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LAce Posted Monday, October 27th, 2003
Practicing Asia: Enlightenment Business
Nicholas Beem

I sometimes identify myself as a Buddhist, and I have spent quite a bit of time sitting on a cushion counting my breath as it goes in and out my nose. Two summers ago I spent an enlightening month in an American Zen monastery, and before that I studied Buddhism in college. My understanding of Buddhism is a blend of philosophy and meditation practice.

Thailand is a Buddhist kingdom. The official date in this country is calculated in years since the Buddha's final enlightenment (his death). Thailand is the first country I have visited that doesn't reek of Judeo-Christian heritage, and that isn't grounded in ideas like Heaven, Hell and sin. What are the differences?

For one thing, there are monks everywhere. Bright yellow-orange robes and bald heads. Walking down the street, riding the bus, picking up pictures from a photo lab, and smoking cigarettes. Where there are monks, there are temples; at least one per town, and dozens in Bangkok. Rather than steeples and crosses poking above the trees, I see steeply sloped red-tiled roofs, towering phallus-like stupas and occasionally a gigantic, benevolent Buddha eye. But whereas you might see a crucifix hanging from a cab driver's rearview mirror every now and then in the U.S, EVERY cab driver in Thailand has a Buddha image somewhere in his cab. Probably several, and perhaps some pictures of famous monks, as well.

We stayed for several days with a kind Thai woman named Phakharanan (nickname Meaw, which means "cat"). Meaw has a small Buddha sitting on her dashboard and two shrines in her house. One day a week, fresh offerings are made to all holy objects. In Meaw's case, this was fruit (apples and pomelos), incense, water, and small garlands of jasmine flowers. For all of Friday, two apples sat on the dashboard on small plates, jiggling precariously as we drove through manic Bangkok traffic. Bangkok drivers seem to view the lane markers more as suggestions than strict divisions, and turn signals are rare, yet I felt strangely calm as traffic from three lanes converged to a single off-ramp. Cars always seem to yield just before it is too late, and somehow the swarms of vehicles all coexist harmoniously. I wonder what role the dashboard Buddhas play in all this?

I came to Thailand hoping to deepen my meditation practice, but so far my experience of Buddhism has been restricted to "praying to Buddha" at assorted temples and household shrines. The basic operation: light some incense, hold it between your hands in prayer position while reciting a scripted prayer, and then ask the Buddha for anything you like. I did not inquire as to the exact parameters of these requests, but Meaw told us she generally asks for good health for her mother and aunt, and success for her business.

At temples, you can obtain a neat package of incense, lotus flower and small pieces of gold leaf for the price of a donation. The gold leaf is particularly fun. You press it onto one of the many Buddha statues in the temple, helping to turn them from dirty bronze to gold. The leaf doesn't stick very well, though, so most of the statues appear to have their skin peeling off. The serene Buddhas become creepy lessons on impermanence.

At one particular temple, I was disappointed to see a man pluck my recently-offered incense from the offering bowl, along with all the other burning sticks, dip them in water to extinguish, and then throw them away! My merit-making was cut short by the practical need to clear room for the hundreds of people coming to make their offerings. I was somewhat offended, but clearly the complete burning of the incense is not the crucial part of the offering process, because the Thais didn't care.

The temple must have been making a killing that day. And this is what makes me uncomfortable with Thai Buddhism. To what degree are the temples simply running a religion business? I am reminded of the Christian indulgences that Martin Luther protested, except that I don't think the Thais are buying the chance to do something "sinful." They're just upping the probability that good things will happen. And there is no doubt that some of the money goes to good causes, such as educating the monks and providing services to the community. But the money also goes towards lavishly gilded statues - the more the better! And it seems inevitable that a state-sponsored religion is susceptible to corruption, especially such a big-business religion as Thai Buddhism, in a country with such a respect for hierarchy that whistle-blowing is rare.

My academic study of Buddhism tells me that the historical Buddha, whose teachings are theoretically the singular gospel of Thai Buddhism, would not approve. Some of his final words: "Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help." It is hard to interpreting praying to the Buddha for success in business as anything other than relying on external help.

But then again, this is an old story. The modern manifestation of Christianity, (in most cases) is a far cry from Jesus' original message. Teachings, which were originally for a small group of devoted practitioners, will inevitably mutate and become less stringent as they become a religion of the masses. What's more, when a religion becomes state-sponsored, lavishly decorated icons and vast temple complexes become as much about demonstrating the grandeur of the state as promoting religious practice.

So I shouldn't have been surprised to find hundreds of 20 Baht (about 50 cent) notes fluttering in front of a sparkling golden Buddha. I think I was secretly hoping to find a country full of serenely meditating Buddhists, with not even a trace of the materialism and blind dogma I have come to identify with Western religion. Of course this was foolish, and of course I have not seen enough to pass any sort of authoritative judgment on Thai Buddhism. I am trying to remember to use this trip as an opportunity to practice having no preference, to experientially realize the truth that all cultures are equally valid, and hopefully become more intimate with the unity of all things.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by sandeep parikh on Tuesday, October 28th, 2003 at 11:37 AM
Excellent article Nick! I'm truly greatful I'm able to vicariously enjoy the wonders of south east asia through the "internet." Technology rules! I'm also glad you pointed out the inherent hypocrisy in "praying to Buddha" and "donating to a Buddhist temple." Alas commercialism and idolatry are inescapable human creations in seems. Keep up the good work and please post a picture of a monk smoking a cigarette if you get the chance. Peace.

Posted by Michael Spekter on Tuesday, October 28th, 2003 at 5:13 PM
Nick-- Thanks for a truly informative article. I don't think that your observations on Thai Buddhism detract from its validity or spirituality. If anything it just shows that the material and the spiritual must co exist in this temporal world. Of course Monks can smoke cigarets or take photos, just like rabbis can enjoy the World Series and Priests can get ecstatic for Notre Dame football. Say hi to Lela from her godfather.

Posted by Jeffrey Brenner on Tuesday, October 28th, 2003 at 6:04 PM
Nick--rock and roll.

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