Day Two: Walking Meditation
The second day of my monkhood, I rise even earlier than the 5 a.m. “official” wakeup time. There is no bell, no alarm; a Thai monastery doesn’t operate by enforcing time constraints. People are expected to get up of their own volition. I do have an alarm clock, but I don’t use it today.
I then spend about an hour trying to put on the robes.
One might think that it can’t be that difficult to get a yellow bedsheet to stay put, but it’s quite a process. The robes come in various sizes, and the Seer has ordered a large one for me, since I’ve got a bit of a paunch. But it’s decidedly long, and wrapping in becomes rather unwieldy.
You see, the first thing is that there is, in fact, an inside and an outside to this contraption. You can tell from the seams, for a robe is stitched together from precisely 32 pieces of cloth, which symbolize the 32 unpleasant parts of the body which are used for the meditation on the impermanence of the human form.
In ancient times, robes were literally made from castaway material, even dead people’s shrouds, sewn by the monks themselves and then dyed this simple yellow for the sake of uniformity. Some of the 227 regulations for monkhood include detailed instructions about the needle cases monks may possess, what materials they may be made from, and so on. These days, with robes being off-the-rack, as it were, the regulations are seldom cited.
You must envision me, alone in my room in this strange place, learning all over again, in my late forties, how to get dressed. I am like a toddler, helpless, but I struggle. First, you find the little square of sewn cloth that tells you where your neck goes, thus making sure the robe is on right-side-up and not inside-out. Then, you wind it around yourself — not symmetrically, but the left side over the shoulder and the right side under. You join the ends, and begin twirling them together, much as you might roll a poster into a mailing carton. Grabbing the top end of this roll, you hold it as high as you can with your left hand; then, you wrap a flap that seems to appear out of nowhere over your left shoulder and around the arm. Then, bunching up the twisted roll with your right hand, you twirl it some more, at the same time lifting it to make sure the hem of the robe clears the ground. You then toss the twirl over your left shoulder, catch the end in the left hand, and pull, so there is a sort of handle under your arm with which the robe can be tightened, hitched up a little, and otherwise prevented from falling off.
There is a prize for anyone who understood the preceding paragraph.
I do not understand it myself, nor am I certain I will ever accomplish what it describes in my short time here.
All I know is that I spend something like two hours experimenting with the robes, and by the time I descend to the Seer’s audience-chamber (which is also his breakfast nook) I still haven’t figured it out, and must humiliatingly ask for help from the Littlest Novice, a 13-year-old Southern kid with a disarming smile.
Over breakfast, the Seer tells me how he became a monk, but I am still in a sort of miasma. Sometimes I don’t understand what he says. “In my youth, I became a monk in front of a waterbuffalo,” is what I keep hearing, but it’s because the Seer still has a trace of a provincial accent, and he’s really telling me he became a monk “before the flames” — he was referring to the custom of entering the monkhood to honor a dead ancestor at a cremation ceremony, the monkhood lasting only as long as the funeral pyre itself. It is with great confusion that I hear his tale while attempting to eat rice gruel with the decorum that is required of a monk — chewing loudly, with one’s mouth full, and other impolitenesses are all against the 227 regulations of monkhood.
The Seer’s tale continues. He tells of having two options in his youth: the monastery or the military. He decided on the monastery, way down in the remote rural South of Thailand, and after a while, his preceptor tempted him with an offer: if he could pass his religious exams, he would send him to Bangkok. “Bangkok, in those days,” says the Seer, “might have been an alien planet. Boy, I sure wanted to see the big city. And it turned out, I was the only one to pass the exam.”
Eating breakfast as a monk — my first real meal as a monk — is quite an experience. There is a lady who keeps presenting us with food as the conversation progresses, but I may not receive food from her directly because she is a woman; I must first place a yellow cloth on the table, and, holding on to one edge with both hands, allow the dish to be placed upon the cloth; I then place the dish with the others and am free to partake of it. Alas, if the lady should accidentally touch the dish after I have already received it, she must present it properly all over again.
