Buddhist meditation: “Wat Pleeng Wipassana”

WAT PLEENG WIPASSANA

© 1984 by Adrian Palmer

 

“Would you like some coffee, Buzz?”  Noi waved to the cook in the kitchen and pointed to her own cup, anticipating my response.

“Sure.  Why not?”  I kicked off my thongs and curled my right leg under my left.  My old friends, Charles and Noi, whom I had first met thirteen years ago when I came to Khon Kaen to teach English at the university, looked at me expectantly.

“Well, how was it?”  They meant Wat Pleeng Wipassana, I knew; the week I had just spent in a Thai Temple practicing Wipassana meditation.

“It was fine.  Great.”  I reached around and massaged my left shoulder.  For the first time in a year, the muscles didn’t resist my probing.  “If nothing else, it was a great way to relax.”

“Well, tell us about it!”  A servant approached and knelt on the floor, setting a cup of coffee in front of me.  I sniffed it.  It was the real thing, not instant.

“Well, there are two versions.  One is about the temple experience itself.  That wouldn’t take long.  The other is about the whole past two weeks.  When I think about it, it seems like everything supported everything else.  It might be hard to understand what happened in the temple without knowing what preceded it.”

“Tell us the whole thing.  We’ve got all morning.”

I looked at my watch.  It was only 6:30.  I had just arrived on the overnight express train from Bangkok.  “O.K.”

It all began soon after arriving in Bangkok two weeks ago when I went to visit some of my former colleagues at Thammasat University where I taught English in 1970.  Few were at work.  Classes are rarely scheduled on Mondays to allow the teachers to do research.  Having talked with the few friends I could locate, I left the university early in the afternoon and hailed a cab for home.  The driver and I quickly agreed upon a suitable fare, about three dollars for the thirty-minute ride.

The taxi, a fifteen year old blue Datsun Bluebird, belonged to a special category of cab whose window decal said “Air” and whose innards, in fact, contained the necessary compressor, heat exchanger, and blower, but whose composite parts functioned at such a low level of efficiency that to decide whether it was less uncomfortable with the windows down, or with the windows closed and the air conditioning on, created more mental discomfort than the physical suffering in a no-choice, non-air conditioned vehicle.

Early 1970 Bluebirds, as a group, are also characterized by a set of familiar features, the first of which I encountered when I tried to open the door.  The handle was non-functional, and the driver, a dark skinned, thick-lipped fellow who spoke with a heavy Lao accent, leaned over and opened it from the inside.  Sliding in, I pulled the handle after me, and the door, sagging on misaligned hinges, banged off the jam and rebounded open.  “You have to slam it hard,” the driver said.

I grabbed the handle and whipped the door through a full ninety-degree arc.  Striking the bottom of the jam, it bounced up an inch and the catch clicked home.  Well, as long as we didn’t have an accident where someone had to open the door to pull me out…

The original upholstery on these cars had long ago decayed in the heat, humidity, and ozone:  tattered remnants were held together by a material selected for optimum discomfort–thick, smooth plastic, once transparent, now grimy with sweat and dirt.  My beige, three day old Thai copy of a Chinese Lacoste Alligator shirt stuck instantly to the seat cover and was imprinted with a batik like network of dirty lines following the haphazard shirt creases and the seat cover’s meandering seams.  Sweat beaded on my lip, and I automatically reached for the window crank.  The bare stub reminded me that all handles, stalks, levers, and knobs on these cars that could be twisted, unscrewed, wrenched, bent, beat, broken, or ripped off, would be.

Imprisoned in the mobile blue humidifier, I confirmed what I already knew.  Only one of the few remaining gauges, the gas gauge, worked, and the feeble stream of slightly cool air dribbling out of the add-on air conditioner was overwhelmed by the stream of heat pouring off the oily engine block and scale-filled radiator core.  Rammed through holes in the rotting firewall by the radiator fan and the forward motion of the vehicle, it pressurized the cab’s interior.

The driver jammed the transmission into gear and let out the clutch.  The warped pressure plate grabbed spasmodically and the cab lurched forward.  Spotting a space, the driver bullied his way into the line of traffic in front of a small Tuk Tuk, a miniature three-wheeled Dihatsu taxi, so named for the pop of its two-stroke engine.

I pulled a book out of my shopping bag and started to read.  The Development of Insight was a notebook sized yellow covered volume printed on newsprint.  A worn press had distributed the contents of successive pages at a variety of angles and margins.  A full 95% of the contents actually got reproduced on the grainy paper, enough for me to supply the missing remainder.  I had already skimmed through the book once and fell to staring at the back cover.

The oversaturated primary colors converged closely enough for me to establish the outline of an ornate roof, two fluted columns, and a fairy tale entrance to a three-storied Thai building.  Next to it, a smear of greens and greys defined a row of motel-like rooms whose white bannisters descended to splotches of reds, greens, and browns, which I presumed represented vegetation.  Under the front porch of the first picture was printed its name:  Study and Research Center of the Buddhist Advanced Science of Life and Psychology.  Below this in finer type was the address of Wat Pho, the Pho Temple, which I realized we had just passed a couple of minutes ago.  I told the driver I had changed my mind.  “Take me back to Wat Pho.”  I wanted to buy several more copies of the book for my friends.  The taxi pulled up in front of the foundation a few minutes later, and I stepped out into the 91 degree heat, cool in comparison to the interior of the air-conditioned taxi.  The driver agreed to accept forty baht, two dollars, for the short ride.

Inside the door was a book counter covered with volumes on religion, psychiatry, psychology, and public speaking.  Most of them were in Thai, and I couldn’t find the one I had in mind, nor another one I wanted, The Development of Insight by Acarn Naeb Mahaniranonda, an elderly Thai woman who is one of the country’s most respected teachers of meditation.  A middle-aged woman standing behind the counter asked if she could help.  I mentioned the names of both books and asked if I could buy some extra copies.  She searched around a bit and finally said, “mot laew.”  They were all out.  She then started to chat, asking how I had heard about the foundation.  I pulled my own copies of both books out of my bag, showed them to her, and said that I had read them and had seen the address of the foundation on the back.

“You’re interested in Wipassana?” she asked.

“Yes.  And I particularly like these two books.”

The woman called to a middle aged man in a white shirt, a few strands of black hair curving over his squarish, bald head.  “Come here, Ajarn Buun Mii.  I’d like you to meet this foreigner.  What’s your name?”  She turned to me.

“Adrian.  Adrian.  My family name is Palmer.”

“Come with me, Adrian,” said Ajarn Buun Mii.

Ajarn Buun Mii guided me into an office containing two wooden desks and several folding chairs.  We sat down.  “Tell me, Adrian.  How did you get interested in Wipassana meditation?”

My knowledge of Thai is somewhat limited, so I talked in simple, short Thai sentences.

“About four years ago, I was having a lot of personal problems.  One of the things I did was get help from a counselor at the University of Utah, where I teach English.  One of the things my counselor suggested was that I practice self-hypnosis to help me relax.  This wouldn’t get at the cause of my problems, but if I could relax, at least I could deal better with everyday matters, such as my teaching.

“I practiced self-hypnosis every day, three times a day, for about thirty minutes a time, and it helped me a lot.  I relaxed and got through my most difficult three months.  I continued my practice on and off over a period of two years after that.  In addition, I tried a number of other ways to try to feel better and make my life happier.

“Then, two years ago, I had the opportunity to come to Asia again.  First, I went to the People’s Republic of China for ten days to give some lectures at a university there.  When I had finished, I flew here to Thailand via Hong Kong, and on that airplane I saw a Thai priest.  I knew he was Thai because he had a Thai face and he was dressed like the priests here in Thailand.  The seat next to him was empty, and acting on an impulse, I decided to sit down and talk to him.

“I first checked if he was for sure a Thai.  Then I asked him if he minded if I asked him a question.  He said not at all.  I then asked him what Buddhism had done for him in his personal life.  Now, at that time I knew nothing about Buddhism.  When I lived in Thailand and worked here from 1970-1974, I didn’t pay any attention to Buddhism.

“Well, the priest started to answer my question.  He talked on and on, and in great detail.  And he did so in English!  Now, I was really surprised.  Not only did he answer as if he had done so many times before, but he did so in English.

“I asked him his name.  He said it was Prasert.  He then asked me why I was going to Thailand.  I said I was going for fun:  to visit my old friends and my old university, Khon Kaen, in the northeast.  Also, I wanted to go to a Thai temple to meditate.  He asked me why.  I said because they looked pretty and I thought the atmosphere would be good for practicing self-hypnosis.  He asked me how long I planned to stay at the temple.  I said I didn’t know, a few hours, maybe a day.  He asked me if I knew which temple I was going to visit.  I said I didn’t.  But they were everywhere.  I could go to one of the ones in Khon Kaen.

“He said a few hours was not enough time to get any results, but he had taught meditation to foreigners in Bangkok and had traveled abroad.  He was the Vice Abbot at Wat Pleeng Wipassana, the Pleeng Temple of Wipassana meditation.  He invited me to go to his temple and to practice Wipassana meditation.  I asked him how long I would have to practice to get any results.  He said the minimum time was one week.

“I sat quietly and thought for a couple of minutes.  On that trip I had a lot of free time.  Why not try it?  I decided to do it and said O.K.

“Anyway, I went to Wat Pleeng and practiced Wipassana meditation for a week last year, and I got a lot out of it.  This time I planned to practice again, but longer.  Then, three days ago when I arrived in Thailand, a foreign friend of mine took me to a bookstore and suggested that I buy these two books by professors Vinai and Naeb.  I read both volumes and realized that I didn’t know much about the purpose of Wipassana meditation and how it differed from self-hypnosis, the form of tranquil meditation I had done before in the United States.  I thought that last year if I had understood more about what I was doing, my practice at Wat Pleeng would have been better.  Anyway, I came here to get some more copies of these two books.  But they’re all sold out.”

Ajarn Boon Mii sat quietly while I concluded my choppy, simplified Thai version of my experience with meditation to date.  Then he said, “If you want to practice Wipassana, this is the best place to do so.  The teachers here are really good.  We have a place at Omn Noi outside of Bangkok where you can practice.  It’s very quiet and comfortable.  Many foreigners have gone there to practice.  At some other places you might not get good instruction.  Come here.  I’d like to have you speak with Ajarn Vinai.”

“Is he here?”

“No.  I’ll try to get him on the telephone.”

Ajarn Boon Mii dialed four different numbers before finally tracking down Ajarn Vinai.  He handed me the receiver.

“This is Vinai speaking.  How can I help you?”  Ajarn Vinai spoke in English.

“I’m interested in practicing Wipassana Meditation.  I read your book and I got a lot out of it.  I realize I lack a lot of knowledge about how to practice, and I think maybe I should practice with you.”

Ajarn Vinai then began to talk about some of the problems one could encounter if one practiced incorrectly.  In particular, he noted that what many people thought was Wipassana practice was nothing more than tranquil meditation and asked me if I knew the difference.  I said I thought I did now after having read his and Ajarn Naeb’s books.  The purpose was to understand what life is all about.

Ajarn Vinai agreed and elaborated on that response in English.  Surprised by the amount of time he was willing to spend talking with a total stranger on the phone, I listened for over twenty minutes.  Finally, I interrupted.  “Could I go to study at Omn Noi?”

Ajarn Vinai didn’t reply directly.  Instead, he asked if I would be free the next day at five in the evening.  I said I would.  He said he would come to the foundation at Wat Pho to talk with me.  I thanked him and said I would be here at five.

I told Ajarn Boon Mii what we had arranged as we walked out of his office.  Then he turned to me.  “Do you believe in God?”

Surprised by this turn in the conversation, I hesitated.  “Well, I guess I don’t, but to be honest, I’m not really sure.”

“Well, what about Angels and spirits and miracles?”

“I guess I’d have to say I don’t believe in them either; but, again, I’m not a hundred percent convinced they don’t exist.”

Ajarn Boon Mii led me to a line of photographs hanging on a wall.  “Look at these.  Here’s a woman with twenty nails stuck through her cheeks.  Here’s another one walking on hot coals.”  He pointed to more pictures of the sorts of things one nearly always hears about third or fourth hand.  I stared at the pictures, mystified.

“Just what does all this have to do with Wipassana?”

“Nothing.  But these are all true.  Spirits made them possible.  We show them to people who are not interested at all in Wipassana.  Sometimes this stimulates them to find out more.”

It sounded like a come-on to me, but Ajarn Boon Mii appeared to believe that these were indeed pictures of miracles involving the intervention of spirits and angels.  “Come here,” he said.  “I’d like you to see something.”

Ajarn Boon Mii led me to the open door of a room full of Thais, mostly middle aged.  All but one sat on the floor.  At the front of the room a red table about three feet high stood on four thick legs carved in the shape of claws.  A yellow cushion rested on the platform, and upon the cushion sat an intense woman in a loose tunic.  She looked to be in her late twenties.

The blouse with a high, Mandarin collar hung down over Chinese style pantaloons.  The delicate yellow pattern swam on the waves of loose cloth as she twisted abruptly to a small table beside her and grabbed a piece of betel nut.  Stuffing it in her mouth, followed by several green leaves plucked from another dish, she chewed, bent over, and spat a red stream into an aluminum pot.  Ajarn Boon Mii said, “That girl is a medium for Luang Phaw Sya,” and waved in the direction of a faded black and white photograph of an old, thin, Chinese looking priest.  “He’s acting through her right now.  Do you want to go in?”

I decided to go for it.  After all, hadn’t I just read that there is no “self”?  Who was there to have anything to lose, anyway?  “Sure.”

Ajarn Boon Mii led me in and the mass of Thais parted, clearing a path.  I noted uneasily that it led all the way to the front of the platform, directly in front of the medium.  Once committed, I could not stop half way, so I crawled on my knees to the front of the room and knelt in front of her, sitting back on my heels.  A young Thai man moved up beside me and gestured toward the picture.  “That’s Luang Phaw Sya,” he said in English.

The medium pulled a cigarette from a pack on the table, lit it, and took a huge pull.  Exhaling the smoke belligerently in my direction through red stained teeth she said, “Farang maa thii nii thammay?”  Why did the foreigner come here?  I replied in Thai that I was trying to decide whether to meditate at Wat Pleeng where I had meditated before or at the center at Omn Noi.  The sentence, “Phuut Thai day, phuut Thai day,” came from several members of the audience.  He can speak Thai.

The medium held up a pen and asked, “What color is this?” directing her question at me, now, instead of at the Thai interpreter kneeling on the floor beside me.  It was a ball point with a red body and a white top.  Impatient as she seemed, she probably wasn’t trying to elicit detail, so I answered simply, “Daeng.”  Red.

The medium shut her eyes and grabbed the pen in both hands, tugging roughly at the shaft several times.  Opening her eyes, she opened the hand that had done the tugging and held up a red, one half by one inch rectangle.  It looked like plastic.  The crowd murmured, “Way, Way,” and the interpreter next to me reinforced the message:  “Way her, Way her.”  I raised my hands in a prayer like gesture and bowed in front of the medium.  She reached out and deposited in my hand a plastic image of Luang Phaw Sya.  The interpreter and several Thais around me looked at it eagerly and stroked it.  “Nim, nim.  Yang rawn yuu.”  It’s soft.  And it’s still warm.  I was mystified as to the significance of these observations.

“You’re very lucky,” said the interpreter.  “Luang Phaw Sya must have really liked you to have performed that miracle for you right away.  Some people wait for a year or more before he does that for them.”

Maybe he realized I hadn’t lied, I thought to myself.

“Luang Phaw Sya did that for me the first day too,” chimed in a woman behind the interpreter.

Annoyance flickered briefly across his face.  He handed me a small cellophane envelope.  “You can keep the image in here.”  I slipped it in and thought better of my instinct to tuck it in my pocket.  If this was on the up-and-up, I didn’t want to take any chances.

“Well, what do you think?” the medium demanded loudly.  The murmuring died away, the crowd awaiting my response.  I pulled myself together and decided that this was not the time to start lying.

“I don’t know.  I’m confused.  It could be a miracle.  It could be a trick.”

“The foreigner says it could be a trick,” the medium announced with a smirk.

“I wasn’t expecting what you did and didn’t really see clearly what happened.  Anyway, what does all this have to do with Wipassana meditation?” I asked, irritated.

“Nothing, nothing,” answered the interpreter next to me.  “It’s just a way of getting people interested.”

I decided that all this was more confusing than enlightening and that it was time to leave.  “Ca pay diaw nii.”  I’m going to leave now.

“Khraap,” said the interpreter.  I khraaped by placing both palms on the floor in front of me and lowering my head between them in a standard gesture of respect for a priest.  Rising, I backed out of the room on my knees, and the crowd reabsorbed the space created for me to depart.

“That was interesting,” I said to Ajarn Boon Mii out in the hall.  “I honestly don’t know what to make of it.”  We walked toward the door.  “Thank you very much for all your help.  I’m going to have to think this over.  I have an appointment with Ajarn Vinai tomorrow at five.  I’ll see you then.”

“Fine, fine.  See you tomorrow.”

. . .

The next day, Tuesday, I returned to Thammasat University and met many of my old friends, including Ajarn Yura, a woman who had shared an office with me for one year, thirteen years ago.  That was the first year I lived in Thailand.  During that year, I suffered from the deepest phase of culture shock, and it was not until the latter months that I began to lose some of my tremendous insecurity and to feel O.K. in the Thai culture.  This emergence took place too late, however, for me to open up to Ajarn Yura as a friend, so for the year I treated her either hostilely, privately critical of her and the culture she represented, or indifferently.  However, on my subsequent visits to Thailand and Thammasat, Ajarn Yura was always the one member of the faculty to whom I felt closest.  If I didn’t get to see her, my visits felt incomplete.

Last year, Ajarn Yura was particularly interested in my intention to practice Wipassana meditation.  She prepared a little kit of items to make my week more pleasant:  a thermos to keep water hot in case I wanted a cup of tea, a box of Chinese tea, a can of Mali brand sweetened condensed milk, a cup and saucer, and a pinto to put my food in.

A pinto is a stack of nested containers, the bottom of one capping the top of the one below.  One removable cover caps the uppermost container.  A metal strap bent into a deep rectangular “U” cradles the stack.  The base of the bottom container is supported by the inside bottom of the “U.” The sides of the containers are confined by the upright side straps.  The tops of these straps are bent out into upside down “J’s”.  A clamp engages the hooks of the “J’s”.  Snapping it shut squeezes the sides of the straps against the sides of the containers and presses down on the top lid, compressing the stack into a tight unit.

Every noon throughout the city, smiling fourteen year old girls in long phaa sins, wrap around skirts of brightly colored cotton, chatter animatedly with food sellers in Bangkok’s 20,000 restaurants as different soups, salads, noodles, curries, and fruits are ladled into the containers for transportation and, ultimately, consumption.

Ajarn Yura had picked me up at Wat Pleeng at the end of my week of meditation last year and listened intently to my report.  She also had directly observed my tranquility.  During the subsequent months, she had begun to study Buddhism seriously, particularly the writings of some of Thailand’s most revered Buddhist teachers of Wipassana meditation.  Thus, when we met again this year, our conversation did not stop at the completion of phatic pleasantries:  How’s your family?  How’s your work?  These completed over the customary lunch with other colleagues, Ajarn Yura and I sat down in her office.  She opened her desk and pulled out a small paperback with a confusing purple cover.  The title looked standard enough:  looping Thai script embellished with dots, circles, commas, and little eyebrows above and below the line.  The picture below it, however, was the profile of a seated brown skinned Egyptian deity passing carbon copies of his head down to three miniature headless bodies.  The head so transmitted was a single large eye.  I was about to ask what the point of the picture was when Ajarn Yura pointed to the writing and spoke.  “Do you know about this man?”

I stared at the letters:  sa, w, saw, sawa, sawan, sawan… .  At this rate, it would be minutes before I figured it out!  If only the Thai script indicated word boundaries, I wouldn’t have to go through all this trial and error.  “No.  What does it say?”

Ajarn Yura read the title and then the name of the author:  Phuthathaat.  “Sure.  He’s one of Thailand’s most famous priests.  In fact, he’s got an international reputation.”  I had heard of him a year ago from an American friend here in Thailand, Sam, when I was just being introduced to Buddhism.

“I want to translate this book of his into English.  It’s a wonderful little book.  Would you like to help me?”

I pondered the pros and cons.  My reading knowledge of Thai was limited.  I used to be able to read, albeit slowly, in my professional area, but I was really rusty now.  I wouldn’t be able to do the first draft of the translation.  But I had done a fair amount of reading on the subject in English and I did have a feeling for what words conveyed the messages most clearly.  Also, I had had a fair amount of direct experience with Wipassana, so I could provide some input there.  And I could certainly edit the English itself.  And, no doubt, I’d learn a lot more about Buddhism.  Hey!  This was a reputable academic project, and it tied in perfectly with almost everything else I was doing on this trip.  No one needed to know it was decided on after-the-fact.  I could write the whole thing off!  “I’ll do it.”

Ajarn Yura gave me some more reading material:  a couple more paperbacks and a Xerox copy of something or other I never got straightened out.  “Wait a minute.  I’m going to have my hands full with the one book.”  I passed back most of the other material.   “By the way, have you seen this?”

I handed Ajarn Yura the two books by Ajarn Vinai and Ajarn Naeb.  She looked briefly at them and asked, “Penyangai bang?”  How are they?

“They’re excellent!  They made more sense to me than anything else I have read.  Now I think I understand the real purpose of Wipassana meditation.  I was real fuzzy about it last year.  In fact, I think what I actually practiced at Wat Pleeng was tranquil meditation.  Of course, it was my fault.  They played a lot of recorded lectures about Wipassana, and the head Ajarn lectured in person about it for a few minutes every evening before the group meditation.  But my Thai just wasn’t good enough to follow them closely.  Particularly with all the Pali words.”  I then told Ajarn Yura about talking with Ajarn Vinai on the phone and, later, encountering the medium.  “This afternoon, the medium will perform again.  After that she does some healing.  I’m going to go over to watch.”

“Would you mind if I come along?”  Ajarn Yura asked.

“Not at all.  Are you free?”

“Chai.  Waang thang baay.”  Yes, I’m free all afternoon.

It was shortly before three o’clock.  I had hoped to be able to get to Wat Pho before three to see the medium do some more miracles, but by the time we arrived the show was over.  The medium had already started with the healing program in another room.  Ajarn Boon Mii spotted the two of us standing at the book counter and hurried over.  I introduced Ajarn Yura to him and they chatted for a few minutes.  Then Ajarn Boon Mii said to the two of us, “I’d like to have you meet Mr. Tom, a Farang from America.  Ajarn Boon Mii followed the Thai practice of using only first names, even in introductions.  He beckoned to a “Farang,” a foreigner, a balding westerner in loose fitting pants and a northern Thai style collarless shirt that hung down to his hips.  Mr. Tom came in and we shook hands.

“I’m Adrian Palmer.  I’m interested in Wipassana meditation.  This is Ajarn Yura from Thammasat University.”  Everyone waied in greeting.

“You’ve come to the right place.  Let’s go in there and talk,” Mr. Tom said, pointing to an empty room near the entrance.

We sat down on opposite sides of a plain, wooden table.  “Do you mind if I smoke?”  Mr. Tom asked me.

