A Much Needed Rant, Practice in My Room, and a Speech in Lao

This morning I have coffee wit my neighbor again. The crazy-eyed old man is sitting there with us as well. I catch a few words about him talking about practicing inside a room. He’s so defensive it’s palpable. Defensiveness is only going to make me pick it apart further, so it’s not helping his case. I stop listening to him and just focus on the sounds of the morning. That’s one great thing about not being that great at Lao, is that when I don’t want to try hard to translate, it’s easy to zone out when someone is talking.

The morning session goes by fine as usual. The overly talkative woman is leading it and even with the morning routines, she’s talking way more than the other leaders did the previous mornings. I was thinking about how ridiculous it is that she talks through all the exercises where we’re supposed to be building mindfulness. I see this like being in class, let’s say learning math. We’re all trying to learn a new concept and after listening to the lecture, we get some exercises to try ourselves. When we’re working through new problems, the teacher is up at the front of class lecturing about the theory of math and how it is could help you in your daily life. Well, that’s great at a different time, but how are we supposed to solve a new problem, if we’re not given the space to think about it.

This woman has got me in the mood, so I feel like this is a good time for a rant… I’ve been here for a week anyway, so it’s about time I talk about how they’re doing it all wrong: Every morning, we chant about consuming food in moderation, but if you look at the teachers, most of them are overweight to the point of being very unhealthy. They’re not like a naturally large person, who might be big, but still exercises and is in good health. This is proven to me when we do morning exercises, which isn’t much more vigorous than simple arm waving and body rotations. Some of the teachers have to pause because they’re so out of breath. It’s somehow similar to Tai Chi, so I can understand if it makes them warm and a little sweaty, but swinging their arm around like a windmill shouldn’t make them pant. I’m not against anyone here being fat, but why are the leaders then telling the audience how they should live their life differently, if those teachers aren’t even living the way their preaching. Also, how are they going to teach something as wholesome as spirituality, if they can’t even get their outer health in order.

We also talk a lot about equanimity, which basically means loving everyone the same amount. This is one that has bothered me in every organized Buddhist group that I’ve taken part. Every organized practice I’ve been apart of, we do bowing three times, to the Buddha, the Dharmma, and the Sangha. I think the special homage it these things still fits within the equanimity. The Buddha is inside of everyone and everything and can be realized by everyone. So we’re basically worshiping something that is inside of all of us. The Dharma, which is the path laid out by the Buddha, can be followed by anyone. The Sangha is specifically those people along our path who help us to progress spiritually. That could even be interpreted as the people doing bad things giving us lessons on how to live the right way, so that pretty much involves everyone we come in contact with. For me, all three of those make sense and I think are wonderful things to pay special attention. BUT, this place also adds two more bows for our teachers and for our parents. Aaalright, this is where things start to get a bit fuzzy for me. First of all, teachers and parents should be included in our chant for the Sanha, so we’re technically bowing to them twice. I could do the famous George Carlin routine where I narrow all these separate commandments down to one, but I’ll let them keep the first three. The added two are in trouble though. Okay, I also think that back to the equanimity thing that we shouldn’t pay special attention to our teachers, if we’re also going to preach generating equal feeling toward all. That goes hand in hand with the second extra bowing to parents. Don’t get me wrong I love my parents and I’m not sure if I could feel equanimity between them and other people, but I’m also not the one all hyped up about this equanimity thing. I guess my point about all of this is that I understand paying extra respects to special people in our lives who really help us above and beyond others and I also buy into the idea of trying to love every person, but I think it should be updated so two really large parts of the practice aren’t contradicting each other.

With everything that I’ve learned about Buddhism these contradictions come up and makes me wonder how I could ever follow such a practice. Before I got so deeply immersed in Buddhism I always understood it as a kind of add-on religion and one that you might be able to take piece from. Well, sorry to say, but if people take piece from them and don’t follow the others, then they’re not considered to be Buddhist here. Once someone gets involved enough to regularly go to the temple and join in these group chants, then they’re repeating and agreeing to what they’re chanting. I don’t see anyone go there and then for the reincarnation part sit to the side because they don’t want to pick that part to practice. No, it’s just like every other organized religious group, when you’re in, you’re in the whole thing. Naturally, when I get in, I start to look around and then I start to notice things that don’t make any sense. Instead of becoming complacent, I ask questions and then get nipped at. That means that I’m either going to stay there and rattle the cage or I’m going to get out and find something else that makes me more comfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have great respect for Buddhism and all other religions, but like every religion I’ve ever investigated, they have the stench of people’s egos. I also still have immense respect for those people who can be apart of these religious groups and ignore the parts I can’t seem to get around and try their best to use those groups as their vehicle to being a good person. I think that’s much harder than my approach and I’ll never turn my nose up to it. It’s just different. I really think all of it’s wonderful, but with that said, I’m not going to miss an opportunity to poke fun at any approach, including my own.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, breakfast is over and my plan is to practice on my own during the two middle sessions of the day and then join everyone at the session at the end of the day. I’m kind of excited to see people’s reactions at my plan, especially that crazy-eyed old man. I don’t normally like to rattle the cage for no reason, but maybe this will help someone jump outside of their box for a bit and at the very least it will let me practice in a more conducive way for my own predispositions.

