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Religions 2015, 6, 1263–1276; doi:10.3390/rel6041263


The Role of Religion among Sex Workers in Thailand

Siroj Sorajjakool * and Arelis Benitez

School of Religion, Loma Linda University, 24760 Stewart Street, Loma Linda, CA 92350, USA; E-Mail: arbenitez@llu.edu

* Author to whom correspondence should be addressed; E-Mail: ssorajjakool@llu.edu. Academic Editor: Peter Iver Kaufman
Received: 16 July 2015 / Accepted: 15 October 2015 / Published: 23 October 2015

ISSN 2077-1444 http://www.mdpi.com/journal/religions (Open Access)

Abstract: This qualitative research seeks the understanding of the role of religion in the lives of sex workers in Thailand. It is based on interviews conducted among sex workers working in karaoke bars in Bangkok. Findings show that most sex workers experience different levels of life difficulty. The level of life difficulty also affects the experience of internal conflicts regarding sex and morality. Finally religion has been used as a form of ritual purification in dealing with internal sense of conflicts.

Keywords: sex workers; sex; religion; religious functions; religious coping; sexual morality

1. Introduction

Sexual practices beyond matrimonial boundaries are often considered immoral and thus, prohibitive especially within the realm of religion. The religious inclination toward detachment from sexual gratification in itself expresses a general tendency to see non-marital sexual practices as non-normative and thus, sever the possibility of perceiving any connection between religiosity and sex work. However, since religion and spirituality are believed to be an important part of who we are as human beings, the question emerges as to what role religion plays in helping sex workers negotiate between sexuality and morality. This study seeks qualitative data in an effort to understand the role of religion among sex workers working in Karaoke Bars in Bangkok, Thailand.

There are not many studies on the topic of religion and prostitution. Qualitative research by Geraldo A. Toledo on prostitutes’ understanding of God conducted in Ecuador shows a close relationship between attachment theory and religion. Toledo interviewed 13 sex workers belonging to theAsociacion Pro Defensa de la Mujer and found that attachment (or its counterpart, namely, abandonment and rejection) influences one’s concept of and relationship with God. According to Toledo, people who have been abandoned or rejected by their primary caregivers, look for a secure attachment figure and in God they find the response to their needs. It is also interesting to note that sex workers see God as their protector and provider, and not a God who blames them for working in the sex industry [1].

Beatrice Okyere-Manu interviewed 12 sex workers in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa on physical and material well-being and found that, due to the level of poverty, these sex workers took the initiative to find an alternative method of earning income for their families. They had to make the choice between starvation or prostitution and decided for the latter even though it meant risking stigmatization, sexual-transmitted diseases, and physical danger; material well-being was important for their survival. Okyere-Manu concluded that while material wellbeing is important, the biblical understanding of well-being excludes the risk of physical danger, stigmatization, and sexually transmitted diseases and hence Christians addressing this issue need to take into consideration the overall wellbeing of sex workers [2].

Somporn Kantharadussadee Triamchaisri and Rujikorn Hwanpurd’s [3] (2004) research among prostitutes in Bangkok offers a comprehensive view of the context of sex work in Thailand. The data collected is based on a survey distributed among 398 sex workers in four provinces in central Thailand. The aim of the study was to identify factors related to holistic well-being among sex workers. The study shows that 86.8% take physical hygiene seriously, 60.9% practice some form of daily centering prior to work, 50.3% avoid causing harm to others, and 41.1% are married, relatively financially stable and feel supported by their husbands. Factors that help to predict well-being are: age of the first sexual encounter, years of work as sex workers, number of locations of work, general life satisfaction, and level of understanding of human sexuality. The study shows that working in many locations increases their income level. In addition, the longer their experience within the field, the more equipped they become in coping with multiple problems. Age is a significant determining factor for the level of maturity, the decision making process, and the ability to manage life in general. The ability to support themselves helps to increase their level of competencies in life.

2. Types of Sex Workers in Thailand

While the phrase “the oldest profession” in referring to prostitution is certainly true for Thailand, Thailand was not known for prostitution until the period between the mid-19th and the 20th century. During this period there was an abolition of slaves and a surge of immigration into Thailand by male workers. Additionally, the law of the land divided wives into three categories: women married with their family’s consent, women responsible for up-keeping and running the household, and finally women bought by their husbands for sexual gratification. This third group normally came from poor families. When Rama V abolished slavery in 1905, many female slaves found themselves homeless and jobless, and therefore, sold their bodies as means for survival. Around the same time period millions of Chinese men came to engage in construction work (roads, railways, and palaces) thus creating a great demand for sex. In 1908 the king initiated legalization of prostitutes in order to protect sex workers and provide them with medical care. During World War II there were many brothels set up to serve 300,000 Japanese soldiers and at the end of the war, these brothels continued to serve the British and Indian soldiers who remained in Thailand to provide security. The expansion of prostitution in Thailand continued rapidly with GIs during the Vietnam War [4].

In 1996, the Thai government initiated the new Suppression Act in order to combat children in prostitution. This Suppression Act includes severe punishment on procurers, clients, and parents selling their children [5]. As a result the number of brothels in Thailand dropped drastically, but in its place there are many forms of sex industries such as bars, massage parlors, karaoke, café, etc. [5]. Generally there are two types of bars offering sexual services. Open-front and go-go bars are among the most commonly frequented by foreign tourists. The girls are mostly recruited from poor rural villages in the north or north eastern parts of Thailand. In this type of bar, the girls are free to choose their clients. They are not obligated to serve if they do not wish to do so. They do not receive a monthly salary. They earn approximately 30% of the price of the drinks their clients buy for them and another 30% (200 to 300 hundred bahts) generated from an “off-fee” (when clients pay the bar to take them out for the night). The major income comes from sexual services provided for their clients (1000–2000 bahts). The go-go bars, on the other hand, do not have an open-front to the street and inside the bars are metallic poles where dances are performed which are, on an average, about three songs. Each woman wears a number for the purpose of identification. They get paid between 7000–10,000 bahts per month, 30% for every drink the clients buy for them and another 30% to cover the off-fee or bar fine. Once the off-fee is paid, the sex workers can leave the bar and accompany the clients. Those working for go-go bars get paid an average of 1500–2500 baht for sexual service per client. Part of the agreement is for each sex worker to earn 10 to12 off-fees to meet the monthly quota; otherwise she will have to pay a fine of up to 600 baht per month ([4], pp. 36–43).

Massage parlors are not to be confused with places offering a traditional Thai massage. Visitors stepping into massage parlors will find a big glass window with sex workers wearing long dresses or bathing costumes. Similarly a number is assigned to every woman for the purpose of identification. Upon making a selection, the customer is ushered into a room containing a bathtub and a bed. After a bath, sexual service will be performed according to that customer’s preference (oral sex or intercourse). Sex workers in massage parlors are required to perform sexual services for clients. They earn approximately 30% to 50% of the amount paid to the establishment (1000–2000 baht) and normally receive generous tips from their clients. Due to the absence of a salary, their income depends on the number of clients served, which can range between two to seven per night ([4], pp. 43–44; [6], pp. 173–78).

Café/Karaoke bars belong to another category in the sex industry commonly frequented by locals. The daily routine of a sex worker consists of singing and dancing on stage, sitting with their preferred clients, entertaining and conversing with them in order to gain their favor. While singing, customers often buy wreaths made of money and offer them to the singers. Singers who know how to entertain clients normally get more wreaths. In addition to the money garland, they earn an income of 20% to 30% from drinks that customers buy for them. If the customers wish to take them out, they are not obligated to reciprocate. If they agree to go with the customers, an off-fee is paid to the establishment. Going out with customers does not necessarily imply sexual activity. It could simply mean having dinner, listening to music, and at times it is just for company and conversation. If sexual services are involved, the payment is to be negotiated between the client and the sex worker—normally at 2000 baht or more if it involves the entire night ([6], pp. 127–35).

