Why am I here? Alone? In a Buddhist temple? In Thailand, for the umpteenth time?
These questions were asked me again and again before I left and everytime I was evasive, I replied that I would stay in a temple a few days for satisfy my curiosity, “just to see how it is” …
It was the day after my arrival at the Wat Sanghatan Temple not far from Bangkok that a old little man surnamed The Doctor was going to ask me these questions: “Why are you here? In this temple in particular, in Thailand and not in another country? At this time and not at another? “. The reply seemed obvious to me, I would reply: “Well, because I like this country and I was curious to see how life was in a temple, and then at that time because I did not have time at another time…”. He smiled and said, “This is the most reasonable answer to convince you and those around you, but when you have questioned your mind, then you will have the real answer to what you are here … “.
≈ Wat Sanghatan ≈
After eating the tartiflette of the year at Matmat the day before my departure, spent a night of debauchery with my friends from Kuala Lumpur, took three planes, planted on the temple location and spent 1h30 in the corks at Bangkok, I finally reach my final destination, Wat Sanghatan Monastery. I’m in the parking lot and I admit to being a bit stressed at the idea of having no idea what I’m embarking on. So I eat a snickers with almonds, I smoke a last cig and I go.
I go inside the temple, I lose myself and I quickly understand from the look of the people that they are not used to see a tall blond guy and his big backpack along the alleys of their sacred place. In the first moments I feel like I am in a psychiatric hospital because everyone is dressed in a white tunic. The entrance is in the continuity of the street and I seek a reception that I will not find ! I cross the path of a first Thai to whom I ask to see Puky (which is the name of the person with whom I exchanged emails before coming) and seen his breathtaking look I feel asked him to recite the Chinese alphabet upside down !! It will take 10min and 2 more people before I am taken to this famous Puky. Its welcoming will be very warm and before I take advantage of her clim, she offer me to visit the temple.
The enclosure is surprisingly large in fact, there are plenty of buildings and lots of people, all Thais of course. We will linger on the Ubosot hall which is the prayer room of the monastery. There is a great Buddha in the middle of the room and I am fascinated by the energy and the silence that reign there. The knees and shoulders should be covered, shoes must be took off and silence has to be kept. Puky explains to me that whenever one addresses the Buddha to pray it is necessary to bow 3 times before and 3 times after in respect. I soon realize that there is a lot of discipline and that I have a lot to learn !!
≈ 8 Precepts ≈
We will immediately get to the heart of the matter because after the visit Puky takes me to the reception of the monastery (which exists indeed !!) where I will be given a prayer book, a badge and 3 white tunics to wear any time (white is synonymous of purity and it’s made to differentiate the residents of the temple from the simple visitors who are just passing for a few hours). So here I am, ready to rumble, proudly carrying my new set!
After reaching heights, my enthusiasm will make a dizzying fall !! When I open the prayer book on the first page it is written that the bells are ringing at 3:30 am !!! Usually, it is the time when I go to sleep but well, it should only be a formality.. I continue to read the program and I see that at 9:15 am we will get the meal in the canteen . I finally discovered that the extinction of the lights is at 9 pm and then I ask Puky what time is dinner because it is not written. She looks at me laughing and tells me that there is only one meal a day !!
WHAAAAAAT?!? I have palpitations and cold sweats run through my body, I already feel the feeling of hunger which I know beforehand, will not leave me for 10 days… I have the presentiment that things will be less pink than I had imagined. I prefer to ask her right away if there are no other things I need to know so I do not have any other surprises of that kind. Then she told me that I should not touch women or even speak to them !! Better and better … Then come the eight precepts; it is an oath that one must make in the presence of a monk (and Buddha on the same occasion) when you wish to reside in a temple. Here they are :
1 / I undertake to refrain from intentionally killing, harming, or hunting living beings.
2 / Iundertake to refrain from knowingly taking what has not been given (stealing).
3/ I undertake to observe complete chastity, that is, no sex with myself or with others (they are not talking about animals but I guess they are included).
4 / I undertake to refrain from lying, gossiping, swearing, using hurtful words, or talking idly.
5 / I undertake to refrain from using intoxicating drugs or alcohol, including cigarettes/cigars.
6 / I undertake to refrain from eating staple food at the wrong time (after 12 noon or before dawn).
7 / I undertake to refrain from singing, dancing, playing music, and watching unseemly shows; and from wearing garlands, perfumes, or things that tend to beautify or adorn the body.
8 / I undertake to refrain from using high or luxurious seats and beds; and from indulging in sleep.
That’s it. It’s funny because as I read them, I realized that there was a bit of me in each of these rules ! I understand that this is not going to be a piece of cake and I have to prepare psychologically quickly. Ah and just for info the monks have more than 200 precepts to respect !!
