Monday, May 6, 2013

Nirvana Express: Day One

continuing to excerpt my 2001 diary of my very brief monkhood....

Day One: Angel who Walks the Earth

The day of the ordination is complex, and fraught with ceremony; I do not have time for doubts.  An air-conditioned hall has been set up for my relatives.  The Seer is nowhere to be found today; he has gone on one of his many missions to help the needy, leaving me feeling a little lost.  

In the morning, I go through the Pali text I must recite.  Nervous for a moment, I leave the text aside and go on the internet, where I encounter my hermit friend Sharon.  She says to me, “I have a feeling that I, too, am going to the monastery.  I’ve had a dream-vision where I was in all sorts of temples — and my head was shaven.”  I ask to speak to Tomm, her “entity”.  I type, “Will you be at the monastery too?”

“Of course,” he types back.  I wonder what form that will take, and whether it will terrify me.  The truth is, what unnerves me most about the inward journey I must undertake is that I have always had an image of myself as a consummate rationalist.  I have been able to write about the fantastic and the supernatural, indeed, made money at it.  But to actually look into the heart of these things … the prospect has always made me panic.

Sharon’s Tomm will, it turns out, have something of a rĂ´le to play in the unfolding story of this inward journey.

I am sitting in what will become my room — it is not exactly a cell, for though spartan, it has air-conditioning and a gorgeous antique chair inlaid with mother-of-pearl — going through the text one more time.  It cannot be that hard, I keep telling myself.  After all, millions of guys go through this every year.

That is, after all, one of the things I’ve missed out on, growing up far from the mother culture, far from the things that are taken for granted in this country.  During the khao pansa season, the three-month “period of seclusion from the rains,” young Thai men everywhere become monks, pledging to remain for the duration of the season.  Are these men impelled by inner voices?  Perhaps.  Tradition tells us that a man’s duty is to seek the yellow robe for a time, in order that his parents may be reborn in a celestial realm.  Perhaps there is some pressure from elders involved.  Perhaps it’s simply the thing to do.  This is not a decision that can be forced on a person, however, which is why a monk-to-be must ask — three times — in an ancient tongue — to be admitted into the Sangha.  And although the decision is, indeed, reversible, and one can leave far more readily than one can join, the words of the ceremony contain frequent references to “the rest of one’s life.”

The Guru has told me that he won’t accept a three-day monkhood — although I am later to learn that one of the new monks did in fact leave on the third day, unable to handle things — or even a seven or nine day monkhood.  “This isn’t a holiday,” he said to me.  “You must actually embark upon a real voyage of toward the truth.  I will allow you to remain here only if you do so for a minimum of fifteen days.  After all, His Majesty the King himself, despite all of the affairs of state, was able to sacrifice fifteen days of his life to live among the Sangha.  You can do no less.”  
Fifteen days, then, or a little longer, since the time of leaving a monastery must be accurately defined, to the exact minute, by reference to astrological charts, is the time I shall be within these walls.  This will be the fast track, the express train to self-discovery. 

A Maha, who has been a monk for fourteen years and is an excellent drill sergeant, helps me.  He is a small man, slender, very delicate in his movements; my mother mistook him for a samanera, one of those young boys who often take up the yellow robe for a while and who are asked to observe only ten precepts rather than the 227 that monks must obey.  She was astonished to discover that he is already working on his master’s degree at the Buddhist University.  The Maha has been ordained since the age of twelve.

The Maha sits on the mother-of-pearl inlaid chair in my room, acting the role of the Upajjhaya who will accept me into the monastery.  I manage to get through the text, if haltingly, and he smiles.  “Don’t worry about a thing,” he tells me.  “A lot of people botch it up far more than that.  And if you stumble, someone will prompt you.”  

So much for my fear of flunking the entrance exam.

Since the ordination is to take place at 4:15 p.m. my family is afraid that I will starve to death afterwards — because, you see, a monk may not eat after noon.  And this temple is very strict; some sects would consider, for example, a banana in a blender to be a drink, not food, but here it is a no-no.  So, there is the obligatory last meal — quite a feast really, for there is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the street that is famous throughout Bangkok for its moist, firm-textured roast duck.

On a balcony that separates two residential sections of the kuti, I sit in a plastic chair while the Maha supervises the shaving.  There is ceremony involved here, too.  Once one has become a monk, one may not touch a woman — the lightest tap is considered an apatti, or offense, and entails ritual purification —  but the cutting of the hair is always begun by the senior female relatives — first my mother, then assorted aunts.  The scissors are a little rusty — no one thought of bringing a pair from home — but once the first cuttings are collected into a glass bowl, later to be laid on the family shrine, the Maha continues the job with a sharp razor.  He’s clearly used to doing this; in no time at all I’m completely bald.  The eyebrows too, of course.  

I take a look in the mirror.  I am not yet a monk, and monks are not supposed to look in mirrors.

“What about shaving?” I ask, alarmed.

