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Thursday, January 08, 2004

Bangkok Report VII: shopping for good karma

The New Year holiday is prime time for paying respect in Thailand. We bring gifts to relatives to wish them a happy new year, and go to temples to pay respect to the Buddha and ask for a blessing for a prosperous year.

I've been doing my best imitation of a dutiful daughter by letting my parents drag me around to all these places. My parents are not religious people, but they do act like so during the holidays.

As for me, I see these temple visits as more of a cultural expression than a religious one. After all, Buddhism requires no belief, no faith. I think of it as a philosophy, as a way of life. I'd say I am as much a Buddhist as I am a postmodernist.

I do, however, enjoy visiting temples. There is something profoundly beautiful about visiting a quiet, remote temple, sitting under a benevolent gaze of a serene Buddha, quietly chanting Pali verses in contemplative meditation. I could sit like that for hours, thinking of as little as I possibly could.

Unfortunately, visiting temples during the holidays is nothing like what I've just described. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of people cramming into every well-known temple in Thailand, competing to buy as much good karma as one could afford, physically and financially.

Cars swarmed at temple entrances, trying to enter the hollowed grounds where karma could be bought like groceries. Throngs of people, pushing and shoving their ways in, to get as close as possible to the Buddha statues. Seas of shoes awaited patiently for the owners to reclaim after having had their fill of karma for the year. (Today's lesson: Never wear your Manolos to a Thai temple!)

Most temples set up stalls selling all sorts of good karma acquisition aides, incense, candles, lotus flowers, orchids, etc. All to ensure that one's prayers are heard by proper authorities.

The Buddha himself would have been amused by all these. He professed a practice of self-awareness and a path to end cycles of sufferings, by simply stopping one's own contribution to them. He demanded no faith, no belief, only that we think for ourselves, that we are mindful that our actions have consequences in the world and the lives of others.

In fact, one of my favorite types of Buddha statues is a Pang Hahm-yaat. Statues of this type are of the Buddha standing, his left hand held up chest level, palm facing outwards, in a stopping gesture, with his benevolent gaze looking down at us, gently reminding us that all we had to do is to stop. Stop contributing to the sufferings in this world. Stop the hatred and bigotry. Stop. It could all end today.

Buddhism as practiced here in Thailand, and perhaps elsewhere, is an entirely different animal, however. Here, the religion of Buddhism functions much like other major religions, that is to say, it can be perceived as a sort of an insurance company!

People are afraid of what fate awaits them in the afterlife, so they buy into an insurance policy, and dutifully paying the premiums, in the forms of incense, candles, stuffing collection baskets, attending church on Sundays, etc. All the while hoping that when they die, the policy would pay off, ensuring them a vision of the afterlife that they could easily prepare for.

So, here, there is heaven, and hell, but if one buys enough incense or flowers, one might be assured a place “up there”. Unfortunately, exactly where “there” is, I don't know.

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In between visiting temples and relatives, I managed to squeeze in some kitchen time to learn how to make more old Thai dishes (but apparently very little time to blog). I had a blast doing it. I will post about those days soon.

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