Saturday, February 18, 2006
Reconnecting with Alan
Seeing Alan made it clear to me why I’d been inspired to come to Thailand. We had arranged to meet the day after he flew back to Bangkok from San Francisco. We shared stories of our adventures and learning sitting in his office at the World Buddhist University. Some of the connections he made with people and organizations in the USA are relevant to me as well. In particular he mentioned a Buddhist leader from Taiwan who uses the term “Humanistic Buddhism.” That of course caught my attention as quite relevant both to UU Buddhists and members of my congregation.What I so enjoy about Alan is he is a “networker.” He is looking for ways to connect people and organizations together in ways that has creative result. He also believes in opening to and taking advantage of chance meetings and serendipitous opportunities. We are similar in this way.
One of Alan and Vivek’s frustrations dealing with the WBU is this kind of ad hoc and opportunistic networking that is so familiar to Americans is alien to Thais. They want things to flow through channels and respect lines of authority and status. The classic divide between the Westerners and Easterners becomes apparent in these situations. Will Alan be successful in moving the organization or not? We’ll see. Whether he does or not, he is still making wonderful connections that are useful to me and potentially to the development of the UUBF. I’ve invited Alan to come and do a workshop for our UUBF Convocation 2007 which seems to work with his travel planning.
One of the areas of our conversation was the lack of dialogue going on between eastern and western Buddhists. The Buddhist organizations tend to be one or the other. The newer western Buddhists may be in dialogue with their own tradition in the east but that generally doesn’t cross over to the direction of world Buddhism.
This is particularly relevant to the theme social engagement. Buddhists don’t show up for disaster relief the way the Christian evangelical organizations do. This was clear from the tsunami of 2004. Buddhist organizations are feeling the heat from aggressive evangelism making inroads in Asia. But there is no forum for Buddhists to address this and formulate a response.
Those Christian inroads are a wake up call in Buddhist countries to look at how they are treating and serving their people. Baptist conversion of the Karen hill tribes points to the fact that Buddhism didn’t offer them much. Buddhism doesn’t have the same kind of missionary outreach that Christianity does. Why this is would make for very fruitful conversation and exploration. Engaged Buddhism as possible through UUBF is one answer.
Alan, Vivek and I had a long lunch at the Emporium food court. I had some fried pork that I must have had something in it that didn’t agree with me. I didn’t realize this right away but this became obvious later.
I had told Tan I’d like to go on an evening dinner cruise on the river that goes through Bangkok. She gave me a recommendation and I arranged to go with Alan since none of Tan’s family nor Mem or Tor would be available. They have busy lives not like me who can do whatever I want and have no obligations. This is the joy of traveling – just doing the next thing without having lots of tasks competing for one’s attention.
I left Alan to do some work while I visited the Erawan shrine. Right in the middle of Bangkok, the Erawan shrine sits in a plaza next to shopping centers, major streets, elevated highways and the skytrain. A gold statue of the four faced, multiple armed Hindu god is surrounded by worshippers offering food, yellow marigold flower chains, candles and incense. Dozens of people swarm around offering prayers and gifts to this god all day long. So many, in fact that the gifts have to be cleared away every hour so more can be offered. Dancers in traditional costume and musicians were also performing to the side. With the sound of the street, the vendors, the smoke from all the incense, the drumming for the performers, the people posing with digital cameras, the whole scene was fascinating to watch as it unfolded. Alan had recommended I just sit and watch people which I did for about an hour before going down to the river for our dinner.
Alan and I met at the ferry terminal about 6:30pm. The Yor Yuk marina from which the cruise left had its own boat service to pick people up and bring them over. Alan was a little confused because there are three Yor Yuk restaurants all on the river and all within about a mile of each other. We were seated and served our food before the cruise began on the top deck of the boat covered with tables. The food was cooked at the marina and served to us before we left. It was dark by the time the cruise began so we enjoyed the lights of the city as a warm, moist breeze blew over us. We cruised past the Temple of the Dawn and the Grand Palace, under low bridges and past many other boats out on night cruises. (check here for some pictures later). Very pleasant way to begin to bring my visit to Thailand to an end.
At the end of the cruise, Alan invited me to visit the night market near his home. This is also home to the gay bars Alan frequents and the girl bars that Bangkok is famous for. We walked past both and neither of them pulled my attention.
Actually what was pulling my attention was my intestinal distress that was getting worse. We passed several blind people with karaoke boxes around their necks looking for money. They were either playing music or singing with the music as they weaved through the market stalls. I found a couple of things to buy to bring home then told Alan I’d better be getting home. The cab got me home at midnight … just in time for a rough night purging my digestive system.
The next morning I took it slow and went through all my stuff in preparation for packing and preparing to leave the next day. I looked at my cash situation – just 1000 baht left to spend before leaving on trinkets to bring back with me.
I walked to the skytrain making the shortest trip so far to cover the 4.3 km distance. I’d left my backpack at home so I could move a little faster. But by the time I was sitting on the BTS, I was covered in sweat. I met Tan at the Central department store and we started shopping. We went to a large market dedicated to souvenirs. The upper floors had the nice merchandise but the basement had the deals. I enjoyed shopping with Tan who could bargain for me in Thai and make sure I was getting a good price.
We had lunch together at another mall’s food court. This is the cheapest meal I think I had and almost no one was there. After lunch we returned to the Central department store and took the elevator up to the top floor. Tan is a member of their premier club for shoppers that has a special lounge with free tea and coffee. Since her daughter’s school is across the street, she often meets them there so she can relax in comfort. They also had 15 minutes of free internet service which allowed me to check my email.
I said my thanks and first goodbye. Tan has been such a good companion for my time in Bangkok. I did take the regular bus part of the way back to Tor and Mem’s house. It was only 5 baht and speeded up my walk home as it got me to 101 Sukhumvit fairly quickly.
I couldn’t get a taxi to the airport hotel during rush hour so I relaxed and watched a little TV. They get some English channels – BBC, CNBC and of course movie channels with Thai subtitles. The movie that I didn’t want to leave when the cab came at 6:30pm was “The Day Before Tomorrow,” a disaster movie based on theories of global warming.
