Why do Christians pray?
For a large majority of Christians the question is dumb. Its answer is simple and self-evident. Why Christians pray would be about the same as why Buddhists and Hindus pray. Christians have Jesus’ instructions about prayer: “When you pray say, ‘Our Father, in heaven...give us...forgive us...lead us...’” Christians pray for the things they need to live abundantly and the attitudes they need to live faithfully according to God’s will.
That leads to the underlying question of why Christians need to pray. Is God going to be passive until Christians implore their necessities? That doesn’t comport with the notion that God is loving as well as all-knowing. Does God withhold abundant life from those who do not pray, who are too little to pray, who pray wrongly, or who pray to other gods? In general, that seems hard to demonstrate. Plagues, drought, floods and illness as well as sunshine, kinship and welfare tend to come to populations indiscriminately. Innocent people sometimes suffer and guilty people prosper. Either prayers don’t work very well or the way prayers function is not direct cause and effect.
That leads to the on-going discussion about prayer. Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s leading Christian theologians, concluded that the only legitimate prayer is thanksgiving. Just the other day a friend from Toronto mentioned that prayers in the church he attends are positive, “no groveling in guilt and pleading for mercy.” An Internet posting informed me that the Church of England has mastered the art of prayer so as to remove the possibility that a priest’s indigestion will affect the contents of prayers.
My friend and former colleague, Philip Hughes, a sociologist of religion in Australia, draws attention to a paradox embedded in Christianity as well as Buddhism. “The world is seen as both chaotic and governed.... It is negotiated both through calling on supernatural powers and through moral merit-making” [or obedience to God’s will, which is often the Christian equivalent of merit-making]. Philip and I tend to agree that most Thai sermons, Buddhist as well as Christian, are authoritative about moral and religious performance. That does not account for that which is random, chaotic, and supernatural. But the unaccountable elements in life are incorporated in faith practices when the sermons are over.
In the picture accompanying this essay Saman Chaisatan a faculty member of the McGilvary College of Divinity at the time the picture was taken, is leading a group of seminary students praying for Elder Saikaew of Lampoon. It is probable that they were trying to be both realistic and optimistic, and that their prayer was intended to give the elder encouragement as well as to express confidence that God would do the optimal things to provide comfort and to address the infirmities and insecurity of the ailing church leader.
In other words, Christians tend to shift into a supernatural mode of belief when dealing with big trouble. Philip puts it this way, “I believe that there is, in fact, a lot of 'supernaturalism' in the popular expressions of faith among Thai Christians. The ways in which people pray, their expectations of miracles, the ways in which they talk about God, all suggest to me that some of the thinking about spirits has been transferred and infinitely expanded to cover the idea of a 'Great Spirit' who has power over all other spirits ... to whom one can transfer one's allegiance and seek patronage.”
I agree with Philip, and I remember Karl Jung’s conclusion that should modern theologians ever succeed in removing the element of mystery from Christianity, the religion will crumble into dust. From where I view life here in the valley, neither Christianity nor Buddhism is in danger of that happening.
What’s going to happen when Lon retires? He has had a small heart attack and is getting older. His children are about the age to take over or at least to begin to help out, but he has two girls who are getting an education to escape that fate. In fact, in all of Pramote and Lon’s clan, there is not one candidate to take on farming the family acreage.
A generation ago, when Lon and Pramote were little boys the family owned a water buffalo. She provided the muscle-power to pull the plow. About 20 years ago the buffalo died and Lon and his father got by with a borrowed machine to pull the plow. The tractor Lon is using in the picture above was bought when Lon and Pramote acquired more land to be plowed about ten years ago.
It takes three passes to get a rice field ready to accept transplanted seedlings. Rice farming in the traditional way is labor intensive. Lon has been working all day from 9 this morning until 5 this evening and he is just getting done with the first plowing. The area is a little less than 2 rai, or about 8 tenths of an acre.
One of these days he will have to hire the plowing done. We offered to do that today, but Lon refused. Sometime, of course, he will not be able to do the second round of cultivation either, or the planting, or the harvesting. It will all have to be hired done. As it looks, that would eat up the income from the land. It would be cheaper to buy rice to eat than to hire the work done to grow it. Lon will be retired by then.
