Traveling in Buddhist Thailand
Wat Mahathat, Bangkok
I remove my shoes and step into the cool receiving room of Wat Mahathat. From the turbulent sea of Bangkok noise, I have crossed into another, quieter realm. A saffron-robed monk, sitting at a desk in front of a bookcase, motions for me to sit down. Bald and wearing small round glasses, he appears wise beyond his thirty years as he glances through his newspaper. Other monks come and whisper to him; he nods or responds in a hushed voice and they leave again. Floor fans whir from side to side on the polished teak floor creating a soft wind that spreads the silence around. The cool, quiet atmosphere is astonishing. I could wait all day.
It’s my third day in Bangkok and despite the twelve-hour stupor-inducing time shift and blazing heat, I’ve tried to jump right in and experience the city. Beyond the temple compound, buses growl out a thick black smoke and tuk tuks buzz their way through the legendary traffic. The pungent, rainy season air, ripe with smells of pollution and garbage, spices and stale smoke, like the aftermath of a warehouse bash, burns my nostrils. Khao San Road, where I’m staying, full of restaurants with Hollywood movies and Western food has its own perpetual party atmosphere. It’s all enough to give me a hangover without any lingering memory of enjoying a few drinks.
But I’ve been waking up to the sights. Yesterday, I saw the annual Ploughing Ceremony, a slow, formal procession in which a pair of decorated white oxen dragged a ceremonial red plough around Sanam Luang, the Field of Kings. As a sonorous boomerang of brass gongs trembled over the field, priests sprinkled water over the soil and summoned the spirits with conch shells while the Festival Queens followed the plough, scattering rice seeds from gold and silver pails. Or so the guidebook said – it was difficult to make out what was happening from my position in the crowd. But now and again, above the din of the Bangkok background, I still hear the solemn shimmer of the brass gongs and the wailing conch shells pacifying the Earth, placating the spirits, calming all to ensure a good harvest.
After a few minutes, the monk turns to me and asks, “Why have you come?”
His question sounds ominous, as if I have sought him out on a personal quest and I almost say, “For the truth, master.” Instead, I ask about the advertised meditation lesson for today and the retreats that I have read about. He shows me an information booklet and says we’ll wait a few minutes to see if anyone else shows up for today’s lesson. Novice monks – bald, teenaged girls in white robes – come and go in front of me, automatically putting on or removing sandals at the doorway. Though the monk asks what seem to be the usual questions: How long have I been in Thailand? Where am I from? What is my job? Have I been up north yet? they come across as borne out of a genuine curiosity rather than any need to make small talk. I reply softly, hoping that he interprets this as a sign of respect.
“It’s so quiet here — and cool.”
“Yes,” he nods matter-of-factly.
“Where did you learn English so well?” I ask.
“I studied a little in school. But mostly I have learned by talking to foreigners like you,” he replies.
One of the novices sits next to me and tries to ask me similar questions but her English is poor and she spends most of the time giggling. She reminds me of an ex-girlfriend who once shaved her head and then went around with a goofy grin that said, “Can you believe it? I shaved my head.” She would run her hand over her head and laugh.
A tall Swedish man with messy blond hair, about forty years old, shows up. He stoops forward – like Max von Sydow straight out of The Seventh Seal – leaning his tall forehead into his fate as he talks to the monk. He starts talking about why he’s in Bangkok, his job, and the fact that he’s an ex-patriot working in the Swedish embassy, seeming to take the monk’s silence as an invitation to keep talking. He says he’s always wanted to learn meditation but has usually been too busy. The monk nods his head. As the Swede talks, he becomes less and less like Max von Sydow.
After the Ploughing Ceremony, another traveler and I went to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the spiritual epicenter of Thailand. Around the courtyard stood a dazzling fantasy of mythological creatures from the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana: menacing eighteen-foot-tall winged demons who guarded the gates, glittering-gold ostrich-humans about to lunge and an army of monkeys who held up the base of the temple. Tiered roofs were cornered by hook-like features that drifted skyward like tongues of flame. Everything gleamed.
As Thais bowed and placed burning joss sticks into wide dirt-filled urns, we removed our shoes and entered the temple. From high under the ceiling, elaborate Bosch-like murals cascaded down the walls, showing scenes from the Buddha’s life – meditation, subduing Mara, enlightenment. They seemed much more vibrant than the austere, stained glass Biblical figures seen in so many cathedrals.
High on a pedestal in the middle of the temple, under a gold-tiered umbrella, was the Emerald Buddha. Said to have been discovered in a pagoda in northern Thailand after lightning struck, it sits cross-legged, in the attitude of meditation, hands resting in its lap and lit by an eerie light. Barely taller than my arm, I had difficulty making out the facial expression. Around me, in deep prostrations, the faithful prayed. I gazed at the murals. Amid the continuous coming and going, the temple remained quiet.
