Saturday, March 06, 2004

The King and the Thais

The King and the Thais

While countries like Britain are increasingly questioning the role and relevance of the monarch in a modern democratic society, here in Thailand, the issue does not arise. Thai people simply revere their monarch. In fact it is one of the defining characteristics of Thai society, besides the Buddhist religion, which give the people a sense of national identity and common destiny.

The present king, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulydej is the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty which was founded in 1782. This long unbroken line of succession is indeed remarkable, placing the monarch as the legitimate guardian and moral leader of the Thai people. In times of crises, the Thai people looks to their king for leadership; and indeed, some of the military coups in the past have failed because of disapproval from palace.

The reverence that locals have for their king is not unlike the kind of respect that Yogyakartans have for their Sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, ("He who cradles the universe on his lap") whose leadership proved pivotal during the tumultuous period that led to the downfall of Suharto. The Sultan of Yogjakarta also holds the position of governor of the Special Province of Yogyakarta, which makes him both the political and spiritual leader of Yogjakartans.

King Bhumibol or Rama IX is the grandson of King Chulalongkorn--the most beloved of Thai kings, who modernized Thailand and kept Thailand from being colonized by Western powers. The father of King Chulalongkorn is King Mongkut, popularized in the musical and movie, The King and I. Of course, the movies, (including the recent adaptation, Anna and the King starring Chow Yuen Fatt and Jodie Foster) are all banned in Thailand for their disrespectful and inaccurate portrayal of the royal house.

His Majesty King Bhumibol at 77 years of age, is the longest reigning Thai monarch. Having been schooled in Europe, he is fluent in French, English and German besides his native Thai. Like all good Thai youths, he also underwent apprenticeship as a Buddhist monk for short duration as a teenager. The king is active in public work and travels widely within his country to listen and understand the plight and concern of his people. He truly deserves every bit of respect and veneration that the people accord to him.

What's interesting about the king is that he is also an avid saxophonist and composer. He had even jammed togethered with Big Band greats like Benny Goodman. Some of his compositions can be downloaded from the web. Being a bit old-fashioned in my taste in music, I kind of like his songs, especially the piece called Candlelight Blues:
The candlelight is shining low,
My only love, I'm missing you so.
I know I've lost
But still I dream of you.
I'll hope and dream
Till all my dreams come true.
Just by the candlelight
You used to hold me tight.
This candlelight reminds me so of you;
By candlelight you kissed me.
Still the candle's burning for two,
But darling, where can you be?
Come back, my love,
If you're feeling this blue
By candlelight you'll meet me.
But darling where can you be?
Looks like the king is quite a romantic. I wonder what His Majesty thinks of The King and I.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Walking the Pen

Walking the Pen

I haven't updated my handwritten journal for some time. My last entry was entered in Jakarta, while having an early beer at the Sahid Jaya hotel lounge (I try to carry it with me wherever I go). But this morning over brunch at an outdoor cafe, I managed to fill up a page.

Why do I want to keep a longhand journal when I already blog daily? I've discussed about this in a previous blog entry; you see, writing by hand is a pleasure--the same kind that an artist experiences from sketching or carving. I see it as a sacred act of meditation.

Typing words to convey a message is faster and less strenuous, but somehow a bit of its essence is lost whenever they are channeled through the sterilizing medium of the keyboard.

Writing longhand is heavy labour--you have to drag your pen across paper, forcing yourself to conquer its textural terrain, making you feel the weight and impact of every word you express. It is often not very fun if you try to write fast; the real pleasure of manual writing comes from executing a slow and leisurely caress of the page with rhythmic strokes of the wrist, aided by a smooth fountain pen that spews ink luxuriously.

I am not sure if they still teach kids to write proper cursive handwriting in school anymore, but the handwriting that I find among my students (when I was teaching in Jakarta) are simply horrible. (Their language is even worse). No one seems to know how to write properly anymore. Kids today learn to press remote control buttons before they know how to hold a pen. Once upon a time, a good hand is an indication of good breeding and learning.

I used to take a lot of care in keeping my handwriting neat during my student days but somehow over the years my own handwriting has also degenerated into illegible scrawls. It's also one of the reasons why I keep a longhand journal--it serves an exercise book for me to practise my handwriting. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe it is a healthy habit to take the pen for a walk across some blank pages everyday.

To Live and Die in Bangkok

To Live and Die in Bangkok

I'm glad that tomorrow is a public holiday here in Thailand; there's a long weekend ahead and I have a chance to catch on both my work and sleep.

