NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Pilgrimage to Nowhere

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Northern Thailand, February, 2005

If spiritual seekers to
Thailand were treated like their sex tourist brethren, a contingent of
saffron-robed monks would accost you at the Bangkok airport. They would get all
up in your face with an A4-sized laminated menu of spiritual offerings,
shouting at you "Intensive Vipassana Meditation! 21-day monastery stay!
All-you-can-eat vegetarian meals! Hurt your knees! No sex! Donations
only!"

This was not the scene that confronted me on
my arrival in Bangkok – although I did find a menu. Instead of exclamation
points, it had equanimous paragraphs;
instead of A4-sized laminated paper, it was loosely distributed across several
poorly-constructed web sites and a booklet from the International Buddhist Meditation
Center in Bangkok.

It turned out I had a choice of over one hundred different temple
stays, Buddhist instruction classes, and meditation retreats. At one end of the
spectrum there was Wat Khao Tham, a boutique-ish Buddhist retreat on the
backpacker island mecca of Ko Pha-Ngan, run by an expat Aussie-American couple
– complete with nearby spa, yoga workouts and continental breakfasts. At the more
austere end was the forest monastery of Wat Suanmok, home temple of the late
Buddhasa Bikkhu, a monk greatly revered throughout Thailand for his
anti-materialism and rejection of the worldly pleasures that he felt had
corrupted the Buddhist establishment in Bangkok.

Bewildered by the options, I got in touch with a friend of a
friend, Joe Cummings, author of Lonely Planet's Thailand and Laos guidebooks.

"I recommend Doi Suthep, just outside of Chiang Mai," he replied
in an email. "It has a program for international students, and a strong lineage
tied to one of the greatest living meditation masters in Thailand, Ajaan Tong
Sirimangalo."

"Have you yourself practiced there?" I asked.

"Yes. In fact, I did the full 21-day intensive," he replied. "It
was hard, very hard, but transformative."

"Sounds good," I said.

"Of course, it's been a few years since I've been there." Joe
added in a postscript, "Things change."
This is a disclaimer, I've noticed, that he and his Lonely Planet
cohorts slip into every guidebook.

I contacted the monastery via email. A message came back from one
Phra Sam. Phra is Thai for "monk";
Sam is Canadian for "Sam."
On my application they wanted to know my goals. Goals? "Annihilate my ego,
such as it is," I wanted to say (with the proviso that I could do this
during a convenient abbreviated 10-day stay and still make my next flight).
Instead I wrote "To make compassion is the source of my actions." I'm
not sure what I meant by this, but it got me in.

 

* * *

 

It was late in the afternoon when I arrived at Doi Suthep.
Saffron prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, slapping against the parking lot
lamp posts. A few Thai families and several pairs of young European tourists
were noisily making their way up the final 108 steps to the hilltop temple;
some older and fatter tourists were waiting for the elevator that had been
installed the previous year. At the edge of the parking lot pushcarts selling
Buddhist paraphernalia were doing a brisk business. At the foot of the steps a
woman and her twin daughters were begging.

The drive up from Chiang Mai to the 400-year-old temple had cut
through a heavily forested mountainside. I'd split a combi with two German girls, one of whom was blonde, cute, and
sufficiently charmed during our short half-hour together to give me her email
and invite me to stay with her in Berlin – a city unfortunately not on my
itinerary. But if I played my cards right, I was guessing, she would have
invited me back to her guest house that night – the same night that I, in a
karmically cruel twist of fate, would be putting on the white robes of an
apprentice monk and swearing an oath of celibacy.

The two German girls and I ascended the stairs together, each
with our own burdens. They wore sun hats, and carried only water bottles and
tiny shoulder bags; I had a full pack on. I could have taken the elevator, but
it occurred to me to make of these steps an impromptu mini-pilgrimage.
Admittedly, this was no hard slog across the Tibetan Plateau to trek around Mount Kalish in
driving snow, but it was what I had to work with. I would squeeze the pilgrim's
narrative into these 108 stairs — 108 being, according to Buddhist metaphysics, the number of difficulties to be overcome in the quest for enlightenment.

So why had I come? In
the last four weeks I'd covered 20,000 miles and tramped around five countries.
Coming to this monastery was a wholly different kind of journey. It was a
personal test, a life experiment. I was going to sit still (literally) in one
place for ten days, and travel inwards.
Bangkok had taught me something about the sexual underground and my own
boundaries; Tokyo, something about modernity and its mutability. With its
molten underbelly bubbling to the surface, even Hawaii had given me a glimpse
of the profound. This was different. I'd come to Doi Suthep to see if I had the
stuff that monks are made of. I'd come because ever since my college years –
and a spate of mystical disruptions I suffered through at that time – I'd
wondered if this weren't my true calling. Deep into my thirties I was still
having quasi-religious encounters with a dread- and awe-inspiring presence that
I called The Void. Was this openness a blessing or a curse? Had I turned away
from my greatest gift? Had I pursued a life of social activism and Abbie
Hoffman-style pranking when, for the last twenty years, I should really have
been sitting in the lotus position, seeking no-self?

