I am originally from Bangkok, and was ordained into the monkhood in Bangkok, and when I became interested in the study and practice of the Dhamma I chose
to do this at the Nong Pa Pong Temple.
My initial experience there was one of annoyance and the feeling that nothing ever went right. I always woke up in the morning in a bad mood since wake-up time was 3 a.m. The early morning was devoted to chanting. We chanted the pre-dawn away, being only partially awake. There were more obstacles to what I had intended, which annoyed me even more. You chant the morning away with mosquitoes drinking your blood.
A little later into the morning we file out to receive alms from those who live so very far away. The other monks who were also there with the same purpose of reaching an understanding of Dhamma have already returned from the long trip when I realize that I still have a long way to go. Once we reach the temple, instead of being able to settle down to a meal, we have to wait for the food to be passed out by the monks responsible for the task. The first few days, I was near starved before it was time to eat, and I was not able to eat when the time came since I had not yet adjusted to Isarn or Northeastern food. The food in this area was more primitive than the food offered in the temples in Bangkok. When it occasionally rained, the road became almost unbearable with mud and my robe was soaked and stuck to me.
The rice in the alms bowl, which was usually sticky rice, fell apart from being wet and got mixed in with the other food items in the bowl. When you ate you had to eat them in that mixed state. I wondered why the Lord Buddha did not design the alms bowl with sections inside so that the food could be kept separate. All I could do was to use a few bananas as a partition inside the bowl to separate the food.
The food itself was hard to bring myself to eat because Isarn people eat everything, including lizards, crickets, and other small types of insect. When a small piece of pickled and fermented fish, called "Pla-ra", a common Isarn food, was put in my bowl, instead of being grateful for receiving alms from people who themselves had hardly anything to eat but were generous enough to give some away, I became angry and annoyed because what I was given was not to my liking. This temple had a rule for eating only once a day, so when I became nearly starved and truly hungry I would succumb to eating a grilled frog with great effort trying not to think about what I was eating.
When we returned to the temple we would find ourselves surrounded by old and worn cubicles we call our residence, situated in an old and worn building, furnished with simple and equally worn mats and pillows. Nothing was pleasant to the eyes and mind, and all the resentment and frustration was building up inside me unconsciously. I only pushed on and tolerated what was happening because I was too proud to accept that the foreign monks, the "Phra Farang",could outdo me. If they can stand the conditions so can I, I told myself.
One day I asked a monk friend if he knew of any medicine one could take to build up an appetite for food, or if he knew of any medicine for aches and pains that I could use when my back suffered from sitting up and doing all those chants and rituals. He advised me to ask an old blind white-clad monastery apprentice. The old man told me that there was indeed such medicine. "But you have to make it yourself," he said. "It's your own urine." He instructed me to use only "the middle" of the urine stream and leave out "the head" and "the tail". Desperation drove me to follow his instructions and I grimaced after swallowing the first mouthful out of disgust and imagination. Surprisingly,things became better.
This spiritual sickness of mind did not pass the keen and observing eyes of our abbot. He found out about my search for the miracle cure to my plight from the blind old apprentice, and one day he gave us a sermon, which went as follows.
"Once there was a dog. Its head had a wound. Wherever it sat or lay, the gnats and flies were always bothering it. When they bothered him he barked and whined and walked to a new location to lie down. The flies and gnats followed and the dog became very annoyed. It started to snap and bite at the swarm of insects. The insects flew away, only to come back shortly to hover over the wound on the dog's head. The dog whined and cried pitifully with unhappiness."
At this point I felt that it was so true. I knew that if I left the monkhood I would be too ashamed and if I stayed in I couldn't live up to the others. I was in torture and was beaten by the situation.
The abbot or "Luang Poh" continued and said, "If the dog cures itself of the wound on the head, it would not have to be bothered by those annoying insects. It should not direct all its grievances at other things. It should not put the blame on the place to stay, the food, the medication, the acquaintances, or the distance of the walk. It should consider correcting itself and its own mind."
I knew for sure then that it was to me that he was directing his preaching. How did he know, I wondered? He continued his sermon.
"During the years when the Lord Buddha was alive, he told a story of a dog with mange. When it stayed in a cave it thought that the cave was uncomfortable and the dog itched all over. It moved to a forest and still it itched and was uncomfortable. It was never comfortable no matter where it went. This is because what was causing the itching was its skin condition, not the place it stayed."
