My friend Dr. Lora Friedrich, Professor Emeritus of Simpson College, observed, “Students these days DECIDE what is true rather than DISCOVER what is true. This is what’s basically wrong with the American Educational system.” What Lora and many other educators have found is that students nowadays think they have the right to make all the decisions about what they do in school and what they are entitled to get out of it. And institutions have yielded to this commercial pressure.
However, the cause is deeper than student entitlement. It is cultural, as mentioned in a famous critique by Isaac Asimov: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”
It is unnecessary to belabor the notion that we have reached the point where the balance may have tipped in the USA away from education, science, and knowledge toward options, entitlement and protection. Nobody is saying that ignorance is good. Not in so many words. The words being used sound more like common sense. I hear people saying, “There is no such thing as scientific facts because there are only theories that will be disproven sooner or later.” “There is a conspiracy by liberals to impose immoral values on the public.” “There is a conspiracy by conservatives to impose Christianity as a political system.” “Every family should have the right to say what their children learn.” There are tropes on-line for every point of view, including, “I have the right to be protected from offensive ideas.” “In order to defend our liberties and our religious convictions we need the right to at least ignore opposing systems of thought.”
Education is being bent to conform to this post-modern skepticism about the motivations of those who press for comparative studies. More and more educational systems are adopting single points of view curricula. Students are not taught how to assess knowledge but only what is right. Time is valuable. Life is short. Young minds are vulnerable. Tell the new generation what they need to know to function in our culture and then give them skills to fill roles that are needed.
Here I feel I should post a caveat. A better educational system does not pose conflicting points of view merely to show how flawed one of them is. The purpose of comparative religion courses, for example, is neither to show how one religion is obviously superior nor to show that all religions are basically the same. Nor does a valid educational system waste time and resources suggesting specious and indefensible propositions just to “be fair”. There is no point to spend much time on a flat earth theory, or that the Nazi Holocaust is just a hypothesis, or that vaccination for diseases is a conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies, or that people (being deported) are “not people, they’re animals”. A better educational system teaches people how to think, how to subject ideas to critical review, and how to prove and dispute arguments based on verifiable evidence and logic.
Much has been said about how expensive such an educational system is. What I want to suggest is how expensive it is to be without a consensus that such a system is preferable. A blog essay needs to be short enough to fit on a page and a half, so I will just give 3 examples of what our anti-intellectual bias is costing.
Consider the cost of climate change denial, which is essentially US government policy for the time being. This has caused the USA to be a pariah among nations, which are going ahead without us. Meanwhile, fossil fuel costs are rising and resources are dwindling while better and cheaper power sources are being subjected to obstacles other nations have avoided.
Consider the cost of wholly privatized health care, which is how it is working out as a result of political deals made by the US Congress. US health care in this system has slipped out of the ranks for developed nations. The number of personal bankruptcies due to unmet medical costs has skyrocketed. And the cost of medicine is higher than anywhere on earth.
Consider the cost of limited access to justice, which results from irrational and inconsistent application of sentences. A high percentage of legal cases and imprisonment comes from prosecution for drug offences, which are treated as medical cases in enlightened countries that are not trying to suppress populations. The cost of incarceration is far greater than the cost of treatment for the condition, and the results of incarceration are far less positive.
This I think is the bottom line: the cost of our devaluation of valid education is that the USA is being relegated to the second tier among nations. We have lost the moral authority to be an advocate for international cooperation and mutual welfare, much less the mentor for democracy. We have jeopardized the financial safety of a third of our population now and the entire generation to come.
And we are not even getting short-term benefits such as living wages for laborers, value for cost for government services, or better neighborhood environments. We are producing the first generation in American history that will not have it better than their parents
This is the 70th year since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948. Shortly before his death Gandhi gave his grandson Arun a list of the acts of violence that people perpetrate on one another. He called them the “Seven Blunders of the World” (a pun on other lists including especially “7 Wonders of the World”). In June 2013, Arun wrote, “This list grew from Gandhi’s search for the roots of violence. He called these acts of passive violence. Preventing these is the best way to prevent oneself or one’s society from reaching a point of violence, he would say.” They have also been called “Seven Social Sins” that if not resisted can destroy both persons and countries.
My question this weekend at the start of the season of college and university commencements during which wise addresses abound is, “Have we learned nothing?”
