A friend at the synagogue had just written to me, “Every time I think of you in Asia, I laugh.” The last time I had seen her we were in the steam bath at the luxurious Claremont Resort and Spa, just a few blocks from my house in Berkeley.
But here I was in northern Thailand. This day began with the predawn wakeup bells at Wat Sam Pa Dang, a small forest monastery. I was determined to follow a strict retreat-type schedule in order to heal the pain over an argument with a friend that was consuming my mind. I felt cut off from him and cut off from myself. I was literally a stranger in a strange land, far away from my electric toothbrush and down comforter.
I disciplined myself like a soldier to do alternate periods of walking and sitting meditation, but my heart remained contracted. After a few hours of practice, I walked to the nearby charnel grounds (certainly not my typical walk). In front of the Buddha image, I prayed to die to the tension within.
Trapped in the memory of conflict, I spent the night on the floor in a tiny kuti surrounded by Thai dharma books and English textbooks, including one called Principle of Maths. I have been both a psychologist and a meditator for more than twenty years, but none of my years of training and practice had prepared me for this kind of renunciation. I went to bed on the hard floor covered only with a thin straw mat. Soon after I put the light out, there were ants crawling on my body and mosquitoes buzzing in my ears. I’m not someone who even goes camping. I prefer five-star hotels, especially the ones that have extrafluffy towels, overstuffed pillows and large sumptuous beds. On this night in the kuti, I ached to sink into a deep sleep and escape. But instead I was left to contemplate the predicament I shared with the insects.
I awoke to typical kitchen sounds: chopping, sizzling and the rush of water. One of the nuns, called Mae Chi Pu, made me a cup of cocoa, but it was awkward trying to enjoy the hot beverage while everyone around me was busy working. And I was too absorbed in reviewing the argument with my friend to receive the comfort she was offering.
As if sensing my concerns, Mae Chi Pu pulled me aside. “How your mind?” she asked as she pointed to her heart. I was unprepared for this dharma gift. In Buddhist teachings, the mind and heart are one. When caught in samsara, heart and mind feel separated. Her question and accompanying gesture emphasized how torn up I was feeling. Mae Chi Pu’s kindness somehow touched and softened me.
Three young girls and an elderly woman, in addition to the two mae chis (nuns), were working in the kitchen area. Joining in, I helped chop, fry and arrange the almsfood on platters. For the most part, everything was done in silence. Even the three girls seemed to be in sync with the wordless environment. Aside from Mae Chi Pu, I didn’t know anyone’s name, but it didn’t matter. Not knowing the names of my companions actually added to the intimacy that was slowly building on that quiet Sunday morning.
When everything was cleaned up after the meal, Mae Chi Pu invited me to go on an outing. I hesitated. Would my mission to heal the hurt be accomplished without the rigors of a meditation regime? I opted for the outing.
I actually got excited when I saw a pickup truck arrive. Excited by a truck? I pinched myself. I hadn’t been in one since my BMW broke down and I had to ride in the AAA tow truck. The driver of this pickup was a pretty woman with long jet-black hair and seductive eyes. From the way she was interacting with two of the girls, it was obvious she was their mother. With her was her own mother—who was probably close to eighty—with her thin, leathered face and almost no teeth.
Two of the girls got in the back of the truck, their grandmother took the tiny back seat, and on Mae Chi Pu’s insistence, I sat in the front. Our intergenerational all-female sangha of seven took off.
After an hour’s drive, we entered a park with a vast lake. The only person there was a forest monk. He was sitting calmly at the edge of the lake on a bench in a white open-air structure with a steeply pitched roof. The two mae chis sat on the floor in front of the monk and generously included me by pointing to the empty place on the floor next to them. Then, in unison, we bowed three times. Done in a trio—simply, gracefully, rhythmically—the bows were deeply calming.
While the nuns and the monk were talking, I decided to go for a walk. I did some walking meditation by the lake and found myself longing to be free of the internal dialogue that had a stranglehold on me. But I couldn’t let go.
When I returned to the mae chis, the driver was giving her mother a manicure and pedicure. The midafternoon heat was creeping in so I decided to take a short nap. Fleeting images of various spa treatments came back to me. As I drifted off to sleep in the front seat, I delighted in the comforting sounds of the girls playing and of nails being cut, the snip and clip of this pedicure in the back of a truck.
