This is the 50th anniversary year of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday is a US national holiday this week on January 15 the anniversary of his birth. I have vivid personal memories of Dr. King and what he marched for, and how I followed. His Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in March 1965 was a major event for me.
When the US government ordered National Guard and US Army troops to safeguard the Freedom march after a bloody failed attempt ended when Alabama police rioted, Dr. King invited everyone to join in the last leg of the march from the Montgomery city limits to the steps of the state capitol building. Alabama Governor George Wallace has vowed to block the march and we were not sure what he would do that day. As I remember, four of us from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago announced our intention to travel to Montgomery for the march and got good wishes and some traveling money. We rode the train all night and arrived in plenty of time on March 25. There were an estimated 25,000 of us flooding the streets leading to the capitol building. Dr. King’s address was carried over loud speakers, even to us 3 blocks away. His most memorable quote was, “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. ... I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.” The march ended peacefully. After he spoke, we were among the first to leave for Union Station. Although the stewards and porters had been very attentive to us and expected us on the return trip, the GM&O would be leaving on schedule. We got back to Chicago in time for Friday classes.
I have often wondered, “What difference it made?” We swelled the crowd by a miniscule amount, as we had done on June 21, 1964 when we were 5 or 6 of 65,000 who walked behind Dr. King through the Chicago Loop to Soldier’s Field to hold the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights.
My closest experience in his presence was when he came to Athens Ohio to speak to the Triennial assembly of the World Student Christian Federation. I was in the choir on stage with him and had a chance to shake his hand. It is remembered that his speech congealed the Student Christian Movement and Christian students to join the US civil rights campaign and provided impetus for lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides, as well as other non-violent acts of defiance.
Back in my home town of Jacksonville, Illinois my senior year at Illinois College in 1961 was unlike other years in several ways, following the Athens Triennial conference. I was a chairman of the United Campus Christian Fellowship, and, along with countless other new civil rights activists, we decided to join the MacMurray College Wesley Fellowship in bringing civil rights to our town starting with Spatz’s ice cream parlor on East State Street. We were informed that students of color had to order their milk shakes and banana splits at an outside window along an alleyway. The district attorney had advised us that he would prosecute to end this racial injustice if we could gather state’s evidence. We formed two small student groups, one all white, and the other integrated, and entered the store a few minutes apart. The white group was served, but milkshakes for the integrated group never came. After a while the owner demanded that the second group leave since he had a sign posted that announced he “had the right to seat and serve” whomever he chose. We got his order to leave and the reason for it on cassette tape. The issue was in the newspaper and on radio. We heard that rather than have a repeat of the action, the movie theaters and other restaurants in town quietly ended their racist practices. My father was livid that commercial businesses could be bullied that way, and that his own son was one of the radicals. It was a new aspect of me he had not guessed I would develop. He joined George Wallace’s campaign for President to show his aggravation with the way Democrats like me were telling people how to run their lives.
It began with my failure to see how any of our friends in high school were significantly defined by color. It went on with my commitment to live as a Christian making a difference. But it would never have gotten beyond a philosophical point of view if it had not been for a half- hour in an ice cream parlor following a call to action by Dr. King.
It all comes back to me, as we get ready to mark the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. John Guyer was a large figure in the foreign mission work of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Thailand. He was the tallest missionary who had ever served in Chiang Mai, and his shadow was large in many ways.
I will leave it to others with access to historical archives to write a thorough biographical sketch. Instead, I will write personal reminiscences in behalf of our generation who counted on him to be a role model as well as primary care physician.
John’s specialty, he told me carefully, was internal medicine. “I am an internist,” he said. Then he explained that his field was recently developed to differentiate it from general practice as well as other specialties such as surgery or pediatrics. He tried to cure people with pills, he explained. He was also one of the best diagnosticians in the country.
John was on the staff of McCormick Hospital in Chiang Mai when I arrived in town in August 1965. As I remember it, Dr. Boonchom Ariwongse was head of the hospital and Dr. Pipat Trangratakit was the general manager. Drs. Harold and Harriet Hanson and Dr. Ed McDaniel were other Presbyterian medical doctors at McCormick, along with Miss Helene Newman who was a midwife and instructor of midwives. McCormick was just about the only hospital in town with Suan Dawk Hospital just getting started as a university medical center with help from the University of Illinois, and other hospitals being what we would now call clinics.
So, one of the first lessons I learned is that the time had come when missionaries no longer “ran things” but were integral parts of organizations. Still, John and others were mentors for newly graduated physicians and nursing staff. They also helped the hospital develop infrastructure, a major one being a fully functional modern medical technology unit and laboratories. When Dr. Boonchom retired and Dr. Pipat was urgently moved to Bangkok Christian Hospital to help it through a transitional crisis, Dr. John reluctantly assumed the role as ACTING medical director. John wanted nothing to do with putting Americans permanently back into administrative positions in place of Thai officials.
