Chiang Mai, Thailand – Transportation III: Buddhism and Motorbike Culture in Southeast Asia

April 2013 – The motorbike isn’t just a vehicle in Southeast Asia, it’s a way of life and a source of livelihood. With incredible ingenuity, the people of Southeast Asia creatively remodel their motorbikes to fit the needs of their everyday lives by transforming them into mobile restaurants, into informal shops and even into freight vehicles. The spectacle of the motorbike streetscape in Southeast Asia is seemingly chaotic and overwhelming yet it somehow works, and it works well. In Thailand and most of Southeast Asia, this beautiful chaos is due in large because of Buddhist principles that drivers take with them on the road.

Strong economic development has arrived in Southeast Asia only within the last few decades so people haven’t been able to afford a car culture until just recently. The motorbike has long been embedded within Southeast Asian society and still reigns supreme on the road. This essay draws the connection between the success of motorbike culture in Southeast Asia and several important Buddhist principles.

One of the most profound principles in Buddhism that influences driving culture is the idea that we aren’t our emotions. We feel them and we experience them but they don’t define who we are. Emotions are an important aspect of life, but if untamed and unchecked, our emotions can take control of us and manipulate how we carry ourselves.

Emotions are a powerful factor on the road. Peacefully cruising with the windows down and our favorite music playing makes driving a pleasurable activity, but we’ve all experienced times when we’ve gotten into the car feeling rushed, anxious or angry. Those emotions likely changed the way we drove and probably for the worse. Emotions distort the lens through which we experience our surrounding. They bring us to incredible highs and take us to painful lows. This intense variability isn’t healthy on the road where consistency and focus are crucial for safe driving.

In Western societies we’re taught to feel our emotions, to use them as a source of creativity and to invite them into our lives as a means of forming a more engaging world experience. This is beautiful. However, it’s also important to have awareness of our emotions so that we don’t become victims to the unnecessary suffering caused by the manipulating control of emotions. Through awareness of our emotions, we can feel them and enjoy them but not allow them to dominate how we manage ourselves.

The U.S streetscape can be seen as a diverse collage of colorful fiberglass, polished steel and highly charged emotion. Buffered by stringent driving laws, drivers in the U.S are protected from what could otherwise be a hectic and dangerous driving situation. The Buddhist principle of managing emotions reminds us that it’s important to be even keeled on the road so our emotions don’t dictate the quality of our driving.

Another key principle of Buddhism that contributes to the chaotic harmony on the road in Southeast Asia is the idea that we should know our mind. The mind has us believing that we are separate from the world around us. It asks us to align our sense of self with our entrenched mental thought patterns and our repetitive internal dialogues. The reality is that our mind is simply there for us to use as a tool, a tool that can be refined, tamed and sharpened for better use. Awareness of the mind helps us work towards a more serviceable and effective mind.

Safe driving requires a focused presence of mind. If we are trapped in thought or lost upon the winding roads of our mind, then we aren’t devoting enough attention to the task at hand. We aren’t present with our driving. The minds of people in modern societies across the world are busy and active, yet there’s likely a higher awareness of the mind in Buddhist cultures. This doesn’t mean that individual drivers in Southeast Asia are always paying attention on the road, rather, collectively there is a greater sense of mindfulness that gives way for a more fluid driving culture.

The final Buddhist principle that contributes to the fascinating motorbike scene in Southeast Asia is the importance of detaching from the ego. The ego isn’t our true self – it’s the false projection of ourselves created by our mind. An illusionary self. By taming the role of the ego in our lives we can reduce unnecessary stress caused by trying to live up to the ideals of our ego. The ego can be dangerous on the road because we are distracted by how the ego wishes us to drive. The ego might tell us to drive fast, cut through traffic, drive selfishly and disregard the collective rules of the road. We should leave the ego by the curb side when we enter the driver’s seat and focus our awareness on the act of driving.

Thousands of people die each year from motorbike accidents in Southeast Asia and the roads are by no means safe. Considering the lack of law enforcement and the informal driving culture of the region, it’s surprising that the roads aren’t much more dangerous. The Buddhist idea that we should self-manage our emotions, our mind and our ego contributes to the seemingly harmonic chaos of the motorbike culture in Southeast Asia.

One comment

  1. […] the clever designs of these family cargo bikes appear as quirky as the ingenious family motorbikes of Southeast Asia. One thing is clear, Copenhagen has set the standards for what a bicycle city should look like in […]

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