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.
NOTE: Click on the individual photos above to expand for a larger view.
Subjata ceremonies are part of house blessings and other major life events here in North Thailand. I categorize them as “life extension” rituals. Last week our village had a Subjata ceremony for the whole village.
A Subjata ceremony is a significant event that requires a lot of preparation. The most important aspects are (1) tying a white string around the designated area to identify it and connect it, (2) preparing a ceremonial tripod with traditional offerings attached, (3) honoring the spirit of the land with chanted invocations, (4) assembling an auspicious chapter of monks to chant, (5) connecting all the participants symbolically through a grid of string, (6) burning symbolic lengths of string and candles to signify the cancellation of the past, (7) concluding with poured water as pledges and benedictions are chanted.
Men and women worked throughout the day before the ceremony to braid string into 3-strand cords and then into 9-strand cords. Other teams strung string down every road and lane with a loose end to connect to every household. The home owners then encircled every house and building in their compound and tied an end to the string left dangling at the gate. All this string, of course, was tied to the temple and the main images of the Lord Buddha inside. Other teams erected the tripod, produced leaf baskets of symbolic offerings, and got food, drink, seating and tent-shade ready.
Early on the day of the ceremony five priests with assistants lit candles and incense at the ceremonial center of the village where a banana stalk pillar, waist high, supported a plus-shaped cross on the tips and center of which were placed five of the little baskets prepared the day before. Four other priests also chanted and made offerings of one little basket each in the four cardinal directions around the village. The main ceremony started at the auspicious hour of 9 when the last of the 7 priests arrived. Baskets were once more offered at the four corners of the village hall.
The chanting was all about aligning supernatural powers, affirming that Dharma is supreme as the Lord Buddha discerned, and that all other powers were appeased and duly respected.
There was doubt that the village was uniformly respectful, in fact. That was the reason for the ceremony. It was precipitated by a family of “outsiders”.
As the story is told, about two years ago a woman from Hang Dong (the next town east of here) bought a plot of land and built a small house with gardens and ponds for her mother. The house was finished and the mother was moved in. None of the traditional house blessing ceremonies were held as far as we know, and we would know if they had been. After a time, the old woman did not thrive in this home. She was often sick, and then she died right there in the house. Her body was removed, also without any ceremonies. According to ancient tradition the “spirit of the land” should be informed and asked to agree to such disruptions of territoriality as building a new house, digging wells and ponds, and especially taking up residence and ending residency. When the old woman died in the house it confirmed the villagers’ concerns that the “spirit of the land” had been disturbed, possibly angered, and it was time to make amends. No one wanted the angry spirit of the land to go on a rampage and for unexplained trouble to become widespread.
Hopefully the Subjata ceremony averted trouble.
It may be the story is not yet over. As a village we will wait and see. As far as the dead woman is concerned, it all depends on whether her ghost was able to follow the corpse as it was removed and taken to Hang Dong where the funeral was held. If the ghost/spirit did not get lost there is every reason to believe it stayed near its departed host and made its way to heaven to await reincarnation. If it was not able to follow, it might be hanging around the house growing distraught. We will wait and see.
What is a Christian view of this? (a) I think the old woman’s daughter mishandled this from the beginning by being disrespectful of community customs. The comment most often made is, “They had nothing to do with the village.” That was alarming and unfriendly of them. (b) These perspectives on the supernatural are not local. They are all over the North of Thailand and beyond. The anxiety this family caused cannot be attributed to ignorance, but only to disregard. We all believe the daughter simply does not care what anyone thinks around here. We have no idea what issues lie behind this attitude. Nobody thinks the daughter is a secular atheist, nor is there evidence she is a Christian – both of which might choose to have no “traffic” with the supernatural (also called animism or the occult). We think she is anti-social. (c) Had the mother been a Christian, it would have been helpful to reassure the village that the dead woman’s ghost has found rest far away from here in Christian paradise, and will not be disturbing the peace of the village. It would have been a sterling opportunity to interpret the Gospel. It is generally agreed that the Christians’ God can handle the lords of the land. It is a territorial matter. When God of the Christians takes over a territory, other gods and spirits depart. Until there are more Christians and people have more trust in the Christian message, parallel domains is how living together works here in the village.
