POSTCARD#62: Chiang Mai: Why am I awake? Lying here in the half darkness – can it be morning already? But it’s still night. There’s an illuminated hotel sign across the way that shines in my window all the time and it feels like dawn entering between the half-drawn curtains. I hear voices speaking English from the street below. The sound comes in through windows wide open. It must have been this that woke me. What’s the time? Wow, 2.30 am… is this some kind of emergency? Get up and walk over to the window, look out. I’m on the 3rd floor and see there’s a group of white guys down there, brightly lit from hotel signage. I hear bits of what they’re saying… sounds intense. There’s a feeling of urgency, everybody talking at the same time. Where did they come from so suddenly? Must have arrived in a tourist bus coming from somewhere, hotel staff carrying luggage inside. It takes a moment to see they’re mostly drunk, smoking their cigarettes because it’s not allowed inside. Talking over each other in a great haste of words, incomprehensible babble and too noisy for 2.30am.
I feel someone should be objecting to this noise, lean out the window: Hey, guys! You know what time it is… eh? But the hotel security man watching from the doorway doesn’t intervene. The night staff at the reception desk act like this is not happening – mindful of the discomfort but it’ll be over soon, cigarette-time doesn’t last long. The drunk guys meanwhile go on venting their spleen, or whatever, and don’t have any idea that it’s not cool to be losing your cool like this in Thailand, drunk and causing a scene in a public place. Not because it’s “bad” or against the rules – do it in private, no problem. In public it creates a kind of Thai embarrassment called ‘losing face’. The predicament of not knowing what to do…
It’s how the history of things developed in this part of the world, and the Buddha’s teachings. The art of the ordinary smile, leaving unnecessary stuff unsaid is a skill we Westerners never learned. We have the ego, the ‘self’ and the concept of ‘my’ rights… a different world. I’ve seen Thai people hold composure until the face goes white, pouring with sweat, emotions locked in ice-like conditions, and still nothing inappropriate is expressed. This is ‘saving face’, an extraordinary capacity to function without a show of anger. The political demonstrations in Bangkok are an example of ‘face’ with underlying sense of dread that the powers-that-be may be waiting to see how far the situation can be pushed before reaching the tipping-point, beyond which it becomes truly scary for everyone, a kind of insanity; ordinary people running straight into a hail of bullets [Link to: 1992 Black May] and the catastrophic events since 1973.
Maybe it’s the fear of it happening that holds things in a benign pleasantness with mutual-respect and the clear intention always to do the right thing in any kind of situation – or maybe they’re just nice people? And this is how it ends; the drunks finish their cigarette-smoking and stagger off indoors. I watch them from my place up here on the 3rd floor, level with the treetops. Scattered cigarette butts on the road down below that’ll be swept up by the morning. And after a while, it’s like they were never there. There’s quietness and a fragrance of small jasmine flowers that blossom in the night. I open the windows a bit wider, go back to bed and wait for morning.
‘The third Noble Truth is the truth of cessation. Not only do we let go of suffering and desire, we know when those things are not there. And this is a most important part of meditation practice, to really know when there is no suffering. Suffering ceases, and you are still alive, still aware, still breathing. It doesn’t mean that the world has ended, that everything has become blank; it means that the suffering has ceased. The suffering ends, and there is knowledge of the end of suffering.’ [Ajahn Sumedho, Suffering Ends]
…the end of suffering…
and knowing it’s the end of suffering…
Patient endurance and acceptance– so hard– for me, especially hard with drunks. Interesting about losing face in Thai culture.
Hard for me too, but the idea that it’s possible is inspiring. I’ve learned so much from the Thai culture… the capacity to let things be as they are.
This line really jumped out for me, “The predicament of not knowing what to do…”
Do you think part of the withholding of emotion is due to that inner knowing or sensation that if we let this out, call it what we perceive it to be in this moment, there’ll be nowhere to take this to get it back into a pleasant condition. We’ll just be left with a mess. Like, if we just call these people drunks and schlep them hurriedly up to their rooms, we’ve decided who they are somehow, left no room for other perceptions or possibilities. We’ve attached to their drunkenness, labeled them as such from our own seat of discontentment, and now what…? Who will they be when we see them in the morning? Drunks? Where does that leave us, and them?
Is it something like that?
