Today is the second day of Songkran, the Thai New Year—also a New Year (albeit under slightly different pronunciations and traditions) celebrated by Laos, Khmers, Mons and Burmese. Beyond Southeast Asia, this “Other New Year” is also celebrated in Nepal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, Punjab and Bengal (including Bangladesh). For this holiday, I interviewed a marvelously enthusiastic Buddhist practitioner, whom I met years ago through mutual friends in America’s Midwest.
Who are you?
I’m Dome, an American-born Thai, repatriated in Thailand ☺
What’s the Buddhist significance of this holiday?
Songkran’s history with Buddhism runs deep, though only two things come to my mind that show its ties: as it is considered a New Year, new resolutions or renewing old commitments towards doing good is always a Buddhist practice. As they say, practice makes perfect. So aside from the squirt guns, powered water and the games people play to get each other wet during Songkran, some devote their time off from work to go to temples, uphold precepts, and practice their minds to achieve their New Year goals. Nonetheless, for those less bound to a temple, a Buddha image is always presented in front of offices, in neighborhood communities, or as part of a ceremony for anyone to pour water over as an act of cleansing and cooling both the receiver and giver.
What does this holiday mean to you, and how do you plan to celebrate it?
To me, Songkran is a time for reflection of things gone by and things to come. But more importantly, I reflect on my happiness and my practice. I have to admit though, my reflections in these past few years during Songkran have been short. Even now, I’ll be spending it abroad outside of Thailand! I’ll be missing all of the water fights, and the time to spend at the temples, but I continue to make this holiday a merry one!
It brings me immeasurable joy to be able to share the voices of other Asian American Buddhists with the wider Buddhist blogging community. Especially when it comes to holidays that celebrate our cultural heritage, it’s great to hear our voices speak for themselves. Suksan Wan Songkran!
Barbara O’Brien wrote something the other day that really got under my skin. In her post about a few of the issues facing mae chi in Thailand, she threw out one flippant line singling out the name of a Buddhist university:
Ooo, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University. How awesome is that?
A commenter responded with a joke, noting a university basketball tradition where cheerleaders spell out a school’s name (‘Gimme an M! Gimme an A…’)—to which O’Brien extended the ridicule that the “game would have to go into overtime to let them finish.” Just retyping these words is quite painful.
This lighthearted banter summoned up memories of all the times that white Americans made fun of my Asian name, mocked my ancestral language with ching-chong routines and done the good ol’ chink-eye to my face. In case you’re unaware, it can really suck to grow up Thai in America—because you might just have to live your entire life with people like Barbara O’Brien making fun of your family’s long name, only to then hide behind, “Relax! It was only a joke!”
Most painful is that O’Brien’s mockery is completely inessential. Her post argues a more noble topic, where she decries the marginalization of women in Thai Buddhist institutions. She even tentatively wades into the complex relationships of Thai Buddhism to the Thai State. But in making light of a Thai university’s long name, she perpetuated the unfortunate tradition to which so many Thai Americans with long names are subjected to, and so ridiculed the very culture of the mae chi she sought to champion.
These long names stem from a specific quality of Thai culture: that spaces are not so ubiquitous as in English. It wouldn’t be difficult for O’Brien to uncover that the university’s name roughly translates to “King Chulalongkorn Royal Academy”—Chulalongkorn being the university’s eponymous founder, not to mention also namesake to Thailand’s most prestigious university. Now you have the translation, it doesn’t sound so amazing—or ridiculous—does it?
This cruel little joke on a Thai name encapsulates a recurring dilemma for Western Buddhists of Asian heritage. We are embraced by white Buddhists, even while we are culturally denigrated. Without a doubt, Barbara O’Brien deserves credit and commendation for her advocacy of the rights of Buddhist women of all colors, but that does not excuse her casual mockery of Asian culture.
Wat Mongkolratanaram, aka the Berkeley Thai Temple, comes under fire when a request to build a Buddhist shrine on their own property is submitted to the city. The Temple elders must now rely on a group of young and energetic second-generation Thai-Americans to advocate for their constitutional rights protecting religious freedoms. The team navigates through the city’s land use and permit process, represents the Temple in mediation with neighbors, launches an awareness campaign, and ultimately, brings together a community that would otherwise face potential closure of the Temple.
