The Thai Divine Comedy
By Thanong Khanthong
Have you ever experienced Paradise, Hell and Purgatory in the City of Angels? Let me show you around Bangkok because I do at times venture beyond my home in the Sukhumvit area to visit Old Bangkok.
You start at Phanfah Leela Bridge, a distinct point that leads you to the gateway into the Paradise of Old Bangkok. King Rama III statue offers you a golden key for you to enter into the realm of the Paradise, where at the night time the angels descend to dance and pick up flowers. You can smell Paradise, the fragrance that is not of this world, as you watch the Stupas and the Loha Prasath behind.
There Paradise interacts with you in several dimensions, with the lure of aesthetics. If you could make your way up to Paradise, the background scenary behind the Rama III statue would have been the physical structure where the Angels take their residence.
Rama III built most of the permanent structures of Bangkok so that angels and the Thais mingle together in harmony. Here is the gateway and corridor to the inner parts of Paradise that is Bangkok.
As you travel from Lanluang Road and cross the Phan Fah Leelas Bridge into the broad Rajdamnoen Road, you immediately enter into the heart of Old Bangkok, the City of Angels. On the left, you come face to face with the statue of King Nangkhlao, or King Rama III (1824-1851). He was the Builder of Bangkok in a true sense. For this King commissioned the construction of most of the permanent structures in the City of Angels. Bangkok, once known as the Venice of the East, is located on the tiny Rattanakosin Island and surrounded by the khlongs or canals.
Before his reign, wooden structures were common features of Bangkok. The wooden structures did not last through generations; they caught fire easily and decayed with time. King Nangkhlao virtually had Bangkok rebuilt with concrete structures so that they, for all of their unique character and exquisite architectural design, would last into the future. The king ended up having 73 temples built and renovated, including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace, the Temple of Dawn and Wat Pho. Most important, the temples and palaces of Old Bangkok would manifest the grandeur of a new Kingdom, where the angels, the gods, and his people, by following the highest Buddhist ideals, could live in harmony.
The statue of the King Nangkhlao sits in a upright position as if he were presiding over the construction of Bangkok. Following the path of his grandfather, King Yodfa, who founded Bangkok as the capital of Siam in 1782, King Nangkhlao had in his mind Bangkok as an unbroken link with the past glory of Ayutthaya. In short, Bangkok would represent a rebirth of Ayutthaya, once one of the most beautiful and marvellous capitals of the world.
London as a city could not compare in aesthetic aspects with Ayutthaya of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So any grandiose celebrations of Bangkok have to auspiciously start on March 31st, the date of King Nangkhlao's birthday.
In a way, the statue gives an impression of a kind and gentle king. He sits right at the gate of Old Bangkok, proudly welcoming us into the City of Angels he rebuilt with a selfless Buddhist sense.
The golden Jessada Bodin (King Nangkhlao's title before his ascendance to the throne) Pavilion, which is located right beside the statue, represents the City Gate. Only honourable guests visiting Bangkok on state visits or special arrangements, are officially welcomed here. In a typical official ceremony, a Bangkok governor hands over a golden key to a VIP guest so that he or she may symbolically open the gate to enter the City of Angels.
As you explore the city further and adjust your frame of mind as a Buddhist, you'll find that in its true spirit, Old Bangkok is Heaven manifested on earth. You will also find that it is a sacred city.
That's the outer layer of Paradise. But Paradise is also hidden in your consciousness. As you experience the beauty of the Stupas and the Loha Prasat and the temples which moves your yearning for Paradise, that Paradise gradually permeats your own consciousness in a struggle for self-realisation. You finally come to terms with your self, your elusive self.
That which is Paradise is your process of understanding or the denial of all happiness, which charaterises the self, so that you confront the self in the most critical moment.
Between the self and no-self, which path do you choose?
Then you walk on along the Rachadamnoen Road. It is about midnight. You pass the Democracy Monument. How many people have died in futile for this worthless landmark that signifies greeds and crude power in this land? How many military strongmen come and go as the Democracy Monument is forever condemned with their curse? How many politicians have promised us with the loots before ending up with rampant corruption? How many times do the poor have to shed their tears just to get a fair share of their life on this earth?
Along the pavements, you see Hell and all the sufferings that go with it. Homeless people lie on the benches or on the tiny space close to the shop window. They do not have any other places to sleep.
Prostitutes, in their forties or fifties, gesture to you with their sign language. This is their turf. When dark night descends on Rachadamnoen, they come out to reclaim their territory. They perform the oldest trade of this world just to survive, with a heart that is beyond the sufferings of any human descriptions until it becomes normal.
You see people getting lost with their way because they cannot afford even Bt200-Bt300 for a night say in one of the cockroach motels in the backstreets, where rats are scurrying around looking for their stench food.
The sufferings you encounter manifest Hell in its physical form. The homeless and the prostitutes suffer from all kinds of physical abuse. They struggle to keep their self moving. They only have the will to live, to protect the self.
But Hell is also your obsession with the self. The Hell in your consciousness is your experience of the sufferings from the outside and the struggle of for the upkeep of the self from the inside.
As an observer of Hell, you set yourself apart from the sufferings. You start to doubt whether your comfortable life in a four-cornered office room is better than theirs. Your continuation to have obsession with the self does not make you having any status any better than them. For we all are born and have to go through the cycle of birth and death, in a seemingly eternal struggle for existence.
