????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????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]

Photo (Dreamstime): Anti-government demonstrator paints mask in the likeness of ex-PM Taksin


Bkktaxi4POSTCARD#45: Bangkok: The traffic is incredible – beyond credible, the French word incroyable comes to mind. I get in the taxi, tell the driver where I want to go and he sets off in exactly the opposite direction to where I’m going. Disconcerting… it’s like when you ignore the GPS and its voice keeps on telling you to: ‘please take the next U-turn where possible’. But doing a ‘u-ey’ (yooee, Aussie slang for U-turn) is no good when the whole city is one huge U-turn, interconnected with diversions and u-turns within u-turns. Diversion signs posted everywhere; alternative routes because this is the ‘Bangkok Shutdown.’ All roads leading to Thai Government Ministries are blocked by demonstrators… a protest campaign to force the government out of office before the February 2nd elections. A bit scary but no signs of violence here… I feel secure enough. Strange how the Thai population is able to accommodate these dangerous protests and life goes on pretty much as usual.

The taxi is now going along at walking speed through a crowded area. It’s the lunch hour, people rush out from offices and factories to get something to eat from the local traders. But there’s hardly any room, cars are occupying every space and there’s nowhere for pedestrians to walk. They filter through the flow of slow moving vehicles like water trickles through the stones and boulders in a stream. I try to get a good photo of it but it doesn’t make visual sense, everything is too close, I’d like to try making a cut-paper collage and paste pieces of images of traffic in a kind of jigsaw effect. Maybe it’s something I’ll do after this – at the moment I’m in this collage. I’m part of it, looking through the windscreen, past the passenger head-rest in front and seeing in between a building and a pedestrian footbridge overhead. Out there, there’s a small patch of blue sky, maybe 30 miles away and I can see a passenger jet ascending into the air.

I don’t know to what extent the government is really affected by these demonstrations; it’s the ordinary people who have to take the immediate pressure. But I’m a foreigner here and there’s all kinds of stuff I don’t understand. One thing I don’t understand is how everyone is able to keep their cool, no sounds of car horns at all; drivers maintain an outward calm. The Thai othon (khanti patient endurance), a Buddhist control of anger through the cultivation of mind, based on compassion for all living beings. But how does that sit with the fact that authority figures may be taking advantage of this willingness to comply. This putting-up-with-it thing is allowing all the political skullduggery to go on unchecked…

Bangkok celebrates Chinese New Year from 31st January (10% of the Thai population are of Chinese descent); a 15-day holiday period is coming up when people take time off to go around the city and upcountry visiting family members. How will the traffic be, I wonder. How about the Thai capacity to stay calm in difficult circumstances? Will the political leaders go on pushing until it explodes?

There’s a distinct feeling that, for the time being, everyone is just waiting quietly to see what will happen

‘In daily life we experience suffering more often than pleasure. If we are patient, in the sense of taking suffering voluntarily upon ourselves, even if we are not capable of doing this physically, then we will not lose our capacity for judgment. We should remember that if a situation cannot be changed, there is no point in worrying about it. If it can be changed, then there is no need to worry about it either, we should simply go about changing it.’ [The Dalai Lama]


patient understanding

IMG_0291POSTCARD #37: Chiang Mai/Hat Yai journey: The Chiang Mai flight to Hat Yai was discontinued just before our departure date, so the journey had to be made in two parts; the first flight to Bangkok the second to Hat Yai – a bit frustrating, yes, but that’s how my Western thinking can be fixated on the way things ‘should’ be, and not how they are. This is Thailand and no upset, just the sense that people were a tiny bit miffed about it. Then we discover the baggage can’t be checked through either, it means we have to collect everything from the luggage belt at Arrivals when we get to Bangkok then to Departures and check in again for the next flight. There were a lot of bags, and we had little M with us who is 9 years old and she’d have to be guided through the crowds safely. I felt I was beginning to lose it at that point but still no reaction from the others, just a kind of ‘no comment’ attitude and the sense of something being ‘held’.

I go along with the way everyone else is doing it; chai yen yen (keep a cool heart) chai ron mai dai (being angry is no good). Patient understanding, putting up with it quietly; othon, in Thai, it’s about accepting things as they are and not fuelling the fires. There’s a cultural tradition of this kind of inhibition of anger in public. It’s a big no-no. Why? Because when people really lose their cool they can go crazy. The word in Thai is baa, a kind of madness; political demonstrations with crowds running into a hail of bullets and not stopping until the cease-fire. So, we don’t want to go there. Thais have acquired the skill of abiding in the suppressed anger state so that the feeling can be allowed to pass and there’s sufficient clarity of mind to see what action can be taken.

We arrive at Bangkok, wait for the luggage at the belt, I get it all on to two trolleys, with little M sitting up on top of the bags and we make our way through the crowds to the elevator. Up to the second floor and enter through security and the baggage X-ray machines to the check-in desk again. There’s not much room and a large congestion of luggage trolleys. Tense pale faces, no anger, only the difficulty that people are having suppressing it. Sweat forming on the forehead, no expression, a tight smile when required, a mutual understanding and a calm appearance. Tread carefully, the fear of becoming angry makes the whole thing kinda fragile.

