"thanks for the sacred art & poetry, Patrick & Wulf. Teri, your poetry has a strong impact. as is often the case, I learned some new words from Patrick....especially,
Om Mani Peme Hum (I've heard it chanted in the deepest of voices…"
no in and amitabha
comes to embrace you
parting five-colored clouds
buddha of endless light
not this light
not out there not other
not you or yours either
the big bang exhaling
no land not…"
"There are all kinds of people on Trike. i think, generally, the best is to be receptive and open (and patient!) and non-antagonistic. Then people open to you. If you mock, they won't.
Some people speak openly of some experience they had (have).…"
You didn't say anything harsh or harmful so far as I'm concerned. And I was not trying to hit out at others either. I was beginning to get the impression however that some of you were getting a bit uppity. Nancy in particular…"
Protest leader turned monk Suthep Thaugsuban prays at Pathum Wanaram temple in Bangkok, March 2014.
Telegenic tanks rolled into Bangkok. Soldiers evacuated protest encampments. The coup, declared on May 22, 2014, put an end to the demonstrations that had embroiled Thailand for six months. During that period, Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader, became the country’s most visible and controversial figure. Then, suddenly and inexplicably, he disappeared.
In a ceremony devoid of pomp and circumstance, he quietly became a Buddhist monk.
After so many days in the middle of unrelenting turmoil, Suthep wouldn’t have surprised anyone if he’d chosen from the standard means of high-profile political respite—a beach vacation, perhaps, or a choreographed trip to his hometown. But this choice to become a monk was downright strange. The decision’s seeming incongruity reflects a contradiction at the center of Thai civic life, which sets the recurring instability of its political institutions against a backdrop of perennially steady religious ones.
The protests that precipitated the coup focused primarily on corruption—a very real and significant problem for the Thai political system. Suthep’s participation in the outcry was deeply ironic, however, as he had been dogged by charges of corruption for much of his political career. Most notably, Wikileaks cables revealed that members of Suthep’s own party complained privately about his “corrupt and unethical behavior,” describing him as a “backroom dealmaker.”
Nevertheless, his protests proved masterful stagecraft. They convincingly linked prominent issues in Thai society, like a failed rice subsidy program and the nation’s growing debt, to an imagined national consensus, while concealing the wealthy and powerful interests that supported Suthep and his activities. Ultimately, the protests brought about a transfer of power.
Nominally neutral, the resulting military junta rules to this day and is largely perceived to be following the agenda of Suthep’s protest movement. Suthep, after all, had called directly for the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, by coup if necessary. He also claimed to have had discussions with Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the military regime, before the coup took place. But Prayuth reportedly then told Suthep to quiet down about their relationship. Suthep was ordained a few weeks later, on July 15, vanishing as quietly as a leading Thai politician can.
Granted, Thais—over 90 percent of whom are Buddhist—consider it an obligation for men to seek ordination as novice monks for at least a short period of time. Whether motivated by a desire to make merit for their parents, an interest in Buddhist teachings, or an opportunity to attend school through the monastic education system, Thai men can serve as monks for anywhere between a few weeks to a lifetime. When he was a young man, Suthep was himself ordained, and remained a monk for over a month.
Increasingly, though, the monastery has become the province of poor and rural Thais; well-educated professionals are far less likely to seek ordination. This trend makes Suthep’s foray into monastic life all the more surprising.
Did ordination simply provide Suthep an effective means by which to heed general Prayuth’s suggestion? Or was something else afoot?
Suthep said that he sought ordination in order to honor the 24 people killed over the course of last year’s protests. This type of ordination, to make merit for the dead, has long been common in Thailand and other Buddhist societies. He also stated that he wanted to be a monk for 205 days in order to mirror the length of the protests. Suthep has now been a monk for 311 days, though he recently announced his intention to someday disrobe.
As for public perception, Thais’ explanations for Suthep’s ordination generally reflect their own political positions. One friend, a tepid supporter of the protests, told me that he thinks Suthep was ordained because he needed a rest after the movement. A monk from Chiang Mai, the birthplace of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, said he thinks that Suthep was ordained to avoid getting killed. Another monk suggested that perhaps Suthep had made a vow to seek ordination if he survived or won the political standoff.
While entirely possible, these hypotheses omit important legal considerations. Since many Thais believe that Buddhism is beyond reproach, the religion provides ready cover for a monastic’s past trouble with the law.
