... more from my memoir from a dozen years ago about my brief time in the monastery ...
Day Four: The Begging Bowl
My attempts at sleep meditation do not seem to have borne fruit. I sleep fitfully. Partially it is nervousness; in the morning I am to step out of the monastery alone for the first time. One of the most inviolable precepts of monkhood is that one may not work for, earn, or in any way strive to attain personal comfort. Eating is a particularly complex issue. The rule is that one must not take that which is not freely given, and in the case of food this generally means walking around in the morning with a begging-bowl.
For the first three days of monkhood, one is sequestered within the monastery walls, and isn’t allowed to go out foraging in the streets. Now, you might think that this has to do with a sort of ritual immersion in spirituality … the idea that you need to become wholly and utterly sanctified before setting foot beyond the gate. After all, three is a magic number in all cultures. For example, from Neolithic mother-goddess cults all the way to Christianity, any divine being wishing to come back from the dead is expected to grant the living the courtesy of staying down under for three days. No self-respecting being expects to be resurrected overnight. You’d think that the three-day quarantine is all about that, but it’s not. Like many other Buddhist customs, it’s purely practical.
Three days is the average time it takes for a monk to learn how to walk around without his robes falling off.
On the fourth morning of monkhood, I learn that I am somewhat below average in this respect. My morning struggle with the robes has yet to yield an elegant result. Nevertheless, after about half an hour, I emerge from my room with the robes more-or-less attached and with the little tail that one uses to twist and tighten it sticking firmly out from under my left armpit. I’m sure Sigmund Freud would have seen some phallic imagery there, but, quickly remembering that I am supposed to be beyond such metaphors, I quickly dismiss them from my mind. Gathering up my bowl, I march proudly out to face the secular cosmos.
I don’t get very far. Only two steps from my room, I run into the Maha, who gazes at my attire in horror.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” he says, “you’re wearing your robe all wrong.”
“No, I’m not,” I insist. After all, I have followed the instructions pretty faithfully. And usually there’s a forewarning before the robes drop off — a twitching of the fabric somewhere, a shifting in the folds. “Don’t worry, I think I can manage a ten minute walk without an embarrassing incident.”
“Well, you seem to have figured it out all right,” says the Maha, “but you see, when you go outside the temple, you have to wear the robes in a different style.”
Now I suddenly recall one of those 227 monastic precepts — it’s about going completely covered when a monk goes among laypersons. I had thought that I was completely covered, but in fact, inside the temple, one goes about with one’s right shoulder exposed.
Presumably, it wouldn’t do to inflame any passing laywomen to see that little piece of shoulder, and so yes, there’s a completely different way of wearing your robes when you set foot outside the gates. And that, as the dawn begins to break over the temple’s gilded gables, is what I must now proceed to learn — and fast, because after all, the hordes of well-wishers with their offerings of food are not going to hang around forever.
They’ve got skytrains to catch.
A few days ago I already gave one description of how to wear those robes; a second, contradictory description would probably not be very useful. So, suffice it to say that, beginning with finding the little square of cloth that aligns with the back of one’s neck, there’s a completely new system of twirling and wrapping to be learned, and the end result is that the monk, with his begging bowl inside the robes and accessible only by manipulating a little flap, is totally rolled up inside that rectangle of saffron, much like a piece of ravioli, or rather, I should say, a wonton.
I had thought that the previous style of monkly couture was a little stifling, but this is positively suffocating at first. However, the mode of dress lends itself to those delicate, deliberate steps that one always sees monks taking as they move slowly down the alleys in the dawn. Now I understand why; the full-wrap technique winds up you so tightly that it is impossible to be anything but delicate and deliberate in one’s movements.
Oh yes, the hands. The left hand, supporting the bowl so that it doesn’t go bouncing on the pavement, is completely concealed. Well, left hands, in Asian cultures, are pretty unseemly anyway; one knows what they are traditionally used for. But the right hand, too, is hidden in this style of dress. Only by wriggling its way through a tightly wound roll of fabric can the hand create a little slit for itself and emerge to open the lid of the alms bowl or manipulate small objects.
It is with a certain measure of self-consciousness that I finally manage to make my way down the steps of the kuti. The Maha, who in addition to showing me the ropes, performs the function of a sort of babysitter, leads the way. I do not wear my sandals. This is a very strict monastic order — some do, in fact, allow monks to wear sandals for this ritual — but we must, like the Lord Buddha himself, go completely barefoot into the world, heedless of the thorns, snakes, bugs, mud, and gravel that might assault our delicate, city-bred soles.
