Easter is about guessing where Jesus is.
Rin Rong could have been one of the most beautiful villages in the northernmost region of Thailand, but it was in most ways desolate. The lanes were rutted after a season of rains. A funeral wagon pulled by nearly every able-bodied person in the village lumbered through Rin Rong. Death is no respecter of convenience.
Young Chang stood on the wagon to steady the casket. He stood straight and tall, sweating in the blazing sun as it passed his house make of sheets of beaten bamboo laced with wire. Two little children crawled to the door at the sound of the procession, and seeing their older brother on the funeral wagon, leapt to the ground and sped off to join the parade.
The only other man not pulling on the wagon was the opposite of Chang, whose interest in Jesus was marginal. Elder Ensin loved the Lord Jesus with a fierce and urgent devotion. He was an upright man who memorized scripture to lighten his way as readily as he tried to enlighten the way for others. It was Elder Ensin who had sold half a sack of rice to pay for the coffin they were soon to inter in the ground. If ever any man was selfless and God-fearing and deserved to be called upright it was Elder Ensin. But it was a wild irony, for he was so terribly afflicted with curvature of the spine that when he sat on the floor with his legs folded, his chin hovered only a foot above his ankles, and when he rode his bicycle, since he could not walk any distance, he had to steer by peering under the handle bars.
Elder Ensin loved and was loved by the Christians of Rin Rong. When his house had burned they contributed the poles to build a new one and donated sacks to glue to sticks for walls. When his spine collapsed they carried him to a bus stop and brought him to a hospital to save his life. Elder Ensin had been taught by an itinerant preacher how to peel thin strips of bamboo and to dye them into brilliant colors to weave into elaborate hair pins. Elder Ensin was forever grateful for whatever the church bestowed upon him. Even when the fad passed for this one thing he could produce he remained iridescent with love of Jesus and gratitude to the Church.
The funeral procession turned off the main path and began to ascend into a jungle patch of wild thorns and bamboo thicket. Elder Ensin struggled to keep his bicycle upright in the rutted path. Chang struggled to keep the casket upright as the wagon lurched from side to side.
Chang had relinquished a day of labor to help with this funeral. His sacrifice meant that no one at home would eat that night, a not infrequent occurrence. Chang and his family would have perished if his were the only source of funds for his sickly mother and her 5 children still at home. But there was another source.
As Chang climbed down from the wagon at the edge of the clearing that served as the jungle cemetery, a diminutive young woman with long hair stepped out of the shadows and pressed a roll of small brown bank notes into his hand and shrank back again. Chang pretended not to notice that he has just received $3 or $4. He casually deposited the cash in his pocket. Privately, however, Chang was not so casual. He ached to run after her, he longed to speak to her and tell her about the troubles at home. He wanted to tell her he loved her and respected her because she was his older sister. He wanted to say how much it mattered she was doing all she could to help her desperate family survive and that it didn’t matter that she had become a prostitute to do it. But she was gone.
No one had seen her but Elder Ensin. No one except him had seen her act of brave compassion for her family. And no one else could have understood if they had seen it. Elder Ensin viewed things, even peering under the handle bars as he had to view them, from the perspective of Jesus.
This reminiscence from 1982 is from my collection, EMERALD VALLEY CHRONICLES: Stories of a team of Christian seminary students at work in village churches in Thailand. Names have been changed. The picture above is the last and perhaps the only one ever taken of “Elder Ensin” a few weeks before he died, with Samarn Chaisathan, leader of our seminary team.
What do you do if your parent doesn’t get to heaven? How do you even know?
The Wanna clan (Pramote’s father’s family and ancestors) have been living in the area of the Jom Jaeng temple for generations. Half the people in the village are relatives to some extent. One branch has just about all moved away, but their family homestead is still there at # 123 with one remaining daughter and her family. Their connection to Pramote is that they have the same great-grandfather.
A while back, a daughter who now lives in the North East section of the country had a dream in which she learned that her parents were part of a cluster of deceased ancestors who were hanging around the family home. They had not departed into heaven within 7 days after cremation as folklore said they should have done. That was ominous. Vagrant spirits can become vindictive. Anything to help them gain the spiritual power to move on would be good.
But a dream might be just a dream.
Quite independently Pramote’s younger brother, Yut, had a dream, too. In his dream his father, who died last September, appeared and told him that he was still in the area. He directed Yut to notice the house number where he said he was staying. The house was # 123. Paw instructed Yut to place a lottery bet on that number. Yut, naturally, did as he had been ordered, even though a dream might be just a dream. This dream turned out to be a winner, bringing Yut nearly a thousand dollars (30,000 baht, a record for the family).
When word got around about Yut’s good fortune, the story got back to the distant cousin. She was astounded. The fact that both cousins had had a dream about the family spirits could not be ignored. The family decided they should organize a merit-making event in behalf of their ancestors.
Songkran is the traditional New Year, a three day event. The first day, according to Northern Thai tradition is the last day of the old year. The second day, is a day to start over and move into the new year. It is a day of religious ceremonies, beginning at dawn with merit-making in behalf of the ancestors by name. Tissue paper banners are brought to be inserted in a symbolic mountain made of sand; these will wave in the breeze caused by spirits passing by, we are told. Bags of food are brought to the temple in behalf of departed parents and grandparents. There is then a tak bahtr ritual presentation of rice to priests. And in mid-morning, sacred water is used to wash Buddha images (and usually to bathe the monks). That is the day also to honor surviving elders of one’s parent’s generation. The third day is for traveling to visit distant religious sites where holy events took place involving primal parents and to honor patrons.
