Comfort Ethics From Another Angle
When farang think of Thais as Buddhists, they tend to make a lot of incorrect assumptions about their moral ideology. Siam Sam, for example, recently submitted an article (Comfort Ethics) to Stickman concerning the way Thais practice Buddhism. He made a critical comment about whores making offerings to spirit house in front of Nana. He criticized whores for giving food to monks as well. He thought there was something hypocritical about this. If Sam knew the difference between Thai culture and the Buddhist religion, he wouldn’t be making such stupid remarks. Thais are animists at heart. Animism has been the core belief system of the Thais ever since they emigrated from China into Southeast Asia. The Thais originally come from Yunnan (Nanchao), a Chinese province bordering Burma and Laos. The Mon and the Khmer-the indigenous people of geographical Thailand- introduced Buddhism and Hinduism to the Thais. But the Thais never threw out their animist belief system. They just incorporated their animist beliefs into their new religion. Hence, the Thai belief system isn’t pure Buddhism. It is a melting pot of many religions. If ones understands that the Thais believe in the spirit world as their core religion, then there isn’t any hypocrisy about making offerings to spirit houses in front of brothels or giving food to monks after servicing a client. There are two reasons a Thai would want to communicate with the spirit world. The first reason is protection. In other words, Thais want spirits to be their friends and not their enemies, which is why they make offerings to them. The second reason why Thais make offerings is to get something in return, whether it is karma for their next life, or the winning lottery numbers in this life. Thais, like most human beings, also want to feel some spiritual satisfaction. The reason why a Thai has an amulet or a Buddha is for protection. The real reason why a Thai makes an offering to a monk is in order for the monk to intercede in the spirit world. Many of the rituals one witnesses between monks and lay people in Thailand have very little do with Buddhism. These rituals are animist in nature. So I feel disturbed when farang onerously assume things about Thai Buddhism and Thai spirituality without knowing the facts.
Siam Sam thinks it is morally inconsistent that a prostitute will service a customer and then unashamedly make merit on her way home. Prostitution and making an offering to a monk are two completely separate acts. They are totally unrelated. Sam thinks there is something unholy about making an offering to the Buddha at Nana Plaza, because the place is scene of total debauchery. There is absolutely nothing Buddhist about making offerings to the spirits of Nana Plaza. The whores are only seeking the blessing and the protection of the spirits of Nana Plaza- nothing more, nothing less. And making an offering to the spirits of a brothel is totally consistent with Thai culture. Just because Thai girls are fucking or sliding on a pole or getting drunk doesn’t mean that the spirit world ceases to exist. Further, prostitution is not one of the prohibited professions in Buddhism. In Thai Buddhism, sexual immorality is narrowly defined as adultery, and adultery is defined as having sex with somebody who is already married. Supposedly, a married person can have sex with another person as long as that person is not married. I admit, it is a fucked up rule, but I didn’t make it up.
When I was writing this article, I realized that there are a lot of similarities between Thai Buddhism and Catholicism. Thais pray to their Gods for miracles; Catholics pray to saints and their God for miracles. Thais light candles and offer incense and flowers to their Gods; Catholics light candles and offer incense to their Saints. Thais wear Buddhist amulets; Catholics wear Christian amulets.
How are Thais more hypocritical than Christians? If, for example, I went to a whorehouse, then went to church to confess my sins, said my “Hail Marys” and “O Fathers”, lit my candles and made a financial offering, would I not be absolved of my whorehouse sin? Isn’t the money I am offering to the church going to pay for the priest’s food and shelter? Isn’t that money going to the building of churches? Isn’t that money going to pay for the trial costs of class-action suits against priests who had been molesting children for 30 years? I saw Billy Graham, a famous American evangelical preacher, give an interview once, and he told the interviewer that he made $200,000 a year. What does Billy need with all that money? What about Pat Robertson? Jerry Falwell? Jimmy Swaggert? Jim Baker? And all those other American Christian, right-wing fundamentalists who brainwash little old ladies into sending their Social Security checks to their 1-800 numbers in the name of Jesus Christ. Where is all that money going? Most of it goes to maintain their extravagant lifestyles, and the rest is spent on right-wing propaganda in order to terrify people into voting Republican. I think Siam should be looking a little closer to home rather than condemning the Thais for their lack of integrity. My point, apparently, is that religious hypocrisy is everywhere, not just in Thailand.
