What did he say?!
“Soldiers [i.e. the military] cannot be under the control of a civilian government that has been elected by the people because we are soldiers of the King [of Thailand].” This quote was attributed to General Apirach Kojsompong during a special presentation entitled “Our Lucky Country during an Era of Security.”
What we are missing is a date for this comment, his audience (and therefore the context for his argument), and his duties at the time.
Taken at face value, however, the implications are that the General is rejecting any line of authority for the military that derives from an elected government rather than the hereditary monarch. No matter what the Thai Constitution says, the three branches of tahan (Army, Navy, Air Force, and probably the Police, which is also “military” in Thailand but tamruat rather than tahan) will not take orders from Parliament or …. Or even the Ministry of Defense? That would render the action of 1932 meaningless when a revolution led by the military replaced the Absolute Monarchy with a Constitutional Monarchy. It would limit the authority of the courts and the government, it would set the military over-against the people, and make the palace and military accountable to no one.
The General’s comments, however, were abbreviated in the meme that appeared a couple of days ago. It is agreed, in fact, that “according to the constitution, the king is head of the armed forces.” [source: Wikipedia, “Government of Thailand”] The model for this is the Westminster [UK] system. In that system the monarch is the titular head of everything, the authority to run the government rests with elected representatives with an advisory upper house of government and with the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers carrying out the government’s policy decisions.
The late King Bumibol Adulyadej repeatedly asserted that the monarch is “under the law” and “reigns at the will of the people.” His son, the present King, has succeeded in reasserting several royal controls. It appears that General Apirach takes the position that things have changed.
There are lots of possible ways to interpret the General’s statement. What is most obvious is that the General is saying that the military is a force for stability that helps offset the instability that comes to Thailand every time the armed forces back off from being in control.
Historically and presently, no matter what the General intended, the military has clung to power not only to defend the country but also to run the country. No matter who manages to slide into public view as the face of the government, the military is never far away. At this time Thailand has no foreign threats. Even the Islamic ongoing “insurrection” in the three southern provinces is a domestic matter. There is no need for a large standing army equipped with the most advanced and expensive airplanes and submarines. The armed forces are on hand to protect the elite from the people. But these purchases must serve another purpose. Protecting that unmentionable purpose is what the military is concerned about.
What if we just refuse to debate our gender on scientific terms? What if we just quit arguing about whether boys are boys and girls are girls? What if we say, “That is not the point. It’s irrelevant.”
In almost every other ordinary area of life we say, “You can be what you want to be.”
You want to be a senator or MP? Go for it.
You want to be an Australian? Emigrate and apply.
You want to be a humanitarian? Good for you!
So why are one’s gender presentation, sexual expression, and self-identity not a matter of choice if the technology is available and the need is sufficient? As to “need,” why does anything matter more than a person’s own self-understanding and integrity, if no one else is harmed, disadvantaged, or impacted in any real way? Integrity, by the way, is best defined as “consistency between feeling and action,” which is (thanks to Shakespeare) “a consummation devoutly to be sought.”
Think about it for a moment. All it would take for this whole nasty debate and this aspect of the culture war to go away is for us all to agree that you get to decide what clothes you wear, what cosmetics you use, what friends you love, and what surgery to undertake.
Oh, wait! You are already free to make those choices! (Unless you defy your assigned gender in doing so.)
Why is gender an issue? Is it important for the survival of the human species to have boys and men perform their biological function and girls and women to do likewise?
Congratulations! That has worked so well that population is booming. The fact that some have opted out and others have been prevented from contributing to species survival seems not to be one of the factors currently threatening humankind.
So if the human race is not at stake, the threat must be about something else … the social order.
That is surely closer to the heart of the matter about why boys must be boys and girls, girls. The idea is to make it clear who is what so that roles are not confused. We need protectors and nurturers or society is threatened. The trouble is that we have not ever, in all of human history, actually confined those two functions to specific specific sexes. We have undertaken them jointly. Sometimes, as it happens, we have inflated the roles. We have thought of protectors as military, and military as men (certain Amazon exceptions notwithstanding). Actually, that has gotten humanity into trouble when we over-extended, as when we moved from protection to aggression. As for nurturers, they are not only mothers, teachers and nurses. It is ludicrous to limit the nurturing role to women and to humiliate men who also nurture.