The back door of the temple leads to a parking lot, and then to a little alley bordered by noodle stands, before reaching the main road. It is morning, and the Maha walks much faster than I do, so I find myself alone in the alley. This is it, I tell myself. This is the “going-forth”, as the English-language monkhood manual so grandly calls it, a descent from Parnassus into the seamy secular cosmos.
There is a moment of panic, but all at once, the technique of the walking meditation takes over. I take one step at a time. Slowly, breathing deeply, trying to become aware of each minuscule sensation. One step, then another.
Why is it that we are commanded to go barefoot into the world? To show our humility, no doubt, our vulnerability; to be a living metaphor of the frailty that is flesh.
These sound like very negative reasons, but there is another, more positive one. The skin is a living, breathing organ, the organ of the human body that has the largest area, the greatest sensitivity to the outside world. And the earth beneath our feet is the earth that gave us birth, our mother, the earth that will receive us once our struggle against entropy has ended. Children may run barefoot in the grass, but as adults we shield ourselves from the earth; the act of putting on shoes is an act of subversion, of resistance to reality.
Shoes? Why, in Los Angeles, one doesn’t even walk at all. Not only are one’s feet shielded from the earth, but even one’s shoes; I for one use the drive-through for my ATM, my diet Pepsi, and my car wash.
Not for a long time have I felt against my feet the sharpness of a cobblestone, squeezed moisture from the moss in the cracks of concrete. Not for a long time have I swerved to sidestep the squish of excrement between bare toes or the crunch of a dying cockroach.
I suddenly grasp that these homely sensations, these textures of reality, forgotten since God knows when, are a severed link in the chain of being.
The journey down the alley, which only takes a minute, is in itself a miniature voyage of discovery.
Once I emerge from the alley, I see the Maha across the street; he has gone to the newsstand to fetch the Seer’s daily newspaper. I hug the alms bowl to my chest and twirl the tail of my robe in order to hitch it a little higher so that it won’t drag on the pavement. Then, taking my life in my hands as all Bangkokian pedestrians do, I cross the street.
The other side of the street consists mostly of shophouses: pharmacies, electrical appliance stores, and newsstands with living quarters in their upper storeys. In front of one of the ubiquitous Chinese pharmacies, a wooden table has been set out, and there are trays of food: little plastic bags of curry and soup, and cups of boiled rice. There is a bit of a cottage industry as the faithful line up to buy food which they will in turn offer to the monks.
My first benefactor is a man I’ve seen, all in white, at the meditation class; I’ve seen him sitting not far from me, lost in thought. I wonder if he even recognizes me. I am, after all, not a person anymore, but a metaphor, and a pathway for his own karmic journey. Gingerly, I lift the lid of the bowl. He empties a cup of rice into it, and puts in a bag of curry. My eyes remain downcast, as is seemly. I do not proffer thanks; that too is improper in this ritual. It is the strangest thing to me that I cannot show him this common courtesy, but it would diminish the karmic value of his gift to me.
I see the Maha in a dark alley nearby. I follow. Suddenly, I am in a marketplace, hidden from the street by the façades of the shophouses. It is so early that many of the stalls are still untended. Still, there are people everywhere. Dawn is the time to make merit before picking up the groceries for the kitchen back home. This isn’t a shiny American-style supermarket, where the odors of fresh food are carefully masked by layers of Saran wrap. Here, every kind of scent assaults one, from the noxious fumes of leaking petrol to the fragrance of jasmine of rose petals.
A bleary-eyed woman turns chicken drumsticks on a grill. Another arranges flower garlands on rattan trays. The market is dingy; the dawn has not penetrated, and here and there a naked bulb sheds harsh light over a pile of durian or an old man blending milk and coffee in a glass urn. The concrete paving is moist and warm; grit works itself between my toes. There are monks here, each one moving in a sort of bubble of solitude, for though shopping in Bangkok is very much a contact sport, the throng parts each time a monk moves through.
As I follow the Maha, his shaven head bobbing up and down in the distance, I too sense the parting of the crowd; I am like a mini-Moses breasting the Red Sea. The yellow robe really does make me something other than myself. There is an unseen radiance that envelops me.
When I have given food to monks in the past, I have often been distracted by the thought that hey, maybe they won’t even eat it, or perhaps they’re not even going to like it, or some monasteries are so bloated with offerings the leftovers must surely end up in the garbage. But as I accept the people’s offerings, their piety overwhelms my skepticism. I am of course precisely repeating the footsteps of the earliest Buddhist monks. I feel the weight of history; I feel like a tiny pattern within an immense and ever-turning mandala; and this sense of belonging somehow subsumes my doubt.
