Essay 3: Realms of Faith in America
“My religion is different from anyone else’s,” a friend recently confided. He explained that it was personal and did not need the authorization of any organization to be valid. He has joined the “None of the Above” movement. I would argue that he may have religion but he does not have A RELIGION. Unless he can identify with a tradition he is missing something, including a supportive religious community. But the problem in the United States is bigger than the issue of exercising personal preference in designing a belief system. That freedom exists, of course, even in organized churches with rigid doctrines; every member’s set of beliefs is unique.
Religion is the beliefs and practices of people that give them a shared sense of connection to the transcendent-sacred and thereby to each other. The purpose of religion is to bridge a gap between the holy and the mundane. Religion-in-general is detached from particular narratives and is personal, perhaps even private and secret. “A religion” has achieved a committed following. This essay is about the difference between a religion and religion-in-general.
Religions of the world have various characteristics in common:
A CORE NARRATIVE All world religions and most regional and ethnic religions have a story or collection of stories about one or more primal divine-human encounters. This central story may have literary attachments such as hymns, poems, wise sayings, and especially stories of more recent divine-human encounters that reiterate the first encounter.
RITUAL Religious practices also re-enact that encounter and make it current. These enactments are designed to be peak experiences of the religion’s central issue, a salvation issue involving a transformation, enabled by a primary intermediary. The Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, and Zoroaster are such intermediaries, as are Moses and Mohammed (in a somewhat different sense). Ritual re-enactments engage participants emotionally, intellectually, physically, and socially. The ritual implies a suspension of time, an alternative living reality, symbolic transcendence, and physical commitment. This central ritual is repeated in life-passage rites and in regular services.
DOCTRINE Creeds, rules of discipline, and central theological statements are refinements of a religion’s core narrative to derive specific truths that impact personal and community life. Some doctrinal statements are meant to be essential for membership in the religious organization, while other religious organizations merely have an implied doctrine that is intuited.
COMMUNITY Most religions have organized religious societies of adherents. Those societies may be natural communities, e.g. “everybody who lives around here.” Christianity adopted the Roman mystery religions’ practice of a long impressive orientation and initiation. Depending on how the religion is comprised, most societies have local associations that are part of a larger organization. These local societies in most religions erect special places for the conduct of their rituals and as gathering points for social events. Within those places one space at least is designated as particularly sacred, although that may be just when sacred activities are being conducted there. If the organization is old enough, some of these places become heritage sites with special significance. Most religious societies also have important leaders, usually designated as teachers, whereas key persons from the past are noted for their affinity with the divine. There is a tendency in religious societies to form sub-groups to render particular service, and for ranks of membership to develop. These ranks often undertake specific disciplines.
To be clear, “a religion” (rather than religion-in-general) is a society with rituals based on a core narrative that illustrates or defines that society’s understanding of the divine-human encounter. Briefer, “a religion” is a group of people, whereas “religion” is what the group has and does.
It would be worthwhile if there were agreement about some such non-controversial delineation as this. Instead, modern history is rife with arguments and wars about whether this or that religion is “true” and valid. Renaissance Europeans were surprised to find full-fledged religions in civilized lands they newly explored. There was quite a flap when Jesuit missionaries began to describe how fully developed Buddhism had become. Buddhism had sophisticated scripture, a core doctrine of salvation (i.e. enlightenment), a central figure bridging the gap between the sacred and the secular, complex rites, and a society of believers who lived disciplined and restrained lives. Buddhism even had a celibate rank of priests, as all respectable religions should have, the Jesuits reported.*
On the other hand, well into the 19th century, English imperialists refused to accept Hinduism as anything but primitive superstition and heathen idolatry. The effort to eradicate Native Americans (First Nation groups) from their ancestral lands and lifestyles was fueled by the prejudice against indigenous religion. The same dynamic applied to the treatment of aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, and Polynesians in Oceania. Some anthropologists still insist on using the term animism indiscriminately.
However, confusion about what is “a religion” and what is better called spirituality or just “religious” becomes an important civil issue when a particular religion gains official status. It is important to delineate between realms of faith, and this becomes difficult in secular cultures and nations.