The Comfort Suite room was adequate for sleep before catching a plane and that’s about all. I got up the next morning at 3:00am, showered and began the long travel ordeal to return to LA. Met an interesting fellow on the Bangkok to Tokyo flight, a 35 year old entrepreneur returning from his second visit to Thailand. He was there basically to meet young women, drink, have sex and a good time. So different from my trip and my careful avoidance of being that kind of tourist. Interestingly he probably met many more people than I did. I guess bars is where you go to just meet people you don’t know.
Was very happy to see my sister Sue after getting my bags inspected by the customs folks in LAX.
So I’m now back in the USA. I’ll have to reflect on my trip in another post.
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Crystal Sphere Meditation
Before exploring my trip to Dhammakaya, let me finish up in Chiang Mai.
Frank Miller and I got together for breakfast on Sunday (2/12) then traveled up the hills next to Chiang Mai to a Wat perched on the side of Doi Suthep. Being Sunday, many people were visiting, the Wat and participating in all the normal wat rituals of lighting yellow candles and three sticks of incense, doing three bows and saying the blessings, ringing bells and putting coins in the nine containers (one for each day of the week and some extra for a reason I'll find out later). An instrumental group was playing traditional music on traditional instruments. Frank and I enjoyed just relaxing and watching the crowds. I took lots of pictures (to be linked here later).
Our leisurely pace took us back to town and into a Japanese restaurant that had food on a conveyor belt. You could take various sushi and other dishes off the conveyor and then pay by the plate. The plates had four colors, yellow 29, green 39, blue 59 and red 79 baat. We saw the same food circulate many times and no new food being put on which made us wonder how long it had been going around.
At 3:00pm I needed to be at the tailors to pick up my suit so we parted company and I got into the back of a red pickup for the longer than expected trip to close to my destination. He didn't remember where I needed to get off (as others had climbed in) so I had to push the button I'd just learned about from Frank. I seem to acquire information just in time to need it use it.
My suit fit just fine and looked good with the white shirt I had in my backpack. Walking back to my guest house to pick up my bag I'd left there, I started to feel some knee pain due to all the walking I've done in the last few days. I stopped off at an internet place to get copies of directions to Dhammakaya meditation institute printed then got a ride to the airport. I decided to fly Sunday night back to Bangkok to allow me to leave early Monday morning for Dhammakaya. Thankfully the flight and cab ride were uneventful. Everyone was still at the beach I had the house to myself and fell asleep blissfully quickly.
I got up early, leaving the house on foot around 7:00am and finding a cab on the street to the Southern Bus Terminal to catch a 78 bus. I was a little scared of just getting on the bus for a93.5 km bus ride to the middle of nowhere as far as I could tell. The weather was wet, unusual for this time of year and a little cooler. After about 2 hours the woman ticket agent came to me and told me this is where I should get off. I didn't see anything but followed her directions and got off. It looked like the road to go somewhere across the street so I followed it onto the Insititute's grounds.
Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram is the home of Dhammakaya Buddhist Meditation Institute. They are a member of the World Buddhist University network and probably why Vivek had recommended I visit. This was not an international meditation center and I quickly discovered no English being used and no Europeans to be found. Finally I'd found a Wat that didn't cater to farang. I did meet a Thai fellow who spoke English and took me under his wing. They did have one American monk but he was on his way back from a trip to the USA. Another monk from Denmark was in Bangkok.
I had decided to go out because Monday (2/13) was a full moon. This is the Magha Puja Buddhist holiday that meant people had the day off. Magha Puja falls on the full moon of the 3rd lunar month, and is held to commemorate the preaching of the Buddha to 1250 enlightened monks, who came to hear him “without prior summons”. Hundreds of lay people will come to the temple on that day, and there will be chanting and meditation throughout the day. Being the full moon day the monks will also attend the Patimokkh recitation (the 227 precepts a monk follows). It all culminates in a so-called Wien-Tien-procession. Used on Magha Puja, Visakha Puja, and Asalha Puja Days. Monks according to seniority led by the Abbot, and followed by novices, nuns, and lay people will circle the main temple 3 times with lotus, candles and incense in hand. The incense represents the Buddha (the beautiful perfume from the incense is like the Great Virtues of Lord Buddha). The candles represent the light of the Dhamma (Lord Buddha’s teaching), and the flowers are to pay respect to the Sangha (The community of Monks). The bell and drum will sound alternately during the rounds, and so will the chanting from several monks sitting inside the Bot. The first round is for the Buddha, the second for the Dhamma, and the third round is for the Sangha.
At 10:00am-11:30am there was a service for the presentation of robes to the monks followed by lunch. My english speaking host had me sit with him and several others as we feasted on traditional Thai dishes. He pointed out to me the ones that might be too hot for me. After lunch we went over to another building where I was able to purchase an english book and CD that describes the meditation technique. A more detailed description than I will give can be found here.
Basically the technique centers on visualizing a crystal ball in the center of the body then directing your attention to the center of the crystal ball and using a mantric phrase "samma arahang" to direct the attention into the center of the body and hold it there. I had just read a little of this when everyone was ready to do the Wien-Tien-procession. The weather was pleasantly cool for once and cloudy so the sun wasn't beating down on our heads. As we walked with our candles, incense and lotus flower, we'd pass the huge drum being walloped by a monk and making a deep resonant sound. Then we'd pass the abbot blessing us with water from a broom like device dipped in water and sprayed over the procession. It was quite an experience. After three times we extinguished our candles and put our incense in a container to burn down and placed our lotus flower in a bucket. The abbot called me over and in good english asked me if I wanted to stay the night and see the American monk when he arrived. At first I hesitated since my birthday was tomorrow and I hadn't brought any supplies to stay over night. But my desire for adventure got the better of me and I said yes.
After waiting around and reading more about the meditation technique, a new monk discovered me and took me down to a small raised building on the edge of the grounds next to the road I'd arrived on. It was quite sparse but comfortable with a toilet and shower (even hot water!). No bed of course - I'd be sleeping on a mat - but I was now somewhat experienced in this kind of sleeping so I thought I'd manage.
At 6:50pm I was told where to be expecting to meet someone who would take me to the meditation hall. That didn't happen so after more confusion, I talked to the Danish monk who as now back from Bangkok. We agreed to meet around lunch tomorrow. Then he instructed me to just go to the meditation hall by myself.