3. Methodology

The plan to interview sex workers in Thailand was met with difficulties. Many sex workers were unwilling to be interviewed regarding their involvement in prostitution and their personal lives. The first stop in the process of identifying participants for this study was Chiang Mai city in Northern Thailand. The contact was a taxi driver who took the interviewer to a karaoke bar that only offers sexual services. Upon entering this facility, a solicitor asked sex workers to sit in the main lobby. The interviewer informed the solicitor about the intention to have a conversation with some of these ladies and would contact her later. The following day, during the phone conversation, the interviewer negotiated remuneration for the time spent during the interview. She informed the researcher that she would pass this information along and get back regarding the specific venue. An hour or so later she called to inform that none of them volunteered for the interview. Realizing the difficulty in accessing this population, the interviewer contacted an acquaintance in Bangkok who knew a karaoke bar owner. The arrangement was made and the interviewer was able to interview 12 sex workers from two bars regarding the role of religion in their everyday living.

This study aimed at understanding the role of religion in the lives of these sex workers specifically focused on the way they cope with life and interpret their own life’s meaning. The criteria for selection included women who were 18 years and older, identified as sex workers, residing and working in Bangkok, Thailand. The aim in the selection of the sample was to interview individuals from different age groups and individuals with various lengths of time working in this profession for the purpose of comparison. Because of the difficulty in finding access to this population without the help of individuals whom sex workers trusted, snowball sampling was utilized by requesting the bar owner to recommend participants keeping in mind the criteria and the possible variation in terms of age and length of time spent in this profession. Once participants were identified and permission granted, appointments were scheduled taking into consideration privacy and conveniences for participants. On the day of the interview, an explanation was given in relation to the nature and objectives of the study. Each participant was given a consent form to sign. All interviewees remained anonymous, and the interviews confidential. The interviews were conducted by Siroj Sorajjakool, PhD, Professor of Religion, Loma Linda University. Interviews lasted approximately 45–60 min. The open-ended questions were designed to identify the daily struggle among sex workers both in their private and public life in order to better understand what role religion might play. The open-ended questions were the following:

1. What are some of the issues you deal with in your daily living? 2. How do you imagine being perceived by the public?
3. What are some common misunderstandings you experience?
4. What role does religion play in your life?

5. Does religion play any role in helping you understand the meaning of your life?

These questions were an initial attempt to grasp at the basic issues in the life of sex workers which would assist in deciding how to formulate better questions in the process of determining categories and exploring a possible theory. After reviewing the first four interviews and noticing a certain pattern, two questions were added to determine their level of difficulties in life and gain a better understanding of their internal conflict. With these additional questions, each participant was asked to rank the level of life’s difficulties on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “very difficult.” Asking participants to rank added further clarity about the relationship between life’s difficulties and religiosity. The first four participants were tracked in order to get input on these two additional questions.

The interviews were tape recorded, transcribed, and coded according to methods suggested by Anselm Strauss and Juliet Corbin [7]. The first level of analysis started with open coding—a line by line labeling of “what is going on here.” The next level of analysis involved creating categories based on descriptions of what was happening. This research used a “constant comparison method” to examine how a new response was “like” or “not like” a previous category [8]. The final level of analysis linked the emergent categories together in a way that explained the data. This explanation was the “grounded theory” which accounted for variation in responses.

For validity, emerging themes were compared with all interviews to see if the analysis explained each case. All interviews were read and re-read in view of this emerging theory and at the same time the openness to make appropriate revisions accordingly. For saturation, the researchers noticed a consistent pattern showing the connection between moral conflict, life’s difficulties and religiosity with the exception of case # 9 where religiosity was not driven by these two factors. Subsequent interviews after case # 9 showed similar pattern with an exception of one participant whose religiosity was not driven by life’s difficulties (for further explanation, see results).

4. The Context

The work context of this study is based on two karaoke bars in Bangkok and Thonburi, Thailand. The first karaoke bar, where interviews with three sex workers were conducted, is located on Wisutkasat Road, Bangkhunprom, Bangkok. The second location is Pinklao, Thonburi. Nine sex workers were interviewed on two separate days. Of the 12 participants, 11 migrated from northeast and one from the south. The mean age was 29 and the ages range from 19 to 41. Educational level ranged from grade 3 to bachelor’s degree (one completed 3rd grade, one completed 4th grade, two completed 8th grade, three received high school diploma, five are currently in college, and one has a bachelor’s degree). The five students, that are currently pursuing their bachelor’s degree, were hired as dancers in the karaoke bar. They received 6000 baht monthly for their three nightly performances. All dancers earned extra income by sitting with customers and singing karaoke. These five students have all been out with their customers. Three of the participants indicated that, while they engaged in drinking alcohol, singing karaoke, and accompanying customers (which often involve touching and fondling), they did not engage in sexual activities (however, the bar owner believed otherwise).

In terms of the religious context, participants’ religious worldview, as a functional reality, is based on Theravada Buddhism that reached Thailand in the 13th century through the missionary work of Sri Lankan monks ([9], p. 7). However religion in Thailand is a complex interwoven of beliefs of both Buddhism and indigenous religions. Speaking of the complexity of Thai Buddhism, Kirsch (1977) writes “Thai religious complexity is of the sort commonly characterized as syncretic, in which elements derived from several historically discrete traditions have combined to form a single distinctive tradition” ([10], p. 241). With this syncretic religious expression karma remains at the root of Thais approach to everyday living. Explaining this interrelation Mulder (1979) states “for the contemporary Thai the comfortable prospect of an ancestor heaven has been replaced by a long cycle of rebirths and the knowledge that to do good will improve one’s karmatic position and that to do evil worsens it” ([11], p. 44). Within this context, merit-making is primary for the purpose of the accumulation of good karma that will be translated into better future life. Professor Prasert Yamklinfung writes “the idea of renunciation of worldliness and the implied negative attitude towards the accumulation of wealth are never taken seriously by most Thai Buddhists as these beliefs run against their values of enjoyment of living in harmony with oneself, others, and nature” ([12], p. 7). Mulder (1979) confirms this view when speaking of the compatibility between Thai Buddhism and ancestor worship. “To the contemporary Thai this belief (ancestor worship) is perfectly compatible with the Buddhist expectation of a next life where one hopes that things will be better” ([11], p. 47). This basic assumption is what guides moral practices and motivates the people to engage in the process of merit-making.

In terms of merits, generosity is one of the most common forms being practiced by Thai Buddhists and it often consists of offering food to monks, supporting the Sangha with material needs, contributing to construction of projects by Sangha and every other form of charitable activities. Prior to engaging in merit-making process it is customary to evoke the five precepts. While Buddhists will take pain to practice these precepts, the practice is not a conscious attempt hence, the practice itself may not fully take place while engaging in the process of merit-making [13]. This has significant implications for sex workers whose profession may go directly against the 3rd precept. The above stated concepts of morality and merit-making inform the internal beliefs and values of interviewees and their lived-religion.

5. Results

Early in the interview process, two distinct factors emerged that guided subsequent questions. These two factors were the level of life’s difficulty and the internal sense of conflict among sex workers. These two factors seemed to determine the level of engagement with religion and religious practices.

5.1. Life’s Difficulties

When considering factors leading these participants to labor as sex workers, all of them indicated finance as the primary factor. While finance may be the leading cause, there were levels of financial difficulties among the 12 participants. There were those who engaged in sex work because of their desperate situations, those who joined the industry due to a moderate level of financial difficulty, and those with non-pressing financial difficulty.

Those in desperate situations represent participants whose survival was dependent on their income as sex workers. The moderate group represents those who were having a hard time making ends meet, but their survival was not threatened. The final group represents those who were not in a critical financial situation but would like to earn extra income for their personal expenses and to help lessen the burden on their families’ financial situation.