In a most intriguing presentation today at the Buddhism without Borders conference, Todd Pereira discards the notion that Anagarika Dharmapala initiated American contact with Theravada in 1893. Instead he looks back even further to August 16, 1829, on which date the famous conjoined brothers Chang and Eng stepped foot on American soil. It may very well be is certainly the case that these brothers later converted to Christianity—they are buried in the graveyard of a Baptist church they had helped build—but their arrival no less stirred up many questions on religion, if not merely the religious imagination.
The connection here to a robust Theravada Buddhist philosophy and practice is, admittedly, exceedingly tenuous. More than anything, the notion that these brothers might not be Christian (even if they already were) opened the door a little more to the possibilities of religion beyond the Abrahamic context of nineteenth century America. Was it an introduction of Buddhism at all? I’m leaning towards doubt.*
In the broader civil rights context, the brothers were true pioneers in Asian American history. They were probably the first Asians to marry white Americans, to be American citizens and to vote in American elections. In less contemporarily popular American firsts, they also grew tobacco, owned slaves and their sons fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War! At this point in his speech, Todd Perreira smiled at the audience, stuck his tongue in his cheek, and yelled, “Yay Theravada!”
I look forward to his published research, which includes much more than the (again, admittedly tenuous) story of Chang and Eng Bunker. Although most Theravada temples were established by Asian immigrants who came after 1965, Buddhist Americans seem all too quick to forget those who came before. Some of my favorite stories include the Buddhist monarch who offered Lincoln assistance in the Civil War, or even the Buddhist monarch born on American soil.
*Update: Many thanks to a certain scholar who kindly pointed out off-the-blog that as the Bunkers self-identified as Baptists, they and their descendants deserve to have this remembered. The post has been changed accordingly.
The etiquette with the offering cloth is this: if a female is offering food, clothing or medicine to a monk, he will lay a cloth/bowl or other suitable item in front of him. The lady puts the item on the cloth and it is then ‘offered’ – which means it has formally been given to the Sangha of monks. And of course vice versa between nuns and laymen.
Things are ‘offered’ in this way so there is no discrepancy between what has been given to the monk and what has not – so that he does not take something on presumption, that the owner might not feel is appropriate. If a layperson touches the offered item after this point, it is then considered ‘unoffered’ and the monk will not take it for his own use.
The post ends with a discussion of cultural traditions and attitudes (namely attitudes towards others’ cultures). It’s certainly nice to discover that some of the customs I’ve witnessed (such as the “drop method”) are not merely idiosyncratic customs of particular monks I know.
Next on the list is the feeling of being much akin to a tropical bird in a gilded cage; all for show, living a life of interminable slavery to a group of well-meaning admirers. The abbot of Wat Thai summed this one up on the last day of the grueling three-month meditation course when, during the final ceremony and in front of a large crowd of people, he congratulated me by saying, “Phra Noah is a monk worthy of compliment. He is not even Thai, he is a foreign monk, and yet he was able to study and practice to the point that he can even speak Thai.” (Polly wanna rice cracker?) I have met nothing but resistance to any thought that I might ever be given a position of authority; the one time I was made head of a failing meditation center in Thailand, it almost cost me several bruises from a broomstick because, as was kindly pointed out to me, “this isn’t your home. Your father wasn’t born here. Why don’t you go back to your father’s home?” That piece of advice turned out to be terribly useful (the broomstick didn’t add much to his credibility, however), and that is what I came to seek out this time around in North America; a place where I can stand on my two feet and walk the Buddha’s path unhindered by monks who think “Thai way or the Highway.”
I certainly feel for Bhante Yuttadhammo (and sort of wonder what he has to say about Wat Metta and Abhayagiri monasteries). The takeaway message here shouldn’t be that each side is just as bad as the other. Rather, I’d like to think that we’re different groups of Buddhists who have yet to accept and respect that we’re all part of a common community. It’s a hard sell.
In the meantime, I hope he’ll find a good place to stay for the Rains Retreat.