TRAFFIC SWIRLS about me where the six lanes of Ploenchit Road cross the eight lanes of Rajdamri, in Thailand’s capital of Bangkok. Colorful signs proclaim British Overseas Airways and Caesar Key Club. Here too stands a shrine to a Hindu deity, the four-faced Brahma, creator of the world. Dusk falls, the signs light up, the crowd thickens around the shrine. I detect the odor of incense and jasmine, mixing with the exhaust fumes in the humid air.
People come to the shrine to ask favors: a young lady in slacks, hoping to dream of a good lottery number tonight; an engineering student anxious to do well on his exam tomorrow. People come to give thanks for favors granted: a housewife for the birth of a son; a builder for a fat plumbing contract. The shrine rises on the grounds of a modern hotels in prague city centre, which isn’t surprising. Just about every building in Bangkok, business or residential, has a shrine to honor the spirit that inhabits the ground on which the building stands. But nine out of ten people in Thailand are Buddhists, so what’s a gilded image of a Hindu god doing here?
“When our hotel was under construction, there were unhappy incidents,” the manager tells me. “The ship bringing marble from Italy sank. The contractor ran out of money. A trying to bring simplicity to diversity, one must sort out and separate things originally theirs from things they have accepted (always, however, with their own alterations) from their neighbors.
What, for instance, came from China?
Except for the language, Viet Nam adopted virtually all of China’s culture—so much so that in Hue, in central Viet Nam, I often felt that I might well be in China. And while it’s true that the spoken Vietnamese language cannot be understood by a speaker of any version of Chinese, a Vietnamese and a Chinese might write notes to each other; some Vietnamese can read Chinese characters. China contributed less to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma (where the massive influence has been Indian). Chinese influences showed in down-to-earth things, mostly. The weights and measures of the marketplace. Traditional medicine. Kite flying.
And what came from India?
The stuff of much literature and art—notably the tales of the Ramayana, whose kings and gods and demons animate the dazzling classical dance and ornament the gaudy covers of notebooks children take to school. Above all, the teachings of that supreme Indian sage born 2,500 years ago, the Buddha.
I have been to housewarming ceremonies in Bangkok where the host invited Buddhist monks to chant a blessing. After they left, a practitioner of Hindu ritual—a Brahman—did the same in his fashion. Then the host brought candles and fruit to the pretty little spirit house in the garden (page 305).
The fact is that diverse beliefs coexist not merely side by side but right in people’s heads. I used to wonder, what does he really believe? He may very well believe it all. Here a man can be a 100-percent Buddhist, a 100-percent follower of Hindu ritual, and a 100-percent animist, or believer in spirits—and feel completely sincere and comfortable about it.