Personally, I think the Buddhism is more just and less hypocritical than Christianity. In Thai Buddhism, one can only accumulate good merit or bad merit. Good merit does not cancel out bad merit. Regardless of what good one does in life, one must still pay for bad karma. If one is a Christian, all one has to do is believe in Jesus Christ and ask for his forgiveness. All sins are forgiven. If Hitler died a Christian, he would be forgiven. Charlie Manson? Forgiven. At least, theoretically, there is accountability in Buddhism.
Siam Sam is wrong in assuming that a Thai woman is making merit when she prostitutes herself in order to take of her parents. Let me make this clear: A Thai girl doesn’t score brownie points with the Buddha for fucking foreigners in order to pay for her parent’s Toyota truck payments. When a Thai girl takes care of her parents, she is fulfilling an obligation. It has nothing to do with making merit. Thais, especially girls, are ingrained since birth with the notion of bun khun. Bun khun is the establishment of a debt of gratitude. In other words, when parents take care of their children, a debt of gratitude is established that a child can never repay. Thais are obligated to take care of their parents in order to fulfill a bun khun debt of gratitude. This is a lifelong commitment. A child who fulfills her obligation to her parents is katunyu (grateful), and a child who doesn’t fulfill her commitment is akatanyu (ungrateful). For any Thai to be called akatanyu is a major insult. Farang are stupid. They don’t understand this system. And Thais take advantage of the fact that farang are unaware of the intricacies of their culture. Bun khun is what makes Thailand tick.
Thais consider any debt a form of slavery. In the past, Thais were not enslaved in the sense that they were bought and sold in the market place, but rather they were indentured servants. Thais became slaves in order to pay off debts to their masters. This is why Thais won’t pay off their debts to farang. First, a Thai doesn’t want to become obligated to a farang and be his slave. What an insult! Second, a farang has no way of enforcing the debt obligation. Farang need to wake up from their slumber of stupidity! From a political perspective, why does Thaksin made such a big deal about being free from the IMF? Thais don’t want to be the slaves of the farang. I think the notion of debt is important to bring up, because it has many different connotations in Thai society, and farang have a tendency to look at things from a myopic Eurocentric point of view.
In Thailand’s recent past, wealth was not measured by material possessions, but by how many people a person had under his control. In the past, only the king was allowed extensive material wealth and was the ultimate landowner (and this is the psychological reason why farang can’t own property in Thailand). Since the king and his family owned everything, common people had very little capital. And if a commoner did try to start an independent business, the king would usually steal it from him or take 10% depending on the circumstances. This is an important thing to understand if you want to know why Thailand is a poor country. Common people were not allowed to become wealthy, because that threatened the king’s political power. Nobles and commoners could only have select material possessions that distinguished themselves from other classes. A noble, for example, could build his house in a style and with materials that were exclusive to his rank. Concerning his wardrobe, he was entitled to use particular fibers that marked his rank. Material, mobile possessions were what distinguished one class of Thais from another. Do farang now understand why Thais are materialistic and irresponsible about saving money and developing their capital? The reason why the Chinese own everything in this country is because they remained outside the feudal system, and the king gave them concessions to trade in exchange for kickbacks. When the Chinese became powerful because of their wealth, the king had to make them part of the noble class. Ethnic Thais were strictly prohibited from becoming independent capitalists. If a commoner wanted to engage in small trade, he had to get his patron’s permission, and that usually cost money. Also, anytime a commoner needed to do any government business, he could only do it through his noble, which cost money. This is where the roots of corruption in Thailand come from. Many ignorant farang assume corruption is a result of bad morality. The roots of corruption in Thailand have always been institutional rather than moral. Drugs, gambling, and prostitution were all at one time legal monopolies of the state, which is why these problems are so difficult to eradicate. Those vices were legalized for reasons other than bad morality, but I don’t want to get into that now.