The 19th century was a time of major religious innovation in America. Being without a state religion, nothing officially prevented the development of sects, cults and denominations. Most of them faded as did the New Harmony community in Indiana. Some became part of mainline religion, as did the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Others, like the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and the Seventh Day Adventists, prospered after gaining traction and respect.
The confusion in the USA now at the dawn of the 21st century is ridiculous. The USA has taken a broad view of what a religion is – to the extent that Scientology is classified as a church even though its founder was really seeking tax-exempt status and Scientology lacks all indicators to be a religion rather than a spirituality and personal improvement program. In the same way, “ministers” of the Universal Life Church gain tax exemptions despite having no established practices, social organization, or scripture. Their web-site declares that any beliefs or none at all are fine with them. Ordination is free, but they charge for a certificate. A Doctor of Metaphysics diploma costs $35, no questions asked. County clerks in Illinois report that marriages officiated by ministers of Universal Life Church outnumber those of any traditional church.
When anything can be a religion, no distinctions are possible. The USA has arrived at this point. Franklin Graham has absconded with his father’s prestige to presume to speak in behalf of American Christendom in the effort to de-legitimize Islamic religion in the USA. He’s getting away with it among the extreme right who fear the loss of their patriarchal white Protestant cultural position. Meanwhile, a movement is gaining momentum to extend religious privileges to individuals (to discriminate on the basis of religious loathing) without reference to declared affiliation with any organization or particular religion. Separation of church and state has become refusal to distinguish between what is a religion and religion-in-general.
[Next essay is this “Realms of Faith in America” series will be “Folk Faith” in July.]
*[Thanks to Eva Pascal for this research insight.]
The following article was provided by the Thai National Reform Council for academic personnel to be apprised of what the present Thai government would like us to understand is its rationale and agenda. The endnotes are not from the NRC or the newspaper article.
The Model of Thailand 4.0 is security, prosperity and sustainability
Dr. Suvit Maesincee, chairperson of Thailand Visionary and Future Design Committee of National Reform Council (NRC)[i] has stated that Thailand had been through major systematic reformation only once, during the time of King Rama the 5th.[ii] Since then, Thailand has been lacking consistent major reformation till present. As a consequence, while the country has been developed to a certain point, it is now facing the middle-income trap, inequality and corruption, as well as serious conflicts within the past decade.[iii] Without “The Second Major Reformation,” Thailand may fall behind and become underdeveloped.[iv] If Thailand continues to see through this major reformation consistently, with the help from every sector, it may become one of the first world countries with security, prosperity, and sustainability.
To enable the transition to digital economic system in the 21st century, many countries have had major systematic reformation to manage new opportunities, risks and threats. Furthermore, improvements were made for economic and social infrastructure, value system and living culture, as well as education and work. This means upgrade is needed in every sector in order to become a first world country.[v]Therefore, the goal or the vision of Thailand is to become a first world country through development, by the year 2032 (or the 100th year anniversary of the revolution – editor).
Following are the 6 characteristics of a first world country within Thailand context; 1. Pride in Thai culture and nation. 2. Holistic development of Thai people. 3. Social quality. 4. Good quality environment. 5. Strong economic infrastructure. 6. Having important roles regionally and globally.[vi]
The driving force behind Thailand’s prosperity has been under constant change. From “Thailand 1.0” which emphasized enhancing the agriculture sector, to “Thailand 2.0” which emphasized light industry, followed by “Thailand 3.0” which focused on heavy industries. The transition for Thailand to the 21st century, means the transition from “Thailand 3.0” to “Thailand 4.0” in order to become the first world country. From “middle income” country to “high income” country and from “efficiency” driven economics to “innovation” driven economics.[vii]
Thailand 4.0 consists of 3 “New Growth Engines,” which are 1. “Productive Growth Engine,” 2. “Inclusive Growth Engine,” and 3. “Green Growth Engine.”[viii] Under Thailand 4.0, it is necessary to improve the national economic infrastructure; from “Comparative Advantage” to “Competitive Advantage.” This is to improve the industrial economic infrastructure from “Added Value” to “Creating Value.” There are 5 main groups, which are 1. Bio-industry. 2. Renewable energy industry. 3. Design and engineering industry. 4. Quality of life related industry. 5. Creative economic industry.[ix] These 5 industries stem from “natural” and “cultural” advantages that Thailand originally has, and that are to be improved with management, new knowledge, and technology. These 5 new industries correspond with the global transition from the emphasis on “knowledge” to the emphasis on upgrading “quality of life.”[x]
In the past, Thailand emphasized building economic prosperity as a priority and over-looked development in other areas. For this reason, Thailand 4.0 emphasizes “Balanced Development” in 4 areas, which are, economic prosperity, preserving the environment, wellness of society, and strengthening human knowledge by balanced development, based on “Sufficiency Economy Philosophy,”[xi] which is described as “fill-in where there are lacks, stop when there is enough, share when you have more than you need.” On a small scale, to know when to “fill, be content, and share” will help guarantee people with economic and social security. This creates a sharing community, encouraging and strengthening bonds between communities.
