Spiritual Boot Camp
This essay is part two in a five-part series accounting the author's stay in a monastery in Thailand. For part one, click here. An abridged version previously appeared in The Sun.
[Pilgrimage to Nowhere] • When you join the US Army, you sign on the dotted line, give up your rights, shave your head, receive a uniform, and submit to eight weeks of grueling physical training. When you join a Buddhist monastery – even as a Western apprentice monk just passing through the white robes – you temporarily become part of the Sangha, the great community of monks. You take vows to follow certain precepts, among them not to engage in sexual activity of any kind, not to steal, not to indulge in self-adornment, not to engage in useless speech and not to kill. There's an elaborate induction ceremony – which Phra Sam took me through that first morning – in which I had to repeat back a goodly number of long and incomprehensible Thai and Pali sentences, and prostrate myself to idols and personages I wasn't sure I believed in, while my knees and ankles hurt a lot. I was thinking: it's all very medieval. I was thinking: No drinking or fucking? Okay. That might be good for me. No idle chatter? That one is going to be tough. No personal adornment? With no chance of fucking, why waste time trying to look good? No killing? That's easy, that's a freebie. I've never killed anyone, why would I want to start now? That's what I was thinking as my knees and ankles locked up in pain, and I bowed down to the plaster Buddha statuette and scanned along with the fine-print of the English translation to see what I was actually getting myself into. And I noticed that "no sexual activity" meant I couldn't talk to any of the nuns, "no stealing" meant I wasn't going to be able to "borrow" anyone else's shampoo and "no killing" meant I'd have to be careful about swatting away mosquitoes. With a "Question Authority" bumper sticker tattooed to my soul since college, I chafed against such inflexibilities. Yet there was something about their pureness and hardness that drew me to them.
After the vow-taking, I removed my two rings and the stud from my left ear. Phra Sam handed me a neatly folded pile of white clothing: a pair of draw string pants and two pairs of front-buttoning shirts, all made of light cotton. These were the "robes" that were to mark me as an apprentice monk.
"Are you clear on the practice?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. Then thought about it. "Well, no. Not completely."
He demonstrated how to do the walking meditation: slow, even footfalls – each step broken into three distinct parts. I followed his form, feeling silly. It seemed more like a pantomime of walking, than walking itself.
"Vipassana is insight meditation. The original teaching of the elders," said Sam, as he sat down in a simple Burmese meditation posture, indicating I should do the same. "All suffering is the result of ignorance and attachment," he went on. "We overcome this through the practice of mindfulness."
"When you meditate, thoughts, feelings will arise. Try to neither indulge them, nor suppress them."
"The Middle Way."
"Yes, In Vipassana, we follow always the Middle Way."
Phra Sam was pale, his blond eyebrows invisible unless you stood close to him. He'd been in a punk band in Windsor, Ontario, I'd heard, and - bald, wiry and pale - still looked the part. Instead of combat boots and chrome-studded black leather, he now wore flip flops and the saffron of an ordained monk. Instead of a snarl or rebel yell, his lips were pursed in a slight and permanently affixed smile. A smile of wisdom? Or a tic picked up at monk finishing school? I hoped it was the former.
"Focus on the rising and falling of the abdomen," he instructed. "Be mindful at all times. Always be noticing...noticing. When you're eating, be chewing...chewing. When brushing your teeth, brushing...brushing."
"Should I actually be saying noticing...noticing in my mind?" I asked. He looked at me, his permanent smile frowning slightly.
"Just be 'noticing...noticing.'"
It was hard to imagine this becalmed man crashing away at his three chords back home. There was definitely something bloodless and out of place about him. He seemed somehow insubstantial, as if having traded up from the mosh pit to the dharma, he'd spent too much time in Canadian winters and basement night clubs and neon lit interiors to ever be warmed by the red curries or sunlight of Thailand.