In other words, Songkran is very much focused on elders and ancestors.
The Wanna clan decided to hold a merit-making ceremony on the last day of the year, the first day of Songkran. The place, of course, was house #123. A chapter of 10 priests was recruited to chant stanzas for half an hour. The purpose of those stanzas was two-fold: to accrue merit as all chanting of Dharma does, and to transfer the merit magically to the credit of the ancestors. Chanting is very meritorious, and sponsoring such chanting is equally good. Then the family made offerings of rice to the monks, which is also meritorious. A lay leader recited a long, involved chant to relinquish the merit in behalf of ancestors whom he named, and also to those who might benefit from such added merit whose names had been overlooked. The clan then provided a real meal for the monks to eat and also for everyone in the village who had attended. Finally, a model house was removed to the temple grounds. This small house was fully loaded with things the ancestors might be attracted to. It symbolically reiterated a funeral arrangement in which such a model would be moved to the temple grounds while the deceased were being urged to seek their spiritual destiny away from the body they had inhabited. This was a scaled-down version of a funeral service, inasmuch as the previous ones had not fully succeeded.
No one can yet say whether this has been effective in getting the Wanna ancestors on to their next reincarnation. There is no set of principles about what to do if one’s parents haven’t departed for heaven as they were expected to, so they could then be reincarnated to accumulate merit toward enlightenment. Doctrinal Buddhism has little to say about that. Northern Thai folk faith fills in the gaps. The principle in supernaturalism is, if in doubt follow your hunch.
Easter is the hardest season to retain the concept that scripture is not history. No part of the Bible was composed with the idea that historical events were being accurately recorded. Even if the episode being mentioned had actually happened in the way it was described that was irrelevant to the theological lesson that was being proclaimed. Palm Sunday was not about Jesus bravely riding on a donkey into Jerusalem while children welcomed him with palm branches strewn on the pavement.
Nor were the stories of the other events of Holy Week meant to be taken literally. They were not to be taken metaphorically, either. They were to be discerned theologically. They describe how people grasped what God was doing in Christ. The story was not to describe what Jesus was up to as he rode into Jerusalem that day in 33 A.D., but was an example of how one discerns what God is up to all the time.
For the first auditors of those stories, and those included people who had been present along the roadside, in the garden, and at the tomb, it would have been blasphemous and unthinkable to presume to pontificate on what God was doing. God is not available for our inspection and analysis. God’s holiness is not all about size, either. It is not that God is vast, but that God is godlike, other, imponderable, awesome, and stupendous in power and purpose. God is beyond description or speculation.
Whatever you want to say about God the answer is NO.
You can see what God does, however. The affects of God’s actions are discernable, if one chooses to consider them long enough to come to a profound Ah, Ha! That insight then unites all else, and tends to grow as one’s perspective expands about what else there is.
The Gospel’s “good news” is that a group of people who had encountered Jesus of Nazareth ruminated on their experiences and arrived at a collective Ah, Ha! They shared some of their stories and discerned a core of meaning. The meaning was profound, they testified. The meaning was earthshaking. The meaning was consistent with older stories being told, especially older stories being told by Jews, which included overlapping stories from Phoenicians, Persians and others. The meaning was profound and pertinent. It was timely and important.
Two ways developed to transfer that insight.
One was through sacred narrative. The stories were told in juxtaposition so that a narrative that already had made a profound impact on the listeners was heard alongside another story which the narrator testified contained the same profound meaning. If that worked, sooner or later, a listener would have an Ah, Ha!
The other way to transfer the insight was through re-enactment of a sacred encounter in which the profound meaning was manifested. Times of life-passage (birth, marriage, death, for example) were prime times for re-enactment, but so were annual cycles that mimic birth, fecundity, and death. Those re-enactments of divine-human encounters were meant to provide opportunities for participants to have an Ah, Ha! … and to then regularly revisit the breakthrough so it could expand to include everything that is current.
But the ascertaining of insight into the meaning of life was not the same thing as grasping God, the Awesome and Magnificent, the Eternal and Transcendent. When one has broken through into understanding, the first thing one understands is how little one knows. But the yeast of understanding is planted and one’s perspective is no longer static.
[Woodcut by Sadao Watanabe, 1913-1996, “Entry to Jerusalem”]
VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Agriculture in North Thailand has entered a transitional era. What was once accomplished by serfs is not yet completely mechanized. A farm couple in Chiang Mai in 2019 has about as much as they can handle to produce two crops a year from maybe 5 rai of fields (2 acres). One crop is most likely rice grown in the June to October rainy season, and the second would be a cash crop grown from November to March. Cash crops in our part of the Chiang Mai valley are either soybeans, corn (maize), or onions. Those are labor intensive crops, which is probably why they are usually profitable as long as labor is cheap. These days, on the other hand, farmers with extra land or lacking muscle power will convert some of their fields into orchards. Lameye orchards produce the biggest cash crops here, but oranges grow farther north, and coffee on the hillsides along with cabbage and other vegetables on land converted from forests.
This photo essay is about the labor needed to make money from growing onions.
Onion growing has three labor-intensive phases.
PHASE ONE Seedlings (See pictures 1and 2)
Onion seeds are among nature’s miniatures. They are not much bigger than the dots at the end of this sentence …. So, the rock-hard soil must be plowed, chopped, and turned into the consistency of sand. This was accomplished in about a week. It takes about 1 rai (4/10 acre) of land to produce enough onion seedlings for 6 rai of onions. Once the seeds are spread on the seedbeds they are sprinkled with what I learned was a “secret ingredient” – bat guano. That was covered with a thin layer of more mundane manure and a protective layer of straw. Then every day a thin mist of water was sprinkled on the fields at dawn and sometimes at dusk. Insects, weeds, and snails were evicted by hand. And the rows were covered with a protective sun shield laid on bamboo staves. The seeds were planted in the second week of October. Phase one involved several hours of labor each day.