The first group represents young girls who left home at a young age and migrated to Bangkok for jobs or to pursue an education. These girls started out in factories, earning minimum wage or selling food by the road side while taking residence in a local Buddhist temple. A few became involved with married men who deserted them after they were pregnant. One of the participants, a 40 year-old factory worker, had an affair with a married man and became pregnant. The man soon deserted her. Because she was not able to work, she survived by selling and pawning her belongings until she gave birth to her daughter. After giving birth, the hospital would not discharge her because she owed them 6000 baht. Finally one of her acquaintances bailed her out. Realizing the need to support her young daughter, she decided to work in a karaoke bar. When she first started working she was making 100 baht a night and it was not sufficient to provide for her and her daughter. Initially she asked her niece from another province to come live with her in order to help take care of her daughter but not long after the niece had to return to her village. Without any one to take care of her daughter, she hired her neighbor while she was at work. Her income did not cover the expenses for food, rent, child-care and eventually she was evicted from her house. While suicide was not an option for her because of her daughter, it was an attractive escape that she pondered. In desperation she decided that sleeping with clients was the only option for her and her daughter’s survival.

A 19-year-old first year college student told the story of loss which changed her life. When her mother was still alive, everything was going well for her because her mother would make sure all her needs were provided for. After her mother passed away, her dad only offered a fraction of what she used to receive. She tried coping with this major loss by supporting herself through college. Her expenses included room and board as well as tuition. She was not able to make ends meet and so she decided to become a dancer in a karaoke bar and sleep with clients. In tears she said, “I used to hate sex workers. I used to look down on them. I thought of them as loose and immoral. Now I’m just like them. But if I don’t do this type of work, I will not be able to survive.”

The moderate group is represented by those who had been working in a factory earning 200 baht a day (minimum wage), a hair salon, or owned a small business but discovered that their income level was not sufficient to cover their expenses. They soon learned that by working in a karaoke bar they could earn double or more than what they used to earn. One of the participants was introduced to karaoke bar by her friend. During her first night, she earned 700 baht. Subsequently she earned between 400–500 per night but this amount was still much more than working in a factory; if she entertained clients sexually, she could gain an additional 2000–3000 baht per night.

The last group represents young college students who received partial financial help from their parents but decided to work in order to earn extra income for themselves and to help reduce the financial burden on their families. Some of these participants indicated that they did not engage in sexual activities with clients although every single one of them had gone out with clients outside of their job routine.

 5.2. The Sense of Conflict

Eight of the 12 participants believed in the immoral nature of sex work. They felt conflicted while working in karaoke bars but the intensity in their level of conflict differed. To some, the conflict was related to stigmatization. To be viewed as sex workers is to feel marginalized, to be looked down upon as loose and immoral; as someone who chose an easy way of earning income instead of engaging in hard to break the cycle of poverty. The sexual nature of their work was not expressed in connection with morality. The guilt was often associated with a sense of deception because they pleased men in exchange for monetary gain. They felt as though they put on a show of affection for personal gain and not because they really care or like their clients. They show affection despite the fact that they find some clients repulsive. Other aspects of guilt have to do with betrayal, especially when entertaining married men. There is a fear of being the cause of marital conflicts and creating emotional pain to spouses of these men. The rationalization they often use is, “These clients made their own decisions. We never ask them to.” When asked what they often think about while working, most participants indicated that they were preoccupied thinking about how much they are going to make and ways they can earn extra income. The other preoccupation is worrying about their financial situation while entertaining clients.

Four of the participants did not express any type of moral conflict pertaining to their work. One of the participants stated that “while people perceived sex workers with negative immoral connotations, at least I know my limit.” A participant with a bachelor’s degree in political science explained:

“Morality is a matter of the soul. When customers give, they do not give in order to get in bed with us. They give because they like our singing. There may be those who give in order to gain sexual favor. But even then it is up to us. We have a choice. We can choose to go with the client or decline their offer. Morality is a matter of the soul. Conscience is an internal guide. Narrow-minded people are those who lack morality. We have not done anything wrong.”

All four participants who did not experience any type of moral conflict indicated that they enjoyed their work. They took pleasure in singing, dancing, and entertaining clients. They were not obsessed with financial worries but concentrated their efforts on entertaining clients and performing to the best of their ability.

Most participants expressed a change of perspective regarding sex workers. Prior to their involvement in sex work, many had negative judgements perceiving sex workers as immoral and loose, lacking in personal values. At the time of the interview, they expressed sympathy and recognized that, for most, it was life circumstances that forced a person to choose this path. “Nobody wants to sit around and be fondled by strange men whom they know nothing about.” If an option existed, this would not have been their chosen path.

5.3. The Role of Religion

Of the 12 participants, four did not engage in religious practices and rituals on a regular basis even though they acknowledged the importance of religion. One of the four participants indicated that she found comfort in religious practices while another occasionally contemplated the teachings of the Buddha when she faced difficulties in life. They had not been going to temples, giving alms to monks, or engaging in other forms of religious practices or merit-making activities.

For 8 of the 12 participants, religion played a very significant role in their lives. Some visited temples frequently while others gave alms to monks and engaged in various forms of merit-making activities. Seven of these eight sex workers indicated a sense of conflict between their work in the karaoke bar and their religious beliefs. They equated sex work with immorality and deception. Many of these participants have a deep-rooted belief in karma-formation, the teaching that one reaps what one sows, and what one sows will always come back. Bad deeds will be repaid by bad karma in one’s life.

A 19-year-old participant believed that her mother passed away because she was misbehaving and constantly disobeying and now she was left to manage life on her own. This hard life, to her, was meant to be a lesson resulting from her bad behavior. What made the belief in karma significant in the understanding of the role of religion was expressed in the life of a 24-year-old sex worker who had not been religious nor making merits until the last three months. When probed regarding the time she came to this profession, she said that it was four months ago. Most of the eight participants who experienced conflict between sex work and religion turn to religious practices in one form or another.

The most common form of religious practice is merit-making such as giving alms to monks or offering donations to the temple. They admitted a strong sense of guilt (deceiving men for their money or causing tension between husbands and wives) and in order to deal with this guilt they engaged in merit-making activities. The process of merit-making is said to bring a sense of comfort and peace to them knowing that the accumulation of these religious acts may repay for the sins they have committed, and assure them of a better future in this life or the next. One of the participants did not believe that merit-making could serve as a form of penance. She said:

“Working in this place and visiting the temple is like living in two separate worlds. At the temple I feel at peace with myself. When I give alms to monks it helps to give me a sense of peace and comfort. It can never repay for the sin that I committed. I still have to live with the consequence of my past sinful acts. Nothing can erase that. I choose to do this because it is the only way I can survive and I have to bear the consequences of my actions.”

Reflecting on the role of internal conflict, Jane S. T. Woo, Negar Morshedian, Lori A. Brotto, and Boris B. Gorzalka [14] (2012) found a connection between religiosity and sex guilt among their subjects (n = 178 Euro-Canadian; n = 361 East Asian). While the level of sex-guilt is higher among East Asian women, high level of religiosity remains an important contributing factor in the level of sex-guilt. Another related study by Yoel Inbar, David A Pizarror, Thomas Gilovich, and Dan Ariely adds clarity to the experience of these sex workers in relation to guilt. Based on 41 undergraduate students in an experimental research, the study finds that “feeling guilty about one’s own moral transgressions can lead people to engage in physical self-punishment, and that such self-punishment, in turn, serves to reduce feelings of guilt” ([15], p. 16).

