Thinking About Not Thinking.
Trip Start Aug 25, 2010
22Trip End Aug 15, 2011
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Being close however, did not mean the journey to find the wat was particularly easy. I left the other guys in Pai (as they were heading onto Sukhothai) and boarded the typically rustic bus that operates provincially in Thailand
Finally, after about two hours and a half of stomach clenching one hundred and eighty degree bends, the bus conductor indicated for me to get off the bus. It hadn’t exactly been the most calm instilling journey of my life. Once off the bus, I stood by the roadside and assessed my surroundings. My only source of direction was the sign for the wat that stood helpfully near two equally possible lanes leading off into the hills. At this point it was around five o’clock, so remembering that no evening meals were served at the wat, I ate all I had on my person sitting in the bus shelter while contemplating the next step
Thankfully after around ten minutes of walking, I heard a motorcycle rev behind me. A kind faced woman with a chilled balanced on the front of the bike slowed, turned and inquired ‘Pai Nai’ (where are you going?) in a gentle voice over the engine. I explained that I was heading to Wat Tam Wua, and immediately she offered me a lift-managing successfully to balance herself, her child, me and my guitar on the diminutive saddle. (I have a feeling Thailand must hold the record for the most overloaded motorbikes).
After a ten minute journey deeper into the mountains, we arrived at the outer gate of the wat. From here I had expected at least some sort of direction, but my friend simply guided me to what appeared to be an inner compound of the wat. It was perhaps one of the most peaceful places I have ever been-I stood and listened to nothing other than the birds, as I took in the towering mountains around me. After a few moments I spied a telling saffron robe behind a tree and I approached it, not really knowing what to expect. I explained I had just arrived and immediately the jovial faced and rotund monk dispatched someone to take me to the Kuti that would be my home for the next week. Leaving me here, he wistfully gandered off towards the main hall to allow me to get accustomed to my surroundings.
My Kuti was Spartan, yet quite a pleasant wooden affair, with a small adjoining bathroom. I was supplied with a mat to sleep on, as lay people in Buddhist wats are apparently not supposed to be able to actually sleep well
After around an hour of exploring a little, a bell was gently rung from across the stream in the main Viharn hall. This apparently was the summons for the daily chanting. Emanating from the main hall was some sort of Tibetan style singing, and once I arrived I found around twenty other meditators sat on square mats, facing three monks. As I entered the jovial faced monk (who appeared to be the abbot), greeted me formally:
‘Ah, my English friend, where do you come from?’
‘Ahaha, whay aye man. I have been to England
‘And what do you do?’
"I’m a volunteer teacher’
‘Aha, you can teach Dukki (indicating one of the younger monks)’.
He grinned, all the other people laughed nervously, and then he invited us to open our chanting books. Although, there were translations of the chants, they served as an appropriate warm up for meditation, as they helped empty our minds and concentrate on the sound. Plus the content of the chants wasn’t all to riveting-thanks to Buddha for his teachings etc.
The Wat itself is a proponent of Vissapana meditation, which in its simplest form concerns concentrating on ones breathing, and removing all connections with the outside world. The meditator should be able to isolate their breathing and let it be the only thing occupying their minds, thus achieving Vissapana, or insight(the nearest translation in English I am told). The practice of this however, is infinitely more difficult more difficult than you would expect. Emptying your mind, although it seems easy in theory, is extremely difficult. I found myself sitting in the dark of the meditation hall allowing my thoughts to wander to the most mundane and inconsequential things, only to return again to how much my legs hurt. This is of perpetual amusement to Thai people-life is conducted on the floor here and people are more than comfortable sitting on tiles for long periods
For the next six days, my life followed a quite rigid schedule.
My days usually began at around four in the morning, when hunger pains, or numbness from the mat would rouse me into a semi conscious stupor. After listening to Leo, a mute French chap in the kuti next to me practice his morning chanting, I eventually roused myself for a cold shower at around half past five. This was one of the few times I have been genuinely cold in the past ten months, the hills and altitude of Mae Hong Son province can mean that night time temperatures can be the lowest in the whole country. After attempting some morning meditation in my kuti (too hungry to concentrate!), I would await the sound of the kitchen shutters being opened and make my way to offer rice to the monks. As the monks at Tam Wua live at the Wat, it is not really practical for them to do a traditional alms walk in the local villages, and as such the lay people at the wat are asked to give rice as a votive offering at six every morning.