The daily routine at Doi Suthep was straightforward. Wake up at 4 a.m. Meditation. Breakfast at 6:30 a.m. More meditation. "Dinner" at 11:30 a.m. Even more meditation. Reporting - a short check in with Phra Sam about your progress - at 3 p.m. Yet more meditation. To bed by 10pm. At the short zen retreats I'd done back in the U.S., meditation was a group activity, sessions marked by the sounding of a gong. At Doi Suthep each apprentice was on their own. Unless you were sleeping, eating or reporting, you were expected to be meditating - maybe as much as eight or ten hours a day. Exactly when and where were up to you.
Those first few days, knowing of only the one meditation hall, I worked exclusively there. I'd begin at one end of the room, lift my foot, pause, move my foot, pause, set it down heel first, then lift the other foot. Lift, step, down...lift, step, down, I'd try not to say inside my head, as I walked lengthwise across the room, sunlight spilling across the long floor boards. Then the prostrations: palms pressed together touching brow, then apart and flat to the ground, brow just brushing the floor. Three sequences, one after the other, not unlike a series of yoga movements. Finally the sitting: feet tucked under the calves of the opposite leg; back straight; hands cupped one inside the other, resting just below the belly button; eyes half open and cast downwards.
There was something profound about the experience: the simplicity of simply walking and breathing and being, and paying attention to that walking and breathing and being. After months – no, years – of running around, I'd finally arrived at a kind of ground zero, a sanctuary where I could stop the world. There was a gentleness as well, a feeling that if I could just sit there and be quiet and wait, reality would slowly let down its guard, step out of the shadows and lie its head in my lap.
But reality did anything but surrender. If you've never done it before, meditation is full of surprises. What should be the easiest thing in the world – walking around, sitting around, and breathing – is, in fact, excruciatingly difficult. Waking-up at 4 a.m., I was thick headed and disoriented much of the early morning. I found walking meditation irksome: one monotonous footfall after another – to what purpose? Sitting was no better, as, breath after breath, my back would grow sore, my knees cramp up in pain, my stomach trap air pockets of tension; all the while, my attention slipping away into some ugly corner of my mind. From the outside, I was sitting, quietly following my breath. But on the inside, those first few days, I was a roller-coaster of inner turmoil.
What could be so terrible about simply sitting? Or breathing? But I wasn't just breathing. I was noticing...noticing what was happening while I was breathing. A particularly nasty radio interview from seven months ago kept hijacking my attention. Unprepared and off my game that morning, I'd been ambushed by the right wing talk show host and his call-in cronies. I'd thought I'd put it past me – it was quite a while ago, and just one black eye among many successes that year – but during those first few days at Doi Suthep it kept coming up. I'd assume the sitting posture, begin breathing, and fwoosh, there it was – the same shame, the same anger I'd felt that day. Before I even knew what I was doing, I'd find myself spinning out revenge fantasies, rehearsing various alternate scenarios: things I could have done differently or said on-air that would have redeemed my dignity. Most disturbing was catching my mind in the middle of all this. By whose orders had it yet again had these thoughts? By its own whims, it seemed. Who was "I," then? (And what did I and my mind have in common?) Cliché stoner talk, for sure; fodder for late-night college bull sessions. But, when observed up close and personal ten hours a day, unsettling in a visceral way.
I'd try to reel myself in, bringing my attention back to the simple rising and falling of my abdomen. Until it (or was it I?) drifted off again. This constant process was more than frustrating. All I was trying to do was be present – the simplest of tasks, one would imagine – and yet I couldn't do it. Instead I was living in the past; I was obsessed with the past. I was also obsessed with the future, it turned out. Sitting there quietly, trying to be present, I thought incessantly about the future: about future career possibilities, about what I'd do when I got home to New York, and about girls – two in particular whom I had high hopes for back home. Would I ever hook-up with either of them? What would it be like? Might it turn into real love? And what was real anyway, in light of Buddhist notions of illusion and impermanence? Again, scenarios were rehearsed; some graphic, all involuntary. I was supposed to be focusing on the breath, on becoming enlightened, on following in the footsteps of the great Awakened One, but my mind had other things in mind.