PHASE TWO Transplanting (See pictures 3 to 7)
After about 2 months the young onions were ready for transplanting. Before that could take place, of course, the main onion fields had to be converted from rice paddies into long rows with deep troughs in between for irrigation. The hardest work was done by tractors. The whole valley was to be onion fields, many hundreds of acres owned by scores of different farmers, each knowing precisely where their unmarked fields were. When the tractors were finished, the soil was chopped by hand until it was as course as rocky gravel. The annual rains were slacking off by this time, the first week of December. Actual transplanting consisted of carefully pulling up the seedlings, which had grown to the size of spring onions served with dinner. These were bundled and the gangly tops were trimmed off. The bundles were transported to the fields and re-planted. The first week or two were critical. There had to be enough water, and careful watch for fungus. Dead plants were removed by hand. The rows were covered with straw. For the rest of the growing season, labor consisted in monitoring the irrigation two or three times a week, praying and worrying. Toward the end, worry was focused on securing a buyer.
PHASE THREE Harvest (pictures 8-12 in the field, 13-15 in the warehouse)
When the onions were the size of one’s fist and the tops began to wilt, it was time to harvest (mid-March). It was important that the field be fairly dry to deter mildew as well as to make it easier to get the onions. They were almost lying on top of the ground. A team of laborers was hired to get “our” onions, which were actually grown by Pramote’s brother and sister-in-law. We wonder what will happen when they are no longer able to do this. It might be feasible to hire all the work done, but barely so. This harvest was done by women who are migrant workers with homes in ethnic minority villages several miles away. For most farmers, the project ended when the onions were removed from the field.
Counting all out- of- pocket expenses, it cost about 50,000 baht (approximately $1700) to get this year’s crop from seeds to sacks of onions. Brother Lon sold the onions for 120,000 baht, which was about the same as last year. The year before the whole crop had to be sold for 50,000 baht, which would have been zero profit if labor costs had been the same as this year. Three years ago, however, the harvest had sold for 240,000 baht, because of crop failure in China. The farmers would love for the government to provide a greater measure of market stability, but the present government has shifted its help from agriculture to industrial development, which is a change with immense impact on more than half the population, and with serious political effect.
The onions were removed by pick-up trucks to centralized warehouses. One of the largest in our part of the district is in our village. At the warehouse the onions were inspected for rot and deformities, and bagged for shipment to Bangkok or Pitsanuloke where they were gotten ready for big city markets or for shipment overseas. China is the biggest market.
The onion project took five full months, of which about half the time was labor intensive, involving several hours a day, and the other half less so.
Every village family needs cash. There are three ways of getting it. Producing farm products is the most obvious and traditional way. Lon’s land around the house is limited, but he farms a one-rai plot owned by his father who died last September, as well as 4 rai in the middle of the onion fields, owned jointly with his daughter. The two crops per year produce enough rice for the extended family to eat, and cash for Lon and his household. They have 2 daughters, the older of whom has an invalid daughter; she is a teacher earning enough to help the family and to secure a future house and land for herself and her husband. The younger daughter also has a child, whom she currently stays at home to care for (although she is moving back to a job in the mall where there is a nursery). Her husband is a mechanic, also providing cash for the extended family’s needs. A third source of funds, in addition to sale of produce and salaries, is part-time labor. Lon’s wife, Sri, not only takes care of her invalid granddaughter, she cooks confections.
Every northern Thai village family gets along more or less this way. But farming becomes a less and less important source of support as time goes by. There will be no farmer in the family after Lon and Sri. The onion fields will be sold in a few years or sooner, if someone makes an attractive offer. Lon is getting older than most farmers, but even younger men and women without heart conditions (which Lon has) would give up the labor intensive type of farming if they had a source of greater income. Construction or handicrafts workers can make more than Lon can make in an average year like this one, although 3 years ago was a great enough year that Lon and Sri could remodel the house to make it accommodate both daughters and their families. Young people of the daughters’ generation all try to graduate from college in order to get jobs that do not include long back-breaking days in the sun or mired in mud, and which have salaries that not only insure a steady income but qualify them for loans for cars or a plot of land for a house of their own. This very week, Lon’s oldest daughter and spouse bought a piece of land and are making plans for their own house and orchard.
Previous blog essays on related topics include:
The first national election in Thailand in 5 years was held on Sunday, March 24 after several delays. The election boils down to two main matters, who will sit in Parliament and who will be the Prime Minister. The members of Parliament will select the Prime Minister who will then form the government and fill government offices.
In fact, the election is mainly a referendum on whether or not the current military-royalist government will retain its ever tightening control over all political processes. This is a devout hope of those with big business interests, royal ties, and industries to run. The opposition is made up of farmers, laborers, small-besieged business owners and academics.
