Wow! It feels like a long time since the last post! A lot has happened in the past week, including my stay at Wat Sanghathan, a bomb scare at Chula, state of emergency declared in Bangkok and my final decisions on plans for the summer. This will be my longest post. May I recommended getting a snack and a hot beverage before you sit down to read through it…
Last Sunday we were invited to a wonderful dinner with the Dartmouth Club of Bangkok, hosted by David Karukin ’48 at his house. David has been living at his house in Thailand for over 30 years, and has been either the president or secretary of the Dartmouth club for the last 40 years. He is an incredibly spunky character; he had a wealth of stories to share and looked like he had enough energy to run a marathon on the spot. We met with a bunch of other alums, who were funny and amazing (as always), including one of the first Thai students to Dartmouth whose father was the prime minister during the Japanese occupation in WW2 and was responsible for the name change of Siam to Thailand. Cool huh? The food was served buffet style and was absolutely amazing. Quiche, mushroom vol au vent, scallops, roasted orange duck, stuffed fish with a dill sauce, romaine salad with sun-dried tomatoes with BLUE CHEESE, black forest gateau, apple strudel, the list goes on… I ate too much.
I enjoyed talking with the chef Leonardo, who has been cooking for 42 years, and has traveled around the world doing so. He says South African food is the easiest to cook (just stick a bunch of stuff in a crock pot and let it cook), and that French is the most difficult (although not necessarily the tastiest). He has an aquaculture setup in his house where he grows tilapia and herbs. He also grows potatoes in stacks of tires, with a stack of 5 tires yielding 35 kg of potatoes!
Wat Sanghathan and meditation… The past four days at Wat Sanghathan were the most fulfilling days I’ve spent in Thailand. Life at the temple was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and it was a complete opposite to the bustle of Thailand’s luxury shopping malls and superficial tourist beaches we’ve spent much of our free time in Thailand at. The experience was as mentally intense as a difficult Dartmouth finals period. The first day after meditating for just a few hours I thought there was no way I was going to survive the next day. But when it was time to go, I didn’t want to leave, and I wish I could’ve spent more time there. I wrote over 5 pages in my journal about the experience. I’ll do my best to condense it down here, but I’m afraid this is going to be a very long post. Here goes:
Going into it I had my own thoughts about what the experience would be like. Kelly Erickson ’11, who traveled with us to Kanchanaburi, had a lot to say about her 10-day experience and how difficult it was. My biggest assumption, which turned out to be very wrong, was that I assumed the experience would be just thinking while walking or sitting. I’m already very good at thinking; I can sit in one spot and let my mind wander for hours, jumping from thought to thought. It’s what I’d done on the plane ride over, or on all the bus trips we’ve taken around Thailand. In fact, I had a mental list of things I was going to think about. Big mistake. My assumption turned out not only to be very wrong, but a pretty significant obstacle to meditation. Meditation is focusing the mind. Focus is directed to the breath flowing in and out while sitting or to the feet while walking. It’s simplicity makes it so difficult. If the mind wanders, if there is a sensation, pain, a sound or smell, etc., the task is to simply acknowledge its presence and come back to your base – flow of breath or feet.
When I first got there on Monday I was greeted by an overly enthusiastic Thai girl at the front gates who was a graduate student in teaching. I’m used to Thais coming up to me as a “farang” (foreigner), asking me where I’m from. But she threw me completely off guard by singing “if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”, and I was obliged to sing along. Over the course of my stay I would be greeted by many Thais wanting to practice their English. And I likewise got to practice my Thai.
The most familiar questions I’m met with are the usual puud pasathai dai mai? (Do you speak thai), and kun yu ti ni (where do you come from). They were curious as to where I was from in the States, and if there was snow there, and whether it got as hot as Thailand (It’s the hot season now, and it’s 90-100F everyday).
My favorite exchange, with an older nun:
1) Where are you from?
2) How long do you stay in Thailand?
3) How old are you?
4) Do you have a girlfriend?
(now I know what you’re thinking, but you’re thinking about it the wrong way. She was impressed that a boy at my age was practicing meditation and had undertaken the 8 precepts. She wished more boys my age would become monks.)
I ate a quick lunch at the free canteen and then was taken along by a Thai monk to a room with AC (a relief) and we chatted for a bit about what visit to Thailand. He persuaded me to eat my first baked egg-rice cakes, and jack fruit, which were really good. Next, P. Leif, the German monk who instructed me on my meditation at Wat Sanghathan showed me around, and then after I had changed into my white clothes, gave me the eight precepts. To take the 8 precepts, I knelt and prayed to the Buddha (enlightened one), the Dhamma (his teachings) and the Sangha (his disciples). All of this was done in pali script, repeating after the monk.