I thought also about the rest of my trip. Did I have time to get to all the places I wanted to? How could I rejigger my itinerary to make it all work? I thought about the travel blog entries I'd put up just before coming to Doi Suthep, in particular the unexpected kudos I'd received from my travel agent, an intrepid traveler whom I admired greatly. Again and again his praise-filled email circled back upon my attention. It was a rude awakening to see myself caught up in all these little webs of seduction. "Vanity, vanity," Ecclesiastes tells us, "all is vanity." And there it was, and it wasn't pretty.
Maybe worst of all, I didn't trust my understanding of what I was trying to do. Was the walking meditation supposed to bring on a certain inner state? Because nothing was happening. Maybe my footfalls were all wrong? When sitting, was I seeking emptiness? Or happiness? Perfect focus or perfect relaxation? I knew we were supposed to practice meditation without judgment; I knew one could not be "good at" it or "bad at" it, per se. But being who I am, it was not only obvious to me that I actually was bad at it, I also couldn't help but judge myself for not being non-judgmental about it.
When I wasn't putting myself into severe physical and emotional pain by meditating, I was trying to be mindful of my daily activities, as Phra Sam had instructed. When I heard birds chirping in the garden, I'd be listening...listening. When I found myself scratching a mosquito bite, I'd try to notice myself scratching...scratching. I wasn't sure how far the monks took this practice, but there were times when I found myself burping...burping and farting...farting and even licking...licking a popsicle. Besides their vows, maybe this was why monks didn't have sex – because it would be simply too confusing, with too many things to keep track of. Overall, it was hard not to feel somewhat silly engaging in this gentle but relentless mindfulness, and feeling no different for it. Maybe, I consoled myself, it was having an invisible effect, which would only show itself cumulatively over time.
Our lives were bounded by routine, and also by the physical boundaries of the monastery itself. There was no internet, no phone, no radio, no TV, no movies, and no venturing off the grounds. While we were at Doi Suthep, it was our only world. The main monastery complex – where relics were housed, rituals held, pilgrimages made, and favors granted – occupied the summit of the great hill. With its stunning views, famous golden stupa, and delicately carved wihan roof gables, it was here that foreign tourist and native Thai alike came to look, admire and pay their respects. Just below the lip of the hill, spread along and down the hillside, were the monks quarters and meditation halls – ten or so buildings connected by gardens, concrete pathways, courtyards and wooden staircases. This was our little world-within-a-world, housing over 100 Thai monks, Phra Sam's International Program, as well as a school for orphans. Visitors touring the main monastery who chose not to look too closely, might not notice our hillside complex at all. Yet it was impossible for us not to feel their presence.
The irony, of course, was that after a month backpacking across five countries and half a continent, I'd finally stopped sight-seeing only to put down anchor in a tourist attraction. We'd wake up at four a.m. in darkness and silence. For the next five hours the entire hilltop and monastery were ours. At 9 a.m. the first tourists would arrive. We'd know they were on-site because of the arrhythmic sound of clanging bells. A set of ancient bronze bells, oxidized copper-green by centuries of rain, sat alongside one of the central monastery buildings. There was a plaque informing visitors that they could ring the bells if they wished. Random, and at times cacophonous, the clanging bells were like human wind chimes, enveloping our daily meditations in an odd but not unwelcome sound – and reminding us that beyond our world-within-a-world, the larger world was still there. By 6 p.m. every evening the temple doors would close to outside visitors. The bells would fall silent. The place would be ours again.
It was hard not to view these tourists with a certain kind of benign condescension. They were just passing through, while here we were: deep at it, day after day after day. For these few weeks at least, we were the locals. And we were working. Even if our job was "doing nothing," we were at least doing something. What were they doing but taking pictures of themselves and clanging bells?
Of course, this was high hypocrisy. Had I not behaved just like them, not long ago, in a string of temples from Tokyo to Bangkok? I'd admired the architecture, peeked into forbidden nooks and crannies, and surreptitiously observed the monks at work and leisure. I'd been a drive-by voyeur then, but here at Doi Suthep it was I who was in the fishbowl. When I'd cross paths with these day-tourists, they'd stop and briefly stare. I was the freak in the religious theme park, now. An exotic farang in his white robes.
