Tag Archives: buddha

Once in a Lifetime

I glossed over it in my last post, but our time in Sayfohn's English class was a truly amazing experience. Like sitting with Shimi in Iporanga, watching the face of the Great Magician manifest in the night sky; like camping outside Natural Bridges with Pati, Andrew and Tim, it will be a memory that I will cherish forever.

Monks are everywhere in Thailand and Laos. At first, you tend to gawk, drawn to by the bright orange robes, the shaved heads, and the implication of a greater peace and serenity. Time passes. You see older monks, praying at the shrine of the Emerald buddha or riding the Chao Praya express. You see young novices roaming the streets of Chiang Mai, arms around each others' shoulders. You see monks riding jeepneys, drinking coconut water, sitting in front of a laptop. After a while, they no longer seem quite as strange or (dare I say it) exotic. Nonetheless, they still seem to exist in a slightly different plane of existence; one step removed from the the mundane life of the every day. In Thailand, even with all of the opportunities that presented themselves, I never once approached or started a conversation with a monk. Several times I smiled and nodded my head at a passing monk, but these acknowledgements were met with silent, expressionless faces. I resisted the urge to make a fetish of buddhism; I was content to let them be.

When we first entered Syfohn's English class, I will admit to a little nervousness. A room, lit by flourescent bulbs, filled with handmade wooden benches and desks. At the head of the room, a well-used whiteboard covered in ghostly handwriting from lessons past. At the back, a small map of the globe. On the walls, a few scrawled bits of graffiti. Seated, with thin notebooks and loose papers scattered on the desks in front of them, about 25 novices, aged 11-18, each dressed in an orange robe. With their heads and eyebrows shaved, they seemed remarkably young. They stared as we entered, some of them giggling into cupped hands.

Syfohn asked us to sit, and then returned to the whiteboard, where a series of novices were writing sentences in English. When they finished, he encouraged us to stand and introduced us to his students: “This is Mr. Fil and Mr. Tim, and they have come to help with tonight's English classes. Won't you all welcome them?”

A chorus of voices. “Good evening Mr. Fil! Good evening Mr. Tim!” Their English was tentative and carefully enunciated. The word evening contained three syllables.

Syfohn then continued with the lesson. The students has been given a paragraph of English to read and translate. It told the story of a young novice, much like themselves, whose name was Bun Pheng. Most of the novices, we learned from Syfohn, had come from very poor families. They had travelled great distances to take their vows. While Buddhism may have been an important part of their previous lives, Syfohn told us that most of them entered the monastery because it provided them with a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, and a chance at an education; opportunities that were rare in their home provinces. These kids were here, in the historic heart of Luang Prabang, surrounded by tourists and far from home, in search of a better life. Here, with their fellow novices, they studied a variety of subjects including Mathematics, History, Buddhist Thought, and English.

Syfohn walked the students through a series of spoken exercises centered on the story of Novice Bun Pheng. It must have been quite familiar to the novices, perhaps even an exact description of their own lives. It described life in the monastery, from 4 am wake up calls to pray to the Buddha, to afternoons spent cleaning the temple ground, to evenings spent fasting.

Afterwards, Syfohn asked us to join the students in small groups of about 6-7, and to practice English with them. I sat on a small bench and the young novices backed away from me. “Good evening,” I said, “how are you?” They stared at me, some giggling, and then they conferred with each other in quiet whispers. One of them then spoke tentatively. “Good evening. I am fine.”

“What is your name” I asked, pronouncing the words clearly and loudly. Again, they whispered with each other. A different novice responded, “My name is Novice Keo. What is your name?” We continued on, at first simply repeating the questions that they had been asked about their fictional brother, Novice Bun Pheng. How old are you? Where are you from? But soon enough, we had all gained enough comfort and confidence to move into an actual conversation. I asked them about what they learned in school; they asked me what I liked to in my free time. I asked if they had any siblings; they asked how long I had been in Luang Prabang. Eventually, we were all smiling and laughing, winding our way through the minor obstacles of confusion, incomprehension, and mispronunciation. “Kho jai hien pasaa Lao,” I informed them (I would like to learn the Lao language). They laughed and repeated the sentence correctly so that I could imitate them.