In no way is the stability of society threatened by people changing their function. Soldiers change back into civilians; it is built into the system. Civic magnates not only change the course of nations they sometimes change diapers when the need arises. Anybody can cook if they know how.
Almost never does gender actually matter to social stability.
The social ORDER, as it turns out, is more fragile.
Social order and how it is interpreted is a social construct. In order to be orderly, the idea is to keep things as they are. This serves those who benefit from the existing order. Ironically, it is impossible. Social order is an illusion, sustained because social change is gradual, most of the time. It is a description, at best, of a consensus that the way things are is fine. (Here’s where the irony shines most clearly) – Any effort to impose social order accelerates the move toward increasingly inflexible hierarchy which then becomes unsustainable and crumbles. Radical conservatism is self-contradictory.
There is a cycle between anarchy and tyranny, with prosperity being both the aspiration as well as the undoing of social order, which happens as prosperity gravitates into the control of fewer and fewer tyrants. Then the many revolt against the tyrants and the cycle passes through extreme disorder on the way back through a time of happy order on to tyranny.
The problem with gender fluidity is that it confronts those who have a vested interest in keeping things frozen as they are. They come face to face with the reality that nothing can be static that way. Reality is evolving.
The percentage of people in any generation who discover their transgender identities is small, far less than 10%. They do not threaten the social order, but they undermine the IDEA that the social order is impervious to change. Queer people disprove the idea that the social order is synonymous with the natural order. That is a notion that those at the social pinnacle do not want to admit.
Those whose elite social status and privileges are threatened by constant social change are also small in number, far less than 10%. Unlike the marginalized people on whom they actually depend, however, the elite are protected in their elevated bastions. They are not being victimized, as they claim. Being challenged and being victimized are not the same thing. The right of people to choose their private behavior and public appearance does not impact the elite in any conceivable way. Their adamant defense of binary sexuality is scapegoating a vulnerable social minority group. It is fallacious.
We can refuse to play their game if we want to.
It would be better to quit looking for some logical, scientific way to explain how we are gay in order to refute the argument that we cannot legitimately be so. We can make more progress by advocating our freedom to dress and think as we choose. We have the right to make the same sartorial, cosmetic, and surgical choices as others have. We want to have the same legal rights as others have, too. We can call efforts to stop us what they are: harassment, usurpation of our human rights, bullying, and disrespect – to begin with.
Learning to Live with It
It seems to me, from my armchair in this nook in the valley, that “we are learning to live with it.” “It” being states of affairs and being that we never hoped for. Here are a few of them that we are learning to live with:
· The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be defeated back to zero infections.
· Violent nationalism shows no signs of disappearing.
· China’s intrusions into the South China Sea will continue.
· Battles against gender diversity in Eastern Europe will ratchet up.
· Facebook (and others) will never relinquish profits over people.
· Post-modern ego-centeredness will ultimately take a revolution to eliminate.
· Carbon poisoning of the atmosphere cannot be stopped “in time.”
· International conglomerates are beyond control by anyone.
· Artificial Intelligence will achieve the ability to innovate.
· Our present extinction event is now irreversible.
Each of those states is a sub-topic. For example, we could substitute the word “viruses” for “COVID-19 pandemic” as we become aware of our impotence against the threat of them. Viruses are more adaptable than we are. With regard to the environmental crisis, we are becoming aware that it is within the power of nature to continue beyond the extinction of any or almost all of the larger species, and nature is working toward eliminating the threat we humans pose. It may take time but nature will eradicate us.
On the personal level, each of us is learning to live with our individual configurations of circumstances we never hoped for. COVID has confronted us with requirements to which we need to adjust. Information technology has changed the way we think, whether we think so or not. Products we need to sustain life are all dependent on outside sources. We are enslaved to a survival-system from which death is our only escape.
But we have one set of choices left.
Our attitude is still moderately free. We can pick and choose what to worry about, and what to do about some of our circumstances. We can plan for tomorrow.
There are limits to that freedom, of course. Our health, for instance, may now include allergies that did not exist before bio-chemical pollution was imposed on world agriculture. Some emotional conditions (clinical depression, for one) are not matters of free choice and may not be completely cured medically. Being born feminine in a misogynistic culture puts one at an incredible disadvantage. Discovering one’s self to be gay is no “picnic” and may even be tragic.
