Keep Your Head Down

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What will the future hold for most of us? Decline, usually slow but sometimes rapid. Anger, blame, disillusionment. At least that’s the way it feels for most Americans and Brits. But does everybody feel this way? Do people in the third world feel as gloomy about their prospects as do we Facebook-addicted first-worlders?

If you don’t have much to begin with, you don’t have much to lose. If you’ve never enjoyed even the semblance of benign governance, then anything that doesn’t involve outright extortion and oppression feels like business as usual.

Banana republics and tinpot dictatorships keep most of their citizens dirt poor and allow a very few to get away with fiscal murder. Since there was never any semblance of a level playing field, the poor and uneducated don’t assume there’s a chance they can improve their lot. Hard work will simply exhaust you. If you do manage to accumulate wealth, your neighbors will envy you and someone, maybe someone in uniform, will take it away from you. So don’t make waves. Keep your head down, and your eyes to the ground.

Most of us have every reason to be grateful for the level of comfort we already enjoy. Life is not a shit sandwich for most of the people I come into contact with. Here in Thailand, which is in many ways like America was sixty years ago, they have a show on TV that is very much like Queen for a Day. Poor people with insurmountable problems come on and tell their sad story. The twist here is that the show requires them to sing in a talent contest and then guess a lucky number. If the judges are lenient and they guess correctly, they win a few hundred dollars. If not, they go away with a box of laundry soap.

This is a Buddhist country, and there is a strong belief in karma underlying the societal ranking. If you are poor, maybe you deserve your status based on your actions in your previous life, so you might as well practice humility and acceptance. The peasant class doesn’t seem to be chronically outraged by their lot. The men who stoop to plant rice, the women who sit patiently for hours a day at a market stall, tend to smile easily. Maybe the men get drunk and beat their wives when they get home, but since I don’t live in a poor village, I don’t see it.

It’s just assumed that the rich will act like the world owes them a living. Nobody is scandalized when the son of a rich man doesn’t have to pay for his crimes. His father pays a large amount to the victim’s family. The son may go into the monastery for a few months and have his head shaved for a photo op. If his family is really, really rich, like the heir to the Red Bull fortune who drove his Lamborghini over a policeman who was attempting to get him to stop, then dragged the body under the car all the way home, he won’t even have to appear in court.

This is the way it is in much of the world. Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East. They don’t pretend it’s otherwise. They have no tradition of a free press or democratic governance, for that would allow dissent and discourse, so those are quickly quashed. There’s too much at stake to risk it. Take the lid off that kettle and who knows what might leap out.

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Hidden Kingdom of Lamphun

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Well, it’s not really hidden, it’s just been overshadowed by the more dramatic mountains to the west. Usually I go down 108 to Chom Ton, then to either Doi Inthanon or Hot, on my way to do the four-day ride called the Mae Hong Son loop. This time I took my new “big bike” 500 cc Honda, straight south, down 106, through Lamphun city and then on my way to Tak.

 

I never made it to Tak. It’s too far. But the scenery down 106 is a delight. Spent the night in Li, then headed back up a smaller road, 1184, reconnecting with 106 just south of Pa Song. No traffic at all! Lumyai farms mostly, and rice. Some corn, but not as much as up north.

 

Actually, it’s more fun to ride a motorcycle on Lamphun’s winding two-lane blacktop roads in good repair than torturous hairpin turns up and down steep mountains. Reminds me of the Gold Country of Northern California where I first learned to ride 38 years ago.

 

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Whistling in the Dark

12764456_10154018288953993_5512391176604870963_oArrogance can be cute in children but appears decidedly less so in adults. Presumption born of inexperience is understandable. There are situations when humans are operating in the dark and forced to simply make stuff up in order to cope. These situations may be more common than we would care to admit.

The thirteen Thai boys who were trapped in the cave sat in the dark for over a week until suddenly, and from their perspective, unexpectedly an Englishman in a scuba outfit surfaced, shone a flashlight into their faces and asked “is everyone all right?” They assured him they were all OK. He said “Help is on the way” and went back where he came from.

