Tuesday, August 30, 2011

life in a Buddhist monastery - part 3

Coming back to the forest monastery felt good. Despite the constant rain and the lack of sunshine I was happy to be back. From the smiles in their faces, I could tell that the monks were happy to see me too. 

the waterfall view from the guesthouse veranda
Life in the monastery starts with a 4am gong. Around 4:30, while it's still completely dark we gather in the main hall for 45 minutes of chanting followed by another 45 minutes of meditation. Around 6, some monks walk into the village barefoot to collect the almsfood. While the monks are in the village, the residents of the monastery are in the kitchen cooking. That part of Thailand is mostly populated by Burmese refugees and it's very poor. The villagers do not have enough food to regularly share with the monks so the monastery has a kitchen to prepare a wider variety of food.  Around 7:30, the monks come back with a lot of rice (and occasionally with some other food). Then gong rings once again and  everyone gathers in the kitchen. The residents of the monastery take a bowl of rice and offer a spoon to each monk first. It's a small offering ceremony that takes place every morning. Then the monks take their food get back to the main hall first to pray for the food and then eat. Whatever is left is shared by the residents. The food was always very delicious and had a lot of variety.

8:30 onwards, monks do whatever they need to do. Some work in building houses for each other, some go out to the forest to pick up fruits, some study Buddhist scripts. Some mornings, I would give CranioSacral sessions, other days I would take forest hikes or read. Around 11, another bell is rung. This is the time for the monks to take some snacks – nothing that requires preparation or cooking but some fruits, milk, crackers etc. This is their final meal until the next morning, as Buddhist monks do not consume food after mid-day. I am amazed how fit, strong and healthy the monks are on just a single meal.

Until the 5pm gong, the monks again do whatever they need to do. At 5:30, we gather in the main hall once more for for 45 minutes of chanting followed by 45 minutes of meditation. Afterwards, some monks stay in the main hall to talk, to study with more senior monks or occasionally to play games on the computer.

There are no strict rules or musts in a monastery. Nobody has to wake up at 4 or join group chantings. Everything is completely up to your free will and this works well. Within this freedom, everybody seems to take full responsibility, offer their best, therefore everything runs very smoothly. I was especially told that I do not need to wake up at 4am and join, yet I wanted to. Except for 2 very cold and rainy mornings, I was always there.

Within this emptiness, I felt quite satisfied. Very little is set and the rest is fully up to you to fill it or not. I thought my life in Bali was slow, however it took me a few days to get used to this new level of slowness. And once I started flowing with that pace, it felt good. Once in a while, it is good to surrender  the content and the pace of the day to a few gongs.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

life in a Buddhist monastery - part 2

The temple ceremony in West Thailand was for a very senior and well-known monk, Luang Por Chamnian. It was a lot of time and effort to get there and back from the forest monastery, but at the end it was worth it. There were about 200 monks from all over Thailand and at least twice of that his followers. Among that crowd, I was the only foreigner. I observed that Thai people are quite curious why a foreigner would bother to come all the way for a ceremony, especially considering that I don't understand a single word of it. At the same time, they highly respect and appreciate the interest of a foreigner towards their customs, country and especially beliefs.

Luang Por Chamnian
At noon, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes alone with Luang Por Chamnian, during which he blessed me and offered protective amulets. That blessing was the first time that I felt the strong presence and the radiating energy of a monk. He is nowhere near a usual monk by Buddhism standards anyway. He lives with 30-kilos of weight dangling around his chest and belly. This weight consists of small gifts, amulets, key chains so when he is walking around, he looks very colorful. I was told that it used to be 60 kilos, but he reduced it by half at the age of 65. He constantly keeps them on, and especially when he's sleeping those 30 kilos put a lot of pressure to his lungs and pointed edges of metal objects hurt his skin. All the pain aside, monks are not supposed to own anything, so I was puzzled. I later found out that it is his way of walking the talk. He teaches that when one practices pure Buddhism the space and the clarity of his/her mind will persist regardless of how much physical discomfort s/he may be experiencing. At his current age of 75, with 30 kilos around his belly Luang Por Chamnian is a strong man who radiates his positive energy and lives an exemplary life to those who support him.

