Last Thursday was one of my best days yet at Vimutti; honestly its days like those that remind me why I came over here in the first place. I wrote this post that very night, so its in a present-tense style, so bear with it:
Today we had six visitors; Thai monks who were viiting New Zealand for the first time came calling to Vimutti. We knew in advance and so Venerable Johti Palo, Jason, and myself spent the last three days preparing for their visit. We mowed the grass across the monastery, scrubbed the bathrooms, gave the pajero a deep-cleaning in case the wanted a tour, weeded, vacuumed, made inordinate amounts of tea…Venerable even had me make some flower arrangements as gift offerings for the monks…I’m good at them. What? Shut up.
The word had been spread that these traditional Thai monks (meaning: Asian) were visiting; the oldest among them had been a monk for 50 years, so we were expecting a huge turnout among our Thai lay supporters for the Dana (meal offering). And indeed, they did not dissapoint; easily 25-30 Thais crowded into our 30x15ish meditation hall, along with seven total monks, Jason, myself, and three layfolk of the Thai monk’s own that drove, offered them food, etc.
Before the monks gave an excellent meal blessing chant, I was called upon to offer up the arrangements I had made, which was quite a bit of an honor. Nook, one of our regular Thai laysupporters, remained behind me and offered each arrangement to me. I then took it and came forwards on my knees, offering it with both hands, making sure to look each monk in the eyes, then bowed once. Most of them, including the senior monk, wore neutral expressions, though I got a smile and a "thank you" out of the youngest monk, who was about my age and had so-so English skills. Better than my Thai, at any rate. Venerable Johti palo smiled and asked innocently "one for me too?" as I came to him last. I gave him a smirk and responded with "yep; the smallest one," and gave him a bow as well. Sure enough, the last one to be offered was the smallest, so that was worth a chuckle.
Now let me say that even though I normally eat quite well here…Today…Was…AMAZING. Best Thai spread EVER. It was so hard not to simply gorge myself on Pad Thai…Mint-shrimp salad…Mango sticky rice…Steamed Bok Choy…Tofu-coconut curry…Cardamom duck…The list goes on and on; right across three tables. Actually it wasn’t that hard not to gorge; during the meal, the cuter of the two Aussies, who I was watching out of the corner of my eye, sat a bench across from me, stared for a moment, then proceeded to clear his throat loudly in a affectatious sort of manner before moving right next to me and engaging me in pleasant conversation. Turns out he was a graduate in Eastern Medicine, so I took the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity on the finger points of acupuncture and herbal medicine. And stare.
As the meal was winding down, Jason came at the behest of Venerable and let me know that the senior monk was giving out gifts to people. So I made my way back inside (possibly crushing two or three Thai folk), and sat down in the still painful Thai style, shins folded neatly under my body while I waited for Luang-Por to come to me. The entire time Venerable Johti Palo whispered helpful "suggestions" as I waited. "Hold your hands up as you approach." "Stay on your knees." "Call him Luang-Por." So I crawled my way over, taller on my knees than this fellow is standing, hands held as close to proper as I can recall, eyes glittering like a child about to meet Santa at Macy’s…And Luang-Por, who looked every bit the steretypical wiry, bald, tiny Asian master monk, just eyes me for a long moment, letting just a hint of amusement reach his expression. Just a suggestion of "where did this ogre learn our sacred ways?" Ok, not that blatant, but he was definitely amused. Or impressed. Or amused and impressed.
He then plucks up the flower arrangement I’d spent half an hour that morning painstakingly creating, holds it out, and rambles on in Thai for a few moments. He then gestures at me with his hands up, places them together like my own, then spaces hisknuckles out slightly, making more of a cupping gesture. I comply, realizing my error. Luang-Por continues on for a bit, then turns to Nook. Nook translates: "You do not need to offer flowers…Everytime you pay homage-" Nook pauses to make the same cupped motion – "you offer a lotus blossom. You offer a flower everytime, so flowers are unnecessary."
