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What the Buddha Never Taught
By Tim Ward
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Tim Ward
All rights reserved.
The Farang Wants to Go to a Wat
I told nimalo, the Australian novice, that they ate deep-fried cockroaches on the bus. I expected him to laugh. "Beetles, not cockroaches," he told me in all seriousness. Of course. Silly of me. Certainly beetles would be a much tastier snack.
I rode all day. It was dark when the bus neared the city of Ubon Rajathani, less than fifty kilometres from the Laos border. Then I started asking other passengers where to get off for Bung Wai village. The Thais blinked at me, smiled politely and let me babble as if it was for my own entertainment. Finally the driver got it into his head that I wanted off. He stopped the coach and let me out into the night. It was raining. I found a local bus stop nearby.
"This stop for Bung Wai bus?" I said to a young Thai soldier in uniform. He grinned at me.
"Bung Wai bus?" I said to a man wearing glasses and a wristwatch. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled shyly and looked away.
A farmer's wife controlling two whining children glanced at me nervously. I kept quiet. A bus came. Everybody climbed on board. I put one foot on the steps.
"Bung Wai bus?" I said to the driver. He looked at the ticket girl, a short woman who wore the regulation blue skirt and fat legs. She gave a helpless little smile.
"Bung Wai bus Bung Wai village," I explained.
She looked wordlessly at the driver. He revved the engine, and looked down the highway. I stood my ground, not getting on, not getting off.
"Bung Wai. Bung Wai!"
The driver gestured impatiently, beckoning me to board. I knew he hadn't understood. I gave in. Shaking the rain from my rucksack, I sat down next to the most-likely-to-be-educated person on the bus, a student wearing a white shirt with three ballpoint pens in his breast pocket.
"This bus go Bung Wai?" I tried again.
The student looked back at me, polite but puzzled.
I unzipped the outer pocket of my pack and pulled out a small white book. Finding the name I was looking for, I pronounced it several times in various tones, hoping I'd hit a combination understandable to his Thai ears.
"Pah Nanachat. Pah Nanachat. Me go Wat Pah Nanachat, Bung Wai bloody village."
The young man's smile turned a bit wary at my insistence. I nipped through the pages, hoping for a picture of Ajahn Chah, but it was in the other book, four hundred kilometres away in Bangkok. I drew my legs up and folded them under me, then placed my hands together in my lap, straightened my spine and closed my eyes meaningfully for a few seconds. I opened them again and looked piercingly at the student. He scratched his head. But the soldier called over to him, and mimicked my posture. The student grinned openly and nodded his head. Everyone on the bus looked relieved. The farang wants to go to a wat.
The bus, however, had reached Ubon Rajathani by this time. My hazy sense of direction told me I would have to backtrack to reach Bung Wai. The student got down with me in the city. Apparently he knew what I wanted, but not where to find it. He seemed determined to help. He was tall for a Thai, almost my height, but skinny and younger than I first had thought: fifteen perhaps. My new guide stopped a group of soldiers on the street. One of them seemed to know the place for which a foreigner like me would be looking. He smiled and spoke in broken English.
"You go farang wat? Wat Pah Pong, Wat Pah Pong."
"I go Wat Pah Nanachat, Wat Pah Nanachat. Ajahn Chah."
"Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Chah. Wat Pah Pong. Wat Poh Pong," he corrected me.
"I see. Why not? Wat Pah Pong then."
Everybody seemed happy about this decision. The soldiers hailed a tuk-tuk for the student and me. Wat Pah Pong was also mentioned in Ajahn Chah's books so I assumed somebody there would at least be able to speak English. In Bangkok, one can be lazy. English will get you by. Out here in the northeast you might as well speak Portuguese.
The tuk-tuk driver said he would take us to Pah Pong monastery for thirty baht. The three wheeler drove us east through the rest of the city then out along a muddy dirt road into the jungle. In twenty minutes we arrived at a set of great iron gates. They were locked tight. The student found a small side door in the high concrete wall which was open. It was a black night and still raining. I pulled my flashlight from the bottom of my pack and went through the small entrance with the student clutching my arm. Beyond the wall we found a huge hole in the road about twenty metres wide. My light was reflected by puddles on the bottom. We could see that the sides were smooth, like an excavation pit.
"I guess Pah Pong isn't here right now," I said to my guide. He pulled me back through the gate. Outside, our driver was talking with the proprietor of a small noodle shop near the wall. His chairs were all piled up for the night on top of rickety wooden tables. A kerosene lamp flickered. He shook his head as we joined the driver. He pointed to the road leading west from the gates. "Pah Nanachat." I heard him say.
