It was sad news yesterday about the death of a friend in Seattle who I met through a clean and sober climbing club in Seattle, we both belonged to for years. Dave Forest was a patient and generous man. He apparently died suddenly due to complications from a liver transplant. He was famous for bringing a heavy skillet, eggs, bacon, muffins and fresh fruit to the top of snow-covered Tiger Mt., just because he felt like it and he knew it would make people happy.
I don’t understand. He was younger than me. It is a reminder to me to hold each person I know, in my heart with love… because we never know when we will be called. A reminder that each moment, each life, is precious, to not rush by people, and to enjoy the moments. It is not about what someone accomplishes, it is about the light they give to others, and how that expands beyond the mind’s comprehension… into the space of the heart, so vastly under-tapped in this world. God, we need the heart.
It has been a busy few weeks and there have been many exciting, precious and funny moments. I wish I could share some. Just to say it has all been good and I am happy. I am doing most of the teaching at one school. My co-teacher involves me in many more “projects” than the previous teacher and we are close friends. The story time we do on Friday nights is something I hope to pass on to high school students next year. Sustainability, that’s what we are aiming for here. My other teacher has wonderful ideas for innovation next year.
Two weekends ago, I was away at an ASEAN English Camp at a fellow PCV’s site. Last weekend, I was in Chiang Mai for a Dr.’s appointment. This weekend I am headed on a vacation trip with one of my schools. We are going to the ocean/Gulf of Thailand at Chaam and Petchaburi.
In the midst of it all, I have found a meditation sangha. Though I did not make it tonight. I plan to go Sunday nights. I am going to have to bicycle there rather than relying on people to take me. I met two women at my temple school who go to meditation sessions at a nearby temple My co-teacher knowing I practice meditation told them and we exchanged phone numbers and last Sunday I went. In many ways it was set up similarly to my Seattle Insight Meditation sangha. We sat on cushions (not enough for my tight legs), a gong was sounded three times at the conclusion of a long meditation. I thought they may chant in Pali so I brought my verses but it was mostly in Thai so I had to sit through many chantings, letting the sounds flow in and out of me. There was a section of call and response so I could sound that out. The actual meditation was perfect. I have not sat so long…about 40 minutes in along time. I was actually at my end with being uncomfortable and muttered to myself, “Can we go home now?” Just at that moment, as if in answer, the monk tapped the gong and a tear floated down my cheek.
The monk, who seems to be in his 30’s, lives at the temple with what I could gather, three pre-teen, or early teen novice monks. He walks nearly 10 kilometers a day for alms, his food, barefoot, and eats only one meal a day. Everyone was curious about me and I found out several of the woman (only one man attended) are high school teachers at Pua School. One, Err, spoke excellent English, and helped me talk to the monk, who said,” Susan samaati geng.” Which means I sat well. We had a brief discussion about soreness and basically it translated as I can control the mind to let it go. I have practiced this before. It is painful getting through the first few days, for instance at a meditation retreat. Almost everyone is dealing with the “pain.” It is a built in meditation tool because you get to focus on the pain. As you name it, identify its feeling: tight… sharp… burning…dull…you experience the different sensations; as they change. Soon, you dissociate an emotion with it and experience the raw physical sensation as it just is, the pain changes and often disappears. The monk wants me to teach him some English. I think this would be wonderful but it feels very strange at the same time because he is a spiritual teacher.
The temple is outdoors, which was absolutely beautiful. It was fairly simple and different from the very ornate temples I usually see. A shimmering green glass Buddha sat high above the alter. I think it is a forest monk refuge but I am not sure. I will have to go during daylight and explore. One side of the temple was open to the elements. Fans moved the air to ward off mosquitos and heat. Against the wall was a huge bookcase filled with books and meditation night set up materials. A replica of a human skeleton hung from inside a class cabinet. It was like a science classroom more than any temple I have seen. A cabinet containing medicines was also near. These students are being taught science and the subjects here, I mused. Later I would find out the skeleton is there to remind us to prepare for our own death. That is amazing. It must be a school for the three young monks. I heard that the monk does not go for all the folks beliefs, most Thais shroud their lives with. He does not even wear the string or offer the string around the wrist in ceremony. Fascinating I thought, I like this guy. The temple has been here for only a year. The monk once studied at the temple school I teach at on Fridays. The venerable Phramaha Phol, who founded the temple and school is a visionary. He is the leader of all temples in Northern Thailand. He has a blue print for a amazing transformation of the site. They will build a meditation center for the public, a covered, open-air sitting area, more walking paths and gardens. Expansions of the school are already taking place. I am not surprised that one of his pupils is taking the road less traveled in monk life with this other temple.
