The Alms I was Looking for, Boy in Over his Head, and Entering the Falang World Again

Today is Monday, day 17. I’m up a bit before 3 and hear the bell soon after I’m up. Down at the sala, the two packows set up the mats and the monk comes to set up his and the Ajahn’s area. There’s no sign of the Ajahn, but we start to practice anyway. It’s pretty cold this morning and all the guys brought their blankets to wrap around them. I’ve always been good about keeping my body warm, so I resist the temptation of getting my blanket. The meditation is fine, but nothing compared to the one last night. I suppose that’s how it’s going to be and the hard part will probably be pushing through those times when there aren’t big spurts of progress and understanding. It’s like learning any skill or sport though, so I’m used to doing that already. I just wish that meditation were as fun as playing sports, then I could use that as my motivation. Maybe sitting with my hands folded in my lap isn’t as fun, but I’m determined at some point to create a game out of this or find some fun way to get into meditation. I’m not sure if a fun version of meditation hasn’t been created yet is because it’s just such a part of so many meditation practices to endure through and just trust there will be progress eventually or if they’re holding back on us regular folk and giving us the lame boring version. Either way, one of my big take aways from this whole experience, is to look for something like that or eventually just make something up on my own.

 After the morning practice, we set things up for the meal. Then the packows tell me to follow the monk for alms round. The packows stay behind, so it’s only the monk and me. I ask if there’s another bag I should take to help carry the food, but they say no. I guess they don’t get much on the alms rounds here. After walking back up those steeps hills where I almost crashed on the motorbike, we eventually stop. It’s really interesting walking on the dirt with bare feet compared to the alms round at the last place, which was entirely on paved road. Some of it so badly paved that it is much worse than the dirt here in terms of poky rocks. This one certainly hurts less, but also gives more of a natural feel, as you’d probably expect. Then, I realize why we’re waiting as the packows come and meet us with some extra bags. Soon after, the Ajahn comes and as he passes us we all kneel down. Then we all get into a line behind them. Even though we just bowed, it seems much less rigid than the alms at Nanachat. Especially since the packows are kind of goofing off a bit. One of them is my age, but the other is closer to 16 or 17.The other parts of alms are the same with people lining up, taking off their shoes, and then kneeling down as they put food into the bowls. They’re putting all kinds of food into their bowls. I thought it would be less because we’re so rural. I guess there’s less bought snacks and more actual food. The best part about it is that the fresh food is probably grow a few feet away from where we’re collecting it.

 The Ajahn talks with a few of the groups of lay people giving alms. I silently rejoice when I see him acting like a human. At one point he even makes the whole group laugh. He also takes food out of the bowl and gives it to a small boy. We didn’t have to stay in the line, not breaking formation, but instead strengthened that relationship with those people in the area. This is exactly everything I wish the other alms round was. I think there are parts of both alms round that have their good and bad points though. They could really learn from each other if they would share things like that. After all, they’re both in the same Buddhist tradition and claim to follow Ajahn Chah’s teachings as closely as they can. But of course these two groups and it seems like most other ones in the world, religious or not, seem to forget about that communication thing. Then again it’s possible that they had talked and someone’s ego got in the way of changing things or maybe even just that it had to be different in different settings. I’d bet though that it’s more because of the lack of communication. That would be one of the first places I would rattle the cages if I were to stay at Nanachat longer. 

 We go back to the monastery and it’s meal time. Dracula, I mean the Ajahn, is behind the statues adjusting his cape, I mean robes. When he’s done, he calls me over. Before I get there he turns around and walks up to the cabin area. Okay, I guess that means I’m supposed to follow him up there. Or maybe he looked at me and then swatted a fly and is now getting away for his alone time before the meal. At the top, he turns and talks to me a little bit. I take off my shoes because I remember them saying that it’s better to be at a lower level from the Ajahn and I also put my hands to my chest in prayer position to make sure I’m as polite as possible. I keep forgetting to use the really polite words in Lao. I mostly use the polite ones at work, but not the ones meant for royalty or for monks. There’s a section of the Lao language reserved just for when speaking with royalty or monks, I suppose they’re in the same category. I wonder what would happen if the king met a senior monk. Would they both end up lying on the ground, trying to get lower than one another? I suppose I could have used those royalty vocab words at work, but it would add a stiffness that wouldn’t have been conducive to developing the strong relationships I have. Talking with the Ajahn, I’ll catch myself and then repeat again with the royalty/monk polite word. I’m hoping he just appreciates that I’m trying and clearly can see that I want to give him the full respect he deserves. Then, he tells me it’s time to eat, so we head back down to the sala.