But we can choose to sink into despair or to move on. Sometimes that to which we are able to move might be as utterly trivial as deciding to move from one chair to another. A thousand times that move would amount to almost nothing, but once in a thousand times it might give one a glimpse at something that “makes all the difference.” Almost none of the junctures that changed our life direction were anticipated or even realized as important at the moment.
Moving on takes willpower, but only a little at first.
First we do something “first”. We make a phone call, or go out for pizza, or take a nap. But that leads to a new thing to be done. After a while we realize that in some tiny way we are on the way toward moving things around (within our corner of the world) to make something better. Movement toward hope then takes on increasing scale.
If we are a national leader we might announce, at the end of a longish string of movement, “It’s no longer feasible to strive for zero infections now that the Delta-strain of COVID has changed the conditions.” As the leader in New Zealand has decided a day or so ago, it’s time to do something differently.
Here where I am, vaccinations are again normal, the opposition has resigned, and we have moved on to wonder how many shots and what vaccines; that’s our purview. So we go for the jab. We’re out of our chair and moving on. But we do not know what the results are going to be.
Moving on is never into certainty.
It looks like progress is being made in Thailand against COVID-19 any way you figure it.
As of Sunday, September 26, there are 122,463 patients receiving treatment. The average per day for the first 5 days of the month was 159,528, and the average per day for September 22-26 was 126,367. That means that there are 33,161 fewer patients being treated than at the beginning of the month.
New cases are down from 15,161 per day September 1-5 compared to 12,307 lately, a reduction of 2854 new cases per day.
Vaccination surely is having an effect. As of Sunday 50,101,055 vaccinations have been administered. The Prime Minister’s office reports that 44.45% of the population has had first shots, 23.9% have had two shots, and booster shots are beginning. School-age children will begin receiving vaccinations very soon (maybe this coming week).
Friday, September 24 was Prince Mahidol Day, a national holiday in Thailand. The Prince was the father of the late King Bumiphol, and the grandfather of the present King. Prince Mahidol is heralded as “The Father of Modern Medicine and Public Health.” To mark the holiday a mass COVID vaccination campaign was held with a goal of 1 million doses. That target was exceeded. 1.44 million doses were dispensed. That number included 947,290 first doses, 320,864 second doses, and around 172 thousand booster (3rd) doses – Pramote was one who got a 3rd jab on that day (picture attached).
Despite some stumbles along the way, the Prime Minister says it looks like the country will be able to achieve its target of having 50 million (70+%) of the population (or of “targeted groups”) fully vaccinated by the end of the year. The government has “procured” 125 million doses to accomplish that. That has naturally encouraged talk of re-opening the borders to tourists and retirees. Grand plans are being announced in these regards.
Meanwhile, the vaccination rate in 5 tourist-target provinces, including Chiang Mai, has not been sufficient to permit open-doors to tourists on October 1. The new opening date is now November. Since the beginning of this major outbreak announcements of plans for getting businesses back to work have been followed by decisions to postpone whatever was planned. In a few cases the plans went forward and results were unfortunate.
Aside from the government, reports on how things have been going have come from two types of sources. Both have built-in biases. Commercial sources paint rosy pictures of excellent business opportunities and reports of promised start-ups. Individual articles about things like a new up-scale restaurant inside the re-purposed hull of an airplane tend to hide the fact that there are still no customers. The other source tries to sustain the view that the country is teetering on the brink of political chaos caused by the government’s failure to respond in any way to the pandemic – no help of consequence has come for countless survivors whose financial providers have died, vaccine is being shunted toward the affluent, and so forth.
It is undeniable that there is hardly any cushion if something goes wrong between now and New Year’s Day. The economy must begin to take off. People need jobs. Children need to get back into classrooms. The Prime Minister needs to be right.
It is pious heresy that “belief is the ultimate achievement and final goal of faith.”
It is invalid to use “belief” as a test of faith. We do that when we limit the inquiry into a person’s suitability for church membership to the question, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?” A variation of that, and that’s all it is, is the question, “Are you saved?” Such questions imply that faith is cognitive. It’s something to be thought. Even institutions (in this case churches) that accept people from birth require them to think about it and come to an appropriate, overarching conclusion.
