On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States announced its 5 to 4 vote decision that all states must allow same-sex couples to get married on the same basis and with the same rights as heterosexual couples. In the USA the legal battle about this is over. It seems clear in retrospect that the court moved slowly and lower courts generated scores of decisions leading up to this, which also had the effect of increasing public awareness and agreement. This was on purpose. It was no lightning bolt out of a cloudless blue sky. The only legal recourse for opponents of marriage equality is to get the US Constitution amended to specifically designate marriage as the exclusive right of heterosexual couples. Apart from legal measures, opponents might resort to dramatic protests or even foment civil disobedience, or try to twist this decision to political advantage. Those measures will not stop same-sex marriages because the majority of US citizens and a very much larger majority of younger citizens who are of “marriage and family-raising” age support marriage equality. The political tide has turned and politicians will notice the diminishing prospects of opposing marriage equality. A constitutional convention to amend the constitution will not happen either, for the same reasons.
In any case, the Supreme Court decision is worth celebrating. It is remarkable and laudable. It signifies that LGBT couples have equal status under the law in the USA, and is a signal that all gender minorities should have that status. It is a major event that has been noticed by hopeful and homophobic people alike around the world. It is inspirational. But gay kids are still mistreated and victimized. Equal treatment of unmarried gay people is far from widespread achievement.
Two other issues are more lingering and perplexing. One is religious opposition and the other is civil disorder. Religious institutions have been moving slower than American society as a whole to embrace marriage equality and to advocate human equality recognition for LGBTIQ people. The anti-marriage-equality rhetoric following the Supreme Court decision has been overwhelmingly religious in tone and terminology no matter whether the pronouncements were from religious leaders or politicians.
An alliance has developed between religious conservative groups and political conservatives. Since “conservative” is a vague term I will define it this way: “conservatives are opposed to change”. They are selectively conservative. They identify particular issues that they oppose. Then they undertake strategies to limit the effects of changes on those issues and to achieve agreements for mutual support from groups working toward parallel goals. The alliances involve cooperation and compromise. Religious conservatives opposed to abortions (because they have become convinced abortions kill “babies” who “exist from the moment of conception”) have allied with other religious groups with which they would otherwise not be apt to cooperate, which oppose birth control as interference in the natural process of reproduction. In time they share one another’s terminology. This alliance then forms a tacit affiliation with those who see a threat to civil freedom as any restrictions are put on, say, the ownership and use of guns, which courts an alliance with free-market advocates opposed to labor unions, financial regulation, taxation and other such measures that restrict entrepreneurial freedom and threaten profits. Some of the alliances create unlikely bed fellows, and specific targets can be absurd and unpredicted. Overall, however, religious ultra-conservatives are declining as the Millennial Generation comes of age and replaces recalcitrant obstructionists.
Meanwhile, anger is a danger. As every counselor knows anger is a mask of fear of loss. During the past few decades rage and outrage have been on the rise in America. Some see it having come to a boil during the terms of office of President Obama. Others trace it back to 9-11 which was a pivotal event in the complex “oil and Israel” struggles. Others attribute this anger to lingering effects of deceptions by the government over the conduct of the Vietnam War. Or to the US Civil War and reconstruction. Whatever the etiology, the present levels of anger could lead to major unrest if these armed and dangerous groups should find a cause and a charismatic leader that unites them. A few months ago it looked like immigrant rights might inflame the mob. Since all demographic projections predict a steady rise in non-Caucasians in the USA, with Mexicans in the lead, immigrant rights is unlikely to fade. Racism is another ongoing threat to justice and harmony. Since the entire American justice and law apparatus is biased against (and afraid of) people of color, this too could erupt into widespread violence as it has in the past, creating hysterical polarities. There is a strain of anarchy in America that simply opposes being regulated and controlled – or ruthlessly utilized and expended. Rebellion is ever incipient in America.
It seemed as if LGBT causes might coalesce the radical right wing leading to some configuration of issues that breaks down into formation of armed militia and the secessation of Texas (with Louisiana and Alaska?) from the USA. Nothing is too ridiculous to imagine. If 10,000 Christian pastors did decide on a mass self-immolation or martyrdom (as Glenn Beck has promised) all bets about the future of the USA might then be off.
