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20 July 2011

Of Monks and Motorbikes

The fat, yellow moon fills my one open eye. A heavy blink brings temporary darkness, though the giant cheese ball remains imprinted on the back of my lid. The cool glass against my face feels refreshing after Bangkok’s oppressive heat. Though other oppression has followed me onto the bus. A rowdy, obnoxious mob of what I infer to be Israeli boys has taken the rear portion hostage, and are blaring music through crappy speakers, shouting, swearing, boozing heavily, and overtly harassing nearby passengers. The tension is palpable. As if it weren’t difficult enough to sleep on a cramped overnight bus, we now have these idiots throwing a rager in the rear. My foggy brain attempts to let go of its anger, and the bulbous sphere hovering on the horizon once more fills my thoughts.
“Do you climb?”
Erin aloft at Crazy Horse.

At first I don’t hear the question. I am so wound up with internal voices screaming at each other, that her soft voice is drowned out by the cacophony. The harsh light of the gas station convenience store adds to my general feeling of confusion.

“Excuse me, do you climb?”

I snap out of it and realize she’s talking to me. I slowly remove myself from my internal argument and look down at the smiling girl standing before me. I learn her name is Erin (serendipitous), that she is a climber, and like me, without a partner. She had noticed my Craggin’ Classic t-shirt (an annual climber’s party held in the US) and inferred my rock scaling, anti-gravity status. My hard shell begins to soften as we talk pleasantly in the cool mid-morning hours, waiting for the bus to fire up its engine.

After some deliberation, we decide to be buddies.
The wind and open road flush the exhaustion from behind my eyes. As does the uncertainty and consequent adrenaline associated with operating a motor vehicle in a foreign country. Getting out of the city had been a bit frantic, but now, with the countryside opening up around us and rolling forested mountains stretching off into the haze, my nerves begin to settle.

I had lied to the rental guy to dispel any concerns he might have regarding my gross inexperience operating a motorbike, but that lie did not quell our own worries. I’m nervous, and Erin knows it. She put a large portion of trust in her new, admittedly weary friend (our friendship is approximately 11 hours young at this point) by hopping on the back of a motorbike with him to head out into the unknown. But she is supportive, encouraging me when I do something well, and softly redirecting me when a plan of action appears unsound.

Getting to the crag where we intend to climb is no small feat. There are a number of formidable obstacles to be overcome before we arrive at our goal. The first, and most stark, is driving on the left-hand side of the road. A new and novel concept for my first international driving experience. Not such a big deal when going straight, but considerably more so whenever turning. Taking now more risky right turns rather casually, and then forgetting which lane I am supposed to enter into, until I face a head-on truck approaching at high speeds to remind me, is a very real problem.

The trucks are the second major hurdle. Very large, very erratic, with absurdly loud horns that nearly knock one off their bike by the sonic wave released. We have already thrice been nearly hit, and once almost forced off the road by a merging truck drifting off the shoulder and into the dirt, seriously compromising our position on the asphalt.

My new friend and traveling partner, Ms. Erin Babich.
The third is the ever-present pot-hole. Some merely uncomfortable to hit; others reminiscent of the giant sand-pit monster that Jabba the Hutt throws Luke Skywalker into in The Return of the Jedi. Minus the teeth and tongue, they are a little less frightening, but then again I have no light saber to defend myself with. I do my best to avoid these savage beasts altogether.

But whenever Erin and my lives are not being threatened, I begin to better appreciate my father’s love for motorcycles and their transformative effect on the automotive experience. I had tasted it before on the back of his Harley while we toured through the Catskills of New York, the road mere inches from our feet, with the soft green mountains rolling by in the golden afternoon sunlight. Everything had felt more real, more vibrant, when not enclosed by a box of steel and fiberglass. My memories of that ride are vivid and fond.

And now I am living it, at the helm myself for the first time. Captain of my vessel. Awake and alert upon my steed. And thankfully alert, as I dodge another motorbike-eating maw with too sharp of a trajectory adjustment, made known to me by Erin’s tightening grip around my waist. Struggling to regain stability, her large, gear-filled backpack becomes a highway-bandit that has mounted the vehicle from behind and is trying to pull her off. Its sheer size and excessive weight rocks and sways, bounces and jostles any time my novice handling skills make too sudden a movement. Erin also kindly head-butts me any time I decelerate too rapidly to let me know that I have made an error in my calculations.

With the help of these indicators I hone my craft.

Smoke billows out of the fields as farmers burn their excess chaff after harvest. The sky is thick with particulate haze, and the sun burns orange overhead. The mountains, indistinct in the heat and ash-cloud, begin to crowd in on us, and we spot our destination. A small buttress of limestone jutting out of the bamboo forest. Crazy Horse.

I grip the accelerator and thrust us onward.
The sun brightens the hall while we sit in silence. The rising sounds of morning fill the air outside. Birds chirping, chittering, squawking. Some totally unfamiliar to my ears, yet still uplifting and enlivening as any dawn birdsong.

