Friday, August 26, 2005

A Bit of a Conclusion

I came to Thailand with the intention (among other things) of studying an alternative living community in an Engaged buddhist context. What does that mean? Such a community would have certain characteristics. it would be somehow outside or removed from the capitalistic, technology-based, TV watching, overproducing, overconsuming normal society that I know and have lived in my entire life. It would be close to the land. It would produce its food rather than buying it from the grocery store. Such a community would have a focus on self and ecological sustainability. These things describe what I mean by alternative living community.

What about the engaged Buddhist part? What does that mean? As far as I understood before coming here, there are lots of different types of alternative communities. Some focus on alternative energy use, some focus on alternative education, there are alternative government, alternative property-structure, alternative consumption methods, etc. So the engaged Buddhist part of the community I was looking for was to specify what kind of alternative community I wanted to study. The party culture of Southern Thailand where "firang" from all over the world congregate for months at a time is certainly an alternative community. So I feel the engaged Buddhist specification is an important classifier.

I think that should give a good idea of what my project was about. I wanted to go to a community that was both outside mainstream culture, and involved in the engaged Buddhist movement.

So it was that focus that landed me at Pathom Asoke. Pathom Asoke is a large community consisting of 3 main groups. First and most numerous are the students who live in large dorms near the center of the village. These can be seen everywhere in the community, and are easily identified by their blue uniforms. Second are the lay people who work at all kinds of jobs contributing to the maintenance of the community. The majority of lay people live in small houses around the core student center of the village. This center consists of two dorms (one male, one female), two cafeterias, two monk villages (again, segregated by sex), a 6-story school building, and a publication house. The third group is the monks. Each monk lives in a small abode, about the size of half a SMCM single dorm room. Their possesions are few: a nowl, a spoon, a straw mat to sleep on, an extra monk robe, general toiletries, maybe some books or writing utensils. In the Pathom Asoke spirit, nobody officially owns anything. The monks don't even own the small huts they sleep in. They are like auspicious little permanent squatters. Of course, they play a vital role in the community. While there is no official governing body, the word of a monk holds a great deal of sway.

As far as sustainability goes, Pathom Asoke is not completely removed from modern culture. During my time here, I have started to understand that for the present state of things complete removal might not be the best, or most effective, course of action. When you have electricity, internet, some cars, communication with modern culture becomes a lot easier. This is a concept that is central to the engaged Buddhist movement. It is not enough in this day and age to focus purely on one's own actions and spiritual journey. Even though contact with the larger world may carry with it some bad personal karma, it can bring about the end of greater universal karma.

So Pathom Asoke, and engaged Buddhists in general, do not intend to completely side-step modern culture. It is true that cars pollute the environment, and the energy used for computers reinforces an oppressive power structure, but with cars you can quickly transport people to places that need immediate aid (like southern Thailand after the Tsunami), and with electricity you can spread knowledge and wisdom over the globe and effect positive change.

To me, the engaged Buddhist movement is really about trying to find a certain balance. Let me tell a brief anecdote. I am and have been a vegetarian for four years. Along the way, I have also decided to stop using leather products. I was in a store recently trying to buy a good pair of hiking boots. Of course I asked if they had synthetic. It turns out the salesman was a vegetarian as well. However, on different moral grounds, he refused to buy synthetic boots. After all, the plastic factories that produce those synthetic materials probably do more harm to more organisms than simply taking the life of one cow. I don't know any statistics on this (and I don't really think you can ever know which action produces more harm), but it brings up an interesting point. Sometimes, the best life has to consist of bad actions. Sometimes a good vegetarian needs to eat meat, sometimes a good environmentalist needs to drive a car. There is a balance to strike between doing what is better taken out of context, and doing what is better put in context. This all points to the buddhist concept of Upaya (skillful means).

So I think Pathom Asoke is not so much an alternative living community in an engaged Buddhist context after all. Pathom Asoke is simply an engaged buddhist community. This encompasses the alternative living aspect. It is certainly believed by the founders and followers of Pathom Asoke that a sustainable life closer to the land is a superior one. They are even strictly vegetarian due to their interpretation of the first precept. As much as possible, the Asoke people try to pursue actions that bring along no personal guilt, no personal bad karma. But the people are also willing to be flexible where a little bad Karma can do a lot of good. Couple this with the Buddhist concept of interbeing, and everything falls into place. Because, after all, there is no personal karma that is not part of the larger karma of things.