“Not as long as it doesn’t blow in my face.”

Then began a ten minute, animated hype of the institute’s Wipassana instruction program, full of superlatives and completely devoid of concrete detail.  I couldn’t even figure out when he finished if he had ever practiced Wipassana himself or even knew what it was.  “You know, I’d be dead if it weren’t for Lrr Phrr Shrr,” he concluded.

Ajarn Yura must have seen my confused expression following the three unexpected Chinese words at the end of Mr. Tom’s sentence.  She leaned over and whispered, “Luang Phaw Sya,” correcting Mr. Tom’s pronunciation.

Mystified as to the connection between the conclusion and the preceding promotion, I probed deeper.  “How’s that?”

“I was a very sick man.  Western doctors here couldn’t do a thing.  Then I heard about Lrr Phrr Shrr.  He saved my life twice.”

This description was beginning to sound like Mr. Tom’s previous explanation of the Wipassana program.  “Specifically, what did Luang Phaw Sya do?”  I asked.

“I’ve lived in Thailand for thirteen years, and I’m married to a Thai woman, but I can’t speak Thai.  Ten years ago, before I was married, two women put curses on me.  One was a Cambodian.  The other was a Thai.  The Cambodian caused a pair of scissors to materialize inside my body.  The Thai put in a broken piece of a fang about this long.”  Mr. Tom held up his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.

“Well, I went to Lrr Phrr Shrr.  Several western doctors came along.  They stood right next to me and watched everything.  Lrr Phrr Shrr removed the scissors and fang without touching my body.  Afterwards, one of the western doctors told me that on the basis of what she had just seen, she had to revise everything she had previously believed about western medicine.”  Mr. Tom was breathing rapidly.  He took a drag on his cigarette and exhaled.  I turned and stared into the next room, the one that the medium had just vacated.

“Well, that’s pretty impressive, but what does it have to do with Wipassana meditation?”

“Nothing.  Nothing.  But Lrr Phrr Shrr is an Aorahaan.  Not just an ordinary Aorahaan.  Lots of other famous Thai priests people call Aorahaans aren’t really Aorahaans at all.  Lrr Phrr Shrr is extremely high.  In fact, he’s so high he could just stay where he is now for 6000 years without doing a thing, just enjoying himself.  You know, earth time runs much faster than time in the astral planes.  That’s why it’s so good to be down here.  You can get much more done in a short length of time.”

It all sounded reasonable enough if I could accept a few initial premises.  “Why doesn’t he just stay there, then?”

“Well, he makes such little progress toward Nirvana.  He can’t make any merit there, since everyone is perfect.  That’s why he comes down here through the medium to help people.  The medium is Ajarn Buun Mii’s daughter,” he added as an afterthought.

I recalled the medium’s high forehead and bright, intense eyes, like Ajarn Buun Mii’s.  Of course!  He had probably told me in Thai and I just hadn’t understood.  I wondered to myself whether Mr. Tom was married to her, but I decided that to ask would be to risk a major social blunder.  “What’s the medium doing now?”

“She’s over there healing people.  Every afternoon Lrr Phrr Shrr heals people here at Wat Pho.  Several other angels come down to help out too.”

“Can we go watch?”

“Of course.”

The three of us got up and headed toward a large room full of folding chairs.  Mr. Tom chattered on.  “The medium has leukemia and only one kidney.  Two years ago, the doctors gave her less than one day to live.  The next day, when she was still alive, they said it was impossible.  Now they keep extending the amount of time she has as she passes their deadlines.  The latest prediction is one more year.  Lrr Phrr Shrr keeps her alive so that he can help people.”

Mr. Tom led us to the front of a surprisingly noisy room.  People chatted irreverently, and chairs scraped and banged as they got up and sat down.  Mr. Tom waied the medium and greeted her cheerfully in English, interrupting her incantations.  “Tell Lrr Phrr Shrr ‘Hello’ from his son,” Mr. Tom said to a Thai fellow in English.  The Thai translated quickly and the medium responded in Thai with a laugh.  The translator turned to Mr. Tom.  “Luang Phaw Sya says you are his only Farang son!”  Then the medium’s gaze fell on me.

“Hey, that’s the foreigner who was here yesterday.  He said what I did was only a trick!” she announced to the room full of people.

“I said I didn’t know if it was a trick or if it was the real thing.  I didn’t see clearly,” I defended, wondering just how long this public debate between me and the medium was going to go on.  The medium turned back to her patient, and I sat down, perspiring, next to Ajarn Yura who leaned over and spoke to me gently.

“You can ask Luang Phaw Sya anything.  Do you have any kind of sickness you want to be cured?”

“No.  I feel fine.”

“Well, you could ask her if you have any disease you don’t know about.”

For the first time in the past two days, I was really afraid.  My chest felt cold and empty, and my arms broke out in a clammy sweat.  My legs trembled.  “No.  I’m not going to ask that.  I’m very confused by all this.  Suppose she says I have some horrible disease.  And suppose it’s the real thing.”

“Are you afraid?” Ajarn Yura asked softly.

“Yes.”

“You don’t have to be afraid.”

I remembered by daughter, Vivi, breaking out in tears when her mother told her that the two of them had to move to another city three weeks ago.  I had knelt on the floor next to her, put my arms around her, and stroked her back.  “It’s O.K. to be afraid, Vivi.  It’s O.K.  It’s O.K.”

“But I am afraid, Ajarn.  Even if this whole thing is just a show, I’ll worry about what she says.  I don’t want to worry.  I want to practice Wipassana.  That’s what I came here for.”  I didn’t add that I was also afraid that if the medium was not Luang Phaw Sya, she might have been personally offended by me and try to take revenge by scaring me.

“I’ll go first,” said Ajarn Yura.  I’ll ask her to cure my sore throat.”

Someone behind Ajarn Yura handed her a tooled aluminum tray attached to a little pedestal.  On it lay several little yellow candles, three sticks of incense, and three long stemmed flowers.  The petals had not yet opened–if they ever did–and appeared to be densely compressed into white buds the size and shape of avocado seeds.  Ajarn Yura got up, walked the six feet to the medium, and presented her with the tray.  The medium accepted it, set it casually on the table next to her, and started questioning Ajarn Yura.

“Listen to that voice.  It’s like a man’s,” said the Thai behind me.  “And when Luang Phaw Sya has taken over her body, she walks bent over like an old man.”

I listened to the medium.  A patter of syllables danced up and down between the various levels in the Thai tone system.  It didn’t sound particularly masculine to me.  I had been addressed in that tone many times by women in the markets.

“It sounds like a woman’s voice to me,” I replied.  “Of course, I don’t know what her normal speaking voice is like.”

A sudden hiss caught my attention, and I turned to my left.  Red coals glowed in a clay brazier, heating up a sheet of steel above it.  A barefooted Thai man in his fifties in blue dress slacks and a white shirt sat on a chair next to the fire pot.  Lying on the floor in front of him on a white plastic mat was a shirtless man whose pants were rolled up to his knees.  His lumpy legs looked curiously sausage like, pasty skin tightly packed with an amorphous mass of gristle.  I wondered if he could walk.

The translator took the seat behind me and leaned over my shoulder.  “All those people are healing the sick,” he said, nodding in the direction of the man I was watching and three others like him at four identical stations around the room.  “Angels actually do the healing.  The people are only mediums.”

It would take a good-sized operation to handle all these people, I thought.  I looked around and estimated that the room held at least a hundred patients.  The patient whom I had started watching was now undergoing treatment.  The medium picked up a jar, daubed a lumpy yellow paste from it onto the patient’s legs, and massaged it into his skin.

“That’s ginger and…” volunteered the Thai behind me.  I didn’t understand the word that described the liquid component.

The patient’s afflicted legs anointed, the medium picked up two light yellow sticks about three feet long and an inch and a half in diameter:  saplings from which the bark had been skinned off.  Pressing the shaft of one of the sticks against the patient’s Achilles tendon, he bumped it up his calf to the back of his knee with little blows of the second stick.  A series of taps in the opposite direction nudged the stick back down to the patient’s ankle.  The medium repeated the process on the other leg and set the sticks aside.

Swinging to the side, he lifted his right foot, quickly dipped his heel in a white bowl containing a clear liquid, and touched it momentarily to the surface of the hot metal above the brazier.  The liquid vaporized with a hiss and ignited with a poof.  The medium then pressed his warm heel against several parts of the patient’s leg.  When he repeated the process a second time, I looked more closely at the liquid.  It looked like water, on the surface of which floated patches of oil.  That would explain both the steam and the ignition.  The treatment completed, the patient rose to unsteady feet and wobbled away.  I wondered if that constituted an improvement over his original condition.

In the station to the right of the podiatrist, a young woman in her twenties wearing a knee length green skirt sat before another medium, a nondescript man who could have been a clerk in any government office.  Eyes closed, she appeared to be in a trance.  A low humming filtered through the conversation, scraping, and clatter around me.  Its source I finally placed at an empty space about one foot in front of the patient.  This struck me as unusual, so I listened more carefully and examined the woman’s face.  Though the sound must have been coming from her, I could identify no physical activity on her part associated with its production.  Nor did the specific origin of the sound appear to be the patient herself.

“She’s possessed by a spirit,” said the Thai behind me.

The medium reached out, grasped the patient’s limp arms, and massaged them.  Then he pursed his lips and blew in her face.  The patient’s body stiffened and a wave of suffering crossed her face.  He pursed and blew again.  The patient’s forearms lifted and her hands clinched into tight fists.  Three women standing nearby gathered around her, grasping her arms.  The patient’s body stiffened and began to writhe.  Puff.  The corners of her mouth retracted and her clinched fists trembled.  Looking strangely unconcerned, the assistants struggled to prevent her arms from contracting inward to her breasts.  Puff.  Her upper body twisted to the left until it faced nearly backward and her stomach began to heave.  Puff.  Her teeth opened and a lumpy brown stream spewed into a container shoved under head just in time.  Contraction after contraction pumped the contents of her stomach into the white porcelain bowl until, exhausted, the patient’s body relaxed, her head hanging limply between shoulders supported by the assistants.  A frothy yellow blob swung from her lower lip.

One assistant wiped it off with a towel, and the others helped her to her feet as the medium motioned her away with a casual wave, his attention already on the next patient in line.

With no more auditory evidence to the contrary, I assumed that whatever had been bothering the patient had been taken care of, and I looked back at Ajarn Yura, whose forehead was being daubed with a white paste.  Sticking her finger in a pot of water and then in a jar of powder for a refill, the medium painted additional blotches on Ajarn Yura’s temples.

“That’s holy water in that pot,” explained my advisor.

I stood up for a better look.  Floating in the water, which looked ordinary enough, were a number of yellow blobs.  The medium picked up about twenty candles bound together with several rubber bands.  Igniting the wicks from another candle, she inverted them over the water.  The flames went out, and looking somewhat irritated she relit them.  Black flecks of ash floated upward on the liquefied surface of the candle tips as wax dropped into the water and floated to the surface.

The medium left the fresh blobs bobbing in the holy water and turned back to Ajarn Yura.  Opening her mouth, she plunged the burning tips of the candles deep inside, withdrew them quickly before they went out, and blew a cloud of smoke in Ajarn Yura’s face.  Ajarn Yura grimaced.  Mouthing more smoke, the medium puffed out her cheeks and expelled it toward Ajarn Yura with a poof.  Smoke evidently played an important role in the medium’s performance, for she then shook a Krung Tip cigarette out of a pack on the table, lit up, took a deep drag, and exhaled through red stained teeth.  I wondered, absently, if cigarettes were around at the time Luang Phaw Sya was alive.

I looked at my watch.  It was nearly five.  My appointment with Ajarn Vinai was for five.  How much longer was this going to take?

The medium dipped a finger into the water, dabbed it into the same jar of white powder, and said something to Ajarn Yura, who tilted her head back and opened her mouth wide.  The medium stuck in her finger and smeared the paste on Ajarn Yura’s soft palate.  Ajarn Yura gagged, and I wondered if she was going to vomit.  Apparently not, for she survived a second application.  Her treatment was over, for she bowed her head, waied her respects, and returned to her seat beside me.

“We’d better go,” I said.  “It’s five o’clock.  I can get my treatment another time.”  I was off the hook.

Ajarn Yura and I got up and walked to the back, where I stood wondering where to go to meet Ajarn Vinai.  A loud gagging suddenly erupted from the front of the room.  The medium was in convulsions.  Her body went rigid three times, then relaxed.  She opened her eyes and shook her head several times.  Two women knelt in front of her and massaged her feet and calves, reaching inside the loose, yellow pantaloons wet with patches of vomit.

“Luang Phaw Sya’s spirit has left her,” noted Ajarn Yura.

“Evidently.”

We headed for Ajarn Buun Mii’s office.  Inside, a man I hadn’t seen before sat at a desk looking at a book.  He noticed us at the door, rose, and came over, extending his hand.  “Hello, I’m Vinai.”

We shook hands and I introduced myself.  “I’m Adrian Palmer.  And this is Ajarn Yura.”

Ajarn Yura and Ajarn Vinai waied each other, and we chatted in English.  Dressed neatly in grey slacks and an open collared short sleeved shirt, Ajarn Vinai looked to be in his late thirties.  His relaxed, open face was set off by thick black hair, and he smiled as we chatted.  After a few minutes, he motioned to an empty classroom across the hall and said, “Shall we go in there?”

“Fine,” I replied.

“Do you mind if I come along?” Ajarn Yura asked.

“By all means,” Ajarn Vinai replied cordially.

We walked into the classroom and Ajarn Yura and I sat down at a large table while Ajarn Vinai switched on a ceiling fan.  Standing next to a blackboard, he started talking in English about the Buddhist science.  He began by distinguishing two types of meditation:  Tranquil Meditation, which he called TM, and Insight Meditation, which he called IM.  He classified the differences into three categories:  different objects of meditation, different levels of concentration, and different effects.

“There are two different objects of meditation, corresponding to two fundamentally different types of reality.  One is called Conventional Reality.  The other is Ultimate Reality.  Conventional Reality is the reality of symbols and names of categories.  Symbols used in Conventional Reality are words, numbers, signs, sentences, and so on, and the mental categories these symbols represent.  For example, the sentence, ‘That man is impolite,’ expresses Conventional Reality in terms of three ideas:  the idea of a man, the idea of impoliteness, and the idea of attribution.  In other words, Conventional Reality is the reality of what we think.

“Ultimate Reality, on the other hand, is the reality of what we experience directly.  For example, if we put our hand in a pan of water, Ultimate Reality is the sensations we experience and their causes, as opposed to the words we used to classify the experience, ‘hot,’ or the causes, ‘molecular energy.’  To take another example, if we see a person interrupting another person, we might think–or say–’That man is impolite for interrupting that other person.’  The ideas in that thought, though not the neurological activity per se, are purely Conventional Reality.  They are the symbols by which we characterize the situation in our heads.  The Ultimate Reality is simply a set of visual and auditory stimuli–light and sound waves–and our perception, but not our conception, of them.

“The first difference between Tranquil Meditation and Insight Meditation, then, is the object of meditation.  In Tranquil Meditation, the object of meditation–what our awareness is on–is Conventional Reality.  In Insight Meditation, the object of meditation is Ultimate Reality.”

Ajarn Yura stood up and said she needed to make a phone call, and I reflected on what Ajarn Vinai had just said.  The distinction between conventional and ultimate reality was certainly familiar to me.  I had heard about it from numerous sources, both academic and popular.  The one that came immediately to mind was a three hour lecture by Werner Erhard, the originator of EST, I had heard last Christmas vacation in San Diego.  He contrasted two different experiences of a meal.  In one, which he called “eating the menu,” the participant is caught up in what he thinks about the food and is never really experiencing the present moment.  He is either anticipating the next bite–or the next course–or he is reflecting on what he has just eaten, all the time oblivious of what is in his mouth.  In the other experience, which Werner called “eating the food, the participant is continuously aware of the taste as it arises.  At that time, I believed this Conventional-Ultimate Reality distinction to be a fairly modern one.  Finding out that it went back 2500 years set me to wondering just how much of western thought was original and how much was derivative.

Suddenly, I felt nervous, agitated.  “You know, I only have two weeks before I have to go to Khon Kaen.  When do you think I can go to Omn Noi to begin practicing?’

Ajarn Vinai paused briefly but didn’t answer.  After a minute, he continued lecturing about the differences between Tranquil Meditation and Insight Meditation.

“Second, Tranquil and Insight Meditation involve two different levels of concentration.  Tranquil meditation requires deep concentration, deep enough to prevent new sensation from arising.  One name for this level of concentration is ‘Samadhi.’  An example of this level would be concentrating upon the meaning of a word such as ‘Love’ to the point that it prevents one from being aware of sounds, tactile feelings, physical pain, smells, and so on.”

“Is Tranquil Meditation the same as Transcendental Meditation?” I asked?

“Sort of.  Tranquil Meditation is the name of a general type of meditation, one whose purpose is to produce tranquility.  Transcendental Meditation is a brand name for a specific form of Tranquil Meditation that someone has marketed.”  Ajarn Vinai returned to his lecture.

“In contrast to Tranquil Meditation, Insight Meditation involves only momentary concentration.  The basic reason for this is found in the Buddhist theory of Ultimate Reality.  In Buddhist science, perception of objects of Ultimate Reality are believed to exist for only very brief periods of time.  Since deep levels of concentration, by definition, extend over long periods of time, they would prevent the awareness of the extremely rapid rising and falling away of the causes and perceptions of objects of Ultimate Reality–which are the only permissible objects of meditation in Insight Meditation.”

Ajarn Yura returned from the telephone and sat down again.  Ajarn Vinai continued.  “Finally, the two types of meditation differ in their effects–their purposes.  Tranquil Meditation produces subtle tranquility and happiness by subduing, but not eliminating, ‘defilements of mind.’  These are states of mind such as craving, aversion, or ignorance.  Now, while this kind of happiness is genuine and useful, it is also temporary and does nothing to permanently remove the defilements.  They will crop up again and cause unhappiness as soon as the tranquil meditation is over.

“Insight Meditation, on the other hand, is concerned with the accumulation and development of wisdom, wisdom with respect to the ultimate reality of life:  the way things are.  The way things are in Buddhist theory of reality is contained in four principles, called the ‘Four Noble Truths.’  These are as follows:  first, the nature of Dukkha, traditionally and somewhat misleadingly translated as ‘suffering;’ second, the causes of suffering; third, the goal of life–which is the cessation of suffering; and fourth, the path leading to the goal–how to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate suffering.”

Through the glass partition behind Ajarn Vinai I saw a man carrying a tray.  He came around to the door, knocked, and entered, his upper body bent forward slightly.  Setting the tray on the table, he took several steps backward on slightly bent knees before finally turning around and walking out, fully erect by the time he had reached the door.

“Would you like some coffee?” Ajarn Vinai asked.

“Thanks.”

I dropped three lumps of rather powdery sugar into the cup and inverted a can of milk with the name, ‘Bear Brand,’ imprinted on its white label.  The viscous liquid oozed from a tiny hole punched in one side of the top and stretched slowly downward toward the black liquid in a vertical, white strand.  I wiggled it around, dragging the strand along the surface of the hot coffee.  Partially melted, the sweetened milk enveloped a dissolving lump of sugar on the bottom of the cup.  Why did they have to punch such small holes in these cans?

I pierced the soggy mound with the tip of a spoon and swirled it around.  So that is what Insight Meditation is all about.  It’s a teaching device!  I never really had that straight last year at Wat Pleeng–  and all year after that, when I sat for twenty minutes every night before going to bed.  What was I doing?  I know I thought that it would help me.  I guess I thought it would somehow get me in touch with myself.  Maybe it would help me accept myself more–just looking at my thoughts and feelings every night.  But nothing ever really seemed to happen.  I just sat and sat and thought afterward that I had done something worthwhile.  I guess I did feel better, though.  It slowed me down.

A chingchoke, a little house lizard with splayed toes, clung to the ceiling next to a fluorescent tube.  A black dot moved in front of it and vanished.  I had barely perceived the blur of the chingchoke’s head.

Ajarn Vinai expanded on the first of the four Noble Truths, the nature of suffering.  “Suffering is wanting things to be different than they are:  either wanting something that does not presently exist or wanting the elimination of something that does presently exist.  Wanting of either sort, desire or aversion, appears in different degrees:  strong craving which we are very aware of and which dominates our consciousness; and weak craving, subtle craving which we may be totally unaware of but which, nevertheless, affects our state of mind and our experience of reality.”

The chingchoke snapped again and another mosquito disappeared.  Thank God for chingchokes!  The mosquitoes in Thailand are already terrible.  What would it be like if there were no predators?  I stared into my cup of coffee.  Craving.  Another familiar theme.  A couple of years ago, I spent several months reading Ken Keys’ Handbook to Higher Consciousness and learning about craving:  addiction, he called it.  His whole theory made perfect sense, but I had trouble making most of his methods for reducing my craving work.  He did say that the theory came largely from Buddhism.

Ajarn Yura left the room again.  She must have been having trouble getting through on the phone.  I wondered if it was the phone system?  You never knew whom you were going to reach when you dialed.  Actually, it was kind of fun…an adventure.  I laughed to myself.  Last night was hilarious.  Al, a friend of mine, was calling his girlfriend long distance in the States.  Her name was Billy Jo.  The operator said, “Billy Joe.  Pen phuu chay, chay may?”  That’s a boy, isn’t it?

“May.  Pen phuu ying.”  No, it’s a girl, said Al.

“Are you sure?  Billy’s a boy’s name.”  The operator pronounced it “biilii,” as if it were a Thai name, with two long vowels and a falling tone on the last syllable.

“I know.  This girl just happens to have a boy’s name.”

“How is it spelled?  B I L L I E?”

“No.  B I L L Y.”

“Eh?  That’s strange.  A girl’s name spelled like that.”

“I know.  It is strange.  But it’s the truth.”

“It must be your daughter.”

“No.  As a matter of fact, it’s my girlfriend.”

“She must be really pretty.”

“She certainly is.  That’s how I know she’s a girl.”

“Chay.”  Of course.  “Just a minute.  I’ll ring…”

“That’s what I love about Thailand,” Al had said while waiting for the call to go through.  “These long distance operators will flirt with you for fifteen minutes at a time.  They love to get hold of a Farang who can speak Thai.”

“God.  The operators in the States would never get away with that,” I said.

 

“I know.  But this is Thailand.  Everything is personal.”I sipped my coffee slowly and tasted it.  Why not be in the present right now?  I can stretch this one cup out over the whole evening.  Ajarn Vinai continued to elaborate on the first two of the four Noble Truths:  the nature of suffering and its causes.

“Actually, there are three meanings of Dukkha.  One is the suffering that is the effect of not getting what you want.  Another is a special meaning of suffering:  the inability of any cause or experience in ultimate reality to maintain its original state.  It’s too bad–Dukkha–that nothing is permanent.”

I nodded.

“And the third meaning of Dukkha is the feelings of pain, either physical pain such as you feel in the body when you sit too long in one position; or mental pain such as sadness, frustration, or anger.”  Ajarn Vinai wrote the three meanings of Dukkha on the blackboard and concluded.

