Pilgrimage to Nowhere
Northern Thailand, February, 2005
If spiritual seekers to Thailand were treated like their sex tourist brethren, a contingent of saffron-robed monks would accost you at the Bangkok airport. They would get all up in your face with an A4-sized laminated menu of spiritual offerings, shouting at you "Intensive Vipassana Meditation! 21-day monastery stay! All-you-can-eat vegetarian meals! Hurt your knees! No sex! Donations only!"
This was not the scene that confronted me on my arrival in Bangkok - although I did find a menu. Instead of exclamation points, it had equanimous paragraphs; instead of A4-sized laminated paper, it was loosely distributed across several poorly-constructed web sites and a booklet from the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Bangkok.
It turned out I had a choice of over one hundred different temple stays, Buddhist instruction classes, and meditation retreats. At one end of the spectrum there was Wat Khao Tham, a boutique-ish Buddhist retreat on the backpacker island mecca of Ko Pha-Ngan, run by an expat Aussie-American couple - complete with nearby spa, yoga workouts and continental breakfasts. At the more austere end was the forest monastery of Wat Suanmok, home temple of the late Buddhasa Bikkhu, a monk greatly revered throughout Thailand for his anti-materialism and rejection of the worldly pleasures that he felt had corrupted the Buddhist establishment in Bangkok.
Bewildered by the options, I got in touch with a friend of a friend, Joe Cummings, author of Lonely Planet's Thailand and Laos guidebooks.
"I recommend Doi Suthep, just outside of Chiang Mai," he replied in an email. "It has a program for international students, and a strong lineage tied to one of the greatest living meditation masters in Thailand, Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo."
"Have you yourself practiced there?" I asked.
"Yes. In fact, I did the full 21-day intensive," he replied. "It was hard, very hard, but transformative."
"Sounds good," I said.
"Of course, it's been a few years since I've been there." Joe added in a postscript, "Things change." This is a disclaimer, I've noticed, that he and his Lonely Planet cohorts slip into every guidebook.
I contacted the monastery via email. A message came back from one Phra Sam. Phra is Thai for "monk"; Sam is Canadian for "Sam." On my application they wanted to know my goals. Goals? "Annihilate my ego, such as it is," I wanted to say (with the proviso that I could do this during a convenient abbreviated 10-day stay and still make my next flight). Instead I wrote "To make compassion is the source of my actions." I'm not sure what I meant by this, but it got me in.
* * *
It was late in the afternoon when I arrived at Doi Suthep. Saffron prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, slapping against the parking lot lamp posts. A few Thai families and several pairs of young European tourists were noisily making their way up the final 108 steps to the hilltop temple; some older and fatter tourists were waiting for the elevator that had been installed the previous year. At the edge of the parking lot pushcarts selling Buddhist paraphernalia were doing a brisk business. At the foot of the steps a woman and her twin daughters were begging.
The drive up from Chiang Mai to the 400-year-old temple had cut through a heavily forested mountainside. I'd split a combi with two German girls, one of whom was blonde, cute, and sufficiently charmed during our short half-hour together to give me her email and invite me to stay with her in Berlin - a city unfortunately not on my itinerary. But if I played my cards right, I was guessing, she would have invited me back to her guest house that night - the same night that I, in a karmically cruel twist of fate, would be putting on the white robes of an apprentice monk and swearing an oath of celibacy.
The two German girls and I ascended the stairs together, each with our own burdens. They wore sun hats, and carried only water bottles and tiny shoulder bags; I had a full pack on. I could have taken the elevator, but it occurred to me to make of these steps an impromptu mini-pilgrimage. Admittedly, this was no hard slog across the Tibetan Plateau to trek around Mount Kalish in driving snow, but it was what I had to work with. I would squeeze the pilgrim's narrative into these 108 stairs -- 108 being, according to Buddhist metaphysics, the number of difficulties to be overcome in the quest for enlightenment.
So why had I come? In the last four weeks I'd covered 20,000 miles and tramped around five countries. Coming to this monastery was a wholly different kind of journey. It was a personal test, a life experiment. I was going to sit still (literally) in one place for ten days, and travel inwards. Bangkok had taught me something about the sexual underground and my own boundaries; Tokyo, something about modernity and its mutability. With its molten underbelly bubbling to the surface, even Hawaii had given me a glimpse of the profound. This was different. I'd come to Doi Suthep to see if I had the stuff that monks are made of. I'd come because ever since my college years - and a spate of mystical disruptions I suffered through at that time - I'd wondered if this weren't my true calling. Deep into my thirties I was still having quasi-religious encounters with a dread- and awe-inspiring presence that I called The Void. Was this openness a blessing or a curse? Had I turned away from my greatest gift? Had I pursued a life of social activism and Abbie Hoffman-style pranking when, for the last twenty years, I should really have been sitting in the lotus position, seeking no-self?