It was a lovely time. As the class ended, we all thanked each other profusely. We had shared a couple of hours in a classroom in Luang Prabang and now we were all dispersing into our own individual lives, caught up in the conflicting, chaotic flow of existence. Where will life take these young men? Some will continue within the monastic tradition, spending their entire lives as monks. Others will leave their orange robes behind and return to the secular life, perhaps marry and one day send their own sons to take vows at some faraway monastery. What will happen to our wonderful friend, Syfohn? Will we ever see his smile again?

It is impossible to know, of course. We never know what waits for us, even around the nearest corner. The important thing is to be present right here, right now, to seek awareness of what makes every experience unique and instructive. I cannot remember the names of all the novices I met that night, but I can still see their smiles, their bright eyes, their openness and curiosity. I wish them all the happiness in the world, and i hope that wherever they might find themselves, they remain just as open and just as curious.

I gave Syfohn the t-shirt I was wearing on the night that we met. Emblazoned across the chest are three words SELF. DISCO. VERY. Self Discovery. May you never stop seeking and discovering, Syfohn. And may the self you discover be full of joy, peace and love. Khop jai lai lai.

 

 

Chiang Mai: Temple Central

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, with a population of about 200,000 people. According to Wikipedia, approximately 1.4 million to 2 million foreigners visit this former Capitol of the ancient kingdom of Lanna every year. If that is correct — and judging from our own experiences in CM, it certainly seems feasible — it is an remarkable statistic.

What do all of these tourists do when they get here? First and foremost, they visit any number of Buddhist temples. There are over 300 wat in Chiang Mai and on any given day, you will walk past 3-4 of them. When we first arrived in Chiang Mai, we had to wait a couple of hours for our room to be readied, and on our first short walk around town, we accidentally stumbled upon three of them. The first of these (I think) was a relatively obscure temple named Wat Pa Phra Nai. It doesn't appear on Google Map and an Internet search for that name comes up empty. The only source to provide this name is the the map of CM we bought at one of the dozens of 7-11s scattered throughout the city.

We walked down this unremarkable soi (small lane, as opposed to thanon, which means road), and my eye was drawn to a beautifully detailed wall.

The wall turned a corner and opened up into an empty courtyard. The gate was open, there were no people in sight, and so cautiously, we entered and began exploring.

One of the things that makes Chiang Mai's temples remarkable — other than their sheer number — is the absolute lack of preciousness surrounding them. Most are not intended or managed as tourist sites; most of them are centers of local community. Wat Phra Pa Nai, Wat Methang, and Wat Umong Maha Thera Chan (again, these are my best guesses reached by cross referencing my memories and our map of CM) are examples of this. We didn't see a single other tourist at these temples. The main buildings, when open, had a comfortable lived-in quality. Yes, there were gigantic golden Buddhas, but there were also sagging couches, folding chairs, and threadbare rugs.

Wat Methang sits right across the street from our hotel. We first noticed it while eating breakfast.

We happened across Wat Umong Maha Thera Chan after dinner one night. Bats swooped across a rose-colored sky, French tourists smoked cigarettes in violation of Thai law, and a song lifted into the darkening air, occasionally obscurd by the rev of a passing tuk tuk.

Other temples in Chiang Mai may be more majestic, more photogenic, more historically or culturally significant. But the manner in which these quiet, unassuming, everyday places of devotion are integrated into the fabric of the city — and into its inhabitants' lives — are what makes me love them. They are unpretentious and more beautiful because of it. They reveal how fully Buddhism has saturated this place. These unremarkable wat are as mundane — and as holy — as a stray dog, a food cart selling sliced fruit with salt and chili powder, a uniformed student sitting sidesaddle on a speeding scooter.

 

Wat Phrathat Doi Sutep

Another day, another temple. The famous, the legendary Wat Phrathat Doi Sutep. Set high in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai, this is another of the must-sees that is listed in pretty much every single guidebook and/or website devotes to things Chiang Mai. Apparently, this location was chosen by a white elephant who was carrying a relic of the Buddha. He wandered around a bit, climbed a mountain, found a spot where he trumpeted three times and then died. And so, King Na Nuone, leader of the Lanna empire and one who could recognize a sign when he saw one, built Wat Prathat Doi Sutep on the site of the white elephant's death.

