Thailand may be infected with the vices of mankind, but the Buddhist influence has imbued its citizens with a greater acceptance of the world and our place in it.
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in June 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
BANGKOK — Before I moved to Thailand I was most intrigued with the idea of living in a country whose population is 90 percent Buddhist. I had preconceived notions of how a nation that follows a peaceful religious philosophy might operate. Would compassion, patience and wisdom be defining characteristics of this small Kingdom on the Pacific Rim? I hoped.
Early on it was nice to see outward signs of religiosity: saffron-swathed monks walking everywhere in the city, wats (Buddhist temples) on every block, chedis dotting the rural landscape, spirit houses (where the spirits reside so they won’t live with you in your home) outside every building. The traditional greeting of the wai (bow) is an acknowledgement of the Buddha nature in all of us. There is one wat for every 2,000 Thais and at any one time there are nearly half a million monks in this country the size of Texas. For a time, these sights and facts were enough to satisfy my expectations.
But soon the rose-colored hue faded to gray. It turns out that many young Thais are sent to the monk-hood whether they like it or not, so it’s not uncommon for a young man in his traditional robe to be smoking a cigarette or playing Nintendo inside the monastery. I thought Thais would be largely vegetarians as the choice seems obvious for Buddhists striving to end suffering, but Thais love their squid, roast fish, scorpions, grilled pork, shrimp and the innards of almost any animal and employ Muslims and other non-Buddhists as butchers so they themselves don’t bear the weight of the bad karma. I’ve found that Thais can sometimes be racist and while often friendly, sometimes rude to non-Thais. Many Thai politicians and police are corrupt, many Thai men frequent prostitutes or have mistresses, drug use is rampant, and many have a hands-off attitude toward the suffering of hill tribe villagers in the north and the sick and dying animals on their streets.
This is not to say that the citizens of every other nation in the world don’t make the same transgressions, if not worse. The only thing that is different in terms of Thailand was my expectations. It’s somehow more disappointing when the honor roll student gets mixed up in drugs, than when the class bully does.
The realities of a flawed society in a Buddhist country have made me cynical. I don’t know why I should expect Thailand to be a nation of compassion any more than I should expect Americans to be a nation of Christians or India to follow the pacifist philosophy of Gandhi, or the Japanese to be Zen about everything. Thailand is limited by the same constraints all nations are: the limitations and fallibility of humans in general. If I’m disappointed in the gap between what Thais profess and how they act, I’m going to be disappointed everywhere.
But if you take as inevitable the corrupting influence human nature has on any religion, anywhere in the world, then the flaws evident in Thai society are no reflection on their religion. Perhaps the impact of Buddhism is not the social revolution I was hoping for but something more subtle.
There must be some cumulative effect on Thai people from the daily and ubiquitous reminders of their Buddhist traditions. After all, this is a nation in which the king is required to be, according to law, Buddhist. A country where nearly every major holiday is Buddhism-related. Thais are surrounded by images of the Buddha and are taught the Buddhist Dhamma (Doctrine) as school children; they get monks to bless children, weddings, homes, and cars; they pray and meditate at the wats regularly; and they make offerings of fruit and flowers at shrines and temples, deliver food to monks at dawn, and give money to the homeless, all in the name of tam bun (merit making).
I was sitting in Starbucks (I know, but it’s one of the few smoke-free places in Bangkok where you can sit with a coffee) writing in my journal about this dichotomy when a middle-aged German man sat next to me and started chatting me up. Oh no, I thought, it’s the people who want to talk who always have the least to say. I was polite but not engaging and he was persistent but not rude. He wanted to know my opinions about Thailand because he was debating moving here from the United States permanently after having visited the Kingdom on and off for the last few years.
I told him that I liked the country and thought it beautiful and its people very friendly but that I was disappointed with what I perceived to be a lack of depth in society. I told him about my preconceived idealism of a Buddhist country and my sadness to see the picture fade. He listened carefully and said he understood what I was talking about but that he felt I was missing something in my analysis.
He felt that the major difference between my culture and Thai culture was not just that Westerners are often loud and direct and Thais are often quiet and indirect (which is quite true) but that Thais have something Westerners don’t. They have a firmer understanding of how the world works and their position in it. Americans, he said, are always trying to figure out their place in society and struggling with how to behave and think. It was his feeling that the Thais don’t go looking for those things because they start with that firmly in place. What I had described as shallowness, he describes as a lack of needing to be introspective or striving. In other words, you don’t need to go searching for the answers if you’re given them at birth.
An American friend of mine who has spent the last 10 months working at a Thai development organization said there was something to that perspective. In his office, he said with a laugh, no one is trying to become the director of the organization, no one is striving for something better. And while that is the antithesis of the “American dream” consciousness and work ethic, it’s not necessarily unwise. To be in constant search for the stuff that you (often falsely) believe will make you happy means you never are happy. To find satisfaction with how things are right now means to be perpetually content. And undoubtedly Thais are closer to that philosophy than Westerners.
There are certain Thai phrases that reflect this philosophy. Mai pen rai (it doesn’t matter). The phrase is used often when there’s any small problem and is used as a response to expressions of thanks. Sanuk (fun). If something is sanuk, it’s always worth doing; sanuk is the goal of work and play. Aray goday (whatever). You want one thing and they don’t have it, you say “array goday,” I’ll take whatever you have.
Thais seem to have their houses built on bedrock and we have ours built on sand. We can point to their houses and find things we don’t like and think our houses superior in construction or aesthetics, but in the end, it seems, our houses could be more likely to sink. Thailand is Buddhist simply because the Thai paradigm is one of compassion and enlightenment, just as Judeo-Christian cultures have the Golden Rule and the Commandments. Whether anyone actually follows these precepts are not, they will have an influence, even if it’s subtle, as it leaks in the minds of a people.
Yes, Thailand is infected with the vices of mankind and suffers from its weaknesses. But the Buddhist influence has imbued its citizens, and now me, with a greater acceptance of the world and our place in it, the value of enjoying yourself whatever the circumstance, and the flexibility to roll with the punches that the world throws you.