There is another important variable relating to the role of religion. This is the level of difficulties that participants experience. Chart 1 and 2 show the comparison between the level of difficulty and religiosity. Six out of the 12 participants indicated a high level of difficulty in their lives. All six participants expressed high level of engagement in spiritual practices such as visiting temples, meditating or making merits. While the other six who experienced a moderate level of difficulty believed that religion is beneficial, they rarely engaged in any form of religious practices. Hence the next important variable that determines the role of religion for these participants is the level of difficulty they face in their lives. A 26-year-old participant grew up in a farm. When her father passed away, she was forced to marry. Unable to get along with her husband, she left her village and migrated to Bangkok. She started working in a nursing home but it did not provide enough income and so she became a seamstress for additional financial support. While working in this facility, she fell in love with a man but later found out that he already had a family. He left her when he found out that she was pregnant and never returned. With a daughter and insufficient income to survive, she decided to sleep with her clients, making an extra 1500 to 2000 baht per night. This participant is a very religious person who believes in the basic teachings regarding karmic formation. In her village, she serves as the chair of the committee that oversees charitable activities of the local village temple and is a well-respected member of her community.

Religion and spirituality are common resources people rely upon when facing traumatic events. According to Brenda Cole, Ethan Benore, and Kenneth Pargament “spirituality is often embedded in the process of coping with major life stressors, such as a diagnosis of cancer. Studies have shown that spirituality is among the most common resources people rely upon when they face with trauma” ([16], p. 50). A study by Roger D. Fallot and Jennifer P. Heckman [17] (2005) based on data from two racially diverse samples of 666 women from Washington, DC and Stockton, California (with history of trauma and Axis I or II diagnosis) asked questions such as: what is the impact of trauma on spirituality and what are the relationships between spirituality and indicators of well-being? The study showed a high level of religious coping in comparison to the general population. Sorajjakool’s [18] (2006) research on Thai women and HIV/AIDS reflects the importance of religious beliefs (Buddhism) and the ability to cope with illness. Many of these studies confirm the experience of sex workers and their inclination toward religiosity in the face of difficult life circumstances.

Cases 9 and 11, however, raise a different type of question pertaining religiosity and the level of difficulty in life. They both experience a moderate level of difficulty. They do not see themselves as having a more difficult life than others and yet they are very religious. They both visit temples frequently, pray daily, practice various forms of Buddhist meditation regularly, and give alms to Buddhist monks or perform other forms of merit-making regularly. However, they also indicated that they have been through a very difficult time in the past. One of the participants experienced a major loss in her relationship while the other had significant financial hardship many years prior where she was not able to provide food for herself and her family. One simple explanation may perhaps be that while conflicts and life’s difficulties are factors influencing these sex workers’ constant participation in religious rituals and activities, the reverse is not the case. Religiosity is not dependent on moral conflicts and life’s difficulties. On the other hand there may perhaps be a more significant role that religion plays in the lives of some sex workers that makes it viable for them to remain in their profession with a certain level of contentment.

6. Conclusions

Underneath the appearance of seduction of many sex workers lies a religious world view that informs and shapes how they come to identify and sustain themselves within the very career that goes against the religious precept regarding sexuality based on the moral teaching of Buddhism. When considering the role of religion among sex workers, there seem to be two important variables.

according to these 12 participants that determine the level of engagement in religious practices: the experience of moral conflict and the level of difficulty (financial or life circumstances). Those who experience moral conflict are more inclined to engage in various forms of religious practices, particularly that of merit-making believing that by giving alms to monks or doing charity, these accumulated merits could potentially help to repay for their sins. At the same time these charitable acts can offer a sense of comfort and peace for these participants.

Life difficulty is another important factor affecting the level of religiosity. Participants who described their lives as being very difficult tend to be religious as well. However, there are two participants who, while engaged in religious practices (meditation, visiting temples, making-merits) on a regular basis, indicate that the difficulty in their lives are not different from most people and categorize their level of difficulty as moderate. It is interesting to note that these two participants have been through very difficult periods in their lives in the past. There are many reasons people turn to religion and there are perhaps many possible explanations as to why these two participants are religious. It may be because they have been through difficult periods in their lives and found Buddhism to be essential for their lives, or it could be because they are not confronted with desperate circumstances, and therefore, have the freedom to choose whether to go or not go with clients. It may also be the very teachings of Buddhism that help them survive with basic necessities and hence make survival less stressful. For the most part, when considering the role of religion in the lives of these participants, experience of moral conflict and the level of difficulty seem to play a significant role. Interestingly, while most of these participants will continue to work in this profession, the practice of meditation and merit-making will continue to be one of the most important sources of peace and comfort in their day-to-day struggle with finance, sexuality, and difficult life circumstances.

Reflecting on the lives of these sex workers and the role of religion raises a few interesting questions that will require further exploration. We often do not expect a correlation between sexual immorality and religiosity. We assume that religious people are moral. It is therefore difficult to imagine any connection between immoral activities and religious practices. But what if there was a close connection between the two? What if the very people who engage in sexual misconduct are the ones who go to the temple, practice meditation, and give alms regularly? How do we come to understand the positive relationship between immoral behaviors and religiosity? Further more, what if it is religion itself that makes it possible for these participants to continue engaging in their immoral sexual behavior for their survival since, for half of these participants, it is religion that provides a sense of peace within the experience of conflict and tension brought about by their profession? What if it is religion that helped them accept their life circumstances, enabled them to choose their profession as a method for survival, and offers peace in the chaos of restlessness? Finally, is it possible to conceive of religion as a holding place in maintaining tension between good and evil and consequently a person who is able to resolve internal conflicts through religious practices may be a person who is transitioning into a more authentic spirituality as in case # 9?


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© 2015 by the authors; licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

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Once there were five friends who were so fond of each other that they form themselves into their own fan club. There were skinny Jim and heavy John and ivory dark James and short Jeff and LGBT Joe.

They loved Jim because he was so skinny he could get into narrow spaces that non others could. And John was so big and heavy that others kids would not mess around with him.  And James would always win hide and seek because they could never find him in the dark. And Jeff could always get into amusement parks with discounts because he was so short. And Joe would pamper them with his androgynous skills cooking and knitting.

And they were a very happy gang. They laughed together and they played together and they supported each other and they cared for one another.

One day, Josh, an expert at drawing lines and circles, at defining social hierarchy, and at deciding categories turned up announcing his ability and intention. He started drawing lines and circles. He drew a body-type circle, and color circle, and appropriate height circle, and gender circle. And by the time all the circles were drawn, only Josh was in the circles.

And Jim was trying hard to put on weight even when eating was not his thing and now he could not get into narrow spaces. And John was trying to loose weight even though he loved to eat and he became weak and unhappy and other kids started bullying him and his gang. And James bought himself bottles and bottles of Clorox and started bleaching himself. And his skin was neither white nor black. There were patches of blacks and white and he looked more like a zebra. And Jeff was getting all kinds of surgeries and special hormones to make himself taller. And he was not any much taller but now he just could not walk properly. And Joe was pumping himself with testosterone and he no longer cooked and cleaned for his colleagues and he started getting irritated and violent. And he started beating his friends for not picking up after themselves.

And every one was angry, and unhappy, and irritated, and they could no longer get along.

Then one day, Jill, a skill eraser appeared. And she did what she knew best. She erased lines and circles. And Jim stopped eating and John started eating and James stopped bleaching (and now plays hide and seek among zebra) and Jeff is now short and limping and Joe de-testosteroned himself. And Josh said where are my circles? And Jill replied, what circles? And Josh responded, this is a jungle. And they all lived happily ever after.

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A little disclaimer. I’m not an expert on Carl Jung except that I find him very fascinating and have been reflecting on his concepts over the past decade. I love for poetry, symbols, icons, rituals, dreams and Jung makes them come to live for me. So when I listen to interesting songs or observing symbols that I’ve never been exposed, there is the dimension of depth being added. I was listening to Lost Starts by Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and a phrase caught my attention “Yesterday I saw a lion kiss a deer.” That was profound. Or recently when I came across Ouroboros and as someone who dreams of snakes often, it just takes on a different meaning for me.