The assembled monks and lay people dressed in white (mostly women) were chanting in Pali, the language the Buddha is thought to have spoken. This 2500 year old language is chanted using three tones much as I did at the Forest Refuge retreat in January. Unfortunately they didn't have any english transliteration of the Pali, only Thai. Still it was pleasant to listen to. After about 1/2 an hour of chanting, they brought out a 8 inch crystal ball for us to use for the meditation then (I think) instructions were given in the meditation technique. I tried my best to do it without much success. Still, the retreat environment was a quieting one and the uncertainty about what would happen next kept my mind sharp and alert to the moment. The biggest problem I was having was sitting on the floor with nothing under my rear end. I need to learn how to sit on the floor this way so I can meditate in any situation by just sitting down and crossing my legs. I'm flexible enough that I ought to be able to do this.
Sleeping that night was a little uncomfortable but I managed to get enough rest, arising at 5:00 for the 5:30am meditation I'd been told about. Well it was really after 6:00am. Breakfast was at 7:00am. This time I was directed to sit with male novices who were preparing for ordination, most of them temporary. By ordaining, even just for a couple of weeks, these men could earn merit for their family and get them into heaven.
One english speaking novice was assigned to me. He had studied in Madison, WI, Penn State, and Gainsville, FL for a total of 8 years for his Phd in nuclear physics. This seemed odd to me since I didn't think Thailand had any such reactor. Evidently some would like to see one built. He spoke very good english and we had a good time discussing meditation techniques as well as other facts about the institute. There are around 150 monks studying meditation and Pali here. This is quite a busy place. The abbot believes it is important that the intellect be engaged along with doing the meditation practice.
The abbot assigned a monk to teach me meditation. His teaching followed the book description almost word for word. But after we practiced together, I had a chance to ask some questions to contrast this technique with other Insight meditation techniques. They think this technique is a shortcut to enlightenment. Evidently children are very adept at it but adults have a harder time because their minds are too full of ideas. Innocence seems to help in the visualization.
After we practiced, it was time for lunch. Monks typically eat at 7:00am and 11:00am. The monk's rule says there is no eating of food after noon till sunrise the next morning. I find this isn't very hard if I've had two good meals and I keep my fluids up. The meals have been quite good here - the monks eat very well food prepared in a large kitchen. I'm quite impressed with the size of this operation and wondered about the cost of running it.
I finally got to meet the Danish monk and we discussed in more detail comparing this meditation technique with others. His answers were a little clearer but followed the same logic of the monk who instructed me. As the American monk hadn't arrived, I felt it was better for me to just leave to go back to Bangkok. I could talk to the American monk later or by email. I was ready to get home and get a shave and a shower.
The bus stopped at when I flagged him down from the road outside. The trip back was quiet as I read Phra Farang, a book about an English Thai monk's adventures, getting a peek at life in robes. Got a cab to the Skytrain and stopped at the World Buddhist University to check my email and chat with Vivek.
Tan and Tor's parents to my surprise were still here staying with Tor and Mem (which is why I had been bumped up stairs to the third floor). We had Thai take out for dinner (five or six different dishes with sticky rice and mango for dessert. Better than a birthday cake!
A different way to spend my birthday but not an unhappy one. I've only got two days left in Thailand but I think I've had about as much as I can fit in. Perhaps there will be room for one or two more adventures!
Saturday, February 11, 2006
More on Chiang Mai
There is a little sign in the window of each room at my guest house requesting that we remove our shoes before entering. This is the custom here and I find it irritating. Let's say I just need to run into my room to pick something up and run out again. Since I don't where sandals, getting my shoes on and off again is a chore. Also, leaving one's shoes outside means they might be taken. And since it is my room for a couple of days, it seems like I ought to be able to use my shoes in my room if I want to - at least that's how I feel about it. (I did actually violate their request because I wanted to do just go use the toilet quickly. I found myself pretending to take off my shoes in case someone was watching me.)
This morning I visited the tourist office to see if there are other things to do that I might enjoy. The botanical garden looked interesting but at 30 km distance a little too far away for someone without transportation. I'll do my out of town visiting tomorrow - maybe we could visit it then.
I walked back into the old city and found the Art and Culture center and toured it. The visual presentations were in Thai with english subtitles detailing the history of Chiang Mai as well as some of the culture. (Look here for more information) They had a small library and gift shop. I wanted to rest my feet so I slipped into the library and started reading a delightful book titled, "The Buddha in the Jungle." The book has stories about Thai monks over the last 150 years or so. I read a fascinating one about the special ability one monk taught another about how you stop a charging angry elephant (requires some pretty deep concentration ability to send metta to an elephant deva). I wrote down the author and title hoping I'd be able to find it.
Had my favorite lunch/dinner (thai rice noodles) and found my way back to my tailor for a fitting. The pants and suit were not ready yet so "Mike" and I talked. He has two sons, one 12 and one 14. We were talking about the economy in Thailand. He told me business in his store (he is a salesman) is down 40% this year. I related that Mem had also complained about this and speculated it might have to do with the price of gas. He told me that he needs to spend 50 baat these days for a couple of days gas where he could get by on only 30 in the past.
Talking person to person eased my concerns about buying a suit from this fellow. His boss will probably get most of the profit anyway. The money I'm spending supports the tailor too. My money goes to people. I decided I would check the quality when I get home and then decide if I'd gotten a good deal. I just have to accept the risk.
I found the book in a bookstore just now so I'm going off to read it!
Friday, February 10, 2006
Marked in Chiang Mai
Got to the bus station in Chiang Rai before 8:00am for my 8:25 bus to Chiang Mai. At 8:00am the national anthem was played and everyone stood up. Evidently this is the habit here at 8:00am and 6:00pm as well as at the beginning of a movie or performance. The bus ride down was comfortable with a number of backpackers in front of me on the bus. One fellow had tattoo's all over his shaved head. The one I noticed was of a naked blond woman with a snake wrapped around her. I just don't get why someone would do this. Yesterday, one of the women from Austria had a ring in a piercing above her two front teeth as well as a tounge piercing. I guess I'm getting old and out of touch. We did get a snack box and some Pepsi in a glass served to us.
