When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. -JRR Tolkien
I spent my birthday weekend at Wat Pa Nan Lourne. This is a temple in the forest just outside of Pak Thong Chai. It is a massive complex that covers over 200 acres.
My first day there was last Thursday, July 30. I was there with Ben, Narong (a Thai monk who studies at IBC), and Sila (a Cambodian lay man who studies at IBC). It was the first day of Vassa, or Buddhist lent. Vassa is a period of three months in the rainy season during which monks are expected to remain in one sanctuary, typically a monastery. They are free to leave during the day but they’re expected to sleep in the same place at night. This is an ancient tradition that actually predates the time of the Buddha and used to be practiced by ascetics. It began because of the dangers of travelling during rainy season. Narong was coming to spend the entirety of Vassa at the forest temple.
Anyways, on the first day of Vassa I listened to the monks chanting for about an hour. Then I helped them light candles in two concentric rings all around the temple’s inner sanctum. After lighting the candles we returned for another hour of chanting.
That night Narong gave me a bracelet of prayer beads. It was the first such gift I have received in Thailand and except for two books, it was my only birthday present.
We slept in tents set up on the temple’s porch, which sat high above the river. It was nice and cool at night. I was sleeping nice and sound when suddenly, at 3:30 am, I was awoken by the sound of chanting. Because monks wake up at 3:30 AM to begin the morning chanting. I groaned and managed to fall back to sleep.
I spent the next day (my birthday) writing. I was pleasantly surprised to look up from my “office” and suddenly find myself surrounded by nuns, who sang happy birthday to me. Ben was grinning ear-to-ear…and I knew who put them up to it. Later that afternoon Ben returned to Pak Thong Chai.
My writing was particularly fascinating to the temple’s only novice, a 14-year-old boy named Phummiril. His mother is one of the nuns. Her husband (in her limited English she called him ‘my darling’) was very abusive to her, so several years ago she took Phummiril away and found sanctuary in the temple, thanks in part to the Sangha (Buddhist monkhood) and in part to the temple abbot’s generosity.
Anyways Phummiril would sit and watch me write for hours without saying anything. Then sometimes we’d play games for a while, or listen to music–he’d play me a Thai song on YouTube then I’d play him an American one. Then he’d get up and leave for a while, then try to sneak up behind me and scare me. It was great fun.
The next day I joined the monks for their morning alms-round, which was the highlight of my weekend. An alms round here is called pindapata. What happens on pindapata? Leaving their temples at around 6:00 am, the monks carry bowls as they walk barefoot through a community. As they pass through, the people come to the streets and give them food (mostly rice). This is how the monks live. They go on pindapata every day. In Pak Thong Chai a monk always gets more than enough food to eat. Whatever he doesn’t eat is shared with their guests at the monastery, meaning me, and then the needy people of the community.
How did I help? Well as I mentioned, the monks get more than enough food (especially considering that most monks only eat a single meal a day). Usually they get more than they can carry. So Sila and I went on pindapata too, following the monks with giant pots. When somebody offered food that wasn’t rice, we put it into the pots (non-rice food always comes in plastic bags, so we didn’t have to worry about it mixing together) and carried it for the monks.
After somebody has given food, the monks on pindapata offer them a prayer. This is illustrative of a Theravada Buddhist monk’s primary function in the community: to give merit to the people who do good. I’m fuzzy on the details of what this kind of merit does for a person, cosmically and theologically speaking, but it is good to get. Monks give merit daily on pindapata, as well as to the people who give them tons of food or light candles and incense at various Buddhist holidays.
When we returned from pindapata we collected the food under a giant pavilion. The nuns then sorted the food into piles of what they and monks could and could not eat. The monks and nuns are supposed to be vegetarian. However, they’re also not supposed to complain about what somebody offers out of the goodness of their heart. If the monks only collected chicken McNuggets on pindapata, they’d damn well eat the McNuggets. But with such a hefty collection they could parse out the meat and give it to people who wanted it. Like me.
After sorting, we still were not ready to eat. The monks sat in a row with their hefty plates before them. There was a few minutes of chanting. Then the lay people present (me and Sila) had to offer the monks food from their plates before they could eat it. The offering is really simple. All you really have to do is pick up the plate and set it down again. The monks, at this point starving after several hours of calorie-burning chanting and walking, get the point. They’re eager to eat. You don’t actually have to feed them.
Now, we are also supposed to offer food to Lahmpoo, the abbot of the monastery. He is an 80-something year old monk who designed and over saw construction of Wat Pa Nan Lourne himself, starting 30 years ago and continuing to this day. He told me (through the translation of Narong—Lahmpoo does not speak English) that in two or three years’ time the temple would be very beautiful. He’s delusional. It’s already beautiful.
Lahmpoo lives in a small enclave of the main building of the temple. On the cement walls outside his door there are hundreds of phrases written in Thai. I asked Narong about this strange display of graffiti. Apparently, when Lahmpoo has a thought he wants to share to the world, he writes it on his wall. I wonder what he would do with a Facebook account.
I spent most of Saturday writing as well, though I stopped for a while to walk around the grounds of the temple. It is full of bamboo forests, and in the middle of that forest there’s a clearing with a big sleeping Buddha statue. As I walked through the forest I heard many noises I took to be monkeys or snakes. I was scared, but it was probably nothing like Hannah’s recent trip to Khao Yai.
Anyways, I went on pindapata again the next day, and left the forest temple shortly after eating breakfast. I was incredibly grateful to Lhampoo’s generosity for welcoming me to stay at his temple. When I first arrived, he asked me if I wanted to stay for three months. Wow!
More on everything to come.