A large black wicker Buddha at an outdoor pavilion in Myanmar, the only one of this type I’ve ever encountered. Photo: Henry Lewis
I don’t remember making a conscious decision to immerse myself in the study of Buddhism, but by 2005 when I arrived in Thailand to teach I already understood (at least on an intellectual level) many of its basic tenants. I’d read books by Tibet’s Dalai Lama, Vietnam’s Thich Nhat Hanh and a variety of other popular Asian Buddhist writers. I found their suggestions on how to achieve freedom from the human ‘monkey mind’ with the aim of eventually attaining a higher state of consciousness to be very appealing.
I’d also regularly attended a Buddhist sangha back in Seattle during the early 1990s where I’d developed a meditation practice and learned more about the rituals and practices which had been repackaged for Western consumption. What lay in front of me, however, was a series of lessons on the different interpretations and manifestations of Buddhism found from one country and culture in East Asia to another.
Thais making merit through symbolic offerings at Wat Po in Bangkok. Note, the cow sculpture which is more often seen in Hindu iconography. The syncretic nature of religion means that when a faith enters a new region, it usually blends with the folk belief system that was already in place before its arrival. Photo: Henry Lewis
Young monks waiting outside Thai immigration office
Many photographers would agree that the most photogenic moments take place randomly and, of course, when you may least expect them. On the day I snapped the photo above, I was making an obligatory appearance at Bangkok’s main Thai immigration office which is located in a mammoth complex near the old (now domestic) Don Mueang Airport in the northern sector of that sprawling metropolis. After a long taxi ride, my mind was preoccupied by the wait I had ahead of me as well as the encounter I was about to have with a mammoth bureaucracy.
As usual, I hadn’t been given all the necessary forms by the international school where I was working, so an immigration employee provided the missing pages and directed me to fill them out in the courtyard of the office complex. As I walked out of the office into the cavernous interior of the building–mumbling now censored rude words about my employer under my breath–I looked around for a spot where I could sit while I filled out the forms. There were circular stone benches surrounding large planters that lined the outer edge of this vast space, so I headed for one of those.
From my experience, Westerners tend to complain about their lives and openly ‘seek’ happiness far more than those living in the developing world.
Am I happy today? Do I think I’m happier at this point in my life than I was when I was younger? Am I worried about how declining health as I age will affect my ability to be happy? What does happiness really mean to me anyway?
Ah, yes, happiness; that illusive commodity that we spend so much of our time pursuing by reading self-help books, attending workshops and seminars, going to private counseling/therapy sessions and in conversation with our closest friends.
Although many individuals and organizations have repeatedly tried to quantify this state of being by releasing an annual happiness index, the results have been unconvincing.
In her statistical analysis of happiness in various regions of the world, author Carol Graham sums up the difficulty of drawing conclusions about well-being based on Western points of reference in the title of her book “Happiness Around the World: the paradox of happy peasants and miserable millionaires.”
So, if happiness isn’t a product of prosperity, then what does create this much sought-after state of being?