Like any half-literate member of the counterculture, I was theoretically part Buddhist - and, in a sense, I'd come to Doi Suthep to try it on for size. When asked my religion, I often check the box "Other." If the form I'm filling out also has a blank line, I might write-in "atheist with a vivid imagination," "lapsed secular humanist," or simply "disorganized." In my salad days I'd hitchhiked around the West, reading the Beats, the Tao of Physics, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I'd parsed my acid experiences as much in the language of Jungian archetypes as Buddhist notions of Maya, Bardo, Nibbana, Karma, and Samsara. Decades later I'll still turn out in the rain in Central Park to hear the Dalai Lama speak, and over beers friends and I might exclaim "That's so Zen!" in the face of an opaque yet paradoxically perfect moment, each of us thinking we know what the others mean. In spite of this semi-Buddhist world view, and my fervid religious imagination - or maybe because of them - I was never a "joiner." Outside of a short weekend stay here and there at a Zen center, I had never seriously committed to an organized spiritual practice.
And so I'd come to Doi Suthep to see what would happen sitting in silence day after day after day. Would I freak out? Would I invite back in the bottomless vertigo of those earlier mystical experiences? Would I go out of my skull with boredom? Or would I burn away some of my vanities and dross and walk out of this spiritual boot camp slightly more realized, slightly more adult?
At the half-way point of my mini-pilgrimage up Doi Suthep's 108 stairs, the back of my t-shirt, where it pressed up against the pack, was wet through with sweat. My pack was heavy with books - in part because of the six pounds of Lonely Planet cellulose I was still carrying, in part because my quasi-Buddhist self-education was still in full swing. At an English-language bookstore in Bangkok I had added two volumes to my load: a practical manual for Vipassana meditation, and a collection of essays from one of the country's most outspoken public intellectuals criticizing the corruption and backwardness of present-day institutionalized Buddhism in Thailand (Doi Suthep included). I had also broken the cardinal rule of backpacking, and included a hardback: Pankaj Mishra's revisionist account of the Buddha's life, An End to Suffering - an ironic title, given its contribution to the growing soreness in my shoulders where my pack-straps were digging in.
* * *
A few days earlier, on my way out of Bangkok - still equal-parts unnerved and thrilled at almost losing my eyes in a hail of pussy-squirted darts - it had been this same backpack full of books that I had thrown over my shoulder at the train station as I'd set off for Chiang Mai, a day's journey to the North. But as the train chugged through the hard squalor of the Bangkok suburbs, I had realized I needed more than a day. I needed some time to read; I needed some time to shift spiritual gears from the diesel-choked metropolis to what I imagined would be a chaste and mindful mountaintop of wind chimes and sunrises. And so, I had made a stop-over at the ruined city of Ayutahya, a few hours North and right along the rail line.
"For 400 years and a succession of 34 reigns," Lonely Planet tells us, "Ayutahya was the cultural center of the emerging Thai nation." Marveled at by early European explorers until it was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, this ancient capital was now a far-flung field of ruins. I spent the day, from sunup to sundown, biking from one broken edifice to another, my three books in tow. There's a tendency, almost a default setting at such sites, to scurry around collecting facts - historical, architectural, or otherwise. With Ayutayah encompassing more than forty palaces, fortresses, and temple buildings of no small significance, I felt the pull. Whether it is genuine curiosity, a contemporary desire to show respect for the host culture, or a faux-intellectual notion (in the tradition of the 19th century Grand Tour) that this is what a proper, self-elevating tourist ought to do, I tried to resist the impulse. Instead I moved slowly, trying to take in a larger sense of things. I'd find a shady spot leaning against a weather-beaten stupa and read about Buddha's talk to the residents of Kesaputta. In a nook of a bell-shaped chedi - its exposed orange brick gnarled by roots - I'd ponder the seven stages of purification in Vipassana practice, and after a while, it seemed the whole city was a monument to the core Buddhist idea of impermanence: the transitory nature of all worldly phenomena. What was once a gilded, bejeweled memorial to a King's military triumph was now a crumbling marker of a long forgotten battle. All the soldiers, both slain and survivors, had been dead for centuries. The city itself had been sacked and ransacked. The competing empires, their kings and generals, all vanished. Lichen covered the stones, tough weeds grew between the cracks. I nestled into a corner along one of the wat's broken shoulders and read further.