First, the election. There were more than 70 political parties with candidates running for Parliament, but only a few of them had a chance to become influential. The two main contenders are Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharat. The Pheu Thai party and its components have won every recent election with convincing enough majorities to form the government without forming an alliance with a minority party. But the military staged a coup and has been running the government for about four years. Under their management the electoral process was changed, with the goal being to make it difficult for the populist Pheu Thai party to get back into power. The current rules stipulate that the lower house of Parliament will have 500 seats, of which 350 will be held by those obtaining majority votes in their districts. A remaining 150 seats will be divided between party candidates on the basis of the percentage of popular vote their parties acquire. They will be selected from party lists (in effect, elected by their party organizations). It appears that Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharat are neck and neck, with Pheu Thai holding a one seat majority. That means that each will have an equal number of the 150 “leveling” seats but the formula to figure out the exact number is complicated. In the end, both of the two biggest parties will need to add support from other parties. The third largest party is also the oldest, the Democratic Party, which was the main opposition party in the years that Pheu Thai and colleagues of Prime Minister Taksin and his sister Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra were popular (and fairly autocratic) leaders. It is unlikely that either Pheu Thai or Palang Pracharat will be able to form a government without the Democrats. But a new Bhumjaithai party emerged as almost equal in strength with the Democratic Party. Being anti-military, they are expected to vote with the populist, anti-military Pheu Thai party. The results of voting, objections to how the voting was conducted, and questions raised after the election will be directed to an Electoral Commission, which was appointed by the current government. It remains to be seen exactly how many seats each party will be awarded.
The upper house used to be elected as well, but due to changes in the constitution initiated by the current military government, these 250 “senators” are appointed by the government. Meanwhile, they will also vote on who will be the new Prime Minister. That means, presumably, there are already 250 votes for retaining Prime Minister (former Army Chief) Prayut Chan-o-cha. Without reviewing the math, it seems to careful observers that the military party, Palang Pracharat, will only need 126 votes in the lower house. At the moment they have about 118. An alliance with either of the 2 sixth-ranked parties (each with 11 votes) would probably secure Palang Pracharat, the right to name the Prime Minister. The loyalty of the Democratic Party is not yet clear. In principle they are opponents to either a military government or to the populist Pheu Thai party overseen by the Shinawatra family, whom the Democrats fought openly and vigorously. If the military alliance fails to form a majority coalition, given the advantages they have manipulated, their failure will be considered a major and unexpected upset. It would make the way clear for Pheu Thai and its allies to nominate Ms Sudarat Keyuraphan as Prime Minister.
The election is over. The vote count is all but wrapped up. Parties are having their discussions, and the Election Commission may have a surprise or two. May 9 is the deadline for getting the new government up and running. Whatever happens, the government will be shaky, made up of a tenuous partnership. The army under new command and fully supported by the palace will be keeping watch “to take over if necessary” to “keep the nation from spiraling into chaos again.”
Thai Buddhism can be spectacular. Take the festivities at Nong-Haa Village this past weekend for example. The celebrations were divided into three parts. The first major event was the installation of a Naga image in front of a new free-standing shrine of a large Buddha. (See picture 1 above.) The 7-headed Naga was nearly inundated with elaborate offerings of fruit, flowers and incense (picture 2). The service was conducted by a Brahman-Buddhist team of 4 led by a chanter with an exceptional voice. In a place of honor, but entirely passive throughout the ceremony, a Buddhist monk presided while the chanter called upon all the deities of the universe to be favorably disposed toward this event, to be present, and to invest this Naga with divine power (picture 3). The prayers were punctuated with fireworks, and emphasized by bells, a large gong, and sonorous squall of a conch shell trumpet (picture 4). When the Brahman service was over the Buddhist monk paid respect to the Buddha and then blessed the assembly with sacred water (picture 5).
The second event was before dawn the next morning. After a night of chanting by chapters of Buddhist monks taking shifts, the new Buddha image was enlivened. (See: www.kendobson.asia/blog/awakening-buddha). The climax of the night-long service was when the abbot climbed up onto a rickety platform to remove bees-wax patches from the eyes of the Buddha, symbolizing the awakening of this image to preside over the village (pictures 6 and 7).
The third event was later in the morning, when a larger crowd gathered for the inauguration of the village temple’s new bell tower. The tower is inside the temple walls, so it is part of the temple. The service began with the Brahman team again invoking the presence of countless gods and divinities (picture 8), and then inside the temple assembly hall a large chapter of visiting monks chanted stanzas beginning with the familiar 3-fold “Namo” meaning “I worship … the Buddha,” and then “I take refuge in the Lord Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha”. Then a 9-tier umbrella, called a “chat” short for “chat-monkol” which is the peak of a crown, was sent across the space between the temple assembly hall and the bell tower (pictures 9, 10, 11). The conch, bells and gong sounded throughout the assent, as well as a string of fire-crackers. People had tied gauze ribbons onto the chat in the color of the day of the week they were born, and these were then collected as good-luck souvenirs when the workmen on the tower removed them. A large brass temple bell was hoisted into place and rung for the first time (pictures 12 and 13).
Nong-Haa Village had been planning for this for many months. It is probably their most important cluster of ceremonies in a decade, and represents among other things, that the village and its temple (including especially the abbot) are keeping up with other villages which have erected large Buddha shrines to watch over their villages.
As this was going on, a quote by Thich Nhat Hahn reappeared on the Internet in which he said, “There is a misconception that Buddhism is a religion and that you worship Buddha. Buddhism is a practice, like yoga. You can be a Christian and practice Buddhism.” This quote, by the second most important Buddhist spokesman of our time confirms identical expressions by the Dalai Lama. Their understanding finds widespread acceptance among intellectuals who appreciate Buddhism as a philosophical inquiry into the nature of human life, and reject mythic and superstitious accretions that transform Buddhism into something other than an inquiry, a set of practices for conducting that inquiry, and conclusions about what that inquiry will discover. When the two most famous living Buddhists insist that Buddhism is not a religion, who would dare disagree?
