Archive for January, 2012

We’ve been adopted by Thailand!

January 28, 2012

Hi guys!

I trust this note finds you all well and enjoying a peaceful day.

As many of you already know, I’ll need to change our blog header as the doors leading to India were found to be rather rusty and difficult to open while the doors to Thailand were flung open with the lightest of touch.

I arrived in Bangkok the day after Christmas where I spent a few days before heading to the Vipassana center near Phitsanulok to sit a 20 day course, it was simply amazing! (more below) For you PCVs reading this, here’s what the PC office looks like in Bangkok. I took this shot while touring the city with a current PCV. Pretty nice digs, huh? You don’t even want to see their PCV lounge.

I then had a marvelous visit with Tammy, one of the 100 or so current PC volunteers serving in Thailand, in her village of Li (about 3 hour bus ride south of Chiang Mai). I had a great time seeing the Thai culture through her eyes and enjoyed learning a LOT about Thai culture from the PC level. I felt like her host family and others in her community adopted me. We were treated to lunch and dinner each of the 3 days I was there and it was clear that she is considered one of their own. Having this warm, welcoming experience following the strong connections I had with a few of the men who also sat the 20 day course, showed me that Jordan and I now have two supportive international communities – the Peace Corps and Vipassana.

The 20 day course was very powerful for me, strong encouragement to go further along this path which I am committed to doing. I am registered to either sit or serve one 10 day course for each of the next 3 months and will likely sit another one in May as well but haven’t nailed that one down yet. I am combining traveling around the country with sitting at the various centers in the different parts of the country, a good way to get a taste of both worlds and get to know some Vipassana folks from all over the country.

On the 20 day course, I saw more clearly how the body and mind are connected, how they interact – thoughts/emotions/pain-agitation/relief-peace. The first 7 days was devoted solely to cultivating concentration – focusing on the breath and a small spot of skin below the nose. During that time, the students are not to scan the body and are to try to avoid getting caught by the sensations regardless of their nature (painful, pleasant or neutral). I found that even though I had been sitting several sits each day leading up to the course and not experiencing a problem, once the course began, agitation rose up and I could not sit still for even an hour during the first 7 days. I moved about like a newbe to the cushion, not someone who has been working pretty seriously at this practice for the past 20 years. I wondered, “what’s all this about?”

After the 7 days, we shifted from concentration to vipassana practice (scanning the body, facing whatever sensation that arises with equanimity (as best as possible) and simply watching it pass. With the mind as concentrated as it was (didn’t really seem that well concentrated to me looking from the inside out), I was soon able to easily sit for the full hour sits BTW, the schedule is: up at 4:30 for a 2 hour session (usually 2 sits), breakfast break then a session from 8 to 11 (usually 3 sits), lunch break then a session from 1 to 5, usually 3 or 4 sits) and an evening group sit of 1 hour followed by a Dhamma talk and another 1 hour+ sit.

By the time the last 3 days of the course rolled around, I found that I was sitting without unfolding my legs for the full 2, 3, and 4 hour sessions – never leaving the meditation hall. Prior to this, I had never sat for longer than 2.5 hours and that only once as I recall. Seems there was a ‘break through’ for some sort (of the nature that I have been experiencing during the last couple of years although clearly much more intense), followed by some grief/emotional release and then it was as if the pain in my body vanished – the body was no longer an issue. I felt that if I could maintain my concentration (in this very protected environment with no distractions or responsibilities, not so difficult to do), then I could sit, don’t know what the time limit would be or how still the mind and body might become – made me want to sit a 30 day as soon as I can. The body simply stopped being the limiting variable that I had always assumed it was in the past. I now see more clearly how it’s been a mind/body interaction all along, one setting limits on the other as to how much peace can be experiences and how stable one’s practice can become. I’m sure I have a great deal yet to learn about this process but I’ve still got as much time as I have life left in me to investigate it and to develop within this process of purifying the mind and heart.

Re Thailand: It seems that the Spirits/unseen hands/God are opening the doors for me as I travel around the country, putting just the person or situation that I need in front of me, sometimes in the form of help, directions or advice, other times in the form of teachings. Like this morning when I gave up trying to get into a particular guest house that I had been trying for a week to get into (it’s holiday time and most places I have checked are booked solid). Finally listening to my deeper, clearer self (resulting in no small way from recent conversations with Jordan), I went out looking for a small place in a quieter part of the old city, a place that would be supportive of my meditation practice.

