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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Monday, August 19, 2013

from The Overlander Project: Two Monks and a Lady

            I had been gone from home almost a year in 1973 before I met a robed Buddhist monk. It is likely a good thing that the second encounter came less than a month later, or I probably would have been turned aside from the spiritual path that has come to mean so much to me in this life, for two such opposite men could hardly be imagined. Nor could I have predicted the unique woman who brought me into contact with them both. 

I met the first monk when I was traveling on a train in Thailand, wending my way northward towards Bangkok with this woman, a friend I had just encountered for the second time on the “traveler’s road, the route across Asia from Australia to Europe that thousands of western backpackers traversed in the seventies and eighties.  She was a merry girl of 22 or so named Patsy, a plump blonde nurse from Australia “on walkabout” from her job in Perth with the odd and single-minded goal of deflowering as many Asian men as opportunity allowed.  I first encountered Patsy traveling deck class on a freighter from Denpasar to Singapore, enduring together plates of rice and fish heads, crowds of Indonesians and Malays, daily thunderstorms, and the blast of Muslim prayers on the loud speaker above our heads at 5am each morning.

I had been feeling quite lost on the day I first met her.  I was newly broken up with an American boyfriend who had been my traveling companion across Australia and Indonesia for four months, and I was feeling very much alone and unsure of myself as I passed over my ticket and mounted the gangplank into the rough and alien surroundings on the freighter. There seemed nowhere to sit that wasn’t already occupied with Indonesian families on blankets, the frontiers of their territories stapled down with boxes of live chickens, reeking pyramids of durian fruit, crawling children and piles of other belongings.  And then in the confusion, there was Patsy, beckoning. She sat in a protected outdoor corner on her blanket in the midst of her parcels and radiated welcome like human sunshine, throwing back her bright head to laugh with sheer delight at meeting me. She did this, I soon learned with any new person who happened by, offering those who sat with her a piece of ripe papaya or a spoon full of the precious peanut butter she had brought all the way from Perth. She also offered flashes of hirsute privates to stunned passersby as she shifted position in her short summer dress, for she routinely dispensed with such niceties as underwear. When, after an hour getting to know each other, I delicately pointed out this social gaff, thinking she must be unaware of it, she laughed some more. In fact, she said, she found it fun to watch the reaction. 

At first, I was taken aback by this, since I have always lived by a more conservative code, most especially while traveling. But the more we talked, the more I came to appreciate this singular woman. I had never met anyone so casually good-humored about sex. As she explained her happy goal of deflowering Asia’s young manhood, neither propriety nor the potential for male aggression seemed to concern her a jot. Nor did any worry of heavenly wrath cross her smooth tan brow. She was as blonde and generously voluptuous as a character in a Felini movie. She loved sex. She loved men. And she was on holiday. What was more natural than to combine all she loved in this cheerful project? The gratitude of the young men deflowered so far had made her feel she was doing something useful with her life. And indeed, as I ran into her in other places, she seemed to be carrying out her program enthusiastically – and always with the greatest affection towards one dizzy young man at a time. When it was time to leave, she said good-bye with tenderness, and I am sure changed many a fellow for life with her ardent “yes!” to what is so often a “no” in Asian cultures, especially Muslim ones.  It was a good thing, in fact, that she was a traveler, and never long in one place. Her devotees would surely have lined up round the block if she had stayed more than those few days.

Patsy on the freighter from Denpassar
She was kind to women too, kind to me. She went out of her way to cheer me (still smarting from my recent breakup, even though it had been my own doing). She made me laugh with funny stories. She guided me into the cavernous bowels of the freighter, where several hundred higher paying passengers had laid out their blanket worlds under shelter, to a hidden corner where a cheerful muslim in a turban served kopi susu, wonderful rich coffee layered with condensed milk in artistic lines of white and dark. She lent me all the strength of sisterhood; in fact, her helpfulness later in my journey may have saved my life. But I am getting ahead again in this already chronologically challenged story.

