The old age saying goes, never judge a book by it’s cover.
One day I was walking to the mall with another missionary friend to practice some Thai. On the way, I caught glimpse of a Thai older man talking on his cell phone with his fruit cart on the side of the road. It was a good opportunity to practice Thai, so I thought. Little did I know what we were getting ourselves into.
At first, I engaged in some small chit chat. Asking for recommendations on something sweet, where his fruits come from, where he was from (Central/Northern Thailand, Phitsanulok), and sharing where we were from. I also told him why we were studying Thai. In order to show good trust, I purchased a bag of sliced apples and decided to crack the ice.
“So how’s business doing lately?” I asked.
“It’s not doing well. With the borders being closed and no tourists coming in that I haven’t been able to make that much.” He responded.
“Was it better in the past? Say compared with the situation 3 months ago before Covid?”
“Yes, business was much better back then. But lately people have been so stressed out. I on the other hand don’t worry about it. Life has to be lived carefree. I have everything I need to live in life. One day this will all pass and life will move on. When I have problems, my beliefs and merit will carry me through.”
“I see that your attitude is very Thai. Being comfortable is a very Thai trait and I don’t run into many people with that positive attitude lately. If you don’t mind me asking then do you have calmness in your heart? Have you found peace in your life?”.
Rather than answering my question directly, he went on a long treatise about his belief system on what constitutes a good life. He explained that all religions teach similar tenants to the 5 main held by Thai Buddhists. Don’t kill, steal, cheat on your wife, get drunk, or speak falsely. Then as long as you focus on that, you will discover peace in one’s life. If you choose the converse and do evil, then the bad karma received will make your life worse. Peace becomes a matter of choice.
I went to prod a bit further, “then do you think your merit will carry you into heaven?”
What followed surprised me. He responded, “rather than focusing on getting into heaven like many do, I focus on the mind set of having peace, living in harmony. Just like the Buddha had taught, heaven is not just a place, but also a mindset. Heaven can be obtained now. So the good life is for one who focuses on doing right in all areas of life. So many of our traditions and rituals are so concerned about making merit to achieve a better afterlife. Would I make it to one of the heavens or hells? So they think. But so what, it’s not like you will stay in heaven or hell forever anyways. Those are not really what Buddhism is all about. It’s about a way of life, rather than a religious system.”
What is surprising is how this vendor had a good grasp of Buddhist theology and how it differentiates itself from many of the Animistic (ghost/folklore) and Hindu beliefs that are ingrained in Thai society. I rarely run into a deep thinker like this. Let alone someone from a simple profession like a fruit vendor. He said this in the most serious, stoic, and thoughtful manner I had ever seen. He was so into it that even flies were bouncing off his arm and he was totally unphased.
By this time, we had talked for over 15 minutes in the baking sun and needed to move on. I thanked him for his explanation and said goodbyes. He was definitely more than just a typical fruit vendor.