However, all in all, I predict that the marriage equality struggle in the USA will turn out to be diversionary, temporarily diverting attention from more basic unresolved issues. [Which, of course, would leave LGBTIQ issues unresolved.] Consider this, the nation was built of immigrant groups, one after another, using the technology of effective ships to overcome the barrier of the wide oceans, to migrate and bully their way into sustainable residence, as migrating groups have always done since the dawn of the human race. New technologies always have facilitated these movements, but older techniques (like just walking in) are never completely ruled out. In the end power changes hands. Privileges brought by power are passed on to others. Those “in” are nudged aside. They don’t like it.
Insofar as marriage equality is concerned, it is a symbol that masculine Caucasians and their cultural formulations, having lost their empires in the last century, are now losing dominance even at home. That frightens them.
Electricity came to the town of Prao in 1982. Prao is 100 kilometers north of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai City alone had 24-hour electrical service in Chiang Mai Province in 1962. Most hill villages had just gotten electricity by 2002 and the grid was in place by then.
It was interesting in Prao that year, 1982. In the town there was a small electricity plant that ran on diesel fuel brought in barrels by truck. The electricity was on from dusk to about 10 p.m. High voltage lines were coming over the mountains to Prao that year. There were concrete electricity poles along the roadways to the nearby villages. Some buildings and homes in those villages had fans and fluorescent lights installed in readiness. Some homes had TVs that ran on car batteries, but the overall sense was anticipation. The era of electricity had not fully gotten to Prao by mid-year 1982, but it was there by Christmas.
So what did people do before electricity?
Illumination was the main need. Village life may thrive from sunup to sundown, but some people are up earlier and others go to bed later. Commerce and money were functional in the pre-electrification era, the “passing” era. During that time people used candles, coal-oil (kerosene) lamps and pressurized gas lamps. Flashlights were available but not cost-efficient for extended use. Those with special need and resources bought or rented gasoline powered electricity generators but they were noisy and expensive. In Prao every village home had a few kerosene lamps. The cheapest were made out of condensed milk cans with a metal tube soldered on to hold a wick (see the picture above). A better model was a lantern with a wide wick and glass globe. Candles made of paraffin were cheap and ubiquitous. But people went to bed before it got late.
As for everything else that ran on electricity, village life did without most of that. Meat was butchered, sold fresh and consumed that day. Ice was available, brought from the city, a 3-hour trip (so you can guess how often village people had ice). Nigh-time village entertainment was sporadic, but very well attended because of its infrequency. As I remember, in Prao it consisted of likay folk drama productions by traveling troupes, Thai boxing matches, ram wong dances, and movies sponsored by soap companies. These were often part of a temple fair or fundraising/merit-making event. A funeral also necessitated accommodating a crowd at night. Pressurized gas lamps, called jao pa-yu (literally “storm lords”) provided light, and battery powered sound amplification set-ups helped the evening sermon be heard, although those who wanted to hear joined the inner crowd, while those on the outskirts gambled or fixed the refreshments that ended the evening. Jao pa-yu were almost always group purchases since they cost as much as a month’s salary in those days.
The “passing era” of gas lamps, candles, and ice is mostly over now, and it’s as far back as most people can remember. But there was a time, completely “past”, when coal oil and metal lamps were not available. What did people use in those earlier times? According to the old people I asked, their grandparents made do with candles and bonfires. Kitchen areas had an open fire place where family gravitated. People carried little candles when they had to move around, and they took full advantage of natural light from the moon. Pine faggots also helped people see along dark pathways on the rare occasions they needed to go anywhere late at night.
In this “present” time of full electrification I cannot accurately count the things in our house alone that run on electricity, although if the power goes out we turn on an emergency power supply to run the aerator pump for the fish tank, and we still have candles ready, along with flashlights.
Did the coming of electricity make a major change in village culture? Yes and no. Yes, the era of rural electrification brought convenience, leisure time and extended possibilities. Yes, electricity became an instant necessity, requiring steady payments of money. Yes, electricity was an entire lifestyle package, including refrigerators, water pumps, home entertainment, and more. All this was more expensive that normal farm profits provided. Somebody had to work for a salary or the household lagged behind the neighbors. Social gaps widened. The village exodus began. So, yes electricity changed village culture. But the change was slow and incremental. As the profile of Prao in 1982 indicates, some electricity came years earlier than full electrification. People knew what to expect and actively worked for it. Early electricity bills were not onerous, roughly the same cost as petrol for a motorcycle per month. It did not seem as if life changed much. It just became easier.
In 2009 Rev. Steve Parelli and his spouse Jose Ortiz (pictured above) visited us in Chiang Mai and began a low-key work of building bridges and opening doors for LGBT people in Christian churches in Thailand. Steve and Jose are officers of Other Sheep (see:www.othersheep.org), an organization dedicated to networking and communication between LGBT Christians around the world. On their annual summer trips they encourage local initiatives to repair the damage done by fearful and hateful Christians, and sometimes to reduce the danger vulnerable gay, lesbian and transgender people endure.