“You can look at a mirror for that,” the Maha tells me,  “because that’s a practical reason.  You just can’t go staring into mirrors for the purpose of admiring yourself, or beautifying yourself.  That would be apatti.”

It is also, it seems, an apatti to wear black sandals, and the previous day we have hastily purchased a pair of brown ones from the nearest department store.

Out of nowhere comes a torrential monsoon shower, which just as suddenly ends.  The sky continues to be overcast.  A moist wind blows.  These are good omens for an ordination.

 Now it is only an hour before the ceremony.  I put on a white dress shirt, and around my waist I wear a large white piece of fabric that resembles a tablecloth; it folds back and forth in the front and then is tied with a sash-like belt of the same material.  It is a sort of sarong.  Monks, I am dismayed to discover, do not wear underwear.  

 The waiting room has begun to fill with relatives.  Even though the decision to become a monk was sudden, and I only told my parents, word has begun to leak out.  A Buat Naak ritual is not unlike a bar mitzvah.  There are the beaming parents, the fussing aunts, and the bar mitzvah boy sweating over whether he’s going to screw up the chanting.  There is a table laden with offerings, for all the monks who officiate at the ceremony must receive gifts of the prescribed type.  

And now I put on over my white garments a lace and gilt surplice.  It is because of this stunning piece of embroidery the pre-monk outfit has come to be known as the “angel who walks the earth” costume.  Wearing it, one does feel remarkably angelic.  As if one is clothed in light.  I try walking a few steps.  I even feel lighter, more ethereal.   

My aunt has readied a tray of coins, which I will, before crossing the threshold of the chapel, cast out onto the pavement, symbolizing my rejection of the material world.  
And now we emerge from the waiting room.  There is to be a ritual promenade around the chapel, three times, clockwise, the candidate for monkhood in his glittering gold and white apparel leading the way, the relatives following.  It is a beautiful chapel, the stone of the walkway worn down, indented from a hundred years of such processionals.  We do not proceed in straight lines as there is an occasional pile of doggie-poo to circumnavigate.  Buddhist temples do not deny protection to any needy souls … always, there are the stray dogs.  Later, I will learn that even faeces have their place in the monks’ daily contemplation of the impermanence of the universe.

At the threshold, I pause for a moment.  With one gesture I fling away all the coins in the tray.  Later I learn that I was supposed to sprinkle them hither and thither, but it seemed somehow more right for me to cast off all venality at once.

Then, my mother carefully grasps the hem of my angel surplice.  Each of the relatives holds on in turn, so that we become links in a chain of humanity.  This symbolizes the fact that I will dedicate all the karmic merit of my monkhood to others, who will climb to heaven by clinging to the edge of my robe.

And so it is that I step inside the chapel, and am face to face with the earthly representatives of the eternal Dhamma, the law of cause and effect that governs the cosmos.

    Beneath a tall image of the Buddha seated in meditation, there are about fifteen monks.  Some I know: the Guru is there, as is the Maha.  Others I will come to know.  Prostrating myself three times before this august body, I begin to chant, in Pali:

Reverend sir, 
I go for refuge unto that exalted one,
Though he has long since attained nirvana….

I am kneeling, holding a set of robes in my forearms, as I struggle through two pages of text; occasionally the Guru intervenes to correct my pronunciation.  It is not kind to my arthritis, especially once it is over, for the Guru proceeds to preach a mini-sermon.  

“The Buddha,” he says, “actually existed.  He actually did achieve Enlightenment.  You would not be here unless you believed these things.”

At length, he commands me to depart, and in the corridor outside the chapel, several monks help me to change from the angel costume into the simple ocher robes of monkhood.

Alas, they are not that simple.  The outer robe is a rectangular piece of cloth, but the human body is not a rectangle.  Later, I will practice, and practice, and practice, but for now, it takes three monks, and another to hold my arm in place, and yet another to tie the thing down with a length of saffron cloth to prevent it from undoing itself in the midst of the proceedings.

I return, feeling a little self-conscious.  I prostrate myself before my parents, because I am bidding farewell, in a very real sense, for all time; when I return to the world, I will not be the same person, I will have been reborn.  

And then it is my parents’ turn to present me with my begging bowl, and to prostrate themselves before me, for I am no longer their son, but a living embodiment of the dhamma, in an unbroken chain of discipleship that extends twenty-five hundred years back into the past, to the ones who first sat at the feet of the Enlightened One himself.

I am interrogated, twice, in the Pali language, about my qualifications for the Sangha.  Am I a leper?  Am I exempt from military service?  Am I a fugitive?  Most people answer these yes-no questions by simply remembering that the first five are natthi bhante (no) and the rest ama bhante (yes).  Since I have worked from a romanized text that has an English translation, I have the advantage of understanding what has been asked.

