TALKING ABOUT THE BOYS IN THE CAVE CAN GO WRONG
My friend, the Rev. Gene Borquin sent me an August 4, 2018 article in Episcopal Café, about the rescue of the 13 fellows trapped in the cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand. He asked for my response to “the Episcopal article.” The article was rather like daily devotional literature, meant to inspire reflection. Here is a link to the article by Amy Shimonkavitz, a lay preacher and a postulant to the Diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland: https://www.episcopalcafe.com/the-way-out/
The author reminisced about how she reacted to the drama of the 13 boys trapped in the cave for three weeks. Some of her experiences reminded her of Christian truths, she said. She talked about those. As she went on I began to wonder whether her reflections were valid. How does one evaluate an article or a sermon that describes a meditation?
She essentially did what we all do when we preach based on a true-life story. There are three ordinary steps which she followed. She recalled the narrative accurately in ways that she could reasonably assume her readers could agree was what the story said. Then she gave testimony about how the story had resonated with her, personally. She mentioned emotional points and triggers. As she got these two steps firmly enough behind her she attempted to universalize in ways that she hoped her readers would perceive theological principles. She thought she found why we were hooked on the story. “This is the story of our own rescue.” “Our hearts echo with the same joy of being found.” That’s why we were so enthralled with this unfolding saga and its marvelous outcome, she said.
The question I would raise is, “Did she actually catch anyone on her hook?” Is it true that the reason we were glued to our TVs and computers during the days-long drama is because we felt echoes of our own salvation story being dramatically re-enacted? The unfolding saga mesmerized nearly the entire Thai population and resulted in what is surely an unprecedented massive response by Thai officials who were not acquainted with the Christian narration of salvation, but were responding as humanitarians. But I’ll cut her some slack on account of her obviously writing for Christians who are at least supposed to have joy at being found like the lost sheep. She tied those echoes of joy at the boys’ rescue rather clearly to the Christian interpretation of salvation, including atonement involving the death of Christ. Did the death of the former Thai Navy Seal “recall Christ’s own sacrifice for us in the mission to save us from sin and condemnation”? I cannot question that it did recall Christ’s sacrifice for her. However, I am confident that not everybody made this connection. I think her recitation was manipulated at least insofar as its validity depends on those who are rescued being a type of those who are saved from sin and condemnation. The allegory breaks down at this point. I would argue against saying it was due to sin that the boys went into the cave and got trapped in there by a natural phenomenon. I would argue even more against the suggestion that Navy Seal, Saman, was doing what Christ did. Saman did not single-handedly reverse the outcome that was otherwise in store for those boys. Saman was part of a massive effort that was impelled by a united humanitarian impulse. What Saman was doing was a help, but his death neither defeated nor completed the rescue. He was not a Christ figure. Amy would have been more on target if she had compared the rescue effort to the Good Samaritan.
Her analogy also failed when she talked about what the boys needed to do in order to be rescued. She called it “repentance, turning back,” and said it’s “never easy.” Well, getting the boys out was certainly not easy, but it had little in common with repentance and turning back. It was much more like going on through conditions they had never encountered before. She said, “The boys needed blind trust” in the Navy Seals. (The key rescuers were not all Navy Seals, but never mind.) Actually, because of concern about a panic reaction, the boys were anesthetized as they were brought through the flooded cave. Once they were unconscious, trust on their part had nothing to do with it. It was the rescuers who had to have trust that their calculations and preparations were right, that nothing unexpected would go wrong. The planning was meticulous and left as little to trust as humanly possible, the rescuers told us in post-rescue interviews.
Allegories always fail to catch the essence of a universal principle, whether it is theological or otherwise. Rigid allegories fail spectacularly. Amy wrote a soft sort of analogy that did not try to extract every drop of truth from the narrative or even try to identify the central truth. She settled on how the story of the boys’ rescue moved her to tears and prayer and brought to her mind Christ’s rescue of her. All of us preachers preach, but not all of our sermons are grand. Great preachers are rare. They exceed the rest of us in their ability to find the central truth of a narrative and then challenge those they address to measure their response by the ideal discovered in Jesus the Christ. So her homiletical essay was almost OK.
My response is that she intended to be uplifting for her readers in Episcopal Café and she succeeded. She reached that point about half-way through paragraph five. However, when she went on to tell us that the reason we were moved is because we realized that what was going on in the cave rescue was parallel to what was going on with Christ, she invited dissent, which undoes inspiring uplift. As soon as I say, “Whoa! Few of the people I knew were making that connection with Christ’s sacrifice and the Easter salvation message,” I stop being inspired and began to doubt what it was she said that held the world enthralled.
She was wrong in her main assertion. Our emotional involvement in the boys’ rescue was not because “this is the story of our own rescue.” It may be parallel to the story of our salvation, but that’s not why we wept tears and prayed. The reason we did that is deeper in our human nature than a cognitive theological construction. The parents of those boys cried and prayed because it was their sons in there. Many of the rest of us cried and prayed because those boys were suffering and their chances were slim and we felt desperate for them. Amy distorted almost everybody’s profound emotional involvement and cheapened it by describing it as a metaphor for something intellectual.
For most of us, this cave drama never became about anything that had ever happened to us. Not even those of us who had had near death experiences thought what was happening to the boys was very like what we’d been through. Even the rescuers insisted that this was unique in human history. No boys that age had ever been forced to do what they had to do to get dragged and carried out of the cave.
A theological concept is derived from and not the cause of involvement in something profound that comes to be seen as a divine-human encounter. Theologizing is second-step or second-level. It is one step removed from raw experience. It happens when experience is processed, and that is culturally informed. [Pictures from various news sources show that the boys were not “processing” their experience into a Christian religious formation. Hardly anybody in Thailand was doing that at the time.] Overenthusiastic theologizing discredits Christianity, and this is the wrong time in history to keep on doing that.
The more I think about it the less Amy’s analogy holds up.
