Quiet Desperation

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Wise words from Henry David Thoreau.

I’ve never lived this quote as much as I have been this year. ‘Quiet desperation’ is such a poignant expression summarizing my struggle (and I’m sure the struggle of the mass of men around me as well). We go through each day trapped in a routine we know as everyday life, putting up a facade to show everyone that we’re okay. Yet as the days go by the routine feels ever more robotic, and it becomes more challenging to refuse that we are indeed not okay. I’m trapped, and I feel alone.

Quiet desperation.

People keep asking me what I want to do when I am set free from my current commitment. I still don’t quite know what the future holds, but I know it’s not a purposeless life. I don’t understand people who work for money. I don’t understand people who work for fame. My quiet desperation is a struggle against worldly expectations, be it wealth, popularity or conformity. I want to, one day, be able to earn the air I breath and the resources I use. My quiet desperation is me not doing enough for the planet. On some days, it gets to be too much.

One of the tragedies of our time is that we carry these weights around with us everywhere, but we feel like we cannot talk about them. Perhaps we have to remember that there is a mass of men around us who feel the exact same way.

Both our civilization, as well as many of us individually, are entering a transition in our sense of self and world. For simplicity, I call it a transition from the story of Separation to the story of Interbeing. As this shift gathers momentum, the old answers to questions like, “Who am I?” “What is important?” “What is normal?” “How should one live life?”  “How does the world work?” “What is a human being?” “What is real?” are becoming obsolete.

For example, on the collective level, we no longer believe so firmly in old paradigms like the conquest of nature, endless growth, or better living through chemistry. The converging crises of our time make them impossible to hold onto.As they unravel, so do the systems built atop them.

For many of us, something similar is happening, or has happened already, on a personal level. This online course is for people who want to learn about the space between stories, and work with it on any level, from the personal to the interpersonal to the political.

— Charles Eisenstein, www.spacebetweenstories.net

Every time I see quotes like this one, I am always reminded that I have a duty here on this planet. It’s not to make money; rather, it’s to help inspire others find their peace and purpose too. I am stuck in the transition from the old story to the new story, and I am desperate to get out. Once I can, you can bet I will be there to help guide others along their journeys. In the meantime, I’ll allow myself to pray for the strength to weather the storm of quiet desperation in the next four years.

This is my story. I’m sure you have yours. So let’s talk. Let’s amplify our quiet desperation.

Is it selfish to make wishes for ourselves? What do you pray for?

Back in 2012, I wrote a post entitled “Why do we make wishes for ourselves?” It became, to my surprise, the most popular post on the blog. But it is encouraging to see that there are people out there asking the same questions as me. I figured I should write an update to reflect the developments of my thoughts on this issue.

We all want many things in life. Most of us are stuck in a never-ending rat race fueled by our desire for social status. We aim for a fancier job title, a more expensive car, or a bigger home. And we make wishes for them. While this kind of wishes is perhaps not that commonplace, it is often made in Thailand that it concerns me.

Is that wrong?

At one point in my life, when I give thanks at Buddhist shrines, my wishes were like this:

“May all beings find peace.”

“May my family be ever in good health.”

“Please give me the strength to remain rooted in Buddhism. Please give me the strength to refrain from evil.”

“Please guide me in the right direction.”

I stopped short of making explicit wishes for myself. I did not believe that to be acceptable. In the past few years, I started to want more and more for myself. I started making personal wishes–against my beliefs. I felt selfish, confused, and disappointed. Why did I feel this way?

Although I no longer consider myself Buddhist, I am still heavily influenced by its teachings. I believe that what transpires in my current life is a result of past karma–good or bad. So in a way we have limited control over the results of those karma in our lives, but we can in fact influence our future with the karma we made in the current life. My life is interconnected with all others on this planet, and I do not exist solely to maximize my own welfare. In Christian lingo, one can perhaps say I am part of God’s plan. I am here to serve. I believe what happens in my life is part of a divine plan, and the act of paying respects at religious sites or prayers should be just that: paying respect. It should not be a means towards achieving a personal goal.

We live in a culture where we are led to believe that we never have enough. Or we are never enough. Together, we’ve created a society that fuels competition and hunger for material possessions. Consequently, we pray for more stuff. We’ve created a society that fuels desire, and it’s hindering our ability to exercise compassion. I shall be more direct in answering the titular question this time: I believe it is wrong to make wishes for oneself, except as part of a larger purpose.

This conclusion arises as a result of my belief that our lives on this planet are for a greater purpose beyond our individual goals. I respect that there are different viewpoints out there. However, I believe that we can feel our internal resonance with the idea of a greater purpose. Maybe it’s to make loved ones happy. Or maybe it’s to change the world. Whatever it is, I wish you the conviction to stay true to it.

What do you pray for?

Adapting with the times: Should religious texts be “living documents”?

My friend recently shared this NPR article on Facebook: Justices Ginsburg and Scalia: An Unlikely Bond, which is totally worth a read. I had no idea that the two justices, whose opinions in the court could only be described as diametrical, are such good friends. This article also introduced me to the concept of a “living document,” which I find very fascinating.

Essentially, that feud is about whether the Constitution is, as Scalia has put it, “dead” — that it means what the Founding Fathers said it meant at the time it was adopted. Or whether it is a “living” document, that the founders meant to adapt to the times. Scalia agreed last night that he has to find a better word than “dead” — that the word really doesn’t sound right, and he settled instead on “enduring.”

