Kurtz in Birkenstocks
This essay is part five in a five-part series accounting the author's stay in a monastery in Thailand. Click here for parts one, two, three , and four. An abridged version previously appeared in The Sun.
[Pilgrimage to Nowhere] • I'd been at Doi Suthep for five days now. During this time, I'd lost faith with Phra Sam, my meditation instructor; traded idiosyncratic wisdom teachings with several curious acquaintences among my fellow meditators; heard rumours about the mysterious spiritual master Ajaan Tong; and caught sight of Roger, the resident Philosopher, eating his lunchtime soup in silence. But I had yet to find a proper teacher. Tomas, by far the most curious of my acquaintences, had told me that Roger kept regular "drop-in hours" for tourists and other visitors at the monastery's Information Center. I'd tried to visit him the day before, but the doors had been locked. I came back the next day hoping to find him. I'd been walking past the Center since the day of my arrival, but had yet to venture inside.
Just through the door I found a table of free pamphlets and cheaply printed booklets outlining Vipassana practice. The tiny wood-paneled library included a display wall about the history and basic tenets of Buddhism — in both English and Thai. The office had two desks; one was empty, at the other sat a monk I hadn't seen before.
"Is Roger here?" I asked just as a muffled flushing sound ushered his bullet head and broad shoulders out of a tiny bathroom. The casualness of his dress — traditional Thai short-sleeved shirt, khaki linen pants, and Thai-style sandals — only slightly mellowed his imposing bulk. He seemed to wear a contradictory air of both serenity and diffidence. His blue eyes looked at me curiously, and he threw up one hand in greeting.
"Have a few minutes?" I asked.
"Sure. What ya got?"
"Questions," I said, pulling the list I'd prepared from my waistband.
"You brought a list?"
"Well — " I began to sheepishly explain.
"First things first," he interrupted, gently motioning me to the empty seat. Once I was settled in, he wanted to know why I'd chosen to practice Vipassana, and why here at Doi Suthep.
"Actually, I've been wondering that myself." And I launched into a capsule version of my checkered spiritual past, the eclectic influences; my suspicion of organized religion. As best as I could, I described the harrowing quality of those early mystical experiences. "It was as if I had died," I told him.
"You did die," he said with a big smile.
Roger, it turned out, was also a spiritual refugee. He'd ordained as a monk decades ago, and traveled extensively throughout Asia. In a previous life he'd been a Chicago real estate broker, but he'd left that world in limbo to pursue serious study of the dharma in both Thailand and Nepal. Eventually he'd disrobed and landed at Doi Suthep, a kind of philosopher in residence.
"Why here?" I asked.
“I’ve been all over. Doi Suthep is one of the few places that's felt right. I find it purifying here."
I asked him whether he thought Buddhism was a religion or a life philosophy.
"In Buddhism there is no soul, no God — "
"In some Buddhisms,” I interrupted, "there certainly seems to be a God. For example,” I continued, gesturing towards the inner temple, and thinking of Hannes and I and all our saffron-robed colleagues prostrating to the relic of the Buddha's fingernail, “Up there — ”
“No. Up there, where is there God? There are only points of attention. No God. There are statues, relics, stories. There's beauty and reverence. But no God. Simply points of attention — to focus and elevate the practice.”
As he answered my grab bag of philosophical questions, he had this way of enumerating with his fingers, using his right thumb to count off on his left hand, beginning with his pinky finger. Given how chock full of numbered lists Buddhism was — the 4 noble truths, the 8-fold path, the 5 hindrances, the 10 armies of Mara — one could imagine how he'd developed this kind of habit.
'Dependent origination,' a Buddhist concept I was much hung up on because of how intriguingly similar it sounded to contemporary Western notions of contingency and relativity, turned out to be just a fancy term for Karma. "Since the past doesn’t really exist," Roger asserted, "the seeds of past thoughts can only exist in the present.”
I wanted to know why, if sitting was where the real work happened, Vipassana placed so much focus on walking meditation.
"Prostration is the mind observing the upper body. Walking, the mind observing the lower body. Sitting, the mind observing itself. So it is important to give sitting and walking equal time."
"That makes just enough sense for me to roll with. I don't know why Sam couldn't have throw me a few bones like that. I can't seem to get anywhere with him on the more philosophical side of things."
"No, and that's okay."
"You need to learn what the teacher has to teach,” he said with finality. Roger had a way of bringing his points home in these guru-like nuggets: seemingly wise, slightly mischievous. I sensed a touch of mockery as well.
"Okay," I said, "but just help me with this one question that Sam keeps asking me. I never know what to — "
"Whether the left foot and right foot are One or separate?"
"Yes! Are they? It's driving me a little crazy. I keep wanting to say — "
Roger put up his hand, stopping me mid-sentence.
"What," he asked, continuing to hold his one hand up, "is the sound of one-hand clapping?"
He looked at me, but said nothing.
"I am, of course, familiar with the question," I said, peevishly .
His eyes were saying, Go on...