In Chiang Mai I got a Tuk-tuk from the bus station to my guest house as it was clearly too far to walk. This room seems much nicer than any of the places I've stayed so far - better than the Chiang Rai hotel for the same price. This one has hot water from the tap!
As I was planning to meet Frank, a fellow I'd been emailing in Chiang Mai that Vivek recommended I speak with here who was involved with Buddhism, I found a pay phone to call him. I tried several times to get through but was cut off after maybe 10 seconds. I thought the price was 3 Baat for 1 minute but I guess not. I went back to the hotel and made contact using their phone (for far more money per minute I expect than the pay phone). Frank would be available for dinner so I had the afternoon to roam around.
The traffic here is just as busy as Bangkok but on narrower streets. The exhaust bothered my nose still recovering from my cold. I found a part of the night market with food vendors and had a nice tofu-seafood soup for lunch. After lunch I stopped in an internet cafe to check my email. Seems like I can connect just about anytime I feel like it with the rest of the world.
I entered the old city through the Thapae Gate. My first stop was the Wat Chedi Luang. This old wat is in partial ruins as no one knows what it originally looked like so they can't reconstruct it as other monuments in town have been rebuilt.
One of the attractions here is the monk chat. Monks learning english sit round at tables waiting for tourists to stop by and chat with them so they can practice. I sat with several monks and talked for an hour. Then I walked over towards Wat Phra Singh passing a school letting out. There were lots of vendors across the street from the school catering to the children's desires.
At Wat Phra Singh a Thai fellow struck up a converstation with me and told me about his German wife and being a tourist himself. I became suspicious when he advised me about a tailor I might want to visit. I went inside the Wat where monks were chanting. A man motioned for me to sit next to him. I did so and he struck up a conversation with me as well. His son is a monk he told me and showed me laminated business cards of people he knew in the states as well as his id as a law professor. I showed him some pictures and we chatted for a while. Finally I showed him the map and asked him about the fellow outside and the Imperial Fashion tailor the person outside had recommended to me. He said he had used them and that because of the Chinese New Year they were having a special promotion that ended today. He encouraged me to go over right away and led me out to a tuk tuk. Before I knew it I was walking into the store and being sold a suit.
I'm pretty sure I was marked and set up by these two fellows but I'm also amazed at their sophistication at working me into the store. I gave the second fellow my name so I suppose he can get the commission. But it seemed almost happenstance that I revealed the information to the second one. I was already planning to buy a suit and had thought I'd missed my chance. This place turns suits around in less than 24 hours that seems pretty amazing to me as well. Will be returning tomorrow for a fitting so I'll have another chance to think about this purchase. I've put down 1000 Baat so I can still back out of the deal if I'm not satisfied by the quality.
I met Frank and we found a restaurant for dinner. Frank is a retired tea dealer who came to Thailand to study meditation but has moved away from getting too obsessed with it. We had good conversation and agreed that we'd do some sightseeing tomorrow and have some dharma conversation as well.
I walked back through the night market which is much larger here than what Chiang Rai had. The selection of merchandise is huge. For the person who loves to shop, this would be heaven. For me, I'm just intimidated. Several people were doing beautiful portraits from photographs. I stopped and sampled some lichee ginger wine that I thought might go well with fish. They also had ginseng wine that had an unusual taste. In another food stall I found more mango and sticky rice so of course I had some. So easy to spend money moving through a market.
So it was a good day but I went to bed troubled about whether I should have ordered that suit or not. There is something about being marked that makes one's purchase feel suspect.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
Visiting the Hill Tribes
Yesterday I felt much better even though I still had some cold symptoms. My fever had broken during the night with lots of sweating. I had a couple of oranges for breakfast and one of the sticky rice bamboo sticks we had bought yesterday on the way to Phayao. Just about any form of sticky rice I love.
I thought it would be fun to just go for a walk around town. My goal was the Hill Tribe Museum not far from the Golden Triangle Inn. Wandering around I came across the Morning Market. There were what seemed like hundreds of small stalls selling raw and prepared foods, dry goods, toys, clothes, jewelry, etc. I found a nice hat that looked better than the one I bought yesterday. On the way to the Hill Tribe Museum I also passed an Internet site and settled down for a couple of hours (30 b/hr) and entered my last post.#
I finally got to the Hill Tribe Museum and learned all about the half dozen or so groups who have come from Burma, Laos and China to settle in this area. A good place to learn more is here. This area has long been known for cultivating the Opium poppy. The Museum had lots of information about the exploitation of Asia by European colonial powers so we could import their opium. A shameful history indeed.
The Hill Tribes have practiced moving agricultural practices that involve cutting down forest, planting crops till the land is exhausted, then moving on. Since logging has now deforested so much of the mountainous area, the government is now restricting such practices and relocating these tribes in settled areas. Sadly this means the children go to Thai schools and often decide to leave their "old fashioned" ways. The lure of materialism is hard to counter from the simple village life.
I decided to sign up for a trek to visit some of the villages by myself but encouraged them to find others to join me (and thus save me lots of money). It was a risk to sign up to go alone but if I didn't take the risk, I wouldn't get out of town.
I had lunch at the locally famous, Cabbages and Condoms restaurant. The proceeds from the restaurant to go support family planning activities. The name comes from the founder of the program's desire that condoms should be as common as cabbages.
At the museum, I had gotten very tired having had very little for breakfast and still not out of the woods from my cold. I decided it would be best to go back to the inn and rest till 6:00pm. That was when I could go to the opticians and get my new lenses for my glasses. In Suan Mokkh I had scratched my left lense in the center, probably from all the sand everywhere. What a delight to be able to see clearly again.
While my lense was being replaced, I ate at the Ape Restaurant. Walking there without my glasses was like being partially blind. I couldn't get the attention of the waiter because I couldn't use my eyes to signal him.
That night I attended the night market. Again many stalls with all kinds of items to squeeze money out of tourists. The have a music and dance show that I found unimpressive. The women dancers come out in different costumes and lip sync with the music. The market has two stages in different locations so the dancers rush from one to the other to repeat their performances. I looked at a silk shirt for $5 but the quality was so poor I just couldn't even pay that much for it. I find I'm just not a very good shopper. I look at all the things for sale and have little interest. The best I can do is think about gifts for others. I just hate buying stuff without knowing what a good price is so I can bargain fairly.