After our morning session concludes, I walk outside into the courtyard to take in the new day. The fresh, glowing, solar orb is just creeping over the horizon line and the buildings are awash in warm light. The various representations of Buddha lining the northern perimeter of the square erupt in golden brilliance, their subtle features made bold and distinct in the low angle rays.

I am at the International Meditation Center, outside of Chiang Mai, during a four day retreat for foreigners. The course is run by monks from Wat Suan Dok in the city center, where the Mahachulalongkorn Rajvidayalaya Buddhist University (MCU) is based. No idea how to say that. Monks from all over Southeast Asia come to this university to study various aspects of Buddhism and earn academic degrees that they can then apply in their home communities. During a regular evening meeting called Monk Chat, Erin and I visited Wat Suan Dok and spoke with monks from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, who were all attending the university and eager to speak with us and share their experiences. The free sessions are an opportunity for monks to practice their English and for foreigners to learn more about Buddhism and monastic life.

Phra Sinlapachai at the International Meditation Center.
Our instructor, Phra Sinlapachai, was born in Chiang Tung, Burma and has been a monk for eighteen years. He is earning his Master’s degree in Buddhism at MCU and intends to continue with doctorate study in India. Phra Sinlapachai then wishes to return to Burma to help his own people, augmented by his stronger understanding of Buddhist scripture and theory. At present he is excited to help with the meditation courses for foreigners because he realizes many of us are interested in Buddhism and would like to learn more, but may not have the opportunity in our home countries. He believes many people suffer from materialism in our modern time, and wishes to help them however he can through these courses.

I am finding this course to be a welcome return for me to deeper spiritual practice. Learning new techniques in a peaceful environment with an opportunity for focused practice has been very grounding. It is part of a larger transition out of Colorado and into Asia, where I intend to continue shedding the excess from my life, and bring a smaller number of important things to the forefront of my focus. Coming to this course has been a major step toward that goal.

The stillness of the morning breathes calm into my heart. The life breathes energy into my skin. I walk slowly and deliberately, eyeing the intricate details of the golden statues, the buzzing bees visiting the tender pink-white flowers adorning the bushes along the walkway. Peace infuses this place, and the people fortunate enough to come here.
I am shocked and angry.

I try to remain aware of how I am feeling and let it pass, but my frustration builds despite my attempts.

Relatively well-educated, well-traveled, privileged people, who came here to learn, to experience Buddhism and meditation, are attacking their teacher. Verbal assaults are flung from all about the room. Our daily group chat sessions, supposed to be focused on the technique and any troubles associated with it, have metamorphosed into an outright siege on the foundations of this nation’s religion.

It has become West versus East; the Religion of Science versus the Religion of Buddha; Logic versus Faith. The farang (Thai for foreigner) have found Phra Sinlapachai’s explanations of Buddhist theory to be unsuitable, and now seek to deflate and expose it.

With extreme disrespect, the group follows the lead of a Brazilian man and a French man in aggressively seeking Western answers to Eastern concepts. But when Phra attempts to explain, they are unsatisfied with the answers and press further. Language barriers plague the exchange. English is many of the attendees’ second language, and few take into account Phra’s ability to cope with their complex questions.

Many of their queries could have been answered by their own personal study, and when Phra does not understand what they are asking I occasionally step in to offer what I know from previous readings. A few other meditators (in particular a woman from Australia and a man from Quebec) who have had previous experience in the tradition also add voices of reason to the debate.

But the overwhelming atmosphere is one of confusion. Emotions are flung while concepts are lost in translation. Travelers from the USA, Canada, France, Russia, Brazil, Australia, Sweden, Spain, and the UK are continually frustrated and unsatisfied by the responses our teacher gives to their pressing questions. Fifteen examiners to one defendant, the inquisition unfolds.

My anger continues to build over the days as our group conversations emerge as the most difficult and challenging aspect of the course for me.

The meditation hall at the Center.
The echo of misunderstanding reverberating through this hall dedicated to unity and internal peace is a disturbing one. The Eastern hand reaches out and the Western tongue lashes back.
Cruising through the city on our rented motor bike, we pass monks and prostitutes, temples and bars, farang and local shopkeepers. The old city walls and its encircling moat are now surrounded by traffic and all forms of combustion engine. Curry and incense hang thick in the air. Golden parapets and ornately adorned gates cluster around modern high rises.

Having gotten slightly more comfortable in the Thai traffic, I weave in and out of lanes, lights, and throngs of pedestrians. The cool morning air fills my clothes and my nostrils, my visor up and open. Erin casually watches the scene unfolding around us, intimately, as only a passenger on a bike can do. Fountains send airborne spray out of the moat. Multi-colored taxis and Tuk-tuks vie for position with horn and bumper.

We get lost among the narrow alleys, slanted side streets, and crowded corners one last time.

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