On a bigger level, to know when to “fill, be content, and share” will help Thailand handle the global dynamic, increase ability to compete, as well as strengthen the connections between every sector. To “fill, be content, and share” is the “new value system” that will equip Thailand with security, prosperity and sustainability as a first world country. It is necessary for Thailand to have all-around readiness in order to become a first world country.[xii]
But the present situation in Thailand prevents the country from achieving its goals. There are many problems yet to be solved, such as, internal conflicts, social inequality and corruption. Therefore, Thailand has 2 important missions to achieve in order to become a first world country. 1. Reform Agenda, which is to resolve the conflicts Thailand has been facing for many years in order to neutralize the country’s situation. 2. Transformation Agenda, which is to prepare and increase Thailand’s potential to become the first world country. These reform and transformation agendas have different characteristics. “Reform Agenda” concerns the infrastructure, systems, and behavioral improvement. After a study and analysis of the issues, National Reform Council (NRC) has proposed 37 reform agendas, such as, budget system, justice process, land reform, tax infrastructure, and establishing an ethics council. The “Transformation Agenda” concerns new missions to be implemented to prepare and increase the country’s ability to develop, such as, a new country driving force, support for foreign investment, a water management system, transition to digital economics, and major database management. Due to the problems Thailand is facing presently, it is necessary to emphasize the Reform Agenda as a priority, with the goal of neutralizing the country’s conflicts. After these issues have been resolved, the emphasis will shift to a Transformation Agenda to increase the country’s potential to become a first world country.[xiii]
From Thansettakij Newspaper 35th year, issue 3083, 30 August – 2 September 2015
[i] The NRC is the military government, also known as the junta, presently in power.
[ii] HM King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, modernized the Thai administration along 19th century European lines.
[iii] The author does not define the “middle income trap”, but the phrase casts a shadow over the middle class. “Inequality (“red shirt” up-country supporters of the pre-coup democratic governments vs. the “yellow shirt” Bangkok elite), corruption and conflict” are the issues the military used to justify replacing the government.
[iv] “Second … Reformation” implies that the “reform” will be as beneficial as the first one was.
[v] Thailand is to catch-up to the major economic powers without a hint of sacrificing sovereignty by joining the globalization processes those countries employ in doing international business, international power politics, and international information technology.
[vi] These are obviously abstract. It is interesting that the list is called “characteristics of a first world country … within a Thai context” and that it begins with celebration of cultural nationalism, as if there is no intention of actually joining the international scene but only to get a competitive advantage, as the author says two paragraphs later. The main concerns of 90% of the Thai population are to acquire a better quality of life through income levels that afford comfort and convenience and life-long health care.
[vii] It should be noted that every step has increased the gap between those that work as well as their dependents and those who control and manage. Each step has reduced the number of real beneficiaries, and left behind most of those who had pulled themselves up to the next step. Today there is still a great preponderance of people whose lives largely depend on agriculture, but the national emphasis has moved away from support for them. In the current era of heavy industrialization, moreover, the prime movers are international corporations with Thai bankers and government as partners, while on average a very small percent of anyone’s personal income comes from that manufacturing done by heavy industries. This article is the clearest indication we have had that industrial laborers are soon to be similarly marginalized as industries seek cheaper work forces overseas.
[viii] It would be helpful to have these “engines” described in terms that show how they will move the 5 “industries” listed below.
[ix] These five “industries” are all “white collar” types. If that is where the country is going to derive its first world status, a very large area of labor is being ignored or calculated as exploitable.