Scalia rejected Ginsburg’s argument that the Constitution is “living,” contending that to allow our founding document to adapt to the times would render it “subject to whimsical change by five of nine votes on the Supreme Court.” Ginsburg countered that Scalia’s “originalist” approach is not faithful to the idea of “We the people.” The Constitution, she maintained, has to expand to cover more than the “white, property-owning men” who once were “we the people.”

I would have to concur with Justice Ginsburg on this issue. The founders could not have conceived how the 21st century society would be. Laws that were drafted in ways that were consistent with the social norms and beliefs of the time they were introduced and may not apply well to our current collective consciousness. For a constitution to constantly serve “we the people” then it must adapt.

This bring me to the topic of this post: Does the same apply to religious scriptures? Should religions adapt to the times?

If the answer to the above question is no, then two issues come to mind: slavery and homosexuality. If we take all the scriptures literally, then there would be religious doctrines that approve of slavery and are anti-homosexuality, Christianity being one. However, Buddhism also contains text that seems anti-gay. But if religion at its core is about love, compassion and acceptance, why do these texts exist?

This is where I believe the context is key when interpreting the scriptures. At least in Buddhism, the phrases preventing non-heterosexual men from getting ordained is designed to prevent chaos within the Sangha community, and was initiated NOT by the Buddha himself but by some monks in response to a scandal between two monks. Therefore, it is perhaps irresponsible to conclude that Buddhism is against homosexuality. Considering this context, the Buddha was simply creating a new order based on complaints from other monks who are afraid that the reputation of Buddhism would be tarnished if these scandals continue.

Fast forward to today. Scandals involving Buddhist monks actually involve heterosexual ones too. Many straight men use the cover of the Buddhism to lure women into their arms, and even raping them. It is not fair then to exclude homosexuals based on the premise that they may cause scandals. If Buddhism is truly about love and acceptance, then the gay men who really respect the Buddhist faith should be embraced by the religion, not pushed away. The same should go for Christianity. After all, it is only too convenient–and hypocritical–to ignore what the Bible says about slavery and then claim that God is anti-Gay.

Let me know your thoughts! Should religious scriptures be living documents?

 

What’s in a simple life? My thoughts on living simply and meaningfully

I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel through Southeast Asia over the past few years. I’ve found one thing to be true: In Southeast Asia, more so than anywhere else I’ve traveled, simplicity brings happiness. Whether it’s taxi drivers, street vendors, hostel staff or scuba diving instructors, I can sense the joy that arises from a genuine appreciation of one’s current livelihood. These people make enough for a humble living, and maybe they have a family to return to at the end of the day. That’s it. That’s their simple–and happy–life. They have enough to bring them happiness. In other words,

“I am enough. I have enough.”

 

We dwellers of the modern world probably find this concept rather foreign. In fact, we’re probably unfamiliar with what simplicity even mean when it comes to life. We’ve been programmed to expect more and more from this world, and, for the most determined among us, from ourselves too. “You are not enough” is the voice of society projected into our subconscious. As we grow ever more perpetually connected (do we ever disconnect anymore?), this voice gets even louder. I am reminded of a Henry David Thoreau quote:

“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses…. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

Arianna Huffington expanded on Thoreau’s provoking thought in her book Thrive:

“Shake off the village” — what a great way of expressing a vitally important human need. Since Thoreau’s time, the village has grown exponentially bigger and become more intrusive and seemingly intimate — giving us the semblance of connection without any of the real benefits of connection. Technology has enabled the village to become exceptionally good at not allowing us to shake it off. With the advent of the smartphone, getting away from it all is no longer as easy as simply getting up and walking away. And, increasingly, people are making the choice not to even try to shake off the village — surrendering to a life of distractions, with the result that, as Thoreau put it, we are living much of our lives out of our senses.” – Arianna Huffington

What wonderful combination of wordcraft (It’s not a word, but you get what I mean. Heh.) and wisdom!

Anyway, as I was reflecting on the happiness that visits those blessed with simplicity, I started to wonder which parts of my village–more like a sprawling city nowadays–are really necessary. A huge chunk of my village is the continued quest for meaning in life, which leads me to my million-dollar question today:

Is meaning-making compatible with a simple life?

Through my lens, I’ve often noticed that the simple lives are often not based on meaning, but more on contentment with one’s surroundings and a detachment from worldly affairs that are seemingly out of their control. Although I can understand–and even long for–this lifestyle, I cannot imagine myself living it; I am simply (pun not intended) not hardwired that way. Meaning is far too important in my life. I would rather die trying to find meaning than live a happy but meaningless one.

But perhaps it’s possible to live a simple and meaningful life, because simplicity–just like happiness–is within our control. The practice of simplicity can be as simple as letting go of the excess and the bad in one’s life, and recommitting oneself to what brings joy. I suspect the reason I haven’t found many folks with simple and  meaningful lives is not because they aren’t compatible, but because most of us engaged in the pursuit of meaning is cognizant of the magnitude of the challenges of our time, and therefore carry  the resultant anxiety and stress as part of our aforementioned “village.”

Come to think of it, this is rather foolish. Although we are in charge of our own lives, we do not control the narrative of the universe. In other words, we simply cannot foresee the impact we’re supposed to have. Maybe we will one day be a revolutionary. Or maybe our circle of impact will be smaller. One thing is for sure: we’ll die trying to make a difference. This should be all that matters. The key to this is letting go of the need for tangible results. We are not here to prove our worth to anyone–not the society, and not even yourself. Because the “self” that is looking for proof of your worth is an insecure self that keeps telling you that you are not enough. For us looking for meaning, simplicity is possible. We have to free ourselves from judgment. Make the journey our destination.