That reminds me, while at the temple school on Friday, some of the young monks in the back of the class (yes, watch out for those), beckoned me over. They pointed to a picture laughing and said something in Thai. I looked and it was a scribbled pen drawing on the wooden desk of a woman with big breasts, below the woman were the faces of two men, each different but both looking up at the breasts, which I thought was cute. Instead of just drawing the breasts, they drew the men looking at the breasts in that big-eyed way they do. My young monk friends also like to show the middle finger by waving it instead of raising their hands. They do these things with such innocence and good heartedness, I never admonish them. They are 8th graders! I don’t care where you are, but young people all over the world still go through the same emotional and physiological development. Big picture: without the temple school, it would be very hard to say where these young boys would end up. The temple school is offering a service to these boys who sometimes cannot learn in a rigid classroom environment. Some may not even speak and write their own language well or at all. At my public elementary school, I am starting to see penis drawings here and there. Is Spring in the air?
My sinus infection has been twiddling away at my endurance so I finally went to see an Eye Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist at a private hospital in Chiang Mai this weekend. I walked away with a bag full of drugs and reassurance that continuing to nasal irrigate is a good thing and that changing where I sleep is also a good thing. I have been wondering if my mattress has been causing respiratory issues. In America, I found mold on my mattress and it was indeed the reason I kept getting reoccurring sinus problems. I can’t be positive, but I think there is mold on my mattress here. I see white spots on it. It is expensive to buy another mattress, so I am sleeping on a mat on the floor, like the aesthetics. My landlord bought the original mattress and it was wrapped in plastic when I got it.
I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha on the bus to and from Chiang Mai and it really changed my outlook on people. I had left Chiang Mai with an icky feeling in my stomach having watched so many farangs these past two days.
There are no rules in Chiang Mai, you can have women, drink beer, get drunk and have the time of your life barely making a dent in your paycheck. I saw many, what you would consider, scantily clad young women. Some wear see through clothes, or tops so low their breasts are in front of you. Form fitting skirts hug just below the bottom. I was walking behind one woman whose lacy thong underwear was so obvious I felt ashamed. Most of these people are not American. They are from Germany, France, Australia or other parts of Asia. Thailand is an exotic location, with exotic food, cheap alcohol, and a welcoming atmosphere that stays up all night and morning. The heat makes is exotic too. Mornings though is when you see the real Thai people. They come out for the markets. As the day ends, the Thais go home and the farangs come out. I see older red face white men with young Thai women and the pit in my stomach rises again. I see other groups: over weight, 50 or 60 something red-faced and pasty farangs getting stacked into song taews, like live pigs getting stacked one on top of the other, headed to their final destination. To the Thai’s we are products. Thais beckon you, hawk you, sell you, dismiss you, take you. You are a product to be transported, fed, housed and shipped to the next destination. You are not an individual. The Thais have a gentle, passive kindness. They also have a shrewd business mindset. They would never show their contempt or dismay. In fact, show them a little Thai and a smile, and they will go a long way for you.
I was surprised to find Starbucks does not offer free wifi for their customers and the place was big. Yes, I broke down and had my first freshly brewed Starbucks coffee at Starbucks. Not that friends back home have not provided such delicacies. They have and I thank them!
My neighbor’s house, two houses down echoes with the cries of a little boy who I hear cry each day and night. Most children in Thailand are dearly loved, treasured and very happy. Not so for this unfortunate little soul. He is being shaped by the displeasure people take in him each and everyday. My heart breaks. I can only be kind to him when I see him. I have told my other neighbors about him. They too shake their heads. You don’t go knocking on someone’s door to take issue with their parenting. In fact, his mother is away all day and he is being raised by his grandparents, who have never read Spock.
Back to Chiang Mai. I stayed in dirt cheap room – $6.00 (180 Baht). A small tinderbox of a room with road and party noise till 2am (glad I brought my earplugs and sabai mindset). It was not what I intended. The place I wanted was full and did not accept reservations. I went directly from the bus station to a Dr.’s appointment which set me up to find lodging in the evening. By then the bus from Bangkok had already arrived and dropped off its cargo of people who scooped up the rooms. So, I landed in a cheap room. I got to see and hear youth do what they do best, drink beer, get drunk, girl/boy talk until 2:30am, etc. I could here it all through the walls. You don’t come to Chiang Mai to sleep, so I can see why they stay here. There were dorms style rooms and for a bunch of 20 something guys and girls it is a blast. The bathrooms were dirty. The sinks coming unhinged from the walls. The tile gets grungy after a while so it does not clean spotless. Glad I brought my flip flops. At least they could have put in a squat toilet, guaranteed not to clog. My room was not dirty but I wondered if they really changed the sheets. Considering all of this. I slept well. The Peace Corps has given me experience at living with less or less than and adapting with no harsh feelings.