But first, Gandhi’s list of universal blunders that effect violence on those who espouse them:
1.Wealth without work.
2.Pleasure without conscience.
3.Knowledge without character.
4.Commerce without morality.
5.Science without humanity.
6.Worship without sacrifice.
7.Politics without principles.
Arun added an eighth: Rights without responsibilities.
I submit this list as a possible summer sermon series for colleagues looking for alternatives to another trip down lectionary lane. It is tempting to develop a commentary on how each of those blunders has persisted and metamorphosed in our time. Take “politics without principles” for instance.
Today, I simply want to recommend this list and reflect on it as a whole.
Gandhi was known as a political activist, in which role he is credited with accomplishing the impossible, defying the British Empire and bringing it to an end, starting with the most precious jewel in the Emperor’s crown, India. Moreover, this was done without the kind of violence such defiance usually provokes. Perhaps it was just time for the Empire to end since its usefulness to Great Britain was ended.
But Gandhi was also a philosopher. It was a time in which philosophers were treated as popular figures and accorded attention now reserved for entertainment stars and royalty about to be married. One of the largest crowds in modern France thronged to the funeral of John Paul Sartre. Irascible Bertrand Russell was better known in Great Britain that most movie stars. And revolutionaries were philosophers before their revolutions got out of hand. I’m thinking of Marx, Mao, Ho and Che, but there were others, like Bergson, whose philosophy was poetic and just as effective in transforming the human condition. Philosophers in those days could get heard.
Gandhi was not railing against tyrants who do violence in order to perpetuate their tyranny. His list was reflective. He was warning that attempting those blunders is counter-productive. The first victims are those who blunder. They are temptations that lure the unwary with false hope. They are lies that destroy the liars and prevent the very things they promise to provide. They are “the easy way”.
What’s more they are the modern way, our way, and feel-good natural.
It is shocking also that we who love to pick and choose, do not do that with items on Gandhi’s lift of blunders. We embrace the lot. We do that when we are not paying attention. It’s like our racism and tribalism, it operates when we are not talking about it. When we talk we can be nuanced and erudite. We can make sense. But when we are on to other issues like buying a car, or deciding to vote, or intent on sex, we blunder.
Gandhi’s list includes professional references when he mentions such things as commerce, science, politics and worship. Educators, medical researchers, members of legislatures, pastors, and people on welfare and on hospice-care … all occupations are covered. But everything on the list is also a universal human endeavor. It’s not just pastors who blunder into worship without sacrifice, and may not even primarily be pastors. Nor are most who blunder into politics without principles on the public payroll, so do those who refuse to vote responsibly. We all blunder.
If we have made any progress in the past 70 years it may be toward understanding that these blunders are not merely sources of potential violence. “Passive violence” is violence. It is permissive and dismissive, permitting systems to operate in these blundering ways leading to devastating consequences, and dismissive of complicated objections in behalf of entitlement and exceptionalism.
But I hear voices objecting to those who insist it is their right to be protected from the impact of other people suffering. People with pink pussy caps and rainbow flags are standing up and speaking out. Those voices are a little more audible than they used to be. That might pass for progress. Meanwhile there is bloody violence on every hand, unabated and unrepentant.
Arun was redundant, I think, in adding an eighth blunder to the list. The seven blunders his grandfather listed are explicatives. They are aspects of rights without responsibilities. What’s more, they are a comprehensive list for our post-modern era, as one would expect such a list to be from a wise philosopher who concentrated on universal truth while spinning thread.
This week we probably lost another LGBT leader. What makes it unusual is that he abdicated, in effect. He felt compelled to proclaim that he thinks his life-long conservative political convictions are falsely understood by “the LGBT community” in such a way that he has to choose between being an LGBT advocate and a supporter of US President Donald Trump. In other words he feels obligated to choose between being consistent with his beliefs and being an advocate for LGBT rights being held by a community that he thinks insists he stand for a whole list of “liberal” issues. Since he cannot pick and choose the issues he wants to advocate, he feels forced to choose between being head of an LGBT advocacy network and being a political conservative “in the Trump era”.
These are key passages from his long message posted this week:
I do not support Black Lives Matter; I do not believe in systemic racism, white privilege, safe spaces, intersectionality, reparations or the third wave of feminism. I do not believe in sanctuary cities.
