(creator: Nick Wilgus)
|Father Ananda is a senior Buddhist monk at the Wat Mahanet Monastery in Bangkok, who is "pushing fifty" in the first book and "on the other side of 50" in the second book. It is he who narrates the stories. He had previously been a police officer for more than twenty years, first in homicide and then in the drugs squad, but had given this up after he had seen his wife and son shot down outside their home. He explains, "I had taken the robes of a Buddhist monk partly as a way to get away from all the dead bodies and violence and the human viciousness my eyes had seen .... After eight years as a monk, I had finally arrived at a state of calm and tranquility." But he still proves to be a determined investigator, and the author is punctilious about getting the background details right even if, as he admits, "Father Ananda does seem a bit too Western in his thinking".
Nick Wilgus (1964 - ) Nick Wilgus has lived in Bangkok for over a decade. He was for years a writer and senior sub-editor for the "Outlook" section of the Bangkok Post, but cannot always work regularly because of his bipolar condition. As well as writing the Father Ananda novels reviewed below, he is the author of Bilal's Bread and Adventures of the Birdshit Foreigner, written under the pen name of Sulayman X. He is a former Franciscan and has been a student of comparative religions and social worker. He is married to a Thai woman.
Mindfulness and Murder (2003)
Ananda soon finds that the dead youth was Noi, one of the Temple boys (many of them ex-drug addicts) who lived at the monastery youth shelter, and it seems that he had had the habit of slipping into monks' beds, uninvited and (usually) unwanted. Inspector Somchai of the local police explains, "We're talking about a homeless boy who's gotten himself killed, and I'm not going to be able to devote a lot of time to this case". And so it is left to Ananda, helped by the orphaned twelve-year-old, Jak, who limps along with a leg crippled by polio, to uncover the mystery of what is really going on at the monastery.
It is not long before one of the monks goes missing and becomes the suspected murderer. Either that or there may still be a murdering monk at large. Or perhaps there are pretenders dressed as monks. Ananda realises that he is duty bound to unmask the culprit for "The Patimokkha says there are four things which a monk can do which will result in his 'defeat' - his instant, immediate defrocking. The first is to have sexual intercourse, 'even with a female animal'. The others are stealing goods above a certain value, claiming supernatural powers that one does not possess, and taking the life of another person." So a murderer cannot be allowed to wear a monk's robes.
The Thai Buddhist background is convincingly described, as when we are told: "The morning alms round wasn't a begging excursion. Monks were never allowed to beg for anything. On the contrary, what we were doing was presenting ourselves to the lay people and providing them with the opportunity to earn merit by offering us food and the necessities of life. If no one wished to avail themselves of the opportunity, we returned empty-handed and that was that. And although there were times when that had probably happened, it was more common to find all sorts of people standing in front of their homes, waiting for the opportunity to offer food."
Ananda later explains, "We don't have 'commandments' as such, but we Buddhists do have lists.Those starting off on the Buddhist path take up the Five Precepts - things like 'don't kill', 'don't lie', and 'avoid illicit sex'. Basic things, really, that one would expect from any decent person. If you want to deepen your practice, you can take three more precepts, one of which is not to eat food after 12 pm (noon). The other two are not to 'sleep on a high bed' and not to attend 'parties where there is music and dancing'. Eight precepts are about as far as most lay people go. Buddhist nuns commonly take Ten Precepts. As a monk, I have the Patimokkha to think about, the 227 rules of conduct, plus another set of guidelines - hundreds in all - that while not strictly binding like the Patimokkha, were behaviors to strive after and faults to learn to avoid."
Ananda is well aware, from his own experience, that "to many people, it seemed, laws were enacted simply to give police increased opportunities to extort money from those whom they caught breaking it. No law, no matter how serious, could not be broken with impunity if one greased the right palms with the right amount of money." And he starts to suspect that there may be a crooked police chief involved in the case.
Right at the end, young Jak gets badly injured and Ananda thinks "about what the Lord Buddha had often taught his disciples, that nothing lasts for ever, that we are all in a state of flux, of constant change, changing even from moment to moment. We are born, we age, we get sick, and then we die. There is somehow an unsatisfactoriness about this whole business .... As Buddhists, we take comfort in the idea that this life isn't all there is, that another life awaits, another chance to do it all over again. We make as much merit as we can, hoping these good deeds will follow us into that next life, that conditions there might be better, that we might be in a better position to practise Lord Buddha's dharma, his teachings, and move Earth further along the path to enlightenment."
It makes a strong, interesting and revealing story, that really brings its Buddhist background to life. Recommended.
Garden of Hell (2006. New revised edition under the title Sister Suicide, 2013)
There is a fascinating description of the appalling Garden of Hell, the popular theme park which "promised to be slightly different than Disneyland, devoted as it was to Buddhist concepts of hell and demons and whatnot". It is full of naked figures, with exhibits with such names as the Garden of Lust or the Garden of Falsehoods, with the emphasis on suffering women "on the receiving end of torture, in positions of vulnerability, on their knees, stripped of their clothes, at the mercy of men. Where was a feminist when you needed one?" And there are live crocodiles, as well as a live tiger.
When Jak asks him about hell, Ananda quotes from the great Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikku, 'We have no way of knowing what's going to happen to us after we die, so there's no point in wasting too much thought on the matter. Just try to develop as much good karma as you can." Meanwhile he tries to steer the intrigued Jak past some of the more disturbing exhibits.
