by Edward B. Rackley
Nature captivates in Thailand. Its beaches and islands are legend; its birdlife and tropical flora endlessly entertain. On this visit though, nature bored me. A relentless jetlag was partly to blame. Its disorientations so warped my perceptions and instincts that I acquiesced to its inversions, accepting the Thai night as my day. Also, I was hungry not for nature but for the artifice of human imagination: grand emanations of culture, artisanry, cosmology. Has our petty species generated anything that I’ve never seen, never imagined? In creativity is there redemption for Homo Faber? For answers to this question Thailand is a gold mine.
Heavily subject to international marketing strategies and thus cast as the ‘Land of Smiles’, Thailand wants desperately to be permeated by magic. Of all possible reasons to be ‘desperately seeking’, permeation by magic is worthy enough, and seemingly free of ulterior motive. Orientalism and its facile seductions be damned, I thought, after my first week in country. If this place holds even one treasure of the human spirit, its authenticity will be self-evident to the most gullible and the most jaded.
From where I live it’s an 18-hour flight to Thailand. I learned to stop fighting jetlag long ago; it is now my companion and confidant. Wandering Bangkok streets and alleys at 3 am, nothing remained of the diurnal parade of human pursuit to entertain me. Roaming dog packs and the occasional buzz of a moto taxi broke the surprising silence of a vast urban labyrinth. I was left with night’s shadows and breezes, long walks along empty boulevards and closed shop fronts, the constant hum of yellow street lamps and neon. Repetition sets in and one begins inspecting a city for its anomalies, its artifacts of human touch, the physical traces of the shopkeeper at home ensconced in dreams.
In the shadows of commercial lots and over the walls of residential compounds, I began to notice wooden boxes of a similar dimension perched atop posts of shoulder height, always on the periphery of the lot. Were they an aesthetic afterthought; perhaps an outdoor fuse box or water meter required by city officials? I began to notice these little boxes everywhere, some dimly illuminated from within. One morning as the city began to stir, I found myself sitting amid a cluster of fishing boats and water taxis on the Chao Phraya river. Under a nearby Banyan tree I noticed another of these boxes on its pedestal, catching the sun's rays and revealing a bright color scheme.
It was an auspicious moment, as Buddhists say, because for the first time no wall stood between myself and the wooden boxes I had seen all around town. I could approach one now directly, and under clear sunlight examine it closely. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, except maybe a child's doll house, and for this I laughed out loud. On its raised pedestal, the box was in fact a meticulously carved miniature temple similar to those scattered around the city. It was clearly a shrine of some kind, populated by tiny figurines in classical Thai dress, with pointy hats, painted faces and gowns of real fabric. Their poses varied, some with bowed heads offering incense and jasmine flowers, others in dance poses surrounded by herds of tiny elephant. Other figures were arranged in a procession, leading out of the temple and down a short staircase where offerings of fruit, flowers and incense lay, presumably left by passers-by.
Spirit Houses and Sky Tassels
I later learned that these were called 'spirit houses', common in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. They provide shelter for local spirits and ancestors who could cause problems for the living if not appeased. In addition to the daily offerings to propitiate these specific spirits, the house itself is an offering of domesticity and devotion to the spirit world in general, a gesture of welcome and hospitality to the unknown and invisible.
I fell in love with these ubiquitous spirit houses, inspecting each one closely whenever it was accessible from the street. There is a certain elitism to Theravada Buddhism; this is admittedly an acquired taste. The architectural embellishments of its temples, shrines and representations of the Buddha are nothing if not arcane and gothic. Theravada architecture imposes its own economy on the fantastic, stripping it down into digestible and indelible archetypal forms. Many, starting with the ornate minutiae of the spirit houses, I had never seen before.
The history of religious art is the ongoing attempt to represent the fantastic in physical form. Thailand is famous for its infinite variety of such representations, and the long tradition of this language of expression through architecture, sculpture and painting. There is abundant beauty, to the point of utter satiety, and many surprises. But I experienced relatively few jamais vu–thoughts or forms I had never seen or imagined before. Besides the spirit houses, one other element of the Theravada tradition moved me deeply.
If there is a single feature that encapsulates the complexity and rigor of traditional Theravada architecture across Thailand, it is the sweeping, multi-tiered roofs of monastery buildings. The culmination of the roof, both literally and aesthetically, is the curious ridge finial: the chofa. Chofa means 'tassel of air' and its shape derives from Garuda, a mythical guardian figure with bird-like features common to Hinduism and Buddhism. Vishnu rides Garuda in the Mahabharata, for instance (image below). Different chofa abstract or stylize the bird to greater or lesser degree.
At my first glimpse of the chofa, I had no idea what it was–a cosmic symbol, an unfinished weather vane, an ornate lightning rod. But there was a deliberate seriousness to its shape, and I stopped in my tracks to take note. I appreciated its jagged gilded gesture, pointing skyward from a temple eave. I saw a concrete abstraction reminiscent of Brancusi’s ‘Bird in Space’, but to believers it must have signified more. Why was it this shape and not the many others that so captivated me?