I decided to also stop in and check travel back to Bangkok. Airfares on Monday, Feb 13 were pretty high so I settled on a Sunday evening flight. This saves me a night stay and allows me to visit Dhammakaya on Monday. They have a special event that day so I thought I'd go visit.
This morning I also got my bus ticket for Chiang Mai before being picked up for my Hill Tribe tour. It turned out that I'd have three people joining me, two young women studying to be pharmacists in Austria and a fellow from Israel. The four of us took a long boat out to the same place I had visited and seen the elephants. This time we boarded them in pairs.
The actual experience of riding an elephant was far less positive than the idea of doing it. Their walking motion is rather jerky. I felt like I had to hold on tight. And you sit on a bench on their backs that is pretty high off the ground. This becomes quite intimidating as we climbed up and down steep hills, holding on for dear life. Not sure I'd want to spend two hours on the back of an elephant again. But it was an adventure! We saw the ruggedness of the hillside in a way we wouldn't forget.
Our guide didn't come with us which made me quite suspicious we were not going to some remote secluded place. In fact when we arrived he was there waiting for us having driven up by truck. The rest the places we visited were in the benches in the back of the pickup. Each tribe we visited wanted to sell us their handiworks. I felt I ought to buy to support them. Still it was uncomfortable to be solicited for money by people wearing traditional dress as part of their sales pitch. We had lunch at a very pleasant waterfall.
Our guide was quite a talkative fellow without a lot worth listening to. He was well meaning but told us much of the information I had learned at the museum. My other traveling companions were very pleasant. Their camera's battery had run down so I let them borrow my camera to take some pictures. At the end of the trip, one of them went with me to copy my pictures to a CD.
My overall impression of visiting the hill tribes was sadness. They are being forced to stay in one place and grow cash crops to integrate into our way of life. One tribe five years before had been self sufficient. Now they had to purchase 80% of their food. One tribe, the Karen, had been converted to Christianity by American Baptist Missionaries in the 1800's. By now they've lost much of their indigenous culture. In a way the Thai aren't much different from the Hill Tribes. They too have lost much of their cultural identification as they have assimilated Western ways. But I suppose this has been happening for many years as one culture dominates the other. The Indians brought their Gods to modify Thai Buddhism. The Khymer people brought their culture and so did the Chinese and the Japanese.
Well, thats all for now. Tomorrow in Chiang Mai!
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
Posting from Chiang Rai
I'm recovering today from a cold so I'm just staying in Chiang Rai today and doing things in town. Still trying to figure out exactly what I'd like to do tomorrow.
Let me catch up on events after leaving Ban Krut.
The train trip was less luxurious than my trip up from Surat Thani - no air conditioning just circulating fans in the roof. The train was crowded for the six hour trip. We had to pay for food this time if we wanted dinner. We were delayed getting into the station. I sensed restlessness in some children in the back. Suddenly I heard an American song being sung in the back of the car. An American woman was singing beautifully all those favorite songs most people know to her children to keep them entertained after the long ride. At first I was a little embarrassed to be listening to farang music but the woman's voice was so beautiful I found I was calmed as well.
As I left the train station a man approached me and asked where I was going and offered me a flat price of 500 baat. I countered with 300 and we agreed on 400. Unfortunately I found out later I should have just used a metered cab and probably paid much less, 150-200. Still being out 5 dollars isn't the end of the world. Live and learn.
The next morning I went over my notes for my lecture. I was pretty sure my talk was at noon but I started getting worried I'd gotten the time wrong. I had almost done this with the train from Chaiya to Ban Krut. I tried checking the World Buddhist University web site and then checked for a telephone number to call someone. No luck finding the time. So Tor drove me in a little before 11:00am. It turned out I had the time right and used the time to do some email checking in the office.
Dr. Chris Stanford introduced me to the small audience that gathered to hear my talk. Evidently there had been a massive demonstration against the prime minister the day before and people were warned to be off the streets. I'm sorry I missed it and would have liked to have been on the streets to witness 100,000 people demonstrating peacefully.
I thought I did a good job presenting some of my biography detailing three crises in my life followed by three awakening experiences. I outlined Unitarian Universalism and the UU Buddhist Fellowship. (A summary will be posted to the wb-university.org web site)
I got a positive response from the dozen people who listened. Several of the people attending were retired Americans. A couple had attended UU congregations in the US. I had hoped perhaps this would turn into a lunch and further conversation but this didn't happen. I was a little disappointed in the attendance and the engagement - as this was the focus of my trip. Still, you plant the seeds and you see what grows. I need to be non-attached to the results. Learning about Ven. Buddhadasa and visiting Suan Mouk has been worth the trip.
I had lunch by myself at the food court at the Emporium mall (which took some time to find) and had this delicious dessert of sticky sweet rice, mango with coconut cream sauce. I decided to walk from the end of the skyway train to Tor and Mem's house. The road was choked with cars and fumes which bothered my throat (perhaps setting up this cold?) Around 95 Surkimvit I found many food stalls offering delicious looking food. What I find interesting is the vast number of stalls selling so many different things. There must be many people buying to support them all. It is the opposite of the American style consolidation into big box stores.
Tan, Jod and her daughters, Mem, Tor, and their daughter, their eldest brother and two golfing partners all gathered for dinner at a local restaurant. The food kept coming long after I couldn't eat another bite. The conversation turned to the oddities of english pronunciation. They would come up with words for me to pronounce and erupt in laughter as I gave the "correct" pronunciation. Thai's struggle with how we create syllables and accent them. I had thought we didn't have a tonal language but in a way we do. Where you put the accent in a word makes a big difference for being understood. Also 'ch' and 'sh' sound the same to them. Ship and chip sound exactly the same to them. They also struggle with 'r' and 'l' sounds.
