I am currently twenty-thousand-some feet in the sky aboard a flight bound for South Korea. I spent the past six days off the gird living with a bunch of monks at a forest Monastery in northern Thailand. Here’s the recap.
I set out to find the monastery last Wednesday, January 31st. I caught the first van headed North at ten in the morning. I sat shotgun, of course. Once a big baller always a big baller. I was told to notify the driver that I was looking for the forest monastery and he would know where to drop me. I had a four-hour drive through the mountain pass ahead of me, giving me plenty of time to mentally prepare for my quest.
Around eighty kilometers before Mae Hong Song the driver pulled to the side of the road and said
“O.K, you stop.”
I didn’t see any monastery, just mountains to my left and mountains to my right. Confused I asked
“Monastery where. I no see?”
Yes, that’s how I talk now. My English has gotten significantly worse since I’ve been here. I’ve become so accustomed to hearing shitty English that it has begun to rub off on me. I’ll be speaking to someone and mid-sentence I will think why the fuck am I speaking English like a struggling foreigner, this is my native tongue I know how to speak it.
He pointed to the right and said
“Thousand meter you walk.”
Right, I guess it’s called the forest monastery for a reason. I strapped on my pack and began to hike my way along the path he pointed out. I walked for ten minutes then bang! The path opened up to reveal the grounds of the monastery. It was a beautiful oasis consisting of fish ponds, banana trees, coconut palms, and lush gardens. There were jagged cliffs to my left and a vast jungle to my right.
Side note, I am not exactly sure what the difference is between a jungle and a forest. I should have paid closer attention in high school biology when Mr. Krause was droning on about biospheres. Forget the technical term, it was a forest with tropical plants surrounded by mountains. Cool as fuck.
When I arrived at the monastery gates I was greeted by a woman dressed in all white. She never formally introduced herself, so I will refer to her as “the caretaker.” She gestured for me to sit down in a chair opposite her desk and began to walk me through the rules and schedule of the monastery.
I was to be dressed from head to toe in white. If I did not have white clothes they would be provided for me.
I was to participate in all meditation session. There would be three per day, each lasting an hour and fifty minutes.
I was expected to wake up at six in the morning to take part in the rice offering for the monks, breakfast would follow at six-thirty. There would be only two meals served per day. No food was to be consumed past noon. Meat was forbidden in the monastery, I was to go completely vegan for the remainder of my stay there.
I was responsible for keeping my clothes clean and for doing my dishes, these were to be done by hand. It was expected that I help sweep leaves in the garden for an hour a day following afternoon meditation.
The Monks’ living quarters were separated from the common area by a river, I was not to cross over to their side past eight o’clock in the evening. I had an idea that’s when the monks would go into the caves to hone their levitation and shapeshifting skills. I’m not exactly sure though, I didn’t have the balls to crossover there at night. The caretaker told me there were spirits and ghosts that watched over the monastery and cursed those who broke the rules. Alright fam, say no more. I’m not fucking with any Buddha curses. I’ll happily stay on my side of the river past dark and practice levitating objects in my own room.
The caretaker also encouraged me to remain silent, aside from when speaking with a monk, during my stay at the monastery. If you really wished to speak you could talk with the other guests who did not sport a badge that read “SILENT.” However, the “talkers” were few and far between and they were not a crew I was interested in joining. If you were a “talker” your clout level amongst the monks dropped to zero.
Finally, I was told that everything in the monastery operated on a bell system. When it was time to eat or begin a meditation session the pledge monk would ring a loud bell, signaling to everyone on the grounds that they had ten minutes to report to the main hall.
Once the caretaker finished her schpeel I took my vow of silence, dawned my white clothes, and began my plunge into monkism.
After I changed into my whites I was shown to my sleeping quarters. The room was pretty basic. Roof, walls, door, and floor. Noting more than the essentials required to keep the elements, and creatures of the jungle at bay.
Monks don’t sleep on beds. Oh no, that would be far too comfortable. Instead, they use a sleeping mat. Which is basically an elongated yoga mat. (All this time and I had no idea my yoga mat could also double as a bed! You learn something new every day.) They say sleeping on a hard surface is good for the back. I don’t know who they are but I highly doubt they’ve spent an extended period of time sleeping on a cement floor. There’s gotta be some kind of threshold of hardness where it becomes counterproductive, I think I found it.
If you didn’t know any better you could easily confuse this place with an insane asylum. Everyone was dressed in the same white jumpsuit. In between meditation session, we would be spread out across the grounds. Some would be sitting on the lawn, a few would be meditating around the ponds, and the others would be slowly pacing back and forth lost in thought. The only sounds you would hear came from the surrounding wilderness. Suddenly, the bell would begin to ring and everyone would snap out of whatever it was they were doing and begin slowly walking to the main hall like a pack of zombies. It felt like something out of Shutter Island.
After breakfast, which consisted of a healthy portion of sticky rice and boiled vegetables, we began the first meditation session. The teacher monk would give a lesson about meditation for fifteen minutes then we would set off on “walking meditation” around the garden.
Walking meditation is basically a game of “how slow can we walk today”. A walk that would have normally taken me no more than fifteen minutes to complete was drawn out to last an hour. At that time in the morning, the fog was still thick. It would slowly roll off the water as we walked, eventually clearing to reveal the mountain in the distance. It had a very eerie, zen vibe. Once we finished our loop we returned to the main hall for a half-hour of sitting meditation.
The hardest part about this was trying to sit Thai style. That’s crisscross applesauce for those who aren’t familiar.
