We are Ban Den Village, Mu (residential cluster) number 2 of Ban Mae Sub-district of Sanpatong District of Chiang Mai Province of the Kingdom of Thailand. At last count Chiang Mai had 27 Amphur (districts), Sanpatong had 11 Tambol (sub-districts of which 3 were classified as municipalities), and Ban Mae had 13 villages. I believe every plot of land that is not owned by the government in the name of the King of Thailand is included in a village or its equivalent, including the farmland. Our village has about 150 residences with about 450 inhabitants. Everyone who resides in the village is an official resident and has a house number as his or her residence on their national identification card. New residents who move into the village or come by marriage are often given a public welcome. The population has been steady over the past decade.
There is one Buddhist temple, a primary school building (no longer used), 3 small buildings owned by the village (a multi-purpose assembly hall, a storage shed for community equipment, a drinking water purification plant), and a public water system. There are 4 shops selling non-perishable daily necessities, and two agri-businesses that buy farm products and sell them to bigger wholesalers. There is one kwiteo (noodle) shop.
This means that the food people eat at home must be prepared from items that grow around their house, rice they have harvested but not sold for profit, and fresh produce from a roadside table or a market in a nearby village. Local fresh food supplies are sold either in the early morning or late afternoon and may include some cooked items. Occasionally people in our village purchase foodstuffs from big supermarkets; they go to the supermarkets and malls for clothing, house ware, and cleaning supplies. I counted 25 edible items growing around our house, but, like lemon-grass, chili peppers, bananas, coconuts and jackfruit, they are not staples.
Nearly every household has someone who is employed outside the village earning a salary. Agriculture is quickly becoming a sideline, but almost all families still own their own fields and orchards. An average holding would be 1-3 acres. With land values sharply rising, an acre of farmland would be worth about $50,000. There are 45 orchards in Ban Den (based on a count from the Google map above). Orchards produce one crop a year. Lameye (longon) are the most popular. A tree is full-grown in about 5 years and naturally produces a crop in August worth about $150; a one-acre orchard would have about 50 trees. Some orchards are stressed with phosphates to produce an out-of-season crop in December, but the price of December fruit has dropped to about the same as other seasons. Rice fields can produce 2 crops a year if irrigation water is available, which it usually is not. The big rice harvest is in November. About a third of the fields are used to grow sweet corn, onions or soybeans as a cash crop from January to May. A typical farm would produce about $3,500 in gross income in a year, or about $3,000 in actual profit, not counting the value of labor.
Wage earners from Ban Den work in towns or the city of Chiang Mai, earning an average of $300 a month. Only a few (not more than 3 or 4 I think) work in Bangkok or overseas. I know of neighbors who are employed as domestic workers, in the health department or hospital, as teachers, clerical staff in educational institutions, construction workers, small shopkeepers in market places, piece-workers (sewing garments in shops in their home), one is a veterinary assistant in a big swine operation in the next province, another is a sales trainer for a major appliance company, and about half a dozen are civil servants. No one in our village is a concerted producer of handicrafts. In the past, the villages around here had people who made pottery, musical instruments and chili sauce, wove baskets and cloth, did wood carving and made furniture, as well as bamboo mats of many varieties. At least a third of us village residents are too old or too young to be gainfully employed. I am the only ex-patriot in residence full-time, but 2 others are here some of each year and have Thai family connections and a house in the village.
Community services are either provided by community members or the government. There is a primary care clinic in the next village and a much-improved government hospital in the district town 15 minutes from here. An ambulance based in a village close-by is on call. A corps of village health volunteers assists the public health nurses to do screenings for high blood pressure and diabetes, and run mosquito eradication campaigns.
The village head is an elected official who serves as government liaison and village constable. The head hires a couple of assistants to be on duty when needed. The sub-district governor is elected and has an office and staff. Most government citizens’ services are provided by the district office. The district governor (called Nai Amphur) is appointed by the national government but office personnel and staff are hired by department heads.
When there is a crisis in Ban Den, the community will respond first – as in the case of a flood or fire, both of which are rare. When a death occurs in the village the community springs into action. Religious events at the temple count on community support. The village is sub-divided into 5 neighborhood units which respond to needs in their neighborhood, such as work-details to cut weeds along the pathways or street or to help cook and assist with funerals or house-blessings.
There are meetings of two types. The entire village is called to an annual planning meeting about once a year to voice opinions about preferred public improvement projects, which are almost always road repairs. Other meetings are for those concerned to learn about or to sign up for assistance from the government. Old people with no income or those with disabilities get a monthly subsidy of something like $10 or $20, which is to supplement family support but would be entirely insufficient for independent living. Pet owners sign up once a year for rabies vaccinations for their dogs and cats. Occasionally a commercial enterprise will pay the village head to use the village public address system and assembly pavilion to sell such things as agricultural chemicals or eye-glasses. The other type of village meeting is for organized groups. Two highly visible groups are the Housewives Association and Village Health Volunteers. An organization for youth doesn’t seem to ever have any meetings but they have activities anyway. There is also a village savings system that operates like a savings and loan and a committee to manage funds distributed by the government to encourage local economic development. The underground lottery has no meetings to supervise their considerable cash-flow.
Primary school children are transported to a consolidated school about 2 kilometers from here, or they are taken to private schools. A few go to select schools in Chiang Mai about 30 kilometers away. Parents choose the best secondary schools they can afford. Tuition for public secondary schools is usually covered but admission fees, expenses for activities, and travel expenses have to be met by the families. Nearly half of the secondary-school-age children go to private vocational and prep-schools. The extended-family (clan) is also the main source of care for persons with disabilities and for infants up to nursery school age. In our village there is just one fellow with cerebral palsy, a blind woman, and a couple of old people with mild dementia.
The way villages run is constantly shifting. A few years ago the temple committee was how the government connected with the village to provide everything from road improvements to distribution of medicines. Now services are greatly expanded and the temple committee rarely meets.
Postscript: Ban Den is an agricultural low-land village. Upland ethnic-minority villages are organized and function differently. Villages inside a metropolitan complex, such as Chiang Mai, tend to serve as suburban housing and may contain several sub-divisions and housing developments along with a cluster of stores if they are on an arterial highway. The most conspicuous difference between types of villages is the degree of cohesion and mutuality.
