*** continued serialization of Somtow's "Nirvana Express", the diary of his brief monkhood which he kept in 2001
Day Three: A Momentary Ecstasy
The dawn brings the delivery of a delicious honey-roasted pork from my mother. The plate, piled high, awaits on the lazy susan at breakfast, but of course I am not permitted to show too much enjoyment. Eating with gusto is one of the many things forbidden in the 227 rules of monkhood — along with chewing loudly, taking large mouthfuls, and covering up one’s curry with rice so that it appears that one has no curry, and thus tricking one’s benefactor into ladling out some more — I kid you not, the latter is actually an official prohibition.
I show no visible gusto, but I do end up with a bit of an upset stomach. Perhaps, I think, meditation will cure it. After all, the Buddha specifically states that walking meditation helps regulates bowel movements.
I spend the hour before morning chapel in my room — I suppose I should call it a cell, as Catholic monks do, but I find it hard to feel any sense of imprisonment when the room has both air conditioning and a private bathroom, There is a beautiful chair in the room, inlaid with mother of pearl and doubtless worth a hundred thousand baht. Although the room itself is spartan in its furnishings, each simple object is an exquisite work of art. A lot of love and thought has been devoted to this room.
In the chair, alone, without two hundred others meditating around me, I try once more to empty my mind. I think it is starting to work … no Mount Kailasa, no flashes, but a pervasive calm.
Morning chapel is an ordeal, still. I wonder why “arthritis” is not among the list of diseases they interrogate you about in the ceremonial inquisition before you become a monk. After all, they ask you if you’re a leper. Today, we know that leprosy is only infectious amongst a tiny percentage of the genetically predisposed. They also ask if you’re a cripple. That would never fly in politically correct America. Asking whether you’re human or not — well, that I can understand. You never know what kind of demoniacal being might want to seek refuge in a monastery.
Had they asked me, in Pali, about arthritis, I could have answered with a snappy “ama bhante” and ended up with a medical release from monkhood. But no.
So here I am, with my romanized manual before me, last monk on the far right in the back, chanting up a storm. The chanting begins with standard phrases about Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, but then enters unfamiliar territory with long sections chanted half in Thai and half in Pali. The Thai is supposed to be the translation of the Pali, so it is hard to understand why a single Pali word can be followed by an entire sentence of Thai. Presumably it because Pali is one of those languages in which a little utterance can mean a lot — ancient languages all seem to share that characteristic. I remember from struggling through Ovid in school.
The odd thing is, much of the Pali chanting bears a certain similarity to Latin. (Sanskrit, I understand from a brief look at a few textbooks, is somewhat more like Greek.) Pali has the rhythms of Latin, with the verbs chiming in at the end, with the cases, persons, numbers, and tenses lined up in neat little rows with their endings all matching; it’s almost like Latin with an Indian accent.
The chanting is addictive, hypnotic even. But I notice that attendance at morning chapel doesn’t seem to be that strictly enforced. Monks wander in and out, and seem automatically to glide into their proper place. Behind the monks, the novices are supposed to sit, but only one has shown up, and another is drifting in.
It’s not really polite to stare at the spectacle around me, but I can’t help myself. I force myself to resume chanting.
Suddenly, a high-pitched, boyish treble voice joins in the chanting. Whoever it is knows the words perfectly, chants with utter confidence, his voice soaring above the others, adding a bell-like resonance to the masculine bass that roils about the chapel. I glance behind my shoulder and see that the Littlest Novice has finally shown up — the one who wanted to create a video game and monks battling demons with weird martial arts.
Now, inside this sacred place, he is a completely different boy. The chant flows from his lips as from the lips of an angel. He is transported. This place does change people. The street urchin has become divine.
As I prostrate myself, later, before the Guru in readiness for the morning meditation class, I thank him for teaching me the wherewithal to see the vision of Mount Kailasa.
“Ah,” he says, nodding knowingly. “That vision was a nimit.”
What he means by that is that I did not see the true Mount Kailash, but an image manufactured in the depths of my unconscious mind. He tells me that nimits can be both beautiful and dangerous, and if I find myself distracted by one, I must act as though it isn’t there. He sends me back to my chair, and proceeds to address the subject of death.
Death, along with love, is what human beings are most preoccupied with.
What is death? This is what the Guru chooses to discourse on, at length, before the daily meditation begins. We learn that the flesh is inherently degenerate, that our body is a graveyard for the corpses of pigs and chickens. We listen to an enumeration of the thirty-two unpleasant parts of the body, spending as much time on excrement and mucus as on prettier organs such as skin and hair.
We learn that death is the very definition of life, for what is a living thing but a piece of earth that has somehow fended off death for a few brief moments of existence? Well, this is all very depressing, and I understand why some people think Buddhism is overly pessimistic: nothing exists, we’re all going to die, the best thing we can hope for is go out like a candle instead of being endlessly reborn and suffering … a few thousand lifetimes can really get on one’s nerves. So, when we reenter the inner world to begin the morning’s meditation, I am not a happy camper.
