I will now introduce you to a hypothesis that began to germinate in my mind in 2003.
Most three-year-olds live in the Now. They live exclusively and uncompromisingly in the present. Something is now or it is not-now. This means that if you offer a 3-year-old one chocolate now or 10 chocolates in 2 minutes time, the choice will be a chocolate now. “10 chocolates in 2 minutes” is not-now. It doesn’t exist. You might as well have asked, “Do you want a chocolate or not a chocolate?” Both the past and the future are “not now” and therefore have no reality.
I’ve compared Thais to children before. This isn’t to imply that they are childish or immature or undeveloped. Philosophically and conceptually Thais have a similar view of “now” and “not now”. This is why it is difficult for them to plan; why they promise to do something in the future and then when the time comes they don’t do it; and why they spend money rather than save for a rainy day.
To return to driving habits, I want you to consider this. A Thai person will not usually overtake another vehicle if that takes him or her directly into the path of an oncoming vehicle. They are far from being stupid or rash. However, if the Thai person is unable to see ahead then the risk is taken. It can’t be seen and therefore it isn’t there. If some degree of risk enters the person’s head then it is as if he or she thinks as follows: I have given money to the temple and I have offered food and drink and flowers to my image of Buddha. Buddha will keep me safe from harm. There is no risk.
If there is no oncoming vehicle, no accident, then this justifies the faith in Buddha’s protection and proves that if you can’t see it then it doesn’t exist. If there is an accident then the Thai does not blame the risk-taking action. The Thai thinks: Perhaps I did not give enough money to the temple. Maybe Buddha did not enjoy the food and drink that I offered. Or, it could be karma.
This is not simple superstition. It is simple faith. It is a belief that what I can’t see doesn’t exist. It is a centring in the Now, the moment, and the ignoring of the “not now” implicit in the future. It is a firm conviction that if you do right by Buddha then He/She will do right by you.
My students will happily and successfully learn what I teach them today but will forget it next week. That was last week. It isn’t now and is therefore irrelevant in the present. They charmingly tell me with a huge smile that they have forgotten. The only way that they retain things is if each lesson reviews and consolidates the previous lessons.
Thais can be careless because anything lost or broken is not due to personal carelessness but because a spirit or ghost or Buddha has been angered and so you lost it or broke it.”
Thais will try to get ten people into a lift designed to carry eight. They will try to get those ten people into a full lift before anyone else has a chance to get out. It’s not just lifts, of course. They try to get on trains or buses before others can squeeze their way off.
A typical daily situation: I’m driving along the country road to my “village”. There is no one behind me. The oncoming car may or may not signal but, without reducing speed, pulls over onto my side of the road 300 – 400 yards before any junction. Why didn’t he or she wait for me to pass and then make the turn? Why anticipate the turn so far in advance and travel the wrong side of the road?
There are three motorcycles behind it. Each of them is carrying two or more people. One was going to overtake and continues to do so and is now on my extreme left. He overtakes me on the left and returns to his own side of the road.
The second motorbike that was abreast of the first follows the friend in overtaking but, instead of overtaking me on the extreme left, on the wrong side of the road, she cuts across the bows of the oncoming car and across my bows to return to the correct side of the road. The other motorbike continues on her correct side of the road but then decides to overtake the two that are returning to the correct side whilst they are still in the middle of the road.
Why? Remaining where it was would enable it to overtake the returning cyclists on the left. In the meantime, the car in my path is making a right turn, cuts across my bows and disappears down a side lane. I have had to slow down but there is no accident and all is well.
You could judge all this behaviour as impolite. I don’t think it is seen in that way, though it is ill considered. The nearest analogy or image that comes to mind is of puppies in a basket each trying reach a teat of mummy dog. They selfishly root and scrabble but somehow they all accommodate to each other and get enough milk.
Talking of manners – we regularly get bits of vegetable or meat stuck in our teeth when eating Thai food. All Thais will daintily cover their mouth with a shielding hand as they poke around with a toothpick. Fair enough! But why do they have no compunction or delicacy about picking their noses, rolling the bogey into a ball and flicking it on the ground? I would prefer to see a piece of meat or vegetable removed from the teeth than a wad of snot pulled out of a nostril.
And why is it that when entering a restaurant you are besieged with helpers and waiters calling their welcomes? You receive too much service until you have ordered. Yet, when you wish to pay the bill and leave, no one will let you catch his or her eye.
Story: Raymond Lightbown
Pictures: Silvia Muda