Tag Archives: Quakers

Monk Chat at the Silver Ubosoth: Chiang Mai

bas relief at the Silver Ubosoth, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Question: “If we follow the Eight Precepts of Buddhism, especially the one that prohibits having sex, after 100 years the human race will become extinct.”

Response: “As a matter of fact, this question is asked about something impossible and it is quite useless to discuss about such an absurd subject. But to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, we may do some guesswork about it. Of course, if all human beings on Earth observed the Eight Precepts and abstained from sex, mankind would become extinct within 100 years. Even if that happened, there should be no cause to  lament or  to worry unless you were the only human being that remained and lived alone in the whole world.”                                                                                                                                           (from Questions and Answers In Buddhism, Professor Saeng Chandngarm, Mahamakut Buddhist University, Lanna Campus, Chiang Mai, Thailand)

The Eight Precepts of Buddhism 

Refrain from destroying living creatures.

animals - real and in art - in temples

Refrain from taking that which is not given.

The Silver Ubosoth (in construction - will take 5 more years)

Refrain from sexual activity.

no women allowed within the Silver Ubosoth (ordination hall)

Refrain from incorrect speech.

Silver Ubosoth workers: hand stamping the bas reliefs and paper stencil

Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

Refrain from eating at the forbidden time (after 12:00 noon)

Waves representing the oceans on the exterior floors of the Silver Ubosoth

Refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.

novices working in 95 degree (F) heat and listening to Thai modern pop music

Refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

temple dogs - refuge, care and reverance

Whow…that’s heavy – no sex, no drinking, no drugs, no dancing – no FUN! No…not exactly. “Refrain” actually means “resist” – it does not mean “Thou shalt not…” Semantics? Only in the Judeo-Christian sense – and actually, only in the Middle Eastern ancestry of the Christian sense of absolute “good/evil.” Otherwise, Buddhism recognizes humans as merely one of over 30 life forms searching for the ultimate release from the cycle of life – reincarnation – through enlightenment. When’s that ultimate release? It’s up to you. Now THAT’S heavy!

Phri Dhatu Chedi Luang founded 1391 - Chedi tower (and elephants) toppled by an earthquake in 1546

To Westerners, people walking around in saffron robes is intimidating, yet we’re use to Catholic priests, nuns and Protestant ministers wearing odd clothing. Clothing, obviously, does not make the person and Chiang Mai’s Buddhist Temples and monasteries have intelligently created time within the day for the Monk Chat. It’s a chance to sit down with these men and discover that, OMG, there just like us – Apple laptop and all. At two different Temples – the magnificent Phra Dhatu Chedi Luang and the unique Silver Ubosoth – we had the opportunity of conversing and deepening our knowledge of this 2500 year old religion.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (founded late 14th century) and Thailand's most revered Buddhist site

The all-inclusive Buddhist lifestyle and, to the Western tradition, its seeming contradictions, have always been an enigma. In a classic, and somewhat humorous manner the monks patiently explain a way of life that baffles many people. “Life” is not just  human life and even that concept does not mean that animals and plants are simply sacred. One’s life encompasses millenniums of reincarnation through many forms – hence sacredness – before, at some point, in a human life form, the soul, through the Eight Precepts, achieves enlightenment and nirvana.

men wearing shorts/tank tops and women wearing shorts/short skirts/bare shoulders are never allowed in Temples without donning borrowed temple clothing

So every Buddhist Monk will achieve nirvana? Hardly. Male children as young 7 years old can enter the monasteries and receive a free education until 20 – first few years of university. For poor children this is truly a “god-send.” At 20 they may choose to study further for their university degree and ordination as a monk. At that point it’s a life-long committment? No. A novice and a monk may leave the monastery any time they wish. They may marry, have children, become a farmer or a banker. Do they then go to “hell” when they die? No. Buddhist do not believe in that concect of retribution – they believe in reincarnation until the achievement of enlightenment and nirvana. A former novice or monk (if married they must now be a widower) may reenter the monastery at any time – and may leave again if that’s their wish. We were told that many people will enter the monastery for a year or two as an adult, like a sabbatical, just to enrich their personal and spiritual life, and then return to their business life.

