NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Practice as Befits You

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This essay is part three in a five-part series accounting the author's stay in a monastery in Thailand. Click here for parts one and two. An abridged version previously appeared in The Sun.

 

[Pilgrimage to Nowhere] • I lingered in bed the next morning, groggy and resentful, finally dragging myself upstairs for an abbreviated and fruitless meditation. Fruitless, because I was still in yesterday's mental funk. Abbreviated, because that morning, in a break from our usual routine, all students from the center had been invited to join the full Sangha for early morning chanting in the upper monastery, abbot presiding. Hannes and I walked in silence along the footpath. It was a few minutes past 5:30 a.m. The dawn was a diffuse blue glow in the mostly night sky. As we passed by the great bronze bells and up the marble stairs into the inner courtyard, we could hear the monks' voices already rising and falling.

The small open-walled shrine glittered like gold; yellow fluorescence tricked off gilded wall paintings and Buddha statuary. Black-and-white portrait photos of Doi Suthep's revered monks stood at off angles against the inside wall; candlelight played across their glass-frames. We were a few minutes late. The chanting was already underway; the shrine already close-packed with kneeling saffron-robed monks and white-robed apprentices. As inconspicuously as possible, Hannes and I knelt down in formation. As we tried to prostrate at the right moments and catch the low-toned syncopated rhythms while making sure that our feet were correctly positioned, toes uncurled out, it was hard not to think of Indiana Jones. Specifically, that moment when Indy and his quirky British sidekick have slipped into the labyrinthine temple complex of some ancient bloodthirsty nazi-affiliated cult, bonked two people over the head and stolen their robes. Wrapped in white to their eyeballs, they're shuffling along, trying to blend in, combat boots sticking out from under their robes. Suddenly a big gong sounds and all the white-robed people around them fall to the ground, mumbling prayers. The imposters scramble to their knees, bowing clumsily, and stealthily darting their eyes sideways to see how it's done. The British sidekick says something like, "But Indy, this is not your relig – " "Just do the head and the hands thing!" Harrison Ford spits back under his breath, "and chant, will you!" And they chant, sort of. And somehow, in spite of their boots and their mumbled chanting, they pull it off — they don't get caught. I am not sure I would have been so lucky.

What we were doing, or trying to do — besides chant in unison and prostrate ourselves at unexpected moments — was honor and recommit ourselves to the precepts of the monk's life; to ask for nothing more than food and shelter; to pursue right thinking and right living; to extend loving kindness to all beings. As I intoned the Pali syllables, reading along with the English translation, I felt that there was something quite beautiful and guileless about it. In a noticing, noticing way, I took in my surroundings: the golden light of the shrine against the dark glimmering sky, the rhythmic collective heartbeat of these mysterious phonemes amid the silences of early morning. It was a strange haven: at once beautiful and deeply alien; simple yet inscrutable. Was I in a cult or a moment of profound human communion? It was hard to say.

As if in answer, the chanting suddenly stopped. Everyone turned 180 degrees to face a small but obviously very important altar. If I correctly remembered the tourist information plaque I had read the day before, it housed a 2500-year-old reliquary (more or less the Buddhist equivalent of a splinter from the True Cross). Then, just as suddenly as they had stopped, the monks began chanting again, as well as engaging in a goodly number of prostrations in the direction of the relic. Or so I sensed from my peripheral vision, because with the 180 degree turn around, Hannes and I were no longer unobtrusively hidden in the back row, able to look around and follow others. Now we were in the very front row, ceremonial leaders of an increasingly complex series of chants and prostrations to the Buddha's fingernail. Not only that, but being in the front, I realized with a sudden surge of panic, meant that the bottoms of my feet were pointing up into the faces of all the monks behind me. Lonely Planet had warned readers that this was the gravest insult possible in the cultures of South East Asia. The bottoms of one's feet, said the guidebook, being the part of the body farthest from the crown of one's head, are the dirtiest and most un-soulful part of the body and should never be pointed directly at any Thais, especially monks. You're not even supposed to hook your leg over your knee while riding on a bus for fear of insulting the passenger next to you with just a sideways glimpse of the dreaded foot-bottom. Here I was, pointing said dreaded foot-bottom at a roomful of monks that included the Abbot of the third largest monastery in Thailand. In spite of having just reconfirmed our precepts against hurting other living beings, I half expected a tap on the shoulder and a secret platoon of armed monks to strong arm Hannes and me out of the shrine.