To finish this chapter, I would eventually show you what will serve me as a bed for the next few days; a wooden board. Surrounded by plenty of other wooden planks !!
≈ Time to prey ≈
Every day, before each meditation session and before lunch (which will be for me the worst time of the day because after waiting 24 hours to eat, the half an hour of prayer with the plate full in front of the face without being touched, I consider it is sadism!), one of the monks of the temple guides a session of prayer songs. Having in mind the long expectations during my childhood to have to support the songs of church during weddings, sundays or other, I confess that I am not excited to have to follow 2 hours of Thai prayers every day !! The sessions take place in the Ubosot hall and finally it was amazing because not understanding what they say and the sonority of the songs make fascinating moments that deserve to be lived.
Just check this out :
≈ Meditation ≈
I discovered, just 2 hours after my arrival the walking meditation. I had never practiced it before but I go to the Laun Tham (sacred place in Thai, we must walk there barefoot)
where the session takes place to see what it is. Previously Puky had told me to be careful to go to the men’s side because mixing is prohibited in the temple. I go there, all white dressed and when I reach the Laun Tham I realize that there are only women !! Big moment of loneliness, I feel like a hair in soup and I wait 10 min that seem endless … All eyes are on me of course and women do not understand what I am doing here (me neither actually !). Embarrassed, I resolve to leave the place when a soundtrack sounds and a few moments later all the men arrived .. I mingle with them and one of them, Kin (who will become my best friend in the temple and who is one of the only ones to speak English), explains to me the basics of this practice of meditation. Basically it is necessary to walk slowly, very slowly and to decompose each step in 4 steps (1- take off the heel, 2- lift the foot and keep it in suspension, 3- touch the ground with the front part of the foot, 4- touch the ground with the heel) while concentrating on the parts of the body that are set in motion and on the sensations that the touch of the ground provides. An art ! After a few sessions I would take the folds and it will help me relax my body, bruised by the conditions that I’m not use to evolve in.
I had already done some seated meditation in the past and for those who do not know it, the main purpose is to concentrate on breathing (at least in the practice of Vipassana meditation). You have to be able to relax your body, stop all the thoughts that parasitize your mind and simply observe your breathing, inspiring, exhaling, inspiring, exhaling … It sounds easy but it is something that is not at all accustomed to the our daily life because we are always busy thinking about what we ate the night before or at our next vacation destination. The goal is therefore to concentrate on the present moment and to disregard everything else in order to bring its body and its spirit in line. Obviously it takes hours and hours of practice before arriving at an interesting result and at first it is frankly hard !! It took me more than two days before I really managed to concentrate. Before that everything was good to disconcert me, the accumulated fatigue, the wooden board that destroyed my back, the pain in the legs due to the interminable hours crouched on the ground … So during the 5 hours of daily meditation, I review all my life and I mean all of it ! During these 3 days in Wat Sanghatan I take a thorough introspection on my life, from my failures to my greatest pride, from what scares me to what makes me happy, from my professional life to my sentimental one, anyway, everything. And a person I met the first day of my arrival will push me a little further …
≈ The doctor ≈
He calls himself a doctor, not because he is, but because of his great knowledge of Buddhism, human physiology and psychology. He is a old little little man of about fifty kilos, no higher than 1m60, ages by more than 80 years spent. We sat down on a bench in the middle of a Zen garden to begin our meditative dialogue. He starts and talks to me with his trembling voice of the foundations of Buddhism, telling me some stories about Buddha.
Then we go on to existential questions and he explains to me that the ultimate goal of the practice of meditation is to achieve a mindfulness and clear understanding of all that surrounds us. Understand that in life everything is impermanent; and therefore that attachment to objects, people, feelings or sensations will necessarily lead to suffering when we will be separated from it. He explains to me that when our mind is entirely in the present moment, it is possible for us to make the suffering disappear. He will take the example of the feeling of anger; until it calms down, we suffer psychologically because we re-examines the reason why we have returned to this rage. But by being fully aware of this psychological state, we are able to observe this feeling, to understand its causes, and knowing that it is impermanent to make it disappear. You will have understood the exchanges I had with the doctor are very deep and spiritual; I would not talk too much about this because it is difficult for me to clearly explain what he taught me. Anyway, it allowed me to considerably open my mind and orientate my inner questioning.