The monk is ready to begin the lesson and we follow him into an adjoining room. “Buddhist meditation is about mindfulness,” he says. “When standing one should be aware of standing by repeating ‘standing, standing, standing,’ to one’s self. When thoughts or feelings arise they should be acknowledged with ‘thinking, thinking, thinking,’ or ‘feeling, feeling, feeling’. Before walking, repeat to yourself, ‘intending to walk, intending to walk, intending to walk.’”
He goes through the steps: standing, intending to walk, and walking – “right goes thus, left goes thus” – until the end of the room is reached. Then it’s standing, intending to turn, turn-ing, turn-ing, turn-ing until you’re turned around again and ready to repeat the procedure. The point is to move slowly so that you are completely aware of the movement. The monk demonstrates this by walking with a slow diligence that is both seductive and elegant.
He lets us practice by ourselves. As I start, all I can think of is how smooth the polished teak floor feels under my feet and whether the Buddhist shrine at the side of the room is garish or not. I begin to walk across the room, soon finding that if I walk too slowly, I lose my balance; it’s harder than it looks. At the end of the room, I pause, express my intention to turn and then repeat “turn-ing” to myself several times until I complete the turn. I’m pleased with my progress, especially since I seem to be doing it much more slowly than ex-Max. As I pace back and forth across the room, he becomes my benchmark, as if I’m winning the contest for slowness. Of course, I’m proud of that.
After twenty minutes, the monk returns and gives us a lesson in sitting meditation, talking again about awareness and breathing. When we breathe into and out of our abdomen, we’re to be aware of the action by repeating, “Rising” and “Falling.” But without the motion of walking to focus our minds, he encourages us to acknowledge distracting sounds by repeating, “Hearing, hearing, hearing.” This, unfortunately, the monk can’t demonstrate with the same grace as the walking meditation. When he lets us practice, I find it harder to measure my progress against ex-Max, or any “progress” at all.
The lesson ends and the monk invites us to come back anytime if we wish to practice. Ex-Max and I nod to one another in parting and he goes to chat with speak to the monk some more. I collect my shoes and, for a moment, stand in the doorway of the temple, intending, intending, intending to cross back into the miasmic realm of Bangkok.
An ant mucks around in a dollop of honey. It walks all the way in, rears back, legs waving in the air, then plunges in again.
I push my plate aside and take a sip of water. Beyond the verandah, insects pulse in the grass while yellow-black butterflies flit through soundless poems in the liquid air. A rainbow has come and gone. Clouds boil over the hills. It will rain again. I try to slap a black fly on my arm, but I’m too slow. A moment later, it lands again in the same place.
Down the hill lies Kang Laem Lake, a silver-gray coin in a wide green well. The river was dammed a few years ago — submerging the old town of Sangklaburi — and around the edges of the newly formed lake, the bare trunks of trees that drowned in the flooding stick up out of the water. This morning, a mist floated through the skeleton trees. Now fishing boats drone back and forth across the lake.
The ant is joined by another.
I listen to a motorcycle clatter across the wooden bridge, on its way to the Mon refugee village across the lake. Campfires burn among the huts, either for cooking dinner or burning garbage. I hear scattered dog barks and rooster crows. Not far from the bridge, a small fishing hut floats in the lake. Earlier, I took out the old wooden canoe with two German women, Annabel and Nina. It was flat-bottomed so no matter how we paddled, the boat roamed around in circles. We persevered, and zig-zagged slowly through the water to the floating hut. Inside, we lay on the wooden floor, dangled our legs in the water, looked sideways at the wooden bridge, the thunderheads clouding out the sun, and the boys playing in the Mon village.
Behind me, a woman lies across the entranceway of the guesthouse. It is too hot to move. The two ants work together. Slowly, the honey disappears.
The story is told that Siddhartha (who later became the Buddha) sat at the bodhi tree to meditate and vowed not to get up until he attained enlightenment. Seeing this, Mara, “the evil one,” tried various taunts and seductions to sway him from his concentration. As time passed, these became more and more elaborate until Mara unleashed demons and natural disasters. Still, Siddhartha was unfazed. Finally, on the verge of defeat, Mara asked, “Who will be your witness?” Siddhartha touched the Earth and the Earth opened up beneath him and thundered, “I will be the witness.”
This is the open Earth, the calm after the storm. Wide boulevards and long rows of trees that lead from one temple to another. Placid ponds so full of lotuses that one could almost walk across the leaves. Grass pushes through the foundations, green and rich, like Whitman’s “beautiful uncut hair of graves,” and white reeds wave in the wind. I am traveling a well-worn path, even by bicycle. The roads are new but the temple ruins are seven hundred years old.
This a city of ruined temples, their names a mix of majestic and simple:
The Temple of the Great Relic,
The Temple of the Lime Tree Pond,
The Temple of the Great Wind,
The Temple of the Dark Forest,
The Shrine of the Grandfather with the Red Cloth,
The Temple Encircled by Elephants,
The Temple of the Glorious, Honorable and Beautiful Building…
It is also the very picture of impermanence – one of the teachings of the Buddha – that the only constant to all things is change. Whenever one temple lost its favor, another was built. Of the four postures – sitting, reclining, standing, and Sukhothai’s unique posture, walking – the sitting Buddha is most common, shown meditating in the lotus position, with downcast eyes and long fingers reaching down to the Earth, calling it to witness. Most are life-sized, some are enormous.