Sure ’nuff, met a local lady in front of her little shop and after a brief conversation drawing from her very limited English and my as yet non-existent Thai, she walked me across the street to a little place with only 5 rooms where I landed a neat and tidy little corner room, with 4 large windows for $5/night – negotiated down from $8.33 because I plan to stay there for 2 weeks. (can you imagine what a $5 room in the US would look like?) I am currently the only guest in the place! A much better location than where I have been these past 6 nights. The clincher was when I looked out the window to see a guy rough-housing with his large dog, like mock fighting with each having a grand time. It’s such a joy to be in a place where dogs are well treated (even though many seem aggressive and only a few are open to being petted. I’ll keep looking!) Anyway, when I saw the guy with his dog playing, I knew I was in the right place.

Jordan and I are especially feeling drawn to Chiang Mai (a popular ex-pat retirement and tourist spot in the northen part of the country where I have been this past week). After researching the country and finding positive aspects including – it’s a Buddhist country, there’s good very affordable medical/dental/wellness services, good longstanding relationship with the USA – ok visa process (compared to India let’s say), PCVs to connect with from time to time if we choose (this year marks 50 uninterrupted years for PC in Thailand), a very low cost of living, warm, friendly and naturally helpful people, laid-back yet hard-working (and I suspect quite complex) culture, the good energy of being in a new place that is in the center of SE Asia with low cost options for exploring AND for sitting Vipassana courses especially in India (where longer courses are offered on a regular and on-going basis) as well as a half dozen other countries we’ve never explored (all with Vipassana centers) and look like exciting and interesting places to spend some time!

Here’s a shot of some of the old wall that still surrounds the city in some places. There’s also a moat that surrounds the city that in most place is lined on both sides with mice trees and flowers. It’s a beautiful place.

Jordan and I are feeling the need to establish a base of operations for ourselves, gather together all our stuff from the 3 continents it is presently spread across, and establish a home for ourselves and Nthombi (the only one of the six puppies we raised that is still with Jordan) for this next portion of our life’s journey. After almost 4 years of being outside the US, living in South America and Southern Africa and learning a lot about living abroad and mostly about ourselves, Jordan and I have decided to give Thailand (and specifically Chiang Mai) a go.

I am moving through the process of securing a retirement visa (good for 1 year and then renewable, covers both of us) and connecting with folks here for support (e.g. a RPCV, ex-pats who have lived here some time, folks I have met and will meet at the meditation courses, locals that are placed along my path) and generally finding my way around the place and beginning to understand the system – and loving it! Like graduate school without written or oral exams!

Thailand seems to be a very livable country and the Buddhist aspect is very attractive to both of us. It’s a relief not to have to explain what it is we’re doing when we invest so much of ourselves in our practice. Many men take robes at least for a short period of their lives here. It’s ingrained in the culture and it’s neat to see all the temples and Wats everywhere. The cultural aspects of Thailand are quite interesting as well. There’s a focus on the cultivation of good karma and the earning of merit for oneself and one’s family, value placed on generosity (with a lot of cultivation of mutual indebtedness to seal relationships) and honesty (which may not extend to areas that could cause someone to lose face – not a good thing in this culture). I sense undercurrents that may prove to be challenging for us as well but I am sure they will reveal themselves in due time over the coming years.

Enough of this reading, let’s see some photos!

Here’s one of the new animals I’ve encountered so far (along with a lot of mew birds and their interesting calls). I am told it is named a “Dragon”. This one was in the pond at the meditation center where I sat the 20 day course.

Here’s one of the differences between our habits and those of the average Thai. Yeap, I finally made it to one of those countries where most people don’t use toilet paper! I realized that I had been in 2 countries before that followed this practice, Portugal and Brazil. I just never bothered to figure out what those gadgets were that looked like kitchen sprayers that were beside all the toilets. This shot was taken at one of Tammy’s schools and didn’t even have a sprayer, just a bowl of water. Not all toilets here are squat version but they are still common especially in public places like bus stations (airports have both varieties I noticed).

