Busy Alms Round, The “Mindfulness Look”, and a Long Dharma Talk

Today is Friday, day 7. Normal routine, up at 2:40, chanting, meditation, and sweeping. It’s still baffling me at how I’m not even a little bit tired. I expected it in the beginning from all the excitement and change, but after a week I expected it to subside a bit… Maybe that’s soon to come.

On alms round today, in the very beginning of the round the Ajahn turns around and says something about giving merit today. I’m not sure what he means so I just stand there. Their bowls aren’t full, so I’m not sure what’s going on. The junior monks tell me to go up to the front of the line and collect the food. This is the first time I’ve collected their food from their bowls, so I’m a bit nervous and not sure what to do exactly. It seems quite simple, but I don’t want to break a rule by having a real human engagement and actually make eye contact and smile at them. Sorry, that’s not fair… Okay, maybe a little bit. I grabbed a giant black trash bag, actually larger then the nicer looking bag it’s sitting in and so now I’m standing in front of the ajahn, trying to pull the black bag up to the top equal with the other bag. I think the food is supposed to go into the plastic bag, that’s something I heard the other lay guests talking about from their alms rounds. I try to open both bags, but the opening is so small he can barely fit one item at a time. Normally, they just turn their bowls over and dump the stuff out. He starts to load the stuff faster and a piece of fruit doesn’t quite make it in the hole, so I grab it from him and try to put it in at the same time as holding the bag open. Well, since I haven’t meditated long enough to grow a third arm, I don’t hold the bag open enough for him or myself to add more food. I sort of toss the fruit where the hole is and like one of Shaq’s free throws it bricks hard and starts heading for the ground. I didn’t hear anything about this rule, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be banished straight to hell if I drop offered food on alms round. I snap into baseball instinct and drop the bag with my other hand to catch the fruit at the last second before it hits the ground. Then, I realize that the strap is going across my chest, so I shift it to go over one shoulder and then can open the bag enough to get the rest of the food from the Ajahn. We’ve taken so long to get the food out, it’s now alms round for the next day. I get a better hand of getting the food with the next monks down the line and then get back behind them in total embarrassment. We continue and they don’t tell me to go home, so I don’t think I’ve totally failed. Then as we continue some people give flowers out and they’re passed down the line to me. How the hell am I going to fit flowers in with my bag and not crush them!? I’m trying to keep pace with them which changes drastically because by the time the last guy is done collecting the food he walks like Flash to catch up with the rest and if I miss that que then I’m left in the dust. Now I’m trying to shove 3 bouquets of flowers into my bag without totally destroying all the leaves. As half the flower petals are being dumped on the floor I look up and realize that I missed Flash before he took off again. I’m trying not to run, but I’m walking as fast as I can with both of my feet always on the ground. I think a big purpose of the monks coming around on alms round is to be a living example of patience and mindfulness, but with me practically running behind them, sweaty, destroying the flower offerings, and as red as a tomato, I think I’ve reversed any of their lessons for the local people. The bad part of having a bald head is that when I’m flushed, my whole head is red and stands out quite a bit since the Lao and Thai people I’ve seen don’t really have that reaction. By the end of the round I start to get the hang of things and walk up to the front of the line when I see flowers and after the person puts them on a wooden chopping board, held by the Ajahn, he rotates and lets me pick them off. We finish the alms round and go back into the monastery. I’m surprised I don’t get any lectures from any of them.

I continue to practice with getting only a little food. I get still much less than I did yesterday and fill my bowl with fruits. It’s mango season, so they’re delicious. It’s only the beginning, so they’re better ones to come! It’s hard not to just fill my bowl with those. After the meal I go to the guest monk and ask him about techniques to relax my body. From all of this meditation, I’ve been noticing places in my body where I’ve been holding tension just as a normal habit. Now that it’s being revealed to me, it’s quite daunting. I do feel good knowing that I’m at least aware though. I know that’s the first step and the only way to deal with a big issue like that is to take small persistent steps, so I’ll keep doing that the rest of the time here and hopefully after I’m back in the work world again. He gives me a few tips like taking deep breaths and using the body scan meditation, but nothing that I didn’t know about. I also ask him about what the Ajahn had said about making merit on the alms round. He said that was the way of the Ajahn making a joke that he wanted me to gain merit by holding food for the monks. I’m a bit shocked and certainly grateful, but I think that the best way for generosity to come is from the person’s heart, not it just being done for them by someone else. Or maybe that was his way of making merit as well. Either way, I’ll pick up on that better next time.