A second lesson I learned is that McCormick Hospital considered its mission to be in fulfillment of Christ’s charge for his disciples to heal the sick and to make disciples. John’s understanding was that this was a corporate mandate; no one person on the hospital staff was to try to do everything. John consistently advocated the acquisition of specialties, which meant hiring specialists. This risky expense was, naturally, not unopposed; it is a credit to John Guyer that McCormick Hospital remained at the top of the list of hospitals outside of Bangkok as long as it did. Similarly, he prevailed in installing a new position of chaplain on the hospital staff, whose responsibilities and authority were not less than that of physicians, therapists and nurses. With John’s encouragement I spent a month in the Philippines studying how to develop a clinical pastoral education program to be run by McCormick Hospital and the Thailand Theological Seminary. Although our CPE program was not adopted, John’s project was implemented to have chaplains be fully educated seminary graduates (rather than “evangelists”). All the while in word, manner, and deed, John was a witness to the love and compassion of Christ, the Great Physician, as countless grateful patients (including me) can testify.
A third lesson was that a Christian is also a member of a Christian congregation in order to receive instruction and inspiration, but also to provide support and encouragement. In that regard, John was active in three ways. First, he was a member (and I believe an elected elder) in the First Thai Church of Chiang Mai. The Rev. Boonyeun Nataneti was the pastor. Second, John was an active member in a missionary and ex-pat worshiping fellowship that became Chiang Mai Community Church a full-fledged congregation in the Church of Christ in Thailand in 1967. Third, John and his wife Betsy were active missionary co-workers with a range of responsibilities and relationships with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a number of churches in the USA that established a particular interest in their work here in Chiang Mai.
Finally, John was a Rotarian. He was one of the founding members (I believe) of the Chiang Mai Rotary Club, the first Rotary club in Chiang Mai. He was president of the club for at least one term and attended district gatherings. This gave him access to other community leaders and recognition in the community, which he always tried to have reflect beneficially onto the church and hospital rather than on himself.
Word has reached us that Dr. John Guyer died on January 1, 2018. May God’s soothing hand rest on Betsy, Janet, and Jim and his family, as well as on all of us who remember John Guyer gratefully and fondly. In the end, as McCormick professes on every sack of medicine it dispenses from its pharmacy that John helped develop, “We provide medicine but Christ heals.” The final healing is into eternal peace and salvation.
Thanks to the Payap University Archives for these two vintage pictures of Dr. John Guyer.
VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Ban (our niece) and Saek (sounds like Sack) had a stripped-down wedding a week before Christmas. Here’s what I saw and how it differed from more elaborate Thai weddings.
Arrangements were made when Saek’s family came from Payao to visit with Ban’s family in Jom Jaeng, Sanpatong outside of Chiang Mai. Both families included the parents and responsible elders, usually aunts and uncles. The gathering took place in an empty room with everyone sitting on mats on the floor, all on the same level within eyesight of everyone else. Saek’s uncle, representing the groom’s side of the family, began the conversation by commenting on the two young people having chosen each other. There was a chorus of agreement. Clearly the emphasis was on a cheerful consensus. “They love each other,” he said. The room echoed with happy expressions of agreement. Step by step the conversation ambled through the familiar platitudes with all voices blending in harmony. Many meetings are more sedate. The thing needed in this one was not only agreement, but enthusiasm. There must be no doubt that this is a joint arrangement. It is a merger of two clans that have only this one point of contact. Saek stared at the ceiling, the floor, the open windows, anywhere but into anyone’s eyes. Ban got busy passing water glasses around. Someone handed the uncle a slip of paper which he stared at intensely for a few seconds before handing it to Saek’s father. Ban’s aunt spoke up, “This is all for the young couple.” Heads nodded. Talk never faltered but turned to what auspicious day to have the wedding. It was now about “when” rather than “whether”. Calendars were needed and Saek, with a look of profound relief left the room to find one to sort out good dates for undertaking a major life enterprise. In short order it was agreed that the wedding would be as simple as can be, right there at home, in the morning a week later, with a meal fixed by neighbors. It seemed to be all tied up, so lunch was served.
One extravagance was allowed when wedding plans were proceeding. The living room was to be decorated with a backdrop festooned with flowers.
Before dawn on wedding day, the bride and her mother had their “hair done” and got cosmetic treatment. The bride and groom had rented traditional outfits that were specifically for weddings only in the sense that they were matching white with gold threads. All was ready soon after dawn except the wedding meal, and that was well under way.
Then waiting began filled with fussing about whether something had been forgotten.
At about ten in the morning the groom’s family arrived and was met down the lane to be accompanied to the bride’s house. Play-acting is part of a wedding. Certain vestiges of custom were re-enacted. First, the groom and his entourage made their arrival clear. A grander wedding might have a band of musicians and firecrackers. In this case there were just a few whoops and shouts. At the bride’s front gate two of the bride’s friends holding a gold chain blocked the path. It was up to the groom’s mother to bargain with the gate-keepers. They dropped the chain for a hundred baht ($3) but in other weddings the right to pass can be more expensive. Often there are games played in which a phony bride is presented or the real bride is hidden away. Innovation is what keeps this interesting. It can take a lot of time and be loads of fun, particularly if the principal players are plied with alcohol. There were only 3 chains blocking the way to Ban.