I wondered about the potency of archetypes, transmitted through chance encounter with mundane plastic form. Perhaps there exist shapes (not symbols, mind you, but archetypal objects, Platonic mementos) capable of sparking awareness of the invisible and ineffable in our midst. The more chofas I saw around the country, particularly the starker, imperial ones, I never tired of their pointing to a specific holiness, a kind of pious rectitude, rising above the din of human chatter and industry.
That's all very lofty and quaint, but I was not in Thailand to savor cultural novelties, a democratic pleasure available to anyone who bothers to travel. I was there to study the conflict between Thai Muslims and the monarchist/Buddhist Thai state along the Malaysia border, and to suggest ways the US government could support media and civil society in forging peaceful solutions. Homo Faber was very busy here in his usual ways, none of them especially imaginative or sympathetic.
Although I did not see many of them, Garudas and chofas followed me to the conflict in spirit, this time revealing a different aspect of their place in Buddhist cosmology. The Thai government has over the years invested in reinforcing the Buddhist presence there, ostensibly to remind local Muslims that they live in a majority Buddhist nation whose monarchy are essentially Buddhist divinity. Cultural chauvinism is alive and well in Thailand.
The national army and the monarchy are famously intimate, and recent troubles in Bangkok between royalists and their opponents have been quelled by military and police. So where the Thai majority dominate to the point of homogeneity, the serenity for which Thailand is famous naturally prevails. But in the Deep South, as it's called in the press, Muslims outnumber Buddhists and the national security apparatus, whose symbol is the Garuda, is out in force. In Buddhist mythology Garuda is a giant predatory bird, whose size is so immense it can block out the sun–in this case, the sun of ethnic and religious difference.
As we approached the first police roadblock, I noticed a long line of parked motor scooters along the road. All had their seats lifted forward to reveal their gas tanks. Our driver, a local stringer for Reuters covering the insurgency, noticed my gaze and explained, 'It's a way to confirm the absence of explosives–we've had a number of scooter bombings this year.' Arriving in Pattani, life seemed mostly normal, with the exception of military hardware, roadblocks and metal detectors. The lobby of our hotel had been decimated months before by a bomb; now it was completely refurbished. Gamelan music played over the intercom in the lobby as I checked in. I had to laugh at the calm I felt after the day's hectic drive through roadblocks, meeting innocent victims of the fighting, and yet aware that this hotel was a target.
I am no expert on the situation in southern Thailand, but certain circumstances clearly justify the notion that freedom is built by the sword, that 'freedom isn't free'. It is evident to anyone affected by the conflict that the insurgency stems from a civil rights issue–a state failure to recognize the rights of an ethnic and religious minority. Thailand has trouble accepting that some Thais are ethnically 'other', not Buddhist, and suspicious of the monarchy. Yet there is no crime in being any of these things.
I have no great ideas for how to solve the great rift between Thai Muslims and their Buddhist compatriots. Progressive Thais have tried reconciliation in many different forms, to little effect. I was struck by strong parallels with the US wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, where the rationale of 'national security' is quick to suffice as the primary justification for engagement. But this heavy-handed response pours fuel on the fire, and makes dialog with insurgents impossible. It creates fanatics and extremists where none may have existed before. This in turn justifies an increased defense budget, and the state of siege continues. The Thai military has a 'hearts and minds' campaign, but it is flat-footed and ridiculed by southern Muslims.
Neither the battle for freedom by southern insurgents nor the military occupation to preserve national security were succeeding. I thought of all the wars I've worked in, and my conviction that the fog of war always trumps the moral clarity and political purpose that leaders ascribe to it. More pointedly, I see no direct causal linkage between the freedoms I enjoy right now and the barrel of a gun deployed by a US citizen-soldier in the past or present. Infinite other factors are at play to explain the perseverance of my fragile domestic liberties: the vigilance of our judiciary, the protests of media and countless other forms of popular pressure. Nothing is so simplistic and reductive as the assertion, now a platitude of biblical proportions, that our quality of life was paid in blood.
But many Americans continue to romanticize war as the crucible of this country's relative freedom and stability; specifically, the myth that US military are dying abroad to protect American living standards. Without all this dying and these sacrifices, the US would somehow crumble into an inchoate, anarchic mess, and our enemies would take over. My response is that if the service of God and country–patriotism by any other name–requires bloodlust to be true, then go see a shrink.
America has its threats and enemies, foreign and domestic, and they are real. But this alone is inadequate to justify a national narrative built on blood sacrifice. For those of us who reject the purported causal connection between the defense industry and the quality of American living standards, what narrative exists to satisfy this need for national belonging? Individual identities are fungible and fluid, 'multiple identities' is an asset in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. But surely a country requires a robust sense of identity if it is to be more than a planetary street address. Perhaps this is the price of replacing the unquestioned dominance of a majority narrative–the norm in contemporary Thailand–with a public space in which countless identity narratives are allowed to coexist and compete.