Temple city of Wiang Kum Kam founded 8th century, destroyed by floods in the 1300's, excavations and revival in the 1980's as an active Buddhist site

The Lord Buddha’s attitude toward women…a sticking point among modern Western thinkers. Buddhist nuns are, like in the Catholic Church, not equal to monks and are cloistered. I will turn once more to Professor Chandngarm’s explanation and make no claim, as a Quaker, that I fully understand the concept.

According to the monastic rules, the most important rule for monks, as well as for Buddhists, is to keep celibate. Since womanhood is the natural opponent to celibacy, so women are a stain for chastity. The Buddha did not keep women in a lower level or in  inferiority than men. He only recognized the differences between men and women. Monkhood in the Buddha’s time was very hard. Right after ordination, monks would be sent away to live and practice alone in caves and forests, in the wilderness in deserted huts. He had to eat whatever. sometimes they were beaten and robbed, or didn’t eat for days. The Buddha hardly expected women to do that. When monks and nuns live close together another kind of trouble breaks out – and you can imagine what it is. Not because of women’s evil, but because of man’s natural weakness and the overwhelming charm of women. As far as intelligence and attaining Enlightenment, the Lord Buddha saw no difference between the two genders.”

Have I now told you everything you need to know in order to understand a belief system that affects the lives and politics of more than a dozen cultures, governments and millions of individuals? I hope not, or else you will not want to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to chat with these intelligent and gentle monks in the 2,000 year old spiritual and Royal center, Chiang Mai (of the Lanna Kingdom and Thailand).

the Ping River, the Royal City of Chiang Mai

A Holy Experiment: Plymouth Meeting and Evansburg Historic Districts

“I deplore two principles in religion, obedience upon authority without conviction and destroying them that differ with me for Christ’ sake.”                                                                                                                                                    William Penn, (1644-1718) founder and Proprietor of Pennsylvania Colony

Plymouth Meeting Friends (Quakers) 1702
Joshua Dickenson Farmstead, 1720, Underground Railroad safe house, Plymouth Meeting

William Penn not only wished his colony to be a refuge for fellow Quakers but for all people – even Jews, unheard of in the 17th century. As a businessman, he intended that Pennsylvania would prosper to the benefit of all landholders. Land grants were made to a number of families within what is today Philadelphia and the four surrounding counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware.  A road system was planned as early as 1683 connecting the new townships to the city creating the best and most extensive systems of its day. Germantown Avenue/Pike extended from Philadelphia – today’s historic square mile Old City –  linking important communities  such as Northern Liberties, Germantown, Chestnut Hill, Plymouth Meeting, Evansburg and Collegeville.

limekilns at Plymouth Meeting, PA mid-1800’s

Mennonites, Amish, Methodist, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Baptist all flocked to the new colony. The abundance of fertile land, water power, quarry and limestone brought the promised prosperity. German farmers brought the technology of burning limestone in kilns into powder that fertilized the farmland. Yet would the same groups that may have been both persecutor and persecuted during Europe’s interminable religious upheavals cooperate to govern the new towns? Would the “holy experiment” work?

Norriton Presbyterian Church 1698
Evansburg United Methodist Church 1836

Evansburg was a very early 1700’s planned community in religious cooperation. Although Plymouth Meeting (1702) served the needs of area Quakers, The 1698 Norriton Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest churches anywhere in Pennsylvania. The beautiful tiny stone structure is surrounded by an American Revolutionary cemetery. The new building for the congregation is next door.