Then the wedding began with the 2 families seated on opposite sides of the wedding area. First the groom’s parents presented the bride’s parents with gifts the bride’s family had disclosed they required (on that piece of paper that was not directly discussed on the day of arrangements). In a more elaborate wedding this might have been a separate ceremony at a different place, even on a different day. Saek’s parents presented a red jewelry case and a gift of cash wrapped in a red net cloth. They had been carried in on two small tray tables elaborately decorated with tiny flowers and folded petals symbolizing several aspects of a successful marriage. The groom opened the jewelry box his parents had (presumably) provided and gave a gold chain, bracelet, and ring to the bride. She gave him a gold ring from the same box. Diamond rings are not traditional, but that’s changing. The bride’s mother untied the cash and spread it out appreciatively and then carried it on her shoulder into the bridal chamber (bedroom nearby). She was repeating in action what an aunt had implied at the arrangement meeting -- that this cash was for the newlyweds.
[In only a small way was this a “bride price” as it is described by anthropologists. The idea is not that the bride is being purchased and paid for, but that the bride’s mother is being compensated. The Thai narrative is all about repaying the mother for her “milk” given to her daughter. Milk, of course, is a metaphor for the whole effort of gestation and child-rearing. But it underscores Thai veneration of mothers. Boys traditionally repay their mothers for their milk by being ordained and transferring merit to their mothers. (Here is a link to a blog about this: www.kendobson.asia/blog/why-be-a-short-term-monk)]
This was all preliminary to the actual wedding. Up to now the wedding had been about gaining consent and agreement. Then, in a short ceremonious way, the bride and groom paid honor, kneeling to their parents in turn. This can involve an exchange of leis and floral rings, but not this time.
The bride and groom were escorted to seats (much like prie-dieux) behind a low coffee table. They were side by side. Next to them was a traditional bai sri flower arrangement. [Here is a link to a blog about this: www.kendobson.asia/blog/calling-for-kwan ] At no point in any traditional Thai wedding do the bride and groom exchange vows or necessarily say anything at all. For this simple ceremony there was no professional leader to chant a blessing or to anoint the couple with white clay dots on their foreheads. The fathers did the honors of entwining the couple’s heads with a cord that in some literal and symbolic way “tied the knot.” Thus they were wedded.
The validity of the wedding consists of the express wishes of the bride and groom (no Thai wedding is initiated without it in this day and age), and the express agreement of the two clans without which sustaining the marriage would be doubtful. In effect, it is entirely up to the two families to ratify the marriage, which needs no religious or governmental authority to be authentic and durable. It is not part of a Northern Thai Buddhist wedding to have priests involved, although a couple might go to a temple for the same sort of blessing people would get on birthdays or other auspicious occasions. This is in sharp contrast to Christian weddings, including Christian weddings in Thailand, where the church presides and the wedding is about a contract between the bride and groom with the church’s oversight, with the church acting in Western cultures also as an agent for the state. The couple may go to the district office and register their marriage. This provides legal authority for a couple to act as a unit to claim government benefits or to buy and sell property, for example. But a couple is just as married in the eyes of society and the law if they do not do that. Ban and Saek have not yet registered their marriage.
The formal ceremony continued with tying white cords on the wrists of the bride and groom. That is designed to include everyone in bestowing blessings and gifts. The gifts were cash in envelopes deposited in a heart-shaped paper-mache box situated in front of the couple. Sometimes the gift was handed to the bride who slipped it into the box. If there had been an announcer, people would have been invited to come forward by groups; people knew the routine at this little wedding. The normal order of seniority begins with grandparents and then by age, relationship, and social rank until no one is left out. Each person takes a length of white cotton cord consisting of 9 strands, and ties it onto the wrist of one or both of the couple while wishing them well, either in ordinary words or in a traditional chant.
Dinner was being distributed by this time. So it was just the parents and a couple of the most senior close relatives who symbolically led the couple into their bridal chamber. The bed had been specially prepared and was to be strewn with flower petals. The couple was seated on the bed and given marriage instructions. Although it can be entertaining and moving, Ban and Saek’s parents skipped this formality. The couple was provided their first meal as a married couple and symbolically bedded for a few short minutes.
That concluded the re-enactment of the traditional Northern Thai Wedding.
In this wedding we noticed that pictures were taken, but unlike larger weddings photography was neither intrusive nor were any aspects of the wedding set up for the sake of pictures. The bride was not the star as in weddings where everything is all about her on her big day. No mention was made of placating spirits in the supernatural realm, although the jao thii was no doubt informed that Saek would be moving into the house; it was not part of the wedding. No aspect of religion was part of the wedding.
