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Saturday, October 17, 2020

Bankok, at Night


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Bangkok is one of those places where at the moment the day slowly progresses to the night you still have enough to see as long as you are not tired. The scenic spots, the palaces and temples, are best visited during the day, but at night, Bangkok takes on a whole different face. Parties, night markets, nightclubs, street food and unique shows come to life luring the visitors to experience the night in the city.

Street shopping by day is exciting despite the heat of the sun in this city, but as the day cools down in the evening, the night markets opened up like blooming night flowers offering so much more than the day markets, clothes, shoes, handicrafts, fake designer goods, accessories, beachwear, souvenirs and of course snack and drink. In the narrow alleyway brightly lighted with portable neon, you can see row upon row of stalls lining the street markets. Colorful goods are displayed on the stalls as attractive as possible, and energic vendors raise their voices to promote their goods. When buying, don’t forget to bargain, generally you can get a merchandise somewhere between 25% and 50% cheaper than the first price offered by the vendor. So don’t hesitate to bargain and bring home some memorable souvenirs from here.

Many of busiest night markets are located alongside the popular red-light district, such as the Silom Night market. It is in the middle of the Patpong district, a famous red light featured in the movie The Deer Hunter and in James Bond Goldfinger movie. Patpong is two parallel side streets, between Silom and Surawongse Roads, occupied with shady strip bars offering adult shows and pole dancing. As the evening turns into night those bars come alive with the start of loud dancing music. You can see through the open doors the girls started gyrating at the poles and dancing, under violet neon lights. The loud voices of the street vendors are replaced with the whispering touts offering everything from “ping pong show” to “massage”.

Undoubtedly the face of this Patpong contributes to the name of Bangkok as the Sin City. Prostitution may take place in many places in Bangkok, massage parlours, restaurants, saunas, karaoke, go-go bars or beer bars. The names to the bars are so bold, such as Pussy Collection, Super Pussy, Pink Pussy… hard to miss. The original “discreet” or “underground” nightlife in Patpong doesn’t seem to exists anymore. The go-go bars at the backdrop of the night market even became a tourist attraction.

So what happened to the face of Bangkok which name means City of Angels, where orange robed monks wander the streets in the early mornings with a bowl in their hands, where mothers since more than 2,500 years ago have been cooking meals to give to the monks, where there are thousands of temples inside the city, and there are altars in every crowded corner of the city to placate the spirits….?

Does Thai Buddhism tolerate such widely spread prostitution by not correcting the attitudes toward women whom are regarded as inferior and even dangerous to men, or does the religion contribute to the view that women are viewed as inherently impure and therefore not eligible for enlightenment, and are thus locked into degraded positions ranging from sex trade laborers to nuns as a means to generate merit for themselves and their family?

Although Buddhism has played a significant role in shaping law, cultural frameworks and social life in the kingdom of Thailand, I think many factors contribute to the wide spread prostitution, let’s say the World War 2, the Vietnam War, the poverty in the country where prostitutes can get 10 times more than the minimum wage, and not to mention the corruptions, the lack of law enforcement, and the Mafia  that is also involved in the political parties.

Despite the wide spread prostitution here, it is actually prohibited under Thai law. But karaoke bars, go-go bars and massage parlours can be registered as normal, legal businesses. Police usually treat the prostitution at such premises as an exchange between the prostitute and the client, an exchange to which the owner of the business was not a party.  So in practice it is tolerated, sometimes because local officials have financial interests in the prostitution. Some corrupt Thai authorities may turn a blind eye on this USD 6 billion industry, involving some 2 million women in Thailand.




Saturday, September 26, 2020

Bangkok, at the Grand Palace

What more to say about the Grand Palace of Bangkok, there are so many things to see and photograph, statues of animal-like humans, sparkling golden tiled walls and roofs, gardens, paintings, soaring spires, golden stupas, the endless row of gold Garudas, and not to mention the highly venerated Emerald Buddha. No wonder that the Grand Palace has been the center of Thai art and culture for centuries and regarded as the model of every branch of Thai art. The palace is considered the reflection of the Thai identity.