Did you know many Europeans still SMOKE? I looked around the restaurant I was eating at and noticed two of the four tables had smokers. With the exception of one table, people were multi-tasking, keeping up with FB or email, on their chosen electronic device and keeping up with the conversation at the table. How do you do that?
My observation is people come here with longing. Longing for adventure, a cool drink in a hot city, to meet other people who are longing, to have sex, to escape into an exotic land where pretty much anything goes. People are caught up in this exotic environment, where fun and adventure await. And if you are counting dollars, it is cheap. To satisfy this longing people become gluttons, with food, drink, and risk taking. Carefree drinkers party until early morning hours. Farangs on motorcycles or bicycles with no helmets buzz in and out of traffic, with nothing but their confidence. In the mornings, I saw people jogging with their glassy eyes and red faces pushing toxins from the night before out of their bodies. Thrill seekers can zip line through jungles, ride elephants, pet tigers at the tiger temple, watch muay thai (male and female fighters) or try their skill at shooting at an indoor game venue. When I was reading Siddhartha, I realized what so vibrantly was being played before my eyes was the cycle of samsara. This is the suffering that comes with endless craving. To search for happiness. Each person caught in their own cycle of cravings, some aware, many not. Why were there so many unhappy people? Thailand is challenging for the traveler too. It is not convenient or filled with ease. You are on alert. Traffic does not stop for pedestrians so crossing the street has to be timed just right. Sidewalks, if you can call them that, can present a mishap as many share space with vendors with sudden holes, scaffolding or metal bars sticking out at eye level. You get hot, sticky, sweaty and dirty.
What if all of this longing, sickening indulgence and seeking, was beautifully perfect because it is so human? Don’t we each share the suffering of one another? We mirror one another. Inside each of us is the Buddha, calling out with a voice that comes from the heart. We can choose to see and with the heart or the mind. The heart brings connection, the mind separation. I saw with my heart on the bus when I looked over at the man sitting next to me. He was the spitting image of a young friend of mine, 30 years from now. I saw my friend as an aged man worry lines etched in his sweet face. The beautiful woman I sat next to will suffer the loss of her beauty by society, and will become a yaai. I see for this brief moment, we are all one in the same; not separate. When will the waiting be over, to reach an end to suffering and the beginning of unity, peace and ease. When will I be ready to listen to the voice inside me and follow it. Can you hear yours?
So where does that leave her? A girl dressed in her dirty blue skirt and white blouse. School clothes. A beggar on the streets. A pariah no one sees because if they dared to see they may face the gravest question of their existence. How and why do we exist and what are we, truly. I saw her. I kept walking. I have these questions. I looked back, not sure if what I saw was real or an apparition. How horrible I thought. Then her story appeared.
She was not really there, she was hidden behind the dark mass that was her face. A sickening form of life. I know what it is to hate oneself. An unsuspecting fawn tapped on the shoulder by fate and chosen. You will be the one. You shall wear the face of darkness. You shall bear it and give witness to it. But why? To what end? What is the lesson for her, for me? She obviously was not killed at birth. When was she turned out on the streets? When did she know she was different? Under the cover of night, does she shrink into the shadows of the dark alleys of Bangkok?
Was this a genetic mutation or something that happened slowly over time, a poison that leached through the skin, to dissolve bone and leave her with an elongated pachyderm trunk? Was she loved, hugged, and touched as a child? Did she take care to bathe and wash herself? Did her own screams wake her up at night?
Her mouth was small. Her eyes receded in the distance. Resigned. They showed she had given in, accepted it, but was still witness to her own torture every time eyes met hers and then hurriedly looked away. I realize the torture is bearing witness to her as well. The weight of her face pulled her features downward in a pitiful way. I should have stopped and given her money. We were rushing to catch a van. Take a moment to give a moment. I was horrified. Never have I seen something so inexplicably unexplainable.
I wanted inside her, to know, was it heavy? Did it weigh her down? Did the dark mass saunter back and forth in the wind? Could she tuck it away in her shirt? Her face hung below her shoulders, past breast level, then tapered off and narrowed in a soft u-shape.
What is her buddha nature? What does her inner voice say? How does she escape who she is? How do I escape who she is? What if I exaggerate her hideousness by shunning her. By not looking, not seeing.
What would it be instead to look, to gaze in her eyes, to sit and be present to everything she is, to hear her voice, her longing. Would seeing her help not to see? If we are all connected in samsara, in life and death, the she is connected to me too.
She does not feel the pain of what she cannot be. She only knows the present looking out, like a dog who is accustomed to starvation and scrounging for food. She does not see herself. In her sleep, she is at peace. In her dreams, she is free of her body. The wind does feel good against her skin. For this, she is grateful.
She is sacred. I am sacred. Can I give myself the same forgiveness, self acceptance, and love that I give her?