Long Time No Monk Chat

22 Jun
Central altar in Wat

Central altar in Wat Phan Tao (1848) –  Chiang Mai, Thailand (2006)

I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Because I bought my ticket within an hour of the train’s departure from Bangkok, all the sleeper cabins in the train were occupied. I took a seat in the 2nd class cabin which was very nice, except that the seats had limited recline and this would be an 11-hour train ride with stops along the way. When the train pulled into the Chiang Mai train station at around 10am, my first task was to find a place to crash for the next 3 days. I had not reserved a room anywhere, but knew that Chiang Mai would have no shortage of hostels, guest-houses, and hotels available for roving chaps like myself. I stumbled along the city centre area until I found a decent-looking guest-house with a room available. I fell asleep immediately as I flopped on the bed. Chiang Mai sits at an altitude of about 310m (1,000+ ft) and is cradled by the serenity of green hills and mountains. So, the air has a coolness to it — free of the stifling heat and humid canopy of Bangkok.  Although it is the second most populated city in Thailand, it does not project the incessant push and pull crammed sprawl of a big city. It is like a pocket of tranquility — filled with evening mist, forested enclaves, and a laid back attitude. When I woke up in the early afternoon after my short snooze on that first day, I looked out of the window of my room and instantly tuned into Chiang Mai. I understood the vibe. I actually felt relieved to be out of Bangkok and was ready to just get on a bicycle and roll around with no agenda.

Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok

Chiang Mai was founded in 1296AD and was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom for nearly 500 years. During that period, it was the main rival to the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya to the south.  The bulk of the many Wats in Chiang Mai contain golden Chedis designed in the Lanna-style — like narrow golden bells.  The influence of the next door Burmese can also be found in many Chedis in the city which have square bases. Each Wat in Chiang Mai consists of 3 elements: 1) the “viharn” which is usually a spacious roofed area which serves as the assembly / meeting area for monks; 2) the Chedi or Stupa which typically enshrines some important historical or body relic; and 3) the Buddha statues or images within the main chamber room of the Wat. As I biked around the city, my eyes became fixed on a white dot nestled between some green hills in the distance. This was Wat Phrat That Doi Suthep or “Doi Suthep” as it was called. Legend has it that in the 14th century a monk from Sukhothai had a vision in which he was compelled to dig at a site somewhere in Thailand. He unearthed a shoulder bone fragment at that site and believed it to belong to the Buddha. He took the relic to the king of Sukhothai who attempted to verify the authenticity of the relic by conducting a ritual to showcase its miraculous properties. But, when the relic did not exhibit any kind of special or supernatural power, the Sukhothai king gave the relic back to the monk. However, the story of this relic had traveled north to Chiang Mai which at the time was ruled by King Nu Naone. King Naone was very interested in the monk’s story and summoned the monk before him.  When the relic was showed to the King, it split into two pieces. King Naone placed one of the pieces on the back of a white elephant which took off towards the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. The elephant walked mid-way up one of the mountains, trumpeted 3 times, and then laid down and died.  The King took this as a sign that a temple was to be built on that site and the first Chedi was built there in 1383. Through the passing centuries, a large platform with multiple Chedis and a statue of the white elephant were constructed at Doi Suthep. I visited Doi Suthep on my second day in Chiang Mai and walked up a huge staircase framed with Nagas (Hindu serpent deities) which led up to the hill-site of Doi Suthep. The views of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep were incredible.

Rod iron Buddha Image window from Inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

Wrought iron window of Buddha image from inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

The other piece of bone that came into being after the relic had split in front of the King was interred within one of the Chedis af Wat Suan Dok (Flower Garden Temple) which is one of Chiang Mai’s oldest surviving temples. It dates back to 1373 and the temple is also the site of Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya Buddhist University — an important Theravada Buddhist school where monks from all over Southeast Asia come to study. Wat Suan Dok has a program in conjunction with the university where monks meet foreigners interested in Buddhism. This program is called “Monk Chat” and I was hoping to make it to one of these sessions while I was in Chiang Mai. I headed west on my bike and because I wasn’t paying attention, I over-shot Wat Suan Dok. By the time I figured out that I had gone too far, I was in a very leafy area filled with tall trees. I decided to make a left turn onto one of the quiet side streets shooting away from the main road and to my delight I came to Wat U Mong. Wat U Mong is an idyllic forest monastery filled with meditation tunnels and stone Chedis. Wooden signs with sayings of the Buddha are tacked on hundreds of trees throughout the monastery grounds. I had arrived here completely by accident. I hopped off my bike and wandered.