In order to discuss whether Buddhism is a religion or not we need a definition of religion. I propose that a religion is a shared set of narratives and practices which connect people to the sacred. That narrative and those practices describe and re-enact a divine-human encounter wherein a fundamental truth was revealed. The purpose of a religion is to sustain and communicate that truth and the implications for a life modified to comport with that truth. The complex symbolisms in religions are to facilitate retention of the truth and to provide focal points for communities of believers to bridge the chasm between the mundane and the holy.
If Buddhism is essentially not a religion, then religious aspects of Buddhist festivities are not essential. They are extraneous. But those things, relegated beyond the margins, include nearly everything that makes Thai Buddhism compelling and attractive to adherents. There are several alternative interpretations of what went on last weekend in Nong-Haa Village. (3) It was a Buddhist festival. (2) It was a Buddhist festival in which non-Buddhist elements intruded. (1) It was not authentically Buddhist.
(1) The three celebrations at the temple in Nong-Haa Village WERE NOT AUTHENTICALLY BUDDHIST. “In fact, the way Northern Thai Buddhism is practiced is inconsistent with pure Buddhism.” This is a position advocated by the last century’s most profound Thai Buddhist scholar, the Ven. Buddhadasa Bikkhu, who tirelessly sought to rid Thai Buddhism of its superstitious and extraneous elements. Real Buddhism ought to concentrate on the core teachings of the Lord Buddha and practice forms of meditation that lead to enlightenment. The way to reform Thai Buddhism is through education.
However, as Buddhadasa understood, if one were to eliminate mythological references, whether artistic or literary, one would need an alternative set of symbols and architecture to express Buddhism and accommodate its practitioners. Buddhadasa proposed going back to the time of the Indian Emperor Asoka for those features. There is nothing about Asokan architecture that reflects Thai culture and heritage (or validates Thai royalty and religion). In fact, it was the royalist elite as well as the Buddhist hierarchy they had installed who tacitly opposed Buddhadasa’s reform, and continued their use of Brahman-Buddhist, Khmer-Thai ceremonies and architectural art. Reform never gained popular support, either.
(2) What happened in Nong-Haa WAS A BUDDHIST AND NON-BUDDHIST MIX. “Obviously, there were Hindu rituals permitted as custom prescribed, but there was a division between those rites conducted by Brahman actors and those undertaken by Buddhist monks. Buddhism is tolerant. Hindu precursors to Buddhism are recognized, but Buddhism has the last word.”
A closer look at how Northern Thai Buddhism functions, as well as at the festivals in Nong-Haa Village, tends to discourage the notion that a sharp division has been maintained between that which is Buddhist and that which is otherwise. In the first ceremony, to install the Naga in front of the stairs in the shrine, the chants included both Buddhist and Hindu stanzas and references to other influences. The Naga itself is a mythic being included in Thai Buddhism (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/dragons-yearning-for-nirvana). Furthermore, the Brahman actors were Buddhists; they had not chosen and did not need to choose Hinduism over Buddhism. Brahman references were so thoroughly integrated into their ceremony that there was no need to choose between the two. In the case of the Buddhist abbot who sat enthroned during the ceremony, although he was not obviously involved until the end, his presence was more than that of an observer. He was the one who presided throughout the ceremony and gave validation to what was going on.
(3) The dedication of those temple structures WAS A BUDDHIST FESTIVAL. “Northern Thai Buddhism contains a unique configuration of symbolic components to convey Buddhist wisdom contextually.”
The fundamental question is whether Northern Thai Buddhism as practiced with a remarkable amount of consistency and consensus throughout the region, is valid or not. Is it in need of radical reform? As it is practiced and conceptualized it is a religion. It serves all the basic religious functions: to connect people to transcendence and also to transform the mundane prospects of life into a new potentiality, to connect people into a community of believers, and to communicate a narrative about a person in the liminal past who was superior and whom it is advantageous to hold in highest esteem and gratitude. As we have it, Northern Thai Buddhism is a full-fledged religion in every sense of the term. Were it to be shorn of all its religious elements it would be something entirely different.
BEHIND THE LANDMARK
The Giant Swing, เสาชิงช้า, is one of Thailand’s famous landmarks. It is located very near the most important palaces and temples, and would be mentioned in passing on almost every tourist excursion through the heart of Bangkok. For tour groups, the famous swing has to be explained, since there is no swing and nothing swinging.
Briefly, the Giant Swing was first erected in 1784 at the beginning of the Chakri Dynasty when the capital of the kingdom was relocated from across the river and new construction began. An annual Brahman harvest festival was held in front of a Hindu temple, now dwarfed by Wat Suthat the center for Siamese Buddhism during the reign of Rama I (reigned: 1782-1809). The swing ceremony consisted of chanting and a contest in which teams competed to be swung on a carved log high enough to grab by their teeth a sack of gold coins suspended on a pole 24 meters in the air. This commemorated a mythic creation episode in which Brahma tested the stability of the newly created world by ordering Shiva to stand on a mountain while giant snakes tried to shake him into the sea. The swing ceremony was conducted until 1935 when it was discontinued after several serious accidents and fatalities. The structure was repaired in 1920 and 1958, and completely rebuilt in 2006 and rededicated by Rama IX in 2007.
But there is more to this than tour guides will have time to reiterate as the bus maneuvers through the heavy traffic surrounding the little concrete island on which the Giant Swing is built. In fact, they might not dare point out some of the coincidences and connections between that unusual tradition and Thai royal protocol. The story behind the landmark will again swing nearly back into view during the forthcoming coronation of HM King Rama X on May 4-6 this year (2019 / 2562).
