Eating for Pleasure, Funeral, and Packow Steven from Philly

Today is Thursday, day 13. I’m on the regular schedule, up at 2:40 again. There’s the usual chanting and meditation as well, so I don’t have to worry about practicing on my own. I talk to one of the packows about taking his alms round, but he hesitantly maybe gives it to me because it’s his only form of exercise. I’ve seen him without his shirt on and exercise is the last thing he needs. He should be looking for a cheeseburger or a piece of cake instead. At the last minute before his alms round he comes over and as if he completely forgot our conversation asks where I’m going. I tell him to take my bag and go on his alms round. I think I’m just mostly confused more than anything, but take the opportunity of more free time and go back to my kuti to meditate some more.

At the meal today, I’m set again on only eating a little bit. I grab lots of vegetables, some carbs for energy, and some cookie things for dessert. We do some chanting right before we eat and it talks about not eating the food for beautification, fattening, or pleasure. I think the first two are related and come from a long time ago any way. The one about pleasure is still a struggle for me because I love food so much. I don’t eat food in a gross excess, but I do really enjoy having good food, like I think most people in the US do. That’s not really the same for people in Ghana or Laos. They are picky about their certain dishes, but I think they eat more to be full than to savor and enjoy their dishes. I should have been Italian where we would eat 17 courses for lunch, drink some wine, and then sleep most of the afternoon. Now that sounds like a practice I can follow. Then when the guys come to bring the smoothie they say there’s a surprise today with the meal. They say that the monks decided to bring this out and then show us a bowl full of all kind of different chocolates. We’ve had chocolate at tea time before, but it was 100% cacao and didn’t taste like even a bit sweet. These were all milk chocolate, some white, and some with nuts. The part of the chanting about eating for pleasure is ringing in my head, but I still go for it because I didn’t make the rules and technically the leaders here are the ones who initiated the chocolate. Then I start to think about it a bit more. Why are they passing around the chocolate like this and what kind of a lesson is this supposed to provide. This really bothered me, so I’ve mentioned it to my family a few times right after I got back and a few of them told me in a jokingly way that this might have been a test and I just failed making it into their secret society. That’s funny to think about, but hey I’m in the middle of a rant here, no humor! I would agree if I hadn’t seen their gluttony come out during tea time when some of the guys with have three cups of tea, a soda, and two juice boxes. Tea time only lasts an hour and we generally get up at about 45 minutes. Drinking all that in 45 minutes has to be overconsumption and especially drinking all the sugary stuff has to be doing it for pleasure. So, I’m sure they took some chocolate for themselves. A few days ago we had a bunch of young novices, who were in some kind of spiritual summer camp, come to visit the monastery. I think that would have been the PERFECT time to bring out the chocolate. I bet those young kids would have gone wild. Maybe some of them would have even learned some important lessons of generosity, I know I would have and probably even some of the monks here. Instead, we saved it for ourselves and broke a few of the basic precepts that we chant, literally right before eating that stuff. I wish I didn’t sound so bitter, but I can’t help to analyze the leadership here, and if they don’t want to follow a rule, then change it! Okay, rant over, I’ll let the humor seep back in, but only a little bit, I feel more rants bubbling!

Either way the chocolate is delicious and I’m grateful for the lay people bringing such good quality sweets in for us to enjoy. I know I’m certainly enjoying them, guilt free. After the meal, I go to the guest monk to ask him about continuing to study meditation where I live in Luang Prabang. I will still do it on my own, but it will help a lot to find some kind of teaching or group practice. Before I ask him I think about my night in Pakse before my plane leaves and instead I ask him if the know of any monasteries over there I can stay that night. I want to continue my practice and avoid the extra costs of hotel and food if possible. The Ajahn with the glasses comes over and we all three sit down as the one with the glasses calls some people for me. They set up with one Ajahn in a place about an hour from Pakse, the boarder town in Laos I will stay in before my plane leaves to go to that airport back to Luang Prabang. He confirms my stay and now I’m set to continue my adventure with a nice surprise at the end. Okay, maybe I like him a little better now…

At 2:00 there’s a funeral procession for a woman who has been a supporter of the monastery since it was first founded in 1970 something. There’s actually even a corner of the monastery meant for just this type of thing. I go a bit early to make sure I have a good seat. The procession comes in with people walking and holding a string attached to the grill of a truck which is being driven with the woman’s casket in the bed of the truck. They bring it around to these two sets of brick stairs that lead from opposite directions into the same point with about a 4 foot gap in the middle. The middle gap is filled with logs of wood. They put her on top and then hand everyone some kind of paper origami thing. The monastic community go up to the body first. The lay guests follow the packows and when it’s my turn I make sure to get a good look at her face before putting the thing down in the coffin. That’s the second dead person I’ve seen up so close. It’s much less strange than seeing Moma Fausty in Antoa, right after I had been talking with her a few weeks before. That was an experience I’ll never forget. I also saw a dead body, from a distance, in the north of Ghana which was up on an elevated platform, sitting in a chair, dressed like a lavish, alive person, but with their head hanging like they’re asleep. This one at the monastery is certainly the least strange of the dead bodies I’ve seen. But the way this one is dealt with is quite unique. After all the lay people go up and give their offering and the family take pictures, people light the logs on fire. The coffin burns off quickly and then a lot of the monks move real close to get a look at the body. This is probably the most we have in common so far. I’m right there behind them wondering what the body looks like and if it will smell really bad as it’s burning. First of all, there’s no bad smell, at all. I don’t know if it’s the wind or if it’s a myth that burning bodies smell bad. We start to identify the parts of the body and one of the guys figures out that she’s on her side.

Later that day, before tea I go to the kitchen to help the packow, Steven from Philly, get the drinks ready. I ask him about all kinds of things about why he came here and why he wants to stay. He is one of the guys who will be ordaining in early May. I want to get all kinds of different perspectives here, so I figured talking to someone about to commit their life to being a monk here would be a great opinion to add to the bunch. He talks about a bunch of interesting stuff, a lot of which were the reasons that originally attracted me here. However, he never touches on the stuff that is driving me away from here. I know Steven is a smart guy and seems down-to-earth enough, so there must be another reason why he want to ordain here so badly. Maybe he just looks over that stuff and is only focused on his own practice and not worried about other people. I don’t bring any of that negative stuff up because I don’t think it would have been really appropriate to talk about. Now that I think back on it, I probably should have at least brought up some of the negatives on my mind. At tea time there is one Ajahn, who is in second in command, who just came yesterday from some Check country in Europe. He’s really obnoxious as he talks loudly, about unnecessary things, and consumes drinks like a madman. He irritates me so much, I want to leave the area, but I stay to endure the feeling and watch my own reaction to it all. I try just to breathe deeply and focus on how silly it is to let what he’s doing bother me so much. I get over that pretty quickly and then just watch it all in amusement.

After tea I head back over to see the body again after the flames have died down a bit. I can make out the ribs and pelvis, but everything else is quite burned up now. The monk who I had along conversation with comes over and we chat some more. He tells me that the person is put on their side because in the past the bodies on their back had a tendency to sit up or raise an arm, due to the heat of the fire changing the pressure. With such a widespread fear of ghosts in the Thai and Lao culture, I could imagine that didn’t go over to well. However, I think the opposite. I would want them to be on their back so I could see something like that. Sounds like a great story to me. Then, the monk and I walk back to the tea area and we talk about Qigong again to more depth and talk about other alternative practices. My discussions with him have really opened a door in my plans to explore as many types of these practices as I can pursue. That will probably be the first thing I research when I get back to the land of internet and worldly things. Not much else happens the rest of the day.

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