A Monk for Three Days at a Mountain Temple
My wife is Thai. In 1998, I agreed to travel from my home in the United States and spend 3 days as an "honorary monk" at a temple where my wife's mother (now deceased) used to worship. As many readers probably know, this is a common gesture of a son-in-law to show his respect.
The temple is located in Kut Bak, about 35 miles southeast of Sakon Nakhon. My wife and several of her family members drove me there from Kohn Kaen. Once we left Highway 25, the roads leading to Kut Bak and its nearby temple were the roughest terrain I had ever ridden on, especially the dirt roads leading up to the base of the jungle-laden mountains. We crossed ditches and even streams to reach our destination. This is a point where we had to park the vehicle and walk up a small mountain trail to the temple. Along the way, curious (and very noisy) monkeys that were jumping from tree to tree followed us. It was a sight that I had never imagined in my wildest dreams. I felt like a world explorer.
When we reached the temple and I was introduced to the abbot, I bid farewell to my wife and her family who would be back in three days to pick me up. I was fortunate in that there was a Thai man visiting who could speak very good English. He claimed to have once been the chauffeur for the current King and Queen of Thailand. He was in his late 60's. He acted as my interpreter since no one else could speak English.
It was a place like none I had ever seen or even had described to me. The ground was solid rock with occasional areas of soil that supported a very dense surrounding jungle. The monkeys were always present jumping from tree to tree with no visible purpose but to have fun. The temple itself was modest but beautiful. This is not a temple costing millions of "baht". In fact, most of the building I learned was donated by Buddhist worshipers in the construction business. Even more impressive though are a series of reservoirs and water filtering plants at the top of the mountain that have been built by the monks and the village people living at the base of the mountain in Kut Bak and other nearby villages.
The piping from the reservoirs is plain old PVC available at most hardware stores in my Western part of the world. It is zigzagged and spliced together throughout the temple grounds, extending all the way down the mountainside. As one walked about, they would have to step over the piping in many instances. And there are lots of little leaks with water misting into tiny sprays. There is no electricity. There are no phones. With the exception of the water processing facility, it is a very natural and primitive place, unspoiled by the devices of mankind.
The abbot and his monks are all strict vegetarians. They do not kill anything--not even the pesky mosquitoes and ants that were always noticeably present. I became accustomed to the food and the insects though. Since I had no one attending to me, I mostly dined (during the permitted time periods) on bananas and rice. At night, I would lie down in a primitive hut alone with only a thin mat and a "prayer pillow" for comfort.
Each of the three days, I would awake very early. It was impossible to oversleep. The monks would strike a large gong that I am sure could be heard for miles. And the monkeys would jump on the roof of my hut as if to be purposely trying to annoy me. I would quickly dress in my white monk clothing (not being a real monk, I could not wear their golden robes). Then I would step outside and follow the monks and nuns to the temple where we would then have morning worship. My steps seemed awkward and unusually animated as my bare feet were unaccustomed to the small rocks and roots that lined the footpaths.
As I sat for the first time in a Buddhist temple participating in the Morning Prayer, I could not help but think about my brothers and my mother still living in my hometown back in Indiana. What would they think of all this? Here I was, a Christian, and in a place that is thousands of miles away from the Indiana farm town where I was born. I silently wished that they could be there with me to savor the moment. It had an eerie presence with the shadows moving on the walls from the large flickering candles, the Buddha images, and the monks chanting in unison. There was a curious monkey sitting in one of the open windows.
The voices of the monks reverberated with a soothing and calming effect. Occasionally there were parts of the praying ritual where we were supposed to join in. Mostly this was in the very beginning of the praying. I would follow the others for my correct queue. Like a parrot, words were escaping from my mouth, but I had no idea what I was chanting. It was explained to me later that we were speaking Pali (not Thai) and giving praise to the Messenger of Buddhism, Lord Buddha.
An exercise for the development of greater concentration always followed Morning Prayer. Concentration and the ability to block out the material surroundings, I was taught, are required for meditation. The exercise involved the monks, nuns and I stepping in orchestrated precision from one stump to the next in a large closed loop of tree stumps. These were located in a clearing of the jungle adjacent to the temple; and at one point, bordered the edge of a creek. We chanted in Thai (left foot, right foot) as we negotiated the course, balancing ourselves on each foot along the way.
Several times I almost lost my balance--once nearly falling into the creek. If it were not for grabbing the back of a monk's robe, I would have certainly fallen. We would make two complete loops of this course every morning. This was always followed by a "water pouring ceremony" of which I never inquired into its meaning.
On the second day of my temple experience, while the abbot opened his eyes from his meditation, he spoke to me through the interpreter. He told me that he had a vision of me having lived in the area many years ago. This intrigued me. I asked the interpreter to ask him if I were Thai in that previous life. The monk answered that I was not Thai, but of the "tall people who once lived in this very spot". He added that I was a writer for the village. This really startled me, since in my real life at the time of this visit I was making a part of my living as a technical writer. How could he have known this? Was it a coincidence? The abbot asked the interpreter if I would like to see something that I wrote. Of course, I accepted the offer. He promised to take me there the next day.
True to his promise, following Morning Prayer, meditation practice and eating, the abbot took me to the place where he would show me "my writing". (This had to be straight out of a movie, I thought, as I followed him.) We traveled through some jungle not far from where the monk sat every day to meditate. Suddenly we were following a path to a stone staircase, taking us down the mountainside. As I followed him, he stopped along the way and pointed to some beautiful white flowers growing along the mountain wall lining the stairs. He said something to me in Thai, and I only understood the word "dogmai" (flowers). We continued descending the stairs, of which there must have been a hundred stepping stones, finally terminating our journey into a large cavern carved into the side of the mountain. As the monk talked, the interpreter told me that the "tall people" had carved the cavern into the mountain hundreds of years ago. This was their place of worship. There were decaying clay Buddha images with parts of their faces and bodies falling to piles of dirt. Candles were burning there. The monks must light the candles daily I pondered.
The abbot made his way past the Buddha statues to a place on the cavern wall that had writing chiseled into it. He asked me through the interpreter if I could tell him what it said. I told him that I could not read Thai. He laughed and told me that this was not Thai. Further, he explained that it was the language of the "tall people". I was unfamiliar, at the time, with the Thai alphabet; so I assumed everything he was telling me was correct. He then said a very puzzling thing that I have yet to figure out. He said that I would return someday and tell him what the message says. He said it with such seriousness and certainty that I have come to believe the accuracy of his prophecy.
As we left the cavern, I looked over the cliff, down upon the canopy of jungle below. It seemed to have no bottom. A rain was beginning to fall and it made wonderful sounds as I could hear the drops strike the broad leaves of the banana trees and other foliage that lie below in tier after tier. No sooner had the rain started than it stopped. A marvelous rainbow stretched across the canopy. It was the first time that I had ever seen a rainbow from above, looking down. It was breathtaking.
I left on the third day, but I will never forget the experience. In three days, of course, I did not learn much about Buddhism. But the experience excited me such that I invested a large amount of time in the years that followed, trying to make more sense of it all. Along the way I surmised that the writing on the wall was written in Khmer, a language that borrowed most of its characters from ancient Indian Sanskrit.
Someday as predicted, I know I will return to this temple. I may even then be able to tell the abbot what the inscriptions on the ancient temple walls say. One thing for sure, my heart and mind never really left that beautiful place. I will cherish the experience forever.
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Published on 12/23/02