By now, my aging body is a wreck from having wrenched itself so long into the formal position of respect.  The Guru, sensing my discomfort, tells me, “Well, it’s done; you’re a full phra now.  But I must recite the Anusasana, the words of instruction to the new monk.  It will take about five minutes.  Instead of kneeling all the way down, you can sort of stand on your knees, if you like.”

He then races through this lengthy Pali text with Donald Duck-like celerity.  I am amazed at how he can memorize so much and say it all so quickly, missing nary a beat.  My gratitude is as boundless as my excruciation.  And afterwards, with much snapping of photos and presenting of offerings to the temple, I emerge from the chapel, ready for the next stage of the journey.

Finally, I am alone in the room. I know that I may not eat until dawn, but for some reason there is no hunger at all.  It is something to do with the yellow robe I am wearing.  I do not feel the same, but as yet I have no clue as to what will happen next.

At around seven o’clock, the Maha shows up with a small ceremonial tray with candles, a small arrangement of flowers wrapped in a banana-leaf cone, and a glass of water.

“You must go now,” he says, “and formally present yourself to your Upajjhaya, the abbot.”

I move through empty courtyards in the gathering night.  The air hums.  Here, in this crowded metropolis that teems with noise and pollution, though I do not know who I am and where I am going, I feel strangely free from care.

 There is a brief interview with the Guru.  He insists that I sit in the phabphieb position, with my palms folded in supplication, which is the proper deference to show one’s guru.  

He says to me, “Well, you made it through the ceremony.  For someone who has spent his whole life abroad and can barely read Thai, even that is an accomplishment.”

I thank him for speeding through the Anusasana, but be brushes off my gratitude, presenting me instead with a pile of books which he wants me to read in a certain order.  Many are in English; most have been written by the Guru himself. 

“Normally,” he said, “I would require you to render daily services to me as your guru, such as washing my robes, and bringing me water to drink in the evenings; however, since we are not living in the same kuti, I shall not ask that of you; only that you read the books.  Now, return to your abode and rest.”  Abruptly, the interview is over.

It is only eight o’clock, but I feel extremely worn out after a day that began at five in the morning.  As I lie down, though, not quite daring to remove my robes for fear I may never be able to put them back on again, there comes a knock at the door.
It is a monk I do not recognize.  He says, “The abbot requests that you go to the vihara to practice meditation with the other meditation students,” he tells me.  “You won’t have any idea what is going on, but he wants you to go along with whatever’s happening, try to get the hang of things.”

Once more, I set off into the night.  And it really is night; the sounds of the city seem immeasurably distant as I cross the courtyard, pass one pagoda, traverse the grounds of the chapel where I was ordained, and enter, through a worn wooden portal, an inner world within the inner world.  A cloister, completely lined with life-sized standing Buddha images, surrounds a central atrium from which rises a gilded pagoda.  

A dozen women, dressed in white, are walking back and forth in the cloister with great deliberation, staring at the ground, measuring each step.  They are, I assume, meditation students.  When they see me, or rather, when they see my yellow robes, for I have not yet found the “me” inside those robes, they bend low, place their palms reverently together; I am unused to such obsequy; it is yet alien to me.

Carefully, I go up the steps to the great vihara.  Inside, a great image of the seated Buddha towers over dozens of others; there are images of Thai kings, of holy men turned to face the great teacher; the columns are intricately painted with floral motifs and panels depicting the Buddha’s life, and every inch of the walls is covered with images from the Jatakas, the tales of the Buddha’s previous incarnations.  There is a whiff of incense in the air.  There are grandfather clocks on every wall, and not a single one is synchronized to any other; constantly, they jangle.  Time has no meaning here.

Columns set off an upper platform where monks are sitting on padded squares of cloth.  They all seem to know exactly what they are doing.  One motions me to sit beside him.  

There comes a voice on a loudspeaker: “We will all now sit in meditation for twenty minutes.”

I cannot achieve a partial, let alone a full lotus position; I wriggle as I try to warp myself into what seems to have come so naturally to the other monks.  They sit, hands resting on their laps, eyes closed, gazing at some inner center; while for the next twenty minutes, a seeming eternity, I struggle with aching joints and nervous tension.  I know I’m supposed to do something with my breath; I try different things; but I can feel is the pain.

Fifteen more days of this?  I ask myself.  What of the glorious hero on his quest?  Will I just end up wallowing in arthritic agony?  
I try to think of my comfortable bed at home in Los Angeles, complete with 300-channel digital cable, climate control, huge DVD library, instant internet access, and thirty-minute home delivery of any ethnic cuisine.  The strange thing is, the memories refuse to surface.  I want to ask my inner voice why I was sent here, but those inner voices never answer when you want them to.
I grit my teeth.  Next time, I will remember to apply the muscle relaxant spray and rub in some ointment before venturing forth to meditate.  

When fighting the dragons of career and love in the world outside, one expects a little exhaustion.  I am now learning that the journey within, too, is not without physical torment.

But then again, tomorrow is another day.

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