Three years ago I watched a local Buddhist monk inscribe numbers onto small copper sheets to be installed under ceramic lions on gate posts. I described this in a blog-essay at the time (see www.kendobson.asia/blog/guardians). I knew the overall purpose of the process was investing the lions with protective power. It is the same as with tattoos.
What fascinated me was the special order in which the monk inscribed the numbers onto the plate. I thought it might be some form of “magic square” such as the Chinese discovered centuries ago. A nine digit magic square in the form of a tic-tac-toe # is like this:
4 9 2
3 5 7
8 1 6
Each of the lines and diagonals equals 15. Legends say that this pattern first appeared on the back of a turtle seen by a Chinese king, who used it to end a deadly threat.
But the monk’s inscription was not a magic square. His figures were like this:
1 4 7
6 9 2
3 8 5
He explained that the chanting as he inscribed the numbers was a Buddhist stanza in honor of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. It is, presumably, the same chant as is used in every Buddhist service.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambudahassa.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambudahassa.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambudahassa.
We worship the Blessed One, the Self-enlightened One, Supreme Lord Buddha.
We worship the Blessed One, the Self-enlightened One, Supreme Lord Buddha.
We worship the Blessed One, the Self-enlightened One, Supreme Lord Buddha.
That is followed by the three refuges, “I take refuge in the Lord Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha:
Put-tang saranang kaj-saa-me
Tham-mang saranang kaj-saa-me
Sang-kang saranang kaj-saa-me
Tu-ti-yam-bi put-tang saranang kaj-saa-me
Tu-ti-yam-bi tham-mang saranang kaj-saa-me
Tu-ti-yam-bi sang-kang saranang kaj-saa-me
Ta-ti-yam-bi put-tang saranang kaj-saa-me
Ta-ti-yam-bi tham-mang saranang kaj-saa-me
Ta-ti-yam-bi sang-kang saranang kaj-saa-me
Still, I was intrigued by the sequence in which the numbers were inscribed. After months of considering this I realized that this was not a square but a circle. The order of inscription was “1, skip two places going clockwise, 2, skip two, 3, skip two, 4, etc.” 9 went into the center. It was Buddhist, after all. It was the pattern for the wheel of the law. (See the wheel, above).
But now I have discovered its antecedent in Jain religion, as are many of the esoteric forms of Buddhism. A longer discourse on these yantra diagrams is here: https://www.yoginiashram.com/yantra-harnessing-the-power-of-mystical-geometry/
Yantras can be rendered in flat designs as is the blue and white example and the painted yantra above. They can also be executed as tattoos. (The pictures of tattooing by a famous monk tattooist in Nakhon Pathom province, above, are from a Wiki article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yantra_tattooing ). Yantras can be two or three dimensional geometric patterns, but also represent the spirit of animals. Tigers, elephants and snakes are particularly popular.
Yantras, we are told, are lifeless unless they are inscribed while a mantra is being chanted. The reason for this is, “Mantras, the Sanskrit syllables inscribed on yantras, are essentially ‘thought forms’ representing divinities or cosmic powers, which exert their influence by means of sound-vibrations.” I have been told that the holy Om is the most potent. Yantras can also be produced as mandalas. Mandalas tend to be much more colorful and elaborate, and therefore their creation is much more complicated. The most famous mandalas are Tibetan, including sand-mandalas. Above is a picture of the Chenrezig Sand Mandala created and exhibited at the House of Commons of the United Kingdom on the occasion of the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama on 21 May 2008.
Synthesis: The relationship of mathematical numbers, especially mysterious patterns, to cosmic and physical reality has been a subject of intense speculation for centuries. Occasionally whole mystical, religious or philosophical schools have arisen around these theories and mysteries. The Pythagorean School was one of the largest and most sophisticated. European alchemists were another, as were Jains in India. In fact, every religion and civilization from Aztecs to Zoroastrians has expressed interest in the relationship of numbers (in the broad sense) to physical and cosmic reality. Usually it is numbers or harmonics that bridge the chasm between the mundane and the transcendental. Perhaps mandalas reside in our collective unconscious as Jung discovered, to be remembered and revised -- such as the street design a week ago in Alton, Illinois at the Mississippi Earthtones conservation festival (picture by my son Andrew Dobson). Meanwhile, some religions, Christianity being one of the main ones of these, go through periods of protest against investing physical symbols with mystical power of any sort. That, however, shall be the topic of another essay.
The Kai Song food shop in Nam Bor Luang Village is our default place for a meal when Pramote has been too busy or tired to fix something. It is run by Kai (pronounced “guy”) and her life-partner Nong. They list ten or fifteen things they are ready to cook, but they can usually cook whatever you suggest if they have the ingredients. It is a “Food to Order” shop, as opposed to a noodle shop. The shop is, not coincidentally, right across the lane from a Thai massage school that has a constant stream of students from Japan. Kai and Nong were hired 10 years ago to be cooks for the school, and then they had a chance to open their own shop across from the front gate which expanded their clientele. They still provide food for the massage students who come for a week or two. It appears that Kai and Nong are well accepted in the village, and they are frequently visited by relatives.
I do not yet know how Kai and Nong found each other. I think they would tell me if I were bold enough to ask. But that is precisely the matter I want to consider.
First, it is not customary for a couple to discuss openly how they met, how their relationship developed, and how they decided to make their relationship public. An invitation to a wedding typically comes as a complete surprise to almost everyone. It is not discussed ahead of time, as if that might jinx the whole thing, or bring shame on the couple if the marriage were called off. Even years later those early days of a relationship are kept private.
