First day at Wat Pah Nanachat, International Thai Forest Monastery

At 5 I leave the hotel and head over to the Monastery. As I’m walking down the road I’m filled with last second doubts. I feel like I’ve already made a mistake by forgetting a padlock and my pants feel like they’re too tight. I make a turn down the last side road heading to the gates and try my best to forget about it, there’s nothing I can do about it now. As I’m walking down the road I see some monks heading the opposite direction, going on what looks like their alms round. I’m not sure if I should greet them or not, so I just look and smile and the first two break the silence and ask where I’m from and then to keep going into the gates.

I walk down a long paved path, just past the gate, before getting to a sort of round about and a few scattered buildings. I see the main meditation room, so I head for there. When I get in the room I see a few monks, one sitting on the stage at the front. I look at him and smile and nod. I’m hoping that they tell me something about where to go or what to do. When no one says anything I look back at him again and wait for a second and then keep walking until I leave the building. Still, he’s said nothing to me. Oh great, he’s probably thinking I’m not going to help this tight panted kid who just walked all over our sacred floor. I really wish he had been more helpful. I walk back out to the roundabout and then just sit on a bench and wait. I’m not sure where I can or can’t go, so I’ll wait for someone who’s a bit more helpful to come by. Some people dressed in regular clothes talk to me a little bit and some are unloading things from their car and I ask if I can help, but it’s not needed. Then some older man comes up to talk to me in Thai and asks if I’ve been here for long. I try to tell him I just got here, in Lao, which is pretty close, but I’m interrupted by a monk who just came over to my left. The monk tells me to go over to the Guest Monk’s office and wait there for my instructions on the next steps.

He tells me this is a special day and the schedule will be the meal next, then visiting Wat Nong Pah Bong (Ajahn Chah’s main monastery) and then back to the monastery for the rest of the day. Before the meal I try to stand around and help set things up, but I think I just end up looking awkward because I can’t find anything I can help with. The food is quite extensive will all kind of homemade dishes, fresh fruit, drinks, and desserts. Go to the main meditation hall, or sala, and chant before leavin for the meal. I follow the other lay guests who are dressed in all white like I am and we sit on mats to wait for the monks to finish getting their food. Then, we get up and go down the line of food. I fill my, giant, bowl to the top with all kinds wonderful things. Then, back at the mat two of the lay guests come over with a mango-Jackfruit smoothie. Yeah, this is a really hard life at the monastery, I’m not sure how I’m going to make it. I get down most of the way through the bowl and start to feel really full. I don’t ever like to throw food away, so I power through some more before stopping in fear of being sick on my first day. I could see being around 100 monks at the other monastery and throwing up all over their sacred statue or something.

After the meal we all go out to meet by the roundabout. I get in the back of the van with the other lay guests and we’re joined by some guys with white robes and the orange/brown robed monks. I’ve seen these cars filled with monks driving around and now it feels strange to actually be in the car apart of their “group”.

We go in the big meditation hall of the other monastery and there must be 200 monks here. All kinds of people are entering and sitting at different levels from each other. When a new high ranked monk comes in big groups of people get up on their knees and bow three times. This keeps happening, until some one grabs the microphone and says a lot of things in Thai I don’t understand. Then everyone is chanting for quite a long time, so I just close my eyes and listen to the melodic rhythm. Then, everyone gets up and goes to these large wooden dragons to pour water down one end, which pours it over big stone hands on the other end. Apparently this is done every New Year, in order to celebrate washing away the old and starting with the new. I go to pour mine in, but see an ant drowning in the water of the cup. One of the precepts is to not kill anything, so I franticly try and get it out of the water. The line is moving anyway and there’s all kinds of commotion. I’m totally panicked now, ready kill the ant and move on. Finally, I get it out and get the water poured into the damn dragon. Now, my people are gone and I’m trying to fight back up the stream of people to put the cup back where I guess it should go. I make it back out of the temple and take deep breath. I’m over the throwing up, now just trying not to have a nervous break down on my first day. This is certainly more hectic than I expected with a stay at a Buddhist monastery. We all drive back to the temple.