Society for the Propagation of the Gospel School House circa 1780’s
St. James Anglican Church’s Glebe House, 1737

Quakers do not believe in proselytizing their beliefs, yet there was no issue when St. James Episcopal (Anglican) Church, 1721, established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The above 1780’s building was a recreation of the 1721 log church. The cemetery holds a number of Revolutionary War soldiers who died in the Battle of Germantown. In 1838 the building became one of America’s first public school buildings. Today it’s the St. James Community History Center.

Their current 19th century St. James Church is across the street. Next door, at 3814 Germantown Pike, is the 1737 Glebe House. A “glebe house” was a self-supporting farm for the Anglican priests of the parish. St. James’ is one of the earliest existing glebe houses in the American Episcopal Church.

Stephen Rush House 1803 & Evansburg Inn 1803

Stephen Rush operated an Inn in his house (1803) and later purchased the Evansburg Inn. Stephen was related to Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Rush house is private today, but the former Evansburg Inn is still serving food and spirits as Osteria Restaurant, 3835 Germantown Pike.

Derrick Casselberry House 1734
Ann Casselberry House & Barn, 1798

The Casselberry family is one of many that can trace their ancestry back to the founding of Pennsylvania, but are among the few still living on their original land. Henry Casselberry emigrated from Germany in 1683 settling in Evansburg in 1729, towards the end of his life. His son Derrick created a prosperous farm with his inheritance and built a sizable house in 1734. Now owned by a non-profit, it is undergoing restoration. A generation later, his daughter-in-law, Ann, purchased an elegant 1798 plaster-over-stone house and barn. The house, and barn, just north on Evansburg Road off Germantown Pike, is still the home of the Casselberry family.

Heyser Homestead, 1742, private residence, includes original stone barn, kitchen house and smoke house.

 

The waterways of the region provided both transportation and power for dozens of mills throughout Penn’s colony.  Skippack Creek in Evansburg State Parkwhich is the southern boundary of the town, provided the “fuel” for 18th and early 19th century industry such as Keyser’s Mill, now maintained by the Park.

Keyser’s Mill, circa 1840

In 1792 an eight arch stone bridge on Germantown Pike was constructed over the creek. On the National Register of Historic Places, this bridge is still in use! It’s considered the oldest bridge of its size in America certified to support heavy traffic.

Skippack Creek Bridge, 1792

If Evansburg is an example, William Penn’s Holy Experiment continues to succeed.

Valley Forge: A Reality Show

Reality #1:  The American Revolution was saved at Valley Forge

For over twenty years  I have driven through Valley Forge, site of the great winter encampment of 1777-78. Nearly every road was laid out over 300 years ago. The landscape is still lush with rolling hills. There are many more trees and deer than in 1777, but I can imagine that prior to December of that year, it was just as peaceful as now in the early morning mist – perhaps a few more farm animals would be awakening.

I park my car and walk down the silent lane towards the Issac Potts House. The gravel crunches under my shoes, birds chirp, Valley Creek gurgles on its way to the Schuylkill. The small stately house that Washington rented for six months, which served as the headquarters of the General Command, stands solitary.  The Potts grist mill  burned in the 1830’s, victim to sparks from one of the nation’s first rail lines – still in use in 2017.  Long-gone as well is the bustle of 1777 Valley Forge village.  Myth and reality float as mist on a land that  holds too many undiscovered stories.

1913 Reading RR train station now Washington’s HQ visitors center, Top Right: original ticket window, Bottom Right: rail line still used for freight

The 3,700 acres of Valley Forge National Historic Park are a small part of what was known in the 18th century as Pennsylvania’s Great Valley – one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the thirteen colonies. Populated largely by Quakers, this industrious area had given rise by the 1750’s to the start of Pennsylvania’s iron industry – hence the village of Valley Forge along Valley Creek.  This small company town owned by a few intermarried families, along with farming and water powered mills on the Schuylkill River, was making the region an economic power house. Yet before the  autumn of 1777, the bucolic, hilly and peaceful countryside was hidden from the turmoil embroiling the colonies since 1775,  but Philadelphia was only 20 miles south.