While working with a schizophrenic patient in a psychiatric hospital, Jung realized that there were images and ideas that did not belong to the patient’s individual unconscious. These memories belong to the collective unconscious of generation past. Slowly he started to notice this pattern in other patients as well and in his personal unconscious.
A more or less superficial layer of the unconscious is undoubtedly personal. I call it the personal unconscious. But this personal unconscious rests upon a deeper layer, which does not derive from personal experience and is not a personal acquisition but is inborn. This deeper layer I call the collective unconscious. I have chosen the term “collective” because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behaviour that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals. It is, in other words, identical in all men and thus constitutes a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us.

Jung calls them archetypes. “Psychologically … the archetype as an image of instinct is a spiritual goal toward which the whole nature of man strives; it is the sea to which all rivers wend their way, the prize which the hero wrests from the fight with the dragon.” Jung first referred to them as primodial images. It is like a prototype: a prototype of a car, a plane, a robotic system, mobile applications etc. Yet it is more than just a prototype. It is like an app where wise people from generations and generations have been coding and recoding with the aim of helping us live a whole and complete life. And this app is inserted into our unconscious minds. When we deviate too much the warning signs will appear in the forms of stories, strong feelings, images, symbols and dreams. And the warning sign will flash, system compromised. Please recalibrate. This is the essence of Jung’s archetypes.

I had a client in his mid 20s who is angry and very argumentative. He has to right, right at any cost. He grew up with a mother who is obsessive with being right. A good and worthwhile person is the one who is right. There is no room in his psyche to accommodate any wrong. To be erroneous is to be worthless. This split torments him.

A young Hispanic medical student was referred to me. She came from a morally and traditionally conservative family. She can’t fail morally or professionally. Apparently she failed both….she was repeating her second year of medical school and failed short in some moral dimension. She came in, said a few words and cried. This went on for six months. There was no place in her psyche for failures.
So what have these splits to do with all these symbols and icons? Everything.

In The Da Vinci Code, the character of Professor Langford was scripted to say, “Symbols are a language that can help us understand our past.” These religious symbols and icons offer a spiritual perspective that brings about healing for the soul.

What do these symbols represent? Professor Langford while gesturing the symbol of a triangle with his arms explained to Sophia, “This is the original icon for male. It’s a rudimentary phallus. This is known as the blade. It represents aggression and manhood. The symbol is still used today in modern military uniform. The female symbol is its exact opposite.” Many religious symbols contain union of these opposites: male and female, light and darkness, life and death, joy and suffering, good and bad. Carl Jung calls this coniunctio oppositorum. “For the symbols,” writes Jung, “are natural attempts to reconcile and reunite opposites within the psyche.”

A couple of religious symbols I want to touch upon briefly. The Star of David with two triangles overlapping one another. Sri Yantra, 9 interlocking triangles with upright triangles representing Shiva and upside down triangles representing Shakti, the force of femininity. Together it symbolizes Avaita or non-duality, oneness. Then there’s the Yin/Yang symbolism that forms the core foundation of Chinese cosmology. Yap-yum in Trantric Buddhism. The union of male diety and shakti, compassion and insights that we need to reach enlightenment. The Cross in Christianity, the unity of death and resurrection, finite and the infinite. These symbols are invitation for our psyche to hold on to opposites and it is this ability to hold on to opposites that healing and harmony take place. My argumentative client was not able to accept the fact that people make mistakes. The Korean medical student was not able to hold success and failure at the same time. And this is very crucial because nature does not have preference for one over the other. It is all a part of the same reality. While we tend to attach negative connotation to failure and positive to success, for nature there is no preference. But it becomes a monumental problem for us because we have inherited a very strong tendency toward linear rational thinking.

For Jung, of all the archetypes, mandala is among the most significant. Mandala, translated from Sanskrit meaning circle, is a geometric figure with layers of either concentric squares or circles representing wholeness. In ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections” Jung writes “I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing…which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time…only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is…the Self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious.” Hence Jung calls mandala the archetype of wholeness.

Mandala emerged in various geographical regions in various forms and yet remains true to its content such as the Tibetan paintings, labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in French, stupa, Ankor Wat (Cambodia), Borobudur in Indonesia and many more.

A whole person is someone who has embraced himself/herself fully. Wholeness refers to the self that has fully embraced itself. When the self is fully embraced you are at peace with yourself. You come to term with yourself. This is me with all my deficits and flaws, weaknesses, strengths, courage, creativity. People’s praise does not inflate your ego. People’s criticism does not deflate yours sense of self. Your internal equilibrium is internally regulated. The more your sense of self is externally controlled, the more vulnerable you become. So when someone said, you are so average, he responses “Ok.” “You are not that smart.” “Sure, why not.” “You are fat.” “I love to eat, let’s go have dinner.” Because this person is able to embrace everything, this person can’t really be destroyed.

The significance of a mandala is the center that holds everything together. The center that can hold everything internally together. There are so many things in life, pleasure, pain, life, death, high, low, success, failure, tears, laughter, darkness, brightness, fear, courage, ugliness, beauty. The question is, what is at the center? And can this center hold everything together because things that we cannot hold them together will take us down.

Once I had a client who grew up with a mom diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. It was total chaos. He was very shameful of his past, of his mom, of his history. He created a facade of a beautiful life. But internally he was falling apart. He was financially broke and on drugs. His wife threatened to leave him. He was unable to embrace himself, his past. His center could not accommodate ugliness and shame. He was falling apart.
Mandala points to the center that can hold everything together. One of the iconic image that conveys this distinctive belief is that of Shiva in the most serene state and a cobra wrapped around his neck.

Archetypes are not just symbols with meaning. Archetypes speak to us as well. One day in class while we were discussing dreams, a skeptical student related her dream, a dream that kept recurring in her life. She will be standing in front of a television and the only thing she sees is the snow screen. And then she falls right through the ground and she just keeps falling ad infinitum. So I asked if she had been struggling with communication with a significant person in her life and that it felt like there is no solution in sight. She nodded. Jung calls this phenomenon the religious function of the psyche. The archetype is not passive. It speaks. There is something inherent in our psyche that will drive us toward wholeness if we will pay attention.

A scene from one of my favorite movies “My Life” portrayed a dying cancer patient visiting a Chinese doctor. And the Chinese doctor held the patient’s finger pointing to his own heart saying, “Life is trying to teach you something. Listen.” For Jung, life is constantly trying to tell us that we need to learn to embrace the totality of who we are, the good and the bad, the beautiful and ugly, the high and the low, the strengths and weaknesses. Our psyche will speak to us through dreams, symbols, images, stories, strong feelings about things in our lives that we have not embrace. It will keep trying to tell us about things we need to learn to embrace. Listen to your hearts, Jung reminds us.

A jazz vocalist Marena Whitcher, in “Coniunctio Oppositorum,” sings:

I’m climbing these stairs
They‘re leading nowhere
Will the circle close
Or come around?
Not sure if I am going up or down

The more that I want the less I got
The more that I am the more I’m not
I try to soar but then I dive
The more I say the more I lie

I resign
I’m fine with disillusions
Seeing through
Misleading false conclusions
Sailing to the middle stream
Can‘t decide for one extreme
Drifting in between

Ebb or tide
Wax or wane
Above or below
I‘m running in circles
Whichever path I’ll take
I’ll come around

While researching the negative impact the epistemology of western modernity has on the lives of local farmers, I was privileged to interview emeritus professor of economics, Dr. Chatip Narsupa. As he was explaining the concept of local economy among farmers, he paused, looked at my name card and asked, “Do you think there’s an archetype for farmers?” I was taken aback by the profoundness of his question and said that I would come back with an answer. After interviewing 65 farmers in 20 provinces in the north and northeast, I believe there is. There is something very distinctive about farmers, almost as if it is rooted in their DNA. They value freedom. They will work hard and do everything possible to maintain this freedom. And to do so requires living a very simple life. To live simple means you have to come to term with yourself and not allow others to define you. Because if you do, you can’t live a simple life. And if you can’t live a simple life, you can’t achieve that freedom working in the field. This is the individuation that Jung speaks about. It’s the mandala.