When King Rama I ordered the move of the capital to the Phra Nakhon District in 1782, he established the Grand Palace as the new center of the kingdom. He drew inspiration from the palace in Ayutthaya , the former capital of Siam, destroyed by the Burmese in the 1767. The Grand Palace was strategically placed next to the Chao Phraya River to emulate the palace of Ayutthaya. The layout of the Grand Palace, which covers 213,677 square metre space, also emulates the old palace in Ayutthaya with separate courts, walls, gates and forts. These different zones within the palace complex include the Outer Court, the Central Court, the Inner Court and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. In order to find the necessary material for the construction of the Grand Palace, King Rama I instructed his people to go to the destroyed Ayutthaya, to dismantle and remove of bricks and stones which were painstakingly towed downriver to form the new palace.

Part of the Grand Palace complex, Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is the holiest Buddhist temple in Thailand and home to the Emerald Buddha. Chaophraya Chakri, who became King Rama I, brought the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane when he captured the city in 1778. He built the temple and enshrined the Emerald Buddha there as a symbol of Siam's regained nationhood.

The mythical and historical past of the statue created an important belief surrounding the Emerald Buddha. It is believed that it protected a monarch, their city or capital. If a king was dethroned or defeated in battle, the Emerald Buddha was taken as a hostage and kept in the capital of the victor. It is thought to have spiritual power and is an extremely important icon to the Thai people.

But I was surprised to see the legendary Emerald Buddha looked so tiny, 66 centimetres in height, perched high on a nine-metre pedestal that reaches almost to the ceiling of the temple. The Emerald Buddha, carved from a single piece of grey-green jade, is elevated above the heads of visitors as a sign of respect. You also must sit with your feet pointing away from the Emerald Buddha as a sign of respect.

I found the most breathtaking aspect of the Emerald Buddha Temple is its decorated outer walls. The walls are covered with 178 colorful mural panels painted during the reign of Rama I showing scenes from the Ramakien, which is Thailand’s version of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. In the Ramakien, names, dress, customs, weapons and even the topography all relate to the Thai kingdom. Rama being incarnated from the Hindu god Vishnu, in Ramakien he is a reincarnation of the Buddha. His kingdom Ayodhya in the Ramayana epic is changed to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand.



Friday, September 4, 2020

Bangkok, at the Siam Paragon

Along the roads of Bangkok, we can see that this city is a heaven for consumerism. Billboards are everywhere, huge and bright, advertising big companies from Samsung to Toyota.  Even high-rise buildings are also stuck with huge billboards. In a way it looks awesome.

Also at the sky metro train stations, you cannot be bored waiting for the trains as there are many colorful billboard screens with happy pretty artists offering cosmetics, fruit juices, and, of course, all kind of clothes.  It seems that these ’influencers’ are following us everywhere like street vendors offering their goods, and chasing you if you don’t pay attention to them, starting from the time you wait for the sky trains till you reach your destination.  And yes, even inside the trains there are many tv screens showing advertisements. They are the virtual street vendors, but with broad smiles and white teeth, dancing and jumping dynamically that follow you everywhere, in contrast with the real street vendors with rugged clothing, sunburnt face, sadly offering their goods as if begging.

As the sky-train arrived at the Siam station interchange station, let’s forget about the street vendors, as we are arriving to the Siam Paragon shopping mall, the paragon of shopping malls. Occupying one of the busiest transit intersections in the city, the shopping mall takes advantage of its prominent location by serving as a critical link to the surrounding district. According to Arcadis, the architect company of this shopping mall, the design reflects the level of luxury envisioned by the Arcadis team with a dramatic glass atrium that serves as the mall’s grand entrance. Perhaps the designer’s greatest accomplishment - and challenge-is the way it addresses issues of circulation and layout of this shopping mall.

Inside, it is a wonderland of high-end boutiques lining up at the lobby from Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel, followed by Fendi, Bottega Venetta. The shop windows are nicely decorated with the boutique’s latest fashion, clothes, bags, shoes, etc. displayed to suit the season, this time the theme is ‘The year of the Dog’.  Dogs are displayed playing with bags, shoes, wallets inside the windows. We can say that the shop windows are quite a creative work by itself, they are really enticing our consumeristic instinct. We can see some Chinese tourists lining up obediently in front of the Louis Vuitton’s door.