This is part of my goals this year: to make myself believe that I am enough, and find my simple and meaningful life.

 

 

So 2014 is over, and I have nothing to show for it.

It was December 13th 2014. Relaxing in a pool during my Hong Kong trip, it dawned on me: 2014 is almost over, and I have nothing to show for it.

I sat there for the longest time, wondering where 2014 had gone. I had accomplished nothing. Nothing to showcase. Nothing to be proud of. Had I been so lazy? So ineffectual? So oblivious?

The truth is… in 2014, I traveled to a new continent. I met new friends. I learned scuba diving. I started my first job. I took one course on the US higher education system. I traveled some more. I visited waterfalls and island paradises and cultural heritages. I learned more about the environmental movement.

The truth ALSO is… that 2014 was not good enough for me. I did not travel the way I want. I did not grow as much as I want. I did not get closer to my dreams. A wise woman once told me: “Pete, you have to stop judging yourself by a higher moral standard than the one you use to judge others.” She is on point. I am my harshest critic. But I’m not really willing to lower my standard. I am simply striving to be the man I want to be. And is it wrong to hope that collectively the world will ascend to a higher moral ground? After all, our current one is destroying our planet.

I want my life to mean something. I want to always be in relentless pursuit of a goal and waste no time. One tiny problem – I have no idea what my goal in life is, and I was too tired to keep looking.

In 2014, I gave up. And now, as I judge myself with my lofty moral standard, I feel guilty.

Have you ever felt like this?

So in 2015, my resolution is simple: to keep fighting to be the best version of me, and to continue questioning whether my perception of ‘best’ can still be elevated.

Here’s to 2015!

Buddhism isn’t always an open and loving religion you think it is

Note: This post has been edited to reflect some feedback about terminology from my friends who are much more well-versed in this topic than I am.

Today I bring to you a longer read, but a very thought-provoking one. Buddhism, as seen by the West, is a very accepting religion. However, it is not always the case. The form of Theravadan Buddhism practiced in Thailand, for example, is not the most LGBT-friendly, as presented in the interview below. As a Thai, I’ve always been intrigued–and infuriated–by how Buddhism as an institution (not religion) in Thailand has maintained longstanding discriminatory positions on non-heterosexual people, despite Thailand being considered a very open country. Now, as my friends have rightly cautioned me, I am not here to not generalize about Buddhism as a whole, as there are many schools of Buddhism that have taken disparate stances on the issue. Below is an interview conducted with a Thai Buddhist monk in Thailand who is openly discussing these issues. Of course, he’s in the minority.

Buddhism and Sex: An Interview with Phra Chāi Wō̜rathammō

Original interview by: Kritsada Supawattanakul, Thailand Information Center For Civil Rights and Investigative Journalism (TCIJ)

Original interview date: 3 November 2014

Translated by: Chirapon Wangwongwiroj

Today we talked with Phra Chāi Wō̜rathammō, a Thai Buddhist monk who’s trying to explain gender, sex and relationships through the lens of Buddhism. In addition, we critiqued the nature of Buddhism in Thailand today, marked with refusal to change despite a rapidly evolving society. Buddhist segregationist rules based on sex and gender have excluded many women and non-heterosexual people from the religion. These systems are so deeply institutionalized in the Thai Buddhist society and are very difficult to remove. Phra Chai hopes that one day the higher-ups in the Thai Buddhist institutions will hear his plea and review these misguided and outdated rules.

Gender and sex are traditionally taboo topics for Buddhism. Sexual misconduct or non-heterosexuality are considered a sin or bad karma from past lives that prevent one from reaching the purity of Buddhism. Yet, sexual desire (whether heterosexual or non-heterosexual) is a natural part of human behavior, so in this regard Buddhism and human nature can be considered as a disharmony that is hard to resolve. Many religions around the world seems to be restricted for heterosexual males, and Buddhism is no exception.

TCIJ interviewed Phra Chāi Wō̜rathammō, a Buddhist monk who is actually willing to discuss gender and sex. He started doing so after he realized that the rigid interpretation of the scriptures and the oppression of non-normative gender and sexual roles actually cause suffering to these groups instead of freeing them. This interview delved into this controversial topic and served as an invitation for all Thai Buddhists to pause and ask the question, “What has happened to Buddhism in Thailand?”

Can the problem of sexual discrimination and the obsolete interpretations of the Buddhist scriptures in Thailand be fixed? Phra Chai did not believe so. The most we can do, he said, is to keep talking until we are heard. That is all we can do.

TCIJ: You have been ordained as a Buddhist monk for over 25 years. What did you see or hear that made you decide to start talking openly about gender and sex?

Phra Chai: The turning point is around 1995. I attended a workshop on social issues, including gender and sex. There were both gays and lesbians present at that workshop. On the fourth day, when gender and sex were the topic, the room was filled with uneasiness despite the past three days being filled with joy. It took a while before the mood got better. This moment clicked for me. I was intrigued to learn more about these issues.

That incident clearly showed me that gender and sex are taboo in Thailand. When we don’t discuss them, there is lingering uneasiness and misunderstanding. One day, when some other incidents stir up this issue, there becomes a problem—one that we cannot find the roots.

