Here’s my final draft! Tell me what you guys think; if you see spelling errors, grammar problems, general comments…Anything at all, I’d appreciate hearing it! I especially need a descriptive word for Luang-Por Thong-In’s shades…But I can’t think of one!
The buzz of excitement amongst the gathered Thai laity quickly gave way to expectant silence as the first of Vimutti Monastery’s guest monks walked into our sala (meditation hall). Filing in with stoic silence, smiles widened as the group of six bhikkhus (monastics) took their prearranged places at the front of our meditation hall. Perhaps five foot even, the Theravadan elder, Luang-Por Thong-In, is every bit the image conjured when one hears the words "Buddhist Monk." At least he was once he shed the trendy sunglasses, that is…
The word had been spread that Thai bhikkhus were visiting our Western community ; the oldest among them had been ordained for nearly 50 years, so we at Vimutti Buddhist Monastery in Bombay, New Zealand, expected a huge turnout among our Thai lay supporters for the dana (meal offering). And indeed, they did not disappoint; easily thirty Thais crowded into our 20×15 meditation hall, along with seven total bhikkhus, the laity of our own monastery, myself, and three lay people of Luang-Por Thong-In’s entourage that saw to their needs. And more awaited outside, eagerly peering into windows and doors.
A hint of self-conscious worry sneaks through my veneer of relaxed enjoyment and I flash through my mental checklist…Being Vimutti’s Caretaker, I am always on duty and after all of the preparations we’ve made, there isn’t a blade of grass out of place on our property. Grass is cut, bathrooms are scrubbed, Pajero deep-cleaned, cobwebs annihilated, entryway weeded, floor cleaned, inordinate amounts of tea steeped, flower arrangements…Glancing to the side, I see all six of the arrangements I prepared remain on their offering trays with traditional incense sticks and candles. Check.
Before the bhikkhus give the blessing chant to receive the dana, I am called to the front to offer up some flower arrangements I had spent the morning making, which was quite a bit of an honor. Nuk Thompson, one of Vimutti’s regular Thai laity, remains behind me to offer up each arrangement. Carefully receiving each piece, I come forwards on my knees, offer the tray with both hands and finally bow once to each before proceeding. Most of them, including the senior bhikkhus, respond with neutral expressions. A smile and a "thank you" is a welcome surprise from the youngest of the gathered bhikkhus, a fellow about my age and with decent English skills I came to realize later. Certainly better than my Thai, at any rate.
Gifts having been received, it was time to move onto the meal. Eager Thai supporters passed over bowl upon bowl of mouth-watering dishes. Mint salad…Mango sticky rice…Pad Thai…Steamed Bok Choy…Tofu-coconut curry…Saffron rice…The list goes on and on; right across three tables. This is often where people will say "wait, I thought this was a MONASTERY…" The Thai community takes great care of their bhikkhus (and their Caretakers) by offering excellent fare as a show of gratitude for the teachings and inspiration the Sangha provides. Home-cooked meals such as this seem like delicacies if you’re not used to eating curries, sprouts and Pad Pra Ram Sawadee but gratitude and respect are what’s actually being offered, not just food. Dana. The Pali word for generosity.
As the meal wound down, one of Vimutti’s laity came over and let me know that Luang-Por Thong-In was giving out gifts to people. So I made my way back inside (possibly crushing two or three Thai folk in my eagerness), and sat down, shins folded neatly while I waited for Luang-Por to come to me. The entire time Venerable Jotipalo, the acting senior bhikkhu of Vimutti at the time, whispered helpful suggestions as I waited. "Hold your hands up as you approach." "Stay on your knees." "Call him Luang-Por." Luang-Por Thong-In waves me over and so I begin my crawl, taller on my knees than Luang-Por 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, looking every bit like the stereotypical wiry, tiny, bald Asian master monk, eyes me for a long moment, letting just a hint of amusement reach his stony expression. Just a suggestion of "where did this ogre learn our sacred ways?" Ok, perhaps it was not that blatant, but he was definitely amused. Or impressed. Or ideally, amused and impressed.