This July-August they are coming back to Thailand. They would like to visit Christian LGBT advocates when they are in Bangkok. They are conducting a get-together on July 23 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Amari Don Muang Airport Hotel right across from the Don Muang Airport in the Bangkok area. They will be back in Bangkok and eager to meet folks from August 23 to 29. Contact Steve email@example.com or through Facebook under the name of Stephen Parelli.
When they are in Chiang Mai, three of us, the Rev. Sanan Wutti, Fr. Iain Baxter and I, are arranging a meeting on Friday, August 14 from9 to noon at the AIDS Ministry Office on Rattanakosin Road (Old Doi Saket Road) across from the front gate of the McGilvary College of Divinity of Payap University. We will hear about the challenging work of Other Sheep and we will discuss the question, “Is It Time Yet?” to help Thai churches open their ministries to people of diverse genders. We will decide if it is the right time to provide a book in Thai, call for a conference, look for “more light” congregations, and decide on an action plan. The meeting is open, but space is limited, so let me know if you’d like to come. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 081 764 7656.
What are the circumstances for LGBT people in Thailand? Are we “in paradise” as Steve said, somewhat euphemistically, in a Facebook posting this week? The standard answer is that we are tolerated rather than being either accepted or unremarkable. We are remarked upon, and not always kindly. It still takes courage to “come out of the closet” and churches still bar the way to leadership roles for those of us who do. There are few organizations with enough power to challenge the legal barriers to full equality and no voice being heard to argue against conservative Christian views that being gay is an invalid, sinful lifestyle choice. The situation is just as bad in Buddhism. Homophobia is a culture-wide phenomenon. But tolerance of us is better than intolerance. It is not illegal to be gay, as it is in half the other ASEAN countries. No para-religious gangs are hunting us down as they are in some of the countries Steve and Jose have visited. I can openly announce our August 14 meeting with confidence we will be unmolested. The key in this culture is families. As long as families are OK with some members being queer, communities will be quiet about it.
There are no LGBT organized churches in Thailand and only one developing “progressive” congregation that I know of, but that is progress. There have been no anti-gay demonstrations since the politically instigated one here in Chiang Mai 4 or 5 years ago, and that was the only one, ever, I believe. That’s a few meters short of paradise, but better than terror.
Nevertheless, it is a rather pathetic church that refuses to recognize that some of its sheep are missing; and the number being left out is more than one in a hundred (see Luke 15:4) … a lot more.
Pinto (ปิ่นโต) food carrier pans were once found in every house. They are made of metal with metal straps so they can be stacked and carried. They were lunch buckets to convey prepared food. They are now artifacts. Most people know what they are and remember using them, and might even be able to lay hands on a set hanging in the rafters somewhere along with other utensils that are “still good”. But they are now hardly ever used, not even for taking food to the monks in the monastery, which was probably their last regular use.
Once we have focused on pinto pans, the question is what replaced them and what did they replace? If school students no longer carry pinto pans to school nor villagers use them to bring food to relatives, how does food get transported? The short answer is “plastic bags”. Since a large percentage of the population carries at least part of their meals home nearly ready to eat each day, millions of plastic bags are used and thrown away. Tons of plastic pellets are turned into bags by an industry dedicated to making pinto pans obsolete. School students buy their lunches; cash in the pocket has replaced pinto pans for them.
One observation leads to another. Why were pinto pans abandoned? The reason is mostly the perception of convenience and cost. The pans had to be carried both ways, to and from, and kept track of in between, as well as cleaned. They were also a somewhat expensive investment; they were enameled metal, durable but costly. (The pinto set above is a ceremonial stack made of anodized aluminum to resemble embossed silver.) Plastic bags are thought of as free. Even the merchant-cook thinks of a bag as an inconsequential part of the operating cost, like gas for the stove. Costs to the environment that come from plastic production and disposal of once-used bags are at a distance. They are borne by others and factored into remote categories of accountability, or are ignored.
We could also ask what pinto pans, and particularly their obsolescence, tell us about the lifestyle of Northern Thai villagers. That would lead us into questions about changes of diet, food preparation as a vanishing social, the dominance of a money economy and its impact on human dignity, and on and on. We have not considered what came before pinto pans. Before people had money what did they use instead of pinto pans? Remembering that the purpose of the pans is to carry food when it is to be consumed away from home, village elders will tell you that they used to carry their lunches in little baskets woven just for that purpose from split bamboo. (See the example above.) That opens another area to consider. Who knew how to weave those baskets? Were there various designs? And ultimately, why and to what extent did pinto pans replace them?