Well, back the kuti, it occurs to me that when the bags of food arrive at the breakfast table, they’re not the same bags that were offered to me in the marketplace. In fact, the food seems a lot more to my liking now than it did then. In fact, those little muffins on the tray by my place at the table … well, I don’t remember receiving those at all. They are a sort of Chinese variant of those blueberry muffins that are such a fixture of breakfast in American greasy spoons.
I am not, of course, allowed to evince any kind of preference for one kind of food over another; but I suspect that there’s been some Machiavellian maneuvering in the kitchens of the kuti, and that someone has conspired to mix up the bags so that this Thai monk who isn’t quite Thai can be allowed to eat some farang food that isn’t quite farang.
Having successfully avoided several large piles of dog turds during my perambulation of the marketplace, I run into an extremely large pile during the Guru’s morning lecture on meditation. He chooses to use shit as a metaphor for karma. Once again, I am impressed with the ubiquity of bodily functions in Buddhist philosophy. The King James Bible seldom mentions excrement; I can think of only one instance offhand, and that’s in the Old Testament.
The Guru tells us a parable. In ancient times, he says, in India, naturally, the land of parables, two indigents are walking down the street, each carrying an empty basket. They see an enormous pile of dried excrement in the road. “We can sell this as fertilizer,” they tell each other, and they eagerly fill their baskets, place them on their heads, and go off through the forest, on the road to the nearest town.
They come across a pile of dried wood. One of them, the cleverer of the two, presumably says, “Well, let’s trade in our shit for this dried wood, which will fetch a much higher price in the town.”
His friend says, “I’ve been carrying this shit for so long; I think I’ll wait until something better shows up.”
The wander through the forest some more, and they stumble on an abandoned cart filled with bolts of expensive silk. Well, you can see where the story is leading. From silk to silver to gold to piles of diamonds, the clever one keeps upgrading his basket, while the other one, faithfully plodding along, says, “I’ve been carrying this shit for so long, I think I’ll wait just a bit more.”
They reach the city at last, and the clever man turns in his precious cargo for a huge fortune and lives happily ever after. His stupid friend doesn’t really mind; he’s not the jealous type; he’s not a bad person, you see, and he is perfectly happy to trade in the basket of dried excrement that he’s been carrying on his head for so very long. But just as he reaches the fertilizer shop, it begins to rain.…
With this repulsive image fresh in our minds, the Guru then says, “Now, students, I’m going to add another five minutes to the clock … and I want you all to empty your minds and meditate for thirty-five minutes.”
Lunch today features one of the most famous chocolate cakes in Bangkok, made by the hand of M.R. Malinee, a friend of my mother’s and creator of this well-known recipe. My mother and sister have surveyed the various offerings in the kuti, and have decided that the roast duck down the alley is probably a better deal. They vanish for a while, leaving me alone with the Seer and the chocolate cake.
The Seer looks at me and says, “You shouldn’t go back to America yet. Your chart shows a cloud that extends over your life all the way until at least February 2002. Becoming a monk has mitigated what could have happened — it was a sort of surgical solution to your inner turmoil. But you’re in danger until at least October, and the shadow will not utterly pass until February.”
“But I do have commitments,” I tell him. “Books to write and whatnot.”
“Other factors will intervene,” he says. “You will be fine here.”
I do not know how clearly he sees into my heart. I do not entirely understand why, only two weeks ago, a voice whispered in my ear that I must begin this inward journey. I am troubled by things left undone, by my condo in Los Angeles left in disarray, even by the fact that — now that I think of it — I didn’t turn on the dishwasher before I left California. And yes, the dishwasher thing has been gnawing at me from time to time.
“Let it go,” says the Seer. “You can buy more dishes.”
The Seer has endowed an upcountry temple that specializes in the teaching of novices, many of them poor kids who would not otherwise have a chance to go to a decent school. He suggests to me that perhaps, if I stay at the monastery, I could be placed in charge of the entire kuti, and he could spend more time at the rural wat, where, I suspect, his real heart lies, for he was born and raised in Thailand’s deep south.
The idea of being placed in charge of an entire division of a monastery when I have in fact only been here for a few days is strange to me. On the other hand, the Seer seems to suggest it in all seriousness, and I realize that even in a few days, I have become accepted here, eccentricities and all; being a monk is not, despite the shaved heads and identical robes, about conforming. Every monk here is on a unique journey, and every journey is equally deserving of respect.