This is actually important only for institutional maintenance. It filters out potential members who will prove disloyal or uncooperative. But the test does not work even to do that. No member, not even one installed into leadership, relinquishes the right to dissent. Unconditional assent is not a legitimate requirement if institutions and the people who compose them are functionally organic. And we are organic. We change as we grow, even if the change is toward decay or decadence. Institutions change. Change is constant. Therefore, the expectation of unyielding agreement is absurd.
But that is exactly what is meant when belief is the measure of a person’s soul and spirit. Nor are institutions consistent about it.
The same organizations that insist “human life begins at the moment of conception” and “abortion at any time is murder” also insist that the essential proof of human worth is consciousness of salvation. The moment of cognition is the one that counts. It is impossible to have it both ways, squirm as you may about the details.
Even “Holy Mother Church” has fallen short, and sometimes admitted it, although the confessions were tardy, abbreviated, and did nothing to amend anything for those abused.
The idea, of course, is that proper belief leads to proper actions and attitudes. Pure belief purifies a person’s thought, word and deed. So there is no need to ask about a person’s actions when questioning them about their belief. A person’s belief may not be “all there is to it” but belief is sufficient to test since it must lead to action. In retrospect, in celebrating memories for example, actions and accomplishments are mentioned prominently as if they signify the value and identity of the person and proof of their belief which indicates how worthy they are to be honored and certified for rewards temporal and eternal.
If this concept works as it should, there can be no exceptions.
But there are exceptions. In fact, there are exceptions without exception. There is no case in which a mortal human being can be held to be blameless throughout life in thought, word and deed. No, not one.
Actually, it is belief in the trustworthiness of belief that is faulty.
We have thousands of proofs that belief is not final.
For example, there are vaccine resisters who are letting their belief about the vaccine dominate their actions and often even their actions against people who believe otherwise. But some of them, having refused vaccine, masks, and social restrictions, get sick with COVID. Deathbed confessions that “I wish I’d been vaccinated” are heart-rending. But their window of opportunity for believing is over.
There is a window of opportunity to believe; beyond that it no longer matters whether you believe or not.
What is it, then, that is ultimate if belief is penultimate?
It is action, but not our action as individuals. Concerted, compassionate, action by communities is of greater consequence than individual efforts. That is obvious. And it is the best that we can do. At its best it is noble and influential. But even that is not ultimate.
The measure of what is ultimately important resides outside history and is integrated within dimensions beyond human admittance. We cannot speak of it.
In matters of ultimate belief we can only confess our limitations and profess hope. We cannot know that which cannot be known. We can only move forward as if our belief is sufficient. The god of whom we can speak is too small to be God (to use JB Phillips’s venerable phrase). Theological language is all liturgical, it is language of worship. Religious belief, then, is something worshipful we do as we pay attention to things we can see that need our attention. Effective belief depends on discernment about what is demanding our attention. Eyesight and brainpower are not enough. The best indicator of authentic discernment is a radical change of heart and perspective towards compassion for the most abused and unfortunate.
Belief that matters is what we believe about who we are in the world. That is what informs us. Hope and reverence are what inspire us to care.
“Nothing makes us believe more than fear, the certainty of being threatened. When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimised, however questionable they may be. Our opponents, or simply our neighbours, stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies. We stop being aggressors and become defenders. The envy, greed or resentment that motivates us becomes sanctified, because we tell ourselves we’re acting in self-defence. Evil, menace, those are always the preserve of the other. The first step towards believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status or our beliefs. Fear is the gunpowder and hatred is the fuse. Dogma, the final ingredient, is only a lighted match.”
-- Zafon, Carlos Ruiz, 2010. The Angel’s Game (English trans.), Phoenix, p. 247
A very ambiguous “angel” (or perhaps a psychotic fantasy) visits an exploited Spanish writer with a commission. The writer is to write a novel that presumably will serve as a substitute holy scripture for a new generation. Ominous as this turns out to be, the “angel” tells the author the rationale that is to be used: When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimised … we become defenders. …The first step towards believing passionately is fear.
That passage arrested me.
“That,” I thought, reaching for my pen, “is profound.” What made it profound, in my mind, among the myriad of profundities laid before us in this time of unprecedented availability of literature and wisdom, is how it capsulizes the motivations of so many of our responses to threats. Or at least some of the motivations.
