A plus point of committing a slice of one's life to SE Asia is the chance to discover the food and ideas of the region. This week my Burmese maid fed me delicious Shan-style khau suey and it sent me back to Thai writer Kamala Tiyavanich's excellent book 'The Buddha in the Jungle' (Silkworm, 2003). This collection of real-life stories about 19th century and early 20th century Thai Buddhist monks is inter-woven with the written experiences of Westerners who were around then: "Stories tell of giant snakes (nagas), bandits, boatmen, midwives and guardian spirits and collectively portray a Buddhist culture in all its imaginative and geographical concreteness," and "history, anthropology and Buddhist teachings" combine to give us a taste of Theravada Buddhism as practiced in Thailand.
A Shan story I particularly like exemplifies how Buddhist preachers used local stories to teach people the effective use of generosity. It says that in a village in the region called Kokkulu lived a rich landlord called Sawtika who rejoiced in many buffaloes, much pasture and rooms full of silver and gold. News came one day that 'the Buddha' (our very Gautama, relocated in story), was to visit a nearby place and nearly all the able-bodied men went to seek his blessings, leaving the village virtually unguarded. A local bandit-king, hearing of this, decided to raid and loot Sawtika. However Sawtika heard of it through the jungle telegraph and began to arm the few men left with bows and arrows to mount a defense. But his little daughter Sammoktasa had another plan.
She persuaded her father to divert the robbers with kindness, the 'Mohini Method' of politeness as defense and by effect, offense. Gathering water jars, Sammoktasa (surely a spiritual Shan cousin of our long oago Sujata by the Nairanjana river in Bihar), led her little band of friends to where the desperate ruffians rested in a grove before launching their attack. Charmed by her friendly ways and polite words, the robber chief was wholly overcome when Sammoktasa went back and fetched four cartloads of "rice, fish, onions, pumpkins, salt, tea and tobacco."
While they divided the hand-out with more sweet words, a pre-arranged drum roll from Sawtika's village went "burr-r-r-r". The little maidens sweetly fibbed that it was "only the sepoys left to protect the village during the absence of the able-bodied". The robber chief reconsidered his plans. As Kautilya said, 'saama, daana, bheda, danda'?
(Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture)