His Holiness Phakchok Rinpoche is visiting Bangkok and engaging in a maelstrom of events both public and private for just under two weeks. His easy manner and playfulness have warmed the Thai audiences naturally inclined as they are to anything ‘sanook’.
And yet, to attract Thai people from their usual comfort zone of Theravada is quite something. It is hard for a strictly Theravada culture to accept as a ‘real monk’ someone who, for example, eats in the evening – you can see the discomfort when there are large conferences with foreign monks invited eating their evening meal in the hotel restaurants. You can see they don’t quite feel right when a Tibetan monk will ‘wai’ (anjali) his audience in respect. It just is not the done thing. More serious is the lesser exclusion zone between monks (or nuns) and the opposite sex. In Thailand this zone is not to be compromised. So when pictures of the Dalai Lama appear of him hugging Brigitte Bardot, Thai people do not know quite how to feel.
Still, the good intentions shine through, and the Thais are surprisingly able to adjust. Perhaps the robes, at striking odds with the Theravada style, helps foster the necessary adjustment. The Saffron robes by the way, are something that HHPCR finds appealing in colour, where we Westerners tend to prefer the less dayglow maroon of the Tibetans. He waved off the offer of a swap
Your robes too difficult to put on. They’ll fall off.
The topic of the initial talks, all 5 of them over 3 days at the Tawana hotel, was the 37 practices of Bodhisattvas. All 37 clauses were produced in Thai and English in a handy booklet, which gave a grounding and format to the 5 long sessions. Most of the teachings therein were nothing that you could not find in any other Buddhism – and here is the important point. Tibetan Buddhism carries an aura of secrecy, of superior ‘one-lifetime’ practices, of the esoteric and often bizarre. But in fact, pretty much all of Tibetan Buddhism, when it comes to the actual practise and insight, falls comfortably within the boundaries of any other lineage. This is probably why the Buddhist schools all get along in such jolly fashion. It also accounts for the easy acceptance of the ample Thai crowd, about half of which was dependent on the intermittent translations which Dr Tavisak did a good job of keeping concise.
With button eyes and an ample torso, Rinpoche wielded a teddy bear like appeal, with all the associated warmth. On a personal level then it is easy to see then why the Thais, who called him by an honourific ‘Somdeth’ which in Thailand is reserved for only the 9 very highest ranking monks, would warm to his easy humour. But on the wider note it will be interesting to see where the Tibetan brand of Buddhism goes in this land of the Theravada. Tibetan Buddhism has a glittering array of often inconsistent practises, behaviours, suttas, styles and teachings both esoteric and exoteric. In appearance it is a long way from the noble etiquette and structured appeal of Pali Buddhism. There should be room for both of course, we are all friends, and the Bodhicitta, the motivation that played such a prominent part of the 37 practises, is common to all Buddhism.