Forest monks, Thomas Merton and a chicken

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editor's 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

I would usually spend New Years Day with my son or daughter and friends watching the bowl games on TV and eating way too much food with empty calories. That not being possible in Chiang Mai, I decided to return to the forest monks who lived in Wat U Mong Thera Jan and spend the day there.

My tuk tuk driver dropped me off at the wat at 11:00 am and agreed to pick me up at 5:00 pm. I was ready for a quiet day. I was also ready to try getting into meditation. I had learned a little bit here and there about meditation when I was a pastor: sit in a comfortable position with feet on the floor; close your eyes; relax your jaw; relax your shoulders; pay attention to your breathing; imagine yourself in a garden. . . . .

But I wanted to learn more. The problem was that the classes on meditation offered by the forest monks in English were scheduled at times when I wouldn't be around, so I decided to try to get into it on my own.

After crawling out of the tuk tuk I headed towards a gazebo which was set on the side of a hill and overlooked a few kutis (monks' quarters), two life size Buddha statues and a pond. The scene felt peaceful, even romantic.

I found a comfortable spot on a bench, read my Bible, said my morning prayers, and watched a father show his daughter how to bow in front of the Buddhas and plant incense sticks at the statues' feet. Often I would just let my mind wander. It was all very pleasant, but after half an hour I realized that whatever it was I was doing was not meditation.

I spotted a kiosk a short way from my gazebo with some books for sale. Since I had been unable on my last visit to Wat U Mong to find an English speaking monk and since I couldn't attend classes on meditation, I approached the kiosk hoping to find a book which would help me learn about the practice.

Sure enough. In the midst of several volumes in Thai, I found one thin book by Dr. Phramaha Chanya Khongchinda entitled Introduction to Buddhism. Since the author was from Wat U Mong, I hoped it would contain at least a chapter on meditation. I dropped 30 baht (about a dollar) into the coin box, took Khongchinda back to the gazebo and started reading.

To my disappointment, the monk had written nothing about meditating. Instead, I read a lot about rules, precepts, duties and virtues. He did touch on the core Buddhist understanding that the main problem in life is suffering and that suffering is caused by craving and attachment. "OK," I thought, "but I want to hear how a Buddhist tries to get rid of craving and attachments.

I had been sitting in my gazebo for an hour an a half and this meditation thing was not working. On top of that I kept getting distracted by groups of Thai visitors strolling down the hill towards the pond on the lane which passed close by where I was seated.

Thinking I would find more solitude in another part of the wat, I put Khongchinda in my back pack, waddled up the hill to a spot in the forest where I seemed to be alone, sat down on a bench and tried again to meditate. Being finally alone felt good. The only sounds disturbing the silence were natural: a breeze rustling leaves, a bird chirping in the branches above me, the barking of an unseen dog.

It was then that I noticed the monk walking slowly towards me on one of the paths in the forest. I couldn't tell if his eyes were closed, but he seemed to be walking in a dream. When he got about a stone's throw from me, he slowly turned and began walking back in the direction from which he had come. Then, about thirty meters into the woods, he turned again and started back towards where I was sitting.

Back and forth the man with a shaved head and wearing saffron colored robes walked. Going nowhere. I watched the monk for a long time. There was something calming about his unhurried, deliberate gait. I realized that I was beginning to envy him. The peaceful setting. Nothing to lose. No stress, No disappointments.

I wondered what he was thinking. . . .or not thinking. Was he trying to let go of craving and attachments? Or was he not trying to do anything, to kind of let go of everything? To just be?

He made me think of another monk, a Catholic named Thomas Merton who, as a Trappist, spent much of his day in silence. Over the years, Merton discovered that he had a lot in common with the forest monk I was watching. Although their formulations of the nature of ultimate reality differed widely, their practice—the way they tried to connect with that ultimate reality—was very similar.

Merton died while attending a conference on meditation in Bangkok which was attended by both Christians and Buddhists. On the way to Thailand he was able to have three visits with the Dalai Lama.

About the visits Merton wrote, "It was a very warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another. I feel a great respect and fondness for him as a person and believe, too, that there is a real spiritual bond between us. He remarked that I was a 'Catholic geshe,' which Harold [a companion] said, was the highest possible praise from a Gelugpa, like an honorary doctorate!" ("Asian Journal," pgs. 124-125)."