At that point, I started to research what in particular is causing the suffering. I started by discussing it with my close friends, including Ajarn Chalidaporn, and approaching sexual equality advocacy organizations; there was only a handful of them back then, but I kept on looking and looking until I got to this point. Lately, I’ve been researching the issues of sex in Buddhism, including the views on gays and pandakas. As I continued searching, I also found female discrimination such as forbidding women from getting ordained and unequal roles of bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs. I see this as a longstanding discrimination to the point that it is now hard to realize it.

TCIJ: So what you are trying to do is to apply the Buddhist principles to various issues, particularly sex, and then explain them?

Phra Chai: That is correct, although you have to understand that I am but one voice in a large institution that is Buddhism. It is impossible that everyone will agree with me. I am merely presenting a different viewpoint that is contemporary and easy to understand, unlike the Buddhist statutes that have not been clearly explained, or interpreted too conservatively and not responsive to the needs of modern society.

TCIJ: For virtually every religion, sex is a taboo topic. It’s forbidden. It’s a sin. Am I correct in saying that religions provide very little room for discussions about sex? Why haven’t the religions adapted?

Phra Chai: Let’s explore it from a spiritual angle. When Buddhism states that something is bad karma, it can hurt the gays, lesbians and intersex people that are supposedly recipients of bad karma. We cannot forget this. Even for the heterosexuals, I believe the religious restrictions can make them uneasy. Issues including masturbation, pregnancy, teenage sex, or extramarital pregnancy can be very limiting.

In reality, most people do not stay within the religious boundaries. When religion-induced criticisms spread, people feel bad about themselves. I don’t think religion should go in this direction. Religious teachings should make people feel good about themselves—maybe not to the extent that Buddhism validates sexual relationships. What Buddhism should do is help uplift humanity—and its natural sexual desires—along with the core Buddhist teachings and not make people feel bad.

My observation from the various trainings I have conducted is that most heterosexuals also feel upset and insulted by religion. They just don’t know how to express this hurt and ultimately keep it inside themselves.

This is precisely why I believe it is not only non-heterosexual people that cross the boundaries set by religion; heterosexuals do too. This is one of the key tipping point that should lead us to examine what Buddhism truly intends to say about sexual behavior. Ultimately, you will find that Buddhism is not that concerned with the topic of sex. What Buddhism really cares about is how Buddhists can find enlightenment. In other words, as the Dalai Lama said, Buddhism is concerned with helping people discover the ocean of wisdom within themselves. This is the core of all religions: to find oneself. Similarly, in the case of theistic religions, the goal is to find God within.

TCIJ: The 3rd Precept of Buddhism isn’t necessarily limiting one’s gender or sexual orientation, but rather forbidding sexual misconduct in the form of promiscuity.

Phra Chai: Correct. You can say that the 3rd Precept is an extension of the 2nd Precept—do not steal. The 3rd Precept gets specific by forbidding sexual affairs. This rule is present in every religion, not just Buddhism.

TCIJ: When we laypersons talk about this 3rd Precept, we often say “Do no wrong to others’ wives and daughters.” For the part that says do no wrong to others’ wives, it’s still possible to use your interpretation. However, in the case of the others’ daughters, it becomes less clear since sexual relationships in our modern society do not only happen under the institution of marriage. Today, we have to acknowledge that teenagers or university students have sex, and every one of those sexual partners are someone’s kids. So when the 3rd Precept is addressed in our laypersons’ terms, sex ended up being taboo in Buddhism, i.e. it forbids sex outside marriage. What are your thoughts?

Phra Chai: I didn’t do any homework on this question. (laughs) But I’ve thought about this: How should teenagers view this precept? In a way, our society expects teenagers to not engage in sex, probably because teenagers are still in school and hence unable to take care of themselves. On the other hand, if we want to teach the teens, we have to help them feel and understand that they are still unable to take care of themselves. Every single penny they receive goes towards education. However, if parents decide to let them make their own decisions, there are many factors to be contemplated. For example, what if the girl becomes pregnant? Alternatively, the parents have to make sure both parties use birth control. But what if the condom broke? It’s not easy to figure everything out. There are people who barely make it through this stage. Some girls get pregnant in school. Some girls were dumped when their partners realized they were pregnant.

These troubles are part of why this precept exists: to prevent unfortunate events from happening. So when teenagers spend time together, they ought to learn what consequences their actions would bring. Buddhism has set the boundaries, but we do not deny the individual the choice. However, I also disagree with this precept in a way. When we stress this precept to the teenagers, and someone happens to break it, he or she feels terrible about themselves. In the case of a female student getting an abortion, others may view her as morally reprehensible, but I think about how she will be mentally afterwards and whether she will have the motivation and strength to continue her education.

TCIJ: So if two university students are a couple and they sleep together, are they wrong by virtue of having sex with someone still under the care of his or her parents?

Phra Chai: In a way you can say that. If you examine the 3rd Precept, it forbids sexual relationships with someone under the care of various parties, including parents and bhikkhunīs. Generally speaking, one is not allowed to have sex with someone who is still under the care of other adults. However, the 3rd Precept is not totally binding in this regard; it also mentions the individual’s freedom to consent to sex. So it does not mean that if you are a single 30 years old and have sex, you have disobeyed the 3rd Precept. There is mention of age, but it is unclear. In the past, society does not view youth in the same manner that our society does today. I want to see it like this: If an individual is mature enough to make his or her own decisions, he or she can be considered as no longer under the care of another adult.