Ananda, who is dismayed to find that he "had gone from being an obscure monk to a curious sort of celebrity" finds that he gets a mixed reception from the monks at the rural monastery, with the Abbot not seeming particularly pleased to see him. It is not long before he discovers evidence that Sister Moi had been enticed into the Garden of Hell, where she had met her death, and he also becomes very suspicious about a so-called resettlement camp run by the monastery where "the children were always coming and going - no sooner than they settled down for a few days than they were sent off again, and new kids showed up." And most of them were girls aged between 8 and 12. Is it possible that "the monastery is involved in child trafficking"?
There's another `'suicide`' and Anunda begins to suspect mafia involvement. "Two suicides?" he comments. "That was about as likely as the Buddha owning a hotel in Las Vegas". At times like this he seems a very American Buddhist monk! Then when he asks the Abbot if he can think of any reason why a monk should commit suicide, the Abbot replies, "Who knows? Half these monks are fruit-cakes who can't get jobs, and the other half are running away from their wives and responsibilities. What do you expect?" You wouldn't really expect even a crooked Thai abbot to speak like this, and expressions like "They're a dime a dozen" and "I needed to go to the bathroom" sound distinctly out of place.
The relationship between Ananda and young Jak is well handled, with the boy wanting to call him Pho, meaning Dad. It had taken all of Ananda's persuasive powers to get the crippled boy accepted as a novice because "Any sort of abnormality or deformity, even being an orphan, for that matter, was considered the result of bad karma from a previous life. One was being punished for something one did in a previous life .... Not only was such an idea very un-Buddhist, it reflected an extremely inaccurate understanding of what the Lord Buddha taught on the subject of Karma. Karma, as the Lord Buddha taught, was an ongoing thing: if we do bad things, then bad things will result. Yet, if we do good things, good things will result. Karma is 'fixable'. True enough, one may be suffering in this life from bad karma, yet one can also take to the path of doing good, and thus change that karma, or at least exhaust it."
At one point, Jak, all too conscious of, and unhappy at, the way people stare at him and mock him because of his crippled leg, tells Ananda, "I was thinking about that nun. Pho, if I did that (commit suicide), would I go to hell?"
Ananda comments that "Jak was like a son to me. I had grown far too attached, far too concerned with his well being. It wasn't good a monk to be so attached, so easily disturbed. Unlike the Lord Buddha, I was not yet perfect."
The story gets more predictable and altogether less likely towards the end, but the Thai Buddhist background still holds the interest.
Killer Karma (2008)
The title Killer Karma seems to have American connotations, but it is explained by one of the monks that "Because of greed, anger, and delusion, the trawlers are destroying the mangroves. Because the mangroves have been destroyed, the villagers are being destroyed. Because the villagers are being destroyed, the community is being destroyed. It's all a circle. It's karma - one thing leads to the next thing. We have tolerated the abuse of the trawlers; now we're paying the price. It's all caught up with us." However, other phrases like "What an old Fart you are!" and "Altogether, a crappy day" seem even less appropriate.
Ananda is still accompanied by novice monk Jak, who is now 14 and "all elbows and knees, spare of frame but a bit ungainly". He still insists on calling Ananda pho. Pho "was a word that was somewhere between 'father' and 'daddy'. Jack was my novice, not my son, and there was a large difference.
In some ways the monks seem strangly up-to-date, what with their references to tape recorders, cell phones, computers, and even "Harry Potter glasses" - yet they are still not allowed to wear watches. Ananda himself suggests that, when it comes to the floating heads, "There's probably a scientific explanation for whats going on."
Ananda is always ready to face up to things as they really are: "Many men took to the (Buddhist) robes in the hopes of living an easy life, with food supplied daily, and more donations than they could possibly hope to use. Many monks had fat bank accounts and some dabbled in the stock market. Others dabbled in things far worse. While putting on a show of piety and adherence to the Lord Buddha's teachings in front of the lay people, they did things in private that were anything but monkly." And when Ananda finds one of them in bed with a young boy, he cannot help but think the worst.
He knows too, from his own earlier experience, how It is unrealistic to expect too much help from the police: "As police officers, we had to purchase own uniforms and guns; salaries were abysmal; training all but non-existent. It was no surprise to any thinking person that police were so corrupt; and without those envelopes stuffed with cash and left in our drawers - our 'take' for any given month- we would not have been able to feed our families. The world of law enforcement could not even provide us with guns and handcuffs, much less the advanced crime-solving technologies used by so many of our counterparts in the West." But luckily Ananda had learnt to take fingerprints - and this enabled him to identify a suspect.
This corruption of monks and police has been mentioned in previous books, as has Ananda's advice to Jak to ignore teasing about his lame leg: "You've got to drive those feelings away - all they do is cause suffering. You can't stop people from looking at you, but you can change the way you respond to it." And the descriptions of monastic life (particularly the almsgiving) and the death ceremonies no longer have the freshness of the first book.
However, it all leads up (eventually) to a genuinely exciting, if extremely violent, climax, in which Ananda is threatened, "One more step and I'll blow you right into Nirvana. Got me, holy man?" Not quite typically Thai, perhaps. However, there is a hard core of reality in the way that, when confronted with a murder victim, Ananda admits, "I felt helpless in the face of death. Death ruins all our illusions about how great, how important, how marvelous we are. We're not great, important, marvelous. We are fragile. We die so easily. The body decomposes, falls apart. We are remembered no more in the land of the living .... As a Buddhist monk, it was my job to make friends with my own eventual death. To accept it, to embrace it, to not fight it. Death was inevitable. I don't want to die. Nobody does. But that won't stop it."
All this takes place only a year after the case described in the first book, and it seems reasonable for Jak to complain, "Everywhere you go people get murdered." Ananda has to admit, "I had no response to that".
|Both versions of the cover are quite striking.These original editions were designed and printed in Thailand and are attractively presented. They were subsequently republished in re-edited Kindle and paperback versions by Crime Wave Press.|