It was hard to get a bead on the place. With the beautiful view, all meals provided, and the programmed group activities, it almost felt like we were staying at a resort. But where was the beach? The tennis courts? The lounge chairs? The only sport here was pantomime walking; the only relaxation, brute force sitting. At other times, with its rough lodgings and reveille at 4 a.m., Doi Suthep felt more like a Buddhist army barracks – a boot camp for the mind. Or, maybe a cult? After all, you couldn't talk to anyone, we all wore the same clothes, and you weren't allowed to leave the compound. But what kind of army would make head-shaving optional? And what kind of cult didn't want your money? Or your soul? Buddhists didn't even believe in souls.
But they did believe in reincarnation. How was that possible? This was one of the many questions I hoped Phra Sam could shed some light on.
At three o'clock every afternoon we had reporting with Phra Sam. He would sit in his private meditation room. We would wait quietly in the hallway. When it was our turn, we'd enter, bow three times and sit. Phra Sam would begin each session with the same question: "How is your practice?" "Not so great," I might say, as I did at our first session, "my mind is drifting all over the place." He would nod, and ask if I was seeing lights or colors. I'd tell him no. If you do, ignore them, he'd say. We'd go over some details about meditation posture and the like and he'd adjust the regimen, every day or two increasing the duration of walking and sitting segments, in five minute increments, over the original fifteen. He'd ask if I had any questions or problems. And I'd think, yes, I did. Big questions. About love. About illusion. Big problems, too. How could I to reconcile equanimity with fierce worldly engagement? Was the Buddhist theory of dependent origination consonant with post-modern notions of différance? Why did Thailand's Sangha not allow the full ordination of women? How could such an otherwise "advanced" religion hold on to the utterly illogical notion of a reincarnated soul? Why –
"So, no questions? No problems?"
"Well, yes, actually, I have a problem. With equanimity." I said that first session.
"You do? With equanimity?"
And I launched in: "I spent last year working furiously to defeat Bush. Much of my adult life I've fought against injustices by big corporations and the government. How can I fight for change, and care about winning – and still approach life with equanimity?"
He was silent for a while. "All that fighting," he said finally, "all that struggle, breeds attachment and bad karma."
"Sure, but – "
"The government is all in your head."
"All in my head?"
"But – "
"You think too much. Practice more. Think less."
I was a little stunned. Then again, maybe he was right. Not about the government, but about me. I probably was thinking too much. It's a character flaw. Though, it didn't help that I was spending ten hours a day observing my own thoughts.
Later that evening, after the tourists had gone and the bells grown quiet, I ascended to the main set of buildings and walked out along the temple's marble checkerboard patio. It was a glorious night: the stars above, the lights of Chiang Mai below, the rhythmic chanting of the orphan monks filling the space between. Liking...liking, I said to myself, standing there, trying to notice my liking without actually liking my liking, and I fell into a quiet conversation with three of the Thai monks in permanent residence at Doi Suthep. Here were true-to-life Buddhist monks, draped in saffron, committed to the spiritual path, years of meditation having seasoned their souls. How had they come to be here, I asked them. How had meditation changed their lives? "Vipassana," said one, "saved me from drink and migraines." The second nodded solemnly. "Vipassana can make you rich," he said, "it can make you a better person, and more serious about work and family." The third one remained after the other two had strolled off. He was short, younger than the others, all smiles. He had come to Doi Suthep as a little boy. In his broken English, he asked me if I could help him get to the USA.