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Also, of course in the middle of meditation I thought, “oh, I have to get a picture of that!” I’m having way too much fun exploring this new photography thing. I’ve always thought it would be interesting, but never knew I would enjoy it this much. I’ll be really excited to keep developing my skills as I go through China.

The sessions on my own go well. I’m starting to let it sink really deep with the meaning of quality practice. More and more I’m able to look at my effort and understand when I’m not really trying, but instead just sitting there letting the time go by. Noting substantial came from those sitting sessions, other than a clear understanding of how I need to change my practice going forward. I’m also okay with not making big strides with my meditation. I know that this will be something I will stick with for the long haul, so it is more important for me now to set up something that I can sustain and keep holding myself accountable for making those small bits of progress. The most difficult part of that is that after each of those bits, nothing really has changed. It can be really disheartening, until I will someday understand that thousands of those little progressions will then lead up to having the kind of understanding of life that I’m looking for.

This is my last night here and everyone knows. I told everyone already that I’m leaving in the morning, so there’s no surprise. Apparently Saturday is also a big day when people from outside come to chant and meditate, so there are probably close to 400 people in the meditation hall. I sit up front as usual with my neighbor. He tells me that I should go up and speak in front of everyone to tell them how this place has helped me and how I feel now. I kind of laugh it off not thinking that is a normal thing to do. Most people who go up to the front seem like they’re talking about issues in their life and asking people to pray for them. During the meditation part one of the teachers at the front reads something off of a paper and then says my Lao name, Boonme, and then asks me if that’s actually my name. He goes back to talking some more and then my neighbor goes up front. Now, I’m realizing that I’ll actually be up there next, I start to plan what I’m going to say. They have translators, but there’s no way I’m going to miss this opportunity to speak Lao in front of all these people. It’s probably bigger than any crowd I’ve given a speech in English, let alone a language I have just barely over a conversational grasp with. I use it in work meetings quite a bit, but that also involves a lot of hand waving and probably a very crude use of the language. The people up here use much fancier language, which I have learned, but haven’t had time to practice.

My neighbor is done and then they tell me it’s my time. I go up there and do the three prostrations to the Buddha statue. I don’t if that’s right because he says something about me doing it and laughs, but I’d rather do slightly too much, then not enough. I turn around and grab the microphone and begin to address the crowd…. The mic isn’t working! He tells me I need to switch it on first. Was that the Lao version of a prank or am I just that much of an idiot? I’ll go for the idiot. My plan is to throw in little jokes and lead up to one big finale punch line, that might be a little risky, but again, there’s no way I can miss this opportunity. I start by greeting everyone and then introducing myself with the flowery formal language. I guess it’s also a way to sound like I have more humility in front of the religious setting. People already start giggling and I can see people trying to adjust themselves to get a better look. People are supposed to have their eyes closed and meditate, but that’s all gone out the door. I thank everyone for me being there and allowing me to stay. I tell everyone how long I’ve been here and how I’ve felt in the beginning and middle. I slip in some more silly words that I learned in the office in those descriptions and get people to continuously giggle through the whole thing. I’m also thinking that there’s a huge chance that they’re just giggling at how funny I sound and that no one can actually understand me. I also keep forgetting to use the proper language, so I’m reverting back to the normal way, which here apparently makes me sound full of my self. Well, I suppose that a bit true, so what the hell. Then I work my way through the experience and tell them that after all this work and effort “I feel”… then I pause for a second and look around the room… “like my legs really hurt”. Okay, that was clearly much funnier in my head, but hey I got some extra giggles. Then I tell them that I’m just joking and go back to being serious the rest of the speech, thanking them again for taking care of me and being wonderful people. I was trying to lighten up the room and not make my speech as serious as 100% of the people who come up here who look like they’re going to cry or scream. I suppose this is a pretty serious thing though and I hope I’m not going to hell for making some fun. It’s okay, I’ll be able to sleep well knowing I went through with it and made a few hundred people laugh. Once again, I love doing things in a second language because it makes me so much more charming and funny than I could ever be in English. I take no credit for that and give it all to being an awkward white man.

The rest of the session flew by and then it was time to go to sleep for the last time at this place. That’s a lot easier than it sounds. Every other night I fell asleep almost before my head hit the pillow, but tonight I’ve been up for a few hours with sleepiness nowhere in sight. It’s probably a combination of the excitement from the speech and knowing I’ll be traveling tomorrow.

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