Wimbledon seems an unlikely starting point, but if you leave the road running along the Common and pass into the drive of one of the spacious residences, you will find the brightly colored and gilded pagodas of a Thai Buddhist temple. It is an incongruous sight amidst the chestnuts and pine trees of an otherwise respectable Edwardian suburb.
Near the entrance of the drive is the original house, now serving as a residence for the monastery. Young monks from Thailand, saffron-robed and with shaved heads, tell me to wait in a conference room. Soon an older man comes. He regards me indifferently and I am not convinced that he understands English. As a credential, I offer my book Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity, which has just been published, but he ignores it and my confidence wavers. Feeling foolish and insincere, I ask my question: Is there a monastery in Thailand where I can study meditation? Somehow a torn scrap of paper is found and he writes a few words. Then, condescendingly, he turns it over and writes on the back in English.
I do not regard this visit as a success. My impressions of the encounter soon fade, and after a week or two the scrap of paper is lost.
Several months pass and plans for a family holiday in Thailand are well advanced. Reservations are made and guide books studied (one even mentions monasteries where tourists can stay). From the moment of our arrival in Bangkok on Christmas Day we are caught in the stupidities of mass popular travel. There is no vacancy on any plane, train or bus to Chiang Mai, the ancient capital, and we have to improvise a new plan. Instead of going north to mountains, trekking and ancient kingdoms, we go south in an unlicensed mini-bus to tropical islands, beaches, bamboo huts and pop music.
After a week comes the holiday’s main event: eight days on a chartered boat diving off remote islands in the Andaman Sea. I am no diver and am not part of this trip though at last I have acquired an airplane ticket to Chiang Mai.
In the airport I am a disappointment to the hustlers, since I only want a cheap room and not sex or drugs or sightseeing tours. I consult the guidebook and show the taxi driver a name, Wat Ram Poeng, but he does not read English and it means as little to him as it does to me. We set off once more. Now and again he turns to me: “You wan’ hotel?” Not knowing why, I insist on Wat Ram Poeng, though I feel sure it is a hopeless quest. The taxi, called a tuc-tuc—a sort of motorized rikshaw covered by a fringed canopy—putters on through the heat.
The driver asks people on the roadside for directions. Finally we arrive and I am deposited in what seems to be a farmyard with mangy dogs, screeching roosters and stray cats. On the notice by the gate is written “Northern Insight Meditation Center.”
It is the sultry midday hour and there is nobody except a sleepy young woman who speaks little English and, explaining nothing, motions me to follow her. I follow, the loose heels of her slippers scuffing the sand. Here the buildings open out and we find four people sitting at an open-air table eating with nursery spoons out of enamel tins. They wear loose, white clothing which, against their pale skins, makes them look anemic. They could be medical orderlies, if not actually inmates, in an asylum. One of them, Alan, is amiable, balding and Jewish-looking with a London accent. He seems to take charge of me. The others are a Swiss couple and an alert Japanese girl. Alan seems confident that I can stay, but I must see Thanat, who is presently in town and should be back in an hour. Apparently the course is 26 days, but one can stay for less. The conversation is desultory; Thanat features in it quite a lot. I learn that the last meal of the day is served at 10:30 in the morning and that there is no eating after midday. Soon they drift away to activities I cannot imagine.
I wait. After more than three hours I am on the point of heading out of the gate and back to the city when the Japanese girl comes by. “Are you still waiting? Haven’t you seen Thanat?” She is sharper and brighter than the others and takes me to Thanat’s room.
Thanat is an agile and shrewd man in his forties. From the moment you meet him he gives quite a different impression from the sloppiness encountered so far. His manner is friendly and businesslike. “Yes, you can stay. But can’t you rearrange your program? I advise you to stay for longer than six days.”
He is insistent, but I cannot alter my schedule by more than a day. We seem to reach an impasse and I offer to leave, but he tells me sincerely, “The dharma is never refused to anyone.” He asks me if I have any white clothes.
“No? No problem, you can buy them in the market for 50 baht. You will also need eleven orange candles, eleven incense sticks and eleven lotus pods for your opening ceremony.”
Bewildered, I remain silent.
“Now, sit down please; I am going to ask you a few questions.”
My self-assurance returns; here at last I am on familiar territory. He will see that I am no fool. But I am not ready for what comes.
“When you hear a dog bark, is it your ears that hear, or your mind?”
Our first ball.
Next time I think I am more ready.
“If you smell incense, is it your nose that smells or your mind?”
I reply by categorizing the senses as functions of the physical organism. I speak about degrees of perceptivity linked to varying states of awareness. I discourse on the mechanics of the associative mind, of conditioned and unconditioned mental responses.
