Pointy Rhinestone Glasses: Looking at Thailand

Strange encounters at Wat RumpoengDon Morreale

Tan Chawut's Chanting echoed out across the temple grounds—as startling as the cry of the tree-dwelling gekko, as reassuring as the whirring of cicadas. I had journeyed to his monastery—Wat Rumpoeng (Lum-pung) in Northern Thailand—in search of tranquility and insight, the fabled twin blessings of Buddhist meditation.

The regimen was rigorous: 20 hours daily of sitting and walking meditation in strict seclusion. During the last three days of a two week retreat, in an exercise known as "determination," retreatants were expected to meditate round the clock without lying down. A meal of rice gruel and greens was served at six a.m., the main meal at ten. For the rest of the day we fasted. Visiting and idle chit-chat were discouraged.


I was curious about the chanting and asked my meditation teacher, Luangpoh ("Grandfather") Panjat, what it meant. "Tan Chawut chants the Patimoka," he explained.

"The Patimoka?"

"These are the rules which govern a monk's conduct; where he may sit or sleep, what he may eat and when, the work he may do or not do, what he may touch, and what he is forbidden to touch. It is the code of sila—morality. We believe it to have been formulated by the Buddha himself in order to instruct us, even in his absence."

Normally monks recite the Patimoka twice a month at special ceremonies held in accordance with the cycles of the moon. Tan Chawut chanted it twice a day, reading aloud from a text printed on dried palm fronds in Pali, the language of the Buddha.

"It is his only practice," Grandfather said.

Every morning at three, Tan Chawut's rapid fire recitation would wake us, energizing us for the strenuous day of practice that lay ahead. His chanting at sundown gave us courage to face the long, scary nights when lovesick bullfrogs honked sweet nothings to each other and the Wat became a battle ground for fighting demon dogs. For me, these incantations came to represent the beating heart of Buddhist practice at Wat Rumpoeng. On the day I came out of seclusion, I asked to meet him.

He looked to be in his early thirties, but I was later to learn he was closer to fifty. He wore the abbreviated monastery uniform: a saffron sarong, and a vest that allowed his arms more freedom of movement than the full complement of drapery he was obliged to wear outside the temple grounds. His hair was cropped short but not clean shaven, and like most Thai monks, he was as slender as a willow.

He invited us into his kuti, and since I was a foreigner, curious monks crowded in behind us to hear what we had to say. We sat in a tight clump on the brightly patterned linoleum floor. The hut was stark, simple, empty of all but his few worldly possessions: a begging bowl, an extra robe, the Patimoka text. That was about it.

He was friendly but serious, and although nothing was ever said, I had the sense that a great tragedy had befallen him at some time in his past. Unlike many of the younger monks—who paid him a certain deference—he was not given to joking and laughter. In fact he rarely smiled.

Through an interpreter, he told us he'd been a soldier in the Thai army during the Vietnam war. "First Vietnam fell. Then Laos. Then Cambodia," he said, "and there was great fear in this country that the next to go might be our provinces along the Cambodian border. The government was preparing to send troops into the region.

"The Cambodian Communists—the Khmer Rouge—had pressured the peasants on the Thai side of the border into an alliance," he explained. "They had them convinced that the Thai army would torture and kill them when it marched into their villages.

"Now, our Prime Minister at the time, Mr. Kerklit Pramote, was a very wise man. A devout Buddhist. Committed to upholding the Five Grave Precepts, the first of which, as you know, is to refrain from taking life. How to maintain national unity without shedding blood or sparking a civil war: that was the Prime Minister's dilemma."

"How did he resolve it?" I asked.

"He sent in the troops. I was among them. But he told us to go in with our rifles slung over our shoulders pointing downward and to use them only in self defense. He said we should approach the people like this." He stretched out his arms in a gesture of loving embrace. "You understand? He wanted us to talk our way to the border. This, we did. When the peasants saw there was nothing to fear, they welcomed us into their villages and the country was saved.

"So you see," he concluded, "there is more than one way for a warrior to accomplish his mission. Force is not always the best way. There's not so big a difference, I think, between a soldier and a monk. It is the duty of both to keep the peace."

As we were leaving, I asked him if he'd allow me to tape his Patimoka recitation. He agreed, and suggested I return the next day.

My retreat over, I moved into a hotel in nearby Chiangmai where, the following morning at breakfast, I found myself sharing a table with two very odd looking English women. "Students on holiday," they told me. I say "odd looking" because both were "got up" in 50s style, complete with pointy rhinestone glasses. They looked terribly out of place here, like creatures from another planet which, I guess, they were. I told them about Wat Rumpoeng, about solitary retreat, about Tan Chawut and his powerful chanting. Would they, I tendered, like to accompany me to the monastery for the recording session? "Why, yes," they replied, "ever so good of you to ask."

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