All over Thailand, monks leave their temples early in the morning to collect alms in exchange for a blessing for the donating people. I was allowed to join them during a Vipassana retreat.
It is still dark when I get on my bike this morning. The air I breathe out forms little clouds, which are illuminated by the headlamp that I pulled over my hat. After just a few meters over the rocky, bumpy path, I feel like my fingers are freezing to the handlebars. I pull the scarf a little closer around my neck, pedal harder, and the light morning mist over the surrounding meadows passes me faster and faster.
We want to meet Phra Clyde to accompany him on his morning alms round. He was once a truck driver in the United States and worked on oil farms, too. For several years he has been a monk in Wat Sriboonruang in Fang, where he runs the meditation center for people from western countries. So for people who learn to meditate undisturbedly for a while or who want to deepen their meditation practice like me.
Barefoot on stony, cold ground
On my last morning in Wat Sriboonruang, Clyde pulled a turtle-neck sweater under his monk’s robe. He precedes and me and two meditation students follow him. We slowly walk along the road towards the market. Clyde stands barefoot on the stony, cold ground, waiting for people to give him alms in exchange for a blessing. This is a Pali text on monotonous monk singing, in Clyde’s case, with a clearly Texan accent, because that’s where Clyde originally comes from.
Monks can only eat what is given to them. All over Thailand, they walk through cities and villages in their orange robes in the morning, walking along busy main streets like we do every morning in the dark – even in the middle of Bangkok. Some have a fixed route along the private houses near their temple – like the two temporary monks who live with us for a retreat and which we also sometimes accompany in the morning. Some go to the nearest market like Clyde. In any case, Buddhism is obvious in Thailand.
We walk with them because we meditators almost exclusively eat the food donations of the people in the village. It’s a great experience for us, because a lot is fresh and cooked at home. You can’t eat more traditional Thai food.
After lunch there is no food
In many places, Vipassana means living in absolute silence, completely without language and eye contact with fellow meditators. The participants spend many hours a day meditating only while sitting. Fortunately, it is not so strict in Wat Sriboonruang. Nevertheless, at the beginning of our stay, we committed to the eight guidelines that also apply to monks:
- Do not cause pain or suffering to other living beings.
- Don’t steal.
- No sexual activity.
- Not lies.
- Don’t consume alcohol or drugs.
- Don’t eat after lunch.
- No entertainment, so no music, dance, no jewelry, perfume or anything else to beautify the body.
- No comfortable sleeping place
There are a few more rules for monks. But the day also begins for them at 5 am with a chanting in Pali, 20 to 30 minutes of meditation, another chanting, then the Pindabat (alms round) followed by breakfast. Around 9:30 or 2:30 pm we had another group meditation of about an hour, chanting again in the evening and a joint meditation of 40 to 50 minutes, the rest of the day was free to read and meditate – and at least I was dead tired afterwards. Meditating doesn‘t just mean sitting around and relaxing, but is rather exhausting.
Mindfulness as a concept of Buddhism
I’ve been meditating for about four years. I started with this during a mindfulness course. Daily exercises were on the program. But after the end of the course, the time I took to watch my breath and mind became less. And at some point I stopped completely. Especially because during meditation things came up that I thought I had successfully banished from my consciousness forever. I was really scared that even more subconscious would be released, of which I really didn’t want to know any more. But you can’t run away from your past. It belongs to us, shapes us, makes us who we are. A saying that I read somewhere goes something like this: If you want to be happy, don’t dwell in the past, don’t worry about the future, but focus on living completely in the present. That describes mindfulness. And it is concept of Buddhism.
In meditation you do exactly that: focus on the breath, realize when we wander in our thoughts, observe thoughts without evaluating them, and then turn our attention back to the breath. Being mindful. And recognizing things as they really are. Vipassana meditation as taught by Phra Clyde also includes touch points that we learned to focus on during meditation.
Tame the mind like a wild bull
Phra Montri from Chom Thong whom I met a week later in his temple in Chom Thong on the recommendation of Phra Clyde will compare the mind to a wild bull. First he is tied to a tree, then he is still very wild – like the thoughts in the head of meditation beginners. But at some point the bull gets tired and finally gives up – the thoughts during meditation become less.
The thoughts become fewer. But they also become clearer. At least that’s how I experienced it. I‘m glad that we were allowed to have conversations in Wat Sriboonruang. In addition to some other participants, I met Paul from Germany and Nadeem from the USA. Both of them have been to Wat Sriboonruang before and have impressed me a lot. Paul was a novice for three months last year and decided to become a monk. “Not now,” he says. First he wants to travel and experience some more things. And even if many young men in Thailand often become temporary monks for the sake of their families, Paul feels more committed. If he becomes a monk, he wants to do so out of conviction and permanently, he says.
Nadeem lives in a wooden house somewhere in the Californian woods, spends most of the day meditating and with Thai Chi, and travels a lot to meet famous teachers. So I couldn‘t only talk to Phra Clyde about my meditation, but also to Nadeem and Paul. An incredible gift that opened up completely new perspectives for me and a different view on things.
After my last morning’s alms round Clyde gives me a blessing, says that I‘m always welcome to come back and stay at the temple and that he will be my teacher for as long as I want him to be. At noon, Phra Maha Dr. Apisitm the monastery’s abbot, says goodbye, too. I commit to keeping five of the eight guidelines (rules 3, 6 and 8 are no longer applicable). “In Buddhism we don’t say goodbye,” he explains, and therefore says: “I wish you a wonderful journey.”
See things as they really are
After a long time in one place, you always leave a piece of yourself behind. But you also take something with you. I take a lot with me this time. An incredible inner calm, a – I think – an awake look, a more open attitude towards things and the desire to see things as they really are, regardless of my influences and expectations. But it’s still a long way to go before I will fully understand this, if ever.
I leave Fang in a small van between laundry baskets full of lettuce, bags of greens and I don’t know what and bags. Someone is sitting in the hallway. And after a while we share three seats with four people while I eat the last waffle with coconut pieces that I bought in the morning at the small stand next to the temple. Seeing things as they really are goes through my head – I should be encountering this sentence several times in the following weeks. But first I’m on my way to Chiang Rai.