Thanks for the question, it’s something most Western visitors don’t really understand. Change the pronoun ‘we’ to ‘they’ (the Thai population), and what you’ve said more or less sums it up… ‘there’ll be nowhere to take this to get it back into a pleasant condition’. Drunkenness is not socially acceptable (number five in the Buddhist Five Precepts), thought to be a kind of madness, supernatural entities (demons) are messing with their heads. It’s very rare to see a Thai person drunk in public. Behind closed doors, of course, all kinds of stuff may be happening, and having a wonderful time… but very distant from what you and I would call having a couple of drinks on the way home – maybe similar to the saloons of the Wild West? I’m pretty sure the Thais who are engaged with this kind of life style have accepted that they are in some strange way committed to a lineage of bad karma. I wrote a post about this: [Responsibility]. My own situation is that I’m part of a Thai family here and that’s how it’s been for the last 30 years so I learned a long time ago to go along with the Thai view, I study the Buddha’s Teachings and it’s totally OK with me…
Thank you for the note and the explanation, which is helpful. The older post definitely adds to my understanding of this as well. It is definitely an interesting mindset to ponder, but I can relate to one aspect of it quite strongly, which is the notion of having compassion for someone who is engaged in actions that are likely setting in motion a chain of difficult circumstances. Jesus teaches this in A Course in Miracles and a Course of Love as learning not to perceive anything whatsoever as an attack- but as a call for Love, a plea for help as it were. So, you stood outside the temple and were blatantly lied to, and the response of the local culture is to view this person with compassion- how difficult must their situation be to resort to this? It is a beautiful way of seeing. It implies a basic innocence that is clouded over by ignorance, which means the essential nature is “good”… A lovely thought to consider I think, if I have not misinterpreted your previous post.
Thank you Michael, I’m glad you were able to see it in this way and thanks too for the example from A Course in Miracles and a Course of Love. This is the situation exactly, and if they were to read this, the Thais would welcome you into their worldview. But in a sense it’s a predicament, with this level of compassion, it takes a very long time for things that are ‘wrong’ in Thai society to be corrected – I think the political situation is sourced in this. Who knows, the man outside the temple could still be there today? The police would chase him away if they see him, obviously but there’s an attitide of patient endurance (othon-khanti), shared by all of Thai society to a greater or lesser degree (applied also to tourists who get drunk outside hotels), and the man outside the temple is left to go on doing what he has to do until some change takes place in his karmic journey… it’s not all sweetness and light of course, but the intention is to find a balance, the Middle Way…
Now “there” is a concept to contemplate.
My/our conception of “unnecessary”.
Where does this contemplation take me/us?
Thanks for this. There’s a feeling of being comfortably detached from associated thoughts like ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ which are sometimes felt to be ‘necessary’. Contemplating “unnecessary” takes me to a place of calm easefulness where everything is as it is, and that’s okay…
Ah yes. So often we can fall into being like the child in the sweet shop who has passed from gazing at everything in wonder to wanting everything in sight. Hopefully she eventually reaches the level of disinterest, and even to regaining the state of wonder. Enjoy your Easter. Been pretty busy in past days, but have not forgotten the scans. Indeed the boxes are sat on my desk here as a reminder.
Thanks, I like the reference to ‘disinterest’ leading to ‘regaining the state of wonder’. Detachment; the whole story about greed and holding on to things is swept away. Thanks too for the scans and I’ll write separately about that.
Well, i believe too that the Buddhist way (any spiritual way indeed) shows us we must not become angry, talking in general terms. This is specially true when we become angry due to selfish reasons: “those foolish people don’t let me sleep!”, and so. But, we still can denounce bad behaviours in a impersonal way, without angry; when we see other person misbehaving, we can let them know it. Of course, we can receive angry in response, but, at least we tried. I think a person with quiet, peaceful mind, can try it. If he don’t, maybe is fear what stops him, and fear is not a recommendable way of life, except for protect us against physical damages of course. I wonder which is the reason for Thai people.
Thanks and yes, you’re right, it’s like ‘seeing’ it in such a way that it doesn’t become a personal thing. Not easy but I find I’m motivated to develop this skill, sometimes successful and sometimes not, on-going story, at least I’m trying. I’m sure this is how the Thais understand it, remembering of course it’s a cultural trait, they’ve been taught as children that this kind of attitude leads to Wisdom, this is how society works. I admire their ability to be strong with this…
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