I expect morning chapel (my first experience of chapel as a full-fledged monk) to be as taxing on the knees as the ordination ceremony, but it is mercifully short. As a monk, I can’t hide in the very back, sidling up to the wall to rest my weary back; I have to take my correct place, which is in fact as the very last monk in the very last row of monks, yet not as far away as the novices, of which there are about two. To my relief, chapel is much shorter than I think.
Everyone stares because I’m peering at an English-language chanting manual, with transcriptions of the text. A senior monk up front begins with a little intro, and we’re off, chanting our way through the praises of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, pausing now and then to fall to the floor in the five-point-prostration, a very precise positioning of the body so that the knees, elbows, palms, and forehead are all perfectly aligned in a sort of pyramid.
Then, with barely a ten-minute break, comes a full morning’s worth of meditation. The Guru is in the midst of a running a seven-day intensive meditation workshop, and now, it seems, I am to learn the meaning of some of the things I was attempting the previous night.
When I arrive, the main vihara is crammed with eager meditators. All are dressed in white, all but one monk, who looks almost as old as me, and decidedly as uncomfortable. He is seated on the upper platform, leaning against one of the square columns, ornately frescoed with decorative floral motifs against a lapis-blue background. He turns to smile at me, and I realize that this, too, is a new monk; there are rumors that among the crop of young monks, there is another my age, who, like me, has decide late in life to begin his inward journey.
“So,” he whispers, as I crawl up the steps of the stone platform and seat myself on a flat yellow cushion in the monks’ area, “I am not alone anymore — there’ll be two of us aging monks struggling our way through this ordeal.”
“Are you all right?” I whisper.
“Well, this sitting position is hard to take,” he says. “I’ll have to remember my muscle relaxant spray tomorrow.” My thoughts exactly.
I will refer to this new old monk as the Thinker, because later it will transpire that he is constantly analyzing the teachings of the various gurus in the temple.
I turn to the images of the Lord Buddha and perform the prostration to the Triple Gem. The Guru is already seated on his preaching chair, facing the meditation students who are clearly in awe of him. I have arrived a little late, and the lesson is in full swing. To my astonishment, even though the students are sitting very still, very respectfully, and without seeming to strain to maintain their phabphieb position, this is not a somber group at all. The Guru is telling them about controlling the breath, interlacing the rather dry narrative with anecdotes about India, many of which seem to have to do with either excrement or body parts.
The Guru instructs us to breathe slowly and rhythmically, to use the sound of the word buddho as a focus: bud for breathing in, dho for breathing out. Buddho of course is a Pali word, a title of the Buddha, and it essentially means “he who is awake.” Awake, so much more homely a word than enlightened, is perhaps closer to the original sense of what Buddhism is about: seeing past illusion.
It is only nine in the morning, but I have been awake since four — in itself a startling innovation, as I have risen before my customary bedtime. The light that streams into the vihara from windows, bordered by gilded shutters with fading gold leaf designs, is bright, warm; the heat that suffuses the vihara is intermittently mitigated by standing electric fans that turn this way and that, an incongruous intrusion of technology.
And now, the moment of truth: we are to meditate for twenty minutes. I try the buddho-buddho thing several times, but it is, to say the least, abortive. I begin to fidget. I open my eyes a few times, and it reminds me of a certain episode of The Twilight Zone — wow, this is really dating me, isn’t it? I mean the one where (if memory serves me) the character ends up trapped in a space-time warp where time is moving a million times faster for him than other people, so they all seem to be statues to him, and is a blur to them.…
How to find the inner stillness? It does not come.
The jangling of a dozen unsynchronized grandfather clocks tells me that it is now long past eleven o’clock, the lunchtime of monks, and that the magic hour of twelve, after which no solid food may pass a monk’s lips until dawn of the next day, is fast approaching. When we emerge from our meditative state — well, when they emerge, for my state has been that of bewilderment — it is 11:30, and naturally I’m starting to get worried — especially when the Guru immediately launches into one of those numerical expositions that seems to be such an important feature of the more theoretical aspects of Buddhism. What I mean by these numbers is this: there are groups of ones, twos, threes, fours, and so on: four types of brahmavihara, eight sides to the eightfold path, and so on: I could show you an entire book of numerical lists.