Shane asked, this week, for people who were missionaries in Thailand during the Vietnam War to tell how our work was affected by the war.
I was a United Presbyterian Church (USA) fraternal worker in Chiang Mai, Thailand from August 1965 to June 1969. My duties included teaching “theological English” at the Thailand Theological Seminary [which is now the College of Divinity of Payap University] and at other nearby schools of the Church of Christ in Thailand.
Superficially, the escalating war in Vietnam did not affect our work as missionaries or the mission of the CCT. But the war was a pervasive issue in the background, a background which also included profound changes in Indonesia, Communist infiltration into Thailand, and the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China. World War II was a personal memory of several of our missionary colleagues including Ken and Margarita Wells who were just retiring from long-term service in Chiang Mai. A number of other missionaries in Chiang Mai were transferred here when the Communist Revolution fully took over mainland China. These missionaries and those who came after the war to rebuild the church infrastructure of schools, hospitals and churches were heavily influenced by the specter of yet another anti-Christian military-political apocalypse. The longer the Vietnam War lasted and the more it expanded into the rest of former French Indochina the darker grew the shadow over Thailand.
By the middle of my 4 years in Thailand other areas of the country were being heavily impacted by the construction of air bases and naval facilities and especially by the influx of large numbers of US military personnel in and around Bangkok on short leaves for R&R. Even in Chiang Mai, military developments were coming into view. Air America planes were parked at the airport and we knew they were not for commercial use. On the lower slopes of Doi Suthep a seismic and meteorological monitoring station was built and staffed by the US Air Force working alongside Thai Air Force personnel. Those US personnel lived in town, and although few in number, were our age, so we got to know some of them. Also, higher ranking USAF officers occasionally moved their families to Chiang Mai to be nearer, but not too near.
Up to this time there had been an English language worshipping community composed mostly of missionaries who attended Thai churches on Sunday mornings but gathered for worship and fellowship in the evening, and for Bible study once a week. The addition of new US military families was one factor that prompted the community to consider forming a full-fledged church congregation as was already the case with International Church of Bangkok. The Rev. John Butt and I were designated co-pastors of this new Chiang Mai Community Church while a committee looked for a full-time pastor. The Rev. Douglas Vernon was recruited in 1968 and he and his lovely, vivacious wife Dot moved into a rented house on the Ping River right across from the US Consulate.
One of the activities of the Chiang Mai Community Church was to host Religious Retreats for US military personnel, which were alternatives to free-for-all R&Rs the military provided. Bob Bradburn (Presbyterian) and Jim Conklin (American Baptist) coordinated these retreats with chaplains who wanted to have them. Bradburn and Conklin worked out the program with the chaplains and then recruited us to help provide what was needed, including Bible studies, worship services, tours of mission work, Buddhist temple tours, talks by Buddhist monks, visits with Thai church leaders, pot luck suppers or overnight home stays. One of the goals was to give these military service personnel insight into ordinary Thai life to counter the jingoistic opinions that tended to develop among them. One of the themes that Bradburn and Conklin tried to convey is, “This sort of freedom and culture is what is natural here and worth defending.” We got high praise from the chaplains and anecdotal accounts of changed attitudes from some who had attended the retreats. Overall, these were addenda to the mission work each of us was doing.
What we were doing, we believed, was supportive of the mission and ministries of the Protestant Church in Thailand. We were involved in building peace, a more important and full-fledged peace than others were building, and without strategies that annihilated people in order to save them.
At the same time, due to new American children of USAF families in Chiang Mai, the Chiangmai Coeducational Center expanded from a small school for missionary children with a dormitory facility, into a larger “American School” that became Chiang Mai International School. In lieu of direct tuition to offset the increased class sizes and need for staff, the CCC board negotiated with the US Consulate to provide a teacher starting in 1966. We can say that the impetus for expansion of the little mission school into an international school was a result of the US military presence in town. CCC became the first of several international schools in Chiang Mai. In my opinion, it is the most lasting physical change to missionary objectives.
Of course, it too would have faded with the end of the Vietnam War and the relocation of military personnel except for tourism and the nation’s new willingness to have the economic advantages of expatriate long and short term residents. The increase of expats living in Chiang Mai has been exponential and that has included what amounts to an open door for missionaries of a bewildering variety. That, too, I believe is the direct result of what was going on beginning in the 1960s.
[Thanks to Gerry Dyck for this picture of 3 seminary teachers who helped with Religious Retreats for US military personnel. L-R Ken Mochizuki, Ken Dobson, Gerry Dyck. The picture appears in Gerry’s memoirs: Musical Journeys in Northern Thailand, p.37]
A Bangkok Post article this week reported that another 60 students of Christian University in Thailand are demanding return of their tuition in the wake of the university’s failure to work out an agreement with the national nursing council to allow the nursing student graduates to take the national examination to be registered nurses. The council has been demanding that the university either hire more staff teachers who can be clinical nurse supervisors, or reduce the number of students in the program so that the 1 to 6 ratio set by the council is achieved. Up to this year, however, the council has allowed CUT graduates to take the exam and be employed. When the council refused to allow this year’s graduates to take the exam, insisting they were unqualified due to the substandard courses they had taken, 2 of those disqualified students sued the university for refund of their tuition. The case is pending a decision. Meanwhile, the university has complied with the nursing council by notifying students that they will need to register for other courses or transfer to nursing programs in other institutions. The 60 students claim this is going to cost them a year, since the new academic year is already underway and transfers are impossible. They want their money back. I understand that the bachelor’s degree in nursing will not be accepting new students for two years while the university reorganizes. One of the reorganizing actions being undertaken by Board of Trustees of the university is a top to bottom review of the university’s structure and personnel. A new president is set to take office on Wednesday, replacing the current president who has been in that position for more than 30 years, longer than any other current head of an institution of higher education in the Association of Christian Colleges and Universities in Asia, and possibly longer than any other head in Thailand.