"But, um, I've never been asked it in a, serious, situation before."
He remained silent.
So did I.
"Who cares?" he said finally.
It was my turn to smile.
I went back to see Roger again the following day. He had charmed me, and during this second meeting he was no less intriguing, his back-door answers to my long list of questions laced with trivia about Doi Suthep and how he'd come to land there. The relic, he told me, that Hannes and I had been prostrating to the other morning, was not, in fact, the Buddha's fingernail, it was a sliver of his shoulder bone. In 1368, the King of Thailand at the time, King Nu Naone, placed it atop a sacred white elephant, who was released into the jungle. The elephant wandered to the top of Doi Suthep mountain where he trumpeted three times, collapsed and died. The King took this as a sign, and ordered a temple built on the spot.
"So that's really the Buddha's shoulder?"
Roger was full of Doi Suthep stories. He claimed the opening scene of Rambo was shot on the monastery steps. He told me that it used to take five hours of hard slogging for pilgrims to make their way up the mountain to the temple, until 1935, when a monk much revered throughout the north, Khruba Srivichai, also known as the Engineer Monk, invited villagers from the surrounding hill tribes to come help build a road, allotting segments of 100 meters to each village. So many showed up to work on the road that each village's share was reduced to 10 meters, and the road was built in no time.
It was hard to tell where history began and legend left off; it was equally unclear which legends Roger himself actually believed. The most fanciful of these involved another Doi Suthep monk. This one had been arrested in Bangkok after running afoul of corrupt officials.
"He refused to testify."
"So, what happened?"
"'You will stay here in your cell, until you do,' the police said. He said, 'No, 'I’ll sleep in Chiang Mai tonight.' They laughed at him. But he did."
"What do you mean?"
"Bi-location. He transposed himself back to Chiang Mai."
"'I’ll sleep in Chiang Mai tonight,' he said. And he kept his word."
“I don’t believe that.”
“You don’t have to. I’ve been with monks who can do it. I've seen that kind of thing done.”
In spite of his every-once-in-a-while flashes of insanity, Roger seemed just the teacher I was looking for, and I would steer the conversation back to my more pressing metaphysical concerns.
"Do the enlightened ever quote-unquote ‘fall’?" I wanted to know.
"No, the truly enlightened don’t fall. They have no need for precepts. And no need for sitting or walking meditation, either."
"Once you're enlightened, you don't meditate anymore?"
"You use one thorn to dig out another thorn," he'd tell me, "but then you throw both away, right? You use a boat to cross the river, but you don’t keep carrying the boat around." He seemed to have an endless supply of these miniature parables.
Our conversations were relaxed but also challenging and unpredictable; it was like a fireside chat with a wise and kooky uncle, who also happened to be a professor of the occult.
"Just observe your abdomen," he might say. "Since that’s where you're holding tension." From this piece of concrete advice we might go a few rounds on body-mind dualism. "Do the eyes see?" he might ask rhetorically. "Does the body know? Are not all feelings simply passing mental states?" I'd counter with the notion of "embodied mind" that I'd picked up in a cognitive science seminar. "There is no you," he would say. "You are not driving the chariot. In fact, there is no chariot."
"I don't know whether there's a chariot or not, but I think I had a 'no driver' experience when I was at Burning Man two years ago — "
"The big cyber-Woodstock festival in the Nevada desert."
"I was with my girlfriend at the time. We were biking in and out of a dust storm. We were very stoned. Like tripping stoned. Anyway, as we were talking it seemed very clear that the words I was saying were not authored by me, they were just happening. And all the social conventions and body tics and what was funny and what wasn't — it was all like that, just happening through me. Unauthored. And unowned. Not pre-determined, like cosmically, so much, but algorithmic, biological, somehow programmed. I was a language machine. A social machine."
Roger nodded emphatically.
"It was scary. I felt soulless, almost un-human. I guess that was the fear of ego-death. But I told myself not to freak out. To go with it. Let it work me. Let the machine be. And it was very freeing. Still uncanny, but freeing."
"Thoughts without a thinker. Not so different from Vipassana, eh?" Roger said.
"Not so different, I guess."
I'd come half-way around the world to receive the wisdom of the East — to be part of something quintessentially Thai, quintessentially Asian — only to find myself swapping drug experiences with a balding Chicago real estate broker.
"You're like Myron," I told him.
"Yeah. Everybody's on line to receive darshan from the great guru, sitting in his remote mountain temple. They're waiting for days to ask their most pressing questions. Single file, they enter his chambers. Oh, great guru, what is the meaning of life? Great guru, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Great guru, what is the taste of freedom? There's a middle aged lady waiting to speak to the guru. She seems a little out of place, but duly waits her turn. The line snakes forward. Finally, after days and days she has her audience with the guru. What is your question, child? He says. 'Myron,' she says, in a think Jewish accent. 'When are you coming home?'"
"Ha," he chuckled. "You don't know the half of it."
