You know how it goes when people write about elephants. Something like – I looked into the eyes of this majestic animal and I sensed an old wisdom and a deep strength. Well I didn’t. I couldn’t make eye contact with them – the closest I came was when they looked intently at the banana in my outstretched arm. As I looked at these huge prehistoric-looking animals, chained and driven by a creature no bigger than its leg, I thought of a line from Macbeth:
Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood;
And his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in nature
For ruin’s wasteful entrance.
This whole situation felt like a breach in nature. There were some 14 or 15 elephants and the mahouts could steer them this way and that with a single word. A crack of the whip and they would increase their speed carrying us across stream, river, mountain and forest. It was majestic and embarrassing at the same time.
As I swayed this way and that in the chair on top of its back I looked down at its huge head, perhaps some three or four feet in width. To my left was a deep gorge. All it takes is for this animal to have a single thought that it might do otherwise that it is being told and suddenly we humans don’t matter any more – nobody can stop this animal if it decides to do what it wants. All that would be left for humans to do is figure out where in the jungle they are headed and how many riders are left alive.
But it doesn’t have that thought, though I can never say it didn’t cross its mind. How did it come to this? Somewhere in its head this mighty animal conceded defeat. And the reason was most likely food not whips. Whips and chains would be as affective as cobwebs if it really came down to that. This animal was beaten by its desire, defeated by itself. It made me feel sad.
And what about us? Are we so different? We go to the barricades and the courts to defend ourselves against whips and chains but our desires run wild. You can enslave a human just like an elephant – tell him about status, pride, nation, honor, wealth, possessions, duty, weapons of mass destruction, an invisible being or beautiful women, hell tell him 40% off all this week and he will do anything you want. He will turn away from his own will and haul people up and down mountains for a piece of paper. He will spend every minute of his life toiling to buy stuff he never wanted. He will even lay down his own life. And yet like the elephant, if we would only wake up. If one just allowed the thought of freedom to reside and take root in one’s head then nothing could stop the heresy. Forget the bananas.
Today was one of those days you feel your mind wrapping with a special piece of memory and labeling it, “to be opened when I am old.” I arrived last night in Chiang Rai under the cover of darkness and left early this morning. I headed north across the Mae Kok river and into the mountains bordering Burma and Laos. The national borders are permeable in this area, pierced by both forests and mountains. Consequently, the opium business flourished and the traders employing gold as their common currency, lent the region its infamous moniker; the Golden Triangle. Today, the opium trade on the Thai side of the border has faded away, though the police still arrest traffickers bringing in morphine-based amphetamines from Burma. The loose borders have also allowed nomadic tribes to make these mountains their temporary home. One of Thailand’s largest hill tribes, the Akha arrived here at the end of the nineteenth century. In recent years they have been joined by the Karen, fleeing from persecution in neighboring Burma.
The first village I entered today was predominantly Karen. The 9 families I met had just arrived in the area 8 months ago. I saw two subgroups within the Karen, the Padong and, as the Thai call them, “the shortnecks.” The Padong are striking for the practice among the women of wearing a coil of copper around their necks. In the Padong tradition, a long neck is considered very beautiful. The copper coils, which can weigh between 8 and 15 pounds, are also believed by the Padong to protect them from Tiger attack in the jungle. Each year, until she is married, a Padong woman earns an extra ring and a new coil containing the extra ring is fashioned. The practice has been dying out, but the increased interest of tourists has maintained the tradition for now. The “shortneck” Karen do not wear coils but instead distinctive large copper cylinders inserted in their ear lobes. The Akha I met did not have any body augmentation, but wore a distinctive headdress adorned with bells and plates of silver. There seemed to be no signs of animosity between the Akha and the Karen, the two worked side by side, the Karen almost exclusively weaving while the Akha seemed focused on silverwork.
It’s the dry season now and the surrounding land seemed parched and thirsty. It will be another 3 months until the rains come and this whole area will become unrecognizable beneath blankets of lush green vegetation. For now, the sole respite is the cool air slowly falling down the mountain through the small gardens of banana and papaya. I felt a beautiful quiet unthinking peace in this tiny collection of straw houses. Cats slept coiled up like a pair of warm socks while the women weaved and smoked tobacco. Young girls of five or six made fake looms in the brush and pretended to weave like their mothers. In reality of course, uncertainty was in the air and just beneath the surface. The slash and burn forest clearance is destroying the ecosystem. The initial years, during which the virgin forest soil produces abundant yields, soon pass. The earth grows tired and, devoid of tree cover, is washed down into the valley. The people move on. For the Karen there are additional concerns. Encroachments by the Burmese Army into Thailand are not unknown and just this week a Thai soldier was shot by the Burmese army. They presumed he was a Karen. Modernity ekes its way up from the lowlands offering the tribes either education and t-shirts or the role of professionally modeling the way they were. But this is yesterday and tomorrow. Today was a beautiful day spent with a gentle people and I was overwhelmed by a sense of undeserved privilege to have witnessed it all before it disappears forever.
