Merton

My first lesson of 2010 may be the most important one of the year: God is always waiting to be encountered.  When we set aside our personal agenda, move beyond our schedule and open ourselves to surprise, unusual and transformative experiences await us.  As our guide in Thailand continually reminded us, the world is our classroom, and our itinerary is subject to change at a moment’s notice when a new discovery beckons.  

  • It was pitch black at 6 a.m. in a downtown Bangkok park, but thousands of Thai men and women were already outside exercising when I began my workout.  They were walking, running, lifting weights, engaging in yoga, tai chi, kick boxing, and doing aerobics to the music of “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
  • Never have I eaten so many different varieties of exotic and luscious fruit: pomelos, dragonfruit, mangosteen, rambutan, egg bananas, tamarind, ju jube, jack fruit and durian.
  • Riding in a “James Bond” boat down the River Kwai, I wondered: for how many centuries have people traveled this river, caught fish for dinner, and been sustained by its water?  And how much darkness has been experienced on this river, especially when almost 100,000 Allied POW’s and Asian laborers died in World War 2 while building the “Death Railway” from Burma to Thailand?
  • They came out of nowhere.  At least 50 wild monkeys, from alpha males to babies on their mothers’ backs, delighted us with their antics.
  • Most of the world’s people shop every day at open air markets, which not only provide social contact but also showcase the incredible diversity of food on this planet.  The 3 layer bacon (skin, meat and fat), three toed claws, and fermented fish took my appetite away at the same time as I marveled that most of the world doesn’t have my taste in food.
  • Hundreds of Thai families were picnicking and splashing in a waterfall on New Years Day, just as families in West Michigan were sledding, ice skating, or watching football together.
  • The primitive Akha hill tribe in the mountains of northern Thailand, known for their elaborate headdresses, could not be more different than me.  Yet when I saw an Akha father bathing his toddler son, just as I had bathed my one year old grandson a few weeks ago, our hearts were linked.
  • Riding on a rice barge on the Uthaithani River, a Thai teenager swimming in front of her floating shack shouted to us in English with great enthusiasm and joy, “Happy New Year!” 

“Amazing” Thailand lived up to its nickname in a myriad of ways, but I was unprepared for the richness of the 2 weeks that Gary and I spent in this extraordinary country.  Our first experience in Thailand was a walk through the flower market in Bangkok, which sells wholesale and retail flowers 24 hours a day.  Virtually every home and building has fresh flowers, which communicates welcome and a splash of beauty.  30 roses or other elaborate arrangements sell for a dollar: who can resist?  Imagine the flowers we could provide in our churches at those prices! 

Beauty embraces you in Thailand.  “We have fish in the water, fruit on the trees, and rice in the fields.  The people are happy.”   (Ayutthaya saying found on a stone pillar in the former capital of Siam)  Thailand is best known for some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but even more beautiful are the Thai people.  Graciousness abounds.  Thais are always smiling.  They love having fun, celebrating, dressing well, and taking good care of themselves and others.  They show tremendous respect for their elders, are very flexible, maintain a calm demeanor, and live each day to the fullest.

When Thais greet each other, they do not shake hands.  In fact, touching is not part of their public culture, especially the head.  Rather, they practice the “Wai,” where they put both hands together at the fingertips and bow the head.  Our small group of travelers had several opportunities to eat meals with local villagers, had a cooking demonstration at one home, and spent a morning visiting an elementary school.  The graciousness and kindness of our hosts made an indelible impression on us.

The Thai people do not judge others or accentuate differences.  They honor all people and maintain social harmony by keeping their cool, which is characteristic of Buddhism.  93% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist, 5% is Muslim, and less than 1% is Christian.  Although Buddhism is considered a world religion, Buddhism is more a way of life or a philosophy rather than a religion.  Buddha, an Indian prince who lived from 563 to 483 B.C., renounced his rank and became a hermit.  Through meditating on the suffering he saw around him, Buddha attained enlightenment.  Buddha is not revered as a God, despite the 40,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand.

  • Buddhism teaches that we all have character defects and impurities, which appear so that we can reach the inner state of beauty.  Through meditation and mindfulness we are able to let go of everything negative and live a life of compassion and love.   
  • Buddhists respect life, and the temple is a safe place for all people and living creatures.  When we passed by a temple while riding in a boat, our guide said there was no fishing allowed in the canal in front of the temple.
  • Buddhism discourages extremes and advocates taking a middle way. 
  • Buddhists believe that all religions can co-exist and are comfortable with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu concepts.  They seek to learn from other religions, which only enhances their own lives. 
  • Many Thai males become Buddhist monks for as little as several months or for a lifetime.  Monks are required to follow 1,227 precepts, but our guide, a former monk, told us that these precepts all boil down to one admonition: reduce suffering by doing good and avoiding harm.  Sounds a little like John Wesley, doesn’t it?  

We had the unexpected privilege of meeting the world famous Thai painter of Buddhist art, Chalermachai Kositpipat, who is designing and funding a spectacular renovation of his hometown temple.  A unique mural in the temple depicts the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center, included because of Kositpipat’s belief that, “To reach heaven, you need to pass suffering.”     

There are many different sizes and shapes of Buddha, all of which teach us.  My favorites are the reclining Buddha, which symbolizes impermanence; the walking Buddha, which represents advancement; the Buddha with eyes half closed, which reminds us to look inside ourselves before blaming others; and the Buddha using the “OK” hand position, which symbolizes the first sermon.

The sweetest surprise was New Year’s Eve.  We stayed in a hotel in the jungle of west central Thailand.  A more beautiful setting I could not imagine.  After dinner, our guide said it was time for discovery.  Under a full moon, and following a 700 year old Thai tradition, each person lit and released a hot air balloon while making a wish.  As we followed each balloon into the sky until the tiny points of light disappeared, I breathed my wish, that this year I would become more completely who God created me to be, so that our world will more completely experience shalom. 

What is your wish for yourself in 2010?

  • Will you welcome surprise and discover that around every corner, God is waiting for you? 
  • Can your heart become a sacred place where, as Buddhism teaches, calmness is happiness?
  • Can you enlarge your vision and be fascinated by the people that surround you?
  • Can you be more mindful of your thoughts, motives and actions, knowing that unlike Buddhists, who seek to earn merit for a future life, there is no way that we can earn merit other than the grace of Jesus Christ?
  • Like Buddha, are you willing to withdraw to the margins of society in order to better observe and identify with the despairing?  At the same time, can you live in the midst of society to understand, enjoy and celebrate this beautiful world?  And will you be open to discern the world of the spirit in order to speak for God to a hurting and hopeful world?

In 1968 former Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, wrote these a few months before his tragic death in Bangkok, where he was presenting a paper on monasticism in all the world’s religions, “Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.  Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action.” 

48 years later, that creative action is still necessary.  Will you be faithful to the search, guided by the Star, so that you, too, can shine like stars in our often dark world (Philippians 2:15). How will you walk as a child of the light in 2010?

Blessings, Laurie

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