Tuesday 6 March 2018

Service builds community

(Working on the chedi/stupa at the Wat)

I am explaining, as best I can with my limited Thai and hand gestures, the difference between 'beneath' and 'behind'. The young Thai monk is watching intently and listening, then there's a flash in his eyes – he's got it! We both light up and laugh: 'kaang-laang'- 'beneath', 'kaang-lang' - 'behind'. When written the difference seems minimal, but 'laang' is pronounced long with a falling tone, and 'lang' is more clipped with a rising tone. I recite the Thai words a few times and now it's his turn to see me 'get it.' Impromptu schooling: less a matter of passing an exam and more a way of learning through contact. I realize that I will never manage more than a score of handy Thai phrases and a vocabulary of about a hundred words; so I will miss a lot of the richness of Thai culture – but I'll also be put into situations where engagement has to be more emphatic, patient and good-humoured; and such contact has its own riches. I fumble my phrases, my listener attempts some English, a situation of receiving and offering back, of mutuality arises.

Mutuality is at the heart of Buddhist monastic culture – and perhaps it is, or should be, the heart of any culture. Before we can grow ('culture' comes from the fertility of the soil - right?) there has to be a common ground to grow from; we have to form bonds with others and live in accord to keep culture alive. In Thailand, this need for common ground means that the immediate response to a newcomer is to find out how to include them (rather than how to ward them off). This is done through invitation to a shared meal, making a gift, joining in some social ritual and chatting – while staying on the lookout for any signs of discomfort (or the opposite). It is a very group-oriented culture, and for that people have to be 'placed' in the group in a way that will minimize embarrassment and allow each individual to find their own space. This placing, mutual respect, also supports a sense of service: people know what their responsibility is in the overall order of things. Monks have their duties - to set a moral examples, to give teachings, to  offer counsel, to steward the 'wat' (= 'ashram' or, less usefully, 'monastery') and above all to maintain the Triple Gem as a guide to the culture of the nation. The wat itself acts as a community centre that is open to all and to which people can go for refuge, to shelter, and to share in the company of wise and reliable people. The link is mutual service: lay people bring food and make donations, monks and nuns make sure that these requisites are shared out and put to good use. People do chores together. And like the act of mutual learning that began this article, it is joyful, so it lifts the heart.

The place I'm staying at right now I'll call 'Wat Jaya' to respect its quietude. It's in northern Thailand in a region where the last fighting of the Thai civil war (communist versus government, 1980s) took place. It's fairly backwoods. The handful of resident monks go for alms to a village of about sixty people. The villagers are very pleased: the presence of the wat gives them a place to meditate, pray, listen to talks and above all to drink in the ambience of peace and mystic depth. In more mundane terms, the everyday contact with the monks has improved the moral standards of the village: formerly 'backwoods justice' would mean that someone cheating by selling the same piece of land to two or three parties would end up shot; now through the example and advice of the monks, the crime rate has dropped. Property prices have risen dramatically; donations from wealthier people in the cities means that the monastery has also been able to build a road and hire locals for building projects. The villagers can't offer money, so offer service instead: the men ferry the monks' in their pickups, the women help arrange the shared alms-food onto tables from which people will help themselves. Stuff goes round. And the spirits are also attended to: at a central point in the wat, a stupa/chedi is being constructed whose avowed aim is to accumulate and transmit blessings throughout the region, specifically to calm the many ghosts that are a hangover from the warring era. This also is a monastic duty.

Other than that, the wat has planted 25,000 trees to improve water retention and    preserve the soil and the wildlife. This is a very common practice in forest monasteries: the record for planting is at Wat Ratanawan, where the army joined in on a tree-planting and managed to get 40,000 saplings in the ground in a day. Great fun. Probably less amusing, but also an earthy inclusion of communal resources, was the use of excrement and waste vegetable matter to improve the fertility of the soil at Wat Pah Pong. The depleted soil is now thickly wooded. Accommodation for guests (free of charge) – predominantly lay women – is always a requirement; when he set up his monastery, Luang Por Gunha built accommodation for 4,000. Of all kinds: when I dropped in for a visit he was seated holding satsang (open to whoever wants to stop by) to a gathering of monks of various lineages, some Korean bhikshunis, a group of lay women from a range of countries and a German samaneri. He also goes into the local national park daily and sees that the wildlife is provided with waterholes and food. 