[x] This is perhaps the most fascinating suggestion made in this article. Education is to be replaced by quality of life, which can presumably be had without education. Education, incidentally, is a key contributor to democracy. A cynic might wonder if this is a tacit recognition of the overall failure and bleak prospects of the Thai educational effort at all levels as measured by O-level performance by secondary students and the disappointing ranking of Thai universities on international lists.
[xi] “The Sufficiency Economy Philosophy” is a contribution of HM King Bumiphol. Rama IX. The use of this reference is a second attempt to legitimize the “reform” proposal being described. In fact, the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy was a collection of suggestions and royal initiatives to enable subsistence farmers to make it through a time of economic decline and to gradually improve the lives of both highland and lowland farmers, whom HM insisted were the people that comprised the nation.
[xii] The elevation of HM’s Sufficiency Economy Philosophy to become national policy has been a calculated attempt to utilize the esteem of the King to benefit those in the government and commerce who wanted to expand production beyond agriculture.
[xiii] This, then, is the crux of the matter. At present things must be on hold because there is reform to be accomplished. The “Reform Agenda” is to “neutralize the “country’s situation”. That situation includes things that are sensitive, such as the increased involvement of the military in government, the transition of the monarchy from the legacy of HM Rama IX into the hands of HM Rama X, the attempt to limit the voice of the majority of the people because they insist on demanding benefits, and the inconvenient tradition of having functional political parties. Once a neutral situation is restored the Transformation Agenda can be undertaken that will move the economy into the digital, hi-tech type of production, elevate the country into first world status, and give the population a high quality of life while all the hard work will be done by … um … somebody.
The abbot and I were waiting for the funeral procession to come to the cremation grounds. The deceased had committed suicide and we were discussing various views about the matter. I asked the venerable Buddhist whether the deceased could be reincarnated into another life.
“Definitely not,” he said. “She committed a great sin by killing a human being.”
“Herself,” I said, in order to be sure we were still talking about the same being, because in a sense her suicide had destroyed some parts of the lives of her husband and children, as well.
“Yes,” the abbot agreed. “The Lord Buddha was quite clear about it. A person who kills a human being will be consigned to hell – นรก – for sure.”
“Can merit be transferred to her?” I wondered, since her son had entered the novitiate at the abbot’s own temple that morning to do that very thing. His 9-days of ordination were understood by everyone in the family to be efficacious in his mother’s behalf. Her son told me he certainly would have felt derelict not to have done at least a 9-day term.
“There are 5 realms of existence,” the abbot had explained in his sermon earlier in the morning. As we waited, I asked him to talk about them because I thought I understood the first four: the realm of divinities and angels, and the realm of human beings, as well as the realm of animals. Hell, the fourth realm, is a popular subject in Buddhist mythology, although there is quite a bit of variation about the details, such as whether one’s residence in hell can come to an end or whether it’s eternal. The abbot explained to me that one might be reincarnated as another life-form, an animal or insect, for example. And one’s soul might also be transformed into the most horrible realm as a demon. That realm is replete with terrible hunger that cannot be satisfied. He went on to explain that merit cannot be transferred to one who is consigned to the lowest realms. There is nothing we can do for them. “But we cannot know how a person’s soul will migrate,” as it does according to its merit – karma. Then the abbot talked about how special services are held for up to 7 days during which time the transmigration will be complete to one of the realms. That very evening the first service was held back at the house, designed to prevent the woman’s spirit from trying to come back home now that the body in which it has resided in the house was being cremated; the spirit-soul needs to find its destiny.
I had a lot more questions about this, such as whether there are any exceptions as when a murderer (or a warrior) seriously repents. The abbot touched on one familiar exception as the funeral procession was coming, but we had to suspend the discussion. He began a story of a famous suicide (by a disciple of the Buddha, Channa) who apparently got an exoneration from the Buddha, “A person who commits murder has no future except hell,” the abbot reiterated.