I think Roger enjoyed my contrariness; he was certainly game to help me work through my troubles with Buddhist metaphysics. My biggest problem, however, was the whole notion of an end to suffering — which is what Buddhism is all about, basically. The Four Noble Truths, the core teaching of Buddhism, can be summed up as: 1. Life is suffering. 2. Suffering is caused by attachment. 3. Suffering can be ended. 4. Here's how. Through meditation and right living anyone can achieve freedom from suffering and ultimate happiness, aka nirvana.
Somehow, after two decades of thinking and reading about Buddhism, only this week had the suspicion began to dawn on me that, ultimately, Buddhism might be about personal happiness. There it was, after all, in the Doi Suthep Meditation Guide: "The Buddha's teachings offer guidelines for living a life that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering." In putting on the robes, I wondered, had I inadvertently joined a utilitarian cult? A self-help group with 300 million members?
Emptiness, sore ankles, and paradoxical riddles I could handle. But freedom from suffering? What was I supposed to do then? Self-annihilation was one thing, but happiness? I hadn't come to Doi Suthep to be happy. I'd come for truth, wisdom, insight, centeredness, groundedness, and tools for living. Not happiness. What could be more lame, more parochial, more un-heroic, than happiness? Is that why the Buddha half-starved himself to death? Is that why he sat in the forest for six years, deep in contemplation? Is that why he risked it all on an enlightenment-or-die gamble under the Bodhi Tree? Just to be happy? Just to understand how to be happy?
I related much of this to Roger. "And the thing is," I concluded, "I don't know if I actually believe in nirvana — in the sense that one can actually be free from suffering, or achieve some kind of ultimate happiness."
"Before you get too worked up, just make sure, you're understanding what Buddha means by suffering and happiness. There's three levels of suffering. First — "
"There you go again."
"Counting off with your fingers."
Roger smiled and frowned at the same time. "The first level of suffering," he continued, "is obvious. Painful experiences like grief, a broken leg, etcetera.
"The second level is pleasure."
"Pleasure is suffering?"
"Yes, because everything pleasurable holds the seeds of dissatisfaction — disappointment, craving, what have you — within it."
"So Christians make you suffer for your pleasure, but for Buddhists, pleasure simply is suffering. Sneaky, very sneaky."
"Dukkha often gets translated as suffering, but it's really much closer to 'unsatisfactoriness.'
"Right, I remember that. Not much of a rallying cry is it?"
Roger raised one eyebrow.
"'Brothers and sisters, follow me, and your unsatisfactoriness will be somewhat reduced…'"
He moved to his third finger. "Finally, there's the pervasive suffering of conditioning. Until we become enlightened, we all live 'in conditions,' subject to karma, negative thoughts and emotions. Just by existing. The happiness that comes with enlightenment is not the simple happiness you might be thinking of — the happiness of pleasurable sensations. It is a wholly other, higher, kind of happiness that has everything to do with spiritual freedom, stepping out of karma, liberating yourself from delusion and ignorance."
"Even if I could achieve it, I'm not sure that I'd want to. Maybe I'm more the bodhisattva type — you know, delaying your own enlightenment until you've helped everyone else become enlightened."
"That kind of bodhisattva," Roger pointed out, "only exists in Mahayana Buddhism."
"I'm always ending up in the wrong religion."
"Just think, you could be Christian."
"I'm barely Buddhist."
"Back in the 70s Ajaan Tong was part of a Buddhist delegation visiting the Pope. At one point the Pope gave him a gift of a small crucifix. He turned to one of his fellow monks, and placed it in the monk's alms bowl, saying 'I think it is time for Christ to end his suffering.'"
"Ha! Sinead O'Connor — with style points. Did he do it when the Pope was still there?"
"I'm not sure."
"But let's give Jesus his due — because I think Christianity really has something to say here — isn't the real spiritual task, not so much to 'end' our suffering, but to learn to bear it with grace, to make it meaningful, to make it serve life?"
In answer, he held out his right hand. The thorniest philosophical problems seemed to require it. "Suffering," he said. Slowly he turned his hand over. "Redemption." Then he turned his hand back, and over again, back and over, repeating "suffering...redemption, redemption...suffering," with each turn.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nibbana is Samsara," he said meaningfully.
With the exception of what were now becoming regular afternoon visits with Roger, the days continued much as before. I was walking and sitting now in 40-minute-long intervals, yet still I found my mind drifting considerably. While some of the earlier anxieties seemed to have quieted down, others, including a heightened burst of sexual craving, had taken their place. I was still holding tension in my abdomen, and still trying to wish it or force-burp it away during sitting meditation. Roger might have been helping me to think through my issues, but that numinous moment of stillness and insight that I longed for remained as elusive as ever.
"Cool, isn't he?" Said Tomas, when he'd learned I'd been dropping in on Roger.
"Yeah, I like him."
"Just a bit off, though, isn't he?"
"You're one to talk, Mr. Ancient Yogic Breathing Technique."
"Hey, have you been trying it?"
