Bargirls And Buddhas
The stuff they sell to the average tourist as being ancient Buddhist traditions, is of course mostly window dressing, on display, just the same way you find Christianity draped decoratively around most western countries. Giant buildings and truckloads of gold are not particularly spiritual, but wisdom and enlightenment is damned hard to capture, with even the best digital camera. Glitter and bling bling are the visual effects of most organized religions, there is nothing particularly Thai about that. If you want to rally the masses, and keep their attention, you have to find some way to impress them.
A while ago I was following a heated debate between “WR” and “Siam Sam.” One party seems to think that his western (Christian) values are far superior to Thai Buddhism, in fact, far superior to Thai culture in general. The other is explaining why much of Thai Buddhism is not really Buddhism at all, but rather, it is something entirely different. No point in me repeating their arguments as you have probably read them already. I don’t have anything new to add to their discussion, but it did get me thinking about some of my own observations. A substantial element in their debate seemed to be those little shrines you see everywhere in Thailand, and the worthiness, or lack of such, among the people that use them:
BARGIRLS AND BUDDHAS
I toured the Grand Palace, and at least a dozen temples. I saw all the things a tourist is supposed to see. I saw magnificent buildings with bright white walls and gold roofs glistening in the sun and I saw gold covered towers stretching towards the sky. I saw giant murals and impressive artwork. I peeked in through the doorways of great decorated halls and into small side rooms and dark corners. I saw many impressive sights but not anywhere did I find enlightenment in the temples. I saw large Buddhas, small Buddhas, medium Buddhas, giant Buddhas, jade Buddhas, wooden Buddhas, gold Buddhas, emerald Buddhas, plaster Buddhas, smiling Buddhas, serious Buddhas, laughing Buddhas. I saw Buddhas covered in loose pieces of gold leaf, looking like they were suffering from some horrible case of 24 karat psoriasis. I bought a tiny piece of gold leaf from a monk and I followed the crowd. One small spot on the statue was not yet covered, and I went forward with purpose. It was not until I got all the way up that I realized my dilemma. Not quite sure about the protocol but I suspect it might not be cool sticking your finger in the Buddhas left eye. In the end I placed another leaf on his crowded forehead. I saw Buddhas sitting, walking, laying down, meditating, sleeping, standing on their head doing push ups,……. sorry, got a little carried away there,…… but I never found enlightenment in any of the statues.
I have seen lavish masses performed in monumental European cathedrals. I have seen thousands of people on little blankets demonstratively nodding their heads towards Mecca, while Mullahs with bullhorns impose their teachings on the entire neighbourhood. I have seen bearded young men in funny hats kissing a stone wall in Jerusalem. I have seen the Pope speaking to the world from his throne in the Vatican surrounded by four gaudy corkscrew coulombs. Half the gold in the free world must be tied up in those monstrosities, and yet I don’t se even a hint of God in them. (I do suspect that the spirit of Liberace might be living in there ……). I have seen people cutting themselves, and beating themselves with chains, to honor their God. I have seen thousands and thousands of people crammed into their mega million dollar glass cathedral, competing who can praise God the loudest. Every one wearing the same strap on smile while glancing towards the cameras, “I hope God will notice ME”, “I hope I will look good on TV”. I have seen the Notre Dame, the Vatican and a dozen medieval cathedrals, and while I have seen the hand of many talented builders and architects, I have never seen the hand of God in one of them.
I arrive late for breakfast and the dining room is half full of people. As the hostess leads me towards the back I notice people’s heads turning; “Breakfast alone … at the Nana Restaurant … what’s wrong with you?” She finds me a table way down in a corner, more like a small separate room really, away from the crowd. There is a large window, towards the street, covered by a light curtain. It is just enough to keep people from looking in, but still possible to see out towards the sunlit soi. Just outside on the lawn is a small shrine with a Buddha figure.
I see her, coming down the sidewalk in front of the infamous Nana Plaza, crossing the street her long dark hair flowing, she is heading straight towards me. The clothes and handbag leave little doubt about her profession, she is a bargirl, but she is beautiful. Every move she makes draw the attention of guys nearby. With one quick toss of her head she mesmerizes a young man on a motorbike. His head turning the wrong direction, the bike drifts sideways. A street vendor who has been crouching next to the sidewalk scrambles to safety cheating death, or serious injury, with a split second. The girl pretends not to notice it all, but she loves the attention. Getting closer, her demeanor is gradually changing, her cocky attitude vaporizing, leaving humbleness and respect.
She stands in front of the alter digging through her leather purse, a few thin sticks of wood are lit at one end and carefully placed next to the others, a narrow stripe of smoke rising from each one. She kneels in front of the little statue, her head bowed sombrely in respect. I feel like an impostor looking at her through the curtains but I can not tear my eyes away from the scene. She can not ses me anyway, I think, but even if she could she would not notice. There are people yelling on the sidewalk just behind her, people walking, taxis honking, motorcycles without mufflers are accelerating up the street. She is oblivious to it all. She is alone at a sacred place. I don’t know where she has just been, I don’t know where she is going next. I don’t know if she is meditating, or praying to a God, or an ancestor or a Buddha. Perhaps she is just trying to appease the spirits of soi 4, I don’t know. Whatever it is I know that I am watching something genuine, something real. She reaches into her purse again and brings out a small can that she opens. Still on her knees, head bent, eyes lowered in respect, she offers it up to the Buddha figure, like a little girl trying to please a powerful father. The sun blinks in the garish red and white swirls, and the great American Coca Cola God receives his percentage from the profits. There is something childish, almost laughable, about the whole scene, and yet I have never seen a more honest sermon anywhere. I know that at this exact moment she is not thinking about her next conquest, or her next party, or how to manipulate her “boyfriend”, to send more money. At this exact moment she is one hundred percent here, just a young … “innocent” … girl and a little plaster Buddha on a platform. It is probably not enlightenment, but for a simple barbarian like me, it might be as close as it gets.
P.S. In a recent commentary Stickman welcomed more Thai nationals to send in their contributions. I hope he will get a response. It would help give a broader and more balanced picture of what’s going on in the kingdom. By the way I found the historical information, presented in the “WR” piece, to be very interesting and informative. <“Comfort Ethics From Another Angle” 19/ 9/ 2003> Explaining bad behavior does not excuse it, that’s true, but still it is always useful to know why people do what they do
I'll have to pay attention the next time I see someone before a shrine.