The Indians have always been masters of lists. As a musician, I am astonished that only Indian music has divided the octave into 66 divisions or srutis, while poor old Western music has a mere twelve, and Thai or Indonesian music even fewer. The Buddhist scriptures, which came from India, have more lists than you can shake a stick at. I think that the lists are important to those who are in love with lists, but perhaps, for those who wish to journey to the heart of Buddhism without stopping to admire the view on the way, the Four Noble Truths might be enough.
As the expounding of lists proceeds, my friend the Thinker turns and whispers to me, “I think we’d better prostrate ourselves and leave, or we’ll miss lunch.”
The Lord Buddha did not believe in self-torture. Indeed, after tormenting himself in fakir-fashion for some time in order to try to attain enlightenment, he realized that mortification of the flesh wasn’t the way to the truth, and began eating and drinking like a normal human being. He was much reviled by his associates for this; but later on he convinced them that his was the right path, and they, too, ate.
In my own small way, then, I am reliving this significant episode in the life of the great Teacher.
We prostrate ourselves to the Guru (who, being deeply involved in his exposition, barely acknowledges our departure) and make it to the lunch pavilion just within the threshold. Having seated ourselves and begun, we are safe from apati. But there is some ceremony yet, for this is a lunch that is being presented to us by the faithful, and some other monks have kindly joined us to keep us company — all of them new monks — fresh boyish faces, unlike my companion and myself.
To my wonderment, I discover during lunch that I’m no longer this writer-composer with the millstone of celebrity hanging around my neck. Along with my hair have gone many other outward trappings of my life. The young monks question me about America and about why I have to follow the chanting with a romanized textbook, but they do not know anything about me. And this is very liberating. It is actually possible, at this late stage in my existence, to become once again an unwritten page, a born-again virgin.
After the lunch, I brace myself for another session of wrenching sitting positions and useless meditation, but it then occurs to me that the Guru did tell me the previous evening that some people do meditate in chairs. I wonder whether I should interrupt the abbot’s lecture to ask him for permission to do so.
Then, in a flash of understanding, it occurs to me that this isn’t like being at boarding school in England. No one is making me torment my muscles. No one has forced me to become a monk. If I get up, and stagger over to one of the many chairs that line the outer vestibule of the vihara, no one will try to stop me, nor will I be summoned to a stern lecture from some bespectacled schoolmaster brandishing a cane.
It’s another liberating moment. Not that it would do to just get up and stalk off to a chair. A monk must be gentle and reflective in his movements, must not raise his voice or attract attention to himself. So I sort of unobtrusively slither, while still in a sort of semi-prostrate position, behind a huge green frescoed column, feeling somewhat like an overweight caterpillar as I do so.
The chairs are these one-piece plastic things, the stackable kind you find at picnics and beaches. Their very homeliness, amidst the massive gold Buddhas and the brilliant primary colors of the murals, are a reminder of the vainglory that underlies the splendid edifices we have built for ourselves.
This would be an uncomfortable chair back in my world of L.A. conveniences, but suddenly it is the greatest blessing on earth to be relieved from the physical contortion of the lotus position.
At that moment, the Guru begins an oration about Nirvana. He says something that makes me sit right up. “Nirvana isn’t necessarily something remote, something that you will never achieve at all in this life. There is the great Nirvana, the complete and permanent cessation, the utter peace that has no boundary … but there are also momentary Nirvanas … brief glimpses of the great Nirvana. Do not forget that. Those brief glimpses can come at any time, and they are just as valid, for time and space are themselves illusion, and a moment can be eternity.”
This is a startling revelation to me. I have always believed that Nirvana is a sort of theoretical, unattainable pot of gold at the rainbow’s end; that one’s lot in life is to be aware of the rainbow at least, and not to worry to much about the destination. I resolve to close my eyes and try for such a fleeting glimpse, but all around me, I hear the sounds of people getting up from their various sitting positions.
