This month, I enrolled in a 4 week course on Buddhism led by a member of our Unitarian Congregation here in Edmonton. I’ve always been interested in Eastern religions and the opportunity of this course coupled with my first opportunity to visit South East Asia, proved to be a great learning opportunity.
On the first evening of the course we were discussing basic Buddhist concepts including, of course, the Four Noble Truths, the first of which is that all life is suffering. These kind of all inclusive statements always make me suspicious -especially when they don’t align with own experience. In a similar way that I reject the Christian idea that I am an inevitable sinner, (though I do make mistakes) I have trouble conceiving of my life as continuous suffering. With the caveat that I realize that I am a privileged male, with high status job, in a rich country, I mentioned this confusion to the class and the course instructor. She wondered if my moments of anger weren’t suffering (but I don’t get angry that often either) and I later reflected that certainly the degeneration of the body through aging causes suffering as most recently experienced with death of my Mother a few months ago. Nonetheless, I wasn’t sure about the veracity of this first Noble Truth.
The evening after the second class of the seminar, I headed off to Bangkok to deliver the keynote at the Asian Regional Association for Open Courseware and Open Education Conference. The trip went well and I was met at the airport by my ever attentive Thai hosts, and driven to a nice hotel in downtown Bangkok. The next few days were spent touring the quite amazing sites, palaces, historic and modern temples in this capital city and attending the conference. It is a wonderful and privileged way to see the sites, with a local faculty member from the Thai Cyber University Project (my hosts for the whole journey) to guide and translate and a private driver
and the company of colleagues from Japan and the US. My talk went pretty well and the food, conversation and “networking” was great. My hosts heard that I was interested in hammered dulcimer music and found a shop that sold me traditional Thai Khim, for a very reasonable price. Now, if I can only learn to tune and play it!!
Four days after my arrival in Thailand, we took a 70 minute flight to Sakon Nahkon, capital of a state in North Eastern Thailand not far from the Laos border. This second conference was for an annual meeting of the computer service directors from all Thai Universities, held at Kasetsart University an Agricultural University. We attended the opening ceremony, wore our VIP badges, but the proceedings were in Thai, so we didn’t add much and spent the afternoon touring the rice, cotton and forestry test plots at the University.
That is when suffering struck! A small discomfort in my stomach soon turned into a now becoming too familiar acute gastritis attack. The next 48 hours were spent retching and moaning about the suffering in my miserable life. My hosts were very understanding and I was visited by a pharmacist and a physician and was relived from having to give my second lecture of the trip.
The Lord Buddha, had indeed taught me a lesson about suffering!
I recovered, though still a bit sore, for a two final days of touring, notably to the beautiful temple on the banks of the historic Mekong River. On our final day we visited Ban Chiang World Heritage site, where evidence of brass and iron tool production from as early as 5500 years ago has been discovered – causing historians to rethink the Euro/African/Chinese centric view of early bronze age tool development.
We visited probably over 10 temples, all of which were very ancient, in very active use, or both. Orange robed monks were much in evidence in both towns and in the rural areas. Buddhism is a part of the day to day to lives of nearly everyone, as evidenced by the shrines in the yards of most houses. The monks, whose daily food is acquired each morning from the people and must be consumed by noon, treat this ‘begging’ as a gift to the people that allows them to earn good karma.
As expected the numbers of poor people, crowded cities, traffic jams and heat (for Canadian in January) were a bit much, but what stands out for me about this trip is my lesson on suffering, and the incredible kindness, constant smile and palms together greetings and gifts of the incredibly generous Thai people.