This ‘hard line” is far from a consensus point of view in Thailand. But it reminded me of “Hellfire and Damnation” sermons I have grown up with in Christian America. The “hard line” defends traditional morality, insisting that some actions are over the line. They are both unforgiveable and identifiable. One can make a list of them and know them when they are seen. The point, initially, is cautionary. This list of hell-bent infractions is designed to warn people not to do them, and to insist that these unforgiveable actions are indelibly imprinted on human consciousness, although failure to exercise wisdom and yielding to emotion can override one’s conscience and render one temporarily confused. The down-side of the “hard line” is that a type of finger-pointing judgmentalism is almost inevitable. Absolutism is socially destructive even as it tries to protect society.
The alternative is subjectivism. Damien Keown explains it this way [https://www.urbandharma.org/udharma/suicide.html]:
Subjectivism holds that right and wrong are simply a function of the actor's mental states, and that moral standards are a matter of personal opinion or feelings. For the subjectivist, nothing is objectively morally good or morally bad, and actions in themselves do not possess significant moral features.
Then Keown rejects the notion that it might be OK for enlightened disciples to commit suicide, as Chenna did, but not for someone not yet enlightened.
To say that suicide is wrong because motivated by desire, moreover, is really only to say that desire is wrong. It would follow from this that someone who murders without desire does nothing wrong. The absurdity of this conclusion illustrates why a subjectivist approach to the morality of suicide is inadequate. Subjectivism leads to the conclusion that suicide (or murder) can be right for one person but wrong for another, or even right and wrong for the same person at different times, as his state of mind changes, and desire comes and goes.
It is perhaps just as well that the abbot and I did not have time to develop this, since there is no one I know of who would say that the woman whose cremation we were conducting was an enlightened disciple seeking a shortcut to Nirvana. According to the evidence and her suicide note, she was seeking to stop living this life and had no concern about what comes next.
As I ruminate on this, the following thoughts occur:
We are apt to make two mistakes when we think of the Holocaust, Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale instructs us in his extremely important analysis, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Vintage, 2016). The murders of 6 million Jews were not primarily carried out by a tyrannical state that had overwhelmed terrified citizens into passivity. But the facts are complex and the plans were continually shifting.
First, Hitler and those who ideologically agreed with him, considered human reality in racial rather than political terms. The natural state for races is competitive, a state of eternal enmity and conflict in which the fittest race is victorious and the defeated are unworthy of pity or consideration. This noble warfare, however, is interfered with and prevented by Jews, who everywhere intervene to prevent the natural way of doing things. Hitler’s goal was to wipe out this interference so that the contest could regain its natural character. He was confident that the Aryan race could prevail in a natural field of combat.
Second, in order for the Aryan race (Teutonic Germans and their kin) to prosper they needed room to spread out – they needed “black earth” to grow food and be secure. Germany, as hemmed in by political history, had to regain its natural extent, and that meant taking over land from the inferior Slavic race, especially land in Russia and Ukraine. To proceed with that eastward expansion, however, Germany had to close its back door by defeating the French and others in the west. With France defeated, Great Britain would either join the Reich or they would have to be defeated, too.
Things did not go as Hitler expected.
Although Hitler thought political states were irrelevant to the eventual configuration of racial territories, they counted in the meantime. The strategy for gaining living space (lebensraum) in Russia and the Ukraine was to gain access to it through the territory in between. This was accomplished between 1936-1939 by annexation, treaties, and agreements (many of which were duplicitous, but temporarily useful). Then the war began. When Germany over-ran lands to the east beginning with Poland, the rhetoric was that those places had never been real or legitimate political entities. This rendered the people there as essentially stateless. So, as war came there were nation-states that had been absorbed (e.g. Austria) or regained (Poland), some that had been forcefully taken over (Poland, followed by Netherlands, Belgium and France), some that had become allied in the Axis (e.g. Italy), and some that resisted (e.g. Great Britain), and a few that hung onto neutrality (Switzerland).
Snyder makes a solid case that it was the rendering of areas stateless, dissolving their political authority and legitimacy, and turning all the people into unincorporated individuals that enabled the first phase of the Holocaust to begin and proceed with dizzying haste. Nearly half of the Holocaust victims were shot by cooperative residents in order to gain some advantage (such as Jew’s property or positions) under the new regime – and to expunge guilt and gain credibility after collaboration with the preceding regime.