Predictably, the next step will be for Pramote and Lon to sell the land. That will be the solution for the family. But what about the wider society? In all the villages around here there are few people between the ages of 15 to 30 who aspire to be farmers. The generation between the ages of 30 to 50 is the last generation to have enough farmers. They are supplementing their incomes with part time work in construction, village-level governmental positions, or crafts. When the next generation reaches adulthood they will have salaried positions and live away from here. Not only agriculture, but village life will change radically, and by that I mean it will cease to be community oriented. The social and cultural ramifications could be staggering.
An image of the Lord Buddha undergoes an impressive ceremony to begin its service inspiring reverence and evoking peace. At the climax of the ceremony the eyes of the image are symbolically opened. One of the best ways to understand the significance of Thai images of the Buddha or of the temple in which the image resides is to comprehend what the dedication ceremony means.
Dr. Kenneth E. Wells was a Presbyterian missionary in Thailand. He made a study of Thai Buddhism his avocation and in 1938-9 wrote what is still the most comprehensive and authoritative description of Thai Buddhist practices in English. He built his study around field observations which he supplemented with references to available texts in various languages. When his book Thai Buddhism was reprinted in 1960 and issued in Thai it became a standard reference work for Buddhist monks as well as the general public.
He described a night-long dedication at Wat Tha Satoi, Chiang Mai in February 1937.
Within the vihara was an altar with about two dozen bronze images of Buddha, and behind the altar and along the wall were four larger images made of brick and mortar covered with gold leaf. A sincana cord had been wound about from one image to another and one end of the string brought to the monk in the preaching chair. Most of the images were new and many of them had been brought from private homes to be consecrated in this Suat Poek ceremony. The eyes of the new images were sealed with wax and a cloth of white or of yellow was placed over the head and shoulders of each figure. The worshipers, seated on mats, extended from in front of the altar to the door of the vihara and even outside filling the portico in front.
[Wells describes the night long series of chants.}
The selections were intoned rather than read, and so chosen that the final chapter, recording the death of the Buddha and his attainment of Nibbana, was completed just before dawn. At this point a monk opened a window shutter revealing the first faint streaks of morning light to the group within. The monks then seated themselves facing the altar and the leader chanted the “Presentation of Incense and Candles” (thavai dhup tien). Then followed the “Consecration of the images of Buddha,” or Buddhabhiseka ceremony. In this the Namo and Saranagamana were chanted, followed by the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutra. Then the Buddha Udana Gatha was used and a portion of the Vipassanabhumi Patha. As they chanted “Whenever the Dharma is made manifest to a brahmana who is diligent, such a bramana can ward off Mara with all his attendants like the dawn drives away darkness and fills the air with light” a monk arose and led a few of the laity in the task of unveiling the images and removing the wax from their eyes. As the vihara faced east the eyes of the images were thus opened upon the first rays of the rising sun. This Buddhabhiseka Ceremony was spoken of as an ordination ceremony whereby the images entered the priesthood. Prior to this service the images were considered to be simply statues, after the service the images were “phra”, something worshipful and more than metal. They had become sacred and possessed of mana or spirit of intelligence. At the conclusion of the ceremony the khao madhupayasa or celestial food was placed before the newly consecrated images. (Wells, Kenneth, 1960. Thai Buddhism. Bangkok: The Christian Bookstore. Pp. 127-8)
Wells provided two valuable references as footnotes to his text:
The origin of this ceremony is found in India. There when a man has purchased an image, “It is his invariable practice to perform certain ceremonies called “Pran Pratishta” or the endowment of animation, by which he believes that its nature is changed from that of the mere materials of which it is formed and that it acquires not only life but supernatural powers.” L.S.S. O’Balley, Popular Hinduism, Macmillan & Co., New York, 1935, p. 26.
