When I couchsurfed at Michaela’s place in Prague, she could not stop ranting and raving about a Thai Buddhist temple she visited. As I got closer to Thailand and more interested in spirituality, the more I found myself drawn to this place.
In the next few posts, you’ll understand why this place is so amazing and transformational.
Arrival At The Temple
I arrived at the temple at about 7pm. It was already dark outside so I couldn’t tell how gigantic it really was. I just saw the prayer hall at the entrance.
The monks were chanting as I arrived, which I later discovered is a nightly activity that starts around 6:45pm (sunset). It was quite a beautiful start to what would be a beautiful week. Below what it looked like.
Once the chanting was over, a couple monks approached me. They noticed me as I came in and were curious why I was there. None spoke more than a few words of English, so I just said “Ajon Saifon” which was the name Michaela gave me.
Ajon is the master of the temple and all of a sudden I was face-to-face with the master. He called over the Australian girl who has been there for 1.5 years and is fluent in Thai. I forgot her name as she never gave me her original name, just the one she uses in Thai. Something like Yith-nee.
Anyway, she asked what I was there for and then I took out a paper with the picture to the left printed. It is Michaela and I from when I was in Prague in January 2011.
His first reaction was one of love, of reverence for Michaela. He asked how she is doing, what she’s up to now, etc. I did my best since I haven’t seen her for almost as long as they haven’t seen her. I told them that she couldn’t stop talking about this temple when I visited her and that she told me I had to experience it for myself.
First, the master told me I looked much more handsome in the picture (presumably because my short hair would blend in perfectly among the monks). Then he asked what I was interested in finding in my short time there. I explained that I wanted to stay for much longer, but my 15-day visa limited my time. But I wanted to learn how to turn off my mind and live from my heart.
He laughed as, in many ways, from what I understand enlightenment is kind of exactly that – eliminating the suffering and desire the mind causes and living in the bliss one’s consciousness offers.
But he told me I could learn many things in such a short time and he didn’t disappoint…
As I mentioned above, Ajon is the master. He is the kind of guy who, upon meeting, you know has a greater purpose guiding him. That is, he is full of determination, strength, and character.
I was lucky enough to get two opportunities to ask him questions while I was there. He is a busy guy and many students there never really get much of an opportunity to interact with him one-on-one.
Many Buddhists go off on their own at some point to meditate and practice. In Ajon’s case, he spent 7 years in solitude. He did things like live in cemeteries, in forests, etc. He survived on alms giving, which I’ll discuss in a minute.
He has been the master of this temple for eight years.
I am definitely not qualified to speak about Buddhism. I still don’t know too much about it. But it focuses on how Siddhartha Gautama detached from the material world (a big feat given that he was a prince in line for the thrown in an Indian kingdom). Through meditation, he achieved enlightenment – supreme bliss free of suffering.
Suffering is a core part of Buddhism, actually. Life really is about suffering; we need to eat, use the bathroom, feel pain, lose loved-ones, and eventually die.
Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma is the idea that bad deeds committed in this life may come back to haunt you in a subsequent life. Put another way, good deeds may reward you in a future life. So in general, Buddhists are very kind and giving people by nature.
This leads to the next point: alms giving. The monks would leave every morning at sunrise to receive alms from the people of Bang Mun Nak. It almost sounds crazy, doesn’t it? People getting up at dawn to give food to monks? But they do, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It’s an amazing sight to behold.
People may give something simple like rice, or something complex like cooked gourmet food. It all depends. Vendors in the local market are also a common source of food donation.
People can also donate money to the temple, as there are expenses like electricity and water usage. And when I was there, a coffin was donated by a local family. Since everything was in Thai, at first I thought was witnessing a funeral. But no, it was a family giving alms in the form of a coffin to be used in the future by an indigent person unable to afford one, or by a monk when he passes away.
Again, I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Buddhism, but I’d say where it differs from most religions is its focus inward. The point of Buddhism is to help guide you to enlightenment. The energy you put into the religion all helps get you to that point. With other religions, you put your time and effort into complying with and pleasing a god that may or may not exist.
That said, it still looked like a lot of energy was focused at worshiping Buddha, not for being a deity but for his knowledge and teachings. Still, I’d think he wouldn’t want to be worshiped in any way, but I don’t know what I’m talking about…
I had a very different impression of monks before coming to the temple. I thought they were very somber, rarely talked, intense, and philosophical.
Instead, I found they were quite like normal people. Some had cell phones, some watched TV, some smoked, some even leave the temple for a “normal” life.
I guess it depends on the temple in terms of the rules. All monks follow the same code of ethics, some 200 principles of Buddhism. Among them, no sex, no meat (though this is broken daily as the monks receive food from the city and it usually has meat in it.. the act of giving is more important than the restriction on consuming meat), no connection with your family (though I learned they can attend funerals, for example), eating twice a day, sleeping on a hard surface, peeing sitting down, etc.
So becoming a monk is a relatively big sacrifice. That said, in the old days it was often the only way for a young man to get educated. Even today, many young men become monks for a similar reason. I was told most of the monks at the temple I visited were uneducated.
Some monks seemed to work hard, others seemed quite lazy. It was hard to tell since I was only there such a short time and I didn’t speak the language. But all seemed to smile as much as possible. The man in the picture above would approach me after dinner every night and say “Sap Lai?” which I knew from Laos meant “Very delicious?” I confirmed it was “Sap Lai” and he gave a big thumbs up and laughed every single time.
I guess when life is simple, it’s easy to find joy and pleasure in the simple things.
This temple accepts students.. a lot of them.
I asked Ajon why he accepted so many students and he said his own progress toward enlightenment was stalled because he needed to teach more. So being me, I kind of thought the whole teaching thing was maybe a bit selfish since he feels it’s an obligation to advance further. But I’m sure it’s also something he feels deep in his heart – the desire to spread all he has learned.
The students are 99.999% Thai. In fact, I was the fourth foreigner to ever be a student at the temple. My friend Michaela above, the Australian mentioned above, an American in town teaching English, and now me.
You stay in very simple accommodations. Below is where I stayed – a tent erected on a cement floor.
The blankets and pillow came from a bag full of donated stuff. In a past life this would have freaked me out – sleeping on unwashed stuff with an unknown origin. It didn’t bother me here though.
Some students are “weekend warriors,” coming every weekend to learn and progress. Others stay for months or years. My mentor while there, Bunny Rabbit (yes, that’s what she calls her self), has been at the temple for over three years. Presumably, if she were a man she’d be a monk. I asked her about it and she didn’t care. The goal is enlightenment and the fact that she wears white clothes instead of orange is quite trivial. In all other respects she’s a monk.
The temple is unique, from what I understand, due to its relatively liberal ways and its “extreme” meditation. You’ll hear more about that in the posts to come..
The temple sits on a 100-acre site. It seemed like every day I discovered a new dimension to the place.
On two different days we went and worked in what would become the future garden. Basically, they dug huge trenches. One trench will be a water storage basin, and the others will form the on-site cemetery.
With the new hilltops, they decided to plant trees, fruits, and vegetables. I’m not a huge fan of getting dirty, but count me in when it comes to planting life-sustaining food and CO2 breathing plants and trees!
Below are some pictures of this beautiful place.
I really wanted to stay and continue learning, but the Thai visa, previously booked flights, and desire to reflect on what happened this past week all helped me leave.
That said, when my shared van arrived to go to Bangkok, I put my foot in my shoe and there was something inside that wasn’t supposed to be there… I guess he was doing his best to keep me there, but ultimately I took him out and hit the road