Private land ownership in villages in Northern Thailand is precise, as it is throughout the country. Every plot of land is owned by someone or else by the government. A privately owned piece of real estate is described on a chanote tii din, a document which locates the plot exactly in relationship to landmarks, especially cement posts that have been planted by government survey teams working for the Land Bureau, a branch of the Agriculture Ministry. [See the picture above]. The copy of the chanote tii din, or real estate deed, in the land owner’s possession is one of two identical documents, the other one being kept in the local Land Bureau office along with the master record.
People living in a village usually have two types of land, one where their residence is and the other(s) which are farm land nearby. A plot of land can be owned by any Thai citizen. Family members can claim the right to have a say in the disposal of (sale or irreversible changes to) land they are in line to legally inherit. Presumably this is to insure that no person can become landless against their will, but it seriously compromises the concept of land ownership.
As with all aspects of village culture, private land ownership can be divided into three historical phases: past, passing, and present (coming to be). Also, as with other facets of village culture the transitions are slow. That lassitude includes the phase that introduced private land ownership and the issuance of chanote tii din documents, the era now passing.
Before agricultural land was privately owned it was owned by the “Lords of the Land”, princes of the city states. In our case here in the North the Lord was the head of the Lanna Principality (or kingdom). The fact that people did not own their land hardly mattered in those days. Traditions reigned. Families knew which plots they farmed and that was recognized by everyone. The irrigation system was maintained jointly. Public works projects were done by conscripted labor, with most able-bodied males required to give 3 months a year to this. There was no standing army, but those same men served if need arose. Public land was mostly forests on hills. Local people felt free to cut wood they needed. The overall principle of the time was “subsistence living.”
In 1901 King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, instituted the most significant long-range innovation of his revolutionary reign. He mandated that people had the right to own the land they farmed and lived on. The government set about regulating this land reform by surveying the country and marking it into plots – along traditional irrigation routes and field dikes.
There are two ways to consider the King’s land reform. First of all it was part of modernizing Siam, and not incidentally creating a vast new dimension to the economy. Second, in a stroke, it deprived the traditional princes of their sources of power and wealth, which was key to centralizing power in Bangkok to counter threats of colonization by France and Great Britain.
Technically, this land reform was the end of serfdom, and the King emphasized it by ending slavery as well. In many cases slavery was not what we think, but was forced movement of people for the benefit of different Lords of the Land, and in other cases a way of paying off debts through uncompensated work. The movement of people also had a political aspect. When one of the Lanna princes moved a community of paper craftsmen from Burma to Hang Dong District in Chiang Mai, they were technically slaves, but actually privileged by being exempt from taxes and labor conscription and were given prime land which displaced those who had been living there. This resulted in social polarization in that community for well over two hundred years into the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Several major issues emerged right away, the biggest being: (1) how to manage new land that had not been farmed before, (2) and how to deal with land transfers and sales. Integral to the land reforms was the desire to expand agriculture to be a major part of foreign trade and foreign exchange (which was, of course, a matter of governmental rather than local concern). Rice and other products were needed as timber was running out. This new agricultural expansion meant extending the irrigation system to service land at higher elevations and also deciding who was entitled to this new land being put into production. In effect, the land was made available to those who would actually use it.
No single action in the past 200 years has had a more radical impact on the economic structure of Thailand or, ironically, has done more to concentrate power into the central elite. Banks, owned by the elite (and in some cases creating new members of the elite), have replaced princes as the primary beneficiaries of agricultural systems of production.