But, having reflected on the terrorist attack on the World Trade center these past few days, and thereby brooding about “America”, on September 11, 2001, I think the “angel” was over-simplifying the range of human reactions. On 9/11 anger, victimization, and alienation were NOT the first responses. At least we have chosen stories of heroism, gallant sacrifice, and patriotism to be remembered. Some of those stories are on their way to becoming legends.
But those stories also refer to fear.
The account of half a million people being moved by boats from Manhattan to New Jersey by heroic sailors operating ferry boats and pleasure craft, “the largest marine evacuation in history,” is also about 500,000 people trying to escape. The images of 9/11 are not of only brave fire-fighters going into smoking and blazing towers but of people running for their lives.
It’s complicated. But has the “angel” got it right, that the root of belief is fear?
It is possible to see the US government’s responses pretty much as the “angel” described them. “We were attacked. So we retaliated.” In fact, what was released at that time was more extensive and intense. We learned in one terrible morning that the USA is vulnerable after all. That led to: “This is not to be stood for. America needs to defend itself. The world is undependable. We need leaders who will restore us. We need to be able to defend ourselves … we need guns … we need to proud and keep out illegal, undesirable, and unnecessary foreign elements”.
Those attitudes blossomed and spread.
Zafón was describing Spain, especially his native Barcelona, after the Spanish Civil War and during the dictatorship of Franco. He is also narrating the legitimization of terror and revenge in his novels. It is state terror, but it plays out in particular incidents with indistinct chains of cause.
Zafón “divides his time between Barcelona and Los Angeles,” the dust jacket of his book tells us. He knows that the “angel” was enunciating a universal truth. It applies to Croatia, China, Cambodia, and Cuba and it threatens unity and cooperation whenever it takes hold.
Does legitimate religion adequately counter this fear? Christian theology struggles as it tries to say it does. In some way even God is to be feared. Fear is basic. Some kind of fear is fine. Buddhism is a search for serenity in eternal uncertainty and change. Some religions try appeasement … some through unspeakable sacrifices and others through metaphorical ones. Without fear that whole apparatus (some say “all religion”) would be unnecessary. So, religion does counter fear although some strategies are paradoxical.
Sadly, religion as we have it these days, does not always serve to keep fear from being transformed into defensiveness, too often manifested as counter-terror, and soon enough into a belief system. The writer in Zafon’s novel comes to believe that the “Angel’s game” was to scare the writer into writing about fear as the seed of belief so as to make it happen. It remains unclear at the novel’s end whether that would have worked on a universal scale, or whether the “angel” was only working on the writer.
If fear is the impetus for a protectionist belief system that legitimizes violent opposition and the consequences that come from that, love and compassion are the other alternative. Love and compassion are only sustainable, however, when we are not scared to death. We can only be loving and compassionate when we are not overwhelmed by fear.
Zafón knows, and we know, that some religion has surrendered to angels’ temptations to fight terror with terror. The question we need to answer before it’s too late for us is whether there is a better way that actually works.
I think the “angel” was right that if we feel threatened fear will abduct our belief system. Unless we feel protected, really taken care of despite everything, we are vulnerable to a system that turns us against our neighbor and renders us hopelessly lonely.
[Credit the New York Times, for the picture accompanying this essay.]
“The first thing that happens once you have been accused of breaking a social code … The phone stops ringing. People stop talking to you. You become toxic.” “Here is the second thing that happens, closely related to the first: Even if you have not been suspended, punished, or found guilty of anything, you cannot function in your profession.”
Back 20 years ago this is how my pastoral career ended. I was accused of breaking the social code that required me to demonstrate my cis-orientation. I was given the choice of dismissing Pramote (my same-sex spouse) and living un-controversially, or finding my way outside the church. I decided to see who would continue to contact me. The phone stopped ringing. Then I was warned not to try to re-activate my pastoral credentials but to just stay off the rolls of any pastoral or missionary list. That was clarified, “Stop doing anything as a clergyman.” I was to hang up my robe and find another job.
I reckoned it did not matter in terms of my ability to function as I had been, conducting spiritual life retreats, writing Bible studies, and teaching in seminaries. However, my ability to do those things was never counted when the time came to let me continue or let me lapse. I was never given a chance to appear and discuss this at all. Discussions about me were held without me. It was no longer my abilities that mattered, but my social misconduct.
Upon further reflection I think it is unclear that my knowledge, skill, and “call” were ever as important to my functioning as a pastor as was my social position. I seriously underestimated that all along. I was valuable to congregations and communities because of my being the pastor.