“The goal of life, the third Noble Truth, is the cessation of all three forms of suffering.  That’s called Nibbhana:  Nirvana.”

I finished copying the definitions down in my notebook and looked at them.  No wonder I had always been confused by the term “Dukkha.”  I had never gotten all those meanings straight before.  Ajarn Vinai handed me a glass of weak tea as I stared at the definitions.  I took a sip, swished it around in my mouth, and swallowed it.  Rinse off some of that sugar.

“O.K.  I can see how by reducing craving I can begin immediately to make my life happier.  The less I demand that things be different than they are, the less I will suffer.  But what about the third kind of Dukkha:  physical and mental pain?  Aren’t they inevitable?”

Ajarn Vinai smiled.  “Actually, and this is getting ahead of ourselves a bit, one ultimately comes to realize that we create the various sense organs through which we experience pain.  We create them by our unwholesome deeds in our past lives.  To keep from experiencing suffering in the future requires stopping the rebirth cycle.  And this is not the same thing as dying.  That is only temporary.  Of course, this is just an idea at this point.  You have no direct experience of this.  And it’s not necessary for you to believe it in order to experience immediate benefits from Insight Meditation.  You can simply use Insight Meditation to begin to develop wisdom–direct experience with the way things are.  You know, when I talk about Wipassana Meditation, I don’t like to do so to promote Buddhism.  I just like to make people aware of it as a technique for learning to be happier right now.”

I stared at the word, “Nirvana,” on the blackboard.  Yes.  It all fit logically.  Who knew?  It might even be true.  Six blades above my head stirred the air.  Hey!  I wasn’t even uncomfortable, even in this heat.  My heart thumped slowly, evenly.  I guessed I had gotten over that craving to get started with my meditation practice as soon as possible.  Ajarn Vinai probably realized that I wasn’t in a good state to begin and just gave me some time to notice it myself.  I’d just let what happens happen.  I checked my watch.  It was 8:30.

“Are you free tomorrow evening?”

“Yes,” I answered.  “I don’t have any plans.”

“I’ll meet you here at five o’clock, then.  We can continue to study.  How do you feel about what you’ve learned?”

“Very good.  I realize now that I could waste a lot of time practicing without knowing why or how.  I really appreciate your taking your time to teach me.”

Ajarn Vinai smiled, and the three of us walked to the door.

“Thank you very much, Ajarn,” Ajarn Yura said with a wai.

“May pen ray.”  Don’t mention it.

. . .

 

Traffic in Bangkok is unpredictable.  One evening, there was a flood out in the low lying suburbs and a fire near a main intersection.  It had taken a friend of mine who worked near that intersection four hours to drive the two miles to the onramp to a super highway, then only twenty minutes to drive the next twenty kilometers home.  Other days, the whole trip took only forty minutes.  I wanted to be sure to be on time for my next meeting with Ajarn Vinai, so I left well in advance.  Traffic was lighter than usual, and I arrived at Wat Pho forty-five minutes early.  Looking for a place to sit down and read, I spotted a restaurant on the corner, just across from the entrance to the Abhidhamma Foundation.

The restaurant opened directly onto both the main front thanon and the side soi.  Thanons are large thoroughfares; sois are lanes or side streets.  In the front corner of the restaurant a charcoal brazier glowed under a large, steel wok.  A glass cabinet held several kinds of noodles, vegetables, and sauces compiled in a blur by a Chinese looking fellow in his teens listening to a Walkman.  He took his orders in sign language from a nuu who waited on the fifteen tables, their tops wrapped in scarred, low-grade stainless steel.  The literal meaning of nuu is “rat.”  It is also used, however, to mean “kid,” and carries with it an affectionate feeling.  When I was married and lived in Thailand, I called my daughter, Vivi, “Nuu.”

The grimy white walls of the restaurant were coated with a film of pollution:  grey haze–the blow-by from taxi engines with collapsed piston rings; black soot from diesel engines with worn fuel injector nozzles; and oily blue residue from tens of thousands of 50-125cc two-stroke motorcycles.  Thai law forbade the sale of anything larger.

Dusty fluorescent tubes hung from fixtures on a ceiling crisscrossed by after-the-fact electrical wiring.  Buildings were built first.  The wiring was stapled on later where needed.  I followed one cable up to a corner where it was joined by others from six different directions.  It looked like a railroad switching yard.  Well, at least it was all out in the open.  It would be easy to fix if anything shorted out.  A nuu tapped a switch near the back of the room and the tube above me flickered, glowed, and then flickered, the ends a dull orange.  Probably the transformer was shot.

I headed for an empty table near the center of the room.  Seated at a table to its right was a lone man in a white shirt who smiled at me as I passed and said in English, “Good evening.”  Hardly looking at him, I replied, “Good evening,” sat down at my table, and pulled Ajarn Vinai’s book from a Longman’s book bag I had gotten at a convention a couple of years ago.  I wanted to review a chapter before I met Ajarn Vinai.

A nuu strolled up and stood by casually.  “Naam soda, thawnan.”  Just some soda water, I said.  Flipping to the chapter on “The Practice of Insight Meditation,” I started to read, highlighting occasional lines with a yellow magic marker.  My soda was placed on the table, and I reached out mechanically to pour it into the adjacent glass of ice.

“May I sit down?”  It was the Thai man from the next table.

“Cheun.”  Sure.

I wondered what he wanted.  Probably he wanted to practice English.  And I had this chapter to read.  I noticed a bit of irritation rising and started thinking about it.  It wasn’t his fault.  He was just being friendly.  How could he know I didn’t want to talk?  Well, I wasn’t going to.  Staring at Ajarn Vinai’s book, I suddenly recalled his description of a particular kind of Tranquil Meditation for use when upset.  Well, I was upset now–a bit.  Meetaa Meetaa, Meetaa Meetaa, Meetaa Meetaa.  I mentally distributed Meetaa, loving kindness, in all six directions:  up and down, front and back, left and right.  Meetaa Meetaa.  I broadcast a couple more in his direction just to make sure.  I was feeling slightly guilty.

For the next twenty minutes I studied.  At ten minutes before five, the Thai man, who had been sitting quietly at my table doing nothing, stood up.

“Good bye.  See you later.”  He walked to the cashier at the front of the store.

See you later?  I stared at him.  My God!  It was Ajarn Vinai!  Jumping up, I ran to him.  “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t recognize you.  I wasn’t expecting you and I didn’t recognize you.”  I stretched out my hand.  Ajarn Vinai took it between his and held it.

“That’s all right.  Please don’t worry.  I’ll see you at 5:00.”  I looked at him.  There was no trace of irritation on his face.

I walked back to my chair, sat down, and picked up my book, but my mind was on what had just happened.  God!  Just yesterday I had spent three hours looking at him.  Now he sat down with me for twenty minutes and I didn’t even recognize him.  If only I had paid more attention.  But how could he expect me to recognize him?  After all…all Thais… . I stopped.  Wait a minute.  Now I’m making him wrong!  What had I just read about conventional reality and ultimate reality?  As long as I kept thinking about conventional reality, it would create the feeling of being upset.  But if I just noted ultimate reality, it would eventually pass.  Everything did.

I leaned back in my chair and noticed how I felt.  My stomach was tense.  My chest felt tight and a bit cold.  My ears rang.  After a few moments, I lost my concentration and started thinking about the situation…I had to see him in ten minutes; what would he think?  Then I caught myself thinking and went back to noticing my feelings.  Back and forth between thoughts and feelings I oscillated.  Finally, I noticed that when I tried to become aware of my feelings, the ones that had bothered me were no longer there.  I thought about the situation again, the one that had caused the feelings.  Interesting.  It didn’t make me feel bad any more.

Getting up, I put Ajarn Vinai’s book back in my bag.  “Thawrai, khrap?”  How much is it?

“Haa baat.”  Five baht.

I handed the waitress a five baht coin and put another two baht on the table.  Although tipping is not customary in Thailand, it wouldn’t hurt.  I had sat there a long time without spending much money.

“Well, how did your studying go?”

“Fine.  I reviewed the chapters you assigned twice.”

Ajarn Vinai and I were in a different room.  The one we had been in last night was being used.  I looked around and noticed an air conditioner against the wall under a window.  A Fedders.  Aah.  This was going to be comfortable.

Ajarn Vinai began by talking about factors that would help me in practicing Wipassana Meditation.  “Five mental factors are important for your practice:  confidence, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.  Confidence is faith in the practice you will be following.   Effort is the ability to sustain the practice long enough to produce results.  Mindfulness is the ability to overcome unawareness and forgetfulness.  Concentration is the ability to focus your mind on whatever it is in ultimate reality you are meditating on–not necessarily for a long period.  Remember, too much concentration will bring about tranquility, and that is not the object of Insight Meditation.  You want just enough concentration to be able to follow the rapid changes characteristic of objects in ultimate reality.  Follow the middle way.”

Ajarn Vinai gave me some time to take notes.  I pondered what he had said.  The first three factors seemed obvious.  The fourth–that was the one I really had to be careful of.  I remembered one afternoon at Wat Pleeng last year.  It was late in the week.  I was sitting on the porch outside my room repeating a mantra.  By that time in my practice, I had developed my ability to concentrate to the point where I could keep it on the mantra for over an hour.  It had been blissful while it lasted, but as soon as I stopped, my thoughts became angry again, and I spent the next hour in my head.  I could have used less of that kind of concentration to begin with.

“And the last factor is wisdom.”  Seeing that I had stopped writing, Ajarn Vinai continued.  “The kind of wisdom I’m referring to is understanding the nature of reality and using this understanding in one’s practice.  It can be compared to the type of wisdom a coin collector has when he looks at a coin and knows whether it is fake or real.  Lesser forms of knowing are those of an ordinary adult who simply knows the coin’s monetary value or of a child who only knows the object is round.  Now, it will be difficult for this required type of wisdom to arise automatically when you practice if you have never encountered it.  That’s why we are studying theory now:  to provide a starting point.  It will grow through practice.”

Someone gestured to Ajarn Vinai through the glass door, and he left the room.  I stretched out in the cool air.  Luxurious!  I looked around.  Hey!  This was the same room the medium produced the image of Luang Phaw Sya in.  I got up and hurried over to the table beside the cushion.  Nope.  I had half expected to find a little box of red plastic images of Luang Phaw Sya.

Ajarn Vinai came back in and resumed lecturing.  “All right, those were five mental factors which will help your practice.  There are also five negative factors which are called mental obstacles, or hindrances, to Insight Meditation.”  He wrote them on the board as he talked.

“The first is craving for sensually pleasurable objects.  For example, if you crave beautiful music, you will be preoccupied with this craving and won’t be able to practice.  The second is dissatisfaction or anger.  Now, generally the mind wanders.  And when it does, it is almost inevitable that a beginner will become forgetful or unaware of the meditation object, such as hearing a sound at the moment of its arising.  As a result, you will become frustrated or angry.  If you let this frustration or anger intensify and get out of hand, it will make further effective practice difficult.”

A soft drumming began and I looked out of the window.  A light reflected off the wet cement.  Rain had started to fall.

“The better way to deal with this mental obstacle is to become well aware of its causes.  At the time of mental wandering, your mind is forgetful and becomes unaware of the meditation object.  When you take notice of your forgetfulness or unawareness and want to get rid of it in an emotional and unreasonable manner, you will become dissatisfied or angry.  If you understand that your dissatisfaction comes from you emotional wanting or craving, the intensity of your dissatisfaction or anger will subside.  You should then continue your practice of Insight Meditation through being aware of the meditation object, which is ultimate reality in nature.”

“What if I can’t do anything about my anger?  What if I’m so upset that I can’t reason it away?” I asked.

“Then keep in mind that this anger, this feeling, is a natural object of ultimate reality.  Become directly aware of this mental obstacle and its characteristics.  We’ll get to those in a moment.”

“Wait a minute.  Let me write that down.”  I wrote down what he said and underlined it.  “You know, what you just said is extremely valuable.  Last year at Wat Pleeng I was angry nearly all the time.  If I had known what you said before I started, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time fuming.”

“That’s right.  That’s why it’s important to have some preparation before beginning.”  Ajarn Vinai continued listing the hindrances.

“Sleepiness is the third hindrance.  It’s important to be aware of it at the first sign.  If you are, you may be able, through simple awareness, to cause it to die out immediately.  If not, you may have to take other measures such as breathing deeply, changing postures, looking at the bright sky, or walking.  Of course, if you really need sleep, then rest.  Just make sure that you are not sleeping to fulfill laziness–which is a kind of craving–but only to refresh the body.”

“That was another of my major problems at Wat Pleeng,” I said.  “I slept all the time.  Lots of the time it was just to escape.  My dreams were so much better than the mental suffering I was going through.  And I also sleep much more than I need to at various times in my life.  It comes and goes.  It’s one of the things I’d really like to work on.  You know, I remember that the Abbot at Wat Pleeng said if I was really sleepy, I should bathe.  Is that O.K.?”

“That’s fine if it becomes necessary.”  Ajarn Vinai looked around for some chalk and spotted a small piece on the floor under the board.  Picking it up, he wrote the fourth obstacle on the board and continued talking.

“Mental wandering is the fourth hindrance.  As I said before when we were talking about anger, mental wandering is almost inevitable at the beginning.  Now, if it arises as a result of your craving awareness of ultimate reality, then you should become directly aware of it.  It may fade, and you can resume your direct awareness of the previous meditation object.  On the other hand, if mental wandering becomes so intensified that you cannot practice direct awareness of the meditation object which is being used, you should make the obstacle–the mental wandering–the meditation object instead.”

All this seemed reasonable to me at this point, but I had no idea what becoming directly aware of mental wandering would be like.

“The last obstacle is skepticism:  an irrational uncertainty accompanied by indecision and unreasonable doubt as to the real benefit of meditation.  You may, for example, feel that you have been misled when your practice fails to produce any desirable result over a certain period of time.  And this may cause you to stop practicing.  Unreasonable doubt can be dealt with in the same way as anger:  by making the doubt itself the object of meditation for the time being until it fades away.  But keep in mind that reasonable doubtfulness is not a mental obstacle.  It leads to the clarification of misconceptions and, eventually, to more effective practice.  You are not being asked to start out with blind faith.”

Ajarn Vinai had worn the last piece of chalk down to a nub and went out to look for some more.  This was really practical, I thought.  During my stay at Wat Pleeng, I encountered every hindrance mentioned; and on almost every occasion, I tried to force it to disappear.  That never worked.  It just turned one hindrance into another, and another, and another.  Trying to force mental wandering to disappear caused frustration, which caused anger, which led to skepticism, blaming the method, and eventually sleep as an escape from the whole miserable mess.

I put down my notebook, stretched my legs out, and yawned.  This air conditioning was great.  I looked at my toes and spread them apart.  They were perfect—all but that little toe on the right.  It wouldn’t lie down flat like the others did.  Maybe I had bumped it when I was younger.  But was so hard to work on.  When I sat on my heels with my toes curled under to me to stretch them out, it didn’t even reach the floor.  How would I ever stretch it out like the others?  Ajarn Vinai returned with a piece of chalk, and I picked up my notebook.

“Now I’d like to talk about the idea of Direct Awareness in Buddhist science and how it differs from general awareness.  Awareness–Sati–as used in Buddhist science is being mindful and conscious of what is wholesome and unwholesome in one’s life; that is, what is useful and what is harmful to one’s life.”

I copied down the definition and noticed that it, like much of what Ajarn Vinai had been saying all along, was phrased exactly as it was written in his book.  That made it easy for me to follow, for the book itself was quite clearly written.  I wondered how well I could discuss such a technical subject in a foreign language.  I could hardly begin to.  If I did, I’d have to use only everyday words.  All of this technical vocabulary was new to me.

“Then the definition of awareness, or Sati, has two parts,” I summarized.  “One is the part about being mindful of what is in consciousness.  This is like being mindful that you are walking at the moment you are walking:  noticing the feeling of the body parts in motion.  That’s awareness.  Being unaware would be walking but thinking about something else.”

“That’s right.”

“And the second part of the definition has to do with one’s point of view at the time of awareness:  your mindfulness of the positive or negative value of the present experience.”

“That’s correct,” Ajarn Vinai replied.  “For example, take the case of a thief robbing a house.  He could be aware of his action in the ordinary sense of the term, ‘aware.’  That is, he could be conscious of the feeling of the rock with which he was breaking a window.  But he would be unaware in the Buddhist sense of the term for he would either have the point of view that the act he was performing was beneficial to his life or he would have no point of view at all.  Thus, his awareness would not be what is called awareness, Sati, in Buddhist science.”

“O.K.  Then Sati is mindfulness of ultimate reality plus mindfulness of value.”

“Right,” Ajarn Vinai replied.  “Now, direct awareness, Sati Patana, goes one step further.  It means awareness leading one on the path toward the attainment of perpetual happiness:  Nirvana.  This path includes the complete purification of the mind and freedom from physical and mental suffering, through realization of ultimate reality.”

“O.K.  Let me see if I follow you.  Direct Awareness includes the two components of the definition of awareness–mindfulness and value–plus an additional component:  the idea of a path or a purpose, the elimination of suffering.”

“That’s right.  And Direct Awareness is the only basis for the practice of Insight Meditation.”

“You know,” I said, “The definition you gave actually follows from the Thai words, Sati Patana.  Sati means direct awareness.  Patana means progress, I think.  Therefore, Sati Patana means direct awareness with progress.  I should be able to remember that.  Yeah.  I see now how the concept of wisdom is really central to Insight Meditation.  It’s not just hanging out in the present.  It’s approaching that experience from a particular point of view and profiting from it.  That’s a lot to keep in mind.”

“Yes, it is,” Ajarn Vinai said.  “But remember, although you should be aware of it from the beginning, you are not expected to have internalized it at that point.  That comes with time.  If you start out with the idea that your practice will always be characterized by Sati Patana, you will set yourself up for tremendous frustration.  You must accept that much of the time you will not be practicing with Sati Patana.  Bit by bit you will become aware of when you are, or have been, practicing without Direct Awareness, and you will learn to let go of those aspects of mind that interfere with Direct Awareness.  In Thai, we call this process ‘Lang Kireet,’ which literally means ‘washing out defilements.’  Kireet includes defilements of all sorts, such as attachments and cravings, plus, of course, misconceptions about the way things are, such as thinking that anything in life is permanent or thinking that there is such a thing as ‘self.’”

Ajarn Vinai seemed to be getting ahead of himself a bit here with his introduction of the notion of no-self, so I asked him about it.  “Where does the idea of no-self fit into all this?”

“It’s one of the three characteristics of Ultimate Reality.”  He looked at his watch.  “It’s eight thirty.  Shall we stop now?  I can start with the Buddhist theory of Ultimate Reality tomorrow.  Are you free at five?”

“Yes.  I’ll be here.  You know, this afternoon after I realized I didn’t recognize you in the restaurant I sat down and really felt embarrassed.  I started to think about the situation:  you being my teacher, teaching me for three hours, and my not greeting you.  Then suddenly I realized that that was Conventional Reality and I remembered something in your book:  be aware of Ultimate Reality and its characteristics.  Well, the Ultimate Reality then was my feeling of embarrassment.  So I just sat there and noted it.  And you know what?  It came and went just like Buddhist science says it would; Impermanence, I think it’s called.  Well, eventually it passed away.  I didn’t feel embarrassed anymore.”

Ajarn Vinai smiled.  “Then this already has some value for you.”

“Yes.  It was clear to me this evening.  You know, I remember the first self-help book I ever read.  It was about five years ago.  How To Be Loved, by a man named Broadbent.  Anyway, he suggested that when you are upset you should use a technique he called “checking in.”  Now I see that technique was simply becoming aware of ultimate reality–one’s feelings–instead of the conceptual causes.  And I thought it was something really new!  Interesting.”

Ajarn Vinai stood up.  “See you at five tomorrow, then.”

“Right.  Tomorrow at five.”

I folded the top of my book bag over the contents and stepped out onto the front porch.  Rain was bouncing off the pavement, and few cars were passing.  It was going to be difficult to get a cab.  A yaam faw, a night watchman, spotted me and walked over.  I noticed he was carrying an umbrella.

“What are you up to?” came the standard friendly opening.

“Trying to hail a cab.  It’s really pouring.”

The watchman unfurled his umbrella and held it over my head as we walked out toward the sidewalk.  I shifted my book bag to my right side to keep it dry.  A car splashed by:  a Benz.  A 250-SEL with opaque windows.  It seemed like all the private cars in Bangkok had some sort of smoky film stuck to the windows to prevent the sun from heating up the interiors.  Wonder what was going on inside.

Another car approached.  Aha, a taxi!  I waved my hand, but it didn’t slow down.  Yep.  There it was.  Another shadowy figure in the seat beside the driver.  May waang.  It wasn’t free.  A minute later a second taxi responded to my wave and pulled up.

“Pay Sukhumwit, soi saam sip hok.”  I’m going to Lane 36 on Sukhumwit Road.

The driver wagged his palm from side to side in front of me.  “May pay.”  I won’t go there.  He rolled up the window and pulled out into the empty street.

I retreated to the umbrella.  Damn!  I hoped this didn’t mean that Sukhumwit was in such a mess that no one would go there.  The watchman and I stood for several more minutes, rain running off the side of the umbrella onto my left shoulder.  Another taxi pulled over.  Responding to my statement of destination, the driver nodded that he’d go.

“Pay thawrai?”  How much will you pay?

“Haasip baat.”  Fifty baht.

“Ooohoo, fon tok maak.  Rot tit.  Cetsip baat.”  Oh, come on.  It’s pouring rain.  Traffic is piled up.  Seventy baht.

“Toklong.”  O.K.  I was lucky to get anything at all on a night like this!  I slid in and thanked the watchman.  The cab, fortunately a fairly new Toyota, pulled smoothly away and headed down the dark street.  I didn’t feel like reading, though the ceiling light would have made it possible, so I stared out of the window.  The driver turned on the wipers intermittently and fiddled with the radio, passing by several stations playing Farang music and stopping at the slow, sweetly sad glides of a Thai love song.  Steel shutters covering darkened store fronts flickered by:  successive frames in a monotonous movie.

The sidewalks eventually brightened as we entered the congestion of mid-town.  Traffic slowed.  Thirty second waits at lights became minutes, and pools of water appeared in the gutters.  Pedestrians retreated from the curbs to avoid being splashed.

Sometime in June, the rainy season begins in the central plain.  Following three months of 95 degree days and sweaty nights, the rains lower the temperature briefly every afternoon and wash the pollutants from the air.  The rice paddies begin to fill, and farmers plant their seedlings.

But no rain-absorbing rice fields dot Bangkok’s landscape.  Its square miles of concrete encompass only a few major canals, the remains of a once extensive network of waterways, now mostly filled in and paved over.  Water pools in the gutters, drains into an inadequate set of underground culverts, and rushes toward the Chao Phya River to splash into an even larger volume of water pouring down from the run-off to the north.  Backing up, it rises and spreads over acres of cement and isolated patches of saturated mud, currently sinking at the rate of 2.5 centimeters per year.

Parts of the city, those areas where the money is, complain the newspapers, are protected by huge pumps.  The poorer parts of the city, the residential suburbs, receive, in addition to rainfall from above, the output of those pumps from below.  In those unfortunate areas, the water can rise at over three inches per hour.