I support Brexit, school voucher, nationalism, boarders, equality of opportunity not equality of outcome, rule of law, small government, gun ownership, pro-life, and separation of church and state (rightly understood).
I cannot be in the closet [about his political conservatism] any longer simply because I am a gay "activist" and simply because identity politics dictates that I must be liberal or be ostracized from the LGBT group. I choose to be ostracized from the LGBT community, if that's my only choice.
He is choosing ostracism, a type of social martyrdom. He is marching bravely into the Internet coliseum singing “Nearer My God to Thee”.
What we have here is another gay person who voted for Trump and now wants to ignore the things Trump is doing and defend his vote as from his heart of hearts. One question is how can any gay people willingly vote against their best interests, but the other question is what do they think their best interests are?
My first thought was that he is confused and his list of things he supports is quite inconsistent and incompatible with actual issues LGBT groups advocate. But on second thought he may be right, just unclear about how he is right, that he has to choose between “us and them.” I propose the following as thoughts as to what is going on between Liberals and Conservatives in the USA and elsewhere:
In many countries (perhaps every country) there is a struggle going on to promote human rights and opportunities for LGBT persons. This has initially been divisive before finding areas and strategies for rapprochement, in those places where that has been accomplished. Particular campaigns have included same-sex marriage and the rights of transsexuals and transgender persons to have their sex identity changed on official documents, as well as the right of same-sex couples to adopt children. Often churches and other religious organizations have been active opponents of these efforts, citing beliefs that the sexual binary is an inviolable law of nature or that males are created superior to females. LGBT rights groups have sought linkages to other human rights groups whenever possible. It is a strategy to produce strength through numbers. Opponents have tried to discredit these groups by focusing on a particular issue in order to divide and defeat them more easily. The divisions between “liberals and conservatives” have basically been about these linkages.
My “Ah Ha!” is a realization that we often fail to differentiate between principles and strategies. For example, LGBT advocacy groups have often sought to align themselves with other groups advocating different forms of human rights. Feminist rights, racial rights, sexual rights, immigration rights, healthcare rights – they have a lot in common and advocates can learn from and assist each other. We can march together in a Pride parade or #Me Too rally. But opponents of one of the issues can highlight that and seek to discredit “the whole agenda,” tarring everyone with the same brush. Church groups, having become convinced that abortion is not a human right but a grievous sin, find it easy to lump anyone favoring abortion with those who favor other issues as well. Zionist groups excoriate anyone who advocates human rights for Palestinians and call all with whom they associate anti-Semites. Racists in the USA, feeling threatened by increases in numbers of people of color, have chosen “Confederate Monuments” and battle flags, as a symbolic issue to be used against a wider swath of “dangerous ideas” including controls of any kind on firearms, or homeschooling. The idea is to unhitch one issue from the package the opposition is presumed to advocate in order to quash the opposition.
The fallacy, of course, is the failure to notice that advocacy groups try to form alliances without necessarily subscribing to all items on every list some other marchers are hoping to accomplish. When we collapse all those distinct aspirations into a lump with a libelous label other aspects of our logic and rationale begin to collapse, too. Then it is easier to feel like a victim. When we succumb to paranoia, we are lost to our cause.
Thailand’s health services are among the best in the region. This improvement over the past 50 years is astounding. Any medical procedure that is standard elsewhere is available in this country, including the most advanced. Thailand is trying to become a “medical hub” and for 15 years has been striving to promote “medical tourism” where travelers come to Thailand for elective surgery as well as advanced treatment. These developments have promoted Thailand as a top-level retirement location as well.
In this essay I would like to ruminate on a lesser known aspect of health services development in Thailand, namely the spread of health care into the “hinterland.” My comments are personal observations, subject to review.
1.Primary medical care is now available to 80% of the population from where they live.
2.Every one of Thailand’s 77 provinces has (or will soon have) a general hospital and most of the 900 districts () have a hospital open 24 hours with in-patient facilities and a doctor on site round the clock. Specialists come on rotation.
3.There are international-class medical centers in every region of the country.
4.The development of clinics with scheduled emergency health services in populated sub-districts is proceeding with extensive local support.
5.Preventive health care and education about health risks are expanding to the point that average village residents are conversant about these topics.
VILLAGE HEALTH VOLUNTEERS (referred to by the initials อสม) are organized by the staffs of village clinics. The work of each volunteer organization receives directives from the district health department and financial support from the central government to give the volunteers a small monthly stipend. A local organization might have about 20 volunteers.