It is an illusion that farmers own their land in actual fact, if (1) they must get government permission to sell or inherit it and cannot sell it to anyone who is not a full-fledged citizen, (2) they are dependent on water supplies controlled by the government, (3) they are unable to plant their crops without jeopardizing their titles to the land they farm (which they do when they borrow to purchase seed, fertilizer or chemicals), (4) they are unable to market their crops freely rather than through cartels controlled by the central elite at some point. It is worth remarking that the less one in the chain of production has to do with the produce, the greater will be the profits; the farmer typically derives less than 15% profit from the investment, whereas the agency that purchases the produce makes at least 50% on their investment, the bankers who capitalize the middle-men make as much as 90% on their investment (considering their expenses, not their interest rate), and the government has a clear profit on any taxes and payments made to permit the banks and shippers to operate.
To summarize the first two eras: the first was characterized by subsistence living in which everybody in the village took care of themselves and provided service to the patron, the prince, for the protection and security they enjoyed. The second era was characterized by the introduction of a money economy and the possibility of producing an excess of goods and services to provide for a level of living beyond subsistence. Utensils and equipment were no longer made by hand or made locally, but were purchased for money. Self-sufficiency came to an end.
The third era is the one unfolding before us. This era has certain features of great impact. (1) A middle class has expanded with someone in each farming family having a non-agricultural job, and each succeeding generation more dependent on salaried income. (2) The presumed dependability of salaries has had a positive effect on ability to secure credit and bank loans and to go into debt. (3) As the largest profits go to those highest in the agricultural chain of production, incentives to work at lower levels diminishes. (4) Village residency is no longer entirely hereditary, nor are village properties valued primarily as residences but also as ways to store wealth. (5) Citizenship and land titles have become possible for most communities living on the hills as has long been the case for those living in the valleys. (6) Means to do profitable hillside agriculture have become available as a result of leadership begun with Royal Projects. (7) As the younger generation moves into the salaried middle class their intention to remain in the village goes down. (8) As prosperity (including health and financial opportunities) increases, the average family size is reduced and the median age of village residents rises while traditional social security is weakened. (9) It becomes harder and harder to sustain village projects with local voluntary contributions of time and money. (10) To sustain local operations (including lanes, central water supplies, community organizations and village government) villages depend increasingly on outside support, usually from the central government, and village voices are unnecessary in decision-making.
All this because of land reform.
The only danger is that this economic system will collapse. It is not an imminent danger, I hope. But agricultural land values have escalated far beyond any possibility of agricultural returns on investments. For example, we have 2 rai (.8 acre) of rice land next to our house which we bought 10 years ago for 300,000 baht. Profits from each of 2 crops of rice a year is about 5000 baht. It doesn’t take a genius to see we will never live to see the land pay for itself through rice farming. But land values have risen in 10 years. We could sell the land, we think, for a 200% profit, which is greater than any other real commodity we could have bought (as distinguished from paper – stocks and bonds), including gold which has only risen 120% in that time. Just to be clear, the economic value of land in our village is exclusively what it will sell for. That is not conducive to social stability.
To summarize the third era: the village is no longer the source of individual or family well being. Almost all necessities are produced or manufactured away from the village and are purchased with money. Land is the basic collateral for securing most loans that potentially exceed future earnings, and all loans, theoretically at least, have land at risk behind them.
April 15, 2015 is the 150th anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln. This sesquicentennial is as good an excuse as any for considering one of the least known aspects of America’s best-known President, his intimate relationship with Joshua Speed. Although their five-year love affair has not gone without comment, it has probably never had as careful a review as that given in 2001 by Jonathan Ned Katz in Love Stories: Sex between Men Before Homosexuality. Most admissions of the sexual nature of Lincoln’s affection for Speed, beginning with Carl Sandburg’s classic biography of Lincoln in 1926 are marred by the attempt to view their love out of context. Sandburg was embarrassed by their relationship and obfuscated quite homophobically, “A streak of lavender ran through [them], [they] had spots soft as May violets.” In our own time authors put Speed and Lincoln into homosexual, heterosexual or bi-sexual pigeon holes.