Second, one thing Kai and Nong have in common with Pramote and me is an atypical relationship. I doubt that Kai and Nong are as “out” about their lives as are Pramote and me. We have gay parties and fly a rainbow flag (thanks to a gay couple who visited us a month ago), and Pramote is affectionately called “Madame” by half the people in our village. I have declared our house a sanctuary for any gay boys or girls who need a safe house, and I have published a book with the subtitle “Gay Experiences in Thailand”. But, as with Kai and Nong, the community at large has found a “neutral” category for us as a couple. It is ambiguity that matters. Ambiguity is important. Abandoning it is risky and almost always unnecessary. I think that is a very large difference between how society functions in North Thailand from how things work in North America.
Third, all relationships are somewhat atypical. Each couple in Pramote’s family has a relationship that is unlike any other couple. Let me explain it this way: although Pramote and I are the only couple in the extended family who are identified as “same-sex”, our relationship is not as “abnormal” or “flexible” or “unstable” as at least two other couples. In other words, we are in some ways more typical as a couple functioning in this society than many couples who have or could have their marriages recorded at the district office. My point is, there is no point in designating who is typical and who is not. Pointing fingers is disruptive, impolite, and inevitably inaccurate. Kai and Nong are not “those lesbian cooks” but are simply Kai and Nong.
Fourth, with aggravating regularity some asinine writer tries to make a hit by slapping a label on people in a gender genre. Just a week or so ago another ten-day tourist produced a video all about the wonderful “Ladyboys” he had found in Pattaya and Phuket. He imagined he was being complimentary. Those labels always diminish and segregate.
Finally, it seems to me that the present disparity between LGBTIQ people like us and the rest of hetero-normative society will eventually be resolved by dissolving the sharp lines that are being made even more distinct these days in order to designate who needs to be included with rights identical to everyone else. As we who are familiar with Thai attitudes know, skin color in this culture is a matter of extensive attention. Never, however, has skin color been used to designate legal or even social rights. Gender identity will, I believe, fade as a factor determining rights, as well.
This week marks the 17th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City, as well as the ramming of the Pentagon building in Washington, DC, and a foiled attempt to fly a fourth plane fully loaded with passengers into the White House. The results were unprecedented destruction, live-action horror for two billion viewers on television, and nationwide trauma in the USA. The attacks on the morning of September 11, 2001 shook US national self-confidence but the immediate reaction was an immense outpouring of humanitarian responses, heroic actions, and compassionate solidarity.
9/11 (which ironically is also the emergency hotline phone number throughout the USA) is remembered by everyone who lived through it. Still, the motto “Never Forget” has evolved as the slogan for the day. The imperative to “never forget” raises the question, “Why would anyone think we would need to be reminded?” The slogan evokes poignancy and demands response. Forgetfulness is shameful and unpatriotic.
Recently, however, the question has arisen, “Never forget what?” Exactly what are we being challenged to remember? Where we were when we saw the planes strike the towers on TV? How erratic the national leaders were at the beginning of the crisis? How horrible it was for victims trapped in the planes or the buildings? How heroic the first responders were? How dastardly the terrorist perpetrators were? The names of those killed? The involvement of Muslims? How all national divisions were forgotten in our moments of response? How helpless and vulnerable we felt? How our rage was aroused? All of the above?
For the first ten to fifteen years we were expected to pick some of those memories and to hold them fresh before us every September 11.
Now we have a new generation of young adults whose memories do not extend back to 2001. What are they being exhorted to “never forget”? This is not an entirely philosophic question because we are all being groomed to remember a time of collective trauma and response in a certain way. There is, I submit, a great deal more uniformity in our remembrance of the shock and horror that developed into collective trauma than there is to our responses. That is, the responses to 9/11 include some that we have polished and cherish and others that elicit doubt or shame. Our responses were diverse, including the campaign to get Osama bin Laden at any cost and wipe out the forces he recruited wherever they were hiding, and also campaigns to build a fitting memorial for those who died and to provide scholarships for their children.
As we welcome the first post-9/11 generation into the conversation as peers we will need to clarify what we are to never forget. As a student of philosophy who grew up on Wittgenstein, I would like to point out that collective memory evolves and shifts. Icons are shifty and their manipulators are too.
Consider the monuments we erect to preserve memory of collective trauma. The fall of the Roman Empire is memorialized in the ruins of the Roman Forum. The devastation of the Second World War is recalled in the skeletal dome at ground zero in Hiroshima. The Holocaust is poignant at the Auschwitz site. The US Civil War is symbolized by the Gettysburg graves and battlefield. Those memorialize horrendous loss which came to an end. Italy moved into a Renaissance nearly as glittering as Imperial Rome. Japan survived. Jews overcame. The Union re-unified. So it is safe as well as salutary to ponder the ruins. The ruins say, “We are not defined by that past.”
In an ironic way, that is what the glowing hole at the site of the twin towers is supposed to do. It is trying to push our memories forward as well as force us to meditate on what was destroyed … lives (people with names) and spectacular property, the tallest and largest buildings in the world, the very symbols of American economic and military might. The terrorists thought attacks on these would symbolize the fragility of this form of American empire and humiliate us. But, behold, we survived that trauma. The threats against us were once again eradicated. We are essentially invincible.
If that is what we are to never forget, we are going to have trouble keeping the conversation going when these new college age young adults have their 20 year-olds ask, “What are we supposed to never forget?” The fiftieth anniversary of 9/11 in 2051 will need a new lesson rather than American exceptionalism and invincibility. That sort of mega-narrative is unsustainable and it is unworthy.
Up to now it has worked to just chant, “Never forget.” When everybody who is chanting has a vivid personal memory of that day it would never work to fill in the blank for them. We would retort, “Don’t tell me what to remember, I saw it happen.” The day is coming, however, when circumstances will no longer revolve around today’s targets of terror and pride. People of that day will “never forget” 9/11 at the same emotional distance as we “remember the Alamo.” It fits our narrative to remember the Alamo as heroic resistance to tyranny and eventual victory over huge adversity as a step in nation building. Davy Crockett’s agenda in the Alamo was more personal and existential.
A new national narrative about 9/11 is coming, never doubt, and it will fill in the “never forget” frame with content we have not yet contemplated.