It is time to practice another style of meditation, called jongkom in Thai, cankama in Pali.
Basically, this means walking around.
Well, back home, we’ve all walked for AIDS, we’ve marched for dimes and other noble causes; why not walk for self-illumination? The Guru begins to regale us with the five (yes, another list from India!) benefits of the walking meditation. One of these benefits is improved performance of the digestive tract. You see, Buddhism, unlike many western religions, cares about such things as regularity in bowel movements.
I am, as a typical product of these harried times, of course rather skeptical that walking can lead to piti, a state of ecstasy born out of meditation; but I am willing to give it a try, and an aged monk leads me out of the vihara into the cloister, where about a hundred men and women, clad in white, are already walking around.
The spectacle resembles a cross between Agnes of God and Dawn of the Dead. What am I doing in the midst of this zombie movie? But soon, the Wise Old Monk explains. “Stand perfectly still,” he says, “breathe deeply … deeply. Then, set forth … first your right foot, then your left. Feel the ground beneath your feet, be aware of every speck of dust, every kink and rill in the surface of the stone. With your right foot, think bud—. With your left, think —dho. Go deliberately, carefully for about twenty-five paces, then stop … stop completely … reflect. Then turn. Bud —. Right foot, 90° angle, left foot, turn again … dho. Now you are moving in the opposite direction. Slowly … slowly … right foot first … bud —. Then left foot … dho. That’s all you do.”
All? I think to myself. I never knew that mere walking could involve such a complex coordination of thought and movement. I try it. Slowly, I become aware of the texture of the flagstones. Each step seems to stretch out forever … becoming an adventure in itself.
I walk. I stop. The cloister, aside from being filled with zombies, is lined with life-sized golden Buddhas, and the ashes of the dead, whose faded black-and-white photographs stare back at me from the statues’ pedestals. The oddest thing is that, each time I stop to turn, I seem to be face to face with a different Buddha, and each Buddha seems to wear the face of a significant person in my life … my life outside the walls of the monastery, which is only two days behind me and which already seems remote, untouchable.
My mind seems to detach itself from the body a little: I see myself as a robot, a walking automaton; as my spirit ascends more, I see a pattern emerge; these white-clad meditation students are participants in a cosmic ballet, weaving in and out of each other, always subliminally aware of one another’s rhythms, swerving imperceptibly to avoid collisions. It is a beautiful thing. But who is the choreographer, who is the orchestrator?
In the center of the cloister stands a gilded pagoda. I imagine myself at its summit, looking down at the shifting patterns. It is, in microcosm, the dance of the universe: the planets, the moons, the stars, the galaxies. It is stately; it is beautiful; yet I still experience no catharsis. For I have not yet emptied my mind. I am still burdened by the weight of my own thoughts.
Am I trying too hard?
I groan when I hear that next we will sit in meditation for twenty minutes. (It seems that five minutes will be added for each day of the course, until, by Sunday, we shall be able to go off into a self-induced trance for an hour or more.) I long for release, and yet the very intensity of that longing is preventing it from happening.
Still, the chair helps. I am not in agony.
As I close my eyes and concentrate on the breathing, images of the past distract me. The week before my ordination was, as I’ve said before, one of exhilaration and turmoil. It haunts me all at once — from lapping up the enthusiasm of the opera fans in San Francisco to my sense of violation at the vandalizing of my home in L.A. — from exciting news about new book deals to betrayals by close friends.
“Forget the past.” I hear a voice, gentle, full of concern.
It is the Wise Old Monk. He has been standing in front of me; with my eyes closed, I did not even sense his presence. How did he know that I was being tormented by memories? His apparent ability to read my mind has startled me so much that I obey him without thinking, and for a moment, my mind is emptied of all remembrance.
There is nothing at all.
And then, forming out of the nothing, there is a mountain peak capped with snow. Drenched in sunlight. The sky the brilliant blue of a Ceylon sapphire, the snow so white that it burns like the very sun. I am sure that I know this mountain: it is Kailasa, the legendary dwelling place of the Gods — the Indian Olympus, somewhere in the Himalayas. This isn’t just a mental image. I can feel the chill of the mountain wind. It is real.
