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Adventures in Vipassana Meditation
Wimbledon seems an unlikely starting point, but if you leave the road running along the Common and pass into the drive of one of the spacious residences, you will find the brightly colored and gilded pagodas of a Thai Buddhist temple. It is an incongruous sight amidst the chestnuts and pine trees of an otherwise respectable Edwardian suburb.
Near the entrance of the drive is the original house, now serving as a residence for the monastery. Young monks from Thailand, saffron-robed and with shaved heads, tell me to wait in a conference room. Soon an older man comes. He regards me indifferently and I am not convinced that he understands English. As a credential, I offer my book“Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity,”which has just been published, but he ignores it and my confidence wavers. Feeling foolish and insincere, I ask my question: Is there a monastery in Thailand where I can study meditation? Somehow a torn scrap of paper is found and he writes a few words. Then, condescendingly, he turns it over and writes on the back in English.
I do not regard this visit as a success. My impressions of the encounter soon fade, and after a week or two the scrap of paper is lost.
Several months pass and plans for a family holiday in Thailand are well advanced. Reservations are made and guide books studied (one even mentions monasteries where tourists can stay). From the moment of our arrival in Bangkok on Christmas Day we are caught in the stupidities of mass popular travel. There is no vacancy on any plane, train or bus to Chiang Mai, the ancient capital, and we have to improvise a new plan. Instead of going north to mountains, trekking and ancient kingdoms, we go south in an unlicensed mini-bus to tropical islands, beaches, bamboo huts and pop music.
After a week comes the holiday’s main event: eight days on a chartered boat diving off remote islands in the Andaman Sea. I am no diver and am not part of this trip though at last I have acquired an airplane ticket to Chiang Mai.
In the airport I am a disappointment to the hustlers, since I only want a cheap room and not sex or drugs or sightseeing tours. I consult the guidebook and show the taxi driver a name, Wat Ram Poeng, but he does not read English and it means as little to him as it does to me. We set off once more. Now and again he turns to me: “You wan’ hotel?” Not knowing why, I insist on Wat Ram Poeng, though I feel sure it is a hopeless quest. The taxi, called a“tuc-tucï¿½ - a sort of motorized rikshaw covered by a fringed canopy - putters on through the heat.
The driver asks people on the roadside for directions. Finally we arrive and I am deposited in what seems to be a farmyard with mangy dogs, screeching roosters and stray cats. On the notice by the gate is written “Northern Insight Meditation Center.”
It is the sultry midday hour and there is nobody except a sleepy young woman who speaks little English and, explaining nothing, motions me to follow her. I follow, the loose heels of her slippers scuffing the sand. Here the buildings open out and we find four people sitting at an open-air table eating with nursery spoons out of enamel tins. They wear loose, white clothing which, against their pale skins, makes them look anemic. They could be medical orderlies, if not actually inmates, in an asylum. One of them, Alan, is amiable, balding and Jewish-looking with a London accent. He seems to take charge of me. The others are a Swiss couple and an alert Japanese girl. Alan seems confident that I can stay, but I must see Thanat, who is presently in town and should be back in an hour. Apparently the course is 26 days, but one can stay for less. The conversation is desultory; Thanat features in it quite a lot. I learn that the last meal of the day is served at 10:30 in the morning and that there is no eating after midday. Soon they drift away to activities I cannot imagine.
I wait. After more than three hours I am on the point of heading out of the gate and back to the city when the Japanese girl comes by. “Are you still waiting? Haven’t you seen Thanat?” She is sharper and brighter than the others and takes me to Thanat’s room.
Thanat is an agile and shrewd man in his forties. From the moment you meet him he gives quite a different impression from the sloppiness encountered so far. His manner is friendly and businesslike. “Yes, you can stay. But can’t you rearrange your program? I advise you to stay for longer than six days.”
He is insistent, but I cannot alter my schedule by more than a day. We seem to reach an impasse and I offer to leave, but he tells me sincerely, “The Dharma is never refused to anyone.” He asks me if I have any white clothes.
“No? No problem, you can buy them in the market for 50 baht. You will also need eleven orange candles, eleven incense sticks and eleven lotus pods for your opening ceremony.”
Bewildered, I remain silent.
“Now, sit down please; I am going to ask you a few questions.”
My self-assurance returns; here at last I am on familiar territory. He will see that I am no fool. But I am not ready for what comes.
“When you hear a dog bark, is it your ears that hear, or your mind?”
Our first ball.
Next time I think I am more ready.
“If you smell incense, is it your nose that smells or your mind?”
I reply by categorizing the senses as functions of the physical organism. I speak about degrees of perceptivity linked to varying states of awareness. I discourse on the mechanics of the associative mind, of conditioned and unconditioned mental responses.
But Thanat interrupts. “Too complicated. Now, show me your sitting posture.”
“OK, quite good; we’ll make corrections later.”