Our lives are lived in a milieu of influences which we perceive as distinct and discrete. From time to time we may concentrate on one or another of these areas, but most of the time we glide along paying little attention to these influences. When there is a crisis we are jolted out of our complacency and become concerned about some aspect of our existence we otherwise blithely ignore.
A fellow was sitting in a dental chair gripping the arm rests so tightly that his knuckles were white. The dentist paused and tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry. Try to relax.”
“I’m not worried,” the patient responded, “just incredibly alert!”
There are times when we pay close attention to our physical well being. There are other times we let that slide and our whole lives may be tied up in religion, or some creative endeavor, or a matter of romance. A religious experience might draw our attention to a new dynamic taking place between us and the transcendental sphere in our life, just as a love affair will pull us out of our relaxed mode into excitement about our social sphere we had just recently been taking for granted.
Our friend is an alcoholic. He is a binge drinker. He can go for a period of time without getting drunk, but one day he will take another drink and he will be helpless. He will drink himself into a stupor and as often as not he will simply pass out wherever he is, at a bus stop, on a sidewalk, in a friend’s house, under the table in a restaurant. If he is with friends they will take care of him. If he is alone, he is alone. At least seven times his cell phones and money have been stolen while he was unconscious in some public place late at night. Why doesn’t he take care of himself? The answer may not be far away. He is gay, his sister is a prostitute, his mother is a widow in an ethnic minority village that specializes in drug traffic. It would be hard to find a person who has had sex with more men in more circumstances in the same span of time as our friend. He is a genius at it, an artist, but not a connoisseur. His tastes are eclectic and varied on many subjects. He has intelligence, wit, compassion and loyalty. But he is tasteless in his choice of self-indulgences and modes of self-destruction.
I have spent time concentrating on our friend and it has helped me clarify a great deal about our physical reality, its vulnerability and survival. My description, however, would probably not be enough for you to be enlightened by him. Someone else, though, might be a victim you come across who calls forth your deepest level of humanity. It is very common for persons to gain their truest insight into the whole world of nature through the agency of some person who becomes its symbol for them. We do not usually find the metaphors that inform us about life’s urgency and reality, those metaphors find us.
In the same way, the transcendental realm of reality will be represented to some of us most vividly by experiences we have had with Mary, or Jesus, or the Buddha, or Rama, or Brahma, or a spirit we encountered in the forest or on a mountaintop. And yet many of us have had no such experience and just have to rely on the testimony of others for the time being.
Most people at more than one point in their lives relate to somebody in such a way that they are transformed by the relationship into beings entirely better than they were before. Lovers tend to do that for us. Being in love with someone is the best way to discover the validity and the power of the whole societal sphere of our spiritual environment.
The inner center of our minds, where our unconscious minds retain images, information, and identities waiting for us to discover, sometimes urgently imposing on us to fathom them, is a spiritual area that is also separate from our daily consciousness to such an extent that it seems “other” to us, a different spiritual sphere.
The silent center is like a different person, at first. It is the well-spring of creativity, although it is a preserve of silence and the absence of confusion. It is the one place a person can be truly silent, completely vulnerable, and absolutely honest. Everywhere else a person is acting or listening. In the silent center, at the heart of a person, life’s priorities are clearer, integrity is obvious; one’s very identity is revealed.
Spirituality is a topic of widespread interest these days. It has replaced religion as an operative dynamic for some. Spirituality has attained academic status as a valid topic for advanced study. I have been working on this for nearly sixty years. One conclusion I have made is that spirituality ought to be more comprehensive than are most discussions of it. Our perception of reality needs to be inclusive. We learn who we are, how we function and grow, and what the rationale behind our existence and trajectory is by being aware of four spheres of influence. They are the transcendental sphere above us; the sphere of our physicality and of the realm of nature which upholds us as our foundation; the societal sphere whose reality is exposed to us most distinctly through our relationship to significant others whom we love unconditionally; and the inner sphere which we discover to be a creative silent center in the midst of our unconscious.
There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. Niggle was a painter. There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew. Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder. “At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey,” he used to say. Yet he was beginning to see that he could not put off his start indefinitely. The picture would have to stop just growing and get finished. There was a knock on the door. “Come in!” he said sharply and climbed down the ladder. It was his neighbour, Parish; his only real neighbour, all other folk living a good way off. “My wife has been ill for some days, and I am getting worried,” said Parish. “And the wind has blown half the tiles off my roof, and water is pouring into the bedroom. I think I ought to get the doctor. I had rather hoped you might have been able to spare the time to go for the doctor, seeing how I’m placed.” “Of course,” said Niggle; “I could go. I’ll go, if you are really worried.” “I am worried, very worried. I wish I was not lame,” said Parish. So Niggle went. It was wet and windy, and daylight was waning. The doctor did not set out as promptly as Niggle had done. He arrived next day, which was quite convenient for him, as by that time there were two patients to deal with, in neighboring houses. At that moment another man came in: tall, dressed in black. “Come along!” he said. “I am the Driver. You start today on your journey, you know.” [Niggle fell asleep and overheard two Voices debating his fate.] “Still, there is this last report,” said the Second Voice, “that wet bicycle-ride. I rather lay stress on that. It seems plain that this was a genuine sacrifice: Niggle guessed that he was throwing away his last chance with his picture.” Niggle thought that he had never heard anything so generous as that Voice. “I think it is a case for a little gentle treatment now,” said the Second Voice. It made Gentle Treatment sound like a load of rich gifts, and the summons to a King’s feast. They came at last to a place where a great green shadow came between him and the sun. Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them. “Of course!” he said. “What I need is Parish. I need help and advice: I ought to have got it sooner.” [Tolkein]
In Tolkein’s little story, cut all the shorter in this version, are all the spiritual dimensions. Niggle’s identity is defined by his own creativity as a painter, a painter of leaves. The inspiration springs from deep within. He is defined as well by his compassion for those in need, and by his relationship with Parish, who is his only friend. Symbolically, Niggle has to come down from his ladder to help Parish, a cripple, and his ailing wife. This eventuates in Niggle himself becoming like them, sick … hastening the day when “the Driver” comes for him. Strangely, it is this selfless act that accomplishes what Niggle was never finishing on his own: the painting, and a true bond of intimacy with Parish. All this was done, as it were off-stage, but Niggle does overhear two supernatural voices evaluating his life. The Second Voice who decreed “Gentle Treatment” for Niggle, was the representative of the Transcendental dimension for Niggle.