"Yes, Pah Nanachat!" I nodded furiously. Our driver took new directions and the three of us crawled back into his tuk-tuk. He stuck a dipstick into his petrol tank and muttered something quietly. Then he started the engine. We roared along the slippery new trail until it opened onto a different highway. There the driver hesitated. The student argued with him over which way to turn. Finally we turned right, back towards the city. But the student harangued the driver until he turned around and headed in the opposite direction. When we neared the lights of a small roadside village, the driver stopped and left his seat to get help in a nearby house. He returned, giving us a confident thumbs up signal. Half an hour later we were completely lost. The engine began to sputter in the rain. The driver seemed ready to mutiny, let me off on the highway and go home. He and the student argued loudly. A wooden signpost loomed in our headlight. It was written in Thai and English: 'Wat Pah Nanachat. Bung Wai International Forest Monastery.' Together we made gleeful noises. The tuk-tuk followed the turn off. It was only a mud and gravel track. We were soon surrounded by jungle. A footpath appeared through the rain. The tuk-tuk slithered sideways in the open muddy space next to it. The driver left his engine running.
I gave him what he asked, one hundred baht for the job, and thanked them both. I prayed they would have enough petrol to get back to town safely. My student waved at me as the machine swung around. After watching the little light disappear down the road, I clicked on my flashlight, shone it into the dense, wet trail and wondered what comes out at night when the rains flood the earth. Pack slung over one arm, I walked into the black jungle.
I expected a nerve-steeling walk of several kilometres before reaching the forest retreat. It irritated me when the grey outlines of buildings emerged after only five minutes. Ahead I saw lights. The path widened and the tree cover thinned as I reached a large barn-like building. A side doorway was open. It was a temple. At the front was an altar like a stage, dominated by two large brass Buddhas. Smaller brass figures knelt in worship on either side. Lesser images in front of the main idols glittered by the light of two candles. In front of the altar, five rows of red mats had been set out. In the back row sat a young man dressed in white. His head had been shaven. He sat in typical Thai meditation posture, legs crossed with the left foot resting on the right calf. His hands were folded in his lap, eyes closed, still as the Buddha images. He took no notice of me. He was Caucasian.
I bowed three times to the statues, as Tan Sumana Tissa had shown me, touching my forehead to the ground three times from a kneeling position. I took a seat in the third row and folded up my legs, just to try the place out. To the left of the altar stood a glass case containing a complete human skeleton.
I repeated my bows, stood, and left the temple in search of an office. No one was expecting me. In the rain again, I noticed that light was coming from a window at the back of the temple. There was a door. I heard voices inside so I knocked. It opened. A white-skinned man wearing white robes blinked into the dark at me through steel-rimmed spectacles.
"Do you speak English?" I asked.
"I suppose so," he said humourlessly.
"I'm sorry I've come so late," I stammered. "I took a day bus. The tuk-tuk got lost in the rain. I just arrived."
"Yes," he said. He turned to an adolescent Thai boy wearing ochre robes seated next to a tape recorder on the floor of the room, and spoke to him in Thai.
"I will take you to the Ajahn," said the man, turning back to me.
I followed his white robes across the clearing, into the jungle again. They seemed luminous in the night. The rain had stopped but water dripped everywhere from the dense cover overhead. We came to a small wooden house raised high off the ground by stilts.
"Sawadi krup," said my new guide, as we walked up towards the dark building.
A dark figure appeared at the railing above. A voice spoke down to us in Thai. When the reason for the interruption so late at night was explained, the figure descended the wide wooden staircase. I shone my flashlight on him and was surprised to see he was another Westerner. The man was tall and thin, perhaps forty years old—but with no hair. He had a ski jump nose. His eyes seemed blue beneath his pink scalp.
"Thank you, Michael," the Ajahn said. The man in white raised his palms together in front of his face in a wai, the Thai gesture of respect. He turned, and walked back through the jungle like a ghost.
"We can sit down here," said the Ajahn. He wore the ochre robes typical of Theravada Buddhist monks, a muddy yellow-brown, but his accent was Australian. We sat on the marble surface of the foundation beneath his quarters, he on a low platform, me kneeling in front of him.
I explained briefly that a monk in Bangkok had given me two of Ajahn Chah's books on meditation and had recommended Wat Pah Nanachat as the best place in Thailand for foreigners to learn how to put the Buddha's teachings into practice. I said I wanted to stay for three months or so.
The head monk nodded. "I've been expecting you. For now you can sleep in the guest room above the kitchen. Once you get to know your way around, you may shave your head. That's the sign you wish to stay for some time and practise. We will give you a kuti to live in once you have been shaven. You may think it is strange that we attach so much importance to shaving the hair, but people are attached to their hair. Here we teach how to overcome our attachments. This is the way to end suffering. You start with the hair. There's no hurry though. When you are ready. There's a lot to learn when you first get here. I won't say much now. It's late and you will forget.
"You will hear the bell at three in the morning. Everyone is expected to be in the sala—that's the main temple—by three thirty for morning chanting and group meditation. The meal is at eight. We eat only once a day. Some people find this difficult to adjust to at first. It's easy to be attached to old habits. Now, I'll get some blankets and show you where you will sleep."
"By the way," I said, "my name is Tim. I'm a Canadian."