Getting to this temple nowadays is a bit of a process, but at least does not involve killing white elephants. We caught a tuk tuk from our hotel out to the University area and then from there, we sat at a songthaew stand, waiting for a full complement of riders. Once our group assembled — a Japanese family of three, a Thai couple, a pair of gays (one of which was wearing the best t-shirt I've seen in Thailand; multicolored appliqué letters spelling out “SUPER LADY BOY”), a young woman from Germany traveling solo, Tim, and yours truly — we loaded up and wound our way up the flanks of Doi Suthep. For the first time since landing in Bangkok, we cleared the layer of haze and/or smog that has followed is everywhere, and saw a blue(ish) sky!

The scene that greeted us at the foot of the temple complex was part Disneyland, part Chatuchak. Stalls selling everything from Buddhist tchotchkes to roasted chestnuts, watermelon slices to hill tribe clothing, lined the four lane road leading past Wat Prathat Doi Sutep and on to the highest point of the mountain, Doi Pui. Hordes of tourists were congregating around three points: the base of a giant golden statue of Sumanathera (the monk whose dream started off the whole Buddha's relic/white elephant adventure), the aforementioned market, and a ticket booth selling combined admission to the temple and a ride in funicular rail car, thus bypassing the naga-lined stairwell. The Japanese family headed to the market. The ladyboys hurried to the tram building.

Tim and I made for Sumanathera and then climbed the 309 steps leading to the entrance to Wat Prathat Doi Sutep.

Inside this temple was everything. When I say everything, I mean everything.

A burning Ganesh.

Bugs.

Big tacky billboards featuring the King of Thailand.
Ladyboys.
Pretty flowers.
Fresh squeezed orange juice.
Beautiful views of the rainforest.
Weird, kitschy sculptures.
The mess and clutter of everyday life.
Fruit that looks like testicles.
Tourists. DUH.
Beautiful Buddhist forms.
Shopping carts parked in unexpected corners.
Flip flops with the word “SPERM” embossed into their foot beds.

I guess that's one of the things I find interesting about Buddhism. There is room for everything. It's not about denying your body, or the griminess of earthly existence, it's not about attempting to be pristine or perfect. It, like the great mystical traditions, sees this human incarnation not as a punishment, but an opportunity. Yes, there is suffering, and pain, and inexplicable tragedy; there is happiness and joy and love. And when the right perspective is found, when all of these individual forms reveal their great unity, what is revealed is beauty. Everything, all together, is beautiful.

 

Wat Pra Singh

One of the most famous, most venerated and well documented wat in Chiang Mai. Also, one of the most photographed. I am pretty sure that thousands of other visitors have taken the exact same pictures you see here. Oh well, what can be done? It is truly a magnificent place and when you're there, its difficult to take the camera off of your face.

Please no comments about Asian tourists and their cameras.

Ah well. In the end, I can't help but feel that it's worth it. Even though the Internet is stuffed with images like these, these are mine. And now I share them with you.

 

In Chiang Mai, Buddhist culture has become fully manifest. These wat, even those as tourist-friendly as Wat Pra Singh and Wat Doi Sutep, are not museum displays of an historic and irrelevant philosophy attempting to withdraw from the secular world. Rather, they are vibrant, engaged, and productive. In this Wat alone, more than 700 monks are studying away, trying to bring an end to human suffering while grappling with how to address the complexities of the changing world. A nearby wat (Wat Soun Dok, which I will document later) houses the Chiang Mai branch of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, a public university which offers 26 undergraduate programs, 10 masters programs, and 2 doctoral programs as well as other educational offerings.

It is as intriguing to me as it is inscrutable. A part of me wishes to dive deeper, to seek out a greater understanding of this thoroughly modern aspect of Buddhism. On these campuses, young men and women in western-style uniforms mix easily with the orange, saffron and red robes worn by monks. What are the classes like; what is the curriculum? How does the holistic All-Is-One interface with the parsing, dissecting mindset of academia?