This mistake, to pigeon-hole anachronistically, is routinely made in historical retrospectives. That, in fact, is what makes timely still another look at what it meant that Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed slept together beginning in 1837 and had a relationship, as Speed described it, in which “no two men were ever more intimate.” William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer said Lincoln “loved this man [Speed] more than anyone dead or living.”
What, exactly, went on between 28 year-old Lincoln and his 24 year-old friend? Katz expounds on it in analytical detail. In brief, Lincoln and Speed shared a bed, a very common arrangement in the 19th century. They shared acute anxiety over the prospects of any initial sexual encounter with a “good woman.” They collaborated on at least one liaison with a prostitute that Lincoln did not consummate, claiming (as was becoming a pattern for him) inadequate funds. They reveled in very easy fellowship with young men. Their separation was emotionally wrenching, especially for Lincoln who sought medical help and escape into work. Then, loaded with trepidation, as their correspondence documents, they separated and married good women they feared.
Modern thinking would conclude that maybe Lincoln and Speed had no sexual relationship at all; but on the other hand, failure on their part to recognize a sexual attraction hidden in their emotion-laden friendship did not mean their friendship did not have a sexual component. Again, Katz insists, that veers away from context. In the 19th century the separation of the physical from the spiritual was accepted as reality.
What we have to go on are surviving letters from Lincoln to Speed as they anticipated marriages they dreaded. In those letters Katz discerns several threads. Lincoln hoped that Speed would return to Springfield, and therefore to Lincoln. He hoped Speed would find happiness in his relationship with his fiancée but “our friendship is eternal.” He counseled Speed to be patient about the consummation of the marriage, since “Elysium” [Paradise] is unattainable in this life. Nevertheless, eventually sexual satisfaction is some compensation for the loss of a bachelor’s freedom and friendships. Later, Lincoln expresses joy that Speed is happier in his marriage than either of them expected him to be.
Altogether, Lincoln’s letters to Speed, corroborated by ample evidence from Herndon and others, show that Lincoln was in love with Joshua Speed. They had an emotional bonding that Lincoln never achieved with any other man or woman. This love in the Romantic era of the early-nineteenth century was the essence of a same-sex relationship in a way that a physical relationship involving genital contact could never have signified or amplified. At that time physical sex would have sullied and possibly destroyed such sublime love as Lincoln shared with Speed.
Was there an illicit, guilt or shame-inducing aspect to Lincoln’s love for Speed and Speed’s ardent responses? That, indeed, may be the measure that Katz disregards. We tend to believe that homo-erotic relationships were dreaded and stigmatized in the 19th century because same-sex incidents were vilified. Since there is no contemporary evidence of shame in Lincoln’s letters to Speed or in Herndon’s narrations a little later, we would conclude their relationship “must not have been homo-erotic.”
Instead, it is more likely that emotional love was not stigmatized in the 1830s as it was later with the development of the Victorian moral code and suspicion of all psychological states and any physical ones that were not chaste or devoid of emotion. When Abraham Lincoln loved Joshua Speed it was still OK for two men to love each other and to say so.
SONGKRAN is the traditional Thai New Year. To be precise, it is the date that Central Thai culture of Ayutthaya and Bangkok celebrated the New Year until the push came to show that Siam was part of the modern, civilized world, and New Year’s Day was moved to January 1. It is the only annual, traditional-religious celebration in Thailand aligned with the sun rather than the moon. It is April 13, expanded to April 13-15.
Culture tends to flow from centers of power to areas with less power, or diminishing power. So in Chiang Mai the old customs are either swept away or they are transformed and incorporated. Culture, along with its components such as language and religion, is always evolving. It is nostalgic nonsense to think otherwise. Here in the North Songkran includes several diverse background traditions including: (1) honoring elders, (2) being blessed by them, (3) washing Buddha images, (4) building sand chedis in temple grounds, (5) taking wooden props (mai kham ton Bo) to the Bo tree in the temple, (6) making merit for deceased ancestors, and incidental events a village might organize.
