A Monk’s Life in Thailand (part 2)

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My days at the monastery always started around 5:30 am. On my second day, I went to the kitchen and helped out with food preparation, chopping ginger and peeling garlic cloves with a knife. Early morning mindfulness practices in themselves. The kitchen staff were really sweet to me, giving me Thai jook and chunks of coconut rice baked in hollow bamboo that had fallen apart.

On my third day, I woke up at 5 am to follow Tan Thien and his fellow monks during their alms rounds in a nearby village. He really wanted me to see what the experience was like — and in some way, I think he wanted me to document it too, since he invited me to take photos of the journey.

It was pitch black as we started down the road around 5:30 AM. Since Monks aren’t supposed to be around women alone, I had to walk behind him about 30 yards or so — in complete darkness. The only way I could tell that he was in front of me was by following the thin, dark gray blob in the distance and listening to the soft, clacking sound of his shoes hitting the ground as he walked. But after a while, even those sounds faded away. I hurried blindly down the road until I heard a faint, “Tiffany? Sorry, we have to walk faster, we’re a bit late”. He had finally slowed down so that I could catch up.

At the edge of the town, all the monks gathered to discuss their plan of action for the morning (I have no idea what they’d need to discuss since getting alms seems like a pretty straight-forward deal). As we went to the first village, the people — mostly women — got down and bowed before them, and then put bags of food in their bowls. The monks went further into the town and stood in a line as the rest of the families came up to pay respects and offer them food. Two other young men went with us to help collect the food that the monks received.

It was a pretty quick deal. They headed back to the monastery afterwards, picking up their shoes along the way (monks aren’t supposed to wear slippers or shoes, but it’s hard for many to get used to walking down the rocky dirt roads on their bare feet).

After breakfast, I made sometime to talk to Tan Thien. It was hard since — again — women aren’t supposed to talk to men directly, but I had the feeling that others might be okay with it, since I was “Tan Thien’s American Friend”. I had come along way just to see him.

We sat in the lobby about 10 feet apart and talked. I told him about my travels, about the changes that I’ve made this year to work through a lot of negativity and unhappiness, how I’ve gained a better perspective on things, how he’s helped me out so much throughout this whole personal process (through the books that he recommended me to read, through the conversations that we’ve had since he’s left). I told him about the personal altar that I put in my room after my 1 week sabbatical last year. And of course, before I knew it…tears began to stream down my face as I recalled the painful realizations that I made at the beginning of my trip to Southeast Asia.

I didn’t have to explain much to Tan Thien, though. He’s been through it too — it’s the same shit that many of us go through – the hurt that’s emotional and not logical. “How happy are you these days?” he asked me. I said that my first reaction would be to give a mediocre rating, but that my thoughtful reaction would be to give a higher rating. “When you begin to meditate on a regular basis,” he told me, “you’ll find that you won’t have to train the mind to see or realize certain things, because your emotions and logic will already be aligned, without trying or thinking about it.” Basically, saying that meditation and mindfulness practices allow us to cultivate wisdom – wise actions, wise thoughts, wise speech – and sound reactions – to the chaotic world around us. Feeling overly-self-absorbed, I asked him why we should care so much about finding happiness. “Because when we are happy, we affect not only our ourselves but everyone else around us. The opposite is also true,” he reminded me.

I asked him how he was doing, how life as a monk has been for him. He replied that it’s been great. No matter how much he enjoyed his life before — doing photography, seeing his friends and family, playing basketball…being with his girlfriend of many years — it all doesn’t compare to the wisdom that he’s been gaining and the happiness he’s achieved since becoming a monk. I knew that all already, though. And I’m really, really happy for him — and proud of him — for doing it.

I know that this is the path he needs to take. And it’s not just for him: if and when he stops being a monk (Theravada Buddhism allows you to go back to being a  “layperson”, while Mahayaha Buddhism says you must be a monk for life), he plans on becoming a teacher so that he can share what he’s learned with everyone else around him. In a social justice sense, he plays an important part in helping people find that sense of peace and happiness in their own lives, so that they can move forward and treat others (and themselves) in healthier, wiser ways. That holistic sense of self-care is something that’s desperately needed in “the movement”.

After our talk, it was time for him to go back to his “work”, and for me to leave the monastery so that I could go to Cambodia. We both wished that I could stay longer, but due to the short time that I had to travel, I felt the need to move on.

“I’m sure we’ll see each other again, one day,” he said to me as we said good-bye.

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Posted: January 14, 2012

Author: Tiffany

Category: Asia, Blog, Thailand

Tags: , , , , , ,

+1 Comment
  1. Minh says:

    Hi Tiff,
    I need you expertise help. However first hope this comment find you with much mettah. I enjoy your blog very much especially the one about monk’s life in Thailand.

    I am also a friend of Tan Thien. I meet him when I was practicing meditation in Riverside, CA a little more than 2 years ago. I will be traveling to Thailand in April and will be staying at Wat Sunan where Tan Tien is currently residing. With your experience, I thought you could help me with a few travel tips.

    I will be there for a month and spending 20 days of it at Wat Sunan. What are the items i should be bringing (toilet papers, flash light, ect…) and more important how do I get from Bang Kok to Wat Sunan. Any tips is appreciated. By the way I wrote to the person in charge of Wat Sunan email and they refer me to you :).

    Thanks you,

    p.s. may you have strength to deal with the dukkha that come your way, may you have courage to continue to test out the teaching of the Buddha, may you be be truly happy may you be truly happy.

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