 The crops were being harvested when the British advanced towards Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777.  Although there is evidence of British requisitioning of supplies, the population was equally nervous concerning any future involvement in war. The British did burn a Potts  forge warehouse because munitions were found. Being staunch Quakers, it’s unlikely the family gave the local colonial militia captain permission to use the facility.

One week before Christmas 1777, the first of what would fluctuate between 10,000 to 17,000 troops, women and children arrived. An area of 3,700 acres had been chosen months before as an alternate encampment should Philadelphia fall to the British.  On the Schuylkill River, at the highest elevation closest to the city and overlooking the  major routes from Philadelphia to the interior of northern and western Pennsylvania, the site at Valley Forge was ideal for both defense and reconnaissance

It wasn’t a demoralized, bedraggled rag of an army that marched into the encampment. The troops were rather pumped at the drubbing they’d given to some of the British Empire’s crack brigades while defending Philadelphia. True, the Battle of Brandywine was horrific in terms of casualties, but the pain was equally shared and the Continental brigades remained intact. Washington’s competition to house everyone in log cabins was a resounding success. Many diary entries speak of the relative comfort of these accommodations compared to other encampments.

Reality #2: Starvation or incompetence?

A severe lack of effective planning plagued the loose collection of brigades that constituted the Continental Army in 1777 with food supplies being the most obvious initial problem. No one was in charge. The troops had arrived at the start of winter, in the midst of the breadbasket of Pennsylvania and they had no one in charge of obtaining food. A canary in the coal mine?

Christopher Ludwick accepted the commission Baker General of the Continental Army. A prosperous German/Philadelphia baker, renowned for his gingerbread (General Washington’s favorite dessert) and a financial backer of the revolution, he was in his late 50’s – one of the oldest men in command.  (Ludwick would remain BG until the end of the war in 1782). Along with the appointment of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne as Quartermaster General, these two men created, within three weeks of the first troop arrivals, an efficient commissary system with 13 field kitchens and 22 bake ovens feeding 10,000 – 15,000 people a day soup/stews and baking nearly as many loaves of  bread. (Volunteers offer baking and cooking demos during the summer and special events. See park web site.)

  Reality #3: Snag the Golden Ring

Because the defense of Philadelphia had called for a total effort, nearly every important person involved in the Revolution (and most of the troops) were together at Valley Forge – in one encampment. Yet Valley Forge encampment history seems almost uneventful to all but diehard history buffs. No battles for one thing.

The British fail to venture out of Philadelphia by the end of January to engage Washington at Valley Forge (they were not having an easy time controlling the city). The consequences of such an encounter – before the onset of “mud season” –  would have been fatal for the Revolution.  A golden opportunity presented itself and the General Command seized the ring: six months to get organized, trained, equipped, deal with corrupt merchants and a cautious Congress, standardize training, revamp recruitment and establish a central commissary kitchen system that remained in place for the remainder of the War. In other words, create a unified Continental Army – in six months.

The French Alliance in the spring of 1778 sent the French navy and millions in gold to the Revolution. The army marched out in June and nearly crushed  British forces evacuating Philadelphia for New York at the Battle of Monmouth.  For all practical purposes (except New York City) the Revolution in the North was over – bitter fighting moved South for five more agonizing years.

Reality #4: Myths are easy; uncovering the human story is difficult.

Mrs. David Edwards Stephens inherited from her father, a prosperous Methodist farmer in this Quaker community, a comfortable stone house and 400 acres. The slave-owning Mrs Edwards, and her Quaker husband David  Stephens, rented the second floor of their house as an office and beds for the staff of 28 year-old  General James Varnum.  A wealthy, staunchly abolitionist Rhode Islander, General Varnum had successfully pressured Rhode Island to create a free-black regiment who billeted across the street.   To have been the fly on the wall…the dinner conversations…

Yet the family put up with half their small house being occupied and watched their prime farm land – the encampment’s Grand Parade – turn into a sea of mud by the boots of troops being trained under the Baron von Steuben. It would be four-years before any of the farms financially recovered.