One day I was driving my son’s old Honda civic 1982, kind of falling apart, in my coat and tie. I pulled into a gas station. There was a homeless man walking around asking for money. He came to my car and asked, is this your car? I embraced myself and the car proudly saying ‘Yes.’ Then he said ‘Oh my God…Oh my God.’ And walked away without asking me for money.

To Jung, religion is liberation and it comes when we are able to embrace ourselves fully. This is the psychological expression of Hindu moksa, Buddhist nirvana and Christian salvation. It is what it means, in Jungian terms, to be saved. So, paraphrasing Jung, I’ll say let’s explore the internal Ouroboros and go in search of a lion kissing a deer.

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A phrase from a song ‘a horse with no name’ came to mind. ‘I’ve been to the dessert on a horse with no name. It felt good to be out of the rain. In the dessert you can remember your name…’ It seems in a place where there is no social order, no category, no stratification, it is much easier to hear our voices and know our names. Then my mind drifted to the life of Foucault. I wonder if his deconstructive works, archeology and geanology, were his attempts to hear his voices, find his name and offer this gift to others? I wonder if he was looking for a place that makes everything fits.

Chuang Tzu writes

When the shoe fits
The foot is forgotten
When the belt fits
The belly is forgotten
When the heart is right
‘For’ or ‘against’ are forgotten

Marilyn Monroe was quoted, “I firmly believe that with the right footwear one can rule the world. Fortunately for the world, I have not found the correct footwear to achieve that goal.” Chuang Tzu would have agreed, “The world is ruled by the shoe that fits.” But he would have added “And it already is.”

My life has been the quest for a shoe that fits. And I have so many pairs of shoes. In the process I found Chuang Tzu, a Taoist poet and philosopher while pondering the topic for my dissertation 17 years ago. I was instantly touched by his writings and so I asked my professors, not in this exact phrase, can I write about nothing. My professors asked can I prove it. I said yes, and I proved nothing. And they were very pleased with my research, for nothing. But since then nothing has impacted my life more than nothing. I am constantly engaging nothingness intellectually, socially, emotionally, and professionally. Personally it is the profound beauty of nothingness that makes every thing fits.

A few words on chuang Tzu. Not much is known about him except that Historian Ssu-ma Chien placed him between 370 to 300 BCE in the State of Sung. The people of Sung were constantly invaded and subjugated to abuse, domination, and discrimination. Describing the people of this state Watson writes, “Its inhabitants, as descendants of the conquered Shang people, were undoubtedly despised and oppressed by the more powerful states which belonged to the lineage of the Chou conquerors, and the ‘man of Sung’ appears in the literature of late Chou times as a stock figure of the ignorant simpleton.” It was speculated that Chuang Tzu writings were meant to awaken the people of Sung from the disillusion imposed by their conquerors.

Commenting on the evocative method of Chuang Tzu, Victor Mair states:

The sublime wisdom of The Chuang Tzu is imparted to us by poking holes in our conventional knowledge and assumptions about what is good and bad. It accomplishes all of this, furthermore with a divine sense of humor throughout. The Chuang Tzu deals with very heavy stuff, but it does so with a feather-light touch.

Speaking of Chuang Tzu’s evocative method, one of my favorite story is that of the Butterfly Dream.

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly. A butterfly flittering fluttering around happily. Suddenly he woke up. But he did not know if he was the butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou or Chuang Chou dreaming he was the butterfly. There is a clear distinction between Chuang Chou and the butterfly. This, said Chuang Tzu, is called transformation of things.

Chuang Tzu writes, “Where can I find a man who has forgotten about words so I can have a word with him?” So I’m trying to forget words so I can have a word with Chuang Tzu.

So, when the shoe fits
The foot is forgotten,
When the belt fits
The belly is forgotten,
When the heart is right
“For” and “against” are forgotten.

Easy is right. Begin right
And you are easy.
Continue easy and you are right.
The right way to go easy
Is to forget the right way
And forget that the going is easy.

For me there is nothing like a shoe that fits. It is a place where I do not have to struggle and fight, a place where there isn’t a need to prove anything, it is a place where one does not have to search for things to represent because the self is capable of presenting itself, a place where the heart does not feel heavy. When the shoe fits, metaphorically, we can explore the wonders of the world socially, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually and be amazed. When it fits, things come easy. Chuang Tzu writes:

Easy is right. Begin right
And you are easy.
Continue easy and you are right.

When you write and ideas just flow to your fingers and they are beautiful, at least to you, and you do not want to stop writing. When you teach, it does not feel like you are teaching. When you are taking a course and you do not think about assignments, papers, and grades. You just thoroughly enjoy ideas. Or when you are with someone who is just so easy to be with instead of having to work so hard to connect. When it fits, you can feel that peaceful pulsating joy deep inside and, in the words of Henri Nouwen, you know this is home.

But when it does not fit, it immobilizes us. It weighs heavily on our hearts. Life becomes a task to endure. Colors fade. Rhythm lost. A friend asked me to buy three books on how to succeed as teenagers for her daughter. I know a beautiful girl who lives in constant fear that her life will be a disappointment to others. When the heart isn’t right, it gets caught in a perpetual cycle of quest and nothing is forgotten. When life is hard, relationship is complex, career is challenging, success is a far distance, the tunnel seems unending and the heart is heavy, we keep remembering and replaying everything mentally seeking a glimpse of hope that can cease the cycle. Perhaps this is the reason Jung writes in Modern Man in Search of a Soul:

Among all my patients in the second half of life—that is to say, over thirty-five—there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook. This of course has nothing whatever to do with a particular creed or membership of a church.

I thought long and hard about Jung’s understanding of religion and I think, for Jung, to be religious is to be whole. The mandala, union of opposites, yin and yang, harmony between conscious and unconscious self, alchemy etc. Wholeness implies the ability of the self to embrace itself fully, the good and bad parts, the beautiful and the ugly aspects, shadow and light, being and non-being.

A religious person is comfortable with all these dimensions of the self. Jung uses the term religious function of the psyche to refer to how archetypes speak to us and guide us toward wholeness. Mandala, as a symbol of wholeness, is one Jung often refers to. “I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self, I had attained what was for me the ultimate.” Jung invites us to listen to our hearts because, if we pay attention, our hearts will guide us toward becoming a whole person. Expanding on this concept, James Hillman and Thomas Moore discuss how our society rushes in too quickly to get rid of psychopathologies. Perhaps we need to take time to listen to pathologies because our souls are trying to tell us something about ourselves. In Finding Space, Winnicott, God and Psychic Reality, Ann Ulanov writes:

The parts of us and of our communities that grieve like widows, the parts of us we neglect like orphans—these, when included, bring wholeness. Whatever we run from will turn up in our subjective-object God-images. Whatever we fear will direct us to the place where God will find us. Whatever we skipped over and missed in psychological development we must go back and look for, for there God is waiting to meet us.

One way our souls speak to us is through archetypes. And archetypes may be expressed through religious symbols in various shapes and forms.

I rented a room by the bank of Chao Praya River in Bangkok right across from Wat Arun Ratchavararam (the Temple of Dawn). For hours I pondered and reflected upon the architectural symbolism of this sacred site, a cosmology so vastly different from my current social setting, the representation of Mt. Meru where the gods reside. And where the gods reside is the universe of perpetual changes through the movements of Trimurti (Bhrama, Vishnu, Shiva). The movement which is the cycle of life through Bhrama the creator, Vishnu the sustainer and Shiva the destroyer. And at the center is the stillness of the self within this changing phenomenal, the seasons of life, of the rise and fall, light and darkness, being and non-being. A symbolism well portrayed by the iconic image of Shiva with such serene and peaceful expression and a cobra wraps about his neck. How profound. And now I know why I am not as godly as I should.