From a spiritual point of view we are conscious of being in a condition where four different types of spiritual forces overlap: the transcendental, the physical, the societal, and the unconscious.
What is your spirituality?
Your comprehensive reality
Your potentiality – what you would be if your potential were fully realized
A conception of the dynamics of who you are with aspects of you growing
A description of what happens when aspects of you become so dysfunctional that all aspects of you are caught into dysfunctionality and deterioration
Tolkein, J.R.R. 1964, from “Leaf by Niggle” in Tree and Leaf. London: Unwin Books.
[Essay 1: SPIRITUALITY. This is the first essay in a series on spirituality.]
I believe there are three phases of retirement.
The FIRST PHASE is usually what one is being chosen to do. For many of us retirement is a formal step when one can begin to collect accumulated funds set aside for this time in life. It does matter that one passes a mandatory date when one’s options begin to be set by rules. However, many of us have extended careers for which we are recruited. It is good advice to not just “retire from” but also to have a plan that includes “retiring to” something meaningful.
Examples: A good friend of mine retired several years ago but has continued in the very same position until this week. She will now be entering phase two. Another good friend would have liked to continue in his position, but did not get a chance to do so. He took a series of short-term positions that were equivalent to his life-long career. A pastor in Illinois retired to do interim pastoral stints. I have heard of a man who retired from a career with the railroad to run a model railroad in the St. Louis Zoo.
Exceptions: Some people begin this sort of consultancy or interim work before getting to the age where compensation is secondary. I know an engineer who took a “golden parachute” into retirement at 45 years of age, and now is a free-lance engineer with his own company. Some would say he has not really retired, but his portfolio says he is independent. My dad skipped this phase and went straight into full retirement.
The SECOND PHASE is what one chooses to do. This is often thought of as “real” or “full” retirement. It may be entirely different from one’s professional career. Hobbies and social relationships can become the focus during this phase of retirement. It takes mental and spiritual dexterity to discover something significantly meaningful in the midst of a plethora of activities that are plainly enjoyable.
Examples: My dad retired to go fishing. Many go fishing in retirement, but Dad retired in order to do it. He made that his main endeavor for several years. A former pastor of my home church retired to do landscape painting and to write articles for church journals. I am now in this phase and I have written everything I planned on writing when I fully retired, and am now writing just for the fun of it. I believe my brother and his wife can be said to have entered full retirement in order to travel around to as many state and national parks and forests as they can. That’s Dan, my brother, in the picture above.
Exceptions: Some people have a chance to choose to do what they have done in some form or other so the line is blurred between phase one and phase two for them. Others go from phase one (continuing to work) into phase three, due to a sudden medical crisis. I know of a couple whose carefree plans for retirement were abruptly changed when they had to take over raising two more children.
The THIRD PHASE is what one has no choice about. One always has choices, but when the range becomes limited by what works best to handle health and physical circumstances, one has come to the third phase of retirement. Phase three is when the controlling factor is how to handle one’s health and safety. For some, this means a change of residence, but for others it is more a change of perspective. The greatest challenge is to ascribe meaningful significance to this phase of sustaining one’s self. Only those who have developed a solid spiritual base can do it.
Examples: Mom spent several years as a senior-citizens’ ombudsman, after retiring from teaching kindergarten. The time came when she just took a room in the retirement center so her meals and medications could be handled dependably. The wife of a good friend from long ago is now in advanced dementia and her life is supported and sustained by professionals. A friend here in town has just moved into “assisted living” after falling several times and being unable to get back up, once in the bathroom where he could have drowned. A lot of retirement institutions have 3 or 4 levels of care to accommodate levels of need.
Exceptions: It is quite obvious that some people need assistance and support long before getting to an age that could be called retirement. That is, medical and physical circumstances can begin to compel responses at other times in life. “Normally”, we think, we will get old before we have to rearrange our life plan to handle things like that. Many of us, like my dad, never get to phase three. He took his medicine and didn’t let his health concerns impact his plans to go fishing in the warm south. For others, as is the case with Pramote’s father, extended family provides nearly constant care. But his life is impacted by his health and his daily life is bounded by these issues. Let me insist, however, that it would be very wrong to think of phase three as terminal or lingering. Phase three has just as many thrilling and fulfilling possibilities as other times of life may have.
CONCLUSIONS: It has been helpful to me to think of retirement as having three phases. But as with other discussions of ages and stages in life, there are exceptions. Even more frequently, there are incremental steps from one phase to another. Finally, age is an artificial measure of one’s progress through life. It is conditions and circumstances that matter most.
POSTSCRIPT: What are coming generations going to do if they are prevented from developing the capacity to build toward retirement? The rules are changing. It is already almost impossible in the USA for those in their career prime to accumulate funds to manage the sort of retirement I have described.
“Are you unique? Are you special?” the teacher asked his class. They thought they were. “Yes, yes,” they chorused. “Of course we are!” How absurd to question our individuality. It’s a basic human right isn’t it? It’s a basic assumption, anyway.
We who are LGBTIQs will probably be among the first to insist that each and every human being is unique. It’s the basis for our argument that we are entitled to equal treatment with heterosexuals and celibates. “I don’t need to be like you.” “I am who I am,” or “I am who God made me,” or “I am gay because my karmic destiny led to this.” We need this rationale.
“No,” the professor responded, “you are not unique.”