“What do you call this part of town we’re in now?”

“Khong Thuuy,” the driver answered.

Khong Thuuy contains a large slum.  The residents nail together wall-to-wall tin-roofed shacks no more than twenty feet square.  Sewage plops directly to the ground, and women walk a block to haul water back from public faucets.  Frequently there is no electricity.  “Do we pass through Khong Thuuy to get to Sukhumwit?”

“Khrap.  Khaw Soi Ekamai.”  Yes.  We go via Ekamai Lane.

The taxi stopped at a light next to a steamy city bus, the passengers hanging in two rows from grab rails near the ceiling.  An equal number sat on sticky seats.  The driver blipped the accelerator, ejecting clouds of sooty smoke from an exhaust pipe aimed directly at my closed window.  The lights outside dimmed in rhythm with the brap, brap, brap.  Well, at least the bus had a lot of ground clearance.

The water extended from curb to curb, lapping at the hubcaps of cars in the lower parts of the street.  A dim traffic signal changed, and the vehicles charged, four abreast, across the intersection.  A sheet of water erupted from the wheels of an accelerating Peugot and doused a motorcycle rider draped in a yellow plastic poncho.  God!  It must be suffocating under that!  A 125cc Honda poked by on our right, the girl on the back clinging tightly to the driver with her left hand, holding a piece of cardboard above their heads with her right.

The brake lights on the front vehicles in the still accelerating column glowed red and were passed back in a series of flashes.  The line collapsed like an accordion, squeezing out a blare of honking.  Fuming, it burned up $4.00 per gallon imported fuel.  Twenty minutes later, we inched out around a car stopped in a pool.

“Khruang dap,” noted my driver.  The ignition had shorted out.

The driver downshifted into first and we crawled into Soi Ekamay.  Waves spread in a “V” from the bow of the Toyota and lapped at the shins of storeowners sitting in their shops.  I took a couple of deep breaths.  It was amazing that the driver even went into this soi.  Twenty minutes later, the cab climbed a six-inch grade and turned onto Sukhumwit Road, and within five minutes we arrived at paak soi 36, the mouth of Lane 36.

A line of cars was stopped in the soi.  A third of the hoods were up, the drivers aiming flashlights at their dripping distributors.  Other cars rested dark, empty.  “May tong khaw soi.”  You don’t have to go into the soi, I said.

Christ, as if it weren’t obvious!  I climbed out and fished a 100 Baht bill from my wallet.

“Here.  Keep the change.”  Five dollars for an hour-and-a-half ride through a flood?  It was nothing.

When I first came to Thailand in 1963 for three weeks, I was given all sorts of advice on how to behave.  “Tong riap rooy.”  You have to watch your manners” I was told over and over.  “People judge you on appearances.”  Until this year, I was guided by that advice and modified my normally casual dress slightly.  In particular, I avoided wearing shorts in public, though the heat made wearing long pants a damp experience.  For some reason I was not fully aware of, this visit I decided to break with tradition.  Tonight I had on a Hawaiian style shirt, Bermuda shorts, and thongs.  I didn’t have to roll up my pants.

Hugging my bag to my chest, I waded carefully down the stream, avoiding the gutters where debris was likely to have collected.  I remember walking through the floods when I lived in Bangkok thirteen years ago.  At that time, I was mainly afraid of snakes.  I remembered seeing five in one afternoon on our lawn during the rainy season.  I guessed that the water had driven them up to high ground.  But since that afternoon, I hadn’t seen any.  Now I worried more about broken glass and rusty nails.  I clinched the straps on my thongs between my toes and skimmed them along under the water.  The extra effort to keep them on was worth the protection.

Turning right down a sub-soi, I passed a marsh, the source of waves of croaking.  Plowing on for two hundred meters, I felt the water level drop to my shins, then my ankles.  I tapped the bell next to the gate of house number 33/2.  A servant ran out under an umbrella, peeped through a hole in the door, and opened it.  I walked in and climbed the last inch to the island where my friend, Jim, lived.  My bedroom was hot and stuffy, the house quiet.  Everyone but the servant was already asleep.

. . .

 “Today I’m going to go into more detail about the Buddhist theory of Ultimate Reality.”  Ajarn Vinai and I were back in the same air conditioned room where we had studied the previous night.  “There are basically six external sense objects and six internal sense organs.  When there is contact between an external sense object and its corresponding internal sense organ, the knowing of mind takes place.”

“By external sense object do you mean external causes of sensation?” I asked.

“Yes.  The external sense objects are visible objects–light waves; audible objects–sound waves; odor objects–molecules in the air; taste objects–chemicals; physical bodily contact objects–things possessing characteristics of heat, hardness, etc.; and mental objects.”

“What are these mental objects?  Are they physical in the same sense as those you just listed?”

“Sort of.  They are on-going neurological activity in the brain:  thoughts and emotional feelings but not their content.  These so-called external sense objects are all called Rupa.  There’s no good translation for this in English.”  Ajarn Vinai listed the six external sense objects in a column under “Rupa” on the blackboard.

“The corresponding internal sense organs at which the Rupa make contact are the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.  These are traditionally called the ‘sense doors.’”  He listed these in a parallel column to the left of the Rupa column.

“Six types of knowing take place in the mind, each type the result of a different external sense object contacting an internal sense organ–sense door.  The knowing of this occurrence takes place in the mind and is called Nama.  Thus, when a visible external sense object or Nama–light waves–contacts an internal sense organ–the eye sense door–the knowing of this–Nama–takes place in the mind.”  Ajarn Vinai then listed six kinds of knowing of mind–seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling sensations on the skin, and mental knowing–in a third column under “Nama” between the Sense Door and Rupa columns.  I copied it down as follows:

 

Sense door

Nama

(Mind)

Rupa

(Matter/Energy)

Eye Seeing Light waves
Ear Hearing Sound waves
Nose Smelling Odorous molecules
Tongue Bod Tasty molecules
Body Bodily sensations Bodily contact objects
Mind Wholesome or unwholesome mind Physical postures or neurological activity underlying thoughts and emotional feelings

 

“O.K.  What confuses me about that is the last row.  The mind is both the sense door and the thing that does the knowing.  Is that right?”

“That’s right.  Actually, when an external sense organ, such as the eye, is stimulated by a Rupa, such as light waves, the knowing takes place simultaneously in the mind.  However, when the external sense object is a thought or emotion, it originates in the mind and the mind becomes aware of it, not simultaneously, but just after it has fallen away.  The two are for all practical purposes simultaneous since thoughts rise and fall away extremely quickly, at least in the Buddhist theory of the mind.”

“Is that all there is to Ultimate Reality then, Nama and Rupa?”

“Yes, as far as the mind is concerned.  There is only stimulation–Rupa–and the knowing of this stimulation–Nama.  Now, the Buddhist theory of the nature of perception and thought is far more involved than this, but more detail at this point would not help you in your practice.”

“I know.  I read some parts of your book where you started going into detail about the various mental processes and, I must admit, I got lost.”

“Don’t worry.  It’s not necessary to believe in all that detail.  In fact, the Buddha said not to accept anything he said on faith.  Simply observe carefully what goes on and decide for yourself.”

“You know, that’s one thing that always attracted me about the Buddha’s teachings.  Rather than starting from the position that one should believe, it starts from the position that one should experiment and discover how things are for one’s self.”

The watchman from last night brought in two cups of coffee and two glasses of weak tea and handed us one of each.  I guessed that he probably did a variety of jobs around the foundation.

“You know, I’m still confused about the mind.  What are Rupa and Nama–the causes and experience of Ultimate Reality experienced through the mind sense door?”

“All right.  I’ll give you a little more detail.”  Ajarn Vinai put down his cup and picked up a short piece of chalk.  “The causes of stimulation in the mind are two.  The first is the emotional center in the mind from which originate the unwholesome states of mind such as anger, frustration, worry, fear, craving, and so on.  The second is less intuitive.  It is the position of body parts in various postures such as sitting, standing, walking, etc. In Buddhist science, this is called a mind Rupa despite its association with the physical body.  What is important is that you keep distinct the bodily sensations such as heat, cold, hard, soft, etc. which are experienced through the body sense door–the skin–from body positions which are classified as experienced in the mind sense door.  Of course, this is still far from complete.  The full theory is much more complicated than this.”

“O.K.  Let’s leave it at that, then.”

“Actually, I want to add one more thing.  The awareness of Rupa through the mind sense door is the awareness of mental states–whether they are wholesome or unwholesome, and also the awareness of the mind as the cause of the body positions.  Thus, Nama through the mind sense door is mind aware of positive and negative emotional states of mind and also mind aware of mind as the cause of the body postures.”

“That’s a lot to keep in mind,” I said.  “Pardon the pun.  Are we supposed to be aware of all that when we practice?”

“No.  When you begin, try to become directly aware of the following.”  Ajarn Vinai circled portions of the chart under Nama and Rupa as he talked.  “When seeing, be directly aware of Nama, the experience of seeing.  It’s much harder to be aware of the cause of seeing, light waves striking the eye.  For the same reason be directly aware of the experience–Nama–rather than the cause of hearing.  When smelling, be directly aware of the odor–Rupa–at the nose sense door.  Likewise, when tasting and feeling things touch the body.  Be aware of Rupa:  taste objects at the tongue and bodily sensations at their points of contact.”

“O.K.  Now how about the mind sense door?”

“There, be aware of the wholesome and unwholesome states of mind and be aware of the positions of the body.  Both of these are Rupa.  These decisions, by the way, are all made for practical reasons.  These are the aspects of Ultimate Reality that are the easiest for the beginner to become aware of.”

I circled the appropriate Nama and Rupa entries on my chart and stared at them, relieved that I wasn’t asked to become aware of sound waves striking my eardrums.

“Then everything I’ll likely be aware of in the beginning will be Rupa, with the exception of hearing and seeing.”

“That’s right.”

“Because expecting or wanting speedy progress is an unwholesome mental state that makes it impossible to be aware of the true nature of ultimate reality.”

“That’s right.”

“And if I’m aware of an unwholesome state of mind, be aware of it as that–which will turn the whole thing into awareness with wisdom.”

“That’s right.”

“It’s ingenious.  I’ll have to say that.”  It reminded me of the thesis in the book Godel Escher Bach:  The Eternal Golden Braid.  Intelligence was linked there to being able to get outside a system and observe it.

“And you say that this whole theory goes back 2500 years?”

“Yes.  This was all passed down orally at first, then later in Pali scriptures.  Now, there’s one last point I want to make before we stop.  And this is crucial.  All of Ultimate Reality is either Nama or Rupa.  And all Nama and Rupa have three characteristics:  impermanence, inability to retain their original existence, and non-self–dependence on causes.  The Pali words for these characteristics are Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta.”

“Could you elaborate a bit?”

“Yes.  Take the first characteristic:  impermanence or Anicca.  If you think about it, nothing remains the same.  Everything is in a constant state of change.  Sometimes it seems to us as if the rising and passing away of objects in Ultimate Reality is slow, but all things do eventually pass.  Actually, in Buddhist science it is stated that Nama and Rupa rise and pass away extremely quickly:  trillions of times per second.  You are not expected to become aware of this rate of rising and passing away.  Just be aware of beginnings and ends when you notice them.”

I thought about the mind and how it might be like a computer.  Who knew at what rate the mental clock cycled.  Maybe it was on the order of nanoseconds.  Big computers worked at least that fast, and none of them were nearly as powerful as the brain.

“O.K.  How about the second characteristic:  suffering?”

“Suffering, Dukkha, is the inability of objects of Ultimate Reality to retain their original existence.  This follows, in fact, from the first characteristic:  impermanence.  Most of us build our conceptual lives under the illusion that things are permanent.  When we realize that nothing is permanent, this is unsatisfactory.  Dukkha is the term which denotes this unsatisfactoryness.”

I pondered my illusions about my prized possessions.  What about my new furniture?  I acted as if I took good enough care of it it would last forever.  Of course I knew intellectually that this was impossible.  But I kept acting as if it were possible.  And I suffered when I saw it getting scratched up at a party.  I wondered what it would be like being constantly aware that everything was impermanent.  I guessed that would be suffering, all right.

“O.K.  I see that although I understand this intellectually, I don’t behave as if its truth were obvious all the time.  I guess that’s one of the objects of Wipassana Training.”

“It is.  Now, the last characteristic, Anatta, is that all mental states and their causes are void of self.  Let me read a passage from Ajarn Naeb’s book.

‘Self is an illusion based on the massing of perceptions.  All the elements of mental states and their causes are so internalized and inter-related that they seem to be one entity.  This makes it impossible to analyze what they are, how and in what portions they exist, and how they function together as a whole.  The inability to gain this awareness causes us to think that this entity represents something real, is of permanent nature, or has passing value.  As soon as this thought occurs, the mind will experience an egotistic conviction of the Self or Soul belief.’”

“Then one of the purposes of Insight Meditation is to observe Ultimate Reality long enough to understand that the various states of mind and their causes are sufficient in and of themselves to account for experience without an additional component of Self?”

“That’s right.  You may think you understand that now, and you may in an intellectual sense.  But you have probably had very few actual experiences of its validity.”

Ajarn Vinai and I chatted on until after eight p.m.  He went into much more detail about the theory of causality, much of which I had trouble following, probably because I realized it was unnecessary to understand it at this point.  My eyes began to burn, and I blinked several times.

“Are you tired?” Ajarn Vinai asked.

“I don’t feel tired, but my eyes are burning.”

“We can stop, then.  How do you feel now about your knowledge?”

“Much better.  Of course there is a lot I don’t understand, but I think I understand enough to avoid making major mistakes in my practice.  I certainly feel more confident about the purpose of Wipassana Meditation and how it works.”

“Then tomorrow we’ll talk about the actual practice by direct awareness of major body positions.”

“Will we meet at 5 p.m.?”

“Yes.  After that, I think you will be ready to begin your practice.”

Ajarn Vinai drove me around the block to a bus stop.  It was the beginning of the line, so I had no trouble getting a seat.  Leaning against the window, I closed my eyes for most of the 45 minute, eight cent ride to Jim’s house.

A light was on in Jim’s study.  I looked in through the glass door and saw him sitting at his desk, reading.  I knocked on the door.

“Mind if I come in?”

“Sure.  Come on in.  Do you want a cup of coffee?”

“Yeah.  That would taste good.”

Jim poured some beans into a small Braun grinder and switched it on for a few seconds.  Then he poured the powder into a small cloth bag suspended from a wire hoop about three inches in diameter.  Holding this over a pot, he poured boiling water through it.  Dark, aromatic coffee dribbled into the pot.

“Aah!  That’s great.”  I took several sips before setting my cup down.

“What’s on your mind?  You’ve been studying pretty hard these past few days.”

“I have.  You know, Jim.  It’s the damndest thing.  The current theory about how we learn languages looks like it goes all the way back to the theory behind Wipassana meditation.  You’ve learned a lot of languages.  You can relate to this.”  I grabbed a napkin and began to draw a diagram.

“This is Steve Krashen’s theory.  He’s a linguist at U.S.C.  I know he was influenced by the book, The Inner Game of Tennis.  Maybe that’s the connection.  Anyway, he also claims that he started out believing that things were just the opposite of what he currently believes.  He says that the data forced him to change.  He’s a scientist at heart.”  I shoved the napkin in front of Jim.

“O.K.  Here it is.  There are two kinds of language learning:  indirect and direct.  Indirect learning is ‘learning about’ a language through analysis and conscious study.  This produces only one result:  the ability to use this knowledge when we are thinking about the language itself.  Direct learning is learning through experience the way a child does.  This produces the ability to use a language subconsciously when our attention is not on the language but on the message.  The two types of learning correspond to reaching a conceptual understanding of the nature of Ultimate Reality versus reaching an understanding of Ultimate Reality through direct experience.”

“So the studying you have been doing with Ajarn Vinai has been conceptual learning–like the formal study of grammar.  What you will be doing in your Wipassana practice next week will be experiential learning.”

“Right.  Now, here’s the next major part of the theory.  Conceptual learning never becomes experiential learning.  In other words, one does not start with the conscious understanding of the structure of the verb system in a foreign language and watch this slowly become subconscious competence.  The only way to feel subconsciously the way the verb system works and, thus, to be able to use it when our minds are on the message, is to have a tremendous amount of direct experience with the verb system.  It’s obvious that this is the case.  Just look at the Thais who have studied English formally in schools for years.  Their conventional knowledge about English never develops into a feel for English grammar.

“Well, what is the process by which experiential learning takes place?”

“It looks like it is just the same as that used in the development of insight:  through comprehensible input which is used.  Now this is interesting.  We do not learn experientially through our actions–by performing.  For example, suppose a Thai learning English memorizes the sentence, ‘How do I get to the university from here.’  Suppose he says that sentence in a real situation–uses it, in other words, when he is standing downtown in Salt Lake City and needs to find the way to the soccer stadium.  Under this condition, it is not his act of producing the sentence that results in experiential learning.  The underlying structure of the sentence is not somehow engraved deeper and deeper each time he says it–until it becomes automatic.  Rather, it is his hearing himself using the sentence that leads to it slowly being subconsciously acquired.  If it were simply the production (the output) that led to developing a feel for the structure, then production drills in a foreign language would lead to fluency–and they never do.”

“Does this input have to come from the learner himself?” Jim asked.

“No.  In fact, according to Krashen, the learner need not do any speaking at all–at least not very much.  There are lots of cases of kids being exposed to a foreign language being used around them, not saying a thing, but understanding what is being said through context.  Then one day they just start speaking correctly with virtually no prior production.”

“O.K.  But why all this emphasis on the individual’s learning by himself in Wipassana Meditation?”

“Here’s my idea.  In Wipassana, the learner generates, through his experience, input that is comprehensible to him at a particular stage in his life.  Just as language learners cannot pick up a language from input that is not comprehensible, a student of life cannot pick up wisdom he is not yet ready for.  The experiences he generates, however, provide just the lessons he is capable of learning at a particular time.  And, of course, these are just the lessons that are tremendously useful because of their personal relevance.  They click home through his becoming aware of them:  Sati Patana.

“If that’s the case, then why do all this studying with Vinai?  It will never become subconscious.  That is, it will never turn into an automatic response to life’s situations.”

“That’s true.  But formal, conscious learning does play a useful role, both in Krashen’s learning theory–which he calls the Input Hypothesis–and in Wipassana Meditation.  Consciously learned information can be employed, when we have time, to make minor adjustments in behavior which is itself the result of subconscious learning.  You know how there are some Thai words that you have to think about to remember what the correct tones are.  If you just let them come out by themselves, they will be wrong.  So you sort of slow down and think, ‘This word has a high tone.’  Well, this is one useful role conscious learning plays in the use of language.

“Now in Wipassana, conscious learning plays several roles.  When we practice, it is used consciously to make adjustments in what we do.  It helps keep us on the right track by preventing us from practicing incorrectly.  So when I am trying to be aware of my body position but notice my mind is wandering, I can use my conscious knowledge to make my wandering mind the object of meditation.  That keeps me involved with experiential learning instead of wasting large amounts of time being angry with my wandering mind.”

“Is that it, then?” Jim asked.

“No.  There’s more to it than that.  In Krashen’s theory, in order for comprehensible input–the cause of experiential learning–to actually lead to experiential learning, it must get through a filter in the mind.  This is called the ‘affective filter’ because it is presumed to be controlled by the learner’s feelings.  When the learner is scared, defensive, all of the comprehensible input in the world won’t lead to anything.  It will reflect off the affective filter and fail to penetrate to where experiential learning takes place.  However, when the learner is relaxed, the input will go right through the filter and activate subconscious learning.”

“Like it does in kids!  You know how babies are.  They’re not uptight about anything.  And they always pick up their first language, and frequently several more.”

“That’s right.  Oh, I forgot to add one more thing about the role of conscious learning in the language learning process.  It is used to keep the learner’s own output accurate enough so that when he hears it in genuine use situations like the one I described for the Thai student in Salt Lake City, it will be correct input.  If the learner always hears himself using the language incorrectly, that will get subconsciously acquired.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Jim said.

“O.K., back to the affective filter.  Now what do you think is the counterpart to the affective filter in Wipassana Meditation?”

“The defilements of mind,” Jim replied.

“Obviously.  If we experience Ultimate Reality but are in an unwholesome state of mind–greedy, angry, and so on–we will not learn from the experience.  That’s why Ajarn Vinai emphasized purity of intent.  We cannot approach the experience craving enlightenment.”

“Right.”

“Now, there’s one more parallel between language learning theory and Buddhist science.  That has to do with the speed at which learning takes place.  How long does it take to develop a feel for a language?”

“A long time, in my experience.”

“That’s right.  In mine too.  Now, how long does it take to learn about a language?”

“Not long.  I can memorize grammar rules rather quickly.”

“So can I.  In Krashen’s learning theory, conscious learning is fast.  Experiential learning is slow.  In Buddhist science, conscious learning is fast.  Experiential learning is slow–generally.  But there are exceptions in both disciplines.”

“Yeah,” Jim said.  “You read all the time about people who were really ready for enlightenment.  A short experience was all it took.  There are stories about people taking seven steps and becoming enlightened.”  Jim and I had read the same stories.

“Well,” I continued, “there are a few super language learners around, too.  You know one.  Reinhart–your friend.  You know how fast he learns languages–two weeks.  And we’re not talking about just getting along.  We’re talking about total fluency.  Total control of the grammar and sound system.  No accent at all.  If we didn’t both know him, we wouldn’t believe it.  I still don’t talk about him in linguistic circles–except to a few close friends.  It’s almost like believing in ghosts.  But you’re a trained linguist.  So am I.  You’ve known Reinhart for years.  And when I met him here, I tested him in every language I knew, and you’ve tested him in all the languages you know too.  You’ve actually sat and watched him learn a new language.  Remember how he sat here right in this room and described how he learned languages?”

“Yeah.  I’d never heard anything like it.”

“Well, now you have–at least the process.  It’s only the rate that’s different.  Anyway, he said he memorizes a lot of vocabulary at first.  He has a photographic memory, so that goes fast.  Then he just listens to native speakers say things that he can understand through context–he gets comprehensible input.  I asked him how he learned the grammar.  He said that was easy.  It was just like listening to music.  Once you’ve heard a song a couple of times, you don’t forget it.  It sounds right only one way.

“Now, Reinhart must have a lot of wisdom about language.  Who knows where from.  Therefore, there are few defilements of mind in his case to prevent experiential learning from taking place extremely quickly.  Interestingly enough, when we talked about how he went about it, the subject led to how he believed his mind worked.  He talked a lot about that, and what he described about his experience with his own mind was just like what I have been reading about in Buddhist literature.”

Jim stared at the diagrams on the napkin.

 

Experiential Learning:  Insight Wisdom (500 B.C.)

 Input Hypothesis:  Language acquisition (1980 A.D.)

“That’s fascinating.”

“I know.”  I looked at the napkin.  “Well, it’s late, Jim.  I’m beat.  Thanks for listening.”

“Yeah.  Gets you to thinking, doesn’t it?”

“It does.”

. . .

 

Ajarn Vinai and I met back in the original classroom for our last evening together.  This time, he started the evening with a question.

“When you are standing, how are you aware of that position?”

