In an attempt to bring her readers closer to Buddhism, one of Thailand's most respected novelists, Sabai Thong - the pen-name of Sukanya Cholasueks, aka Krisana Asokesin - devotes much of her time these days to writing dharma-themed novels.
Herself a strict follower of Buddhism's Five Precepts, Sukayan has allowed her religious belief to run free in her novels. And the more she writes about Buddhism, the more she becomes aware of its relevance to contemporary society. Now she's happy to be sharing that wisdom with a non-Thai readership, thanks to the launch of the English version (translated by Sujit Pinyoying) of her first novel on Buddhism, "The Call of the Midnight Hour". In it, she deals with an experience known to everyone regardless of country or language: kama, or sex.
"The moment you are without mental concentration you can commit that kind of sin irrespective of time and place. It's regarded as one of the gravest dangers, as pointed out by Lord Buddha 2,500 years ago.
"This is my first dharma novella in English," says the novelist, adding: "It's been a long time coming - I've always considered translating my work for foreigners. And I think the subject matter of the book [Buddhism's Third Precept: 'abstaining from sexual misconduct'] is a universal one that almost everyone can relate to."
Set in an Indian village during the Buddha's time, "The Call of the Midnight Hour" tells the story of Phatta, the master of the convoy, who falls in love with Jaru Thara, a rich and beautiful woman married to Koanja.
After encountering the lady on her trip to a shrine, Phatta thinks Jaru Thara is the woman he's been waiting for - despite knowing that she's married. Phatta tricks the husband Koanja into a night of non-stop saka (backgammon) so that he can meet Jaru Thara later. Finding himself alone with her in the forest at midnight, Phatta hears the wailing voices of ghosts from hell, a premonition of the disaster his lustful behaviour is leading him to.
Sure enough, Koanja learns of Phatta's ruse and vows to get his revenge. After being pursued and stabbed with a spear, Phatta lies in a coma for days. Eventually he succumbs to his wounds. As he dies, his spirit rises up out of the Simphli Forest, a metaphor for the world of sensuality caught in the endless cycle of birth and death.
Sukanya says her inspiration came from a 19th-century book of poetry about the birth of the Buddha entitled "Phra Pathom Sombodi Katha" by Prince Poramanuchitchinorot.
"It's such an impressive book. After reading it, I decided I needed to write something about Buddhism."
"The Call of the Midnight Hour" is unique in being set during the Buddha's lifetime but written from the perspective of a female writer in contemporary society. Jane Vejjajiva, of publishers Silk Road, says the beautiful language sets the scene well: "The novel has a genuine Indian flavour."
Also expertly portrayed is the social and gender inequality that trapped women on the bottom rung in the Buddha's day. Despite the passage of time, Sukanya says, women of today are often objectified as little more than sexual possessions. This objectification fuels her conviction that sexual misconduct is both a sin and a social problem.
"Even today, women face a 'glass ceiling' in various fields. Men own the power - we all know this."
The novella is loaded with disturbing descriptions of women and their status. Jaru Thara prostrates before her in-laws. She's banished from their estate after false accusations of an affair with Phatta, and loses all her possessions.
"Once you became my wife, you were like a female slave. All your belongings must be confiscated by me," says Koanja.
Jaru Thara responds: "I feel so hurt that I was born a woman. If there are lives after death, I want to be reborn as a man."
Women are described as items of clothing. "If used several times and washed, an untidy look will appear," the author writes. "A woman's labour was similar to that of an ox, elephant or horse, which exist in great numbers on Earth. It had no special value."
Only ladies in epics and wives of deities are worshipped by men, she writes of Indian society during the Buddha's time.
But whatever the sexual politics, the message is that both men and women are prone to infidelity.
The various descriptions serve to illuminate the central idea of the novella: sensual pleasure leads to the most dreadful dangers.
And Sukanya considers it her mission to call readers' attention to that danger. "I need to remind my readers of their mistakes. I don't want to force my ideas on people, but I do want to point out facts.
"I sympathise with Phatta. But in reality, if you practice the Five Precepts you see the fine line between dos and don'ts. Buddhism can help solve problems on both a personal and a social level. If our society doesn't rely on Buddhist principles, then how can we solve problems like this."
But though she sees abiding by the Five Precepts as the key to a peaceful life, Sukanya admits that she would have found Phatta's problem hard to deal with if she had faced a similar situation in her younger days.
A strong believer in karma, Sukanya says love should be based on mutual understanding and sacrifice -- otherwise, it can be a poison that lingers in the system.
Published by Silkroad Agency, "The Call of the Midnight Hour" is available at Asia Books.