Before this could happen, however, the chanting came to a close and we turned back around. An older monk, sitting with several others on a raised platform to the left of the shrine beckoned Phra Sam over to translate. This must be the Abbot, I thought — partly because of the aura of gentle relaxed authority with which he beckoned Phra Sam over, and partly because — minus the leathery green skin — he looked strikingly like Yoda. He had Yoda's round face, and his ears stuck out like Yoda's ears. When he spoke, his lips moved in Yoda-like mouth shapes, and at the end of every third statement, he would offer up a world-wise, Yoda-like chuckle. Unlike Yoda, however, he was holding this oddly shaped white plastic handset six inches from his head. What was it? It wasn't quite a telephone. A voice amplifier for his limp and aging vocal cords? A device to record all his statements for posterity? And how had I of all people ended up here: on bended knees — my combat boots sticking out from under my white robes — listening to Yoda talk to Buddha on some cosmic rotary phone.

The abbot turned to the apprentice-monks and with a modest hand gesture welcomed us. He asked Phra Sam where we were from. Phra went around the room Nigeria, England, Romania, America… "It's never been like this at Doi Suthep," said the abbot with a great smile, clearly pleased at the fast growth of the international program. He spoke to us. His words were brief and gently questioning. It was no sermon, but rather a modest chat on the life of the monk, little of which I remember except his parting advice to us all: "Practice as befits you." Well, I thought, as the dawn cleared away the stars and we walked back along the garden path, that answers all my questions. And none of them.

* * *

For the rest of the day Phra Sam split the group in two. Those who had completed the full 21-day course were to head off-site with him. Exactly where, I wasn't sure. Reports were to be at 8 p.m. not the usual 3 p.m. Finally, turning to the remaining five of us, all relative newcomers, he invoked his favorite phrase: "Go practice."

And so I did. Or tried. By this point — day four — I was up to 25 minute segments. 25 minutes walking; 25 minutes sitting. Which is a long time to be wasting your life. Or so it felt as I continued the pattern of unfocused mental drift that had been so frustrating the day before. My belly wouldn't relax. Career plans and sexual cravings skulked around. Pin pricks of humiliation from last year's rotten radio interview kept resurfacing. My practice was crap! I was going nowhere, sliding backwards, even. Worse than all this: the picture of myself that was emerging — riven with pettiness and vanity and shame and self-absorbed desires — was not pretty. I was beyond frustrated. I felt sad and defeated. And to think: the brochure had promised freedom from suffering.

I went back to the room. Back to my little corner, back to my four rough wool blankets. I wanted to curl up in my corner far away from all this, far away from my inner struggles to achieve peace, quiet, and serenity. But I couldn't get any further away. I was already on retreat, after all. Instead I lay rigid under a few blankets, pretending I was doing prone-meditation, pretending to myself and also to Silent Brother Tim across the room, whose evil eye I could feel on me, judging me with each pass of his walking meditation. I went back upstairs. The meditation hall was empty, the early morning light making its walls seem paper-thin. I walked. And then I sat. And somehow, this time, it was different. I found myself simply noticing, noticing. My hopelessness had burned away any expectations. I was letting myself be, however I might be. The feeling of shipwreck inside me, the strange pureness of it, came forth. My sadness found itself. The monkey mind grew quiet. Time passed slowly.

Afterwards I noticed things in a heightened way. Things that had always been there: The refracted whorls of fingertip skin pressed against the far side of a glass of water as I drank it; two birds no longer chirping indiscriminately, but engaged in an intimate conversation.

* * *

At lunchtime the courtyard was nearly empty. There were only the five of us that had not gone on the mysterious field trip that morning. Pony-Tailed Terri, sitting against the peeling-plaster wall; Silent Brother Tim focused with iron intensity on his rice soup; Smiling Tomas lying on the grass digesting in a bright patch of sunlight; Hannes and myself. As per custom, and minus the occasional shlurp, we ate in silence.

Hot chocolate was the one luxury we were permitted. You made it yourself with a combination of hot water, a mysterious bulk chocolate powder, a milk powder, copious amounts of sugar, and – if you wanted it to be spiritually correct – no ants. You had to blow the ants (non-violently, of course) off each of the tins before opening them. Which, as I assembled my mug at the close of lunch, I had to do three times for each bin, harder and harder each time. Trying to practice mindfulness, I was saying blowing, blowing to myself each time I did so. I was saying noticing, noticing. And what I noticed was Smiling Tomas, empty mug in hand, looking over at my strenuous blowing efforts. He was smiling even more than usual.

