Lessons learnt on Makha Bucha day
G is a Brit. For years, he has lived a life that people all over the world would envy. G worked hard when he was young. He saved enough to buy some properties in London, a city notorious for its high cost of living. Before he reached 50, G retired and travelled the world.G supports himself from rents. He still lives in his house but when he plans months of overseas travel, he rents out the house. When London hosted the Olympic Games last year, he left the city for Thailand. From Bangkok, he went on to explore Myanmar. During his stay here, he enjoyed life. He rode buses and tuk-tuks to markets, not supermarkets.
After nine months, he returned to London to fix a legal problem. But two days later, he flew off to another European country, where he planned to live an idle life - watching English football on his laptop, eating local food and meeting friends.
Isn't it a life to envy? How many could enjoy his lifestyle? It is worth asking what stops them.
Top of the list of possible answers would involve finance. At 50, most Thais still have to finance mortgages, car loans and credit-card debts. From 1998-2001, according to a National Statistical Office (NSO) survey, household debt averaged Bt69,500. But in 2011, according to a University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce survey, average household debt had shot up to Bt168,517 - more than 100 per cent in 10 years.
Certainly, the 2012 figure could be higher if we take into account the 39 per cent increase in automobile loans and 24.4 per cent increase in mortgage loans for condominium purchases.
According to a Bank of Thailand study in 2004, there are three main reasons driving household debt - demographic change, expectation of higher income and low interest rates.
It also shows an interesting correlation between lifecycle and indebtedness. Households "dissave" in their early working life, and borrow freely against future income to fund current consumption. As the households gets older, and income rises, the level of debt declines. Once the debt is fully repaid, income is saved and assets are accumulated. During retirement, households again dissave by consuming out of earnings from assets and steadily run down their holdings.
One conclusion is that we all are living in illusion, building up debt on trust that the economy will continue doing well and income will rise accordingly. Some build up debt now, just to lock into low interest rates. There is no incentive to save when interest income is lower than inflation.
Indebtedness may not be the only thing that prevents us from living G's life. I know a man who heads an automobile company in Thailand. He is past retirement age but still enjoys working. He handles fierce competition in the market well, and he finds happiness in writing and teaching in his free time. For him, living a quiet retirement life is not the answer.
I thought about these people because of Makha Bucha Day, yesterday. The day reminds us of the day the Lord Buddha gave his first teaching, nine months after his enlightenment. To speak no ill, to do no harm; to abide by the rules; to eat enough but not too much; to live apart and meditate.
This is the message of Lord Buddha.
The spiritual aims of the day are not to commit any kind of sin, to do only good, and to purify one's mind. Nirvana is the supreme goal.
Is this too difficult to follow? Yes, it is. I long for cheesy pizza, knowing that each slice is high in calories and contains so little nutritional value. When agitated by someone's action or words, I can't help help saying something bad.
I still can't find the right reason why I should meditate, particularly when knowing that a meditation course comes with so many requirements: waking up at 4am, meditating and doing exercise during the day, then going to bed shortly after sunset. Mobile phones are forbidden along with other devices. No talking, even if you go there with a friend.)
I admire G in the way that he is literally following the teaching, whether he knows it or not. He criticises, but after rebuttals, knows that he should stop. Careful about his health, he is willing to try any food but will not overly savour it. He does not meditate but does yoga. He might spend over Bt200,000 for good camera lens, as he loves to take photos. But he is willing to take a tuk-tuk rather than a taxi, to save money. No matter what others say about him, he doesn't care. He knows that he doesn't harm anyone with his words or actions.
In a way, his life path accidentally coincides with the Lord Buddha's teaching. I won't say that Nirvana is awaiting him. But in this chaotic world, he is very content with his life, in a sustainable way. Just ask yourself, how many hours a day do you feel content with your life. Yes, obstacles may hold us back from peaceful retirement, but hours of peace of mind on a daily basis may not be far from reach. Let's aim for that together, for the sake of ourselves and society, to commemorate this year's Makha Bucha Day.