Everything after that was party. The 70 guests had lunch paid for by the bride’s family, with help from the gifts in the heart-shaped box. Many weddings have another party at night that might include a feast and speeches by dignitaries as well as an interview of the couple and a professional video about their romantic life. If these are in a major hotel the cost can skyrocket. Ban and Saek didn’t have any of that.
A traditional Northern Thai wedding happens when a couple asks their extended families to agree to their marriage.
Merry Christmas is always difficult. I’ve been pondering the irony of this for perhaps 75 of my 77 Christmases. My earliest Christmas memory is of being shocked on Christmas morning when I stuck my finger in an electric socket that was running my new Lionel train. That Christmas needed help becoming merry again. Hugs did it, I distinctly remember.
Christmas number 25 for me was hard, too. Every tradition that anchored Christmas for me was replaced with something new as I lived Christmas in Thailand, thousands of miles away from home for the first time. It was difficult for me to comprehend that the things we were doing were traditions for most everyone but me. And there was a war going on, on every side of Thailand, getting closer.
Then came the Christmas when we scraped up just $10 for presents, the Christmas with a little baby, the Christmas somebody died, and the Christmas of the divorce. Every one of my 75 Christmases has involved compromise with an image of ideal Christmas. Sometimes the gap between the ideal and the real was glossed over by activities, sometimes bridged by family gatherings, and sometimes narrowed by carrying slices of merriment to others.
Christmas is complex. It is personal, communal, and universal, all at the same time.
Somewhere I acquired the idea that a couple of pieces ought to be given attention if I am to realize CHRISTMAS and it is to be authentically MERRY.
First is the concept that enough is enough. Adequacy and appropriateness are circumstantial. One can drop some elements of Christmas that have been important. This Christmas you can do it another way. Some people will just skip Christmas and be merry without it. But if I am to have a Merry Christmas I must be helping make people merry. Christmas will take some effort. Merry Christmas always takes effort on somebody’s part. My attention for many Christmases was on enabling great celebrations for churches and universities. Then for a few Christmases Pramote and I “brought Christmas” to children in our neighborhood school by having a Christmas party for them that included a Christmas tree, Christmas singing and games, and lunch with ice cream. The school was closed this year, so we’ll be passing out sacks of Christmas goodies at our front gate to kids on their way to school, it being Monday. Christmas has evolved this way.
The second piece of Christmas is celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. For decades that was my central focus, the reason for the season, and all that. The grand music, the candles and bells, and the festive liturgy were all about contemporizing an event that changed the way the world turns, ideally. Christmas meant, for me, transforming culture’s most familiar story into an element of that year’s main event. Now, that aspect of Christmas is no longer what it used to be. I come from a culture trying to wage war on those who do Christmas differently, as well as those who propose to do anything else this time of year. It’s hard in America to be merry and gay, or poor, or disabled. Threats to “merry” are multiplying but “Christmas” is also challenging for me. I live in a solidly Buddhist culture, in an overwhelmingly Buddhist family, and have to create whatever it is that constitutes a Nativity celebration. It is difficult and the results are uneven.
We can have “merry” without “Christmas” and “Christmas” without “merry”. But it takes effort to have both. It takes patience and lowered expectations. It always involves going outside the plan to redesign a piece of it. No merry Christmas will ever be what it’s ever been.
There has been progress on gay and human rights during this time leading up to Christmas 2017. We might need magnification to see it, but it’s there and it’s real.
Perhaps the biggest step was taken in Australia on December 7 when the government passed into law a marriage equality act that had been asked for in a popular referendum. The first full-fledged gay marriages should be taking place the week after New Years.
More recently, in the USA, the state of Alabama elected a Democrat to the US Senate rather than the Republican, Roy Moore. A news source said Moore “was twice removed from his post as Alabama’s chief justice for flouting federal law. He believes homosexuality should be illegal, Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress, the Constitution exists to foster Christianity and America was last great ‘at the time when families were united—even though we had slavery.’ Several women have accused him of offences ranging from sexual misconduct to assault; most were teenagers at the time of the alleged incidents.” The winner, Doug Jones, in addition to being noted for his prosecution of members of the Ku Klux Klan, is reported in the gay press to have a gay adult son. It was a special election, so only one political office was at stake. But this year it’s especially gratifying to end on a happier note than most US national news has been.
Britain’s bumpy road out of the European Union seems to this far-removed American, to be making progress toward finding whatever measure of sanity might be retained by moving extremely cautiously toward the goal of protecting the people of Britain from the “erosion of their independence” as well as to limit emigration. Prince Harry will marry a biracial American divorcee, to everyone’s apparent delight. Yesterday I enjoyed a gay-men’s choir from Cambridge singing Christmas music (I think they were King’s College ex-choirboys, but I could be wrong about that). Let’s hear it for GB.
It’s hard to find hopeful human rights news from Africa, but yesterday (as I type this) the President of Ghana was quoted as saying that marriage equality in that country “was only a matter of time.” It might be a long time, since opinion polls say only 3% of the people would give LGBT people equal rights. Still, President Akufo-Addo’s prediction is a huge improvement over his predecessor’s outrages and widespread round-ups of gays across the country.
