My Black-Hearted Mistake about the New Church Revealed

Apparently I am completely wrong about everything – well, I suppose I knew it all along. I had been complaining about the new church that is being built at the end of the soi – this was a perfectly justified complain to my mind on the following grounds:

Aesthetic – do we really need more churches in Bangkok?

Ideological – the baleful spread of medieval superstition

Practical – where will all the church-goers park their cars? Bangkok people do not walk anywhere (rumour has it they do not even walk upstairs in their own houses) and so there will be even more congestion on Sundays and movable feasts and the like, also weddings. Will there be funerals there? Is there a graveyard nearby or will these be some species of Christian that accepts cremation as an appropriate means for organizing post-death accommodation?

(Also, on practical terms, I am glad it is not a mosque because of the five times daily call to prayer that would entail – did I tell you about my sojourn in Kassala in a new house next to the mosque which had had donated state-of-the-art loudspeaker equipment capable of broadcasting the call to the nomads in the desert many miles away? The donation was in return for racing camels, but that is another story.)

Well, as I say, I have been declared wrong in all particulars since I am reliably informed by She Who Must Be Obeyed (senior and junior versions) that the aura arising from all those prayers will spread out across Ladprao and will bring luck to everyone. And we can use some luck (this being the unspoken subtext).

In any case, the outside of the church is nearly finished, it seems (I am not an expert in building) and the little steeple has some kind of crucifix on the top. Let’s see what brand of Christian they are – I suspect some kind of evangelizing God-botherers (and more importantly neighbour-botherers) since they are the only ones with money these days.

Mind Precedes Everything

One thing that does confuse westerners such as myself is the message ‘from the words of the Lord Buddha’ which is regularly broadcast on Radio Thailand stations – it says that, in English, mind is the most important part of the universe and that a person with a pure mind might achieve all things (I am paraphrasing based on what I have heard). So, an act committed by a pure mind is different from an act committed by a person with an impure mind. That is, the same act, no matter what its result is, should be judged not on its outcome but on the mind of the person committing it.

This is very different from people such as myself: most western democratic systems are based on variants of self-interested utilitarianism – that is, does the act of a politician benefit me or my interests and is not so obviously unfair that it is unsustainable. In other words, people would by and large vote for a political act that awarded us and our families a million dollars each but perhaps not if we felt it would lead to political unrest that would make our lives worse. Alternatively, those people who follow a political ideology (defined broadly) would vote for political policies commensurate with that ideology and against policies which contradicted the ideology.

In these cases, it is the nature of the policy and its outcome that is important, crucial in fact. The nature of the individual is generally irrelevant – that does not of course explain every situation, since there have been, for example, very strident protests in Britain at least against any policy enacted by Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and before him Tony Blair based on what people believe is their personal records of integrity. This is similar (and mostly alien to western concepts) to the Thai establishment system we are led to believe is common. In that system, it is not the act that matters but the mind of the individual concerned. Consequently, identical acts committed by different people should be judged differently based on understanding of the spiritual states of the individuals responsible for them. So, an act of violence ordered by individual A may be considered acceptable because of the spiritual nature of A while the same act (actually, any act violent or not) committed by B, considered morally impure, must be condemned.

Is it this which explains why otherwise seemingly intelligent and sensible people can support the violence-sodden outrages of the right wing while condemning the reasonable responses (on which, more tomorrow) of the common people? The alternative is just to condemn these yellow-shirt people as irredeemably evil or stupid – which is difficult to support. Perhaps they have just been infected by this religious meme?

Strangers Do Not Exist

I have long assumed that the principal reason for the taboos that have become part of religious beliefs was a form of social control, which contained what was once useful information for society. For example, Jews and Muslims have taboos against eating pork because they were unable to process it properly in a desert environment. Christians were able to remove this taboo because they had access to Roman technology.

In addition to useful information, therefore, it is likely that religious lessons were aimed at areas in which the audience for them were most delinquent. So, Confucianism in China and Korea has powerful filial piety principles because of the strong incentives to discard unwanted relatives during times of difficulty, Christianity emphasizes tolerance and doing unto others because of the (largely European) propensity to resort to violence and Islam bans alcohol because its members are unable to control themselves where drink is concerned.

And in Buddhism: one of the main concerns is that people should show ‘mindfulness,’ which is the opposite of mindlessness and concerns the degree to which people are aware of what is going on around them. I was reminded of this again this morning when, during my journey to work, I saw two instances of people nearly being run over by motor cycle or car (including the taxi in which I was travelling) purely because they did not look around (or anywhere) before walking across the road. In the first case, a woman walked in front of a motor cycle taxi that was so close to her that even if she did not look around (which she did not) then she surely must have been able to hear it.

To some extent, this may be explained by the family system in society: a great deal more emphasis is placed on family connections in East Asia than in most of the western world and this is correlated with lack of trust in non-family members. Since Thailand has a very low trust society (everybody believes everyone else is about to rip them off, one way or another), only family members can be trusted and, indeed, acknowledged. If non-family members are acknowledged in public places, then that means that social status issues arise and people must behave accordingly. Since people do not wish to do this all the time, they simply ignore everyone else as if they did not exist. This happens in other countries too – in Korea, the person who has not been introduced does not really exist.