Like any half-literate member of the counterculture, I was
theoretically part Buddhist – and, in a sense, I'd come to Doi Suthep to try it
on for size. When asked my religion, I often check the box "Other." If
the form I'm filling out also has a blank line, I might write-in "atheist
with a vivid imagination," "lapsed secular humanist," or simply
"disorganized." In my salad days I'd hitchhiked around the West,
reading the Beats, the Tao of Physics,
and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance
. I'd parsed my acid experiences as much in the language of
Jungian archetypes as Buddhist notions of Maya,
Bardo, Nibbana, Karma, and Samsara. Decades later I'll still turn
out in the rain in Central Park to hear the Dalai Lama speak, and over beers
friends and I might exclaim "That's so Zen!" in the face of an opaque
yet paradoxically perfect moment, each of us thinking we know what the others
mean. In spite of this semi-Buddhist world view, and my fervid religious
imagination – or maybe because of them – I was never a "joiner." Outside
of a short weekend stay here and there at a Zen center, I had never seriously
committed to an organized spiritual practice.

And so I'd come to Doi Suthep to see what would happen sitting
in silence day after day after day. Would I freak out? Would I invite back in
the bottomless vertigo of those earlier mystical experiences? Would I go out of
my skull with boredom? Or would I burn away some of my vanities and dross and
walk out of this spiritual boot camp slightly more realized, slightly more
adult?

At the half-way point of my mini-pilgrimage up Doi Suthep's 108
stairs, the back of my t-shirt, where it pressed up against the pack, was wet
through with sweat. My pack was heavy with books – in part because of the six
pounds of Lonely Planet cellulose I was still carrying, in part because my
quasi-Buddhist self-education was still in full swing. At an English-language
bookstore in Bangkok I had added two volumes to my load: a practical manual for
Vipassana meditation, and a collection of essays from one of the country's most
outspoken public intellectuals criticizing the corruption and backwardness of
present-day institutionalized Buddhism in Thailand (Doi Suthep included). I had
also broken the cardinal rule of backpacking, and included a hardback: Pankaj
Mishra's revisionist account of the Buddha's life, An End to Suffering – an ironic title, given its contribution to
the growing soreness in my shoulders where my pack-straps were digging in.

 

* * *

 

A few days earlier, on
my way out of Bangkok – still equal-parts unnerved and thrilled at almost
losing my eyes in a hail of pussy-squirted darts – it had been this same
backpack full of books that I had thrown over my shoulder at the train station
as I'd set off for Chiang Mai, a day's journey to the North. But as the train
chugged through the hard squalor of the Bangkok suburbs, I had realized I
needed more than a day. I needed some time to read; I needed some time to shift
spiritual gears from the diesel-choked metropolis to what I imagined would be a
chaste and mindful mountaintop of wind chimes and sunrises. And so, I had made
a stop-over at the ruined city of Ayutahya, a few hours North and right along
the rail line.

"For 400 years and a succession of 34 reigns," Lonely
Planet tells us, "Ayutahya was the cultural center of the emerging Thai
nation." Marveled at by early European explorers until it was destroyed by
the Burmese in 1767, this ancient capital was now a far-flung field of ruins. I
spent the day, from sunup to sundown, biking from one broken edifice to
another, my three books in tow. There's a tendency, almost a default setting
at such sites, to scurry around collecting facts – historical, architectural, or
otherwise. With Ayutayah encompassing more than forty palaces, fortresses, and
temple buildings of no small significance, I felt the pull. Whether it is
genuine curiosity, a contemporary desire to show respect for the host culture,
or a faux-intellectual notion (in the tradition of the 19th century
Grand Tour) that this is what a proper, self-elevating tourist ought to do, I
tried to resist the impulse. Instead I moved slowly, trying to take in a larger
sense of things. I'd find a shady spot leaning against a weather-beaten stupa and read about Buddha's talk to
the residents of Kesaputta. In a nook of a bell-shaped chedi – its exposed orange brick gnarled by roots – I'd ponder the
seven stages of purification in Vipassana practice, and after a while, it
seemed the whole city was a monument to the core Buddhist idea of impermanence:
the transitory nature of all worldly phenomena. What was once a gilded,
bejeweled memorial to a King's military triumph was now a crumbling marker of a
long forgotten battle. All the soldiers, both slain and survivors, had been
dead for centuries. The city itself had been sacked and ransacked. The
competing empires, their kings and generals, all vanished. Lichen covered the
stones, tough weeds grew between the cracks. I nestled into a corner along one
of the wat's broken shoulders and
read further.

