Friday, October 14, 2011

Impermanence in the Land of Smiles


For some time, Thailand has been racked with dysfunctional politics and violent conflict. These divisions have been cooled momentarily by natural disaster: terrible floods that may become worse still if, as is widely feared, the Chao Phraya breaches and the river pours into Bangkok. For a moment, enemies have become colleagues and people are banding together to safeguard homes, evacuate low-lying areas, and plan for a possible evacuation of parts of Bangkok this weekend.

Ironically, there is an old Kammu fable about a terrible flood and the problem of diversity. In the tale, a brother and sister were chasing a rat, who warned them that a flood was coming and that they should save themselves. They sealed themselves in a drum and waited out the flood while others drowned or were washed away. Brother and sister lay together (at the suggestion of a coocoo bird -- beware of advice from coocoo birds!) and the sister gave birth to a gourd. Initially, they set aside this gourd and went about their lives, but one day they heard noises coming from inside the gourd. They burnt a hole into the shell and through this hole emerged people of different races.

Just to press the metaphor of adversity and human unity further, these people did not speak at all until they sat down on a tree stump together, the stump broke, and when they all fell on their asses they yelled and found their voices.

A number of temples are under threat and it is quite possible a few will be lost. The Buddhist university, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya, was flooded yesterday and monks scrambled to save priceless Buddhist texts, forming an assembly line to pass the books from the library to safety -- and still, half the collection was damaged.

In the U.S., there are no human structures a thousand years old. To see these ancient temples overcome is impressive from an historical standpoint, but our oldest stupas and our most precious books are marked with emptiness like everything else. Anicca, impermanence, all things being of a nature to arise and cease in constant flux.

Through our existence on a rock that is twirling through the heavens at high speed, building our civilizations on shifting plates submersed in water, the world improbably seems safe enough and predictable enough that we posit permanence. And thus it is part of the human comedy that we rest on tree stumps that fall apart and send us falling on our asses.

And even more absurdly, despite this we still find reasons to fight with each other.


[Photo: AP photograph of Lokayasuttharam, a Buddhist temple immersed in Ayutthara's flood waters]

1 comment:

Kelly said...

A sobering, thought-provoking post.