I hadn't been, and that was the last of the arcane spiritual technologies that Tomas would lay on me, as he was just about to enter his final, secluded phase of training. As for Phra Sam, I'd taken a live-and-let-live approach, which didn't help build much in the way of mutual respect, but did make our reporting sessions more civil. Hannes and I continued to take walks in the evenings. Silent Tim remained as silent and unnerving as ever.
The days at Doi Suthep passed as if carried along by musical signatures. We'd rise in the quiet of deep night. The dawn would arrive in a thicket of birdsong. In the afternoon, the garden would be pocketed by the throaty croaking of tree frogs; after dusk, the ambient heartbeat of cicadas would pulse through our screen windows as we sat for our late-evening meditation.
Smells abounded. Lotus flowers filled the hillside, and trees of several species were simultaneously in bloom that February, dropping fruit and pungent seed pods all over.
Some days, low-volume pop music would trickle from the young monks' quarters; other days the sound of buzz-saws and clanging hammers from the dormitory construction site would ring out across the hillside.
The evening after my second chat with Roger, Hannes and I went again to chant with the full Sangha. It was dusk. The monastery had just closed its doors for the day after a busy Saturday of tourist visits. This time, I prostrated myself to the Buddha relic, thinking of it as a Yogic-like point of attention, rather than a medieval act of senseless submission. I let myself be carried away by the rising and falling of the mysterious phonemes. Each time I pressed my forehead to the ground, instead of swallowing my pride I tried to release it. And if not for the interruption of a distant but jarring sound, I might have blended in this time, combat boots and all.
The sound was unlike any of the multitude I'd come to recognize at Doi Suthep. What was it? The banging of cymbals? The repetitive clanging of a metal door? None of the monks paid it any heed, but it was breaking my focus. I slipped out mid-chant to sleuth it down. As I walked past the relic case, and out through the marble-floored sanctuary of the inner temple, the sound grew louder. The metal-on-stone scraping of someone cleaning? I came upon a side room, the sound evidently originating from inside, and looked in through the half open doorway. Three monks in saffron robes were counting money. One monk was stacking bills into a hopper that automatically fed them — fd-thd-thd-thd-dh — through to a counting machine. Another monk was pouring buckets of coins into a large aluminum funnel — ding-blang-kchlang! — and then cranking the arm of a Dr. Seuss-like adding machine — kuh-juhh-klung! A third was checking the printed tape that pittered out, counting all the money that had come in from the day’s take of tithes, and tourist tickets, and soft drinks. Not 30 meters away, the abbot and monks were serenely chanting about burning away the self.
I woke up the next morning with a hard-on. It wasn't the first time this had happened at Doi Suthep, but there was a particular urgency to it that morning. A very pretty apprentice nun from England had arrived the day before, and that night she'd been in my dreams, along with Cate Blanchett and three Thai prostitutes. In more than a week at Doi Suthep, I hadn't jerked off, nor hardly touched myself, but in the shower that morning, I couldn't help but wrap my fingers around my cock. I just stood there for a while, water pinging off my head, debating my options. I wanted to maintain at least some semblance of the precepts I'd committed myself to. I also wanted release. I wanted hard physical pleasure. I began stroking myself. I stopped. I willed myself to let go.
In the courtyard that morning I bumped into Pony-Tailed-Terri. She was in street clothes, her pack slung over her shoulder, and in a bit of a daze, having just completed the final fasting-in-isolation phase of her course.
"So, it's off to Laos now?" I asked. "Is that the next move?"
"Yes," she said, "but first," and she leaned in, lowering her already low voice, "I'm going to have myself a big plate of food, a case of beer, and a beautiful male prostitute."
Everyone, it seemed, had sex on the brain.
Tamsin, the new apprentice nun from London, had arrived the day before along with her slender figure and flashing eyes. After a few words of welcome, it was all eyes. Just a glance as we passed on the stairs, and the pheromones would come like a breath of heat. In the dream she's wearing a bathing suit of live squid. She dives in the water. The squids stream off of her. I dive in after. In the other dream, I'm on a Pat Pong outing with three beautiful Thai girls. It turns into a love quintangle with a Mexican named Victor. I ask two of them for their hand in marriage. In the third dream, I'm having an affair with Cate Blanchett. We're in bed together in a window display at the New York Public Library. We are impersonating animatronic blow-up-doll robots. We’re good enough at it that no one has yet figured out that it’s us. In a stilted, mannequin-ish way, I go down on her. Surprise! She has a penis. It's beautiful. I lick once around the head of Cate Blanchett's beautiful penis. We stand, become suspended near-gravity-less just off the ground, gently held by trapezes. She is like an angel. I’m holding her breasts, not with my hands, but somehow with all of my arms. She’s smiling, radiant, exquisite. We kiss. I am trembling. Suddenly, there’s a voice in the lobby. The night man. He comes over suspiciously. He looks us over. He smells us. Finally satisfied that we are indeed animatronic blow-up-doll robots, he goes away. We fall back to a bathroom elsewhere in the building. We’re showering. It’s sweet and conspiratorial, as if we're on the lam. For some reason she puts her underwear on. I aim the shower jet at her crotch.