Not too far from the Temple of Dawn stands one of the tallest stupa (pagoda) in Bangkok situated within the gate of Wat Saket Wora Maha Viharn. This doom-shaped architectural design with a square base and sharp-pointed spiral top represents the essential teaching of the Buddha, about liberation. Various structural designs of the stupa carry the symbols of the four elements: earth, water, wind, and fire signifying anicca, the impermanence that is life. Anatta, the fundamental core of Buddhism reminds us not to hold on to any particular identity. Anatta is when we are not thirsting for a particular identity within a certain social environment. This understanding is represented by the sharp-pointed spiral top of a stupa pointing heavenward symbolizing nirvana, the ability to live in a world of changes even of the self and remains at peace.

Wholeness is not coming to term with external reality but the internal world as well, the being and non-being of the self. Chuang Tzu tells a story:

Duke Ai of Lu inquired of Confucius, saying, “In the state of Wey there was an ugly man called nag the Hump. The men who lived with Nag doted on him so much that they could not stand to be away from him. Of the women who had seen him, more than ten petitioned their parents, saying, “I would rather be his concubine than another man’s wife.” He had no accumulated salary whereby he could fill people’s stomachs. Furthermore, he was ugly enough to terrify all under heaven. Yet male and female alike congregated before him. Surely there must have been something that distinguished him from other men.

The comfort of being so connected to even the ugliest of the self brings charm to life and offers a deep sense of liberation because when one can embrace ugly one can’t be destroyed. There is something very therapeutic about being in the presence of someone who can’t be destroyed, someone to whom you can take out your frustration, anger, pain, unresolved issues but this person can’t be destroyed. She still treats you as well as before. It is her ability to embrace your negatives that overtime enables you to embrace your own and move toward becoming more religious. There is when ugly becomes beautiful. My goal in life is to become an ugly therapist and ugly professor.

Perhaps the concept of a religious person according to Chuang Tzu and Carl Jung is best captured by a 16th century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa:

“On a branch
floating down a river
a cricket, singing.”

The Obstacles

What makes it difficult for us to be at this place? An idea, suggests Chuang Tzu. For him there are no fits or misfits. Everything kind of exists until an idea of “what fits” emerges and along comes misfits.

Chuang Tzu explains that in the world we live in there are many different types of people. People do come in many different shapes and forms. There are short and tall people. There are skinny and big people. There are those with 10 toes and those with 12 toes. There are those with IQ of 80 and those with 120. There are those who are shy and those who are talkative. There are those whose bodies are symmetrical and those who are not. And everybody kind of live in some sort of harmony until one day some one started drawing value-added circles, the circles that define norms, stipulate standards, and articulate criteria. And big people become fat and unhappy and 12 toes are now pathological and 80 IQ feels stupid while the nonsymmetrical are looking down upon as ugly. And young men feel less complete without six pack abs. The belt no longer fits.

This difficulty does not take place only at the individual level but global and epistemological as well.

In The Darker Side of Western Modernity, Walter Mignolo shows the world of multiple cosmologies and languages co-existing prior to the 1500. None more domineering than others. But through Enlightenment and the rise of industrialization came a cosmology, legitimized through knowledge and rationality, claiming universality. Mignolo writes:

After 1500 the world order entered into a process in which polycentrism began to be displaced by an emerging monocentric civilization. Western civilization emerged not just as another civilization in the planetary concert, but as the civilization destined to lead and save the rest of the world from the Devil, from barbarism and primitivism, from underdevelopment, from despotism, and to turn unhappiness into happiness for all and forever.

In the emergence of this monocentric civilization, knowledge plays a very important role in marginalizing all other forms of cosmologies. In The Missing Chapter of Empire, Santiago Castro-Gomez writes:

The co-existence of diverse ways of producing and transmitting knowledge is eliminated because now all forms of human knowledge are ordered on an epistemological scale from the traditional to the modern, from barbarism to civilization, from the community to the individual, from the orient to occident…By way of this strategy, scientific thought positions itself as the only valid form of producing knowledge, and Europe acquires an epistemological hegemony over all the other cultures of the world.

According to Mignolo, the world of multiple cosmologies has been replaced by what Vandana Shiva called “monocultures of the mind” resulting in one supreme universe while all else become inferior and hence we have developing vs developed, third world vs first world, primitive vs civilized nations. Within this monocentric cosmology, there is a close relation between knowledge and economy that has dramatically reprioritized our value system. In “The Birth of Bio-politics” social theorist Thomas Lemke shows how our social world was once divided into various domains such as education, religion, politics, family, social relations, economics etc. However the design of neo-liberal policies has collapsed all these domains into one, which is economics. Referencing Foucault, Lamke writes:

Foucault suggests that the key element in the Chicago School’s approach is their consistent expansion of the economic form to apply to the social sphere, thus eliding any difference between the economy and the social… Here, the economy is no longer one social domain among others with its own intrinsic rationality, laws, and instruments. Instead, the area covered by the economy embraces the entirety of human action.

And now, argues Lamke, all domains of life are defined in terms of cost-effectiveness, productivity and maximization. The self comes to define itself by its entrepreneurial skills. How much can I produce? Values become quantifiable. While I was interviewing local farms in rural Thailand I learned that productivity was initially not a part of their value system. The values they embraced were simplicity, sufficiency, generosity and loyalty. They used to live simple and help one another. Now they compete, taking up loans hoping for big gains, getting into debts due to changes in the market price. Many lost their lands and migrated to city to work as laborers. From freedom to bondage, from respectable members of the society to the stereotype: poor and uneducated. An idea, said Chuang Tzu. In his research of the World Bank’s approach to poverty reduction, Christopher Collins observes that a country is judged on how well it performs strictly by GDP regardless of the social dimensions. It is how much one earns and not how well one lives. Mignolo writes:

In the era of neoliberal globalization it has become one of the main weapons to promote competition, thereby encouraging fast speed and success, consuming the energy of millions of people who live their lives constantly thinking of going faster and getting ahead, to being a winner and to avoiding the shame of being a loser.

It is the idea of ‘what fits,’ Chuang Tzu reminds us, that we need to pay attention to. When a system is designed to make people believe so strongly in an idea, internalized it until it becomes a part of the value system, people no longer have to be forced or coerced into performing the act. It is this technology of the self, according to Foucault, that keeps us in the loop, being obsessed with productivity that feeds into this competitive economic system. At the global level, it has increased the gap between the haves and the have nots. At the intrapsychic level, it has prevented us from embracing ourselves fully. The vulnerable, inferior, weak, negative aspects of the self have to be hidden, suppressed, neglected, ignored for fear that their emergence will deprive us of the opportunity to succeed and be competitive. In trying hard to fit in the ever-changing criteria of competition, we have alienated ourselves from our souls. We have to betray parts of us in exchange for a currency that can buy us a place in the world. For Jung, this cuts to the core of what it means to be whole. It destroys wholeness. So we gained a house and lost a home.

Nouwen writes, “Probably no word better summarizes the suffering of our time than the word ‘homelessness.’”

How can we regain our home?


Bert Lance, budget chief for Jimmy Carter once said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We live in a society that thinks everything is broken and we keep trying to fix them so that they will fit. But, Chuang Tzu reminds us, things already fit. It is the idea of fixing that is unable to fix itself. This reminds me of a statement by Foucault “Psychology can never tell the truth about madness because it is madness that holds the truth of psychology.” Fit, said Chuang Tzu, is an idea. Silence the idea and things fit. And here we turn to the “Butterfly Dream.”

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly. A butterfly flittering fluttering around happily. Suddenly he woke up. But he did not know if he was the butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou or Chuang Chou dreaming he was the butterfly. There is a clear distinction between Chuang Chou and the butterfly. This, said Chuang Tzu, is called transformation of things.

