POSTCARD#286: Chiang Mai: 04.30 hrs: Waves of coolness enter through wide open window, and air that’s almost as warm outside as it is inside, wraps itself around me like a thin light quilt on my shoulders. Soft and comfortable, gently quiet, no sounds disturbing conscious awareness. There’s an easy silence about this place, surrounded by trees near the foothills of the mountain rising up from the town to an elevation of 5,499 feet. This is what it feels like, sitting on the meditation cushion – I’d forgotten how simple it is, in this place, to fall into a contemplative state and the mind becomes still (samādhi).
Maybe it’s because at this time of the day, and all around us here, the monks are also sitting in quiet meditation, and everywhere in Thailand too, of course, as it is in a Buddhist country. Centuries of meditation, mindfulness and the quiet still mind of the monks has had an historical effect on the outer environment. This is still the Old World… or you could say simply that it’s just a gentle place, no extreme life-threatening weather conditions – except it does get hot in the hot season in the middle of the day. But then, sensible people have a nap in the afternoon, not exceptional, just sort of normal here.
I can’t rule out the fact that maybe this is simply me, a foreigner in Thailand, experiencing the easing away from the stress and dukkha of Northern Europe. Over there we don’t have so much of an awareness of metta, loving kindness – more like Greed, Hatred, Delusion (sounds like members of a Heavy Metal band?) means it’s warlike by comparison to Thailand.
People here are rural, humble folk, shoes off at the door, and everything is done quietly, with the family and the community and anybody passing by outside – including me, ‘Where are you going?’ someone asks and smiles pleasantly as I pass their door. A simple friendship we don’t have as a rule, in the West. ‘Going to the shop to buy things.’ I tell her. An understanding arising from mutuality; the shared experience of being alive. It’s this trusting quality that’s everywhere, all around. It says something about social behaviour, the Thai quietness.
That’s all well and good, the sceptics might say, but Chiang Mai is engaged with Western strategies of greed, and if Western consumerist greed can get a footing in Thai society, the evangelical aspect of it follows… worshipping a consumerist God. It will undermine existing systems, powered by right-wing fundamentalism and then you discover you have to buy your way into the halls and palaces of the Kingdom of the Consumerist God.
In these terms, you could say there’s almost no belief in God at all, here in Thailand, but there is a deep understanding of integrity… if it’s ethically good, it’s the right thing to do. If it’s thought to be ethically bad, or mai dii, no redeeming attributes and not good at all, it’ll create bad kamma – think superstition, ghosts – and it’ll be dropped immediately.
Straightforward, uncomplicated and what’s all the fuss about? On a certain level, the Thai expression, ‘don’t worry about it’, (‘mai pen rai’), and ‘there’s no problem’ (‘mai mi panha’), suggests there’s nothing impossibly difficult about this. But there has to be a profound understanding of ordinariness – the word is: dhammada: the dharma of everything. In everyday usage it just means that; ordinary.
In the West, the word ‘ordinary’ doesn’t have meaning for most of us, holding on, as we are, to a mild anxiety most of the time; the uneasy gnawing away at the innards, and ‘ordinary’ seems like something extraordinarily complex… we have to struggle for an understanding of it.
In Thailand, things are straightforward. You don’t feel ‘obliged’ to accept the consumerist way of life, disguised as a sort of social responsibility. For the Thais, that’s crazy! All your hard-earned income is going into the pockets of the corporations and the government taxation systems, isn’t that obvious? The economy works for the people, not the other way round. Even Thai politicians know that social responsibility is about how the population relate to one another in society, through kindness, generosity and compassion. There is Greed, of course but that’s just uneducated and plain weird.
Who knows, maybe there is something about the Thai reaction to the influence of consumerism – if it grows into a genuine social movement, TV and media dependent on advertising revenue will in some way see the wisdom of ‘downshifting’, a voluntary simplicity, in order to (at least) be seen as aligning with national opinion in this small country. It may be enough to swing the emphasis and change the direction from the way things are presently going in the Western world.
Present time feels like it’s not completely arrived, not quite yet becoming future time – as if held in that one long elongated moment before it all gets to where it should be going, but it doesn’t, and is replaced by a great nothingness that invades everything and it becomes something like a huge freshwater lake – small islands appear on the horizon…
‘… Restrict the role of advertising on the grounds that today much of it has become as bad for our psychological and spiritual health as tobacco is for our physical health.’ [David Loy, ‘Pave the Planet or Wear Shoes’]