In Cambodia images of Buddha are likewise consecrated by a ceremony in which the eyes of the statue are opened. “The Acaraya takes scissors and pretends to cut the hair of the statue. He does this three times, and each time he recites a Pali stanza called Pheak Kantray .... He then takes a razor and pretends to shave the head of the Buddha [as takes place whenever a man is ordained]. He does this three times and recites a stanza of Pali called Kamboet Kor .... Then he takes two needles and places them, one on the left hand and one on the right of the statue .... Then he takes the needle resting on the left hand and pretends to pierce the right eye of the statue; then he takes the needle on the right hand and touches the left eye with the point. All the worshipers then cry out three times in Pali, ‘We have now happily opened the eyes.’” Adhemard Leclere, Le Buddhisme au Cambodge, Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1899, p. 369.
I have attended a dedication ceremony which included opening the eyes of the Buddha. It was missing the dawn symbolism, taking place within a two hour period in the evening. The meaning was the same, and no doubt has been the same for centuries.
In the picture accompanying this essay, we see our friend Than Daeng lighting candles and incense. The Buddha image is made of bricks and mortar, completed by the monks seated before the image. Its eyes are covered with yellow wax and the head with a white cloth sack that will both be ceremoniously removed. Thus is the Lord Buddha awakened and invested with mana, animation.
On a list of the things we can’t do without, most people in the developed and enlightened West would not even mention an item that tops the list here in the East. I don’t mean by that that if you conducted a survey you’d find this mentioned most often. But if you studied what people did at the major intersections of their lives around here “calling for kwan” would come up very often. And if you ask anyone “What happens if your kwan leaves you?” they look at you suspiciously, shudder and say, “You die!” The very topic is taboo.
In the two dictionaries I depend on most, kwan is defined with long lists of options. They include such things as fortune, luck, auspiciousness, spirit, prosperity and charm. Yet it is one word. That means that it is all these various things in a single concept. I think we do not have an equivalent in English. That’s why it takes so many words to define it. My clue, however comes from Dr. George Bradley McFarland who spent decades collecting data for the first modern Thai-English dictionary. McFarland describes a rite of passage, now rare, in which a boy’s tonsure was cut. In the ceremony, an egg is provided for “the propitiation of the ‘Khuan’ ... of the tonsured. This surmounts the conical structures in the confirmation tonsorial ceremony and no doubt symbolizes the vital principle, and represents the idea of rebirth. As the candidate eats this [egg] it is evident the act signifies that the Khuan is reborn in his body and that he has entered upon a new life of prosperity, happiness and composure.”
(p. 145) In another note McFarland writes about phuk kwan which involves placing “cords or
threads strung with charms around the neck, wrists or ankles of infants or of the sick” which is intended “to ward off the power of evil spirits or to insure protection to the individual through propitiatory incantations or magical formulas and offerings.” These days, 70 years after McFarland got out of the Japanese concentration camp and finished his dictionary, the use of white cotton strings to communicate blessings and good wishes is very common, but amulets or charms are no longer usually added. Still later in his explanation, McFarland mentions that these rites “call back the protecting spirit.”
I believe what French philosopher Henri Bergson called elan vital is fairly close to kwan. He said, “If there is finality in the world of life, it encompasses the whole of life in one indivisible embrace.” Bergson’s detractors translated elan vital as “life force” and sought to ridicule it as no more meaningful than “locomotive force” would be to describe how a locomotive on a train works. But they oversimplified Bergson’s complex concept, just as picking one of the many terms for kwan would deny the others.
In any case, here in Northern Thailand a BAI SRI flower arrangement is one of the iconic symbols of important ceremonies.
In the pictures accompanying this essay, our friend and neighbor, Prawit Rincome, is constructing a bai sri flower arrangement. These floral displays are more than decoration. They have a central role in marriage, supchataa [life extension], and ordination ceremonies. Their purpose, Prawit says, is to “call for kwan”.
There are two basic types of bai sri arrangement. One is used with people, as part of the three human events mentioned. This type is built on 4 legs, or sprouts made of folded and plaited banana leaf. Each sprout traditionally had 9 points sticking out. The term for those points literally means “teats of a cat”. That gives this type its name, bai sri nom maew [cat teat bai sri]. The florist usually puts a white blossom or bud on each point. The whole arrangement involves taking buckets of flowers apart and re-assembling them. The other arrangement is similar but smaller and placed on a pedestal tray, used for inaugurating a spirit shrine. It is called bai sri thep [angel’s bai sri].