The next day I met Tan again for some sightseeing. We decided to go down to the river that flows through Bangkok. We considered getting a long boat for a tour but after having lunch opted for just taking the regular ferry service (800 verses 18 baat). We visited Wat Arun. The ornamentation in Wat Arun for the large buildings is made with broken pottery that was used as ballast in ships from China. (look later for a link to some pictures)
We stopped near Wat Pho for some Jack fruit that was very tastey. The ferry continued on to a stop where everyone got off. This turned out to be a skytrain stop that took us back to where Tan would meet her daughter at the Central Mall after school. After having a snack we looked for a battery charger for me since I was having trouble with mine. I got one that worked with any voltage 100-240 or cycle 50-60 by Sony that was far superior to my old Radio Shack one that I think is now broken.
I left Tan and continued by skytrain back to the WBU to meet Vivek. The reception we had been invited to was at 6:30pm so we cooled our heels in a juice bar next to the skytrain entrance and talked. The reception was at a fancy hotel near a skytrain stop. We arrived half an hour early so we killed some time looking at appliances in a store reflecting on the attraction of material goods. Vivek informed me the power was so unreliable in Ladukh that power surges would generally destroy most appliances there without some kind of protection. Computers need UPS supplies to be safe.
We had to go through metal detectors before the reception and have our bags inspected. Sri Lankan events I guess are at risk of being disrupted by the Tamils. We formally greeting our guests and signed a guest book. Once inside I felt very underdressed compared to all the dignitaries in their power suits. To make myself look acceptable, I got out my camera and took pictures when the embassador spoke. Vivek was good at striking up conversation with people. We met at delightful fellow who is the director of the Chamber of Commerce. He told us about his spiritual adventures and was very friendly. Vivek commented his appreciation in comparison to the Indian dignitaries who wouldn't have given him the time of day. Towards the end a woman came up to me and asked if I would take some pictures for the embassador. Evidently the official photographers had left and they still wanted a few pictures.
This time at the end of the skytrain I hailed a cab to get home. But he didn't speak any English so I tried to communicate by writing down my destination. At each turn he instructed me in the right way to give instructions to the driver in Thai (or at least I think that is what he was doing).
Because I waited to the last minute to decide to fly to Chiang Rai, I couldn't get a ticket. I'd have to show up at the airport and hope I could get a seat. The flight was at 6:40am so I'd have to get the cab at 5:00am. I went to bed hoping that a cab would indeed come at that time to pick me up as Mem was in bed. Tor said he'd take care of it.
The cab did indeed come at 4:30am. I was ready as I had gotten up at 4:00am and showered so I'd be fresh for the trip. When we got to the main road the cab stopped and encouraged me to get out and take a ride in another cab. I guess Tor had also ordered one for me and the one Mem ordered had more seniority or something.
I was able to get a ticket (at a 500 baat premium). The seating for Air Asia is like Southwest, unreserved. This kind of seating brings out the worst in people as they jockey for a place in line so they can get the best seat. Thankfully I got an aisle seat and didn't have anyone next to me.
When I arrived I got ready to call my host when someone behind me said, "Sam?" He had a sign with my name I'd not seen as I exited. Dr. Intralawan had taken the day off to come pick me up and show me around Chiang Rai. At 78, he is still seeing patients on a part time basis at the hospital he used to serve as director.
We went to the accommodations they had arranged for me, the Golden Triangle Inn. This area is known as the Golden Triangle because of the opium growing and trading done in this area. It has a reputation as an outlaw region though today it is pretty peaceful. The border with China isn't too far away through Laos so the region has influence from here as well. This area still has indigneous peoples somewhat untouched by the modern world. One of the popular things to do is to trek through the hills and see these villages. I'm ambivalent about whether to do this or not. Feels strange to gawk at them.
Dr. Intralawan dropped me off and let me rest from my trip. At 11:00am, He returned with his wife Dr. Pensri Intralawan. She also is a doctor and continues to work as a pediatrician. We drove around town, stopped to see the locally famous Wat Phra Kaew, then went to a very nice hotel for a buffet lunch of local foods as well as spagetti and sushi. After lunch we drove along the Mae Kok river to a little village that sold local crafts. I was surprised to see elephants walking down the street. We walked down to the river and saw a dozen elephants saddled up and ready to go. Elephant unemployment has been a big problem as logging has been restricted. Their use in tourism has been one solution to give them and their mahouts jobs.
We returned to town then drove south to Phayao where the Intralawan's have a house by a lake. It was a long drive, probably longer than I was ready for given the state of my head. My cold had started the day before but the traveling had made it worse. Now I was starting to feel achy and tired.
We visited their beautiful home modeled on an alpine design that had inspired them in Switzerland. Then they got out the photo albums of the family and their trip across America. The sun was setting as we returned to Chiang Rai and so was my energy level. We had planned to go to the night market but I just didn't have the energy so they brought me home and I crashed into bed.
This morning I'm feeling much better and just touring the town. I'll have more to say in a future post.
Saturday, February 04, 2006
48 hours at the Beach
From Chaiya, I traveling 2nd class to Ban Krut to stay for a couple of nights at the beach. 2nd class means you get a reserved seat that reclines and get some food service. Unfortunately the windows had a metal mesh in the glass that prevented me from seeing much outside the train. Not the all windows down 3rd class experience. This concerned me since I wouldn't know when we arrived at the station. Thankfully this train was running on time and had few stops. I'd had some chicken with basil in the train station (very hot!) thinking I wouldn't get any food. What a delight to get a airline style meal of rice and two entrees, one very spicy and the other mild and sweet. The meal finished with several sweet dates in syrup.
Mem had arranged for me to stay at the Bayview resort on the beach. A pickup truck came to pick me up. I registered and was led to my little bungalow where I dropped my luggage and walked down to the beach. The resort sits right on the edge of the beach so it was only a few steps and I was watching the waves on the mostly empty beach lined on both sides with coconut trees. The resort has a beautiful pool, open air restaurant (of course) and Internet access. I new I'd be comfortable here.
We passed a large Wat on the top of a lone hill at the end of the beach so I decided to walk down to see if there was a path up to it. This turned in to a much longer walk than I anticpated. It took me about 45 minutes to get to the end of the beach before I decided I just better turn around and come back. I maybe passed at most five people on the entire walk. On that stretch of beach there were only maybe three smallish resorts interspersed with lots of coconut trees. I decided to save the Wat for the next day.
