Tag Archives: buddhist

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.

 

 

Welcome to Laos, PDR!

 

After a couple of practical and not particularly noteworthy days in Chiang Mai, we left the relative comfort and familiarity of Thailand. On February 25, 2013, we entered the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, the first communist country either of us have ever been to. The visa-upon-arrival process was relatively easy, but no less confusing because of it. We each had two passport photos, $US35.00 and two forms that we had filled out while waiting at the Chiang Mai airport — one a visa application, the other a customs form. Beyond this, all that was required was an additional $US1.00, patience, and the willingness to smile and shrug when being confronted with scowls and military uniforms. Everyone on our flight — including a foursome of middle-aged Aussie girlfriends, a beer-happy Spanish couple traveling with one of their mothers, several pairs of Germans wearing beige traveling get-ups, one of the ubiquitous couplings of old-white-dude and much-younger-Asian-woman, and an American who insisted upon complaining about the fact that the visa fee charged to Americans was a whole $5.00 more than that charged to Europeans — was admitted.

The currency in Laos is the Kip. One US dollar is equivalent to about 7,888.77 Kip. The old white dude traveling with the much younger Asian woman apparently did not realize that crossing a border into another country might entail the use of an entirely different currency. I guess that's what happens when you become part of the Euro Zone. When the woman manning the taxi stand portion of the airport's welcome desk informed him that it would cost K50,000 to have an air-conditioned van drive he and his companion to their hotel in the center of Luang Prabang, he went on for several minutes, throwing his hands around and sputtering something about “zee Internet.” When his tirade was met with blank stares and a half-smirk, he repeated with greater volume, “ZEE INTERNET!”

The Lao welcoming committee stared pointedly at his companion, who attempted to explain the whole Lao Kip v. Thai Baht thing. English, the first language of neither half of this couple, was an unwieldy tool with which to pry open this dude's brain. Eventually he got it and then spent the next minute trying to apologize and explain away his ignorance. The Lao welcoming committee returned an expression that seemed to say, “you have made us all lose face and we are not amused.”

I understand that Laos is becoming a much more open society, and that tourism is growing in leaps and bounds. Still, it seems to me unwise to antagonize the people who greet you upon arrival.

Me, I was raised right by my Filipino parents, and so I was respectful and raised no stink at all, even when our guesthouse's promised “airport transfer” turned out to be the same K50,000 taxi trip that everyone else had been using. My inner brat wanted to wave my hands about while exclaiming “zee Internet! Zee INTERNET!” but I was wise enough to realize that such antics were likely to be unwelcome. I guess that's what turning 42 gets you! We simply paid the woman, received a slip of paper which we then handed to a waiting driver, and got into the next silver mini-van waiting by the curb.

One of the first questions that one gets asked in Laos is, “Where are you from?” That is the first thing the taxi driver asked us and when we answered “America,” he gave us a big smile and said, “Dollar! Very good!” Many Americans might attempt to argue this point, but when $1.33 can buy you a heaping plate of home cooked Lao cuisine, such behavior borders on downright offensive. Not that being offensive seems to trouble most of the falang visiting Laos, but as I said, I was raised right by Filipino parents. And so I nodded and agreed and gamely took the taxi driver's “card” — a scrap of paper with his name and number written on it — in case we decided to go to the waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang.

We arrived in central LP just as the heat and glare of the afternoon were softening into evening. Smoke from nearby slash and burn agriculture spread a diffuse golden light and as we wound our way through Luang Prabang's outer neighborhoods towards its historic center (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), a happy exhaustion spread over me. Traveling to unfamiliar places, immersed in languages that are beyond your capacity to hear or speak, navigating arcane procedures; it's an exhausting affair. Everything we had done that day — from negotiating with a tuk tuk driver to get a reasonable fare to Chiang Mai's airport to checking into our flight on Lao Air to entering a communist country to getting local currency from a bright red ATM to figuring out where our guesthouse was — had required all of our attention and all of our vigilance. We had done it all without a hitch, but my brain was pretty much fried.

By the time we arrived at the Sieng Khaen Lao Guesthouse and were shown to our boxy first floor room, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. Tim turned on the air conditioner, I lay down on the utilitarian mattress and fell instantly asleep.

I woke up just as the sun was setting. Luang Prabang has a 12:00am curfew, so it was either get up and get out or surrender to sleep and start over in the morning. Not wanting to spend my first night in this famously beautiful town in the company of a disgruntled New Englander and a television, I pulled myself together, completed my first costume change, and stumbled out into the shady warmth of dusk.