Here in the North a tradition is maintained that originated when His Majesty King Rama VI visited Chiang Mai in the second decade of the last century. This arrangement has 5 sprouts, rather than 4. At the tips a tuft of flowers indicates the royal person being honored. Yellow is the present King’s color, since he was born on Monday. The arrangements that Prawit is showing have not yet been completed with the symbolic rice and items that will fill the bowl.
Bai sri flower arrangements are not prepared for funerals because the time for “calling for kwan” is over.
The biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA in Detroit this week (ending June 22) took action by a margin of 4 to 1 to permit pastors to perform same-sex marriages in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal. These marriages are governed by the same rules as other marriages. Namely, it is up to the pastor, guided by the Holy Spirit, to determine whether the marriage ought to be conducted; it is up to the session of the congregation to agree to the service; and it must be in the form of a worship service.
This is not an uncontroversial stand the Presbyterian Church has taken. Furthermore, the General Assembly approved a proposal to change the definition of marriage from “between one man and one woman: to “traditionally between one man and one woman”. This has to be confirmed by the presbyteries over the next several months to be placed in the constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA. There was discussion about taking out the phrase entirely, but recognizing the long tradition was hoped to signal continuity rather than a radical break. This will not satisfy conservatives who insist that heterosexual monogamy is mandated by the Bible and is not open to change. Apparently the General Assembly was persuaded that Presbyterian Church USA policy must not be an obstacle for pastors to exercise pastoral care at the time a couple is embarking on marriage. Thus the Presbyterian Church joins a growing number of denominations who have yielded to the tide of openness to homosexuals as legitimate members of society.
Perhaps it would be best to simply applaud what the General Assembly has bravely done, and pledge support for the future when still another backlash leads to congregations leaving the denomination. There is pain ahead. But the stand is a right one. We who are gay and we who are engaged in pastoral care of LGBTIQ people are relieved and ready to celebrate the end of the painful discrimination about marriage that the Presbyterian Church has insisted upon.
But I cannot refrain from hoping for still greater understanding. As this action makes clear, the Presbyterian General Assembly and the American people are not fluent about the terms being used. It would be very helpful to agree that there is a difference between a wedding and a marriage. A marriage is the description of a relationship. A wedding is a ceremony to institute that state formally and to seek God’s blessing upon it. If the Presbyterian Church and all of us would stop calling weddings marriages a lot of heated argument could be avoided.
What the General assembly agreed this week is for pastors with approval of their ruling elders to be permitted to conduct wedding services. These services are worship events. The phrase “in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal” is confusing and unnecessary as it pertains to weddings. The state or national government has nothing to say about worship services. But in the USA, following European tradition, this worship service involves a legal exchange of promises which constitutes a legal contract. The pastor officiating is acting in behalf of the state government, and then signs a certificate testifying to that. This is what the General Assembly was talking about when its action limited “marriages” to where they are “legal”.
Here’s a way out: weddings are legal everywhere in the USA and most of the world. The aspect of the wedding that is under state control is the exchange of vows if that is the forging of a legal agreement. It is time for the church (and by that I mean pastors and sessions) to stop being state agents. When a couple wants to praise God for their married relationship and implore God’s guidance and blessing there is no need to report it to the state or to issue a marriage certificate that is any more a legal document than a baptismal certificate or an ordination certificate.
If you are a pastor in a state or country that does not permit same-sex marriages, or even if they are allowed where you live, bypass the state. You are under no legal obligation to do the state’s job. The state has no legal authority to prevent you from conducting worship services. Just make it clear that it is up to the couple to get their marriage approved by the state any way they want to.
Does a woman have the same right to appear topless on an international website on the Internet as on the sidewalks of New York? [Thanks to the BBC for this picture posted on
The issue is what rights prevail, individual rights (also properly known as human rights), social rights (which can equate to community standards), or cultural rights (often regulated by law, as in Thailand with the Ministry of Culture in charge)?
We live in a time of conflict over these issues. That’s why I think this is an important topic. I’ve been worried about this for a long time. It is at the heart of the marriage equality struggle, internet and news censorship in several lands close to where we live, and dress codes in Islamic and other religious contexts.