The 8 precepts are a code of conduct so to speak, a basis for morality. The first five should always be obeyed, no matter whether you are a top level monk or a common citizen (some slack is allowed on precepts 3 and 5). But while practicing at a temple or as a monk, you must obey all 8 precepts, and stricter forms of them too. I’ve included them below, not in the pali script as you take them, but in a very rough English translation.
The 8 precepts are:
1. Refrain from destroying living creatures. (ie, don’t kill. While in the temple, under all 8 precepts this includes even mosquitoes.)
- 2. Refrain from taking that which is not given. (don’t steal)
- 3. Refrain from sexual activity. (with just the 5 precepts, this means refraining from adulterous activity. While in the temple, it is strictly forbidden to touch someone of the opposite sex, or talk to them alone and even casual conversation in public is looked down on.)
- 4. Refrain from incorrect speech. (don’t tell lies).
- 5. Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness. (Outside the temple, they are allowed as long as they don’t interfere with your life or causing suffering for others (ie, being a drunkard), but they are strictly forbidden in the temple.)
- The last three apply just to practice in the temple:
- 6. Refrain from eating at the forbidden time (i.e., you may only eat once around 10am in the morning, after that only bottled water and some fruit drinks are allowed).
- 7. Refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.
- 8. Refrain from lying down on a high or luxurious sleeping place. (sleep on a mattress on the floor).
After the precepts P.Leif instructed me in the first 20 minutes of meditation. Boy was it difficult. Even for just 20 minutes. Back pain set in but I just had to focus on keeping my back straight, acknowledging the pain, then bringing my focus back to the base of breathing at the nose. Meditation is so simple – just concentrate on your breathing – but just that simple thing is so difficult. Leif said that after a while, you no longer recognize the pain or it won’t set in until after 20,30,40 minutes. But that is after years of meditation.
Monday and Tuesday (my first two days) were special days for the temple. It was the Abbot’s birthday, and there was also a dedication for a new hospital. I got to meet the Abbot, the Venerable Acharn Sanong Katapunyo, and got an autographed picture.
There were hundreds of lay people there who had come to stay for the occasion, as well as 200 novice monks. The novice monks are young boys, and this is kind of like their summer camp. They stay at Wat Sanghathan for a while, then head up to the Khao Yai meditation center (a satellite location of Wat Sanghathan) for two weeks. The novices are very lively and fun, but aren’t very good at paying attention during their afternoon walking meditation. They kick each other playfully and were completely distracted by my presence as a tall foreigner. But this doesn’t bother the older monks. It’s Thailand, and the culture here is subai-subai (so it goes). If they don’t focus, so what. I could understand their anxiousness – after their walking meditation was the afternoon drink period, which meant fruit sorbet was waiting for them. I would be just an antsy myself at that age.
I had the rare and very cool opportunity to witness the opening ceremony of the hospital. All of the monks (including novices), nuns and laypeople were there. Hundreds of people. I went with a German nun who spoke English. We sat towards the back, but soon found ourselves invited up to the front by the organizer of the whole thing, and I was given flowers to present later during the offering. (Keep in mind this was my first day there). Thais love being inclusive. The Abbot had actually asked me earlier when I met him if I played an instrument and would be interested in performing in the opening ceremony, since he was still looking for performers. I think he was being serious. Later, the German nun had to turn away the offer of another organizer who wanted me to participate in the filming of a music video to celebrate the opening (yes, a music video). The offerings were very cool. In Thailand, if you’re going to make an offering, you might as well make it look pretty. I’ve seen the prettiest flower bouquets here, and the ones presented at the opening ceremony were stunning. All money offering were made in the form of money trees or money boats (see pictures).
In the evening on the first day just before bedtime at 9:00pm I did walking meditation for an hour. It was much easier than sitting meditation, but I still hard a time keeping focus. I learned that meditation is partly about suffering, or rather acceptance of suffering. I was seriously doubting if I could handle what I got myself into.
After the first day, things got much easier and I settled into a routine. Every morning I got up around 3:45am to go to morning chanting. Surreal is the best word for it. Listening to a monk and a hundred plus laypeople chanting in a pali drone is just awesome. It makes an eerie sound that you can literally feel vibrate through you if you’re close enough. There were chanting in the evenings too, which I went to once.
