Eric Kaplan investigates the recent murders at a Thai temple
On Friday morning the temple was open, the monks moved in, and a huge tent was erected to shield rows of folding chairs from the relentless sun. Michael Miller and Jerry Hastings, two teenagers, brother and half-brother of Matthew Miller, spoke of the novice who had been killed. Matthew had been young and talkative. He had been born in South Carolina to a Thai woman and an American serviceman, who like many of Phoenix's Thai-American couples met during the war in Vietnam. Matthew had had a white girlfriend, and together with his brothers had often cruised the malls with the car radio playing rap such as NWA or blues such as Muddy Waters.
When his grandmother Foy arrived from Thailand, she told him stories of a life he had never known, about growing rice by hand, about crocodiles, and poverty so grinding she had had to borrow clothes to go to the temple. Something impelled Matthew to try to live something of his grandmother's old life at Wat Promkhunaram. He spent hours at the temple learning to meditate, and the monks offered him the chance to ordain for a month as a novice. He shaved his head and took vows to abstain from money, dinner, movies, and sex. The monks taught him that all desire leads to suffering, and he sat observing his mind and plucking desire as it arose like a weed.
The night after he died, Michael and Jerry had meditated in his room, trying to contact their brother's spirit to learn who had murdered him. They had failed; it was very difficult to clear the mind. On the second day of the funeral they would ordain themselves as novices. They hoped someday to travel to Thailand as monks and to dedicate the resulting merit to their dead brother and their grandmother.
As Michael and Jerry talked, four hearses arrived in the temple parking lot and the monks negotiated the transit of the nine coffins with the funeral directors. The mourners kneeled in the grass to make their bodies lower than the corpses of the monks. A woman started to lament hysterically in Thai. "Whoever killed you, Abbot, was black-hearted! Cruel-hearted! I didn't think you were dead until I saw for myself! Father, you were so high! You can't be dead! You can't be dead!" Photographers crouched between her and the coffin and snapped close-ups of her grief.
One of the monks who flew in to console the community was the abbot of a temple in Los Angeles, a smiling Sri Lankan by the name of Bante Pinyanando. "As human beings, yes, we grieve and lament, but as Buddhists, we are not grieving and lamenting. There is a beautiful story. One time the Buddha in a previous incarnation was killed by a snake. His father, mother, and sister didn't cry and didn't lament. Then the Buddha-to-be was reborn as a deity, and so he went to his family and asked, 'Why didn't you lament?' The father answered, 'A cobra gets a new skin when it loses its skin. My son will get a new life. Why should I lament?' The mother said, 'When a pot breaks it cannot keep its same shape. My son cannot keep his same shape. Why should I cry?' The sister said, 'In the sky there is a moon. A child can cry for the moon, but it cannot reach it. I can't get my brother's life back by crying. Can I get a life back? No. I should see reality.'
"Death is close to us at every moment. Even children in Sri Lanka, when they offer a flower to the Buddha, say, 'I offer this flower, which is going to die, just as I am going to die, any moment, any time.' It is not really pessimistic. We are happy people, but we have to look at reality as it is."
The mourners filed through the chapel of the wat to see the bodies of the monks. Their faces had been reconstructed at the funeral parlor and were heavy with make-up. Then the mourners knelt, palms together in the lotus mudra, while the monks chanted the Abhidhamma, the Buddhist analysis of reality. In the Abhidhamma, reality is something like a movie. All that exists is the present moment and a vibrating array of atoms. Only our delusion and craving form the succession of moments into objects, and into selves. To realize this is to experience nibbana (nirvana), or release from suffering. This is a realization the self rebels against, so the meditation masters of Thailand withdraw to the jungles to subdue their minds. They teach that the closeness of death from tigers and cobras defeats the mind's natural urge to wander from reality, and fear achieves the goal of a clear, one-pointed mind. Matthew Miller met death in the pleasure garden of America, in a Buddhist temple his people had built so they would never forget Things-As-They Are. Surely in his last moment he did as the forest teachers advise, and focused his awareness on his last breath.
Eric Kaplan spent a year teaching English in Thailand, where he studied Buddhism at Wat Chulamani.
Images (top to bottom)
Maricopa County Deputy Sheriff and visiting monks. SIPA press/Photo by Michael Meister
Wat Promkunaram Thai Buddhist Temple in Phoenix, Arizona. SIPA press/Photo by Scott Troyanos
At the funeral: Phillip Jones, five years-old, who became a novice monk for two days out of respect for the victims. SIPA
press/Photo by C. Keith