In Singapore, the ocean journey behind us, we hugged good-bye on the gangplank, each going our separate way. It was several weeks before I ran into her that second time. This was on Penang Island in Malaysia. I cannot now remember many details of how it came about, only the timing. It was still early morning, the tropical air  fresh and filled with bird song when the police released me from Penang Prison, with eighty other westerners they had arrested in the seaside village of Batu Ferengi the night before. We had had an eventful twelve hours, rousted out of bed in the dark by soldiers holding rifles, our gear searched, our passports confiscated, and our persons herded into open trucks with wooden slats.  In these we were transported under a full moon through the jungle to the prison in Georgetown. “Why are you doing this?” the more daring among us demanded. But in fact we all knew. We had been warned when we entered Malaysia not to go to this place, long a favorite way station on the “traveler’s” trail across Asia. It was an idyllic fisherman’s village on the eastern coast, with a café that had a pet monkey and the tropical sea lapping on the beach only yards from cozy seaside huts that rented for only fifty cents a night. Its forbidden status doubtless came from the fact that it would very soon present serious competition to a Hilton Hotel that an American cartel was building with Indonesian co-sponsorship only half a mile up the road. Future tourists would be confused. Billionaires might lose money. The situation could not be allowed to continue. And so it wasn’t.

I had not been particularly alarmed by the experience of being arrested. We were eighty strong after all, privileged young adults from a dozen western countries, most from well to do families. No government would dare to hold us hostage or seriously punish us for such a mild offense. No drugs were found in anyone’s luggage. No moral turpitude was revealed as passports were confiscated and ferociously scanned by military clerks that night . All co-habiting couples actually turned out to be married - to the military’s chagrin and our own general amazement. In the end, they simply cancelled our visas for not heeding the warning and gave us 24 hours to get out of Malaysia. “Westerners like you might streak,” was the odd official explanation. No attempt was made to expand on why we might streak only in Batu Ferengi. Indeed most of us had left home before the 1970’s mania to run naked at public gatherings had even begun. Several of us had to have the concept explained.

I was standing at a wharf in Georgetown the next morning, waiting to board the ferry to the mainland, when Patsy came into my life again. A small motorcycle driven by a mournful young Malay journalist pulled up. And there behind him, arms about his waist, was Patsy, with all her gear.  The adoring young man tried to be helpful as she unloaded, but he also kept up a steady stream of argument as to why she should stay on Penang Island forever and become his bride. At last he appealed to me to convince her to stay, but I could only smile in sympathy. We all knew that was not going to happen. Patsy and I waved from the ferry as we pulled away, and his forlorn shape grew smaller, and for once she looked rueful. This, after all, was the down side of deflowering virgins. You tended to break their hearts when you rushed out of their lives.

 It took the rest of the day and into the evening to reach the border with Thailand. With only twelve hours left on my visa, I had to make it at least that far before we stopped for a rest and Patsy was happy to oblige.  In Thailand now, we continued north on the train again the next day, passing through small towns and jungled hills, overnighting at last in Songkhla with its seaside cafes. On the third day we determined to head for Surat Thani and take the ferry to another favored traveler’s destination, Ko Samui Island, but it was here that fate had other ideas.  Across the aisle from us, as we jolted northward that morning, settled a most remarkable character. He was an orange-robed Buddhist monk in his early thirties, yet he entered the train car like a king. Or more accurately, he strode down the aisle like Yul Brenner in The King and I. I think he even walked with his toes curled upward, radiating imperial energies. Other monks had come to see him off, carrying a startling array of boxes and belongings for one ostensibly living a life of renunciation. They continued to treat him like departing royalty, salaaming backward out the door to the platform and bowing in a line over neatly prayerful hands as the train left the station.

I cannot now remember this man’s name, so I will call him Gan, a common Thai name. Gan spotted us across the aisle immediately, and unlike the normally shy reserve shown by other Buddhist monks in Thailand, who are constrained by strict vows to avoid even accepting an item from a woman’s hand, he instantly began an enthusiastic conversation in broken but serviceable English. He pronounced himself a famous Buddhist scholar, going home on a break from his Pali studies institute to his home village of Nakon Si Thammarat. He wanted to know our names, our nationalities, our purpose in visiting Thailand and our plans. And as the green miles rolled by, and he gazed into Patsy’s mischievous green eyes, he grew more and more animated. He would not always be a monk he volunteered, leaning closer. In fact, he said, he was storing all the many offerings made to him at the home of his sister against the day – not far away now - when he could disrobe and run for parliament.

Listening from behind Patsy’s turned shoulder , I found his torrent of conversation, liberally adorned with self-serving descriptions of his importance and prowess as a monk, to be off putting in spite of his charm. Was this what Buddhists were about? I had glimpsed them before of course, walking in solemn pairs or groups outside the train windows. I had heard that it was the custom for Thai men to take robes briefly as youths, often for only a few months, and then go back to lay life. It was accepted that this common toe dip into religion was more like an Asian boy scout experience than any real spiritual quest. But this man had made a true career of it, reeling in donations from awed villagers for what sounded like over a decade.  At last, as his station grew near, he made so bold as to invite us to get off with him at his village as his personal guests. Patsy threw a bright glance at me over her shoulder. “Okay?”