In Northern Thailand pouring water is still a ritual way of transferring blessings. It is part of every funeral and almost all other merit-making ceremonies. For Songkran the water includes an infusion of oils and dried flowers. Younger people honor the most senior members of their clan by taking small symbolic gifts to them, including a cloth item. They greet their elders with utmost respect, anoint the elder’s hands with the scented water which the elder transfers to his or her own head, and then returns the blessing by tying a white string around the younger person’s wrist while intoning a chanted wish for longevity, health, wealth, success and prosperity. Among persons of nearer the same age and status one could dare to pour a bit of water directly onto the other’s head or shoulder – which was bare in the old days, the custom of the times being “topless” or nearly so. The custom was reminiscent of giving the other person a bath, one of the most sacrosanct things a person could do.
Much of that remains in village culture.
For most of living memory, however, a second layer of tradition has been incorporated that comes from a different strand of tradition, the magical or sympathetic use of water to bring on rain. I am told that in times of extreme drought one of the rituals involved drenching a cat, whose cries would arouse a response from nature. More humanely, the ritual involved parading particular Buddha images (only certain ones) through the streets or pathways to allow people to anoint them with water, again to encourage rain to return. As it happened, once the parade has passed the people can happily anoint one another. If the crowd is younger or feeling more carefree the mutual anointing can become boisterous and resemble a water fight.
Now there is a third layer of tradition taking over in which most of the religious connotations are neglected or obscure. Songkran is now divided into two distinct festivals. The traditional one still involves trips to the temple and visits to elders. The other festival is all about playing with water.
An entire “industry” has built up around this water festival. The Tourism Authority of Thailand optimistically expects half a million tourists to arrive for a water fight. Here in Chiang Mai the battle will be around the city moat where streets will be clogged or entirely blocked fromnoon to dusk. Since venting aggression is an aspect of this, fueled with alcohol, the water throwing can be rowdy. As inhibitions are shed so can extraneous clothing. Tourists from overseas may not have any idea, nor care, about local mores and behavioral limits. It can be photogenic. The Culture Ministry has already produced a set of TV spots to express their indignation.
Meanwhile, thousands of people will be heading out of the city toward cleaner rivers to the South-West. The lucky ones will get to Ob Khan or Mae Wang in time to rent a little bamboo platform with a leaf roof and eat and drink their way through the day while children splash in the water. Those who get there later will find a shady spot to spread a mat on the ground and send the kids to join the crowd in the water.
If you think the 4 Gospel stories in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were biographies of Jesus, I invite you to reconsider. Nowhere it is clearer that historical accounting was not what the Gospel writers were intending than in the narratives about what we call Holy Week, the stories of Christ’s Passion, the Death and Resurrection stories.
Let’s just glance at the Easter details:
· In Matthew 2 women went to the tomb.
· In John Mary Magdalene went alone.
· Mark and Luke say there were 3, but they are not sure which 3.
· Did the women see 1 or 2 angels, or was it a man clothed in white?
· For Peter and John it was the deflated grave cloths that were convincing.
· And then they were not so convinced until they met Jesus while fishing.
· Mary was told not to touch the risen Lord.
· Thomas needed to touch, not just to see with his eyes.
The post resurrection appearances of Jesus were just as often confounding as they were confirming. Confusion was the most likely reaction.
Everybody who searches the Bible for historical accounts is frustrated by the gaps and even more by the inconsistencies. Critics of Christianity leap on this as our greatest weakness. In our seminary classrooms we sometimes wonder why the writers didn’t at leasttry to compile a coherent account. Just the other day a friend of a friend on the Internet confessed she was embarrassed by some of the impossibilities in the Holy Week accounts.
Somewhere along the line (I think it was in the 16th century) a search for historical accuracy became more urgent. We began to need a story that is internally coherent and consistent with whatever data may be uncovered by archeologists or recovered from long-lost documents. If the Jesus story is true, that’s how it is true, how we will know it is true, and how it will stay true: it will be history.
I know it is counter-cultural to suggest otherwise. But the Easter testament requires me to suggest we try to put ourselves into the mindset of the Easter witnesses. What were they witnessing and what were the New Testament writers testifying to?