TEMPLE SECRETS ESSAY 5
This photographic essay is an account of a festive occasion on March 3, 2017 at Wat Ta Pong. The event was designed to bathe the “sacred heart” of the chedi of Wat Ta Pong, as well as to provide Buddhists an opportunity to make merit and to obtain the benefits of a sub jata life extension ceremony. For more extensive accounts of several of the key terms please follow the links to the following previous essays:
“Sacred Heart” see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/traveling-hearts
“Chedi” see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/chedi
“Sub jata” see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/subjata
This photo account will be limited to ten pictures with the following explanations:
1.“Front of the Wiharn” This is the morning sun reflected off the gilded front of the assembly hall of Wat Ta Pong, Sanpatong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
2.“Loading Donations” People made merit by attaching sleeves of money to a rope pulley to be symbolically offered to the Lord Buddha symbolized in the chedi, which is called “Phra That”
3.“Offerings at the Door” As people entered the assembly hall they made traditional offerings of flowers, candles and incense as well as a coin. These were later offered to honor the Lord Buddha.
4.“The Bishop Arrives” Monks from several temples in the area were included in the ceremony, presided over by the leader of monks of the district, whose duties are similar to those of a Christian bishop. He was the senior monk present for the occasion.
5.“Guest Monks Donating” As the monks arrived they paid respects to the abbot of Wat Ta Pong.
6.“Leader of the Ceremony” A ceremony to “bathe the sacred heart” is a special occasion. The leader for the ceremony was a specialist in this ceremony. He opened the ceremony with a recitation venerating the sacred heart of the Lord Buddha.
7.“Phra-boroma lika-that enshrined” The sacred heart had been removed from its repository in the chedi and was encased in a crystal goblet with a gold crown.
8.“Opening Chant Ends” The opening service ended with the people’s offerings being presented by the monk presiding at the rite.
9.“Leaving the Wiharn” The “bishop” carried the sacred heart vessel between lines of worshipers who showered it with marigold petals.
10.“Positioning the Sacred Heart” The crystal inside the vessel was put in place in a temporary shrine where it would be bathed with water poured by faithful into a pipe.
That was the end of the bathing ceremony. A subjata life extension merit making ceremony followed in the wihara.
How could Jesus walk on water?
The question is both absurd and current. We are engaged, it seems, in a time when religious narratives are being used to test orthodoxy. The effect of such tests is to polarize religious communities. This is going on in all worldwide religions, but I will limit my suggestions to Christianity with references to Thai Buddhism. Really, the question of whether Jesus actually walked on water or whether the Buddha pacified a stampeding elephant or whether Thor traded an eye for a translation of runes are all misdirected questions based on inconsistent assumptions. Specifically, the assumption is that we are talking about the same thing today as the stories are talking about. Walking on water is the same thing whether it is on the Sea of Galilee in 30 A.D. or Lake Michigan in 2018, isn’t it?
If we are getting mired into the question of “How”, what we must be overlooking is the type of narrative we are reading. It is ironic that even small children are able to tell the difference between beings in real life and ones in stories that begin “once upon a time.”
There are 3 types of narrative writing that often become confused. We can call them historical stories, legends and religious narratives. Consider the differences between narratives of 3 heroes, Alexander, Ulysses and Hercules.
Alexander was a warrior whose campaigns were extraordinary in that they were beyond what other generals had done. But he was a historical figure from a particular time and place who took actions that left enduring physical traces and results. None of the events of his life were done outside of real time and real space. Stories of Alexander’s conquests were historical and gave rise to the first rigorous attempts at writing historical accounts in Western civilization. Alexander lived in historical time, as do we.
Ulysses was a hero, at least some of whose adventures took place outside of real space. On the way back to Ithaca after the fall of Troy, his ship and crew were blown through a profound mist into a liminal space where they encountered beings that were unlike ordinary human beings or creatures of nature. His experiences were not likely to be repeated by anyone else, ever again. Those experiences exposed human frailty and vulnerability and reflected human proclivities, but they were not morality tales. In order to propose how they happened at all, Homer fell back on the trope that it was all because of the vindictiveness of petulant Posidon, god of the sea, and the reluctance of Athena to intervene. Socrates thought Homer got the message wrong; from Socrates’ philosophical perspective the point of such narratives had to be about more than entertainment and extraordinary story-telling. Nevertheless, Ulysses was probably a real king and hero whose stories Homer told ambiguously as happening in both historical and legendary time.
Hercules was an entirely legendary hero, whom Alexander chose to believe had lived in the dim historical past (before Ulysses) and whose armor Alexander expropriated for its symbolic value. Neither the time nor the location of Hercules’ exploits could be identified for sure. But Hercules was supposed to have lived at some time just out of reach. All his labors had super-natural elements that removed them from being seriously considered by others in real time and space. On the other hand, those labors of Hercules lacked the element of establishing a frame of reference for coming generations that stories of divine-heroes have. The stories of Hercules do not tell us how we have been rescued. They are legends.
Notice that those 3 types of heroes lived in two types of time, historical time and legendary time.
Horus, heroic son of Osiris, however, lived in a third type of time, religious time. When Horus sacrificed his eye in battle with his uncle Set to rescue his father, Horus described theological conditions under which human beings could make sense out of their life and death. The stories of that divine family were informative. They were also formative, giving rise to rites that gave human life meaning from birth to death, that gave the annual seasons meaning from one flood season to the next, and gave society meaning from Pharaoh to slave.
The stories of divine-heroes all take place outside the stultifying perimeters of the ordinary. Just as religious time is beyond the natural restrictions of time, so the operating principles in religious time are extra-ordinary. In religious time natural principles do not apply, nor do the principles that describe exceptions to natural principles in real-time. When some beneficial result that defies natural law occurs in real-time to living beings, it is called a miracle. When that sort of result occurs in religious time it is a sign; it is indicative of an implicit meaning. Its verifiability or mundane “factuality” is irrelevant. Its value is how it illuminates an aspect of the identity and character of the divine-hero.
For the purposes of this limited discourse on religious narrative there are three types of narrative depending on three types of time in which the stories took place. But those stories are interpreted and reflected upon (and sometimes re-narrated) from particular historic eras. Those eras are often labeled such things as Classical Greek, the Age of Belief, or the Age of Enlightenment based on philosophical patterns of thought. Similarly, as with succeeding schools of philosophy, each literary age found the previous age flawed, and the ones before that even more mystifying.
Before delving more deeply into what is involved with religious-time, let’s consider a particularly clear example of this sort of narrative dexterity.
