Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Be a Samurai during Songkran


Warm in the Cold by Marser

The Songkran holiday is kicking off tomorrow.   As the year's longest-period official holiday, Songkran deserves all the hype it is getting.

For white collars in particular, Songkran is definitely something to look forward to.   When the economy was better, middle-class Thais tended to use it to fly out of the country, feeling grateful they could escape the scorching heat even for a little while.

This year, given the current economic downturn, more Thais are opting to stay at home.   The economy is having an effect on our mood as well.   People are a bit edgy. A  t the very least, we have become grumpy folks.

This brings us to the importance of staying cool during this summer holiday.   It is no secret that we humans find it harder to control our temper when the weather is maddeningly hot, global-warmingly hot.   It does not help either that the town is a little bit more crowded than every year in the past.   Longer queues and overcrowded restaurants, anyone?

So, watch out, dear readers.   With the above reasons, patience is going to be limited and tempers are going to fly this Songkran.   And we didn't even take into consideration the heated political atmosphere that is lurking in the background yet.

Songkran and samurai

As separate concepts, Songkran and samurai do not seem to produce any mental association.   But, believe it or not, almost 300 years ago in 1714, a caring samurai teacher named Daidoji Yuzan wrote a book that sounds as if he had the image of Thais celebrating Songkran in mind!

Titled Bushido for Beginners, the book is basically a manual for young, aspiring samurais.   Like us in the 21st century, life could be a struggle for the 18th century's Japanese warrior class.   In Tokugawa Japan, although the samurai class has been put on top of the social hierarchy, they ranked last economically, well below farmers, artisans and merchants.

Tokugawa Japan was also known as a peaceful period.   The samurai, therefore, faced another unprecedented distress. Their practical status as warriors had been lost.   They were busy redefining their raison d'etre, searching for their self-esteem. Basically, they had been transformed from a revered military class into a struggling civil servant class.

Seeing the plight of the young warriors, Daidoji Yuzan came up with that book.   At first glance, it seems to be a general career guide on "how to be a good samurai."   Reading between the lines, however, one can see that Yuzan wrote the book out of his love and concern for the younger generation.   His instructions, if dutifully followed, will lead the young men to a sustainably peaceful life.   He was coaching them how to "live smart." His real motive, therefore, was to help them out of suffering.

Consider that the world is now experiencing universal suffering, may be it is a good idea to look at Yuzan's timeless advice.

Be aware of death even at New Year

First, let's imagine the usual Songkran image: parties everywhere and reckless people roaming.   Year after year, statistics for road accidents during the holidays clearly show that alcohol is the number one culprit.   Yet, regrettably, the lobbyists still can not secure us a law prohibiting alcohol consumption while in a vehicle!   It is as if the authorities are trying to promote more deaths during the holidays!   But, seriously, do you think any revelers believe that they might die during the festivities?

Now, consider the opening sentence of Yuzan's book, "The man who would be a warrior considers it his most basic intention to keep death always in mind, day and night, from the first meal on New Year's Day right through the evening of last day of the year."

As Songkran is the Thai New Year, it would not hurt to remember Yuzan's advice and try thinking about death a little bit.   When one constantly keeps death in mind, Yuzan argued, both loyalty and filial piety are realised and a myriad of evils and disasters are avoided.

Songkran is supposed to be the time one goes to spend time with one's extended family to show respect and filial piety to the family elders.   If we keep death in mind, both ours and theirs, chances are that we would be gentle in our words, kind in our deeds, and mindful in our thoughts.

In his poetic language, Yuzan went on to describe a person's life as fleeting, not unlike the dew in the evening or the frost in the morning.   Being resolved that this might be the last day that we may live, Yuzan explained, one would naturally attend to one's parents with the thoughts that this may be for the last time, and one's concern for them would be sincere.

Therefore, if you are fortunate enough to be able to pour the blessing waters on the hands of your parents and/or grandparents this year, remember that it could be the last time. This way, your Songkran moment would be memorable.

When one forgets death, Yuzan continued, one's mind would lack prudence.   Arguments will be started over insensitive speech, and controversies will flare up concerning matters that could have been finished simply by ignoring them.   In an example quite similar to the scene at Songkran, Yuzan further reminded us to consider what could happen when one walks recklessly in the midst of crowds on temple visiting trips, bumping into strange fools and getting into unexpected fights.

The samurai's dos and don'ts

Because of that possible scenario, Yuzan suggested the young samurai shouldn't go to high-risk places even when invited.   If travelling during the festive season is unavoidable, Yuzan recommended that one plans one's route carefully in advance to stay clear of possible troubles.

At parties, Yuzan pointed out, smart warriors would eat and drink in moderation and train themselves to prudently keep sexual indulgence at a distance.   When having to engage in a conversation, laudable samurai would also keep their words to the minimum.   The most important thing is to diligently watch one's thoughts and words.

The popularity of Yuzan's book is a testament that his advice works.   Being mindful at New Year's is never out of date, for now or for the 18th century samurai!

May you all have a mindful and memorable Songkran holiday.

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