 The Ajahn and monk sit up front and then the packows sit in a perpendicular line and I’m at the end. Then after me is a woman dressed in packow clothing and then perpendicular to our line, parallel to the front, is another row of women who are helping to prepare the food. I bet you never thought you’d be doing geometry as you were reading my blogs. I wonder how many attentions spans I just lost with that last description. Well maybe they’ll come back soon, before I start talking about the ride back. That’s basically the only other part worth reading anyway. We eat the food differently, in that the Ajahn grabs food and then passes it down the line in the order I just described. The food is wonderfully local and fresh. Some of it I’ve never seen before. I grab enough to last me all day through the traveling and manage to avoid the desserts. Then, the women all get up and leave to eat somewhere else. We say a little prayer and then dig in. I wait for the Ajahn and the monk to start first before I do.

 After the meal we clean the bowls from a bucket of water and then walk over to a small cliff to throw our dirty water and left over food away. It doesn’t get much more natural than that. Much different from the industrial sized sinks and many different types of trash cans at Nanachat.

 After the meal I look at some of the pictures around the posts by the Buddha statue. I see Ajahn Mun (the guy who Ajahn Chah studied under), Ajahn Chah, and another fat man I’ve never seen before. The Ajahn here asks me if I know the fat man and I tell him he’s the only one I don’t. He says that the fat man was his teacher. Then he gives me a book of the fat man traveling all around the world doing random Buddhismy things. The Ajahn even points out his younger self in some of the pictures. I get bored reading about them traveling to the sacred sights of India and making an appearance at some special event. Again, I’m thinking this is missing the whole point of, at least the Buddhism that initially attracted me. Then, the Ajahn and I agree I should leave by 9:30. I don’t have to be at the airport until 3, but knowing Laos and being in the countryside, I’d rather get there way to early and write a lot, instead of rushing. The Ajahn asks if I want to see around the monastery and I tell him yes. He tells two young boys to show me around. He tells the older of the two boys that he should then drive me into town to get a car back to Pakse. I cringe at the idea and then tell myself that I need to be more trusting and that the Ajahn wouldn’t have told him if he didn’t trust the boy. I follow them up to the Buddha statue on the rock and then we go back down the other side. We go down these really steep, wet, and slippery trails to look at a waterfall. We keep going down to get a slightly different perspective and I tell them I’m not interested and want to go back. They say only just a few more steps, so I keep going. It’s beautiful, but I’m not interested in sight seeing at yet another waterfall. I’d rather talk with the Ajahn about his practice or the history of the monastery.

 We get back up to the top and it’s 9:30. I get my things together and then the boy gets the motorbike. I tell him to be ready because I’m heavy. He nods and I get on with no problem. I’ve gotten on motorbikes when people weren’t ready and almost tipped us over. That was largely because I never knew how to get on the correct way and only maybe a little bit that they weren’t paying attention. I’ve definitely ridden more motorbikes since being in Laos then ever before in my life. We start off and I tell the group of women good luck and that I’m leaving as we pass. Not much further the boy is trying to turn the bike with the handle bars, instead of leaning and I get a bit tense. Then we start to drift off the path and he punches the throttle. I can tell we’re going down so I push my self off of the side pedals to make sure the bike doesn’t land on me as we both crash and fall to the ground. We were only going about 15 MPH, but that was definitely my first motorbike accident. Luckily for our safety, we were in tall grass and mud. Unluckily for my all white clothes, we were in tall grass and mud. I braced my self on the fall, but now my butt and hands are covered in mud. The women are still in sight and come running over. The boy looks really embarrassed and before we get back on I ask if he can make it the rest of the way. He says yes and then I ask him again if he’s confident. He says yes again, so I get on the bike. We get to the drier part of the road and things get a bit smoother. He’s still worrying me because he’s not very smooth with the throttle and he keeps turning with the handlebars. I’ve never driven a motorbike before, but I know from my pedal bike that turning the handle bars are for emergencies and turning should be a very little with the handle bars, instead most of the turning should be done with leaning the bike from side to side. I guess he’s scared to lean though because I’m so heavy. I’m probably the equivalent of two full-grown Lao men on the back of the bike. This will certainly be an experience neither of us will forget. I’m just hoping we’ve gotten the falling out of our systems.

 We got up one of the steep hills with a bit of trouble, but we made it. Then down the other side he’s putting on the brakes a little bit, but then releases them completely and puts them on again. When we get to the mid point of the hill he releases the brakes completely and I can tell he’s just shooting it to the bottom. Forgetting completely everything I learned at the monastery, I cringe and thing this is it. We’re going to crash and I hope I don’t land on one of these thousands of rocks around us. 