Throughout northern Thailand there are mountains that are considered sacred, particularly if they have caves. One of those is Chiang Dao Mountain and cave, about 70 kilometers north of Chiang Mai. Prof. Donald Swearer and colleagues from Chiang Mai University have explored these sites and analyzed legendary-histories written about them. The chronicles include several about Doi Ang Salung (literally, “Water Basin Mountain”) Chiang Dao. As a whole, the stories of Doi Ang Salung tell about events that took place while and after the Buddha (together with various disciples and King Asoka) traveled throughout northern Thailand often leaving behind a physical relic or footprint with instructions to maintain those sites as a shrine or build a temple there. Swearer comments:
Popular chronicles such as the Legend of Water Basin Mountain are fundamentally mythic in nature. The primary purpose of the chronicle is to convey the normative belief in the sacralizing presence of the Buddha in northern Thailand, rather than relating a historically accurate account. Consequently, the text ignores such rational questions as how the Buddha and his monks could have traveled to northern Thailand or how King Asoka (third century B.C.E.) could appear on the same historical stage with the Buddha. [Swearer, D.K. et al, 2004, Sacred Mountains of Northern Thailand and their Legends. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, p. 95 (emph. added)].
In those legendary tales a typical event was when a person or mythic being asked for a device to help coming generations remember the Buddha’s having been there, a hair was given (or a footprint impressed in a rock); the hair was encased in a bamboo casket and buried in the ground a sacred number of cubits deep; then a Buddha statue or chedi was erected on the spot and if the site was maintained and venerated the people would prosper. Therefore, it is sustained veneration (a collective act of faith) that verifies the site as sacred and puts that spot as on a map of sacred space. Proof that the Buddha has been there in otherwise unverifiable legendary time is the sustained veneration of the site by a community of faithful people. It is not coincidental that these legends also validate that land and its political rulers as blessed by the Buddha.
Nobody who heard the narrative of the Buddha’s encounter with the Lawa farmer in Chiang Dao was bothered about how the event could have “really happened,” or how the Emperor Asoka could have accompanied the Lord Buddha on his journeys in Thailand when the emperor was born centuries too late to have met the Buddha in person. That was set aside so that the legend could communicate its message connecting the present to the primordial past that exists eternally in religious time as long as believers sustain their faith.
In the logic of religious reality, belief is a priori. Sacred narratives provide information for believers and have nothing to say to non-believers.
How are these legends interpreted? How do they rise above the level of entertaining fiction? How can they function to validate regimes? Historical accounts do not require an element of unverifiable belief. Battlefields yield evidence of past battles and accounts tend to be cross-referenced. Legends make no claims to be about historical events that are independently verifiable. They are stories that infer and allude to beliefs held by people in a previous era as having unspecified elements of truth. But they function as cultural heritage of a people. The legends say, “We are people who own these stories.”
A vignette: Not long ago a social activist was arrested (and later released with charges dropped) for having suggested two years before that a certain famous battle between Siamese and Burmese kings on elephants should be reviewed for historical validity. It is against the law to criticize the reputation of the King of Thailand or his family. Members of the military charged the scholar with undermining the account which they recall to uphold their role as protectors of Thai culture. Most of the confusion in the media and in court was caused by a lack of clarity about whether the story was history or legend and what the difference is. The military use the story as legend to identify elements of culture, but insist it is a true historical fact. The scholar argued that if the story from nearly 500 years ago is historical the facts should speak for themselves and can stand review. The scholar was saying that the military can’t legitimately have it both ways. Either the story is legend or it is history.
The same thing can be said about arguments over the narratives of Jesus.
If the stories of Jesus Christ are legends they serve to link Christians as people with a shared narrative. They serve a cultural purpose. If the stories are history they must be able to withstand scrutiny not based on faith alone. If the stories are legendary or religious, charges that they are scientifically absurd are invalid.
Now, as to the third type of narrative, religious narratives in religious-time: if the stories of Jesus Christ are religious narratives, they have the purpose not only of identifying a key aspect of the culture of faithful Christians, but also key aspects of the character of Jesus Christ as the divine-hero. Each episode adds something illuminating about the character of Jesus as divine-hero. To adapt Swearer’s postulate, “The primary purpose of the stories of Jesus is to convey the normative belief in the sacralizing presence of the Christ in the world.”
The account of Jesus walking on the sea is not primarily about walking on water, but about who Jesus Christ is as a divine-hero. The story tells people who already believe Jesus is the divine Christ, that one way Jesus is Christ is that laws of nature are not obstacles for Christ the rescuer. The story may have other meanings for people in different circumstances. One feature of narratives from religious time is that they can be adapted, provided that the adaptations conform to the principles of religious reality of the narratives as a whole. The story of Jesus walking on the stormy sea and Peter trying to walk to him could not, for example, be used to illustrate the morality of same-sex marriages. That would be incoherent. But the story can certainly give encouragement to a Christian beset by emotional storms.
To reiterate, events ascribed to religious time conform to the purposes and principles of religious time. Those narratives have nothing to do with proving to listeners that the hero was divine. That is accepted to begin with. The narrative illuminates an aspect of that divinity so listeners can expand their faith with particulars about the divine-hero’s character. If the narrative includes eye-witnesses to the action of the divine hero in religious time, the witnesses’ reaction is typically described as either tenuously recognizing the meaning of the sign they have witnessed or total failure to see the sign as having the meaning it had. Full understanding typically comes later.
Listeners to the narratives have the advantage of already knowing they are hearing about a divine hero whose story is set in religious time. The first auditors and readers of stories of Jesus were by no means simple and stupid as they are often represented nowadays. They knew how to tell the difference between a religious story and a legendary or historical one. They knew a narrative was set in religious time if the story begins with the birth of the divine hero in some way that is super-natural, such as a virgin birth or an instantaneous maturation at birth. Religious narrative proceeds in religious time with accounts of astounding actions and the convoking of a cadre of believers. The effect of these actions is to confirm the identity of the divine hero and his or her mission. The narrative signals the end of religious time with the departure of the divine hero in a way that defies death as we know it, and transports the divine hero into universal time, time without end.
Religious narratives of a divine-hero often allude to prior religious narratives. That can be very helpful to discern the fundamental meaning of the narrative. Astute interpreters find those links. They help construct theological understanding. Were there other individuals who were cast upon stormy seas and needed a savior to rescue them and send them on a mission to continue the work of the divine-hero? What about Jonah? These connections, too, make it clear that the narratives are set in religious time.
The apostle Paul was persistent in making connections between the saving work of Jesus Christ and prior accounts of the nature of that work. But he was quite unconcerned with accounts of Jesus as divine-hero. Paul was writing to communities of real people in real places in their own time. Their issues were immediate. He avoided confusing references to details about the life of Jesus in religious-time. The narratives of Jesus Christ as divine-hero were for edifying people whose faith in Christ would be enhanced by stories set in religious time.
The narratives of Jesus set in religious time have no answers to questions like, “Did Jesus really walk on water?” “Did he really rise from the dead?” “Did he really turn water into wine?”
The question to ask about a narrative of Jesus is, “What does it tell us about God?”