Slowly, it fades.
Is this the momentary Nirvana that the Guru has been describing? I do not know. And yet, on emerging from my meditative state, I find that I have been weeping.
In the afternoon comes a visit from my mother, the first visit since I bade farewell to my family and was reborn as a symbol of the Sangha. It is strange to have one’s own mother prostrate herself, and yet there is a deep pride in her actions; she is acting out a role in an ancient drama that has been played and replayed for twenty-five hundred years.
My mother wants to know whether I need a “luksit”, an assistant to fetch and carry, to spend the night in the monastery and walk behind me when I go out with my alms bowl of a morning. I had worried about this; in Thailand, persons of a certain position in society never fetch and carry for themselves, and of course my relatives have been concerned that I won’t be able to fend for myself in this alien, harsh environment. But I tell her that the environment isn’t particularly harsh, and that I am perhaps more used to fetching and carrying for myself than my relatives. After all, living in the west, one does one’s own laundry and dishes. Or at least, machines do. I am sure I can make do without the help.
My mother attempts to pick up and straighten out, but her chauffeur, who once spent time as a novice, warns her that she cannot touch any of the articles used by a monk — the blankets, the towels, and so on. To do so would accidentally involve the monk in an apati. Recoiling in horror, my mother retreats and allows the driver to fold the blankets. I can tell that she’s itching to restore the kuti to her own well-ordered vision of how a room should look, but now that I have ascended to this higher plane of existence, she can’t. It’s very strange to see this go-getting woman suddenly stymied by my karmic ascent.
Next, there is the evening chapel; I am getting a little more used to those knee-jarring positions of prostration now, but the evening session is generally a lot longer than the morning, and parts of it are not covered in my romanized Pali manual, but are chanted from a big, fat, somewhat forbidding-looking tome. When Pali is transliterated into Thai, the rules for pronouncing it are quite different from those of Thai, so I flounder around and from time to time am forced into what used to be called, in my days in the Eton College Chapel Choir, the “goldfish trick.”
On my way back from the evening chapel, I am faced with a moral dilemma, the first serious one of my monkhood. For, blocking the steps that lead up the outside of the kuti to my chamber, there stands a street person — a bum. This is the sort of panhandler one finds aggressively hovering at the entrances of Hyatts and Hiltons in downtown San Francisco, refusing to go away and calling one names until bribed with a dollar bill to bother the next person down the street. The sort of homeless person who accosts one in a parking lot demanding to clean one’s car windows even if they are spotless; the kind of person where you turn to whoever you’re with and say, “Oh, he’ll only spend it on booze.”
Such a drunken creature stands in my path now, in the half-dark, his breath stinking of alcohol. “Luang poh,” he says, calling me holy father, which I still find a little unnerving, “have compassion on me. Please help me to alleviate my karma. I cannot bear my inner torment any longer.”
I ask him if there is some moral problem I can help him with, remembering all the times I spoke dismissively to the homeless in my secular days.
He says, “I just need my train fare home so I can take care of my family problems.”
I say, “I am a monk. How can you ask me for money? Monks may not even touch money; how could I even lay my hands on some, let alone give it to you?”
It is true. To lay hands on gold and silver (and by extension, on any means of commerce whatsoever) is a violation of not only the 227 rules of monkhood, but even of the mere ten regulations of a novice. There is simply no way I can do as he asks, even though a monk must always be compassionate, even towards those whom he has difficulty feeling compassion for. I am perplexed and lost, and as the bum continues to badger me, I begin to retreat, up the worn stone steps, toward the security and comfort of my airconditioned kuti.
All the while cursing my own hypocrisy. After all, Prince Wetsandorn gave away his own children to a beggar; why couldn’t I find a way of giving the man something? There’s always a chance he isn’t a drunk really, or that this one donation will be the turning point in his life that causes him to go back to his wife and kids.
