Life in a Thai Forest Temple: part 1, Mae Chan

IMG_0712Mention Thai Buddhist temples to someone, and the image they probably get is that of the gaudy gilded red and orange structures that dot the landscape (t)here, with maybe a mention or two of the corruption and sleaze that dogs the state-supported religion, and which could give the Vatican a run for its money as a source of occasional shame to mix in with the more typical reverence that rivals that of the monarchy as a foundation of Thai culture here…

But there is another side of Thai Buddhism that is much more impressive to many of our Western tastes, and which rivals Tibetan Buddhism, if not yet Zen, in the number and popularity of its Western adherents, and that is the Thai Forest tradition. Barely a hundred years old, it is the exact opposite of the Dhammakaya flying saucer-like temple that has gotten so many Facebook shares lately, with its million-minion meditation sit-ins and its current run-in with the Thai government over allegations of money laundering…

Featured Image -- 4832The Forest Tradition is better than any and all of that, IMHO, with vows of poverty implicit, and humility the currency, best exemplified by the spartan living conditions that priests and novices like myself currently inhabit: the rough equivalent of an American hunter’s blind or even a tent, like the one that turns my little shack into a rain-tight shelter, quite handy in the rainy season, right now, when it seems like it rains all the time…

So here’s the premise: my stepson just graduated from university in Chiang Rai, Thailand, so decided to ordain as a priest during the Buddhist Lent rainy season, as part of a gap-year tradition, to ‘make merit’ for the benefit of his family, and to fulfill his own ambitions to be a part of the Buddhist brotherhood, if only for a season. You can do that in Thailand, ordain temporarily, which many do for all the wrong reasons, and my stepson is doing for all the right ones…

IMG_0670Well, I have interests in that direction also, and with much philosophy under my belt but little religion, I asked to join him. Well, it’s not all THAT easy, and when faced with much of the details I started backing away little by little, since if and when I ordain, I really don’t expect it to be temporary (and I’m in the middle of health, business, and legal crises, too, unfortunately). But it turns out that you don’t have to ordain to simply ‘practice Dharma’ at any temple that will have you, so Bam! I’m in—for a week to start…

I imagined marking the passing days with notches on my wall, but it’s a little more civilized than that: I DO have some electricity, though not much. And I eat like a king, after expecting to fast or almost. But the best parts are intangible: nobody checked my passport, and I eat food prepared for priests; the hardest part is following the prayers in Pali. The single most glorious moment of every day, though, would have to be the three-kilometer barefoot walk into town, receiving alms and giving blessings…

IMG_0738…and passing rice fields freshly sprouted. There is no greener green than the green of rice fields freshly sprouted, breaking the water and clearing the mud. On a clear day the sun breaks the horizon within the first half mile of our walk, flashing orange and purple on a pock-marked semi-cloudy sky, as good as it gets in the rainy season, and a cause for blessings right there, now that enough rain has fallen to make the necessary crops. Thailand has been in an extended drought since the historic flood of a few years back…

There is no more sublime moment in this world, that I have yet noticed, than that of this barefoot walk into town under purple skies at daybreak. And imagine the best Thai food buffet you’ve ever eaten—every day—and for free! And I thought I’d be fasting—not so (since I’m not a priest–not yet). Did I mention that there is a fresh coffee maker at my little temple in the outback? I’m good. It’s a trade-off. We don’t die a little every day for your sins, no, but we’ve got your spiritual back. Remember that…

To be continued…

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