And yet … today’s journey into the unconscious is a roller coaster ride. Yesterday it was all effort, and my reward was a momentary glimpse of the abode of the gods; today, I slide right in, my mind draining instantly, like a colander of fresh spaghetti.
First, in the darkness, there is a face. I see the face dimly at first. It’s dark, but its outlines radiate a certain energy. There’s the faintest hint of a moustache, and great brooding eyes. The chair I’m sitting in faces the left side of the great golden Buddha that dominates the vihara; on either side, there are huge statues of arahants, their gaze permanently fixed in adoration of the great master. The face in my mind’s eye seems to match the faces of these arahants, faces I have never seen because the statues have their backs to me, because they are gazing upward at the Lord Buddha. The face’s features are somewhat Indian, I think to myself, wavering in the shadows. Is this an ancient sage, or is it again a nimit, a figment of my imagination? I sink deeper into the meditative trance. I see pagodas shifting in the mist. I see stone ruins, minarets, walls covered with bas-reliefs. In niches and nooks, tiny stone devas are frozen in elaborate dance gestures.
A kind of warmth steals over me. An inner warmth, different from the heat that pervades the vihara, intermittently alleviated by a turning electric fan. This warmth has a color to it as well, a deep red, and begins with a glow at the tips of my fingers and toes, works its way up the limbs, seems to center itself on a spot somewhere in the middle of my forehead. This must be what mystic call the Third Eye, what others refer to as the pineal gland. This is the spot where Hindus traditionally place those caste marks that have caused some in the west jeeringly to refer to them as dotheads. This dot is positively glowing, radiating energy.
And growing, too. The dot becomes a circle. It shifts from red to white, from lukewarm to incandescent. I can barely keep my eyes closed, there’s so much light. And then, within the light, I begin to make out the silhouette of some ancient personage. It is someone sacred. I am sure of it. I am certain that if I can let go just a little bit more, I will even hear this personage speak. It is not the Buddha himself — I do not think so — though the apparition stands serenely, his hair spiraling upward as though aflame, one hand reaching out, palm forward, as if to bless, to touch —
And then there is a touch. On my shoulder.
Startled, I open my eyes. It is the Guru, who has left his preaching chair and has been wandering around the vihara, looking over his charges. “Your posture,” he says mildly. “A little straighter. That’s it, that’s it.”
Was it the Guru that I sensed, hovering in the circle of light within my inner world? He is standing exactly where the ancient personage seemed to appear in my vision. Is this some kind of cosmic joke, or did I somehow have a brief encounter with the Guru’s spiritual essence?
All I know is that I have been jolted out of the meditative state. I struggle to suppress a certain irritation. After all, I was about to be addressed by some ancient sage, only to find myself being curtly spoken to by an earthly guru. Clearly, however, this is another lesson in humility.
Later, it is lunchtime, and a little huckster stand outside the vihara does a brisk business in the Guru’s self-help books as I, the Intellectual, and the other new monks enjoy a simple but abundant meal of honey-roasted pork, duck, satays, Chinese pasta, and exotic fruits. Well, they are exotic to me, at least. You can’t find a decent mango in America.
After we eat, all the monks chant a prayer of extraordinary beauty — the yatha varivaha. It is only later that I realize just how beautiful it is; at the moment it is mere nonsense syllables, and it seems that even to many of the new monks, they have little meaning save for the hypnotic quality of the sounds themselves.
But later I am to learn the meaning of this blessing, chanted by monks, somewhere, every single day in Thailand in every single place where monks are being served by laypersons, a blessing so commonplace that children can repeat it word for word like parrots, a blessing whose translation few people know.
As the rivers full of water
flow into the great ocean,
so let the merit you have made
benefit the dead;
may what you have wished
come quickly to pass,
may your wishes grow to fulfillment
as the moon that waxes on the fifteenth night,
as the jewel that grants desires.
The monks chant enthusiastically, and I, knowing neither the words not their meaning, feel ever an outsider, ever an alien.
But then, that afternoon, there comes the payoff. The Guru has added another five minutes to the clock — bringing the total to thirty minutes of concentrated breathing — a longer span than I have ever imagined I could do. But this time, the visions come immediately. The circles of light, the arahants gazing on their Lord in eternal adoration, whirling about, circles within circles … all these images drift through my mind with renewed clarity. The irregular movement of the electric fan, the beading and coalescing of drops of sweat on my brow, the sighs of an elderly gentleman as he wheezes through the breathing exercises … yes, I have become aware of all these things. And then, without warning, I push through to another level. The circles of light spin ever faster, and then, all at once, there are waves of light, breaking across my consciousness, torrents and tides of blinding whiteness. And fireworks! Coruscating, scintillant rainbow rivers spiral and twist and whirl.
I am lost in wonderment, lost in an ecstasy that far exceeds that of any hallucinogenic experiment I may or may not have undertaken in the 60s (which if I did, I surely can’t remember now!) So this is what it’s all about — this is the psychedelic symphony of light described by such mystics as Coleridge and Blake.