In those days (the 1960s to 80s) pastors were still valuable to congregations and communities as members of the leadership who oversaw the best interests of the people, who were leaders with various perspectives and privileged entre into private lives at critical times, and due to their collective memory. Formerly, pastors were key members of that leadership, but that was changing in the 1980s. By that time a pastor had to earn esteem. It no longer came with the title. Longevity was important, but so was a track record. Every pastor developed their own persona and standing. But it only seemed to have much to do with how good they were at their jobs as preachers or evangelists (recruiters of members), or even as chaplains to the community. Beneath it all there was a consensus about what a pastor must be that had to do with being a role-model.
The right to judge these matters was firmly held by others, especially, of course, those being ministered unto. The bottom line was not “my spiritual gifts and call,” but the approval those who would call upon me to exercise the gifts. If the phone stopped ringing the pastor was done. Decisions to pick up the phone and call a pastor were never made officially by a committee or tribunal; those meetings came much later, if needed to mitigate some catastrophe. The pastor was the first to know when the phone stopped ringing. But in those days before social media it was rare for the pastor to be told why trust had disintegrated.
This dynamic is not limited exclusively to pastors and religious leaders. Anyone whose position depends on acceptance by the public can find that eroded. Teachers, civic officials, celebrities, and even war heroes can sink without warning or recourse. Some are in a position to fight back and others are sufficiently buffered to outlast the incoming tsunami, but many are destroyed. Social conformity is demanded as the price for social acceptability. Nonconformists must have some immense skill or leverage.
The infuriating thing about this is how little facts count for anything. When a teacher is accused of racism or favoritism, if social media get wind of it, the storm may grow unstoppably. Neither circumstances nor accuracy matter. Only a counter-storm of overwhelming support has any chance, and those who could help are often hesitant to get involved and become collateral damage or targeted as co-conspirators.
Social media have made this much worse and more pervasive. Social media are invasive, relentless, unforgiving, and ruthless. They thrive on the very energies that destroy discourse and courageous inquiry. People these days feel entitled to freedom from discomfort, let alone intimidation. They presume they have the right to protect themselves by any means, even at the cost of failing to know what the world is like. This is ominous. At this rate things are going to continue toward repression, fear, and disregard for “others” as well as disdain for the very possibility that truth may exist outside one’s bubble.
[Thanks to Anne Applebaum for the quote at the top of this essay from her August 31, 2021 Atlantic article “The New Puritans”.]
Nothing recently has impressed me more that sacred space is widely misunderstood than a merit-making ceremony in our village last Tuesday morning at the cremation ground.
The merit-making was to symbolize the merit being garnered by those who had contributed to repairs on the crematorium. Ban Den Village raised 13,000 baht ($400 US) which is the last part of the funds needed to fix the facility. A chapter of Buddhist priests chanted stanzas and then food was eaten. Compared to the efforts and events connected with the reconstruction of the crematorium in 2015 this project is minor. Nevertheless, it was not to be undertaken without due care. Merit-making alone does not cover the reasons for the ceremony.
What is going on in spaces like that?
A cremation ground is associated almost exclusively with death. It could not be otherwise. Nobody would ordinarily think of using the ground for anything other than cremations. Since a cremation disintegrates a human body, so the story goes, the spirit / ghost is deprived of its accustomed place to be. If they have not gone on (into heaven or hell depending on their accumulated merit) to prepare to be reincarnated, they may be lingering in the cremation precincts. “Placidly haunting” is the least of the things these ghosts may be up to.
But the cremation ground has been repeatedly neutralized by solemn and extensive ceremonies. Buddhist monks maintain that death is merely one of the unavoidable conditions and consequences of life. In one of the Lord Buddha’s earthier sayings he posed that there are two inevitable human experiences: defecation (the translation I came upon avoided the Pali word for shit) and death. One discipline undertaken by serious monks is to contemplate the decomposition of corpses (or sometimes just skeletons). Itinerant monks sometimes seek cremation grounds for an overnight campsite. This is all about much more than desensitizing monks about death. Monks are to be masters of the specter of death; at least the more adept of them are.