Citizenship, it turned out, was the most dependable protection one could have as the Nazis took over. The Nazi plan to dissolve political entities was to include all of Europe and then the whole world, but the Aryan Army was not invincible after all. Wherever a country got rid of Nazi control as the Germans retreated after losing the war in Russia, the deportation and killing of Jews stopped. Meanwhile, the killing became mechanized as Hitler believed one last thing he could do for the world was to rid it of Jews. He expected to be remembered and appreciated for that.
But details are important, and that’s what makes Snyder’s exhaustive analysis persuasive. He concludes with two somber warnings. 1. “A common American error is to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority.” The burden of Black Earth is to document that it was precisely where state authority was most thoroughly eradicated that the Jews were completely decimated. In most places they were accepted by the people of the region as the convenient scapegoat group, chosen by common consent, to be terrorized and cleansed. 2. “As Russia demonstrated [when they regained Poland and Belarus], the Second World War can shift quickly from being a cautionary tale to an instructive precedent.” Russia used the Nazi model in its empire-building. Even today Russia is positing a new scapegoat, homosexuals, as being responsible for modern decadence, in hopes, Snyder asserts, that the right and left on this issue will engage one another in mutual destruction that will undo the European Union.
I heartily endorse this book, if only for the data and forceful analysis that leads up to his final paragraph which begins, “We share Hitler’s planet and several of his preoccupations; we have changed less than we think.”
American civil religion is now generally recognized as a variety of faith. It has been expounded in academic tomes and enshrined in national monuments. The term “civil religion” entered the lexicon based on a 1967 article by Robert Bellah of Harvard. It came into widespread use during the 1976 US Bicentennial celebrations, but is standard today.
Bellah's definition of American civil religion is that it is "an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation," which he sees symbolically expressed in America's founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called "God," an idea that the American nation is subject to God's laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. [quoted from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society article on “Civil Religion”]
In brief, American Civil Religion is an aggregation of narratives and expressions about the USA as a religious nation. Those expressions include various celebrations, symbols and monuments that show how the country reflects its divinely mandated mission and destiny. The purpose of these symbols, Christine Serva reminds us, is national unity: the symbols are “the elements of cultural and political life that connect to a higher purpose and meaning, often bonding the people of a nation together.” At the epitome of these manifestations is the supreme dedication shown by persons in the armed services; military monuments and memorials are most revered semi-sacred symbols of American Civil Religion.
What is not so well understood, and is therefore controversial and divisive, is the fact that American civil religion is often exclusionary. Here are some examples:
It is being suggested, now, that American Civil Religion is being eclipsed by cynicism about all things religious and that the high purposes of American Civil Religion are being ignored. Whereas, in the past, there were prophets to keep reminding us that “without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed,” (to use Bellah’s later warning at the time of the US Bicentennial), the prophets are ominously missing. In the past, America stood for “service and sacrifice” and America was a leader bringing nations of the world into greatness to stand beside us. Recent political expression uses degraded rhetoric with an emphasis on separation, division, hate, partisanship and the absence of higher authority (although there is the assumption of blessing, without any compensating assumption of accountability). Furthermore, as American Civil Religion’s loftiness has seemed to be surrendered to political expediency, it is being abandoned and doubted by those who abhor the drift toward confrontation, increased religious hatred and rivalry, and radical motivation to violence. Rather than unity, division is expanding.
Nevertheless, altered and diminished as it may be, American Civil Religion persists and exerts a still powerful pull. We will probably wrap a flag around the Bible on July 4. We are still urged to put our hands over our hearts when we sing the National Anthem and pledge allegiance to the flag … one nation, under God …. And our authenticity as American citizens is doubted if we do not do these things.
Songkran is the only religious celebration in Thailand set by the solar calendar. It is always April 13-15. A Chiang Mai city resident might almost be forgiven for thinking Songkran is all about a big water fight. Thailand’s tourism promotion officials encourage that. But outside of town where we live there is more to it.
This week’s blog is a photo essay showing “The Other Songkran.”