“Through the mind sense door,” I answered, recalling our discussion of the previous day.

“That’s right.  Body positions are Rupa arising at the mind sense door.  Nama is the mind that brings about and maintains the body positions.  It’s important to remember that awareness of skeletal and muscular positioning is different from awareness of objects contacting the surface of the skin.  The former is known through the mind sense door; the latter is known through the body sense door.  If you know a body position through the eye sense door, for example, this is not real in the ultimate sense.  It is merely a mental creation–a concept–based on conventional reality.  All you can really see is a visible light wave, not shapes and colors.  That is why the Ultimate Reality of the body postures cannot be known through the five conventional sense doors, the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and skin.”

“And since awareness occurs in the mind, if you were aware of the mind as it brought about and maintained a posture, that would be a case of Nama being aware of Nama,” I summarized.

“That’s correct.  Now, when practicing Wipassana Meditation and using the body positions as the objects of meditation, you start by being aware of four major positions:  sitting, standing, lying down, and walking.  Although all four are actually dynamic–rising and passing away continually–walking appears more dynamic than the others because it involves motion.  Don’t worry about that.  It will be some time before you become aware of the rising and passing away of the stationary postures except at what you normally think of as their beginnings and ends.”

I knew that Ajarn Vinai was referring to the trillions of times per second that, in theory, Nama and Rupa arose and passed away.

“In being aware of the major body positions,” Ajarn Vinai continued, “the purpose is to become aware of the three characteristics of ultimate reality:  Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta.  First, you will become aware that all the body positions are Anicca–impermanent–because of their arising and falling away rapidly and successively.  For example, at the time of standing, the arising of the mind–Nama–causes the holding of the body in that posture.  As the mind falls away, so does that body posture.  As the mind rises again, the body posture also arises.”

Ajarn Vinai followed up this description with one of his favorite examples.  “This can be compared to a neon light.  Every time it receives an electric current from a power generator, its light arises.  But as the supply of the electric current falls away, so does the light.  It actually arises and falls away rapidly and successively at the rate of about 48 times per second.”

He must mean 60 times per second, I thought.  Then I remembered that the electric current here was 50 hertz.  Well, maybe it was really 48 hertz and they called it 50.

“Second, you will become aware that all body positions are Dukkha:  suffering.  This stems from their Anicca characteristic:  impermanence.  The body positions cannot retain their original existence.  You will become aware that the changing of one body position to another all the time is a clear indication that any body position cannot retain its original state.”

“In the case of that characteristic, I have no difficulty in associating Dukkha with suffering.  I remember trying to sit in one position for an hour at Wat Pleeng last year during the group sessions.  I’ve never experienced greater suffering.”

“But what you probably didn’t notice was that whatever position you changed to after that was also Dukkha.”

“I admit that that wasn’t uppermost on my mind.  I guess I thought that anything would be better than the sitting position I was in.”

“You were probably thinking, then, that you were changing to the new position to be happy.”

“I probably was, a lot of the time.  I think that my head was spinning at that time.  I was probably hardly aware of Ultimate Reality at all.  Happiness is just an idea anyway, isn’t it?”

“Yes.  In Buddhist science it is considered to be a concept which exists only in conventional reality.  But you haven’t experienced its lack of ultimate reality yet.  You will do so in your practice.”

“O.K.  How about the last characteristic:  Anatta?”

“This is really the core of Buddhist science.  The body postures, like all Ultimate Reality, are characterized by their being non-self, or dependent on causes.  They are a kind of Rupa, the arising of which is basically caused by the power of the mind.  When one says that one stands, sits, walks, or reclines, these are just the words used in one’s daily life.  If one is blindly attached to this conventional reality in the form of ‘I sit’ or ‘I stand,’ one’s misconception of Ultimate Reality will certainly arise.  This is because, in the ultimate sense, it is ‘Rupa stands or sits,’ and not ‘I stand or sit.’”

“O.K.  Let’s say that all this makes a kind of logical sense.  That isn’t the same thing as experiencing directly the characteristic of no-self in Ultimate Reality.  Right?”

“Right.  Even though you may understand what I’m saying intellectually, you haven’t internalized it.  If you had, then the concept of self would not arise.  But, I assure you, it will arise all the time in your practice.”

Eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh……..tukkae…tukkae…tukkae…tukkae…tukkae…tuk

Hey!  Where was the last ‘kae?’  I looked up at the corner where the sound was coming from.  Stuck to the wall, a nine inch long yellow lizard craned its triangular head back and stared out the window.  They were supposed to always end on ‘kae.’  If they didn’t, it was bad luck!  And they were viscous, too.  I recalled provoking one with a stick years ago when I lived upcountry in Khon Kaen.  The reptile had chomped on it…nearly jerked it out of my hand.  I had almost fallen backward off the porch.  Ugly things:  those green spots on distended yellow stomachs.  Someone said they ate chingchokes.  That would explain why so many chingchokes were missing parts of their tails.

“Wonder how it got inside?” I mused.  “Usually you see them on outside walls.”

Ajarn Vinai let that one go by and returned to a previous topic.  “Remember when I said that the mind, Nama, basically brings about and maintains the various bodily postures?  Well, I didn’t mean that the mind is the sole cause.  I only meant that it is the principle cause.  As a matter of fact, there are other secondary causes such as one’s intention, the heat element, the element giving rise to motion, vibration, oscillation, pressure within one’s body, sound physical health, and so on.”

I nodded, hearing but not trying to remember.  It was more knowledge than I needed right now.

“Anyway, getting back to your actual practice of awareness of major body positions, what should you keep in mind?”  Ajarn Vinai then answered his rhetorical question.

“First, be directly aware of your position at the present moment of its arising.  Don’t concern yourself with past or future body postures.  That wouldn’t be awareness of Ultimate Reality.

“Second, be aware that the position is Rupa, but do not say or think the word ‘Rupa.’

“Third, do not try to create special or unusual postures.  Such a creation is dictated by unwholesome wanting or craving, which causes your practice to become impure and decreases its effectiveness.”

“Then you don’t recommend the classical Burmese method of walking slowly and noting each foot lifting, moving, and descending?”

“No.  That’s one technique, but it isn’t the one we use at Omn Noi.”

Well, I thought to myself, that explained a lot of frustration I felt last year.  I had concentrated on slowing down my walking so I could become more aware of each movement.  After a while, it had become a kind of performance.  I used to congratulate myself when I thought it looked professional.

“Fourth, don’t try to select a particular posture according to your desire or preference of one over another.  Otherwise, Direct Awareness becomes impure under the influence of craving.”

I thought about asking how I should select postures, but the thought slipped my mind when Ajarn Vinai continued with the list of procedures.

“Fifth, before changing your position, be sure there is a good reason for the change.  Overcoming physical pain or suffering is a good reason.  Don’t change in order to fulfill your unwholesome wanting…”

“O.K.  What I should do then is notice pain or suffering and change positions at that time, not when my mind is on how I’ll feel in the next position.”

“That’s right.  In that way you’ll constantly experience one of the characteristics of Ultimate Reality:  Dukkha.  You will realize that Dukkha forces you to change.  It’s the ultimate, real cause.

“Sixth, after you have changed postures, note immediately that the new posture is also Dukkha.  Otherwise the misconception will arise that the new posture is happiness.”

“That will take some doing.  New postures always seem great…at first.”

“I know.  Understanding will come with practice.”

I penciled the numeral “7″ in the margin of my notebook.  “What’s the next principle?”

“When suffering arises, realize that Rupa is suffering, not ‘I am suffering.’  Be aware that it is the Sitting Rupa that is suffering, or the Standing Rupa, or the Walking Rupa.  Avoid the miss view that there is a ‘You’ that is suffering.”

“What do I do about mental wandering?  How do I balance awareness of that with concentration on the body position?”

“If mental wandering arises, be aware of it, but don’t try to follow it through.  Simply note, ‘Nama is wandering,’ and return to awareness of the present body position.

I remembered my lengthy experience with mental wandering at Wat Pleeng.  For the two months I was away from my home last year, I had rented out my house to a close friend.  Pre-addressing a set of envelopes to a string of interim destinations, I marked the dates they were to be mailed on the corners and emphasized the importance of doing so.  If I didn’t get the rent checks, I would run out of money abroad, I had explained.

Up to the time I had entered Wat Pleeng, I had received no rent money at all.  This thought had caused another, and another, and another.  Why no rent?  Specific causes:  he had overextended himself in his business and was broke.  General causes:  he was irresponsible.  Personal causes:  he was angry at me for asking him to fix my motorcycle all the time.  Remote causes:  like mother, like son.  The evidence presented, the deliberations complete, my ego had handed down the verdict:  Guilty!

Actually, the amount of inconvenience caused by not having the rent money was negligible.  I had spent far less cash than I had predicted and had picked up some unexpected money for consulting along the way.  But then I had made my friend wrong.  The results of that single mental act had destroyed most of my peace of mind for hours at a time.  I had tried to concentrate on my walking and had brooded.  I had tried to follow my breathing and had fumed.  I had tried to wash my shirt with awareness and had plotted revenge.  What was it I had read a week ago on the plane to Bangkok?  Anger is the emotion we experience when we make someone, something, or some circumstance wrong which we can do absolutely nothing about.

“The procedure, then, is to stay in Ultimate Reality:  note the wandering but not the contents.  Stay out of Conventional Reality.”  I summarized my conclusions aloud for Vinai’s approval.

It came forth, reassuringly.  “That’s right.  Practice being aware of the major body positions.  And when you are doing other things, be aware both of Ultimate reality and of the reasons for your actions within the context of the learning experience you are going through.  For example, when practicing at meal time, be aware of Ultimate Reality through the sense doors:  the taste of the food through the tongue, the smell through the nose, its heat through the skin.  And approach the eating by realizing that the real purpose of eating is not to fulfill your desire but only to relieve hunger pangs as well as to sustain your energy.  Otherwise, defilements of mind–craving–will step in and diminish the effectiveness of your practice.”

Ajarn Vinai opened his book and flipped through to a page near the end.  “Turn to page 175.  The means to successful practice are listed at the bottom.”  He read them aloud, and I copied them in my notebook.

1. Correct understanding of what is Nama and what is Rupa

2. Knowing how to make the awareness pure and free from the influence of defilement

3. Understanding the real purposes of changing the body postures

4. Wise consciousness of the present meditation object (body posture) at the time of its arising, regularly and continually

5. Maintenance of the meditation practice

I put down my pencil and closed my notebook.  Ajarn Vinai smiled at me.  “Well, I think you’re ready to begin your practice.  Let me call the meditation center at Omn Noi to see if they have a space for you.”

Ajarn Vinai went out into the darkened hall and spoke briefly on the phone.  Then he returned.  “I couldn’t get through.  But I will know by 7 a.m. tomorrow.  Could you call me at my home then?”

“Of course.”  I stood up and we walked to the door.  Ajarn Vinai switched off the light and we stood together in the dimness.

“Thank you again, Ajarn.  You came here every night this week and spent over three hours each night teaching me.  I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”

Ajarn Vinai gestured back toward the blackboard with a small movement of his hand.  “If you’ve understood that, then you know why I taught you.”

. . .

 My alarm went off at 7:00 and I stumbled down stairs in my running shorts to call Ajarn Vinai.  No space was available, but there might be tomorrow.  I should call him back at the same time.  I decided to wait one more day.  Then I noticed a slip of paper by the phone.  “Call Sam.  8848523.”

Sam.  Sam Powers.  An old Thai hand.  He’d been here for thirteen years.  I dialed the number.  Four rings, then a blare of static and the faint rising and falling of a distant voice.

“Hello.  Nan thii nai,” I shouted.  Hello.  Where is that?  Even before exchanging greetings, one determines whether the call has been routed to the intended destination.  More static.

“I can’t hear you.  I’ll dial again.”  Hanging up, I walked over to Jim’s study and looked in.  It was empty.  Good.  I could use the extension in there.  It was a better line.  I dialed again and reached the Opera Hotel, a favorite of Peace Corps Volunteers, both past and present.

“Hello.  Is Sam Powers there?”

“Just a minute.  I’ll ring.”

After about twenty rings, a click, then a sleepy voice:  “Hello.”

“Sam, it’s me.  Buzz.”

Sam was in Bangkok for a few days prior to going back to the states on home leave.  I told him of my plans to start practicing Wipassana the next day, and he suddenly became more alert.  “Let’s get together tonight.  It’ll be our only chance.”

Just what I’d hoped for.  Before I went into Wat Pleeng last year, we had spent several nights talking about Buddhism.  Without that, I would have gone into the Wat absolutely blind.  We could talk about what I’d learned from Ajarn Vinai.

“I’ve got a lot to talk about.  Where shall we meet?”

“How about the Thai Room on Patpong?  It’s quiet there, and we can talk.  Afterwards, we can see what’s up at the Twenties.”  Sam’s suggestion was perfect.  Last year, we and two other close friends had also eaten at the Thai Room.  All middle-aged contemporaries.  Four ex-rowdies sitting quietly, talking about Buddhism.

Looking around the Thai room that evening at 7:30, I spotted Sam at a table next to a window.  A bit heavier maybe.  Hard to tell sitting down.  I sat down and we caught up on what we had been doing for the past year.  A waiter took our orders and returned with two plates a few minutes later.

“So you’re going in for another week of Wipassana,” Sam said, sawing at a rubbery cheese-covered rectangle with the edge of his spoon.

“Yeah.  I’m going to give it another shot.”  I wound some transparent noodles around my fork.  “But this time I plan to go to Omn Noi.  The method they use there is somewhat different from the one I used at Wat Pleeng.  I have a feeling it might suit me better.”  Lifting the snarl to my mouth, I tasted it.

“How are they?”

“There’s no taste at all.  Wait.  Let me try some of the meat with them.”  I took another bite.  “How’s yours?”

“Not bad.  Here.  Try some.”  Sam shoved his plate toward me.

“Thanks.”  I cut off a bite and tasted it.  Not bad.  Sort of like lasagna.  “What is my dish, anyway?”  I had ordered by pointing at random to an entry I didn’t try to read.

“Shanghai noodles.”

“Well, this is one of the few occasions when I can say I prefer Mexican to Thai food.  Or maybe this isn’t Thai at all.  The name’s certainly Chinese.”  Alternating between Sam’s Mexican entre and my noodles, I continued with a description of the body position awareness method Ajarn Vinai had taught me.

“That sounds quite different from the method you used at Wat Pleeng.  What you did there was classical Burmese.”

“Yeah.  You read that letter I wrote last year after I got out.  Remember how painful I found the prolonged sitting.  I took it as a challenge and went through a lot of heroics to survive.  But all those heroics created a hero.  It struck me when I was talking with Ajarn Vinai that the whole point of Wipassana Meditation is to reduce ego strength, not to increase it.  By the way, have you ever tried the body position method?”

“No.  I’ve always used the Burmese method, either walking or sitting and noting your breathing.”

“Well all I know is that this time around I’m going to be a lot gentler on myself.  You know, I was reading about Ken Keys’ Center for Personal Growth up in the northeastern U.S. somewhere.  I think it was in Washington.  In their newsletter, they were describing the methods they are using in their intensives.  They said they were emphasizing a gentler approach than in the past.  Maybe they found out that you can’t force things.”

“Maybe.  Anyway, within Buddhism there are a number of accepted ways to practice Wipassana Meditation:  direct awareness of feelings, body postures, the mind…they’re all supposed to lead to the same goal.  Feel like any dessert?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact,” I said.  “What do they have?”

“Back in the 60′s, volunteers used to come here for pie.  At that time, it was the only place you could get it.”  Sam was referring to Peace Corps Volunteers.

“Pie sounds great.  I remember how good the lemon pie was that our cook used to make.  We’d eat it on Wednesday nights while we watched ‘Hawaii Five-O’ on television, back when Vivi had just been born.  We had a little black and white T.V. and got the English sound track on the radio.  It was a ritual…”  My mind floated further back to my childhood in Ann Arbor when my sister, my parents, and I used to listen to the Jack Benny radio show on Sunday nights and eat ice cream.  My mother always made chocolate syrup.

“Do you realize that was twelve years ago?”  I asked rhetorically.

“Yeah.  We’ve been around this country a long time.”  Sam paused.  “I don’t think I want any dessert.  You go ahead.”

I pointed to ‘Lemon Pie’ on the menu.  “Aw phay manaaw.”  I’ll have the lemon pie.

“You know,” I continued, “I wonder why it is that people who spent time together in Thailand always seem to stay in touch later.  That’s not necessarily the case in other countries.  But whenever a bunch of old Thai hands are around, they always like to get together.  We always do when I go to our TESOL conventions.”  I knew Sam understood the meaning of the acronym:  Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“You know, I think it’s because Thailand is such a wonderful place, and the friendships formed there are associated with such a wonderful experience in general.  So many good times…   And of course the Thai people.  You can’t help from learning from them just being around them.  They really know how to get along with one another and enjoy life.”

The waiter put a plate of tough looking pie in front of me.  My fork slid off the end.  “Hmm.  I don’t think this is quite up to Nang’s standards.”  Nang used to be our cook.

“Aw chaa rawn, khrap.”  Sam ordered a cup of hot tea.

“You know, Sam.  I don’t know what to think about Buddhism any more.  As I see it, there are three versions.  In one, it’s pretty much like existential psychology.  The Buddha commented only on what was directly observable.  He refused to take a position on whether there was life after death, an eternal soul, and things like that.  In fact, he listed several questions he said weren’t worth worrying about since you couldn’t know the answers for sure anyway.  You’d just get frustrated.  What he worked out were some techniques for learning to accept life and be happier.  That’s the version I heard about when I audited a class on Eastern Religions back at the University of Utah.  Right now, I’d say my confidence in this version is about 90 percent.  The bit I have actually experienced myself seems to check out.”  I started to chew a piece of pie.

“Then there’s another level up.  The operation of the mind is described in extraordinary detail…the twenty-seven types of this and nineteen causes of that.  There’s where I read that Nama rises and falls away at a trillion times every fifth of a second.  Anyway, the claim is that the Buddha was supposed to have directly experienced that.  And maybe he did!  I mean, he did sit there under that tree for seven years.  Seven Years!  And just watched his mind the whole time.  Who else has ever done such a thing?  You’d get pretty familiar with your mind in that amount of time.  And, who knows?  Maybe your whole mechanism for perception changes under those conditions.  You hear about people’s whole lives passing in front of their eyes at the moment of death.  Maybe that’s literally the case…that at the moment of death we are suddenly able to watch those frames click by at a trillion times a second.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some day scientists discovered that that was the rate at which the brain’s clock operates…just like a computer.  Anyway, here’s where the whole issue of reincarnation comes in.  And I don’t know how to take it.  If I take it literally, it’s too hard to buy.  I guess my willingness to accept the idea of literal reincarnation is about 20%.  On the other hand, if you take it as a metaphor–like we actually die and are reborn every moment, perhaps five trillion times per second, then it becomes more believable.  Maybe 50%.”  Jim nodded in agreement and started to say something.  I interrupted because I knew he was into computers these days and we could get sidetracked for hours on that topic.

“And then there’s this third level.  Spirits, angels, all sorts of astral planes, Arahans that live 6000 years, special powers… .  That’s where I draw the line, at least for right now.  I just have trouble believing that the Buddha actually said that.  Last night I was talking with Jim.  And you know what he said?  He said that this view of not Teravada Buddhism at all.  It’s Mahayana.  All that cosmology comes from Hinduism!  But anyway, the strange thing is that some Thais I’ve talked with are emphatic that all this cosmology is Teravada.  Right now, I’m inclined to go along with Jim and keep thinking of the Buddha as a marvelous scientist and humanist whose method consisted of observation and who practiced it longer, and with greater wisdom, than anyone has done since.”

Sam had finished his tea.  While I was talking, I noticed his eyes attracted moment to moment by passersby, mostly girls, outside the window.  He acted keyed up and nervous.

“Shall we go?”

“Yeah.  Let’s go.”  Jim’s eyes brightened and he circled his hand a couple of times above the table.  The waiter brought the check.

On two narrow, parallel lanes two hundred meters long are located 90% of the nightspots frequented by most foreign men in Bangkok.  Called Patpong I and II, they are privately owned.  Proprietors of massage parlors, restaurants, quiet bars, rowdy bars, and Go-Go bars lease buildings from the owners, and hundreds of sidewalk artists and vendors push, pedal, or putt their merchandise to hawk it in ungrammatical English.  Touts and girls cluster around the doors:  “You want to see sexy show?  Come in, Please.  You, Mister!  One beer only 40 baht.”

“You know, Sam.  It’s funny how aggressive and unfriendly these people sound in English.  But as soon as they start speaking Thai, their personalities change.  Their expressions soften, and they sound gentle.”

“I’ve noticed that, too” Sam said, steering me to the left around rows of oil-on-velvet pictures of grass huts, water buffalos, and luminescent nudity.  “Speaking Thai is a way of life.”

No-thank-you-ing our way past seven or eight bars, we turned into the Roaring Twenties.  “Sawatdii, Khun Sam.  Cheun.”  Hello, Sam.  Come in.

Ten years ago, Bangkok had thirty bars like this one.  The show visible through the window on the ground floor was standard:  several girls in brief outfits Go-Go dancing on a raised platform.  On a second or third floor, however, was the real moneymaker; nude shows for tourists only.  Then, a new government came into power after a coup and shut all of them down.  This was the first one to re-open in eight years.  Sam headed upstairs.

“The music’s better up here.  Downstairs all they play is that disco.”

The Thai watching the locked door at the top of the stairs opened it for us, and we walked into the smoke.  The upholstered seats along one wall were packed with foreign men and Thai bar girls.  Three nude girls pranced on a small stage to the right, performing a boring ritual of unnatural acts.  A hostess shepherded us toward the bar at the end of the room.  There were so many customers that every girl was actively hustling drinks.  They wouldn’t be able to sit down, relax, and exchange gentle banter until the crowd thinned out–probably so late that those who had not left with new-found friends would be numb from the drinks, the smoke, and the noise.

“May mii thii nang.  Ca may yuu.  Khawp khun.”  There’s nowhere to sit.  We won’t be staying.  Thanks.

“Let’s go over to the Windsor.  I know some of the girls there.”  Sam led the way to a noisy bar three doors down.  “They usually have pretty good music here.”

The booths looked full, but several girls got up quickly and gestured for us to sit down.  I noticed less smoke that at the Twenties.  We sat down and ordered.

“Naam sodaa beep manaaw.”  Soda water with a squeeze of lemon, I said.  The waitress smiled.

“Pen khon riap rooy.”  You’re a straight arrow.

Sam ordered a bourbon and water.  “I just started drinking again last week.  The first time since I got hepatitis three years ago.  It really laid me out.  No energy at all.  No libido.”  Sam looked sadly at the drink the waitress had placed on a napkin in front of him.

“You know, Tantric Yoga is supposed to be one of the paths to enlightenment,” he said more brightly.  “And alcohol delays orgasm.  I’ll drink this as a kind of sacrament!”  My friends back in Salt Lake City would like this, I thought to myself.  It was going to be a cosmic evening.

“You know, when I was talking with Jim last night, he said that he had just found out that ‘Abhi-’ is a Pali prefix meaning ‘meta.’  That would mean that ‘Abhidhamma’ means something like ‘meta-law’ or ‘metaphysics.’  What do you think about that?”