Somehow we stayed up and made it down the hill safely. Then, I tell him I’m walking up the next hill. I have the time, so there’s no use in making it more dangerous by cutting corner to save time. We meet up at the top of the hill I almost fell with the full-grown man who drove me to the monastery yesterday. We would have definitely gone down on this one if he tried to go up with both of us. At the top I get back on and am relieved that we’ve gotten past the big hills. We have some relatively okay dirt before we get back to the long stretch of road with the smooth pieces mixed with giant potholes. Not much further, a woman screams at us as we pass by and the boy yells back at her. Then he pulls over at a small shop and tells me to wait here. I ask if it’s his mother and he nods his head before going over to her. All I can think is that I’m glad I left 5 hours early, for things like this. I bet he just didn’t do his chores this morning and she’s forcing him to do them now before he leaves. He disappears. Then a young man, about my age, comes up to adjust the bike and get it more out of the road. Then he gets on the bike and stares at me. I ask if he will take me and he confirms. I thank him and hop on. I’m really grateful that the mom has more sense than the Ajahn at the monastery. She saw and immediately told the boy to get off the bike. The Ajahn might have been a great meditation, but he doesn’t know about things about riding a motorbike and how it doesn’t make sense to have a skinny 14 year old Lao boy drive a big Falang. The young man is going much faster than the boy, but he’s leaning into his turns and seems to know how much to slow down to go over the bumps, so I’m much more comforted. The rest of the ride goes really smoothly as he clearly takes these trips to town often.

 At town he drops me off at a Tuk Tuk and the driver tells me to get in the front seat. Normally I would prefer to sit in the back with everyone else, but I want to talk with him about where I can go to get some wifi and make sure that I can ask him a few other things like getting to the airport. I get a good feeling about him from the way he’s talking with me and helping me so much. It feels really strange to be in the front seat with plenty of leg room back support, and air conditioning blowing. I feel like I just entered paradise. Maybe the boy and I did fall down that steep hill and this is just the dream I’m having after hitting my head on a rock. Well I’m okay with that, at least I wasn’t eaten by pigs.

 Back at town I find my way to internet and email people that I’m back, a few days later than I thought, whoops sorry. Hopefully it makes sense from the stories why I wasn’t able to reach out to anyone. I get some Vietnamese coffee to buy something while I use this guys internet. Then I get a ride to the airport a few hours ahead of schedule. I want to write my blog while I wait there. I have a lot to catch up on. I walk back into the airport and feel like I’m back in civilization again.

Even after the traveling I still don’t have one ounce of hunger. Then as I walk by the shops I see some snacks and candy. When I see that my stomach tells me, okay we’re hungry. It’s interesting to still be so aware of myself right now and watch, when I know that I’m not hungry, my body try to trick me into snacking for no reason. I sit down and it passes as I get focused on my writing. Then, I see some Falang come in with some fruit and my stomach tell me again, to eat something. Even after those intensive few weeks, when I’m back in the real world my body is jumping to get back into old habits again. I can tell this is going to be the start of a difficult transition. Even more so it will be difficult to take what I learned at the monastery and apply it to a routine that will work within my daily life. With all this thinking I notice the tension I’m holding in my body. I put my writing down and close my eyes and just take a few breaths and let the tension go. I’m able to relax a little bit and just get back to normal. Even though I was only at the monastery for a little over two weeks, I’m feeling a bit of culture shock or something similar. It’s kind a little bit too intense to be immersed in a crowd of falang again. I can’t imagine how monks feel after they disrobe and return to the US after years of living in a monastery. Hopefully though, they will have strengthened their skills more than I have with being able to stay relaxed and calm. I was just at the cusp of recognizing things, but didn’t get enough time to really practice any of them.

 On the plane they give me a sandwich and a some banana bread. I open the bread and smell its amazing aroma. Yeah, it’s plane food, but still more fresh than plane food in the US. I know that I’m still not hunry so I wrap the bread back up and consider offering it to people around me. Then, I realize how weird that would look. “Hey I don’t know you, but you should eat this food that I just opened and now don’t want to eat. Trust me, I’m the creepy bald guy, with no eye brows, on the plane.” I decide to pack it into my bag and bring it to the young guy at the reception desk at Sakura.

 Before long, we’re landing and I’m calling my lao teacher to tell her that we should still meet. I planned before I left that I would still have a Lao lesson today. The Lao lesson goes really well and I find it much easier to concentrate on what she’s saying. I think it also just feels good to be back around people I missed and like so much.

 Lao lesson ends and I get ready for bed and prepare for work tomorrow. It’s going to be intense getting back to everything after being on vacation for two weeks and explaining to my colleagues why all the hair on my head and eyebrows are gone. I told some people, but only those who asked.

Stop Thinking and Write It Down!

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