Being a monk is the same, he said. "We should train ourselves to have a calm and contented mind. Train ourselves to be easily fed and cared for, perceive things in their true state, and be diligent in staying with this training of oneself. Self-teaching is not an easy task and no one knows things from birth. All things must be learned and practised. Initiate Dhamma into one's mind first and things will gradually improve. The first trials will be difficult, but do not be negligent. Keep trying and be diligent. Do not whine and cry like the dog with mange or with the wound like in the story. It is most embarrassing to be someone who is practising austerity and penance but tries to put the blame on external things. We must find the reason or cause in order to overcome obstacles. If the dog's head did not have a wound would the gnats bother it so much?"
Do consider yourself. What are our precepts and how are we following them? How is our meditation developing? If the mosquitoes bite, we must try to endure. Why can the others do it, and we can't? Surely, the others are also bitten. Try to get past the first mosquito bite, then work on the others. Do not fret that you will get malaria from the mosquitoes, and if you do get malaria then go to a doctor. If you can't go to a doctor, then there are herbal medicines for you to take. The monks who have succeeded in a certain level of meditation do not get malaria. You are not yet meditation monks.
Being a monk will definitely bring you to confront certain barriers and misgivings as being a layman will show you certain barriers and difficulties. Some say their legs will fall off from the lengthy meditation sessions. We must tell ourselves, if they're going to fall off, let them. Tell yourself it is only a sensation, a vedana, and we must overcome it. We are used to being spoiled and follow our own wants but we must try to go against the urge, and that requires a lot of effort. What you are experiencing now is nothing compared to when you would leave the temple and engage in Austere Practices where you will encounter the elements.
When you are out in the storms and wind, you will have to deal with the wet and cold. Dry your robes when they become wet. Hunger can always be replaced with being full.Dukkha or unhappiness must be replaced with not eing unhappy, turmoil must be replaced by tranquillity and murky water can be made clear and clean. Things must be subject to trial and corrections to improve. If you do not try to do it you will never know, if you don't look you will not see. If you don't try it the first time you never learn, and if you do not let yourself go through the trial and error process, how will you know you can succeed? Perseverance and more perseverance is the key to overcoming obstacles. Be persistent and you will get used to it.
The villagers have to walk far to reach their fields to work and farm their land. We monks are merely asking for food from them so why can't we stand it? We step on dirty and unwanted things on our trips to accept alms, but what of it? Dirty feet can always be washed. No one has died from dirty feet, I'm sure. Some monks walk each step in agony over their inconveniences, not thinking that the other monks are experiencing the same discomforts.
Food consumption is also another matter that we must adjust ourselves to. Keep trying those strange foods and you will gradually be able to get used to it. If you really can't eat it, then die of starvation. When you are hungry enough, you will surely eat. We have made up these conditions about food and become used to the way it should be or taste, and it must be overcome. Try starving yourself for three days and see if you can eat the strange food you've always refused.
Have you ever considered how difficult it must have been for the monks in the time of the Lord Buddha, surviving on dried rice and vegetable juice? There is a saying, "Live and eat low but behave highly", which is better than "Eat and live high but have the lowest of behaviour". This is like those who live in riches, but cheat people around them.
Actually, if the mind is not in the right state, nothing you eat will taste good. And no matter how tasty the food is, a troubled mind will not be able to recognize it. Please give consideration to what is actually causing the situation. Is it one's mind or the outside elements? Look into and try to correct one's mind, not the exterior. The outside elements cannot all be corrected because as soon as one is dealt with, another will follow. This is the nature of life. Hardship has one good point and that is it forces us to keep alert and be careful of our ways. It is also the comfort of things that may hurt us when we let down our guard. On our walks or wanderings, practising the Austere Practices, hardships keep us alert to the dangers that can befall us, such as snake bites or harm from other animals. When we live in the comforts of a comfortable residence there lurks a chance of being tried by kilesas or cravings.
Look at what is happening to the people in the cities. All the senses are being pampered with comfort. They are rolling in kilesas and demerit, demerit that will take several lives and rebirths to cleanse. What we are trying to achieve in our practice now is to purge ourselves of these things.Even our eating habits have to be changed and reformed. Eat noiselessly, keep each bite or spoonful to an adequate portion for the mouth; scraping one's alms bowl with the spoon is considered rude, and extending one's lips to receive the food from the spoon is ugly. Food should be delicately spooned into the mouth; don't let any rice spill on the
outside of the alms bowl. We must train ourselves in these new things.