There was a surprising degree of physical and social separation between the apprentices in Phra Sam's international program and the Thai monks in permanent residence at Doi Suthep. We lived and meditated in separate buildings, and besides an exchange of bows and smiles as we passed each other in the garden, or the occasional encounter as had happened with the three young monks on the patio that evening, there was little interaction. One notable exception was Phra Aroon who assisted Phra Sam with meditation instruction and some translation, and at 5'11" had to be the tallest non-White monk in all of Thailand. Another was our cook, Maechi Sunee. Her quarters, on the ground floor off the courtyard, doubled as a kitchen, as well as the emotional center of our little world. She was quite handsome, in her thirties or forties, her head shaven, her face round and radiant, her eyes full of kindness. Meals were not fancy, but they were ample and delicious; traditional Thai curries, soups, vegetables, fruit, and strange puddings.
Mealtimes, though mostly taken in silence, were a social occasion of sorts. At breakfast my first morning, a girl with a pony-tail handed me a plate and smiled. At the next meal, I helped her get a few slippery slices of mango into her bowl. "Thanks," she said, very quietly. Given the isolation in which we spent most of our days, these felt like significant conversations. A few meals later a skinny young man who always seemed to be smiling took it upon himself to make sure I knew there was a second meditation hall available to us. I hadn't known this, and I thanked him. Tomas had been in Thailand for five months and was to be ordained in a week or so. He said he'd been practicing meditation for quite a number of years back home in Minnesota, yet he looked barely out of his teens.
One of the ten precepts we had all vowed to uphold was to refrain from taking meals after midday. Our lunch-time 11 a.m. meal was therefore our last meal of the day, with nothing more until 6:30 a.m. the next morning. And so, one day I found myself sitting in the sunlit courtyard at 11:50 a.m., looking at the remaining food on my plate much like a sailor might take his last look at land before setting sail. Hannes, a new arrival from Austria, was sitting on the grass not far away. Dessert that day included a fruit I'd never seen before: its flesh was white and pink, flecked with tiny edible black seeds. It was succulent, striking to behold, and melted in my mouth with a taste and texture somewhere between watermelon and mango.
"Do you know what this is?" I asked him quietly.
"Dragon fruit," he whispered back.
Hannes was in his early thirties, short brown hair, decently handsome, and Austrian. He had the air of someone bemused, gently charmed by the universe, not quite sure what it was all about, not overly concerned either, but glad to be along for the ride. I liked him immediately.
"What does dragon fruit look like before it's cut up?"
"Like one of those spiked medieval clubs," he answered in perfect English. Ironic, yah?"
I imagined we were both thinking of that quintessential Buddhist symbol, the lotus flower, whose roots are sunk into pond-bottom mulch, yet blossoms forth a beautiful white flower.
"Ah, glasshoppah," I whispered back to him, "the ironies of nature – most sure gateway to wisdom."
He placed his hands together and bowed slightly. "We must all be like dee suttuhl dlagon fluit."
Over those first few days, I was careful to follow the precepts I'd sworn to. I hadn't "borrowed" anyone's shampoo, I'd managed to refrain from touching myself, and though I wasn't exactly sure where to draw the line between "useless" and useful speech, I had tried to err on the side of caution. It came as quite a surprise then, at the end of breakfast one morning, to see two of our crew converse loudly and at length and in three languages. What could be so important? The Swiss guy, it seemed, wanted to let the Bulgarian guy know that the only word he knew in Bulgarian was suansig, and the Bulgarian guy wanted to make sure the Swiss guy knew that this meant, "I want to eat you." The Swiss guy already knew this, having recently had a Bulgarian girlfriend. After witnessing this conversation, I wondered if I had misunderstood the strictures against useless speech.
There was one among our cohort, however, who took this precept very seriously: my roommate Tim. He never said a word to me during our entire stay. In fact, after three days rooming together, he hadn't yet made eye-contact with me; a curt nod of the head was the most involved communication we'd had. He wasn't actively avoiding me, just single-mindedly in his own place. He was dense, sturdily built, head shaven – military in his focus, in his discipline, even in his movements. He'd arranged his things neatly and efficiently in his corner of the room, and except when required by ritual, remained perfectly silent. This both impressed me and unnerved me. "How come we nevah tawk?" I wanted to ask him, in my best Borscht-belt accent. Silent Brother Tim, Hannes and I came to call him.