In fact, rice baskets are still used to carry and temporarily store cooked sticky rice, but the baskets evoke thoughts of yesteryear. They symbolize the past even though they are still useful. Indeed, their use is expanded. They are as apt to store coins or packets of medicine or cosmetics around the house as rice. They have even been refined into handbags for women. They are marketed to tourists without reference to any particular use. One of the signs of an eclipsing aspect of culture is when its equipment is re-defined.
In the earlier era, before money and commerce, necessary items were made locally or home made. That was the case with houses made of bamboo. When money became available metal products became common. This represented a step toward specialization in which people could concentrate on work at which they were most productive of profit, and not every family had to be self-reliant for everything. That era is passing quickly as a new generation arrives which prefers to avoid activities that deprive them of personal time. Technology facilitates leisure time, and then fills it.
The daily food question in a Northern Thai village is, “What shall we fix to go with the rice?” Since this is a basic necessity, it can be a key to understanding village culture.
In village life the answer to the question is another question, “What’s available?” In most village homes one thing that is always available is some form of chili sauce or paste. So the question of what to build the meal around takes rice and chilies for granted.
Many meals in North Thailand feature soup, a marker of Lanna culture. It is a rare day one does not see at least one person in our village gathering sprigs of something from roadside bushes and vines. Depending on the season that will be the main ingredient is the day’s soup.
In the picture above, our neighbor on the ladder is gathering red leaflets that have popped out. She will turn them into a once-a-year bitter “blood leaf” soup. Our tree attracted a steady stream of gatherers for a couple of days. We had dok khae earlier that our sister collected each morning to sell. They were either turned into soup or, more likely, stuffed with minced port and fried. (See the pictures of stuffed, fried dok khae). Since these are seasonal, availability dominates desire. One can’t just decide any old day, “Oh, I have a hankering for stuffed khae flowers.”
Our house is surrounded by two rai (.8 acre) of garden. I have taken an inventory of more than 30 growing plants that produce something edible. We have 2 kinds of mangoes, 3 kinds of bananas, coconuts, papayas, lameye, ma-yom, chompuu, jackfruit, and at least 10 kinds of herbs and chilies.
Not everybody has this variety, but some have more and everybody has something. In addition, lots of houses have a few chickens, rabbits, ducks or fish. One or two have cows. Pigs are smelly, so our village does without them.
In our village there is no fresh market, but there are 3 roadside tables (see: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/mobile-market). There are at least 3 storefront shops selling things to eat and use. People supplement what they forage and grow with a few pinches of meat, chicken, or a fish, to provide protein and flavor for the soup or stir-fried dish to go with the rice.
This sort of food culture is passing away. In almost every family there is someone who goes to work and comes home at night. One task might be to stop at a food stand and pick up a couple of plastic bags of food, called kap or kap khaw (literally, “with” or “with rice”). A Northern Thai greeting is “What did you eat with your rice?” The time is coming when homes will hardly have cooking facilities. That is already true in new apartments in town.
In the past, before there was much money, food was hunted and gathered. It occupied part of every day. During certain seasons the effort was major, involving forays far from home. Meat of any type was rare. Northern Thai cuisine evolved from that background. Menus were unpredictable and opportunistic. Still, the incredible variety of edible ingredients meant that there was usually something to go with the rice.
Poverty was when, “We ate our rice with a little salt.”
Famine was when the rice ran out.
Rohingyas are this region’s current humanitarian crisis, but this latest ethnic minority disaster is bogged down in rhetoric that prevents rather than facilitates action. The situation, I believe, is that an ethnic sub-group of Muslim people have been effectively disowned by Burma where they reside. Some of them were there due to arbitrary borders designated at the dissolution of the British Empire after World War II. Burma fancies itself a union, although sections of the population have a strong desire for independence since the Burman military government persists in ignoring their voices and suppresses them, sometimes ruthlessly. After 50 years of near civil war nothing has been resolved, although the will to keep fighting has dwindled, and the struggle has evolved into the sort of political situation often found in a repressive police state in the aftermath of horrendous civil conflict.
That brings us to the Rohingyas, and the matter of rhetoric.
