My Mentor gave me two instructions before I left to stay with the monks: 1) keep an open mind, and 2) bring back a flower.
I’ll get back to you on that second one.
So I packed and left early Friday morning for a weekend at the Wat Carolina Buddhist Monastery completely unaware of what to expect.
Turns out that my timing was perfect. Two visiting monks from Thailand were among the four monks in residence. While their English was weak, their actions provided a visual experience that confirmed much of what I’ve read and heard about living the Buddhist life. My main teacher and host for the weekend was Tan Chao Khun Phrakru, abbot of the monastery.
Abbot Phrakru wasted no time in beginning my instruction. Ten minutes after pulling into the driveway, my first lesson in meditation and mindfulness was to “Use hammer. Straighten metal.” So I took the hammer and pounded on a few metal strips, each about a foot long. I had no idea what these were for and I dared not ask. Abbot proceeded:
“Andrew. What you doing?”
“Good, good. That is mindfulness. That good meditation.”
The idea was that I stay in the moment at all times. Reality is only what is happening now and your thought is only in your current action. This continued as we walked into the woods with land-clearing tools in hand.
“Andrew. What you doing?”
“Yes good. When walking, you are walking. Always think: left, right, left, right…all the time.”
Abbot maintained this lesson throughout my stay. Any time he saw me he asked what I was doing. He ensured I remained ever-present in the moment.
The stereotypical ideal that Buddhist monks sit around in lotus pose near scenic nature spots and meditate all day–at least in the Theravada tradition–is way off. In many, if not most cases, meditation is done via labor. Remember we talked about every action being a meditation? The idea is that every movement is purposeful and meaningful with your mind ever-present on the here and now.
There are no typical days at the Wat Carolina Monastery, however there is some structure.
- 8:00-9:30 A.M. –morning chant and sitting meditation.
- 9:30 A.M.-8:00 P.M. — work around the grounds.
- 8:00 P.M.-9:00/9:30 P.M.–evening chant and sitting meditation.
While at some point you might catch a rare glimpse of a monk in sitting meditation off in the woods, in most cases they are hard at work maintaining the grounds. A few non-monks who live on the property also help. I befriended and spent much of my time with Craig, Robert, and Jose, three men who offer their labor in exchange for room and board at the monastery. They also assist during busy times at the monastery, namely festivals and tours for the public. Because monks cannot serve themselves food, the men (and a few women from a local restaurant) help prepare and serve their meals. Craig and Robert frequently take part in the morning and evening chant/meditation sessions. Much of what I learned over the weekend came from my talks with these men.
In the traditional spartan monk style, my accommodations were simple yet functional during my stay. I was welcome to sleep in a room within the main building (the “Dhamma Hall”) where the other three men sleep, however I had packed for the outdoors, and by Buddha that’s where I wanted to go.
This is one of about a dozen meditation huts. It’s the size of a very small bathroom and yes, that’s a plastic roof. Apparently it seldom rains at the monastery…but it rained that day and night. All night. There are also owls. The owls enjoy calling to one another throughout the night and, because the call of the female owl sounds less like a hoot and more like a bark, neighboring dogs joined the conversation as well. Temperatures that night also hovered around a balmy 50 degrees.
No, I didn’t sleep.
The greatest lesson of the weekend came early Saturday morning. My wife texted me Friday evening with news that our two daughters had a soccer game scheduled for the next day. This was a surprise for us because their last game was cancelled weeks before due to weather. No one contacted us afterward so we assumed the season was over. I planned to stay at the monastery until Sunday precisely because there were no other plans.
Now, I have a dilemma: 1) stay at the monastery for this rare opportunity to learn from the monks, or 2) go home early to watch my girls’ last soccer game.
Seems like an obvious choice, doesn’t it? But it was more difficult that you might think. I had planned this trip since January. The experience and insight I was gaining was invaluable. No book or website could teach me what these monks had to offer. Plus, I was there for all the other soccer games this season. Was it too much to ask that I miss one in order to have this experience? My wife simply gave me the news. She didn’t ask me to come home. She knew I would torture myself enough.
I was lost and torn apart, so the next morning with no sleep and a scratchy throat, I asked the monks what I should do.
Here was my greatest lesson: Go to the game. Why?
“Because the game only happens once. You can always return to us.”
That was good, but there was more. Abbot had this to say.
“Things always changing. Impermanence. Everything is impermanent. Your plans change. Life always changing. Remember always mindfulness. You are here, right now. Do not have attachment to plans. They always changing. Go have fun watching soccer. Come back soon.”
The lightbulb ignited. There is also a story of how the Buddha died. One day while visiting a lay person’s home, he was offered a plate of food. The Buddha knew the food was poorly cooked and would make him sick, but he took it anyway so as not to offend his host. He died later of food poisoning.
While this is an extreme case of selflessness, the lesson here is that if the point of a Buddhist’s life is to reach nirvana, that point of no desire, no self, no attachment or craving, then putting the joy or wants of another before your own is paramount. That’s what I had to do. I had to take this hard lesson in impermanence, attachment, and selflessness all wrapped into one.
Without telling my wife, I packed up and drove home.
So, I may not have reached enlightenment during my time with the monks, but I did bring home a nasty cold, a tick on my leg, wonderful insight, and some unexpected joy to myself and my family.
My Mentor was right after all. “Keep an open mind.” As for the flower, I brought home this little guy:
The dogwood blossom withered before I pulled into the driveway. Another lesson in impermanence.