Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Carry the Water

I took this photo of a young monk in Nong Khai. As part of growing up, all young Buddhist boys spend an allotted time in a temple, serving, carrying the water, so to speak. It is good discipline I am sure and helps form a spirit of willingness and humility. Surrounded by Buddhism, I am intrigued. It is really not fair, but when I used to meet a non-asian Buddhist, I had to fight an inclination to judge them as a bit of a flake or a fraud. Why? Is it because Buddhism blossomed during the counter culture movement in Western Europe and the US in the 60's and thus it seems like a mere liberal pose? I know many far left wing practicing Christians, but how many hard core right wing Buddhists can you name? I know I don't feel the same sense of suspicion going the other direction. My Director at Thai Samakee, Leudee, is a practicing Catholic, but I don't assume anything about her because of it. Yet in fact I would suspect, given its potential for access to Western power and connections, that an equal or higher percentage of Asian Christians joined the faith for ulterior motives- political, social, or monetary than Westerners became Buddhists. That is pure conjecture. Christians are persecuted for their beliefs in some eastern countries, which makes it hard to explain why those individuals would choose it except from a core of faith. Additionally, there is the bullying factor, since Christianity has a mission to push its message on others and convince them of its truth, and a great many of the "good news" hawkers are from economically successful parts of the world whose pop culture is poured over the second and third world like a thick layer of cloying honey. It has been said to me many times that Buddhism is not a religion, and they certainly don't do any proselytizing. Their Buddhism is visibly a central part of life here in Isan, but you don't hear people talking about it or it directing political life. I am curious as to how the locals feel about Asian Christians. I have no stature whatsoever to talk about any of this, of course, as I am no expert in either belief and my grip on Thai culture at three months is infantile at most. With my understanding of the language they could be discussing the matter in every alley and bar and I wouldn't know! Still, with Christmas on Saturday, coupled with some recent encounters with Buddhism, the matter has come to the forefront of my my thoughts and muddled as they are I thought I would share them. First of all, a friend of mine, Mo, who practices traditional Thai medicine in a hospital in nearby Sakhon, sent me photos of her recent retreat to a meditation center where she goes once or twice a year.
 Just seeing the location pretty much convinced me I was in fact a Buddhist on the spot. There is in the Christian tradition a place for wilderness retreats and private prayer, but it is obviously vastly different from the contemplative practice of meditation practiced in these small huts. Or is it? I am convinced  that when Mo says she is almost never unhappy, she is not lying. As a Westerner I am so prejudiced to my own sensibility that I want to think that the Thais here are merely sublimating frustration and desire, but after three months I can say that is not so. They navigate the world in such a different  craft that the words are almost inapplicable. It is not as if Mo is a spaced out laid back hippie. In fact she is so busy with her practice and her career studies I hardly ever get to see or talk to her. Ironically, what I want to talk to her about is her practice of meditation which is at the root of her peacefulness, but she is too busy! There does seem to be a very different sense of the public and the private aspects of  Buddhism as it is practiced in Isan and the Christianity I know at home.
In the states we come together to "worship", and of course the litmus test of any political candidate is his or her professed belief in God. This, when you think of it, is so highly comic and nonsensical that one's head should explode at the very notion. I know it is based on the idea that if a person attends a Christian church and professes a belief in a supernatural being they are therefore more likely to be a person of sound morals and character, but aside from the simple historical rogues gallery of pious perverts and liars, from Bill Clinton through Richard Nixon straight back through the roster of early popes and so on, there is the simple irony of positing that "the person best suited to fairly and impartially lead needs, above all, above intellect, or experience, or background, or training, a devotion to a supernatural and mystical set of unprovable suppositions." Hmmmm. Well, while we gather on a regular basis at a set time to follow rituals, the Thais here tend to "practice" their faith individually or as a family. there is much "making merit" which means doing good deeds by helping monks, the temple, or the less fortunate either directly or through the temple. This is often a food or money gift. Unlike in a church, they see a direct connection between "giving" and "getting". You give and you receive good luck in return. We would pooh pooh this as mere superstition, thinking ourselves far beyond this, which is perhaps why the passing of the plate in a Christian church is so fraught with conflicting emotions and thoughts: "How much should I put in? How much is everyone else putting in? What am I doing this for? I only put in X dollars, now I feel cheap. I put in X dollars, am I just showing off? etc." The second event which led to my consideration of these public/private belief issues was a trip to a "fundraising ceremony" at a local Wat to which my friend Rambo took me.
This temple is outside of Pla Plak, where I did my orientation, set amongst lovely woods. Everyone was dressed in all white and they had come in droves to spend between one and three nights sleeping in the out of doors on mats under canopies. One of the first things I noticed was all the elderly, white haired people. While not dominant in percentage as they are in most of the Christian churches I have ever been in, you just don't see that many white heads as you go about in Isan. I think the elderly just stay indoors. Anyway this line was a revolving clothes line that reached up to the peak of the temple. You attached money to it and said prayers for whomever and then it was hoisted upwards, where Rambo told me it would do more good.
 Facing the other direction this is what you saw. This is where they were going to erect a large Buddha statue, and the purpose of the fund raising effort. In Isan the bigger the Buddha the better, and you quickly get used to seeing some enormous examples. Though the people were behind this fence they were free to go in front of it to wander in the area where the foundation for the statue was and which contained a large fire. It wouldn't be Isan if there weren't a large fire involved! Today by the way, I had to laugh when a young woman I met said she liked Isan better than BKK because the air was so much cleaner!

