musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Friday, May 25, 2012

From Thailand: Monks, Meditation, and Mopeds

Odds are you've been to Thailand. Or know someone who has. Or at least want to go. It offers an interesting culture, all the western comforts/delights your Aunt Peggy Sue requires and excellent value for money (as opposed to Juba where $100/night got you a tent and a bucket). It's a bit like this - Istanbul is to Middle East light as Bangkok is to Asia light. Bangkok is a regional airline hub and Thai Airways is a member of the Star Alliance. You get my drift.

After India and Bhutan, Lauren and I were looking for some time to relax after (but still during) our vacation. We contemplated the beach, but after seeing Lars and Galina's apartment in Bangkok (trust me, it's nice) we decided just to take it easy there. Focusing on getting massages (more on that in a later post) and our Myanmar/Burma visa, we also fell prey to the many shopping opportunities in Bangkok. Anything you want is there. Real or fake. Expensive or cheap.

Rested and with newly minted Myanmar visas in tow we were doing just fine. Until we started getting the itch. That ever-present, nagging itch that will probably haunt me for the rest of my life...

So off to Chiang Mai we went!

Nestled in the hills in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is backpacker/biker/aspiring man-o'-eastern-religion heaven. Stay at a very nice, yet affordable, hotel and lazily experience the place. Take fantastic naps. Enjoy the fact that there's a moat around the old city. Haggle at the night market. Have fun!

Being the intrepid travelers we are, we rented a moped to see the sights. Only after a nap of course. Never mind that practically everyone (including tourists) over the age of 12 rides one and they're slightly more difficult to operate than a shopping cart... Hello adventure!

Wind in our eyebrows (hair was covered by a helmet of course - safety first!) and sunburn starting to make it's mark on our arms, we headed up the mountain (I think I can I think I can) to the Wat Phrathap Doi Suthep monastery, stopping at the random pretty waterfall along the way. The top afforded fantastic views of flat Chiang Mai and typically ornate Buddhist architecture. And plenty of tourists.

But for me, the most interested part of our stay in Chiang Mai was the appropriately named Monk Chat in which we participated last night. It is what it sounds like. There are monks. With whom you chat. About anything. About everything.

Our expat monk friends (they were both from Vietnam just in Chiang Mai studying) predictably discussed Buddhism, their daily routine (meditate, walk around the community to collect food/money, study, meditate some more, etc.), and the normal stuff (name, age, family demographics, etc.). Then, when we thought the conversation was close to over, Lauren asked if they had any questions for us.

"Yes. Can you explain Christianity please?"

Uh... sure...?

And that's when the conversation became interesting. Pooling all of our collective Sunday School- and Children's Bible-garnered knowledge, we did our best. I thought we did rather well actually, but the conversation soon fixated on the idea of penance after wrongdoing. Buddhism teaches you to never do bad things. If you do you will suffer in the next life in a manner directly proportionate to your crime. 100 years in the fiery depths for murder, etc. The fact that one could, in theory at least, do wrong and be forgiven by God was strange to our friends. Hard to fathom for them. Hard for us to explain given the language barrier as well - the monks apparently chat with tourists mostly so they can improve their English. And my Thai is... well... yeah.

You see, Christians believe that God knows when you have truly transformed to a point where you won't do it again. Only then do you get a chance to go to Heaven. Oh, and you have to believe in Jesus - remember that guy?

But they weren't as interested in Jesus. They really wanted to know what happened when/if you did bad things. Basically, they wanted to know what were the religious deterrents to crime and barriers to recitivism if you could just be forgiven. Are there strict religious (rather than secular i.e. laws of the state) guidelines? When does it make sense to integrate religious and state laws (in Bhutan and Thailand there is little, if any, separation), especially when wearing your boots to bed is a crime in Oklahoma? They're interesting questions and ones that deserves much more comparative research and general smarts that I obtain. The whole conversation also brought into focus the awkward reality that we were talking about our religion to people trained in and who practice theirs everyday.

After Monk Chat we meditated. Well, more like there was a monk at the front of the room explaining how to do meditation and we tested it out. Sitting. Standing. Walking. Laying down. Unfortunately, I was really bad at it. The whole idea is to clear your mind so that you open yourself up for some higher level of eventual enlightenment. Who knew it was so hard not to think?! Ask my family and friends and they'll tell you I regularly don't think... But this was different. Try it. For the next minute (or 5 or 10 or 60), be very still and don't think about anything. Ready. Set. Go!

See, I told you it was tough! The fan whirring. The dog barking. The sweat trickling down my back. Samples at the Whole Foods. Mopeds and mortality. Ideas for the next blog post... Apparently it takes practice and I'm not even close to being there. But, in any religion (or way of life for that matter) I do see the benefits of it. Imagine what we could accomplish if we could only clear our minds of the clutter of our constantly connected world. Imagine a mental blank slate, a new beginning from where to launch yourself. Imagine the calmness created in your soul by simply vanishing.

Just don't imagine it while meditating. That's against the rules.