I think the last time I sat cross-legged was in kindergarten, this fucking hurt like hell. If you really wanted to you could meditate on a chair, but then you’d be one of the “chair people” and like the “talkers” it was a cloutless crew. I figured I came here to live like a monk, so fuck it I might as well go all in. When it became too painful I would switch to a half kneeling position.
I continued that half-ass kneeling position until the third day when the teacher monk told us that when he first started his training his master made him sit cross-legged every night for a week straight until he learned not to feel pain. Fuck. I felt like a huge bitch after he said that. If he could sit cross-legged for nine hours a night without moving or sleeping you can buck up and do it for thirty fucking minutes.
After sitting meditation, we moved into lying meditation for the remaining twenty minutes. Since I wasn’t exactly getting my REM sleep at night lying meditation usually turned into nap time.
When one of the other students asked,
“What do I do if I begin to fall asleep?” The teacher monk laughed and said
“Don’t worry, sleeping meditation O.K too”
Alright man, if you say so, you’re the master. Not to toot my own horn but I was pretty fucking good at this form of meditation, and I thoroughly enjoyed the twenty-minute mid-morning nap.
By the time sleeping meditation ended it was around ten o’clock. We had thirty minutes of free time. This was supposed to be used to practice meditation on your own, but for me, it usually equated to houndin’ around the monastery grounds as there was plenty of prime exploring to be done.
The bell would sound at ten-thirty to commence lunch. Like breakfast, we had a food offering for the monks and then we got to eat our fill. Good idea to load up at lunch because this was the last food you’d see until breakfast the following morning. Lunch was rice with, you guessed it, vegetables!
Honestly, the food wasn’t bad, and now I can finally check “being a vegan” off the list of things I never have to do again in my life. It’s up there with “staying at the Grand Oasis Cancun for a college spring break” and “calculus.”
After lunch, we repeated the same meditation sequence as in the morning. The only difference being the walk. The monks would lead us through the mountain instead of around the garden.
This was awesome. We weren’t supposed to get lost in observing what was around us but c’mon, you can’t put a suburban boy in the jungle and not expect him to be lost in wonder. The monks get to do that walk every day for the rest of their lives. I, on the other hand, barely have the opportunity to see mountains let alone walk through one in the middle of the fucking jungle.
My curiosity was especially peaked after one of the Master teachers told me a story about how fifteen years ago, before the monastery was constructed, he was walking on the same trail as part of a month-long walking meditation trip through the jungle. He said that one night when he was meditating a tiger walked right up to him and remained within an arm’s reach for fifteen long minutes before losing finally losing interest in him and continuing on its way. The master said he remained completely still the whole time, going into a deep meditative state, barely breathing.
Are you fucking kidding me?! Face to face with a fucking tiger and this dude had the power to stay completely still and continue meditating? If that was me I would have been like Yup, this is it. This is how I die. Mauled to death by a tiger. Serves me right for walking through the fucking jungle in the middle of the night with nothing more than a bed sheet on my body.
If that’s not some real-life Jedi shit then I don’t know what is. So yeah, I got distracted on our jungle walks every now and then. Sorry, I was on the lookout for tigers.
The evening session began at six. Unlike the morning and afternoon sessions, evening meditation didn’t have a walking portion. That was replaced with chanting. Not really sure what I was saying during this, but it sounded intense so I yelled that shit with some fervor in my voice.
I repeated this sequence for six days. All in all, it was a great experience. I’m not gonna lie not talking for that long started to fuck with my head. The first two days were the hardest. By day three I started to figure it out, but by the fifth day, I was ready to go. Too much of a good thing is bad. I needed to get out of there, drop a few F-bombs, eat a plate of meat, and drink a beer. I left on day six, catching a fourteen-hour long night bus to return to Bangkok. Giving me a day to spare before I had to catch the flight that I am currently on.
I will land in Seoul, South Korea in a few hours and from there rip the bullet train to PyeongChang.
I’ve been telling people I am going to South Korea for the winter Olympics for the past three weeks when asked about my travel plans. The two responses I typically get are:
“Hun? Olympics? Wait, summer? Winter? That’s this year?”
“Oh, wow! What event are you competing in?”
Both answers are absolutely absurd. The former I can kind of understand, we’re in Thailand where it’s ninety-five degrees, and the majority of people I’ve met have been traveling for extended periods of time. They aren’t exactly caught up with current events. Still though, pull your head out of your ass. Yes, it’s an Olympic year, they come every two, alternating between winter and summer.
The latter is just fucking ridiculous. You really think if I was competing in the most prestigious sporting event in the world I would be sitting at some hostel two weeks before crushing beers with you? Not a chance. I would probably be training at elevation somewhere, getting ready to take home some hardware.
I have been asked if I am competing so often that I at this point I’ve just started to go with it.
“Yup, I’m on the curling team. Third broom. I’m the best sweeper east of the Mississippi. Pretty prestigious. You want me to sign something? Too bad, no time. I have a fucking gold medal to win. Now get out of my fucking way.”
I’m dying to cross paths with another Russian so I can say
“I’ve been training really hard but I feel like I’m just not quite there. Any chance you have some of that secret stuff your boys used lying around?”
I doubt they’d find that joke funny, but then again, I don’t think they find anything funny. Jack Callahan said it best
“They’re Russian. They get shot if they smile.”
Well, now they get no shot at winning any medals. Prosti.
I’m going to be very close to North Korea and boy am I tempted to toe the line. I jussstt want to put a foot in. That would be the ultimate hound. Keep your head on a swivel Lil Kim, I’m coming.
Peace Peace Peace
In the air, somewhere between Thailand and South Korea, 11:30 AM, Febuary 8th