Once back I ordered fried squid and got a whole fried fish instead. Thankfully it was quite tastely. Since I hadn't had a proper shower in three days, I made this my first priority after food. As my evening entertainment, I outlined my talk for the World Buddhist University on Sunday.
The next morning I woke up before sunrise, meditated and went out to the beach while it was still dark. I noticed lots of shells on the beach and started combing them finding a number of very attractive ones. A number of others were out to greet the sun too, from a bus tour of young male and female Thais. I found out later this bus load came from one factory that sends employees down for a holiday together, I guess teambuilding or a productivity reward or something. The men mostly seemed to hang out together as did the women.
Breakfast came with the room and was delicious - fried rice and noodles, egg, ham, sausage, salads, toast and many different sauces and toppings to try. One food I haven't seen here is dry cereal or oatmeal. The orange juice tastes more like orangeade.
For my trip to the temple, I thought I'd rent a bike but all either had broken spokes, brake problems or flat tires. I decided I'd just walk which took about 45 minutes. I borrowed a hat as the sun gets pretty intense pretty fast. The wat has two parts, a huge Buddha statue I encountered first then further up the hill the temple I'd seen from the beach.
Wadtangsai Pagoda (Pramahatart Chedi Pakdepragard) was built in honor of King Rama IX's 50th year of rule at the cost of something like 500,000,000 baat (about 12 million dollars). It has gold Buddhas all over the place, many wall paintings, stain glass, a large hall for instruction. Needless to say it's beautiful. I hope to put up a photo display later - check back in March or April.
By the time I'd walked back I was pooped. In the morning before breakfast I'd had a swim in the ocean. The water temperature is maybe 82 F - just about perfect. To cool off after my walk I tried the pool which was a little cooler and quite refreshing. Then an afternoon nap - what a life!
In the late afternoon I got serious about organizing my WBU talk, breaking for a little dinner before spending about a total of 5 hours preparing notes. I had just enough paper for the number of pages I expected the talk to take. I hope this be will not be too long!
The evening entertainment for the young Thais was karayoke singing. When I completed my work, I drifted over to watch some from the restaurant while enjoying a Singha beer. Karayoke is similar here as the US but of course I didn't recognize any of the songs or the moves the singers made that drew cheers from the crowd. I saw all men singing but later found out that women do too. This went on a little longer than I would have liked so I listened to some MP3 files and watched a little TV before falling asleep.
Once again I was up at 4:00am, legacy I suppose of Suan Mouk. I meditated for an hour then decided to take a walk in the dark back to the pagoda and watch the sun rise at the feet of the 20 foot outdoor Buddha statue. The moonless night was dark but there was enough light from houses and outdoor lighting to make my way. What I hadn't encountered on my first trip were the number of houses with barking dogs who didn't like humans to be sneaking around at night. I passed one house and a pack of five or six all came out to tell my my presence was unwelcome on their side of the street.
When I finally made it up to the Buddha statue, I was greeted by two more dogs, this time with licks and wagging tails. I I found a seat and faced east into the harbor. What I noticed were the number of boats chugging out slowly to fish, their engines disturbing the quiet.
The sunrise happened in various stages and tints. There seemed to be two phases of pinks and oranges. The first phase of pink and orange dissipated as the horizon lightened to a hazy white. First there was a wave of mosquitoes (thankfully I'd brought repellent) then flies buzzing around. I was the only person there with the two dogs laying sleepily a couple of steps away. What surprised me was how impatient I became waiting for the sun to come up. Finally a sliver of orange light appeared on the horizon and I relaxed. Yes, the sun would rise today. All's right with the solar system.
As I walked down the hill, I heard many new bird calls and saw some I'd never seen before. On the walk back only one dog noticed me and gave a single bark. Dogs have expectations and habits too.
After breakfast I called Philomena and had a nice chat with her at 6 baat a minute. I Danish fellow I'd met the day before was in the same room and had overheard my conversation with Philomena about our laptop problems. He is married to the sister of one of the owners. He was there enjoying 9 months of maturity leave from his job. It was wonderful to get his insiders view of the community and Thai culture.
So my short stay began to come to an end. I'm off to the train station to take the 6 hour trip back to Bangkok. Tomorrow I'll give my talk and we'll see what happens!
As I drove in, I noticed a beautiful Wat on top of a hill near the resort.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Suan Mok for a Day
I almost got off the train at the wrong station because I saw Chaiya on a sign out the window of the train. The train stations have signs that include the previous, current and next station on the signs. Traveling is a constant education process as everything is new and unexpected.
In Chaiya, I saw a nun dressed in white getting off the train, I thought she might be going the direction I wanted to go so I followed her to a westerner talking to a sawngthaew driver. A Sawngthaew is a pick up truck with two rows of seats in the back. This is a cheap and common way for people to get around town. The driver directed us to another sawngthaew that would be going out to Suan Mok monestary. A ten day retreat was starting today and I thought I'd see if I could just stay for a day to get the feeling of the place. I shared the ride out with an American man from the Seattle area who had been traveling from one meditation retreat to the next and a woman from Toronto and one from Sweden. The two women had bought light foam matresses which should have given me a warning about what I was getting myself in for. It didn't.
When we arrived (after negotiating with the driver for an extra 15 baat to take us all the way to the center rather than dropping us and making us walk 2 km to get in. The sign in the open air dining hall said full but when I asked they had room for two more men. I hurried to register as the orientation would begin in 30 minutes. I didn't have a chance to check in to my room so I left my luggage in the office connected to the dining hall and walked to the meditation hall (also open air with just a roof and concrete floor).
The general orientation was followed by a boundary tour around the perimeter of the center. The center has five meditation halls, a dining hall, two large dorms one for men and one for women that each house about 60 people each. There are also separate hot springs for both men and women, an unexpected treat for a meditation center. Two meditation halls were reserved for walking meditation (men and women separated again). Men and women were also separated in the meditation hall and the dining hall. One could almost spend the whole retreat with the opposite sex and never be very close at all if one is careful with one's eyes. My experience on the bus gave me an appreciation for the benefit of keeping men and women far apart if the goal of the retreat was to look within.
