Bangkok Journal Chapter 7 - Ohm Alone

It’s interesting to me how many North Americans, some of them Buddhists themselves, think that Noraseth must be vegetarian since he’s Buddhist (born and raised). He’s not. Some have reacted with dismay to hear this. Some with indignation. Because isn’t a meat-eating Buddhist a contradiction in terms? To most westerners, especially North Americans, it might seem as if it is, but it really isn’t. There are many vegetarians who aren’t Buddhist, so why wouldn’t there be many Buddhists who aren’t vegetarians?

Enough people have written and assumed and asked to make it a good topic for a journal. But beware, in reading this entry, to your attachment to your beliefs. I’m not in any way trying to write the truth about Buddhism. That would be ridiculous. I know very little about Buddhism – especially Theravada Buddhism, the older form practiced in Thailand. So I’m only going to record my thoughts and observations here. I’m not asking anyone to agree or disagree (how could I – I’m not presenting an argument). But I know some of you will take it as an argument or defence. Remember: acceptance and non-attachment, even regarding your own beliefs and opinions about Buddhism, whatever they may be (and I’m sure I don’t even have to ask anyone to write and tell me what they are. You will. And I’ll read them with interest.)

Isn’t one of the tenants of Buddhism, and an important one, to not harm other living creatures? Isn’t that what gives it its non-violent aura and reputation (and leads to the idea that vegetarianism goes hand in hand with the religion). Yes. That is the ideal. Yes, Buddha himself was a vegetarian. But the ideal is often very far removed from the reality of day to day life here in Bangkok (and the American version of Buddhism is adapted and updated for that culture and can bit, in my opinion, romantic and overly idealistic, often over-enthusiastically so). Remember back in the 1970s when Buddhist monks set themselves on fire to protest the Viet-Nam war? Was that non-violent? If no, how could it be justified? Weren’t they going against the Buddhist doctrine when they did that (sort of like a Catholic committing suicide). What if what they were doing could be justified as being for the greater good of humanity and therefore acceptable? I’ll talk more about that idea in a bit.

First, as with any religion, how strictly you follow the tenants of the faith depends upon how strongly you view those tenants. Do all Catholics refrain from using contraceptives; do all Jews eat only kosher foods? So it shouldn’t be a surprise, based on this principle alone, that a lot of Buddhists are not vegetarians (a visit to any market or restaurant in Bangkok will confirm this – and this despite the statistic that 95% of the country is Buddhist.) Yet, many North Americans write to me assuming that Thais, because they are predominantly Buddhist, must be predominantly vegetarian. This assumption then leads to my own assumption that the American image or idea of Buddhism, especially viewed through our (western) cultural filter, is a bit overly idealistic and romantic too!)

Secondly, there seems to me to be a lot of paradox – and a lot of room for paradox – in the Buddhist religion. It accepts all – even non-vegetarians. How can this be if a main tenant of the faith is non-violence and non-cruelty to other living beings? I was wondering myself. Let me see if I can begin to find a basic explanation.

From what I can tell, the paradox has something to do with “the greater good of society”. Whether you agree with this justification or not, it is seen to be part of the plan, part of the belief in the way Buddhism is practiced (and, remember, it’s been practiced here for a very, very long time – especially Theravada Buddhism, which is the type mostly evident in Thailand. Theravada literally means Doctrine of the Elders).

Buddhism teaches that you shouldn’t even kill a bug. But the way it’s practiced here says that if you do kill an insect inadvertently, or even intentionally, when you are cleaning, if the goal of cleaning is for the greater good of your family’s cleanliness and health (leading to the greater good of society), then it is forgiven.

If a monk begs for alms and is, by personal belief, vegetarian but receives meat, the meat has been given for a spiritual reason by the giver and the monk cannot refuse it or refuse to eat it (he might be a little picky when he gets back to the monastery to share his food, seeking mostly vegetables, but he dare not reject the gift. It’s a spiritual gift. If you don’t trust me on this one, read “Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand” by Phra Peter Pannapadipo. I’m paraphrasing him here and on the example with the bug above.)

