I’m on a journey to Bangkok. And even though I don’t leave until Thursday, (Oct. 2) I have an itch to begin today. Ostensibly, I go to represent Hope Mission at a board of directors meeting with Project LIFE, a kind of "sister" mission that works in the slums of Bangkok.
I’m interested to see the work that Project LIFE does with women and children–and am prepared–although apparently it’s never possible to prepare–to see the madly wretched conditions that Bangkok’s poorest of the poor live in. Does one worry about multibillion dollar bailouts when visiting such slums?
Having been given a week in Bangkok my hope is to absorb as much of the city as I can, without vexing about seeing it all. It worked for me in New York. I simply wandered around Manhattan for several days and picked up the energy of the place. Well, Bangkok is not New York, and that’s good, but whether I can "wander," I won’t know until I get there. Of course, guided tours to start.
First stop will be Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the adjoining Grand Palace. I’m interested in Thai Buddhism, that is, Theravada Buddhism. It is generally regarded as the oldest, and "purest," form of Buddhism, and I’m hoping to soak up what I can.
So I expect to visit any number of wats. A wat, I learn from the glossary of Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal, comes from the Sanskrit word "Vata," meaning "enclosed ground," and is a monastery or temple in Thailand.
Incidentally, on October 17 it will be exactly 40 years since Merton landed in Bangkok to begin his fateful journey. Two months later, having visited India, the Himalayas, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), he arrived back in Bangkok for a conference of Asian monastic orders. On December 10, 1968, after giving his talk and retiring to his room, he somehow received a fatal shock from an electric fan. He was 53 years old (my age) when he died. His last words, given at his address, were, "And now I shall disappear."
The above photo was taken in Dharmasala, India by the secretary of the Dalai Lama, a month before Merton’s death. The Dalai Lama is 33 years old here.