Doi Suthep- Part IV: Silence

Trip Start Dec 29, 2007
Trip End Mar 10, 2008

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Monday, January 28, 2008

At Doi Suthep, there are eight precepts that all meditators are asked to observe.  The third precept is that noble silence should be respected, and that if one must speak, it should be done with kindness and only when necessary.

As it turns out, I never found it "necessary" to speak, unless it was to chant, to respond to Teacher during our daily reporting sessions, or to answer a question from a monk or stray tourist.  From time to time, I realized that I was talking to myself (not a new phenomena) or to one of the animals that lived around the meditation complex (they were excellent listeners and seemed to sympathize with my complaints), but outside of those occasions, for the most part, I didn't speak for three weeks.

In the absence of sound, one tends to get creative.  One morning, during a walking meditation session, I decided to calculate how slowly I was moving.  Just so you know, walking meditation isn't like regular "walking" but more like inching forward in super-slow-motion.  Checking time and distance, I calculated that I was moving at the breakneck speed of one-half of one-tenth a mile per hour (.05 mph).  At that rate, it would take me 18 days and 8 hours to complete a marathon.  To walk the mile from my house in Canton to get a cannoli at Vaccaro's in Little Italy (a trip I took often in my head), it would take 16 hours.  One way.  I determined that at the end of my introductory course, I would have spent 63 hours covering a grand total of a little less than four miles.  That journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step?  It would take me over two years to complete.  And that's assuming I leave right away, don't stop for the bathroom, and don't hit any traffic.

Well, as they say, it's about the quality, not the length.  That is what they say, isn't it?....Hellooooo??......

In silence, I also became aware of how much sound actually exists in the world.  You hear everything.  My arch-nemesis became a hand-carved wooden waterwheel, sort of a perpetual motion machine that one of the monks had made.  When the water was turned on, the wheel rotated, making two pieces of wood "click" together, which I thought was the coolest thing ever.  Until I couldn't get the sound out of my head.  For a week.  And then I realized that the sound carried about 200 yards in any direction, so there was only one tiny corner of the meditation complex I could go to escape it.  I confess that one night, when the monks were out chanting, I snuck down there and put a rubber-band around the god damned pieces of wood.  Buddha, forgive me.....

While I'm usually silent when I'm alone, it was somewhat unsettling not to utter a single word to the ten to fifteen other meditators with whom I ate, sat, and prayed.  The point, of course, is that meditation is a solitary practice, but still, it's natural to wonder about the people with whom you're spending so much time.  Where are they from, and what brought them to Doi Suthep?  Occasionally, you might overhear someone during a reporting session with Teacher.  "Is that a German accent," you think, "or Austrian?  Wow, I never would have guessed Eastern European!"

Since we don't know each other's names, I take it upon myself to create nicknames for everyone.  Most of the meditators come and go during my three weeks, but I try to keep up with the influx of newcomers.  There's "Obsessive-Compulsive Girl," a small Asian woman who always makes sure that the bowls are arranged according to size and color and that forks are never mixed together with spoons.  There's "Bald Girl" and "Black Guy"....I never said I was creative, just that I had a lot of spare time, OK??  There's "Coughing Guy," "Surfer Guy" (just looked the part), and "Nine West Girl" (named thusly for her fashionable sandals).

As with family, close friends, or roommates, you start to get annoyed periodically with their habits.  Like why does that ONE guy always shows up late to lunch when he must know that the rest of us have to wait to eat until he gets here?!  Or why does "Blond Girl" takes the nice sunny meditation spot right after lunch every day?  Does it occur to her that OTHERS might want to meditate there too?!?

Of course, these minor irritations have nothing to do with the meditators.  They're just my own projections of frustration, desire, and inadequacy playing out in this vacuum of time and space in Northern Thailand.  All of the meditators are seeking something here.  Maybe "Bald Girl" has just begun her radiation treatment for cancer.  Or perhaps it was just an unfortunate grooming choice.  Sure, "Coughing Guy" can get on my nerves, but I can't imagine going through a single day of this while being sick and taking no medication.  I really admire that.

This kind of internal therapy works with most everyone, but not with "Disco Stu," who I can't get past disliking.  By appearances, he seems to have dropped onto the mountain directly from an orgy in the 1970s, complete with white-guy Afro.  Disco Stu is a meditation MONSTER, which really just makes the rest of us look bad.  Most meditators take short breaks pretty frequently, but not Disco Stu.  And while nearly everyone prostrates three times when facing a Buddha image (as is the custom), his prostrations are so slow and deliberate, he just seems overly pious and ridiculous and brown-nosing.

Of course, I realize, the problem is that Disco Stu reminds me of who I want to be - except for the Afro, of course.  He seems sincere, motivated, and prayerful, and his actions validate the story in my head that I'm a fraud, that I'm not taking things seriously, that I'm here on false pretenses.  And if I could just connect to him in some tangible way - make a joke or ask him where he's from - I'm positive that these feelings of ill will would dissipate.  But we never talk, I never quite get to liking him, and I miss him when he leaves.

At about Day Ten, I start including every meditator in my daily prayer for lovingkindness.  I pray that they are free from worry and suffering, that they are safe and healthy, and that they find what it is they're looking for here.  I don't know who they are or what made them travel halfway across the world to sit on top of a mountain and meditate, but I'm glad they're here.  Because it means I'm not alone.

And I pray for you too, Disco Stu.

Coming Soon: Part V: Dreaming
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