This week past, the United Nations confronted the Burmese government. Burma’s most recognized person, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been roundly criticized for persistently refusing to speak out on the situation. The Thai government is engaged in a man-hunt for the “mastermind” behind scores of murders (or deaths from some causes) of Rohingya refugees in the process of being trafficked into slavery. Boat loads of Rohingya people are adrift in the Andaman Sea and late reports are that a floating slave market has been set up in international waters. Meanwhile, Buddhist monks are fanning ethnic riots against Rohingya people who remain in Burma, and people who call this “religious extremism” are being imprisoned in Burma.
Somebody should do something. But who? And what?
As I understand it, the Burmese government and most of the people in Burma reject the idea that the Rohingya Muslim ethnic people are an identifiable political entity. They are like Cajun people in Louisiana or Hispanic people in Chicago. They cannot BE refugees. That, precisely, is the reason for the Burmese government, Aung San Suu Kyi, Christian Churches in Burma, and ASEAN not wanting to participate in talks where the term Rohingya is equivalent to a separate political entity. A lot of blood has been spilled in Burma over this “stubbornness” to keep identifying political entities that do not exist … at least they are not recognized by the government of Burma. The simple fact is that as far as the government of Burma is concerned, ethnicity does not count politically.
Yes, I know how absurd that sounds when clearly being ethnic Burman counts a lot in Burma. We’ll come back to ethnic privilege and cleansing a little later.
What is to be done with those boatloads of people? And what about the abuse, mayhem and persecution being inflicted on those same ethnic people who remain in Burma? That, of course, is the issue that has caught the world’s attention and spurred the UN to action (insofar as calling a meeting is action). These human beings need help.
For a while the help provided when a boatload came close to somebody’s shore was to give them food and fuel and send them on. Or just sent them away. It is alleged that some boatloads were victimized, however, by being enslaved or robbed. Very recently, we hear, Indonesia and Malaysia have begun to take these people ashore. The Philippines will, too, if they can get there. In Thailand there is reluctance to do that until it becomes clear that someone will pay the bills, as the UN has been doing for decades with other refugees encamped in Thailand.
People in Burma believe the Rohingya people have not always been in Burma. They migrated there to get better living conditions than in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Therefore, they should go back, Burmese radicals say. They are a threat to Burmese culture. Bangladesh wants nothing to do with another million people in a nation already impoverished.
The reason the Rohingya have begun to move, some to marginal land in the south of Burma and some onto boats to get still farther away, is that they have been targeted for attacks. Small incidents and rumors and sometimes sermons by radical Buddhist monks set incendiary mobs in motion. Now, this is strange for a country under military rule where even peaceful gatherings can be suppressed. Some say the explanation as to why the military has not put an end to these attacks is that the military is behind the violence. The junta wants the Rohingya gone, or maybe they want the Rohingya to be vilified – turned into an enemy to distract from unhappiness with the junta. Perhaps it is not coincidental that until this convenient merger of religion and patriotism it was Buddhist monks whom the junta treated as the greatest threat.
Whatever the truth is, it is unlikely that a solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis will come from within the vicinity. Where then should the Rohingya and their advocates look for help?
One way to consider this Rohingya crisis is to view it as another incident of ethnic cleansing. The legacy of colonialism is “mis-matched ethnic components in post-colonial countries”. It is hard to count the number of incidents in which a former big country split and left ethnic fragments in danger from ethnic majorities who wanted them gone one way or another. A second generation of splintering has sometimes done that again. There are variations on the theme, as in the case of Palestinians in Israel and Christians in Iraq. There are exceptions, as in the case of South Africa. If the Rohingya matter is like other ethnic expulsion crises, then what should be done is what worked in those cases.
Alas, the record is not promising. It seems that in virtually every case response was mobilized too late to provide much help. Sending in military forces to stop the atrocities and resettle the minorities back where they were leaving takes time and stupendous will power. Can anyone imagine a UN “peacekeeping” force deployed in Burma?
Incentives are another possibility. What would it take to bribe the Burmese government to settle the crisis? What does the Burmese government want that it does not have that the “world community” could provide. On the whole, that course seems the more salubrious and the way less often tried.
Meanwhile, the murder and trafficking has to be stopped.
For a brief historical overview of the plight of the Rohingya, see this article published in the June 2015 edition of The Economist.
I want to pay tribute to OUT in Thailand magazine and to James Barnes, the editor and brains behind this publication adventure, now as May draws to a close, the first month in more than four years that a printed edition has not appeared on the counters and coffee tables of our gay venues here in the Land of Smiles.