Pramote has had fish of various sizes for all the years we have been living in a house of our own. Of all the living creatures under our purview (cats, birds, lizards, dogs, snakes, rats, game fish, and smaller things with at least 6 legs) only the gold fish were chosen. The rest chose us. And only the gold fish required constant care and elaborate facilities.
Here in Ban Den Village, right after we finished building our house we built an in-ground fish tank for gold fish the size of our hand, not small but not large. They were a joy until the first disaster. One day, unbeknownst to us, the village chlorinated the water and when we used it with the fish they died horrible deaths. They were replaced and the fun lasted until an earthquake cracked the tank and we had to rush to save them. The tank was relined but that did not work, so a new one was dug in the ground. It leaked badly and had to be replaced by a larger one above ground. The new tank was the most elaborate of all with three filtration tanks and a complicated set of valves and pumps. This seemed to be a great situation until the electricity went off and we had to work for hours to keep the fish alive because there was no power for the aerator pump. The second time power failed we did not know in time to keep half a dozen from dying. The third time was in the middle of the night just recently when 10 died, and the tank began to lose water again. Pramote declared he has had enough and proposed to get rid of the fish.
There is no shortage of takers. At the most we had 45 fish of a wide variety of colors varying in size from a foot to about 3 feet long, which is longer and heavier than any fish we have seen in other tanks or ponds. Yesterday began the final disposal of the fish. Our nephew’s friends came to take as many as they could persuade us to relinquish. We have a few of the biggest ones left, waiting for a relative to come today. Then the fish tank will be turned into something else. I am guessing it will be for plants in pots.
It is hard to know how to react to this end of an era, as it were. We have almost never been without fish. They have been part of our life, and a measure of our well-being. This aspect of our identity crept up on me. I was not prepared to be known by the fish we keep. They are a sign of our prosperity, because there could not be fish like this without expendable cash to run the motors, buy the food, build the tanks, and much more. When people saw our fish they revised their estimations of us. The fish are a matter of pride because of their size and color. Connoisseurs (of which I am not one) know how to evaluate colors of fish like this. I believe the more colors and the brighter they are, the better. Anyhow, we have had up to $2000 or $3000 worth of fish I understand, and we are giving them away to good homes, we hope.
Which brings me to a more delicate matter.
These fish are Pramote’s pets as well as objects of pride. He has given several of them artificial respiration – yes, I’m not kidding about this – you’d have to have seen it to believe it. He rescued some of them as spawn and raised them from minnow size into size big enough to join the rest without becoming their snack. He medicated them when a mystery disease threatened. He knows which ones are off-springs of which. We have a more personal relationship with our cats, but the fish have been significant. They have signified things I am not yet aware of, I suspect. That may become clear as the last ones leave and the valve is turned to drain the tank into the orchard.
It amazes me how things become part of our meaning.
TEMPLE SECRETS, ESSAY 4
Phra Kru Wimon Boonkosol of Wat Nimmolwiwat in Roi Et was featured in an article in the Bangkok Post two months ago with a rather remarkable claim about the mythological dragons represented in nearly every Buddhist temple in Thailand.
"The naga is a mythical creature in Buddhist mythology. The animal is a half-serpent, half-human deity. When he is in human form on a path to salvation after redeeming himself from his bad karma, he still yearns to study dhamma and do good deeds," the abbot explained.
My interest in the venerable abbot’s assertion goes far beyond the literal matter of whether an animal, mythological or biological, can be invested with speculative, philosophical concerns. I am interested in how the Thai Buddhist scholar can come to such a conclusion. How, in fact, can Christian scholars come to conclusions about dragons, or saints, or God? What rules are there? This very issue is at the heart of the most profound theological battle of Christianity in 21st century America. But I will limit my analysis to Phra Kru Wimon’s statement, “The naga … is a half-serpent, half-human deity. …he yearns to study dhamma and do good deeds.”
It is the abbot’s belief that the naga is or ought to be a role model for Buddhists in that regard. The abbot is designing his temple to feature the naga as an aspirant for human beings to emulate.
The first matter is how the naga appears in Buddhist mythology. Foremost among the naga’s appearances in the central narratives of the Lord Buddha is the story of a naga protecting the Buddha as he was in his trance acquiring the dhamma. The naga, named Mucalinda, raised the Buddha above a flood that had been provided to delay the demonic forces sent to prevent the Buddha being enlightened. The Buddha seated on the coils of a naga and being sheltered from the deluge is a major symbol in Thai Buddhist art.
Would that we all had such an opportunity to provide heroic service for the Self-Enlightened One! Phra Kru Wimon wants us to know that we do have countless such opportunities, although they may not be so dramatic. We are at the frontier, as was the naga, between the serene Holy One and the attacking forces of chaos and enslavement to Evil.
The naga, however, has other roles in Buddhist mythology. Our own first encounter with a naga might come as we approach a Buddhist temple where a pair of nagas guards the entryway and the stairs into the main assembly hall where a re-enactment of the Buddha teaching his disciples often takes place. We would do well to suspect that the naga is not unambiguously a docile creature. Those whose intentions are pernicious are duly warned. Overhead, along the eaves of the buildings, are other nagas swimming in cosmic space between heaven and earth.
If the naga is a mythical creature, the realm of discourse about it is mythological. The line of such discourse can be traced with methods used to study mythology, including narratives, linguistic analysis, sculpture and architecture, and applications in other realms of discourse such as philosophy or religion.
Here is a basic fact: a mythic entity is never entirely contemporary. A narrative cannot be a myth if it has no mythic roots. Myths have an independent existence. No matter how a myth has been adapted and manipulated, it is from an earlier time all the way back into the mists of pre-history. The validity and relevance of a myth is that the message it conveys is derived and not simply concocted. So, it is important that the naga as it appears in Buddhist mythology has connections to earlier mythology before the time of the Lord Buddha. The naga of Thai Buddhism is related to Sheshanaag of Hindu mythology, upon whom Vishnu reclined afloat on the cosmic sea of milk before the earth was formed. There is a mythic trail that traces that lineage. It can be confirmed through study of symbolic representations from archeology and Buddhist temple art. What can be concluded from this is that the abbot has not misrepresented facts to say that the naga is a mythical creature. Nor has he tried to obscure the fact (as many religious pundits do about sacred beings) that the naga is mythological. Its relevance depends on it being representational and metaphorical. Oh, what a mess religions get themselves into when they are careless with their symbols.
However, the abbot of Wat Nimmolwiwat has gone further than to say, “Nagas are doers of good deeds. The naga that protected the Lord Buddha was doing what its ancestor did in supporting Vishnu, and as the dragon was doing in transporting the Chinese-Buddhist avatar of the Buddha, Mae Kwan Im.” Phra Kru Wimon also takes pains to connect the naga to the philosophical core of popular Buddhism.