Those monks look so spiritual – and exotic – early mornings walking throughout the city in their orange robes, barefoot, with shaved head and carrying a large, silver alms-bowl which people fill with food. But, then again, I’ve seen them also browsing in groups at the IT Center mall, which is filled with store after store of pirated software and illegal copies of electronic brands and accessories. I’ve never seen them buy anything there, but they seem to like to browse there more than in any other mall I’ve been in. If they are buying the goods there (I have seen a few with shopping bags), then I like to think that they are making a non-violent protest against corporate greed. (Beats the hell out of self-immolation!)

I saw a documentary about capital punishment on German television a few years back shortly after my first visit to Thailand in 2004. It was about capital punishment in Thailand, which is legal and carried out. Until then, death sentences had been executed with a close range single shotgun blast to the head of a person strapped into a wooden chair (believe me this isn’t a pretty picture – and I know because German T.V. showed the pictures – before and after. Nowadays I believe they use lethal injection.) The prison monk was interviewed and tried to explain how it is possible to justify the death penalty in Thailand because it is for the greater good of society. It is his job to accept this and to pray with the condemned man until he too accepts his fate as part of the greater good. The priest prays also with the executioner, who has a job to do for the greater good and is, therefore, forgiven the details of his job. A western mind has often a hard time wrapping itself around this concept (I know mine did) but this is the way it was explained and this is how I understand it to be. Here’s where not only our cultural differences but also our cultural filters really show themselves. To a western mind, that explanation just doesn’t often compute.

I read a lot and I came across a great novel that helped me understand these differences a little better. The plot centres on a group of new-agey San Franciscans who visit Burma and experience horror, shock and dismay about exactly these kinds of cultural differences, especially in relation to how animals are treated here in Asia. It’s called “Saving Fish From Drowning” by Amy Tan and it’s a fun read (I love that it illustrates culture shock in the context of a humorous story and isn’t preachy in any way). As the title suggests, fisherman in the area described in the book (China and Burma) don’t see themselves as killers or hunters of fish. They are “saving the fish from drowning” and the fish are doing a service, a sacrifice, for the greater good of society – in this case to feed people.

I remember on my first trip to Thailand seeing elephants on farms or in zoos where they were trained to entertain the people (or to give them rides). The conditions of the zoos were mostly very good, but sometimes a little harsh (in the way the trainers handled the animals). I remember thinking some of my animal rights oriented friends back in the states might have a problem with the idea of the animals on farms or in zoos in general. I mentioned this to Noraseth and he explained that in the wild there is no longer enough food for the elephants to survive. And if they didn’t starve, the poachers would kill them anyway. So the idea of the farms or zoos is actually designed to protect them (and they did seem to enjoy playing soccer for us!).

Sorry if any of this description upsets anyone. But try to accept the description for what it is, especially if you have Buddhist beliefs, since acceptance is a big part of the religion. Another tenant is non-attachment. In my observation of Buddhism in Thailand so far (and that is only a short time, don’t forget), these two tenants seem to be very important and, more importantly, very well practiced (certainly more than vegetarianism!) It is fine to be vegetarian here in Thailand if you’d like, but it is bad form to criticize others for not being one, as it shows clearly non-acceptance and the attachment to the belief that being a vegetarian is better than not being one.

Alcohol is the big no-no if you’re following the tenants closely. There’s a lot of Thais that drink (mostly beer and whisky – wine is expensive here when it can be found) but Noraseth and his family don’t. I no longer drink alcohol, but that decision was based on more physical than religious reasons. (I’m not Buddhist. Yet. But I’m a wannabee!) But there are no anti-alcohol campaigns. The entire way of life in Bangkok is “live and let live”, which the Buddhist Bangkokers I already know attribute directly to the role of the religion in daily life. And that is one of the most appealing aspects of the society. I feel very safe here because of that. No dirty “foreigner go home” looks (or comments along the same line).