But Thanat interrupts. “Too complicated. Now, show me your sitting posture.”
“OK, quite good; we’ll make corrections later.”
I am assigned a room in the annex to the men’s quarters by the main gate. It is a long, single-story building with a wooden verandah running along the front from which the rooms, as in a motel, each have their own entrance. The room itself is pleasantly proportioned. Measuring about twelve foot by fifteen, it is not the monastic cell I might have imagined. In one corner is a bed consisting of wooden boards, about eighteen inches from the ground, supporting a thin horsehair mattress. Next to it are a table and chair. The floorboards are covered with woven matting. An electric light hangs from the ceiling and on the table is a half-used packet of candles and a sand-filled enamel dish. I have stayed in many worse places. The previous occupant did a poor job of cleaning up, but that can soon be put right.
In Chiang Mai I buy two pairs of baggy trousers; they are not full length and are wide enough for two people at the waist. To keep them up you fold and tuck in a special oriental way. Back from the town, I sheepishly change into my loony’s clothes and sit down on my bed feeling anxious and homesick.
Alan comes into my room and explains that meditation is undertaken in equally divided periods of “walking meditation” followed by “sitting meditation.” Each double period is preceded by the “mindful prostration.” He shows me this ritual where you begin by kneeling down with the hands on the knees. (Men kneel with the toes turned forward, which is painful if you are not used to it; women turn the toes back, prolonging the line of the foot.) All the subsequent movements are done in extreme slow motion and always accompanied by the mind acknowledging the action three times. Thus the right hand rotates slowly outward while the mind acknowledges: “turning . . . turning . . . turning.” Then the hand moves up to a position in front of the chest with the palm inward (“raising . . . raising . . . raising”). The edge of the hand is now brought into contact with the chest (“touching. . . touching . . .touching”). The same sequence is then followed by the left hand until both palms are pressed together in front of the chest. They are then raised together to the forehead and down again to the chest. The body is then lowered, allowing first the right hand then the left to descend so that the palms rest flat on the floor. The body then lowers further until the forehead touches the floor between the hands and the whole body is prostrate. The trunk then comes halfway up and the sequence begins again. In all it is repeated three times and takes about eight minutes.
Each gesture is done in ultra slow motion and is accompanied by the mental acknowledgment three times. The main difficulty, once you have remembered the sequence, is to relate the mental acknowledgment to the physical gesture. Without “mindfulness” they easily go out of sync.
Alan then explains to me the walking meditation. The length of time you will devote to the exercise, as well as the place, are determined beforehand. Meditation can be done anywhere within the monastery. Having determined the line of your walk (in this case the length of my room) you take up a position with the arms held loosely in front of the body, the right wrist grasped in the left hand. The head is tilted slightly forward so that you look at the ground about six feet in front of you. You then slowly lift the right foot, slowly extend it while bringing the weight of the body forward until the foot has come down on the ground. Meanwhile the mind states “right . . . goes . . . thus.” The process is repeated with the left foot together with the mind’s acknowledgment “left . . . goes . . . thus.” Having reached the other end of the room after twenty paces or so, you come to rest while the mind acknowledges “stopping. . . stopping . . . stopping.” You then turn the body on its axis a quarter turn, leading with the right foot; the left foot joins and you make another quarter turn—the mind stating “turning . . . turning . . . turning”—and you begin again in the new direction.
Each time that you are distracted, whether by an outer impression, such as a sound, or an inner impulse, such as daydreams or thoughts, you stop the walk (“stopping . . . stopping . . . stopping”) and mentally acknowledge the event (“hearing . . . hearing . . hearing,” or “thinking . . . thinking . . . thinking”) and, having reestablished “mindfulness,” you continue from where you left off.
Finally, Alan shows me the sitting meditation. Here the student should sit as nearly in the lotus posture as he can. For Westerners the so-called quarter-lotus position is a reasonable aim and can be achieved, if not at first, with a little practice. With the help of a small, firm cushion the meditator sits cross-legged with both knees touching the ground, the right ankle resting on the inside of the left calf. The head and spine are held erect; the backs of the hands rest on the ankles. The right hand is in the palm of the left with the tips of the thumbs touching. The meditator brings his attention onto the rise and fall of the abdomen that accompanies the breathing. The attention is not on the breathing itself. Mentally he says, with each breath, “rising. . . falling.” If he should find himself distracted by external events such as a loud noise, or by physical discomfort, or by thoughts, or anything else which may have deterred his field of awareness, he takes no action other than to acknowledge mentally, “pain . . . pain . . . pain” or “thoughts . . . thoughts . . . thoughts.”