The rest of the morning and after noon is pretty normal. While I’m sweeping the main Ajahn walks by me and I look at him from a distance and then look again to acknowledge him again as he passes by. It feels so awkward to even do that, which is honestly the way I feel when I see most of the monks around the monastery. I know it’s important to develop constant mindfulness and part of that is through walking meditation, where the person concentrates solely on the felling between their feet and the earth, or just on their breath, (either one is really just up to their preference) but genuine human interaction trumps that for me. I understand sometime people are in the zone, or just don’t feel like greeting the person they’re passing. Even just a head nod or smile is fine enough, there’s no need to break noble silence or any other rules. The problem here is that someone has established this kind of “in your bubble” lack of interaction as the norm here and it really rubs me the wrong way. I couldn’t imagine if these people were to live in Antoa, my village in Ghana, for a week. They would be eaten alive if they didn’t make the people around them the first priority. I suppose that something that’s really beautiful that I took from Ghana that I keep appreciating more and more, even though I despised it on certain days when I was there. This whole atmosphere is just another point that is shifting my thinking to this not being the place where I want to spend a significant time trying to foster my spiritual growth. Right when you thought I’m done with my rant, I have one other thing! He also walked by with a poop face on. I call it a poop face, but basically looks like someone just smelled something really bad, with their face all tense, especially around the eyes, with hint of a frown. It’s bad enough that he’s not happy or at peace, but he’s totally tense while he’s trying to look in the midst of practice. This is only a stand in Ajahn for the Abbot, but this is not the only person in a leadership position with this habit. I can also already see it influencing some of the less experienced guys as well. I’m was hoping for someone, like Ajahn Chah, who has conviction with their practice enough to inspire me to try and bring the best out of myself. Okay, I’m done with the rant, but don’t relax too much, I’ll always have more ranting to come.

At tea time we have a special guest join us at the very top of the sitting hierarchy. He’s a very old monk, who I find out later is someone who studied directly under Ajahn Chah. His name is Ajahn Liem and he’s here to give news to the guys here who are ready to ordain as novice monks in the beginning of May. He’s quite entertaining to watch actually because he says so little and mostly just grunts at people and waves his hands at them when they ask him a question. He looks quite peaceful, or at least more so than the teachers here.

It’s the Buddhist holy day (new moon) so we do one hour of meditation, instead of 30 minutes in the evening, and an hour of chanting. I chicken out again during the meditation and get up. I get up because of the pain in my legs, but probably more so because of the mental agitation. It’s really difficult to face two different types of really intense pain at the same time along with part of my habitual self is telling me not to let go of the tightness I’m holding onto. I’d have to say this process is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever tried. I think like I said earlier, it’s not easy in the beginning, like most skills as they’re built from the beginner levels up to more complicated ones. No this is extremely complicated and distressful right from the get go.

During the chanting I sit in the Japanese position on my shins for a new record amount of time, but really feel it afterward. Then, we get up to go to a Dharma talk with one of the other Ajahns. I guess this guy is from Australia and ordained there before coming to stay here in Thailand. I don’t know why, but he gives me a bad feeling. He just seems to me like one of those people who is too proud of themselves and isn’t hungry to learn or do more. Maybe it’s also because I’ve caught him at times when he did things in not so teacherly ways with nervous twitches or shortcuts in his work. He starts the talk at 9:15 with a basic overview of Buddhism, which is always a nice thing to keep in mind. I’m always a fan of building the foundations first. However, he keeps going and going and only hitting on the painfully obvious things that everyone has already heard a million times. He also does it in such a scatter brained way, that there’s no way to take any lesson from it all. There’s a monk at the front sitting facing sideways, toward the Ajahn. I can see the left side of his body and the Ajahn sees his front. He keeps drifting off to sleep and leaning in different directions. I can’t help but be distracted because of the lack of motivation from the speaker. The sleepy monk starts to dip and catch him self and ends up going in a circle and looks like he’s doing some really strange dance. I have to try my best to keep the laughter down inside. It’s especially funny because one of the rules here is no dancing. Okay, I’m focused back on the talk and he’s really not pronouncing his words very well. With most of the people listening speaking English as their second language, I can’t imagine they’re picking up on any of this, not that they’re missing much anyway. Then he starts to figit his robe and at one point leans back on his arms to support him. I feel like he’s totally thrown everything about the strength of being a monk out the door. I would hope for him to be totally upright and so focused on the talk that he’s just oozing out the words from his being. I guess I just wish it was a bit more natural and in the flow of the practice. We stop at 10:30 and the people behind me start to get up, but the more experienced guys in front of me stay seated and wait for the Ajahn to get up first. I guess that’s a rule. He opens up the floor to questions and thinks that no one raising their hands is an invitation to ramble some more. Now I’m getting the idea that maybe he’s testing us. I’ve read about experiences where Ajahn Chah would do this, so maybe it’s a test. I’ll play along and test my patience a little bit. He starts asking more and more pointless questions, which is also against the basic precepts of living here with talking little and keeping it to necessary discussion. He keeps going and going until from the original group of about 15 it’s just now me and two packows. These two are the ones who will be ordaining in May if they stick around. He finally gives in and gets up out of his seat. It’s 12:00 AM now, so we walk over to the midnight tea session for those who will stay up all night. I finally make my way to bed at 1:30. I’m not feeling up for staying up all night with some of the really dedicated lay people.

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