As I looked out across the city of Bangkok this morning I marveled at how its many millions of inhabitants go about their daily business in a peaceful way. Of course one could say that about many cities, but it seems more pronounced in Bangkok because life is not easy for many people here and yet I have not witnessed a single argument or cross word in my nine days in this city. Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the American invasion of Baghdad and the contrast between Baghdad and Bangkok leaves a marked impression on my mind. The Thai consider Buddhism to be one of the three pillars of their civilization (the other two being King and Nation). It started me thinking of religion in utilitarian terms and as analogous to a computer operating system.
In his weekly column in the Italian newspaper Espresso, the Italian writer Umberto Eco in 1994 famously declared that the world was divided in two: users of Macintosh computers and users of MS-DOS computers. He argued that the Mac was Catholic, cheerful, friendly, employing sumptuous icons and helping the user by taking them step by step towards “if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed.” Eco argued that DOS was Protestant, allowing for free interpretation of scripture, asking the user to make difficult personal decisions and taking for granted that not everyone will reach the Promised Land.
Since that famous observation much has changed in the world of technology. A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend who was about to start at a company that specializes in virtual computing. A virtual computer is just like a normal desktop or laptop but the user chooses which operating system the computer will use depending on what he or she wants to do. For example, if you want to make music, then you might choose the Mac operating system so that you can use the Garageband program. On the other hand if you want to do some engineering drawings you might choose the Windows operating system and one of the various computer-aided-design programs available on that platform. Apple computers can now switch between the MacOSX and Windows operating systems as needed. They have thus become virtual computers.
Staying with Eco’s analogy, what is the religious equivalent to virtual computing? It’s not syncretism, though it shares the syncretic openness to new influences. Syncretism attempts to reconcile and combine disparate or contradictory beliefs. The word syncretism comes from the Greek word synkretismos meaning a union of communities. Virtual computing does not argue for a union of the MacOSX and Windows environments. It keeps them separate but allows you to use either. The religious equivalent to virtual computing, for which perhaps the term virtual religion will have to suffice, would envision all religions as schools of human technology and users as free to use any religious practice at will. Thus if you find yourself perpetually distracted, use Buddhist meditation and reduce your levels of attachment; if you think killing animals is cruel use some Jainist beliefs; if you need to motivate yourself at work use the Protestant work ethic; if you have difficulty reconciling religion and sex use Tantra; if you feel the need for mystical fulfillment use Taoism or paganism. But the active verb is always use because the perspective is utilitarian not dogmatic.
If there is a polemic underlying this thought exercise it is this; we must reach a point where we say that a religion has failed. If people are killing one another in the streets because of religion, not defending the freedom to worship, but merely because their religion has directed them to kill another human being, then that interpretation of that religion has failed. If, as many believe, the purpose of religion is to make man more divine, then if he descends into barbarism doesn’t that mean that there is some corruption in the code? Shouldn’t we at least examine religions with the same common sense that we examine computer software by asking – does this work?
Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power. There has also been no period of self-induced national amnesia, no cultural revolution, no sweeping away of yesterday for the sake of tomorrow. Instead, Thai culture, imbued with Buddhist tolerance, has evolved in layers, each one an incremental negotiation between the needs of the present and the traditions of the past. Exiting Bangkok airport you float along the most modern of these layers. Large elevated concrete motorways writhe over and under each other like giant earthworms petrified for my automotive convenience. Two sets of toll-booths, two newly constructed mosques and tens of the largest billboards I have every seen punctuate my progress towards the tangerine smog-haze that is Bangkok in late afternoon.
As you get closer to the city center, the taxi leaves the modern elevated highway and you drop down to street level. Mopeds are everywhere, traffic lights are merely suggestions and signs offer gems, silks, hotels, massages, import-export and all the paraphernalia of a working trading city. However, unlike Singapore, where large monolithic modern buildings replaced the native housing stock, in Bangkok the skyline is generally three to four stories high. The houses are the traditional combination of shop on the bottom floor and home overhead. There are skyscrapers interspersed here and there but the majority is concentrated in the business district. As a consequence, and despite the common description of Bangkok as vast urban sprawl, to me Bangkok feels very human, neighborly and welcoming.
It’s Monday and I can’t help but notice that about one out of every three people I see in the street is wearing yellow. I half-dismiss the observation until I enter a bookstore and the shopkeeper is also wearing a yellow t-shirt. She explains that last year, in order to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of King Rama IX, the government sold yellow t-shirts and gave the money generated from the sale to the King and his many charities. Almost everyone in Thailand bought a t-shirt. On September 19, a bloodless military coup, led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, replaced the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In light of these events, she told me that the people have recently taken to wearing these yellow t-shirts every Monday (the day of the week on which the King was born) to communicate their support of the King. Thus the celebratory garb of last year has this year become a political statement.