I believe the reasoning is something like this: the naga was stuck in animal form as a result of its demeritorious behavior in past existences; but through one supreme act in safeguarding the Lord Buddha the naga was delivered from that karmic punishment. Thus it could proceed on its path to release from the endless round of birth, suffering, and death. Release comes through realizing the real nature of existence is not permanence but constant change. This realization is enlightenment. It breaks the cycle.
There is mythological support for this. The cosmic serpent is famously represented holding its tail in its mouth. The Greeks called the serpent Ouroboros. This is what it came to mean to Gnostics at the time Buddhism was gaining traction in India:
From a Gnostic viewpoint, the opposing ends of the ouroboros were interpreted as the divine and earthly in man, which, despite being at odds with one another, existed in unison nonetheless. In this sense, it is comparable to the Chinese yin and yang, depicting the harmony of contrary forces, as well as the cosmic dichotomy of light and darkness in Manichaeism and the Zoroastrian philosophy of the farvahar, which first posited that each soul was composed of a pure, divine component, as well as a human one. …the ouroboros went on to enjoy much popularity among Renaissance alchemists. Again representing the infinite nature of time and the eternal, it was seen in the eyes of the alchemists as the ultimate obstacle to be overcome in the Magnum Opus, their incessant struggle; for to become immortal – their chief aim – meant to break the incessant cycle of the ouroboros once and for all.
It is striking to me that in Thai Buddhist temple art the naga is emerging from the mouth of another serpent. But that is the end of it. The naga is no longer grasping anything. Its avarice is ended. It has broken the incessant cycle.
The abbot’s campaign is to enhance the relevance of the naga as a mythic symbol for the cosmic context of human existence into a symbol for a specific item of philosophical dogma, namely, that after balancing karma one must study Dharma ( i.e. dhamma in Thai, the Truth that the Lord Buddha discovered which leads to enlightenment and release). This must be accomplished through study.
To accommodate this concept the abbot declares that the naga is “half serpent, half-human deity.” This may be more than previous mythology will support. The most famous text about the naga yearning to become a monk actually describes how it was prevented by the Lord Buddha, himself. The naga had transformed himself into human form.
“Shortly after, when asleep in his hut, the naga returned to the shape of a huge snake. The monk who shared the hut was somewhat alarmed when he woke up to see a great snake sleeping next to him! The Lord Buddha summoned the naga and told him he may not remain as a monk, at which the utterly disconsolate snake began to weep. The snake was given the Five Precepts as the means to attaining a human existence in his next life when he can then be a monk. Then out of compassion for the sad snake, the Lord Buddha said that from then on all candidates for the monkhood be called 'Naga' as a consolation. They are still called 'Naga' to this day."
Indeed, there are examples of Thai Buddhist temple art in which the “human deity” is part naga or emerging from the mouth of a naga. But they are all modern. According to widespread narratives about karma, an animal would have to be reborn as a human with enough karmic accumulation to be able to attain enlightenment. Human beings must work at it. One of the pathways is study which is a cognitive undertaking. Divine beings can achieve the benefits of enlightenment instantly through direct contact with a Buddha. In the Thai Buddhist narrative the Lord Buddha spent part of his final compassionate delay from Nirvana by visiting divinities in their heavenly abode. It would seem, then, that the naga was not entirely divine or human. Mucalinda was not transubstantiated into Nirvana by his meeting the Lord Buddha in person, nor was he human enough to study dhamma and be enlightened without being reincarnated as a human and ordained as a monk. Nor would his being “half animal and half human-divine” be an example for us to emulate. It is tricky to use a mythological example for a religious purpose.
Perhaps it is best just to agree with the abbot that the naga is an appropriate symbol for the two most important undertakings of a Thai Buddhist: study of dhamma and doing good deeds. The abbot’s declaration that the naga is “half animal, half-human divine” is a homiletical device. It appears his intention is to reinforce the interpretation of the ever-present naga in Thai Buddhist symbolism as a metaphor for Buddhist endeavor. But the abbot’s sermons would be weakened if his mythology had been flawed.
I probably should leave this discussion at this point, but I want to add a note to be developed some other time. I have tried to sketch how the use of a mythic symbol (an archetype in the terms of Carl Jung) has roots that can be traced. This lineage substantiates the legitimacy and intrinsic meaning of the symbol. By the same token, a symbol can be identified as mythic by tracing its heritage. That is the bind in which contemporary popular Christian theology finds itself. Christian thinking has detached itself from its mythic heritage. Simplistic Christians have decided that biblical narratives, for example, cannot be mythic. They must not be myths. That would ruin things. But the obvious fact is that a great deal of Christian symbolism is profound precisely because it is mythic with roots deep in human experience, maybe even in our DNA. No religion can be sustained after it has been thoroughly demythologized. This is the failure of post-Enlightenment liberalism. Nor can a religion be profound that treats its myths derisively. That is the flaw of alt-right conservatism.
Previous essays in this TEMPLE SECRETS series include:
I attended an event here in Chiang Mai last week that brought together many acquaintances from years past. One Thai fellow about my age from Los Angeles wanted to know how things were going with me. In the course of our conversation it became clear he hadn’t heard about my “changes of orientation, and my Thai spouse” so I filled him in. He never missed a beat, flicked an eyebrow, or registered the least surprise. It isn’t always thus.
One of the unfair things about being LGBT is that we’re never completely finished “coming out” of the closet. There’s always somebody else who doesn’t know, and we have learned we can never be sure how they will react.
I was reminded of one of my bigger surprises in this regard.
Ricky was HIV+ at age 12. He was infected by tainted blood he received as a hemophiliac. I was asked by two of our church members to let them hold a fund-raising event in our church for Ricky.
That’s how it started.
Ricky’s church was a large, fundamentalist, blue-collar congregation in the refinery and steel-mill district. They dis-invited Ricky and his family when members protested. 4 or 5 of us clergy formed an ad-hoc advocacy group to try to get better information about HIV-AIDS to churches in the area. We were signed on as an aspect of the state’s Department of Children and Family Services to provide religious resources and help when called on. Joyce was the social worker who took care of us. We became a headline program in her annual reports.
Over the next 2 or 3 years we met, conducted worship services for people living with HIV-AIDS, visited patients in hospitals if the patients were open to a visit, and sometimes conducted their funerals. Joyce was tireless.