The large turnout was due to the head monk, seated in the center below. After so much hubub, I was taken aback by his youth. Rambo explained that he had risen quickly and also told me that he had passed the very highest exams, which took me aback as well. As in Christian churches, a temple's fate often follows the charisma of its leader. This young man had been acknowledged by the king himself with a gift of some of the king's clothing, which imparted a resounding endorsement in the eyes of the locals.
 He really did have a palpable aura, a radiating sense of calm and indescribable alertness to him. That he managed to be compelling and dynamic without moving is beyond me. Perhaps I was simply swept up in the spectacle of the overall gathering. But still, there he was in his simple orange robe on a table top... Then Rambo and I walked around the rest of the grounds, There was this extension of a shrine out onto a pond,  another common sight at a wat. There is Big Bear Rambo on the outside....
 And this is the wild statue that was housed within. I am not sure who or what it was, but those are the actual lighting conditions(yes that is glitter on the statue!). It was balanced precariously on a tightrope between exquisite and ridiculous, and it tickled me no end.

So am I ready to "convert" to Buddhism? I certainly have no idea. I know that living here I can really look at people like Jes, my field director and a long time, deeply reflective Buddhist, with nothing less than respect and admiration, just as I do all reflective and honestly seeking Christians, trying their best to chart the waters of life. I tried my best to explain to my older students, in a completely non-proselytizing manner, the origins of the celebration of Christmas. I put it this way; Most of you are Buddhists, yes? So you know the story of Buddha, how he left his home and went into the wilderness and he became aware of how things really are? Well in Christianity there is also a story, and it is about a boy who was born in a special way and Christians believe he was really the son of god and he came to tell people how things really are. And so Christians celebrate the day that boy named Jesus was born.  Fortunately I had Boom who went to a Christian primary school, though she is a Buddhist, there at NYS to translate it for me, and I had Leudee at Thai Samakee, who is a practicing Catholic to translate there. Who knows what they got? They looked at me pretty seriously while I was talking, but that might have been because it was one of the few times I have not been antic and goofy, and they were worried I might be dying or something. Anyhoo, then we did vocabulary like sleigh and star and I showed them pictures of my boys from long ago with snowmen which made me lonesome for a handful of the stuff and made me realize that 99% of the faces I was facing would live and die without ever seeing what I was describing.

So we made our own snowflakes, which is the ulitimate, ultimate Thai kids project with their love of detail and projects, and we listened to Jingle Bell Rock, which, if we're lucky, they will know by Christmas.
I extend  to all my family, friends, and the strangers who do and do not read this blog, believers and non-believers and seekers such as myself, all of you carrying the water this Christmas, my love and wishes for peace.


  1. Merry Xmas Peter... I also have been wondering about the role of faiths in navigating our way through life. Still a pretty dedicated blue-domer here... with a strong sense that science explains a lot of stuff, but also in love with these old stories from all the faith traditions, and with the practice of deliberate observation and movement. hmmmm. SOunds like you are having an interesting time of it. Cheers!

  2. Hey Peter,Sending you a Xmas Hello from the hilltop. A young man, red hair, beautiful smile and handing out hugs,has arrived at our house for a few days!It is wonderful to see him again. I enjoy reading your blogs ( I have THOUGHT I have posted comments to you - but somehow they don't show up..?!) I am loving the way you write.
    Love to you this Xmas,Kalla,Bill and Alex