This crisis has been brewing for a long time. For years Christian University of Thailand was one of the premiere schools of nursing in the country. It was located inside Bangkok Christian Hospital and had one program and one purpose, to supply the hospital with nurses. After ten years, just before the Asian financial collapse in 1997, the board decided it was time to expand. From the beginning of Christian College it had been the dream to have the college become the second of four universities, following Payap University in the north. Land was secured just outside the metropolitan growth area, within which a hundred rai (about 40 acres) needed for a university according to the Ministry of Education, would be impossibly expensive. Farmland was purchased in Nakhon Pathom province and construction began. In addition to sufficient land, the Ministry of Education guidelines for qualifying as a university specified that the institution must have 4 faculties. So Christian College moved into the countryside and began to build additional programs with courses of study that might attract sufficient enrollment to become viable. It was a heady time to work at Christian College. Things were popping. [Pictures accompanying this essay are from that time.] The college became a full-fledged university in 2001 with the Crown Princess opening the university formally a year later. The most successful new ventures over the next 5 years or so were the programs in Business Administration, and a Master’s degree in nursing management. The university also tried 15 or 20 different majors including, Hotel and Tourism, Restaurant Management, English, Physical Therapy, Multi-media, Mass Communication, and a PhD program in administration. Some of them thrived, some survived, and some basically succumbed to competition from other institutions. But the bachelor’s degree in nursing was the university’s largest program and the university’s “bread and butter” or “curry pot” to use the president’s favorite phrase for it. Nearly a third of the student body were undergraduate nursing students, some years it was more than half.
At the time Christian College moved to Nakhon Pathom in 1998-9 it was the only private institution of higher education between Bangkok and the southern border more than a thousand kilometers away. Quickly, however, both public and private institutions moved in. The government itself opened the flood-gate for higher education expansion beginning with the decision to allow every one of the 40 teachers colleges to expand into full-fledged universities offering whatever programs they wanted. Overnight the number of government universities in Thailand nearly doubled. Almost all the private institutions of higher education were privately owned and for-profit. Of the non-profit institutions, I believe Assumption University is the largest, Payap University was the first, and there are less than a handful of others. Meanwhile, demographics were falling as birthrates in Thailand declined from an average of 4 children per couple who had children, to the present rate of less than 1.5. That birthrate means that today’s high school graduates are nearly half as many as there were when their parents were their age. This year the tipping point has come and the situation is becoming acute. To put it succinctly, there are twice as many places available nationwide for incoming freshmen university students as there are applicants. One dream after another for filling the classrooms has faded. It was expected that the ASEAN Accords would open doors for great influxes of students from neighboring countries, but ASEAN has disappeared. The doors for migration remain closed. Economic disparity keeps them closed. China was another great expectation that has had to negotiate the treacherous passage between language and cultural differences on the one side and recruitment obstacles on the other. One calamity that has not yet happened is the invasion of big-name universities into Thailand to set up satellite campuses and draw students to such as Oxford University in Thailand, or Harvard University – Bangkok Branch. Apparently, those institutions know better than to build where there are few students who can afford tuition and fees that are ten times higher than local costs, and where the students who can afford it want to just go to England or the USA.
Let’s cut to the chase. What now?
CUT will have to cut its financial losses. It is too soon to say how they plan to do that. The new administration takes over next week. We’ll see what they negotiate with those unhappy students and graduates. Worst case scenario is that the tuition refund demands will mount to tens of millions of dollars, beyond any possibility of payment. In that case CUT will be cut. The Foundation of the Church of Christ in Thailand will have to cut costs to make the pay-out and figure out what to do with its bankrupt campus. It will probably not come to that. But the long-term prospects for both church-owned universities, Payap and CUT, are grim. Both institutions are growing smaller fast.
What would happen here in Thailand if an international student wore a classical Thai dress to a prom, or a tourist from China was seen wearing an ethnic tribal costume she had bought in the Night Bazaar? Would the reaction be as “viral” as was the case when Kezia Daum of Salt Lake City, Utah wore a Chinese dress to her prom in April 2018 and was attacked on social media for exercising “cultural appropriation”? Some of her critics agreed (178,000 responded to this tiff on-line) that she was an example of “the embodiment of a system that empowers white people to take whatever they want, go wherever they want .…” Then the argument got nasty. But the majority was just baffled.
Cultural appropriation hit social media and mainline media like the Washington Post this spring when Bruno Mars won 3 Grammy awards for his singing in African American styles. He is the son of a Filipina mother and a father who is half Puerto Rican and half Askanazi Jew. The singer reportedly always gives credit and appreciation to his African American role models, but some critics are simply not happy with his “racial ambiguity” being used to “help him pass as Black” and “rape our cultural heritage.” Just a month ago (22 June 2018) African American outrage was again making headlines in the Philippine press and on Facebook.
There are two major issues that go back long before Kezia’s prom dress. (1) The issue of inappropriate use of sacred religious and cultural symbols out of context and in ways that are derogatory, sacrilegious, or blasphemous. (2) The issue of use of costume or conspicuous consumption to designate social status or rank.
The re-emergence of this at a time when people in western countries a couple of generations younger than me are increasingly keen about it, has got me thinking about whether Thai people are alarmed about cultural appropriation. I think Thailand definitely has boundaries that should not be crossed, although wearing a brocade Thai silk dress to a formal dance might not be one of them. [I admit to being an “outsider” on this matter, even though I have been hired by the Thai Culture Ministry in the past and know my way to the 14th floor of their office tower in Bangkok, and I covet my reputation as a theological anthropologist. The following is, therefore, tentative. Consider it an invitation for discussion.]