Naturally the boys talked among themselves, and hatched a plan. The first boy they would send out would be the strongest of the group. He would be best able to quickly ride his bicycle from the cave entrance to his parent’s house and assure them they were OK. Little did these boys know that as each arrived to safety he would be conveyed by a personal helicopter to a hospital, assigned a personal physician, and that hundreds of millions of people in different parts of the world were watching the progress of their rescue with baited breath. They had no prior experience or current information to make them think their plan for the strongest boy to pedal home was not a sound one.

Another example of trying to make plans with limited data.

In the mid-1960’s, anthropologists discovered that people living on remote Pacific Islands had built replicas of radar towers, airplanes and army barracks out of bamboo. They were hoping these would once again attract “cargo.” The oldest members of their community remembered that over twenty years earlier, their peaceful island had suddenly swarmed with United States Army soldiers who built landing strips, barracks and then airplanes arrived with cargo. The islanders’ lives were changed in an instant. The army and all that equipment stayed for a while, then when the war ended they quickly packed up and hurriedly left. A few things were inadvertently left behind, and these things became sacred objects, deciphered only by priests. The chief of their tribe would don a pair of headphones that had been rescued from the burn pile in order to hear spirit voices tell when Cargo would return. He chanted “Roger Wilco” into a bamboo replica of a microphone. Young people begged their elders to recant once again the stories of that glorious time, when their island was awash in cargo, when chewing gum and snickers bars flowed like water.

We like to think we’re more sophisticated than either of these groups for we know what’s up. We’ve identified the causative factors at work in our lives, that we’re in control of our algorithms and hence our destiny. But there’s a good chance that we’re just little boys whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. If we enjoy good fortune, we like to take credit for it. If not, we complain bitterly and try to blame the persons or forces we imagine have robbed us of our happy birthright.

Fierce Grace

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He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

-Aeschylus

If you spend a lot of time in school, you could easily form the impression that everything has already been cut and dried, labeled and codified, when actually the world is delightfully ambiguous and full of surprises. Too much schooling takes all the fun out of it, removes the element of surprise, and turns everything into a report that could be graded, evaluated and certified. If you’re willing to risk saying “no thanks” to schooling, life can be pretty exciting.

But wisdom comes at a cost. Real wisdom, the kind you experience directly, cannot be ordered up in transferable credit hours. It is a gift from God, via his awful grace.

What happens without my prior expectation or permission could be also considered “fierce grace.” There’s a documentary about Richard Alpert, aka Baba Ram Das, named that. He had a stroke and decided to experience it as a gift.

Fate has a way of not asking permission before it acts. Not asking permission beforehand is a form of mercy. How I feel about what is going to happen versus what actually happens is, in the long run, not important. If I want to be happy, I have to learn acceptance and to appreciate what is. I have to cultivate patience and gratitude. Otherwise I’ll always be somewhere between miffed and outraged.

 

Obsession or Enlightenment?

Right next to our house is a ruined temple. It lies directly to our west, and in the evening the sun sets over the temple Lately, I’ve been photographing it every day, for the clouds change in the background. It can be quite dramatic.

I haven’t decided if I have developed the Buddha nature and can dig the profundity of everything around me, or if I’m just lazy and easily obsessed by that which takes little effort to find. Here, in northern Thailand, the vegetation doesn’t resemble anything in the States except maybe Florida. It’s the kind of place you need air-conditioning for most of the year.

Here are a bunch of pictures of this same view.

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Eastern Mysticism (Thai Buddhism)

Eastern Mysticism (Thai Buddhism)

I’ve been reading a book about the history of psychedelic research in the fifties and sixties, before 1966 when Congress put the kabosh on it. We live about a city block from a temple on a dead end street that contains the ruin of a previous temple, as well as modern buildings. I’m sort of templed-out here in Thailand, but thought maybe I would jump on by bicycle and ride down there before the next rain shower and see if I could find anything new to photograph.

Here are the images from this afternoon.