TCIJ: Ultimately this 3rd Precept has to be more properly defined to address the needs of modern society.

Phra Chai: Exactly. But the best thing to do is for the members of society to control their sexual behavior. If they can control their desires, it can help alleviate some trouble.

TCIJ: Buddhism in Thailand is viewed as discriminatory. For example, during the ordination ceremony, the monk officiating the ceremony will ask if you are a man.

Phra Chai: This happened because in the past there were no female ordinations—no bhikkhunīs (female monks). The question is asked to separate between male and female, and to clearly identify that the ordinated person is a male. If the person is a female, she was not allowed to be ordained. Afterwards, when there were bhikkhunīs, this question is then interpreted as who can be ordained.

Now, the question “Are you a man?” has multiple interpretations. You can be a man in terms of your physique or sexual attraction. If you take the latter interpretation, then it means that intersex and gay people are not allowed to be ordained. To this point, my take is that there are 77 provinces in Thailand, and each of the officiating monks has his own interpretations. It all depends on the monk’s interpretation of this question. In general, the monks in the outer provinces have allowed intersex and gay people to be ordained, while the monks in the larger temples in Bangkok have not.

TCIJ: Is it necessary to ask this question?

Phra Chai: It is a practice that has been passed on for generations. It’s a Buddhist statute. So I cannot answer whether it is necessary. One possible reason that it is asked is to use it to select people. One important point to note is that Buddhism has become an institution; this is why the selection is taking place. If we look back to the earliest days of Buddhism—back when the Buddhist teachings had not been institutionalized, the Buddha was someone who discovered valuable truths and imparted his wisdom to others. In those days the Buddha allowed a pandaka to be ordained. As it turned out, the pandaka ended up having sex with someone near his temple. This led to the rule forbidding pandakas from getting ordained.

If we dig deeper, the forbidding of pandakas from ordination did not originate from the Buddha, but from the society, the Sangha community and the monks who do not understand. These groups asked the Buddha to create the statute that prevents the ordination of pandakas. In those times, there was a discriminatory attitude towards pandakas already, so all pandakas are subject to this discriminatory statute that originated from one pandaka. So now, pandakas or anyone who is born with intersex traits are forbidden from monkhood.

TCIJ: In this case should we say that Buddhism is democratic? Or simply discriminatory?

Phra Chai: I view it as democratic but inconsiderate of minority interests. Democracy has many forms. One of the forms that we never question much is one where the majority makes a decision without stopping to think about whether the decision can oppress others.

TCIJ: Do you think that questions like this one should be changed today?

Phra Chai: It should. There are many intersex people that miss the opportunity to ordain or need special consideration to be able to ordain. Those that are already ordained should not be forced to leave monkhood, and there should also be ways to make the religion more open to this group of people.

TCIJ: But the Thai society views these people to be degrading to the religion.

Phra Chai: Actually, it’s not just this group of people that is causing others to lose faith in Buddhism. Heterosexual men are partially to blame too. News about Buddhist monks running off to have sex are equally harmful to the religion. We should not generalize. Instead, find fault with the individual. When we criticize sexuality, the only one that is never faulted is heterosexuality even though heterosexual Buddhist monks have wronged the religion as well. Yet we tend to only blame the intersex people and the pandakas, and hence disallowing them from ordination. You can see how it is unfair.

TCIJ: Usually the religious statutes are regarded as one of the holiest religious documents; they’re virtually untouchable. Now you’re talking about changing some of the clauses to be less discriminatory towards non-heterosexual people. How possible is this?

Phra Chai: Yes, it is difficult. We probably cannot do much except to keep talking about it and hope they hear us. We have to keep talking in case one day we cause them to ponder whether these limitations are hurting anybody. We should especially tell the people in influential organizations to realize that Buddhism itself has always tried to break down the caste system and other forms of discrimination and segregation. In fact, Buddhism had some success in the past. Yet, we have been oblivious the discrimination based on gender and sexuality today. I wonder if we will ever have the wisdom to realize that preventing women, intersex people and pandakas from ordination is a form of discrimination, which may even be more severe and worrisome from the caste systems of the past.

TCIJ: Is it stated clearly in Buddhist scriptures that being paṇḍaka, intersex or non-heterosexual is a result of past karma? Or is it subject to interpretation?

Phra Chai: The teachings about karma has to be clarified. When we claim their sexuality is a result of past karma, it’s like we’re judging them. Do you know what they have done in their past lives? Unless you have the ñāṇa (vision) to see the past, teachings about the consequence of karma are passed on from generation to generation. We can talk about it, but we cannot prove it.

As the story goes, Phra Ananda used to disobey the 3rd Precept, causing him to be born as a pandaka in one of his lives. I think this is where people got the belief that being born gay or lesbian is due to bad karma. When people try to analyze the law of karma, they often believe that if the effect is something in a particular category, the karma that caused this must be in the same category as well. For example, if a man is born gay, he must have disobeyed the precept that is about sex, which is the 3rd Precept. Is this sound logic? Teachings about karma can sometimes be harmful; instead of looking forward, people get attached to the past. Ultimately, this type of thinking does not help with one’s spiritual growth. Another case in point is the issue of ordination of women. Buddhism teaches that being born a woman is bad karma because, unlike men, women cannot get ordained. Yet, in actuality, the fact that women cannot get ordained today is because the Supreme Sangha Council does not accept it. This is what should be blamed instead of karma, which led to this notion that being born a woman is due to bad karma.