When the program closed and Joyce lost her job. She was first out of work, then homeless with a young daughter. For weeks Joyce came to me to get help of various kinds. She and I considered it an accomplishment that we managed to keep her off the street, homeless as she was. And then she met Matt. Matt was a dentist and a religious skeptic. After almost a year, Matt and Joyce decided to get married. They asked me to officiate. It was a very small wedding. We laughed about how nice it was that Joyce and her daughter weren’t threatened with living on the street anymore. She fervently declared that I had saved her life more than once. That confirmed she had been suicidal, as I had intuited.
Shortly after that I left the area but Joyce sent notes about her new life and the fact that she and Matt were taking instruction to join the Greek Orthodox Church.
Over the next 6 years my life underwent radical change. I admitted I was bi-sexual on the gay end of the spectrum, changed jobs to avoid battles with the church it would have been too early to win, and made other major adjustments.
One day I happened to be back in the area having a large cookie in a shopping mall when Joyce came through. She greeted me like a beloved uncle and when she asked about my life I told her the headlines. I was still nervous about coming out to most people but I didn’t hesitate because Joyce and I had been through a lot.
It was probably three months later that I heard from her. I’d come back to Thailand and she sent a Christmas card with a letter in it.
“I am shocked,” she said. “I had no idea you were succumbing to this. Matt and I have talked to our priest about whether our marriage is valid since it was conducted by a fraudulent minister who could not be anointed by the Holy Spirit. Of course, Matt and I want no further contact with you.”
Morgan Jerkins of New Jersey wrote an op-ed piece entitled “Why Do You Say You’re Black?” in the New York Times, Sunday, January 28, 2018 in which she argues against “we’re all just human beings after all.”
“If a white person asks a black woman why she cannot just be a human, he or she is asking, Why can’t you be like me? Why can’t you participate in the fiction that there is such a thing as being “human,” and that race and gender combined negate the former label? The problem with this seemingly harmless question is that such an interrogation demonstrates how white people can understand or digest people of color only through their own criteria.”
Her experience is that being Black is real, as being a woman is real, and she is indisputably and indissolubly both – it’s who she is. She has extracted from that experience that there is no such thing as being a human being without those contributing identity factors. The assertion that race and gender combined, negate the label “human” is a fiction, she argues. This is a problem that white people have because they are showing how they understand people of color through their own criteria [and not, therefore, through the criteria of the people they are talking about].
Let us assume that there is such a thing as a person of a pure black race. Such a person might be Nigerian and trace ancestry back through countless generations. And there is a white person whose skin and ancestry are Anglo-white all the way back to the Ice Age. If they meet and produce a child, is that child black or white? Who decides? Can the child decide? Do people in the child’s social context have the deciding voice? Let’s consider some examples.
Tiger Woods is an African American whose father was a Black US citizen and whose mother was born and raised in Thailand. Tiger is a Black American because he says so. He is saying, “I am American because my father was an American, and so I am Black because he was.” He could say he is an Asian-American or that he is Thai-American, but he identifies with his father. He does not need to repeatedly reaffirm his racial background because he conforms to the concept that Black Americans are racially mixed at some point(s) in their heritage. His sex and gender are also not in question. His Thai racial background is largely discounted.
Tammy Duckworth is Thai American whose father is a white US citizen and whose mother is Thai. Legal citizenship aside, she is Thai American because she says so. She identifies with her father (who was a soldier as was she) as well as with her mother. I have not heard that she has to debate her sex and gender even though she is a female combat veteran. She has to continually defend her American identity because she has entered arenas that are reserved for “real Americans” by becoming a successful politician and member of the elite US Senate. Furthermore, she is a vocal opponent of the current Trump-Republican “Make America Great” camp. Her Thai racial background is never ignored.
Barack Obama, as we all know, is African American whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was a white American woman from Kansas. Barack was born in Hawaii. He is African American because he says so. He has had virtually nothing to do with his father since childhood, but he has lived and thrived in the African-American subculture in Chicago, and as an African-American outside that culture (in Harvard University, for example). His Black racial ancestry is never questioned, but his white racial ancestry is largely discounted. His conformity to a cisgender role as male is uncontroversial and even noteworthy.
Morgan Jenkins’ argument is that it is wrong for white people to ignore important identity factors even when they do so attempting to be inclusive and accepting. Reality is that race and gender contribute to who one is.
I respectfully suggest that there is a third factor that cannot be separated from race and gender in considering one’s identity. That factor is ethnicity. Tiger, Tammy and Barack as well as Morgan are as impacted by ethnicity as they are by race and gender. In fact, whatever it means to be Black, or male, or American is a matter of agreement with a cultural consensus. It is, in effect, only within an ethnic-cultural context that one can know what one’s race and gender are. Outside that context they might not be what they are within that particular socio-cultural environment.
If Tiger or Tammy had been born, raised, and stayed in Thailand not one iota of their gender or racial composition would be necessarily different but their identity would be different. There are a large number of Thai boys and girls who have Black American or White American parents. But if they are born and raised in Thailand, and if they conform and identify with Thai culture, they will be Thai. However, in Thailand as a Thai person, if Tiger had found his sexuality not in conformity with the sexuality he was assigned at birth he could be a kathoey, which is not possible in America (at least not in a way remotely comparable to the “third gender” in Thailand). The idea that there are 2 or 3 genders is a cultural agreement. Some cultures have identified 5 genders.
The idea that there is such a thing as a Black race is also a cultural decision. What Morgan meant by Black is a combination of race and ethnicity. A native of Papua New Guinea is as black as a native of Nigeria but neither of them has as much in common with the Jenkins clan in New Jersey USA as the Jerkinses would surely have with the Irish-American O’Brien clan in New Jersey. It would be as much a violation of reality to overlook the ethnic component of one’s identity in behalf of “all of us being human beings”, as it would be to ignore one’s racial element. Similarly, in the USA just what constitutes a member of the Black race is a cultural matter. One does not have to have 100% black ancestors to be Black. Hardly any African-Americans do have.
Is Chinese a race? I have heard people of Chinese ancestry argue heatedly that it is. A Chinese matron, born and raised in Bangkok Thailand, told me confidently that any non-Chinese ancestor compromises all descendants. One is either all Chinese or not really Chinese. That is how one can be Chinese with very scant ability to speak Chinese and important connections to Thailand’s hierarchy going back several generations. Being Chinese in Thailand is an ethnic subset but a racial reality. Nevertheless, even though conservative Chinese in Thailand insist on their racial stock being definitive, there are many who have passed into Thai identities. Choice is a factor.
Choice, of course, is not the only factor. Tiger Woods could not just choose to be Chinese or Nigerian. He has racial and ethnic characteristics that would make that complicated. Society would have a say. But society can be arbitrary and unjust. Those who advocate doing away with racial identities are largely reacting against that sort of tyranny. They might mean well, Morgan Jerkins implies, but they are not looking at MY world through MY eyes, nor are they looking at me as I know myself. Idealism that is out of touch with reality is on the way to tyranny.
