Thailand Outback Up North, part 2: Drive He Said (Buddhism for Sale)…

Continued from previous…

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Feast fit for priests at Jaw Jalern Forest Temple

One thousand baht!”

Amen!” the crowd roars in response to the emcee’s declaration, hooting and hollering to beat the band, whatever that means, here in Thailand, as elsewhere, taking delight in small pleasures…

The emcee continues. “And now we have a contribution to Forest Temple Udom Tham, from Chiang Rai Prakan Chiwit, the life insurance that is there for you just when you need them most, for the sum of… Ten Thousand Baht! Ooohhh, that’s nice!”

Amen!” the crowd answers in agreement, one group from faraway Isaan obviously cutting up and loving it, trying to outdo all the others in their silliness and sober raucousness…

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Apparently money DOES grow on trees…

And here we have a donation, written on a hand-written note, like maybe they were trying to sneak a few extra zeroes in there, but we’ll take them. It’s from Chiang Mai Toyota and it’s to Doi Mongkol Siri Forest Temple, for a total of: Ten Thousand Baht! Wow! That’s extraordinary! That must mean that they will be driving Toyotas from now on, up at Doi Mongkol Siri, if they aren’t already…”

AMEN!” The entire crowd is in on the fun now, each faction trying to one-up the opposing falange, as if this were a rugby scrum or a Friday night football scrimmage, for the benefit of the players, if not the onlookers, which are actually quite few in number, everybody more or less a participant by now, including me…

And last but not least, we’ve got a donation for our own temple here, the host of this event, so we certainly need all the help we can get, so that we can continue with this special tradition. And the donation is from Farmer’s Bank of Thailand, the friendly bank waiting for you with a friendly smile and a friendly loan all over Thailand and all over the world. And the donation is for a total of, oh oh, you’re not gonna’ believe this: ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND BAHT! Oh my God, that’s incredible! And that means that we’ll probably be seeing you here again next year…”

AMEN!!!”

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Shower time

And so on and so forth, something like a cross between Friday night football and a tobacco auction, somewhere in the southern stretches of the USA, with no small resemblance to much of rural Thailand, especially the poor rural north here, where the diet includes a healthy dose of fried pork skins, sticky rice, and pork—fried pork…

And the daily life also includes a healthy dose of religion, where the local Buddhist churches play much the same role as the US Southern Baptist churches down yonder way, y’all. And that means social events as well as strictly religious ones, like the gathering here at Wat Jaw Jalern here in rural Chiang Rai province, Thailand’s most northernmost…

The Forest Temple tradition’s one hundred year old relationship to mainstream Buddhism has no easy analogy to the US, though, with its emphasis on remoteness, rusticity and strictness to ideological purity, as if those same Southern Baptists had a sect of Camping Christians, with ongoing tent revivals and pig roasts out past the canebrake. Camping Christians? Boy Scout days come back to me like lightning, arguably my own connection with this tradition, and something from which I never really grew up and grew past…

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The crowd goes wild…

And after all, why should I? With Christian sects like that, I might even give it another try. But my goal is to help bring all religions closer together, and closer to science, and the Buddhist Forest Tradition offers a powerful paradigm for that, and the future. But first I need to know what all that entails. I need to see the velvet Jesuses and the weeping Virgins of Guadalupe. I need to attend the Wednesday night church bingo games and the Saturday night socials…

I need to know what makes this—and other religions—tick. I need the ritual baptisms and the fake orgasms, and the rush of spirit to the head. But that takes time of course, all part of my graduate study course schedule in Thai school, for which I am apparently the bus driver, driving my local Priest Somboon to priestly functions all over the north here…

There is one good little lesson we can do right now though: next stop on our current tour is on Thailand’s other northern border, with Laos, for a funeral, for an important priest’s mother. And if this stop is as close to the Lao border as our previous visit to Pang Kham was to the Burmese border, the getting there is much easier, no winding mountain roads nor death-defying leaps—of faith—to get to the next village down the road…

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Reflections in the back seat

This is just beautiful countryside, from northernmost Thailand down to where you almost cross the unmarked border to central Thailand, near Uttaradit, and then toward the Lao province of Xaignabouly, which is probably now more easily accessible from Thailand, since it’s on the wrong (Thai) side of the Mekong River, and the roads in much of Laos are still primitive, and the borders are now mostly open…

Only difference between Laos and Shans is that they have a different history, Shans with centuries among Burmese and Chinese, Laos in a more direct line of transmission from the original Tai homeland in what is now Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, all the way to the Malay border way south. Black Tais (Tai Dam) are my favorites of the lineage, and still inhabit that original homeland…

But a funeral lacks the festive air of other gatherings—no freebie eats and drinks—and the liturgies can get so long and boring that even my priest finally gives up on it and walks away in frustration. “I don’t know what they’re doing in there now.” But I haven’t been wasting time, in the meantime, since it seems that this is a weaving town, with a ‘housewives’ group of thirty some-odd weavers at any given time, carrying on the traditions that others, especially the moderns, can’t be bothered with…

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Weaving up a storm

And their stuff is nice, too, even if priced too high to even consider trading in it like I used to do, even if I wanted to, which I don’t, not really. Problem is, even though their prices are not unreasonable, I’d have trouble charging the same in filthy-rich USA, just because people have no knowledge of the effort, so no appreciation, not when they can just order some factory product from Amazon at half the price, and after all, you can’t download it, the Holy Grail of modern consumption paradigms, so true I could cry…

To be continued…

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