Recent political demonstrations highlighting the underhanded manipulative strategies that take advantage of this cultural quietness are an example of there being suddenly a legitimate reason for everything to go totally irrational. In this case, organised public protest against a Prime Minister who was put in place by a group of behind-the-scenes bad guys; a situation not unlike the period of George Dubya, the 43rd U.S. president. Both leaders were puppet-like, inarticulate, and the public fell into a kind of embarrassed silence; how can our leader appear to be so hopeless like this? This odd acceptance allowed the controlling group to manipulate events behind the facade. It was tolerated for a while due to the cultural ‘holding’ behaviour, then it exploded. These public protests pull things back into balance because Thais value peace. Anarchy and lawlessness are a scary alternative – almost like insanity. There will be stability, but only for a short time, it seems. Sadly, it’s likely to break out again. An impossible cycle…


We get on the next flight, take-off and up into the clear blue sky again; out there, where there are no problems, the beautiful great curvature of the Earth. One hour and fifteen minutes later we descend into Hat Yai. The outer arrivals section full of Thai muslims in colourful head scarves and matching costumes, children running around. Into the car and out on the great North/South highway that connects Thailand to Malaysia and all the way South to Singapore.

 “In essence, the process of division is a way of thinking about things that is convenient and useful mainly in the domain of practical, technical and functional activities (e.g., to divide up an area of land into different fields where various crops are to be grown). However, when this mode of thought is applied more broadly to man’s notion of himself and the whole world in which he lives (i.e. to his self-world view), then man ceases to regard the resulting divisions as merely useful or convenient and begins to see and experience himself and his world as actually constituted of separately existent fragments.” [David Bohm]

The David Bohm quote above comes from The Ptero Card Post: I Fall to Pieces
–   G   R   A   T   I   T   U   D   E   –
Upper photo: Don Muan airport Bangkok
Lower photo: part of the whistle-blowing anti-government demonstration passing through the Siam Paragon shopping area in Bangkok 

the holding-on habit

2012-06-01 17.46.31A village near Hat Yai: Sitting in the house with M, it’s been raining and the farmyard is a plethora of muddy things. M is inclined to stay indoors and that’s how it is today, a day of uncertainty, the catastrophe of failed projects, unfinished paper structures, and fooling around with the camera phone. M is tired with the stories in her 9 year-old world. Some excitement and interest when: clacka-clacka, the sound of the cow with the bamboo bell around its neck, energetically chomping the grass that grows around the house – all this thick lush grass in the wetness. The other cows, four altogether, have been brought home because it’s the end of the day and soon they’ll be herded into the cowshed and closed in for the night. I ask M if she’d like to go out? We can get the big umbrella and go look at the cows? But this is not a good question to ask right now.

Complex emotions, M is suffering a disappointment. We took her to the bookshop in town. There was a book about science with a ‘SUPER SCIENCE KIT’ in a large box that went with it. The thing is, it was really too advanced for M but she became convinced she had to have it. So we got it, came back to the house and I started to look at the instructions. Opening the box and assembling the pieces of the kit, test tubes and small pieces of plastic equipment – all that goes okay, but following the instructions to carry out the experiments, has no meaning for her. She simply doesn’t know where to begin and I can’t explain because of our limited communication. She tries to enter a created story with a ‘pretend’ thing but science doesn’t work like that. Somebody thoughtfully removes the difficult SUPER SCIENCE KIT and all that can be done now is damage repair. M is quiet. I ask her if there’s anything I can do, and she says, ‘… no, is OK, Toong-Ting.’ (Toong-Ting is M’s pet name for me.) I suggest we read a book or play with the iPad… then I remember there’s no Internet and some of her apps don’t work. That’s part of the problem. ‘No, Toong-Ting, is OK,’ she says.

So I sit with her, everything is dull and meaningless – I can feel it too. M makes small, whimpering sounds like her digital kittens on the iPad. She’s holding my arm, cuddled up in a small ball next to me, eyes closed and face hidden away, struggling with the uncertainty of her world. Thai children are taught othon [khanti] patient endurance – or it could be an inherited character trait. I don’t have any children of my own, so no experience; having M in my world is an opportunity for me to learn. What I notice is, there are no tears or tantrums that I’d expect (from Western children). Here, it’s more like a locked-in holding. I’m available, ready to support, but I can’t do much to divert her attention. It’s the holding-on habit and what this is about is just allowing for these moments of not knowing that we’ve all got to get through, somehow, and the uncomfortable feelings that go with it. Just letting them go…

I’m affected by the mood, it’s really tense, but can sit quietly without making a ‘thing’ out of it. The self is a sensory experience. The experiencer is itself an experience. Consciousness is the sensory organ of the void. There can be nothing separate from this, except the ability to think about things. The question, then, is: what is thought? And thinking about thought, itself, leads only to the empty space where the question used to be…

Some time after that somebody finds a small bottle of food colouring in the kitchen and I show M what happens when you put a tiny drop of it into a test tube of clear water. The violet colour is like a tendril of descending smoke curling around the inside of the test tube and her whole attention is focused on this extraordinary event; the world is opening up again… wow! how to develop this? The uncertainty of the moment has vanished and suddenly everything seems full of wonderful choices….



