Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Power, Nats and Burmese Character

Nats and the Burmese character

Burmese people traditionally believed that a person from a royal family who died violently would become a Nat. Correctly propitiated (but only then), these superhuman semi-deities could aid worshipers - in accomplishing important tasks, vanquishing enemies or other threats. Nats have human characteristics, wants, and needs; they’re flawed, with immoral desires.
The Burmese Nat is a spirit unable to re-enter the cycle of rebirth, due to life conflicts irresolvable from extreme complexities of violence, lust, greed, extreme passions and other unfortunate realities. 37 were adopted as guardians of the country, but thousands more protect crossroads, river convergences, pagodas and other places of worship, summits, homes and places of business. The Nat Pwe is a lengthy ceremony popular with Burmese, and usually involves over a week of drunkenness, prophesy and occasionally, conflict resolution.
Due to a history of despotic domination, and pathological infliction of continual trauma on the Burmese (and neighboring peoples), by Burmese despots, hysterical personality disorders (a.k.a. complicated post-traumatic stress disorders) and compulsive mysticism have become a social norm in the country.
Fear is a common element in life, and it is not only Burmese people who seek protectors and can understand their trauma. What the people of Myanmar are able to find is quite often but a wooden Nat. These representations of spirits or people whose lives were so corrupt, disorganized by violence and treachery, and so unresolved, that they cannot be reborn, are often quite artistic, beautiful and emotionally evocative. Nats are believed to stay in their area, to inflict harm on those who don't recognize and propitiate them, and to protect the helpless. Devoted supplicants may imbibe in alcohol heavily and continuously for nine or ten days, speak in tongues, throw fits and/or achieve ecstatic states, as they then, subsequently, might feel not so helpless, connected as they have become able to feel, to something extra-dimensional, mystical, and beyond the norms of our experience. The Nats help people stabilize in an untenable, unacceptable and incomprehensible society, bringing back some serenity and composure into lives almost as disturbed and disjointed as those of the Nat spirits themselves.


There’s a kind of behavior, and a kind of power, where to behave honorably is to conform to certain rules of cunning, courage and ferocity. Where honorable denotes, simply, the possession of superior strength and willingness to use force. Where to be 'honorable' is to be 'exceptional', 'worth your salt', and especially, 'overbearing'. Here, an honorable act is little more than a successful act of aggression - either in response to some perceived insult or to real provocation.
A high degree of heroism and virtue can be seen as embodied in a superior elite, or, to any brave man proud of valor, scorned danger, in people of no scruples, ready for anything. The key is ability to be a ‘real man,’ to follow a double moral system, with one set of norms applying among members of an ‘in’ group, and another, opposing set for relations with those outside it. In relations with fellow ‘real men’, tact and fine manners' are required, to be used with kinds of erudition, courtesy, kindness and verbal persuasion without compulsion. But in dealings with ‘lesser’ people and enemies, an opposite principle, of false kindness, false condescension and false courtesy applies: snares concealing death to unsuspecting trouble-makers, to the wicked or to the contemptible.
Despite formal hostility from most official authorities, these characters – be they criminals, politicians or entertainers – often enjoy popular esteem, even veneration. The courage needed to make these qualities count, and to not just defend one’s self and group against several (or even more) antagonists, but to take the offensive and put enemies to the slaughter, remains too often seen as admirable.
Power’s often expressed in the respect and esteem in which certain people are held, and linked to possession of particular qualities, and the accomplishment of particular feats, deeds and actions. This is often, but hardly always, part of a cultural pattern whose central themes of self-assertion and honor attained through violence, is taken to be of paramount importance.
A brave man, someone who will put up with no provocation, can be seen as what every man needs to be, indeed must be to survive. Individual force and strength is the one and only means of settling conflict; any clash of interests or ideas presents a kind of quandary, a suggestion of attack, wherein-which it is found impossible to tolerate the superiority or (worse still) dominance of others.
Where this attitude dominates, competitions, challenges and fights are a fundamental means by which people are socialized. The distribution of power and prestige, even within a family, isn’t preordained, or patriarchal type, but established through conflict and testing. Relations within a family obey the rule, not of intimacy or solidarity, but of subordination, involving physically asserted superiority, obligations and values emphasizing prerogatives attached to each position within the hierarchy. Rule is seen as a chore that allows tending to no others.
The father-son relationship, for instance, isn’t based on an established, stable hierarchy derived from the parent's capacity, age and experience, but on ability to emerge victorious - through physical strength and/or cunning - in any competition. What matters most in the establishment of hierarchy is the predominance of the strongest. The strongest member of the domestic group might also be the oldest, or might be the most aggressive or wiliest. Family roles are thus fluid and temporary, subject to considerable tensions and reversals. In time, a son or even wife might grow sufficiently bold to challenge the father's primacy, struggle against it, and dethrone it. Competitive success is an end in itself, independent of the material advantages victory might bring, or even decision-making prerogatives.
It is, indeed, fine – and empowering - to conquer fear and overcome intimidation. It’s good to be strong, and capable; also to be rational, and truly self-controlled. It’s also healthy, and wise, to believe in something beyond he (very limited) self, and to accept life’s limitations. For in being civilized, there can be flowerings much grander than arrogance can supply. And to influence can be much better than to assert.


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