On a night train to northern Thailand, I sat across from two Buddhist monks. During the course of the conversation a Buddhist monk said to me “Dream is a short reality. Reality is a very very long dream.” There is a significant difference between dreams and reality. Chuang Tzu invites us to live between both metaphorical worlds. In The Butterfly as Companion: Meditations on the First Three Chapters of the Chuang Tzu, Kuang Ming Wu suggests that often it is the rigidity of holding on to a certain understanding of reality or being held captive by a certain epistemology that prevents us from creative transformations.

Along the same line, Mignolo suggests the need to work toward pluriversality whereby local communities learn the process of delinking themselves from colonial epistemology. He writes, “Delinking then means to think from the silences and absences produced by imperial modern epistemology and epistemic practices.” Recognizing the reality and benefits of modernity, Mignolo advocates for creating alternatives whereby modernity remains one of the many possible cosmologies.

One of my favorite quotes by J. Krisnamurti states, “In the light of silence all problems are resolved.” The silence is the silencing of constructs and ideas about how things should be. When we silence them, we see things as they are and learn to navigate ourselves. In The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha, Raimundo Panikka described how the Buddha answered the question regarding Absolute Reality with silence. The silence of the question does not imply that silence is his answer. His answer is to silence the question itself. Panikkar writes “What the Buddha requires is a realistic sense of acceptance of reality just as it presents itself, a total confidence in life, in what is given to us, without seeking to replace Reality with our own ideas.” We are invited to “total acceptance of our human condition, of the real contingency in which we find ourselves” because to “thirst is to transgress Reality, to evade the human situation.” The real contingency of ourselves needs to be embraced. This is not about resigning but accepting and transforming. Panikkar concludes that in helping us come to the appreciation of silence “The Buddha smiles!”

Like the phrase written by Dewey Bunnel, “In the dessert you can remember your name,” the place of silence makes it possible for us to hear our voices, recognize our names and explore parts of us that have been buried deep. Those parts of us that are ignored and rejected are places where God is waiting to meet us. I believe these places include other cosmologies, cultures, languages and gender that have suffered marginalization.

Chuang Tzu remind us that we are not broken. We are not a project to be fixed. Resist the discourse that keeps telling us that we are broken. We fit. We are just different and we are heaven’s gifts to earth.


Chuang Tzu tells a story about an ugly tree:

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, “There is a big tree in my yard I named it Shu. It is crooked and bumpy. You can’t even try to measure it. Its branches are all twisted. Leave it by the road, not one carpenter will even consider cutting it down. Your words too are big and useless, rejected by the people.”

Chuang Tzu responded, “You are distressed by this big useless tree. Why not lie down beside it. Sleep under it. Its life will not be shorten by aces. It can’t be harm because if it is useless, it can’t get hurt.” Then Chuang Tzu added, “We all know the use of the useful. But who knows the use of the useless.”

In Christian tradition we have a story of an ugly tree as well. It is the ugliest of the ugliest of trees. It is a useless tree and yet we know the use of this useless tree because under its shade, we are promised deep rest for our weary souls. This rest does not come through stories, analogies or metaphors. This rest comes because a life has been given on the cross to deconstruct lines that marginalize thus making possible the inclusivity of the poor, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the gentiles, the lepers, the outcasts. Through Jesus, the death and resurrection carries a very profound symbolic meaning. The symbolism says, you can kill me and I will be back, you can nail me and I will return, you can bury me and will. E resurrected. Nothing can stop me from loving you. You can’t destroy me. You can’t destroy my love for you. And we keep killing Jesus and he keeps coming back again and again until we realize that all the social conditions we have internalized and introjected no longer bind us. In this liberation we are invited to live completely in this world and to love life in all its polarities. And because we are a part of this ugly tree, we cannot be destroyed. And because we cannot be destroyed, our lives become an invitation to others to be at the place where the God resides.

My dad served as a pastor and an evangelist his entire life and the best of his theology was the last advise for my brother and me two weeks before he passed away. “Sons, don’t take yourself seriously.” One evening my ex and I were reading a book of great quotations. We came across a quotation that reads “You grow up the day you learn to laugh at yourself.” Being a person who makes so many mistakes I thought, here’s my chance to find out about her mistakes. So enthusiastically I asked her “Have you ever laughed at yourself?” Without any hesitation she said, “Yes, at the thought of marrying you.” And she laughed and laughed and laughed. I did not find that amusing initially. But then slowly I came to realize the profoundness of her humor and my mind wonders to Mt. Meru, the stupa at Wat Saket, the mandala, Jung’s union of opposites, Chuang Tzu’s butterfly, Issa’s cricketมand the death and resurrection of Jesus. I have come to see them as invitations to be a religious person. When asked about the nature of reality, the Buddha replied with silence. Then He smiled because his shoe just fit.

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There was time when this song kept circling in a loop with its tune ringing in my head. The phrase “we are all lost stars” keep tugging on the sleeves of my soul. There’s something here that just speaks to me. The desire to shine in the dark. The desire for life to add some meaning to life. The longing to know that some how in this vast universe, the finiteness of my being has brighten some corner, generated some positive current, created a ripple of sort. And at the very same time feeling lost. Not quite know which direction to go, which path to take, which switch to turn. The longing and its paralysis. And perhaps it is this very junction that cries out “Please see me reaching out for someone I can not see.” I guess what makes this feeling lost bearable is having someone walking along side. Perhaps as lost may be but yet sharing that longing. Lost and yet unable to shake off the desire to shine. So it is now reaching out saying “Take my hand, let’s see where we wake up tomorrow…because best laid plans sometimes are just a one night stand.” It is about plunging into the mystery with the longing heart perhaps even blindly but not without the soul. And I wonder if the soul knows through times that come with weariness, that age comes with wisdom. The journey just can’t be a boy caught in dreams and fantasies. May be the weary soul finally knows that each star can only shine so much. May be the weary soul understands that without the shadow of that darkness, light makes no difference; that strength emerges from vulnerability, courage from weakness, humanity from the world of cruelty, that in the end there’s no hero but every people discovering that however little light we have, we keep it shining. Perhaps what matter is just another walking along…and just a little light.

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This topic gets me very frustrated. Things that are done in the name of human rights are sometime filled with hidden agenda it seems. People who really take the time to learn about what is being done in Thailand regarding human trafficking will soon realize how much has been done to address this issue. Of course nothing is perfect and so is the way this issue has been addressed around the world. It is also interesting how Malaysia, which has not done as much to improve its situation, is not Tier 2. Is it coincidental that the push by the US for TPP (Transpacific Partnership) for trade agreement includes Malaysia as well? There are just too many issues about how this ranking is done. First why is it that the US has the right to define how this issue is to be done around the world. What gives the US the right to dictate for everyone else and be the standard that defines human rights or determine slavery? This runs against the very core of the current move toward diversity. For the place claiming diversity and then keep defining rights for everyone else, it seems very incongruent. When was the last time attempt was made to find out how others really approach the idea of diversity and equality? It seems random judgement being made without careful analysis and self-reflection assuming that Western ideology is superior in every dimension. Then there is the question of methodology being used to rank every country. There seems to be no clear criteria for judging the level of acceptability specifically. It seems random. Further, what resources are being used to determine the level of trafficking. Are these resources reliable? Can there be disclosure of these resources? Then there is the question of methodology. What methodology is being used? How is the data being collected? What is the scope? What’s the limitation? How does one determine reliability of one’s approach? There is also the assumption that prosecution is the best way to deal with the issue of human trafficking. The more the prosecution, the better the country is performing. What research has been done to show that prosecution is the best way of dealing with human trafficking? These are some of the issues that require clear answers for ways in which ranking is done. But we are just scratching the surface here. There’s much more to be said about a deeper global perspective.

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