I was startled.  “Get off with this monk? Here? What about Ko Samui?”

“It will be such an adventure,” she urged.  “I’m definitely doing it. You have to come with me.” And so we disembarked from the train at Nakon Si Thammarat station and did indeed begin a remarkable three day visit.

 His sister’s family was there to welcome us as we stepped down from the train, and with them half the people from his village. And again we watched Gan relish the role of returning prodigy, accepting the bows of the people lining the roads to his sister’s house with a masterful raise of the eyebrows and a dismissive nod. He seemed suddenly swathed in holiness and dignity. Behind came his nephew and niece, sister and brother-in-law, a tall, massively fat man of Chinese descent, overseeing the many volunteers who leaped forward to shoulder his donated hoard.  As his venerable western visitors, we were kept close by his side. We tried vainly to look venerable, straightening our backs and nodding to the devotees, following his lead.

The house we finally reached was a modest but well made structure of light woods and bamboo, every piece of furniture with legs sitting atop boxes full of Gan’s treasures. Proudly he pointed out a picture of himself as the handsome star of his local high school, taken before he had gone off to become an important personage. We were startled to realize there were two people holding trophies in the picture, himself and his equally proud and lovely twin sister, for she, he acknowledged with a raised chin in her direction, had also received highest marks.  We turned in astonishment, really seeing for the first time the pretty woman who had helped escort us. She smiled shyly back, welcoming but pained somehow. The reasons for this became clear in the days that followed.

 Gan’s enthusiasm for his new role as celebrity host was boundless. He took us shopping through the outdoor market when the two of us volunteered to make a spaghetti dinner for the family, not realizing that this could only be done in Thailand with egg noodles. Gan smilied regally as people stopped whatever they were doing and kowtowed. He took us to the local Buddhist monastery, where he sat ramrod straight and crosslegged for pictures, eyes closed, and did his best to look as contemplative as the statues of Buddha around him. As soon as the cameras stopped clicking in each location, he grinned and leaped to his feet.  He took us to a beach, splashing barefoot along the tide line with dozens of villagers following awestruck behind us as he gesticulated and pontificated, and also, quite openly, began courting Patsy. That he was able to do this full voice in public was due to the fact that no one in the village spoke English except us three.

I found myself uncomfortable witness to this strange conversation, as he offered every impassioned reason why she should sleep with him as soon as practically possible. Mortified for the devout villagers following this charming hypocrite, I did my best not to show my feelings on my face, and I saw Patsy did likewise, for once refusing carnal knowledge. “I draw the line at monks,” she confided later. “That’s just wrong.”  I was glad to hear it.

The photo "Gan" gave us to remember him by.
I think in all that village, only his sister understood what was going on, for she accompanied us everywhere. And I saw the dismay in her eyes as Gan freely flirted with Patsy back in the privacy of their home, stretching next to her on her bed and casually sharing, against his vows, family photos directly into her hand. Washing the dishes with her back to him, pretending not to notice, his sister said nothing, but I could see she frowned.

While Gan postured at the temple, I had also observed the genuine devotion this woman showed in the presence of the statues. It pained me, and increasingly, it angered Patsy that Gan seemed so heedless of her efforts to refuse him.  He seemed oblivious of his sister’s feelings, or more likely they simply did not matter to him. How much more did we begin to appreciate her as we watched, each day, as she served her family, for they were quite horrible, all of them. The giant husband was a lout, her two children, following his lead, rude and self-absorbed. Yet there she was, a radiant, intelligent, beautiful flower of a human being who had apparently been sold into marital slavery while her brother, once high school was done, had received every opportunity and honor. It became clearer, by the hour, that she was the one who truly deserved honor.  She met the pain of her unchosen life with quiet dignity, and meditated at a small home altar with true hearted radiance of spirit. And for all we must have seemed loose women to her, she treated us only with greatest kindness and respect and never openly criticized her brother.

We had, in the end, only one way to show our feelings in this matter. On the evening we left, leaning out the train window, we offered one token of our thanks to that family, and it was only for her: an exquisite and expensive silken woman’s sarong. Her eyes widened at the sight of it and she broke into tears as we placed it into her hands. She followed the train several yards as it began to move, thanking us, clutching the beautiful cloth with one hand, and reaching out with the other as if, with all her heart, she would have liked to come with us and leave that life behind.  The men behind her, Gan included, looked puzzled.  And so the tableau vanished behind us, becoming only another travelers’ dream as so many good-byes on our journey north had already done.