The world is not a perfect place, and suffering does exist. All you can try to do is cope with it, and try not to create it whenever possible. Sometimes you are afforded a set of choices in which creating suffering is an inevitability. Actually this is the nature of life itself. For us to live, others must suffer inherently. Even in an ideal world where everybody is kind to everyone else, there is no disease, no crime, and people are all fruitarians (they only eat things that have fallen from trees) - there is suffering. What about our poor fungi friends? The fact is, to survive, we must consume, and there is constant competition for resources and energy. Something is always starving., suffering, running out of energy.

Okay, granted. Now what are we going to do about it? How are we going to spend that precious bit of energy that we have? That is what engaged Buddhism and Pathom Asoke are about. Minimize suffering where possible, and learn to experience it freely and openly where not.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Vegetarian Paradise

Back in Pathom Asoke after a two day retreat in Hua Hin. Today was great! I guess I had been in kind of a funk. I think mostly it was just homesickness (a month and a half on the other side of the world will do that to you). I broke out of it today though, stopped watching the clock, and just enjoyed being here. Now I am back to wishing i had more time here.

I had started off today with the intention of taking a long walk past Pathom Asoke's borders and seeing where that took me. But after walking for just a minute or two I saw the tofu production in full swing and I couldn't resist. I went back to my room, put on my schoolboy blues (the uniform) and hurried back. I spent the next three hours sifting through soybeans, picking out bad ones; wrapping, cutting, moving tofu blocks; or ladling tofu substrate from a giant pot onto the finishing blocks. When the apparent supervisor left for a while, the boys I was working with quickly cut off a large slab of tofu and smothered it in a red hot-and-sour sauce. We sat together laughing, eating, and looking over our shoulders. We also drank steaming hot soy milk, fresh from the milking machine, with a little brown sugar dissolved in it. Delicious! I love fresh soy products.

After that, I retired to my room for a short sojourn to read. Erika got some very enlightening readings about Pathom Asoke community specifically. It really made a difference to read some of that, because it puts eveerything we are doing here into context. I am going to read a bit more later tonight.

If nothing else, this place is a vegetarian's paradise. Not a day has gone by without some delicious tofu or textured protien dish. We've had fake duck, fake roast beef, and I think some sort of immitation ground beef product. And it is all cooked in delicius Thai dishes and spices! SO much better than that American prepackaged Boca stuff. I am starting to get spoiled! Fresh greens, fresh tofu, fresh soy protein! That stuff is hard to come by back home. I suppose I will just have to adjust when I return. Oh well.

I'm off for now. It's almost 7 o'clock at night here. Everybody wakes up at 4 here (or 6 in my case), so the nights here are short.


Thursday, June 16, 2005

Pathom Asoke

So, there has been a slight change of plan. I was so enamoured with Pathom Asoke that I decided to stay there instead of Moo Baan Dek (also a wonderful place). This is the first chance I have had to get into town and an internet café in three days since arriving at Pathom Asoke.

Pathom Asoke is a really intense place. I sleep on a straw mat on a hard tile floor on the top floor of one of the few building in the otherwise organic community setting. Behind me is a dorm of male students. At 3:30 in the morning, loud bells go off. Slow, then picking up speed and becoming fast. The dorm behind me wakes up. You can hear guitars, flutes, and one hundred young boys singing in Thai. Soon after, you hear monk chanting coming over the p.a. or just over the land. At about 4:30 all the noise reduces to a soft murmur, and you are able to fall back asleep for a short while. At 6:00, the noise begins again. More guitars and flutes and singing. More boys yelling and screaming. And, finally, it is impossible to sleep when the guy who sleeps next to you turns on one of his many teeny-bop american techno remixed tapes. Now you are up, and ready to get out.

So you leave the dorm. Soon you are greeted by one of the blue-suited students. You start working somewhere. This morning, it was the garden, digging big holes in rock-solid clay dirt soil mixture. You work for a few hours until lunch at 10. Only two meals here. Then you can break for a while until 12. After that, back to work. Weeding the garden, preparing mushroom cultivation bags, chopping cutting cooking food, etc. There is so much to do, and your assistance is always helpful. Work again until dinner at 5. After that, its your choice. You can either walk around and find some extra chores to work on, or you can retire to your room and relax. So far, I’ve been going to bed around 8 or so. By the end of the day you are so worn out, sometimes you can’t even walk. The hard floor hurts, and your sweaty body sticks to the straw mat, and you feel claustrophobic inside your mosquito net; but you are so exhausted you fall right to sleep.
I am overcoming the language barrier quickly, but not completely. The most frequent thing I say is still mai khaojai (I don’t understand). But that’s okay. Pathom Asoke is really a beautiful place, and despite all of the hardships you really feel good at the end of the day. Plus, there are thai kids of all ages, and they are so much fun and so good-natured.

