Well, this week I went with my school on a Dharma Retreat at Wat Ban Kun near Hot, Thailand. It's up in the mountains on a self-sustaining complex. Over 200 monks in training live there, and they keep the place immaculate. The following is a brief- very brief- description of my time there. I put some pictures up on my Picasa Album (http://picasaweb.google.com/dwallacebennett) and if you want to hear more about it let me know. Also, part of the reason I haven't been updating my blog so much is because I've been writing tons already, just not here. I send out two page emails about my adventures everyday. If you want to get on my list let me know, but I will warn you that I send them out frequently and they are semi-long so if you don't want your inbox inundated with emails from me, don't request it. Also, you can comment on my pictures on Picasa.
The first morning I was there they played a song over the loudspeakers in the morning and it was the most beautiful song I have ever heard. It was a Thai song that hypnotized me (this was at 5:00am). As I listened to its sweet sounds it didn’t matter that I was cold and tired. I smiled and lay there just relishing in the refreshing sounds that felt like cool grass on a warm summer’s day to my ears. I asked later what song it was but no one could understand what I was saying. The words were Thai so I couldn’t understand them, but the singer’s voice was just so melodious and peaceful that I didn’t care what time it was. It was the type of music you might imagine Sarah Brightman singing, only way better. And I like Sarah Brightman!
After we woke up and showered I went looking for my students at the temple where I figured they would be, and sure enough I say hundreds of shoes at the foot of the stairs- a sure sign of worshipers inside. It was still dark out but through the windows of the temple I could see the lights were on and people were inside. I sneaked into the back and wasn’t even the last one there. I got a blue, square prayer rug and knelt down. There were 25 monks on an elevated, wood stage at the front under a large gold Buddha. Facing them on more straw mats were all my students lined up in rows. Behind the students were the teachers on prayer rugs just like mine. The head monk had a microphone positioned perfectly in front of his mouth while he was in the sitting lotus position, which all the monks were in. One of the students on the front row also had a microphone and he got to lead one part of the service. All the students got books that had the chants and recitations in Thai so that they could follow along. And then the worshiping began.
The head monk would chant some things in Thai and the students and teachers would chant something back. There were three different seating positions I observed among the worshipers- the cross legged Indian style (the seated lotus is a variation of this), on their knees genuflecting, or -for the more restless students- sitting with their legs to the side. Everyone’s hands were in a wai position. About every ten minutes of the recitations we would all bow down to the Buddha statue. First we put our hands to our foreheads and then put them on the ground, followed by our foreheads just touching the ground. To me, it was really, really cool. How many people can say they have chanted with monks in their Temple at 5 in the morning?
This process lasted for about 30 minutes, and then we had the Ultimate Meditation. I’m not sure what they called it (I’m not sure what they call any of this) but I called it the Ultimate Meditation. Everyone that was able got in the seated lotus position with their backs straight and their hands cupped in front of them. The right leg goes over the left leg and the right hand rests on top of the palm of the left hand. The monks said some things and then there was utter silence. Everyone was meditating. Occasionally the head monk would give some gentle instructions, and I finally recognized one word he said over and over –sabai- meaning ‘relax.’ That’s how I knew he was giving instructions. I probably would have got more out of it if I had spoken Thai, but since I’ve been reading some books about meditation I know a little bit about what I was supposed to be doing. One of the books called this the ‘Heart of the Rose’ and said that every day we should sit in silence and focus only on a single rose. If any other thoughts come into our heads we should ignore them and only focus on the rose, observing its texture, pattern, leaves, and thorns. That way we will learn to train our minds and be able to control them. If you can ignore all thoughts except the one you let yourself think, you will be the master of yourself.
So that’s what I did for the Ultimate Meditation. I just thought of a single rose. I don’t know how long the Ultimate Meditation was, but when it was over I had to pick up my right leg and move it off my left one with my hands since it was too asleep and had lost all feeling. I wasn’t able to maintain a straight back the whole time, either. My back hurt a lot but I’m sure with more practice I will grow the right muscles ‘back’ there. After Ultimate Meditation (my guess is that it was for 15-20 minutes) we were done. I had to wait a minute to get up since my limbs were so tingly but eventually I did, put my prayer rug away, and headed out for whatever was coming next. What a fantastic morning!
Right before lunch we were invited to join the monks in their lunch room, separate from ours. They ate in a huge room with rows of wooden stages that the monks sat on- all 200 of them. In front of the room were prayer mats for the pre-lunch chanting. Monks aren’t allowed to eat after 12:00pm so this was at about 11:30am. Guess which prayer mat I was invited to kneel on? The one front and center. Yes, all the students were around or behind me and I was kneeling there looking at 200 Buddhist monks dressed in orange, their 400 eyes peering at me like lighthouses. That was so exciting to me because I knew they were too nice and understanding to get offended if I messed up or something. I kept one eye open and the other closed the whole time so that I could follow the vice principal who was next to me and mimic his every move. We did some chanting, although not too much and no Ultimate Meditation this time. When that was done we got to feed the monks.
Monks are not allowed to get food themselves- they have to be given it. The kitchen monks would bring the food to the cafeteria and set it down next to the eating monks. (The monks just ate on their elevated wooden stages, sitting without chairs with the food on a large circular placemat). The eating monks split up into groups of four, each surrounding a circular placemat and wait to be handed the food. I first waied the monks, and then had to kneel down so that I was lower than them. That explains why their stages were elevated and why when I see people giving monks alms on the street they are always kneeling. With me next to them I just picked up the food and handed it to a monk who would receive it gladly and put it on the placemat. This repeated for all the dishes, and then I waied them again and got up. It was so exciting! Feeding monks! Awesome! Except that the monks only get two meals a day; that made me hungry. After we fed them we got to go eat lunch ourselves in the mess hall.
Let me tell you a little more about why I loved this place so much, and what my understanding of it is. I believe it is a type of monk training center with over 200 young monks learning. They all live there (obviously) and really contribute to the environment. You would see young monks everywhere you looked, wearing their orange and yellow robes and an occasional yellow wool hat. So what do you do with 200 monks? You put them to work! Everyday the monks had chores to do and they did them all. The monks crowded the kitchen cooking with a few chefs supervising, and they cleaned every inch of the compound. Each and every morning they would sweep and mop every floor, dust, trim the bushes, clean the bathrooms, and do whatever else was necessary for the upkeep of the complex. One funny experience I had was when four monks about 14 years old with long bamboo sticks were walking around knocking down bird’s nests in the rafters. One of the nests had an egg in it and when the nest fell the egg broke on the tile. They looked so shocked and didn’t really know what to do. It was funny to see their confused faces until eventually someone got a mop and they cleaned it up. Seriously though, I saw monks with weed whackers, monks with garden hoses, monks with clippers, and everything else necessary for gardening. They worked well and the place was immaculate as a result. Every bathroom was scrubbed down every day as well. It was a truly spectacular sight to behold. I really, really love Thailand. Congratulations on getting to the end of this marathon post.