 But that village had not entirely finished with us yet. By the time we got on the ferry to Ko Samui, I had begun to run a fever. And on the long choppy voyage across the strait, sitting on the floor of the small ship with the other passengers in a low-ceilinged galley, it had begun to rise in earnest. By the time we got to the island, I was so weak Patsy had to carry the gear for both of us. It took all my strength and twenty minutes to walk the two blocks to the hotel and up the stairs to our room.

On the way to Ko Samui island, already feverish
Here I stayed, prisoner to my mystery illness, for the next three days, while Patsy explored the island by motor bike and no doubt continued her international neighborliness project, though she brought no one into the room. In it, I lay alone through violent chills and endless baking hours, taking aspirin eight a day to hold the chills at bay. This was perhaps not the wisest course, for my stomach began to hurt as well and day by day I grew weaker. It seemed to me I must surely be dying. But, oddly, this thought seemed not at all alarming, merely peaceful. I watched the leaves of a palm tree visible from my second story window shift and whisper in the tropical breeze, scattering light. I slept, and watched some more. When Patsy came back, she took one look with her seasoned nurse’s eye and announced we were going to the hospital in Bangkok, at once.

I protested. I did not remotely have the strength for such elaborate plans. I would stay here and she could go. But, bless her, she was having none of it. She rolled our few belongings into our backpacks with nursely precision and got two of her new admirers to carry it all to the ferry. I came behind, just managing to stand up and weave unsteadily to the departure wharf. Of the return ferry ride itself I have no memory. I do remember the fight over train tickets on the mainland. Patsy, it turned out, could be quite ferocious in a pickle. She demanded that I was to have two seats (I could no longer sit upright). She would pay for the extra one. No, she wasn’t interested in hearing how full the train was.

 As we waited for the train to arrive, she urged me to eat, and I remember looking at the food she offered. I could not have been less able to eat if she had handed me rocks. I could barely manage to swallow water. And it had been many days now since I had eaten. My knees threatened to buckle when I stood.

And so we boarded the train. I remember feeling guilty as I lay keeled over on my small hard double seat, but in truth, I no longer had any choice. Passengers forced to stand all along the aisle looked down disapprovingly, but Patsy glared right back and prevented all incursions. I had no opinions. Sideways, I studied a young American sitting opposite in the facing seats, an American soldier on R & R from the Vietnam War, still underway 400 miles to the east. I remember his handsome young head raised and twisted to take in the sight of the moon flashing by through the ranked palms. He barely spoke the whole way, as remote from us as a wild animal in a cage. He seemed to yearn outward at the beauty. I was too far gone to think about why.

He had disembarked before we reached Bangkok and found a taxi. Our travel across that enormous Asian city was a blur to my fevered mind. I have no memory of how it was accomplished. I was focused entirely on the pain in my midsection, steady and sharp and frightening within the roar of the fever. Patsy got me first to a hotel room she rented and then to the Bangkok Christian Hospital in a second taxi. There she left me in the examining room, promising to visit.

Those first hours are almost gone now. I remember wracked anxiety and a fumbling late night phone call to my mother in California, and an IV that somehow got placed below the level of my heart for a time. I gazed in uncomprehending wonder as my red blood started up the tube toward the bottle until a horrified nurse caught the error. A tray of food came the next morning, and on it was a neat little card typed “Died Card” above my name. I still could not eat, but I tried to sort out why they should wish to feed me if they thought I had died, until I realized it was just a spelling error. Diet Card. I lay and watched the ceiling fan go round, laughing weakly, and breathed the omnipresent scent of tiger balm.  The Thai women on the ward around me used it for nearly every ailment imaginable. The woman opposite was smearing her midsection against uterine cancer, and reached out brightly, offering some. I shook my head, but tried to thank her, before falling once more into a deep sleep.
I was in the hospital all together five days, a not unpleasant memory in all, because the Thai staff took good care of me and each day I grew better. My doctor swept in each midday with a coterie of students, a brisk, no nonsense man more interested in instructing his followers than saying much to his patients.  Still, he had them keep the antibiotic drip going until I began to surface. Gastritis was the diagnosis, from the fever or from the aspirin I had overused to treat it, the doctor could not say. But in either case, the fever began to subside and I could eat again. I tried tiger balm. I chatted with the British girl next to me, the petulant mistress of a Thai businessman whom she feared losing with her illness. Patsy came to see me, and one day even Gan appeared, an attendant in tow, and generously blessed all my hospital furniture before sweeping out again.  Patsy rolled her eyes. It seemed he had fallen so in love with her, he was still in determined pursuit.