Later, I come to learn that there is a small drawer of money somewhere in the kuti for such karmic emergencies, and one can, in fact, ask one of the laypersons serving in the temple to take care of mendicants. So I guess this kind of thing happens frequently enough to require a solution.
The little exchange torments we for a while. I have not yet learned one of the great lessons of Buddhism, the art of ubheka, of letting go of that which cannot be helped.
In the evening, the Littlest Novice sneaks into my room because he has heard that I have a laptop. “Can you go online?” he asks me excitedly.
“No,” I tell him. “Well, I could, but I left my internet access codes back in the outside world. I didn’t want email to impinge upon my inward odyssey.” He looks at me with cocker spaniel-like eyes, and I realize that this excuse must sound quite pompous to him. He cheers up, however, after I offer him a soda from the huge stockpile of offerings that relatives have been leaving for me all day.
“Do you have any video games?” he persists.
“No,” I say. It’s for the same reason; I left all those disks behind to avoid being distracted from the great quest.
“How about VCDs?”
“No. Same reason.”
“I have a VCD.”
“Well, get it, and you can watch it if you like,” I tell him, forgetting for a moment that watching a movie might conceivably constitute an apati. Oh well, I tell myself, maybe it’s a documentary. “What video games do you like, anyway?” I ask him as he sits politely on the floor at my feet in one of those positions of extreme politeness and physical agony that I find so difficult to achieve.
“Streetfighter II,” he responds instantly.
I’m a little alarmed at such a love of violence. I wonder whether there’s any video game with a more Buddhist flavor.
“You should invent one,” he says. “Something about a young novice going around beating up demons and sending them back to the underworld.…”
I smile. The yellow do not, it seems, change human nature, or boyish high spirits. He tells me he will bring his VCD to try out, but at that moment, eight o’clock arrives and it is time to return to the vihara for evening meditation.
The evening meditation is only for those meditation students who are sleeping over, not the “day students”. There’s a dormitory where they are housed, and also a nuns’ quarter. I don’t know where, and I don’t ask; there seems no compelling reason to visit those places. In any cases, the meditation students are swarming all over the vihara when I arrive.
I am apprehensive that the Guru will appear; surely, I think, five or six hours’ worth of lists of Pali terms is enough for one day. But he does not come down from his kuti, and the practice meditation is led by the Wise Old Monk who helped me earlier. All the new monks are there, and all are already seated, lost in their inner explorations. Using the chair, as I did earlier today, I do not experience any visions, but I am at least not suffering physically.
For the walking meditation, we are told that monks may actually ascend to an upper level of the pagoda in the central atrium, where laypersons are not allowed. And so we do so. But the steps are surely made for gods, not men. After some effort, I manage to reach the platform. The pagoda glitters; for though the city’s noise pollution is barely audible, Bangkok by night is never dark; the night sky glows with light that has bounced from cloud to cloud, that permeates the very air. There is a breeze up here, a few yards closer to the gods, a godsend after the stifling heat of the day.
Slowly, I walk. I try to cast my mind back to the afternoon, to the vision of Kailasa. The vision haunts me, but it does not return. I walk. The marble flagstones are smooth, warm; all day long they have been sucking up sunlight, storing up heat. I walk. Bud — dho, bud — dho, I repeat with each breath.
I still remember the image of the divine mountain, but now that a few hours have passed, I must admit that Kailasa has become a confused with the Paramount logo. Trying too hard again, I’m afraid. Yes, I’m acutely, vibrantly aware of the stones, the wind; but no, I am not visited by any visions.
Before I go to bed, I speak on the phone with a friend — it’s the first time I’ve deliberately communicated with the outside world since entering the temple. My friend, a distant cousin, actually, is a well-known Thai journalist who also reads people’s tarot cards, and once performed a goddess ceremony for me in my back yard. So she is not unacquainted with the supernatural.
I tell her of the afternoon’s breakthrough … and the evening’s disillusion.
“Don’t worry,” she tells me. “Seeing a mountain means good news is on the way.”
I cling to this idea until dawn.