The first issue was printed in January 2011. It was unique among gay periodicals in Thailand in that it was original from cover to cover without articles or features derived from other sources. Readers either read the articles in OUT in Thailand or they missed them. This magazine was written for us. Furthermore, the articles were intended for a discerning readership rather than entirely for tourists to scan between drinks and a trip down the street to one of the massage parlors advertised with a helpful map.
James was rightly proud of his exclusive interviews. Some of us wondered how he did it. His scoops led off with an interview of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, and who also got a 10 minute standing ovation this year (2015) for a short film; the interview appeared in March 2011. It was followed the next year by an interview of iconic Boy George (Oct. ’12), Zachary Quinto (the second Dr. Spock in the “Star Trek” series) in May ‘13, and Anderson Cooper in March ’14. He conducted most of these interviews himself, but his major coup of an exclusive interview of Hillary Clinton was done by a friend and appeared in two parts last November and December, 2014.
Aside from these once-a-year headline articles, OUT talked about popular culture that gay men are interested in and about gay undertakings – new businesses, gay pride events, and important issues about health and finances. People with a publishing background commented on the stunning format, the photography, print values, and layout, which were unmatched. This went on for 4 years and 4 months getting better and better. It was not long after the beginning that an on-line edition of OUT in Thailand expanded readership several fold and began to attract readers and subscriptions from more than 50 countries.
As a regular contributor to OUT, what do I think James accomplished? I’ll just make a list:
· OUT continued to emphasize that gay people are valuable in society.
· OUT identified role models to show the young generation some heroes.
· Readership expanded to include 50% Thai gay guys, unprecedented for an English language periodical.
· OUT pushed the prejudices of older white expats here in Thailand.
· James kept articles timely and interesting.
· The magazine provided health and financial info for gays living in Thailand.
· OUT was a valuable resource for thousands of gays coming to Thailand to visit.
· OUT encouraged young gay guys to be proud and brave…as proven by testimonials, most of which James did not mention in print.
· OUT avoided consumerism of slick-paper gay periodicals that profile gays as up-scale snobs.
· James was unfailingly respectful of Thai culture.
· He encouraged gay enterprises, artists and writers.
· He strove to improve information about gay venues in Thailand and continued to shorten the time between updates, helping travelers find places that were still in operation rather than recently closed.
· James pressed Thai commercial enterprises to recognize the size, diversity and purchasing power of their gay clientele.
I predict that some Thai gay historian in the future will remind his colleagues of how OUT in Thailand was where the new generation first heard about the demise of the gay-straight binary, the progress toward gay rights in South East Asia, the diversity of gay experiences in Thailand, the need for better sex education, and international gay media. It hasn’t all been about gray-haired foreigners, like me, trying to find good places to go in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Mai. The cutting edge hasn’t included us at all, with the possible exception of James and one or two like him.
The unique character of Thai Buddhism is clearest in its rites and celebrations. But there are manifestations of diverse religious elements blended into Buddhist temple art as well. Everywhere you look there are pre-Buddhist hints and extraneous impositions. Sometimes temple art is the main thing that relates Buddhism to its setting and gives it residency. At the same time, often it is art that expands Buddhism’s scope.
Berm is a specialist. He is a temple artist. His main work is colorful temple frescoes. Most village temples have wall paintings. In fact, I don’t know of a Thai Buddhist temple that does not. Traditionally, the paintings are of legendary events in the life of the Lord Buddha. Often there are other sets which portray village history or customs. In the village of Ta Pong, San Pa Tong District, the vihara is adorned with a set of paintings that I think Berm did that show the founding of the village, evolution of the temple and various festivals. Old paintings in a temple in Nan are the most famous thing about the town.
This year Berm has been commissioned to produce a set of temple doors and window shutters for a temple in Chachoengsao, east of Bangkok. The panels are solid teak and are about a meter by two meters by an inch and a half thick. The doors are much larger. The work involves finding wood to meet these specifications, which is extremely difficult, and then cutting the panels. They must be sanded to a velvety finish and then carefully covered with 7 to 10 coats of black lacquer. Each coat is allowed to dry and kept free of dust. The final coats are polished to a patent-leather luster.
Then the delicate work begins. Every panel is unique. The shutters and doors come in pairs. Each pair is a work of art. The temple in Chachoengsao chose pictures of divinities for their windows. The artist copied the pictures from the restoration project of Wat Ram Poeng (Tapotaram) at the foot of Doi Sutape in Chiang Mai. Using a picture book for reference, Berm produced full size drawings on paper – in the same way stained glass window makers work from what they call a “cartoon”. The cartoon was painted on the lacquer panels by hand and then gold foil was applied. The process gives new meaning to the word “tedious” but the results are spectacular.
