February 22, 2003 - US Embassy in Thailand: Still a Volunteer, I guess by RPCV Santikaro Bhikkhu

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Thailand: Peace Corps Thailand: The Peace Corps in Thailand: February 22, 2003 - US Embassy in Thailand: Still a Volunteer, I guess by RPCV Santikaro Bhikkhu

By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, February 22, 2003 - 6:30 pm: Edit Post

Still a Volunteer, I guess by RPCV Santikaro Bhikkhu

Still a Volunteer, I guess by RPCV Santikaro Bhikkhu


Santikaro BhikkhuI flew into Bangkok a few days ago, from St. Louis, then caught a plane and ride the next day to Phattalung. Neither of my two sites were in the South, but almost twenty-two years after first arriving here, I am still volunteering. This time I am meeting up with the 7th Dhamma-Yatra for Songkhla Lake (for more info see www.suanmokkh.org/ds/dy/default.htm), a project I helped start and still support. Back with my feet on Thai ground and eating the food of ordinary villagers, it's now easy to write this reflection, that is, after a few days to recover from jetlag and walking in the hot May sun.

My group, 69, arrived in August 1980. Midst the newness of life in Siam with all the adjustments and learnings, some of us were troubled by the recent and on-going domineering role of the military in corruption and violence, this after some small but real democratic shifts that happened just before we arrived. Yet, now, the new constitution, the first decent one since the days of Pridi Panomyong, gives real hope to people having a say in what happens to their lives, lands, and country. Not much of a say, so far, but more progress and that is cheering (especially given recent electoral fiascoes "back home").

A dam we visited just before the walk's end - in another attempt to avoid "public interference" the Royal Irrigation Department calls it a "dike" - illustrates this. It was pushed through by the usual greedy paternalism and power hoarding of the elites. Local villagers still don't know much about it except what is obvious to the eye. However, ten kilometers away a similar dam project - they want to put dams on everything flowing into the dying lake - must go through public hearings and thus garner local support. Who knows what the local folks will decide or whether they will be hoodwinked again or bought out, but at least they must be taken into consideration. That is progress. As they will have to live with the negative impacts of the dam - unlike the middle-class who get some of the perks - this gives hope that somebody will speak on behalf of the forests, rivers, species, and traditional culture. More sustainable decisions are becoming possible.

I would like to think that such progress has been supported by volunteers who were able to bring a genuine spirit of democracy into their teaching, work, and friendships, cutting through the classism and regionalism that still divide people. Further, I hope progress here can help RCPVs to wake Americans to the erosion of democracy back home, as we increasingly export guns and violence. These times of religious, guerilla, and state terrorism require cross-cultural sensitivity and respect as much as twenty years ago, if not more.Santikaro Bhikkhu

The richest fruit of my Peace Corps service - "Yes, I served my country for 5 years in Southeast Asia," I tell those who rejoice at bombing sprees but can't tell a Thai from a Taliban - was the introduction to Thai Buddhism. I ordained soon after my service and training contract were up, finding a home that still nourishes me seventeen years later, even after returning (finally) to live in the USA. My teacher died almost a decade ago, but his example, the Buddha's teaching, and the way of life guides me. Yet, the monastic life I have learned to cherish is in crisis here. Many of my best friends are involved in the difficult struggle for change and reform, while I have opted to participate in Buddhist monasticism's fresh start in the Midwest.

Some of my friends joined Peace Corps to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. That wasn't my motive, but that's what happened. In recent years, as I have gotten to know Japanese, Chinese, & Tibetan Buddhism more, I feel there might have been something Karmic in Peace Corps fixing me up with the strain of Buddha-Dhamma that I found here - straight-forward, down-to-earth, close-to-nature, open-minded, flexible, meditative, and socially responsible. A possible career in international development opened up, but I choose the life of a Buddhist bhikkhu, which now has me involved in new monastic adventures in Missouri, perhaps helping to bring something healthy and rich from this country and culture that is now as much in my blood and bones as America. The cultural give and take runs deep and will continue for years.

Santikaro Bhikkhu
Phattalung & Bangkok
Early May 2002

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