TCIJ: Have you ever tried to find answers to why Buddhism in Thailand has the tendency to discriminate against these people?

Phra Chai: Part of it is that sex is a very personal matter. Most of the religious texts are based on the Buddha’s search for the truth, conveyed in the form of tales or legends. These texts are by nature very pure in nature, i.e. there is no content about sex. There is nothing in the Buddhist stories that can taint the Buddha’s name or distract from the ultimate goal of enlightenment. Sex, therefore, is viewed as something vile or evil.

Now, what separates homosexuals from heterosexuals is the fact that they like the same sex. Buddhism ends up not only avoiding the topic of sex, it also distances the non-normative gender and sexuality from the religion by virtue of letting the notion that the opposite-sex relationships is the acceptable form of relationships take hold—or by suggesting that people who are attracted to the opposite sex are more likely to understand the Dharma. Buddhism denies any discussions about sex, and those with non-normative behavior are systemically excluded because of this.

TCIJ: If we want to change the view of Thai Buddhists on this, how do we do it?

Phra Chai: It can’t be done. The best we can do is to keep talking about it. Since I’ve started doing this work more than ten years ago, I’ve come to realize that things can’t be changed, but we can still express our opinions so that those who are willing to listen and agree with us will understand the right approach to this matter.

TCIJ: Do you think Buddhism is keeping up with the times?

Phra Chai: If we look at the big picture, I can’t say. There are some schools, such as Phra Paisal’s, that try to apply the core of Buddhism to contemporary issues, but in general Buddhism in Thailand is varied. You can say Buddhism has adapted enough. You can also argue otherwise. I think it is more likely the latter. However, I must admit that Buddhist schools that are focused more on practice than on semantics when compared to the 1950s. You would find that back then, there weren’t that many schools that focus on the practice itself. Today, more people understand the foundations of mindfulness. On the other hand, there’s also an increasing number of the trendy materialistic form of Buddhism, where you paste gold leafs on the Buddha statutes or sacred marker spheres (Luuk Nimit). So, it’s hard to tell whether Buddhism has adapted quickly enough, but I can say for certain that there are many issues whereby it hasn’t done so.

Is there an ideal income inequality?

As a proponent of egalitarianism, I often get worked up by the growing disparity in our world–be it in income, race, gender or otherwise. Let’s talk about income equality today. Movements like Occupy Wall Street (remember “We are the 99%?”) represent the majority’s discontent with inequality. It’s not about any kind of inequality though. It’s about systemic and deeply-rooted societal mechanisms that help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Here’s a thought from my shower: Is there such a thing as an ideal level of inequality? Total absolute equality is realistically impossible, since that would entail, among many other things, everyone (and I mean everyone–like the CEO and the janitor) getting paid equally. I don’t see this happening anytime soon. Besides, total income equality may be kinda boring, isn’t it? Considering that social mobility and money are prime motivators for most workers, absolute equality may turn out to be harmful.

It turns out that I’m far from being the first person to think about this. There is a question posted on Quora entitled What is the ideal gini coefficient if the end goal is a prosperous and thriving society? Gini coefficient is the most common form of measuring income equality in a given country, with 1 representing a single person controlling all the wealth and 0 representing absolute equality.

I found a neat chart from Geo-Mexico.com that shows the Gini coefficients for various OECD countries:

gini-coefficient-change-oecd

Anyway, the Quora question received a brilliant and thoughtful response from a guy named Jacob Jensen. You should check out his full answer, but here’s his first and then the last two paragraphs:

There is no ideal per se. 25, which is roughly Scandinavian countries after redistributive effects of their govt taxing/spending, could suck if it’s because your country just underwent a revolution and all people at the upper end either had their property appropriated or emigrated (or both).

<truncated middle paragraphs>

What all this seems to say to me is that a Gini in mid 30’s to 50’s is compatible with high growth in a developing nation, and therefore generally acceptable, while a gini in the 20’s to low 40’s is typical of developed nations correlating pretty strongly with government efforts to create a safety net. Accidents of history play a role in determining these ranges – perhaps, for instance, Brazil or South Africa will hit 30K GDP per capita with gini’s above 50 (though I doubt it), or perhaps we’lll see a developing nation that pulls of a miracle and sees high growth with a low-30’s GDP, or a developed nation that really commits to laissez faire and edges into the 50s or higher.

On the other hand, misery, instability and stagnation are compatible with any gini as Ukraine (28), Egypt (32), Chad (40), Bulgaria (46), Zimbabwe (50, yes even with Mugabe), and Haiti (60)

At the end, it seems to me like this is a question with no right answer. Ultimately, your notion of an ideal Gini coefficient is informed largely based on your values. For me, a country that I can be proud of is one that doesn’t have its citizens featured in Forbes’ richest people in the world list. I’ll take .25 over .50 any day. Heck, if getting to .15 is possible thenI’ll take this too, but only if equality doesn’t come at the expense of freedom and well-being.

I remain optimistic in observing what the Scandinavian countries will continue to achieve in this regard.

