Life in a Thai Forest Temple, part 3: Kids, too…
The morning starts at 4:00a.m. with morning ablutions, then prepare the temple for morning prayers at 4:30. By 5 a.m. the priest will show up and fill my heart with espresso and let the chanting in Pali begin:
YO SO PAKAWA ARAHUNG SUMMASUMPUTTO
SEWAGKATO YENA PAKAWATO TUMMO
SUPATIPUNNO YASSA PAKAWATO SAWAKASUNGKO
TUMMAYUNG PAKAWANTANG SATAMMUNG SASANGKHANG AMEHI SUKKAREHI YATARAHUNG AROPITEHI APIPUSHAYAMA
…and so on and on for at least a half hour. That’s over by 5:30 and preparations for the morning walk into town begins, gathering my collection bags while the priests fasten their robes and ready their bowls. By first light at 6 it’s off on the rounds by barefoot and bowl, taking offerings and offering blessings in return, again all in the Pali liturgical language. Few people line the way out in the countrysides, but there’s always one or two, waiting for us instead of their kids, who’ve long gone off to the big city down under, only to revisit maybe once a year for New Year.
But once we get into town after a half-hour barefoot (ouch!) walk, the pickings are better, especially in the market, where merchants are anxious to enhance their luck, and there’s always an extra piece of fruit or two to contribute. After a while you learn who and what to look forward to on the morning rounds, though it’s forbidden to refuse anyone’s offering. I know that the food that comes in serving containers will likely be better than that which comes in ‘to-go’ plastic bags.
There’s only one problem: the lady who offers the brown rice makes it a bit too goopy for my taste, which is no surprise, as most Thais don’t bother to measure, just ‘eyeball’ it, and brown rice requires more water. So I’m trying to figure out a way to get her a message, since I’m the only one who eats it, anyway.
On the other hand, she makes a mean Indian-style gaeng kari, complete with tofu, yum yum. They adapt fast, as usually there are three bags each of the ‘to-go’ dishes, one for each priest, which has only been the case for a very short time. Those bags are the ones I usually set aside for later.
All your favorite Thai dishes are probably not here, though, since that’s not what most people eat every day, surprise surprise. They eat rice, vegetables and fruit, for the most part, and no shortage of meats, though nothing elaborate. Most of the food is prepared at home, though, and in fact is much more than we can eat.
So the two kids in our entourage glean lunch from the offerings, and probably even enough cookies and candy for their friends at school, these kids lucky to have a home after being dumped at the temple by irresponsible parents, just like they all do with their unwanted dogs and cats. After the rounds we pig out back at the temple until we’re stuffed, we “Yom” civilians splitting off up to two meals’ worth for ourselves later, if we want, though I never really did.
I practiced the priest’s semi-fast for a week in advance, so was relatively inured to the lack of food by the time I arrived. Nearby poor people glean the leftover offerings every afternoon. Then it’s free time until 4 p.m. at which time we clean the grounds, and by 6 p.m. it’s time to bathe, then prepare for evening prayers at 7. We retire to our respective corners at 8 or so, and try to get some sleep on hard plank ‘beds’, so that we can do it again tomorrow at 4 a.m. Did I mention that comfy beds are prohibited in the Eight Precepts of Buddhism?
The irony is that my meditation practice seems no better at all, as if I need distractions to escape from to help me go deeper under. I tried walking ‘jongrom’ meditation, too, but to little effect. All this quiet and solitude make me want to work at writing instead, the forest enough of a meditation itself already, the broad green flutter of silence.
So the retreat for me is FROM: noise, TV, music and Internet, constant entertainment, and FOR: writing, in addition to the little bit of Buddhist ritual that I can learn, that and a general clue as to whether the life of a Buddhist priest would ever indeed suit me. What I do here, besides the morning round of alms and temple chores, is much what I do anywhere, really: read and write and have my being.
On the face of it, it really doesn’t seem like Thai Buddhist priests do very much, but that can be misleading, as the head priest of the temple has notable skills in many different fields, not the least of which are the construction trades, and not loathe to use them, lathing the door down to a slimmer size to reset the hinges, the only operating router in this joint used to hollow out wood, not send WiFi signals.
Still the more important fact is what the priests DON’T do, which is f*ck, drink, lie, cheat or steal—or not supposed to, anyway (but, then, if you’d never done it, would you even know what you’re missing?). Think about it. To give up the ‘normal’ world without ever having really tasted it wouldn’t seem to have much meaning for me, like a politician who’s never really done anything else, or a businessman, either, for that matter.
My return to the real world reveals a world increasingly silly and nefarious, toxic, the US elections like a hideous hilarious cartoon that you can never quite trump. Walking barefoot through the filth of muddy markets is not my favorite thing, either, but that’s the tradition, so I’m happy to oblige. But what I really miss are the morning barefoot walks through countryside at 6 a.m., as the sun rises and the rice-field’s shimmering green just starts to be noticeable. That was sublime, and those were as happy as any moments in my life…