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What Makes A Society

I’ve talked before about the difference I’ve noticed being in a society that was given Buddhism instead of Christianity. But I never really went into the details of why I said that or what it means.

Now feels as good a time as any to dive into it.

What I can say is that I’ve witnessed a coming together, a community, a selflessness, a taking care, a sharing, especially during covid here that I’ve never really seen before in my life. I know of restaurants that closed down for weeks so they could spend their time cooking food for those in need. I saw people set up tents and tables along the side of the road to provide food for people who were out of work. I’ve seen temples make extra food besides their usual offering for anyone who is hungry—regardless of religious belief. I’ve seen people give their own clothing. And not just to a company like Goodwill, who we all know resells them, but to actual real people, face-to-face, who need it. Not because they’re homeless or begging, but because they’ve fallen on hard times. People who by and large may not even come from this country or have documentation to be here.

But fair enough, covid was an unprecedented event. A worldwide pandemic that showed us all different kinds of ourselves and provided opportunity for charity left and right. How about every day? Well, I saw that too. I have been taking note of the every day random acts of kindness and caring that I’ve witnessed here. People going far out of their way to help. And also just the small things I feel we take for granted not having in the US. (I want to make a point here that when I say the US, I am referring to all the countries structured-like and socially-influenced-by the US, which also includes Jamaica.)

I can think most poignantly of a time I was riding my motorbike and somehow my wallet lifted up and all my stuff flew out. I watched my cards and all of my money blowing in the wind in the rear view mirror and I thought, well, that’s it. There goes all my stuff.

It wasn’t a super significant amount of money. It was only about 3,000 Baht, the equivalent of around $100 US, which for me isn’t much but for Thai people who earn about 12,000 a month, is quite significant. For reference, you can get a full proper meal for 30 Baht.

As I was driving away and looking for an opportunity to make a U-turn I had pretty much resigned to losing everything. My main concern at that point was losing my driving license and all the US cards that would no doubt be difficult to replace living here. But overall, it still wasn’t such a big deal.

I made my U-turn and started driving back to the spot and all I saw were a bunch of Thai people haphazardly running around, stopping traffic etc. to grab all the things from the street. At that point I expected that when I arrived they’d all scatter and maybe I’d find a business card or 2 left. I was wrong. Not only did they not run off with the money, but they went out of their way to make sure that everything that fell out was picked up. They gave me back every card and every single Baht, even if it meant stopping cars from driving on the big 4-lane main road.

Now, of course you can think well everyone would do that, that’s not such a big deal. And maybe it shouldn’t be, if we lived with more care for each other. But for me, this stood out. Not just because it happened, but because it was a moment of awareness where I had to face myself and reconcile with some of the beliefs that I hold as a result of my exposure in life. And there have been many opportunities for this. During my time in Asia—not just Thailand, I’ve often had to stop and realise “wow I really think the worst of people.” Of course this is because of my experience, but it’s important to recognise that this is not necessarily the way humans are naturally. That it doesn’t have to be like this.

It’s been an interesting journey, facing this. And there have been many incidences I’ve witnessed, not just with foreigners, where Thai people will go out of their way to stop and help another person in need. Again, this shouldn’t be something spectacular or noteworthy, as it should be normal. But here we are. You drop something from your motorbike, your fruits fall out of your bag at the market, they’ll stop what they’re doing, get off their bike and come help you pick it up. You have an accident, they’ll pull over and stay with you until help arrives. I’ve seen this with anyone. It doesn’t matter what they look like, what language they speak, or where they’re from.

Meanwhile, I can’t say how many times I’ve seen the very opposite happen in the US—particularly if you’re a “minority”. You drop something, most people will step around it and you. Maybe even on it. You get hurt, they’ll probably keep going because they have places to go and things to do. If you’re lucky, they might stop and record it. But help? Something that’s not quick and easy? You’ll have to find the right person—or rather the right person would have to find you.

Now, I liken these things to Buddhism for a few reasons. The most obvious is that we are a product of our society, which is built on the principles of whichever religion it subscribes to. And with Buddhism in particular, my understanding of it is that it is not a religion but a way of living. Not a get up on Sunday and put on your best for church and then spend the rest of the day judging and gossiping about other people's lifestyles. Not the preaching on Facebook and making rules against people who make you uncomfortable or force you to face your inability to love your neighbour way of living. It is about how you act, treat other living things, and take up space on this Earth every day. And sure I’ve heard Christians say it’s a way of life too, but I don’t see it. I’ve never felt it, energetically. It’s not truly a daily lived experience and it doesn’t give tools for how to engage with others in meaningful, spirit-baring ways. Instead, it’s more of a relationship between practitioner and God, and one that’s rooted in fear of punishment.

On the other hand, there’s no fear in Buddhism. And the lifestyle aspect is very apparent in the way that people treat each other daily and function in society. It’s not just about me. It’s not just about what I can get and how I make it to heaven and what I need. It’s about the needs of everyone. It’s about treating people, and yourself, with compassion. That could be your immediate family. Your neighbour. Your community. A stranger. A foreigner. A person with different beliefs. It doesn’t matter. There’s a general, human camaraderie. There’s an understanding that every other human being is an extension of self. It goes even further to include all living beings. So this great big separation, this great big need for identity and independence and power is sort of abandoned for a greater common union. For a more peaceful existence in the universe. And I think that’s really special.

That’s not to say there aren’t pockets of this in the US, or Jamaica, or wherever. But it’s not the underlying identity of the place. It’s something that stands out. It’s a newspaper article that makes everyone feel good about humanity for a moment time. It’s the media’s golden nugget from a largely dystopian society. It’s branding the disgrace of a lost society as a “feel-good story”. Each time the media publicises one of these stories: “Community in ____ comes together to raise money for girl’s life-saving surgery”, or “little boy starts lemonade stand to help parents pay the bills” everyone applauds and feels good until the end of the article, totally missing the real story—that people, especially if they’re already working, shouldn’t have to fundraise for basic needs. That this is not a moment to feel good, but a moment to be ashamed of the fact that most of us are one illness away from being homeless.

That is what I mean. The rule. Not the exception. That’s what we seem to be missing on that side of the world.

How do we change it?

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