Scandinavian and Thai people have many things in common, but also some that set us fundamentally apart. The typical European addiction to perfection is one. The equally deep rooted Thai belief in religion and spirits is another.
In Thailand, the mindset of Europeans to struggle for the best possible result sometimes seems at odds with the spiritual precept that nothing is stable and one should live in the ‘here and now’.
Identifying this fundamental difference is of course the first step in creating a better mutual understanding; we, as Scandinavians, cannot just regard our values as the Eternal Truth. And with the number of Scandinavians living in Thailand on the rise, understanding our strange ways of thinking could also prove of value to the Thais.
Addiction to perfection
As with so many other things, the strive towards perfection and beauty partly stems from the Greeks, just look at Acropolis, look at the statues; the buildings and sculptures was the ultimate inspiration for artists and architects trough the times.
And then, on a minor scale, examine the brand-new cabinet the brand new carpenter has made as his masterpiece after four years of apprenticeship. Hundreds of hours laid down in this piece of furniture, each and every detail perfect, but also functional. In fact, there is a clear link from the cabinet to high-tech; it is no coincidence that the harmonic and functional B&O designs are copied by so many other brands.
The secret behind this strive is a combination of craftsmanship, aesthetic sense, self-criticism bordering on self-destruction, and consequently a refusal to engage in compromises. The Opera House in Sydney is an example. The architect Joern Utzon refused to modify his drawings although the construction costs ran much higher than estimated, and after heated discussions he finally left the project in anger. The city of Sydney can call itself lucky that it finally decided to finish the work according to the original plan.
Johannes Brahms, whose symphonies are arguably the most beautiful and satisfying symphonic music ever written, threw away draft after draft of good music – years of work. He was not satisfied. He knew he could reach even a higher peak of perfection. His first symphony was four exhausting years under way: he was competing both with himself and with the dead Ludwig van Beethoven.
These two exceptional examples nevertheless represent shared cultural roots. That is; the willingness to struggle for the best result possible and the refusal to bend for crippling financial pressure; they therefore also become the driving force behind innovation and the propensity to perfectionism.
Europeans will spot and appreciate good craftsmanship, but we don’t appreciate lazy shortcuts be it in architecture or just the (lack of) quality of ordinary kitchen utensils. There is a certain rigor built in this thinking, shortcuts will be spotted and are seen somewhat insulting to the aesthetic sense. Maybe that’s why I get many comments regarding the architecture and design of e.g. many hotels in Bangkok: ‘pompous’, ‘new-rich’, ‘tasteless’. All these show-off hotels represent a substitute for quality – not quality itself. I could take you on a guided tour and show both faked mural paintings from the Sixtine Chapel in Rome and interior architecture from Versailles.
And then – in the traditional Thai house you find real craftsmanship, functional and beautiful. Not one single nail is used; the sections can easily be taken apart, the house moved to another location, assembled and lived in. No space for show-offs, soon we will move on to the next incarnation.
Spirits and science
Religious feelings and beliefs in a divine destiny are fading away in Europe, atheism is widespread. Not so in Thailand.
At a university in Bangkok there is a Buddhist temple by the entrance, many students ‘wai’ deep when they pass. Fifty meters further, but a bit ‘behind’, there is a big old Banyan tree. This is always decorated with very many big and small colorful ribbons. Here lives the spirit or Goddess of good luck. She is also worshipped by teachers and students – maybe just to be on the safe side. Once a year the corps of teachers led by rector, pay respect to the banyan tree.
I passed by one day in the company of a visiting German scholar. He immediately spotted what this was all about and just said one word: ‘Quatsch’. He felt embarrassed and insulted.
The universities in Europe were founded as a reaction against superstition, witch-hunting, beliefs in fortune tellers and the like. There designated task has always been to accumulate knowledge about the construction of man and nature based on provable facts – nothing more, and nothing less.
That approach has influenced society as a whole. It is not easy for a European to comprehend how it is possible to combine academic virtues with beliefs in powerful spirits residing in trees. But once again, one may argue that Europeans have lost their spiritual senses and replaced them with boring logics and democratic standards under which they don’t bow and don’t bend.
Finally, the Dharma teaching tells us to win ‘the inner war’ and live here and now – to let go of the past and let the future take care of itself. In other words, nothing can be changed; nothing is stable; the perfect cathedral or the intelligent company we built for eternity will be gone tomorrow.
For a European it is an impossible path to follow, antagonistic to fundamental ideals and beliefs, namely that honest effort has an effect – the good struggle must continue, first and foremost for a better and more just society. This is the rationale behind the many international NGO’s.
But of course there is the other side of the Western struggle, a senseless exploitation of resources in the name of progress, done with perfectionism and carried out by the corporations almost beyond national and international control.