Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!
Peace Corps Volunteers are headed to Bangkok at the end of November for Close of Service program (two years almost finished), which will include a Thanksgiving dinner at the Ambassador’s residence. Not too shabby.
It is hard to catch up on the months that have gone by, but I’l try.
First, I get some questions about Thai people, what they are like and such, and I have to say they are very much like anyone else. They love family and community above all else. Everyone wants to be happy. I am not going to criticize Thailand and list all of its social, political, economic, and religious problems. There are many. I equally acknowledge that in America, the richest country in the world, three times bigger than Thailand, we have had (and still have) the same issues in our country at one time or another. Thailand is like no other country in the world. The people are a mosaic of SE Asian culture, modern style, tradition, with belief in spirits and charms. Yet they also love the western world, materialism, enjoy the internet and youtube a much as anyone. Here is an interesting info- graph illustration of differences. http://www.dramafever.com/news/eastern-and-western-attitudes-about-life-explained-in-18-simple-infographics/undefined
Some differences in daily life in the country:
- Thai people give alms to monks walking past their homes every morning around 7am. They may not and chances are they do not, practice meditation or go to the temple at any other time, expect for funerals, which in Thailand last at least three days. And, for festivals, like New Years or Buddhist special days.
- Everyone has time to stop and say hello, or squeeze the cheek of a little child or baby. Even though the “head” is sacred and cannot be casually touched without great offense taken, Thai people pat little children on the head.
- Thai people believe in ghosts or “pi”. Parents tech about pi early in their child’s life, I think to keep them in line…
- Thai people do not get paid vacation days. Teachers are the only workforce that have a break in their work because of student’s bit-term. Many go to see their family during this break. Loyalty and respect of elders trumps all other plans. My Thai teachers and friends have not been to many places that I have been in Thailand. Volunteers get so many vacation days it is kinda embarrassing. As it is, I will not be able to use all the vacation Peace Corps has given me. There is so much to see and do in my community, I feel much of it is unexplored!
- That said, Thai people always share and buy gifts for their family, co-workers (or friends) when they go away on weekends, travel for a meeting, or a trip. Even though they have no vacation days…. They do go places on weekend or just leave. I recently observed teenagers carry bags of goodies on the bus after a bus stop. When buses stop at other bus stations along the way, we usually get off to pee and buy snacks. Sharing and giving are traditional values.
- Thai people always give gifts wrapped with bows. Presentation is everything. They do not, however, open the gift in front of you. That would be rude.
- Thai people take pictures of events we may consider silly, or a waste of time. A recent retirement party for Loong Chao, the janitor at one of my schools, received a gift from every employee. That is over 50 gifts. One was a microwave oven. It had a big bow on it. Also a water dispenser. How can you wrap that!? Each gift was given to him in front of the room by the “giver.” A photographer took a photo of each gift exchange. Thai people are the best picture takers at large events and can coordinate large groups in minutes, but hey, what’s the rush? I have seen pictures of meetings….. on FB.
- Thai people love to sing and dance. I bet every home here has it’s own karaoke machine. From kindergarten on, they learn all the popular songs and shake their hips too.
- If you are a gay man, you are effeminate – (wait, most men in Thailand are effeminate). No, yes. In fact, there is a third sex here, called a ladyboy. I do not like labels but for the sake of explanation, I feel it necessary. There are transvestites (who dress like women) and transexuals (who have physically altered body parts, usually to become a woman). If you are a gay woman, you are butch. You have to look like a man or boy. No wiggle room.
- Most Thai people love the Thai dramas on TV. Some are on exotic locations with dramatic costuming. I have seen sand dunes, elephants… p.s., I no longer have a TV in the house. If I have time to watch TV, I will read a book ormeditate instead!
What did I do over School break in October? I went to a monastery in North Thailand for a 15 day meditation retreat. I brought two sets of white clothes. I meditated in the rain, with mosquitos having me for dinner, 14 hours a day, eating one meal a day, sleeping at 10pm waking at 2:15am. Waking to ringing bells echoed by drums in the distance. Which sparked an entire chorus of dogs barking for 5 minutes. Buddhist nuns and a female monks also called the Monastery home. We chanted before each meal. It was loud and busy, and quiet and serene. I LOVED IT! In summary. It changed my life. I want to go back maybe for a year or more and live as a mechee (Buddhist nun). First, stay six weeks… Then decide. When will have six weeks?!?
During a recent English Camp a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer asked me what my biggest three take aways were. Oops, I wrote 4.