"These ants have extremely strong traction," I whispered. He nodded. He was tall, nearly 6' 4", a lanky yet somehow graceful 20-year-old, with boyish, even angelic, good looks. His mop of blond Viking hair had disappeared the day before, leaving a stubby pate, as well as a kinked gash where our cook's razor had gone awry.

"How's the practice going?" he asked. The Practice. It sounded like the next NBC reality show: The Practice — 5 monks in an inner-city Zen Center — their lives, their loves, their quest for self-annihilation.

"Oh, up and down. This morning some good stuff, but earlier today and yesterday I was actually pretty upset. Stuff is coming up, you know. You create all this empty space and all kinds of stuff shows up to fill it, in dreams, sitting, everywhere. I think it's like the return of the repressed, you, know?

"That shows you're really practicing, if stuff is coming up."

"Yeah, well."

"There were days when I was sobbing."

"Sobbing? Whole days? Because of the practice?" This is what I had to look forward to.

"Mmm Hmmm."

"The thing is I just don't know whether I'm doing things right. It's hard for me to know if I'm making progress."

"You're doing it right if stuff's coming up."

"Really?"

"Uh huh."

"Well, that helps.

"Good.

"But then — and I know we're not really supposed to be thinking about this on retreat so much — I'm also having trouble with a lot of Buddhist metaphysics."

"Like what?"

"Well, I'm down with the broad idea that all our concepts, all that we perceive, are, in a sense illusions, fictitious ego-based constructions. But I'm too much of a materialist to take it all the way. What about the body, for example? Sure, the body is impermanent, and the particular way we've conceptualized it is an illusion, but the body has an independent reality of its own. The mind wouldn't even be here without the body."

"True enough."

"And the whole rebirth thing, for another. I don't buy it. And it's not consistent anyway, 'cause there's no soul or self in Buddhism to be reborn — "

"There is a soul in Buddhism."

"Not according to my reading. The Buddha broke radically with the earlier Vedic philosophy exactly around their notion of a hard, permanent soul — the Atman, the self, spirit."

"Yeah…"

"So, there's no ongoing identity to be reborn. Like everything else, self, ego and soul are illusions."

"There's no personality, maybe not a soul in that sense, that gets reborn. But there's a see-er, a place from which to gaze, that does get reborn."

"Hmmmm…that's pretty deep for a 20-year old with no hair."

Smiling Tomas smiled.

"When I try to bring any of this up with Phra Sam, I get nowhere."

"Yeah, he doesn't know anything."

"Uh,…" This was a bit of a shock. I agreed, or thought I did, but was surprised to hear it so baldly stated. "Anything?"

"Hardly."

"At the dharma talk the other night, he sure seemed pretty one-dimensional, pretty by the book."

"It's ALL by the book. That's all he knows."

"But at least he's a decent teacher of 'The Practice.'"

"Actually, no, he's terrible."

"You think so?"

"Yeah. He teaches beginners and those with 10 years of experience the same way. You see the book he's got…?" Yes, I remembered he did have a little notebook at his side during the reporting sessions. He'd glance at it and make notes in pencil. It reminded me of a grading book a junior high teacher of mine had used to track our progress. "That's the regime. He just insists on that. You can't teach that way. I was reporting to him the other day, telling him about an insight I had had during a very deep meditation, about the nature of thought behind the thinking — "

"The nature of thought behind the thinking?"

"Yes. And it wasn't in the book, you know, and he couldn't handle it. He was like there is only ‘thinking…thinking.' He cut me off: ‘When you're thinking, just be ‘thinking…thinking.' Do 30 walking, 30 sitting, now go practice.'"

"He sent you off? Just like that? He did that to me too."

"He's a terrible teacher. He believes in forced meditation. Meditate no matter what. Even if your brain is boiling with thoughts, sit down and meditate. No! That's wrong. Sometime you don't meditate all day, and then you sit down and do it when you feel like it and you have a great meditation. He's only been studying Buddhism for two years. Only teaching for five months. I've been studying for three times as long as he has. He hasn't had the experience, he hasn't had the insights himself. He has a temper. He's insecure. He knows all the terms and all the stories, but it's as if he hasn't meditated at all."