Boundaries not to be crossed as established by law:
Boundaries not to be crossed without risk of negative consequences:
Boundaries that have disappeared or been greatly reduced:
Boundaries that never were more than identity indicators:
What these lists show, I think, is that while there is cultural freedom there are rules and customs with regard to culture. They are designed to preserve the “three pillars” of Thai culture: religion, King and country. Religion is about the preservation of holy space where divine-human encounters occur. King, and by extension all royal family members and their ancestors, is about preservation of the space where divine-human encounters are expanded to include the whole culture and around which society is organized hierarchically. Country is about preserving the functioning of factors of livelihood for the benefit of all with the effect that everyone cooperates in those endeavors that are for the general well-being.
In other words, Thai people are not overly concerned about restricting access to unique aspects of Thai culture. The prevailing attitude is pride that such things as Thai silk, Thai food, and Thai boxing are popular around the world. Alarm signals ring only when it is suspected that Thai cultural identity is being threatened through an erosion of dedication to one of the three cultural pillars. The danger is that Thai people will no longer know who they are.
So far that is not felt to be a serious threat.
Popular western culture imported by such powerful conveyances as Hollywood movies, are hardly ever targeted by Thai culture monitors, unless the movies refer to Thailand directly. But Thai movies are scrutinized to insure that the public is being appropriately informed about Thai culture and values.
I believe, thanks to discussion about Kezia Daum and her Chinese cheongsam worn to a prom, that one big difference between Thailand and many other countries these days is that so far Thailand lacks a “victim culture” attitude. In the words of one interpreter of moral culture, One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about “one social group harming another.” Thailand, in some ways, feels pushed around and bullied but the country is not yet widely affected by the concern that there is one social group trying to harm another.
However, there are danger signs.
The other day I was transporting a carload of Buddhist abbots. Their conversation was about how Islamists [sic, not Islamic fundamentalists] are trying to undermine Buddhism through slanderous accusations of widespread financial corruption. The idea that Buddhism is under attack is not far from the notion that good Buddhists are in danger of being victims. It is extremely significant, I take it, that this sense of victimization has not fully developed, yet.
More pervasive is the belief that there is a privileged elite social group who live mostly in Bangkok and who are trying (successfully and ruthlessly) to harm the agrarian social sector who live everywhere else. These two groups are being held apart, like two gangs on the school playground, by the military – so the military peace and order council says. To most observers, it seems that the military are highly partial to the privileged elite and also have no concern for the rest of the country. But neither group has managed, yet, to morph their grievances into a full-blown sense of victimization.
So, for the time being, the political-economic tension that has gripped Thailand for decades has not escalated into a culture war.
[Thanks for permission to use the pictures on this blog to granddaughter Siree McRady who feels completely Thai when she dresses to perform Thai dances in Tennessee, and when she used Thai cloth (with a bodice from India) to make her prom dress.]
The Jakarta headline today (July 14, 2018) reads GAY COUPLE CANED IN ACEH. The article begins: “Two Aceh residents, Nyakrab bin Bumin and Muhammad Rustam bin Ramazhan, were publicly caned in Aceh on Friday for being in a same-sex relationship. The gay couple’s caning was held in the yard of the Baiturrahim Ule Lheue Mosque, Banda Aceh, after Friday prayers.” In another article it was reported they had been found by a vigilante group in a “beauty parlor”. That was their sexual transgression. They were thus “found guilty of violating Aceh jimayat’s (Islamic criminal law) Article 63 (1),” said The Jakarta Post. The caning was attended by a thousand spectators who shouted encouragement to “cane them harder.” Following an international outcry after the caning of 2 homosexuals a year ago, it had been declared that there would be no more public canings but that was ignored.
Since the beginning of 2016, LGBT life in Indonesia has been rapidly deteriorating as Islamic fundamentalism moves into the driver’s seat to restore Indonesian national pride.
The longer story came to my attention just yesterday when I was handed a copy of a very carefully documented 65 page report by Professor Douglas Sanders, Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia. His report is entitled Indonesia: Stormy Days for LGBT. It was written in December 2016 after a yearlong “unprecedented flood of homophobic statements from Indonesian cabinet ministers … that began early in 2016 … started, it seemed, with statements by the Minister of Technology, Research and Higher Education ….” The Minister was enraged that the University of Indonesia was allowing an unofficial Support Group and Resource Center on Sexuality Studies to have ties to the university.
A year and a half after Sanders’s report, the Aceh atrocity shows that things have not improved. Aceh is an autonomous province, and the only one that uses Sharia Law as civil law. Sanders documents how other areas are heading down the same path as Banda Aceh. Although the deterioration of the situation in Indonesia may not have been as fast as Sanders expected, it continues. Sanders describes how space for LGBT people is being narrowed. It is no longer possible to even talk openly about what it means to be “Gay-Lesbi” or to publish anything that might get into the hands of children “and turn them gay”. Advocacy is against the law almost everywhere now, with intimidation sanctioned by local officials as well as mobs. International conferences have been blocked or cut off in the middle of their sessions, and film festivals in embassies have been cancelled “in the interest of public safety.” Even closed support groups are being targeted.
In contrast to most other modern countries, Indonesia is preparing to require therapy for anyone who is found to be gay or lesbian. If they are found to have actually committed same-sex acts or to be living a gay lifestyle, the proposed punishments could be imprisonment or death.
What is most worrying is how Indonesia has been de-secularizing its Islamic status. It is frighteningly like Israel in that regard. Once models of nominally religious nations that were secular and modern, religious zealots have made surprising progress. Sanders says this is happening in Indonesia partly because the political structure is weak after Suharto's forced resignation as a failure to keep Indonesia economically strong in 1997-8. So now vigilante groups can get away with terrorizing LGBT targets as well as religious minorities. But the drift towards Islamic fundamentalism, and fear of loss of power and status from Western pressure, have pushed politicians to back down from defenses of religious minorities and human rights of women and LGBT. Conservative Islamic parties are bolder than ever and are making gains on every stand they take. Indonesia has also joined (or is leading) the attack on LGBT as the enemy of cultural morality, both universal moral standards as well as those of Indonesia. “All religions oppose LGBT,” is a repeated trope in Indonesia to prove they are in the moral majority worldwide.