Nobody's doing any of this as a job. One of the disappointing features of modern life is how everything becomes a commodity, to be produced promptly, to a prescribed standard – and to be paid for. You want education? You pay. The more you pay, the better the education. You want health? You pay. The more you pay, the better the treatment. You want justice? You want to be elected? You pay. The more you pay, the better the... Etcetera.  If you can't afford it, you won't get education, health, justice or the possibility of serving the country. In fact 'serving' isn't the right term, because serving means that you care for the other. Serving is a matter of heart: I offer, and whatever the offering is, I am also offering my attention and care for you. So the act of service depends on a fundamental bond in which we touch the common human ground. Sometimes I can give, sometimes I receive. In giving, I receive you and offer to you. In receiving, I receive you and am affected by you. I touch a reality that's not just my view. So that is both grounding and enriching. When payment obscures that, those qualities aren't there.

When a relationship founded on mutual respect and service is there, there is the brilliant human thing called 'community' – and what that brings with it. For example, at Wat Pah Pong, the monastery has an annual commemoration of Luang Por Chah. The monastery erects 500 temporary toilets, pumps water from the local pond – and lets things happen. Thousands of people come and camp out in the monastery grounds for three or four days: there can't be more than thirty centimeters of space between the tents, the mosquito nets, and the mats that people lodge themselves on. Free food kitchens appear. Some stalls are giving away books, some are handing out garlands.There is a tent providing medical attention. All at no charge. People are wearing the same white clothing, you can't gauge anyone's wealth or status. Police are outside the monastery directing the stream of traffic - but inside, there are no police supervisors, no ushers, no stewards. There is no hubbub, no conflict, no shoving. People know what to do; they respect each others' space and cooperate. Everyone looks happy, and there are ripples of laughter along with the 'sadhus' that accompany the Dhamma talks. That's community.

But when a relationship based on respect and sharing is replaced by that of mere transactions, there is no community. Hence social dysfunction, delinquency and loneliness. If you run out of money, you're lost, period. In fact it's held to be your fault, 'because you didn't work hard enough.' What gets overlooked in this conclusion is that the capitalist system depends on there being a proportion of people who are out of work ('the labour pool') and that its competitive nature means that it will always seek to minimize expenditure (i.e. pay the least wages as possible). If a process can be done by an unpaid machine, fine – fire the human being. What kind of community can that logic bring around? Furthermore: what kind of money created kindness, intelligence, moral conscience or leadership skills? Who made them? How much did our mothers charge us for giving us birth? And where's the bill from the Earth for the air we breathe and the water we drink. (Or does water come in plastic bottles at around a dollar a bottle...) Where then is the fine web of the joy of sharing and the gratitude of being given to... and the sense of belonging that both gives us inner security and makes our lives an offering to others?

Granted, we have material needs that have to be met.  But there's no shortage of stuff. The world in general is suffering from over-production – we buy stuff we don't really need, and surpluses are thrown away. And things are produced with built-in obsolescence. At least a third of all food produced isn't consumed (by humans). Wealth is unequally distributed: those who create statistics mention that between eight and sixty people have access to the same amount of material wealth as the poorer half of the global population – but you don't have to look too far to make your own deductions. To a large degree, everything from rocks to trees to people's bodies and minds gets reduced to a commodity. And real needs – for safety, meaning, love and dignity – don't get met by money at all. Because money isn't a person, can't feel and can't respond. And anyway, offering money is only one way of caring for others: the Buddhist understanding of dāna (generosity) includes offering hospitality, medicines and Dhamma, with the latter being the 'highest' kind of offering. Here Dhamma means more than 'verbal teachings'; it includes keeping precepts (offering the gifts of freedom from fear, mistrust and abuse) and sharing any degree of understanding with another that is aimed purely for their welfare (and not for one's own status.)

Although interesting ideas such as the 'universal basic income' – a scheme whereby people are provided with their basic material needs, free of charge – are being put into practice (in Finland for example), this isn't the total solution. The return of the commons ideally happens through the commons being empowered rather than just catered for. The agreeable sense of 'commons' grows wherever people snap out of the myth that makes them zombies in a faceless system, and instead start to share time, care, food, space with other people. What then grows is community – not just through being provided for, but through making a contribution and having that gratefully accepted. 

Monasteries can be part of that, but community is not an exclusively monastic thing. Agreed-upon moral standards and living simply certainly help, but sadly, there are corrupt monasteries as well as upright ones. On another front, I was recently inspired by the Bandar Utama Buddhist Society, a centre set up in Petaling Jaya (near Kuala Lumpur). Founded by a group of lay people in year 2000, the society has managed to build a three-story Dhamma centre for talks, retreats, schooling, and creating prosthetic limbs. The latter caught my attention: each artificial limb has to be made individually to fit a specific limb. And it's offered at no charge to the amputee. So ... a person of low income regains their mobility and dignity, and the donors experience the joy of service. And around that a community grows that can support the welfare and awakening of others. It doesn't take genius or even massive acts of philanthropy. It's just the simple truth that the human being, in correct alignment is already a system that works. And we're only truly ourselves when we're related to others.