Suthep faces malfeasance and abuse of authority charges that stem from his role in ordering a government crackdown on protesters in 2010, when he was the Deputy Prime Minister. Although Suthep is currently being prosecuted, no one—police officers included—wants to lay his or her hands on a monk for fear that it could constitute an offense with long-lasting karmic consequences.
Given the criticism from Gen. Prayuth, mid-June was a politically conspicuous time for Suthep to go underground. In this respect, he joins a little-known line of Thai politicians who have quietly sought escape from intrigue by entering the monkhood. In doing so, they take advantage of the prevailing, if problematic, notion that the Sangha is above politics. Most Thais understand that the national sangha has been affected by the nation’s divisive political dynamics. But, even so, many still presume that there are more good monks than bad, and that by entering the sangha even a bad person becomes better.
Thus, regardless of Suthep’s sincerity in taking refuge in the three jewels, he has gained refuge from the three poisons of political life: bad press, legal trouble, and ostracism from power. And while his questionable intentions may not accrue him much merit, they have certainly accrued him time, which he can use to determine his next move. If the past is any indication, that could be just about anything.
Thomas Borchert is an associate professor of the religions of East and Southeast Asia at the University of Vermont.
In the West, there are many who approach Buddhism primarily intellectually. In the East, many approach it primarily as a tradition—part of their cultural heritage. Yes, Buddhism contains immensely profound and complex intellectual information. Yes, it is an important cultural tradition in many Eastern civilizations. However, Buddhism’s true gift is that it teaches us to learn and experience the true characteristics and the nature of our mind and the world, as they are. Through meditations like those on lovingkindness, compassion, devotion, and wisdom, Buddhism trains us to improve our mind in how we think, communicate, and act with others and the external world. If our mind becomes wholesome, then our vocal and physical activities will become sources of peace and benefit for ourselves and others. This life will be happier, as will the next. Ultimately, through proper meditation, we will be liberated from the suffering of samsara.
No matter how much we study the texts, we need to be mindful of our karma in order to progress. We must stay away from unvirtuous acts and thoughts. But we shouldn’t fritter away our lives by engaging only in neutral karmas. Instead, we should exert ourselves in virtuous karmas such as prayer and service.
Some meditators choose to remain in the absence of awareness. In my experience, these are usually well-educated, high-status achievers. They are often so busy burning both ends of the candle in order to advance their worldly position that they even dream about earning at night. So, understandably, they feel a tremendous sense of relief when someone instructs them, “Just rest in the absence of thoughts.” At last, they can quiet down and let go of their busyness! And since the instruction to do so is given to them by someone whom they consider to be an authority on meditation, they don’t have to feel guilty about slowing down. They are told that doing this is good for their health and mental state. So for these fatigued individuals, having permission to rest without thoughts is new and exciting, something they have rarely tasted.
In reality, however, this meditation experience is a neutral state. Most of these people are simply taking a break while still in the middle of mundane traffic, still in the hub of ordinary karmic and mental habitual settings—without having purified, refined, or transcended their mental and emotional afflictions. So when they come out of that break, that trance, they find themselves back at square one, with the same old mundane dilemmas and habits awaiting them. It is like waking up from a wonderful dream only to find oneself back in reality.
Nevertheless, remaining in neutral thoughts and activities is better than spending one’s life in evil thoughts and deeds, which will cause grave pain. However, spending one’s life in a neutral state is a big waste of the great potential of our most precious human life.
According to Buddhist teachings, the karmic result of remaining in a neutral state, the mere absence of thoughts, is rebirth in the animal, form, or formless realms. We go to the animal realm if our mental habit was ignorance and stupidity. This realm is marked by violence and fear.
We take rebirth in the formless realms if our habitual thought patterns were marked by ideas like “Space is infinite,” “Consciousness is infinite,” “There is nothing,” or “There is no perception and no absence of perception.” Each of these four thought patterns leads to rebirth in a different subdivision of the formless realms, depending on which subdivision best reflects our habits. For instance, having a habit of thinking “Space is infinite” lands us in the subdivision called “infinite space.” In the formless realm, we don’t have gross bodies or forms. We don’t have gross thoughts or emotions. This is due to the past experience of remaining in the absence of thoughts and absence of awareness.
Absorption in the formless realm can last for eons. Eventually, however, it ends. And when it does, we continue from where we left off—returning to our old thoughts and emotions, and experiencing the results of our other positive or negative past karmas. So taking rebirth in the formless realms is a break, a limbo, but with no merits. It is a diversion from the path of liberation, as there is no awakening of the wisdom of intrinsic awareness or discriminative wisdom. That is why Longchen Rabjam laments for those meditators who value remaining in the absence of thoughts:
Alas! These animal-like meditators, By stopping the perceptions, they remain without any thought. Calling this the absolute nature, they become proud. If they gain experience in such a state, they will take rebirth in the animal realm. Even if they don’t gain much experience in it, they will take rebirth in the form or formless realms. They will have no opportunity to get liberation from samsara.