Those people in rags and ruins have no more strength left to have obsession with the self as they only need a few breath of strength to keep their sheer existence going. The Hell that is in your consciousness returns to haunt you as you hold it to be the absolute truth.
You have almost forgot the Paradise, the real Paradise that you have walked past almost a kilometre behind, the real Paradise that points to redemption.
The Triology would not come full cycle without your final confrontation with Purgatory. Purgatory signifies your aimless travelling through time. You are now in the human world, lying perhaps on the edge of this world.
In Buddhist terminology, Purgatory is a region where you place three circles together. You see vendors of fake Buddhas and second hand or third hand garments and electronics products. You can also buy a mobile phone there, with the service excellence of a mouth-to-teeth technician. You can have your future read by the palm of the astrologers of the land. You can eat a plate of phad thai or khai dao with garlic pork at Bt15 or Bt20. You can buy a buay drink to water down your thirst after a long walk. This is the medieval market of Siam, cut off from the Finance Ministry's tax arm. Prices are in the low range. You can buy an antique clock or watch for a couple of hundred baht.
You aren't sure how these people can make a living with their medieval trade because in the afternoon of that day, you just have a nice meal at Siam Paragon. As you pass the court buildings opposite Sanam Luang, you feel tired with the weighing down of the sights on your mind.
After Paradise and Hell, you could have thought that you find the answer to your true self. But no, you're still wandering without any direction. If you're not sure with Paradise and reject Hell altogether, you'll be left in a state of flux, of not knowing where else to go to or what else to do.
Finally, you stop at the City Pillar at the corner opposite Wat Phrakaew. You pay homage to the City Pillar, that provides strength and power to the longliveity of this Kingdom. You glance at Wat Phrakaew, which stands as a testimony of the ultimate Paradise. You pay your utmost respect to the ultimate sacred site of Bangkok, while the nihilism that goes around Wat Phrakaew is intensifying on the bedrock of ignorance.
There, you at once come to term with your self for the third critical moment of your brief travel in search for the lost meanings. Between Paradise, or the redemption of your soul, Hell, your preoccupation with the ignorant self, or Purgatory, your travelling through time without any meanings or purposes, what path would you choose?
As you return home, you feel tired with the dark vision, your confused mind and also your realisation of your potential to break away from your consciousness. The interplay between Hell, Purgatory and Paradise allows you to at once realise the sufferings, the peripatetic travelling through time before you arrive at the crucial juncture of whether you will enter the gate of absolute serenity, where the self is no longer what it is.
If you find my guided tour of the City of Angels of some thought, then you may see the light of how we all can break away from this sufferings by helping the poor first. Helping the poor does not mean that you have to demolish Paradise. You have to get it right at the Purgatory level first. This has to do with the police, politicians, military, prosecutors. When the poor is better, we all have shared meanings in the Purgatory as we look for the final exit to Paradise.
With this, I lay my case. I have taken you all to the epic journey in the spirit of Dante's Divine Comedy and Milton's Paradise Lost. I have to pay tribute to my deceased teacher Montri Umavijani and the Illustrious One, my beloved uncle, who both gave me the wisdom to see through the Three Worlds.
How the concept of Three World provides a way out for Thailand. In Hell, we have 40 million Thais living in tough conditions and engaging in agriculture. If we can improve their standard of living, we'll get rid of yellow, red and blue or any shades of colour. We'll achieve unity or political symmetry.But so far the businessmen, politicians, traders, financiers, bureaucrats or local authorities take advantage of them so that they remain poor. It is very difficult for legislation aimed at improving the welfare of the poor get passed by Parliament. The poor are being taken advantaged by the modern sector, which is far smarter.The Monarchy can only involved in development projects and provide moral guideance. But it does not have the resources nor is it a direct job of the Monarchy to engage in economic development. So the poor Thais are cursed to live in Hell.
Thaksin does not see it through, he only tries to take advantage of the poor for his own political gain. Much worse, there has been a smear campaign to suggest that the Monarchy has been taken advantage over the poor.The rest of us are moving about in Purgatory, including all the systems of government and the institutions and the modern sector. We fight for the resources, for the concessions, for a larger pie of the GDP. We go about to get rich and to take advantage over others. We do not care how the country will suffer in the end. We blame each other because we don't know the roots of the problem. Power play occurs at this level in the pursuit of self-interest and greeds. All the problems happen here in Purgatory.
Thailand does not now where it is going, except to serve the short-term greeds.Paradise is in our heart. His Majesty the King is already there by virtue of Detachment.
To enter Paradise, you must have detachment. Everybody can enter Paradise. Detachment is self-less or not craving for materialism or wanting something that does not belong to us, or not wanting to take advantage over other people, other animals, or refraining from harming the natural resources and environment.Once you have detachment, you have concentration to see through the Three Worlds. Concentration is the process of learning, of discerning, of separating reality from illusion, of understanding the essence of nature, of seeing Dharmma.Non-detachment stands in the way of everything, the worst of all is ignorance.Once you have the detachment (not me, not mine) and concetration (process of learning and discerning) to see through the Three Worlds, you'll achieve wisdom (complete understanding). You may call this wisdom as enlightenment or nirvana, depending on the gradation of your own barami or intelligence or perseverance or your pure heart.This is the Thai Utopia, a universe of ideas complete in itself.#######################################