During my 5 minutes with him, I was told I could ask anything. Yet I had no idea what one can ask to a monk. Do I ask about my future, do I ask for protection or just throw out some technical questions about Buddhism? Seeing me sitting there tongue-tied, he smiled and just blessed me in his own way. It did have an impact – I am definitely feeling more grounded and my meditations got much deeper since then. I am constantly wearing the amulet he gave me and feel its protective powers.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

life in a Buddhist monastery - part 1

“So what exactly I'm supposed to do when I'm in the monastery?” I asked Lance for the third time. Like the previous two times, he smiled and said “Nothing, you're not supposed to do anything. Just go and relax, things will flow naturally”. That answer was far from satisfactory. I needed exact schedules, an extensive list of what's appropriate to do around monks, what to avoid, what to take with me, … but I also knew I wouldn't get anything more from him. I decided to try my best of “going with the flow”, as I didn't have any other options.
This was about a month ago in Bali, after Lance told me that everything was arranged for me to stay in one of the most beautiful monasteries in Thailand.

For the last few months in Bali, I was having some interesting Buddhist experiences. Having had those experiences already for over a decade, Lance suggested that cleaning kitchens in meditation centers was a waste of time for me, as I was already at a higher level. According to him, the best thing was to dive right into it, in the presence of the monks in a real monastery. So he contacted some senior monks and the whole trip was organized within a few weeks. I had very limited information about Buddhism.  For me, monks were isolated and strict people dressed in all shades of orange and brown. I started reading as much as I could gather from the internet, but quickly figured out this is one of those things that theoretical knowledge doesn't bring much preparation to the real thing.

The family of a monk volunteered to drive me to the monastery from Bangkok. They didn't want me to  struggle with buses and get lost. Considering that it was a 6-hour drive one-way, that was a very generous help. On the way, I bombarded them with questions and got some answers. When we arrived, I was a little surprised. I pictured, “beautiful” as colorful flowers, manicured gardens, cute cottages. Yet I saw a wild forest and some worn-down buildings and not much else. For a moment I panicked, seriously what was I supposed to do here for 5 days? Returning to Bangkok crossed my mind but trusting Lance's judgment, I decided to give it a try.

I went into the guesthouse to settle. Judging by the amount of dust and cobwebs gathered, it obviously had been empty for quite a while. We laid down 5 layers of blankets on the floor to be my bed. Then Phra Mo gave m a quick tour of the monastery. Phra Mo is a senior monk, who's actually been living in the US for the last 11 years. He was visiting Thailand for a few months. His presence  was just another synchronicity. What are the odds of going to a monastery in northwest Thailand, in a wild rainforest and meeting a monk who speaks English and is very willing to teach?

On the third day, I started giving CranioSacral sessions to monks! Women are not allowed to touch monks – it's a huge offense. Yet during a CranioSacral session I need to place my hands very gently on the person to get in tune, to listen to their tides. I've seen my teacher give sessions without touching so I know it's possible. I'm nowhere near that advanced, but seeing the monks' enthusiasm for healing sessions I wanted to give it a try. It turned out to be harder than I thought, still most of the sessions worked. At the end of the day, I explained to Phra Mo that I am used to feeling the tide by my hands so trying to “see” without a sense of touch  was quite tiring for me. As if stating the most obvious thing in the world Phra Mo said “If you can sense by touching, you can surely see it too. Just need to clear yourself and empty your mind a little more”. Then he offered to give me private meditation sessions in the evenings to increase my sensitivity and clarity. I was ecstatic and we started that evening. Some days it was long talks filled with information and short meditations, some other days it was a deep meditation... Every day I felt luckier and more thankful to the chain of events that brought me here.

the guesthouse, from outside
inside the guesthouse
The plan was to stay in this monastery for 5 days. Then I would attend a big temple ceremony in west Thailand to take photos followed by about 10 days in a famous meditation center near Chiang Mai. Yet within 5 days my first impressions of the monastery changed dramatically. I got used to walking in the dark, hiking alone in the jungle, eating only one meal a day and simply listening to myself. More importantly, the CranioSacral sessions and the private meditation sessions were going so well. I strongly felt that I needed to stay a little longer here. I asked the abbot permission to return and he warmly agreed.
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