Back to feudalism.
For a noble outside the ministries responsible for foreign trade, the only real power any Thai had came from his title, which gave him control over manpower. Therefore, a Thai was considered rich and powerful if he had many clients or slaves to do his bidding. In fact, the Thai word for freedom, itsara, originally meant the power to control people. So, from the Thai point of view, a person is only free when he or she has the power to control others. This notion has stubbornly remained part of the Thai identity for the last 800 years, and I would argue that it is the biggest impediment to Thailand’s democratic development. When farang start to understand these Thai concepts of power and freedom, many things about Thai culture will start to make sense. Do farang ever wonder, for example, why Thais will have ten lazy unproductive employees working for them for shitty wages instead of ten hardworking employees who could do the same job for better wages? Thais believe control over many people is more important than having a profitable business with a productive workforce. Why does Thailand have some many military generals? Why do Thais need maids and drivers when they are not necessary? Why do Thais have to travel in entourages? This theory of mine applies to relationships as well. Most Thai girls would rather have a hundred guys falling all over them than having one good boyfriend. Thai guys are the same way. Relationships, regardless of how shallow they are, are extremely important to Thais. Relationships are factions of power. A Thai’s identity is determined by his relationships with others. Why else are Thai’s obsessed with their title and their place in the hierarchy of relationships? The loner or the rebel with no family or friends has no power. The actual meaning of farang kee nok means a farang with no home or ties to anything, a farang without relationships.
Now let me explain Thai notions of power in terms of the sex industry. When a whore makes a big fuss about her customer being a jao choo (Lord of Lovers), she is trying to manipulate the farang into keeping herself as his only client. (I must interject here as I strongly disagree with your translation of joa choo as lord of lovers. I would say a closer and more correct translation would be adulterer, or cheat in a relationship – Stick) She is trying to take away his power by playing on his guilt. Conversely, a whore wants to have as many patrons as humanly possible, because that makes her very powerful in the eyes of her peers. A whore’s job is to have many patrons. I think this an obvious fact. Selfishly, a Thai whore doesn’t want her patrons spending money on her peers and empowering them. Why are farang so deluded? A whore from Isaan has little or no power in legitimate Thai society. She is dark, short, ugly, and uneducated. In the world of prostitution, an Isaan whore can become powerful and respected within the confines of her whore world. This is the attraction. And as a bonus, she can fulfill her bun khun obligation to her parents much better than if she was on the farm collecting insects for dinner. A Thai whore’s social status is defined by her popularity, yet her status is like a fragile house of cards. One false move and the whole thing can topple down. A whore with many patrons is a very powerful whore. If a whore plays her cards correctly, she can become a patron of her whore friends and attractive Thai men. As long as she is pulling in the big dough, they will lavish praise and attention on her. A Thai whore will do anything to keep her farang patron’s money- the source of her power-because without her patron’s money she can no longer be a patron to her friends and her Thai boyfriends. Therefore, a Thai whore with many patrons and many clients is under a lot of stress to maintain her lifestyle. I would argue this is what shapes a Thai whore’s mentality and her moral character. I think many Thai whores go abroad in order to escape the system. I reckon that a Thai whore will find a farang to settle down with when she thinks the sun has set on her little empire. Though some whores are clever enough to expand their empires while abroad.
The one thing I don’t understand about farang is why they surrender all their power to whores. Farang are in the driver’s seat. The whores know this, which is why they are master manipulators. If a farang has the money and wants to fuck many girls, why can’t he do it? Why does he need permission from a lowly whore? Why is a farang even considering the feelings of his prostitute? Her job is to milk farang for as much money as humanly possible. Do the farang think she feels guilty about doing her job? Why are so many moronic farang out there deluded into thinking that prostitution in Thailand is not a job? Wake up! A farang should not feel guilty about spending his hard-earned money in any way that pleases him. If a farang has the money to be the patron of many beautiful girls, more power to him. If a farang wants to be with only one girl, then that is his choice, but at least he shouldn’t be a chump and allow his whore to manipulate him. What exactly is the whore offering a farang other than a hot little ass and flirtatious sweet talk? Are farang so willing to sacrifice their dignity for such superficial things? Many whores, nevertheless, are obviously comforted by the fact that there are many stupid farang to manipulate in the world. If there were enough educated farang out there willing to be wise rather than choosing to be stupid, there would be a lot less farang men out there getting fucked over. And as a consequence of smartening up, farang, in general, will have more power over Thai women. Therefore, farang should not blame their stupidity and their poor choices in women on Thai morality. Farang should wise up and get with the program or go home and find a farang woman they are morally and culturally compatible with.
