More Adventures of a Buddhist Monk and Nun (Part 3 of 4)

Further down the lane, a group of villagers waited for us with small-assorted baskets of delicious looking sticky rice, bananas, mangos and coconuts. There were also baskets of grasshoppers, beetles, lizards, snakes and dried fish that were not-so-appetizing, but these were rescued by a final basket of splendid rice flour and honey cakes, and other goodies.

We walked slowly, single file with heads bowed, as each villager placed some food in each of our bowls. Since I was the newest monk, I was unfortunately the last in line. Unfortunate because the village dogs would always attack the last in line, and no cuddly frou-frou dogs were these, more like wild dogs with foaming mouths (maybe I imagined the foam).

Returning from the villages, we would sit on a raised platform in the sala where more farmers would be waiting with more food. After we seated ourselves with our bowls placed in front of us, the farmers would walk past and place additional things in our bowls. These “things” were not always what I particularly relished – raw insect eggs and so forth – but how could I rebuff their smiling faces and generosity? I was only saved by following a “dhutanga” practice of stirring everything together in my bowl before eating it, mixing the grasshoppers with the honey rice cakes, and everything else.

This supposedly prevents a monk from dwelling on the sensory delights of the tasty food, or from making choices about which foods he prefers that could possibly bring up thoughts of greed, craving, and lust for the goodies. Mixing everything together in the bowl had another benefit for me -disguising the more unpalatable critters.

So my daily routine began with waking up at a little before three in the morning, walking to the bell platform, ringing the bell, and lighting the candles in the hall. With the cremation area strategically placed next to the bell platform, a newcomer was able to contemplate the hot skulls lying in the glowing embers from previous ceremonies, and at times in those dark morning hours, I was positive that the skulls were smiling at me. But of course, it must have been my imagination; how can a skull smile? Or are they always smiling?

Another occurrence was stranger yet. After ringing the bell, I would enter the pitch-black hall to light the candles. There, in the lantern’s dim glow, the “baby” would immediately draw my attention. It died in infancy (I never found out why) and it was unusual in that it only had hair on one side of its head. At any rate, the parents chose not to cremate it and instead donated its body to the wat (monastery) so that it could be displayed in the hall. It was floating in a large, transparent jar filled with a liquid preservative, perhaps formaldehyde, as if it were sleeping with its eyes closed. The dead baby was supposedly a warning to the monks that life is uncertain; a mere bubble in a stream that could burst at any time even in infancy, and therefore the monks had better be diligent in their practice!

If that wasn’t strange enough, there was something even stranger about this baby. Whenever I entered the dark sala in the wee hours of the morning to light the candles, I could swear, in the dim glow of my lantern, that at first glance the baby was staring at me with its eyes wide open! This was unnerving to say the least! But the instant I swung around and looked directly at it, its eyes would be peacefully closed as usual. And similar to the smiling skulls, I again thought it was merely my imagination.

Once the bell was rung and candles lit, monks and nuns would begin filing into the hall to practice together from three thirty in the morning until first light, at which time we would begin walking silently to the surrounding villages.

The only excuse for missing the alms round was if a monk was fasting or ill. Various monks were always fasting to improve their meditation and would not make the trip into the village, remaining in seclusion for sometimes weeks at a time only drinking water and maybe some fruit juice in the afternoons. Sometimes, illness would prevent a monk from not showing up for the morning’s meditation. In this case, they also preferred to remain mostly by themselves in their huts, alone with their malady until they either improved, or not.

The monks viewed illness as just another opportunity to go deeper, and to realize for themselves the Buddhist philosophy that birth was to be avoided, because birth was a sure recipe for untold suffering, as indicated by the Buddha’s epiphanies when he saw the old man, disease, illness, and death after leaving the protection of his castle. These brave men had no fear of death, and considered death a mere transition, another occasion to seek their truth where life was not seen as a beginning and ending, but as a continuation, a mere reflection of Reality.

Source by E. Raymond Rock