Catholic or Buddhist?




I grew up Catholic, baptized shortly after birth, educated in Catholic schools until I was eighteen, first by nuns, then by Jesuits. Our neighborhood revolved around the parish church and school. In St. Louis, people would judge your social class by your parish. “She’s from Our Lady of Lourdes.” Oh, that speaks volumes.


Now I live in Thailand, and here in Chiang Mai, Buddhist temples are even more omnipresent and important to the community than were Catholic churches when I was a boy. All directions are given regarding the nearest temple. Fundraising parties that last five full days abound. There’s literally a  temple every half mile in all directions. The first morning sounds I hear through our perpetually open windows are the gentle gongs of  monks walking down lanes, seeking alms.


There are school classrooms attached to many temples, but most education is done in public schools. Uniforms are compulsory here, up through University level. Thais love uniforms. Even employees of companies wear uniforms. Nurses wear nurse uniforms like we used to have in America before about 1960. Boy and girl scout uniforms abound.


Conformity is not frowned upon in Southeast Asia. There’s an Asian expression, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” I chafed under the regulations that demanded I wear a uniform for the first eight years of schooling, but here I take comfort seeing students in uniforms.. It reminds me of home. I remember having the same feeling when I went to Ireland in 1971. I saw Dublin school girls waiting for a bus who were wearing the same color skirt and blouse the girls wore back at our Lady of Lourdes, in St. Louis.


Do What You Want, Have Fun



The things that are worth caring about and striving for don’t have to do with fads or whatever happens to be the current topic of conversation. Those constructs are largely illusory anyway. Most of the buzz on the street is no more than traffic noise.


George Orwell defined journalism as “writing something that somebody doesn’t want to see printed. All the rest is public relations.” Most of the messages we see are advertising, calls to shop. If we don’t want to fill our time with shopping, we’ll have to find something else with which to occupy ourselves. As you can see, I’ve gone to great lengths not to end that last sentence with a conjunction.


I enjoy writing both because I think I’m pretty good at it, and because I think I have something to say. Many people find writing a tedious activity and have little to say. I’m always happy when these people don’t write. After years of reading English Composition essays at the college level, I think there is no more tortuous activity that reading a commenting on the writing of someone who didn’t want to write in the first place.


One of the biggest disservices schooling provides is to demand that people learn to do things for which they have even less aptitude than interest. Even if they do manage to struggle through some required course work, they will never have any fun doing so, nor will anyone else enjoy the outcome. It will be purgatory on Earth, hoping for a payoff in the Great Beyond. This is folly, a transparent hoax, a confidence game to justify the existence of schools.


People should do things they enjoy, and in doing so they might please both themselves and others. Why this simple concept has eluded us for the last couple of centuries is a real mystery. The notion of mandatory public schooling probably comes from Northern European capitalism and the desire to train a compliant workforce.


Enforced Conformity

Thailand has no artistic avant garde. The longer I stay here, the more I realize it is impossible even to imagine one. Respect and outright reverence for authority make it impossible to react against cultural icons and institutions. There’s only one kind of getting goofy or zany that Thais can tolerate, and that’s when the fat guy with big glasses in movies and TV shows farts or falls down. Everything else has to be either cute, pretty or dignified.

I taught at the biggest state university in Bangkok. One day, on my way to class, I saw what appeared to be a student demonstration on the front lawn. Thai students, all in uniform, were holding cardboard posters on which they had written something in Thai. Standing at attention in the hot sun, they held their posters in front of them, while a faculty member spoke through a megaphone, giving them instruction. This, I realized, was the Thai version of a student demonstration!

Education here prepares students for what is essentially a feudal state. You take your place in a system that supports and celebrates a strict hierarchy. If you know and keep your place, you are guaranteed security. Buddhism teaches you to accept your lot in life because it is your karma.  Thai education teaches you to follow orders and not talk back.

Nobody ever gets fired here. Those on the outs are simply transferred to an inactive posting. That means they still get paid and enjoy all the perks of their job, but no longer have to make any pretense of doing anything.

Thais are big into uniforms. Nurses, policemen,monks, students, boy and girl scouts, all wear uniforms with great attention to detail. A boy scout doesn’t wear just part of his uniform, he has every pin and ribbon in the right place. In a way, it reminds me of 1950’s America, when nurses still looked like nurses and nuns like nuns.