As many of you know from some of my tweets and Facebook updates, for the past week and a half I was in Thailand following my dad and documenting his ordainment into monkhood. What we recorded will make up some part of a larger documentary called Deepak Chopra: Soul'd Out that I'm hoping to release next year.
Much of the journey was spent, well, tracking the journey as my father traveled from one monastery to the next, met various monks, endured hardships, and finally underwent rituals (most notably getting his head -- and eyebrows! -- shaved) before going into silence, which coincided with my leaving and coming home.
But before and between some of the monastery visits, we also did some interviews in Bangkok, talking about what it is that my father really considers his spiritual quest to be. That's really the premise of the film, for a guy that much of the world equates with the notion of spirituality, I -- as his son -- am trying to decode the man to some extent and understand where exactly his spiritual quest will land him. In part, I suppose that may help me better understand my own quest as I transition from one phase of my life -- somewhat as a kid myself, to the next where it's time to raise my kid with a sense and perspective of the world that is aligned with something larger than just our own brief existence(s). I won't ruin the surprise (not that I have any bold revelations just yet), but something else came up during our conversations that I am still thinking about.
First the context. While to me Bangkok resembles a lot of other eastern cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Jakarta, Singapore, etc. with his rapidly growing cityscape, mega-malls, bright lights, and bustle, it also has an underbelly that is impossible not to see. The city's red light district of Pot Pong may be famous and have a certain touristy attractiveness to it, but it's really just a small speck in an expansive cityscape infested by a darker sex trade. Check that; in Bangkok, much of the sex trade does not seem to have the same stigma that it does elsewhere. Most travel books or websites I flipped or surfed through often described Bangkok's massage parlours -- infamous for being not-so-subtle fronts for brothels -- as iconic features of the city and "must-visits" for any visitor. Call me crazy, but when Lonely Planet says getting a hand-job is a cultural experience, it's kind of strange.
There are of course more extremist outposts of the sex trade, ones that indulge in more fringe activities or even veer into criminal world of underage sex. Still, all packaged together, for me the whole thing felt kind of sordid and rotting. Sex -- and I don't think of myself as a prude -- is everywhere in Thailand. Not just the streets and alleyways of the dense city, but even the five-star hotels and upscale spas. Especially at night when clusters of scantily clad girls and transvestites line the streets, soliciting patrons to enter various parlours, bars, and hotels for "sexy time," it all wore on me -- the dull decay of humanity, exaggerated eroticism to the point where it just felt like a rotting, muted version of a Grant Morrison graphic novel.
When I raised this seeming contradiction with the so-called spiritual journey that we were tracking to papa, he thought about it for a while and remarked that he didn't necessarily see the contradiction. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said that he resolved the sordid affairs of the sex trade as pieces of a deeper consciousness, a Universe of contrasts constantly expanding and contracting, part of broader Universal evolution. In other words, papa's thesis is that sinners and saints, sacred and profane, divine and diabolical are expressions of the same singular consciousness. Neither is necessarily more or less spiritual than the other. They exist as part of the same prism, in fact co-create each other and in essence define one another.
Truth is, I get that. Part of me even agrees with it, I think, when I spend enough time untangling it all. But none of it makes me feel any better about what I saw. In fact, it frustrates me, makes me even kind of angry. Because when spirituality loses its practicality, I think it also loses its functionality. I realize that absolutes are taboo in the world of spirituality, but I consider the sex trade a pretty rotten thing, not because of some sort of moralistic value proposition, but the sex trade is usually plied by the disadvantaged, desperate, and destitute and generally patronized by the opposite. It also is usually accompanied by drugs, disease, violence, and exploitation. To dismiss all of that with a philosophic shrug is alarmingly unsatisfying to me. In fact, it's infuriating to me to some degree when as part of our own spiritual adventures, we so willingly reconcile the existence of suffering as part of some universal equilibrium.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying my father is some sort of callous spiritual pilgrim unaware of the suffering of others. In fact, he's one of the most philanthropic people I know and has really genuinely committed himself at this stage of his life to the service of others. In fact, I even envy his ability to remain so clear-headed and committed to not only his own spiritual growth but also a collective one. He doesn't seem to get distracted by the sordidness of the streets. And certainly he knows a lot more about countless spiritual traditions and practices than I do. He can be side-by-side with those decaying streets and remain fully resolved and focused on the path in front of him.
I, on the other hand, find myself now a world away, back in the comfy confines of my Santa Monica home, and yet still very much stuck in the confines of those Bangkok streets and alleys, unsure just how to make much sense of it all.
Gotham Chopra regularly blogs at www.intent.com