Luxurious is an understatement for this shopping mall, as it not only has high-end boutiques, but also show rooms for very expensive and exclusive cars, Rolls Royce, Aston Martin, Bentley, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati and Porsche. The cars look so impeccable, but inside the glass cased show-rooms they look like toys in large scale inside glass box. And the shop attendants seemed bored by themselves as nobody came inside the show-rooms.

But that is not all…., there is an Ocean Aquarium in the basement, multiplex cinemas with 15 large screens, Thai Art Gallery, the KidZania for kids to learn and play, the Japanese chain Kinokuniya bookstore, the Paragon department store, a super market and not to mention the high-end restaurants. And it even has an Opera Theatre on the 5th floor!

On the way down the escalators I could hear a background music by REM in ‘Shiny Happy People’:
‘Whoa, here we go…
Everyone around, love them, love them.
Put it in your hands, take it, take it.
There's no time to cry, happy, happy…’


Saturday, August 8, 2020

An Interview with Haruki

Recently I followed the Japanese TV drama “Aibou” (Partners), a detective drama series on internet. The drama is quite interesting, like many Japanese detective movies this drama series has a very complicated plot, so complicated that it is hard to swallow. It seems that the story writer made it complicated in an attempt to enhance mystery, to make it harder to guess ‘who done it’. Other than that, the stories sometimes reflect the unique Japanese culture and tradition, like the sense of perfection, honesty, pride in profession, honour and sacrifice for the community, which intertwined with the criminal deed in the drama.

However, as I reached episode 9 and 10 of Season 11 my jaw dropped watching it, as the underlying tradition of the story was so peculiar and appalling. I could not imagine how somebody could this mysterious practice in real life. But knowing that this drama series often include Japanese tradition in the story, the practice must be a reality, not a fiction.

The crime took place in a remote mountain area covered with dense forest, a place so serene and peaceful such that it is hard to imagine a crime could take place here. The crime was compelled by an 11th century ancient practice called Sokushinbutsu, an act of self-mummification of a Buddhist monk to be “a Buddha in this very body”. In Sokushinbutsu practice the monk intentionally died to preserve his own body to become a mummy, in the quest for nirvana.

I was curious to find-out what drove this religious tradition, how could it happen this way? So I contacted Haruki, a Buddhist monk I know, living in the Churenji Temple in Dewa Sanzan, Yamagata prefecture. I took a 4 hours ride on Shinkansen and express train from Tokyo to the closest station in Tsuruoka. The travel passed through one of the most serene places in the country, viewing the country side of Japan, mountains, marked with temples and shrines hidden in dense forest. After arriving at the Tsuroka I took a bus to Churenji Temple to meet Haruki, but as the temple is not open for public that day, we went to a small tea house near there to chat.

I started the chat:
“This serene place in Yamagata prefecture is said to be one of the most beautiful places to travel in the country.  I am fortunate to see the beauty of this place surrounded by mountains covered with tall cedar trees forming a dense forest, which made us feel like the trees reaching over us to give us a shelter and protection from the storms. The towering mountains are regarded as hostile, dangerous places for human beings to venture, while the forest gives us an overwhelming peaceful feeling.

So I think, we can understand that in the remote past the old Shinto (Koshinto) worshipped the nature, known as animism in the Western world. The beauty and serenity of this place is so overwhelming that they consider every element of nature as divine. Mountains, seas and rivers are all divine spirits or god (kami in Japanese), as are the sun, the moon, and the North Star. The wind and thunder are also kami. In short, Koshinto holds that nothing in this world or this cosmos is devoid of divine energy; the kami are present everywhere.

This mount Yudono where the Churenji Temple is located, is also considered as one of the sacred mountain of the 3 mountains Dewa Sanzan. Can you elaborate about this please.”

 “Mountains have played a prominent role in Japanese religion since ancient times. Tall mountains were regarded as hostile and dangerous, but they were worshiped as the source of the life-giving rivers that nourished the farms and villages below. Soaring into the heavens and often hidden in clouds, such mountains were viewed as heaven and treated with awe and respect. Without being a Shinto, all human being could have the same image of the mountains like these.

Mount Yudono is one of the centers of mountain worship in Dewa Sanzan ("three mountains of Dewa") in Yamagata Prefecture. The 3 mountains are Haguro-san, Gas-san and Yudono-san; Haguro-san represents birth, Gas-san represents death and Yudono-san represents rebirth, the mountains are usually visited in that order.