And I was reminded of why Buddhism is my favorite religion. For
one thing, there is its empiricism: Buddhism is based on experience rather than
faith. It is not "revealed," it is "realized" – you earn
your insights. Another thing, Buddhist ethics: there is no sin in Buddhism –
certainly nothing close to sin in the Christian sense of the term. Lust and
hatred are not sinful emotions, per se. Buddhist teaching merely points out
that such emotions can cause pain – directly or indirectly – if not dealt with
wisely. Approaching ethics not as a dogmatic straitjacket, but as a set of
guidelines based on the actor's intention, makes it difficult,
if not impossible, to judge somebody else's moral behavior. This might seem
like a problem, but to me, given the hypocritical and spirit-killing way
that organized Christianity tends to wield the hammer of sin and judgment, it
comes as a relief. Third, Buddhism's notions of freedom and responsibility: in
Buddhism there is no fate, no higher power that
compels us to action or accountability. And there is no self or soul that
pre-determines who we are. There is only karma,
which in Buddhism – in a refinement of the original Hindu concept – is about
volition. You are what you have done, are doing, and will do in the future. This karmic
understanding of the workings of the universe endows us with radical
responsibility. In this way, Buddhism is akin to Western existentialism –
another reason I like it.

As the sun moved across the sky, and
I biked from one weather-broken stone stupa
to another, the surroundings continued to echo the folly and vanity of human
striving. As the sun completed its circuit, I too was being chased to the
cliff's edge by the tiger of parable, to dangle off the vine. The white mouse
of day (soon to be followed by the black mouse of night) chewed at my
life-line, leaving me that much closer to the end of my own days. Like the
dangling man in the parable, I was suspended over the void. Instead of plucking
a luscious strawberry from the cliff face, however, I was spearing plastic
forkfuls of mango and sticky rice from a zip-lock bag and basking in the late
afternoon sun.

In spite of all that I liked about Buddhism, there was also
much that left me puzzled, if not deeply troubled. Here's one question I posed
in my journal that day in Ayutahya:

Impermanence is all
fine and good, and seems like a true description of the workings of the
Universe, but if I'm just a series of passing mental states, and if all of us
are such, then if I love someone, whom do I love? And why?

With love – not
happiness, not even truth – being for me the deepest purpose in life, this
question was urgent, and I had no good answer. Also, what was I to do with
these ideas of "attachment" and "not-doing" and taking the
"middle-path" between extremes? I believe very much in attachment; I
believe in doing. I am a creature of extremes. I want to be attached, fiercely
attached. I want to love, headlong and foolhardily. I want to kick ass in the
world and care – profoundly care – about the results. How can I reconcile these
deep-seated desires with Buddhism's fundamental teaching, and the goal of all
Buddhist practice – non-attachment?

Finally, I distrust any kind of organized religion, and Buddhism,
while not as organized as, say, the Spanish Inquisition, is still fairly
organized. As a spiritual loner skeptical of gurus and priding myself on having
forged my own eclectic path, I've held fast to Andre Gide's paradoxical dictum
believe those who are seeking the
truth; doubt those who find it
. Yet, on and off for years, I'd longed for a
spiritual teacher. Someone not just to answer my vexing philosophical
questions, but who could help me channel my periodically violent encounters
with "the Void" into a more grounded spiritual practice. Who would I
find at Doi Suthep? Who was this Phra Sam? This Ajaan Tong? If they had
something to teach me, would I be able to get out of my own way enough to even
listen?

 

* * *

 

As we neared the top of
the stairs to the temple at Doi Suthep, my shoulders were hurting and my calves
were sore. As befits a pilgrim, even one on a mini-pilgrimage such as this, I wore
the sweat like a marker of virtue, the soreness and pain felt almost purifying.
Cresting the final stair – in effect, reaching the 108th and final stage of enlightenment – we
arrived at a ticket-window.

The German girls had to pay, while I – an apprentice monk to be –
was let in for free. They passed into the main monastery complex; I walked
around the side towards the monks' quarters. It was a separation of worlds:
tourists and idle chatter and my lovely blonde temptress in one, me and silence
and sublimated sexual desire in the other.