Meanwhile, here in Thailand a friend came across an unexpected clue to progress. He found a Hindu shrine at a modern new mall that announced “menstruating women are prohibited.” What my friend did not understand is how remarkable that sign is. Hinduism is evolving. In Bali and in much of India it is not just menstruating women who are banned from the inner precincts of Hindu temples, but all women and girls. Clearly, upwards of 90% of the female population have gained the right to enter this shrine in the Maya Mall in Chiang Mai, and it is up to women to decide whether to enter or not. I take that as significant progress toward total inclusion by at least one Hindu shrine.
Also, I have recently heard of three Buddhist temples in Thailand where the saffron-robed head and clergy are women. That is a 200% increase in the number of temples where the clergy are women. This is in spite of official opposition from the Sangha hierarchy, and the express prohibition of such ordinations. The movement is spreading. This movement has rocked the very legal structure of Buddhism in Thailand. Its impact is profound. Progress toward inclusion and equality is being made, microscopic as it appears from the outside.
2017 has been tough on us, but steps have been made if we look hard enough.
December, month number 12 bearing the name 10, is possibly the best name for a month of deception, dissemblance and dishonesty. Most of it is presumably benign. Santa Claus, for example. Hidden Christmas presents we drop misleading hints about. Some other displays of good will are meant to signify unselfishness: bell ringing for charity, baskets for the poor, Christmas carol singing for those who are shut-in or locked-up.. These things fill the month and then we add things we simply cannot avoid, such as lunches, office parties, and trips to visit nearly forgotten relatives. There’s an element of prevarication in most of what we do in December. Gift giving in hopes of getting an enthusiastic response is probably our most honest action.
It’s all good fun.
Motives are almost always too complex to be easily analyzed. But the entire season is obfuscated. The darkest month of the year is spattered with glittering spectacles that do not bear intense investigation. We’ve attacked most of it, anyway, with our complaints about Christmas Muzak in shopping malls, fake Christmas trees, and even cone shaped light displays without any trees at all. We loathe the commercialization of the season and still spend more than we planned. Is it just primal gloom that we must try to put to flight with our strings of electric fire? Saturnalia was obliterated so we reinvented it.
There is a reason for the season and we have named it “Jesus”. Christ is the reason we are doing all this, but best not think too much about what exactly we are doing, much less why. The attachments and add-ons do not bear scrutiny. The customs of December are so mutated, in fact, that Christmas has been prohibited from time to time, only to come back re-clad in attractive garments to gladden hearts. St. Francis, it is said, to dispel the dark dangers of the late Middle Ages, assembled a Christmas tableaux that was so fetching it became a tradition. That fostered a whole Alpine woodcarving industry. One thing led to another until Christmas didn’t seem like a good idea any more. So the Puritans, famous for burning witches and beheading royalty, purified Christmas by banning it. But then came the wily Dutch with Sinterklaas, and Luther with his candle-lit evergreen trees.
Charles Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas story in English after King James authorized the second chapter of Luke. It was, in my view, a metaphor. The season, Dickens tells us, is beclouded with dark memories and portents that turn it into “humbug” where Scrooge is beset with obligations that enrage him. Hidden in shadows are other, brighter memories and possibilities. Happily, they are the ones that emerge to reclaim the day. Dickens was preaching. Industrial England, beclouded in soot and smoke, had the same choice as had confronted Ebenezer Scrooge, to shrivel in his chilly confines or to join the singing.
And behind it all is still more mystery.
Who were those people mentioned by Matthew and Luke, assembled by St. Francis to give three-dimensional presence to otherwise vague characters? What do we know of them, Mary and Joseph and the babe, lying in a manger? Shepherds, angels, wise men from the East bearing gifts? We know of them what we have chosen to know. We have provided narrative for missing words to satisfy our need for light to dispel darkness. And, lo, the darkness is not that hard to disperse. Words can do it. There is THE STORY and there are more stories. They multiply.
Mary, who are you? THE STORY says she is a handmaiden of the Lord. She is the mother of Jesus, and first-line witness to his birth events. And a century or so later she needed to be a virgin for in the stories of other incarnate deities were they not born of virgins? A verse in Isaiah would do, where “young woman” could be “virgin” if needed. And are not mothers of gods immaculate? How immaculate does the mother of God need to be? Then, should she not be our Mother, too? “Holy Mary … pray for us ….”
There is much darkness, so we will light a candle. We people dwelling in darkness are needy. We need, among our many needs, a season to be reminded to be grateful for starlight and candlelight.
[Appreciation to Gene Bourquin for the picture of him outside Maya Mall in Chiang Mai.]
