December 31, 1984At Chris's apartment, while we are awaiting the stroke of midnight, he celebrates the festive season by attacking me unmercifully for the last twenty years of America's foreign and military policy. (Since he was born in white South Africa --- I have long ago exhausted my attacks on him on the doltish domestic policies of his homeland. Indeed, he left home because of the ugliness of apartheid.)
His lecture this evening is reserved for the dumping of American bombs in the paddies of Laos, in the last days of the Viet Nam war, maiming and destroying children, mothers, infants: a cruelty on (what he calls) "the land of some of the sweetest people in the world." While he is about it, he berates me for Reagan's vetoing any and all projects that his international bank might come up with which could extend and strengthen America's foreign policy without military intervention.
Now Chris is smart enough, when he launches a logical attack on me and my country, to lace me with a soporific disguised as Thai wine. I am scarcely able to keep my eyes open, much less defend the entire United States SouthEast Asia foreign policies of the last four administrations over the last twenty years. Fortunately, just as we are joining battle over the SEATO treaty of 1948, Clause Three, Paragraph Two, we are knocked out of our seatos by a gigantic explosion which I figured to be the Thai anti-American activists at last discovering my whereabouts.
In reality, it's the stroke of midnight, giving me a stroke as the Hotel Bangkok Peninsula, next door, sets off sparklers, bombs, giant blue-and-white streamers, bangs and whistles, all sent way into the sky. Fortunately, Sky for them means about fifteen stories above ground level, and since we are at that exact level, Chris' apartment becomes the perfect place to watch fireworks head-on. I have seen many a fireworks show in it my day, but I had never had them come up to me for my direct approval. I imagine it is not unlike being right in the middle of the Second Battle of the Somme. It does serve to keep me awake, but even more, it shuts Chris up, keeps him from nattering away on how the American bombs and chemicals have virtually destroyed the paddies of Laos, had scarred and maimed "the kindest people you'd ever want to meet in South East Asia."
We stay with the fireworks as long as we are able. Then Adela and I take our earaches and depart. Chris vows a Oxfordian Debate rematch, tomorrow night, at "Chez Jean La Grenoville." Adela translates the restaurant's name as "The Guitar Duck..."
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1 January 1985Adela and I spend two hours at the Bangkok Zoo. She says no matter where you go in the world, go to the local zoo --- you will see things there that will surprise and amaze you. She's right: in the zoo in Madras, we saw a dozen or so starving animals, and three elephants with leprosy. At the Bangkok Zoo we see 10,000 Thais out having a good time. These folk are everyone's dream of friendly, kind, respectful prople who will help you if you want, and will leave you alone if you want. Adela claims it has to do with the Buddhist traditions of inner peace --- honoring all humans, gentleness. What better way to see the real Thailand! We see no more than a handful of tourists, spend our day among the beautiful thin-nosed, high-cheeked, light olive-complected Thais. And the great food: stir-fry meats, fruits, oriental waffles.
From the zoo we go to the Wat Fra Keo --- the holy grounds of the king of Thailand. What is to be said that hasn't been said before? It is a dream shrine. It is bigger than I ever imagined. The juxtapositions of the spires, and the dragon's points, and the horns, and the smooth, breast-like cupolas. All overlaid with a gold-leaf that pulsates in the sky-blue. A complex of complex spires, and edifices, and gold (and silver) roofs, and bells, and saffron-dressed monks, and wall paintings, and golden Buddhas.
I think about the residuum of Christianity: the holy artifacts and cathedrals of Europe. The effect of them is always to brutalize with sheer massiveness --- a construction of dark and heavy blocks of granite. The Wat, by contrast, is a lively and joyful interplay of gold and silver and bright colors, the play of the senses with patterns in the sky, catching the fights in a thousand different ways. European cathedrals --- with their dark and cold and harsh interiors, catch one by one's fear. The wat --- with its riot of colors and smells and wind-chimes --- catches one in the passion: it bespeaks a religion with a sense of joy and fun, a religion that can take itself seriously or not --- whenever and however it chooses.
The primary symbol of Christianity is a gaunt man with huge spikes driven into his hands and feet. A man with a wasted face, with blood leaking from head and side and the joints from which he is hanging. Coarse wood driven into his extremities, flesh and bones crushed: the tortured corpse of a man tortured and mounted on cross-purpose stanchions.
The vision of our god hung up like a piece of meat (which must be why they call him "the Lamb") is at once strange and barbarous. That people should worship before the crossed timbers on which his body was brutalized is almost as bizarre as our abasing ourselves before a noose or an electric chair. What kind of a society can we run, what sort of peace can there be in a state religion which uses such blood-stained objects as its highest artifacts? There is a particular guilt-driven cruelty in martyrdom (in any form: a suffering mother, a dying god.) That we idolise such martyrdom does incalculable harm to our capacity for love and sweetness.
The contrast with Buddhism is startling. There, the master figure is huge and pacific, often smiling. His eyes are veiled; he is sometimes even shown in the reclining position (can you envision Jesus on his side, resting, with a beatific smile playing across his lips?) The message is one of inner quiet, peace gleaned not from battling with the changers in the temple or the Romans, but from exploring the gentleness within. At one point in his life, Buddha gave himself hunger and pain and suffering, and learned that hunger and pain and suffering are not the answer: rather, he found, the answer is in the soul within, the soul which lies gentle and non-blaming, the glolden heart that courses through all of us, when we permit it.
Adela and I notice that there are very few pigeons at the wat. Our guide says it is because of the sticky powder that the monks use to prevent the birds from landing. I think he just doesn't know. Pigeons know where the real holies are at. They'll hang out at (and poop all over) St. Peter's and Westminster and St. Patrick's and San Sebastian and Notre Dame --- but not the Wat Pho. "It's just like I told you," I tell her: 'The Buddhists come back as hummingbirds and monarch butterflies and doves --- while Christians are stuck with returning again and again as fleas and Norway rats and Black Widow spiders and messy, colorless pigeons.From The Blob That Ate Oaxaca