The volunteers meet monthly for strategy planning and health training. They are called on to assist in health campaigns such as the current, annual “deadly mosquito crusade” (my translation of the phrase). If an epidemic breaks out the volunteers’ first duty is to collect data and to spread the word about measures to be taken. If the epidemic is severe, as was the case with dengue fever in our village last year, the volunteers help provide back-up services for medical teams to descend. Any rise in health risks is probably first noted by volunteers. Diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are the 3 leading medical health issues in our village. The volunteers keep track of persons with elevated risk factors.
Over all, the health level of village residents has risen dramatically. Life expectancy has risen from 50 to 75 years in the last 50 years. Infant and early childhood mortality rates have dropped almost to zero.
I would argue that the most important contribution made by Village Health Volunteers is health awareness and neighborly concern. It would be hard to measure the effect of having 20 people in most every village know that blood sugar levels over 120 are dangerous, that blood pressure for older people ought to be about 130 over 90, and that stagnant water is where mosquitoes proliferate. Nutrition is the leading contributor to poor health for people in our village now that public sanitation is vastly improved.
Village Health Volunteers are on the front line helping to expand health services to every village.
I attended an event the other night that reminded me how complicated gender is, and yet how simply it can be handled. As I looked around I saw every point on the gender spectrum represented by people at this village gathering to celebrate a fellow’s graduation from university. There would be no way to accurately place anybody on the continua without listening to their stories over time. But it is tempting to jump to conclusions at a glance. “Here is a farmer and his wife,” we might think. “That singer is a kathoey, for sure.” “Obviously, she is a Trans.” But, if we become acquainted with these people (as Pramote and I have done) it becomes clear all is not always as it first appears, and maybe nothing is.
That raised the question for me, “Knowing as little as we tend to do, and much of what we know being wrong, how can society function?” Some societies become dysfunctional, as a matter of fact, when they become overloaded with mystery or ambiguity as when new people move in. But our village commencement party went along and village life in that village functions placidly by applying the simple principle of “mai pen rai.” (“Never mind” is the standard translation. “Let it go” is often what it really means. “Never mind” is dismissive. “Let it go” is a more plaintive exhortation or instruction.)
“Never mind” works most of the time. But in writing things take on sharper shapes. A lot of writing is being done these days, perhaps more than ever in the history of humankind. Several billion people write every day and post it on the Internet. After being aggravated for a while yesterday by seeing still another announcement on-line about “ladyboys” I decided it is still important to try to straighten out our gay discourse so we can be careful about applying it to ourselves and others.
My contribution this weekend is a simplified word list:
Gender behavioral and psychological aspects of one’s identity
Gender identity a person’s perception of their gender as male or female or something else
Sex biological aspects of one’s identity
Sex assignment an infant’s sex noted at birth by medical professionals on official records
Cisgender conforming to one’s sex assignment, also “cis” versus “trans”
Transgender not conforming to one’s sex assignment, also one who is using medical intervention to change gender identity, including reassignment surgery to alter physical organs
Intersex one with confusing or ambiguous biological sex indicators at birth
Binary the concept that there are 2 distinct sexes but also that one is either gay or straight
Non-binary gender identity outside the 2 binary categories; also “gender-fluid”
Gender Dysphoria anxiety over one’s gender; distress or unhappiness caused when a person’s gender identity does not map their physical attributes
THAI TERMS IN ENGLISH
Gay a male who prefers sex and romance with males
Kathoey a male who exhibits feminine characteristics
Third sex a female personality born in a male body as karmic punishment, a subset of kathoey
Tom a female who exhibits male characteristics
Trans short for transgender but exclusively one who is transitioning from male to female
Ladyboy a pejorative, insulting term for a “trans”
For previous blog-essays on similar themes see:
Taking Over from a Failed Generation
News this morning is that a trial date has been set for October 29 in Eugene, Oregon for a suit brought by a group of young people against the US government for its efforts to stop strategies to address climate change and global warming. The suit, in brief, says these efforts are going to have a disastrous impact on coming generations. The Trump administration, of course, has tried to block the court case.