Note: Photo of Morgan Jenkins from http://www.morgan-jerkins.com
Betsy Guyer was remarkable. That’s how I remember her. She filled in where others could not, and filled those niches with spectacular radiance. Betsy Guyer and her husband Dr. John Guyer were Presbyterian Church (USA) missionaries in Chiang Mai as the Church of Christ in Thailand re-established and expanded educational and medical work in Thailand after World War II.
When I arrived in Chiang Mai as a young missionary recruit in 1965 Betsy was one of the missionaries who nudged me into the places I was needed. I describe it this way: in addition to my two main assignments, teaching English in the Thailand Theological Seminary and learning spoken Thai at the Chiang Mai branch of the Union Language School, I became a classroom teacher of high school students at The Prince Royal’s College (PRC), a Cub Scout leader, a presenter at the Chiangmai Co-educational Center (CCC, now called Chiang Mai International School), a teacher of reading English at the McCormick School of Nursing and Midwifery, and a co-pastor (with John Butt) of the Chiang Mai Community Church. Betsy Guyer was behind each of those opportunities in one way or another. That is just part of the range of her endeavors. She was influential in countless ways.
Betsy’s main role, as I remember from those days, was as a teacher of physical sciences at PRC including providing laboratories with supplies and equipment so students would actually become enthusiastic about science from hands-on experience. She also undertook formation of a marching band. I think it was the first marching band in Chiang Mai. To do this she not only had to recruit and train band members, she had to round up all the musical instruments mostly from overseas – and then help replace them after a fire wiped out the entire collection. This accomplishment came into perspective for me when I attended a graduation recital for two students of a program to train music teachers and one of the graduates struggled through a one-finger version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. Meanwhile, Betsy’s PRC students were performing music by John Philip Sousa because she had taught them how to play every instrument and how to read music.
While she was at this, Betsy served as chair of the CCC committee, recruiting teachers, expanding facilities built for other purposes, and guiding the direction of CCC with the international community just beginning to expand and the Thai government just beginning to suppress international schools, before reversing that policy a decade later.
Betsy was one who took on the really tough roles. Those roles were hardly ever “out front”. It was never clearer to me than her teaching of nurses. Imagine, if you will, the course that would be hardest to fill. That’s the one Betsy taught, human anatomy, with real cadavers (respectfully called “Ajan Yai”—“Head Teacher”). The whole concept was so loaded with superstition and terror that the idea there was such a course and where it was taught was treated as a secret. It boggles the mind to think of the obstacles she had to overcome in those days to obtain a cadaver every year, to get it prepared for dissection by students, to get the students beyond their fear and revulsion into a learning mode, and then to deal with “Ajan Yai’s” remains, step by step.
All the while, Betsy was a steadfast member of two church congregations. She and the family attended First Thai Church of Chiang Mai on Sunday mornings and Chiang Mai Community Church in the evening before going to supper at Sutinan’s restaurant beside the railway station. She hardly ever missed the missionary fellowship’s weekly Bible studies; refreshments (I remember hot muffins) were great when it was her turn to be host. Both she and John were elected elders of First Church and Community Church.
I believe we all thought of Betsy as a strong and effective leader and matron, but I think that she thought of herself as a colleague who simply took her turn and filled needs. She was the kind of person who glistened – she seemed to reflect light collected from beyond in such stunning ways that anyone who didn’t try hard to focus on her might have missed her presence and never realized how dull things would have been without her crystalline core behind the radiance.
We have received word that Betsy Guyer died on January 22, 2018 after long decline due to geriatric illnesses. She was preceded in death less than a month ago by her husband, Dr. John Guyer. Again we express our prayers and share sorrow with Janet Guyer and her brother Jim Guyer and his family.
See my tribute to John by clicking on this link: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/john-guyer. Thanks to Janet and William J Yoder for locating the pictures of Betsy and John, and Betsy with her early band.
I’ll call him John, “The Gerasene Demoniac”. Nobody should be stuck with a label made up of a clinical description or a popular pejorative. True, what we know about John is that he hailed from Gerasa in a precinct of 10 Syrian-Greek cities and was said to be infested with thousands of demons.
Succinctly, when Jesus and his disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee during a major storm, they came ashore at a cemetery in which John resided among the tombs, behaving violently due to demonic spirits. Jesus was confronted by John, and the demons inside him reacted defensively. Jesus ordered the demons to depart, but they pleaded not to be sent back to hell, so Jesus allowed them to swarm into a herd of swine. The swine stampeded over a cliff into the sea, much to the despair of the swine herders. They rushed into town to report their loss. The town’s leaders were frightened when John appeared, rational and fully clothed. They were terrified by how much power Jesus had to cure such a maniac and they implored Jesus to leave. John wanted to go, too, but Jesus told him to stay home where he could resume his restored life and tell people his story “of what the Lord had done for you.” Instead, John visited every town in the region with his story. The region became one of the first Christian strongholds and refuges.
How should we interpret this story? Is it a miracle story, a metaphor, a history anecdote, or a description of ministry?
First, we should try our best to see what it meant to the author and readers. The first readers were first and second generation Christians in the city of Antioch. Mark was interested in having those people know that Jesus’ ministry sometimes crossed borders in order to include Gentiles like them. In the case of John, it is hard to find any reason for Jesus to have gone across the lake except for John. (Matthew implies that Jesus was escaping the mob that was following him, but a sizeable portion of the crowd came from the area to which Jesus went that night.) While he was there Jesus didn’t undertake anything else but to restore the poor fellow. Then Jesus charged him to stay among his own people and tell about what “the Lord had done” for him to show him mercy. The people in John’s 10-city region were ethnic Syrian-Greek people, as were those in Antioch. By the time the Gospel of Mark was compiled Paul had been converted and sent out as a missionary from Antioch. Greek-culture converts were beginning to form Christian assemblies (church congregations) and the first cultural crisis in church history was firing up. It was all about whether the culture of the Christian followers of Jesus was to be Jewish or indigenous. That was settled before long when the Jews pretty much all over the Roman Empire disinherited the Christians and the Christians tried to make it clear they were no part of the revolutionaries whom the Romans were trying to subdue in Jerusalem and Israel with the sacking of Jerusalem in the year 70 and the final battle in 125. Mark was telling his Antioch Christian kinfolks “Jesus began this when he crossed the stormy lake to get to John.”