I've been waking up early everyday to beat the notorious traffic jam here in Bangkok. I take the Skytrain occassionally to certain locations. The Skytrain, also known by its acronym "BTS" (Bangkok Transit System) is clean, comfortable and ultra-modern. One gets a great elevated view of the city, travelling on the BTS.

Come April, Bangkok residents will also enjoy the services of the new Bangkok Subway--the completely underground rail transportation system which will complement the existing Skytrain. There have been great changes in Bangkok since my last trip here many years ago. There's an air of progress and optimism everywhere. With PM Thaksin's CEO-style of governance, Thailand seems to be progressing by leaps and bounds.

I suppose Bangkok is not such a bad city to live and work in. If I stay longer, I'm sure I could pick up the language. I suppose I could also work here permanently if I wanted to, but I have decided to spend the majority of my time in Malaysia this year.

This so-called Land of Smiles has a favourite base for many expariates doing business in South East Asia. I have American friends who are even planning to retire here. Friendly natives, good food, warm weather and readily available women--it's that Tahiti syndrome all over again. I'm not surprised if many choose to settle down permanently here to enjoy their sunset years; and perhaps even die here one day, with a happy smile on the face.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Creatures of Connection

Creatures of Connection

In Indonesia, I blogged from Internet cafes mainly. Even when I was on the road, I always managed to squeeze in a couple of lines from some dinghy cafe, often over an excrutiatingly slow Internet connection.

Here in Bangkok, I'm lucky that my serviced apartment is equipped with a broadband connection. It's good to be always connected, though I try not to get over addicted to it. In KL, I'm still struggling to get my Streamyx working properly: it is only stable when connected to the phone extension downstairs--which is not convenient for me. I'll need to get a wireless LAN set up in my home very soon.

I was one of the pioneer users of Singtel's ADSL service called Magix, when they first launched it. I too faced a lot of problems with my line in the initial stages. But after it stabilized I was able to get flawless 3Mbits/sec downstream for three years. With that kind of download speed, I didn't need a TV; I could watch BBC and Channel News Asia live--in complete TV quality--streamed to my PC.

When I went to Indonesia, I was deprived of my Internet/life-line. It was too expensive for me to dialup from the hotel, so I had to rely on Internet cafes. But somehow I still managed to blog frequently. Blogging is tough back in KL because so many other things vie for my attention. I still have not found an optimum routine for myself in KL, because I don't have total control over my time.

How much should one control one's time and how much room should we for spontaneity? It is a difficult balance but I suppose one needs a bit of both. Here in Bangkok, I have no choice. I have to have be disciplined to ensure that I finish all my work. Surprising my concentration here is good.

I consider myself lucky that I'm never bothered much by loneliness. As a matter of fact, I kind of welcome solitude and is perhaps even guilty of being over-fond of it. I can live without seeing anyone for days, but I don't thing I can last two days without being connected to the Net.

The real test of solitude is when one is totally disconnected with the world. No TV, no Internet, no newspapers and no friendly faces. I wonder how I'll do in such a situation. I suspect I'll be quite OK too--as long as I have enough reading materials. But then again reading is another way of getting connected. As long as we are still leading a "worldly" life, we have to find some means of getting connected with people and the world out there. We are all creatures of connection.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Messianic Movies

Messianic Movies

Movies about Jesus Christ are always interesting. The latest one is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which seems to be breaking opening day grossings in the States.

Religious movies are often controversial because the subject matter is a sensitive one. There have been reports of Passion being violent and anti-Semitic. Film-makers who dare to tackle such subjects tread on a dangerous minefield.

One is reminded of Martin Scorsese's highly controversial adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, from a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. There was great outroar over a dream sequence of the Anointed One making love to Mary Magdalene (non-Christians often confuse Mary Magdalene with the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who repented and became a close disciple of Christ). Eminent film critic Robert Ebert gave a very fair and good review of the movie.

My favourite actor, Willem Dafoe was the unlikely choice for Christ in Scorcese's movie. I think he did a great job and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which was incidentally banned in Malaysia. Mel Gibson's Son of God is played by another one of my favourite actors, Jim Caviezel, who was great in the acclaimed Terrence Mallick war flick, The Thin Red Line. I think he makes a great Jesus Christ.