His argument was that overwhelmingly we are the same. Biologically, physically, psychologically we are far more alike than we are different. Our range of head sizes is hardly more than an inch different. Our number of any physical organs, their size and function is normally the same. Our life expectancy, the environment in which we most easily thrive, or the way we will succumb to viruses, in all these ways we are alike.
Where did the idea come from, then, that we are discrete, diverse and different?
Like many of our most passionately held persuasions the concept is not particularly old. Throughout most of human history individual rights were unheard of. Rights, rules and regulations were not structured until the second half of recorded history and the individual was not singled out until much later. In the West it was the Enlightenment, just 500 years ago, that placed special emphasis on the individual. In the East it was the coming of the West that initiated the idea, still not very widespread, but growing.
The teacher’s point, however, was that the major beneficiaries of the idea of individuality are the manufacturers of products. It is they who profit from our desire for wide choices of hair styles, foodstuffs, and fabrics. How many types of sneakers does the human race need? He was convinced that this was all part of a vast conspiracy with potentially disastrous environmental consequences.
It’s a thought-provoking idea, and we can see how it applies to the gay side of society. Here in Thailand there are now a couple of gay oriented lifestyle magazines and several more aimed at “metrosexuals”. From them we are meant to learn how our trend leaders dress, what they eat and where they go to express their natural desires, so we can be more like them.
But wait a minute!
These guys are not like us…not most of us. They are all physical hunks, under 35, with perfect complexions (not counting tattoos), and extensive expendable funds. They are not us, and they know it. They are disdainful in their expressions, attitudes and actions. They suppose they are who we are supposed to be. And we suppose so, too, if we aren’t careful. They are our trend-setters and role models, and if we are too old, too fat, too dark, too anything – we need products to compensate. We need ointments, clothing, services and activities to make up for our sorry deficiencies.
Obviously, this is a marketing ploy and it is used to manipulate various sectors of the marketplace, not just us. The teacher was right about that.
Still, I am not yet convinced that the thing to do is to protest against the place of the individual and advocate the sovereignty of the group. We’ve been there and suffered from it. The tyranny of the majority is sometimes against US.
So, how do we sort this out?
We need to affirm our membership in the human family. That could be our metaphor. We are all part of this family. But we are not identical, nor clones. Although largely alike we are not entirely alike. Our DNA is different, our fingerprints are unique and our personalities are diverse. We are mostly like everyone and even more like kinfolk, yet we are not like anyone else except in certain apparently random aspects not of our own choosing. On the other hand, if we are to be gay we need to set ourselves apart, express our individuality, dare to be proud, and find our place in the world. It is particularly urgent for us gay men to defend our niche in homogenous humanity.
There are ways in which each of us is more like certain groups of total strangers and distant foreigners than we may be like our next of kin or closest ancestors. That, in fact, affirms our membership in the whole human family, and it is what moderates our identity as individualists.
Keep your wits about you, as my grandmother used to say. Don’t be shoved into behaviors that are wrong or optional, which are not of your own choosing. You can’t buy your way into significance. Being gay has no connection to brands of underwear. And styles of briefs have no impact on happiness. Or most of the time it does not matter.
[This essay was based on an initial idea supplied by Louise Jett and written in 2012 for OUT in Thailand magazine edited and published by James Barnes.] See also: www.kendobson.asia/blog/spectrum
TALKING ABOUT THE BOYS IN THE CAVE CAN GO WRONG
My friend, the Rev. Gene Borquin sent me an August 4, 2018 article in Episcopal Café, about the rescue of the 13 fellows trapped in the cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand. He asked for my response to “the Episcopal article.” The article was rather like daily devotional literature, meant to inspire reflection. Here is a link to the article by Amy Shimonkavitz, a lay preacher and a postulant to the Diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland: https://www.episcopalcafe.com/the-way-out/
The author reminisced about how she reacted to the drama of the 13 boys trapped in the cave for three weeks. Some of her experiences reminded her of Christian truths, she said. She talked about those. As she went on I began to wonder whether her reflections were valid. How does one evaluate an article or a sermon that describes a meditation?
She essentially did what we all do when we preach based on a true-life story. There are three ordinary steps which she followed. She recalled the narrative accurately in ways that she could reasonably assume her readers could agree was what the story said. Then she gave testimony about how the story had resonated with her, personally. She mentioned emotional points and triggers. As she got these two steps firmly enough behind her she attempted to universalize in ways that she hoped her readers would perceive theological principles. She thought she found why we were hooked on the story. “This is the story of our own rescue.” “Our hearts echo with the same joy of being found.” That’s why we were so enthralled with this unfolding saga and its marvelous outcome, she said.
The question I would raise is, “Did she actually catch anyone on her hook?” Is it true that the reason we were glued to our TVs and computers during the days-long drama is because we felt echoes of our own salvation story being dramatically re-enacted? The unfolding saga mesmerized nearly the entire Thai population and resulted in what is surely an unprecedented massive response by Thai officials who were not acquainted with the Christian narration of salvation, but were responding as humanitarians. But I’ll cut her some slack on account of her obviously writing for Christians who are at least supposed to have joy at being found like the lost sheep. She tied those echoes of joy at the boys’ rescue rather clearly to the Christian interpretation of salvation, including atonement involving the death of Christ. Did the death of the former Thai Navy Seal “recall Christ’s own sacrifice for us in the mission to save us from sin and condemnation”? I cannot question that it did recall Christ’s sacrifice for her. However, I am confident that not everybody made this connection. I think her recitation was manipulated at least insofar as its validity depends on those who are rescued being a type of those who are saved from sin and condemnation. The allegory breaks down at this point. I would argue against saying it was due to sin that the boys went into the cave and got trapped in there by a natural phenomenon. I would argue even more against the suggestion that Navy Seal, Saman, was doing what Christ did. Saman did not single-handedly reverse the outcome that was otherwise in store for those boys. Saman was part of a massive effort that was impelled by a united humanitarian impulse. What Saman was doing was a help, but his death neither defeated nor completed the rescue. He was not a Christ figure. Amy would have been more on target if she had compared the rescue effort to the Good Samaritan.