Dewa Sanzan is a center of Shugendo, a religion based on mountain worship, blending Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Shugendo practitioners, perform deeds of sacrifice as a way of transcending the physical world. Training includes such tasks as long pilgrimages and severe meditations.”

I said:
“So how is this mountain and the worship became the center of Sokushinbutsu, a practice of self-mummification of a monk?”

“Sokushinbutsu is a severe ascetic practice of Shugendo, monks tried preserve their own bodies as mummies through extreme diet and meditation. The monks believed that enlightenment could be reached in the current world, and they believed that leaving behind a trace of Buddha in this realm in the form of a Sokushinbutsu, they could provide salvation to the townspeople even after their death.”

I said:
“How did they do self-mummification?”

“The ritual of self-mummification is very long and very painful. It is not a simple sacrifice and the monk put an end to his life following a long process of mortification with a last stage lasted about 1.000 days. The monk’s diet was limited to only to those that can be found on the mountain, such as nuts, buds, berries, tree bark and pine needles.  This diet was called mokujikigyo, which literally means “tree-eating training”. When the monk was not searching for food he spent his time in meditation on the mountain. This diet was intended to toughen the spirit and from a biological point of view, the severe diet intended to remove fat, muscle and moisture. The expected effect was to avoid decomposition of the body after death. The monk also drank a toxic tea made from tree bark (toxicodendron verniculum) which was expected to hastened death and made the body even less hospitable to the bacteria and parasites that would decompose his body after death.  The tree bark contains the same toxic compound that makes poison ivy so poisonous.

After this, the monk would cut out all food, drink a limited amount of salinized water for a hundred days. At the completion this cycle, the monk was considered spiritually ready to enter ‘nyujo’ or meditative stillness. When the monk felt death approaching, his disciples would lower him into a pine box at the bottom of a pit 3 meters deep with its walls lined with stone, a tomb just big enough him to sit in the lotus position. Empty space would be filled with charcoal to remove humidity.

Once the pit was secured shut, two bamboo tubes would be inserted to funnel down drinking water and act as air vents. Bells would be attached on both ends of one of the tubes, a device used by the monk to signal that he was still alive. Once the ringing stopped for good, the bamboo tubes would be pulled out to seal the pit.

For the next three years and three months, the corpse would be left in the underground cell. On the final day, the body would be unearthed. If no decay was found, the body was determined to be a true Sokushinbutsu and enshrined.”

I said:
“Wasn’t the process considered as a suicide?”

“Although it resembled as suicide on the surface, the Buddhist considered it as "abandonment of the body". Having already extinguished in himself any desire, the monk could in all clearness pass into nirvana by the process of death. The death was the sacrifice of himself out of compassion for the benefit all living being, for instance during an era of serious epidemic. But anyway this practice was outlawed by the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto was separated from Buddhism and declared the official religion of Japan”.

I said:
“How did this Sokushinbutsu practice started?”
“It appeared in China during the 4th century and in Japan in the beginning of the 9th century.  According to Japanese legend, the monk Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi after his death, entered in deep meditation, or ‘Samadhi’, at the end of his life till he died, at mount Koya in the south of Osaka. Monk Kukai was the founder of Shingon, the exoteric school of Buddhism.  Some 70 years after his death, another high level monk went up on imperial order to the top of mount Koya to open the burial and found the body was intact. Legend has it that Kukai had not died but entered into an eternal meditation and is still alive on Mount Koya, awaiting the appearance of Maitreya, the future Buddha.”

I said:
“So where is Kobo Daishi’s body kept? Is it displayed to the public?”

“The mausoleum of Kobo Daishi is located in Mt. Koya and is the most sacred place in the mountain. The door of the mausoleum was not reopened except every fifty years by the Archbishop of mount Koya to cut the nails and the hair and to change his clothes for him which will then be used to manufacture amulets for the faithful. Kobo Daishi is known to be in meditation in his mausoleum but his body is absolutely not displayed or visible. The body must be considered closer to the relics which represent the pure "Essence of the Buddhas” who are in reliquaries like the stupa.“

I said:
“But in Churenji temple visitors can see the body of Tetsumonkai, although taking photograph is not allowed.”