Around 10am was brunch, the only meal of the day. What a feast. All of it was for free; Thais would stop by the temple to give food as an offering. Some would even come and hand out ice cream to us (laypeople) while we ate. It shows the support Thai buddhists have for monks and laypeople. It’s good luck to give food to people who are practicing at the temple. The bowls we used were huge. Think 2-quart sized mixing bowls. The food was great (especially the coconut sticky rice) and I got to try nearly any Thai food imaginable (especially during the first two days during the festival). I got too much the first day, or better put, it was a day’s worth of food and I just wasn’t used to eating all my meals at once. P. Leif said it wasn’t healthy, but it was simple.
My meditation got a lot better over the four days. I was able to focus longer. But it was still tough. So many things came up: thoughts, feelings, sensations, sounds, smells, and, with sitting meditation, back and neck pain. Apparently wandering thoughts seems to be a common problem for us Westerners. I would think of something and have to say, “ I recognize you thought, but I’m sorry, I can’t concentrate on you now. I’m concentrating on my breath”. While meditating in the middle of the day when it was hottest, I could feel sweat dripping down my back while meditating which was particularly annoying. During one evening meditation outside I got bit by mosquitoes. Its one thing not the bites because you are deeply concentrating on your breath, but its even harder to feel a mosquito, acknowledge it’s presence, then refocus your breath. It’s against the precepts to kill the mosquito.
Despite the difficulties, the meditation was very peaceful. I found myself moving much slower doing everything – walking, eating, breathing – throughout the day. I really appreciated walking meditation: slow, focused steps at a pace of around a meter per minute. In the morning some nuns would come by and use a mop to clean the granite surface surrounding the main temple where I did most of my meditation. I could watch tiny pools of water 3 meters in front of me dry up before I got to them. Ants would race by me. On the third day, I was moving slow enough and focused enough that on three occasions, I was able to sense and stop my foot on top of a leaf, millimeters of the ground, then gently push it out of the way before setting my foot down. Such a cool feeling. I also had the funny experience of an old nun with broken arm and a multi-legged cane race by me.
I’ve got deep respect for people who’ve done this a long time (monks). P.Leif says that after a while the meditation doesn’t necessarily get easier (although the monks can easily handle an overnight meditation); you simply experience more sensations in a given moment. Whereas I might feel 2-3 sensations with my breath, after years of meditating that will turn into feeling 14-16 sensations. After a meditating for a long time, peacefulness arises and then happiness out of that peacefulness. The monks here are very friendly, amazing people who always smile. Genuine is good word to describe it. It’s like having 200 happy grandfather all in one spot.
Coming back to Evergreen was quite a shock. I returned to find that a “State of Emergency” had been declared in Bangkok, after the red shirt protesters invaded the parliament building and forced the prime minister to leave by helicopter. I also found out that a 5kg bomb was found outside the main gate at Chula before it went off. I walk by that gate everyday which is a scary thought. According to Professor Kennedy, some of the red shirts believe that Chula is educating and supporting the ‘elites’ against whom they are protesting. They also weren’t too happy about the pink shirt counter-protest, although most people at Chula are trying to remain neutral. Hopefully things won’t escalate any further. There was a state of emergency last year around this time and no widespread violence occurred. We’ll also be out of harms way for the next week and a half anyways.
ok… into the home stretch!
So I’ve finally settled on what I’m doing this summer. I’m be doing an amazing 5-month internship at the Center for Whole Communities, a social and environmental justice retreat center in Fayston, Vermont. I’ll be doing farming, cooking, trailwork, and most importantly, will get to meet with tons of amazing people throughout the summer. (check out their website at http://www.wholecommunities.org/).
It means I’ll be back in the states in early May, so I won’t be spending 8 months in Thailand as I had initially thought. Dartmouth folk, I’ll see you all in just over three weeks on my way up to CWC. So I’ll get another chance to say goodbyes to you seniors : ) .
Many, many hours of thought went into this decision. I won’t go into it in detail in the blog, but I’d love to share my reasons if you’re interested. My alternative was to do biogas research in Thailand, and I also briefly considered spending time as a monk. My dad puts it well when he says it is best to not look at such choices as good or bad but rather different.
Tomorrow we leave for the Surin islands, one of the best snorkeling spots in the world. Then it’s time for water fights during the much anticipated Songkran holiday, and a trip up to Chiang Mai. That’ll be the last of my traveling in Thailand outside of Bangkok. The following week is the last week of classes, then a week of finals, then back to the States.