The two young monks, heads as smooth and hairless as hardboiled eggs and dressed in rippling orange robes, looked me over. They tried to hide their astonishment, but still their eyes widened.
“You’re a foreigner.” One pointed out.
“I am American.” I held my hands together, cocked them sideways and laid them against my cheek as if they were a pillow. “Can I sleep here?”
They stared at me.
I had taken the bus from Maya’s village. On the bus, I met a man who insisted that any monastery would let me sleep inside.
“It’s no problem. The monks will love having you as their guest.”
“Because you’re a foreigner! Everyone wants to brag that they met a foreigner.”
“But monks are not supposed to brag.”
He chuckled, “The monks you see will only be monks for a few days or weeks, they do it for good luck not because they want to. Every Thai man, at least once in his life, becomes a monk.”
“Were you a monk?”
“Yeah,” He smiled raising his eyes heavenward as he remembered, “When I was a boy my family sent me for three months. The monks took care of me, they were very patient. Then again, after High school, I went for 10 days.”
“You only went for 10 days?” The thought that I could be a monk for 10 days crossed my mind. Would I look good in an orange robe and shaved head?
“Three, seven or ten those are the lucky numbers. Most men become monks for a lucky amount of days, weeks, or months. But some stay at the monastery for their whole lives.”
“What if the pagoda is full of monks, who spend their whole life as monks?”
“The real monks are great people, loving, accepting, they will take you in without a second thought.”
It was night when the bus stopped. My original plan was to keep going, to take another bus further south to the home of someone I knew. The next bus, the one I needed, had broken down and its replacement wouldn’t be along till the next morning. I had no choice; I had to find a place for the night.
I asked around and people directed me to the local pagoda. It wasn’t the cozy little temple that I had pictured in my mind. It was a temple compound. It was a large and walled off with acres of land dotted with various temples, houses, dormitories, and a sea of stupas. Stupas are mausoleums for the ashes of the dead, the biggest ones left to honor the most prestigious monks.
As I passed through a wide, stone gate my stomach boiled over with anxiety. Was I really going to ask the monks to stay with them? Why bother, I had a hammock after all. I darted into a darkened forest on within the compound. I wouldn’t need to get permission to stay in the forest, in this thick darkness no one would find me until morning.
The forest was thick with trees, and plenty of hammock spots. The forest floor was uneven and rough, it jarred my thighs and see-sawed my body. I went deeper into the darkness. The floor changed, became squishy as if the ground were one giant bean-bag chair.
A little dog investigated me as I lashed my hammock rope around one tree. Another dog. I pulled tight, the rope choked the tree. Two more dogs. They encircled me, sniffing, snorting, eyeing, shaking, scratching, wagging, huffing, puffing. More dogs. They chatted among themselves in what I hoped was not a discussion on my potential flavor. More dogs joined, now there were at least a dozen. Without showing fear, but reeking of it, I hurried over the lumpy forest floor.
The dogs followed me. They didn’t bark, howl, bite or attack. They just cocked their heads and studied me. Ahead, the green leaves glowed orange under the florescent outdoor lights. I dove into the light & the dogs lost interest.
The monks were still studying me, and talking in rapid fire Thai to one another. “We will get the abbot,” one said as the other ventured off down a path lit only by the open shades of different private rooms. Inside these rooms young monks played computers games, while others with headphones expressed music with quick, sharp dance moves.
The monk studied me, I studied him back. He was shorter than me, the top of his bald head reached no higher than my nose.
“How’s the weather in Thailand” He asked in thai.
“Hot, really hot.” I replied with only correct answer.
He nodded “Do you like Michael Jackson?” His robes fluttered as he moonwalked.
I gave him a full faced smile “Awesome”. He moonwalked a bit more, and gave a nice twirl, then stopped and snapped to attention.
My ears twitched to the sound of soft footsteps hurrying my way. The other young monk was returning, beside him, a taller, older monk in wide framed glasses and a deep wrinkled brow. His ginger skin gave a dull sheen in the darkness. I waied to him. Mechanically he waied in return.
He stood before me, exerting an air of authority as thick as a monsoon downpour. He looked at me with fierce smiling eyes. “You are French?” he asked in English with a light British accent.
“No, I’m American.”
“The young novice tells me you have a question.”
“Uh, Yes,” I swallowed hard. “I traveled a long way today, and if I could, if you will let me, I would like to sleep here.” I watched his face, it didn’t change. “If it’s ok with you, I have a hammock. I can sleep in the forest.” I remembered the dogs “But I need a safe place to sleep.” I quivered, I waited, watching his lips, waiting for him to say no.
“No.” He said and my heart broke. Sharp, bitter rejection like being turned down for a first date.
He continued. “You can not sleep in the forest, the ground is too hard. I can not offer you any room, all rooms are taken by monks. But I can let you sleep in our event hall. It hasn’t been used for months, so there are no mosquitoes.” In Thailand, where mosquitoes can cover you like a thick blanket, the fact that there are none is thrilling.