Meditation tunnels - Wat U Mong

Meditation tunnels – Wat U Mong

I ducked into the meditation tunnels and sat on the cool tiled floor. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to focus my thoughts inward while inside the tunnel. I had not planned on trying to meditate — it just naturally happened. The tunnel was like a big neural pathway to facilitating meditation. A portal. The monks who had dug these caves really knew what they were doing!  I had one deeply meaningful and personal reflection which hit me like a lighting bolt while I was in the tunnel. I still remember it now — 8 years later as I type this. It is not something that I would share as part of this blog – but I do believe the realization I was able to attain in that tunnel at Wat U Mong was something that probably would not have come to me during the usual pace and activity of my life.  When I emerged out of the tunnel, I walked up to a clearing on a small mound and there before me was one of the most horrifying Buddha images that I had ever seen. This image was obsidian black — a blackness that accentuated the gauntness of the Buddha’s face, the jutted implosion of his ribcage, and the disintegration of his arms and legs.  I adjusted slowly to this Buddha which was strikingly incongruent to the usual brightly gilded and beautiful Buddha images I had seen in Thailand and throughout Asia.

Fasting Buddha - Wat U Mong

Fasting Buddha – Wat U Mong

This was the “Fasting Buddha” — a stark depiction of the Buddha when he hit a near dead-end in his quest for enlightenment. At that point in his life, he was following the ways of the strict ascetics of his time who believed that self-denial and deprivation were the proper spiritual paths toward attaining supreme knowledge [See post: “Wilderness” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-2n%5D. I began to understand why this image looked like some alien creature with little trace of any humanness — it was meant to serve as a reminder that even the Buddha had previously failed on his journey towards enlightenment and this failure took him to the brink of death.

Administrative Office / Monk Chat - Wat Suan Dok

Administrative Office / Monk Chat – Wat Suan Dok

As the afternoon was turning into night, I got back on my bike and double backed towards Wat Suan Dok. I had a funny feeling that the Monk Chat program would be closed because it was after 5pm. I pedaled as fast as I could. Within a few meters of my entrance to the temple grounds, I saw a modern-looking administrative building which I thought may be connected with the program. I was right. I entered the room and it appeared the place was closed. Sure enough, I saw a sign stating that the hours for Monk Chat were 9:30am to 5pm. It was now 5:35pm. My shoulders slumped and I turned away. As I was walking out, a voice called out to me. I looked back and there were 3 smiling monks before me. I went to greet them and they told me they were novice monks from Cambodia who were students at the university there.  They said that the official Monk Chat program for the day had finished, but wanted to know if I was interested in talking with them anyway since they wanted to practice their English. I excitedly agreed and sat down with them in a small room.  Since I was fresh off my experience in the meditation tunnels of Wat U Mong, I told the monks about it. I tried to explain how unbelievable it was to journey so nakedly inward in a flash of moment and come to an important realization that would otherwise elude one given the bombardment of distraction in everyday life.

Eson and friends

Eson (middle) and friends

One of the monks seemed very interested in the experience. His name was Eson and we shared some personal histories with one another for nearly an hour. When the monks had to finally get up and leave, Eson and I exchanged email addresses and for 3-years afterwards we continued to correspond with one another. In his last email to me, he told me that he had to leave the Sangha (the monkhood) in order to go back to Cambodia and help his family with their financial situation. He was going to become a taxi driver in Phnom Penh. I’m sad to say that we lost touch after that. He was probably around 20 to 22 years old when we met that day at Wat Suan Dok. He said something to me then which sounded funny and simple at the time, but has grown in its meaning to me over the years. He said people have “monkey mind” — meaning their thoughts, acts, behaviors, and wants dart like a monkey jumping from branch to branch of a tree. It is not in our nature to stand still and to focus in order to truly have intent behind any act of our mind, speech, or bodies. When one learns to quiet the mind, body, and speech in order to act with purpose, then that’s how spiritual growth takes root. But, that’s a skill one must learn and practice with tenacity over time. It is not easy. We are also all susceptible to outside forces that knock us off the branch — a branch we think we have under our control. I think back to the smile on Eson’s face when we said good-bye and then I envision him behind the wheel of his cab, navigating traffic as he adroitly drives a passenger to where they need to go. There’s a symmetry in that scene and my chat with him. I like that.

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