Siam Sam’s notion that the chedi or the stupa are testaments of Buddhist hypocrisy demonstrate to me how ignorant he is about Thai/Hindu cosmology and the Thai world-view. Originally, a chedi was built to remind people that the place where the chedi stands is a burial place for the relics of the Buddha. In later years, chedis were built for the remains of important religious figures and royalty. If Siam Sam had spent more time studying Thai culture, rather than hanging out at Nana, he would know the story behind the chedi, and maybe even learn how to spell the word correctly. In the distant past, Thais created spirit houses in order to appease the spirit world. They also built shrines to their ancestors. Temples/wats are nothing more than sophisticated spirit houses. Buddhism, in a way, is irrelevant-except to those Thais who are actually legitimate, practicing Buddhists. When the Indian Brahmins came to Southeast Asia, they taught the local chiefs a new religious system based on Indian mythology. Local chiefs then adapted the Indian religious system in a way that was palpable to his people and their own belief system. The Mon-Khmer, the indigenous people of Thailand, introduced this Mon-Khmer/Hindu/Buddhist religion to the Thais. And Thais added a few ideas of their own. Therefore, the way Thais practice Buddhism has nothing to with pure Buddhism. The Thai religion is a mixture of Hindu cultism, Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, animism, and ancestor worship. If Sam knew anything about Thai Buddhism, he would understand that Thai temples are actual representations of the universe with the king/Buddha at the center of that universe. Thai temples are loaded with symbolism, a symbolism that propagates a particular view of the world that is consistent with Thai culture. Thai temples are actually quite fascinating. If Siam Sam had ever been to a Thai temple, he would have seen that the Thai world-view is not particularly compatible with his own. There are hundred of books that explain Thai architecture and the Hindu/Buddhist cosmology that is infused inside them. If Sam read some of those books, instead of whoring and pontificating, perhaps he would gain some insight and start to understand the Thai world a little bit better.
Lastly, I want to address the idea of “comfort ethics” and moral relativity. The Thais don’t have a Pope. The Thais have never had a Socrates, or a John Stuart Mill, or a Kant, or a Camus, or a Nietzche. The Thais have never had a school of philosophy that tried to indoctrinate them with a bunch of crap. I think farang would be surprised to know that philosophy has probably had a more powerful impact on shaping Western ethics than Christianity. Cheers to Socrates! The Thais, on the other hand, believe whatever the fuck they want to believe, and if that is the basis of their morality, then so be it. If a farang accepts the fact that Thais have no morality, how does he get hurt? The farang has the choice of trusting a Thai or not. If a farang chooses to trust a Thai with no morality, how is that the Thai’s fault? Nobody is putting a gun to a farang’s head and forcing him on a plane to Thailand to become a victim of Thai immorality. And I think it is a little ridiculous for a farang to come to Thailand to bang whores and then turn around and criticize their ethics. If a foreigner traveled to my country to fuck whores, and then started pontificating about the “comfort ethics” of my women, I would have no choice but to beat the living shit out of him.
I love your last paragraph, and your analysis is pretty good. But where I feel it comes unstuck is that the Thai most definitely purport that they DO have morality. In fact I have heard more than a few Thais refer to farangs as barbarians. Now talk about calling the kettle…
Farangs absolutely do have a way of enforcing the debt obligation, though one has to be a little creative and do things that some may consider nasty. But hey, when property or moneys are up for grabs, the gloves come off.
A lot of good points, but more than a few I personally disagree with.