Are you a misfit in your own country? Your values vs cultural values

In my past explorations of research on well-being, I was introduced to Shalom Schwartz’s culture model, which breaks down the cultural values of countries into seven clusters, like this:

slide09 (1)

There is another model by Geert Hofstede called Cultural Dimensions Model, which dissects culture into six dimensions:

– Power Distance Index (PDI): Higher PDI = more tolerance of power differences in the society
– Individualism (IDV): As in individualistic vs collectivistic attitudes. Higher IDV means more individualistic.
– Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI): The higher the UAI, the less comfortabe the culture is to uncertainty.
– Masculinity (MAS): Troublesome name for this one. Higher MAS means a preference for competitiveness, assertiveness and materialism over relationships and quality of life.
– Long-term Orientation/Pragmatism (LTO): Higher LTO means the culture places more value on the future livelihood of the society.
– Indulgence vs Restraint (IVR): High IVR means the culture believes that members of the society do not face societal expectations to suppress their desires and impulses.

Detailed descriptions can be found at (you guessed it) Wikipedia.

It goes without saying that models of culture are–by design–reductive. One can easily create a cultural model specific to gender, income level or even career. However, for the sake of comparability, I think Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions are so fascinating to play with.

My main point is this: For any given country, there will be cultural misfits. And being a misfit is not so fun.

I’ve been exploring this neat tool on Hofstede’s website that allows users to compare the cultural values of three different countries. Try one on your own! Here’s one I created comparing 1) Thailand, my hometown, 2) USA, where I spent my formative years and 3) Denmark, one of the countries I respect the most:

Hofstede Thailand US Denmark

From the above data, it makes sense why Thailand currently has its current form of government, why Occupy Wall Street happened, why the Danes are among the happiest people in the world, or why there are more senior citizens in nursing homes in the US than in Thailand.

This comparison gets me thinking about my own values and how I don’t fit in to the Thai society. Here’s what I look for in a culture:

– PDI: As low as it can get.
– IDV: Probably somewhere in the middle. I do enjoy the pursuit of my own goals in life, but they are grounded in what I believe have to be done for the betterment of the society as a whole.
– MAS: Can a country have a MAS value of 0?
– UAI: At this time, we need a society who embraces bold ideas for the future. A high UAI is the way to go.
– LTO: The future shouldn’t be discounted. A high LTO is only appropriate.
– IVR: Well, for this one, I retain in me the teachings of Thailand. A low IVR is more to my liking.

So, based on my preferences, it’s easy to understand why I’m not happy in Thailand, nor in the United States. I have to move outside this planet to Denmark! Or somewhere in northern Europe.

What about you? This is a fun exercise! Go compare some countries.

0321 – How The Higher Ups Told Me to Relinquish Control

It never ceases to amaze me how messages are delivered to me. My latest message from up above is about letting go. Let me tell you a story.

I’m a planner. I plan everything in my life, and I tend to always try to be right on time for things, so as to not waste my precious minutes. I love planning because it makes me feel in control of my own life. I generally take pride in the fact that I use my time very efficiently, except when my plans don’t work out of course. More often than not, God has been kind to me; most of my plans work out. Sometimes, I try to squeeze too much out of my minutes, and ended up losing all of them.

In December last year, I was planning an ambitious three-day BKK-SIN-HKG weekend. It was one hell of a trip that started before I even boarded my first flight. Just the week before this trip, I stumbled upon an interview of my new friend Kevin Miller, who’s currently traveling around the world learning and doing new things. In the interview, he said this:

How would you sum up your experience thus far, traveling the world, and being an entrepreneur?
​Fear holds everyone back if they let it. Trust the process, we only control maybe 50% of the game. Trust.

I paused at “we only control maybe 50% of the game.” As a planner that plans for 100%, it’s a truth I don’t like to admit. But I never imagine this sentence being hammered into my mind in such a sudden and dramatic way. Here’s a (not so) brief recap of the more stressful–or exciting, depending on how you look at it–incidents that happened over that fateful December weekend.

Let’s push that “check-in counter closes 30 minutes before departure” limit

I decided that since I am only bringing a carry-on, I can get to the airport just 45 minutes beforehand. I added a 15-minute cushion in there, so I planned to be there 60 minutes before. Guess what. I waited for the elevator for 5 minutes longer than I thought. I waited for the taxi to the train station 15 minutes longer than I thought. AND I waited for the train to the airport 10 minutes longer than I thought. I literally dashed out of the train to the check-in counter after I arrived. I ended up at the check-in desk 25 minutes before my flight. I was already marked as a no-show. That was a first for me. Thankfully, the agent made some calls and was able to help undo the no-show for me.

Runaway runways

So I made it on the plane. Phew. I had a full night of activities planned in Singapore, and I was relieved that was staying intact, or so I thought. One of the runways at BKK was not in operation. We were delayed for about half an hour taking off. Then, at SIN, there was terrible weather that led to heavy traffic. My plane was ordered to hold position and fly around in circles for 30 minutes–another first for me! I lost a total of one hour, which disrupted my plans.

Absent Mind = Absent Possessions, Round 1

– On my flight from Singapore to Hong Kong, I left my phone charger on the plane, which meant I was potentially going to be phoneless in Hong Kong. I freaked out because I was planning two days of hiking in far away places and really could use the navigational assistance. Fortunately, the hotels I were staying at had chargers for me to borrow. AND I managed to get my phone charger back from the wonderful Singapore Airlines. Again, not much harm done here.