The BBC article on Facebook (June 4, 2014) clarified it for me. I think we can agree that the woman will get respect by rights activists in NYC for insisting that if men can walk outside topless, so should she. We might also agree that she should not try that here in Chiang Mai and neither should men. Not long ago I saw a policeman warn a topless tourist to put on his shirt, whereas up until the arrival of Europeans and Americans in Chiang Mai both men and women were often topless. Furthermore, it would be stupid and dangerous for a woman to go topless in Tehran. Context matters.
But why and how it matters also matters. In NYC, it seems to me, and throughout much of the USA, there is a big struggle going on to expand individual rights and reduce social controls and cultural norms and laws. That is what’s going on in the marriage revolution, of which the current gay right to marriage is probably the last battle. Individuals have already won the right to marry and divorce at will with hardly any interference from church or state. The church has even lost its monopoly on weddings, to say nothing about marriage as a social institution. The church may not agree with this liberty couples have won, but couples in the USA can ignore the church.
The same thing, I believe, is going on with regard to education. The state used to have total control, and even parochial (church-run) schools had little lee-way except to add classes on religion. Now just about anybody can run a school and just about anybody can home-school. You can teach whatever science or non-science you want. You can decide to do away with penmanship, or you can insist on cursive writing. You can choose what to teach students to read. Public schools (the US name for schools funded by taxes and open to the public) are just one option. The truant officer is no more. There is even a movement to limit access to these schools, beginning with non-registered immigrants and other non-residents. It’s clear to me that the end of this will leave decisions about schooling up to small social units, families or family fragments and individuals, and alliances of these social units.
The battles over pornography in the West are all but over. What’s left are skirmishes on other terms, children being exploited, for example, or graphic images subjected onto people unwilling to receive them, as was the issue in the BBC article mentioned above. For the most part, eroticism is free. But context matters.
In North America and much of Europe the debate has been decided. It was a long protracted battle ending in a widespread agreement that individual rights prevail. This is not universal, and there’s the rub.
We will not likely understand what Islam is all about until we see how it is built around the concept of society. In an Islamic context social rights will always trump individual rights. The controversy is how those Islamic societies function in relation to other societies. For example, how can a person opt out of the level of social control a community may exercise? Can an individual have a voice in such a matter as marriage? How does an Islamic community function inside a larger non-Islamic context?
We will misjudge China as long as we do not accept the extent to which the state will try to stay in charge, subjugating all component cultures (e.g. Tibet), controlling social units (including families; e.g. the “one child” policy), and keeping a leash on individuals. China’s emerging economic power will never replace the cultural energy that has empowered China since the Mongol Khans in the 12thcentury and the Hans of the 2nd century, and long before. China is not about to be dissolved into an international culture like soybeans into tofu.
Failure to relate appropriately to context leads to conflict. If humanity survives the impending environmental crisis, the cultural wars could be next. It’s a close race.
The posting that accompanies this blog was downloaded from the Internet. It is a warning in Thai that if the USA persists in interfering in Thai affairs a number of American franchises may face bankruptcy here. It is a reaction to a statement a week ago by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, that the military coup in Thailand will have diplomatic consequences.
The United States foreign policy position over the years is to favor democracies. In any democratic system the people have to have a voice. At the very least, the people have to have the right to vote for those who will write laws and run the government. It is not valid to say the people do not vote for the right reasons so their right to vote must be suspended.
This past week this has emerged as the center of an argument between the US State Department and the military authorities in Thailand. Members of the public have voiced heated opinions about this.
The opinion most often heard from Thai patriots such as the ones who posted the anti-US warning, is that the USA does not understand how flawed the electoral process in Thailand as been: “People sell their votes for cash. An even larger group is persuaded to vote for parties who promise social rewards and popular projects so the party leaders can gain power. This is so deeply ingrained that the electoral process is beyond repair. A whole new electoral system has to be created, and so Thailand needs a ‘time out’ for that to happen. The only power strong enough to impose the time out is the military.”