These questions, like the sound of unnamed birds and temple bells, fade into the hum of everyday life. Our time in lovely Chang Mai is short, and my attention span is even shorter. I am distracted by the smell of frying foods and by the heat, and by my attempts to untangle some meaning from the flow of Thai syllables. Peace and an integrated mind, even in the heart of Buddhist Thailand, remains elusive. Luckily for us, wonder, excitement, and a full stomach are much more accessible.

 

Just Another Manic Monday

After our long, hot, and draining walkabout to Wat Pho, we opted for a much quicker route to its next door neighbors, The Grande Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha. From our hotel in the Sukumvhit district, we caught the SkyTrain to Siam Station, transferred to the Talat Phiu line, disembarked at Saphan Taksin and descended to Central Pier, terminal stop of the Chao Praya Express ferry system. Needless to say, we were becoming quite comfortable with Bangkok's public transport systems.

Here is what we saw when we drew near to Central Pier: dozens and dozens of tourists. Australian, German, French, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, American, Spanish (as well as those not immediately identifiable by language, style of dress, or accent). Red-faced, sweating, and clearly overwhelmed, they milled about like bug-eyed fish in an overpacked aquarium, trying to figure out just how this Chao Praya Express thingy actually worked. Many (yes, including yours truly) were poring over their guidebooks, studying the system of colored flags that denoted exactly which boats would make which stops. In theory, it seemed like a good system, but in practice, it is far from clear.

Travel Tip: When in doubt, get in line and hope for the best. The Thai people are famously laid back and you may be sure that no matter how badly or absurdly you might fuck up, they will do their best to set things aright without making you feel like an imbecile or a cretin.

I may spend more time writing about the Chao Praya Express at a later date. For now, suffice it to say that when you hear news stories about ferries sinking and people drowning, these are the sorts of boats to which they are referring. The Chao Praya river doesn't seem that wide, and there is no shortage of boats within hailing distance, but when you are on a creaky old thing as crowded as a rush hour train on a river as crowded as a highway, it is easy to imagine the worst.

“If the boat begins to sink,” I murmured to Tim, “swim as far as you can as fast as you can. You don't want to get pulled under when it capsizes.” This is the sort of advice that my mother loves to give.

Our ferry arrived at the Tha Chang dock without incident and we, along with our cohort of tourists, were swept out of the ramshackle building and right into a vibrant little street market. Assaulted by the sights and sounds that surrounded me — people hawking fresh coconut water, hats, fans, and of course, food of all stripes and colors — I immediately became hungry. We chose a stall, sat down, and soon enough we were eating deliciously spicy Thai food. I threw in another couple of teaspoons of chili powder just for good measure.

Travel Tip: If you are planning to blog about your time in Bangkok, invest in a thesaurus. There are only so many ways to describe heat and you are going to have to employ every single one of them. As a corollary, don't be afraid of spicy food. It may seem counterintuitive to those of you from more temperate climates, but spice really does help you deal with Bangkok Hot. The relief at comes from a pineapple smoothie ends once you finish that last sip; a hot and spicy soup, however, can take the edge off for a good long while.

Sated and then stuffed — I couldn't resist a serving of mango and sticky rice — we headed towards the Grand Palace.

Upon entering The Grande Palace grounds, you are informed that you cannot wear tank tops, sleeveless shirts, or shorts that do not cover your knees. They offer you free items of clothing if you come unprepared, but what this means is if you were hot and sweaty before you arrived at The Grande Palace, get ready to be even even hotter and sweatier. And should you have to take advantage of a free sarong or hammer pants while visiting, you are also going to look pretty ridiculous. Recap: Very hot, very sweaty, very foolish looking. Now welcome to the Royal Palace.

Travel Tip: When visiting locations and engaging in activities that the guidebooks describe as “must-see,” be prepared to surrounded by thousands and thousands of other tourists must-seeing them right up next to you. Our idyllic, genteel experience in Wat Pho lulled me into a false sense of security. I imagined the other wats would generate a similar energy; a timeless reverence, a delicious quiet, a humble devotion. Boy was I wrong.