I was dreaming of Cate Blanchett's crotch. Terri was headed down to the fleshpots of Chiang Mai. Tamsin breezed through the grounds, a mysterious and potent presence. All through that morning, I was roiled with sexual craving, and roiled also — as I sat in posture, trying to meditate — by my efforts to make the craving go away. I could find no Middle Path. Nor could I find what Buddhists might call "right understanding" on the matter. Sex feels so natural — and when linked to love, so spiritual — where is the problem? Why the prohibitions? Is Buddha such a jealous teacher — and sex such a powerful force — that you must sign a non-compete clause before he'll do business with you? Vipassana's required vow of celibacy would suggest so. I could imagine setting my lusts aside for several weeks or months, as I'd begun to do at Doi Suthep, but could I do that for the rest of my life — even if Enlightenment were the pay off? And what about the Tantric arts? If I had wisely chosen to enroll myself in a Tibetan Buddhist Tantric sex cult instead of conservative Doi Suthep, none of these sexual temptations would be a problem. My erotic energy and imagination would fuel my practice. Tamsin would be my Dakini, my dancing she-Goddess incarnate. Sam would be some Grand Master of the Lower Chakras, assigning lessons not from a little notebook, but from an arcane centuries-old engraved tome detailing sexual positions of a complexity and subtleness unknown even to the most advanced Western researchers in Amsterdam and San Francisco. Lust would be the royal road to spiritual transformation. Instead, I am faced with the "problem" of temptress nuns, erotic dreams and unbidden arousals.
"Does the Buddha get a hard on?" I asked Roger that afternoon.
"No," Roger smiled. "At the highest levels of enlightenment sexual desire is completely extinguished." Then he paused. "But it's the strongest of the hindrances, definitely the hardest of them all to get over."
"How do the monks here do it?"
"Some do specific exercises to shut down the sexual urge. Imagining a woman’s body as filth — composed of bones and veins and intestines."
"I don't suppose this helps the nun's campaign for full ordination?"
"More than a few end up truly hating women. It's the only way they can stay the course."
"It doesn't seem very Buddhist."
Roger unfurled his upraised hands: It is what it is.
"What about you?"
"I have the opposite problem."
Roger, it turned out, was married. His wife was from the Philippines; they'd met at a temple in Nepal. They had three kids; the youngest was 9; the eldest 16. He'd left them all back in Chicago; hadn't seen them in months. Meanwhile, he had two girlfriends here in Thailand.
"So, you're not celibate? In fact, you're having lots of sex and liking it."
"The Buddha didn't think of celibacy as a goal in its own right. More like good training for dealing skillfully with your sexual life. I've done that training."
"And now you're enjoying that life?"
"But you could give it all up for Enlightenment?"
"I haven't, but I could."
Roger sounded like one of those alcoholics that keeps drinking believing they could give up any time they wanted.
"So celibacy is a means, not an end?"
"At the higher stages of enlightenment, celibacy is moot. For the rest of us, yes."
"But it's clearly still frowned upon for a monk to break his vows."
"The first time a monk disrobes, they say, it is with a sweet smell. The second time, not so sweet."
"You're saying the Sangha might take a tolerant attitude to a younger monk who leaves the monastery to get his ya-yas out, so long as he chooses to come back and really commit?"
"But if it happens again, say, when they're older, it's seen as a failure?"
"More or less, yes."
"So, where do you fit in?"
"I'm not a monk, am I?"
He wasn't a monk, true enough. Nor did he seem to be much of a husband or father. I asked him as much.
"In Thai culture," Roger explained, nodding philosophically, "it's understood that there’s a 'minor wife' and a 'major wife.'" He described how on his days off from Doi Suthep, he'd tool around Chiang Mai with both his minor wives on the back of his motorcycle. "Thai women are not trying to be like men, and they know exactly how to take care of you," he continued. "Here in Thailand, women are still women, and men still men."
"And katoys, still katoys, no doubt."
"It works. Thai women (and Asian women in general) don’t compete to be like men the way your white Western women do." He said your, as if it were the problem of some distant culture to which he no longer had ties.
"There's something I like about that competition," I said, feeling a need to hold up the banner of modern feminism and a partnership of equals in what was looking more and more like a wilderness of patriarchy and girlfriends for hire.
"That’s because it's all you know," he said.
Roger had gone native, a modern day Kurtz.
“But what about your kids back in Chicago, don’t they miss you? Don't you miss them?”
“Does the frog care which tadpole is his?”
