom of the time, and my abs were flat, which was pure luck given the crap I ate and the substances I abused.  Being young and dumb, I never imagined the future, nor could I really see myself beyond an appetite for adventure and pleasure and a blindness to consequences.  My first marriage ended on that beach when my wife came to a game with our small kids to find out where I'd been sleeping the previous week.  I turned my back on them and drove aimlessly from there to northern California and the consolation of friends.  Her hatred of me and the damage I inflicted on our children has lasted far longer than my svelte mid-life physique.

Because it's personal for me, I have long been fascinated by identity, by who we think we are.  Body image is central for many.  I am not only a man, an elderly one at that, but an American, a Buddhist-Catholic, a political radical, and an expat who lives in Thailand.  I am also fat.

We have two scales tucked under our bed, analog and digital.  I have trouble seeing the numbers on the dial, so I use the digital scale, but it is disturbingly erratic.  For much of my life I weighed 150 lb/68 kg, but when I moved here nearly five years ago I hit 169/77.  At this morning's weigh-in, I was 179/81.  My passion for sweet things and my disinterest in exercise is taking its toll.   But were it not for my wife, I would probably not be considering that most boring of pastimes, a diet.  I have learned much about Thai body image from her.  Women in Thailand are generally slim, flat chested, with small noses, prominent cheekbones and what I think of as tan skin.  Nan is short and built like her mother, with bigger than average thighs and upper arms.  She carries an umbrella under the hot sun for fear she'll become "black." Her sister is taller and skinny, and dreams, like many Thai women, of getting a boob job.  Nan's friend had an operation to make her nose bigger.  Skin clinics have multiplied like pimples, and laser surgery is available for all unwanted blemishes (Nan wants it to remove scars from mosquito bites she got in Brunei which she scratched until they bled). When I first came to Thailand and browsed in a drug store, I was shocked to see cream that claimed to turn brown nipples pink.  All skin creams here are advertised as "whitening lotion."  The desire of Thais to have whiter skin is a national obsession.

We blame our concern about body image on the media and that is partly true.  In Thailand, practically all the models and actors are white, slim and rich, except for the occasional rural villagers who are almost never featured in advertising or in television dramas.  The image projects our desires.  I was amazed to learn that in Japanese hentai, women are portrayed with huge breasts even though Japanese women, like Thais, are almost all small breasted.  This goes as well for erotic cartoons drawn primarily for lesbians, so it's not just a male predilection.  We want to be what we are not.  Why are women taught almost universally that underarm and leg hair is ugly and should be removed (the ideal sex object today is always shaven)?  In Thailand, women remove underarm and facial hair with tweezers, even in public (men, too; I've seen motorbike taxi drivers examining their faces for unwanted hair in rear view mirrors and removing it with tweezers).  Beards, in a country where body hair is rare, are not considering beautiful.

"Our sense of body image, of our ownership of our bodies, is integral to our sense of identity," writes neurobiologist Susan Barry in Psychology Today, and it changes over time.  I like my white hair and deeply wrinkled face, even though when I approach the mirror I half-hope the 34-year-old will look back at me like in some science fiction fantasy.  If it's me, I own it, right, and have some sort of control over what I/it does.  Our body is the standpoint from which we view the world.  But the body is notoriously flexible.  Walking with a cane, we experience the tip as an extension of our sense of touch.  Does our body extend with our senses outward into space? Ask a blind person.  Our mechanical worldview has taught us to think of the body as a machine which, when broken, can be fixed by the right doctor.  Our brain sits in the hot seat, running the show, pulling levers to turn intentions into actions.  But when we begin to interrogate consciousness, our sense of having a soul that creates thoughts, we find -- smoke and mirrors.  Who is it that is conscious and that thinks?  A brain is a what, not a who.