It was not testimony to the historical truth that Jesus rose from the dead. Divine figures in every religion (especially the mystery cults that were hugely popular in the Roman Empire) and many other legendary heroes rose from the dead. Many of those resurrection accounts were more spectacular than the ones about Jesus. Factual accuracy about them was never what mattered. Even in Christian lore there were other resurrection stories including at least 2 told about Jesus, how he raised the son of the widow of Nain and the raising of Lazarus. The reaction at the time to “good news” that Jesus rose from the dead would have been along the lines, “Of course, he rose from the dead! Religious heroes do that.” Only in these last 500 years have we become skeptical about that, and think it must be the one thing that validates Christianity. I had a teacher who was fond of saying, “If Christ did not rise from the dead, Christianity is a fraud.”
In the first century what mattered was “what difference does it make?” That was the religious question that needed answering if Christianity was to gain traction. Luke was quite clear that the reason he compiled his testament to the Good News was to explain why the Jewish people beginning to be called Christians had grown to be so many and so enthusiastic. Luke and the other Gospel writers gathered story after story about what happened when people allowed Christ to meet their deep needs. The Easter stories (as well as the other Gospel stories) are accounts of how Christ changed people.
Mary Magdalene experienced Jesus as the one who resolved her grief. The thing that threatened to overwhelm Mary was her grief at the death of Jesus, whom she loved. So, for Mary Magdalene, the Easter experience was the eradication of her grief.
For Thomas, the experience was quite different. Thomas experienced Jesus as the one who resolved his doubt. He was not going to believe any of the gossip about Jesus, he declared, until he had actually touched the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and the spear wound in his side. Thomas would doubt until he had physical proof of Jesus’ resurrection, and so Jesus provided him proof.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced Jesus as the one who unfolded scripture for them. They were determined to believe what they read in scripture, and as they walked along, Jesus expounded on scripture, verse by verse. How their hearts were warmed, they said, until at length they recognized him as they were breaking bread together.
Other disciples experienced Jesus as the one who resolved their purposelessness. Now that Jesus was gone what was there to do? They had invested their lives in this man for three years and now he was dead. They were without purpose until, at last, Jesus, meeting them in an Easter experience custom-made for them, gave them a new role to undertake.
Peter experienced Jesus as the one who resolved his guilt. He had denied Jesus. He had said he would not deny Jesus to his last breath and until the last drop of blood. Yet he had denied him three times without loss of either breath or blood. Peter was overwhelmed with guilt. When Peter met the risen Lord his Easter experience convinced him he was forgiven his miserable showing, and that Jesus still wanted Peter to serve him.
This is the Easter experience as the witnesses testified to it: the ones who were grief stricken experienced Easter at the tomb. The ones who were terror stricken experienced the resurrection in their locked upper room. The two who were stricken by loneliness experienced Jesus at the dinner table, and those who were adrift experienced Jesus beside their fishing nets in Galilee.
The Easter experience is the experience of God’s victory which resolves our defeats.
Metal water kettles are going the way of water buffalo here in Northern Thailand. A case in point is what my ancestors called a “tea kettle” although only the water for tea was ever heated in it, and so was our bath water. Here they are called กา (pronounced gah as in gosh). They have stood the test of time, bridging periods from wood fires to gas. They are now aluminum, although in upscale stores in the city you can find copper kettles or stainless steel ones. A long time ago they were cast iron.
This represents improvement (whereas the evolution from cast iron to aluminum skillets might not – just an opinion). For heating water, lighter weight is easier to handle and more energy efficient.
Nowadays it is neither the source of energy nor price that is the driving factor in how we heat water, and why. For most of us, the only water we want heated at home is for coffee and for baths. There are separate ways of doing that. In Thailand, a thoroughly urban household may not have a kitchen. Most apartments and condos have minimal food preparation facilities, heavy on utilities that plug in. Coffee is made, naturally enough, in a coffee maker. Expensive varieties make your coffee while you are still asleep so it is ready when you get up. I remember being struck the first time I heard a farmer back in Illinois say he thought his computerized coffee maker was a necessity, much like his John Deere tractor. Now coffee makers are available right here in Lotus and Big-C, unless you prefer to have your cappuccino or latte from a kiosk on your way into your day. Modern young adults want their coffee with a cute diagram in the cream foam on top, or in a container to go.
