“Can you talk?” This question was asked by every person I told I was going to Thailand to spend a week in a Buddhist monastery and visit my friend Bob Haddad. Answer: Yes, but talking is not encouraged.
The Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery is in northern Thailand, a place of spectacular beauty – think the Great Smokies with big bamboo and palm trees. It sits between two singular mountains, one an escarpment pocked with caves, some of which are available for meditation. Immaculately landscaped and crisscrossed with streams and ponds, it could be mistaken for a resort but for the deep silence and pervasive calm that strikes immediately upon arrival.
The day begins at the monastically forgiving time of 6:30 with a ritual almsgiving to the six resident monks, followed by a breakfast of rice and vegetables. After the morning session of walking, sitting and lying meditation, lunch (rice and vegetables) is served at 11 a.m. There is no dinner. Squirreling away a banana or two becomes important. The afternoon session of more mediation and teachings by one of the monks is followed by some free time when visitors are asked to help out with chores. Mindfully, of course. Much like raking leaves in Eden. The evening session is chanting in Pali and Thai and sitting mediation, then off to bed. Or more accurately, off to pallet. Standard issue for sleeping is a quarter-inch mat, but because I was the oldest person there (and Bob had connections), we got the luxury of four mats.
Most of the 60 guests were young Europeans, very serious, walking around with their “I am here to meditate” face on, offering little eye contact. (Though it happens, don’t go to a monastery to meet people.) Partially in reaction, I resolved to walk around with a silly grin on my face. Lesson one: Walking around with a smile on your face makes you happier and the world a better place.
Buddhism at its core is beautifully simple. No God to believe in, nothing to take on faith, just an acknowledgment that it is possible to become a better, happier, more loving and kind person with a well-trodden path and learnable skills to take you there. The basic skill is mindfulness, and the technique is meditation. It’s hard to sit on the floor at a monastery and concentrate on your breath for 45 minutes even if your knees aren’t 64 years old. But it works. Even with 20 minutes a day at home on the comfort of your own cushions, it works. A creeping perspective that perhaps all this stuff is not as important as we thought.
On my last day in Thailand, I caught myself arguing loudly over 40 baht ($1.15) with a man whose life is driving a three-wheeled motorcycle cab on the smoggy streets of Bangkok. So much for enlightenment and loving kindness. Lesson two: Forgive yourself. For every three steps forward there are at least two back. We are, after all, only human.