Her analogy also failed when she talked about what the boys needed to do in order to be rescued. She called it “repentance, turning back,” and said it’s “never easy.” Well, getting the boys out was certainly not easy, but it had little in common with repentance and turning back. It was much more like going on through conditions they had never encountered before. She said, “The boys needed blind trust” in the Navy Seals. (The key rescuers were not all Navy Seals, but never mind.) Actually, because of concern about a panic reaction, the boys were anesthetized as they were brought through the flooded cave. Once they were unconscious, trust on their part had nothing to do with it. It was the rescuers who had to have trust that their calculations and preparations were right, that nothing unexpected would go wrong. The planning was meticulous and left as little to trust as humanly possible, the rescuers told us in post-rescue interviews.
Allegories always fail to catch the essence of a universal principle, whether it is theological or otherwise. Rigid allegories fail spectacularly. Amy wrote a soft sort of analogy that did not try to extract every drop of truth from the narrative or even try to identify the central truth. She settled on how the story of the boys’ rescue moved her to tears and prayer and brought to her mind Christ’s rescue of her. All of us preachers preach, but not all of our sermons are grand. Great preachers are rare. They exceed the rest of us in their ability to find the central truth of a narrative and then challenge those they address to measure their response by the ideal discovered in Jesus the Christ. So her homiletical essay was almost OK.
My response is that she intended to be uplifting for her readers in Episcopal Café and she succeeded. She reached that point about half-way through paragraph five. However, when she went on to tell us that the reason we were moved is because we realized that what was going on in the cave rescue was parallel to what was going on with Christ, she invited dissent, which undoes inspiring uplift. As soon as I say, “Whoa! Few of the people I knew were making that connection with Christ’s sacrifice and the Easter salvation message,” I stop being inspired and began to doubt what it was she said that held the world enthralled.
She was wrong in her main assertion. Our emotional involvement in the boys’ rescue was not because “this is the story of our own rescue.” It may be parallel to the story of our salvation, but that’s not why we wept tears and prayed. The reason we did that is deeper in our human nature than a cognitive theological construction. The parents of those boys cried and prayed because it was their sons in there. Many of the rest of us cried and prayed because those boys were suffering and their chances were slim and we felt desperate for them. Amy distorted almost everybody’s profound emotional involvement and cheapened it by describing it as a metaphor for something intellectual.
For most of us, this cave drama never became about anything that had ever happened to us. Not even those of us who had had near death experiences thought what was happening to the boys was very like what we’d been through. Even the rescuers insisted that this was unique in human history. No boys that age had ever been forced to do what they had to do to get dragged and carried out of the cave.
A theological concept is derived from and not the cause of involvement in something profound that comes to be seen as a divine-human encounter. Theologizing is second-step or second-level. It is one step removed from raw experience. It happens when experience is processed, and that is culturally informed. [Pictures from various news sources show that the boys were not “processing” their experience into a Christian religious formation. Hardly anybody in Thailand was doing that at the time.] Overenthusiastic theologizing discredits Christianity, and this is the wrong time in history to keep on doing that.
The more I think about it the less Amy’s analogy holds up.
Shane asked, this week, for people who were missionaries in Thailand during the Vietnam War to tell how our work was affected by the war.
I was a United Presbyterian Church (USA) fraternal worker in Chiang Mai, Thailand from August 1965 to June 1969. My duties included teaching “theological English” at the Thailand Theological Seminary [which is now the College of Divinity of Payap University] and at other nearby schools of the Church of Christ in Thailand.
Superficially, the escalating war in Vietnam did not affect our work as missionaries or the mission of the CCT. But the war was a pervasive issue in the background, a background which also included profound changes in Indonesia, Communist infiltration into Thailand, and the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China. World War II was a personal memory of several of our missionary colleagues including Ken and Margarita Wells who were just retiring from long-term service in Chiang Mai. A number of other missionaries in Chiang Mai were transferred here when the Communist Revolution fully took over mainland China. These missionaries and those who came after the war to rebuild the church infrastructure of schools, hospitals and churches were heavily influenced by the specter of yet another anti-Christian military-political apocalypse. The longer the Vietnam War lasted and the more it expanded into the rest of former French Indochina the darker grew the shadow over Thailand.
By the middle of my 4 years in Thailand other areas of the country were being heavily impacted by the construction of air bases and naval facilities and especially by the influx of large numbers of US military personnel in and around Bangkok on short leaves for R&R. Even in Chiang Mai, military developments were coming into view. Air America planes were parked at the airport and we knew they were not for commercial use. On the lower slopes of Doi Suthep a seismic and meteorological monitoring station was built and staffed by the US Air Force working alongside Thai Air Force personnel. Those US personnel lived in town, and although few in number, were our age, so we got to know some of them. Also, higher ranking USAF officers occasionally moved their families to Chiang Mai to be nearer, but not too near.
Up to this time there had been an English language worshipping community composed mostly of missionaries who attended Thai churches on Sunday mornings but gathered for worship and fellowship in the evening, and for Bible study once a week. The addition of new US military families was one factor that prompted the community to consider forming a full-fledged church congregation as was already the case with International Church of Bangkok. The Rev. John Butt and I were designated co-pastors of this new Chiang Mai Community Church while a committee looked for a full-time pastor. The Rev. Douglas Vernon was recruited in 1968 and he and his lovely, vivacious wife Dot moved into a rented house on the Ping River right across from the US Consulate.