Out of time… Ahhh! Round 1

Hong Kong was where things got insanely stressful. I spent two nights there, but at different hotels to take full advantage of my hotel points. The first day I went hiking, I was supposed to be back in time before my 1pm checkout time. Of course, I spent longer than I thought on the hike, and I neglected to account for the longer travel time on the way back than on my journey there. The hotel was very full that day and sounded really firm that they couldn’t extend the check-out, and I was worried that they would charge me for being late. I arrived at the hotel a good 1 hour and 5 minutes after I planned to. I had to get my key card reprogrammed as it already expired, and hurried to my room to pack and leave.

Out of time… Ahhh! Round 2

The second day in Hong Kong was another pleasant hike along a place called Clearwater Bay. This time my friend and I finished the hike on-time, but what we didn’t anticipate was the fact that there was going to be a HUGE tour group there at the end as well that wanted to take the same bus back as I did to make the connection to the train. The bus came every 30 minutes. I missed the first two. Fortunately, when I reached the train station and sprinted into the station, I made the first train right before the door was about to close. Time salvaged. I made it back to the hotel at 4.30pm (I was supposed to check out at 4pm), had to reprogram my keycard AGAIN. And no issues again as well. How lucky can I get.

Let’s push the “gate closes 10 minutes before departure” this time

Now, it was around 4.45pm. My flight was at 7.20pm. The train to the airport takes 25 minutes. I should just head to the airport at this time, right? Oh, noooo. I don’t do that. I would be waiting for too long at the airport. I went to meet up with an old friend to catch up. I decided to leave for the airport at 5.45pm. Plenty of time, right? Well, the security line was 15 minutes long, and immigration was another 30. THEN–I was not aware of this–I had to take a train to a satellite terminal to get to my gate! Boarding door closes at 7.10pm. I made it there at 7.09pm. Not even kidding. Phew. I stunk so bad that day after rushing from the hiking place to my hotel then from my hotel to the airport.

Wait! It’s not over just yet!

On the flight, I realized I’ve made a grave mistake. In my mad dash to check out of my hotel on the second day, I forget to clear the safe. It contained my wallet and my Kindle.

We were mid-air. There was nothing I could have done. It just dawned on me right then and there–somewhere in the skies above Southeast Asia–that all these are lessons for me to let go. I have to realize that some things I really can’t control. You can only anticipate so much. There will continue to be mistakes. Things won’t always go according to plan. I will almost certainly continue to be at the receiving end of unfortunate events.

“We only control maybe 50% of the game.”

God was indeed kind this time. I also managed to get my wallet and Kindle back in the mail–within just one day for the case of the wallet. Amazing. My lessons came at a very low price, but they are remembered alright.

For most of 2014, I’ve been an uptight and stubborn child, complaining about things I cannot change and always planning for imagined brighter days ahead. I did not live 2014 well. But it’s over, and now 2015 is my present–in both senses of the word.

Relinquish control: This is one of my goals for 2015.

Let go and let God.

May 2015 come to you with peace and mindfulness.

0320 – Dedicated to all the weary environmentalists out there

The New York Times had a fascinating piece on the toll of environmental activism on the people in the movement. The title? “It’s the End of the World as We Know It… And He Feels Fine.”

Do take a minute to at least skim it. It really is fascinating, and I know firsthand that it heartrendingly strikes many of our tender and overused chords.

The article follows the life of Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of a new movement called The Dark Mountain Project. The movement is said to be difficult to define even by its members, so I shall not attempt it. In general terms, the movement is said to be about “mourning, grief and despair.” While this seems just godawful and depressing at first (in fact, the whole article is kinda depressing), there really is a point to all this–an invigorating one for me at least. The main gist:

“On the surface, it can indeed seem as if Kingsnorth is giving up. Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future. Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. “Why do I do this,” he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, “when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than most people do.” [emphasis mine]”

Most, if not all, of us environmentalists experience multiple depressive episodes in our lives. Look, knowing what we know from science and seeing firsthand how powerless we can be when fighting big companies or encouraging behavior change, it’s hard for us not to feel hopeless. In fact, I personally have kind of given up. I just don’t care enough, because I feel like I’m not making any impact. My main rewards are mockery and arguments. Because of this, I sometimes feel ashamed to even label myself an environmentalist, but allow me to do so for the purpose of this article.

We care so much, but change so little. The science just sucks. At this point, we arguably are already doomed. And at some point, I think we need to accept this. BUT this doesn’t mean the movement is designed to be nihilistic or depressing. Instead, I found this to be incredibly inspiring:

“They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’ ”

I have a feeling that I’m not very wrong when I say that environmentalists find a lack of community to grapple the extent of our environmentalism-induced funks. But this piece validates what we have been feeling. This piece makes us believe it’s real–and it’s okay.  We have to be realistic. We have to face the possibilities. We have to deal with the probabilities.

What does this mean for me? Above all else, I hope this helps people to understand. We are misunderstood. We’re not crazy. We’re not just trying to annoy you. We’re not just hippies. We’re just crazy passionate. And also crazy frustrated. I hope this helps people understand that being a part of this movement is very very hard because of our passion. As the list of bad news grow and good news diminish, we will continue to feel more grief. So allow us to acknowledge what we feel. Allow us to grief. Allow us to mourn. Allow us to cry. Allow us to ask “Why, God?” and not get an answer. Give us understanding. Give us your shoulder. Give us your ears. Give us your empathy.

So, to all the environmentalists out there, it’s okay. I hear you. WE hear each other. There’s no need to be ashamed if you’ve stopped caring. Even though we couldn’t save the world no more, we still have a reason to fight. For the joy when we the small pockets of life that we yearn for.

Happy Earth Day!