14 years ago when Pramote and I bought the land where we live, it was a fruit orchard. Before the land was disturbed by erecting a house it was expedient to supplicate the resident spirit (jao tii). Promises were made to use the land in concert with the spirit, who/which after all had somehow been here for countless millennia and would supposedly be here long after we had departed one way or another back into primal elements. The resident spirit can cause trouble as well as dispense blessings. It is best to give this “lord of the place” honor.
So a lovely wooden shrine was erected, after consultation with people who are familiar with the lore regarding resident spirits. This year the structure is beyond repair so it was decided to replace it. Thursday, May 28 was selected because astrologers discerned that to be one of the most auspicious days of the year.
First thing in the morning the change was made. The old shrine was removed, after doing our best to inform the resident spirit what was about to happen. Then the shiny new shrine was put in its place. The shrine was provided with ceramic miniatures which recall a regional legend about how the Lord Buddha visited a family of giants and pacified them. The family was allowed to remain lords of the land (the literal land, soil, water, air and living creatures). Collectively and metaphorically this family signifies the supernatural nature of human precursors to any real estate. To inaugurate the new shrine, a roasted chicken along with a tray of fruit were symbolically offered and candles, incense, and flowers were presented to signify this was an act of worship, that being the highest form of honor. Then Pramote’s brother-in-law intoned a short prayer, the gist being that the promises made years ago are being renewed. It is necessary for the one who officiates at a service like this to have been a former monk, which implies a connection between formal religion and supernaturalism.
A few years ago I completed a study of the theological background for spirit shrines, along with a protest against the simplistic, demeaning assertions made about them. That discussion is available at www.kendobson.asia/blog/shrines.
Christians have almost universally insisted that Jesus Christ has rendered supernaturalism obsolete, and retaining any shred of interest in such things as resident spirits is heresy or at least weak faith. More than a couple of Christian friends and family members have wondered how I would allow a shrine to be erected on our property. My most indulgent response is that I do not own this property and I am a temporary resident here.
According to statistics from Worldometer.info, on May 22 there were 1,645,094 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in the USA. Furthermore, there have now been 500,848 cases with final outcomes in which the patient got well or died. Of those cases with final outcomes 403,201 got well (81%), and 97,650 died (19%). Are these numbers shocking?
Some say, “Yes, the numbers are horrible!” Others say, “No, the numbers are false.”
Now, it happens that the statistics are, quite predictably, being manipulated to suit those quoting them. But medical evidence is appearing to confirm that deaths and serious cases are very much higher among those who have other conditions which are exacerbated by the virus. The Sunday, 24 May 2020 edition of Medscape begin its lead article by saying, “The hospitalization rate for COVID-19 is 4.6 per 100,000 population, and almost 90% of hospitalized patients have some type of underlying condition according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” Some believe that this means no matter what combination of conditions the person had, COVID-19 was listed as the cause of hospitalization. This leads to unreliable statistics. “This virus is not so bad.” The virus is merely a catalyst. Those being killed would die soon anyway.
The argument continues by concluding that attributing deaths to COVID-19 is fomenting panic. Panic is blocking economic recovery. So, since the numbers are unreliable, just open things back up, separate the vulnerable into safe keeping, and let the young and healthy go back to work and to school. Massive shut-downs are causing political discontent and economic disaster.
On top of that, closing factories, churches, businesses, borders and travel is causing economic disaster without impacting the eventual outcome of the epidemic. Epidemics evolve and the shortest way to get past them is to let them take their course so that populations develop herd immunity. Herd immunity depends on people being immune to the virus once they have gotten over being infected. It is achieved when enough people have acquired immunity so that the virus no longer reaches vulnerable victims. Herd immunity advocates insist this is the way epidemics always work with diseases to which people develop immunities through prior exposure. It is best, according to this theory, to let people be exposed and get over it, which 98% will do, so that in the end there are too few without immunity for the virus to spread. [As of this date there is no indisputable proof that COVID-19 patients develop immunity to further infection. The plan in Sweden was to count on herd immunity. The plan in Germany was not to do so, but to impose social distancing to break the chains of infection until medication is discovered.] If this were Ebola, where death rates are 50% (30% to 90%) rather than 1% of those infected, relying on herd immunity would be unthinkable.
What is being ignored by this reasoning is that even if the virus is no more than a catalyst, it can and has caused great spikes in illness, particularly illness related to lungs. These spikes can overwhelm hospital facilities, and that has happened, but it can be avoided by slowing down the spread by spreading out the population so that everybody has a chance to be treated. Even if keeping people at home is only slowing down the epidemic it is keeping people alive.