I hustled back after the tour to pick up my bags and go to my room. I was on the second floor where only three rooms where located. When I opened my room it was clear it probably hadn't been used for a year or longer. I swept out two hand sized spiders and looked at my cell. There was a wooden platform with a thin straw mat, a plastic chair and a table with a dirty cloth covering. These accommodations were about as simple as they get, not as nice probably as a prison cell in the USA. After returning to watch a video about the founder of the center, Ven. Buddhadasa, I found out what else went with my room: mosquito netting and a thin blanket. As the temperature was in the 90's I thought maybe the blanket wouldn't be too useful but I put it under me for sleeping and found that small amount of cloth very helpful. I didn't get a pillow as monks use a wooden block with a cutout for the head. I also found out that there would be no electricity except from 4:00am - 4:30am when we would be getting up and from 9:00pm-9:30pm when we'd be going to sleep. I didn't bring a flashlight. Made me remember all the times I've teased Philomena about her concern about having a flashlight. Now I wished I'd heeded her concern.
In my hurry to go to orientation, I'd dumped everything in my hands into my bag. When I was unpacking in my room, I realized I didn't have my passport. Nothing disturbs the mind of someone trying to calm the mind than worrying what happened to my passport, how this would affect my other plans and how to replace it if I needed to do that.
Sitting on concrete again with a very thin pad and an uncomfortable cushion made me realize this wasn't going to be the 5 star experience I'd had at Forest Refuge in Barre, MA. The meditation hall was lit with candles as we began the retreat and got basic instructions in meditation. Then to bed.
I decided to wash off the sweat from the day before retiring to my cell. I realized I also didn't bring my towel. But I did have the foresight to bring some soap. Around a round waist high pool of water about 5 feet in diameter were plastic bowls. Around the inner boundary of the square courtyard the rooms opened onto was a narrow trench that I almost fell into in the dark. I scooped water into the plastic bowl and dowsed my head with water and lathered up. Since it was pretty hot, I figured I really didn't need a towel.
Rigging mosquito netting for the first time was another adventure since I didn't know what it would look like until I figured out that it was rectangular and I'd need to attach it to a string running across the middle of the room as well as the wall. I took off all my clothes and lay on the hard bed wondering if I'd get any sleep at all. I decided to use the time to meditate as best I could. Whether I slept or not is hard to tell. In the middle of the night I needed to urinate pretty badly. This created a bit of a challenge as I'd not been to the toilets yet and was unsure about what was where. Since it was pitch black outside, I decided the best I could do is find my way to where I thought the toilets were. I didn't find them but I did find the trench and decided this was the best I'd be able to do for tonight. I repeated this procedure twice worrying I might step on a scorpion or a centipede in the dark.
At 4:00am I was ready to get up and away from this torture device. Our first sitting in the dark was delightful followed by yoga led by a German fellow named Reinhart (again sexes separated). Breakfast was a grain and vegetable soup with cabbage a green plant that looked like basil but didn't taste like it and a stubby banana. Everyone waited till all were served before we started to eat. I checked to see if my passport had turned up and it had. They didn't give it to me but told me I'd get it at the end of the retreat... in 11 days.
Since I didn't have a job, arriving after they had all been signed up for, I decided to do my laundry next to the same round pool and then take a rest. Being the first day of the retreat, there was a lot of instruction about everything and not a lot of sitting silently. The abbot Aachan Po greeted us in a very soft voice speaking slow carefully pronounced words. Much of the instruction was written and delivered by mostly Thai people again reading carefully with thick accents.
Monks gave us formal instruction in meditation in the afternoon. This was helpful because he explained the basic meditation of watching long and short breaths in a way that I'd never heard it before. The goal of noticing long and short breaths leads naturally to deeped concentration that naturally leads to longer breaths and that leads to deepened concentration and relaxation. I'd never seen before just how from the beginning the whole process of meditation unfolds naturally and spontaneously if you apply just the right amount of energy to awareness of just what is happening with each breath. This insight was worth all the discomfort.
I thought this was the dry season but the sky opened up and deluged the center several times. Reinhart had encouraged us to try going barefoot and since I didn't have any sandals (another oversight) I did. I discovered my feet were very soft. But better to slog through the puddles barefoot than get my feet wet.
Lunch gave me a sense of what my problems would be doing a retreat here. The food was unlabeled in big containers. I wasn't sure what I was eating and that isn't good for someone with digestive problems. One of the dishes with some curry disagreed with me right away.
In the afternoon, my meditation was disturbed by worrying about how to tell them I wouldn't be staying for the entire retreat. When registering I hadn't told them I wanted to just stay for one day because I was afraid they wouldn't let me. I couldn't sneak out because they locked us in at night at 9:30pm. And they had my passport. I thought about all the excuses and the problems I was having with the retreat. Then I realized I'd need to tell the truth and apologize for my deception. At 6:00pm tea (no food) I spoke with the staff and they explained I could leave the next morning at 7:00am. This would be when everyone was in the meditation hall and no one would see me with my bags leaving.
My evening meditation was difficult as my mind wandered and wouldn't stay on the breath. I was glad that I could leave but also concerned with how I'd get into town the next morning (about 8 km away). I started feeling like a failure as a meditator. I couldn't find a good sitting position with the equipment available. My pride wouldn't let me stand up or shift my position too much. Our final walking meditation was done in a row around one of the meditation halls due to the wet weather. What helped was remembering I was tired from lack of sleep and my energy was flagging. Hard as it is, I have limits too. I know if I stayed longer, my mind and body would settle down.
Bed time was better this night when I had to get up to urinate as I knew where the toilet was and I used my palm as a flashlight. The screen emits enough light to see where I was going.
Was it worth it to come to this retreat for just a day? I think it was. Seeing how my meditation practice is taught in another country is quite valuable. It's quite an experience to sit with meditators from all over the world drawn to the same place to learn the same practice. We did Pali chanting together that connected with the Pali I've been learning from the Metta chant we did at the Forest Refuge. Chanting Pali gives me an appreciation for Jews holding on to hebrew all those years. Pali is thought to be the language the Buddha spoke so you feel like you are hearing the actual words the Buddha spoke.
Still, if I came back, I'd bring a mattress and pillow.