A Day in the Life of a Buddhist Forest Monk (Afternoon)
It’s four p.m. I have been napping and doing walking meditation since the morning meal. My hut is deep in the forest, situated on the upper end of a massive, flat rock, with large, flat rocks on both sides and deep ravines separating them (havens for cobras). Surrounding everything is dense jungle. The six by seven foot hut is perched on the customary four stilts, with each stilt fitted with a small pan filled with kerosene to keep out ants and termites. Eight steps lead to a small porch at the entrance of the small hut, which has two large windows with shutters to protect me from the heavy storms that would soon arrive. It has remained untouched by the fierce lightening so far.
The tin roof holds up well during the rains and is clear of low hanging branches that would invite vipers to drop off trees and become unwelcome guests. Inside on the floor is my lantern and a water jug, and in a corner is a table with a candle and some incense. The solitary adornments on the back wall are a pair of geckos, the ever-present foot long lizards that consider this hut their home as well.
The floor and walls are made of planks cut from large trees by villagers using a two-man saw. This is backbreaking, tedious work for the young village men who manually cut forty-foot logs end-to-end to make boards. They will work all day without stopping, except for a few bites of rice and a coke at noon. These impoverished villagers give up a great deal of their time and resources to support the monks, and I vow to work as hard as I could to find the truth so that I could somehow repay them. Their generosity astounds me.
A monk’s routine in Thailand varied little no matter where he stayed. Now, at four o’clock I will carefully sweep my half-mile path to the main hall so that snakes can’t hide in the leaves, and then I will join my fellow monks at the well where we each draw a bucket of cold water for our bath. This bathing area also serves as a meeting place where the monks meet twice a month to make their brooms for sweeping the paths and to wash and dye their donated robes by boiling them with the orange bark from the jackfruit tree (and thus we were treated to a hot bath every two weeks!).
There might be a cremation in the afternoon. It’s 1981, and Thai families lose as many as half their malnourished children to diseases such as malaria, typhoid fever, dengue fever, hepatitis, rabies, dysentery, cholera, malaria, hepatitis, Japanese Encephalitis, and snakebites. The cremation fires remain busy. The first cremation I witnessed involved a small girl, six years old perhaps, so beautiful, her long, black hair combed so carefully with a pink ribbon tied on the side. She looked as if she were only sleeping.
I vividly recall the fire becoming extremely hot once the branches were lit, and in only moments, her shiny black hair sizzled, and then was gone. Next, the skin on her face blistered, and was gone as well, exposing the white skull underneath. The little body blackened quickly, its limbs curling up into a fetal position, and then it began cooking. The dramatic memory of the episode remained with me for weeks, as the monks warned it would, and it was some time before the skulls that appeared on my kuti wall every evening in the candlelight, departed.
In those days, the cremation pits consisted of nothing more than four long stakes pounded into the ground with the space between filled with stacks of dry limbs and twigs. The parents would place the body of their child on top of the heap, after which they would stand stoically by to watch it burn. The mother would throw candy into the air, and the father, sitting on his heels, would smoke cigarettes. Expressing emotion was not considered appropriate etiquette by the Thais, and yet at times I caught glimpses of mothers off by themselves crying quietly. It wasn’t considered proper to make a spectacle of yourself.
The cremation ceremony is over, and I return to my hut now. Occasionally we will have a meeting in the evening, but usually, I will spend the evening in meditation, well into the early morning.
(Next: A Day in the Life of a Buddhist Forest Monk (Evening)