Is this "flattening the spike" worth the cost in terms of hardship, social disruption, actual starvation, and loss of emotional health as the epidemic conditions continue? Who is being protected by these measures and who is being subjected to collateral tragedy. This brings the matter into the moral-ethical realm. That sort of discussion always revolves around debatable values. On the one hand are those who believe, "If you save a life you save the world." It is immoral to resign any proportion of the population to suffering and death if it can be avoided. On the other hand, are those who insist, "It is unreasonable to operate as if we expect everyone to live forever. We will all die ... so if the choice must be made, it is better to do it when it serves the greater good." It’s about numbers.
Behind all the medical and economic realities that COVID-19 has imposed on us is another development with great potential. People in this decaying postmodern era are beginning to have to think again.
Naturally, all along, we have thought we thought … and we did. We thought all sorts of thoughts, profound and paltry. But the virus has exposed how we think in ways we haven’t thought about for a long time.
First, a little background. Postmodernism began as a protest against modernism. Modernism had brought us Art Deco, jazz, nuclear fission, Fascism, penicillin, and “1984” in 1948. Postmodernism worried that we were being manipulated by giant puppeteers who control us by powerful narratives. “Those stories are lies,” Foucault told us. “You are the only legitimate story-teller of your life story.” So we went to Woodstock, found joy in sexual freedom, overcame syndicated TV, and ate what we wanted without a care about “what is good for you.” This heedless freedom came at a cost: the loss of critical thinking. Instead, we have preferences based primarily on affiliations. Our social attachments are terribly important to us. In the serene center of consensus we are secure. Whatever disturbs this consensus needs to be kept away. And thanks to Information Technology it can be.
Now comes the virus threatening us. Postmodernist responses emerged immediately. The over-riding postmodern reaction is to protest, especially to protest whatever disturbs the domain we, ourselves, inhabit. Postmodernists that we are, we intuit our core belief system (without naming it), shared with our group, and we look for the giant puppeteer who is invading our zone. That’s what postmodernists do.
COVID-19 is a virus but the narrative we need to understand it is what we look for. Groups have agreed among themselves, (1) the puppeteer is fake because the story of the viral threat is a hoax; (2) the puppeteer is a charlatan trying to subject us to a medical panic in order to sell medicine; (3) the puppeteer(s) are frauds bent on creating panic to undermine the economy of the world and replace the former puppeteers with new ones; (4) the puppeteer(s) are tyrants using this medical situation to strengthen their power; (5) the puppeteers don’t know squat and we can ignore them; (6) the puppeteers have expanded the effects of the epidemic in order to kill off as many as possible of those outside their group; (7) the puppeteer has stubbornly stuck to a script even after the audience has lost interest and gone for refreshments.
Now we are being driven to think again.
We are being forced by our circumstances to think critically, to evaluate how we are doing our thinking, and to admit that knee-jerk reactions are not thoughtful.
The immense numbers of dead and sick and the encroaching illness have cracked the bunkers into which we have retreated. Undeniable reality is no longer simple. It is impossible to attribute the cause of the pandemic to a fake narrative. Medical science has gained increased respect, complex and methodical though it is. The power of governments to promote the common welfare, if they want to, is being recognized and people are getting aroused. Angry defensiveness and magical incantations are essentially ineffective against a powerful, mindless protein. Liberty is a different realm of discourse from epidemiology.
Stubbornly entrenching ourselves inside the opinion stockade of our affiliates is not working. When that mental strategy stops working postmodernism is done for.
[Thanks to Christians in Chiang Mai, Thailand for distributing free meals at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. Thanks for the picture.]
It seems incumbent to at least comment on turning 80, today, May 14, 2020. On the whole, getting this old is not as surprising as I thought it would be when I was 40.
In all fairness, however, I think I have made about as much impact on the world as I will. And I have to admit I’m a little disappointed not to have achieved some things I thought I might. I did not become an Eagle Scout, get inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, get a Fulbright scholarship, earn a PhD from St. Andrews University, become pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, get an honorary degree from my alma mater, be awarded a Royal Thai decoration, have a book published by a well known publisher, or become vice president of a university. All of those things were real possibilities at some point.
I feel much more keenly about a couple of other near-accomplishments.
In the 1980s I discovered how to transform pastoral theology seminary courses (preaching, church administration, worship, pastoral counseling) from performance-oriented skill-building into academically advanced courses with research potential. It could have improved and upgraded the seminary and the level of leadership in the church here in Thailand. But I didn’t get to continue on the staff of the seminary.