I decide that I will, next time I get near the internet, transmit this to Sharon and Tomm; perhaps they will have another perspective on it all.
It is now time for the afternoon session of the meditation workshop, and piti is the word of the day. My companion-in-suffering, the Intellectual, tells me he hasn’t managed to achieve any kind of piti whatsoever. He has tried and tried. The aches and pains of an aging body, forced to hold weird positions for long periods, have militated against piti. I ask him if he’s tried the chair thing. I know I couldn’t have done it without a chair.
He whispers in my ear, “Seriously, though, I think there’s another reason why it’s never worked out. You see … I don’t entirely … believe.”
But I don’t entirely believe either … at least, I don’t think I do. But piti has still descended on my doubting mind. Before I can argue this point, though, he says, “I’m too angry. That’s it, I’m just too irritated at all the superstition.”
I believe that the Intellectual is experiencing some disillusionment. It’s because of what I mentioned briefly in the chapter defining piti. The fact that levitation in the imagination was bandied about in the same breath as levitation in actuality. The Intellectual doesn’t buy this, and it colors his perception of the entire process.
“You know,” I say, “maybe it’s better not to think about these things too much. We should take from this teaching what we are able to accept, and let the rest go.”
“I know,” he says. “But it’s a bit of a leap to go from penetrating psychological insight to — fables and hearsay about people flitting through the air like in low-budget Indian epics.”
There may be many doubters, but the Intellectual is the only one with the courage to express doubt openly. His honesty touches me.
We continue to listen to the discourse on piti, but I am too distracted to enter a deep state of meditation; I am haunted by images of my home in Los Angeles, and by the Seer’s obscure predictions of a shadowed future.
After the evening chapel, I have a surprise visit from my Uncle Mai, his friend, and my cousin, and I show them around my quarters — I feel like a little boy again, you know, when friends come over and your mother says, “Now, why don’t you show Little Jethro your room?” They prostrate themselves and present me with several dozen containers of fruit juice — the best quality — as well as the Oriental Hotel’s prized cookies. Then they proceed to admire the furnishings — the air conditioning with its remote control, the private bathroom that even has its own urinal despite the fact that it is against the 227 rules for monks to pee standing up.
After they leave, my nephew, Pup, comes by; he’s been studying for a test at Mahidol, and he has his homework with him; he asks me a few questions about four-part harmony.
The Littlest Novice shows up. He has the VCD he told me he wanted to watch on my computer. To my amazement, it is a pirated edition of the Spice Girls movie. Heavens! Is this too lewd for a young novice to watch, I wonder? I decide that to let the kid be a kid, and I put it on while Pup babysits (or is it the novice who is babysitting my nephew?) and then I am summoned for the evening meditation.
That’s where I have my miraculous experience of the day. It is during walking meditation, and it has started to drizzle. All the monks and supplicants have scurried to take cover under the roof of the cloister or inside the vihara. But for some reason I don’t notice this at first, so concerned am I with the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
The wind begins to blow. It’s a warm, moist wind; in the tropics, in the midst of the rainy season, the wind that presages rain is not a hurtful wind. It plays with the hem of these robes, but I walk on. It billows a little, but I am only dimly aware of it at first.
The rain comes. A little at a time. I become conscious of each individual raindrop as it glances off my skin. I breathe, I walk, I stop, I turn. The marble pavement becomes slick, as though stone itself were sweating. The rain falls harder now, and as it pelts down I feel what I have rarely felt in my adult life — I feel enveloped in, caressed by the forces of nature. Nothing can harm me. The rain spins about me a silken cocoon of being, of immediacy. This is another piti: not an experience of inner reality, but a more profound embrace of the external world. There is an aspect of Buddhism that emphasizes withdrawal and detachment, but tonight I am feeling the opposite; I am the plaything of the earth and sky, a figment of the world’s imagination. Though nature is vast and I am small and helpless, I feel nurtured; I feel loved.
Well, after that, my sitting meditation is something of an anticlimax. And when I ask my friend, the Intellectual, whether he has finally achieved any piti, he says to me, “I appear to have snoozed off.”
“Don’t worry,” I say to him. “It’s only, what, the third day of the meditation class; we have four more to go.”
He smiles ruefully. “That’s true,” he says. “Well, maybe my karma just isn’t up to it. Or maybe it will be all the sweeter for coming at the eleventh hour.”