“Yes, the famous body of Tetsumonkai is displayed in this temple where it sits in its own altar. With his cupped palms facing upward, he is set up for perpetual meditation, just as he intended as he was dying nearly two centuries ago. His dead body with a grinning like skull is clothed in orange robe, purple and saffron scarf and a golden hood, like a high-ranking monk cloth. It offers a proof of someone who succeeded in his effort to become a respected mummy.”

I said:
“Who was Tetsumonkai?”

“Tetsumonkai, is the most famous of all Sokushinbutsu. Born Sunada Tetsu in 1759, he was a river worker who dug wells and floated lumber, and was known for his stormy temperament. One day, according to one story, he pierced the leg of an official in charge of river construction as he was angered by his arrogance. Another story describes him killing a samurai during a fight over a favorite prostitute. In any case, Tetsu fled to escape his pursuers and joined the seminary at Churenji in his 20s to a life of austerity and named as Tetsumonkai.

During his live as a monk, records indicate that Tetsumonkai was a widely traveled and respected holy man with numerous legends to his name. Once when he was visiting Edo, he witnessed the outbreak of an eye disease that caused great suffering. He proceeded to gorge his left eye out and offered it to the Sumida River in prayer for a cure. Later research found that his left eye in the mummy is indeed missing, which in a way confirmed the story.

Tetsumonkai’s missionary work centered on the Shonai region, but the monuments show it extended from the Kanto region up through Hokkaido. He is remembered for gathering 10,000 volunteer workers to build a new road through a mountain connecting Kamo Port to Tsuruoka, to facilitate trade. He left an enduring impact on many people of that time. Till now, there are festivals based on Tetsumonkai’s teachings.

However, the most compelling of his legends may be another one involving self-mutilation. At one point, Tetsumonkai is said to have been visited by a prostitute, possibly the same one he fought with the samurai for. The woman tried to convince Tetsumonkai to come back to the city with her, but he refused. To prove his resolution and dedication to a life of austerity, he disappeared and shortly returned with a small package for her. Inside were his bloody testicles. He had sliced them off.

The object is said to have made its way around prostitutes of the local pleasure quarters as a good luck charm, and was eventually sent to Nangakuji Temple in Tsuruoka, where it was preserved as a relic. Adding weight to the legend, the genitals are missing from Tetsumonkai’s mummified body.

I said:
“ Was the temple really in possession of Tetsumonkai’s testicles? “

“Yes, but they’re not for public viewing. Tetsumonkai’s blood group is B, which was also the blood group of the testicles found in Nangakuji, according to past scientific research. Academics at the time concluded that it was highly likely that the dried testicles belonged to a man who endured extreme physical abuse in the name of meditation training before being entombed at the age of 71.”

I said:
“Are the Sokushinbutsu mummies the same as the Egyptian mummies?”

“The body of the Pharaohs was embalmed in ancient Egypt. The internal organs were entirely withdrawn and replaced by medicinal herbs. The body was thus reduced to nothing an envelope of dried flesh and bone.
Contrary to the Egyptian mummies, those of the Sokushinbutsu mummies preserved their internal organs because the process of mummification began while they were alive and the internal organs were regarded as centres of vital energy. The bodies of certain mummies of the Yudono mount, in order to preserve them perfectly, are sometimes also coated with dried lacquer. So the vitality of the worship implied that the Buddhist mummies are not simply perceived as "remains", or "empty shells", they are animated, full with vitality; they exist simultaneously in this world and in the plenitude of Nirvana.

I said:
“It’s easy to dismiss the Sokushinbutsu phenomenon as an obscure ritual that died out as the nation marched toward modernization in the late 19th century. But can you elaborate the meaning of death in Buddhism?”

“The Sokushinbutsu mummies provide a fascinating window into the culture of pre-modern Japan through their practice of passion, hardships, sacrifice and intense religious fervor culminating in the attainment of Buddha-hood in the flesh. The Western concept of death is an immediate and severe termination of life, while for Eastern concept death is of a gradual process.

The Sokushinbutsu worship keeps the saint alive and offers a unique perspective of humankind struggle in the quest for Nirvana, before and after the death. “


This is an imaginary interview about Sokushinbutsu