Twenty years later I finished the third re-write of a book, 40 years in the making, about holistic spirituality – how to assess what really is going on when one is growing and when one is deteriorating spiritually. I have the concept, and it is refined and compelling. Spirituality is a growing topic to which I could have made a significant contribution. But I have never been able to get a handle on how to present it in an accessible and usable format.
These two big ideas would have been very helpful to “the world”, but they will die with me. I’m resigned to that now.
At this point in birthday reminiscences I’m supposed to turn to positive memories and list things that turned out right. That list would be acceptably long. Failing to do it might seem like a ploy to coax others to shower me with reassuring compliments.
Let’s agree that those who know me can name reasons they are thankful for our relationship. For my part, I am satisfied that during the past 80 years I have fulfilled one of my high school teacher’s commandments, “Ken, you are part of the answer. Stay that way.”
I have been neither heroic nor historic. But as that philosophy teacher understood, the first task is to discern the real questions, and the second is to resolve to be part of the answer. In that I have done tolerably well.
The rice planting season officially begins tomorrow (Monday, May 11). After giving consideration to cancelling several May holidays, the Thai government declared they would go ahead but people are advised to stay at home, meaning that how they are observed would be mostly on TV. The most spectacular and ancient of the holidays is the Royal Plowing Ceremony, traditionally help in the Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok on the second Monday of May.
This ceremony, revived by HM King Rama IX in 1960, features a representative of the King (usually the Minister of Agriculture) plowing a furrow in 9 circuits, with the plow being pulled by a team of white oxen. Rice is then cast into the furrows by the royal representative from gold and silver baskets of seeds carried on shoulder poles by four women. The whole event is presided over by the Royal Family. Part of the ceremony also involves offering the oxen their choice of food and drink; what they choose is considered by astrologers to portend agriculture productivity. At the conclusion of the ceremony crowds of people surge onto the newly plowed field to retrieve as many grains as they can to mix with their own seeds to expand the kwan (“life force” which is part of the official name of the ceremony, พระราชพิธีจรดพระนังคัลแรกนาขวัญ).
The Thai ceremony is carried over in toto from a ceremony held in the Khmer Empire and even before. It reiterates an event in the Ramayana, the mythic saga that legitimizes the lineage of royalty throughout South and Southeast Asia. It recalls the ancient agricultural origins of culture and validates the king as the Lord of the Land. In this way, the Plowing Ceremony, along with coronations and funerals of royalty, symbolizes the stability, prosperity and wealth of the people, the country, and the culture.
Some say we have entered a post-agricultural age, but COVID-19 has reminded us of the fragility of metropolitan life. We forget our agrarian roots at our great peril.
Birth, Enlightenment and Death of the Lord Buddha
Visaka Bucha Day is the premier of three annual Buddhist holy days. On this day, which comes on Wednesday May 6 in Thailand this year, the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha, the Self-Enlightened One, is celebrated. In short, the person of the Buddha is commemorated, and the Buddha is worshiped.
The birth of Gautama was in various ways miraculous (as births of divine saviors must be). According to the basic Thai narrative, at his conception his mother dreamed that a divine white elephant entered her side. His birth was painless to his mother, and the precocious infant arose at birth and took several footsteps which were cushioned by lotus blossoms springing from the ground.
The prince was first destined for a royal heritage, for which he married and bore a son. But he became fixed on discovering life’s greatest mystery, the cause and resolution of human suffering. For this quest he abandoned his family and home to practice extreme asceticism, finally resolving to meditate until he discovered the Truth. After 40 days he achieved this stupendous break-through into enlightenment.
Thereafter, he spent decades disseminating this understanding to all who were inclined to receive it. He acceded to the requests of a few (eventually growing into a multitude) to be his disciples. In order to sustain and spread the Dharma-Truth, he permitted disciples to form a monastic order and gave them instructions for living in ways that would further the cause while enhancing their own progress toward Nirvana (the cessation of suffering and the eradication of its cause). At the appropriate time, the Buddha, having accomplished all he needed to do, yielded to death. He reclined in acquiescence and passed away.
This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, the usual massed morning chanting, group meditation, and evening circumambulation of chedis (stupas) will not be held. Mass gatherings, including the famous pilgrimage up mount Doi Sutape here in Chiang Mai, are expressly prohibited. However, I have no doubt that people will still find their way to neighborhood temples to make merit.
[The picture of the birth (left panel), death (right), and enlightenment (center) is from the west wall of the assembly building of Wat Ta Pong, Sanpatong District, Chiang Mai. In virtually every temple, the enlightenment is the symbolic center of attention.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.