How Greetings Spawn Humbugs

Living outside the United States, I avoid being immersed in some of the silly, manufactured controversies that whip people into a talk radio-fueled frenzy. One of the big ones this time of year is the unbelievable anxiety some people get in over people saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.

Just the other day, a former schoolmate on Facebook posted how, with Hanukkah falling in November this year, there was no excuse for anyone not to say “Merry Christmas” because there are no other holidays.

“New Year’s is no longer a holiday?” I helpfully replied.


There are many Christians who feel that their religion is under attack. I can understand why they might feel that way, although considering that Christianity continues to be a growing religion worldwide, I’m not sure the threat is real. But when someone wishes you a “happy holiday,” feeling in any way insulted or under attack seems to be a very un-Christian response. Let’s turn to the Bible to understand why.

First, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When someone says “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” to you, they are conveying a charitable wish, one offered with no malice. In fact, they are potentially being considerate by respecting the fact that you may not be Christian. (Not always easy to tell from outward appearances alone.) Back to the Golden Rule: you would probably want people to be warm, charitable, and respectful towards you and that’s precisely the motivation of someone who wishes you a secular seasonal greeting.

Second, Jesus admonished us to “turn the other cheek.” A secular seasonal greeting is rarely intended as an insult and certainly never causes any true injury. Follow Jesus’ teaching and move on. There are much worse insults than being given warm holiday wishes by someone. Jesus died for your sins, not because someone wished him “season’s greetings”.

Third, Jesus teaches us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is considered one of the two greatest commandments, the other being to love God with all your heart. This teaching is about giving even when you are not receiving, about loving even when you are not loved. If someone wishes you a greeting that does not reflect your faith, surely your response should be a reflection of your faith. For a Christian, that means a response that is loving and giving, not one that is angry and spiteful.

Whatever your faith, the end of the year (especially in the wintry northern hemisphere) is a special time. May it find you healthy, happy, and surrounded by loved ones, regardless of your faith.


When Did We Forget the Bill of Rights?

There is a great deal of furor going on about the proposed building of an Islamic community center and mosque a short distance away from the World Trade Center site in New York City.  On Friday, President Obama made a public statement about the issue, pointing our that “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”

Republicans jumped right on him, accusing the President of “pandering to radical Islam” and saying he “caved in to political correctness.” 

I’d like to ask the Republican leaders a simple question: When did you stop supporting the Bill of Rights?


In case there’s any confusion out there, or Americans who didn’t get civics lessons because their teachers were busy ensuring no child got left behind, let’s quickly review what the Bill of Rights is.  Namely, the Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, and came into effect in December 1791. They include such “golden oldies” as the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Bill of Rights is about our civil liberties.  It is about our freedom, the freedom for which men and women in uniform are fighting and dying.  Protecting our civil liberties is not “pandering to radical Islam” or “caving into political correctness.”  Denying our civil liberties plays into the hands of terrorists, letting those who would undermine American values, win.

Conservatives go on and on about the importance of upholding the Constitution.  Their claim is that President Obama has been “trampling” the Constitution throughout his first 20 months in office.  But suddenly, when he explicitly upholds the Constitutional rights of Muslims to build a place of worship on private land, these “staunch defenders” of the Constitution are nowhere to be seen.

Let’s give credit to Flordia Governor Charlie Crist, the former Republican now running as an independent candidate for senator, who supported Obama’s statement.  Let’s give even more credit to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who actually led the way making a powerful speech in favor of religious freedom on August 3rd.  The video of this 7-minute speech is here.  Here’s the bit that I thought was most important:

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property, based on their particular religion?”

As we head into the midterm elections in November, before you make a decision about who deserves your vote, I’d ask that you take the time to ask the candidates whether or not they support the Bill of Rights.  Use this case of the New York City mosque as a litmus test, because there really is only one way to support the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution.  That’s to answer “no” to Mayor Bloomberg’s question: the government should not attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property, based on their particular religion.


Religious Intolerance

Remember the pistachio pudding entry a week or two ago?  It was the one about how I bought powdered pudding mixes for some Christian missionary friends up in Chiang Mai.  After cross-posting that entry on facebook, one friend took a thinly-veiled swipe at organized religion, making a potentially hurtful comment on my profile page that could also be read by the missionary friends.  This bothered me.