“Great!” A wave of relief passed over me, my muscles relaxed.
He turned and led the way. His steps were even, precise, and calm, his movements slow and sure. A pair of guardian nagas, the many-headed snake that protected the Buddha in Thai mythology, flanked the stairs to the event hall. Golden plates stacked like dragon scales burnished the thick wooden doors. Inside it was darker and hotter than outside, the room still baked with the memory of the sun.
He went into the next room and snapped the circuit breaker on. The lights buzzed on, reflecting endlessly off the paper white tiles that covered the walls, ceiling and floor. Geckos fled from the halogen glow and scattered across the walls, seeking the darkness behind the light fixtures.
The immense light glared off his thick lenses as he returned. He hadn’t shaved for a while, his hair, eyebrows and beard popped out as tiny stumps. Thai-Buddhist monks shave their whole head in order to show their commitment to their holy life.
“You can stay there,” he explained as he pointed to the mats. He paused and looked me over, his eyes studying me. “Will you have breakfast with us tomorrow?
My eyes grew. “Breakfast! Yes, I would love some breakfast.”
“Good, then I will wake you up early and bring you to pray with us. Please make sure your skin is without dirt.”
There were no mosquitos inside, but they were outside, they could smell me, and they were hungry. All night they whined and tackled the window screens, and all night the gekos would storm across the screens and devour them.
The sound of shuffling feet, and distant chanting woke me the next morning. “Young American, wake up” came the vice abbots voice floating through the open shutters.
He stood outside, glowing in the early morning sun. His head, beard and eyebrows were shaven clean, his mouth wavering, trying to suppress a smile. He mostly failed as the corners of his mouth turned slightly upwards. “Good morning, clean American, are you ready to pray?”
He led me to the temple. It was gold, completely painted gold, and where it wasn’t painted gold there were tiny pieces of golden mirrors. I squinted as I walked through the golden light. Inside, 12 monks, wrapped in orange robes, sat in a line on the right side of the room. The monks sat cross-legged on crimson pillows while chanting and swaying small Chinese style hand-fans. Their eyes were closed, their faces expressionless. In front of them was a scattering of geriatrics and small children.
At the head of the room, there were several glittering statues. All were Buddha, all representations of the same man. Traditional Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion. In it Buddha was not a god, he was a man, a teacher who had learned to overcome the pain and suffering of life and wished to help others do the same. Even so, in Thailand Buddhism has long changed and the Buddha has become God.
At the head of the room, towering over all, was a larger than life golden Buddha sitting in the lotus position. In front of him was a life sized Buddha doing the same. Flanking both were two layers of standing Buddha’s holding their hands at face level in a wai.
The vice abbot knelt in the statues wake. He faced them, raised his hands in a wai then bent his body like a willow, his chest touching the floor in prayer. “Pray as I pray” He invited me. He bent down two more times.
He watched as I prayed toward the statues as he did. I arched my back and bent forward. With my face a foot from the floor, I stopped. I felt unsteady. I bent further and flopped to the ground. I prayed two more times, each a little more elegant and fixable. “I must leave you” he whispered then beckoned an old woman. “She will help you” he added then left.
Her smile, with crinkled eyes and curling lips, was deep and genuine. She wore white robes and had white hair shaven down to nubs. She glowed. I sat beside her, my legs crossed. She shook her head and kissed at my legs. Some cultures point by kissing, she was from one of them. I pulled my legs in, sitting on them. She patted the air near the middle of my back. I was slouching. I bettered my posture, straight at attention. I was sitting like all the other worshipers, but there was a difference. I was in pain. I didn’t have decades of practice to make my muscles firm and stable. My back throbbed. My legs fell asleep. Pain roared. I endured. Signaled by a tiny chirping bell, the worshipers bent down, praying toward the chanting monks. I followed, struggling to keep control of my muscles as I added more strain.
I took my mind off the pain. I listened to the chanting, none of which I understood. My eyes explored the monks, large ones with marbled muscle, others chubby like the Chinese laughing Buddha – the Buddha most foreigners know of, and others emaciated almost out of existence, resembling Siddhartha, the original Buddha, during his months without food while meditating under the boddi tree.
The hot and spicy aroma of Thai food wafted into the temple. Men, in formal dress -white shirts and black pants- came in. Towers of steam grew from the metal trays they carried. The steam ran over them soaking them in water and sweat. They sponged their foreheads constantly. They stopped at each monk, lowered their tray and stood up while giving a Wai. When the meal was served the chanting stopped and they ate.
We watched in silence. It was odd. After they finished they stood, formed a line and walked out. After endless lifetimes of tortured agony, I relaxed. I slouched, threw out my legs, and let out a deep sigh. No one followed my example, but no one complained either.
