Note: This article is part of a series.
I didn’t discover that rice has a soul in Thailand, but on the internet, just today:
On the other hand, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that out while I was there. An aura of gentle, serene spirituality pervades this land, and, it turns out, not just because the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths took hold there, in a big way — the entire country is officially Buddhist! Rice was grown in Thailand even prior to Buddha’s lifetime, 2500 years ago.
Ever had “congee” for breakfast? That’s the traditional breakfast food, at least in the monasteries (wats), where we mostly stayed. I learned to eat it sprinkled with onions and dried hot pepper flakes. Intense! Somewhat filling. And soothing.
Even on the second day, walking around the small lake next to the Chom Tong wat (about an hour south of Chiang Mai) where we were based, I noticed that rice paddies bounded two sides of that lake. Here’s the lake, at dawn,
and here’s rice fields that bordered it on the south.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of an elegant white egret swooping over the paddies, though they were usually present and lent an aura of timelessness to the tableau.
Meanwhile, we were walking on a dirt road around the lake that was bordered by trash. Trash came between us and the rice fields. Best not to idealize the place!
All during this two months journey, our views of beauty and magnificence were often “spoiled” by trash. Contradictions abounded, especially in India. More on that later.
On the other hand, it may be that Asian peoples don’t value banishing trash from sight because they hold the Buddhist view of impermanence. Nothing stays the same. Everything is always changing, birthing, growing, receding, dying. Unlike us, they recognize the entire life cycle, and don’t value just youth. In fact, like more ancient cultures everywhere, old age seems to be revered.
On the other hand, to stem the tide of idealism again . . . you might check out the young, “beautiful,” look-alike anchors on Thai television news . . . Or you might wander into the “Airport Plaza,” near the airport in Chaing Mai, where, in contrast to the gracious old city, blaring corporate consumer culture rivals that of malls anywhere.
Once again, jarring contrast. This time of traditional versus corporate values, juxtaposed, right next to each other.
(We European Americans aren’t as used to recognizing the layering of time as are other, older cultures, for example Greece, where old temple ruins scatter about next to contemporary buildings.)
I just read that there are 40,000 varieties of rice worldwide! Wow, that must make Monsanto furious. Here’s a current primer on Monsanto, and the accelerating global peasants’ fight to stop it from taking over.
From a cursory look at the internet, it looks like Monsanto has not been able to sink it’s nasty foot into Thailand, at least as of 2011. Here’s a heartening story about how official policy in Thailand is keeping out GMO seeds.
I’m not surprised, since Thailand, officially a theocracy — a “constitutionary monarchy” — is graced by a beloved king who promotes organic gardening as official policy. Each time I’d take any denomination of Thai currency out of my wallet, I’d be soothed by his image. Here’s a thousand “bhat” note (about $33 US).
I’d say that this man, like the rice in Thailand, has a soul.
We had been in Thailand for about ten days, most of them at the wat, where my meditation teacher, Kate, had given me initial instructions. She asked me to meditate four to six times per day, for 20 minutes total, ten walking, ten sitting, just to get used to the idea. Since I was a reluctant meditator, she hoped this initial practice would prepare me internally for the upcoming three-week meditation retreat. Of course, as any beginning (or advanced) meditator knows, even with these short sessions, I noticed a lot of aches and pains in my body (back, neck, knees), and just as distracting — a lot of interruptions by data bombarding and or all of my five senses and/or my mind. Especially my mind. Geez! It just wouldn’t stop! I wasn’t surprised. In my short experiments with sitting meditation I have always noticed this incessant mental activity. Who has not?
After a week, Claudia and I decided to go to Chiang Mai for a few days, and then head on down to Bangkok, where we would meet other meditators for our plane trip to Delhi and our pilgrimage to the India of the Buddha.
We decided to take the train (about twelve hours). In order to see the countryside. And oh my, that’s when I discovered just how pervasive is the soul of rice in Thailand. Tiny flooded fields as far as the eye can see, bordered by little ditches and bushy plants, interspersed with a few trees and tiny, weathered houses, many on stilts.
Kate told me that any Thai person who wants to farm can do so. Fantastic! I wonder how that works. Are they given allotments of land? Another research project.