Well, time to go for now. Gotta get some rest for more mindful moving meditation tomorrow.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Asok, Dhammananda Bikhuni, Thoughts on Alternative Communities

Yesterday was an incredible day. We woke up early and took a two hour bus ride to an Asoke Buddhist community. It was a wonderful little self-sustaining village. It had everything from a mushroom cultivation house, to a tofu factory, to a machine that converted plastic parts to gasoline and methane. The man who invented it was a member of the Asoke community. He only recieved two years of formal schooling. We talked to this radiant ever-smiling monk there. he told us about the community. The basic idea of the community is to follow a pure Buddhism. The monks there, while not officially ordained, practice ten precepts. The entire community is vegetarian, even the lay people. All work done there is done without pay. There is a belief in the community that doing work for pay is impure, and bad karma. The idea is that if you work for pay, you work for selfish and egotistical reasons. We were told that anybody can come live in the village, and everyone there has all they need. They all have food, shelter, clothes, and there are doctors living there as well. The village is mostly self-sustaining. They have lots of land, and grow all kinds of organic fruits and vegetables (in addition to the mushrooms and tofu). The community also produces all kinds of natural, organic, medicines, beauty products, and cleaning products. Finally, the larger Asoke community has set up a number of vegetarian restaurants around Bangkok, and other places in Thailand. This is how they make most of their revenue. However, because all work there is done voluntarily, the money can be put to good purposes such as helping out other engaged Buddhist movements, taking the community children on fieldtrips, or travelling to areas in need of help (such as southern thailand after the tsunami). After just a short time there, I decided I would split my independent research time between Bangkok and this community.

Afterwards, we visited an incredible female Thai monk named Dhammananda Bikhuni. She has gone through all sorts of struggles in becoming ordained. Yet she does not seem to have any anger about the subversive efforts the Sangha (monk community) has taken to keep her from becoming a monk. She has an incredible wealth of knowledge, and compassion. Allison, one of the group members, is going to stay with her for a couple of weeks to pursue independent research. That should be an incredible experience.

Finally, here are just a few quick notes that I want to jot down about the idea of alternative living communities. These are largely observations from just a short time at the Asoke community.
* mushroom cultivation seems incredibly intelligent, especially for a vegetarian community. Since it is a decomposer, it is not only a food, but a trash remover. Shrooms can grow on natural organic 'trash' that one would otherwise have to collect and throw away. Furthermore, they are high in protein, which is important for vegetarians.
* A functioning self-sustaining village needs a lot of land for plant cultivation. I guess this is kind of obvious.
* The asoke community had a lot of guidelines for its monks including everything from what clothes you wear (no shoes allowed, walk mindfully!), to when you wake up and go to sleep, and when you eat, etc. I have been wondering what kind of balance you strike between free willy-nilly no rules hippie land, and strict stringent monastic life. I wonder whether the people attracted by an eco-village would have a natural work ethic such that no rules would really be necessary for the village to function, or whether certain rules would need to be in place to make sure work gets done.
* The plastic to gasoline machine made me think about how important efficiency and ingenuity are to an eco-village. Try to find a use for everything on your land. No such thing as trash. If its trash now, try to find a use for it.

Thats about it for now. I'm sure after a week at Moo Baan Dek and the Asoke community I will have many more ideas about how a sustainable village can run effectively.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