According to Wikipedia, body image refers to "a person's perception of the aesthetics and sexual attractiveness of his or her own body."  The phrase was coined by Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder in a 1935 book, The Image of Appearance of the Human Body.  Our body image is produced by comparing physical appearance (as we see it) with some idealized standard.  Because beauty is often more crucial to their self-esteem, women may view themselves more harshly than men.  In my youth people told me I looked like Frank Sinatra or Humphrey Bogart, celebrities not known for being handsome, and I was not bothered by that.  I judged my appearance by the women who were attracted to me, never in large numbers, and assumed I would never be an Arnold or a Brad.  That was OK by me.  Nan compares himself to the Thai actresses and models she reads about in a fan magazine that comes out every 10 days.  They are invariably thinner, white and more beautiful to her eyes, no matter what I say to affirm her attractiveness to me.  Our body image is not overly moved by what others think and say.  In matters dealing with my body, only I can say.

The body is our own personal billboard.  We advertise ourself to the world by the styles we assume, the way we walk and talk, and the masks we let others see (only rarely taking them off).  Bill Cunningham, street photographer for the New York Times, has chronicled the often outrageous fashions real people choose to wear (and they can be seen in a terrific new documentary, "Bill Cunningham New York").  Today the body is the site of our performance.  We adorn it, pierce it, plaster it with makeup, and draw all over it.  I grew up before the current fad for tattoos.  The only people I knew who had them were tattooed in Yokosuka or Manilla while in the military, or during high school on a drunken night at the Pike, an amusement zone in Long Beach that was sadly demolished at the end of the 1970s.  My friend Jerry grew to hate the pair of dice he had tattooed on his upper arm at the Pike and covered it over with a huge panther's head at a shop in the Pacific.  I have seen old men who got tattoos during World War Two, and what happens when skin ages, as mine is doing now, is not pretty.  The ink in old tattoos looks like it's on paper and got caught in a rain storm.  So when I see the tattoos today on young skin everywhere I tut-tut like an old fart wondering: "What were you thinking?"  Yet, if it weren't for my aging parchment skin that bruises easily, I might consider getting a few tats to celebrate my 75th birthday.  Maybe even a tiger like Angelina's.  And certainly some holy khmer lettering to provide protection.

My interest in identity, however, is more ontological than aesthetic.  Who is the "me" that analyses and judges the attributes of the physical body?  This "me" is no more substantial than the white American who possesses a penis.  I am not ready to go the whole materialist hog and claim all reality is only molecules in motion.  Or to follow the shaman who says it's turtles all the way down.  I have come to disbelieve in the eternal metaphysical soul that transcends the body and survives death (like the "me" that dreams at night in distant places).  I'm ok with the notion of karma so long as its use is metaphorical and ethical, and does not make claims that contradict the Buddhist doctrine of anatta which denies a self in the essentialist sense. I do not believe that this personality of mine that has developed over time, for better or worse, will reincarnate in any way after I die, in another body.  But I'm also not ready to embrace scientism, the ideology that only science and its priests can describe and explain the workings of matter in all of its manifestations.  That soulless machine is not me!   There is something else happening here!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio
When I called myself a Catholic, I was encouraged by the story of Saint Thomas the doubter.  While all around me were speaking confidently about God, the resurrected Jesus Christ, and the certainty of heaven, I took comfort in the validation of doubting by the writers of the Gospel.  "Lord I believe, help my unbelief," was a constant prayer.  This past Easter weekend, as Christians around the world were celebrating their risen Lord, I thought of Thomas, the archetypal skeptic, and recalled my struggle to use the language of my friends in the Church while remaining intellectually honest.  To do this, I employed the philosophical technique of bracketing by setting aside unresolved issues, like the virgin birth, a multitude of miracles, and a Jesus whose body died on the cross but who presented himself, wounds and all, to those he encountered a few days later.  Like Thomas, I needed something tangible to make what Kierkegaard called "a leap of faith."  Never happened.

I have been a doubter and a skeptic all of my adult life; it must be in my DNA.  Lord knows, I've tried to accept the testimony of others about matters unseen without questioning them.  I went to a Christian summer camp in the Southern California mountains and accepted Jesus while a girl I liked looked on admiringly.  But a week later the thrill was gone.  In my teens, I joined a community who believed in the presence and intervention of flying saucers.  But no matter how intently I scanned the sky, I never saw anything out of the ordinary.   I dabbled in Theosophy, was initiated into Transcendental Meditation and threw the I Ching, but it was all an act.  Eventually I was converted to Roman Catholicism by Thomas Merton whose writings set me spiritually on fire.  If he could accept the whole enchilada, so could I.