That was just the invitation Sam needed.  A compulsive talker, he began with his standard opening.  “You know, that’s an interesting question.”  I leaned back, not really expecting him to answer it.

“Studying the Abhidhamma is the in thing right now.  There are Abhidhamma societies all over the place.  Farangs get together to debate for hours.  For some of them, everything is Nama and Rupa.  That’s all they can talk about.  It gets to be kind of a drag.”  A girl sat down next to Jim, and he bought her a drink.

The bar was busy, but not crowded.  The standard categories were all represented.  Businessmen leaning on the leather rail chatting quietly, probably about the strength of the dollar.  Cirrhosified mercenaries deep into their alcohol and their past.  Excited sailors–newcomers–grabbing eagerly at each piece of fluff floating by, displaying it for all, particularly themselves, to admire.

“And then there’s another kind,” Sam continued.  “They’ve memorized the whole Abhidhamma–it’s volumes long, you know–and they use it to explain everything in endless detail.  There’s an answer in it for everything.”

I nodded.

“They recite it over and over.  It’s a kind of catechism.”

One of the brief silences following Sam’s conclusion exploded an augmented major chord which collapsed to a diminished minor.  “Hey, Sam.  Do you hear that?  It’s Richard Dolby.  ‘Blinded With Science.’  That’s my daughter Vivi’s favorite song!  I’ve got to listen.”

A hundred and twenty decibel pressure peaks pumped out of a quartet of aluminum lensed JBL-325 drivers suspended from the four corners of the ceiling, powered by a rack of black, direct coupled, full complementary, five hundred watt Class-A amplifiers:  Cerwin Vegas.  I tore off the corners of a bar napkin, wadded them up, and stuffed them in my ears.  The volume decreased from painful to loud.

“She blinded me with science…science, she hit me with technology.”

“That’s it!  That’s the part where I drove Vivi crazy with summer.  I always replaced ‘technology’ with something else:  phonology, geology, scatology…the study of excrement?  It took her a long time to stop resisting and go along…”

Ignoring me, Sam chatted on with his friend and a friend of hers.  I stared up at the strobe lights above the bar.  Now they were flashing in bursts along with the music.  Must be some sort of electronic trigger that runs off the pre-amplifier.  Or maybe not.  Maybe there was an operator somewhere keying a switch.  It was possible.  Labor here was practically free.  I tried to relax and let go of my thoughts, allowing the lights to stimulate me directly.  No luck.  It wasn’t going to be as cosmic as I thought.

“What do you think, Sam?” I said after about an hour.  “Do you want to hang around here or should we try one more place?”

“Yeah, let’s go.  This is getting expensive.  If I buy one girl I know a drink, I have to buy everyone one.  Here, let me get this round.”  Sam pulled a hundred baht bill out of his pocket.

“No.  Let me take care of mine.”  I dropped two green twenties on the table and got up.  “Where should we go?”

“Do you remember the Three Sisters?  We went there last year.”

“Sort of, but it’s all kind of hazy.  Everything runs together.”

Looking up as we walked across the street I saw a pink neon sign flashing on and off above a group of four girls with little pink plastic disks pinned to their outfits.  Numbers 3, 6, 19, and 26 were taking a break.  Number 19 followed us back to a vacant table next to the wall and took our orders.

“Naam sodaa nung.  Bourbon nung.”  One soda water and one bourbon.

A short, slim girl in a green outfit cut two inches above her waist sat down next to Jim.  He turned to me.

“You know, you were talking about special powers over in the Thai Room?  Well, you see this girl?  This girl’s older sister has special powers.”  He introduced me to her.

“You know, I had the damndest experience with this girls phii.”

There are three classes of Farang speakers of Thai.  One class never learns the Thai tones and simply uses English intonation instead.  It sounds awful, but it is usually understandable.  There is a lot of redundancy in the language.  The second class learns the tones very well and demonstrates this by pronouncing Thai words with their proper tones even when it is inappropriate, such as in the middle of an English sentence.  It’s equivalent to pronouncing every loan word in English with its original, non-English sounds.  The third group knows the Thai tones perfectly and feels no need to prove it when speaking English.  Sam belonged to this third group and didn’t bother to put a falling tone on ‘phii,’ ‘older sibling.’

“She lives in Chiang Mai.  Well, last summer, she came to Khon Kaen to visit another sister.  So we’re all sitting around this long table eating dinner, when out of the blue this girl’s phii turns to me and says, ‘You know, behind your house there’s a path leading to the left.’  I looked up and said, ‘That’s right!’  A few minutes later, she says, ‘And to the left of the path is a large tree.’  ‘You’re right again!’”  Jim flipped off each sprightly ‘You’re right!’ with a surprised little smile.

“And on the right is a pond,’ she says.  Right again!  Anyway, this goes on the entire evening.  Not only with me, but with the other people at the table.  And it’s the damndest thing.  She’s right every time.  No one even asked her to do it.  Every once in awhile, she just lets go with a piece of information, and it’s always right!”

Jim and I sat there for a minute pondering that bit of experience with the occult.  A pale girl, rouged cheeks sparkling with silver angel dust stopped in front of me.

“Liang khryang duum, may ca?”  Would you buy me a drink?

“May, Khrap.”  No thanks.  I didn’t feel like treating her to a Coke this time around.

“Thammay, Kha?”  Why not?

“May yaak.”  I don’t want to.  I had learned years ago that any reason could be countered with a different reason, or a putdown.  But a friendly “I don’t care to” was never rejected.  My response punctuated the end of that topic with a pleasant, yet firm, full stop.

“Khun chyy aray?”  What’s your name?

“Chyy Lek.”  My name’s Lek.  Lek collapsed onto an empty stretch of brown Naugahide next to me.

“And one other time, a medium from Luuy, she was holding a séance way the hell out in baan nawk.”  Baan nawk meant out of town.  “Anyway, there we are, out in the boonies, a hut full of people, and this woman whose body is possessed by this phii.  I felt his presence.  We all did.  Well then this medium starts seeing past lives.  The stuff comes out in the most incredible detail.”

‘Phii,’ with the rising tone Sam omitted, meant ‘spirit.’  I nodded and looked around.  Lek’s head was on my shoulder, eyes closed.  I hadn’t even felt it.  I gazed out at the crowd.

“You know, these girls don’t look very happy.”

“There’s a lot of Dukkha here.  This girl Tim,” Sam shrugged toward the girl next to him.  “She’s the fifth one of her sisters to work in this bar.  I’ve known them all.  She was brought to Bangkok when she was thirteen to work as a servant.  Her employer abused her.  Beat her.  I saw her come in black and blue a couple of years ago.”

Sam’s English slipped by Tim who sipped her drink, gazing at the torso of a dancer undulating between stationary feet and hands pressed flat on the floor and ceiling of the stage.  The dancer’s attention was captured, in turn, by her image reflected from a mirror behind our heads.

“Whip it.  Whip it good!”  Eight sets of Bose woofers delivered Devo’s command.  Above the bar, beady red eyes, the output meters on a shiny, black Nakamichi cassette player, winked up and down in agreement.

“Anyway, then this medium starts speaking in tongues, a crazy Indian cadence, up and down.  You know how it sounds.  I can’t even begin to imitate it.  I’ve never heard anything like it.  There’s no way this old lady from baan nawk who’s never even been to Bangkok could have learned an Indian language.”

“Seems improbable, unless…”  Lek’s cheek slid down my shoulder slightly.

“You know, I don’t even talk about this kind of thing to most Farangs.  They’d think I was crazy.”

A red glint from a revolving, silver polyhedron measured the walls and flashed into my eye, the same shade as the plastic image of Luang Phaw Sya the medium had given me back at Wat Pho.

“Before I came here this time around, I would have agreed, but now…I just don’t know.  Christ, who knows what the possibilities are?”  My ears were ringing despite my ear plugs.  My shirt was clammy and smelled like cigarette smoke.

“I’m going to take off now and catch a taxi home.  Do you want to come with me?”

“No,” Sam said.  “It’s only a half an hour to closing.  I’m going to stay around and get laid.”

I dropped forty baht on the table, and propping Lek up, wiggled out from behind the table.  Then I slipped twenty baht into her hand.

“Sawatdee Kha, Ajarn.”  Good bye, teacher, she said sleepily.

“Bye bye, Lek.”  I brushed off my shoulder.  A few silver flecks floated slowly to the floor as I walked out into the warm, damp air.  How did Lek know I was a teacher?

 . . .

Saturday morning I rang up Ajarn Vinai at seven o’clock.  There was still no space for me at the Omn Noi Meditation Center.  But maybe there would be tomorrow.  Could I check back then?  I had been afraid this might happen.

“Ajarn Vinai,” I said, “here’s the problem.  I have only one more week free to practice Wipassana, and I’m afraid that if I wait any longer I may not have enough time to accomplish anything.  Since you are not sure there will be space at Omn Noi, I think I had better go ahead and go to Wat Pleeng.  I know they have space.”

Ajarn Vinai agreed.  He said that the practice was very important and that I should probably get started.  I told him that I would be able to use what I had learned to make my practice as beneficial as possible.  Then I thanked him again.

“When will you be getting out,” he asked?

“A week from tomorrow, on Sunday.”

“Can you come to Wat Pho to talk to a group of Thais about your experience?  They would be very interested in knowing why a Farang was interested in Wipassana.”

“I’d be happy to,” I replied.  “At what time?”

“The audience will be the largest fairly early.  I’ll come and pick you up at Wat Pleeng about nine in the morning.”

“That will be fine.  I’ll be ready.”

I pressed the cradle twice, got another dial tone, and rang the number of Wat Pleeng.  “Could I speak with Phra Chuke?”

“Raw sak khruu, na Khrap.”  Just a minute.  Phra Chuke had replaced Ajarn Prasert at Wat Pleeng.  Earlier in the week, I had visited the Wat and spent a few minutes chatting with him.  He said that if ever I wanted to practice there again, just call or come out.  There would be space.

“Hello.  Sawatdee, Khrap.”  Phra Chuke’s greeting came in a mixture of Thai and English.

“Hello.  Nii Adrian Palmer phuut, Khrap.”  Hello, this is Adrian Palmer speaking.   I told him I was free now and would like to begin practicing Wipassana.  Would that be O.K.?  He said it would.  When did I want to start?  This morning if it was convenient.  That was fine.  Come on out.

I went upstairs, picked up a duffel bag I had packed the night before, and carried it down.

“Riak taksi noi, day may Khrap?”  Would you go out and get a cab for me?  One of Jim’s servants, or maybe it was a distant relative of his wife–I never got straight who was who–went out and reappeared a few minutes later in a yellow Datsun.

“Bye bye.  Tell Ajarn Jim I’ll be back in a week.  I’ve got to Wat Pleeng.”

Wat Pleeng is a large temple ground located in Bangkok’s sister city, Thonburi.  Separated from Bangkok proper, it is largely commercial and residential.  No major hotels or department stores rise up from its business areas, and numerous canals still cross its extensive suburbs.

The Wat itself is about two hundred feet square.  Within the confines of the flaking grey cement walls is the Boot, a tall, fairly narrow cement building with a steep, red tile roof.  Six foot high curly fingernails grow from its tips and  a thin spire rises another thirty feet from a cone of concentric rings cast in red cement.  The thought occurred that it looked like a mixture of Gothic, Rococo, Howard Johnsons, and Tasty Freeze.  I immediately felt guilty–and a bit nervous.  What if the people around here could read my mind?

An assortment of living quarters, some permanent solid concrete structures, others less substantial wood, crowded one quarter of the back corner of the main grounds.  A few temporary shacks to the left housed construction workers who were presently sitting outside eating noodles.  My taxi drove inside the main gate and I directed it to Phra Chuke’s house.

“Ca buat, may Khrap?”  Are you going to be ordained?

“No.  I just came here to practice Wipassana.”

Hearing the taxi pull up, Phra Chuke came out of his house, waied, and picked up my duffle bag.

“Cheun.”  Come in.

I went in and sat down on the floor.  Two other visitors were also there, a Mediterranean looking Westerner and an oriental.  We chatted in English for a few minutes.  The visitors had just arrived in Thailand and had come out to Wat Pleeng to talk with Phra Chuke about Buddhism.  Neither planned to practice Wipassana, however.  Both were Christians.

“Diao, ca pay hay tham hong sa’aat.”  Phra Chuke said he was going to have my room put in order and left.  I chatted a bit more with the visitors and another Phra who had just come in, a dark, soft spoken young man from the northeast.  I noticed his gentle touch on my arm with nearly every sentence.  Finally, he gestured toward the room behind me.

“Thaan Khaaw.”  Let’s eat.

Someone had spread out the bowls and plates for a lunch on the floor of the library behind me.  I wasn’t hungry, but I agreed to sit down with them.

“Thaan dai nitnoi.”  I’ll just have a little bit.  The more I ate, the better it tasted.

“Khaw khau iik noi.”  I asked for some more, aware that I was not eating solely for the purpose of fueling my body for meditation practice.

Returning from the mediation area, Phra Chuke sat down with us.  “Would you mind making a tape in English about why you decided to practice Wipassana?”

“Sure.”

Phra Chuke set a recorder in front of me and snapped in a cassette.  Punching the record button, he looked at the tape.  It was turning.

“O.K.  You can start now.”

I talked for about twenty minutes, first about my initial meeting with Ajarn Prasert on the airplane from China, then about what I hoped to get out of the week.  I finished by summarizing what Ajarn Vinai had taught me about the differences between Tranquil and Insight Meditation.  I thought that was one area that most foreigners might be confused, as I had been.  Finally, I pressed the stop button.

“Well, shall we go?” I asked.  I was ready to begin my practice.

. . .

 The Phras actually practicing Wipassana Meditation are only a small minority of the temple population which numbered several hundred priests and nuns.  Their living quarters are located in the back of the temple grounds, physically separated from the main area by a tall, concrete wall and an iron gate.  The twenty five or so priests in residence live inside, either in small, separate houses or in rooms in a two story motel like structure.  Last year I had been quartered in the latter building.  This year, I was led to one of the ten individual houses, two buildings down from the main gate.

“We’re short on space right now.  This is Khaaw Pansaa, and the temple is full.  You’ll be sharing a room with Ajarn Suchin.”  Khaaw Phansaa is the rainy season in Thailand, a time when Thai men traditionally ordain for two months.

Phra Chuke climbed the six steps of the house I would be staying in and motioned me to follow.  Entering, I saw a calm, somewhat serious looking Phra in his thirties deliberately sweeping the floor with a short wispy broom.

“This is Ajarn Suchin.”

I waied and Ajarn Suchin nodded.  “Ajarn Suchin will help you if you have any questions.  Just make yourself comfortable.”  Phra Chuke left, and I looked at my living quarters.  Half of a 12′ by 12′ room, my portion was separated from Ajarn Suchin’s by a string from which hung several orange robes.  The floor was gold linoleum imprinted with a square, parquet pattern.  Undulating over the uneven concrete beneath it, it disappeared under a red mat woven out of plastic.  Ajarn Suchin handed me a small, firm pillow inside a yellow case, open at both ends.

“Than ca noon thii nii.”  You can sleep here.  Ajarn Suchin addressed me with the formal pronoun, “Than.”  Looking at me again, he pulled out a folded wool blanket from under a yellow, tent-shaped mosquito net.

“Here.  You can use this if the mat is too hard.”

Sitting down on my mat, I unzipped my duffle bag and started pulling out the contents.  My dopp kit and shampoo went on two small wooden shelves perched unevenly on brackets nailed to the wall.  A fork and spoon, an aluminum cup, and a jar of Postum followed.  On the floor next to one wall I lined up a pair of sandals, a pair of thongs, a stainless steel pinto for my food, a one liter thermos, a battered aluminum bowl about a foot in diameter, and a white plate, the bowl and plate having been provided by Ajarn Suchin.  A compact red and white pillow went into the corner.  Sliding the orange cloth down a bit, I hung my two Hawaiian shirts, one pair of blue pants, and a brown towel on the string.  A Thai style blanket woven of orange terry cloth went at the foot of my mat, neatly folded.  Ajarn Suchin left the room.

Unzipping the duffle bag all the way, I removed three pieces of sanded oak secured to one another with masking tape.  Peeling off the tape, I pulled a small phillips head screw driver and four screws from one of two grooves dadoed across the longer of the pieces, each groove set in about an inch from the end.  Laying the long piece on the floor, slots facing up, I fitted the two smaller pieces vertically into the slots.  Holding these legs in place, I turned the apparatus over and sat it on its legs.

The phillips head screws went through four pre-drilled holes in the top board opposite the two slots and engaged matching holes in the ends of the two legs.  Wrapping the handle of the screwdriver with a towel, I twisted the screws until they seated, drawing each leg up tightly into its slot.  Sitting back, I admired the collapsible Wipassana bench I had made in the wood shop at Yoga camp, just a month before.

Ajarn Suchin reappeared and spoke several short sentences in Thai.  Some of the words were unfamiliar, but I knew from last year what he was talking about.  It was time to go meet Ajarn Praderm, the Abbot of Wat Pleeng, and to take my vows.  I quickly changed from my Bermuda shorts into long pants, combed my hair, and followed Ajarn Suchin to the main meeting room just outside the gate to our inner compound.

A stocky, serious man in his fifties, Ajarn Praderm is one of Thailand’s best-known teachers of Wipassana meditation.  The heart of his own practice was eighteen months of uninterrupted meditation.  In addition to leading daily meditation sessions in Wat Pleeng, he teaches classes in the Abhidhamma, open temples, and makes frequent trips upcountry for a variety of purposes.  Two or three times a week, he meets with each of the meditators to sawp arom, examine them on their progress and advise them on their practice.  And when new meditators enter and old meditators leave, he conducts the appropriate formal ceremonies.

My own ceremony began with Ajarn Suchin handing me a plate of flowers, candles, and sticks of incense at the door to the meeting room where Ajarn Praderm sat on a red rug, itself lying on a platform about six inches above the carpeted floor.  Crossing the floor on my knees, I was instructed by Ajarn Suchin to khraap before a small Buddha sitting on an alter at the side of the room.  I knelt on the floor and sat on my heels.  Bending forward, I placed first my right palm, then right forearm, followed by my left palm and forearm on the floor in front of me and lowered my head to the floor between my arms.  Rising to my knees, I placed my palms together in a gesture of prayer and lifted them to my face, thumbs at chin level.  Inclining forward, I repeated the same process two more times.

Ajarn Suchin then motioned for me to take a candle flickering in a holder next to the statue and light two other candles.  He then handed me the incense and instructed me to light the three sticks and stick them in a pot of sand before the little alter.  This completed, I knelt my way over to Ajarn Praderm.

“Khraap,” instructed Ajarn Suchin.

I khraaped once and began the second.  Ajarn Suchin gestured for me to wait and said something in Thai, waving toward my rear.  I got the message.  Don’t let my rear stick up so high in the air when I khraaped.  I tried it again, this time aware that my rear was way above my head, yet I could do nothing about it.  It must have been in awful taste!  All that Yoga, and I was still tight.  Ajarn smiled not to worry and murmured something to Ajarn Suchin.

“…Farang….Farang….can’t…..”  He understood my limitations.

A long series of prayers and instructions followed.  Some of these Ajarn Suchin indicated I was to listen to.  Others I repeated phrase by phrase after Ajarn Praderm.  The standard Thai portion I could follow somewhat.  The Pali portion left me baffled.  Then came a sentence I understood.

“Ca aw kii siin.”  How many precepts will you follow?

A brief exchange between Ajarns Praderm and Suchin ensued, followed by the answer supplied by Ajarn Praderm himself.

“paet, chai may?”   Eight, right?

” paet, Khrap.”  Ten, I echoed.  Ajarn Praderm must either have remembered that I had opted for             precepts last year or just figured that anyone on his second time around would elect to follow the maximum number.  O.K.  So be it.  One by one I repeated my vows after Ajarn Praderm.

“I undertake the rule of training to refrain from killing living beings.”

“I undertake the rule of training to refrain from taking what is not given.”

“I undertake the rule of training to refrain from wrong conduct in sexual pleasures.”

“I undertake the rule of training to refrain from false speech.”

“I undertake the rule of training to refrain from intoxicants, such as distilled and fermented things, which are a cause for carelessness.”

“I undertake the rule of training to refrain from food except at the right time.”

“I undertake the rule of training to refrain from dancing, singing, music and seeing entertainments, also wearing jewelry, using perfumes and beautifying with cosmetics.”

“I undertake the rule of training to refrain from a soft bed large enough for two.”

As Ajarn Suchin and I walked back to the compound, I asked him if there would be a group meditation session in the evening.  There wouldn’t.  What about in the morning at four A.M..?  No.  Not then either.  There were sessions, but it wasn’t necessary for me to attend them.  Just practice on my own.  And if I had any questions, ask him.

I had been apprehensive about how I would deal with the hour-long group sitting.  In fact, on my way into the compound a few minutes ago, I had even picked up a small block of wood to place under my buttocks.  Now I didn’t have to worry about that at all.

Back in my room, I slowly changed into my shorts and headed out to a path to begin my awareness of the walking posture.  Before I could get started, my mind began wandering.  Wow!  Discipline around here had really gotten slack.  Two young Phras chattered animatedly on a stone bench near the wall.  A middle aged Phra sat on his porch reading a newspaper while another smoked a cigarette.  Soft snoring came from inside one house, the squawking of a news broadcast from another.  Where was the booze?  Last year the compound had been quiet, solemn except for one night when a young Phra had had a breakdown and had started singing loudly, desperately, at two A.M..

Becoming suddenly aware of Nama wandering, I let it go and started walking.  I remembered a suggestion in Ajarn Naeb’s book:  try to just be an observer of things as they happen.  Don’t try to run the show.  Back and forth I walked along the rough concrete.  Letting go of thought, I tried to let observation take its place.  Rather soon, my perception of what was happening changed.  The experience was one of being a spectator at a movie in the round.  Six projectors ran at high speed, the images from each sense door blurring into an undifferentiated smear.  At this point, there was no awareness of Nama and Rupa, certainly not of their rising or falling away.  I later compared it to being a beginning language learner listening to a foreign language:  aware of the input but not recognizing any of the individual words.

Being in the present was pleasant, and I became attached to it, thinking that it represented progress:  a significant first step.  Despite the fact that I could make little sense of what was happening, it felt good just to be watching.  I went to bed thinking that maybe this wasn’t going to be too hard.

The next morning, craving for being in the present collided with mental wandering.  As soon as I started walking and trying to let my attention accept all input, my thoughts took off on their own.  Over and over I became aware of this, but each time I did, I was able to re-contact the present only briefly.  The more effort I exerted, the shorter the contacts became, until finally my awareness bounced off the present like a gymnast rebounding off the surface of a trampoline.  All the real action took place in the air.  “It takes three to four days before mental wandering stops,” I remember Ajarn Vinai saying the last day we met.  All right.  I’d have a look at mental wandering.

Sitting down on the steps in front of my house, I propped my elbows on my thighs, set my chin on my knuckles, and did nothing.  Unlike yesterday’s perception of high speed input from many sources, today’s mental wandering resembled an incoherent mental roar, produced not by a tape running too fast but by blown output transistors.  Occasionally the junctions re-formed, but only briefly.

