A Monk’s Journey in Thailand
By Deepak Chopra
This lifetime of ours is transient as autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings
Is like looking at the movements of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky.
Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.
Over the last two decades I have occasionally taken a week of silence to renew my spirit. A few years ago, I found out that there was a tradition in Thailand where some CEOs of major businesses and politicians would take a week or two of silent retreat as ordained Buddhist monks. This was to remind them to be humble in spirit and anchor themselves in sobriety. When I recently saw Joy Sopitpongstorn, who is a friend from Thailand, I asked her if it was possible for a “foreigner” to “ordain.” After making some inquiries, Joy informed me that she had obtained permission for me to come on a “monk ‘s journey” for two weeks.
So off I went to Thailand on June 26th.
The first part of my journey was to accustom me to “hardship.” For this, I went to the Forest Monastery, Wat Sunandavanaram, under the guidance of a famous but austere abbot of Japanese origin known as the Venerable Arjarn Mitsuo. In this monastery I had to sleep on a wooden floor, wake up at 2:00 a.m. every morning to meditate with the other monks on the impermanence of life and my own physical death. We would do this until 4:30 a.m. and then practice mindfulness meditation until about 6:30 a.m.; after which we would go for “alms round.” The monks walked barefoot over rough terrain through neighboring villages. Since I was not an ordained monk at this time, I was allowed to wear my sneakers and served as an assistant to the monks. The poor peasants from the villages would line the streets and make food offerings to the monks. If their bowls filled up, I would empty them into a large bag that I carried so they could be “refilled.”
It was wonderful to see the look of reverence on the faces of the villagers as they offered their alms to the monks, who in turn silently blessed them.
We would return from the alms round around 8:00 in the morning, after which we would have our one and only meal for the day. We all shared the food that was offered to us and ate in silence with full mindful awareness.
The rest of the day was spent in meditation. In the evening we would meet with the Venerable Arjarn Mitsuo who would guide us further into mindful awareness of breath, feelings, emotions, and movement. We would go to sleep around 10:00 p.m. and then wake up again around 2:00 a.m. for meditation on impermanence and death.
Conditions at this monastery were very basic, with no running water and some mosquitoes to contend with.
After a few days of this hardship, I moved to the Forest Monastery, Chiang Khong, where I was to be officially ordained.
My only challenge was walking barefoot through the villages. The country paths were at times rocky and at times full of bristles and thorns but we marched through it despite the pain.
The Venerable Arjarn Ekachai would meet with us in the afternoon and late evening where he would go over our practice of mindfulness.
Because there were no mirrors, we did not know what we looked like to ourselves. The others treated us with great respect and reverence and the villagers were very generous in the giving of alms, which mostly included rice, vegetables, fruit, boiled eggs, and sometimes even a bar of chocolate.
It was amazing to see the generosity and love and the reverence in the eyes of the peasants as they offered food to us. We ate once a day as in the previous monastery.
By and by, I started to feel that I was losing my sense of my previous identity. Physically, I was without hair on my scalp or my eyebrows. I walked barefoot. I wore the robe of monks. I practiced mindful awareness day and night, in addition to meditating on impermanence and on my own physical death.
The Venerable Arjarn Ekachai explained that being in this mindful state and shedding our previous identity allowed divine qualities to emerge: loving kindness, compassion to all beings, happiness at the happiness of others and equanimity. Indeed I felt the truth of all this in my experience.
I realized that holding on to anything is really like holding on to your breath. You begin to feel suffocation. It was freeing to let go.
Before we went to the closing ceremony, we took our hair and packed it in palm leaves and went to the Mekong River , which runs between Thailand and Laos. We boarded a boat and went toward a shrine along the riverbanks where we offered our hair to the river and it floated away. This was symbolic of letting go of our habitual certainties and attachments and creating the space for new and better and more spiritual things in our lives. The hair, which is part of our body and came from the elements, was returned to the elements.
After a full week, Jate and I returned to Bangkok once again wearing our regular clothes. But, when I looked into the mirror, I could not recognize myself and burst out laughing.
What did I learn?