Sanders mentions that what happens with regard to LGBT rights in the USA gets a lot of attention in Indonesia. The US Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality was big news in Indonesia and had an impact. If that progress in the USA continues to be reversed as is happening under the Trump administration and the Republican Congress, it will further encourage the conservatives in Indonesia and around the world.
Sanders does not talk about it in this paper, but the fact that Islamic suppression of LGBT and SOGI rights is on the rise in Indonesia will have a dampening effect on the rest of the region. We cannot imagine the Philippines, with the Roman Catholic Church not on our side, coming out as defenders of Pinoy LGBT people if the Muslim population grows even more hardened, as they will as long as Malay and Indo Muslims are going that way. Here in Thailand what Indonesia does is of little concern now that ASEAN is effectually extinct, but what the Islamic South and the influential Islamic communities in the now industrialized areas near Bangkok advocate will have to be listened to when it comes to things like expanding marriage laws in any way to include LGBT couples.
One of the stories behind the story of the 13 boys in the cave is how a very strenuous effort was made to control the story. I have been fascinated to watch this story behind the story unfold.
The story of the boys in the cave we can call the MAIN STORY. It had phases including: (1) 10 days of mystery, “Where are the boys?” (2) “They are alive!” Days of agony about whether they can be gotten out of the cave still alive. (3) Rescue operation: 4 boys on Sunday, 4 more on Monday, the final 4 and the coach on Tuesday.
The main story had a life of its own. There was, from hour to hour, no telling what would happen. It was a live drama with an unpredictable outcome. The whole picture, like articles in a Zen garden, could not all be seen from any one perspective. Some key perspectives had no observers, and therefore no narrators, at all. But there were many narrators with priorities, pressures, and principles that were not necessarily internally coherent or consistent with other narrators and actors (to use a script metaphor).
Governor Narongsak was the administrative head of Chiang Rai Province when the main story began. He became the chief administrator of the search and rescue effort going on in his jurisdiction. As it happened he had been scheduled for a sideways transfer to a smaller province. It is rumored this was in retaliation for his refusal to cooperate with higher officials in matters involving a lot of obscure actions and money. However, he was retained in charge of the search and rescue; therefore, he was also the most important narrator of the main story.
The other major narrators of the unfolding story, of course, were reporters for TV networks and newspaper syndicates. There were scores of them. As the days went on, the 13 boys in the flooded cave became one of the top stories of the day and then of the year. The story stole headlines from world leaders and from the World Cup, the most watched sports event of our generation. The boys in the cave were also a soccer squad and they became the most famous juvenile soccer team in history. The 13 boys became the top story and on the front page in every country on earth.
For most of the narrators who made this happen, the pressure was immense to get a narrative together to be ready when the red light came on and they were “live from Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand.” Gold stars were awarded for a story fragment that could rate a headline that began “Breaking News”.
At the other end of the funnel were consumers of the stories. Mostly we had one consolidated question at a time. “Will the boys be found?” “Will they be gotten out alive?” But as the main story grabbed near universal attention, we became narrators, too. We talked about what was going on and we put our thoughts into words, pictures and emoticons on the Internet. Our chatter sometimes became so intense or so interesting that it had an impact on the content of the round-the-clock flood of stories coming from inside and outside the cave and filtered through the news-desks in front of big cave maps or that picture of the trapped boys.
Some actors were not narrators. The cave rescue volunteers from Derbyshire, the medical doctor who went to live with the boys on their sand shelf, the boys themselves, and most of the thousands of volunteers and military who just worked hard, manned the pumps, directed traffic and became part of the story. They were not trying to tell the story but to do their job.
For most of the two weeks the boys had been in the cave and the week they had been big news, Governor Narongsak was a helpful, mild-mannered announcer, as far as his role as narrator was concerned. Off camera he was an actor-director, ordering and authorizing mountains of pipes and thousands of people. He was also the gate-keeper to the cave. He let in the actors and it was his role as director that shaped the rescue mission into the most international operation in Thailand since the refugee crisis 40 years ago. He had to negotiate his nations defensiveness that it is shameful to let foreigners become saviors. He also deftly handled the rich and powerful who wanted 15 seconds of fame or a little prop for their tilting political reputations.
But on Saturday he took charge of the narrative. All the reporters and their camera crews were moved away from the cave. They left protesting and dragging their feet, but they moved to a new location out of the way of what was going on in and around the cave. Big screens were put up at key points, blocking views. Security was stepped up dramatically. News media were not allowed within 200 meters of some sites. Pages of regulations were distributed. Roads were blocked by manned police barricades.
The story that the story was being controlled then threatened to become the main story. Paparazzi-type strategies were undertaken by some desperate or hopeful international reporters. They were penalized for flying their drone and trying to eavesdrop on police radio conversations. Like flying ants after the first monsoon rain, conspiracy plots were imagined and dire motives flew into every narrative from the cave that day.
It was not a good day. A volunteer diver ran out of oxygen delivering tanks under water and died. Oxygen in the cavern where boys were staying was found to be down by a quarter of normal. Pumping operations were slower than needed. Governor Narongsak was welcomed to his new job in the neighboring province, but then showed up again as director of the operations, minus the title of Governor of Chiang Rai. Rain was returning and the weather was ominous. The main story was pessimistic and turning sour. Seeking scapegoats was coming next if the “worst case scenario” played out as expected.
Governor Narongsak shifted from being announcer to being director. In that way he could partially control the narrative. The Governor said each day’s plan was reviewed and revised according to advice from his team of experts. They had a plan and they were going to do the plan, and revise it if necessary. “I’ll tell you what we’re doing,” he said. But I watched him doing a Cecil B. DeMills directing job with the story. In the calm aftermath of the rescue of the Wild Boar football squad from the bowels of the gigantic sleeping woman (as is the name of the mountain and the legend that goes with it), I have some suggestions about why the Governor did that.