Plucking up the flower arrangement I’d spent half an hour that morning painstakingly creating, Luang-Por Thong-In holds it out, and begins speaking in Thai for a few moments. Gesturing at me with his hands up, Luang-Por places his together like my own, then spaces his knuckles out slightly, making more of a cupping gesture. I comply, realizing my error. Luang-Por Thong-In continues on for a bit, then turns to Nuk, who translates: "You do not need to offer flowers…Every time you pay homage-" Nuk pauses to make the same cupped motion – "you offer a lotus blossom. You offer a flower every time, so flowers are unnecessary." Oh…
Luang-Por Thong-In then picks up one of the candles set on the offering tray and gestures some and speaks more in Thai. Nuk 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 sentence in Thai. Nuk smiles and says "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 complement 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. Specifically, "Right Intention." Second of the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. What mattered was my good intention, not the quality of the offering. I’d just received a personalized Dhamma talk from a senior bikkhu and I was about to get a present, to boot! With that, Luang-Por Thong-In fishes about in a small bag at his side for a moment, then removes…A beaded bracelet. The glossy black, perfectly round beads are eye-catching, set on a brown string. Two of the beads are oblong, with white swirls and a flower motif, and a singular central bead is red with black swirls throughout. This item was unlike anything else I’d seen him offer the other layfolk; generally they’d all received a small medallion to wear about their necks. Luang-Por Thong-In gestures with one hand to bring my arm closer and I eagerly comply.
And Luang-Por slips on the bracelet…Or at least tries to. Turns out the diminutive Thai-sized bracelet would not quite make it past my American-bred gorilla-knuckles. Everyone in the sala got a good laugh out of that, Thai chatter excitedly bouncing back and forth as Luang-Por Thong-In spends a good minute and a half forcing it on, me wiggling and contorting my knuckles to acommodate his efforts. Finally, with much laughter, we manage to get the bracelet on, and I immediately say "Thank you, Luang-Por," bowing appropriately, forehead touching the floor, hands correctly spaces. A moment passes, and the English-speaking Thai bhikkhu leans towards me and whispers "Kop koon, Luang-Por." "Kop koon, Luang-Por," I corrected, bowing yet again. By then, however, Luang-Por Thong-In had turned to an excited Thai family who were engaging him in frantic conversation and my moment was over.
After the meal Venerable Jotipalo, myself, the visiting bhikkhus, and their supporting laity all took a walk to the Bodhi tree partway up a hill near our sala, and while Venerable Jotipalo described the surrounding area to the gathered Sangha (with the aid of a translator), I gave my own tour to one of the Aussie layfolk, Paul, and the English-speaking Thai bhikkhu who seemed fascinated by me. Since I didn’t want to go all the way back to my room for my shoes, I decided to take off my socks and walk barefoot up the hill. The young bhikkhu eyes me up and down briefly, then states "You walk barefoot." There may be a "?" or a "!" there, but it’s hard to tell. I nod and smile, not really sure why this is such a big deal. Smiling, he then raises his arm skywards, and begins chattering so rapidly in English I miss most of it. Except for "run," "dark," "lion," and "spear," followed by peals of laughter. It took me a moment, but once the lights clicked on, I turned to Paul and ask "Did…Did he just call me a Zulu warrior?!" And promptly found myself laughing hard as I confirmed it within my own head. I mean sure, that would’ve probably earned you a raised eyebrow at the least had most any American stranger said that, but something about an skinny, bald, robed figure prancing innocently with an imaginary spear and a genuine smile makes it impossible for me to ever take offense.
In a decidedly touristy fashion, the bhikkhus decide they want pictures taken in front of the ancient Macrocarpa tree behind our sala. First the bhikkhus pose for group shots with the Thai families, and then, unsurprisingly at this point, beckon me forwards. All of us, myself included, laugh for no real reason, and with that I turn to Paul and ask "should I retrieve my spear first?" Grinning, I make my way over, and am struck once more by the diminutive stature of our charming guests; the first bhikkhu to stand with me steps onto a nearby stump that was easily a foot and a half high…And was just able to meet my gaze. Granted, I’m a very tall man. But these were very short men. Eventually Luang-Por Thong-In, once again wearing his oversized shades and a winter hat, steps onto the same stump the others used…And then a slightly higher stump was retrieved to let him match my height. Almost.
With lunch served, tours and presents given, Dhamma talks offered, and pictures taken, the bhikkhus more or less cram themselves into their "Escape" rental van with their entourage of layfolk. It looks uncomfortable, but they manage, and everyone gathered offers respects as they drive off to Samma Patipadaram Monastery in Napier, New Zealand, where they intend to stay for the night. A single amazing day among 288 others spent working as Vimutti Monastery’s Caretaker. The story behind that bracelet brings back fond memories every time I see it. Perhaps it’s time for another journey…