Alan leaves at 8:30 and I practice for two hours in thirty-minute stages and go to sleep at 11 to the sound of dog fights, traffic (my room is by the road) and pop music from the village of bamboo huts by the main gate.
The temple gong rings at 4 a.m. It is loud and shrill and is rung for several minutes, making every dog in the vicinity howl. I get up at 5 and practice for an hour, then take my three enamel bowls suspended from a rod and wander off to the outdoor kitchen for breakfast. It turns out to be rice gruel and boiled cabbage. I do not even join the queue.
I return to my room and drink water (I read somewhere once that it staves off hunger) and practice for two hours in 30-minute stages. At 10:30 lunch is served. This turns out to be good simple Thai food.
I bump into Thanat, who is friendly and asks me what I have been up to and how I am. He tells me that I should not stay confined to my room, but I am too shy to practice out in the open. Later Alan tells me that Thanat has said I am not to practice in longer than 10-minute periods. I accept and try not to feel slighted. What is the point? Nobody here knows or cares who I am. I am already estranged from my ordinary circumstances; I hardly know who I am myself.
Anyway, this walking business is interesting—and surprisingly difficult. For example, you wobble; sometimes throwing your hand out so as not to fall. And the mind is often out of sync with the foot. “Right . . . goes . . .thus,” but my foot is still in the air. Sometimes I find myself saying inwardly, “stopping. . . stopping . . . stopping” but I cannot remember why. I start wondering at what point I should consider myself actually overwhelmed by associative thoughts. After all, the associative mechanism is permanently functioning. I suppose it’s a matter of identification, a concept they do not use here, but I wonder if—oh! “Stopping . . . stopping . . . stopping; thinking . . . thinking . . .thinking. Right. . . goes . . . thus, left . . . goes . . . thus.”
My opening ceremony. You might well ask what someone baptized in the Church of England and educated at an English public school is doing in these circumstances, but I am beyond embarrassment. There are three of us: a big Mexican girl, a blond kid on the South East Asia trail called Jason who comes from Southampton, and myself, a fifty-three-year-old, self-regarding intellectual. We prostrate three times, we kneel (in agony in my case) with hands held palms pressed in front of the chest. We hold lotus pods, we burn incense and light candles. The old man mumbles away to himself, taking little notice of us, though he sharply corrects a wrong hand position when one of us is prostrating. We are prompted to repeat incomprehensible words that sound like “wig wam, ping pong.” We offer three bowls: one asking for the Eight Precepts, another asking for the Meditation and forgiveness at any anger felt towards the teachers, and a third asking for the Blessing of the Lord Buddha.
Afterwards Luang Po [the meditation master of the monastery] assigns the Mexican girl five hours and Jason and me six hours of practice between now and reporting time tomorrow afternoon.
The opening ceremony has dispelled all reservations. I feel at ease and free to go where I like. A door has closed on my other life, and this is my home now.
In the ceremony the candidate makes vows to observe the Eight Precepts. They are: abstinence from killing any living beings; abstinence from stealing; from unchastity; from false speech; from intoxicants; from eating solid food after midday; from music, dancing, singing, scents, cosmetics and adornment; and abstinence from luxurious and high seats or beds.
The monastery exercises a careful vigilance that protects both itself and its students. After my first interview with Thanat he asked to see my passport and filled in a detailed questionnaire that investigated my mental and physical health record, my religious background, and my previous experience of meditation. I was searchingly asked about drugs and alcohol. I was then handed a two-page typed document entitled “Rules for Meditators.”
I had obtained chemical products from Thanat for my loo and other cleaning materials for my room. During the first two or three days I still had plenty of ordinary energy for achievement and “doing things,” which was a good thing for this much-needed task.
At one point, while cleaning the floor in bare feet, I lifted the two-foot-high water-filled urn. There ran out from underneath a cockroach the size of a small mouse. It scuttled over my foot and took refuge in the corner under the basin. My revulsion was immediately tempered by remembrance of the Eight Precepts. So I emptied out the plastic box in which I keep my shaving things, which was the nearest available container, and carefully began to stalk my cockroach, whose home life had been so rudely disrupted. He was a slow mover and I soon had the upturned box over him. Slipping on the lid without letting him escape was relatively easy; even so, my heart was thumping and I was unnecessarily tense. It would be a while before he could find security, and in the meantime his chances of survival were slim.