I said nothing. I looked at Roger closely. Bald and hulking, flipping his right hand slowly back and forth, muttering "male/female... female/male...," he looked surprisingly like an unhinged and grossly-overpaid Marlon Brando. A Colonel Kurtz for the Birkenstock set. He'd come too far up the river. He'd spent too much time in the spiritual and sexual playgrounds of the East, far from the company of his own kind. He'd been seduced by too many Tibetan yogi's and mysterious Ajaan Tongs, too many perfect dark-eyed 23-year olds, gentle-souled and ready to please. Was I then, his Marlowe? Come up river, in search of answers, up through the thickening sexual schizophrenia of Thailand. Pleasure gardens of sensual commerce on one bank, celibate saffron-clad sanctuaries on the other, until these opposing banks met far upstream in a mad synthesis where a head-shaven 55-year-old ex-real estate agent made up his own rules from a philosopher's chair.
"Have you, um, masturbated since you've been here?" I asked Hannes in a whisper. It was just before 10 p.m. We were lying on our adjacent bed rolls, trying not to wake up Tim, who had just fallen asleep across the room. The evening sittings had gone better, but I still had sex on the brain.
"Ha, no. That’s one rule that’s been easy to keep."
"What about sexual dreams?"
I told him about Cate Blanchett, and last night's Thai prostitutes, and how I couldn't help but grab hold of myself that morning in the shower, and the strong silent exchanges of pheromones with Tamsin.
"Tamsin is pretty. Britta, too. And some of the others. I notice that they're pretty. But it's only at an intellectual level. I have absolutely no sexual desire. There’s just nothing going on down there."
"Nothing at all?"
"Nothing at all. I don’t even wank in my head."
"Oh. My. God." I said in the staggered syllables of mock amazement.
"Without even knowing it, you've achieved the third stage of enlightenment."
"Ja? Das ist Kool. I must tell Phra Sam the good news."
That night I dream I'm in a room with two others. Hannes? Tim, maybe. I can't make out the faces among the half-shadows. With a growing intensity, rays of invisible heat pour from our foreheads. We are surprised. We are a little scared. I bend my head to the left so that the rays sweep across the hands of a clock on a nearby table. The minute hand and the hour hand both shimmer into nothingness, into fungibleness, the way heat distorts light as it rises from the asphalt horizon on a long summer drive. I turn back to face the others. I can see into them now, like an X-ray. The one on the right has an old wound deep in his thigh, thick with scar tissue. I shine my ray there. The knot of scars starts to shrink, to heal, to go away. I sweep across his knees. "What about your knees?" The fellow to my left asks. "Yes," I reply. We’re all healing each other, now. We hurry, not sure our superpowers will last, not sure why we have them.
The next morning, upon waking, I found myself again aroused. However, in the shower this time, I was able to keep my hands at my sides, and simply be noticing...noticing my desire. It subsided some and I proceeded to the upper meditation hall.
I did my prostrations. The mind observing the upper self. I did my 40 long minutes of walking. The mind observing the lower self. And then I sat. The mind observing itself. At first, it appeared to be another unremarkable session, with its usual mix of boredom, doubt, fantasy, knee pain, and small signs of progress. But imperceptibly, something had shifted. Without forcing it to, or even wishing it so, my tummy relaxed. I found myself simply observing my abdomen and my thoughts and the small sounds happening around me. The ugly radio interview came up, as did women, as did grandiose speculations about the nature of the Universe — the full theater of my mind was on parade, just as it had been all week — yet something was different. I was at a subtle remove, simply observing. "The monkey mind is wily," Roger had said. "Our meditating mind is simple." His words, trite and tautological when I first heard them, now rang true. I hadn't extinguished any unwanted thoughts — the full tempest and trivia of my mind, and the aches and pains, and, yes, longings, of my body were still there — only now I was watching it all unfold from me, without being pulled along. I wasn't trying to drive; nor was I wishing any of it away. I had stepped back, somehow, into a place of no desire, no judgment. Paradoxically, this place of quiet emptiness was filled with a new feeling, a feeling not unlike kindness. A kindness towards myself; a simple recognition of my own tragic, inescapable humanness. And — in a way I hadn't understood before — I realized that such kindness was the basis for all other kindnesses; that one's own happiness was not a form of self-indulgence, but rather a precondition for one's good work in the world.
I sat there for quite a while, flush with my own neurons. The dawn sky blossomed from black to radiant violet to blue. A fly settled on my left big toe. Phra Sam and the Tallest Monk in Thailand were sitting in posture to either side of the Buddha altar. All three as still as night. I could hear one of the temple dogs half-heartedly chasing its tail along the edge of the courtyard wall.
Something had shifted inside me that morning, and the world, or at least the micro-world of Doi Suthep, seemed to have shifted along with it.
At breakfast that day I noticed Silent Tim break into a big smile. As usual he'd been sitting alone, eating in focused silence. I don't think I'd ever seen him smile before. He must have been tickled by some invisible private thought. He put his hand to his face and began to laugh. He was rocking back and forth in his chair, laughing. All in perfect silence.
Even Sam was touched with a certain grace. At reporting, he was encouraged by my progress. We shared a few laughs. Come to him with the right kind of expectations, I now saw, and he could be quite likeable. In his own way, he cared a lot for his students. He was disappointed I couldn't stay for the whole course.