Without extending this essay to include several other examples of the yin-yang nature of haunted-holy places, let’s agree that those are liminal-threshold spaces, as forests are in many cultures. Cremation grounds in Thailand are typically in wooded areas called “paa chaa” ป่าช้า (implying literally, “a forest for lingering”). The dual nature of cremation grounds could not be clearer.
What is not so obvious in our time is that all really sacred spaces are that way. Holiness is indivisible from frightfulness. To be in the presence of the Holy is to be terrified and also to be transformed beyond that immobilized and debilitated state. One is never the same after that.
Talmudic Judaism, Medieval Christianity, Vedic Hinduism, and mystical Islam all comprehend the awesome and compassionate dual-nature of the Holy. Wherever the Supreme has stood, sat, or lain is sacred, and to touch such a place is perilous as well as pious. Piety, as mystics know, is fraught with ecstatic agony. One must approach treacherous Holy places with respect; but respect is only the beginning. Indeed, one can never know what sacrifice might be required when one enters the Holy of Holies.
Christianity early on conceptualized the holy event as a sacrificial meal to recapitulate the supreme divine-human encounter. That simple meal first eaten by Jesus with his disciples was embossed with layers of ritual sanctification which Protestantism sought largely to remove in order to get back to the essential meaning of “Christ with us.” The Enlightenment castigated all mystery as superstition and began to eradicate it.
We have now come to the point where there is no longer such a thing as sacred space.
Churches are designed as refuges. They are sanctuaries. They are places to escape the confusion and conflict going on outside. They are places of serenity and community.
This downgrading of holy places (which is happening throughout most cultures in our time) has come at a price. Domesticated holiness is impotent. When we no longer value the transformation that comes from encountering the stunning and awesome Holy, and refuse to see our stricken and naked souls clearly, we succumb to the illusion that there is nothing worthy of awe.
But our friendly gathering places (or their virtual substitutes into which we can zoom or chat) lack the power we need to meet the realities that linger in the shadows to assail, betray, and beguile us. Deprived of sacred spaces we become lethargic and inept. Lulled by the deceit we have cultivated that there is nothing to fear, we succumb to the illusion that there is nothing worthy of awe.
Trapped in our naiveté we are overwhelmed when the shadows congeal.
This is a largely philosophical rumination on the transience of memory. It is an attempt to be realistic in spite of the well-established fact that one of the most powerful human motivations is the desire to make a lasting impact, or, forbidding that, to continue as a part of an eternal or sustained community. Most of the world’s largest monuments are dedicated to this proposition. Religions conceptualize it and perpetuate this as a core belief.
But down here at ground level what happens if I were simply to cease to exist? [In the following reflections “they” are various others who might be remembering us if we were to cease to exist.]
WHO WOULD BE IMPACTED
3 circles of impact:
Critical – their existence would be impossible if we suddenly ceased to exist. Most of us have no one this close or critical to us. “Siamese twins” might. Occasionally in history some personality has built a cult-following with a suicidal level of dependency on the “essential one”. But the purpose of mature parenthood is to create awareness in children of their independence. Almost none of us are so “significant” to anyone that they cannot adjust to life without us, romantic fantasies notwithstanding.
Serious – their life would be heavily changed. Grief is proof that we are connected in deeply fraught ways. We may not even be aware how deep the connections are until they are severed. But most of us will be changed if certain people in our lives were to go away. These people can be a powerful motive for us to survive “in their behalf.”
Marginal – they would need to adjust. Honestly, a majority of the people in our life would be able to get along without us. Our departure will be noticed but the impact of it would be slight in terms of their need to do things differently from now on. Indeed, it can be a great comfort for someone facing death to realize “they’ll be fine.”
WHO WOULD NOTICE
Outside of the circles of those whose lives we impact are those who merely would notice our departure.
Nearest or dearest – they would be certain and quick to notice. Some of these would be waiting to hear, or attending gatherings in anticipation of our death if it was gradual. Close family would notice immediately. In some societies neighbors would be told and would take action.
Distant – they would be certain to notice but they might not hear immediately. Our death would “register” and be remembered. It would make an impression.
Conditional – they would notice if the conditions were right. Obituaries on social media provide those conditions as never before. Disrupted or dysfunctional families tend to break those conditions down. Big funerals for “important” people are for the purpose of making sure people notice.
Random – they might eventually notice even if they were not informed of our departure at the time. Lists of deaths by associations and organizations get the word out, but it’s uncertain who will pay attention.