Opponents of the Thai military coup, which is billed by the Army as a strategy to cool everybody down so the game of democracy can start over, say that the real plan is to shore up the team that has always been in control, made up of an alliance of the social and financial elite and the military. Recently, a new alliance has successfully opposed them, made up of newly emerging financial giants and the working class. The former have their power base in and around Bangkok, and the latter are “upcountry”. As long as the military stayed in camp and in the background, the elite side could not regain control over the populist side. When the Army left the camps, the balance tipped.
From the US State Department perspective, the aspect of this that is unacceptable is the suspension of the electoral process. This, and this alone, invalidates the military take-over as a democratic government. When the people have no voice there is no democracy. The US government will not deal with undemocratic governments in the same way as it does democratic ones. The way to fix a corrupted electorate is never to limit discussion, but to expand it. Only the people can fix a democracy.
That is what the debate is about between the US government and the Thai government.
But there is another murky level, less crystal clear and doctrinaire. In reality the USA has very often acted otherwise than in support of democracies, and people usually do not like to be preached to by hypocrites who say one thing and do another. So, in public, name-calling often takes the place of discussion when foreign policy debate is confused with actual reality. Behind the scenes, as always, “realpolitik” goes on. Only a fool really believes that the US Secretary of State and the US Ambassador to Thailand have not been adequately briefed on the nuances and dynamics of the Thai political situation. The military leaders are not fools. They know the difference between public policy and realpolitik. So they, on both sides, know that this 19th military take-over of government in Thailand will have consequences at the public policy level, but another much softer impact on the real relationship between the USA and Thailand.
I will not say that Thai commentators on the Internet and in other media are fools because they do not believe Secretary of State, John Kerry and US Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney understand Thai realities. A fool is one who understands the truth but refuses to accept it. Those commentators may believe that the USA is wrong to preach that suspension of democracy is no way to fix democracy. Those commentators may actually believe that the military are doing what is best under the circumstances. It is possible that even John Kerry, the US ambassador’s boss, may believe that the Thai military may not be doing what is best, but it is doing what is second best on a long list of far worse strategies.
In realpolitiks, how Thailand solves its political problems really is an internal matter. Almost everybody knows that. Only in terms of public policy, which involves international relations at a government-to-government level, is the Thai military take-over of the Thai peoples’ government an international matter. Thai patriots who cry “foul” when the US government voices its opposition to the coup and to the suspension of the people’s voices and votes are the ones who cannot distinguish realms of reality. And how could they understand what international foreign policy is? Having no interest at all in foreign affairs for years on end they cannot be reasonably expected to suddenly gain international affairs expertise. But if they allow themselves to be jerked around because they don’t care about the issues, but just care about appearing to be patriotically anti-American, then they are fools. They are just as much fools as the ex-patriots living here who refuse to admit that at the level of reality the Thai military take-over of government really is an internal Thai matter.
Attention preachers and teachers! If Maya Angelou was right we have some changes to make in our main act. And I think she was right. We have been far too sure our job was to communicate ideas. But how many of our listeners retain our precious and valuable thoughts as far as the parking lot? After a little while, I can’t even remember what I myself said from the pulpit or in the classroom without reminders. I was a philosophy major in college. I can remember a lot about Dr. Stewart who taught all the courses in that field at our small college. I can remember his tone of voice, his placid expression, the way he snorted when he laughed, and his tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, but not a single word he said. I learned a lot of philosophy, but what I remember from Dr. Stewart is how I felt alert, challenged to the brink, thoughts swirling. I can remember a week at the New Wilmington Missionary Conference forty years ago where I heard great preaching and concentrated on listening to the point that “I got it” -- what I had been doing wrong with my own novice preaching. I remember being electrified by the sermons morning and night that week, being alive and thrilled. But I don’t remember a single one of the topics, none of the texts, and not any of the real-life illustrations that fascinated me so. I have preached hundreds of sermons, and some of them were splendid. I got compliments, and still do from people who listened years ago. But it was not what I said that mattered, I think. The words were a sound-bath. They ignited fires of imagination if they were working, or they wrapped suffering people in a warm embrace. The best classroom jobs I ever had involved me in getting students doing things, experiencing success, and being rewarded by feelings of expanded possibility. So, preachers and teachers, what would it be like if we quit trying to fill minds with good ideas? Because that is not working very well. Ideas are like mist and minds are like screen doors. The only ideas that will stick are hard, glowing ones or gooey, messy ones that need to be dealt with actively until they are possessed by the new owners. Passive audiences do not exist; if they are passive they are not hearing, but their receptors of feeling are never turned off. Brilliant, inspiring, poetic, provocative Maya Angelou died this week and I will remember how she made me feel…and, in her case, maybe one or two of her brilliant, inspiring, poetic, provocative quotes.