‘What effort should I make? Should I do something about this situation or simply watch my mind?’ Such moments of not-knowing are precious. Uncertainty does not have to be seen as failing. In fact we might lose something important if we are in a hurry to push past it. The actuality is I don’t know what to do and there is not necessarily any fault in that. If, however, I’m completely caught in the momentum of wanting to escape suffering, I may miss the truth of the situation, as it is, and learn from it. With the confidence that comes from our commitment to precepts we can afford to trust in being patient and aware of ‘not-knowing’, and the uncomfortable feelings that come with it. Feel the force of the momentum of wanting to get away from it, to ‘solve it’; stubbornly refuse to be drawn along. We can experiment with waiting until the feeling of being driven subsides and quietly listen to what intuition suggests we could do.’ [Ajahn Munindo, Dhammapada v. 276]

 [Note: There are references here to, ‘the experiencer is itself an experience’, taken from an Internet source I can no longer find. If anyone knows the origin of it, please let me know, thank you!]
Upper Photo: My pic of M taking a photo of me. Lower photo: The cows coming home

A Sea of People

Bangkok: I arrived at Don Mueang aiport, Sunday 28 October, unusually busy; three or more flights arriving at the same time. Through the exit marked TAXIS, out to the street area and about five hundred people are waiting for taxis; wow! Everything in Bangkok is on such a huge scale. It was the last day of the school holidays so families were returning from the provinces to the city. It looked like it was going to be a long wait, but it wasn’t bad, very well handled, airport officials steering this great sea of people into lines, no problem. And lined up on the other side of the crowd barrier was a virtual convoy of waiting taxis, four lanes wide and stretching back as far as the eye could see.

But the initial reaction is frustration, of course. I’d just arrived from Ch’mai and that small town thing where there’s less of the kind of situation that invites you to get engaged, upset about it and thus vent your spleen. I’m saying this because a part of me wasn’t ready to have a frustrating situation like this, but that’s the thing about frustrating situations, they just come along when you least expect it and there you are, same old story. Interesting to see how fast the energy of aversion arises and you’re locked into an immediate response; struggling with ‘self’ among all the other ‘selves’ – ‘me’ first, ‘me’ first, all trying to get a taxi before there are no taxis left and I’m reminded of a Bob Dylan line: ‘… tryin’ to get to Heaven before they close the door…’ Seeing it in this way means thank goodness there’s mindfulness and an opportunity to bring what I know from the Thai othon (patient endurance) to conscious awareness and immediately there’s a small space in the mind and it’s a bit easier to take. These are the teachings I’ve absorbed from the Ajahns; there’s also uppekha (equanimity) in there somewhere and the fact that this is what life is about; the ups and downs of it and the Eight Worldly Dhammas

Deep breaths… and contemplating the value of standing meditation. I’m in one of three very long lines of people with trolleys and pulling wheeled luggage but no jostling, no push-and-shove; well-behaved, and the Thais are calm. So I get calm too. I realize that what the frustration is about is not being able to see what’s going on – the limitations of our human physicality? All I can see are the backs of people’s heads and I’m moving my head from side to side, trying to see past all the other heads down there to the taxi kiosk at the end of the line, very far away. What’s going on down there? But all the other heads are doing the same thing and my line of vision is obscured by somebody else’s head, moving from side to side because the head in front of him is in the way. Moving my head like this probably causes other heads behind me to have to do the same thing. And there’s a consciousness of this.

Curious and interesting, hundreds of wobbling heads; the face is on the front and there are no sensory receptors on the back, no rear-view mirror either but it’s a possibility? All sensory data is received in the front and ears on the sides. Seeing the back of someone’s head is like looking at a closed-door, so there is a natural tendency to want to get around to the other side see the face. No, can’t do that kind of thing in a line waiting for taxis; we just have to switch off the ‘search’ function and allow things to happen. There’s an Alan Watts observation about it being like the headlight of a car. ‘The headlight illumines the road in front but does not shine on the wiring that connects it with the battery, and the battery with the engine. And so, we are not ordinarily aware of how we are aware.’ [Zen and the Beat Way, Alan Watts]

I got a taxi okay, no problem, and it was a lady driver, Khun Siripon, which was nice because there’s never any hassle with a lady taxi driver, thank you Khun Siripon! When we got to the house, I paid the fare, gave her quite a large tip and she turned round to look at me, face-to-face and the wai she gave in response was so respectful, I was humbled. Amazing.

I was going to write something else about Douglas Harding, ‘On Having No Head’ but that’ll have to be done some other time.