Life in a Thai Monastery (Part 5 of 7)

By E. Raymond Rock
The contact with the monks at the Zen monastery in California, our experiences with the monks and nuns here in Thailand, and our deepening meditation all had an incredible impact on this phase of our spiritual lives. Our observation of life expanded into a wonderful perspective, as our worldly appetites fell away, and our spiritual faculties began to flower. This created a radical difference in the way we experienced everything, and although we were circling around life again, it was from a different, more refined vantage point.

My false center or “self” - that part of us we fabricate and call individuality - was also gradually fading, and although this idea of a personality still clung to me like sweat, it was definitely weakening. I originally thought that when this false personality weakened, I would become a doormat, a wet noodle, but I was surprised when the opposite occurred. A certain, inexplicable wisdom and contentment clicked in, enabling me to make decisions without the constant static of “me” in my head that so often led me down proverbial Shangri-La’s that quickly turned into hells.

Long ago, I gave up the idea of one religion or another being the ultimate answer, and no longer could I tolerate somebody else telling me what to think or believe; I had to find out for myself. Now I knew that the answers were nowhere but inside.

I could see, even back then, that any religion’s attempt to organize the Truth, or organize the Freedoms we were discovering, only created and supported a “self”’ rather than dismantle it. And it was becoming painfully apparent to us that through the actions of this fabricated “self,” our destinies were created.

Furthermore, only through insight would our destinies and our false “selves” be resolved; it was up to us. Laying back and waiting for some all-powerful God to zap us into sainthood was not working at all. It seemed as if the Freedoms we were searching for could not be endowed upon us from an outside source; we were stuck with the task of discovering them for ourselves. And this involved sacrificing everything we had ever believed in.

My previous faith closed its ears to any mention of inquiry into one’s soul. I know this for a fact because I asked a priest once. He said that meditation was an invitation to the devil. Interesting. He insisted I follow the Catholic Church exclusively and leave everything in God’s hands, and not worry about understanding anything; we were not meant to understand, only to worship, only to believe - “God is the authority.” (All reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s premise that if Christ returned to earth today to teach true, disciplined righteousness, the Church would not be happy)!

So the Church was no help at all to someone like me who relentlessly questioned all authority, and only years later did I understand what the root problem had always been - “me” - that strong self-identity that the church said was supposed to not question authority! This “me” was what eventually had to be dismantled, but I didn’t know how to do that and the Church either wasn’t aware of the “self,’ or chose to ignore it. Therefore, I could only take one step at a time. The three freedoms we had stumbled across had helped immensely, but we urgently needed that fourth one.

One day, shortly after arriving at the wat I noticed the abbot standing near the smoldering cremation pit. When he saw me, he waived me over. As I approached, I again noticed that his eyes seemed strange. I had thought before that his eyes were different, but now this was confirmed; they were curiously empty, yet very alive, as if they were looking through me and focusing on the forest behind.

He asked if I would help him with something, pointing to a black, tarry lump lying not too far away in the leaves. I didn’t know what he was pointing at, but I nodded in agreement and followed his lead as we collected a good bit of dry wood, which we placed on the embers of the almost burned out fire in the cremation pit. After the fire got roaring again, we gathered some large, dead leaves to protect our hands and carefully picked up the infant’s hot, small, half-cremated torso, and placed it back on the fire.

I couldn’t help but think about the wide chasm that existed between Thai and American culture, and how mentally tough the Thais must be to live under these third world conditions. I felt sorry for these destitute villagers when I first arrived, but soon learned that happiness had little to do with wealth, or comfort, or security; it had to do with unconditional love - not a clinging love, or what might be called attachment, but real, unqualified love.

After we placed the baby’s tiny body back on top of the fire, the abbot looked at me for a moment, and then said, quietly, "You are here now, therefore, you are permitted to be a complete failure in the eyes of the world. You can stop fighting life.”

What an incredible, emotional statement. Tears streamed down my face as if a dam had burst. I didn’t know whether placing the baby’s body back on the fire triggered them, or relief in knowing that I would no longer have to live up to the expectations of a competitive world. Whatever triggered them, it was liberating. Where exactly was I? Where had I been all my life?

1 comment:

Prairie Runner said...

wow. What a day that was! And what powerful words spoken by the abbott.

Very wonderful.

I hope you are well.