When I got up, I noticed that bottles of water, plastic tarps, a sink and a toilet were being loaded onto a long-tail motorboat. Two men steered the boat away from the shore and puttered off. I asked Mae Chi Pu, “Kerd a lai kle?” (“What’s going on?”) In a combination of Thai and English, Mae Chi Pu explained that the monk was from Wat Sam Pa Dang and would be staying in a kuti for a year at the other end of the lake. We were there to bring supplies to him, including food for the villagers to offer him as alms every day.
Finally, the long-tail boat reappeared. Everyone gathered by the shore, and we all got on one by one. Just as I was to step into the boat, Mae Chi Pu turned around and asked me, “Swim can you?”
I answered, “Yes, I can swim.”
Her reply was swift. “Mae Chi cannot.”
I was surprised to find myself caught in a moment of bravado. “I help you, Mae Chi. Don’t worry.”
She replied nonchalantly, “If die, I accept. Dying okay.”
I sensed that Mae Chi Pu really meant what she said. Her casual wisdom helped brighten my dull mind and soften my hard heart.
The monk took one of the long oars and pushed it into the earth beneath the water to set us off. I loved the elegance of the two mae chis, heads shaven and meticulously dressed in white, sitting next to the two adolescent girls with messy long hair and stained sweat suits. Ordinarily my idea of elegance meant designer clothes and sleek high-end boutiques. But here there was such elegance in the commingling of goodwill and benevolence.
The wind blew across our faces and flapped our clothes. One of the girls noticed that my dress was a bit above one of my knees. In a loving way, she tugged it down. I was touched by her discreet gesture to help me retain a sense of modesty in front of a monk. The other young girl leaned over and carefully pulled my windblown hair out of my face and held it back in a ponytail. I felt so taken care of by these girls. Why couldn’t I take care of the turmoil within in a similar way?
In the distance, we could see the villagers waving to us, and soon the boat was anchored at the shoreline of this tiny village with its chickens, several barking dogs and about ten people. A tiny girl with a large hat caught my eye. I turned to the young girls and said, “Narak mak,” which means “very lovely.” In response, the girls chanted, “Narak mak, narak mak” as they swayed their young bodies to the rhythm and rhyme.
After carrying armloads of supplies through the forest, we finally arrived at the kuti. The monk took his seat. This time everyone bowed in unison. Before we left, the monk surprised me when he asked if I wanted to stay. I responded in Thai: “Chawp, tae mai dai,” which means, “I would like to, but I cannot.” He said in perfect English, “You are always welcome here.” I was stunned. I actually wanted to stay.
We headed back to the boat at sunset. We were surrounded by the mountains, which were changing color before our eyes. The old woman wrapped her hair in a scarf and the mae chis wrapped themselves in a white cloth. Mae Chi Pu had her eyes closed and looked angelic; the other mae chi had her eyes open, with her face to the fading sun. The old woman was smiling and with no apparent concern that she was toothless. The girls were smiling broadly, and their crooked teeth looked perfect.
When we reached the shore, I rushed to the caretaker’s house to use a telephone. I could hear my name being called: “Khun Ronna, Khun Ronna.” (Khun is a title of respect.) The rest of my group were waiting for me, once again including me in bowing to the monk before he returned to his kuti on the boat.
We all piled into the truck in the same seat arrangement as before. As the light was fading, this nameless, effortless, extraordinary day was ending. On the ride back, no one said much. Everyone was tired, a bit dirty, but happy. I thought, I’m so content, I could die now. I was in love with these people: so different from the intellectuals and California meditators I usually hang out with. Who knows what karma had put us on that boat together that day—this unlikely combination of a forest monk, two nuns, three generations of female villagers, and me, psychologist/seeker. Whatever it was, I didn’t care. I would have laid down my life for each one of them. No questions asked.
In the next moment, I felt my heart open to the forgiveness that is always here. I saw one moment forgiving the next, just as night forgives day and seasons forgive each other. What I had come to the monastery for had been accomplished, but not how I had imagined. It was opening to the benevolence around me that softened my heart and opened my mind. Thoughts of the argument I had with my friend arose, but none of them stuck. In that moment, I knew everything between us would be all right.
I turned to everyone and said, “Wan di di,” which means “a good, good day.” A spontaneous echo came back, “Wan di di, wan di di.” The girls walked me to my room. They each put their arms around my waist and laid their heads on my chest. I put my arms around them and squeezed each of them gently.
Tears began to flow as I greeted my husband. “How are you?” he asked. All I could say was, “Wan di di.”