Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Soi Dog Days

These are the dog days in Thailand, summertime, when fans and A/C run constantly. It was so named by the ancients who believed Sirius, the Dog Star, was close to the sun and responsible for hot weather.  Now we are much wiser and know it has something to do with the trade winds.  Southeast Asia has three seasons: cool (hot, really, though the Thais usually wear sweaters), hottest and rainy.  In Bangkok, "dog" is usually paired with "soi," as in the countless mongrels that live in and around the many streets and alleys that branch off the main boulevards.  Many of them are mangy and maimed, and survive with no fixed abode or owner (although they seem to exercise territorial rights).  People write letters to the editor to plead that they be cared for, and there is even the Soi Dog Foundation to assist in that worthy goal.  The other day when I went looking for dogs to photograph, few could be found, probably because they're smart enough, unlike me, to find shade out of the heat.  But I did wonder briefly if a Vietnamese butcher had snapped up the few fat ones.

The dog above is obviously healthy, but so cute I snapped him up from a Buddhist site where it was said he lived in a temple.  Whereas this dog is healing from an injury that apparently took one of his back legs. I like the red shirt he's wearing, which I suspect has seen a political rally or two, given him by the motorbike taxi drivers he lives with. While he's tied up, there is another three-legged puppy frolicking nearby, oblivious to his own missing limb.  There are probably as many ownerless cats as the numerous dogs, but they usually stay out of sight.  A friendly white cat can frequently be encountered on the sidewalk in front of the nearby S.D. Hotel, eating rice that some kind soul has given it.

I don't mind either the heat or the humidity, but I do miss the comforting discipline of the school year.  Since the last term ended in early March I have searched to fill the void.  There was a Ko Samed weekend and the book fair in March, and in early April we spent several days at the Cera Resort, a brand new hotel on the coast between Hua Hin and Cha Am that we loved.  Later that month. I holed up in the apartment to avoid getting soaked with water during the festival of Songkran while Nan went to visit her relatives in Phayao.  She returned with her 9-year-old cousin Edward who stayed with us for two weeks, swimming in our pool, watching Transformer videos, and playing games in the iPod and with toy soldiers we bought him.  We spent a day with him swimming in the huge pool at Siam Park and a half-day at the Dusit Zoo where he was mostly interested in crocodiles and the pedal boats on the lake and not much else. I wanted to take Edward to see "The Avengers" but before we could work out a time, he had to go back home with a relative who was driving.  So Nan and I went to see it childless, wearing 3D glasses at the IMAX theater.  It was terrific.

Dogs never seem to be frustrated, but we western expats do.  It's in our cultural nature to fret over difficulties.  The Thais call everything from frustration to anger jai ran and Nan must constantly urge me to cultivate patience, a cool heart (jai yen).  My annual visa and work permit expire at the end of this month and getting the proper documents to apply for renewals has been an arduous two-month process.  The visa was no problem, but the Ministry of Labour in Ayutthaya where my university is located has been nit picky, requiring several trips, frantic pleading, and anxious phone conversations.  Hopefully it will be resolved tomorrow.

Next week is the Day of Vesak celebration and conference at MCU and I will deliver a paper written for a meeting in October that was postponed because of the flood. There are 110 speakers on June 1 from all over the world and I am allotted 10 minutes for a PowerPoint presentation based on my 24-page paper (which will be published in a volume with other essays).  Trying to make my argument about "Big Tent Buddhism" in such a short talk is virtually impossible, and editing has never been my strong suit; I'm a splitter, not a lumper.  I did a test drive for my monthly political discussion group and it took an hour.  Friends were sympathetic and full of suggestions but I was chagrined.  Back to the drawing boards, and the clock is ticking.

