stupa
The stupa at Wat Rumpoeng. Courtesy of Don Morreale.

Tan Chawut’s Chanting echoed out across the temple grounds—as startling as the cry of the tree-dwelling gekko, as reassuring as the whirring of cicadas. I had journeyed to his monastery—Wat Rumpoeng (Lum-pung) in Northern Thailand—in search of tranquility and insight, the fabled twin blessings of Buddhist meditation.

The regimen was rigorous: 20 hours daily of sitting and walking meditation in strict seclusion. During the last three days of a two week retreat, in an exercise known as “determination,” retreatants were expected to meditate round the clock without lying down. A meal of rice gruel and greens was served at six a.m., the main meal at ten. For the rest of the day we fasted. Visiting and idle chit-chat were discouraged.

I was curious about the chanting and asked my meditation teacher, Luangpoh (“Grandfather”) Panjat, what it meant. “Tan Chawut chants the Patimoka,” he explained.

“The Patimoka?”

“These are the rules which govern a monk’s conduct; where he may sit or sleep, what he may eat and when, the work he may do or not do, what he may touch, and what he is forbidden to touch. It is the code of sila—morality. We believe it to have been formulated by the Buddha himself in order to instruct us, even in his absence.”

Normally monks recite the Patimoka twice a month at special ceremonies held in accordance with the cycles of the moon. Tan Chawut chanted it twice a day, reading aloud from a text printed on dried palm fronds in Pali, the language of the Buddha.

“It is his only practice,” Grandfather said.

Every morning at three, Tan Chawut’s rapid fire recitation would wake us, energizing us for the strenuous day of practice that lay ahead. His chanting at sundown gave us courage to face the long, scary nights when lovesick bullfrogs honked sweet nothings to each other and the Wat became a battle ground for fighting demon dogs. For me, these incantations came to represent the beating heart of Buddhist practice at Wat Rumpoeng. On the day I came out of seclusion, I asked to meet him.

He looked to be in his early thirties, but I was later to learn he was closer to fifty. He wore the abbreviated monastery uniform: a saffron sarong, and a vest that allowed his arms more freedom of movement than the full complement of drapery he was obliged to wear outside the temple grounds. His hair was cropped short but not clean shaven, and like most Thai monks, he was as slender as a willow.

He invited us into his kuti, and since I was a foreigner, curious monks crowded in behind us to hear what we had to say. We sat in a tight clump on the brightly patterned linoleum floor. The hut was stark, simple, empty of all but his few worldly possessions: a begging bowl, an extra robe, the Patimoka text. That was about it.

He was friendly but serious, and although nothing was ever said, I had the sense that a great tragedy had befallen him at some time in his past. Unlike many of the younger monks—who paid him a certain deference—he was not given to joking and laughter. In fact he rarely smiled.

Through an interpreter, he told us he’d been a soldier in the Thai army during the Vietnam war. “First Vietnam fell. Then Laos. Then Cambodia,” he said, “and there was great fear in this country that the next to go might be our provinces along the Cambodian border. The government was preparing to send troops into the region.

“The Cambodian Communists—the Khmer Rouge—had pressured the peasants on the Thai side of the border into an alliance,” he explained. “They had them convinced that the Thai army would torture and kill them when it marched into their villages.

“Now, our Prime Minister at the time, Mr. Kerklit Pramote, was a very wise man. A devout Buddhist. Committed to upholding the Five Grave Precepts, the first of which, as you know, is to refrain from taking life. How to maintain national unity without shedding blood or sparking a civil war: that was the Prime Minister’s dilemma.”

“How did he resolve it?” I asked.

“He sent in the troops. I was among them. But he told us to go in with our rifles slung over our shoulders pointing downward and to use them only in self defense. He said we should approach the people like this.” He stretched out his arms in a gesture of loving embrace. “You understand? He wanted us to talk our way to the border. This, we did. When the peasants saw there was nothing to fear, they welcomed us into their villages and the country was saved.

“So you see,” he concluded, “there is more than one way for a warrior to accomplish his mission. Force is not always the best way. There’s not so big a difference, I think, between a soldier and a monk. It is the duty of both to keep the peace.”