Abruptly, the little beep-beep-beep sounds, signaling the end of the thirty minutes.
“Come out of the meditation slowly,” the Guru’s voice cautions over the vihara’s speaker system.
Slowly, slowly, the vision subsides.
The Guru warns us not to be seduced by the beauty of visions. They are nimits, he tells us … sometimes they can mislead … entrap.
And yet, I know I am on the verge of something big.
The evening is a bit of party night. My nephew, a music student at Mahidol University, drops by; my parents pop in for a visit; and as the sun sets, the Seer, surrounded by a small congregation of my relatives, decides to tell us inspiring stories from the life of the Buddha; his memory is limitless, his narrative technique worthy of an ancient bard, singing tales at the dinner table of a Viking chieftain or a Mycenaean King.
One question has been bothering me since I stumbled across it in my English language manual, the one that gives all the translations of these quaint Pali texts. “Why, Lord Seer,” I ask him, “am I agreeing that I can only bathe every fifteen days?”
My mother says, “Oh, nonsense. How could the Buddhist texts possibly tell one to refrain from bathing? The ancient Buddhists weren’t dirty.”
The Seer laughs. “Well, yes, there is such a prohibition,” he tells us, “and it came about because, one day, the Buddha was preaching in a remote place, in which there was only one small stream available for bathing. The members of the nobility who had come to hear the sermon couldn’t get back to their city before the gates closed, and the stream was clogged with the disciples of the Lord Buddha. Out of consideration for the supplicants, the Buddha created that rule … but you see, it only applies in that one location, in that particular circumstance.”
It seems, then, that the monastic regulations are a sort of mishmash of precedent and custom. Rather like the English common law, they have grown over time and developed into a rather complex, even hairsplitting code.
It calls to mind a discussion that the new monks were having over lunch. The Guru, you see, was telling the faithful supplicants that there are certain loopholes in the Five Precepts which all Buddhists are asked to observe. (Contravening these precepts is not sin in the Judaeo-Christian sense, but it may lead, perhaps, to a negative progression in one’s karmic journey.) “Let’s suppose,” the Guru has been telling us, “that you are sitting in a room, and the mosquitoes are starting to become a nuisance. You desperately want to slap a few, and eventually you open fire with the old aerosol, leaving a dozen dead souls on the floor. And so you’ve destroyed a dozen lives just because of your momentary annoyance. But what if you didn’t intend to kill them — what if you offer them a way out? Let’s say you leave a window ajar, and instead of letting fly with the airborne poison, you just spray a bit here, a bit there, like a delicate sort of farting? You will have annoyed the mosquitoes, and most will choose to depart through the window … and those who do in fact end up whizzing, openwinged, into the embrace of the fumes, well then it’s their own karma, not yours, since you did not spray to kill, but simply to … influence their choices a little.”
At lunch, I have been saying, “Yeah, that may be a loophole, but some of those insects are just as dead as in the other scenario. And no matter what you say you intend, you’re still trying to get rid of them and you still have a bit of the executioner’s motives clinging to your mind.”
A monk I have not yet met, tall and pale, somewhat older than the new monks, says, “There are really three different levels of moral law. The first is the law as laid down by humans, the most imperfect. The second is the law embodied in the precepts or silas, such as that we must refrain from taking life … but what you say brings us to a third level of moral law: the law of dhamma, which allows even less wiggle room than the others.…”
At eight o’clock comes the special late-night meditation in the vihara. And now, something really weird happens to me.
I try to repeat the success of the afternoon. At first it seems easy enough. I slip quickly into the state I was in just before the big fireworks and the tides of light. It’s about ten minutes or so in, I guess.
Then yes — again — that blinding incandescent light —
And then — complete emptiness.
I know nothing until I hear the beeping, telling us that it is time to come slowly forth from the inner world.
I know I was not asleep. I know this. After all, I have woken up several thousand times in my life, and now what it is to have just slept. This was not like that. This was not a state of sleep. It was nothing. Nothing at all.
Was this, in fact, at last, the momentary Nirvana so rapturously described by the Guru the previous day? If so … why can’t I remember anything at all?
It’s like that poem by Keats. You know, the one where the knight meets a gorgeous elfin lady who takes him to her grotto and seduces him until —
And I awoke, and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
Is that one of the attributes of the state of ultimate nothingness — that the nothingness is so absolute that nothing can remain even in the remembrance of it?
I do not know.
I resolve to try a fresh tactic tonight. In the Guru’s instruction manual, of which I have an English-language copy, there are four postures of meditation: sitting, standing, walking, and … sleeping. We have not yet tried the sleeping style. It doesn’t look like the Guru is going to cover the sleeping meditation in this seven-day course.
And yet, there comes a time in any journey when one must leave one’s guide behind and take a few tentative steps alone.
Tonight, I decide, I’m going to try it for myself.