One of the activities of the Chiang Mai Community Church was to host Religious Retreats for US military personnel, which were alternatives to free-for-all R&Rs the military provided. Bob Bradburn (Presbyterian) and Jim Conklin (American Baptist) coordinated these retreats with chaplains who wanted to have them. Bradburn and Conklin worked out the program with the chaplains and then recruited us to help provide what was needed, including Bible studies, worship services, tours of mission work, Buddhist temple tours, talks by Buddhist monks, visits with Thai church leaders, pot luck suppers or overnight home stays. One of the goals was to give these military service personnel insight into ordinary Thai life to counter the jingoistic opinions that tended to develop among them. One of the themes that Bradburn and Conklin tried to convey is, “This sort of freedom and culture is what is natural here and worth defending.” We got high praise from the chaplains and anecdotal accounts of changed attitudes from some who had attended the retreats. Overall, these were addenda to the mission work each of us was doing.
What we were doing, we believed, was supportive of the mission and ministries of the Protestant Church in Thailand. We were involved in building peace, a more important and full-fledged peace than others were building, and without strategies that annihilated people in order to save them.
At the same time, due to new American children of USAF families in Chiang Mai, the Chiangmai Coeducational Center expanded from a small school for missionary children with a dormitory facility, into a larger “American School” that became Chiang Mai International School. In lieu of direct tuition to offset the increased class sizes and need for staff, the CCC board negotiated with the US Consulate to provide a teacher starting in 1966. We can say that the impetus for expansion of the little mission school into an international school was a result of the US military presence in town. CCC became the first of several international schools in Chiang Mai. In my opinion, it is the most lasting physical change to missionary objectives.
Of course, it too would have faded with the end of the Vietnam War and the relocation of military personnel except for tourism and the nation’s new willingness to have the economic advantages of expatriate long and short term residents. The increase of expats living in Chiang Mai has been exponential and that has included what amounts to an open door for missionaries of a bewildering variety. That, too, I believe is the direct result of what was going on beginning in the 1960s.
[Thanks to Gerry Dyck for this picture of 3 seminary teachers who helped with Religious Retreats for US military personnel. L-R Ken Mochizuki, Ken Dobson, Gerry Dyck. The picture appears in Gerry’s memoirs: Musical Journeys in Northern Thailand, p.37]
A Bangkok Post article this week reported that another 60 students of Christian University in Thailand are demanding return of their tuition in the wake of the university’s failure to work out an agreement with the national nursing council to allow the nursing student graduates to take the national examination to be registered nurses. The council has been demanding that the university either hire more staff teachers who can be clinical nurse supervisors, or reduce the number of students in the program so that the 1 to 6 ratio set by the council is achieved. Up to this year, however, the council has allowed CUT graduates to take the exam and be employed. When the council refused to allow this year’s graduates to take the exam, insisting they were unqualified due to the substandard courses they had taken, 2 of those disqualified students sued the university for refund of their tuition. The case is pending a decision. Meanwhile, the university has complied with the nursing council by notifying students that they will need to register for other courses or transfer to nursing programs in other institutions. The 60 students claim this is going to cost them a year, since the new academic year is already underway and transfers are impossible. They want their money back. I understand that the bachelor’s degree in nursing will not be accepting new students for two years while the university reorganizes. One of the reorganizing actions being undertaken by Board of Trustees of the university is a top to bottom review of the university’s structure and personnel. A new president is set to take office on Wednesday, replacing the current president who has been in that position for more than 30 years, longer than any other current head of an institution of higher education in the Association of Christian Colleges and Universities in Asia, and possibly longer than any other head in Thailand.
This crisis has been brewing for a long time. For years Christian University of Thailand was one of the premiere schools of nursing in the country. It was located inside Bangkok Christian Hospital and had one program and one purpose, to supply the hospital with nurses. After ten years, just before the Asian financial collapse in 1997, the board decided it was time to expand. From the beginning of Christian College it had been the dream to have the college become the second of four universities, following Payap University in the north. Land was secured just outside the metropolitan growth area, within which a hundred rai (about 40 acres) needed for a university according to the Ministry of Education, would be impossibly expensive. Farmland was purchased in Nakhon Pathom province and construction began. In addition to sufficient land, the Ministry of Education guidelines for qualifying as a university specified that the institution must have 4 faculties. So Christian College moved into the countryside and began to build additional programs with courses of study that might attract sufficient enrollment to become viable. It was a heady time to work at Christian College. Things were popping. [Pictures accompanying this essay are from that time.] The college became a full-fledged university in 2001 with the Crown Princess opening the university formally a year later. The most successful new ventures over the next 5 years or so were the programs in Business Administration, and a Master’s degree in nursing management. The university also tried 15 or 20 different majors including, Hotel and Tourism, Restaurant Management, English, Physical Therapy, Multi-media, Mass Communication, and a PhD program in administration. Some of them thrived, some survived, and some basically succumbed to competition from other institutions. But the bachelor’s degree in nursing was the university’s largest program and the university’s “bread and butter” or “curry pot” to use the president’s favorite phrase for it. Nearly a third of the student body were undergraduate nursing students, some years it was more than half.
At the time Christian College moved to Nakhon Pathom in 1998-9 it was the only private institution of higher education between Bangkok and the southern border more than a thousand kilometers away. Quickly, however, both public and private institutions moved in. The government itself opened the flood-gate for higher education expansion beginning with the decision to allow every one of the 40 teachers colleges to expand into full-fledged universities offering whatever programs they wanted. Overnight the number of government universities in Thailand nearly doubled. Almost all the private institutions of higher education were privately owned and for-profit. Of the non-profit institutions, I believe Assumption University is the largest, Payap University was the first, and there are less than a handful of others. Meanwhile, demographics were falling as birthrates in Thailand declined from an average of 4 children per couple who had children, to the present rate of less than 1.5. That birthrate means that today’s high school graduates are nearly half as many as there were when their parents were their age. This year the tipping point has come and the situation is becoming acute. To put it succinctly, there are twice as many places available nationwide for incoming freshmen university students as there are applicants. One dream after another for filling the classrooms has faded. It was expected that the ASEAN Accords would open doors for great influxes of students from neighboring countries, but ASEAN has disappeared. The doors for migration remain closed. Economic disparity keeps them closed. China was another great expectation that has had to negotiate the treacherous passage between language and cultural differences on the one side and recruitment obstacles on the other. One calamity that has not yet happened is the invasion of big-name universities into Thailand to set up satellite campuses and draw students to such as Oxford University in Thailand, or Harvard University – Bangkok Branch. Apparently, those institutions know better than to build where there are few students who can afford tuition and fees that are ten times higher than local costs, and where the students who can afford it want to just go to England or the USA.