His Majesty King Rama I took great pains to reconnect his throne and kingdom to his predecessors who ruled from Ayutthaya for 400 years (1350-1767), having replaced (as they described it) the Khmer Empire (ca 800-1431) centered around famous Angkor Wat and the palatial city of Angkor Thom. The mythic roots of this lineage were both Buddhist and Hindu, with Hindu legends presumably being reiterated to legitimize royalty. This was complicated, including narrated and sculpted symbols, as well as ceremonially re-enacted ones, especially at transitional times like royal births, coronations, and funerals. In the ancient courts these ceremonies were performed by those ritually fit for such duties. So when Rama I undertook the establishment of a new court on Rattanakosin Island on the Chaopraya River across from Thornburi, he had two temples built, one for Brahman priests charged to carry out royal ceremonies, and a larger one next to it for Buddhist ceremonies. The Brahman temple was called Devasatan (เทวสถานโบสถ์พราหมณ์) or “Abode of the Gods”. It included 3 buildings in a north to south line each facing east, enshrining images of Shiva, Ganesha, and Vishnu. It is considered the leading Hindu temple in Thailand. H.G. Quaritch Wales in his 1931 writing about Brahmans’ role in state ceremonies says that there were also swings inside these buildings that were used for Hindu ceremonies. The temple compound is the residence for the court Brahmans who are descendants of Brahman priests as far back as imaginable. The men who took part in the swinging competition were also Brahmans. Aside from ceremonies related to royal persons, there were two annual Brahman ceremonies tied to agriculture, the Royal Plowing Ceremony at the time of rice planting, and the harvest ceremony called Triyampavai-Tripavai, which were the names of hymns to Shiva and Vishnu. These hymns were also included in Thai coronation rituals.
It is undoubtedly significant that metaphors and chants used in the swinging ceremony also were included in Thai coronations. There are two versions of the Hindu legend. In one version Brahma ordered Shiva to stand atop the world mountain and commanded Nagas (mythic serpents) to try to shake the mountain in order to test its stability. In the other version the Nagas wrap themselves around the world mountain as Shiva descends upon it, thus assuring its stability, after which the Nagas joyfully fling themselves away from the mountain into the surrounding sea to celebrate – and that is what the swinging recapitulates, the celebration of stability with Shiva enthroned on top of the world mountain just as the King of Siam is enthroned atop the kingdom. Why, then, would the swinging ceremony be allowed to lapse, being so metaphorically significant, as Rama I, II, and III well knew?
The official version which tour guides repeat in order to pass their examination for licensing is that the ceremony was discontinued because it was dangerous and men died doing it. It is a bit suspicious, however, that the decision came in 1935 right after the abdication of HM King Rama VII, during euphoria over the installation of a constitutional demotion of royal status, when the whole issue of whether to even retain the royal household was being considered by the military leaders in power.
H.G. Quaritch Wales (Siamese State Ceremonies (1931)), who was an adviser in the courts of both Rama VI and VII, makes a case that the Brahman priests in the Siamese court were retained because they symbolized continuity. Because all their texts and leaders were lost in the fall of Ayutthaya, those brought forth to continue the tradition were unable to even read and write Sanskrit or to recite chants intelligibly (he said they mumbled and had texts in transliterated Thai script the meaning of which they did not know). That, the author said in 1931 was what he found, and it helps explain why their importance faded. Moreover, they had all to become Buddhists before taking Brahman vows, and so they were prevented from many Hindu rituals, including animal sacrifices. The Brahmans were Buddhist-Brahmans. Even the plowing ceremony, which was a main event for them, was retained because it was so popular with the public. [These days the one who presides at the Royal Plowing Ceremony is the Minister of Agriculture.] Almost everything the Brahmans used to do is now being done by others, Quaritch Wales says, including the role of court astrologer and management of royal events. [We may be sure that the court Brahmans today are better educated than the ones in 1931 supposedly were.]
HM Rama IV had been a Buddhist monk before he rather unexpectedly ascended to the throne. One of his major efforts was regulation of diverse Buddhist groups under a central authoritative hierarchy, which would be a unifying factor as parts of the Siamese Empire were pulled into Bangkok’s orbit to oppose the threat of Western colonization. As Bangkok Buddhism’s role increased, other religions were also ceremonially incorporated into the kingdom and regulated, in order to function in behalf of it. This pattern of religious toleration, use of leaders of other religions to ratify the monarchy and national unity, and repetition of cultural heritage going back to mythic pre-history continued through the reigns of Rama V, VI and VII. It continues today.
When Rama VII abdicated, his nephew was still a boy. He became king with a regent as his guardian and official voice. Then Japan invaded Thailand, and the King remained in Switzerland for the duration. His brother, still a teenager, took over as Rama IX upon the sudden death of Rama VIII (June 1946), and began what was to be a 70-year restoration of the viability, prestige and significance of the throne.
In 2006, during the 60th anniversary of the reign of King Rama IX, at the height of his popularity, the Giant Swing was replaced. It is said the old wood was deteriorated, so new teak logs were brought down from Prae Province and the Giant Swing was rebuilt. The whole process was extensively reported and important. The finished reconstruction was dedicated by the King in September 2007.
As the events to follow in May this year will show, Brahmans still have a role to play in connecting the throne in the Grand Palace to the peak of the world mountain in the midst of the mythic Himapan Forest. And as newspapers tell us, the military rulers of the country are assisting in the restoration of the monarchy’s lost power. The Giant Swing ceremonies and the famous contest have not yet been restored. But the imposing red towers, symbols of stability, are ready. Maybe it’s just a matter of time.