Luang-Por ______ then picks up one of the candles set on the offering tray and gestures some more in Thai. Nook translates once again: "These candles were purchased. You do not need to offer purchased gifts." Finally, Luang-Por picks up one of the incense sticks from the tray, traditionally lit in threes as a representation of the Triple Gem (the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha), and says a brief ditty in Thai. Nook smiles and translates: "and these cause cancer." I had a belly laugh at that; couldn’t help myself. And I was not in the slightest bit offended; far from it. In fact, there was an implicit coimplement in Luang-Por’s actions, which I surprised myself by picking right up on. "Intention," I said with a nod once I’d stopped laughing, though Nook didn’t bother to translate. Specifically, "Right Intention." Second of the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path. I’d just recieved a personalized Dhamma talk from a senior monk AND I was about to get a present, to boot! With that, Luang-Por fished about in a bag for a moment, and then pulled out a beaded bracelet. Brown banded, with most of the beads black. Two of them have white swirls and flower designs, and a central large bead is brown with black swirls throughout. This item was unlike anything else I’d seen him offer the other layfolk; generally they’d all recieved a small medallion to wear about their necks. The monk gestures with one hand to bring my arm closer and I complied eagerly.
And with that, the monk slipped on the bracelet…Or at least tried to. Turns out the diminutive Thai-sized bracelet would not quite make it past my gorilla-knuckles. Everyone in the sala got a good laugh out of that, Thai excitedly bouncing back and forth as the monk spent a good minute and a half forcing it on, me wiggling and contorting my knuckles to accomodat ehis efforts. Finally, with much laughter, we managed to get the bracelet on, and I took the time to immediately say "Thank you, Luang-Por," and bow appropriately, forehead touching the floor. A moment passed, and the English-speaking monk leaned towards me and whispered "Kop koon, Luang-Por." "Kop koon, Luang-Por," I corrected, bowing yet again. By then, however, the senior monk had turned to ane xcited Thai family who were engaging him in frantic conversation.
After the meal Venerable Johti Palo, myself, the visiting monks, and their supporting laypeople all took a walk to the Bodhi tree partway up the hill leading to the women’s kuti in-construction, and while Venerable filled the silence (by his own admission) describing the area in English to the non-English speakers, I gave my own tour to a more attentive audience; the two Aussie layfolk and the English-speaking Thai monk. Paul seemed quite content to trail behind me and ask me a ton of questions and I was content to answer. Since I didn’t want to go all the way back to the sala for my shoes, I took off my socks and went barefoot. The monk notices this and says "You walk barefoot." There may be a "?" or a "!" there, but it was hard to tell. I nodded and smiled, not really sure why it was such a big deal. I figured most of the westerners he’d have met would have shoe firmly on-foot, so perhaps it was a bit of a novelty for so obervant a fellow. The monk then smiles, raises his arm, and begins chattering so rapidly in English I missed most of it. Except for "run," "lion," and "spear." It took me a moment, but then I turned to Paul and asked "Did…Did he just call me a Zulu warrior?!" And bust out laughing as I confirmed it in my own head. That was classic. I mean sure, that would’ve probably earned you a hard stare had most any American stranger said that, but something about an animated, bald, robed figure prancing innocently with an imaginary spear made it impossible for me to take offense.
After our all-too short walk up and down the hill, the monks wanted pictures taken in front of our ancient macrocarpa tree at the top of our pebble stairway, in a decidedly touristy fashion. They all posed with smiles for a group shot, and then, unsurprisingly by now, beckoned me forwards. All of us, myself included, started to laugh for no real reason, and I turned to Paul and drily asked if I should retrieve my spear. I made my way over, and was again reminded of the diminutive stature of our charming guests, as the first one to pose with me stepped onto a stump nearby that was easily a foot and a half high, and just met my height. And after that pic, Luang-Por _____, wearing a ridiculous pair of oversized shades and a winter hat, stepped onto the same stump – then moved to a slightly higher stump to match me…I hadn’t thought about it until then, but Luang-Por was probably only four and a half feet tall or so. Crazy. And after the pictures were taken, the monks pretty much jammed themselves into their rental van with their entourage of layfolk, and we all waved goodbye as they drove off to Rotorua/Napier, where they intended to stay for the night.
And that’s the story behind the bracelet I haven’t taken off since that Thursday and intend to wear for a while yet.