As we were leaving, I asked him if he’d allow me to tape his Patimoka recitation. He agreed, and suggested I return the next day.

My retreat over, I moved into a hotel in nearby Chiangmai where, the following morning at breakfast, I found myself sharing a table with two very odd looking English women. “Students on holiday,” they told me. I say “odd looking” because both were “got up” in 50s style, complete with pointy rhinestone glasses. They looked terribly out of place here, like creatures from another planet which, I guess, they were. I told them about Wat Rumpoeng, about solitary retreat, about Tan Chawut and his powerful chanting. Would they, I tendered, like to accompany me to the monastery for the recording session? “Why, yes,” they replied, “ever so good of you to ask.”

And so it came to pass that I entered the sacred grounds of Wat Rumpoeng with these two extraterrestrials in tow, not sure if the rules would even allow them into Tan Chawut’s kuti. Tan Chawut, however, did not stand on ceremony. He graciously invited us all in, and this time an even bigger group of curious monks arrived to crowd in behind us.

Seated in full lotus before the Patimoka text, spine straight as a bamboo, hands clasped at his heart in the manner of an Italian tenor, Tan Chawut delivered an inspired performance that evening. The ancient syllables rang from him like the chiming of a temple bell. His face glowed. His wraithlike body, light as an egret’s, now vibrated like a dynamo. The walls shook and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. When it was over, no one spoke. We sat in silence as the room grew dark. Then Tan Chawut closed the text and bade us all goodnight.

thaimonk
Tan Chawut. Courtesy of Don Morreale.

The sky was black and moonless when we left Wat Rumpoeng. Tall pampas grasses sighed at the monastery gates, swaying in winds fragrant with the promise of rain. Soft summer lightning pirouetted on the horizon and small frogs rasped in the freshly planted paddies. It was too late to catch a tuk-tuk back to town. We’d have to hike most of the distance, at least as far as the main road, which was perhaps two miles away. We walked along, three travelers basking in the mystery of this special night in Asia, only dimly aware at first of the mood shattering clamor of motorcycles rising on the road behind us.

As they approached, we turned and stuck out our thumbs. Two pearl white Suzukis zipped past, ridden by raven haired, leather clad boys leaning intently into the wind. They were fifty yards down the road before it registered on them that they’d just passed three farangs, two of them females in pointy rhinestone glasses. They wheeled around and started back.

They were students from nearby Chiangmai University, they told us, returning to their dorms after a night of drinking out in the villages. The Mekong Whiskey had apparently uncorked their natural Thai reserve. They kept motioning for the girls to climb on, and never mind this old greyhaired uncle they were with. Under the circumstances not such a good idea, we decided. We tried, in our best tourist Thai, to get this point across to them. But by now they were feeling no pain, making no sense. . . and not taking “no” for an answer.

One of them grabbed a woman by the wrist. She tried to pull free. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” I shouted. In the confusion, none of us noticed that a pickup truck had somehow soundlessly materialized out of the darkness. It came to a full stop. Just as suddenly, it tore off. There, standing alone in the middle of the road, was Tan Chawut.

He took two quick steps in our direction, then stood stock-still, his head turning slowly as he sized up the situation. His expression was fearless, resolute, yet utterly unblemished by rage. Before us, in the person of this frail monk, stood the old warrior who without firing a shot, had helped save his country from the Khmer Rouge. Splashed into cold sobriety by his unwavering gaze and perhaps a little embarrassed as well, the boys got back on their scooters and buzzed off.

Tan Chawut paused a moment to collect himself. Then he began rummaging through his shoulder bag. With a quizzical look, he pulled out and held aloft for our inspection a pair of black pointy glasses. Someone had left them in his kuti. Did they belong, perhaps, to one of the farangs? But theirs were stuck to their faces—brazen, unapologetic and gloriously absurd.

So now, added to the conundrum of Tan Chawut’s sudden appearance in our moment of need, was this perhaps even more inscrutable riddle: who, among the virtuous monks of Wat Rumpoeng wears pointy, 50s-style glasses? Tan Chawut, however, was maintaining noble silence. He put the glasses back into his shoulder bag and without a word turned and headed down the road to Wat Rumpoeng.

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