Much has been made of Luang Prabang's charm. I will not offer any contradictions. It is a beautiful little city, still carrying the stains of French Colonialism with a strange sort of pride. Its historic district extends into a peninsula flanked on one side by the storied Nam Mekong, and on the other by the smaller Nam Khan. Despite the droves of (mostly French) tourists and the bustle of the nightly handicrafts market, the city has a languid, relaxed air that is best experienced leisurely and on foot. That first night we wandered all the way from our guesthouse, along the banks of the Mekong, almost to the very end of land. There, we happened across a Wat, one of the most important and most famous monastaries in Laos, Wat Xieng Thong.

As we wandered the grounds of this lovely temple, a young man approached us and said, in a sweetly accented English, “There will be a candlelight procession later on. If you like, you can stay and participate.” Whatever friendliness Tim and I had experienced in Thailand, we had never been approached by a complete stranger unless some sort of monetary exchange was expected, so we hung back a bit, waiting for the sales pitch. There was none. Instead, under the full moon and in the sultry night air, the young man told us about the history of the temple, helped us grasp some of the basics of the Lao language, and explained how he had come to speak English (and French and German and Korean) so well.

This was how we met our friend Syfohn. “Sounds like cellphone!” he said cheerily as we introduced ourselves. We chatted with him for an hour and a half, while the temple grounds slowly began to fill with both locals and tourists. At one point a trio of novices approached him, their orange robes muted in the darkness, and asked him an undecipherable question. “Candlelight procession,” he replied carefully. “Candlelight procession,” the monks repeated.

“They are my students,” he explained. “I teach an English class at a monastery school.” He paused and then added, “perhaps, if you have time, you would like to come to a class and help. You are native speakers, and it is very helpful to hear native speakers.” His English was careful and deliberate and very charming. Even if we had wanted to, there was no possible way we could refuse.

And so this was our welcome to Laos. Bureaucracy, exhaustion, beauty and kindness. We hung out with Sayfohn for the rest of the evening, until he had to go to what I believe is his third job, that of a security guard at a hotel. The monks held a service in the ornate temple, the sound of chanting spilling out into the night air while tourists gawped and peeked through doorways. The three of us sat on the pavement outside, nibbled by ants and mosquitos, chatting quietly. Local children ran and laughed, giving a happy, festival edge to the night. After a while, the energy within the temple loosened and released. Perhaps twenty monks, each of them lit by glowing candle flame, emerged into the courtyard. The people who had been waiting there gathered up their offerings — various flowers as well as complex forms made of folded banana leaves and marigolds — and lit incense and candles. Sayfohn dismantled his fistful of devotions and gave us each a stick of incense and a flower. Then, barefoot, we were caught up in the gentle flow. Led by an orange blaze of monks, we circled the temple three times.

After the third circuit, people made their way to a trio of chedi, where they knelt, offered prayers and sent their wishes out into the universe. For a while, the three of us were silent, stilled by immediacy. Then, we put on our shoes and began walking through Luang Prabang's historic streets, as closely and as casually bound as three childhood friends. Sayfohn was separated from us by age, culture, history, geography, economy, and language. And yet somehow, as easy and courageous as a smile, he had reached across those distances and transformed us from falang into friends. Sayfohn, if you are reading this, thank you once again. You are a hero to me.

On our walk, Sayfohn pointed out Wat Sop Sickharam, the temple where he held his nightly English classes. We made our promises to meet him there in a couple of days and said our goodbyes.

I started off this post by making fun of the older-French-dude-with-younger-Asian-girlfriend for not realizing that the unit of currency would change once he entered Laos. Bu it turned out I had made a similar mistake. Perhaps because of the short plane ride, or because of the similarities in language and food, I had believed that Laos would be just another kind of Thailand. Different in some abstract, historical and/or political way, perhaps, but not in any way that would be obvious or discernible to the senses. Cross the boundary from southern Indiana into Kentucky, for example, and you might never know the difference. A few short hours in Luang Prabang had proven me wrong. Laos feels as different from Thailand as silk does from cotton. Due in large part to Sayfohn's open heart, I felt welcomed and at home in Laos in a way that I had not experienced in all of my time in Thailand. It was surprising and lovely and I was eager for more.

I could not have known it at the time, but Laos had even greater surprises — both weird and wonderful — waiting just around the corner.

 

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.