In the pictures accompanying this account we see the cartoon of พระพาย the god of storms and the finished panel ofพระพิรุณ the god of rain. The pairs of window panels Berm has finished include the following:
พระวันทร์ the god of those born on Monday, holding a lotus in full bloom, astride (standing on) a horse
พระอาทิฅย์ the god of those born on Sunday, holding a bow, astride a lion
พระพุธ the god of those born on Wednesday, holding an open scroll in the right hand and a lotus in full bloom in the left, astride an elephant
พระอังคาร the god of those born on Thursday, holding an axe in the right hand with his left hand at his side, astride a buffalo
พระศุกร์ the god of those born on Friday, holding a sword in its sheath with both hands, astride an ox
พระพฤหัสบดี the god of those born on Thursday, holding a cudgel, astride a golden stag
พระยม the god who judges and protects all spirits in the world of hell, the god of death, holding a bared sword in his right hand and a flower (or feather) in his left, astride a barn owl
พระเสาร์ the god of those born on Saturday, holding a shield in his right hand and a bared sword in his left, astride a tiger (he is the son of พระอาทิตย์ )
พระอัคคี the god of fire and therefore of cremations, with his right palm in the attitude of forbidding or preventing and with a hand-held trident in his left, astride a horse
พระโสมเทพ the god who dispenses light in the evening, deity of beauty and attractiveness, and also god of liquor (intoxicants), astride a deer
พระพิรุณ god of rain, holding an open lotus in his right hand and a bared sword pointed downward in his left, mounted on a Naga
พระพาย the god of wind and storms both on earth and in heaven, holding a sword with the point upward in his right hand and a curly cloud or wisp of wind in his left, astride a deer
พระแม่ธรณี goddess of the land and of earth, standing on rocks wringing out her hair
พระราหู god of those born on Wednesday night, holding a bloom in his right hand and a large orb (or rattle) in his left, astride a giant
To a large extent these panels define Thai design. The complex curves are characteristic of Thai design. The work is organic rather than geometric, but absolutely symmetrical just the same. There is no attempt at perspective, but every effort is spent on intricate detail. The lines fold and undulate, overlap and disappear in ways that are hopeless to follow but never random or haphazard. The effect is to force the observer to pay attention to the central figure and fathom its meaning and identity from clues that are all but hidden. For example,Phra Pi Run’s partner Phra Pai, the god of storms, has a bolt of lightning amid clouds over his head, rendered in about five lines buried among intricate details. The significance of the characters are underscored by the way they are astride their mounts, standing with their miniature beasts beneath their feet, in the same way that divinities in Egypt and Babylon were larger than the minions worshiping them. In Asian art it is a sign of reverence to be symbolically beneath the feet of divinities.
But why are Thai Buddhist temples featuring divinities at all? A monk speaking at an international conference in April 2015 asked this question, and concluded the laity are uninformed when they include reverence to divinities in their faith system. Divinities, the monk insisted, were a pre-Buddhist way of propping up the social hierarchy with a parallel sacred hierarchy. The solution, the monk proposed, was better education. It probably does not undermine the monk’s argument to point out that most temple art without direct Buddhist reference are not gods, but portray classical creatures derived from the Ramakien, and demi-gods like those that abound at Angkor Wat, both sources which are important mythic supports to the concept of Thai royalty as semi or somehow divine.
This line of reasoning, that the laity need to be educated away from interest in gods and divinities, is common among Thai Buddhists with advanced education – and (I dare say) whose perspectives are at a distance from village life with its dependence on the thick mixture of supernatural with doctrinal-scriptural practices. Academic Buddhists spurn supernaturalism as superstition and work to reduce its influence. But supernaturalism is an aspect of popular Buddhism that defies argumentation. Only superior art will succeed against it.
In an effort to wean laity away from attention to gods of the days of the week, images of the Lord Buddha in various poses for various days of the week are now being featured. The reclining Buddha represents Tuesday, for example, rather than Phra Ankarn.
It is entirely possible that the best known secondary school in the world is fictitious. It doesn’t exist, at least not in the same sense as Harrow and Eton. But, to borrow a phrase, just because Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry exists only in the imaginations of millions of Harry Potter fans “why on earth would that mean it is not real?”
I am a die-hard Harry Potter fan, as readers of this blog may know. Earlier in the year I composed an essay on “Wisdom from Wizards about Death” and now I have one on “Hogwarts Education”. I think I am in the process of writing a full-length set of reflections on the worldview of Harry Potter by which to get a perspective about our own Muggle world.