Following the Parkland, Florida high school shooting that left 17 persons dead and 16 injured, surviving students launched a campaign to bring about a few measures of gun control, including a ban on public sales of the type of automatic, rapid-fire guns used in several of the recent mass shootings. The first rally by students at the Florida state capitol was followed by a nationwide day of rallies at 800 locations including nearly a million gathered in Washington DC. The students are now working toward voter registration to get new voters to elect legislators to bring the changes in the law that the current law-makers are afraid to make. Even though the National Rifle Association has apparently backed a smear campaign against the students, including an Internet challenge that certain student leaders be shot dead and the Trump administration has been utterly silent about this form of terrorist intimidation, the students are making amazing progress and getting results.
Across the Atlantic young adults are also becoming aroused at the actions of their elders. It seems that the younger generation is not as happy with Brexit as the older generation who voted for Great Britain to exit the European Union. It remains to be seen whether they will become a voting block to replace enough of those sitting on the green benches of power (i.e. in the House of Commons) to reverse some of the trends toward isolationism and protectionism if not the whole neo-liberal game plan.
In Spain, Italy, Greece, Israel and Turkey as well as in France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria it is not the oldest who are being contested by the youngest, but those in the middle age bracket. My generation, 75 and above in age, has already largely shifted out of power. World leaders are in their upper 50s and 60s on average. (Of course there’s Trump and the Pope pushing the average up.) The voters who have won battles recently are 45 to 75. These are the ones hanging onto conservative outrage at things which cost money and might change the way the world has run to their benefit.
Meanwhile, here in Thailand and South East Asia, the young adult generation is also not as docile as the power-wielders would like. There is little evidence that the generation aged 18-38 (to pick an arbitrary spread) is as enthusiastic to raise challenges as are those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but whenever a choice target comes they are the ones to make waves. Despite threats of imprisonment and worse (far worse), it is this generation that uses graffiti, Internet, and sneakers to let the world know their elders are plundering the planet and expect to get away with it.
Two examples have drawn world attention. When a rich and powerful mogul was caught poaching in a national forest, the hunter was protected from prosecution by colleagues in the government. All over the city of Bangkok graffiti of the black cat began to call attention to this crime and the injustice that is following. Shortly afterward, pictures began to appear on-line of a posh housing development for retired judges that has encroached on the slopes of Doi Sutape, a mountain with semi-sacred resonance that overshadows the city of Chiang Mai. A young adult protest has succeeded in (temporarily) stopping the construction and has embarrassed the military and District 5 of the Judicial Department who colluded to bend the law so these houses could be built. “They are legal,” the officials insist. “They are wrong,” the young people responded, and set out on a 700 kilometer march from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to protest the housing development, and coincidentally to protest the law and those who made the law.
These timid voices here and bolder ones around the world are thinking in terms of regime change. It is hard to believe they will pull it off, and peripheral consequences are even harder to imagine, but what is inevitable is that the young generation is finding its voice and that voice is going to be heard. Those in power in this generation are not going to last, not only because getting old is inevitable, but because what they are doing is devastating and they are failures.
Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year also known as locally as ปี๋ใหม่เมือง (bpii mai mueang). It is the only traditional holiday set according to the solar rather than the lunar calendar. It is always April 13, and recently also commemorated on April 14 and 15. Many institutions and some businesses extent the time into a full week of vacation.
For reflections on the meaning of this New Year’s festival (the last of at least 4 commemorated annually in Thailand) see previous blog-essays:
This year I would like to reflect on how Christians handle this. It is illustrative, I think, of how Christians handle several other cultural traditions in Thailand.
Since Songkran is a combination of cultural, religious and social traditions it is not surprising that Christians have little to do with the religious observances. Trips to the temple, washing Buddha images, paying attention to spirits of ancestors which are the point of most religious aspects of Songkran are simply ignored. There are no Christianized church services (that I know of) about Songkran. Songkran often overlaps with Easter, but even when it does not, as is the case this year, churches will not devote a part of their Sunday services to remembering Songkran. It should be remembered in passing, that this is not how Christians handle some other traditions.
But Songkran is too big to ignore entirely. It is a major holiday. At the heart of Songkran is respect for elders. Young adults are expected to demonstrate their appreciation for elders of their parents’ generation and older. Here in the north young people come to homes of their oldest relatives and present them gifts, for which, in return, they are given blessings. Scented water is used and strings tied around wrists of the young people express wishes for long life and prosperity. Slowly, over the past fifty years, the Christian taboo on this has been relaxed. In fact, some churches have blessing ceremonies around this time of year at the end of church services. Some even dare to do it during the Songkran weekend. If a village or organization has a blessing ceremony, Christians now tend to join. More conservative churches have declared these things forbidden since they smack of the occult, and they are done by Buddhists.