April 15 began with a trip to the temple. We had all contributed a small amount of money to buy a load of sand to simulate a mountain inside the temple compound. In older times people brought the sand in person. Households took turns inserting paper banners called toongsymbolizing ascent to the top of the world mountain, a step below where ancestors (hopefully) reside unless they have become reincarnated. [See pictures 1-2 above]
Inside the assembly hall, first we distributed flowers, candles, popped rice and small coins onto trays. They are called ขันแก้วทั้งสาม in honor of the Triple Gems: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha (priesthood). [picture 3] Then we took turns presenting sacks of goods to one of the temple monks, in the name of various ancestors. The sacks contained a variety of daily necessities, but normally were things to eat or to use to keep clean – Songkran is much about bathing and cleaning up. The priest intoned a traditional blessing and then poured little bottles or cups of water into a bucket, which is another traditional blessing ritual. [pictures 4-6]
A mid-morning service included chanting followed by bathing the Buddha images. [Sorry, no pictures came out].
During the day people brought “props” called ไม้คำ to be placed around the temple’s bo tree. The purpose is to symbolically hold up the venerable tree, a descendant of the one under which the Lord Buddha sat to be enlightened. Nearly every village also prepared a large prop as a community project to be delivered at night with a lot of revelry. [pictures 7-9]
Meanwhile, we visited the surviving family elders. Here in the north the tradition is for younger family members and protégés to call on the elders and bring them sacks of goods, identical to those taken to the temple, but including a cup of scented water. The water is to provide a ritual bath, although it consists of pouring a few drops onto the hands of the elders which they swish onto their heads. The elders then usually tie white cotton cords around one or both wrists of the younger people while intoning a blessing. This rote naam dam hua ceremony may happen a few days after Songkran if the younger people come from a distance. [pictures 10-12]
During the late afternoon the older people in the village gathered at the village pavilion to be honored with a group blessing. [picture 13] The young people had organized it, and it included water being poured over the old people’s hands, although it got a little more rambunctious at the end.
Songkran ended for our village, the next day, with the dedication of a thammat. The thammat is used for delivering sermons, and so it is usually called a pulpit, although it is a chair since priests preach or chant prepared sermons while sitting. We needed a new thammat for village ceremonies, especially funerals, outside the temple. The old one collapsed under the last priest who sat on it. The village head oversaw the collection for the new thammat, and it was initiated with a ceremony in the village assembly pavilion. Of course, the ceremony ended with all in attendance getting sprinkled with “holy water”. [pictures 14-16]
At our house the gathering of family and gay Ban Den Friends was the highlight of the long weekend. We ate for a couple of hours and then got around to a rote-naam-dam-hua ceremony.[pictures 17-18]
Note: here are links to a previous essay: www.kendobson.asia/blog/two-songkrans
When the women disciples of Jesus told the men that the tomb was empty where Jesus had been interred, two of the men took off running. The Gospel of John (chapter 20) says that one of the men was Peter, and the other was “the one whom Jesus loved” [a modest euphemism, used by the disciples of John to refer to John]. The account says that Peter was in the lead but John ran faster. [The picture above is my rendition from 20 years ago of the disciples running]. They found the empty tomb, but noticed that the grave-cloths in which Jesus body had been wrapped were … notice this, as the men did … they were “deflated”. They were not scattered around as if grave robbers had invaded the tomb; and the cloths were there – which they would not have been if the body had been moved to another grave as the women first thought. But the head-cloth was rolled separately, as it would have been when it was wound around Jesus’ head. Jesus was gone leaving the death-wrappings behind. Then the men “believed”.
What did they believe? They believed the evidence before their eyes ... an empty tomb and cloth lying just where it had been. “They did not yet know the scriptural prophecy that Jesus would be raised from the dead,” the Gospel of John carefully informs us. In other words, that fuller understanding came from adding the visual evidence to the scriptural testimony.
Easter Day included several other visual experiences by various disciples. John’s Gospel recalls that Mary Magdalene actually saw the risen Lord, mistaking him for a gardener at first. Then the Lord showed up inside the locked room where the disciples were hiding.
All these sightings were somewhat ambiguous until they had been filtered through the lens of scripture. They were random experiences, fraught with emotion, but with imprecise meaning until they had been subjected to study and reflection. Before that there was running, rumors and sightings.
That’s the way faith works.
At last, stalwart Peter wept bitterly.
We all do. We all fail to live up to the performance standards we vowed we would and then we see someone we love hurting as we dissolve into pathetic shame. For the time being everything is devastated. We sink into a hole of despair.