Each morning I awake as the rosy fingers of dawn creep over the Bangkok cityscape outside my 9th floor window, drink orange juice and make a big cup of coffee.  How did I ever live without the internet in the morning?  Oh yes, I used to read newspapers with my coffee and a Danish.  But that's a quaint memory now.  I check my two email accounts, twitter, and then see if anyone has commented on yesterday's Facebook posts and links.  Then I look at overnight news from my now over 500 "friends," watch the YouTube videos they've suggested, and read stories they've recommended.  After that, it's time to check Google Reader which keeps track of dozens of sites I find informative and interesting.  I wish I could kick the addiction to U.S. news and focus solely on global events.  I'll probably never return or vote in another American election.  But Google News doesn't have a universal edition in English yet, and what's happening in England and Australia is even less interesting.  I'm weary from reading about the lunatic fringe putting limits on contraception, abortion and gay marriage, and the endless wars on terror and in Iraq and Afghanistan make me sick.  California is going broke and the poor can no longer afford to get a degree (or pay back loans if they already have one).  The object of the Vatican's latest Inquisition are the nuns who have made the Church relative for the modern age.  And finally, famous people are dying constantly, not only in America but all over: Levon Helm, Maurice Sendak, Duck Dunn, Adam from the Beastie Boys, Doug Dillard, Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia), Donna Sumer and Robin Gibb.  How can one keep up with it all?

Many of my friends either hate Facebook's intrusiveness too much to even sign up for an account or once they have one, complain frequently that social networking is destroying face-to-face communication and ruining culture in general.  I disagree.  I've collected people on Facebook from every phase of my life, nearly 60 years, and we relate in a way that was never possible before.  For example, I play a Scrabble-like game on my iPad with my oldest son, a woman I knew (intimately) in junior high school, a British folk singer I met in London in the 1960s who has been an expat in Germany for many years, friends who worked in the music business in Hollywood, and people I knew at the beginning of my 30 years in Santa Cruz as well as a few I met towards the end.  Each morning I have moves to make in almost a dozen word games.  There is even more variety in my friends list which includes fellow teachers and students in Thailand, current and past; Bangkok and Thailand contacts, some whom I've never met in person; a large number of people I worked for doing publicity or on magazines, and a handful of high school friends (most of whom have conservative political opinions).  Google Street Views lets me link to my present address in Bangkok and the house in La CaƱada where I spent my teen years and show them both on Facebook.  I've worked on my Timeline to make it a virtual autobiography with important events and photos (my ex-wife objected to me linking her with our marriage), and I "like" whatever strikes my fancy.  Keeping current requires a good 2-3 hours every day.  But then, as an almost retired person, I have the time.  Right?

What I haven't devoted as much time to is this blog.  I can barely manage two posts a month these days.  Each blog post, which I consider a riff on a theme in the manner of a jazz musician (with sometimes a sour note or two), takes 3 or 4 hours to put together.  Lately I've used much of the space to write about religion as I try to sort out my thoughts for the conference talk on modern Buddhism, east and west.  And I continue to try and come up with a clear argument for the abolition of "religion" as a category in favor of describing what people do and say as aspects of culture, and resources for myth making to create sense of one's experience.  The thoughts remain murky and unconvincing to those whom I corner and take my stand.  Maybe in the next lifetime I'll be more articulate.  There's plenty about politics here and on Facebook.  As for sex, well, I'm a happily married man and, as my father used to say, it's a sin to kiss and tell.

Monday, May 07, 2012

My Metaphysical Self

"There is a mystery at the heart of reality and I want to snuggle up to it."

I wrote those gnomic words eight years ago in a stab at an autobiography. Now I am interrogating my old writings to rediscover my metaphysical self, the me whom I called for many years "a seeker."

It wasn't so much a belief as a hope, a plea for something beyond the life I was living. Not that I was unhappy or unfulfilled. I had been married, successful at work, the father of great kids. But something was missing. My prayer echoed Oliver Twist: "Please, sir, I want some more." The destination of the Merry Prankster's acid-fueled bus was "Further"; mine was "More!"

And now? Maybe "Enough!" should be my mantra. What you see is what you get. There is nothing more.