My favourite Jesus Christ movie so far, or rather TV mini-series, is Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth with a mesmerising performance by Robert Powell in the title role. I think the film managed to capture the tense moments leading to Jesus' crucifixion. It is quite an accurate depiction of the life of Jesus according to the Gospels. I'm eager to see how Mel Gibson's work compares with this 70s production. I would think Gibson would have gone to great lengths to ensure all the facts are historically correct, since he even bothered to have the actors speak in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ.

A piece of trivia I read about the movie: It's actually Mel Gibson's hands that nail Christ to the cross during the Crucifixion scene. Reason for Gibson's hand cameo: "It was me that put him on the cross. It was my sins [who put him there]." The movie was a a labour of love for Mel Gibson, and according to him it was, "good for the soul". Didn't know Mad Max is such a spiritual bloke.

Can't wait to watch the movie.

Monday, March 01, 2004

The Soulbird

The Soulbird

I hate missing a day of blogging. No matter how tired or exhausted I am, I still try to log on and type in a couple of words. Our days slip by too easily and if we do not bother to record them down, they are lost forever without a single trace. A blog entry captures the tang of the day, the vibrations of the soul at the particular moment in time. There's proof of life.

No matter how mundane our day is, we always learn something from it. We are wiser today compared to yesterday. We are constant nourished by time and by the experiences that we go through. Even though our body breaks down with age, I'd like to think that our souls evolve to ever-higher levels of existence.

The world of matter is a world of decay: everything breaks down ultimately. If we are too attached to our material possessions and our physical appearance, we'd ultimately endure intolerable sadness. Dwell instead on our inner life--the sanctuary within our hearts where the Soulbird soars. We strive to blog daily because our Soulbird always has something to say. Hark, for the Soulbird sings of wondrous things.

Sunday, February 29, 2004

A Devotional Heart

A Devotional Heart

In this sin capital of Asia, spirituality and worldly pleasures live side by side: transvestites and orange-robed monks inter-mingle in the street crowd; religious shrines and massage parlours co-exist in inexplicable symbiosis.

And in the middle of this dizzying mix of conflicting stimuli, my attention switches one moment from leering at advertisements that promise every earthly delight to contemplating the exalted beauty of religious shrines that seem to dot every street corner. The extent in which religious rites and iconism seem to seep into the people's life here reminds me of Bali. For some reason I find the simple everyday worship of the divine with incense and flowers a rather beautiful practice.

I was thinking deeply about religious worship this morning, while sitting at a cafe along Langsuan Road in central Bangkok. Pardon me, this is going to be another one of my entries that is filled with lots of mystical religious mumbo-jumbo.

In previous blog entries I have mentioned the man different paths to God-realisation that is expounded by the Bhagavad Gita. Of the many paths, I think the path of devotion or Bhakti Yoga, is the most accessible one to the lay-person.

Bhakti Yoga is practiced with the heart. We in our intellectual arrogance would often see people who worship so-called heathen images as primitive and unenlightened. In actual fact, the act of worship itself is an important instrument towards the salvation of the soul.

A person who lights incense and garlands images of worship with flowers daily--if he does so with a deep purity of intent and purpose--builds a strong devotional heart and propels himself up the spiritual stairway as switftly as any monk in meditation could.

A devotional heart has compassion, kindness and humility. A person who spends all his time dissecting religious scriptures with an intellectual scalpel often develops massive ego and pride, and this can only be overcome through simple acts of devotion. Prayer and the rituals of devotional worship are useful prescriptions for such people.

We prostrate ourselves before our God(s), not because we fear the unseen, but because we are strong enough to acknowledge our ignorance in the face of the Infinite. Our Ego has a tendency to swell if we do not humble ourselves before some higher power.

The great mathematician Laplace when asked by Napoleon why he did not mention God at all in his five-volume masterpiece Celestial Mechanics, he answered, "I have no need for that hypothesis". Laplace, like any other scientist, is true to the principle of Occam's Razor, which seeks a minimalist approach towards explaining the phenomena of nature, eliminating what's extraneous or cannot be proven.

But in my humble opinion, even if God does not exist, it is still a very useful hypothesis because the soul needs a virtual reference point to align itself: we put ourselves in the position of servants to a Master so that our Ego is always kept in check. In doing so, we knock ourselves off our lofty pedestal of intellectual pride.

A devotional heart dissolves the gravity of Ego. By serving, we reverse the flow of energy; we practice giving instead of accumulating. Inflow always has to be balanced by outflow. A devotional heart is a great instrument for achieving this fine balance.