The Lord Buddha laid down the rules in explicit and detailed form and it is our duty to reform ourselves to the rules with restraint and with composed mindfulness. We are like new recruits in an army and training is never easy. This is because Dhamma has not yet been fully received and settled into our mind. So be diligent in your practice until the Dhamma has been attained. Things will become easier, maybe to the point of enjoyment. Some monks have received
such joy in the practice of Dhamma that they decline to go home to visit when their turn comes. So we must study and train ourselves, and if all does
not go as well as planned or something is missing it is normal and should not be considered a shortcoming.
When I first arrived at Nong Pah Phong temple, things were much worse. A day's offering often consisted of only rice and salt, with a small amount of
sugar. If we got a fish, the fish was divided among 4 or 5 monks, an orange usually had to be sectioned into 3 portions, and a banana was cut up into 4
or 5 sections. Never has it been as abundant as nowadays. As it turned out, we were better off then than we are now with all these conveniences. We
worked together as a team and never tried to get out of doing the chores. We helped each other in everything, from cleaning to hauling water from the well. We were always generous and kind to one another. Poverty made us stick together.
Nowadays with the abundance of things, it seems to have gotten worse. We now have soda beverages set out for us by the case. Back then things like
that were almost non-existent. Many years had passed from the time I first arrived before a bottle of Pepsi Cola turned up at this temple. But today
things have changed considerably. Sometimes the possession of certain items creates a problem of who gets what and who gets which portions.
Consumption of food must be done with awareness and consciousness. Do not consume and become the victim of the baiting kilesa. Even the afternoon
juice we drink can become a bait, if we carelessly consume it. We drink the liquid in order to maintain our body's functions and to create enough energy
to pull through the meditation and the meditative walk. We do not drink to drown ourselves while meditating. Remember the saying, "Acquisition and
honoured hospitality kill a fool." A fool here is a person who has not the knowledge or one who is spiritually defective.
We must be aware that what is being given to us is only to help us survive, like a lump of phlegm or spit. We are eating the leftovers spared to us to help us maintain ourselves, so do not be too delighted and think that it is an earthly gain. The main purpose of our practice here is to achieve wisdom and insight in our minds, not to be faced with distraction and want. We are not monks in order to receive cars and televisions, or to fight over fame or items of honour. It has happened that some fighting over these things was resolved through bullets. This is because there was lack of discernment and reasoning. If pondered, we would see that what we have in our possession now is mostly worthless to our cause and we would be like a crazy person if we try to carry it all. We carry it around and at the end we still have to discard it. The ones who have reached the ultimate understanding will let go and leave things be.
The Lord Buddha once said, "Let all look at this beautiful earth as a worldly vehicle which fools are delighted in and are intoxicated with. The ones who know different will not become involved."
My situation was that when I was notified that I would receive the honour of being titled "Chao Khun" and was asked to fill in a form of my personal history, I wrote: "When it rains, there's no thunder. When there is thunder, there's no rain. Sometimes it rains when there's thunder, and sometimes it thunders when it rains." So they didn't need the biography of me anymore. They found it from somewhere else.
After I was given the title, one day I was going somewhere for a function with a congregation member who owned a pick-up truck. The front passenger was a woman so I got up on the back of the pick-up truck instead. I was asked by some villagers why I was riding in a pick-up truck now that I was a "Chao Khun". I thought to myself, "Why can't I?" The title is only a name and the symbol of that title is embossed on the fan insignia. Rank is only granted and is a made up thing.
They want to put us to work, that is why they give us the title and the insignia.
Invitations have also increased with the increase of rank. I sometimes have to say no to attending some of the functions. I declined appearing on television a few times. I see it this way. If they want Dhamma, they must come to get Dhamma. It is like going to a good restaurant. If the food is good, people will find a way to go there no matter where or how far it is. I conduct myself like a raven. When you get close to a raven, it flies away, and sits perching again to draw you closer. If you pursue it, it will again retreat, even prancing and preening to draw attention. I am like that. I tend to draw and run, but not without kindness or sympathy. But again, sympathetic thoughts must be given with mindfulness and knowledge of one's mind. Otherwise we ourselves are the ones who will become troubled.