Doubt – they would come to wonder what has become of us. These thoughts tend to be passing, and only if there was some specific reason would they try to find out what happened to us to cause a gap in connection.
There is a general agreement over the centuries in every culture that a person’s existence is significant and that significance continues. It can be described as a ripple moving to a distant shore. It is unpredictable. Stories of people remembering the action of a teacher in the past, for example, are comforting. Heaven and reincarnation are reassuring concepts.
But it is undeniable that almost all of us will be forgotten. Even our genetic contributions (if any) to future generations will be diluted to the point of inconsequence.
There are events that remind us of the unpredictability of life. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center is such a reminder. There are also epochs in history in which death is a major topic. World War II was one of them. Even if the USA manages a full and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and ends its last war for the time being, COVID has taken center stage reminding us that we are mortal. We may not like it, but mortality trumps all.
So, what are we living for? That is, why? Ah, that is the challenge, to discover the purpose of living. No one can do it for you. For every one of us the conclusion is unique and fluid. At 18 my purpose was one thing, and at 81 it is vastly different. As I have collected life stories it is obvious no two of them are the same. It is only when meaningfulness-at-this-time ceases that motivation for living begins to fade.
Today is the gift you have been given, and the people in your life and you in theirs are where meaningfulness gestates.
ENLIGHTENMENT OF A TERRORIST
The mythic story of the terrorist who wore 999 fingers of his victims as a necklace is one of the most familiar Buddhist stories, although its meaning is subject to interpretation and the story has many variations to conform it to one or the other of these interpretations.
The story has two parts. In the first part a privileged child turns into a feared terrorist intent on killing 1000 people, keeping track by cutting on a finger from each victim and wearing them on a string. He has one to collect when his mother tries to save him from being hunted down as the terrorist he is. In his demented desperation he thinks of killing his mother to complete the quest, but then he sees the Buddha and sets off after him instead. His race toward the Self-Enlightened One is unsuccessful because he can never seem to close the gap between himself and the serene One. He calls on the Buddha to stop, but Gautama replies, “I’ve already stopped, you stop, too.” This leads to a conversation in which the terrorist, Angulimala (องคุลิมาล ) realizes that his intention could be achieved by ceasing his murderous rampage. The Buddha expounds a way of release that does not accrue horrendous kharmic consequences. Thus begins the second part of the story. Angulimala accepts this advice, gives up his quest, becomes a disciple and then an arahant (an enlightened one on the threshold of Nirvana/Nibbana). In a further episode the converted terrorist, utilizing his profound experience of pain and advice from the Buddha, assists in a childbirth, leading to his being venerated in that regard.
Scholars have written extensively on how to make coherent sense out of this myth. The popular view is that the story shows that no one is totally beyond salvation. Other scholars insist that nuances are valuable to help us see how this mythic example applies to such conundrums as Buddhist justification of violence in the name of justice. I am particularly attracted to an article by Paisarn Likhitpreechakul who argues that this mythic story is a rebuttal of “karmic determinism” that “is used to rationalize inequality and justify prejudices.”*
Above all, the Buddha was a masterful teacher. Each of his lessons was precisely designed for his intended audience. To focus on aspects of narratives about him that seem to contravene natural law is to miss the point of the metaphorical action being described. Many religious narratives contain seemingly supernatural aspects that would best be thought of as parabolic.
Christians tell the story of “Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac” (the demented man who lived among the tombs and terrorized the neighborhood). The legion of demons pleaded to be released into a flock of swine and were dispatched, setting the man free to re-enter society and be a disciple of Jesus.*
“Legion” and Angulimala have a lot in common, but it fades in comparison to what Gautama and Jesus have in common as masterful teachers of peaceful living in society.
How one gets from being an adversary to an advocate of peace, wholeness, and fulfillment depends on one’s starting point. Few of us are possessed by 5000 demons or on a quest to murder a thousand victims, but all of us have need of transformative advice before it’s too late. The best teachers are those who enter their students’ zeitgeist and discern the distorted images of God submerged within. Teachers who fail are those, like the villagers in both Gergesa and Kosala, who see no more than hopeless scoundrels causing havoc.
* Paisarn Likhitpreechakul, “Decoding Two ‘Miracles’ of the Buddha,” in Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, Vol. 2, May, 2012. And see my blog on the Demoniac named Legion: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/John
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.