Monday, January 31, 2011

Ignorant Wisdom Shamelessly Shared

A number of my older friends remain apoplectic about Communism and the Communists who rule in yet a few countries.  The loss of Vietnam to the Communists of the North is a sore spot.  So, for some, is the Communism of China, especially since they have become our chief competitors for the title of Number One World Power.  I think they are way off base.
I cannot claim much experience in either place, having spent only a few days in Vietnam last month, and a few weeks in China over the last several years, plus the observations of our youngest daughter and family who have lived in Asia for over fifteen years.  However, there is nothing like the hubris of a tourist to encourage one to share one’s knowledge and wisdom, so here goes.
What I have observed is that whatever Communism is in Vietnam and China, it is not Marxist.  Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao would never recognize it.  The robber barons of late nineteenth century America might.  As one young guide put it, “We Communists are ardent Capitalists.”  I don’t think he said ardent, but whatever word he used meant the same thing.  Private enterprise flourishes.  Even the state owned companies operate as much as they can as if they were private, and in a sense they are because the state is the private arena of the party members.
The Chinese are years ahead of everyone else, at least in the Eastern half of the country, in the development of almost everything, and they are embarrassed when western tourists discover pockets of old China that tourists are not supposed to encounter.  For instance, across the street from the Ritz Carlton in Shanghai is an imposing relic of Soviet “friendship” in the form of an enormous, rambling 1953 Russian built replica of a Czarist palace now advertised as a venue for important meetings and exhibitions.  Tourists are driven by but not invited in.  We went in.  The interior is a rundown wreck of a place.  The regular and ordinary exhibition that consumes tens of thousands of square feet is a traditional Chinese peasants‘ market where the poor people of Shanghai can buy food, clothing and stuff that is cheap, maybe not too fresh, and certainly not of the quality of the name brand stores just down the street.  Among the many thousands jamming elbow to elbow through the aisles between stalls, we were the only non-Chinese present.  We asked the Ritz Carlton staff about it.  They, with some embarrassment, denied any knowledge of such a market.  Later on we hired a private guide to take us into parts of Shanghai new to us.  He also knew nothing about it.  After all, how could the most technologically advanced city in the world, and one of its wealthiest, have such a place?
Vietnam was different, at least from our brief exposure to it, because old Vietnam is so obviously present.  Yet everywhere we looked were signs of rapid change.  Ports are filled with ships surrounded by cranes and new construction that will double and triple port capacity.  Just outside are factories of many Western corporations along with huge empty concrete pads where more factories will be built.  Major cities are growing skyscrapers, condo developments and luxury hotels.  European and American company logos are displayed everywhere.  Our Southern guide was openly dismissive of Northerners and held the unearned wealth of party members in contempt.  Our Northern guide was more discreet but agreed that unless one could figure out a way to get into the party it would be hard to become rich. 
Both countries are single party states, and the party is the Communist Party, keeping in mind that the Vietnamese and Chinese are uneasy neighbors under the best of circumstances.  How one becomes a member of the relatively small number who make up the parties in each state is somewhat of a mystery to me, but it appears to be related to family histories and generational legacies.  In other words, they are oligarchies.  Party membership assures one of rank, prestige, an easy path to wealth and a lifestyle set apart from the ordinary people.   In China the party is large enough for there to be internal debates that would never be confused with democracy but at least display a vigorous working out of compromise.  Local and provincial jurisdictions are in open competition with one another, establish policies that are sometimes at odds with one another, and have more public debates about what those policies should be.  That should be a warning to the oligarchs.  
History tells us that oligarchies are inherently unstable and seldom last for long, a century or so at most.  I probably will not live long enough to learn what happens in those two countries when their oligarchies are no longer able to rule as they do now, but in my imagination I envision something a little like a fourteenth or fifteenth century English parliament with commoners discovering a way to assert their place in the political arena.      

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Prayers and Buddhism

A few years ago we spent a couple of weeks roaming around Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and the land surrounding them.  A few days ago we returned from a trip where we spent several days each in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai with brief stops elsewhere in Thailand, Vietnam and Okinawa.  Among other things, it means that we have visited many Buddhist temples filled with persons offering their prayers.
From the little I know about it, the Buddha’s teachings can be summarized in four truths and eight ways that have a common thread.  Life is tragic because humans desire too much and are too easily driven by their passions.  The way to happiness is a life in which meditation and contemplation lead toward the elimination of desire.  In the meantime, life is to be lived in moderation - not too little, not too much, and without expectation.  The goal is to seek release from the tragic cycle of life and rebirth by achieving an ultimate state of enlightenment in which one’s final death leads to unbeing in oneness with whatever oneness is.
That’s a pretty crude summary and no doubt any observant Buddhist would take exception to it, but I’m more interested in what I observed and was told about Buddhist prayer as offered by ordinary people.  It begins with the observation that the Buddha’s disinterest in the idea of God per se has allowed a multitude of gods form every culture where Buddhism took root to have their place, often a very important place, in the worship life of the community.  The second observation is that every time I asked someone to describe the nature of the prayers being offered I got the same answer.  We, or they, are praying for wealth, good luck, healing, happiness, abundance, romance, promotions, and especially desired material possessions, a new motor scooter perhaps.  Honoring Buddha while propitiating ancestors and the local gods might bring hoped for answers to one’s prayers.  
It seemed to me that there were some real conflicts between the basics of Buddhist teaching and the heartfelt prayers being offered.  One of the most colorful examples of that was an enthusiastic young Communist Party member who explained to us his understanding of the Buddha’s core teaching and then went through an elaborate ritual of prayer that he hoped would make him a very rich millionaire.  Marx and Buddha may have had little in common, but they both had to wonder what this kid was thinking.
I wonder, though, how different that is from the usual prayers offered up by many Christians?  We are taught, I hope, that prayer is a form of communion with God, a holy conversation that leads us a little farther toward perfection as followers of Jesus Christ.  But as a practical matter, prayer seems more often to be a verbalized to-do list for God that, if God would be so kind as to answer according to our desires, life would be so much more pleasant.
I suspect that the Buddha would very much like the prayer we were all taught: the prayer in which we seek to honor and keep holy God’s name, be agents of God’s will on earth, receive from God whatever spiritual and material nourishment is needed for the day’s work, receive forgiveness as we offer forgiveness, and to be delivered from the evils of this world.  I wonder what he would think of the prayers we actually offer.  At least we don’t have the sort of synchronistic religion that sets up local gods along side the Lord God Almighty, right?