Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sorrow in the Land of Smiles

Smile though your heart is aching 
Smile even though it's breaking

These are tough times in Thailand which has long been dubbed the "Land of Smiles" (LOS).  An article in the New York Times spoke of the "slow strangulation" of the country's democratically elected government by a mob that has been protesting in the streets for the last three months. Tourism in Bangkok has declined drastically during the peak season, people have been laid off, traffic is snarled more than usual, the caretaker government is paralyzed and the economy is in free fall. There have been 16 deaths and nearly 700 injuries from clashes between pro and anti government supporters since the street rallies began.  Time Magazine headlined a story on the country's political history: "Thailand Was Never the Land of Smiles, Whatever the Guidebooks May Have Told You." An Aljazeera correspondent reported "Frowns in the Land of Smiles."

While the human smile is universal, it does not always indicate happiness, pleasure or amusement.  Often it is more of a grimace, the emotions behind it of embarrassment or even terror.  Some speculate it evolved from a primate's clenched-teeth expression designed to convince a predator it was harmless.  Smiles are signals which communicate varieties of information (like the flirting smile which indicates sexual interest).  There are significant cultural differences.  Especially in Asia, people smile when they are confused, angry and embarrassed.  Frowns are considered impolite, whatever the social situation.  Consistency, however, is important.  When Thai Prime Minister Yingluck was seen to smile shortly after an emotional statement in which she appeared to cry, her detractors claimed she was a hypocrite.

I've been thinking a lot about happiness

My wife tells me I'm being "too serious" when I obsess over the current political situation, spending hours on the internet, Facebook and Twitter, posting and retweeting the latest news or rumors.  Thais value fun (sanuk in Thai) over seriousness, whatever the topic. When I tell my students they should be serious about learning English they look at me as if I were mad. Although many Thais do indeed worry (a friend's wife can't sleep when there is trouble in the fields for her crops), the cultural influence of a fatalistic view of Buddhism does encourage resignation over the effects of kamma for past actions.  Past events create current realities.  For every crime you must do the time.  And be happy about it.

The metta prayer, in which the faithful hope for a world in which "all beings may be happy," is important for Buddhists, especially in Thailand.  In a simplistic manner of speaking, happiness is the consequence when suffering is relieved.  The Buddha taught that living in a human body is characterized by a general form of anxiety (usually translated as "suffering") that is caused by the thirst for more, the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure, a motivation that could also be seen as a natural life force.  Thwarted desires for anything create pain of loss. The way to avoid this pain is to accept the consequences of our prior actions and lead ethical and productive lives from then on according to a specific eight-fold path. To practice this teaching (and meditation is only one step on the path) leads to  happiness.

To be happy while people are injured and dying for their political beliefs or for their role in the tragedy that is currently being enacted in Thailand seems despicable.  And yet, as only an onlooker, a guest in the Kingdom where I am not a participating citizen, there is little else I can do beyond wringing my hands in front of a laptop screen and commiserating with expat comrades. Today is Wan Phra (monk's day, one of the four monthly phases of the moon) and last night I bought four garlands of flowers for the collection holy images on our altar atop the bookshelf.  I filled the shot glasses with water (and red soda for Ganesha) and silently wished that all people be happy, especially those suffering on the streets of Bangkok, and I added the hope that all those filled with hate on both sides of the conflict have their hearts melted and be able to hear the cries of the other.  Mercy is mandatory.

And may happiness in the LOS be a reason for dancing!

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