Being gay is against the tenants for “correct sex” according to Buddhist doctrine. But a liberal monk (like Phra Peter Pannapadipo, who I’ll paraphrase here again) might interpret the doctrine in a way that sees a gay relationship that is loving and monogamous as more “correct” than a heterosexual relationship that isn’t that way. As in any religious doctrine, there’s many ways to interpret. And we use, if we admit it, mostly interpretations to suit our own conscience. Certainly there are homophobes here (like Noraseth’s brother), but, again, there is also a high level of tolerance. For any kind of sexuality. It must go back to acceptance. What else can it be? How else can you explain all the transvestite waitresses who blend in so well that no one seems to notice.

In dealing with all this paradox and in dealing with my own ideas about eastern religions (formed, I might add, long before I ever set foot in Asia), I had to really think about how I pass judgement on others about their beliefs and how I hold my own beliefs. It seems true that if I think my way of life is better than someone else’s – or my religion, or the way I practice my religion is better than someone else’s – doesn’t that lack of acceptance and tolerance, in addition to going against part of the Buddhist tradition, just lead to all types of extremism on my part (at least extreme thinking, even if I don’t act out on it). When I think about extremism, in any way shape or form, I conclude that it is one of the worst problems in modern society. At the very least it’s a characteristic I don’t like seeing in myself. So I’m drawn to anything that will take me away from it. The acceptance and non-attachment of Buddhism does that for me so I’m drawn to it – vegetarian or not (and I’m not at the moment). That’s part of the paradox for me.

I used to to get upset about what I viewed as hypocrisy in western religions – the difference between the ideals of the dogma and the actual practice. So perhaps I overly-idealized the eastern religions, especially back in the days when the Beatles were making pilgrimages to India and we were all reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. So I surprised to find out that Buddhism is much like any other religion. A set of spiritual doctrines imperfectly practiced. And I guess, now that I think about it, I’m more surprised that I’m surprised. How could I have thought otherwise? Isn’t all religion imperfectly practiced (we’re human, after all) and often updated or interpreted in ways that have nothing to do with the way the religion was originally – or still, in its own land or context – practiced?

It’s not that religions are imperfect. Isn’t the goal of all religion to try to live a more God-like (Allah-like, Buddah-like, Christ-like) life? How can that be “imperfect?” But haven’t I disregarded Christianity because I’ve judged it as imperfect (okay, so maybe I have a chip on my shoulder thanks to Falwell and all those religious right nuts, but that’s extremism. I have to separate that out from the religion itself, but I don’t. Along the same lines, there’s a growing western stereotype of Muslims as terrorists. That can’t be right – or fair – either.) It must be, then, the practice of religion that is imperfect. As human beings, it’s almost as if it’s our job to fall short – and we do. So I have to re-think my harsh judgement of religious “hypocrisy” (call it now paradox?), and try to be accepting, forgiving and understanding (okay, but I’m still glad Falwell’s dead. Go ahead, shoot me.) I guess there will always be a large discrepancy between what we aspire to and how we perform. Call it being human, the lesson I’m to learn this lifetime. (But I still can’t forgive hypocrisy in politicians! They aren’t even trying for an ideal! Or are they …? Oh, I want to cling to my beliefs about politicians! They start wars and cause other problems, don’t they. Or do we let them?)

Here’s a riddle: if a war starts and we protest against it (rightfully so, some of us, myself included, would say) then if the war stops we have nothing to keep protesting about. That is the goal, right? But if we’re attached to protesting (are we? Don’t we protest everything?) then it would seem logical that we need wars to keep our protests alive. Is protesting, then, part of the problem or part of the solution? Or are they both part of the same paradoxical equation somehow? I intend to keep protesting or at least speaking out against wars, but I do it now with this riddle in the back of my mind.

And lest I start to ramble or – god forbid – get preachily attached to my beliefs and opinions, let me just end with a reminder to myself: my thoughts on Buddhism in Thailand always leave me with more questions than answers and, somehow, that seems entirely appropriate.

Bangkok, 15 September 2007