Mark’s story of John was also a metaphor. John was deeply troubled, enslaved by a legion of demons, which Jewish folklore said was enough to kill any man. Such a man was beyond saving. John was surviving among the dead, waiting his turn. He was outcast, and in every identifiable way no longer a functional human being. But when Jesus commanded John’s captors to be gone from him, they went. Not without an argument, but they departed into a herd of swine, which became demented in place of fierce John. From an orthodox Jewish point of view John’s whole people and culture were outside the borders of salvation or concern. John was just the most extreme example. Yet, it was John, the impossible case, whom Jesus fully restored to humanity and gave a job to take up the rest of his life. Mark recalls that John told the story of his encounter with Jesus all over the territory. The story and the fact it was told first-hand were remembered far and wide for decades. The story of Jesus saving John was the first story of Jesus ever told in the 10 cities by one of their own people. “That’s how it works,” Mark was saying. “Nobody is so far gone they cannot be saved and then work to bring news about Jesus to their people.”
After we have identified the point of the story for the first audience we can ask what the story has meant throughout the ages. It was during the Middle Ages that the story inspired the imaginations of the mystics. They sought hidden meanings from the fact that there were 10 cities, that there were swine to be forfeited in place of John, that John was denied the right to join Jesus and his disciples on their way to the turning point of human history, and that the confrontation with Jesus restored him to society where he could wear clothes and converse like a normal human being. Jesus’ performance became a model for generations of exorcists and a golden text for dealing with witchcraft.
However, the validity of the interpretation of this or any story from Holy Scripture is what it says to readers in their context. The issue for us is how the story addresses the central event of our times. Not every story in the Holy Bible may do this, but the story of John does.
The central issue of our age is cultural entitlement. We are confronted on all sides with cultural battles. In the USA the lines tend to be mainly racial. In the Middle East they are sectarian. In Thailand they are ethnic.
John’s story is about how Jesus went about setting in motion cultural transformation. What Jesus did is address the critical issue of a community’s most desperate member. That person then became the agent to accomplish the next step. Time after time this is how Jesus worked. Often the critical need that got things started was for health and healing. Words came afterward. Twenty years later, when Paul was commissioned to take the story to new ethnic-Greek communities farther north, the 10 cities had thriving Christian groups. Those cities became places of sanctuary for refugees from the Roman wars in Palestine.
What was clear to Christians in Antioch from the writings of Mark as recounted by Luke and Matthew is sadly obscure to most Christian strategists now.
Just this week Pramote and I saw a group of Caucasians walking down the main road through our sub-district. They looked like tourists on foot, but they were handing out pieces of paper. Pramote concluded that they were “looking for merit”, which I would call “house to house evangelism.” Compared to Jesus’ way of doing things, these foreigners were wasting time. They had put words before everything, the cart before the horse. They were in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing to be effective. A short distance away, on a back lane was the man they should have been looking for. He is an addict, arrested several times, a major disturber of village well-being. He is so destructive and violent that even his mother has abandoned him and moved away to safety. He is the main reason the village is now listed as the #1 village for illegal drugs in the sub-district. Everyone is waiting for the police to raid his house and arrest him again. This time, surely, he will have some “tragic accident” in police custody and everyone will be relieved.
There on that back street is this village’s demented John. If those Christians could cure him of the demons that torment him it would plant seeds that would prosper. And the goal would be cultural transformation as that restored man’s story spreads. The goal of personal evangelism is accumulation of believers with addicts being among the least attractive. The goal of cultural transformation is peace and abundant life for a whole people. But cultural transformation takes decades and generations, and it is easily lost if the transformed culture succumbs to the lure of empire and becomes a tool for domination.
This is the 50th anniversary year of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday is a US national holiday this week on January 15 the anniversary of his birth. I have vivid personal memories of Dr. King and what he marched for, and how I followed. His Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in March 1965 was a major event for me.
When the US government ordered National Guard and US Army troops to safeguard the Freedom march after a bloody failed attempt ended when Alabama police rioted, Dr. King invited everyone to join in the last leg of the march from the Montgomery city limits to the steps of the state capitol building. Alabama Governor George Wallace has vowed to block the march and we were not sure what he would do that day. As I remember, four of us from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago announced our intention to travel to Montgomery for the march and got good wishes and some traveling money. We rode the train all night and arrived in plenty of time on March 25. There were an estimated 25,000 of us flooding the streets leading to the capitol building. Dr. King’s address was carried over loud speakers, even to us 3 blocks away. His most memorable quote was, “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. ... I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.” The march ended peacefully. After he spoke, we were among the first to leave for Union Station. Although the stewards and porters had been very attentive to us and expected us on the return trip, the GM&O would be leaving on schedule. We got back to Chicago in time for Friday classes.
I have often wondered, “What difference it made?” We swelled the crowd by a miniscule amount, as we had done on June 21, 1964 when we were 5 or 6 of 65,000 who walked behind Dr. King through the Chicago Loop to Soldier’s Field to hold the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights.
My closest experience in his presence was when he came to Athens Ohio to speak to the Triennial assembly of the World Student Christian Federation. I was in the choir on stage with him and had a chance to shake his hand. It is remembered that his speech congealed the Student Christian Movement and Christian students to join the US civil rights campaign and provided impetus for lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides, as well as other non-violent acts of defiance.
Back in my home town of Jacksonville, Illinois my senior year at Illinois College in 1961 was unlike other years in several ways, following the Athens Triennial conference. I was a chairman of the United Campus Christian Fellowship, and, along with countless other new civil rights activists, we decided to join the MacMurray College Wesley Fellowship in bringing civil rights to our town starting with Spatz’s ice cream parlor on East State Street. We were informed that students of color had to order their milk shakes and banana splits at an outside window along an alleyway. The district attorney had advised us that he would prosecute to end this racial injustice if we could gather state’s evidence. We formed two small student groups, one all white, and the other integrated, and entered the store a few minutes apart. The white group was served, but milkshakes for the integrated group never came. After a while the owner demanded that the second group leave since he had a sign posted that announced he “had the right to seat and serve” whomever he chose. We got his order to leave and the reason for it on cassette tape. The issue was in the newspaper and on radio. We heard that rather than have a repeat of the action, the movie theaters and other restaurants in town quietly ended their racist practices. My father was livid that commercial businesses could be bullied that way, and that his own son was one of the radicals. It was a new aspect of me he had not guessed I would develop. He joined George Wallace’s campaign for President to show his aggravation with the way Democrats like me were telling people how to run their lives.
It began with my failure to see how any of our friends in high school were significantly defined by color. It went on with my commitment to live as a Christian making a difference. But it would never have gotten beyond a philosophical point of view if it had not been for a half- hour in an ice cream parlor following a call to action by Dr. King.
It all comes back to me, as we get ready to mark the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.