Gerry Dyck completed a half-century project last year which made a significant contribution to preservation of the folk arts of North Thailand and Lanna culture. In October 2016 Gerry delivered almost 1500 musical segments to be made available through Rajabhat, Chiang Mai, and Payap Universities. The audio clips had been recorded on reel-to-reel magnetic tape over a four-year period from 1967-1971. But, thanks to modern technology, the entire collection of more than 150 computer discs now fits onto a 38 gig data storage device the size of Gerry’s finger. This database is in the hands of the 3 Chiang Mai institutions, thanks to Ajan Songkran Somchandra สงกรานด์ สมจันทร์ of Rajabhat Chiang Mai University.
Gerry’s projects in Chiang Mai in 1967-71 were two-fold.
He and his wife Edy Fagerbourg Dyck were missionary co-workers sent by the United Presbyterian Church to the Thailand Theological Seminary of the Church of Christ in Thailand. Gerry was to help with the seminary’s Department of Church Music. The department prepared high school graduates to be church and church-school choir directors and music teachers. But Gerry made an effort to expand church music beyond Western (i.e. “international”) hymnody, to include indigenous Northern Thai instruments. Objections were formidable from both those who thought the future of church music was with guitars, and those for whom Thai instruments evoked a past haunted by ghosts and the occult. A high point in Gerry’s effort came when the 1969 Christmas concert was presented using Thai instruments. [I have saved the folder of pictures Gerry sent me from that concert. Alas, the cassette tape has disintegrated.] I believe, over all, Gerry’s efforts to convince Thai churches to be open to their own local forms of music were more successful than most projects to persuade churches to incorporate indigenous art and architecture. (See, for example: www.kendobson.asia/blog/cultural-christianity.) Over the years the stigma has gone and Northern Thai instrumental groups can help lead worship without protest.
The second area of Gerry’s endeavors had to do with ethnomusicology, the study of ethnic music, in this case traditional music of Chiang Mai and Lampun Provinces. Gerry attempted to record as many traditional performers and groups as he could. He often focused on trying to record the entire repertoire of particular musicians, or finding as many performers as he could who knew how to make or play certain instruments. It is that which led him to what became his best known effort, revival of dying pin pia music พิณเปิ๊ยะ. Gerry tracked down every player of the pia he could find, most of them very elderly. He oversaw reconstruction of instruments from parts found in antique shops and described the music and instruments in detail. It was the threatened demise of the pia that attracted attention and set in motion a chain reaction leading to renewed interest in the unique music of Lanna Thai culture. This heritage has now expanded through music departments and groups doing recordings as part of the Northern Thai cultural renewal movement. Meanwhile, Gerry collected instruments and documented how they were made, especially drums. His collections of instruments have now been turned over to Thai music departments in the USA where they enable students and teachers to conserve Northern Thai music in another way.
From 1971 to 2006 Gerry’s extensive collection of recordings remained largely unused and unavailable, in the days before the IT explosion through YouTube, Facebook and the like. A break came in 2006 when Gerry located a set of films and sound tapes he and Dr. David Morton of UCLA had made in 1969. They had been inadequately filed in UCLA archives, but when they were found and reformatted they renewed interest in the pin pia and Northern Thai music. This inspired Gerry to get on with his penultimate ethno-musical project, production of his notes and memoirs. The result was self-publication of a book entitled Musical Journeys in Northern Thailand, including 200 pages (of a total 333 pages) describing the 4 years of musical investigations with extensive field notes and hundreds of photographs. Gerry and Songkran’s relationship began with the distribution of the first edition of Musical Journeys. I understand that Aj Songkran has edited these notes and translated them, forming a body of research that is now being used as Lanna cultural historians rediscover their heritage. The work of uncovering and disseminating Northern Thai music is being carried on by the younger generation, including Aj. Songkran who published History of Lanna Music ประวัติดนตรีลานนา in 2016.
The final contribution to ethnic music studies that Gerry has made is to digitally re-master his entire collection, his book, and the recovered films.
The job is done.
I’m not in a very thankful mood this year.
Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States is a patriotic holiday. The narrative goes that the first Americans – that is, Massachusetts Pilgrims – survived their first year with agricultural advice from natives. The Pilgrims celebrated their harvest with a festive meal to which they invited their helpful neighbors. Some 200 years later, at the beginning of the great American agriculture boom and a time of acute social fractures, a harvest festival that coincidentally celebrated national fraternity and good will was thought to be a timely idea. So Thanksgiving Day was declared.
Who doesn’t like a holiday, especially one that tends to extend a weekend to four days?
But I think I’ll pass on Thanksgiving again this year. Here’s why:
1.America is closer to civil war than at any time since 1865.
2.American patriotism is linked to American militarism.
3.American values are being trashed in behalf of political ambition.
4.The American Thanksgiving narrative is a fiction.
5.The second reason for Thanksgiving (family reunions) doesn’t apply to me here outside of America with only Thai family nearby.
6.Nostalgia food here in Chiang Mai is generally disappointing and very over-priced.
I don’t want to debate these matters. I don’t want to dampen anybody’s celebration. I’m going to be gloomy about America, tucked into the end of our valley without making a fuss. I’m under no illusions that we are free from danger here. My withdrawal from the turkey dinner table is not about escaping.