How much had Tim and Sam been blank screens upon which I'd projected my own resentments, fears, and longings? And now, having had a Moment of Insight, I could see them differently. Were they just theories I had made up? Is this what the Buddhists mean by illusion? Had I imagined a solid self, a fixed character, out of what was really an amorphous flow of passing mental states, my mental states?
In a similar way, I thought I'd been hearing the Thai monks speak in English. Over the last week, as I'd happen to pass by a pair of monks chatting quietly in the garden or along the stairs, a string of Thai phonemes would pop out of one of their conversations, sounding exactly like an English phrase. “Take the Metro,” I thought I'd heard one monk say to the other, a few days after my arrival. On another occasion it was “Why not alligator now?” My brain, hungry for familiar patterns, and not finding them, was instead conjuring them out of the seeming chaos that lay near at hand.
But maybe it wasn't just my imagination. The Universe seemed to be conspiring in poetic little ways. During lunch that day, an old monk walked through the courtyard carrying a MobileCom plastic shopping bag. With a nod of my head I pointed him out to Hannes, the MobileCom slogan, "Choice of Perfection," ironically swinging along with the monk's slow stepping feet.
"Speaking of perfection," whispered Hannes, "have you seen the monk soccer field?"
I had. On an earlier walk, I'd come across it. It had goals made of tree branches and sidelines bounded by dirt-streaked saffron robes draped across broken-down fencing. Tucked away along an overgrown path beyond the last staircase, it felt like a little secret.
"Yesterday, I walked down there, and on past it, into the forest area."
"With lots of mosquito repellent, I hope?"
"Nope. Just watched them buzz around me, land on me, and bite me. I just stood there, leaning against this one tree, looking at all the other ones."
"You're such a hippie," I whispered back at him.
"For 40 minutes I was just standing there, thinking a tree is your best friend. This is the kind of thing I do when I'm on acid."
"That’s what you’re supposed to do on mushrooms. On acid you’re supposed to drive your motorcycle into a building or something."
As quietly as we could, we both laughed.
On my way to see Roger that afternoon I noticed an older monk and three student-monks sweeping away leaves that had fallen around the great bronze bells. Inevitably, one of the young monk's broom handles knocked against the bells. The inadvertent sounds were haunting, like a God-child learning to play the xylophone.
“You’ve had fruition," said Roger after I'd described that morning's sit and the stilled quality of mind that had followed. "It shows how important practice is for you. How ready you are."
We talked briefly about equanimity and bodhisattvas. I wanted to talk more.
“You’re thinking too much, you’re still liking your thinking too much.”
"But — "
"Here," and he took out a worn, slightly-more-than-pocket-sized, hard-bound volume. The Rubayat, by Omar Kayham. "Page 67." I found the page. "Read it. And take your time."
FOR in and out, above, about, below
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow show
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun
Round where Phantom Figures come and go.
AND if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in — Yes —
Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be — Nothing — Thou shalt not be less.
"It's not Vipassana," he said, when I'd finished, "but it might as well be. Now, go practice."
The moment of fruition marked the high point of my stay at Doi Suthep. In the few days remaining prior to my scheduled departure, my attention had already begun to inch out the door, prepping for re-entry. Maechi's once delicious meals became predictable. I found myself re-jiggering my itinerary in my head as I did my walking meditation, and sitting with a this will all be over soon escape clause that let me off the hook emotionally. I flirted blatantly with Tamsin, and became even sloppier about my vows, one morning sleeping in until 5:30 a.m. “We’re not running a resort country club here," Phra Sam had said to me during reporting.
In spite of my faltering discipline, and the fact that I was only half-way through the course, Sam had agreed to take me with him on his next visit to meet the mysterious Ajaan Tong. I packed my bags, and made a 2500 Baht ($US60) donation to Doi Suthep in thanks for all that I had received from my stay.
I took one last walk with Hannes, bowed gravely to Silent Tim, blew a prayerful kiss to Maechi, and exchanged email addresses with Tamsin in the hope that we might meet up in Bangkok when we were both no longer bound by our vows of celibacy. It was trickier to say goodbye to Tomas, as he was secluded in his hut, having had no food or sleep for nearly three days. In a final breach of discipline, Hannes and I walked past his hut that last evening to try to whisper goodbye through the door, but before we could even get close, Tomas stuck his head out the window and growled at us, half-delirious. I also paid Roger one final visit.
"You've met Ajaan Tong, yes?"
"Spoken with him?"
"Would you say he is enlightened?"
"See the floor?
"This is what Ajaan Tong would say if you asked him where nibbana was. See the floor?"
"See the ceiling?"
"Nibbana is somewhere in between."
"Hmm." I smiled.
"Nibbana loosely translates as a burning away," Roger continued.
"Yes, I remember reading that."
"The monks have a saying that if someone experiences arahat, they'd better put on a robe or they'll be dead within the day."
"To ground the intensity? To keep themselves pure?"