In his essay, The Thomas Merton Connection: What Was the Christian Monk Looking to Find in His Dialogue with Buddhism?, Alan Altany wrote,

Being so deeply infused with his own spiritual tradition was what really allowed him to, paradoxically, appreciate people in other religions also so rooted and to appreciate their traditions, as from the inside--as vehicles of truth-telling and enlightening experience. Thus, religious dialogue for Merton was not a syncretism or an eclectic accumulation that ignored real differences in an attempt to create a universal religion (without specific roots).

I have felt the same closeness several times in my life with people whose understanding of the nature of ultimate reality differed widely from mine—a rabbi, an agnostic, a Mormon, a forest monk doing walking meditation.

Thinking about Merton made me recall something I had just heard in the gazebo from Khongchinda, who at the moment was still in my back pack. He had written, "The important issue which one should conceive is that Buddhism is not metaphysical but practical in our daily life and in every movement of living."

Not metaphysical. Indeed, a Zen master I knew back in Chicago had once told me that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. God, if he or she exists, is irrelevant. He even added that some people think of Buddhism more as a psychology. I began to wonder if my fascination with this Eastern "religion" was not, as I had feared at times, a betrayal of my faith in Jesus Christ.

It was then that I remembered an experience I had a few weeks before while still on the mission encounter tour I was helping to lead. We were in Laos at a place called Buddha Park. As we wandered around the grounds, a Laotian pastor who was with us asked us to all lay our hands on a Buddha statue as he prayed, "Lord, we ask you to rid this land of this evil, this idolatry which is keeping this people in bondage."

I couldn't pray that prayer with him. Not in my heart. He and most of the members of the group had more of an Evangelical way of looking at life than I had. The Bible's truth is inerrant. You had to accept Jesus in your heart to be saved. If you're not for Christ, you're against him. I saw a lot more ambiguity in life than they did. To me, that forest monk doing his walking meditation just didn't seem to be a manifestation of evil.

As I looked up from my ponderings, I realized that the monk was no longer on the path. No longer having him to focus my musing on, I shifted my attention to a rustling sound to my left. I turned and saw a hen scratching in the leaves, exposing the ground underneath so that her ten chicks could peck around and find food.

She did this several times and then, scratching out a hollow in the leaves and the dirt, she gathered her large family under her. I'm not sure what raised the alarm in her. Maybe she noticed me and became frightened. Maybe she did this every once in awhile, like Japanese who live in coastal towns do tsunami drills, just to stay in practice.

I couldn't get into that mother chicken's mind any more than I could discern what the meditating monk was thinking or not thinking. What I did figure out was that the hen and the monk were reading from different pages if not different books.

The hen was fiercely attached to her children, while Buddhists try to let go of attachments and cravings. It made me think of the time Jesus compared himself to a hen. He lamented that many times he, like a mother chicken, wanted to gather his children under the protection of his wings but people wouldn't let him.

It was one more occasion for me to disagree with my monk friend I met in the train station in Bangkok. All religions are not the same. Blurring the conceptual boundaries between them might make people feel tolerant and accepting in the short run but over the long haul it makes the search for a meaningful worldview and way of life more difficult.

Doctrines are like a map you can use to find your way in an unfamiliar land. The vendor who sells you an inaccurate map might be a nice guy who makes you feel good as you interact, but days or weeks later, when you're trying to find your way back home, the bad map he sold you can lead you further from where you want to go than closer.

I never did get to talk to that monk doing his walking meditation on a forest path at Wat U Mong. The paradox is that although he and I would be light years apart in the way we would describe ultimate concerns—I confess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior--I nevertheless felt a spiritual kinship with him.

I began to wonder. Maybe my forty days alone in Thailand were not going to be one confrontation with demons after another, but an opportunity to learn more about who I am by bumping up against a people, a culture and a religion which sees reality in a whole different light.

Reader Comments

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Flowerkwilter from Tacoma, Washington  

Posted: May 18th, 2011 8:52 AM

I wonder if seeing one's religion as a cloak--made with raw materials of one's own land, sewn by one's neighbors, being warmed and protected against the cool, wouldn't be a better metaphor for a religion --each people has it's own version of a cloak depending on their fabric resources, each place has its own weather with particular requirements, and no one can argue with another's cloth or clothing because it is appropriate for that place and time...more peaceful, no??? (Thanks for this blog!) F

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