1. I remember coming to a clear realization about impermanence… it was triggered by my body…noticing scars, calluses, aging, my skin is cut and torn from excema etc., I realized why do I worry about how it looks. Can’t I just accept it? After all, it is not really mine. I am borrowing or renting it for this life. It does not go with me afterwards. I am happy for it, really, because it has accomplished and carried me through so much. It is just a shell though. But, it is not mine. There is no ”mine.” This awareness is wisdom or what the Buddha’s teachings call, right thought. I take care of it … But no longer care.
- There is no “mine,” because there is no “self.” I watched my mind grasp for what’s mine, or what it thinks is mine. We were told to leave the “monk’s robe” we bought for the robe ceremony on chairs inside the ordination hall. When we arrived the robes were missing and moved to other chairs. My first thought where is “my” chair. I want my chair with my robe (which I endowed with much importance). Other people sat in “my” chair. When they offered it to me, I said no thank you, realizing my attachment to it. I am glad to have had this experience though. I saw my mind grasping for “mine,” clearly. There is no “self” or “mine.” That is a lie. I have so much more freedom in not having to keep watch or worry about, mine. The best way I can describe it is I am observing from a vessel. I see the mind think, attach, and that is what it is supposed to do. But, like the Captain Crunch cereal, there is a hidden prize inside the box. It is a pair of those magic glasses that let’s you see stuff that you normally can’t see. I can put on those glasses now and see!
- I began to lose the need to comment on things or make a story about people, or what they are saying; instead, noting “thinking” or, thought; then I could see how thought changes; how fleeting and impermanent. It is not really anybody’s thought. In meditation, I kept awakening from thought… increasing the space between thought, until there was deep concentration. Thought moves away and is replaced by a knowing… space. Clarity is left. I can note feeling, seeing, hearing, knowing. It became clear to me that it is better to be unseen than seen, unheard than heard.
- I remember feeling so grateful. There are two types of gratitude… one internal and one external (like, I am grateful it is sunny, or, that I have a house). The other, internal, like I am grateful to practice what the Buddha taught, for what I am learning. I want to be of benefit to others and be a catalyst for mindfulness. If I can do that, it is enough. So, I had profound gratitude to the Buddha for sharing his teachings so we could all have them with us today. They are free. Buddha was a teacher, who wanted everyone to find an end to suffering in their lives. He was/is not a god. Then one day, someone wrote down Buddhism. He became a religion. With it grew all these folk beliefs and superstitions that have nothing to do with the Buddha’s teachings, but the people of Thailand have adapted Buddhism to meet their beliefs.
Day 1 – I meet the monk who supports foreigners with two other young men. One drops out the next day. The monk is funny and strange. He kept saying, “Learning by Do…. ING.” “Learning by Do… ING.” I had a nice little room with private bathroom. We were not allowed to have books, cell phones, notebooks. No distractions. We could not leave the grounds. The pictures I took were on the first day, before I registered and the last day, when I left.
On the third day, I left my body and was in the stars or diamonds? But, supernatural occurrences are normal and common. We are told to acknowledge them and not write a book about it- that would be attachment. During a Dharma talk, with the Bhikkuni (female Buddhist monk), she said, no one is special. People who have grown up in countries where Buddhism has been practiced for thousands of years know, have seen, or have experienced themselves, rapture. It is considered one of the many obstructions to the dharma (the teachings), such as levitation, colors, lights. People can get attached to the sensations, and want to recreate them over and over again….and think they are special. Just acknowledge and note…nothing to do.
We met daily with the Abbot of the Monastery, Phra Ajhan Suphan. A compassionate teacher and wise, wise man. I want to go back and learn more from him. His assistant was Thai and German. He spoke English, as did Ajhan Suphan. During my rapture, people were commenting on it …. in my subconscious. “There she goes.” I could see the flash of someone taking pictures next to me. I told Phra Ajhan this, he said to wish them well. Of course I should do that. He asked if I could accept people. Can you? I said, “Can.” “Can Do.” “Can Do It.” I spoke as if English was a second language. I got it. I started to be less affected from conditions around me, environment and people around me. There was a confidence not attached to external events or people.
Phra Ajahn Suphan, said, “There is a galaxy of stars out there… on the inside as well.” I took this to mean inner-knowing is vast and possibly immeasurable, endless.
Does my sub-conscious have a voice? Yes. Awesome, because it was quiet enough to hear mine. Memory. Collective memory. The universal place we all can dip into? I remember learning in grad school that eye sight is not a physical act, it comes from the part of the brain that generates memory. Seeing is remembering. During chanting (inThai) about forgiveness in the ordination hall, I was singing words in Thai that I did not know. When I became conscious of it, I stopped. These are not extraordinary events. It is natural to experience phenomenon. Experience, acknowledge and let go.