The monastery complex fills an area of four or five acres.The oldest part of the monastery is the fifteenth-century hundred-foot-high brick tower or pagoda (chedi) containing a relic of the Buddha; around its base is a broad flagstoned court. I personally liked to practice here in the morning before the main heat of the day. After midday I preferred the magnificent library; built of traditional materials and in traditional style, it is the grandest building at Wat Ram Poeng. During the day its spacious teakwood and marble interior is always cool and quiet. In the evening twilight I liked to practice on its broad verandahs, paneled with carved and gilded reliefs depicting episodes in the life of the Lord Buddha. As the light faded and darkened these seem to come alive, taking on the magic of childhood fairy stories and legends.
My routine followed a similar pattern each day. After waking with the temple gong, my first session of “practice” would be in my room or in the small open court opposite the men’s annex. After breakfast I would make a walking meditation around the chedi followed by a sitting meditation on one of the mats near the edge of its ancient stone terrace. After lunch I would meditate in the library and perhaps again after “reporting time.” It has an old German longcase clock, whose deep-toned chimes give the hours, half-hours and quarter-hours with a slow and sonorous precision. I especially liked the verandah in the evening, and last thing at night I would practice in the court opposite my room.
As the periods of meditation lengthened each day, it became more and more of an art to pace oneself and do justice to one’s program. I began to see that the monastery’s atmosphere and its routines are designed for those following the tradition of insight meditation intensively. To a visitor, many of the ordinary responses and interactions of life seem disconcertingly absent. But once you have entered into the practice, you have crossed a threshold into a world of meaning and order that cannot be seen, or even guessed at, from the outside.
Reporting time is every twenty-four hours. Luang Po checks that you have fulfilled yesterday’s program and gives another, adding an hour to the previous day’s total and lengthening the time of each “walking” or “sitting” until the sessions are one hour walking followed by one hour sitting. Someone told me that by the end of the period you can be meditating for the whole day. Thanat, or Kate, his American wife, is there to translate, but the meeting is formal, not to say ceremonious: you prostrate, you kneel respectfully (I soon learned to cheat the pain here by putting one of the firm, brick-shaped meditation cushions under my ankles), you prostrate again. After a few days Luang Po begins to give new and more complicated versions of the walking meditation and some interesting exercises in the sitting meditation to do, with directing attention to different parts of the body. Discussion is minimal; Luang Po is not interested in your personal neuroses.
Life in the monastery is not as rigid and impersonal as the rules and the timetable might imply. Speaking to Thanat on the second or third day, I mentioned that I was unable to eat the rice gruel breakfast. “But you should have told me before,” he cried, and told me he would buy me bread and jam on his daily trip into town, which I could keep in my room. “Afterwards, you come to my room and I will give you coffee.” Coffee with Thanat became a daily ritual for which I was hardly less grateful than his instruction on the dharma.
By the entrance gate is a group of huts, including a shop where one can buy cigarettes and other provisions—including ice cream. This is considered frozen liquid, i.e., not solid food, and is thus legitimate at any time for students undergoing the intensive course. A few of the Europeans used to gather there in the afternoons after reporting time in a relaxed moment. It was enough just to be there without necessarily talking to anyone. Within three days one’s body tone and emotional state were so finely tuned as to render the rules of conduct a help and far from irksome.
The community at Wat Ram Poeng consists of about fifty monks and nuns. At any one time there are about a dozen foreigners and they seemed to be the only ones doing the intensive course.
Wat Ram Poeng is one of about twenty institutions, many of them forest retreats for monks, founded by the Venerable Supromayanna Thera Ajahn Tong, who is now the senior meditation master in northern Thailand. He is responsible for the administration of Buddhism throughout northern Thailand, and he is the meditation teacher to the Siamese royal family.
Ajahn Tong made a brief visit to Wat Ram Poeng while I was there. I did not fully understand who he was when we were ritually presented to him. Thanat was excited and concerned that his little flock should comport themselves well. We had to enter his room on our knees; we prostrated three times, we knelt with palms pressed together in the prayer position. I had the impression of a round, compact, little man full of energy and magnetic, animal warmth. After further religious formalities which I did not understand, Ajahn Tong asked us, through Thanat, what we had found through the practice of insight meditation. We each answered according to our nature, emotionally or intellectually, but I had the impression that, despite our wish to be sincere, we could only utter platitudes.
I left Wat Ram Poeng to rejoin my family. Within a few days we were back in London, where the post-Christmas feeling was flat and cold. Memories of Thailand were vivid at first, then paler and less frequent.
A year has passed. One day I am clearing out some old files and find a scrap of paper with Thai writing. I turn it over, already knowing what I will find on the back written in English: Wat Ram Poeng.
Author’s Note: The Northern Insight Meditation Center is not currently functioning at Wat Ram Poeng.
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