After wandering fifty paces vaguely in the direction indicated by
the ticket lady, I was greeted by a white-robed nun. She was squat and bald.
Like a stern housekeeper, her eyes sized me up but betrayed no judgment.
"Phra Sam was expecting you earlier," she said, her English choppy
with a thickly-accented German. "He is not here now. Come." She led
me along the back edge of the monastery, down a concrete staircase, past a
half-built dormitory – rebar poking up into the sky – and finally into a
courtyard with scattered concrete benches and two monks' robes hanging on a
clothes line, saffron against the blue sky.

As we passed through the courtyard, a scruffy black dog crossed
our path. I took a few steps off the path to scratch it behind the ears. Am I doing this mindfully enough? I
wondered. Can anyone tell?

She led me to a poorly-lit meditation room and gave me a thin mat
and several wool blankets with which to set up a bed in the corner. Few words
were exchanged; speech was purely functional. Dinner had already happened at
11am. The next meal would be at 6:30 the following morning. All apprentices
were expected to rise at 4am. Tomorrow after breakfast, Phra Sam would conduct
a vow-taking ceremony and give me my white apprentice robes. Until then, I was
to wear my most white and most loose-fitting clothing and meditate in the hall
upstairs.

After settling in I went
upstairs, quietly entering a large rectangular meditation hall. The walls were
white plaster. The window frames red and peeling. The floor's wood slats
stained unevenly blond. At one end, a Buddha shrine, at the other, a bank of
fluorescent lights had been turned on as it had grown dark outside by now. I
pulled a square cushion under my butt and sat down to meditate. Legs crossed,
eyes closed, hands cupped one inside the other resting just below the navel, I
tried to let my mind quiet down, coming back to the breath, setting aside
wandering thoughts when they might arise. My mind, however, was anything but
quiet. I was on a fierce boil. I'd been jamming sights and sounds and smells
into my various sensory orifices for four weeks and they were all in play. I
had "monkey mind." Little creatures were clambering all over the
furniture inside my head, gibbering away. I knew I needed to settle down, and
it would take time, but I couldn't help but wonder whether I'd made a huge
mistake. Looking around in the flickering fluorescent light I wondered what was
this place that I'd come to, with its clumsily-made Buddha statue, and strange
religious arcana, and that smell – musky, like damp wool. And why was I taking
10 days out of my grand adventure to be frustrated by the everyday workings of
my own thick head?

I realized I had somehow expected reality to be more real here. I
had expected the East to have something the West could not offer. That somehow
by practicing Vipassana, the "Higher Vehicle," the purest form of
Buddhism, the one closest to the original teachings, in a country with a
1500-year-long tradition of this practice, I would get it. It would happen –
this purer kind of seeing – almost by osmosis, by the sounds and smells and the
residual afterglow of centuries of enlightenment still hanging around these
meditation halls.

But in the wake of my first attempts, it seemed that this was
just a romantic notion, and I just another all-too-gullible Westerner on a
spiritual tourism jag, another experience junkie who had to try it all, another
lost soul vaguely in search of some ill-defined notion of self – or no-self.
And with a bad attitude, at that.

On the way back down to
my room, a fellow apprentice monk greeted me with a tiny bow. His name was
Adrian – in his mid-twenties, American. Serious and deliberate.

"You've just arrived," he said very quietly. "Is
everything okay?"

"Yes, mostly. Thank you."

"Any questions I can answer?"

"Well, has this been a good place for you?"

"Yes. Very good. But you must make the effort. Phra Sam is a
good teacher."

"Any advice?"

"Relax."

"Relax?"

"Yes."

"Okay, thank you," I said, doing the tiny bow thing.
"And, um, I appreciate you expending your precious, highly-rationed
allotment of words on me." He smiled. We went our separate ways. During
the next ten days, I would talk to him on only one other occasion.

When I got back to the room, there was another pack leaning
against the wall, another bed laid out in the opposite corner, and a body in
it. His face was turned away from me, but I could hear him breathing.
Everything around him was Spartan and neat. As I was falling off to sleep, a
cat walked by, brushing my shoulder. A thin tabby. She curled up next to my
chest. It was not yet 10pm. In spite of my doubts and bad attitude, it seemed I
was already the chosen one.

That night I had a
dream. I'm walking with Anne, the cute German girl from earlier that afternoon.
She is pushing a stroller, testing it out, "practicing" for when she
has a kid. She's trying to get pregnant. I try to be polite as she describes
her fucking schedule and fertility process to me. Instead of a baby in the
carriage, there is a little Buddha. We walk. We talk. I want to kiss her.

 

This essay is part one in a five-part series accounting the author's stay in a monastery in Thailand. An abridged version previously appeared in The Sun.

 

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