One day the assistant held our appointments. Phra Ajhan was resting. I asked him about the chanting and whether it was important to know our past lives? No, not really, unless it could help stop suffering today, he said. I asked because I had this feeling that I was a young monk in another life but had to stop studying. I was not finished. Perhaps I died young. He said, “There is a reason you are here studying Buddhism at a monastery.” I so wanna go back! I also reflected on the fact that I had numbly wandered into the monk’s area… there was a very cool looking garden with elevated stone seats for meditation under trees with private mosquito netting and just a lovely area. I had noticed the monk quarters but I had been at temples before where it was free to walk around. I work at the temple school. Women can’t stay overnight or go in the rooms. Here, I didn’t get the hints. There were no signs and no one told me not to go there. But I choose not to listen to my subconscious… Which said there are no women here… That monk is looking at you strange. Later, I reflected and came to the conclusion that it was greed that I did not “notice.”
Phra Ajhan observed, “Try to be small and take up no space.” I became a bee inside the honey comb.
A tall man walks through the crowd unseen, unheard. A small man knocks over an apple cart. I was the small man but needed to get smaller. I am still working on it. This is my attempt at a visual.
“Don’t go too far away, everything you need is right here. … Don’t be too attached to anything. Where you are, where you are going.” He added.
It is all about practice. When you give time to concentrate for hours, walking and sitting, insight arises. Walking and Sitting. That’s where is starts and ends. Actually, it doesn’t end. Phra Ajhan Suphan still practices. But not all of his monks practice meditation. In fact, not all monks practice meditation. Becoming a monk is a tradition in Thailand. Young men can enter and leave after three weeks, three months or three years. Whatever. They choose. I have talked about the young monks I teach in other blogs. They don’t have a choice. They are from poor families, hill tribes, and/or have behavior problems. They spend their high school years at the temple school. Bless them all! May the Dharma protect them. May they be happy.
I know you have read too much already. May I share the “Robe Ceremony” Day?
More than two thousand years ago the Buddha walked the earth, searching for answers to the human condition of suffering and the extinction of it. He and his students lived on donations of food and gave his teachings freely. His fellow monks walked and wandered from hills to mountains and communities that lie within to share the dharma with people near and far. This became a problem during rainy season, so the Buddha told monks to sit tight at one monastery for the rainy season, which lasts three months. During this time they were supposed to meditate and purify themselves by following some 227 rules.
After the rains had stopped, communities would gather to give to monks robes and other necessities. Once a year, in October, (during a full moon, I think) the ritual continues across many countries, including Thailand.
I had the opportunity to attend “Khatin,” at my meditation retreat which landed on these special days following the rains retreat. Community women gathered with their spinning wheels and weaving machines to pull cotton from the seed, to spin the thread and then to weave, dye, dry and iron the fabric. All done by hand using the same technique and hand operated machines passed down centuries ago.
At Wat Ram Poeng, women gathered in a large hall to make a new set of robes for the Pha Ajhan (lead monk and teacher).
This was extraordinary to see. I had never actually seen a cotton seed.
Three weavers worked through the night, weaving the thread through looms and into cloth to make one set of robes. While the rest of the women, untangled thread, pulled the cotton to make it flat and smooth. In the morning, it was dyed, dried, ironed and wrapped in a beautiful pink bow.
It is like a big fundraiser for the monks and monastery. People donated anything and everything. From toothbrushes and toothpaste to stuffed animal and blankets, everything is donated for the health and well being of the monks. They are not allowed to touch money. This monastery was also in the middle of big capital project. A new ornate monk ordination hall had been built. New monk dorms and other supporting buildings are still being built. For one day, we meditators tried to be mindful as we navigated a feast of food and flavors, from Thai canooms (sweets), to pad thai, som tam, grilled chicken, vegetable dishes and dipping sauces, sticky rice and many other dishes, making it impossible to taste everything. The community members gave it all away fro free. We and the novice monks who had been eating one or two meals a day….took flight to favorite foods. I craved som tam, and so did the novice monks, who pilled their bowls high with it. I also got bag of sticky rice and coconut canooms. We ate our way through the table stands. I was keenly aware of the gluttony taking place and tried to move mindfully through the crowds, not rushing, observing. My night time, everyone was gone and all was quiet.
You will have to go to my Facebook page to see these photos! https://www.facebook.com/susan.alotrico/media_set?set=a.10151659212201991.1073741856.556891990&type=3