I meet with the Guest Monk again for a longer meeting about all the rules and what to expect for my stay. We sit down on a nice wooden deck off closer to the forest area and some guy brings up apple juice. I’m really not getting what’s so hard about this whole thing. I feel very pampered so far, to say the least. We have a long discussion about what to do, expect, cultural things to watch out for, and some other basic logistics. Apparently I’m initially accepted for 3 days here and then I will meet with him again for a check in to see the interest for my extension is mutual. Then, after 7 days they ask the lay guests to shave their heads and eyebrows. He takes my information in my passport and I fill out some forms. I’m pretty sure this is the only monastery in Thailand that had you fill out a form. I guess that’s what I get coming to an international community. We also notice that on the visa, the guy gave me 30 days, instead of the standard 15, when crossing by land. That means that I get to stay a few extra days. The Guest Monk says that’s fine and a few extra day extension is completely up to me. I ask him some questions about how to bow and when to sit in certain positions at certain times. I walk around the 150 acre property and decide to leave my shoes behind. There are sections with palm sized rounded rocks that press into every part of my foot. Then there are paths where the rocks are much smaller and sharper.

I head back to the dormitory and try to do some sitting meditation, but quickly get discouraged. At 4:30 everyday there’s an evening tea time. We’re only allowed to eat once a day, but I suppose there are some small heal food snacks, like ginger or dark chocolate, that are alright to serve at tea time.

I haven’t accomplished anything yet with my spiritual practice, but I feel a bit lighter already. I’m not sure if it was my mediation attempt, the peaceful atmosphere in the forest, or that I’m finally in the midst of something I’ve wanted to do for about a year and a half. Probably a combination of all three. Then, we have a group meditation for an hour and chanting for an hour. Because of the holiday there are a lot of lay guests from outside the monastery here with us. After about 30 minutes, my right leg starts to bark at me, but nothing too bad. I think what would be the 45 minute mark my leg pain gets much worse. From all my studying of Buddhism, I’ve heard this can be a good thing if tested with the wisdom that the pain is just superficial and not something preventing me from injury. I don’t have a watch, so I’d guess at about 50-55 minutes, my body starts to shake like how it does when I get cold and shiver from the core of my body. I’m trying to make the pain the core of my focus, but it’s really difficult. I start flashing to my motivation and pump up songs to keep me going with only a few minutes left. I can tell that I’m breaking through some kind of mental wall because the pain is the same or maybe even a little less, but the shakes are getting worse. I fight all the way through the meditation until I hear a bell. No breakthrough the mental wall, but I felt like I got really close to hitting a big breakthrough. From there, we go into an hour of chanting. The chanting is done in a whole different posture, so now it’s starting to hurt a whole different part. This is much easier though because I’m able to switch between my legs on the right and left side.

Next, we go to a darma talk given by one of the senior monks. He starts the talk with a guided meditation about scanning the body. Then he goes on and talks a bit about something that I couldn’t pay much attention to. The tone of his voice sounds like he’s talking about his taxes and not about spiritual awakening. He opens up for questions, but everyone is in a stupor, so there aren’t any. We finish the darma talk around 10:30 and now there’s evening open time (sleep for most) until a midnight tea session and then the morning chanting and mediation at 4:00. Only some of the lay guests and monastics will actually stay up all night.

Feeling inspired still to be here, I go to the main sala to continue to practice. I want to at least make it until midnight and see how I feel then. I get to the point where I think I might be near wearing out my body too much. It is the first day after all. I acknowledge starting off on a good foot the first day and then head back to the dormitory to go to sleep. I’m in a screened in area, so I didn’t worry about setting up a mosquito net before. That was the wrong thing to do because I can head the mosquitos flying close to my head. I try to swat at them, but they’re aggressive like hungry flies and almost are back at my head before I’m all the way through the swat. I go over to look for a mosquito net, but they’re all taken. I think the lay guests staying downstairs by the kitchen took them all. There is one there that is kind of broken, so I take that. It doesn’t open up to cover my whole body, so I have to curl my body up to fit and then with no more mosquitos feeding on my head, I quickly pass out.

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