The remaining food, half eaten or not, was collected and split among the worshipers. They invited me to join. One of the key principles of the Buddha is that you should not kill. While almost every religion has this as a feature commandment, in Buddhism it goes beyond humans to include animals. You would assume this would make the monks vegetarians. It doesn’t, the Buddha has another principal that overrides this one. Monks must accept what is given to them. If meat is given, then they should honor the gift and eat it. Because people in poorer countries put a high value on meat, they donate lots of meat. Nearly every dish was a meat dish. As a vegetarian, there were only a few foods: greens, soybeans, rice, and some vegetables. I didn’t enjoy that breakfast.
I walked outside the temple. The sky gave a blue shimmer as the sun peaked over the golden stupas and grinned, warming up the world. I waited in a sun-filled grass field. The dogs from the night before from large and threatening to pocket sized and harmless came to examine me. I didn’t stop them and soon they basked with me.
The vice abbot found me. He sat on the warm grass, his legs in the lotus position. He held himself firm like a sculpture, his body rising toward the open sky.
“How was your experience?”
“I loved it, but sitting like that hurts me a lot.”
He gave a gentle laugh “In time, with practice, the correct position will come to you, and then It will not hurt.”
“I hear people can become monks for just a few days?”
“Yes many men come only for a few days.”
“If I wanted to become a monk, could I?”
“Yes, there is a temple for foreigners to become robed, but you would have to shave your golden hair.”
I didn’t want to go to a foreigner temple, it wouldn’t be as authentic as being a monk in a real Thai Buddhist monastery. “Can I become a monk here, at your temple?”
He looked me over for a long moment as he gave the idea serious consideration. “No, your Thai is not good enough, you wouldn’t understand our teachings.” I let out a soft sign, he continued. “If you would like, I can teach about meditation now, but you will have to sit up straighter than that.”
I straightened my body, firm and hard.
“Firstly, you can meditate anywhere that you find peaceful. On the grass, watching the blue sky, where you can evoke another peaceful sky in your heart. You can stand on the stream, listen to the ding-dong ding-dong of falling water.” He danced his fingers through the air. “Letting the sound melt into your heart. You can be near the waterfall and let its laughing laughter purify your heart. You can meditate on the beach, where the sweet wind kisses your face. And you can admire the beautiful moon, as it makes your heart more peaceful. You can sit on the lake or in the garden. Or wait where the moon rises from the darkness and let it calm your heart. You may meditate anywhere you find peaceful and comforting.”
He took a deep breath and his voice lowered, his words clear and supple.
“Close your eyes and see only an apple.”
“Now take a bite of that apple. The apple is less.”
“Take another bite. Now take another. Eat the apple until it is only a frail center.”
“Now you only have the core left, look at it, see it, it should be all you see in your world.”
“Now throw it away, toss it into nothing and see only nothing”
I closed my eyes the light of the day blanked my eyelids turning the world red. I saw the apple. I ate it, bite after bite. The core hovered in space and I tossed it into oblivion. It was gone. The world was dark. No, there were yellow lights on the sides of my vision. I looked at them. They hid beyond my sight. I looked away, and they grew, infecting my vision taking it over with a golden summer. I thought darkness and darkness came. I focused on darkness I tied to hold onto it. A new light, a purple light, a purple sunshine, rose. It grew and grew until it was all there was.
I let out a frustrated throat growl. “I can’t get to nothing, there is always something. Yellow lights, purple lights, what should I do”.
“Enlightenment takes years, many years. Ideas, thoughts, worries and lights keep us from enlightenment. When you have trouble clearing your mind then there is something on it, something you are thinking of. This something is what holds you back.
“But I am not thinking of anything, only darkness”
“You must think of nothing, absolutely nothing. No darkness, no sight, no thoughts, no feeling, no sound. Novice monks also have something holding them back. It’s not something out there.” He opened his arms wide showing me the world. “But in here” He brought his hands to his chest.” To achieve enlightenment you first must know your weaknesses and your fears and then you must overcome them. For your mind to become blank, you must think of nothing, to think of nothing you must have nothing weighting you down. What weight do you carry?”
“I want to travel the world, to make my way back home, but I can’t figure out how to start, or what to do.”
He gave a slight nod “That is the fear of the unknown. Your mind tells you that to go onward, you must know what is waiting for you. It tells you that if you know what is there, then you can control what happens in your future, and if you don’t know, then you are not in control. But the world and your mind are different. In the world, you are never in control, and in your mind, even when it is full of unknowns you can remain in control. To travel, you must find a way to make your step into your unknown. But maybe you have already made your first step, look around you, and sense where you have traveled to.”
I looked up, around me, over high stone walls, giant palm trees hung in the bird filled sky. There were no skyscrapers, no condos, or any signs of humanity.
“You have already made it more far than most. You are ready to go into the unknown. Young American, I trust you will enjoy and learn from your travels. May the Naga king, who watched over Lord Buddha, protect you on your trip. When you return, may you return on the road to enlightenment.”
Enjoy Chapter 3?
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To keep reading, you can find Chapter 4 here