at Webster University, Hua Hin

I am writing from Webster University in Hua Hin right now. We are having a couple of classes here on Engaged Buddhism with this really nice and knowledgable guy named Ted Mayer. He is an anthropologist who has a lot of experience with, and interest in, Buddhism and Thai culture. He has a really neat perspective on things. He compared Buddhism to a big mountain scape. It is really immense, and you may have a very good idea of what the picture looks like from the foothills. But then you start to climb and the landscape changes, and you see new aspects of the original thing. You continually gain new perspectives on the land. Maybe one day you finally reach the top, and you have seen all of the different perspectives, or at least many and many of them. So from the outset, we start out in Buddhism (or really anything I would contend) with certain assumptions and ideas. Then we study a subject or we experience more of it, and we see new ideas, and realize that our original way of thinking about this subject is just one small facet of it. I thought this was a really great metaphor. Sticking with the metaphor, there are infinite paths you can take from the base of a mountain to the top. This is true in the literal sense, and in the metaphorical sense here. Buddhism is very fond of this idea. There are many ways to enlightenment. We talked about how Ascetism and Engaged Buddhism are two very different paths, but they both definitely strive to reach the same point. I thought that was an interesting and important thing to point out about engaged buddhism, because at first glance it may appear more secular than ordinary Buddhism. It may seem like it is more a humanistic social path than a personal religious path. In reality it is both. This is a fact of great interest to me, and somehow feels very poignant to my own existance. I will have to think about this idea quite a bit.

Monday, June 06, 2005


first full day in bangkok. woke to sun reflecting off highrise hotel. Woke in high rise hotel. Bed, soft. Eleven hour sleep, not bad. Life of luxury for a couple days. Sauna, spa, hot tub, pool, massage, forget it. Gotta go climbing, navigate the city. Walk down Sukhumvit, don't look at the side vendors, not interested. Beautiful girls everywhere, mini skirts, belly shirts, don't look at the side vendors, not interested. Pass the lady boys, pass the bars. Up to skyway. Metro, American, like home but with Thai writing. But everything in english too. Notice that everywhere in this city is greenery. Plants, bushes, flowers, trees. Not the freshest, but air. Better than New York city, maybe the same size too. I like this, first city I have liked since toronto.

Climbing in tiny little personal size indoor cave. Routes sporadic and random. Feels good to be pulling plastic again. Called lady at the gym an hour ago. She opens door and comes outside to greet me almost before I even get off the moto-taxi. People are so friendly. Like India, but less of a demanding nature. Somewhere between sideshow interest and apathy. Pleasant. Break for a bit. Try to explain to old Thai lady vegetarianism. get out translation book. No... meat, fish, shrimp, chicken. Hungry, vegetable. She shows me eggs. Krap! Krap! Kap kum krap. I butcher the language, Yes yes, thankyou. Delicious omelette with vegetables over rice.

moto bike on the way back, pass skyway, go to highway. High speeds, fears, etc. No, No, skyway! point up. She laughs, smiles, not angry. Uturn back to station. 60. What? You said 40? She makes the sign of a Uturn. Okay, okay, 50. okay 50. Skyway, short walk back. Pass the bars, pass the sidevendors, the ladyboys, the ladys, the sex, the pirated movies, the beer wine liquor, the trees the bushes, the highrise buildings. Into my own highrise building.

Welcome to Thailand.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

First entry

Hello Everyone,

Well, I was thinking a lot about the environment the other day. The ecocrisis is so deep and difficult an issue. It is easy for me to get lost and feel completely helpless when I think about the state of things, and the life I was born into. So I talked with my parents for a while and finally wrote down these thoughts, or I guess we should call it this poem:

Oh, how do I toe the line?

I was born into this life of murder.
I mean, I kill so I may live.
We all do - or at least we all borrow energy from someone or something else,
and then we all give it back eventually.
But what do I do with it along the way?
For me to have it means someone else doesn't,
so I better make good with it while I got it.

But how?
To make good requires borrowing more energy.
The more good I make the more energy I take!
It's a slippery slope.

I could go live in the woods and borrow very little energy (and only from plants for that matter).
But then who do I leave behind?

So, instead, I could get a job helping out the land around my home immersed in a culture infamous for borrowing way too much energy.
But then who do I leave behind?

So, instead, I could spend my life trying to spread the energy, like butter, thin over the entirity of humanity.
But then who do I leave behind?

Or, instead, I could try to take all the energy back from man and return it to the source.
But then who do I leave behind?

There is always someone left behind so how do I toe the line?
Someone tell me in this life of mine, how do I toe the line?


Hmm, I should tell you all that I am not a great poet, and many things come out of me that should be essays but somehow get confused into the shape of a poem, and sometimes vice versa. So read at your own discretion.

The idea behind this last poem was that no matter what I do, I am causing suffering. I can devote my life to saving the environment but at the same time use gas and cause greenhouse gases, or roadkill. I can completely separate myself from society but then I do nothing to help anything else in the world outside of my very small local sphere, and that is to basically ignore the ecocrisis at hand. I can focus on the environment and forget humanity, or vice versa. There are so many problems right now and I am so finite. Sometimes I just get bogged down by that realization.