As long as we make no effort to transform the mind, we cannot escape the ordinary state of grasping tightly at mental objects—dualistically, emotionally, and sensorily. A merely neutral state in which concepts are temporarily suspended won’t help us progress. As soon as we go back to having concepts again, we will return to the ordinary state of grasping we had before. It is like waking up from the escapism of deep sleep, only to find that the same mundane problems await us.
Tulku Thondup was born in Golok, East Tibet, where he was recognized as the reincarnation of Khenpo Konchog Dronme, a renowned scholar at the Dodrupchen Monastery, an educational institution of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. He currently lives and writes in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Buddhist leaders gather in the White House on May 14 for a meeting with government officials.
Last Thursday 125 prominent Buddhist figures from a range of traditions gathered in Washington, DC, for the first meeting between White House and State Department officials and Buddhist faith groups. Teachers from the Sinhalese, Cambodian, Burmese, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, and Thai Buddhist lineages attended, as well as scholars, activists, and leaders of convert groups who do not affiliate with any one particular Asian school.
It was an impressive display of American Buddhist diversity. It was also a reminder that this diversity has perhaps been a barrier to unified American Buddhist social action.
"Are we about to enter the era of the political Buddhist?" Michelle Boorstein asks in the Washington Post. She goes on to note that "…until recent years [US Buddhists] haven't considered or focused specifically on how their Buddhism translates into public action."
This isn't strictly true. The Bay area–based Buddhist Peace Fellowship has been engaging in nonviolent peace and justice efforts since 1978; the US branch of the Taiwanese Tzu Chi Foundation, which focuses on global medicine and educational issues, was established in 1984. And these are just two examples. Even in the early 1900s, Japanese-American Buddhists were petitioning the US government for equal rights as well as striking for fair pay and better working conditions.
This is not to say, however, that Boorstein doesn't have a point, although perhaps one that is slightly different from the one she intended. The American Buddhist landscape is full of people who use their Buddhist values and understanding as both a grounding foundation and an inspiring springboard for public action. (Consider our work in chaplaincy, hospice care, the prison industrial complex, minority rights, labor organizing, and many other fields.) But rarely does American Buddhism present a unified front on a particular issue. And I cannot think of a time when we have galvanized our full strength in numbers to effect change under a shared vision.
Why is this the case? It's certainly not for a lack of agreement among us on what pressing issues deserve our time and attention. If Thursday's conference was any evidence, American Buddhists are responding most urgently to climate change and racial justice (although other matters, including the Buddhist-led persecution of Rohingya Muslims, were addressed both by the Buddhist attendees and White House representatives).
I've read and heard many say that it's simply a maturation process American Buddhism must undergo before it reaches the stage where its adherents can organize as effectively as other faith traditions in the US have. I don't think this is unfair to say, although Buddhism has been flourishing in the US since the late 1800s.
The biggest reason I think we're so behind is rooted in a complex history, but it is simple in principle: we've done a poor job of reaching out across our communities, especially across the immigrant/convert community divide that only recently has begun to dissolve. We’ve also failed to reach out beyond our communities to join in common cause with other faith traditions, in order to accomplish change that might be beyond our own means as an American minority faith. Pointing this out, I should say, is not to lay blame upon anyone. Rather, it is an invitation for American Buddhists to work together on the issues that our society faces, and in doing so, create our own unapologetically powerful and persuasive voice.
Thursday's meeting was billed as "historic"—and it was. But it would have been even if the White House hadn’t been involved. It was the best attempt I've seen to bring together the full range of the Buddhist groups in the US, and to accurately represent American Buddhism as a whole.
Jack Kornfield spoke in his closing address about the idea, perhaps internalized by some of us, that Buddhists are passive. But he also reminded us that social action has been the work of Buddhism since the time of the Buddha, who in his life counseled kings on matters of the day. (That would be like Obama inviting the Buddha to the Oval Office, he said, and actually drafting policy based on their discussion.) These days we do see religion affecting policy decisions, often in damaging ways. But that’s not an argument not to be involved; it’s an argument for it. Otherwise we are merely pawns directed by the influence of others.
So, we’ve had one conference. The question now is: where do we go from here?