The fact is that narratives can do damage and story-tellers (be they reporters or studio commentators, religious pundits, or family members) may neither realize nor care about the destruction. Reporters were here from more than a dozen countries, each one hoping to get the scoop, the award winning picture, or the angle that captured attention. That was their priority. There were millions of amateurs on-line too (I being one of them) who had different reasons for punching our keyboards and copying and pasting whatever attracted us.
It occurs to me that it is important to consider why some narratives should be controlled and why others should not be. When stories are being blocked in order to protect powerful people from the consequences of their misconduct, that is abuse of power. When stories are being controlled in order to protect those who are endangered or vulnerable from further damage, despite pressure to give narrators freedom, that is courageous of the gate-keeper.
I am willing to give the Governor credit for trying to prevent as much destructive narrative as possible. Bit by bit, as the main story seems to have ended miraculously well, we are piecing together some of the information that the Governor was getting on his frequent strategy meetings with experts in as many relevant fields as they could think of.
He heard that the boys will need to be protected from medical trouble because a couple of them have pneumonia, they are malnourished, they have vulnerable vision due to weeks in darkness, and there is likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder that would be made worse by letting reporters get to them.
It is unsure that any of the media-control had to do with what would happen if they could not bring out some of the boys alive. Horrifying images would haunt families for generations. There would be a frantic scramble to fix blame.
Coach Eak was already being set up to be vilified. One narrative still online tells the terrifying legends of the demons and giants represented in the mountains and cave and weaves in the story of Coach Eak sending the boys in, as he had done in the past, to toughen them up. There were calls in the press for him to be charged with malfeasance and endangering the children. That was a powerful lesson, actually. Parents rushed to defend him, swearing he was a good guy who was trapped with the boys. The narrative now is that Coach Eak is the reason the boys are alive because he helped them move farther and farther to safety, and when they became stranded he kept them alive by giving up his own food and then teaching them to meditate to quell their panic. This very skill is how they managed to negotiate the escape route.
When the former Navy Seal, Saman, died trying to assist in the rescue, he was doing just exactly what the boys would have to do if they were to come out before re-flooding began after any new rain. Saman’s story, naturally, was kept from the boys. The boy’s families heard of Saman’s death as a sober notice about why the boys weren’t just being brought out straightaway.
What is sure is that some of the blockades the Governor imposed did not really have as much to do with safety as with controlling the narrative to keep it in bounds. Governor Narongsak showed again he is an accomplished director, unlike some of his contemporaries who insist on being stars with the narrative wrapped around them. Nevertheless, Narongsak is now listed by the media who hated him a week ago as one of the heroes of the main story of the year. He is being honored and his fame far outshines what’s-his-name, the boss who transferred him to little Payao Province.
There is danger when the press is controlled. But there is also danger when stories run wild and so do the story gatherers.
We have not forgotten how Princess Diana died in a tunnel 20 years, 11 months and two weeks ago.
The world is watching. 13 boys are trapped in a cave after two weeks. Every major newspaper and TV network in the world has published stories about them. The New York Post featured the drama in full front-page pictures for several days. The Pope prayed for the boys from his balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. HRH Princess Maha Sirindorn and her brother HM the King of Thailand have been helpful in mobilizing unusual levels of cooperation. World leaders have been distracted from their manipulation of world affairs, and vast numbers of sports fans have given attention from the World Cup football spectacle, to the Wild Pig football team in the cave.
Week one – The boys went missing after a bicycle outing on a bright sunny day. Their bikes were located not far from home inside a well-known cave. Heavy rain had suddenly flooded the cave. The world held its breath while cave rescue units from several nations arrived and the Thai military dedicated unlimited equipment and personnel to locating the boys.
Week two – They were found alive and safe but weak, on day 9 by a cave rescue team from Derby England 4.6 kilometers inside the cave where they had managed to take refuge from rising water. Huge pumps were airlifted in. Miles of pipes were carried by soldiers and connected to try to lower the water level enough to get the boys out. Oil drilling equipment is also trying to reach them from above, through more than a mile of rock. Meanwhile, the boys are being supplied with survival rations and medical care by a Thai Seal team.
Week three – Just beginning. Prospects: (a) The boys will be brought out one at a time through nearly impossible conditions. (b) The boys will be sustained in there until the water level goes down at the end of the monsoon rainy season in 3 or 4 months. (c) Deluges will flood the cavern where they have taken refuge.
Like most residents of Thailand, Pramote and I have been tuned in to almost round-the-clock coverage of the drama. I want to join many commentators making observations about lessons we can learn from our arm chairs.
1. For once, there is a real-life drama going on where cynical, derisive, political voices are restrained. What a relief!
2. Amazingly, many Thai bureaucracies have laid aside their protective barriers to just do what needs to be done. It is now proven that this level of cooperation is possible.
3. The measure of a country’s moral fiber is how it responds to the urgent needs of its littlest people.
4. If authorities had been allowed to think about it, they would never have allocated funds (now well into tens of millions of baht) to rescue 13 boys.
5. The relief when the boys were found alive was one of the most emotional moments of the decade. We are not emotionally and ethically beyond help if we can care so much about little boys we have never met.
6. This event coalesces every aspect of the Thai people’s faith apparatus. (This is complicated (and deserves a separate essay) but it includes all religious authorities voicing the same hope, thousands of people working tirelessly without relying solely on divine intervention, sustaining strong human spirit against daunting natural odds, and sharing narratives that otherwise would obscure future prospects.)
Finally, I want to hear that those brave, fragile boys have been brought back out of that hole by those skillful, unselfish heroes who are dedicated to making it happen.