The jury has decided: the picture is fake. But the question remains, “Why does it matter?”
First, let’s be clear about what is supposed to be represented. It appears to be a young Buddhist monk not resisting being kissed by a daring girl about his age. The male appears to have on the traditional 3-piece saffron-colored monk’s robes. According to Buddhist monastic rules once a man has been ordained he is forbidden to touch or be touched by a female, even his mother. A monk caught in this compromised circumstance could expect to be disciplined and possibly defrocked. Furthermore, it is not legal for a person in Thailand to impersonate a monk. It is not legal for a monk to have sexual contact with anyone, and a kiss could count as that kind of contact; both the participants could be liable for arrest. And above all it is not legal to do anything which defames Buddhism (or any other religion).
So that brings us to the question of, “Why does it matter?” The jury (300+ comments on Facebook) was fairly evenly divided between those who thought the picture on the Internet couldn’t touch the heart of Buddhism because this was a picture of an individual couple’s indiscretion. Another group was alarmed that the reputation of Buddhism could be damaged if critics used the pic as evidence of hypocrisy on the part of clergy. Do you think Buddhism is undermined when a rogue clergyman appears? It has happened before, without apparent lasting ill effects. Nevertheless, Buddhism is one of the three institutions, along with the state and royalty, that are constitutionally protected from criticism and defamation, inasmuch as they theoretically hold up the Thai social structure. As it happens, two of these three institutions are under a degree of debate unprecedented in recent times. If Buddhism were also seriously jeopardized, everything might topple, so the theory says.
However, the picture is a fake. The jury noticed the monk’s intact hair and eyebrows. A real monk has head and eyebrows shaved every 15 days. The guy’s hair is impossibly long. He is faking.
Why was this scene concocted, if it is fake? We cannot know why until he is identified and interviewed. My guess is that this is another attempt by two members of the young postmodernist generation to create a stir. If you put something on the Internet that “goes viral” that is a fleeting moment of glory. Nothing succeeds quite as well as something that generates indignation.
But if this sort of callous egotism is what now matters and is valued, society is already undermined.
On May 5, 2014 at 6:08 p.m. an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude struck about 27 kilometers south of the city of Chiang Rai, Thailand. A day later it was reported that Wat Rong Khun, one of Chiang Rai’s most famous landmarks, known to thousands of tourists as “the White Wat”, was irreparably damaged by the quake and aftershocks. (Find more pictures on the Internet under “Wat Rong Khun pictures”). I lament the loss of this artistic treasure and want to reflect on its meaning.
The incident poses two questions: “What’s a Wat?” and “Where’s the line between art and theology?”
“Wat” in Thai means “temple”. It refers particularly, but not exclusively, to a Buddhist temple, which includes everything in its compound. The main structure is a wihara or assembly hall. Larger temples gain status by having a chedi or stupa (an Indian term; “pagoda” in North Asia) and a bot (also known as ubosot) or ordination hall. Many temples have residences for monks, a bell or gong or drum tower, funeral facilities including a crematorium, a Tripitika building (library), and sculptures. Wat Rong Khun also has an art museum and the world’s most ornate toilet building.
Wat Rong Khun has been the life-work of a flamboyant artist and philanthropist, Chalermchai Kositpipat who converted his personal fortune into an iconic masterpiece over more than two decades. The kindest thing to say about Chalermchai’s temple, from a Buddhist perspective, is that it is unconventional. In fact, it defies tradition so flagrantly that it is not considered a temple at all by some conservatives. But, technically it is a temple. It is built on the site of an old temple that had fallen into disrepair. Chalermchai first thought of restoring it but then replaced it. Once a place has been consecrated as a temple it is always the place for a temple.