Here, we have just cremated the national unifier and are now without one. Militarism has again been re-installed into the constitution with Army generals running the government. Disputing national narratives can get you imprisoned for decades – far longer than, say, murdering your spouse. Social structure is crumbling as people turn to salary-values over community-values. Religion is systematically appropriated to validate national matters but never allowed to hold anyone accountable.
This is a place where the weather is pretty good but everything else is fairly tenuous. I don’t expect things to fall into chaos either here or in the USA. But the big players on both sides of the ocean talk about building stronger cultural compositions while they are pulling pieces out of their Jenga structures at such a reckless rate I just don’t feel like turkey and pumpkin pie this year.
[Thanks to Andrew Dobson for the picture of Buzz Ullrich playing Jenga.]
Every year the “heart” of the chedi (stupa) of Wat Chom Jaeng is taken for an excursion around the village. People vie for the chance to have the sacred object pass by or pause at their house. The return to the temple precincts is usually a major community event culminating in a festive procession involving units from neighboring villages. The heart is then reinstalled into the chedi.
When the new chedi at Wat Ta Pong was completed, the last formal ceremony was the installation of a heart in its upper region. The heart, I was told by the abbot, was a donation from the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhist Sangha hierarchy in Bangkok. I understand the item looked like a crystal about the size of a child’s thumb, encased in a transparent, sealed glass case, very much like the one in Wat Chom Jaeng. As far as I know this heart is not going to be taken on any excursions.
That it not to say the heart of the chedi will not go on its own. It is widely believed that the heart of the chedi can depart to visit sacred places. I was eating lunch with a group of 6 women a few months ago when this subject came up. All 6 of them told me in no uncertain terms they believed this happened, and 5 of them insisted they had seen it with their own eyes. What they described was balls of light emerging from a temple in the vicinity of its chedi and then zooming away to pause here and there, including other temples.
An abbot confirmed this notion. “When I was a young novice I saw this happen. The ball of light rose from a temple in the distance. It was very beautiful. 5 or 6 of us saw it. The light rose out of the temple and split into three lights that soared in different directions. Sometimes they would disappear or dive down out of sight and then reappear.” The abbot repeated that the lights connected with sacred places.
Internet websites dedicated to paranormal phenomena describe balls of light sightings from all over the world. Some of them seem to be so predictable that groups gather to watch. In Thailand the most famous are balls of light that rise out of the Mekong River at Nongkhai, attributed to a Naga that resides in the river. Skeptics suspect a more human manufacture, but the skepticism has only increased the number of spectators.
Before we rush to conclude that the connection between these balls of light and a crystal from His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch is the imagination of simple folk, pause to consider three matters: (1) Buddhism in Thailand is composed of several realms of discourse, each based on its own set of propositions. (2) The issue of whether there is or is not a verifiable connection between evidence-based assumptions and significance of religious articles is tenuous as well as unnecessary. (3) Buddhist truth (Dharma) is philosophical, while the rest of Thai Buddhism is metaphorical or optional.
With regard to hearts of chedis being seen as balls of light, at least part of the concept is accepted as supernatural. One characteristic of the supernatural is that it is lightly held in some way. It may be an open question about whether the phenomenon exists or happened; uncertainty is implied. Even when people are sure of what they saw or experienced, its meaning may be uncertain; and since religion is always about meaning, it may have nothing to do with religion. Even if it is insisted the phenomenon has to do with religion it may be uncertain that it connects to any physical object, no matter how sacred that object may be held to be. Sacred objects, be they stones, statues, or relics, reveal their nature to those who are paying appropriate attention. In no case, however, is the significance of a metaphorical symbol impacted in the slightest by supernatural attributions or by denial of them. (This is a point which critics of religion ignore.)
It is instructive that people call the event at Wat Chom Jaeng “prapaynee song phra that” which could be literally rendered “the custom of accompanying the divine foot” or “foot-step”. Phra that is a designation for not only a mystic footprint of the Lord Buddha but also for a chedi. Every chedi represents the world mountain, an axial shaft between heaven and hell (associated with the mysteries of birth and death). The Lord Buddha stepped off the top of the world mountain to depart between reincarnations, as may be inferred from legends of the previous lives of the Lord Buddha. A Thai Buddhist temple that has been granted the honor of constructing such a chedi usually adds “phra that” to its name (e.g. Wat Phra That Doi Sutape).
Several things can be noticed about these random observations of the chedi and its heart:
1.A chedi is a reliquary containing bones of a person or a relic of the Lord Buddha.
2.A chedi is a monument, meant to be a permanent marker of a sacred place.
3.A chedi is a tradition based on earliest Buddhist structures.
4.A chedi is a metaphor symbolizing the world mountain as a stepping stone to eternity.
5.If a chedi is completed by installing a heart, it is a mystic (occult) action that links it to all chedis and to the Lord Buddha.
6.It is widely held that one derives blessing and makes merit by walking reverently around a chedi.
7.Similar blessings accrue when the heart of the chedi is taken on an excursion.
