After a grueling, three-hour road trip from the northern city of Chiang Mai, I arrived at the temple in Fang, a dusty town on the border with Myanmar (aka Burma). The temple grounds, full of towering spires and Buddha statues, each seeming higher and more ornate than the next, are guarded by a wild pack of dogs. The Abbot of the temple, Dr. Abhisit Pingchaiyawat, pointed out a mangy mongrel he called “Saddam Hussein” and asked if I’d had any rabies shots.
For the first month of monastic life, I was to live in a monk’s cell, a “kuti,” with a low, rickety bed and humble mosquito net. According to the Buddha, the possessions of a monk are few. Sandals, a rug to sit on, towels, orange robes, alms bowl, walking staff, needle, thread, a belt and a filter for straining drinks — so not even accidentally to take an insect’s life, even a pesky mosquito. Compared to the gadgets of everyday life, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, it’s a humbling bundle.
The main temple, where monks and novices pray day and night, is full of gleaming Buddha statues and the air is heavy with the fog of incense. Aloft, up in the rafters, bats squelch and defecate on our kneeling bodies. The young monks stare back at the westerners wiping the bat turds off their shoulders. They have no choice but to live here. Some are orphans, some hail from families too poor to support them, some are refugees from Shan State in neighboring Myanmar. These boy monks will grow to manhood and some will fill the ranks of the Thai underclass as motorcycle cab drivers or street food vendors. Only a few will stay on to become full time men of the cloth.
During evening prayers and meditation in the temple the silent reverie is broken by a cellphone. Then another. And another. The Abbot, the father of the house, does not stir and waits till the end of the service to speak. “Look,” he says, in a soft, smiling voice, “I have a cellphone too but I always leave it in my room or switch it off for evening prayers.” Mine remained switched off for the duration of my retreat.
As a “postulant,” a monk-to-be, the senior monks of the temple taught us the right way to meditate: sitting down; standing up; walking around; they instructed us in the five precepts: no killing; no stealing; no sexual misconduct; no lying; no alcohol. We had to learn the right handed virtues of the eightfold path: right view; right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right awareness. That wasn’t the end of it. There were more rules and regulations of “right” to follow. No gossiping, no singing, no dancing and no handling of money. It was an exterior and interior life of constant spiritual discipline. With no left turns.