A sub jata ceremony is a life-extension event. It usually follows some ominous portent, such as a serious illness or series of potentially life-threatening occurrences that could indicate danger to the person or household (or community [see:www.kendobson.asia/blog/subjata from 3 years ago]). Although the ceremony is often part of a house blessing or major birthday where there has been no cause for alarm. A sub jata is a set of ceremonies that are hoped to satisfy or pacify supernatural forces and to adjust the forces that energize life. This photographic essay is just about the main ceremony in which a chapter of priests is invited to chant while merit from doing that is transferred to the subject(s) in whose behalf the sub jata is being conducted.
Lon and Sri are members of our family, Pramote’s next older brother and his wife. They have two married daughters, and two grandchildren. Lon has been experiencing medical issues and so the family encouraged them to do a sub jata. The ceremony was conducted on Saturday, June 16, 2018; it was at the family home, to be as close to the presumed super-natural cause of the disturbance that has disrupted Lon’s life, as possible.
Northern Thai Buddhism is a complex mix of philosophical Buddhist teaching, re-enactment of the events in which the Lord Buddha dispensed sacred teaching to his disciples and the laity, symbolic divine-human encounter creating sacred time and space in our midst, acknowledgement of the eternal power and reality of nature, and honoring super-natural entities that have influence.
Philosophical Buddhist purists continue to insist that this is an unfortunate and unnecessary mix and that Buddhism would be far better without it. Those academic voices hardly resound in the valley where our villages are nestled. From my perspective as a resident foreigner, however, I believe that insofar as philosophical Buddhism has fertile ground to grow it will be as Buddhist priests continue to respond to the existential concerns and fears of the people. Those concerns are the gateway to anything else, theological or philosophical.
From the perspective of Lon and everyone in our large family and surrounding communities, it is always all about sub jata – the alignment of life forces.
It’s worth thinking about how, in spite of the maximization of educational opportunities, we have gotten into the mess where the least intelligent US President in history is running the country into the abyss with the consent of the Congress, and with a substantial minority of the population in agreement even as their rights and protections are being ravaged. At the same time, something perilously similar is undermining countries as diverse as Great Britain, Italy, Indonesia, Austria, Israel and Columbia. The list is long.
One set of factors is the Massification of Higher Education. The second set of factors is the puerile influence of Post-modernism. The combination has led to an entire span of generations who obsessively believe things which are clearly wrong and are not working.
Misplaced faith in IQ. Hardly anyone under the age of 90 in “developed” countries doubts that intelligence is good. Access to education is based on it. But continuous examples show that bright people in key positions with no conscience are bad for society.
You CAN. Our role model is the stunning individualist who sets off against all odds and does amazing things nobody believed possible. But the message is that whole societies should be composed of this sort of self-directed diva. It’s the merit trickle-down theory that this kind of person benefits those lesser endowed. Still, sooner or later protectionism prevails and the benefits become expensive so the newly wealthy can become more so.
I am what I do. The value of a person is measured by what the person accomplishes. What I do is what should be celebrated. Moral character is devalued in behalf of what is pragmatic. But when there is little value placed on building social harmony, society crumbles.
Institutions are disparaged. The most egregious gift of post-modernism is the conviction that institutions are untrustworthy. We have a public that has withdrawn not only their respect for such institutions as government and corporations, but also their belief that they can relate to those institutions. Without public accountability institutions become what they are imagined to be, greedy and flagrant.
Difference is the goal. We do not need to look far to see what goes wrong when a society refuses to appreciate diversity. But diversity is not the goal. The point must be that different people and their cultural perspectives are important to achieve a common purpose. When the point of being a large society is lost, there are only small exclusive societies left.
I am indebted to David Brooks for his May 28, 2018 opinion column “The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite” in the New York Times for his insights which I have adapted. Brooks identifies with the “Boomer” generation, and acknowledges its failure to have civic consciousness. He advocates, “… a new ethos … to redefine how people are seen, how applicants are selected, how social roles are understood and how we narrate a common national purpose.”
How to get there is the basic question. Surely education is the way to introduce “a new ethos”. But that will take a pedagogical revolution, and if we continue with the social fragmentation brought to us by post-modernism we will never get there. As long as the sole purpose of education is the production of factors of production, even if you call graduates “professionals”, there is little room for character building. For societies composed of individuals without character the downhill trajectory is steep.
Meanwhile, authoritarian societies avoid the perils of meritocracy by sticking to aristocracy. In an authoritarian society, like Thailand, upward mobility is grudgingly encouraged as long as everybody rises without dislodging the elite and upsetting their ability to pass their privileges along to the chosen of the next generation. Change is OK, as long as nothing changes about how the rich and powerful stay that way.
Obviously, in authoritarian societies the dangers of post-modern, entitled individualism are prevented. But how they do it is also (as with neo-liberal societies) at the expense of character development. Those are honored who exemplify the duties of their status and designated function. Those who strive to rise are obstructed. Mediocrity is to be preferred to turbulence, even that disturbance which comes from critical thinking and social innovation. It is all about short-term acquisition. An aristocratic, authoritarian society is just as oblivious to the impact of its actions on any future generation as “liberated post-moderns” are.
The mess can be cleaned up. Education can once again involve heart, mind and soul. It can again be about building social harmony and shared well-being. But stake-holders will need to regain power to hold each other accountable. The generators of collective conscience must make this need their focus.
TEMPLE SECRETS 5
One of the rarest ceremonies in Northern Thai Buddhism is the dedication of a new ordination chapel, อุโบสถ or bote (pronounced much like “boat”), sometimes written in English as it is spelled in Thai, Ubosot. The word is used both for the building as well as for the “Buddhist holy day” on the quarters of the moon in which laity participate, and for the observance of the Eight Precepts as well as for the fortnightly recitation of Patimokkha, which are 227 binding rules for priests. Permission for a temple community to undertake construction of such a building must be from the highest authority in Thai Buddhism. Not every temple has a bote. The bote usually resembles a small version of the temple’s large assembly hall. [See picture #1] It faces east with the main image of the Lord Buddha seated in the western end so as to see the rising sun. The bote is used by monks, and only by monks. It is available for ceremonies undertaken exclusively by monks, including ordinations, some funeral rites for monks, fortnightly ceremonies to renew vows, and for meditation. What sets the bote apart, both figuratively and literally, from other temple buildings are 8 boundary stones around the outside of the building, with a ninth serving as a foundation stone in the middle of the floor of the bote. But the familiar sema stones standing upright are merely markers indicating where the main stones lie buried protecting the bote from demonic interference and influence. Burying those stones, called ลูกนิมิต, is the main event of a chapel dedication.