But beneath the present there is yet another layer. The Thai names for each day of the week come from those of the Gods in ancient Indian astrology. Each one of these Gods is associated with a particular color. In the past, divine astrologers would refer to this color scheme and pick the most auspicious colors for battle tunics for any given day. Two centuries ago the Thai poet Sunthorn Phu wrote the Sawasdi Raksa, a guide to princely conduct and behavioral rectitude that is still taught in Thai schools today. In it he referred to the ancient Indian tradition and recommended colors for each day of the week, Sunday was red, Monday yellow, Tuesday pink, Wednesday green, Thursday orange, Friday blue, and on Saturday – violet. The practice of wearing particular colors on a given day was subsequently adopted by the royal court, then the wealthy merchant class, and finally the people.
This uninterrupted layering of Thai culture has thus created a rich semiotic palette through which meaning can be communicated but also obfuscated. How should General Boonyaratglin interpret these yellow t-shirts every Monday? Are they merely a quirky manifestation of an old tradition or a very personal message directed to him in response to events barely six months old?
I enjoy the guilty pleasure of a late breakfast. I defend myself by citing to the old refrain of Noel Coward that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” You can then well imagine my surprise this morning in finding none other than an Englishman seated in the breakfast room. “King calls for understanding” was his defense and he had it published on the front page of the Bangkok Times. As I sat down, he lowered his newspaper. I could see from his cleric’s collar that he was an Anglican vicar. He gave me a grandfatherly smile and I said good morning in return. He looked at me, suspecting perhaps from my accent that I was European. I answered by ordering tea instead of my usual coffee.
I would avoid the milk, he said leaning over, it’s a little off.
Darjeeling is best without, I replied and he concurred.
He introduced himself as “the Reverend Donald Kingsley,” which made me want to ask exactly how many other Reverend Donald Kingsleys were currently vying for the title. He was from Oxford, and in Thailand for an ecumenical conference on inter-faith tolerance. He came south from Bangkok for a little R&R, “as the Americans call it.” He had been here four days at this point and was getting a little restless. I told him of my plans that day to take some photographs at the Thai boxing gym in town and that he was welcome to come along. He accepted, eagerly. He seemed harmless, a big white whale gasping for air on a beach full of blackened Swedes. Our Cantonese landlady cleared the tables and having overheard my plans offered to call someone she knew at the gym to fix us up. A few minutes later I was standing in the lobby while the Reverend went to wash up.
Sawatdee Kaa, ka, Hotel Amanta, . . . ka . . . I have guest want to come to gym, ka? Ok . . . Don’ Kingla . . . ka . . . you know him? . . . Ok . . . maybe 30 minutes . . . ka, also photos . . . Khawp khun kha.
Cries of “welcome, welcome” washed over our red tuk tuk as it slid into a casual repose by the side of the road in front of a bar. I confirmed with the driver that the gym was in the back. The Reverend and I made our way past the charcoal grills at the entrance and through the sea of pretty girls, nodding and apologizing as we went;
Sorry, no money, we go boxing, muay thai, no boom boom, holy man, maybe tomorrow, etc.
Once past the darkened bar we could see three boxing rings, each singularly illuminated by a bank of precariously suspended florescent tubes. There was no real division between the bar and the gym. The place smelled of beer, metal and rubber with the occasional drift of cheap perfume. An old man, with a face like knotty pine, approached us and went straight to the Reverend. He shook the Reverend’s hand. He shook it whole-heartedly.
Very glad to meet you Don’ King’ – I show you best fighters – only the best – you pick winner – these guys best in Thailand.
We were escorted to the raised bench seats set against the far wall of the gym. They looked down on the three rings and towards the bar. One of the bar girls brought us each a bottle of Singha beer. The old man went to talk to two fighters and they replied to him with punctuated glances at the Reverend. I tried to figure out the best setting for my camera.
The younger of the two boxers, dressed in blue Nike shorts, began warming up in the corner of the center ring. He danced from one foot to the other, bobbed and weaved and threw shadow punches. Behind him, I could see, by the light of the exit, the bare midriff of one of the girls as she leaned backwards across the bar. Someone stood in the doorway and she disappeared again into the shadows. In the other corner the slightly older fighter, in black Hilfigger shorts, was standing still. He moved his gloves up and down to his face, his eyes focused on Nike’s feet. Then he turned and looked at the Reverend. The Reverend sat beside me, oblivious in his own midriff and wiping the brown snout of the beer bottle with his cloth handkerchief. I told him that I needed to get closer to the ring because of the light. He nodded, dabbing the beads of perspiration from his brow. The boxers moved towards each other. One of the girls moved from the shadows towards the Reverend.
