Life in a Thai Monastery (Part 6 of 7)

By E. Raymond Rock
At that time in 1981, Thai families could lose as many as half their malnourished children to diseases such as malaria, typhoid fever, dengue fever, hepatitis, rabies, dysentery, cholera, malaria, hepatitis, Japanese Encephalitis, and snakebites as well. The cremation fires remained busy. The first entire cremation I actually witnessed involved a small girl, six years old perhaps, so beautiful, her long, black hair combed so carefully with a pink ribbon tied on the side. She looked as if she were only sleeping.

The dramatic memory of the episode remained with me for weeks, as the monks warned it would, and it was some time before the skulls that appeared on my kuti wall every evening in the candle light, departed.

I vividly recall the fire becoming extremely hot once the branches were lit, and in only moments, her shiny black hair sizzled, and then was gone. Next, the skin on her face blistered, and was gone as well, exposing the white skull underneath. The little body blackened quickly, its limbs curling up into a fetal position, and then it began cooking.

In those days, the cremation pits consisted of nothing more than four long stakes pounded into the ground with the space between filled with stacks of dry limbs and twigs. The parents would place the body of their child on top of the heap, after which they would stand stoically by to watch it burn. The mother would throw candy into the air, and the father, sitting on his heels, would smoke cigarettes. Expressing emotion was not considered appropriate etiquette by the Thais, and yet at times I caught glimpses of mothers off by themselves crying quietly. It wasn’t considered proper to make a spectacle of yourself.

The villagers appeared to accept these tragedies calmly, while Westerners like Janet and I were horrified. The villagers believed that one’s karma predestines the length of her or his physical life, and that little could be done to change things, a detached attitude that didn’t make sense to our logical western minds with a pill for everything. Let’s face it; our well-trained senses were all that we could rely on at the time, and we believed nothing existed beyond these limited senses. But then, where did my past-life recalls at Shasta Abbey come from, and my other meditation experiences, how did they all fit into this logical picture?

Deep in my heart, I had inklings that this universe involved much more than was obvious, and now I wondered what was keeping me from seeing this “more.” Was my strong logic blinding me from seeing extraordinary things that possibly exist outside the range of my limited vision? Perhaps my search for freedom at some point would take me far beyond a limiting world that ensnared me so. Perhaps someday the expansive worlds alluded to by these monks and nuns would be revealed. I was learning that this freedom could not be endowed by something else; a greater power for instance, I had to work toward it agonizingly by myself. Well, almost myself - Janet was with me every step of the way.

Evenings were a blessed relief in Thailand; warm, but without the smothering heat of the day that gratefully always surrendered to the night’s relative coolness. If we weren’t in the sala at dusk, chanting, we would be sitting out in the jungle meditating (hoping to high heaven that a snake wouldn’t crawl in our laps, or a mad dog take a bite out of us).

At other times, we would be found gathered under the abbot’s kuti. His kuti was fancy, with a profusion of tropical plants and flowers on all sides. The kuti itself was small, but because it was built in the middle of a large, ornate, elevated veranda supported by high, elaborate pillars instead of the ordinary four by four stilts that propped up our huts, the whole structure had an appearance of a massive building. The living quarters inside the hut were about the same size as ours; but because it was built on a large platform, the entire structure was large enough for the entire community to sit underneath.

The abbot would be perched on a high seat, being fanned slowly with giant banana leaves by one or two senior monks, and except for fierce mosquitoes buzzing around and preparing to feast on us (and hopefully not carrying a bad strain of malaria), all was deadly quiet, as the monks would continue to fan their abbot. The humidity was tangible; the still air heavy and laden with moisture with a storm usually brewing during the rainy season. Nobody spoke or moved after we all filed in and found a seat on the concrete floor; it was perfectly silent, a powerful silence with these monks and nuns sitting peacefully together, not making a sound.

One evening, I was sitting there, serene, watching Janet with the nuns across the way and wondering how she was doing, when I noticed a small brown scorpion crawling up my leg and onto my lap. It was as if I attracted scorpions; some kind of scorpion karma maybe. But I just sat there, trusting it wouldn’t bite me as long as I didn’t move . . . (Hah!).

The devious arachnid scurried sideways over to my wrist, and with smiling, beady eyes, stung the hell out of me! The pain was interesting, like ten bee stings at once accompanied by unbearable pins and needles running the entire length of my arm. I tried to concentrate on my solar plexus to ease the throbbing, and all the while the little terrorist just sat there, tail in the air, looking up at me as if to say, “Had enough?” Actually . . . I did, and eventually it scurried off, leaving me sitting there with thirty minutes of pain contemplation. Another of my many teachers!

Occasionally, the abbot would give a talk. When I attended his first talk, I expected it to be deep, very moving. I imagined him saying something in the order of . . . “You will never find the Source in your “self.” You can analyze yourself forever and not find it, but when that self, the one who is looking, is put under the pressure of intense meditation for a long time, ahh, . . . the self disappears, and there is the Source! Can you imagine yourselves beyond consciousness? Can you envision timelessness? Can you grasp the immensity of eternity? Some things you will fully experience with meditation, but never be able to utter a word about them to anyone. There are no words to express them. You are the Source; you are Reality here and now. There is no such thing as progress toward the Source, only a steady realization that you are presently blind to this fact. Each moment is eternal in itself, time being but an illusion of consciousness that creates previous and future moments. Everything happens now. Without insight, your past will be your tomorrows and your tomorrows will be but a phantasm of yesterday, as your dreams and the dreams of all beings intermingle. The barrier of consciousness will keep you from these truths for as long as you cling to the fantasy of individual experience. Look forward to the day when experiencing ends. May you find truth. . . .”

But in actuality, of course, his talks were much more practical and targeted, centered around our simple struggles to overcome the kilesas - our greed, hatred and delusions - which are fueled by our insatiable desires. And I didn’t have to go very far to find them. First things first I suppose.

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