This, in a nutshell, is how Christians in Thailand handle most cultural traditions. Starting a hundred and fifty or more years ago with aversion and loathing of the tradition, engendered by popular or suspected connections with supernaturalism and the occult, Christians have cautiously moved to accept aspects of the tradition and to shorten the gap between Christian sub-culture and the culture of the world around them.
Nawt was ordained into the Thai Sangha on March 19. It is a traditional rite of passage for him. The idea is that it will prepare him for the rigors of adult life, which will become more difficult grueling on Monday April 9 when he is inducted into the Thai Army as a volunteer. That is a second traditional rite of passage. There are no plans at present for the third rite, which is a wedding ceremony.
This is a photographic essay documenting Nawt’s ordination ceremony.
1.The ordination began with a noisy procession into the precincts of Wat Ba Fang where Nawt was to be ordained by the “bishop” (head of the abbots of the district). The parade was led by elders from Nawt’s village bringing money trees and offerings.
2.Nawt was dressed in white in the role of a prince, reiterating the steps taken by Gautama, the Buddha, from his secular role as prince into the renunciation of those privileges into the higher role as a mendicant monk seeking Dharma-truth.
3.The bishop and most of the congregation were waiting in the assembly hall for the ordinands to arrive. Two boys were to be ordained, Nawt who would be fully ordained into the priesthood and a younger boy who would become a novice.
4.Nawt presented himself to the bishop. He was formally called a “Nag” which is short for Naga, a serpent divinity that protected the Buddha and sought to become a monk according to legend. Only men can be monks, but the Naga was told how to be reincarnated as a man and given honor by having all applicants thereafter called Nagas.
5.A solemn part of the ceremony was when the ordinands took leave of their parents.
6.After presenting saffron colored robes to the bishop, he invested them with the first piece and then gave them instructions about what the roles of an ordinand will entail.
7.Then they retired to be robed. The first of 9 articles was like a sarong.
8.When Nawt was fully robed he and the abbot of Wat Hang Dong where he spent his 15 days as a monk returned to the main part of the assembly hall.
9. The ordinands reaffirmed taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. This is the basic vow of all Thai Buddhists.
10.The younger novice presented gifts to the bishop. His ordination was finished.
11.Village and family elders accompanied Nawt to an ordination hall for his solemn vows. Nawt then formally asked to be ordained. The ordination hall is called a “bot” (pronounced like boat).
12.Nawt was told to wait outside for the chapter of 9 priests to decide to accept him.
13.Two priests barred the door with a traditional bound volume of sacred text while they asked him standard questions about his fitness to be ordained.
14.When his answers were acceptable he was formally accepted into the Sangha and he joined the chapter of monks in affirming their vows, which all monks do every fortnight.
15.Nawt’s ordination was over. He was a monk. His first ordained act was to carry his bowl as he left the bot, so that his closest family and elders could make merit by presenting him with rice.
16.On his way back to the assembly hall for the final worship to end the ceremonies, the new priest accepted rice from his grandmothers and elder aunts.
17.The mood lightened as they neared the assembly. Nawt threw hands-full of colorfully wrapped coins to the crowd (and to me). These were collected as sacred souvenirs.
Nawt stayed in the temple in our village for two weeks. He could possibly have stayed for the rest of his life, provided he was not drafted into the army on recruitment day after his 21st birthday. But he was not planning on a religious career as a refuge. He has his life ahead of him.
Buddhists in Thailand honestly do not think very often about Christian Easter. But if they did how would it go?
Jesus died on a cross, was interred in a tomb, and then rose from the dead, after which he ascended into heaven. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion. Easter is the central observance of all Christians. It is a signal that the specter of death has been overcome.
This is a synopsis of the Christian Easter narrative. It addresses humankind’s deepest psychic trauma.
On the surface it has little in common with the story of the life and death of Gautama, the Buddha. Buddhist narrative has no Easter. The Buddha attained enlightened knowledge about the true nature of existence, keys to which he passed on to a rapidly expanding corps of disciples over the course of a long life, and then he died of natural causes and was cremated.