Lest this sound depressing, I hasten to add that now I see acceptance is a badge of virtue, one that I resisted for years while I chased after mystical insights and transcendence. Today I want to know more about the Seeker. Who was that acolyte that saw sainthood as a practical goal?

 My concern is to bridge the faith/reason divide that separates those who dwell in a supernatural world from the materialists and militant atheists who refuse to accept unseen truths. The former are more non-rational than irrational and accept testimony over evidence. The stories they tell each other to make sense of existence often transgress scientific facts. The latter disbelievers, however, frequently diminish our shared experiences by forcing them into the straight jacket of observables and provables. I have been among that number.

 My task is more urgent now because I live among those who see dead people walking, and who engage in countless transactions with the unseen to ward off misfortune and evil spirits and to promote protection and good luck. Thai Buddhism, hopelessly mixed up with animism and Brahmanism, is not so much a belief system as an all-encompassing story that explains everything, from the Dhamma of the Buddha to the correct signs and symbols for sacred tattoos and the yantras you see in taxis and on the walls of businesses.

It would be so easy to call these homegrown Buddhists ignorant and superstitious, as do many expats in Thailand who love the beaches and the accessible women but who express disdain in online forums for the cultural that sustains the generosity and the smiles. For my wife and her family, the universe is an awesome place where knowing the right rules and correct ceremonies can ensure success and make failure almost bearable. I've tried to put myself in their sandals, but what's a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic and cynic to do?

The word "belief" seems so thin, like the shingle of a lawyer blowing in the wind on a ghost town street.  And the word "know" cuts like a knife, leaving no prisoners.  Neither does justice to the faith/reason divide.  I've been on both sides, and that may only be because I come from a country where disenchantment rules and magic is only possible in a sideshow.  We Westerners pick our beliefs from the life style delicatessen.  The people among whom I now live do not choose, nor do they need to claim knowledge like a philosopher judging cosmologies.  They have been taught how the world works and all their experience confirms the truth of their teaching.

I learned about Christianity from vacation Bible school when I was seven or eight, and from listening to episodes of "The Greatest Story Ever Told" on the radio a little later.  In high school I went to a church camp in the San Bernardino Mountains and accepted Jesus as my savior to impress a cute girl.  I had nothing against God back then but he and his son did not seem relevant to ordinary life.  Recovering from an auto accident, I turned to books and read about world religions and flying saucers.  The latter introduced me to the occult and New Age and the former gave me a whiff of something completely different, faith in non-Christian countries.  I explored Theosophy, the Self-Realization Fellowship and a church for all faiths in the hills above La Crescenta called Andanda Ashrama.   And I occasionally attended the Church of the Lighted Window in the Los Angeles suburb where I maneuvered through puberty, usually in the company of my latest girlfriend.  Religion for me was social and had little to do with belief.

At Berkeley at the end of the 1950s I listed to talks by Alan Watts on KPFA, the British Anglican priest turned Zen prophet, and I began to conjure up the mystery that I wanted to seek and solve.  As Shakespeare's Hamlet tells Horatio declares, "There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  A few years later I would listen to Watts' deep and wise voice in a Santa Monica church but I was too far back in the crowd to get a glimpse of him.  His many books were very popular in the 1960s, but he died an alcoholic in 1973.  While he turned a generation on to the insights of Buddhism, he was never able to follow his own advice.  All my reading of spiritual alternatives undermined any confidence I had in the truth and value of establishment Christianity. And it strengthened my desire to figure out the secret of life, for I had no doubt that it was a mystery hidden from the eyes of the many.

I learned how to draw an astrological chart and I threw the I Ching to foretell the future.  Living in London, I read Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and was inducted into Subud, a religious practice originating in Indonesia, by a guitar player from California.  Prayer in Subud was called the latihan and to me it combined yoga with a speaking in tongues. Numerous entertainers had joined, including Jim McGuinn, leader of the Byrds, who had changed his name from Roger at the direction of Subud's leader, Bapak.  John G. Bennett, an early host of the London Subud center, turned it over to sufis a few years later.  Back in California I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation (TM) by my secretary and given a secret mantra.  Later I learned there were only a few mantras and many people probably shared mine.  Meditation, however, didn't mix very well with the drugs and alcohol I consumed during my career as a music press agent.

