Book Reviews

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Mara in the Land of Smiles:

An Ancient Fable for Today

by Ian Mayo-Smith (’Ajahn Ian’) with watercolour illustrations by Din Hin

2007. 123 pp., 16 colour illustrations, 21.5 x 15 cm., softcover.

ISBN-10: 974-524-090-7 $23.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-090-2

Spinning Thai fables

American Ian Mayo-Smith’s latest book is a mythic tale that speaks of the crisis of Buddhist values in modern Thailand

Book review by Jeffery Sng

(Bangkok Post, Sunday 29 April, 2007)

Ian Mayo-Smith is in love with Thailand, and he expresses it through literature. While many farang and Thai writers have translated Thai literature into English, very few have consciously tried to write Thai literature in English. Although this sounds like an oxymoron, we should not simply dismiss the idea out of hand. Ian’s new book Mara in the Land of Smiles is very Thai in many ways.
   The aristocratic-looking American gentleman, with white hair and sporting a goatee beard, first visited Thailand 27 years ago. He later came back seven years running as the head of a team from an American university to conduct annual training programmes for the Thai government. Liking the country and its people so much, he continued to return for more extended stays.
   Ian made many friends in government as well as among intellectuals and artists in Thailand. The famous Thai social critic, Buddhist leader, writer and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sulak Sivaraksa ranks among his close friends. During the launching of Ian’s new book at a shopping centre in Bangkok recently, Sulak made a touching speech commending the author for his passion for Thai culture and his valuable contribution to Thai literature, culture and society.
   Now living in Pattaya, Ian’s other books are Peace (Poems, Essays and Memories for Everyone), The Children’s Aviary and Trying to Walk the Way.
   Ian is at pains to acknowledge that the new book grew out of his lasting friendship with two members of a family of professional likae (traditional Thai folk play) performers and the influence of Buddhism. He wrote Mara in the Thai couple’s house, surrounded by Buddha images and other holy personages.
   The book mirrors the influence of the Buddhist faith and Thai culture on the author. It is about an epic struggle between good and evil in a Thai Buddhist setting. The pages are peppered with Thai words like phra, ajahn, sangha and bhikku. All the characters in the story have Thai names.
   In the book, Ian sets out to write a mythical fable, utilising traditional likae attributes, set in a symbolic Thai landscape. The story has a familiar structure. It begins in an idyllic paradise, called The Land of Smiles, where traditional Thai Buddhist values of contentment and moderation apparently prevailed and people were happy and lived in harmony.
   But danger was lurking. The inhabitants, like Adam and Eve in the biblical paradise, were blissfully unaware that their happiness had annoyed Mara, the Lord of Delusion. Mara embodies the predatory values of greed and selfishness in sharp contrast to Buddhism’s core values of moderation, peace and balance.
   Ian effectively used likae techniques and seductive songs that preface every chapter to bridge the space between fable and reality and speak to the burning issues of contemporary Thai society. Meobah (Wildcat)’s song, for example, speaks to the innermost fantasies of every beer-bar girl in Thailand’s robust commercial sex industry.
   Marshal Jorakei (the Crocodile General)’s song celebrating power and order over peace and democracy, evokes the politically predatory nature of the Thai military reflected in a turbulent modern political history punctuated by coups d’etat, the last of which occurred on September 19, 2006.
   Somewhat like the biblical serpent in paradise, Mara sought to corrupt the innocence and virtue of the inhabitants of the Land of Smiles. The stage is set for re-enacting a primordial theme in Western ethical thought, The Fall from Innocence. The theme of The Fall has been widely celebrated in Western literature, through its poetry, myths, plays, songs and novels throughout the ages.
   In Ian’s modern version of The Fall, Mara sent his disciples to The Land of Smiles to sow hatred and mistrust among the inhabitants. Soon fear, jealousy, hatred, greed, delusion and decadence replaced happiness and peace in the once idyllic Land of Smiles. It was ripe to crumble under Mara’s moral siege.
   But a good drama cannot just end there. The likae always provides for a dramatic rebound after putting the audience through fearful suspense. In the depths of despair hope flickers. Somehow, four persons still remained uncorrupted and stood in the way of Mara’s complete victory. The King of the Land, an old monk, a poor peasant and a wealthy merchant refused to succumb and organised to resist and turn the tide of Mara’s baneful influence.
   The four set themselves up as followers of The Great Teacher, who preached peace and love. The Great Teacher may be interpreted as The Buddha in the Thai context. Ian concedes, however, that “The Great Teacher may appear in different guises in different places at different times in history.”
   Similarly, he adds, “Mara is always around (and) appears in different guises in different places under different names.”
   Mara’s eloquent and powerful exhortation to disobedience and evil is reminiscent of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Like Milton, one can’t help feeling that Ian has packed more punch and eloquence into Mara’s lines than the followers of The Great Teacher.
   After many vicissitudes, Mara’s supporters were defeated. But the story has a happy ending, in conformity to traditional likae convention, where the King of the Land not only magnanimously forgives Mara’s repentant disciple Meobah, but also marries her.
   Growing materialism When asked why he wrote Mara, Ian explained: ldquo;When I first came to Thailand I was very impressed by the serenity that many of the Thais I met seemed to possess. It was something I envied and I ascribed it to their Buddhist faith and practices. I became a Buddhist myself.”
   But as time has gone on he has seen growing consumerism and materialism (i.e. greed, aversion and attachment) developing in Thailand. The parallels to what has happened in his own country were obvious, so the ideas for Mara in the Land of Smiles began to form in his mind.
   In the book, Ian gives us a charming, beautifully narrated bedtime story. But he also wants the book to be something more.
   “Perhaps,” he suggests, “some of the troubles in the mythical Land of Smiles, where the story takes place, have their parallels in Thailand today.” The book speaks of the crisis of Buddhist values in modern Thailand. The vulnerability of Buddhist values is underscored by the eloquently seductive arguments put forth by Mara to justify a selfish moral standpoint.
   In comparing his own experience of Buddhist practice among people in the West who have converted to Buddhism and the way it is practised in Thailand, Ian has been dismayed to see the extent to which political and materialist considerations, as well as the blatant anti-feminism of the Sangha has made Buddhism appear irrelevant to increasing numbers of Thais.
   “The concentration on ritual, the costs that some temples charge for their services, the arrogance of those monks who see lay persons as owing them a living, and the admixture of animism and superstition have resulted in a very serious weakening of Buddhism in Thailand,” he said. “The need for a new spirit in the Sangha is another of the themes of my book.”

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