On May 30, 2018 (B.E. 2561) the day after Visaka Bucha Day, there was a dedication ceremony for the new bote at Wat Jom Jaeng, Sanpatong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The official decree attributed to HM King Rama IX and signed by the Supreme Patriarch 7 years ago giving permission to begin construction and setting aside the area upon which the building would stand was read by the District’s Chief Officer, the Nai Amphur as part of the inauguration ceremony. After permission had been granted, then began the project of fund raising which was moved into higher visibility 3 years ago when the 9 sacred stones were put on display and faithful were invited to give them veneration and to make merit by contributing to the construction project. [Picture #2] As I understand, the total anticipated cost of building the bote was divided into ninths, and the 9 stones would represent the entire project. Some temple projects take up collections for such things as individual roof tiles.
The bote for Wat Jom Jaeng was made of aged golden teak using traditional construction methods for the rafters and walls. Various stages of construction were observed over the years. The Buddha image was moved in before the walls were finished, and there was little ceremony since that figure had not yet been “awakened.” [Picture #3] One of the most important preliminary ceremonies was to raise the chofah [picture #4] and umbrellas to the roof peak. [Picture #5] The “eye-opening ceremony” for the Buddha image inside the bote was held throughout the night before the chapel dedication. Chanting lasted all night, ending just before dawn with removal of a hood and wax covering the eyes of the Buddha image. Then faithful brought offerings of rice to symbolically feed the Buddha, newly awakened and brought to life.
The actual, final ceremony was divided into three parts.
For the first part, priests came from all over the area including a delegation from the office of the Supreme Patriarch in Bangkok. [Picture #6] Laity took their places according to rank. The service was chanting. Most temple services are led in an antiphonal fashion by a lay leader and presiding priest, but this service had no such chanting and response. The priests inside the new bote took both parts. The leader was a very specially prepared monk who chanted non-stop for three quarters of an hour, leading all the monks in unison.
The second part of the ceremony was called a tawn (extraction) ritual. The participating monks formed two lines shoulder to shoulder with no gaps around both sides of the holes outside the bote. [Picture #7] Chanting was conducted at each of the four corners and inside the chapel. [Picture #8] An announcer explained that this was to remove any previous influences that may have been part of that sacred precinct in the forgotten past. The implication is that there may have been other supernatural or religious events there that would negate those for which the bote was about to be used. The overlap of doctrinal Buddhism with pre-Buddhist roots and supernaturalism is most obvious in the traditions which surround the bote. (I am not alone in thinking there is irony involved in the facts that having a bote is one of the highest honors a temple community can have, while a bote is probably the temple construction that the temple can most do without.)
The third part of the ceremony was releasing the sacred stones to fall into holes prepared for them. [Picture #9] These round stones, I have been told, are just conglomerate material (cement and sand presumably) but it is hard to imagine that they did not have other arcane ingredients. Certainly they were coated with gold foil and naam-mon – holy water which set them apart from ordinary use. The ลูกนิมิต were arranged according to number with the first being inside the bote and number 2 in front of the front gate. Numbers 3 to 9 were around the perimeter in clockwise/auspicious order. The word ลูกนิมิต means an omen or augury, as well as a sign. It can be in the form of a vision that portends the future. The scaffold for each of the stones contained an explanation. For example, posters informed us:
AUGURY STONE 7 In the northwest direction (Payap) the stone at the back of the left side of the bote is in honor of Phra Kawambatitern, a disciple of outstanding good fortune and good looks. He was the tenth arahant (enlightened disciple) and 1 in 4 of Phra Yasakul, as well as the son of Nang Suchada, who donated rice to Gautama before he declaimed the way of enlightenment. And it is in worship of Phra Rahu who is the divinity in this direction.
STONE 9 In the northeast direction (Isan) the augury stone buried in the front on the left side of the bote is a sign of affinity, affecting the spirit. It is the final direction to venerate Phra Rahu who is the Prince of Prince Sittapa the disciple who was praised as exemplary in education. It invites worship of the Sun God who presides in this direction.
Notice that each informational poster mentioned both the pre-Buddhist divinity who presides in a particular direction as well as a connection with saints from the first set of disciples who received instruction and ordination as disciples directly from the Buddha, himself.
Each of the 8 border stones was suspended in place and held in a wicker harness with other wicker strands needing to be cut as well. This job was performed by donors who contributed major shares of the cost of construction. Each donor was given a ceremonial knife and sent to an assigned place. [Picture #10] The highest honor was given to those assigned to cut bindings of the foundation stone inside the chapel. After a brief bit of chanting, fireworks and a large gong accompanied the donors as they chopped the wicker strands binding the stones. [Picture #11] The knives, being more ceremonial than functionally sharp, required a lot of hacking to release the stones. The stones dropped into the holes, but those nearby got pieces of the wicker for good luck. [Picture #12] Then the donors and laity moved outside the retaining wall behind where their stone was now sunk. The presiding cleric approached each group and asked in Pali if they had buried the stone in the hole and they responded in Pali that they had done so. He made specific mention of each stone by its position, “This Western Stone …,” or “This Northeastern Stone.” [Picture 13] Meanwhile the other monks re-entered the chapel to be formally presented the edifice in the name of the people, and to receive it ceremonially. With that, the chapel was dedicated and the service ended. [Picture #14]
After the formal service, participants and patrons were awarded souvenirs including 80 specially made Buddha images.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.