We WHITE AMERICAN CHRISTIANS are being robbed. It is identity theft, theft of our futures, and theft of our security. And who is doing this to us? Other white American Christians, that’s who! Since identity theft is at the root of this whole larceny, I propose we consider what we can do about it.
I’m a white American Christian and I’m angry as hell about what’s happening. “White American Christian” has become an identity that trumps all other characteristics. Here’s how it works: if one is a white American Christian and one feels insecure about life at the moment, it is (1) either because the white American Christian life to which we are entitled and which “is the principle on which the USA was founded by God,” is being invaded and taken over by others who are not white American Christians. (2) Or our lack of security is because other white American Christians put some trifle ahead of being white American Christian. THOSE white American Christians think it is more important to be something else, feminist, gay, blue-collar laborer, sick, abused and on and on. They need to suck it up and get over being so damned needy. We are being attacked! (3) Or, somebody’s lying.
I am angry that what it means for me to be a white American Christian has been changed for a far worse idea. My being white is not a matter of choice; neither is my being a Kinsey 5 nor my finger prints. Being American has, so far during the past nearly 80 years, been an advantage despite living across the shining sea beyond the purple mountains and fruited plains. Being Christian began as an accident of my being born among Christians, continued as an act of commitment to Christian service, and is probably ending as a Christian among Buddhists not needing to fight one another. I deeply resent being treated as if I have exempted myself from the privileged elite into which I was born.
I am well aware that just being a white American entitled our family to assumptions and advantages denied to others. I ate my vegetables and cleaned my plate aware that I was better off than “millions of starving Chinese.” As for being elite, however, these are my memories of our family’s heritage: Mom’s spending money came from churning butter, without cows we would have suffered, the roof fell in on Uncle Walter’s house and the family of 6 lived in a large kitchen in back with a dirt floor, Aunt Eva’s house had no electricity, our house had no running water, on the coldest winter nights we had chickens in the living room. A friend of mine was Injun Joe who lived in a one room house next door. Grandpa had Gypsies that camped on their front yard, and Grandma fed hobos on the back porch. I was a young child most of this time [as the school photo shows]. Conditions got better but there were thefts.
My dad was a type-setter for the newspaper, secretary of the labor union, and was robbed of his union pension just when he was due to begin getting it. Without Social Security he could not have retired. That was my first clue that we could be robbed in other ways than at gun-point. Uncle Tom came home from the war and moved next door to Jack. It took me a long time to realize they should have been living in one house, but they were robbed of the chance to live without constant intimidation, by social opinion that all queers were faggots. Aunt Elsie became a beautician because the depression was going on and she was a female so college expenses were saved for her younger brother. Her aunt (my grandmother’s sister) was robbed of life when she blew her brains out with a shotgun because society refused to let her leave her violent, alcoholic husband.
Social opinion is one of the two greatest thieves of our time. We are blinded to options available to us by the need to feel protected as part of a tribe. If we dare to defy tribal totems and taboos we will be shamed and then evicted. Instead, we absorb the tribe’s perceptions that it is better to belong than to be defiant.
In his book, Dying of Whiteness, Vanderbilt University Professor Jonathan M. Metzel describes how White Americans will vote, act, and think in ways that are harmful to themselves rather than entertain ideas contrary to their white American peer-group (i.e. tribe). Interviewees told him they could not be for Obama-care even though they were literally dying (in hospice care with life-sustaining tubes inserted) and would have benefitted from better insurance, because they could not stand the idea that their hard earned money would also provide medical care for illegal immigrants and welfare queens. Once a tribe has acquired a slogan it tends to dominate further thought.
The other great thief is the elite 1% who are pillaging every resource they can get their hands on in order to become even richer. What they are robbing at the moment are public education, affordable health care, funds for retirement at a reasonable age, fair living wages, and a vast range of human rights. These things my generation and my parent’s generation worked hard to acquire. I tremble for the generations to come as the environment becomes unable to support life and natural resources are destroyed at an incredible rate. Take the Pacific Ocean for example. Radiation is fanning out from Japan, and the mass of plastic waste from California is now the size of France. Storms are increasing in destructive violence and frequency. Sea levels are creeping over island nations. Coral reefs are bleached and dead, potentially taking up to 50% of ocean creatures with them. Instead of working to save what’s left, every nation with the capacity to do so is increasing the devastation.
Back to my rage over the ongoing theft of my identity.
I do not feel especially attached to my identity as a white American Christian. But it is who I am. And I am married to a Thai man, accepted as a full member of a 100% Buddhist community (except for me). I have spent my whole adult life identified with and focused on three minority groups. I became an advocate of US civil rights in defiance of some important members of my family. I became a teacher to develop Christian leaders in Thailand where Christianity is less than 1% of the population. I became a defender of gender minorities and advocate for sexual human rights. Each of those expanded my identity. Each of those efforts cost a lot.
I am enraged to find that the very meaning of the term “White American Christian” has been distorted to such an extent that it is now a pejorative, derogatory term. I am ashamed to be identified with those who wear their White American Christian identities on their caps and stickers on their vehicles, and who attend political rallies where it is no shame to sport Nazi or Klan insignia and tattoos as if these groups did not murder millions and will not do it again if they have the chance.
There is only one thing to do, even if it is the last thing we do. We need to reclaim our right to be white American Christians. We need to reclaim the high ground that is proud to assert that white is a color assigned which has no validity, because it is never really white. American is a designation assigned by political entities that issue passports, birth certificates and collect taxes, but America is really a partner nation in the community of nations or it is doomed. Christian is a brand of humanity in search of connection with the transcendental-divine, but as a people striving to discern what is holy we are indebted to a heritage that has acquired vast spiritual treasure from Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome and Phoenicia, as well as more recent insights from every faith community with which Christians have encamped.