For example, sometimes a monk is sent to stay with me and I willingly accept the responsibility. If they can stand it and wish to continue, they can. If they want to leave, then I do not hold them back. Anything I did before receiving the rank, I still do now. Again, honour and rank are only made up and are not real. It is like when a king finds and takes a white elephant from the forest to add to his collection of royal belongings. But the elephant came from the forest and prefers the forest and probably thought nothing of all the decorations and baubles used to decorate it. The white patches on its body is the only thing that caused it to leave the forest to become a decoration of a human being.
Chinese nobleman Lao Tzu was fishing one day when the Emperor sent an invitation for him to become one of his royal consultants at his palace. Nobleman Lao Tzu told a story about a turtle to the royal consultant who delivered the invitation. The story goes as follows. A turtle was swimming and enjoying itself in a pond when it was captured and was told that it was not just an ordinary turtle, but was a Bodhisatta turtle or a Buddha-to-be. It became a magic turtle, was wrapped up in red cloth, and put on a stand to be visited and revered by all.
Lao Tzu asked that royal consultant that if he were the turtle, which would he prefer? Would he prefer being in the mud and slush of the pond or in a wrap on top of a stand? The royal consultant said he would prefer remaining in the pond. So Lao Tzu asked the king's royal consultant to inform his royal highness that he himself was like that turtle also.
Now this is how I feel too. I feel more comfortable staying with all of you here at this monastery. I cannot stay in the city, so I stay here and act with the habit of a raven. I thank everyone for attending, and now it is time to retire and get some rest.
Translated from the Thai by Ada Guntamala
Don’t tell me
Religion is best served unheard, in blissful inner silence. Unless you have a stomach strong enough not to believe everything you hear or read. Or, a heart humbly wise enough to respect others.
By Piya Tan
One of the most terrifying experiences we can have, as sane people, is to hear a glassy-eyed evangelist tell us how true his God is, and why we should listen and follow him. When we try to have a simple dialogue, we find that we are talking with an absent wall of pre-recorded gibberish.
The best response when approached by an evangelist is never to engage him. This is just what he wants. He probably senses that our pride is our weakness, and he is going to use it. Once we reply him in any way, his fangs are sunk into us. The more we speak, the more the blood of sanity and humanity is sucked out from us.
Never be tempted by the notion that we have the wisdom to convince him. It is not that we lack the wisdom, but it is giving what is sacred to the dogs. If, by any chance, we speak a truth clearly, he would only change tack, and turn to another topic, leaving us at a loss (again).
Silence is the best defence to those who have no ears to really hear us. It is best for us to make an immediate return to humanity and those that we love.
Most zealous evangelists I have known are those who were darkly moved by an adolescent impulse to prove themselves by our “converting” to their way of thinking. But as they mellowed over the years, and they always did, many of them became more realistic and friendly. They even recanted their past domineering ways.
Religious truth and salvation are not won through persuasion or debate. We each need to taste their sweetness or bitterness for ourselves. Whether or not there is some divine will, we must move with our own hearts, rightly or wrongly. We all have the capacity to learn and to change. And we must be willing to learn and change.
The most liberating realizations are not heard in the din of religious preaching and selling, but in the heart’s stillness, a true clarity that is capable of revealing everything to us, if we really care to look long enough.
The truest faith is that which teaches us to calm our hearts and pride. If we are truly silent and still enough, then we can but see what eyes see not, nor ears hear. It is a blissful peace that embraces all. Yet, all this makes no sense, unless we have been truly silent ourselves. (The point is that we need to stop sensing for a moment, and just feel.)
Sweet flowers, ancient trees, gurgling streams and mountain mist may not speak to us in our language, but it is so easy to feel their peace without any cost. Even memories of these flowers, trees, streams and mountain mist evoke peace within us.
One of the most vital freedoms we must preserve for ourselves is the freedom of not knowing, especially when this not-knowing makes us more peaceful, happier, kinder and more creative people.
If all this sounds somewhat abstract, perhaps, this thoughtful little prose poem by Annie Dillard (b 1945), US Pulitzer Prize writer, best known for her narrative non-fiction, makes very good sense:
Somewhere, and I can't find where,
I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest,
“If I didn't know about God and sin, would I go to hell?”
“No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.”
“Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?”
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974:123)
Piya Tan ©2011
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