"Any questions about the practice?" Phra Sam asked at our next session. "Any problems?" He was flanked by Haus Frau Sandra and the Tallest Non-White Monk in Thailand.
This time I avoided philosophy and wisely limited my questions to practical matters.
"May I meditate in the garden?" I asked.
"If I wear socks, must they also be white?"
"That won't be necessary."
"Why do you have us focus on just the rising and falling of the abdomen, and not the full path of the breath?"
"Because that's how we do it here."
"When meditating, how do I relax while also exerting a focused effort?"
"Ah, that is the question. It takes mindfulness, patience...and time."
Phra Sam seemed pleased. This was more the kind of session he had in mind.
"Now, I have a question for you," he said.
Finally, I thought, wisdom, koans, soul-plumbing...
"When you're walking, are the left and right foot separate, or one?"
Ah, the Vipassana equivalent of a Zen koan. I said nothing, just bowed my head in the wisest way I knew how, letting the silence speak for itself.
He arched his eyebrows.
I smiled back.
"Separate or one?"
Mu, I wanted to say. The Japanese word that means neither yes nor no. I wanted to place a potted plant on my head. I wanted him to hit me with a big stick. I wanted that proverbial bucket of water to break open and let the reflection of the moon wash out into oblivion.
"Separate or one?"
"Well, both, I guess. Sort of."
"One ends in the mind before the other begins, yes?
"Uh, Okay." I had no idea what he was driving at now and he didn't seem particularly happy with me either.
"There's three kinds of death, yes?"
Okay, death is good, I thought. Death is at the center of everything.
"There's the death of the moment in the mind; the death of the person, though they're not really dead – "
"Ego death," I helpfully threw in. This was familiar territory.
"And the death of attachment, yes?"
"So, separate or one?"
"Yes, the feet."
"Um, I'm not trying to be difficult, but..."
"Fine," he said, curtly. "Do twenty minutes: twenty minutes walking; twenty minutes sitting." The interview was over, the recruit dismissed.
As I headed back to the upper meditation hall, a temple dog stared mournfully out from a shaded doorstep. I noticed how ragged the garden was: its pond thick with algae, the elephant sculpture weatherworn, the cracks in its concrete head filled in with mortar. What was this place? What was I doing here? A throng of saffron-clad child-monks, their classes over for the day, were playing ping pong. An elderly nun was sweeping the concrete pathways, a traditional short-handled Thai broom in each hand. She wielded them as if she were twirling swords. I felt strangely homeless.
The next morning, after another frustrating bout of monkey mind, the pony-tailed girl and I found ourselves taking a break at the same time. Her name was Terri. She was from Arizona.
"So this is day three?" She asked softly.
"Yes. How 'bout you?"
"How long you in for?" The conversation was beginning to sound like two prison inmates getting acquainted.
"The full twenty-one."
"Me, just ten."
"And how's it going?" she asked.
"Up and down, you know."
"Yeah, I know," she said. "I think I'm over the hump now, but the first couple of days can be very difficult – physically and emotionally."
"Uh huh. And philosophically, too," I threw in.
"Let's just say that Buddhism and I are not altogether on the same page yet, and Phra Sam won't really answer my questions, and, well, last night's Dharma talk..." Phra Sam's weekly wisdom chat had focused on the "filth" of sexual temptation. "It was, ah..." My voice trailed off, inviting her to fill the gap.
"Well, it's a very traditional form of Buddhism. You take from it what you can."
I nodded and smiled. We said nothing more.
Later that morning, during sitting meditation, I felt my mind gathering focus. I'm finally making progress, I thought to myself. Just relax, trust the process. But by evening my brain was again a scramble of desire and preoccupation. I felt defeated, the frustration and despair as strong as ever. What am I learning here? I wondered. What am I learning about myself except that I'm prideful and restless. Stuck in my head. A type A obsessive. A ghost living in the past; an egotist fantasizing about the future. And was there even an "I" to have all these feelings? Would that "hump" ever come? Buddha was kicking my ass.
Images by Richard Lilly, used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.