Today, the gabled wooden roofs are missing, the pillars support only sky, and the Buddha images are in various states of decay, worn by wind and rain, and often, because of vandals, with the head missing or parts of the arms. I find myself mentally filling in the gaps, even though the aesthetic is so precise that what’s missing doesn’t matter. With eyes closed and perfect posture, they are robust and graceful, radiating a contemplative calm that weathers the centuries. Many have a garland draped over an arm and a gold sash across the chest, indicating they are still venerated. Wax candle drippings, incense sticks and lotus buds collect in front. But it is the Buddha’s smile that catches you: enigmatic, sensual, mindful.
As I ride from one temple to the next, alone on the road, I take breaks and rest in the shade from the scorching afternoon sun. In the shadow of the lotus bud tower at Wat Phra Pai Luang, I listen to the cocks crowing and the whoops and whirs of exotic birds. Across the compound, a maintenance crew lunches under another tree. They look at me with disinterest – it’s too hot to be alert. However, when I put my hands together in the prayer-like wai and greet them in Thai, they smile and holler back cheerful greetings.
At the outskirts of the ruined city, at the edge of the forest, I ride past a modern temple and see a saffron-robed monk lying across the entrance. A few mornings ago in Bangkok, I went to a temple filled with bald or shorn monks, perhaps eighty of them, chanting in unison. Bent over in prayer, they chanted together continuously for half an hour. Here, among the ageless tranquility and crumbling brick and stone, I find it hard to conjure scenes of monks ringing the temple bells, sweeping the floors and chanting.
Several times I return to Wat Mahathat, The Temple of the Great Relic, the spiritual hub of the kingdom, to see how the stark-white seated Buddha, which presides over rows of broken columns and a city once great, changes in the light. The temple is a labyrinth of ruined brick corridors and openings that I wander through to find as many of the Buddha images as I can. Always, to come across another one, undisturbed and calmly meditating in the midst of the decay, is a surprise.
I take another break in the shade near Wat Sa Sri, The Temple of the Four Ponds, and admire the dream-like peace of the walking Buddha. One hand raised to dispel fear, it is caught tantalizingly in mid-step while walking – gliding – through the world.
Late in the afternoon, the sun’s heat fades, and from far off I catch a glimpse of the towering seated Buddha at Wat Si Chum, The Temple of the Assembled Hermits, through an opening in the surrounding building. At least four stories tall, it’s a colossal presence, barely contained by the thick walls. I’m compelled to sit against the wall and stare up at it. There’s no roof and his face, with half-closed eyes and a steady, ever-serene smile, streams with evidence of ages of rain. One hand lies in his lap with the palm open and the other, with knuckles covered in a green felt of moss, rests on his knee. His slender fingers, gold-flecked, as tall as I am and curved slightly outwards, stretch closer and closer towards the Earth.
Morning on the Mekong. The slow, sliding water. I could stay here all day watching the river go by. The Mekong, from Ma-Ganga — Mother Ganges. A haze drifts over the water as a few longboats putter back and forth, ferrying goods and people. Soon I will be a passenger, crossing into Laos.
I feel I should put Thailand into perspective, to mentally leave the country before I cross the river. But what do I know? I swam in waterfalls, ate spicy food, sat in quiet temples and admired the enigmatic Buddha smile, rode buses and bicycles, practiced greeting with the prayer-like wai and saying “ahawn aloyi” (“food delicious”) at even the cheapest soup stand, and discussed East and West with other travelers.
It seems a Western thing to analyze experiences, to judge and rank them: the prettiest waterfall, best meal, most interesting temple or boring town, to constantly question and look for meaning. What am I learning? Is this interesting? How does this compare to…? Yet I can’t make the last month mean anything any more than I can make any other month of my life mean anything. I am on no mission, I explore with no agenda — only to be here and to see.
But, at odd moments, I have tried to practice the mindfulness that the monk taught me in Bangkok. Standing, standing, standing, intending to walk, intending to walk, intending to walk, intending to walk, walking, walking, walking…
I watch the river and remember yesterday’s bus ride. The student from Chiang Mai with his tiresome practice-English questions: Where you go? Where you come from? How old are you? Next to me, a middle-aged Thai woman spoke no English but smiled and pointed to things out the window. Several times she offered me some rambutans she had brought — lychee-like fruit that quenches the thirst. Seeing that I liked them, she placed them on the seat between us so I could take some whenever I wanted. We took turns throwing our pits out the window.
The wide, quiet river. Remembering, watching, remembering, watching.
Daniel Hudon has had other travel writing published in Pology, Two Hawks Quarterly, The Nashwaak Review, Eclectica and Bayou Magazine. This spring his first book, The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos, was published in London (UK) by Oval Books. Originally from Canada, Daniel lives in Boston, MA and is looking forward to his next trip.
This entry was posted on Monday, August 17th, 2009 at 2:00 am and is filed under Non-Fiction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.