To see if you are a Harry Potter fan just ask yourself, (1) do I have an opinion about whether Luna is more imaginative than Myrtle? (2) Does Dudley have any pets? Fans know that Luna Lovegood is probably the brightest student in her year and second only to Hermione, and Dudley Dursley can’t even keep his solid steel possessions whole, so he’s never been given a puppy and besides his mother’s a neatness freak.
If you, too, are a Harry Potter fan who has read the 7 books and seen the 8 movies I would direct you to the essay. Find it here: Hogwarts Education. Feel free to skip the rest of this blog.
If you are not a Harry Potter fan let me cut to the chase.
I believe that the most important aspect of educating young people between the ages of 10 to 20 is character development. This is apparently not widely identified as “most important” because few schools measure student character development and presume to have any responsibility for it. It is on no report cards or transcripts.
Forging ahead with my little contribution on adolescent educational philosophy, I think there are two basic aspects of character development: SOCIALIZATION and INDIVIDUATION.
Socialization involves acquisition of (1) appreciation of human diversity, (2) disdain for artificial qualifiers for respect and dignity, (3) concern for the disadvantaged, (4) commitment to the general well-being.
Individuation is the process of becoming able to distinguish one’s self from one’s context and from confusion about self. I contend there are four indicators of success: (1) sensitivity to a transcendent and aesthetic dimension of life, (2) resourcefulness, namely skill in application of intelligence and imagination, (3) strength to overcome adversity, (4) discovery of self (one’s authentic identity).
The individual student, parents, and school are in a 3-way partnership to achieve these goals of secondary education. The partners must be clear about how each partner is independent and yet cooperative, otherwise character development will fail to be an educationalundertaking. Character will develop even if one or the other of the partners is not functional or if certain elements are missing, but the end result will not be as complete and multi-faceted as it could be.
Finally, suppose that character development and spiritual formation are, as I have suggested, the most important educational undertakings of the adolescents of the world for their own worth and for sustaining humanity and suppose that we are not intentionally doing it. What could we expect except that great battles will take place to make up for this fundamental failure of civilization? I personally hope we can quit having these culture wars and stop making schools the battle grounds.
Let’s say we can divide my life into three 25-year segments, and let’s call the anniversaries jubilees.
The first jubilee came in May 1965. The first 25 years were all about growing up and becoming me. I graduated from full-time higher education on my 25th birthday, May 14, and was ordained into full-time Christian ministry in the Presbyterian Church USA two days later.
Then I came to Thailand and began ministry. This career involved three decades of pastoral work as a missionary in Chiang Mai, Thailand and as pastor of churches in Ohio and Illinois. During this time our family life evolved. I explored writing and photography as avocations.
The third segment was one of dizzying change. Our two children began lives on their own. My first marriage ended and a radically different one began. I undertook a new form of ministry that settled into higher education administration. I established my identity as gay and thereby withered my relationship with the church. Now, at the end of the third jubilee on my 75th birthday I am engaged in a full-time avocation of eclectic writing.
If I were going to list life accomplishments they would necessarily be of two types: those that have lapsed and need not be remembered by me because nobody else does, and those that have been continued until now new generations have taken them over and well know what an accumulation of contributions made that happen so that my small bit matters less than those of others.
On this anniversary it is my life evolutions that I want to inventory.
1. I began as a white farm boy, discovered a world of cultures of color and became color-blind, a condition some still insist is impossible until they see the color-blended life I live.
2. I marched, sat and sang for civil rights, feeling caught up and changed and at odds with my heritage. Then I was caught up and changed by the cold war, being right where its hot front edge was being launched from air bases in Thailand and going back to where it was being opposed in the streets in Chicago and Ohio (think: Kent State). Now I am again caught up as the church shudders and agonizes over gay rights and dignity. I envy the pastors I aspired to emulate who did not find themselves in the loyal minority on every big issue of our times.
3. I dedicated myself to a career of church leadership, prospered in that role, discovered the church was unwilling to requite my commitment if they could not dictate the risks, and had to come to terms with being retired from church leadership.
4. I have developed a level of regret I did not see coming that the Christian Church has chosen to be adversarial with regard to other varieties of faith. I simply fail to see how any of our world religions has a basis to be ungrateful for insights from the others.
More than anything, I am grateful for friends and family who have endured and sometimes enjoyed my enthusiasms, crises, changes of lifestyle, and mutating goals.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.