After this we finally got our breakfast. While I would love to say that I was mindful enough not to give my hunger any thought, I think the fasting actually had the reverse effect. And it would seem from the benevolent, but by no means languorous race to the kitchen after offering alms, that most of the others felt the same way. The food itself was actually delicious, and for the first time in several months, I didn’t consume any animal products for a whole week. All the food offered was vegan (or Jay in Thai), as the monastery follows the precept of not killing more rigidly than the rest of the sangha and indeed most of Thailand. What was usually served was rice, with a mild tofu and vegetable based dish, often with another type of tofu deep fried. Perhaps it was the fact that we had effectively been fasting for eighteen hours since lunch the previous day, but it always went down favourably.
What followed after this was a meditation walk to the outer edges of the wat grounds-we were asked to perambulate slowly and be mindful of each footfall, staying around a metre behind the person in front of us. For the first few days , I could not do anything but enjoy the coolness of the morning, and the mountains around, but perhaps mid way through I began to be able to concentrate on the process of walking, often nearly forgetting myself and falling face flat. I don’t suppose this would have been too good for mindfulness. My mind also began to play tricks on me- on at least two mornings I heard some ethereal chanting similar to that played by the Abbot Phra Luangta on the first night drifting through the hills. Its amazing what your mind comes up with when it has nothing else to do.
After the morning walk, the monks would lead us back to one of the smaller Salas near a stream and we would practice sitting, then lying meditation for around an hour or two
Once the morning session had finished, usually I would return to my kuti and read some of the books I had taken from the Wat Library. I spent quite a lot of time reading the teachings of Ajahn Chah, a highly respected monk from North Eastern Thailand, who was known for his sense of humour and accredited with helping publicize Buddhism outside Thailand. His lack of pretention made him a very easy and amusing introduction to a lot of concepts that had previously bewildered me.
Following this we had to offer lunch alms to the monks, then we could have lunch ourselves. Again this was a feast of vegetarian delights that I had never even heard of before. Unfortunately, I always ended up over eating and feeling sluggish for the rest of the afternoon, as I knew that I wouldn’t be eating until seven the next morning again. I actually disagree with the notion suggested by the sangha that two meals a day rests the digestion-I think two large meals a day can in fact have the inverse effect
In the afternoon after lunch, we would have another meditation session, followed by “community chores", which in practice meant sweeping a few leaves up. Then we would usually have some free time, which I usually used for a walk around the surrounding hills and woods. Finally in the evening, we would attend the chanting session, followed by another hour of sitting meditation.
Most nights, Dukki, one of the younger monks at the wat asked me to help teach him some English which I was quite humbled to be asked to do. It had turned out after the course of a few days at the wat that the monks’ English was actually quite rudimentary, so I think the fact that I spoke some Thai helped them quite a lot
At around nine every night, after the session I would retire to my kuti tired and ravenous to read, or just to sleep. Then the cycle would start over again.
While I am glad I went and had quite a valuable experience, after around the sixth day some things started to grate slightly. For example, in my mind the morning meditation walks began to resemble something like a lunatic exercise session, a view that wasn’t really aided by the plain white robes and dreamy expression we all wore. The monks were no longer benevolent advisors, but oppressive gaolers dressed in saffron. The routine seemed designed to turn us into passive robots. As ridiculous as this seems, it could feel like this at times.
Added to this, despite few minor successes with meditating, I had got frustratingly little from it. Vissapana meditation focuses mainly on subjective methods of emptying ones mind, yet this isn’t massive amounts of use to a beginner. As a result, concentration, especially when I was so hungry and sore, was hard to come by. And, when it all comes down to it, I’m not even sure I agree with the central doctrine of ‘letting go’ of everything, which is largely what (meditative-usually forest monks) Buddhist monks strive to do. Surely our attachment and affection for things around us is what makes us human. To simply relinquish all ties with have with everything dear to us may ultimately make us happier, I think its irresponsible, almost callous even
All in all, while I am certain meditation is hugely beneficial to our calmness and general sense of well being, I can’t buy into the whole deal. Five hours a day trying to forget and disregard everything around you? I would rather be a part of my life than observe it from a semi conscious state. In the words of Ajahn Chah: "Only one book is worth reading: the heart”. And by now, mine was most certainly somewhere else. ..
I packed up my kuti, thanked all the monks and set off down the road. Unintentionally I met the other meditators out on the morning walk. Dressed in my layman clothes carrying my guitar, I felt like I had just been released-more free than I ever had. The world was there to see. Once again I heard the music which had so bewildered me the mornings before. This was mildly perturbing, until I discovered it was being played from a car parked at one of the farmsteads nearby. I had not cracked up. This was reassuring.
After waiting by the roadside for an hour or so I boarded the same rickety bus back to Pai, this time standing the whole way. Once again I was sandwiched between various body parts. What was fantastic was that it didn’t seem to matter. Someone could have shot me, and I don’t think it would have broken this surreal calm I felt. Nothing that previously would have infuriated me barely even scraped within my consciousness. The last seven days had yielded some benefits. …
By Euan Raffle