Here in our village if you want coffee, you make it yourself. Although coffee out here is a modern beverage, even newer than Ovaltine and Milo, tea is ancient. There was a time in living memory when the drink you were provided in a food shop was always tea.
What was used to heat water before metal kettles of any kind were found around here?
The answer arrived at my front gate a few weeks ago. A truck driver was hawking clay pots of all kinds. Before there was money to buy metal kettles there were clay ones. Indeed, there still are. They are used in our village, if at all, mostly as decorations to harken back to the old days. The hawker had to hunt among his wares to find the example I wanted for the picture at the top of this essay. Flower pots were his main product. But clay pots without spouts are still used to make soup and curry. They are part of the secret behind the great taste of certain recipes.
So, there are three eras of กา in Thailand, the era in the past when they were made of clay, the passing era of metal kettles, and the dawning present when water heating is specialized.
What do the clay, metal, and electrified water pots tell us about village culture?
Clay pots were village made. Artisans specialized in those things and certainly not every household had a kiln; but terracotta utensils were local products. The clay around here is abundant and good quality. At a market on a fixed day those with extra items could find customers to trade what they had for what they wanted. Clay cooking ware was a necessity. Village culture in the past sustained the skills and production capacity for necessities.
The second observation is that some villages rose above the level of simple adequacy in certain trades. It often had to do with the availability of raw materials, or access to supply lines for components. Not many villages here in Chiang Mai have salt, for example. There are large salt sources in Nan Province, not too far away. Not every village needed to manufacture umbrellas, but they all needed a meat processing capability. So some necessary things were made and some for obtained by trading.
If an item was absolutely necessary for subsistence living it was produced locally. If it was optional it was traded for other optional items. That was the marketing principle of the past.
Only after commerce developed, where money became the medium of exchange and transportation was feasible did the production of necessities leave the village. Clay pots were then made by those who could do it in some way better. Those craftsmen could afford to divert their attention to full-time pottery making from other labor intensive endeavors such as hunting for game and cloth weaving.
Now at the mid-twenty-fifth century (by Thai reckoning) we are entering the post-village era.
Necessities in one era are different in another era. In post-village culture a home is a residence. It is no longer a place to manufacture food to eat. The amount of time a person spends on food production may be reduced almost to zero. Conversely, people in post-village cultures spend considerably more time and concern than previous generations did on what clothing to wear, and an even higher percentage of their attention on diversions of all kinds. Any successful housing development markets its sports and recreation facilities as well as its accessibility to places of entertainment (shopping malls being probably the most important of these). Diversions fill in where community events used to take place.
In post-village culture hot water needs to be there when it is wanted or within seconds at most.
There are hundreds of college and university students from overseas in Thailand at any one time. Some are here for a semester or more and others are here for two weeks or less. What they have in common is an opportunity to expand their horizons and begin to gain a global perspective or at least a cross-cultural one. Those who design and coordinate these programs usually facilitate a partnership between institutions in Thailand with institutions overseas. The ways these are conducted are too diverse to describe, but in general, the programs focus on (1) language, (2) culture and history, (3) and/or service-learning.
Advocates say that the service-learning model has the greatest potential for transformation of participants. Skeptics insist that it depends wholly on how much the participants are open to transformation and attitudinal modification. Students who come to party tend only to have aged a little by the time they depart. At the other end of the scale are those who “never get over” having been immersed in Thai culture. They are never the same again.
Immersion does seem to be the aspect that matters. The more students (or tourists) insulate themselves in their comfort zones, the less they absorb that is challenging. Without challenge there is no change.