About two in the afternoon, Ajarn Suchin stuck his head in the door.  “Triam tua sawp arom.”  Get ready to be examined.

I stepped out of my Bermudas, pulled on my blue slacks, and went outside to the gate.  The two chairs next to the door to the meeting hall were occupied by Phras waiting for their turns.  Last year, the laymen were examined last, and I figured that that would be the same this year, so I wandered around the grounds, checking back occasionally to see whether the chairs were empty.  An hour and a half later, only one Phra remained in line, so I took a seat.

Ajarn Praderm sat on a folding chair just inside the door to the meeting hall.  A Phra sitting in front of him rose, waied, and backed away.  I watched the Phra in the chair next to me stand, walk to the steps, and rinse off his bare feet with a small aluminum bowl of water dipped from a three foot high earthen pot.  Kneeling on the top step, the Phra khraaped to Ajarn Prader, slid through the doorway, and sat on the floor, legs bent to the side and back.

Last year, the actual examinations had not been at all threatening.  Now I was more concerned about my ability to express myself clearly in Thai than I was with the content of the questioning.  I wasn’t particularly worried about understanding Ajarn Praderm, for I recalled that last year he had made an obvious effort to simplify his Thai for me, and I figured he would do the same this year.  After fifteen minutes, the Phra ahead of me got up.  I approached and went through the opening ritual.  Then the examination began.

“Kaan patibat pen yangrai baang?”  The words followed one another slowly, distinctly.  How are things going with your practice?

“Not bad.  Yesterday was very good.  I was able to keep my mind on my practice quite well.”

“Were you able to be in the present?”

“Yes, for quite long periods of time.  Of course not all the time, but quite a bit.”

“Dii maak.  Dii maak.”  Very good.  Very good.  Ajarn Praderm beamed at me.  There it was:  that wonderful smile.

“But then today it didn’t go so well.  I couldn’t concentrate on anything.  I was in the past and future a lot, thinking.”

“That’s all right.  It comes and goes.  Comes and goes.  Yesterday, were you aware of Nama and Rupa?”

“Not really.  I was mostly aware of not being in the past.  There may have been occasional moments of awareness of Nama and Rupa, but not many at all.”

“That’s o.k.  That will come.  Were you aware of Anicha, Anatta, and Dukkha in your practice?”

“Not very much.  Maybe once in a while.”

“That’s fine.  Just start by being aware of them a little bit.”

My back was beginning to hurt from being twisted to compensate for my sitting off balance.  I rose slightly and slid my feet under me to the other side.

“Is there anything else you’d like to ask?”

“Well, one thing that was really good was that I didn’t sleep during the day.  Last year, I had a lot of trouble with sleeping too much.  This time, when I felt sleepy, I noticed it, and sometimes it went right away.  Other times, I rubbed my face or walked.  If it really got bad, I bathed.  I feel a lot better about this.”

“Dii maak.  Dii maak.  Mii aray iik?”  Great.  Is there anything else?

“Well, I like to exercise every day.  Is that o.k.?”

“Yes.  Just practice with Sati.  Is there anything else?”

“No.  I’m enjoying my practice.  Thank you very much.”  After khraaping, I backed out and returned to the compound.

During the next two days, I spent long periods observing mental wandering, yet not feeling particularly concerned about it.  At other times, I just sat and took in the surroundings.  Last year, chickens had roamed through the compound, clucking, pecking, and depositing slimy little black mounds on the walks for me to squash under my heels in the dark.  This year, a different menagerie had moved in.

There they were.  The dogs.  Lek, a medium sized bitch with short, shiny brown hair and a soft smile was in heat.  Too, a somewhat larger black and white male, the shaggy hair on his chest and flanks stained pink by flea powder, trotted after her, moist nose inches behind her tail.  Every few minutes, he pulled along side, tossed a friendly front paw over her back, and mounted.  His short little back legs scurried along, trying to keep up with Lek’s brisk pace.  Lek speeded up, and Too scrabbled for traction, his claws slipping on the concrete.  Eventually he maneuvered her into a corner, forcing the ritual to its standard conclusion.  Lek sat down, closing the door, and snapped at him.  Backing off, he trotted around in frustrated little circles, then sat down and scratched his ear.  Eventually, Lek rose and the two of them disappeared around the corner of a house.  Hmm.  No self there.  I imagined myself running after women and mounting them in public.  No way my ego would let me do that!  Maybe the whole point of this training was to become like animals.  Naa.  Of course not.  There was no wisdom there.  Just instinct.  And they had no concept of making merit.

Spasmodic wheezing to my right caught my attention:  a small black cat–probably not full grown–crouched on the walk, stomach contracting in dry heaves.  I went over, picked her up, and set her to the side on some dirt.  The spasms continued for several minutes until a lumpy yellow liquid spurted from her mouth.  Four spurts.  Shakily, she got up and walked over to a basin of water, licking her lips.

I began to feel a mild ache–not unpleasant at all–in my own stomach.  Probably that spicy curry I had had for breakfast.  Getting up, I headed for the bath house and toilet.  The bolt on the door was engaged, holding it shut to prevent mosquitoes from entering.  I snapped on the light and went in.

Hanging my clothes up on a rusty nail pounded into the door jam, I stepped up barefooted onto the ribbed footpads.  If I put the balls of my feet down off the pad onto the surface of the commode, the pads provided that one-inch of heel elevation I needed to squat comfortably.  That was a recent discovery.  Before, my comfort had been limited by the tightness in my Achilles tendons.  I had always had to fight to keep from toppling over backwards.  I squatted down, naked.

Several minutes later, I became aware of a defilement of mind:  savoring an experience.  Enough!  Grabbing an aluminum bowl, I filled it with water from a rectangular concrete container next to the toilet.  Pouring it into my cupped hand between my legs, I washed off.  It had taken me a while to get used to that, I thought.  I’d never forget that first time when I had no choice…but it really hadn’t been so bad.  Now it actually seemed a lot cleaner, as long as you washed your hands afterward.  I sluiced in a few more bowls full.  Hey!  If I tipped the bowl just right, I could actually throw it under pressure.  I wondered if other people had discovered that.  Maybe I could publicize it somehow…

I pulled my cake of soap out of a white box and washed my hands.  A sign over the toilet said “Chuay raksaa khwaam sa’aat.”  Please keep things clean.  I obediently threw a few more bowls of water at the toilet and watched them splash over the edge into a pool of water on the floor.  Looking down, I noticed the edges of that pool lapping at my toes.

That explained it!  We came in here and crapped.  Then we sloshed the bacteria out onto the floor and stood in it.  Then we walked out and headed for our rooms.  Then we washed off our feet in those concrete basins by the steps.  Then the cats drank from those basins and vomited.  Ate, drank, vomited.  Ate, drank, vomited.  It would never end.  It was a closed system!  I wondered what they had done in their past lives to deserve that.

 . . .

For the first three days I was at Wat Pleeng, I’d been left on my own, with the exception of my one meeting with Ajarn Praderm.  None of the group sessions I had so dreaded last year interrupted my personal practice.  Somewhat bored, I began to think about the prospects of a little variety.  A group session might even be kind of fun!

One evening at eight, an eighteen-year-old Neen, a novice priest, approached me.

“Are you going to the Boot?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s eight o’clock.  We’re all going to sit and practice.”

“Is everyone expected to go?”

I didn’t fully understand his answer, but I got the impression that it would be a good idea to go.

Last year, I had entered Wat Pleeng at the end of the hot season before the rains started.  Now, rains fell every afternoon, cooling the shaded air inside our compound.  High, thin clouds, the residue from the preceding night’s storms, glowed dimly every morning in the dark, four A.M.. sky.  Warm mid-morning breezes stirred the milky vapor into opaque piles.  These rose and thickened in the afternoon thermals, dark giants that shrugged lightening bolts into the surrounding suburbs.  Rain was falling right now.

“Diao.”  Just a minute.

I hurried back to my room, changed into my long pants, and picked up my block of wood.  Concealing it under my arm, I went out and ducked under the Neen’s umbrella.  The meditators were walking toward the gate in twos and threes.  We passed the meeting hall.

“It isn’t in the meeting hall?”

“May.  Yuu nay boot.”  No.  It’s in the main temple.

The temple was in better condition than I remembered from last year.  Cracks in the walls had been patched, and the exterior had received a recent coat of white paint.  And there they were.  Those large, carved stone balls beside the door.  I still wondered what they meant.  Rain dripped off the roof onto the dirt outside the porch.

“Ajarn Suchin yang may day puut hong.”  Ajarn Suchin hasn’t opened the room yet, noted the Neen.

“Hen may?  Kamlang maa.”  Do you see him?  He’s coming, I said.

Ajarn Suchin walked up to a ten foot high carved wooden door and unlocked it.  Sliding a red two-by-four out from under a heavy, metal bracket, he pushed and the door swung inward.

We filed in along an aisle to the side of a thirty-foot square platform.  The priests stepped up onto it and khrapped toward the front of the room.  I continued on around to the back, knelt on the floor just behind the platform, and khraaped.  Entering in groups, the twenty-four priests lined up in four rows in front of me and took their positions for the sitting meditation.  I did the same.

To start, I sat with my legs crossed in front of me.  Lifting my right foot, I slid it over my left shin and placed it on my left thigh in a half lotus posture.  The foundation established, I put the block I had secreted into the temple behind my buttocks on the thin, red carpet.  Placing my right fist on the floor behind me, I lifted my seat off the floor, slid the block under my sitz bones, and sat back down.  Then my hands went in my lap palms up, the left hand underneath, the right hand on top, thumbs in contact.  At last I could straighten my spine!

Actually, I was curious about the boot, sitting for an hour straight didn’t really fit into my program of awareness of major body positions.  I knew that I couldn’t sit for the whole time without heroics.  I could manage a few minutes, though.  Sitting erect, I closed my eyes and let my awareness center on my body.  Soon, a burning began in my back.  The block wasn’t helping much.  I concentrated on this suffering for a while, then decided to quit.  Removing the block of wood, I uncrossed my feet and tucked them back under me.

At the front of the room a twenty-foot high golden Buddha sat on crossed legs, the fingers of one hand curved smoothly over one shin, the other arm concealed under a thin orange robe draped over one shoulder.  On either side stood what looked like eight-foot high cones.  Constructed of concentric trays supported two inches apart by a dowel through their center, the two cones were draped with thin films of silver and gold gauze.  Two six-foot statues faced the Buddha.  Intertwined between the fingers of the two gold figures sagged a network of white string.  Tiered shelves rose from the floor in front of the statues.  Vases, sticks of incense, and small white figurines on these shelves surrounded six electric candles.

Orange and green beams from spotlights on the ceiling reflected off the Buddha’s gold skin.  Red and blue arcs danced between the candles’ dual filaments.  Six standing fans spinning on “High” whipped the air into a wind that ruffled the hair on my arms.  The incompatible frequencies of the huge motors resonated and throbbed, while a low, deep rumble from the ceiling rose and fell in time with my slow breathing.  Suddenly, the room glowed white for an instant, and the eyes of a Buddha gazing down from a wall painting high in the gloom above me met mine, and then vanished in a crash of thunder.  Let it go, I reminded myself.

Last year when I had sat in the meeting room, I had paid little attention to the other meditators.  I had assumed that they were able to hold the required posture for the entire hour.  Such was not the case now.  Within ten minutes, several of the Phras had uncrossed their legs and slid their feet behind them, or to the sides.  Another leaned backward, supporting himself with his hands on the floor behind him.  A third collapsed forward between his knees, his head resting on the floor.  Several opened their eyes and looked around.  Directly in front of me, however, sat an exception:  the young Neen who had accompanied me here to the Boot.

A flat, eight-inch band of orange cloth hung neatly down his back from his left shoulder.  A similar band gathered both his robe and the vertical sash to his waist.  His torso curved upward in a smooth arc to his shoulders.  Back absolutely straight, he sat motionless, balanced.  He looked just like I imagined the Buddha must have, I thought, absorbed in the content of my mental wandering.

Toward the middle of the week, my periods of mental wandering became shorter, periods of awareness lengthened, and I settled into a regular schedule.  Each day consisted of two types of activities.  The first was attending to the practical aspects of living.  The second was practicing awareness of the four major body positions.  I rose at 4:00 A.M.., practiced until 5:15, did Yoga until 6:45, bathed until 7:15, ate breakfast until 8:00, washed the dishes and straightened up the room until 8:30, practiced until 11:30, ate lunch until 12:30, practiced until 3:00, had a cold drink and washed clothes until 4:00, practiced until 6:00, did some more Yoga until 7:00, and practiced until 10:00 P.M..  Then I slept.

The first change I noticed in my practice was the beginning of awareness of different Nama and Rupa.  This experience was frequently vivid while walking.  Early Tuesday afternoon, making no effort to control my pace, I walked back and forth along a cement path.  My first impression was of my body in motion:  legs moving, torso swaying, arms swinging—-constantly changing skeletal positions.  After a few seconds, that screen went blank and the auditory screen came on, powered by two microphones moving through a sphere of noise.  Pops, whistles, clicks, hisses, bangs, and tones registered from all coordinates.  For a period of high moment-to-moment concentration, the input speeded up but retained its clarity.  Suddenly, the sounds smeared together and unnoted mental wandering took over.

Just as suddenly, awareness of thinking arose and a thought dissolved.  Then the vision screen lit up:  patterns of light, dark, and colors flashing by in rapid succession, so fast that there was no time for the mind to label or interpret them; that is, until moment-to-moment concentration gave way to holding on to the last impression.

Hard, soft, hot, cold:  the eye sense door closed and the body door opened to awareness of sensation dancing over the surface of the skin.  Suddenly the taste screen took over:  sour, sour, sour.  I hadn’t brushed my teeth after that cup of coffee.  Wandering, wandering.  Awareness returned when acrid smoke from a smoldering pile of leaves caused the smell screen to energize briefly, then shut down.

Thinking resumed:  the experience was new and exciting.  Then more thoughts:  the purpose of this practice is not to have a good time.  I decided to try to limit my moment-to-moment awareness to the body postures.

I knew from last year that trying hard to be aware of only one sense door wouldn’t work.  The mind would resist.  On the other hand, not trying at all wouldn’t work either.  The various screens would simply flicker on and off totally at the mercy of external stimulation.  I tried something in between.

When awareness shifted from a posture, I noted it non-judgmentally and softly nudged it back.  When it stayed on the posture, I didn’t congratulate it with a slap on the back.  I just let it rest lightly where it was.  Gradually, the mind sense door, through which body position is perceived, remained open for longer and longer periods.  On this screen was projected muscular and skeletal sensations of walking, orientation, contraction, relaxation.  Soon after this, awareness of body position faded and awareness of pain began.

Early in the week, physical pain had registered only when it had become obtrusive, and this had been immediately followed by a shift to conventional reality and a desire to change positions.  If I yielded to this desire, I changed with the idea that the new position would feel better.  By the middle of the week, the body sense door was opening sooner, before the onset of major pain.  With this came the thought that maybe the body was never free from pain.  I experimented Tuesday afternoon to see if this was true.

Starting out in the walking position, I became aware right away of sensations through the body sense door.  Sure enough, minor pain registered in several locations:  itching on the eyebrow, a twinge in the shoulder, an ache in the calf.  None were major.  All could be ignored simply by letting attention wander to another sense door, or letting thinking begin.  Gradually, the throbbing in the lower back intensified and demanded more attention.  As the intensity increased, awareness of the pain gave way to thinking about it, and gentle judging was required to get awareness back to the body.  Then thinking returned:  happiness is just a position away.  I nudged the attention back and waited until awareness was on the pain itself before changing positions and sitting down.

A Wipassana bench is designed to make it possible to sit for an hour at a time without hurting one’s back.  The bench facilitates this by allowing one to sit with one’s thighs at less than a 90 degree angle to the spine, thus putting less tension on the hamstring muscles, tension which is taken up in the lower back.  To use the bench, one kneels on the floor, and sets the bench over the calves.  Its legs rest on the floor outside the calves and its seat sits about three inches above them.  Then one simply sits down, knees on the floor in front of the body, shins on the floor under the bench, and the tops of the feet on the floor behind it.  One’s weight is thus supported partly by the legs and partly by the back of the thighs and the buttocks.  The seat of the bench is tilted slightly, the back about two inches higher than the front, to follow the downward sloping inclination of the thighs.  Thus positioned, someone with sufficient strength in the back can maintain a vertical spine with relative ease.

I sat down on my bench on top of an old pillow I had placed there on the day I arrived, when I still believed that comfort was possible.  Becoming aware of the body sense door, I noticed discomfort immediately:  tension in the knees, tension in the neck, and pressure in the stomach.  The stomach?  This was amazing, I thought.  There was no end to it.  I smiled and then became aware of the smile.  That wasn’t a major body position.  Back to awareness of the pain as it shifted, rose, faded, and finally compelled a change of positions.  Maintaining awareness of the pain, I stood up.

Tension shifted to the calves and buttocks.  Then a twinge came from the right elbow.  The left hip began to ache.  Pain danced around and increased until a thought arose:  lying down–that should be the best position of all.  Letting the thought go and returning to awareness of the pain from the back, I lay down on my side, head propped up on my hand, and became aware of bodily sensations.  Sure enough, that wasn’t satisfactory either.  Pain registered in the upper back–minor pain to be sure–but pain nonetheless.  And what about the hip?  That was beginning to hurt.  Not too bad though.  My mind wandered, analyzing the experience.  Twenty minutes later, awareness returned to bodily sensations, which forced another change.

Position after position, change after change, the experience of pain never went away as long as there was awareness of the body sense door.  Thinking started up.  Maybe that was one of the experiential lessons of this practice:  the lesson that it was only in Conventional Reality that the illusion of comfort and happiness existed.  In Ultimate Reality, when you got right down to it, everything was suffering.  This observation did not seem particularly distressing at the time.  In fact, it seemed to be a kind of relief.  If it was literally impossible to eliminate suffering, then it was also pointless to put a lot of energy into a futile, frustrating effort to do so.  I didn’t have any clear idea of what else to do with my time if I gave up trying to be comfortable and happy, but it did occur to me that if I spent enough time at this sort of experiential learning, I would likely become less self-centered.  Less self-centered.  Hmmm.  Less Self?  No Self?  Anatta…

Experiences like this occurred over and over, particularly during the latter part of the week.  An experience would lead to awareness, perhaps a moment of insight.  This would turn immediately into a concept which would lead to more thoughts.  Nothing prevented this from happening eventually.  The temptation was great, usually irresistible, to savor the thoughts, mental action which immediately produced a defilement of mind making subsequent practice ineffective or, frequently, impossible.

It took me until the early evening to let go of thinking and return to my practice.  It was the first time I had any success in being aware of Nama and Rupa.

The eighth bong of a bell in the courtyard was just fading away as I sat down and unscrewed the cap from a small jar of mosquito repellant the young Neen had given me a couple of days ago.  He had noticed that my feet were covered with mosquito bites.  In fact, I had counted a hundred and twenty on my left foot alone.  For some reason, they caused me absolutely no discomfort.  Perhaps the insects were just too small.  Anyway, I felt no need to do anything about them, but the Neen and his friends had assumed I was suffering.  I used the repellant now simply to keep the mosquitos off when I was sitting outside in the evening.  The touch of their bodies tickled.

I walked over to a stone bench next to one of the main concrete paths and sat down in the dark.  Smoke from the afternoon cleanup hung in the air.  Too lay sprawled on the walk, his back legs splayed out behind him.  A small gray and white cat on the porch in front of me scrubbed his face with a black paw.  Children laughed in the distance, and a mother scolded her daughter:  a descending string of nasal vowels.  Chirps, buzzes, twitters, clicks, clucks, and croaks punctuated the steady high pitched drone of crickets.

I stood up and started walking.  This time, however, I observed from a different point of view:  that of awareness of experience as Nama and Rupa.  At first, I went through a few minutes of deliberate after-the-fact naming.  A flash from a light:  awareness of seeing–Nama; a croak:  awareness of hearing–Nama; the cement hard on the soles of my feet:  awareness of bodily sensation–Rupa.  Gradually, conscious naming stopped as I got more into the continuous present.  The delayed mental association of experience with either Nama or Rupa moved closer to the experience itself, until the two, the experience and its category, appeared to occur simultaneously.  It seemed apparent at that moment that the experiences were either one or the other.

I stopped for a minute and thought about this, already attached to the idea of what had happened.  Walking again, I relaxed my mind.  The feeling was something like letting the scalp drift away from the head.  Again, the awareness of experience as either Nama or Rupa recurred.  Stopping again, I savored the experience, but I was aware now that this savoring was dangerous, a defilement.  I decided that the experiencing of Nama and Rupa was potentially too intoxicating, so I decided to return to awareness of body positions.

Walking again, I let go of my thoughts and allowed awareness to rest on the body walking.  With this letting go, my body seemed to be walking by itself, out of control of any “self.”  The sense of “I” as an observer was still there, but the sense of “I” as a cause was not.  I stopped again.  Then I started, and the same experience recurred.  Stopping again, I thought.  What if awareness were on Nama as the cause and sustainer of the walking Rupa?

Again I walked and let go of my thoughts.  My body resumed walking on its own:  effortlessly, undirected.  As it did, I experienced being aware of an energy source vibrating at high speed–and nothing else:  no thoughts, no sensations from outside, no vision, no sound, just a vibrating source of energy.  Stopping, I thought.  Was that the mind–Nama–sending out instructions for the body to walk?  I resumed walking and experienced the same energy source, perhaps along with the destination of the energy:  the walking Rupa.  Stopping, I thought further.  Maybe that was all there was.  There seemed to have been no “I” evident at the time the experience was taking place, though it returned instantly with its termination.  “I” wonder…

I resumed walking, and the experience of a disembodied mind controlling a body returned.  As it did, I became aware I was thinking of what had happened.  Suddenly, the thought, “I am thinking,” was experienced as Nama thinking.  “I” vanished.  Then “I” reappeared with the thought “I just experienced ‘Nama is thinking.’”  Then “I just experienced ‘Nama is thinking’” was itself directly experienced as “Nama is thinking.”  Each thought that included an “I” turned into an “I”-less experience, faster and faster until, for a moment, either “I” or not-I, I don’t know which, experienced a dissolving, sinking, emptiness.  At that point, I, definitely “I,” re-established itself and decided to return to awareness of body positions.  Perhaps, if I (or not-I) had been able to experience that decision to return to awareness of body positions as “Nama is thinking”…

I stopped, thinking again, and stood.  Without any effort, my body became absolutely motionless.  “I” then reappeared and started thinking.  I had been practicing Yoga for over a year.  I had attempted Tadasana–the mountain pose–thousands of times.  Never had I been able to stop a slight swaying around the center of balance.  Now, all by itself, the posture had just executed itself in total stillness.

No longer able to stop pondering the evening’s experiences, I returned to my room, lay down, and fell asleep.

 . . .

 Normally, I hate to get up in the morning.  The idea of the act is distasteful.  What makes getting up bearable is the thought that will lead to something pleasant, like a big breakfast of country ham and grits.  Concentrating on such a pleasant thought, I can make it through the unpleasant ritual of waking up with little direct experience of anything.