My time at Wat Phra Kaew, was dominated by a single experience: overwhelming annoyance at my fellow tourists. They were inescapable, they were everywhere, and they were terribly obnoxious. While Tim waited in line to pay for admission, I had the pleasure of watching a British man scream at and berate his young daughter: “Immi! Imogene! Get over here NOW!” When she did not respond quickly enough, he grabbed her by her shirt and spoke through clenched teeth, “When your mother calls you, you come! Not later; NOW!”

From then on, it was an endless display of questionable behavior. Chinese tour groups hogging every single shady spot and posing for pictures as if they were at Disneyland. Australian tourists taking pictures inside the temple of the Emerald Buddha, despite a multitude of signs proclaiming such things completely inadmissable. Spanish tourists seated on the floor of this same same temple, right next to the section reserved for visiting monks, chattering away like teenagers at a food court. American tourists expressing their endless boredom and lack of curiosity, openly mocking the Thai language. German tourists bumping into everyone. Indian tourists and their screaming children. British tourists pretentiously expounding upon their extensive understanding of Buddhist thought. And on several occasions, Japanese tourists erupting into full-blown yelling matches.

Everywhere I looked I saw thoughtless, inconsiderate, entitled, irreverent and disrespectful behavior. Here, in this magnificent temple devoted to the ideals of compassion, forgiveness, and non-attachment, I was filled with nothing but judgement and disdain for my fellow man. I wondered how the monks and nuns who come here on pilgrimage perceive this ignorant throng of humanity? Do they pity us? Do they ignore us? Do they consider us brothers and sisters on the wheel of Samsara?

As we continued from Wat Phra Kaew on to the grounds of the Grande Palace, my irritation and annoyance endured. What were these people thinking? How could they behave in such thoughtless ways? I wandered in and around elaborately decorated rooms that once served the Thai royal family, regarding my fellow tourists with unbound hostility. What a pathetic bunch of idiots!



Eventually on the steps to another royal hall, we crossed paths with Imogene and her father, last seen at the admission booth several hours ago. 7 or 8 years old, she looked to be close to tears, perhaps from exhaustion, perhaps from frustration. Her father looked disheveled and sweaty, his eyes casting about as if looking for something. “Don't cry, Immi, I'm sure we'll find them soon. Maybe she's waiting for us right in here!” His optimism seemed hollow and forced. Imogene whimpered quietly and the two of them disappeared into the crowd.

We found momentary respite from the madness in the lovely Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Here, we learned about Her Royal Highness and the strong bond she has formed with the entire nation. We also saw some fabulous fashion and learned how silk is made. WERQ! It was air conditioned and quiet and dark and after the bright glare and suffocating haze of the Bangkok afternoon, it was just what we needed.

The Museum of Textiles was our last stop at the Grande Palace. As we made our way to the exit, we once again saw Imogene and her father. The little girl was expressionless and her father seemed close to panic. Tim and I, ever compassionate, joked that perhaps his wife had taken this opportunity to steal away from a man she no longer loved and a life that she no longer wanted. “Run!” We whispered to each other, “RUN!”

We continued on, surrounded by a train of brightly colored tourists. We turned a corner and there, standing behind a metal barricade, we saw a woman with an infant in her arms and an intent gaze on her face. She seemed to be scrutinizing every person that passed within sight. On impulse, I turned around and approached her. “Are you looking for your husband and your daughter, Imogene?” I asked. Her eyes widened with relief and she said, “yes, have you seen them?” We told her where we had seen them just a few minutes ago. She thanked us, turned, and then hurried into the oncoming crowd.

A few seconds later, I looked down and saw my talisman — the number 22 — staring back at me. I took that to mean that they had found each other.

Travel Tip: Forgive yourself, and then forgive everyone else around you. Help alleviate suffering when you can. Be kind. Love.

 

Wat Pho

Barefoot, Tim and I wandered the grounds of Wat Pho in a quiet reverie. Some part of me that had been bound too tightly relaxed, surrendered, and then dissolved. My headache disappeared, replaced by the Buddha's secret smile. My exhaustion lifted. I opened.

At the time, my experience seemed absolutely natural. Wasnt this flood of calmness, as welcome as sleep, the true intent of this place? Only after visiting the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew did I understand how fortunate we were to find such peaceful communion at Wat Pho.