And yes, when in Rome, I do as the Romans do. It’s pretty refreshing really and as long as you have a cloth or some paper for afterwards (and especially some soap to wash your left hand), it’s a very good way of cleaning up. Don’t let this put you off from traveling in Thailand, there’s still TP for those who insist on using it, only as in Mexico and South America, you can’t put it down the toilet only in the trash bin. How did I get off on this topic anyway?

Here I am ‘teaching’ (Tammy is taking the photo) in one of the current PCV’s classes, really just showing them where Swaziland is and letting them find other countries and sharing what I could with them. We actually had a good discussion about HIV (…can take the PCV out of Swaziland but…) with a group of 6th grade girls. I was the only male in the room. I was impressed with their knowledge and even more by their maturity level. Thailand has been very pro-active in addressing the HIV issue – a good thing to see in a country where thousands of men from around the world come for “sex holidays.”

These monks came on their alms round past Tammy’s house so we made offerings and received a blessing from them. Pretty cool! “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”

A example of the amazing food that’s here, colorful, creative and tasty! Cheap too! This meal was under $1 and is the kind I have two of most days and fill in the rest with fresh fruit that’s ripe and cheap and/or a fruit drink or smoothy ($1 to $2). It’s wonderful to be in a country where it’s so easy to eat healthy and vegetarian too if you choose. I’m pretty relaxed about this at this point as I don’t often know what it is I’m ordering or being offered. I have yet to be disappointed though – about the closest I have come was with a dish that is made from what looks like congealed blood, don’t know from which animal. I just kept imagining it was red tofu and made it through the bowl ok. The food at the meditation center was incredible, 2 or 3 options for the main course, all low fat, all veggie and lots of the wonderful fruit we have grown to expect in these tropical countries.

There’s also plenty of my american favorites for when I just want to treat myself in that way and get a taste of ‘home’. I’ve already had a great pizza ($8) and a fresh pasta dish ($8.50) both of which I would put up against any I’ve had anywhere. These are whole wheat pancakes with bananas and fresh OJ ($5.50). It’s the middle way ya know, gotta spoil that ego from time to time 🙂

In Swaziland the common mode of transport for Jordan and me were khumbis, basically like 8 passenger vans in the US filled with as many as 23 people (my personal record which included a few babies). Here it’s these small pick-up trucks with 2 seats in the back. Around town they cost B20 ($0.66) for a ride to any other part of the old city and the nearby surrounding areas. There are also ‘tut-tuts”, three-wheeled motorcycles like we used in Peru and a few man-powered rickshaws. Of course the main transport between cities are buses, both those similar to school buses and more fancy ones with soft seats and air con (some with on-board restrooms and a meal). None are expensive and there’s a good system here. I’ll be learning more about this when I leave Chiang Mai in a couple of weeks and open my exploration of the country in all of the four directions.


Now to some of the Buddhist aspects of this country and a glimpse of what it’s like to be here in this respect. Here are two monks walking down a small street here in Chiang Mai. You can see there are lots of trees and greenery here. I have a nice park near my new digs which I visited the other day for a nap under a tree. Us older guys gotta have our naps ya know 🙂

Here’s the outside of one of the main temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Singh. Pretty fancy, huh?

Here’s the inside of a temple which could be any one of many I have photographed in this past week. There may be temples that are different in degree of ‘flash’ but as of yet, I haven’t seen any. I plan to keep looking.

As a point of contrast, here’s the meditation hall where I sat the 20 day course – no gold, no statues, no flowers, candles or incense, not even a photo on the wall, just a spotlessly clean and orderly, functional space with nothing to draw a student outside of him/herself. I am enjoying the simplicity of the Vipassana tradition and am realizing benefits from the practice.

And just in case you are concerned that monks are being left behind in the techno revolution, check out this shot I took at an internet cafe.

Talk about the middle way, chanting at 5 and video games at 6 🙂

Congratulations! to those of you who made it through this rather long blog posting. I hope to be able to post about one a month while on my journey. So stay tuned! And keep those prayers coming and as always, I’ll return the favor.

with Metta,
John

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