It’s a very different narrative from the Christian one, and results in very different types of religious observances. These differences are sometimes compounded into a sense of exclusivity. Without going into the issues of “only through Christ” or how Anicca prevents theism, I appeal to us in this approach to Easter to concentrate on its meaning and effect.
On the surface, Easter observances seem to have no equivalent in Thai Buddhism. However, beneath the surface there is more in common than is popularly acknowledged. In both Christianity and Buddhism, narratives of the ironic savior-hero are essential to a mythic thread that connects believers in our time to the primordial origins of life and creation as well as to death and consummation. In both the cases of Jesus and Gautama, the hero did something that reduced the specter of death and nullified its apparent results. What they did was central to all that is important about them. In the case of the Buddha, he discovered a way to enlightenment. Jesus conquered death in our behalf.
The narrative of the mythic thread goes on to tell how generations of believers have retained the essential truth and preserved keys for deriving the emotional benefits of realizing this truth. The thread speculates about what comes after this mortal life. In both Buddhism and Christianity there is tentativeness about the ultimate outcome, but for those who are blessed this includes a penultimate period of heavenly bliss after which the thread of events-in-time ends.
Both Christianity and Buddhism extract theological principles from these mythic narratives. There are prior, immediate and eventual consequences to the salvation from enslavement to death’s dark influences. The prior consequence of Easter for Christians is the organization of communities of believers throughout history to provide mutual support and to perpetuate awareness of the truth, Logos/ Word. Similarly the organization of communities of monks scattered among communities of laity is to provide mutual support and to perpetuate awareness of the truth, Dharma/ teaching for Buddhists.
For people in our time, the immediate consequence of Easter is eradication of the terror people have when anticipating death. This simultaneously releases us from any need to propitiate death or to obviate its effects (efforts that previously engrossed religious people). Christian effort can then be expended on expanding the influence of our reformed perspective about life and death to social, political, and cultural spheres. Christians call this “Kingdom building,” although Jesus’ discourses point to the Kingdom being the very antithesis of Empire to which the Church has tirelessly aspired.
The eventual consequences of fully realizing the Truth come after the tomb or the fire.
Thai Buddhists likewise try to navigate through life without being obstructed by overwhelming concern about death. Death, per se, is largely ignored, although presumed causes of death are dealt with expeditiously. Even funerals are interpreted as opportunities for the living to engage in mutual assistance as a community. Meritorious community action by Buddhists is identical to Christian Kingdom building except in nomenclature and with reference to the mythic thread that is its rationale.
This, then, puts Easter Sunday festivities into perspective. What a Christian worshiping group is trying to do is to re-enact a pivotal divine-human encounter. Many groups will draw all the diverse elements of Easter together in an elaborate festival of dramatic music and symbolic action. Other church groups will be more restrained, but the emotive force will be toward joy and celebration wherever Easter is Easter. Never far from consciousness is the notion that the Easter Sunday service of worship is a paradigm for every Sunday service.
If a Buddhist were to wander into an Easter service and ask, “What’s going on?” the answer would probably be, “an Easter worship service.” It would seem distinct from any Buddhist event, but that would be misleading. The basic effort is hardly any different from a Buddhist service, except for the language and trappings.
In every Buddhist or Christian worship event in Thailand the intent is to remember that death need not be the obstacle to a better outcome for life. We ought not to be distracted by the ominous portent of fire or tomb. They are gateways. We are brothers and sisters in all that counts in this life.
Lucubration on palms along our lane
Palm trees line the lane. They thrive without rigor. They are docile and regal. They neither threaten nor intimidate, as do soft-wood giants towering and toppling. Nor do they tempt greedy timber plunderers to hunt their logs. Palm wood is not good for that.
Palm trees line the lane. There are a hundred thousand types of them, so says our agricultural university, euphemistically. They mean the number is beyond counting. Yet the count stands at 2,600 by the university’s palmologists.
Palm trees line the lane. They ask little but are generous. Water from coconuts is considered so pure it is holy, used for sacred rites. Their fronds drape ceremonial gates. Betel nuts from areca palms are featured in royal rituals. Palm trees produce the largest seeds and the largest leaves of any plant. Cultures in lands with snow might not know these things.
Palm trees line our lane as they lined lanes leading to Jerusalem. They symbolized peace and plenty. Palm leaves were awarded to heroes and waved to welcome them home victorious.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.