Let’s cut to the chase. What now?
CUT will have to cut its financial losses. It is too soon to say how they plan to do that. The new administration takes over next week. We’ll see what they negotiate with those unhappy students and graduates. Worst case scenario is that the tuition refund demands will mount to tens of millions of dollars, beyond any possibility of payment. In that case CUT will be cut. The Foundation of the Church of Christ in Thailand will have to cut costs to make the pay-out and figure out what to do with its bankrupt campus. It will probably not come to that. But the long-term prospects for both church-owned universities, Payap and CUT, are grim. Both institutions are growing smaller fast.
What would happen here in Thailand if an international student wore a classical Thai dress to a prom, or a tourist from China was seen wearing an ethnic tribal costume she had bought in the Night Bazaar? Would the reaction be as “viral” as was the case when Kezia Daum of Salt Lake City, Utah wore a Chinese dress to her prom in April 2018 and was attacked on social media for exercising “cultural appropriation”? Some of her critics agreed (178,000 responded to this tiff on-line) that she was an example of “the embodiment of a system that empowers white people to take whatever they want, go wherever they want .…” Then the argument got nasty. But the majority was just baffled.
Cultural appropriation hit social media and mainline media like the Washington Post this spring when Bruno Mars won 3 Grammy awards for his singing in African American styles. He is the son of a Filipina mother and a father who is half Puerto Rican and half Askanazi Jew. The singer reportedly always gives credit and appreciation to his African American role models, but some critics are simply not happy with his “racial ambiguity” being used to “help him pass as Black” and “rape our cultural heritage.” Just a month ago (22 June 2018) African American outrage was again making headlines in the Philippine press and on Facebook.
There are two major issues that go back long before Kezia’s prom dress. (1) The issue of inappropriate use of sacred religious and cultural symbols out of context and in ways that are derogatory, sacrilegious, or blasphemous. (2) The issue of use of costume or conspicuous consumption to designate social status or rank.
The re-emergence of this at a time when people in western countries a couple of generations younger than me are increasingly keen about it, has got me thinking about whether Thai people are alarmed about cultural appropriation. I think Thailand definitely has boundaries that should not be crossed, although wearing a brocade Thai silk dress to a formal dance might not be one of them. [I admit to being an “outsider” on this matter, even though I have been hired by the Thai Culture Ministry in the past and know my way to the 14th floor of their office tower in Bangkok, and I covet my reputation as a theological anthropologist. The following is, therefore, tentative. Consider it an invitation for discussion.]
Boundaries not to be crossed as established by law:
Boundaries not to be crossed without risk of negative consequences:
Boundaries that have disappeared or been greatly reduced:
Boundaries that never were more than identity indicators:
What these lists show, I think, is that while there is cultural freedom there are rules and customs with regard to culture. They are designed to preserve the “three pillars” of Thai culture: religion, King and country. Religion is about the preservation of holy space where divine-human encounters occur. King, and by extension all royal family members and their ancestors, is about preservation of the space where divine-human encounters are expanded to include the whole culture and around which society is organized hierarchically. Country is about preserving the functioning of factors of livelihood for the benefit of all with the effect that everyone cooperates in those endeavors that are for the general well-being.
In other words, Thai people are not overly concerned about restricting access to unique aspects of Thai culture. The prevailing attitude is pride that such things as Thai silk, Thai food, and Thai boxing are popular around the world. Alarm signals ring only when it is suspected that Thai cultural identity is being threatened through an erosion of dedication to one of the three cultural pillars. The danger is that Thai people will no longer know who they are.
So far that is not felt to be a serious threat.
Popular western culture imported by such powerful conveyances as Hollywood movies, are hardly ever targeted by Thai culture monitors, unless the movies refer to Thailand directly. But Thai movies are scrutinized to insure that the public is being appropriately informed about Thai culture and values.
I believe, thanks to discussion about Kezia Daum and her Chinese cheongsam worn to a prom, that one big difference between Thailand and many other countries these days is that so far Thailand lacks a “victim culture” attitude. In the words of one interpreter of moral culture, One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about “one social group harming another.” Thailand, in some ways, feels pushed around and bullied but the country is not yet widely affected by the concern that there is one social group trying to harm another.
However, there are danger signs.
The other day I was transporting a carload of Buddhist abbots. Their conversation was about how Islamists [sic, not Islamic fundamentalists] are trying to undermine Buddhism through slanderous accusations of widespread financial corruption. The idea that Buddhism is under attack is not far from the notion that good Buddhists are in danger of being victims. It is extremely significant, I take it, that this sense of victimization has not fully developed, yet.
More pervasive is the belief that there is a privileged elite social group who live mostly in Bangkok and who are trying (successfully and ruthlessly) to harm the agrarian social sector who live everywhere else. These two groups are being held apart, like two gangs on the school playground, by the military – so the military peace and order council says. To most observers, it seems that the military are highly partial to the privileged elite and also have no concern for the rest of the country. But neither group has managed, yet, to morph their grievances into a full-blown sense of victimization.
So, for the time being, the political-economic tension that has gripped Thailand for decades has not escalated into a culture war.
[Thanks for permission to use the pictures on this blog to granddaughter Siree McRady who feels completely Thai when she dresses to perform Thai dances in Tennessee, and when she used Thai cloth (with a bodice from India) to make her prom dress.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.