But doubts remained.  I used my intellect to smooth them over.  Religious "facts" were metaphors, and the dogmas and stories could be interpreted allegorically.  Doubt was a "gift of God," a sign that the "spirit" was working internally.  Faith was just around the corner.  But when I moved away from the Catholic community and my many supportive friends, the bracketed items resurfaced like long-suppressed fears erupting from the psyche.  The Christian "truths," looked at in the clear light of day, resembled little more than fairy tales.

So far so good.  But a world denuded of enchantment is unappealing.  The Buddhism I continued to practice in California was not a religion but a scientifically-endorsed psychology, a form of stress-reduction,   Some thought quantum mechanics to be a kind of mysticism and I tried to figure it out, but the arcane formulas passed my understanding.  I turned to the literary theorists and linguists to see "religion" as a language which socially constructs "reality" for a designated subgroup.  I read the new atheists -- Dawkins, Hitchens, et. al. -- and agreed with much of their critique of institutional religions, but found their arguments strident and self-serving.  The "truths" of materialism. while logical and intellectually obvious, require acceptance by commoners who are dependent on experts, the scientistic elite. How is this different from religious belief?

Now I live in Thailand among people for whom the metaphysical mysteries are commonplace.  Spirits, good and bad, abound, and Thais employ an arsenal of devices to provide protection and ward off disaster.  These include amulets worn around the neck, sacred tattoos, string that has been blessed by monks or shamans, written symbols (often seen inside cars), altars and shrines inside and outside houses and buildings, and deeds that bring good luck, like becoming or feeding a monk.  I've learned that Buddhism here, and probably elsewhere in other Asian localities, is an inextricable mix of passed-along teachings of the Buddha, Brahmin rituals involving many gods and goddesses from India, and indigenous animist beliefs and practices.  Despite attempts to disentangle the different strands by Western historians and Theravada apologists, it probably has always been thus.

The immediate reaction of most Westerners to such perverse cultural verities is to denounce it all as magic or superstition, to ridicule the believers as ignorant, and to claim that Buddhism or Hinduism (only the anthropologists concern themselves in animism) is something other than what is seen everywhere in Thailand (or in India as well, for that matter).  As a dyed-in-the-wool doubter, I could do no less.  But... As someone who loves Thailand and Thai people, who is married to a Thai woman for whom the spirit world is reality, I must bracket my skepticism and cynicism for now (ever cautious of the return of the repressed).

At the beginning of June, I'm giving a paper at a conference here in a panel on "Unifying Buddhism."  My strategy will be, first, to deny the currently accepted view of Buddhism as a unified religion, and, second, to propose several ways to group various "buddhisms" under a "big tent."  "Religion," like "game," is a linguistic umbrella that can collect many divserse items.  But the larger goal of my paper is to defend magic and superstition and to ask if Western Buddhists are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater when they reconfigure traditional cultural practices and jettison those problematic for modern sensibilities. Some Buddhists have offered strong objections when I use this figure of speech and it certainly goes against the grain of my spiritual journey.  But while a Catholic, I experienced the affective power of the mass and the emotional punch of even pretending that the host and wine contained the body and blood of Christ.  No, it cannot be materially true (just as a virgin birth, or resurrection from the dead, is impossible), but going through the motions effects the participant emotionally.  And who can say that emotions are not real?  Gregory Bateson distinguished "sacrament" from "symbol" and said this was a difference that made a difference.

So this doubter is trying to change his spots by proving that what he is unable to believe has both meaning and consequences for the Thai Buddhist who has been taught since birth that it is possible to negotiate with the surrounding spirits.  I doubt that I will ever be able to experience them as my wife does.  Now I am an neophyte believer, buying flowers for our altar every Wan Phra and going to the temple on important holy days to make merit by praying for good luck and happiness, for ourselves and for all sentient beings. And if I give alms to the poor who I encounter begging on the streets, I might just be able to pick a winning lottery ticket!

But there are just a few nagging doubts...