We white American Christians are not a tribe of pathetic nationalists who cling desperately to ethnic supremacy. We are colorfully white, internationally American, and ecumenically Christian.
Jeffrey Warren of northern New York State was the only speaker at the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church (February 23-26, 2019) who anybody heard outside the convention center in St Louis. His 3 minutes of microphone time was replete with passion, hope, and irony. He got a sustained standing ovation which even brought the bishops to their feet (in defiance of conference procedures). He was an instant on-line hit. [You may find him on YouTube.] As I type this about 3 days after Jeffrey spoke to the assembly, far more than half a million viewers have viewed his plea for unity and justice. End to end, 25,000 hours have been spent paying attention to what he said. No other speech at the conference received any substantial air-time on social or mass media.
Jeffrey was a lay delegate among 800 at the conference. He is a student at Sarah Lawrence College, and therefore one of the youngest delegates. And he announced he is gay and hopes to become a Methodist pastor. If he makes it he has already preached to more people than he is likely to do throughout all the rest of his life. But we can’t know that, because he has what it takes to get noticed.
His message in three minutes was simple and contained three memorable sentences. “We desire a church that seeks the justice of God,” he said in behalf of people his age as well as all LGBT people. He talked about his successful campus witness, saying, “They (fellow students who came to Christ through his efforts) didn’t know God could love them because their churches said God didn’t!” Score! Finally, in full voice to be heard above the cheering mob, he shouted, “We are the church. We are God’s children.” His appeal was for unity and acceptance.
Ironically, (and irony abounds) his speech was on a procedural matter. Who would have guessed a bit of parliamentary maneuvering would steal everybody’s heart? He was supporting a move to send the conference’s consideration to a judicial council for review. Even more ironic is the fact that he represented a point of view that was going down in flaming defeat, and yet his short speech was the one everybody is going to remember. Most ironic of all is that he was speaking as one of the generation who will be sitting in the pews, standing in the pulpits, and residing in bishops’ chanceries in the next 20 years if the United Methodist Church in North America lasts that long.
There is a lesson to be remembered from this and other remarkable incidents in the past several months, including the Parkland, Florida high school mass murder survivors. The future generation is arriving now. They share the present, but they represent the values that will preserve the future. Without them now, at this very minute, the future could be as dystopian as “Mad Max” and “Clockwork Orange” showed us.
The 10th Anniversary Chiang Mai Pride Parade last night (Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019) was a resounding success. A thousand people marched about a mile to a plaza in front of the historic Tapae Gate where another 300 of us waited and were joined by a few hundred wanderers. The mood was enthusiastic and the plans were flawless. Congratulations to the organizers and sponsoring organizations. (Thanks to photographers who posted pictures on Facebook, borrowed for this blog-report.)
What was accomplished, in my opinion shared with others, is a demonstration that things have changed for the better in the last decade.
On this date in 2009 the first Pride Parade came to an abrupt end before it began when truck-loads of red-shirted counter-demonstrators roared up to the launching site for the parade with loud threats and intimidation. They were accompanied by scores of police who trapped the marchers inside a religious compound behind a tall iron fence while other police tore down the stage at the parade’s intended destination two blocks away.
The idea, furthered by public officials (who had previously issued permits and promised cooperation) was that a display of nearly naked gay men besmirched the reputation of Chiang Mai as a cultural gem and bastion of conservative cultural values. No matter that nobody was even partially unclothed. Truth was the first to flee, followed by those fleetest afoot. In fact, Pride #1 was a victim of the political struggles of those times that had nothing much to do with LGBTK people, but with political factions trying to get “air time” on TV any way they could.
This year the parade organizers made sure ahead of time that the public officials had been conspicuously recognized for permitting the parade. Police were glad to provide traffic control, and politics were no longer likely to interfere. It was smiles all around.
After a long, fun walk from the very spot where the 2009 parade had been aborted, past the place where they had planned to end, then twice as far again (providing a lot of chances for people to join, which some did), the parade, led by a brass band, came to the plaza.
The program included three Las Vegas type performances by a troupe of bi, gay and transgender dancers from a local cabaret theater. Then short greetings were brought by representatives of LGBTK Chiang Mai (including moi). A poignant time in the evening was when the crowd lit peace candles following the theme, “end violence against people of diverse genders.” Trophies were awarded for great costumes as the event came to an end and the plaza was turned back over to the pigeons and tourists.
Well done, Sirisak, coordinator-in-charge!
Again I wonder what was accomplished. What do they do, these Pride events, now held in scores of cities worldwide?
This one was specific. Its message was, “We have come a long way. We can march unafraid.” And, “The future is in good hands,” as the Millennial Generation took over and ran the show last night. It was to sustain enthusiasm.
Other parades in other places proclaim, “We’re here and we’re queer! We’re loud and we’re proud!” with outrageous costumes to prove it. In this regard Chiang Mai Pride 2019 was subdued.
Most Pride events underscore gender diversity and blurred binary demarcations. They push collective consciousness to be more inclusive. This one did that, too.
A few are defiant, courageously confronting opposition that often greatly exceeds our memorable conflict in 2009, now laid to rest, as a short video last night proposed.
What all Pride parades and festivals have in common is the rebellious assertion, “We do not yet have full equality. Notice us and see that we are unashamed and unintimidated. You have to deal with us because we dwell among you.”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.