After a conversation with the friend who made the anti-religion remarks, he apologized for any offense and asked me to remove the comments, which I did.  But I was left pondering his remarks in a broader context and wanted to put those thoughts down on paper, as it were.

Prophet Palin

There are many people who have suffered discrimination and persecution at the hands of organized religion.  As a gay man who continues to struggle for my right to be married to the person of my choice, I fully understand that there are people whose faith is pitted against my rights.

There are also many people who think that all organized religion, regardless of faith, is a sham.  Books such as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” lay out a comprehensive argument why belief in a god is irrational and is bad for mankind.  Being a rational person, I fully appreciate the points people who argue against religion make.

There are also many people who have deep faith in one religion or another, people who are my friends, family members, and loved ones, whom I know to be good people who give deeply and generously of themselves, their talents, and their time, people who are not predisposed to impose their beliefs upon others, and who have been great supporters of Tawn and me and our struggle to have the same rights as any members of society.

There are many people who have a deep mistrust of people of faith whose faiths are different from, but as equally deep as, their own.  Hateful, ignorant comments fly from the mouths and the fingertips of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists about members of other faiths.  Witness the recent fuss over the building of a mosque in close proximity to the former World Trade Center in New York City.

I am a person who was raised in a family of faith and who struggled with the contradictions between the teachings of that faith, the teachers of that faith, and my own position in the order of things.  I am a person who many years ago arrived at a comfortable answer to these contradictions, an answer I do not choose to share here on Xanga because I think it is a personal answer.  Most importantly, I am a person who believes deeply in the freedom both of speech and of religion.  So I find myself in a middle ground that I feel gives me the perspective and the right to say the following:

We need to rein in the religious intolerance. 

Regardless of your beliefs, whether they be for a particular religion or virulently against all religion, there is nothing to be gained and no benefit to berating another person for his or her beliefs or lack of belief.  Bashing others over the head will not win them over to your side of the argument.  It won’t even make them stop to reconsider their own side of the argument.  All it does is increase the level of hostility, vehemence, and distrust.

I encourage people to have serious, thoughtful discussions about ideas of importance.  Questioning one’s faith is a powerful way to make it stronger and is also a powerful way to come to new realizations about its failings.  Questioning others’ faith can be done in a way to both educates ourselves and creates shared connections with people of different ideas and backgrounds.  But I don’t see any point to blatant and often ignorant religious intolerance, except to further your own anger.

There, I’ve said my peace.  Back to writing about food.


Christian Homosexuals?

A new reader and subscriber, Mary, posed an interesting question in a recent blog entry.  Is there such a thing as a Christian Homosexual?

Here was my response to her question:

If by “Christian” homosexual you mean a homosexual who accepts Jesus Christ as his or her savior and follows the teaching of Christ, then the answer is yes.  If by “Christian” you mean someone who fits into narrowly defined views of the the world as prescribed by leaders and followers of certain denominations who claim to be “real” Christians and have the “right” interpretation of the New and Old Testaments, then it probably depends upon those individual leaders and followers and not the homosexual person him- or herself.

Thoughts?  Anyone want to touch an electric wire?  Thanks to Mary for being willing to address the big questions.

Click on the picture to go to a post about this crazy group
formed by another “reformed” homosexual. LOL

Mary also described herself in another post as a returning Xangan and asked for recommendations of blogs worth reading.  I want to let you know that my recommendation was that she read the blogs of the people who comment on my blog as there are some really thoughtful, talented writers here.  Thanks to everyone for contributing to Xanga and for helping make it a civil place to exchange thoughts and views.


Wan Visakha Bucha

Last Friday was Visakha Bucha day in Thailand and many other parts of the Buddhist world*.  This is the holiest day in Buddhism, commemorating the day when Gautama Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and passed away.  On this day, believers gather at temples to worship and recall the wisdom, purity and compassion of the Buddha.