The morning after my peak experience, I awoke in a mindful state.  Instead of thinking about how bad waking up was, I simply observed it.  Boiiiing.  A temple bell rang from a loudspeaker tied to a tree outside my room.  Boiiing.  A second clang overpowered the dying reverberations of the first one.  Boiiing…boiiing….boing…boing..boing, faster and faster came the rings, the fundamentals and overtones mixing into a smear of discordant harmonics.  The blare died out momentarily and was replaced by the sounds of a diesel truck revving up, then a Tuk Tuk.  A horn honked, and a wave of traffic accelerated away from a green light.  At four A.M..?  Of course not!  Merely background noise on the tape recording.  The bell must have been recorded in the middle of some city.

Last year, I had been tortured by this recording every morning.  Now, it was experienced indifferently as hearing.  My sore body rose and walked unsteadily over to the clothes line–Rupa walking.  My arm reached up and pulled my shorts off the line.  One foot rose and stepped into a leg hole.  Then the other foot.  Hands reached down, pulled the shorts up to a waist, and buttoned them.  A hand zipped up the fly.  Nama thought “that body is suffering.”  Then I thought, “It’s all suffering anyway, what difference does it make how it occurs.”  Awareness rose to catch the end of that thought fading away.  Opening and closing the screen door quietly, I padded barefooted down the stairs to sit outside.

No one else was up.  Only two lights were on:  a fluorescent tube in the house across from mine and an orange incandescent bulb next to the gate.  I sat down on a bench and practiced awareness of present sensations.  Tingling on my skin rose and passed away.  Then hardness on my buttocks.  The muscles of my eyelids twitched.  The gray of a wall in front of me flickered in a fluorescent glow.  My elbow itched.  I looked down.  It was a mosquito.

After forty-five minutes of quiet observation, I got up and began to walk slowly around the compound.  The Phra’s were beginning to awaken.

The bolt clacked back in the bathhouse door, the hinge creaked, and the door thudded shut.  Water sloshed into the cistern and began to tinkle out of the drainpipe into a stagnant pool outside the wall.  Five minutes of hawking and spitting became gagging.  The Phra inside was clearing his eustachian tubes.

I turned at the sound of descending footsteps.  A Phra, shaved head sprouting short gray stubble, stepped down off his stairs and leaned over a ditch next to his porch.  Blowing his nose noisily, three times per nostril, he wiped his finger on his robe.  Yesterday I had seen him walking back and forth past a little white kitten, each time stepping on its tail.

Ooooooo…aaaaa, tuk tuk, ooooooo…aaaaa, tuk tuk.oooooo…aaaaaa, tuk tuk.  A friendly old Phra, a comedian, stretched loudly on his porch while a Tuk Tuk fired up outside the wall and putted off toward the main road.  Roosters competed for air time.  Then, from under a mosquito net blatted a long, resonant fart.  It was time for Yoga.

Taking off my shirt and hanging it over a branch, I did a series of slow, deliberate standing postures.  An hour later, dripping wet, I returned to my room and finished up with a headstand and a few twists to loosen my spine.  By that time, the noise and the light outside indicated that it must be nearly seven, so I hurried out and took a quick shower in order to be ready for breakfast.

All the food consumed inside the temple is donated by people living around it.  One morning, I watched Ajarn Suchin preparing to go out and receive alms.  His alms bowl fit inside orange mesh to which was attached a wide strap.  He looped it over his shoulder and held the bowl next to his waist.  He then left to receive food in silence, without acknowledging the givers.  To give alms to a Phra is a way ordinary people have of making merit.

The food collected by the Phra’s inside the meditation compound is pooled and divided by Mae Chiis, women with shaved heads in white robes who live in the temple under the same conditions as do the Phra’s but who are not ordained.  These servings, usually in small plastic bags secured with several twists of a rubber band, are placed on aluminum trays and set out on a long table just outside the gate to the meditation compound.  Interspersed among the trays are large bowls of steaming rice, plates of fruit and, occasionally, pots of flowers.  The Phras line up at the front inside the gate.  Laypersons stand at the rear.

A bell rang, and Ajarn Praderm led our procession past the line of servers.  At each station, a Mae Chii put one or more bags of food into our pots or ladled in spoonfulls of steaming rice, then waied.  The procession wound slowly around the horse-shoe of tables, then minus its leader who disappeared inside the meeting hall, filed back into the compound and dispersed.

Setting my bowl on the floor in front of my mat, I slowly arranged my pinto, plate, jar of Postum, Thermos, cup, and saucer in front of me.  Sitting on a pillow, legs crossed, I chose what food I wanted from the pot.  On top was a box of sweetened milk, “Guaranteed Fresh for Six Months.”  Taped to the side was a small straw, just the size of a hole covered with aluminum foil.  Rice covered several little round porcupines:  golfball sized red rambutans sprouting manes of pliable, one-inch long spines.  I noticed a Nama of irritation as I tediously picked the rice from between the spines.  Then a thought.  Why didn’t they keep the fruit and rice separate?  Aaahh.  And there they were.  Some mangosteens.  My favorite fruit.  Dark purple, tough skinned, the size of small tomatoes.  Squeeze the sides of a ripe one between your palms and it popped open.  I squeezed.  Six succulent soft white sections nested in the center.  I stabbed one with my fork and popped it into my mouth.  Tangy, sweet juice flooded my tongue and dribbled back toward my throat.  I swallowed, then masticated, then swallowed again, caught up in thoughts of pleasure.

What was in those bags?  A sweet and sour curry.  Nip though that rubber band and put it in my pinto.  Unfolding the small blade from my Swiss Army Knife, I sawed at the rubber band.  It loosened slightly.  Then some more.  It popped off and fell into the rice.  Damn!  Ajarn Suchin would never have done that.  He wasn’t so impatient.  Ajarn Suchin sat in front of his bowl, seriously spooning rice onto his plate.  We hadn’t talked all week.

I dumped the curry into one of the pinto containers and followed it up with a sack of kaeng cuut, a bland chicken soup with soft, green vegetables.  Into another container went a bag of corn stewed in naam kathi, sweetened coconut milk.  I’d have that for dessert.  Setting aside three small bananas, I filled the last container with rice.

Last year, I had practiced an exaggerated form of mindful eating.  Each bite was broken down into a series of steps:  reaching, grasping the implement, lifting, moving, descending, scooping, lifting, moving, opening, inserting, closing, chewing, and swallowing–mentally tracking the process each centimeter of the way.  The whole tedious ritual took minutes.  An entire meal, over an hour.  I had thought of myself as the resident expert.

This year, I abandoned the theatrics and ate rather normally, except that I tried to stay in the present and be aware of what I was doing.  I also ate more than I had last year, when I had lost ten pounds.

Finishing breakfast, I slowly walked outside with my utensils and the leftover food.  I added this to a pile on a large plate near the tank of drinking water.  My garbage went into a sagging fiber basket.  Too would eat it.  Then I sluiced water over my dishes and scrubbed them with a pad of Scotch Brite.

I was still confused about last night’s experience.  Part of me wanted a repeat performance.  Part wanted to let well enough alone.  Part labeled it “enlightening.”  Part labeled it a self-induced fraud.  I decided to practice conservatively by continuing my awareness of the four major body positions and began by sitting on my bench.  Very soon, my back started to hurt.  Dutifully, I changed to a standing position.  It continued to hurt.  I walked.  It still hurt.  I lay down.  It still hurt.  The pain was not intensive or debilitating.  It just seemed to always be there, and this didn’t fit the description of how this practice was supposed to work.  You were supposed to move to relieve pain!  All morning I persisted, and all morning the pain remained.

Discouraged, I ate lunch leaning against the wall.  As I was finishing, Ajarn Suchin came in from somewhere outside the compound and sat down in front of his mosquito net.

“Ajarn, all morning my back has been hurting.  I don’t understand it.  I thought everything was impermanent.  But no matter how I change my position, the pain is there.  Ca tham yanggai?”  What shall I do?

“Be aware of the pain.  If you are, you will notice that it isn’t always there.  It will come and go.”

I remembered that Ajarn Vinai had given me the same advice on coping with pain.  Making the pain the object of meditation, I tried to become as aware of it as possible.  Sure enough, it came and went, flashing on and off through the body sense door.  It was my thought of the pain that had created the illusion of permanence.  Letting go of that thought and noticing the pain itself confirmed its impermanence and impersonality.  I also realized that as soon as I got stuck in my practice through lack of wisdom, I blamed the system of practice itself.  I made it wrong.  This pattern of frustration, loss of confidence, blaming, and awakening occurred over and over; and on those occasions when the down period persisted, I was particularly aware of the value of Ajarn Suchin’s advice.  Practicing Wipassana Meditation on my own without the aid of a teacher would have been frustrating and inefficient.

Unlike my experiences in the first part of the week, during which time I noticed the development of different degrees of concentration and changing types of awareness, my last three days were dominated by one general learning experience:  noticing the power–along with the illusory nature–of Conventional Reality.

After I talked with Ajarn Suchin, I continued my practice of noting the characteristics of physical pain.  For a while, I was satisfied with this.  Then dissatisfaction began to build.  I had two more days to go.  Was it going to be more of the same–sitting, standing, walking, reclining?  Without realizing it, I was craving another peak experience.  As I walked up and down, mental wandering began.  I reviewed the events of the previous night and compared them with my present boredom.  Finally, I remembered something I had read in Ajarn Naeb’s book:  be aware of the present Ultimate Reality.  I stopped walking, sat down, and observed my frustration.  The mental ringing continued for a minute, then stopped, then started, then stopped.  Suddenly, I broke into a huge grin.  The huge mental structure I had created, the definition of last night’s experience, the need for a repeat performance, the definition of my present as unsatisfactory–Poof!  Facts dissolved into artifacts.  Then, of course, I analyzed the experience and immediately created another set of facts, the set I’m describing, in “fact,” which generated another feeling of euphoria.

Beginning with this experience, which consumed about two hours from start to finish, the amount of time required to become aware of Ultimate Reality and observe the dissolution of Conventional Reality grew steadily shorter.  By the next to the last day, my sensitivity to the onset of frustration brought about by not being in the present had increased to the point where I could occasionally notice it within a few seconds.

I had just finished washing my dishes after breakfast and was returning to my room.  Cradling my bowl, plate, cup, saucer, and Thermos in my arms, I tried to pull open the screen door with one free finger.  I suddenly became directly aware of frustration:  tension in my chest and pressure in my head.  Instantly I became aware of my thoughts:  a mental picture of the door standing ajar and, associated with this picture, a label:  happiness.  Just as quickly, this picture vanished.  Hooking my finger around the door handle, I pulled it open, aware of the pressure on my finger.  Thinking again, I realized that I probably went through life constructing a moving definition of happiness, always slightly ahead of reality, slightly out of reach.  Later experiences of this sort took place even faster:  a flicker from Conventional Reality to Ultimate Reality and a feeling that I had just awakened from a dream.

It was 2:45, Saturday afternoon.  Only one Phra showed any energy:  Khun Lung.  “Uncle,” I had named him.  A comedian.  A nearly toothless man in his sixties, he walked with a pronounced stoop, hands stretched out and clasped behind his back, the vertebra in his lower spine protruding like a dorsal fin.  He had seen me practicing Yoga one morning, had stopped under a concrete beam and had done five slow chin-ups, the sinews in his shoulders bulging out in ropy strands.  Now he was carrying a white kitten, a favorite of his, clasped behind him.  Long fingers completely encircled the animal’s bony rib cage.

Reaching a small tree–it looked rather like a rhododendron–he stopped and placed the kitten on the steeply inclined trunk.  Then, grasping its two front paws in his fingers, he raked them down along the bark.

“Sawn hai maew khuan lep.”  I’m teaching the kitten how to sharpen its claws.

No way, I thought.  You couldn’t teach an animal like that.  Then, all of a sudden…

“May naa chya!”  I can’t believe it.  The little fellow was actually scratching by himself.

The kitten jumped down and trotted off.  Khun Lung disappeared, and a muggy silence enveloped the compound.  One Phra sat cross-legged on a small wooden platform under a tree.  Another walked slowly back and forth in the shade of one of the houses.  Several slept.  Then two Phra’s approached a bell hanging from a limb.  They stopped in front of it, and I noticed, one was carrying a hammer made out of an old connecting rod, the head a long bolt secured through the small end bearing by two rusty nuts.  The bearer raised the hammer and held it poised six inches in front of the bell.  Then he smacked it smartly.  Clang!  Too sleeping beneath the bell, looked up, irritated.  Fourteen more clangs rang out.  It was fifteen hours.  The ringer turned to his friend with a mischievous smile.

“Ropkhuan samathi!”  Disturb their concentration!

I had been meditating for a week, during which time I had been fairly successful in following the precepts I had affirmed upon entering Wat Pleeng.  With only half a day left, I decided to terminate my official practice.  Several times during the week, the younger Phra’s had tried to initiate conversation.  I had told them politely that I had promised not to talk while practicing, but at the end of the week I would be happy to talk with them.  Getting up, I walked over to a pot of sweetened iced fruit juice that had just arrived, as it did every afternoon at this time.  Ladling out a cupful, I turned to the young Neen next to me.

“Diaw nii khuay day.”  O.K.  We can talk now.

A group quickly gathered around me.  I told them how I had become interested in Insight Meditation and had come to find out about Wat Pleeng.  They asked me about my practice.  Had I gotten anything out of it?  Yes.  I felt very good about it.  They noted that I must have very good Sati because I had been able to endure the pain of all those mosquito bites.  I laughed and said it was nothing like that.  They simply hadn’t bothered me.  What would I have done if they had itched?  I would have scratched them, of course.  We talked for another hour before I excused myself, returned to my room, and gave in completely to my most persistent craving:  the desire to take notes.  For two hours, I recorded my impressions in a rushed, illegible scrawl.  Some of what I wrote was analysis.  The rest was descriptive detail.  When I finally stopped writing, the sky was nearly dark.  Someone had turned on the fluorescent light above the steps of the house across from me.  I walked over to say good bye to the Phra living there.

He was sitting on his porch.  Thin brown skin hung from the tendons supporting his shoulders and draped loosely over sunken ribs.  Skinny meatless arms fell to his lap, the bony fingers of his right hand lying in the palm of his left.  His knees, extending from crossed shins, rested flat on the small bench on which he sat.  As I approached, he started to gag, then throw up into a white pot beside him.  It must have been the fiftieth time that day.

“Rusyk yanggai, Ajarn?”  How are you feeling, Teacher?

“May khoay pokkati.”  I’m not quite myself these days, he replied, rubbing his chest weakly.  Pointing to scars on his neck and stomach, he explained their causes in a dialect I barely understood.  He had been in the hospital several times.  Now he only weighed seventy pounds.  Every afternoon, a Chinese looking man in a white smock came to stick needles in him.  The old man pointed to a bandage on his clavicle.  Acupuncture.

“Cam phom, day may?”  Do you remember me?  I asked.

“Cam day.  Day.”  Sure I do.  Sure

He had been in charge of the meditation compound last year when I was there.  In fact, he had given me my first lessons on how to meditate.  I remember him teaching me how to khraap after I had bungled it badly during the first group session.  Now he was unable to continue teaching.  Ajarn Suchin had taken over his responsibilities several months ago.

During the week I was in Wat Pleeng, the old man never left his house.  Occasionally during the day, he stumbled unsteadily to his front porch to sit on a box.  Most of the time, he rested on an aluminum lawn chair, his legs covered with a thin towel, his head tilted slightly to one side.  His eyes were always bright, alert.

We chatted for a few minutes about my practice.  Then he threw up again, spit, and wiped his mouth on a cloth.

“Phruang nii phom ca pay.”  I’ll be leaving tomorrow.  I told him briefly about my future plans.

“Choke dii.  Choke dii.”  Good luck.  Good luck, he said.

“Sawatdii, Ajarn.”  Good-bye, teacher.

Back in my room, I sat on the floor and started unscrewing the legs on my Wipassana bench.  Funny, I thought.  I never really needed it.  I could have sat in a chair.  I stared at my pillow and suddenly thought of my dreams during the week.  Several years ago, I had practiced recording and analyzing my dreams, a means of getting in touch with my subconscious.  During that time, I used to awaken several times a night and write.  I hadn’t recently, however.  And I had been surprised earlier in the week when I was able to remember what I had dreamt without taking any notes.

In the first dream, my dad, a strange man, and I as a young boy were sitting in the stranger’s car:  a four wheel drive Bronco.  “It’s really fast,” he said.  “It will go over 100.”  He started it up and accelerated.  The speedometer hit 90, and I said, “Slow down!  This is awfully fast!”  We stopped and I got out.  “Look at the tires,” I said.  There were several weak spots where the tube was nearly popping out.

Then we started studying a map.  We were headed for Chicago, but Chicago wasn’t on the map, which ended at the Indiana border.  We spent several minutes confused about what road to take.

This dream occurred shortly after I had begun practicing.  I was unsure about the methods I was using and uncertain as to whether the path I was following was the most direct one.  I was also worried about losing control.

In my second dream, I had just moved to an old, yet new city:  Pittsburgh.  I once lived there for a year.  Arrangements had been made in advance for me to stay in an apartment.  I arrived at the apartment with my child and ex-wife.  It was terribly run down.  The walls were caving in, and one room was accessible only through a small opening in the floor, too small for me to fit through.  I turned and said to my wife, “Well, we’ll get along somehow.”  Then suddenly someone came in.  There had been a mistake.  We were supposed to be staying across the courtyard in a different apartment.  We hurried over to it and were invited in.  I turned to my wife and saw instead my sister.  “Look at it.  It’s beautiful,” I said.  We walked through an immense living room and looked out onto a green, hilly lawn.

This dream occurred after I had gone through several experiences of doubting the methods I was using and discovering that they could be trusted.  Each discovery had been an opening of a large, beautiful space in my mind.  I interpreted the dream as indicating that acceptance of discomfort in new territory, which had some connection with my past, led to the discovery of new mental space.

In my third dream, I was riding a moped up a slight hill about two miles from my parents’ home in Ann Arbor.  Suddenly, a pickup appeared along side and started to run me off the road.  I felt the fender pressing gently against my leg and steered with the pressure in the direction that the truck was pushing me.  We turned in a long, smooth curve, the truck pulled into a driveway, and I stopped behind it.  Parking the moped, I strolled over to the driver.  The thought occurred to me that maybe I should be angry, but I decided not to be.  Instead, I started chatting with him.  I asked how things were going.  He said he was upset.  The pressures of life were getting him down.  And then I had gotten in his way.  But I really wasn’t to blame.  I had been wise not to resist, considering his state of mind.  He was sorry if I had been upset.  I said good-bye.

Leaving the moped, I started to jog home.  As I ran, I noticed that I could allow my mind to pull me along.  My strides lengthened and my body became lighter, until I floated along in long, graceful arcs.  Sweating, I stopped at a neighbor’s home.  Walking inside, I saw three couples:  one elderly, one young, and one my age.  I started talking to the man who was my age about my recent experience.  He said I had done the right thing in not resisting.  Then he started talking about the other people in the house, all of whom were on their way out to a party.  He commented on how each of them was getting along, then pointed to his wife.  “She’s very young,” he said, “but she’s very wise.”  Turning to me, he said, “Perhaps you’re wondering who I am.”  He produced a business card from his wallet and handed it to me.  “I work for the CIA.  The Central Intelligence Agency.”

This dream occurred late in the week, after I had several experiences of noticing how my conceptual world, my ego, created problems; and if I went along with what was happening in Ultimate Reality, I saw the ego for what it was.  I interpreted this dream as indicating that if I let go of my ego, which would normally resist unpleasant experiences and make their causes wrong, I would gain power from the experience.  This power was intelligence.

Removing the last screw, I ripped a piece of masking tape off the bottom of the seat and taped the screws back into one of the slots.  Then I packed the three pieces of wood in the bottom of my duffle bag, lay down, and went to sleep.

. . .

The last morning, Sunday, breakfast was unusually bountiful.  I counted eighteen different kinds of food, exclusive of rice.  Selecting a few delicacies, including spicy Szechwan chicken with almonds, I ate slowly, calmly.  A gently waving tapestry of softly painted sensations fluttered across my consciousness until, entranced, I stopped eating and just observed.  A patch of sunlight on Ajarn Suchin’s robe, the crowing of a rooster, the smell of rice, and thoughts that flickered across my mind, none any better than the rest, none accompanied by clinging, all just passing by.

Getting up to wash my dishes and leaving the present, I wondered if I had ever felt more at peace.

The Phra in charge of the meeting room came in to say that Ajarn Praderm would be ready to see me in a few minutes.  I finished packing quickly and put on my long pants.  Ajarn Suchin gave me a tray of flowers, incense, and candles, and together we walked over to the meeting room where I would go through the official leave-taking ceremony.

It was much like my entering ceremony, without the taking of vows.  At the end of the ceremony, Ajarn Suchin handed Ajarn Praderm a receipt, which I recognized as a receipt for the donation I had given to the treasurer of the Wat the night before.  He read the receipt verbatim, then recited several minutes of Pali.  While he did, I thought about all of my teachers, particularly my teachers of Wipassana Meditation:  Ajarn Prasert, Ajarn Suchin, Ajarn Vinai, and Ajarn Praderm.  All of them had given their time to help me.  None had asked for anything in return.  In fact, I had never heard of any organization or person charging for instruction in Wipassana Meditation.  What had Ajarn Vinai said?  “If you understand what I have been saying, you understand why I have taught you.”

Ajarn Praderm concluded with the blessing and then motioned for me to sit comfortably.  I did so and thanked him in my ordinary Thai.  I told him how much I appreciated the opportunity to return to Wat Pleeng.  Then I thanked him personally for his instruction.  Ajarn Praderm smiled happily and said he would like to hear from me from time to time; and be sure to continue my practicing.  Then, reaching into a box, he took out a small bronze medallion with a little hole through the top for a chain.  I looked at the image on the front.  It was Ajarn Praderm.  I thanked him again and waied.  Ajarn Suchin then indicated that we could leave.  Waying one final time, I got up.  As we walked out the door, I looked down again at the little bronze emblem.  I was glad he hadn’t pulled it out of thin air.

At nine o’clock, I was standing by the gate to our compound watching Ajarn Vinai’s car slowly approaching.

“Ajarn, Khrap.”  Teacher…

I turned around.  The young Neen was standing behind me.  He handed me a roll of film.

“These are your pictures.”  He had taken them for me the last two days I was in Wat Pleeng.

“Khaw thoot.  Than chyy aray?”  Excuse me.  What’s your name.

“Chyy Udom.”  I’m Udom.  “Lae Than chyy aray?”  And what’s your name?

“Chyy Buzz.”  I’m Buzz.

Udom looked at me quietly.  Then he replied.

“You know, Mr. Buzz.  We must have accumulated very little merit in our last lives in order to have been together for so little time in this one.”

I nodded.  Clasping his shoulder gently, I turned around and left.

. . .

I picked up the coffee pot, poured the last bit into my cup, and sipped it slowly.  Charles looked at me.

“That’s quite an experience.”

I nodded, pensively.

“What do you think you’ll do now?”

I looked at my watch.  “Well, it’s noon.  Why don’t we all go out and have some lunch.”