Little is known of the family that rented rooms to the tall,  dashing 19 year-old Frenchman the Marquis de La Fayette. The Marquis rapidly gained Washington’s trust, entre into the General Command’s inner circle and, I can assume, was a favorite at dinners. The house is not open for tours and is said to be haunted.

Eight hundred fifty women and children lived at the winter encampment.  Blood relatives could share the 12-person cabins with others in the brigade. Women and children performed a number of necessary roles within the camp structure. An authoritative and insightful new book, Following the Drum, does much to end the myth of the disreputable woman camp follower.

The American born Scots aristocrat, General William Alexander, 6th Earl of Sterling, his wife, Lady Sarah Livingston Sterling, along with Martha Washington, were the center of the social calendar for officers and their wives during the encampment. The Sterlings leased a house that, unfortunately, is unstable today, but the Washingtons  leased what is presently the best preserved 1760’s house in America.

Issac Potts house – George Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge
Issac Potts house – George Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge

Built in the 1760’s as one of thirteen rental properties owned by the wealthy Potts family, this fine example of 18th century craftsmanship was never meant to house 15 to 20 people. The staff of the General Command exceeded that number, but not all shared the house with the General and Mrs. Washington (it’s rumored Martha Washington  remarked, through cinched teeth, that the house was a “lovely little cottage.”)  There were strategic reasons for choosing this site even if it was cozy.

Only top aides had the comfort of beds. Most slept on the floor in bed rolls and the attic – including approximately five slaves. One slave, Hannah Till, earned enough money on the side as a seamstress (allowed in the 1700s) to purchase her freedom after the War.

 

 The kitchen hummed all day with a staff of five – majority slaves – cooking meals for the General Command staff as well as numerous VIP guests. The fare was not the bread and soups of the enlisted men. Officers were from a different class. They lived better, ate better, and many subsidized their own expenses. Martha surprised the General with what became the first official celebration of his birthday in February 1778 complete with cake and a band.

kitchen at George Washington’s HQ set with officers fare

Reality #5: This was the 18th century – before indoor plumbing…

That’s why 3,000 people died at Valley Forge. Sanitation, 18th century style, no matter how well thought out by the best science of the day, still left much to be desired. Mass inoculation for small pox was a resounding success – George and Martha led by example. Daily rations for all of beer and whiskey to prevent the consumption of tainted water helped. A daily dose of wine vinegar prevented scurvy. Yet by the end of March and through May 1778, as Spring arrived, fevers, dysentery, pneumonia and infections took the lives of nearly 3,000. None are buried at Valley Forge – considered bad for morale. Many lie in lost graves. Most were tended in hospitals as far away as 50 miles from the encampment by pacifist Amish/Mennonites and Quakers – Ephrata, PA, contains a rare grave yard.

P. C. Knox House (descendant of General Henry Knox) c.1900, with Mercer tiles, now VFNHP’s archives

I spent more hours than I can count roaming the fields and buildings of Valley Forge, leading tours as a volunteer and cooking in the outdoor kitchen. To a military history buff, the meaning of this site is obvious and the wealth of 18th century military information available is abundant.

For me, though, it’s the drama of the human stories of both camp and Valley residents that resonate: the failed attempt by influential locals to arrange a peace conference, dissension within the officers of the General Command,  the constant complaints concerning mud,  denuding  the landscape for over a 5-mile radius of the encampment,  the stench of thousands of barely washed bodies and animals, the smell of fresh-baked bread and dinners at the Sterling’s.

The detritus of war. It’s never myth; it’s only reality.

Maurice Stephens House, 1816

 

Save

Save

Save

Save