≈ Wat Pa Lanwa ≈
I leave with Puky at the dawn of my 4th day at Wat Sanghatan with the impression of having stayed 2 weeks !! Our destination is another temple (Wat Pa Lanwa) which she had spoken to me on my arrival; I thought it might be nice to change from the polluted air of Bangkok for something more natural. It is a tiny monastery under construction (waiting for the end of the works a hangar serves as temple), lost in the mountains, in the province of Chonburi. We arrive there on April 13th in the early morning and it’s perfect because it is the day of Songkran, the Thai new year. And we can say that the Thais know how to party !! Basically for 3 days everyone goes out on the street, sprays water and paint thanks to the rhythm of the fireworks …
≈ Songkran ≈
We are entitled to a great welcome and to my surprise I discover that there are 8 novice monks, children aged 10 to 15 years who will bring a lot of fun to this context supposed to be super serious. There is also a german guy named Thomas (who resides in the temple and wishes to become a monk) with whom I would have long and interesting conversations. I am admiring the traditional Songkran celebration during which people are pouring scented water on the hands of the monks so that they will give them their blessing for the year to come. After having been blessed for this year 2560, I go to town with Puky and a friend of her to celebrate this new year in a more contemporary way … And the atmosphere that awaits us there is way different !! It’s a big mess, everyone is equipped with water pistols and no one is spared. There is also a kind of paste of plaster which everybody is puting out on the face of eachother for I do not know what reason. The big luxury pick-ups are out and the tuning guys do not hesitate to let the watts spitting out of their big sonno. We enter in the game and we walk the street, soaked and plastered after only a few seconds. Everybody is having fun and I feel that we should not stay too long because every 10 meters a group of drunk guys and girls in wet T-shirt call me to join their debauchery. I feel like being caught up by all these vices and I realize that it takes little to restore my taste of them …
Some shots from Songkran festival :
≈ Pindabat ≈
Life in this temple is much more pleasant but less intense than in the previous one. We still get up at 3.30am, we only eat once in the day and we still do not sleep in cozy beds (actually I swapped my wooden board for tiles !) But In the afternoon we have a free quarter; which will allow me to go to meditate in the mountains and play with the children, which are actually much more tumultuous than I had imagined. These small padawans are under the tutelage of the monk Lhampi Josh who is the incarnation of Mace Windu (the Jedi played by Samuel El Jackson in Star Wars). Upon my arrival at the temple, I was impressed by the charisma of this monk; and I would learn later that he was Muay Thai champion in the biggest stadium in Bangkok (Lumpinee Stadium) with 60 fights at the professional level, of which 50 won. Nothing but that ! And he became a monk !! He impresses me and I would remain marked by the scene of the daily meal where the children had to wait for the signal of their teacher to be able to start eating. Teaser, it’s a smile on his lips that the former boxer will take his time before making a brief nod to give them the go-ahead.
The mornings at Wat Pa Lanwa will be animated by Pindabat. It is an ancestral and everyday tradition during which the monks seek the donations of the inhabitants of the village. In fact, the temples are fed with food and are maintained only by the charity of the population; and it’s impressive to see all that people give. Living with an average salary not exceeding 300 €, they offer money and food to the temple without restraint or constraint.
I will join Pindabat every morning to the long silent walk of 2 hours to the village to retrieve what will feed us a few hours later. Marked by the respect with which people put their offerings in the bowl of monks, these processions will prove to me how much we have to learn from this population unified by their generosity.
≈ Summary ≈
To the doctor’s question I think I found some answers during those 9 days of immersion that exceeded all I had imagined. I do not think I did that for the purpose of taking up a challenge or proving something; I have done so to question myself, to question myself about my choices of life, to understand them and to assume them. But this introspection was also a human experience that will remain forever engraved in my memory through wonderful encounters and the discovery of a culture that I knew only too little. The physical and moral suffering of the beginning of the adventure have given way to a peace of mind that has no price. Learning and practicing meditation allowed me to rediscover myself and understand some of my emotions or feelings that I did not know how to explain before. The complete deprivation of certain things has led me to several conclusions: the consumption of cigarettes or alcohol is for me solely linked to a social factor and not to a need because I have felt no lack of it; the comfort of a cozy bed and the use of the smartphone are secondary needs that we have transformed into primary needs and that it is very easy to do without; on the other hand the lack of sex and hunger are more difficult to manage because more primitive !! I would have been marked also by the temporal references which are totally upset, every day at 10am I had the impression that it was 5 pm and after these 9 days at the temple, I feel I have passed 1 month !
It is also surprising to see how quickly our mind returns to the reality and to the world of consumption, all the psychological work undertaken to restrict it can quickly disappear if we allow it to catch up with his sins …
If you also want to live this extraordinary adventure and you are not afraid to lose some Facebook news days, you can contact Puky on this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. She is very friendly and will help you on your way to Mindfulness…