Mean Streets, Peaceful River
by Larry Calloway (c) 2012
In the new Bangkok air terminal a long sculpture on the way to international departures depicts a tug of war, demigods v. devils, in the clean bright primary colors of Theravada Buddhist temples. This moral chemistry, this dynamic equilibrium of unresolved issues that has gone on since the beginning is a fine Hindu creation myth.
In this story, “Churning the Ocean of Milk,” the Asuras and Devas pull back and forth on a rope hitched around a spindle. (The rope is a mythological snake, the spindle is a sacred mountain, and the winners will get immortality if they last, but we’ll never know.) From the disturbance of the Milky Way came a number of things, depending on the version. The version in my Western eyes as I departed – perhaps finally – was cosmic. It was creation via the slightest first tick of information in the ocean of Zen Emptiness, like Milton’s Satan crossing Chaos and leaving a track from which all organization evolved. The sculpture also is Thailand, where the nightclubs are as famous as the temples (and a whore would never touch a monk) and yellow shirts and red shirts hold staggered demonstrations and democracy alternates with military dictatorship and committees on national reconciliation don’t reconcile. Whatever, the reciprocating engine produces something wonderful like . . . life.
Thailand then, Laos now
- A king at rest
(C)text and photos by LARRY CALLOWAY
The first thing I noticed from the door of the Pan Am 707 at the old airport in Bangkok that day before the rainy season in May 1963 was Air America. A C47 or some other transport with that logo was parked in plain sight. We knew it was the CIA’s airline and we knew its headquarters probably was the American base at Udorn Thani up north (where somebody said all the prostitutes had gone). We knew there was a war beginning in Indochina. But all this was none of our business. We were young volunteers in President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps.
Forty-five years later stepping off an Asia Air jet I noticed the steel-channeled concrete at Udorn airport is still in good shape. Built for the heavy B52 bombers, I thought. “Work horses.” But Indochina was at peace now, except for border skirmishes, and I was finding my way to Laos, where we could not go back then.
Tourist In The Most Bombed Place
(c)by LARRY CALLOWAY
THE JARS on the Plain of Jarres (French colonialists named it) are empty. The bomb craters from the secret war in Laos, pockmarks of a sick strategy called “madman,” are not empty. They hold the remnants of cluster bombs that popped open in the air and birthed out baby bombs in tricky patterns. The “bomblets” (military jargon) were designed to explode and fragment at intervals, and some were destined to explode years later like forgotten land mines.
“The use of delayed-action antipersonnel weapons on the Plain after 1967 made life above ground very hazardous,” a report by the Congressional Research Service found. Villagers lived in trenches or caves. They farmed at night. One fourth to one third of
Cluster Bomb Casings
the Lao population became refugees, it said. The casualties at the height of the B52 sorties from 1970 to 1973 were estimated at 90,000 including 30,000 deaths. Each B52 bomber could drop 108 500-pound bombs from an altitude of 18,000 to 30,000 feet.
Descending to the Xieng Khouang provincial air strip in north central Laos near the new town of Phonsavan (the old one was destroyed in the war) I could see the craters, lines of red pocks in a land that reminded me of the arid part of the Colorado San Luis Valley where I live. Among the greeters of the dozen passengers in the waiting room was a young guide named Suen, whom I chose intuitively. He worked for a five-room guest house by some rice paddies on an ugly highway. Bomb casings decorated the entry. A wall of the dining room displayed war weapons.
Thich Nhat Hanh In Hanoi
Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam in May for a retreat followed by a United Nations conference was a triumph for his “engaged Buddhism.” Not only was his global influence evident at the conference, but he and 400 retreatant-delegates (most of us Westerners) were warmly received on a dramatic slow walk in the center of Hanoi.
What is the relationship of Buddhism to genocide?
We were sitting on bamboo mats in a dark pagoda built at the site of a former Khmer Rouge killing field on the highway from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat. Our Cambodian guide was struggling through a recitation on the life of the Buddha depicted traditionally in murals on the walls and ceiling. “Bodhi tree there, Buddha he enlighten, eightfold path. . .”
I watched a monk who had been sleeping on a canvas cot in a cool place by the altar shuffle to a doorway. He stood in the bright frame searching the folds of his saffron robe for something – a pack of cigarettes. He looked depressed. The guide was getting the eightfold path wrong. “Right talk, right think, not steal and lie, right sexual. . .” I focused my old Canon SLR. The monk stood smoking in the light, looking out toward the killing field with its plain monument, a windowed box half full of human skulls.
Monument of skulls on the temple grounds
What was this monk thinking? (more…)
Recalling a Buddhist ceremony in pre-modernThailand
In a Thai village off the Gulf of Siam about 40 years ago I was swept into an ordination ceremony that, as an Eastern Classics MA would teach me in later years, defined the difference between the two vehicles of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana.
Theravada, with its orthodoxy of stories about the Lord Buddha in colloquial Pali, is the official religion of Thailand and Sri Lanka. It is the unofficial religion of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Buddhism elsewhere, including Zen, is Mahayana, the “larger vehicle,” which follows expansive texts in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. (more…)