8.Most chedis have never been said to emit balls of light, so this is not an essential characteristic of a chedi, but it indicates that people believe that the sacred structure has an independent existence that may be more than symbolic.
A chedi is a sacred object. How any particular chedi is sacred is a mythic, mystic mystery.
Imagine you had attended the dedication of a facility about 6 years ago. It was a happy occasion bringing together a collection of grateful parents and their children, a few village officials, some church leaders, and a delegation of donors from overseas. There had been a tour of facilities including playground, offices, classrooms and recreation area. Extension plans had been unveiled and then a ceremony that featured a speech in which the donors were thanked in behalf of the board of the facility made up of resident foreigners and a village alum (safely named Alum for this essay since Alum was an alumnus of the university where we both work; the reason for “safety” and anonymity is the topic of this essay). Alum represented the church and had connections in the provincial capital. Alum grew up in that village and had been ordained and had a doctoral degree. Alum was entrusted to get the land transferred to the board of the foundation and get the facility registered with the education ministry of the government.
Imagine that the facility functioned for the intervening years and is still functioning as it was designed to function.
Imagine that when it came time to re-register the facility a few months ago it was discovered that Alum was listed as the sole owner of the land and buildings and also listed as the owner of the facility. Alum had included only one name on all the dotted lines. When this was pointed out, Alum was asked to correct the documents and transfer everything to the foundation as was the original understanding.
Imagine Alum refused.
Imagine, instead, Alum initiated legal action against the former church official who blew the whistle. The lot of a whistle blower in Thailand is perilous. Under Thai law it is illegal to do anything that directly or indirectly implicates someone in a way that might malign their character and imply shame. No matter that the facts can be proven with evidence and witnesses. No matter that documents have been misrepresented or even forged.
Imagine Alum has a long history of acquiring property under suspicious and false pretences. Alum has acquired a valuable art collection that way. But Alum is still a clergy member of the church in good standing and even holds a position in a church institution. Church officials are disinclined to take action because it would be frightfully expensive to bring charges against Alum. Church officials, being Thai church officials, very, very much want to avoid conflict and even more want to avoid public controversy. The national church once fired its top executive officer for voicing criticism of the national government. For the church in Thailand maintaining a low profile is one of its highest priorities. It is better not to talk openly about scandalous matters. Maybe they can be ironed out. Maybe the facility will just go on doing its job. It is, after all, rather far away up in the hills.
Remember this is an imaginary case. Any inference that this refers to anyone in particular is unfortunate and beyond the intent of this essay. Right?
The purpose of this essay, to be clear about it, is to remind readers that even though the hidden costs of permissive injustice potentially exceed the immediate costs of processing cases as they arise, there is a deep-seated cultural reason why this happens.
There is a large gas station sitting in the middle of a church school campus because the church refused to confront the important person who built the station. There is a church, one of the largest in Thailand, that lost a chunk of its property to a doctor who was allowed to build a clinic on it decades ago. A large number of investors lost life savings when a church agency defaulted on its investment plan rather than endure the public outrage and loss of face that would have resulted from trying to recover the funds. The list is long.
These are not simply cases of weak-will and timidity. These are deeply cultural instances wherein whole institutions prefer to take the passive course of inaction rather than inflict shame on others and risk the unpredictable consequences that might follow. Unpredictable as the reaction of an aggrieved person might be to be cited or charged, relief of society at large when such a case is settled is certain. The whole social order is aligned against conflict and is predisposed to forgive and let lie if at all possible. It is assumed to be possible. Overwhelming social pressure is in favor of it, even though the delicious gossip must be handled as if the story is imaginary and the principals have no names.
If, by chance, someone is openly charged and named, in almost all cases the reason is to eradicate that individual who has fallen from favor or to deflect blame from powerful figures who would be implicated if there were not scapegoats to take the blame. Litigation can be persisted in, when someone feels unjustly aggrieved; but the effort is to keep those cases quiet and quickly resolved. Overall, the dynamics that society expects is freedom from social conflict and personal intimidation rather than rule of law. Those who must be protected are those of higher status than those being abused. In cases in which the contest is between social equals, society demands resolution without resistance.
A seafood processing conglomerate was secretly investigated and slavery of employees was exposed. The reporter was charged with defamation of character by the owners of the conglomerate. Government effort was directed at restoring the reputation of the seafood industry rather than emancipation of the slaves. An important politician was discovered to have plagiarized the content of his graduate thesis. The professor who tried to block his graduation was charged with defamation of character even though university recognized that the thesis had been copied almost word for word from an un-cited source. A boy was beaten a couple of years ago, but the perpetrator remains ambiguous to protect the sanctity of the institution and to prevent the charge of assault against one of the cultural pillars of society.
Defaming someone’s character or depriving them of livelihood are culturally unforgiveable. Justice for victims is a completely separate issue.
One of the most common errors made by expatriates living in Thailand is to misunderstand this delicate dynamic. The principle is culture-wide, and no one is exempt.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.