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By Tom Holmes
Editors note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
Even though I've been to Thailand many times and should know better, I hang on to this fantasy that a real Buddhist monk is a skinny guy living in a hut by himself in the woods, dressed in a loin cloth and meditating all day.
I liked visiting the wats in Chiang Mai, but I felt that I somehow wasn't getting the real thing. So, when I read in my Lonely Planet guide book about the forest monks at Wat U Mong, I immediately decided I had to go there.
The day after my second visit to Wat Chiang Man, therefore, I crawled into a tuk tuk and asked the driver to go to Wat U Mong Thera Jan. When he finally understood where I wanted to go, he raised his eyebrows as if to say, "Do you realize that it's a good 45 minute ride from here and it's going to cost 300 baht?"
I let him know that I understood that the temple was way on the other side of town and that I wanted him to stay for the two hours I would be snooping around there, so he could take me back to the guest house. That brought a smile to his face, because making that much with one fare is a lot of money for a tuk tuk driver.
Immediately upon entering the gate to the forest temple, I felt like I had found what I was looking for. This wasn't just a little park in the city, but a large, what we would call in Chicago, forest preserve. Hundreds of acres of woods and trails on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. No urban sounds were able to penetrate the insulation provided by the trees. Lonely Planet had called the setting sylvan, and so it was.
The wihans and kutis and the one chedi were restrained in their decoration and blended in with the natural environment. One lane led down a hill to a pond where ducks were feeding. As if to accentuate the importance of solitude, Wat U Mong is famous for a network of caves for meditating which had been dug into the side of the hill on which the understated chedi stands.
After looking around for ten minutes and absorbing the peaceful solitude, I wished I had more than two hours to just soak up the serenity of the place.
As I did my penguin waddle around the grounds I reached in my pocket to check and see if my purse was still there. It was something I did maybe twenty times a day. Just checking to make sure.
In an instant panic took the place of serenity. My pocket was empty. I checked my other pocket and then my back pack. My passport was safe in the money belt I wore inside my shirt, but my purse had my credit cards, health insurance cards and my driver's license, in addition to a couple thousand baht.
I felt weak. I tried to mentally retrace my steps. Had it fallen out while I was walking? No, it couldn't have. It had been down inside a deep pocket. Had I left the purse at the guesthouse? No, I don't think so? Maybe. . .I hope. . .maybe it had fallen out in the tuk tuk and when the driver would meet in an hour I would find it on the floor of the little taxi.
But that was an hour away, and there seemed to be nothing I could do in the meantime to relieve my panic.
OK, here I was in a Buddhist temple complex in the woods so it would be fitting, as I had done several times already on this adventure, to ask, "What would the Buddha do?"
I decided, as I usually did after asking that question, that he would begin by telling me to calm down, to take a few deep breathes and pay attention to my normal breathing after that. And then I decided that he would use the loss of my purse as a teaching moment to remind me that all things are impermanent, that the cause of suffering is getting attached to things.
Paying attention to my breathing did calm me down enough that the emotional paralysis I was feeling loosened up and I was able to think a little bit more rationally. I talked to myself. "What would the worst case scenario be? I guess it would be that I would have to call the credit card companies and tell them what had happened." I still had my passport, and I was sure that Sanit would float me a loan to pay for my expenses.
Being able to think things through helped reduce the panic a bit more, but it didn't come close to taking it away. While thinking about what the Buddha would say, I naturally was also thinking about what Jesus would say.
I had decided that my Bible reading during my time alone would be in the Gospel of Matthew. I had gotten into that sixth chapter that morning where, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers to not be anxious. He says that the birds don't have jobs, but the Father feeds them; that the flowers don't work at all but they are more beautiful than royalty dressed in their finery.
So, was Jesus asking me to more or less "let go and let God," to not worry and trust that somehow everything would work out alright, to believe that God will provide?
I felt embarrassed to consider praying for a divine intervention at that point when just a few minutes ago I had felt like I had everything under control. . . . . . .but I prayed anyway.
All these things helped take the edge off, but the panic remained. Was there nothing I could do to fix the situation, or did I just have to live with my distress and wait for my tuk tuk driver to return?
It was then that I thought of some of my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous. AA has hundreds of little aphorisms or mantras designed to help people in recovery get through each day one day at a time. One of these is, "Fake it till you make it."
"OK," I said to myself, "behave as if you feel serene even though you are worried sick and feel powerless to do anything about it."
I started taking pictures. Then, when I saw a monk who looked like a Westerner, I asked him, "Do you speak English?" Turns out he was French and had been at this monastery for just a year, but, yes, he did speak English.
"Can you tell me where I can find a monk who has time to talk to me in English?" I had already decided that I was going to return soon and stay for the whole day.
He pointed to the lane leading to the pond and said someone would be there later that afternoon. I thanked him, but before we parted he asked me, "Are you alone?"
After I replied that I was in fact by myself, he said, "You have a lot of courage."
I didn't know what to say at first. Courageous is not a word I would use to describe myself, so I felt like I needed to kind of deflect his statement, to explain what was really going on. I said, "I walk very slowly, but if I take my time, I'm usually OK." Then as an after thought I added, "I probably see more that way."
He then made another statement that caught me as off guard as had his first comment. "I see that you are a teacher," he said.
Before I could respond, out of the corner of my eye I saw my tuk tuk driver running towards me, waving my purse in his hand.