Generalizing too much can get me into trouble, and this is particularly true when it comes to labeling groups of people. I’m suspicious when others talk about how the “Americans are like this”, ” the French do that”, or the “the Irish think this”. It is treating a group of people as if they were one and the same, and it is too often based on negative stereotypes and pure ignorance. By assigning a certain characteristic to an ethnic group here I risk making the same mistake, but I don’t mean to cause any offence.
The Thai Ease with Ambiguity
I have come to the conclusion that the average Thai person possesses an ease with ambiguity that those of us from western countries lack. They just seem better able to appreciate the grey areas in life, and so they can avoid dividing everything into black and white (or right and wrong). This is a trait to be admired because as far as I can tell the world is one huge puzzle that we are far from solving. There is a great deal of ambiguity out there if we take an honest look.
Black and White Thinking
Philosophers have suggested that humans need to have strong beliefs – even if those beliefs are ultimately false. Lack of certainty troubles us and it can even lead to insanity, but when we are convinced of our truths it makes us feel all comfy inside. It is this desire for certainty that causes us to cling onto beliefs as if they were life rafts. It is also this that leads us to black and white thinking. It drives us into our little packs of likeminded believers, and we develop an inner conviction that anyone who thinks differently is a threat – the regrettable ‘you are either with us or against us’ mentality that has been adopted by hardcore religious fundamentalists and scientific materialists.
Western philosophy is culturally biased, and I don’t agree that this hunger for certainty is a universal human trait. In my dealings with the Thais I’ve found that they most are perfectly comfortable with uncertainty. They are able to appreciate the grey areas in life. This explains how there isn’t such an outcry against Buddhism when a monk behaves badly. There is an understanding that things in life are not so clear cut – just because there are a few bad apples it doesn’t mean that you need to destroy the whole orchard. This is such a refreshing change from the west where a religion is either ‘ the only true path to salvation’ or ‘the root of all evil’.
This Terrible Need for Certainty
The need for certainty is a curse because it can’t be satisfied. The best we can do is to fool ourselves and hope that we can deal with the doubts as they arise. We have to view anyone who would challenge our beliefs as the enemy because they are undermining all our efforts to hold it together. If only we could embrace the mystery of life and stop pretending that we have all the answers. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t feel the need to attack other people for their beliefs? In a world of uncertainty it is easier to give other folk a bit of latitude.
Debating with a Thai Can be Difficult
In the past I’ve tried to engage my Thai neighbors in metaphysical debates. I don’t really class myself as a Buddhist (at least not a religious Buddhist), but I have been interested in this philosophy/religion since my early teens. When these conversations with my Thai friends have taken place I’ve sometimes found them to be a bit unsatisfying – although I’ve grown to appreciate this more honest way of communicating. I missed the cut and thrust that such debates have when they occur between westerners – there will always be clashes of opinions. When having the same conversation with a Thai they would hardly ever challenge any of my claims – even the more outlandish ones. Their attitude is usually a respectful ‘maybe’. In the beginning I put this down to the Thai cultural imperative of ‘saving face’, but later I realized that there is more to it than this. They are comfortable with uncertainty, and they don’t need for my beliefs to be wrong so that they can be right.
Dangers of Black and White Thinking
It would be wrong to claim that the Thais have it right about life and the rest of the world has it wrong. It would be fairer to say that each culture has something unique to offer. This means that we can learn a great deal from each other. The dogmatic attitude of the black or white thinker causes a great deal of suffering in the world. It is a mistake we keep on making over and over again. This is what makes it so easy for us to slip from believing in heavenly paradises after death to the belief that we are merely materialistic meat puppets and that life has no purpose. The reality is that there is not enough evidence to support either conclusion, but it doesn’t stop the rise of fanaticism and blinkered thinking. By developing an appreciation of the ambiguity in life it could not only make us more tolerant but it will also bring us nearer to the truth. The universe is one huge mystery and we may not be getting any closer to solving that mystery – maybe this is a possibility that we need to seriously consider.