Nike threw the first punch, a light right-hook teaser to Hilfigger’s head, just to gauge his reaction. Hilfigger merely stepped back. Nike was lean, swift on his feet, his face younger than his body. Hilfigger looked like he had been carved with a hatchet, was slightly shorter than the other, stocky. His arms seemed disproportionally large for his body and made him look like a cross between a bull and a crab. Nike lightly stepped to move to Hilfigger’s right. Hilfigger hit him with a solid hard right to his ribs to keep him center. Nike moved swiftly to the left and out of range, smiled, but moved his left arm slightly to defuse the pain. Hilfigger lowered his brow and took note. Nike danced, threw another punch to Hilfigger’s head – this one connected. Hilfigger, indifferent, turned his shoulders like a Greek galley, faced Nike broadside and framed him into the corner. Nike’s gloves were up but Hilfigger undeterred laid seige. Each punch was louder and heavier than the previous, each one aimed like a steel wedge trying to cleave open Nike’s arms and give Hilfigger access to the soft guts inside. Given the pounding force, it was inevitable that Hilfigger would eventually break through. He interspersed the body blows with fakes to the head but then a single direct punch cleaved Nike’s arms, hit him solid in the chest and threw his body back against the padded corner. Nike instinctively raised his arms to counterbalance the backward momentum and Hilfigger went in for the stomach. 2, 4, 6, 8 – Nike felt each and every strike. Hilfigger leaned in, his shoulders preventing any defense by Nike, 10, 12. Only the sight of the muscles moving like pistons along Hilfigger’s back could tell Nike when to prepare for the next blow to his stomach. 16, 17, 18, the rhythm was now that of single heavy deadweight punches and it became almost soothing to those of us that merely watched. Time stood still, beads of perspiration moved, slowly, vividly, on bodies, faces, bottles, lips.
Awareness slowly returned. Hilfigger pulled back, looked at the Reverend. Nike hung now on the ropes like wet washing. The Reverend was in the shadows talking to the bar girl that had shuffled up beside him, her fingers thumbing his collar. Hilfigger returned to work. Nike had gotten to his feet but his arms, eager to stop the body blows were now too low. This was a set up – this was not a fair fight – this kid knew nothing, only pain. The Reverend seemed preoccupied. Perhaps amidst the onslaught, Nike realized that his role in this whole affair was to suffer. He threw a punch that connected directly with Hilfigger’s face. Hilfigger, surprised, now returned to script. Nike’s head did not behave like you would think a head should. His face became a sea of seemingly malleable flesh, absorbing each punch, rippling, punch, blood projected from his nose, smeared across his chest and ran down into his groin. Just before the last one, the one that knocked him out, Nike faced the Reverend, peering through a riverlet of blood streaming from above his left eye. Hilfigger looked at the Reverend too. The Reverend was now watching. Hilfigger slowly turned his entire body along an axis that ran from his left heel to his right shoulder. His fist met Nike just below the temple.
As Nike lost consciousness we all gradually floated into the ring, the boxers, the old man, the girls, the Reverend. We were all together in the ring beneath the florescent lights. Flies buzzed among the bright fluorescent tubes and you could see the pock-marks on the faces of the girls beneath the heavy make-up. Everybody was squashed against everyone else like we were all becoming one mass of limbs crushed togther like scrap metal in a junkyard. There was the smell of underarm, fresh blood and charcoal. Hilfigger looked at the Reverend.
You see I’m the best.
The Reverend looked down at Nike creamed across the canvas. The old man looked at the Reverend – a big white whale gasping for air. Everyone was breathing deeply the smell of cheap perfume and violence. The Reverend moved to speak.
I interrupted and laughed. I put my hand on Hilfigger’s shoulders and said;
Too fast, you too fast, we make no money.
He laughed, the old man laughed, but not the others. I moved towards the light of the exit, put my arm around the old man and kept the Reverend in front of me. We were about 10 feet from the door. Its white light seemed so pure and clean. The momentum of the room and its occupants followed me. 8 feet. Nike remained on the canvas. I asked the old man for his phone number and told him that it was a great fight, one of the best we had seen in fact. 4 feet. He asked me for Mr. King’s number. I pretended not to hear and confirmed with a look of concern that the piece of paper he gave me was in fact his direct number. The Reverend was already outside, standing like someone in a shower, washing himself clean in the white light.
Yes, that my number so you call me okay?
I looked at him and said that I would definitely call him. I then put my hands together in the traditional Thai greeting and raised them high to my face to indicate that I held him in great esteem. He smiled, slapped me on the shoulder and then turned and went back into the bar.