Meanwhile, consequences and events plunge on relentlessly without us. We have been rendered irrelevant. All we can do is stand aside. If there is to be a future involving us, its circumstances are going to be radically different.
One part of our ruin is our lack of imagination. Our vision of reality leading onward has gotten hold of us, but now this collapse of conditions – in which we played a duplicitous part – has rendered that unimaginable. Nothing going onward has meaning. Only agony is real.
Memory is an enemy at a time like this. One by one, images march through our minds, stripped of the gaudy splendor with which we once bedecked them. Now they mock us for how we squandered those precious opportunities. They tramp unbidden but unpreventable in review, and taunt us.
Endurance is coincidental. If it happens that we survive it may only be because we were distracted from intention to defy survival. Horror haunts us in fragments, so have no focus, and so we drift, perchance.
The universe coalesces our horror. We are betrayed by agencies we never should have trusted, and then heaven turns black and the earth heaves … and silence reigns for a moment as strangers rush to bury the past.
Good grief on Friday is all about weeping. Save your platitudes. There is no silver lining to the clouds on Good Friday.
Enchanted Astorwold is a collection of stories I wrote to keep young readers reading after they had finished JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The stories I wrote assume that readers are growing more sophisticated but still able to suspend their disbelief in the power of magic. But what is magic? How can a magical world co-exist with a non-magical world? What happened to the new generation of students who got coveted letters announcing they had been accepted into the world’s best known school of witchcraft and wizardry? What is the Ministry of Magic up to now that the world knows all about the parallel realm of magic (with 600,000,000 copies of Harry Potter books sold in English alone)?
Astorwold is a farm in Suffolk about 60 miles north of London. It is a secluded magical place, where a lot of the products are grown that are sold in Diagon Alley. But Dame Agatha Astor has no magical heir until she discovers young, homeless Robin Astor Havorford, a reluctant student of Professor Virgil Verbal of Hogwarts, a neighbor of Dame Agatha’s. Magic carpets, wands of solid wood with no inserted animal parts, and powerful venom from the deadly Ghanaian Green are but three of the things being developed by Astorwold’s gnomes, giant, and Moroccan illegal immigrants that might help save magical England and the whole of Europe from The Empire being built on the seabed of the
These stories began as resources for workshops for English teachers in Thailand to build supplementary classroom activities. The first stories raised the question, how would a progressive teacher, with all the resources of Hogwarts, teach students to find enchantment in the wider world and in literature? Once inspired, what will the graduates do that has never been done before?
My son, Andrew Dobson, converted the book text into a pair of e-books. Many of the illustrations are his work as well. You are invited to download the format you prefer to view [single page or side-by-side double page]:
The third year of very dry conditions here in North Thailand started earlier than last year and looks bad for agriculture. So far water conservation measures have not been announced for people in the city, but farmers have been warned. This drought affects their cash crop production. If the lack of rainfall and water reserves continue into mid-year there will be food shortages, hitting the poorest people hardest, of course. People with money will still be able to buy their way through the shortages. Meanwhile farmers who gambled and planted rice a couple of months ago, are seeing their plants wither, the ground harden and crack, and hopes fade. Fields and streams are dry.
One wonders about national water management in times of drought and floods. No doubt our current national leader’s plans to convert the country from an agricultural economy into an industrial economy have a lot to do with the status of reservoirs and dry irrigation canals. The number of crops that make money for farmers is dwindling. The switch to a money economy is pushing farmers in a number of directions. More and more land is being modified for specialty crops, and away from things to eat locally. Farm size is increasing and machinery use is growing, meaning agricultural employment is decreasing, and being done by non-residents. Farmers either find jobs to earn money or descend into subsistence living with ever fewer system supports – such as dependable irrigation and nearby areas for hunting and scavenging. Most villages will have trouble recruiting people for traditional activities, and housing developments never had such community events. Social change is one generation away, but drought hastens such things.
We are still a long way from starvation for anybody, but the drought means hard times.
Today we decided to resort to the deep well to water the fruit trees. The well was working the other day, but wouldn’t “hold a prime” today. The most ominous possibility is that the well is dry and there will be no fruit in August and maybe no trees by next year this time.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.