And I was reminded of why Buddhism is my favorite religion. For one thing, there is its empiricism: Buddhism is based on experience rather than faith. It is not "revealed," it is "realized" - you earn your insights. Another thing, Buddhist ethics: there is no sin in Buddhism - certainly nothing close to sin in the Christian sense of the term. Lust and hatred are not sinful emotions, per se. Buddhist teaching merely points out that such emotions can cause pain - directly or indirectly - if not dealt with wisely. Approaching ethics not as a dogmatic straitjacket, but as a set of guidelines based on the actor's intention, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to judge somebody else's moral behavior. This might seem like a problem, but to me, given the hypocritical and spirit-killing way that organized Christianity tends to wield the hammer of sin and judgment, it comes as a relief. Third, Buddhism's notions of freedom and responsibility: in Buddhism there is no fate, no higher power that compels us to action or accountability. And there is no self or soul that pre-determines who we are. There is only karma, which in Buddhism - in a refinement of the original Hindu concept - is about volition. You are what you have done, are doing, and will do in the future. This karmic understanding of the workings of the universe endows us with radical responsibility. In this way, Buddhism is akin to Western existentialism - another reason I like it.
As the sun moved across the sky, and I biked from one weather-broken stone stupa to another, the surroundings continued to echo the folly and vanity of human striving. As the sun completed its circuit, I too was being chased to the cliff's edge by the tiger of parable, to dangle off the vine. The white mouse of day (soon to be followed by the black mouse of night) chewed at my life-line, leaving me that much closer to the end of my own days. Like the dangling man in the parable, I was suspended over the void. Instead of plucking a luscious strawberry from the cliff face, however, I was spearing plastic forkfuls of mango and sticky rice from a zip-lock bag and basking in the late afternoon sun.
In spite of all that I liked about Buddhism, there was also much that left me puzzled, if not deeply troubled. Here's one question I posed in my journal that day in Ayutahya:
Impermanence is all fine and good, and seems like a true description of the workings of the Universe, but if I'm just a series of passing mental states, and if all of us are such, then if I love someone, whom do I love? And why?
With love - not happiness, not even truth - being for me the deepest purpose in life, this question was urgent, and I had no good answer. Also, what was I to do with these ideas of "attachment" and "not-doing" and taking the "middle-path" between extremes? I believe very much in attachment; I believe in doing. I am a creature of extremes. I want to be attached, fiercely attached. I want to love, headlong and foolhardily. I want to kick ass in the world and care - profoundly care - about the results. How can I reconcile these deep-seated desires with Buddhism's fundamental teaching, and the goal of all Buddhist practice - non-attachment?
Finally, I distrust any kind of organized religion, and Buddhism, while not as organized as, say, the Spanish Inquisition, is still fairly organized. As a spiritual loner skeptical of gurus and priding myself on having forged my own eclectic path, I've held fast to Andre Gide's paradoxical dictum - believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it. Yet, on and off for years, I'd longed for a spiritual teacher. Someone not just to answer my vexing philosophical questions, but who could help me channel my periodically violent encounters with "the Void" into a more grounded spiritual practice. Who would I find at Doi Suthep? Who was this Phra Sam? This Ajaan Tong? If they had something to teach me, would I be able to get out of my own way enough to even listen?
* * *
As we neared the top of the stairs to the temple at Doi Suthep, my shoulders were hurting and my calves were sore. As befits a pilgrim, even one on a mini-pilgrimage such as this, I wore the sweat like a marker of virtue, the soreness and pain felt almost purifying. Cresting the final stair - in effect, reaching the 108th and final stage of enlightenment - we arrived at a ticket-window.
The German girls had to pay, while I - an apprentice monk to be - was let in for free. They passed into the main monastery complex; I walked around the side towards the monks' quarters. It was a separation of worlds: tourists and idle chatter and my lovely blonde temptress in one, me and silence and sublimated sexual desire in the other.
