We all know that moment, we arrive home when work was too busy, rugby training went too late or you’ve just had one of those days so you grabbed some Thai on the way because cooking was just too hard. On top of the pile of containers so often sits a small foil lined paper bag with a reminder that getting take-away was all worthwhile. There’s usually a little tub of some delicious sauce in there too as you prepare for the aroma that will make a rough day all better; is it money bags, stuffed chicken wings or something else? So often it’s one of the two icons we’re hunting for here, satay chicken or fish cakes. They’re served on a plate to us now but as a credit to our local take-away they’re nearly identical; I can just about see the coffee table in our lounge-room as I sit on the floor in my training gear that is a bit gross but a shower would take too long. So often food at home transports us to memories of far away places, not often does the direction reverse.
On full bellies we walk, nay waddle, our way through the steamy streets of Chiang Mai now barely even considering the sweat already making distinctive patterns in our shirts, it’s just part of life here. On our sweaty rounds we finally succumb to the temple-o-rama that is Chiang Mai, the elegant gables and intricate facades have called from over the fences one too many times. The Asian leg of this trip has introduced us to buddhism on a more intimate level to what we’ve ever encountered before creating a wrestle, a readjustment and broader consideration for what I’d generally passed up as just another religion, albeit a less invasive one. Again in Chiang Mai the repeated theme seems evident; although buddhist beliefs are held deeply and for mystical and unquantifiable tenets just like other religions, there’s a fanaticism that seems missing, people just seem to keep it to themselves.
Although buddhism is often called a philosophy, and it is, it also fits well within the definition of a religion which makes the discussion between religion and philosophy a bit of a moot point. It’s both. With a definitive factual conclusion to that discussion lost in the grey areas of definition and never to return, my mind looks for a more real-world viewpoint; as it appears to me at least. On the plus side faiths can deliver people solace, comfort, community and certainty. On the downside they can limit free thought, imbed prejudices, grant undue power over people and hinder social progress and don’t start me on holding back the rights of minorities. The worlds women, people of colour, poor and homosexuals all say an amen with me.
The picture is forming in my mind on each passing day spent in this part of the world, yet to solidify completely, but it seems that buddhism generally embodies the positives and avoids the negatives better than religions as I know it. There’s a million topics, arguments and facts to drag up here but one of the pillars of difference is that buddhism avoids the divinity curse. Lets get real, the big monotheisms are really the same thing; judaism, islam and christianity are the same story, three girls at a dance with the same dress so they’ve all put a different coloured flower in their hair. All three started with Jesus and his mates before the sandpit divisions began and for a very long time he was just a man; just a man until other men just decided it makes them more powerful to say that he was divine. Since then the one story that became three has become hundreds; the numbers are variable but for example christianity has a reported number of churches worldwide ranging from 21,000 to 33,000 comprised of an estimated 40+ distinctive faiths. Islam and judaism aren’t far behind, in any language the one story has been pulled apart voraciously. What’s left of the original ideals?
Like a tree the one trunk of an ideal divides and divides and now each one of those many small branches of the tree demands exclusive worship as if it were the one true message, the trunk as it were. See the problem here? Buddhism on the other hand has had from the get-go, a varied range of works with important texts being added to the lexicon over time; an organically grown belief system we could say. The fact that reincarnations of Buddha himself add to this range of works is equally hogwash let’s be honest but it does protect against fanatical singular beliefs somewhat. Add to that the quotes from Buddha himself which declare that any thought or conclusion must be justified by arguable reason, even to contradict his own words, and a big piece of the puzzle is taking shape for me. The great Aussie comic Adam Hills often uses the saying: you only need one commandment, ‘don’t be a dick’. True, very true Adam but I think Buddha nailed that one first.
With a deep and complex soup of thought slowly coalescing bit by bit we shelve the brain twisting topic to be taken up again another day, now it’s massage time. No wonder monks study for decades. The famed Thai massage starts with foot washing, so gentle and relaxing; then the violence begins. There’s no prisoners taken in this massage more akin to a severe physio session than relaxed pampering. We’re also cradled, held, sat on and generally contacted far more than in regular Massage, Thai massage is nurturing in a tough love maternal kind of way. There’s no option but to let the sweetly savage ladies take over us and lead us to feeling great through pain; deliverance through penance.
After a good attempt at pulling our calves right off the bone we walk out delicately feeling a million dollars, it was tough love and we just want to give these ladies a hug. We’d like to but we can’t, we can’t take photos and we cant ask questions; they’re inmates in the Chiang Mai women’s prison. It’s pretty casual atmosphere so we’re probably not thrown to hardened murderers but it remains a strange experience to walk so breezily out on the street after such a close and connected experience while these ladies go back to prison. There’s more to this than we know, there has to be, but it just seems to fit in with Thai culture, so adept at balancing care and strength, not showing one to the detriment of the other. I used the expression glibly, these ladies take no prisoners when massaging; the prisoners have already been taken and in place of taking they now turn their hand to giving.