|Pra (monk) Kale enjoying a break from sweeping the grounds.|
Luang Dta is an ancient gnarled tree. Near toothless wth a ring of prickly white hairs ringing his lined, brown head, the old “uncle” monk led our procession through the village each morning during alms round. One morning, after waking as ususal at 4:30am from the reed mat I slept on in a side room of the temple’s main hall, I asked my fellow monk buddy Tik about Luang Dta: “He drank well. So well.” This was Tik’s euphemistic way of telling me the old monk had formally been the village alcoholic. “He didn’t eat food; just lao kao [moonshine].”
|The crematorium is located|
at the back of the wat and
These days, Luang Dta is in his 70s and will live the rest of his life as a Buddhist monk, spending his time sweeping the wat grounds and performing walking meditation. From my place behind him during morning alms round, I could see the soles of his feet were calloused white, encrusted with dust and gravel from years walking barefoot (required when asking the villagers for food each morning). Without notice, he trampled through piles of broken beer bottles while I attempted to weave around, awkwardly tiptoeing through roadside rubbage but struggling to maintain the somber expression of spirituality.
Pii Wan’s son ran out into the street to plop a couple hardboiled eggs into my bat shiny stainless steel alms bowl. The villagers were thoughtful to make sure my vegetarian diet wasn’t disturbed during my ordination. After the neighbors, most often middle-aged women, placed offerings of sticky rice and eggs or curry into the alms bowl, Luang Dta, Tik and I would chant a blessing in Pali, the language of Nepal and official language Theravada Buddhism. Then, the kneeling villagers would rise and our trio of saffron robed beggars would move on to the next home.
|Tik meditates beside the pond on the temple grounds. He and|
I organized a litter cleanup the following day to make a more
Village monks eat only twice per day, both meals taken before noon (forest monks are of a tradition that eats only once each morning). After alms round, Tik and I would perform small chores and maintanence of the wat grounds: raking leaves, collecting litter, and cleaning bathrooms. Before 11am, Fon (Rain), the shy and pretty 22-year-old girlfriend of my friend Duum, would show up to deliver a special meal she had prepared for me, dtom yum spicy soup with egg or sweet and spicy fried eggs. I was humbled throughout my time as a monk at the outpouring of generosity from visiting villagers.
Through the heat of afternoon, Tik and I would rest. He often flipped through the TV channels to watch Thai soap operas or check sports scores. “I though monks weren’t supposed to watch TV,” I said.
|Tik, "Uncle" Dta and I chant blessings during the morning's|
alms round through the village.
“They aren’t,” Tik replied, eyes glued to the TV. “We also aren’t supposed to smoke, eat garlic and peppers, or pee standing up.” I thought of our chain-smoking abbot. This was Tik’s way of saying how while the precepts are meant to be followed, village monks often bend the rules. Over time, I came to accept these allowances for lifelong monks but tried my best to follow all precepts during my own short time as a monk. I brought a book of meditation and plopped down on the bamboo bench beside Tik, trying always to be reading while he watched TV.
In early evening, Tik and I swept the paved walking path that encircled the temple. Fish flopped in the pond while children splashed in the water and men came in from the fields to bath in their underwear. In the distance, a wall of black smoke rose into the air – the sugarcane fields were burning. Farmers watched the inferno, burning out the sharp leaves to make the sugarcane easier to chop the following day. “They are working so fast,” Tik commented. In 3 days, the field had been chopped, the sugarcane loaded up and the fields already tilled and ready for a new planting.
|Our two meals, taken before noon, began with prayer.|
Rice was eaten from the alms bowls and leftovers eaten
by the congregation once monks were finished.
As though an apparition, a 30-something monk in the dark burgundy robes of the forest tradition appeared from the fields without a sound. He had walked nearly 35km that morning, a monk on tudong (travel in search of spiritual wisdom). Covered in Thai traditional tattoos meant for protection and transcendence, this pra was not much older than me but had the spiritual intensity and sharp eyes of a monk with many years meditation experience. In the evening this visitor led us in prayer before rolling out his reed bed mat on the cold tile beneath the altar.
My time as a Buddhist monk held none of the magical transcendence toward enlightenment that we often associate with robed life. Instead, it held something more practical: a compass toward the gradual, plodding path of practice that characterizes all religions of the world. Enlightenment is not achieved overnight. Instead I learned something of discipline, humility, the unending generosity of my village neighbors and friends, the subtle beauty found in faith and ritual, and how incredibly far I still have to go. Spirituality is a journey, and mine had only just begun.