Doi Suthep- Part XIV: Leaving the Mountaintop
Trip Start Dec 29, 2007
33Trip End Mar 10, 2008
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Just an hour before my closing ceremony with Teacher, I made a woozy final prayer and headed off in the general direction of my room to prepare. On my way, I made a quick but very necessary detour to the restroom. I hadn't used the tourist bathroom before and, after walking in, I grumbled to myself for not discovering it earlier. The toilets were obviously cleaned with relative frequency here, and there were actual mirrors, so for the first time in three weeks, I was able to see my own reflection. I looked haggard, for sure, but I liked what I saw.
After relieving myself of the burden of about a gallon of purified water and lemongrass tea, I went to wash my hands, and it was there that I read the sign that had been placed below the paper towel dispenser. The Thai make a tremendous effort to post notices in English as a courtesy to the many foreigners who visit their country. While the initiative is well-intentioned, much is lost in translation as nouns become verbs and singular becomes plural, but you can usually understand the gist of what they're trying to tell you.
This particular sign, containing a mere seven words, was different.
Please check your belonging before you leave
I silently repeated the words to myself. Language is interesting, I thought. Through the omission of a single letter, the writer's intended message had been completely altered, but the words couldn't have rang more clear to me. There are signs, I thought to myself, and then there are Signs.
I heard the words in my head for a third time. Please check your belonging before you leave. Here I was, just a few hours from completing one of the most significant experiences of my life, and I had become so focused on going to the next place, that I hadn't really thought about what the past three weeks had meant to me. It was yet another reminder that being present is not a permanent skill that one acquires, but a habit that must be cultivated through regular practice and nourishment.
When I thought about the word "belonging", I immediately associated it with a feeling of rootedness. And as I've said before, Doi Suthep is the kind of place where people get reconnected to themselves, reaching down into their spiritual soil and touching deep within themselves to discover what they're made of. As I thought about the past three weeks, I felt my belonging to the human condition, to the understanding of a universal experience of passion and pain, and to our shared search to find an end to our suffering. My belonging is to a community of seekers - not just Buddhists, but all those who long to root themselves in a lifelong process of spiritual and personal enlightenment - but also as someone who just can't bear to take himself or life all that seriously, because all that searching can really suck the joy right out of life if you're not careful. And my belonging lies in the seeds of rediscovery of genuine love and compassion for myself and others.
Through my meditation practice here at Doi Suthep, I haven't transformed into a different person and I certainly haven't become enlightened. That was never my goal. I was hoping to emerge a slightly better person than when I arrived and, in that respect, I think I succeeded. Buddhists talk a lot about traveling the path, and that's where I feel I am right now. I'm still learning so much about myself and I hope I can be brave enough to keep walking down this road for a while.
After a nap, I awoke somewhat refreshed and recharged. I took a shower, ate lunch, loaded up my backpack, and cleaned out my room. I walked over to the International Buddhism Center where I checked out, exchanging a few knowing smiles with my fellow meditators as I left. As I reached the main entrance of the wat, I crossed the street and treated myself to a bag of freshly-cut pineapple. I noticed that there was a large, gray elephant standing in an open pit directly in front of me. He was kept there by a local entrepreneur who charges passerbys a few dollars for the pleasure of giving the elephant some food or having their picture taken with him. I learned that the elephant stands there day and night, never moving from that spot, and I realized that I had walked by him at least three times since arriving at Doi Suthep without noticing him. And I wondered with amazement how I could walk past a two-ton animal without seeing it.
I located a driver, negotiated a reasonable fare to Chiang Mai, and slung my pack inside his truck, hopping in after it. There were a few Australian tourists already inside, talking about some big business deal they recently made. They looked over, smiled and nodded at me, and quickly returned to their conversation. The driver turned the ignition key and began the long, winding descent down the mountaintop, snaking his way precariously along the switchbacks carved into the sides of the cliffs. I sat at the back of the truck, watching the temple as it slowly got smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing from view, and I started to smile. It was a stupid, contagious smile that grew larger as we drove away, spreading out across my face like sunshine. And there I was, a grinning fool, eating my pineapple and barreling down the side of a mountain balanced on the back of a truck, feeling the rush of wind against my face, and silently repeating a single word under my breath.