She saw me home in the end, if home one can call it, a genteel old style Thai hotel with potted palms and geckos on the walls of spacious rooms with ceiling fans. These were mostly filled with western backpackers like us. There was even a swimming pool of sorts, and she introduced me to some of the friends she had made there and we sat in the shade and drank lime coolers with them. And then she left – headed onward to Burma, or perhaps just away from Gan. She left with that irrepressible smile and a green-eyed wink and I never saw her again, or heard what became of her. But I visualize her now as a joyful aging matron at the heart a large Australian family. May it be so.
 And so I floated alone back into the course of my own life. They were happy days in that little hotel. There were the new friends for company, and there is a kind of deep peace that comes after serious illness. Life is washed clean and starts new again. And in that frame of mind, I discovered one day a small card propped on the manager’s desk.  “Lectures in Buddhism in English” it read. Wat Baworn, Banglamphoon. The first lecture would be that very evening.

I don’t remember anyone going with me when I left that night, in sarong and Hawaiian shirt and flip flops, taking a small bimo van, to a bridge that looked down on the great lighted Buddhist temple in the grounds beyond. I remember the air as I walked toward it, soft as warm silk on my skin. I had a vivid awareness of beauty all around me, soft lights in the windows of the temple, the smell of frangiapani, the flowing curve of water below. And anticipation, of what I did not yet know. 

At the temple I was escorted to a small unadorned room where a handful of westerners sat awkwardly cross-legged, looking around curiously. There were also two Americans near the front, dressed like Thai monks, their heads shaved. The lecture that night, they informed us would be on  “Sila,” morality. And so it was.

A tall gaunt long faced Englishman entered at last and sat on a small dias in front.  He smiled at us, and began to talk. Phra Khantipalo was his name, he said, and he had become a monk eleven years before, following the rigid code of ordained morality in this temple, doing the intensive “rains retreats” each summer.  I remember only a little of the lecture he gave that night, though there was a brief meditation on loving kindness at the end. But I do remember the solemn, sure dignity of the man who gave it. He passed on the teachings 2400 years old with quiet authority and genuine kindness. Speaking as if each word, each idea mattered intensely to him, and should matter to us. And I remember their effect on me. How could I forget it? I felt, to paraphrase Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: I had never known I was a bell, until suddenly, that one day, I was lifted and stuck.

Phra Khantipalo, about the age I met him. 
The reverberations of his words lifted me weightless all the way home that night in a state of exaltation. It was as if I walked in heaven and not on the streets of Bangkok, now wet and shining with a soft summer rain. I clutched the book he had given me, and pondered the words the eager American monks had shared with us as we left. “Meditation is better than an acid trip,” one assured us.

“It stops bullets,” another claimed. He had become a Buddhist, he said, after watching this miracle on a battlefield in Vietnam.

But I had no need of miracle stories. It was the teaching itself that had set off the bell inside me. Perfecting a life of morality, practicing loving-kindness and the pursuit of wisdom with deliberation, focusing the mind in stillness. These were the first of many teachings that brought my whole life, and the lives around me into focus. They laid my path before me, and still do.

Many years later I was shown a picture of Phra Khantipalo standing next to my Tibetan teacher, Lama Yeshe, and I laughed out loud. Another example of the synchronicity I have come to expect around Buddhist teachers. Maybe they are all in cahoots.

It is hard to imagine two such opposite men as Gan and Khantipalo. Yet I am grateful for having met them both. I have encountered or read about many spiritual imposters since then. They are legion. Most, like Gan are not bad men, only opportunistic ones, with little real self awareness. They rarely grasp the harm they may do, the impoverishment of trust they can cause, on a matter so vitally important to human happiness. By now surely, if he lives, Gan is a portly and prosperous Thai government official, who, just maybe, keeps somewhere a picture of a mischievous green-eyed Australian girl who broke his heart long ago.

Phra Khantipalo, I am told, went on to become a well known scholar of Pali and a much beloved teacher to westerners in Australia and Europe, some of whom who also studied with Lama Yeshe  (hence the picture.) Eventually, like the majority of westerners who became ordained, he disrobed and married.  He himself began studying Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism in his old age. I will honor his memory all my life. It was this revelation - that  genuine spiritual guides do exist in the world - that was the gift of my 3 trips and 4 years of travel across Asia. But it was my encounters with Patsy and Gan in 1973 that lead,  after such unlikely beginnings, to meeting my first teacher.
A self portrait of Cesca taken in Bangkok 1973, the same week as the story