"But you, you're here. Why? Are you just going through the motions to get your ordination?"

He nodded. He was a week away from completing his full 21-day course, after which he hoped to be accepted into the Sangha. He would leave Doi Suthep then, wandering from monastery to monastery in his saffron robes. Busses would let him ride for free, people would put food in his begging bowl.

"Does he know what you think?"

"Not really."

"What happens during reporting?"

"I just show my respect. And then practice exactly as I want."

"'Practice as befits you,' like the abbot said."

"Right."

"Well, Jesus!" I exclaimed, invoking another God I didn't believe in. "This is a revelation! I am not going crazy, after all. I can't tell you how confirming this is. I've just been ping-ponging around in my head for days. Am I totally arrogant? Is he a fraud? Am I the only one who's feeling this way?"

"Kind of helps that none of us meditators can talk to each other, huh?" As if part of a studied comic duo, we both arch our eyebrows and turn carefully side to side, pretending to look out for the monastery secret police.

"So listen, now that I've got you here — a knowledgeable person I can actually talk to and all — aren't walking and sitting meditation different? Sitting is where the real shit happens, right?"

"Yes."

"I knew it, damn it! I knew it. So, what's the exact division of labor?"

"Walking meditation comes from the Maha Sattpatthana Sutta, It's like Tai Chi and Yoga. It's used to clear the mind by getting you to focus on something outside the mind. It prepares you to sit and meditate."

"That's what my instincts have been telling me. So, why couldn't the Phra Sam have told me this? Seems simple enough."

He looked at me expectantly.

"Because — he's — a — terrible," we both said in unison.

"Teacher."

"He doesn't explain anything," continued Tomas. "Just tells you what to do. But the Why? is important."

"Okay, another question. When you're doing walking meditation, are your feet one or separate?"

"One and separate."

"Right! That's exactly what I've been thinking."

"He's just repeating stuff he was taught. Can't deal with any other situations."

"How did he get in this position?"

"Maybe because he's the only white English and Thai-speaking monk up here."

"Huh."

"You should talk to Roger about all this.

"Roger?"

"Yeah…big bald guy, you've seen him getting lunch with us sometimes…"

"Oh, yeah, him." I remembered him on the food line the day before, a big-chested, bullet-headed man in his early fifties. I remembered him ladling his rice and vegetable curry with slow, well-channeled movements; his mouth in neutral, his eyes wearing a grin. "What's his story?"

"He's The Philosopher Dude. He runs the Center. Does drop-in meditation demos. And teaches Buddhist philosophy courses."

"He's not a monk?"

"No. 'I have enough precepts of my own,' he told me. ‘I don't need theirs too.'"

"He sounds like The Man To See."

"He's cool, but The Man To See — The Real Man To See — is Ajaan Tong."

"Right, now where exactly does he fit in?"

"The teacher of all the teachers, the true master of the monastery."

"Wait, so what about the Abbot?"

"From this morning?"

"Yeah, the one who looks like Yoda and talks to Buddha on the phone."

"He runs Doi Suthep."

"So, where's this Ajaan Tong?"

"South of here, at another monastery. That's where everyone went today."

"Ah ha."

I thanked Smiling Tomas. He gently dipped his head to me and we went our separate ways. Things at Doi Suthep were becoming clearer and murkier in equal measures. With each revelation, it seemed, a new intrigue was added. Tomorrow I would go see this Roger Philosopher Guy. And maybe later, if I could, this Ajaan Tong. Until then, I was more or less on my own.

I meditated throughout the afternoon, trying to reimagine my left and right foot as both one and separate. Modest results ensued. Evening came. From the marble balcony Hannes and I watched the sun slide behind the lights of Chiang Mai as two scabby temple dogs tried to hump each other in the half-shadows, claws scuttling across the moonlit marble.

 

It had been dark for at least an hour before the rest of the crew returned. I crossed paths with Adrian in the courtyard, indicating with my fingers that I wanted to speak with him briefly.

"How was the visit?" I asked.

"It was good to meet such a One," he replied, somewhat solemnly.

That sounded like an endorsement. But I was full of doubts now. The only other time Adrian and I had spoken had been when I'd first arrived. "Phra Sam is a good teacher," he had told me then.

 

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