In Thailand, Visakha Bucha observance began during the Sukhothai period (around 700 years ago), because of the close religious relations between Thailand and Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan monks came to propagate Buddhism in Thailand and were highly respected.  Thai monks also went to study in Sri Lanka.  It’s believed that those monks introduced this ceremony to Thailand around that time


While many people arrive at the temple early in the day to make merit by feeding the monks, many more go in the evening to participate in a ceremony known in Thai as wian tian.  (wian = circle, tian = candle)

The core of this ceremony involves a procession three times around the bot, or main sanctuary, of the temple.  Depending upon the temple, sometimes you will proceed around a Buddha image or a chedi (a stupa containing relics) instead.  Regardless, believers carry the traditional offerings: a candle, three sticks of incense, and a lotus blossom. 

The candle represents enlightenment, with knowledge being the source of light in a dark world.  The three incense sticks represent the Buddha, the Dhama (his teachings) and the Sangha (the monks).  As for the lotus, the roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the flower lies above the water, basking in the sunlight.  It is a common symbol in Buddhism because its pattern of growth reflects the progress of the soul from muddy materialism through the waters of experience to the sunlight of enlightenment.


On this day, and especially during this procession around the bot, believers are encouraged to meditate, reflecting on the teachings of the Buddha and how they can better follow the Five Precepts:

  1. To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards sentient beings)
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (not committing theft)
  3. To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct
  4. To refrain from lying (speaking truth always)
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol)

We went to Wat Phra Ram IX (King Rama IX Temple), a more modern temple founded by the current King of Thailand.  This beautiful temple follows traditional design but features a resplendent all-white exterior, stark compared to the elaborate decorations more common in Thai Buddhist temples.

There were several thousand people present including about two hundred monks and novices.  While some people were already making their procession around the bot, most were listening to the abbot’s sermon, a lighthearted parable about the importance of remaining true to Buddhist teachings even in the midst of contemporary life.


After the sermon was over, the monks led the crowd on the procession, a nearly endless stream of believers, some chanting, some walking silently, some chatting pleasantly amongst each other as Thais enjoy doing even at religious events.

I shot some footage after we had made our rounds and have compiled it here for your enjoyment:

Observing various religious ceremonies is interesting because there are some aspects that are very universal (or, at least, common across many faiths and traditions) while other aspects are very characteristic of local culture.  I’m not a religious scholar so I won’t expound on those observations.  Suffice it to say that it was a beautiful ceremony to participate in.  

*because of calendar differences, some countries observe Visakha Bucha on different days, but most of the time it falls in April or May.


“I am a Muslim”

Zakiah I think a number of you read Zakiah’s (ZSA_MD) blog, but if you don’t, I’d encourage you to stop by.  Not only does she write beautiful poetry and share stories of her fascinating childhood in India, she speaks eloquently about her beliefs as a Muslim. 

Most of my Muslim friends are not very devout, so I rarely get to hear them talk about their beliefs and how their beliefs measure up against the way they are represented in the western media.

Recently, Zakiah gave a speech in the community where she spent her career as a doctor, and in it she talks about the misconceptions surrounding Islam and, particularly, the term “jihad”.

I encourage you to stop by and read excerpts of that speech which is included in her entry here.


Is sticking a knife into someone positive or negative?

An interesting musing on what the dhamma (the teachings of Buddhism) says about homosexuality, from a blog by a monk of 32 years who lives in Singapore.  A brief excerpt:

ven_d “Is sticking a knife into someone a positive or a negative action?  It depends!  If the knife was held by an enraged violent person it would probably be negative.  If it is held by a surgeon performing an operation to save someone’se life it would certainly be positive.  From the Buddhist perspective, sexual behavior is not judged primarily by the gender of the people involved, by the dictates of a code of behavior drawn up in the Bronze Age or by whether a legal document has been signed, but by its psychological components.  Homosexuals are as capable of wanting and of feeling love and affection towards their partners as heterosexuals are and where such states are present homosexual sex is as acceptable as heterosexual sex.”

To read the rest of this thoughtful article, click here.


Monk Sponsorship

Tawn’s employer is celebrating the tenth anniversary of their office here in Thailand.  As part of their anniversary celebrations, Saturday morning they held a tam boon ceremony, literally “make merit.”  Tam boon ceremonies are a large part of what Buddhist monks do.  You call up the temple, arrange for a certain number of monks to come over on a certain morning and then they do the ceremony.  In return, you make a donation to the temple.