"The temperature of a perfect thought is 2000ºC."
"Thoughts don't really have temperatures."
"These do. And if you're not on a path of purification, you will not survive."
"You burn up."
"Like you said."
"No, literally. Burn up. Spontaneous combustion."
"Like, urban-myth spontaneous combustion?"
"Happened to the grandfather of a Chicago friend of mine. The family saw it. Documented in the National Enquirer."
After all I'd seen and heard at Doi Suthep, I was somehow not surprised that a man of Roger's intelligence had just used 'documented' and 'National Enquirer' in the same sentence.
"You know I don't believe in all this supernatural stuff."
"'Supernormal.' It's perfectly natural, just uncommon."
"I thought Buddhism was supposed to be empirical, based on direct experience."
"Yes, I've seen it."
"You saw someone burst into flames?"
"I saw a monk in Nepal move from one side of a field to another — in an instant."
"You saw this happen?" I asked skeptically.
"He was in front of me. And then — " Roger snapped his fingers. "He was 100 feet across the field."
"I don't believe it."
"Again, you don't have to."
"I've been told the really accomplished Tibetans can slow down their heartbeat until it's as if they're dead. That I can believe. That's a mind-body thing. But you don't just get to break the laws of physics whenever you want. No matter how wise you become, you can't teleport."
"Bi-locate," Roger corrected.
"Whatever. It's not possible."
"Bi-location. Levitation. Ascension. It's all possible at the higher levels."
"It's kind of like Resurrection. I've met several who can do it."
"Uh huh. And you're saying Ajaan Tong can do all this?"
Roger lifted his hands, palms out, in an anything is possible gesture. "He is one of the Great Ones. Go see for yourself."
We arrived at Chom Tong monastery just as the Buddhist holiday ceremony was about to begin. The main meditation hall was filled with monks, nuns and novices, radiating out in bands of white and saffron from the upraised front of the hall. Very slowly Ajaan Tong took the two steps up onto the platform, supported on the arm of a young monk. He was bent over, liver spots dotting his bald head. He sat, adjusted his robes, and leaned towards the mike. He spoke a few words of greeting, his voice barely audible, then led the evening's chanting. An English-language sign leaned against the stage: “You’re how old?!” it asked. Ajaan Tong was old. He did not look like a man who was going to levitate or suddenly bi-locate to the other side of the hall. A cat yawned and stretched itself at his feet. Around the room, I noticed six clocks set to four wildly different times.
Our audience with Ajaan Tong was set for the next morning. After waiting for nearly an hour, we were beckoned into an anteroom. I was nervous. I imagined he'd be able to see right through me. Would he approve? Or disapprove? I felt like a greenhorned mafia recruit being brought before the Don. With the velvet painting in the anteroom, and the vases of plastic ivy, even the decor was Goodfellas. We were finally brought inside. We bowed. We sat. There were a few moments of uncertain silence. If I was in the presence of greatness, I couldn't tell. Mostly the man just seemed tired. Sam introduced us. Ajaan Tong spoke to each of us in turn. Sam translated. He wanted to know if, out of special consideration to him, I would complete my full course. Out of respect, I said I would consider it. But this was a lie. I had no intention of going back to Doi Suthep for another 10 days. We bowed and left. And that was it. I realized later, my fly had been open the whole time.
A week later, after I was long gone to Laos, I received an email from Hannes. It seemed discipline at Doi Suthep had completely deteriorated. Phra Sam had found Hannes holding hands with Britta; several students had been discovered reading Osho on the sly. Apprentices were talking more frequently and in open disregard of the precepts. Tomas, Hannes and others were secretly doing yoga in their rooms. On the eve of his ordination, Tomas had written Sam a friendly letter explaining why he and his fellow students were choosing to go beyond the rules. The next morning Sam asked Tomas to leave Doi Suthep, refusing to ordain him. In protest, Hannes left with him. Britta, too.
Hannes stayed in Thailand for another four months, mostly at a hippie community in Pai. He's now living in Graz, Austria, teaching yoga.
Tomas, having found a saffron robe and ordained himself in an ad-hoc forest ceremony, became the wandering monk he'd hoped to be. All he was lacking was a monk ID card. The last anyone knew, he was drifting near-penniless from temple to temple, riding free on public busses, receiving food and alms in his begging bowl, until a few days into his stay, the monks would demand to see his ID card. He'd then slip away to another temple.
Tim completed the full course. Outside the walls of Doi Suthep, he was Silent Tim no longer, according to Hannes, who ran into him amongst a large group of people on the streets of Chiang Mai, talking non-stop, dancing like a madman and generally being a Jim-Carrey-like life of the party.
Sam transferred to a forest monastery not far from Chiang Mai; he continues to instruct foreign meditators and translate for Ajaan Tong.
Roger is still at Doi Suthep; his wife and three children visit occasionally.
In spite of the chaos at Doi Suthep, Tamsin stayed on for her whole course. I missed her in Bangkok, but met up with her in London a few months later. We broke several vows together.