"Fine. Before you get up you may as well learn it's customary to bow three times whenever you come into the presence of an Ajahn and whenever an interview is over."
I did my bows.
"Tomorrow we'll talk about proper ways of bowing and sitting," he said.
The room above the kitchen was huge, with a high roof and many windows. I opened them all for the cool. The whole building was made of wood. The floorboards held a dark glow. Painted on one wall was a familiar—but out of place—Tibetan Wheel of Samsara. In the centre of the wheel, a pig, a rooster and a snake chased each other in a circle. They represented ignorance, desire and hatred, the three causes of suffering which bind all beings to the endless cycle of existence. All living beings are continually reborn in the six realms which were shown as radiating outward from the centre circle of the wheel. In each realm there was suffering. The hell beings suffered physical torment; the hungry ghosts of the spirit realm, with their thin throats and huge bellies, were incapable of gratifying their cravings of thirst and hunger. In the animal realm, beasts suffered from fear and ignorance. Amongst the various activities of the human realm, there was poverty, cruelty and pain. The Titan-like asuras, envying the gods, devoted themselves to perpetual war with heaven. But even the gods in the deva-realm of bliss, suffered. All beings will die and take rebirth according to Buddhist doctrine. When gods die, they fall again into the lower worlds. They suffer the fear of death. The entire wheel, the realms of god and hell being alike, was clasped in the yellow teeth and claws of a red-eyed demon. This was the first Buddhist truth: life is suffering. Yet Buddha was also depicted in each realm of the wheel, preaching his message of release.
A bell rang in the dark. The clear tone reverberated through the jungle. I sat up on the floor to listen, to clear the sleep from my head and remember what it was. Three o'clock.
The air outside was cool. I joined the other dark figures coming out of the jungle, moving towards the sala. Inside I sat in the back row with four other men, all dressed in white clothing. The row ahead of us seated three people wearing white robes. One of them was Michael. Ahead of them sat the monks and novices wearing ochre, about twelve of them altogether. The community was smaller than I had imagined, which pleased me. We sat in silence for an hour. A few monks stood up and walked to the rear of the sala where they paced back and forth. I had never seen walking meditation practised before. I closed my eyes and searched for the point of concentration, for the light sensation of air moving through my nostrils, rushing against my upper lip. Here I would learn vipassana meditation, the meditation which begins with simple awareness of natural body sensation, the feel of feet on the ground, of inbreathing and outbreathing, returning the mind to that which sustains it, establishing it there, free of the illusions and fantasies which crowd our everyday lives.
Images whirled behind my closed eyes, though I tried to concentrate. Fresh yellow pineapple wedges eaten on the bus. Sugar cane juice sticking to my fingers. Hair like black raw silk falling down the back of the Tourism Information Officer. Her Thai smile. Phra Sumana Tissa in Bangkok, tickling me when I tried to bow to him. Rambutan, all red and hairy on the outside, sweet and white inside, a most exotic fruit. What could be more disgusting than fried cockroaches, served up in a sterile plastic bag?
A small gong sounded from the front of the sala. The walking figures returned to their seats. Everybody knelt in formal posture, buttocks resting on heels, back straight and palms pressed together at the chin in the wai position. The Ajahn crawled forward on his knees towards a photograph in front of the Buddha statues. He lit a candle on either side of it. In the dim light I could see it was a picture of an old Thai monk. A special mat had been set in front of the picture. Anyone who was seated on it would naturally be facing the monks, not the Buddhas. It was the teacher's seat for Ajahn Chah. Only his photograph faced us.
The gong rang again. The Ajahn's voice rose in a strong deep monotone chant, "YO SO," vowels drawn out, vibrating through the quiet dark hall. The monks, novices and white ones joined their voices to his in praise of the Buddha. "BHAGAVAN ARAHAT SAMASAMBUDDHO ..." They chanted in Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhist texts, reputed to contain the original words and teachings of Gautama Buddha. Pali was once the common language of northern India where Gautama Siddhartha Buddha lived. In Thailand, Pali is a mystical religious language, chanted by all devotees but understood only by a small minority of educated monks. It filled the sala, creating a rhythm out of long and short sounds. There was some intonation in the nasal hum of it, but it remained free of song, free of the swell of emotion. A severe, a solemn, a detached offering to the silent brass images before us.
Then it was dawn. Outside light leaked into the sala. We sat in silence until the bell rang again. Three times we bowed to the altar. Three times we bowed to the photograph of our absent teacher, Ajahn Chah. In silence the monks and others stood. They rolled the mats and returned them to a shelf at the rear of the hall. We all took small grass brooms from a large wicker basket and swept the floor clean, gathering dust and dead moths together with hundreds of tiny black ants caught while foraging for food. All was brushed into a pile then swept into a dustpan and shaken out of the door. Not a word was spoken, not a sign from anyone that a new face had joined them in the night.
Excerpted from What the Buddha Never Taught by Tim Ward. Copyright © 2013 Tim Ward. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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