After a stint worshipping quantum physics (such as I could understand it), I moved east to work in New York City and raise a family.  Life was perfect and yet I felt empty.  Something (that pesky mystery) was missing.  At lunchtime, I visited churches, daring God to convert me, and in bookstores I discovered the religious speculations of Nicolas Berdyaev, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and, ultimately Thomas Merton.  It was the monk from Kentucky who made it possible for me to become a Roman Catholic in the absence of any religious experience or belief.  He wrote in defense of civil rights and against the Vietnam war, but it was his books on Christian mysticism and the value of non-Christian religions that won me over.  Merton, on his first visit outside the monastery in many years, died in Bangkok when he was electrocuted by an ungrounded fan.  I have visited the site where he died.

Not once in all my searching did God speak to me in any direct way (although it's easy to give spiritual meaning to ordinary events metaphorically).  And yet I persevered, assuming on some authority that even doubts can be signs of the Spirit working within.  It was the apophatic path. I met Br. David Steindl-Rast, who some see as Merton's successor, at the Benedictine Grange in central Connecticut, where mass was celebrated in a barn, and he sent me to St. Joseph's Abbey, a gothic monastery in Massachusetts where I attended a retreat led by the marvelous ascetic Fr. Theophane Boyd.  His advice to us was: "Write your own Bible."  At the New York Zen Center I studied meditation   And back in California I read enthusiastically about liberation theology in Latin America where priests were leading revolutions against tyrants.  I wrote for "The Roll," a newsletter for a network of contemplatives in the world, and planned a retreat for west coast members at the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur where I would spend considerable time over the coming years.  On campus, under the direction of the inimitable Noel King,  I organized a religious study group for students after the religion major had been disestablished. I joined Everyday Dharma Sangha, sitting with them weekly, and went on meditation retreats at Spirit Rock.  In 2004 I made the first of four trips to Shantivanam Ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, a Christian monastery that had become a place of pilgrimage because of its leader (deceased by the time I got there),  Fr. Bede Griffiths.

Following religious paths has been my life, although I've never gotten anywhere (and this, I interpret now, is a good thing).  I'm not sure if I've been motivated by a lack of something or an ineffable goal.  When I was a child I suffered from severe asthma.  As a teenager, perhaps I read too much science fiction.  My brother says I was an obnoxious rebel at an early age.  I've never been, in any serious sense, a believer.  My way was always pretending that it was so, and this enabled me to be deeply moved by the Catholic mass, whether in California, Mexico, Argentina, India or Thailand.  It was never easy to silence my mind in meditation (or what the Christians call contemplation) and I finally gave up the practice after 20 years, partly because my knees no longer would bend in the proper direction.

My self is the final frontier, the mystery that I've sought but could not find.  Even the philosophers and scientists of consciousness are stumped.  The brain, yes; the self, no.  Buddhist teaching says the self is an illusion, but a working one.  It enables us to inhabit bodies and stay out of the way of buses (if you don't believe in the self, try standing in front of a speeding bus).  The self is metaphysical because it does not reduce to the physics of brain matter.  It's something else, perhaps an epiphenomena of life, a by-product of standing upright, living in groups, and using language.  But it's closer to me, as the Sufis might say, than my jugular vein.  I cling to the belief that my intentions matter, and not karmically in some future lifetime.  Nan says I think "too much," and that might be a clue to how Thais are able to inhabit a universe full of unseen spirits, malevolent as well as friendly; they think less about it.  I'm not sure that secularism and disenchantment has done much for the world.  It's the rich and educated classes who are most destructive.  With any luck and a little less thinking, I might be able to see the ghosts, and might even be able to experience union with the divine.