A great deal of the Thai tourism industry is geared toward a form of mobile entertainment. Travelers are moved from one show to the next. They see a series of animal acts featuring snakes in one place, elephants, tigers, crocodiles or monkeys in the next. Then there are costumed dancers in the evening and static wonders to admire the next morning in the form of temples or palaces. If it goes well it is all very comfortable. Even “adventure tourism” is never meant to be all that challenging except inside a narrow range of previous interest and fitness, and then the goal is thrills rather than edification. It is essentially irrelevant that the track or trek is in Thailand, just as a Formula One race could be in Dubai as well as Monte Carlo. All this, of course, is frequently interspersed with shopping. Well, that’s what tourism is. It is only coincidentally educational.
Nowadays, there is also “augmented tourism”, tours-plus. Sometimes a tour is tacked onto the end of a conference or meeting. Sometimes the tour is the main thing, but an afternoon of helping-out is tucked into the program. You can usually tell the difference between tourism and service by who pays the bills. It strains the definition to call bathing and feeding an elephant “service”, especially if you have paid a thousand baht or more for the opportunity and you have to be helped by someone who could do it faster without you.
What turns an immersion experience into an educational one is reflection. Some sort of reflection is essential. Guided reflection is more productive than chain of consciousness recall. Disciplined reflection is optimal. An amateur sees, but doesn’t know what she sees. A trained observer sees more and configures it more accurately.
There is passive as well as active immersion. When I took a TV production class we got to observe in control rooms. We were immersed in the high-energy environment but required to be absolutely still. Students for the first time at a Buddhist ceremony should try to be passive but alert. In an authentic active immersion experience there is no difference between the way students are living and conducting affairs and the way people all around them are doing it. Reflection follows the immersion, but to derive the most benefit, experiences should be preceded by training and preparation.
Effective service-learning in Thailand is active immersion that provides assistance to somebody. In service-learning, students become colleagues in a project with those who benefit from it. A work project in which students do something for others may not be service-learning if elements of immersion or joint-participation are missing.
Effective service-learning is comprised of:
· An element of travel or movement out of one’s home environment
· A period of training and orientation
· Immersion into the environment of those to be served
· Work that benefits those being served
· Co-participation with mutual involvement by those being served
· Reflection, de-briefing and accumulating records
If any of these elements are missing the service-learning is compromised.
There are ways in which service-learning by overseas students in Thailand differs from service-learning back home. Some of the ways are matters of degree. A service-learning program in Iowa, for example, might place students in a public housing community center only a few blocks from campus or in a migrant farm worker labor union hall a few miles away, but travel to Thailand is into a far country with a comprehensively different culture. There are two ways, however, in which service-learning is fundamentally different in Thailand. Although it may be expected in New York, it is unrealistic to demand that students have a determinative role in selecting, designing and conducting their service. Not long ago a group came to our village to conduct a day of English language activities at our high school. Some of the activities were chosen for the group to conduct and part were activities participants insisted on designing themselves. Being unfamiliar with the school and educational culture of village Thailand the activities brought from overseas tended to be less successful because supplies ran out, the activity was too complicated to be accomplished in the available time, or the school students interacted mostly with each other while the service-learning students cheered or coached from the sidelines, or the service-learning leaders performed with the school kids as an audience. Student involvement in planning service-learning programs across cultural divides needs to be a collaborative effort, and if that is impossible it needs to be done for the service-learning students.
A second expectation of service-learning that is unrealistic here in Thailand is that somehow it will result in community or social change, particularly through giving community members a voice. There are insurmountable language, social, cultural and political barriers to that. Empowerment (as well as religious evangelism) is an unrealistic and illegitimate goal for foreign service-learning programs. Success can only be simulated and reports of success are inevitably exaggerated or entirely bogus. On the other hand, providing technical and emotional support for Thai change agents can be done by persons from overseas.
As service-learning earns greater and greater respect as an educational methodology and as the ASEAN accords open the door to greater mobility it is important to sharpen our thinking about service-learning by overseas students in Thailand.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.