Tawn was in charge of arranging for the monks.  Saturday morning we arrived at the temple next to Ekkamai BTS station,  Wat Tat Tong at nine and met the monks.  The senior monk was a kindly man in his fifties, with a friendly disposition and eager to ask me questions to see how much Thai I know.  As we were waiting for the van, he grabbed my arm and, repeating “come take a picture, come take a picture”, led me to one of the main chanting halls to show me one of the Buddha images.  He gave me a lecture about how the main image was from Sukkothai and was several hundred years old, made around the same time as an image at another temple down near the Hualomphong train station.  It was difficult to keep up.  So I took some pictures (below), agreed that it was a very pretty image, and then we went back to the van.  You’ll notice that this wat is decidedly more modest than the Grand Palace and other Thai temples you’re used to seeing pictures of.


The monks each had a prominent characteristic, reminding me a little (and I mean this in a respectful way) of the Seven Dwarves.  The head monk was like Doc since he was in charge.  A second monk was a jolly, large fellow who upon learning I was from San Francisco was trying to remember the lyrics to a song about the city and then started singing, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”.  I complimented his memory and asked him whether he liked to sing karaoke, until he explained that “no singing” is one of the 256 precepts that Buddhist monks have to obey.

Whoops!  Faux pas.

As we sat in the van waiting for a third monk who wasn’t answering his phone, he came hustling over to the van still wiping his wet head with his robe.  “Sorry, I just got out of the shower.” he explained.  I’m not sure which dwarf he would be.  Tardy?

The other two monks were junior, “Summer Monks” on break from school.  They don’t get nicknames because other than one’s relatively small ears, they didn’t say or do anything that particularly distinguished them.

We headed to Tawn’s office where about the staff was waiting having already set up the mats, chairs and other necessities for the ceremony.  The monks were seated and then started about twenty minutes of chanting in Pali, the Sanskrit-derived language that is the Buddhist Latin.  (Or maybe Latin is the Catholic Pali?)


Afterwards the monks were fed.  They have to take their last meal of day by “mid-day” which is usually described as somewhere between 11:00 am and noon.  While it is usual for the monks to be served seated on the floor, in this case they were set up at the conference room, an image that I thought was very funny, below.  Maybe I’ve just seen so many corporate meetings where all the participants were dressed in the same charcoal gray suits that it tickled me to see a conference table filled with people tressed truly identically. 


Here’s a short video of the first two steps of the ceremony:

While the monks were eating, several of the employees went downstairs to the back of the building and presented offerings at the spirit house.  This isn’t part of the Buddhist ritual as the spirit houses comes from more of an animist / Brahmanist / Hindu background.  The spirit house literally houses the spirit (spirits?) of the land that were displaced when the building was constructed.  Offerings included little portions of food and beverage as well as a single stick of incense per person, below



P1060591 Returning upstairs, the monks were still eating so Tawn and his colleagues messed around and took photos of each other, being playful as Thais do so well, above

Finally, when the monks were finished, we did the second part of the ceremony which is the blessing with the holy water.  There was further chanting and then the head monk used a bamboo whisk to splash water on everyone.  Seeing me near the back of the group, he flicked a very experienced wrist and a large amount of water sailed over the heads of Tawn and his colleagues and gave me quite a splash, right.

With the air conditioning on high, I nearly caught a cold afterwards!

Something to notice, if you will: in the picture below the monks are chanting behind ceremonial prayer fans.  The purple one on the left used by the head monk was presented to him by the Crown Princess.  The one to the right, used by the happy monk, is interesting because I wasn’t aware that corporate sponsorship was a common practice in Buddhism.  “This merit-making ceremony brought to you by Accenture.  Accenture: High performance.  Delivered.”  Kind of like public radio, I guess.


The head monk then proceeded around the office, splashing holy water in each room, along the hallways, on the equipment (taking care of the computers and the photocopiers), driving away the bad fortune in much the same way that our exterminator sprayed along windows, doors, and the floor to drive away pests.

Chalk up another interesting cultural experience.