In the process of creating his remarkable temple Chalermchai developed and defined a unique style of decorative Thai Buddhist art. He managed that most difficult accomplishment, innovating to the very limits of convention without crossing the line. Wandering around Wat Rong Khun there is never any question that this is a Buddhist temple and it is Thai. Taking a second look one realizes that in almost all particulars this is like no other temple. Artistic elaborations and elongations are multiplied and stretched farther than anyone has dared for centuries. Typical Thai S lines ending in lotus-bud tips are far more complicated when Chalermchai renders them, and his creatures are more haunting and intimidating. This temple is the diametric opposite of Zen. It is ostentatious, pretentious, exaggerated and breath-taking. It is above all confrontational. At every turn a visitor has to deal with Chalermchai’s visions of life’s options and consequences. The temple is a shrine in honor of religious mythical mysticism teetering on madness not seen, perhaps since the high-gothic era in Europe or the Kamakura era in Japan. The goal of meditation in Wat Rong Khun is certainly not serenity, or at least not without facing harsh realities first.
To put it mildly, art and religion have a contentious history, yet they cannot do without one another. Most often art is considered as a naughty child, seldom appreciated when it is not mediocre but not enduring when it is. Real trouble comes when art rises very far above popular devotion. The masses will not put up with divinity out of place and unrecognizable. But how can they recognize the divine until artists show it to them?
Wat Rong Khun is controversial aside from its artistic eccentricities. In some ways, ways which are central to the whole temple project, Chalermchai is arrogant, defiant, unrepentant and stubborn. He will invent an artistic genre for Thai Buddhism whether the religious establishment likes it or not. He will override all criticism to do it. He will not pay attention to precedent and he will expropriate and exploit tradition by utilizing whatever he wants however he wants to. Despite the illusion of enthusiastic vitality and lively lines of visitors, Wat Rong Khun is essentially a lonely place. His temple is monochromatic and unitarian, starkly lacking generations of eclectic accumulation expressive of community and continuity. Other donors have constructed entire temples, but few without royal pedigrees have imposed their egos on their donations so ruthlessly and none so impressively. In the end, however, the most damaging controversy is not how Chalermchai elevates the artistic standard for Buddhist temples, but how he ratchets down the theological standard, descending deep into populist and superstitious levels that demean what the Buddha was undertaking.
There is, on the other hand, the possibility that the Wat Rong Khun project is a monument to the artistic legacy of Chalermchai Kositpipat rather than (or more than) to the Dharma of the Lord Buddha. This interpretation is reinforced by the museum and restroom. The museum is a repository for Chalermchai’s paintings, almost all of which express Buddhist principles imposed on contemporary imagery surrealistically, like Dali without the melting clocks. The wat is all white or silvery-white except the bathroom building, which is a rival of the other temple buildings in size but replete with excessive color, especially gold. Chalermchai says the temple is about spirit, but the restroom is about body. Not a few interpreters have concluded that there is a harsh criticism of traditional Buddhism implied in the fact that the building in Wat Rong Khun that most resembles other wats is the toilet. Chalermchai built it; he can interpret it however he wants. But I think his pretensions are protruding.
Overall, the main message of Wat Rong Khun, to my way of thinking, is that Buddhism is certainly not antiquated. There is an undeniable vitality in the creative expression of the temple as a whole and in the decorative elaborations. Wat Rong Khun is not Buddhism longing for a by-gone golden age. Like the cathedral in Barcelona, the temple in Chiang Rai insists on being contemporary. Meanwhile, Chiang Rai has grasped the significance of what Chalermchai has done, or at least the importance of the tour busses in the temple parking lot on their way into town. Street signs in Chiang Rai are “Rong-Khun-esque”. The temple is no longer the only silver-white one, either. A religion is alive as long as it inspires artistic innovation and reiteration.
Chalermchai says he is too old at 56 to rebuild the temple so he will let it be, as a memorial to what it was. But he has never been known for understatement. His anguish could be just another aftershock from which he will recover. I personally doubt that stunning Wat Rong Khun is beyond hope of repair.