After wandering fifty paces vaguely in the direction indicated by the ticket lady, I was greeted by a white-robed nun. She was squat and bald. Like a stern housekeeper, her eyes sized me up but betrayed no judgment. "Phra Sam was expecting you earlier," she said, her English choppy with a thickly-accented German. "He is not here now. Come." She led me along the back edge of the monastery, down a concrete staircase, past a half-built dormitory - rebar poking up into the sky - and finally into a courtyard with scattered concrete benches and two monks' robes hanging on a clothes line, saffron against the blue sky.
As we passed through the courtyard, a scruffy black dog crossed our path. I took a few steps off the path to scratch it behind the ears. Am I doing this mindfully enough? I wondered. Can anyone tell?
She led me to a poorly-lit meditation room and gave me a thin mat and several wool blankets with which to set up a bed in the corner. Few words were exchanged; speech was purely functional. Dinner had already happened at 11am. The next meal would be at 6:30 the following morning. All apprentices were expected to rise at 4am. Tomorrow after breakfast, Phra Sam would conduct a vow-taking ceremony and give me my white apprentice robes. Until then, I was to wear my most white and most loose-fitting clothing and meditate in the hall upstairs.
After settling in I went upstairs, quietly entering a large rectangular meditation hall. The walls were white plaster. The window frames red and peeling. The floor's wood slats stained unevenly blond. At one end, a Buddha shrine, at the other, a bank of fluorescent lights had been turned on as it had grown dark outside by now. I pulled a square cushion under my butt and sat down to meditate. Legs crossed, eyes closed, hands cupped one inside the other resting just below the navel, I tried to let my mind quiet down, coming back to the breath, setting aside wandering thoughts when they might arise. My mind, however, was anything but quiet. I was on a fierce boil. I'd been jamming sights and sounds and smells into my various sensory orifices for four weeks and they were all in play. I had "monkey mind." Little creatures were clambering all over the furniture inside my head, gibbering away. I knew I needed to settle down, and it would take time, but I couldn't help but wonder whether I'd made a huge mistake. Looking around in the flickering fluorescent light I wondered what was this place that I'd come to, with its clumsily-made Buddha statue, and strange religious arcana, and that smell - musky, like damp wool. And why was I taking 10 days out of my grand adventure to be frustrated by the everyday workings of my own thick head?
I realized I had somehow expected reality to be more real here. I had expected the East to have something the West could not offer. That somehow by practicing Vipassana, the "Higher Vehicle," the purest form of Buddhism, the one closest to the original teachings, in a country with a 1500-year-long tradition of this practice, I would get it. It would happen - this purer kind of seeing - almost by osmosis, by the sounds and smells and the residual afterglow of centuries of enlightenment still hanging around these meditation halls.
But in the wake of my first attempts, it seemed that this was just a romantic notion, and I just another all-too-gullible Westerner on a spiritual tourism jag, another experience junkie who had to try it all, another lost soul vaguely in search of some ill-defined notion of self - or no-self. And with a bad attitude, at that.
On the way back down to my room, a fellow apprentice monk greeted me with a tiny bow. His name was Adrian - in his mid-twenties, American. Serious and deliberate.
"You've just arrived," he said very quietly. "Is everything okay?"
"Yes, mostly. Thank you."
"Any questions I can answer?"
"Well, has this been a good place for you?"
"Yes. Very good. But you must make the effort. Phra Sam is a good teacher."
"Okay, thank you," I said, doing the tiny bow thing. "And, um, I appreciate you expending your precious, highly-rationed allotment of words on me." He smiled. We went our separate ways. During the next ten days, I would talk to him on only one other occasion.
When I got back to the room, there was another pack leaning against the wall, another bed laid out in the opposite corner, and a body in it. His face was turned away from me, but I could hear him breathing. Everything around him was Spartan and neat. As I was falling off to sleep, a cat walked by, brushing my shoulder. A thin tabby. She curled up next to my chest. It was not yet 10pm. In spite of my doubts and bad attitude, it seemed I was already the chosen one.
That night I had a dream. I'm walking with Anne, the cute German girl from earlier that afternoon. She is pushing a stroller, testing it out, "practicing" for when she has a kid. She's trying to get pregnant. I try to be polite as she describes her fucking schedule and fertility process to me. Instead of a baby in the carriage, there is a little Buddha. We walk. We talk. I want to kiss her.
This essay is part one in a five-part series accounting the author's stay in a monastery in Thailand. An abridged version previously appeared in The Sun.