capital of Siam from 1350 to 1767, before Thailand was established
with its capital at Bangkok.
We spent three days there visiting some of the sights, including ruins
of temples (called Wats) and monuments. Most of these were built in
14th and 15th centuries and show both Hindu and Buddhist influences.
They are reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
What struck me is how many of these temples seem to have been built by
kings to accrue merit or for their own glorification. Several
monuments were built in recognition of victories in subduing other
peoples in warfare.
In fact, it seemed a bit incongruous to see so many statues of the
Buddha in places designed to honor persons with big egos and
Maybe we have just visited too many Buddhist temples on this trip. But
it also brings up questions I have about the interrelated concepts of
merit, karma, rebirth and reincarnation.
The idea of doing "holy" acts in order to build up one's own store of
merit, with the idea that it will somehow help oneself after death
seems to me misguided. It's the same disillusionment I felt growing up
with the idea that through good works, people can better their chances
of going to heaven rather than going to hell. Except in a metaphorical
sense, I just don't buy it.
And then there are the concepts of karma and rebirth that I really
cannot get my mind around. I just don't believe that any kind of
individual personality or identity persists after death, except among
the people who remember you. Don't we have a responsibility to
recognize when we are engaged in wishful thinking and set this aside?
My own experience resonates much more closely with the Buddha's
teaching of anatta-- that there really is no "self" there. It seems
very simple and true. Why complicate it with endless conceptual webs
of "good" and "bad" karma, karmic connections, rebirth and
reincarnation? To me it just feels better to drop all that.
As an alternative to visiting lots of Buddhist temples in Thailand, I
decided to pick up a copy of the book, "Monk in the Mountain: Simple
lessons you can use from a Western Buddhist monk," by Ajahn Sumano
Sumano Bhikkhu was born in Chicago. In the mid-1960s, he attended
college and went to law school. He married and made a career in real
estate. Then in his mid thirties, he quit work, divorced and took up
his spiritual practice in the thudong lineage of Theravada Buddhism.
Since 1991, he has been living in a cave near Ubonratchathani in
eastern Thailand, following a strict regimen of meditation.
His book reflects some deep wisdom, springing from his meditation
practice. It's a collection of questions from visitors to his cave and
his answers. The idea of karma is a key point in many of his
responses, and many of these are no doubt helpful.
But his response (p66) to a woman who as a child had suffered sexual
abuse by a male relative really stuck in my craw. He talked about the
possibility that in a previous lifetime, perhaps she had committed
some dastardly deed to this person, and that this was a process of
karma working itself out.
(In my not-so-humble opinion)
The idea of karma as somehow providing just rewards for good or bad
deeds seems to me like pure fantasy.
I am reminded of an interesting exchange between Johannes, a sangha
member at our own Tahoma Monastery on Whidbey Island with our teacher,
Shodo Harada Roshi during a question and answer session a few years
Johannes asked, "What is karma?"
Roshi replied, "It's not part of Buddhism."
I always remember that with a smile.