At the end of my stay in Thailand, my friend and I had several days to spend in Bangkok before our flight to Canada departed. Being completely out of money and having done enough touristy things to last a lifetime, we were both on the lookout for things to do that didn’t consist of sweaty temple visits or long nights on Khao San Road, and I remembered that a friend of mine had told me about free meditation classes offered at a temple near the downtown. (I will omit the names of individuals and the temple for privacy).
This particular temple was in the midst of a sprawling monastic complex, with schools of Buddhism and meditation surrounded by many other buildings. I came early, and thankfully so, knowing that it would take me a while to find the exact location of the classes. It was already dark, and rain was spitting down, leaving the streets of Bangkok eerily empty, animated only by the mangy shadows of stray dogs. My mind was gripped by an eager anticipation. I had been meditating for many years, and had always done so completely on my own accord, without a teacher, and I suspected that the aid of a mentor would propel me directly into the state of enlightenment which I had only experienced indirectly up to this point. It was almost too perfect: learning Vipassana from monks in the temple, sheltered from a gloomy Bangkok night.
After some futile searching and the recognition that all signs were in Thai, I asked a security guard for directions, and he happily led me through the maze of institutional buildings and monk’s quarters to a small building adjunct to the main temple. When I entered through the door, I was surprised – there was almost no one inside. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a small secreterial desk to my left, and a room to my right. Inside were two monks, one in white, with white hair and a white beard, his back facing toward me, so I couldn’t see his face, and one with a shaved head and the traditional orange robe.
I stood still for a couple of minutes, unsure of what to do, but very relaxed. Finally, the monk in white turned around, and to my surprise, I noted that he was clearly not Thai. He approached me, and introduced himself, explaining that he was in fact Australian, and immediately diverged into the story of his life. He was a retired government worker, who had left Sydney and his (presumably divorced) wife and adult children to resume his calling as a monk. In 1984 he had ordained in Thailand, and remained as a monk for several years. Throughout the entirety of his familial life and career, he had felt monkhood and Thailand pulling him back, he explained. And now he was living on his savings, travelling, teaching, unsure of his future.
Next, he began talking about the precepts of Vipassana at a pace that no human could follow. A chaotic slew of mismatched and regurgitated stories and facts assaulted me, and I felt as if I was listening to the conversation from a distance, almost amused to a certain degree. But I listened, desperately seeking for any trace of the enlightenment I had hoped for. He explained that to reach the highest stage of enlightenment, monks had to give up all friends, family life, and pleasures, he explained different theories of morality and ethics, he explained the types of sins, and the paths to enlightenment. I could not follow, but assumed he was only lecturing me because it was what he liked to do, and that I would get proper instruction later on.
We waited for another 20 minutes, but no other students came. Stating that it was time to begin our lesson, he directed me to a room where I changed into a white robe-like outfit, consisting of a t-shirt and pants. Next, I followed him across the building.
“I’m very sorry,” he stated abruptly, “but this morning it seemed like there was some kind of dead animal in our room. I spent an hour looking for it, but just can’t find it. I hope you can excuse the smell.”
And in that moment, any sense of reality was lifted off of my shoulders to the ceiling of the building. I was in white clothes, at night, in Thailand, following a monk. We walked down an incredibly narrow set of stairs, one so tight that I almost had to get on all fours to make it into the room we were to enter. And this room lay in complete contrast with the rest of the building. It was rectangular, and lit by horrible neon lights. This room reeked of death, and was incredibly cold. Was this the room where I was to have my awakening?
We sat down on two ragged pillows, and he gave me a brief instruction in meditation, which, unfortunately, consisted of nothing that I had not already figured out myself. And after that instruction, he left the room, stating that he would return in 40 minutes. When the door closed, my mind was racing. Where had my instructor gone? How would I possibly be able to meditate in this frigid room with terrible lighting, an unfamiliar environment and the stench of an animal carcass? Was it possible to escape? The minutes passed quickly through this tumultuous reverie which by no means adhered to the rules of Vipassana meditation that I could review once again on the wall. I could not keep track of my thoughts and feelings, and I let them run wild, knowing that resistance was futile. The whole matter was amplified by the indifferent and almost mocking red blink of a security camera fixed on the wall right in front of me. Why was there a need for a camera in a monastery? I could not shake the sensation of being watched.
When he returned I hoped he could not tell how restless I was. He began his lecture on walking meditation, which I was to attempt next, but I had already figured out that he was a hopeless teacher and that I would gain much more enlightening insights from his personal life and the chain of events that brought him to this place at this point in time. He began to talk about the decisions that he had made, his government job, and his children. And when I looked into his eyes, I realized he was a product of his decisions, and that he was a man that had been completely defined by events that had occurred in his years, and the surroundings that he had been immersed him. I looked at him and I realized that he was utterly lost, awash in the sea of chance and circumstance. He had strayed to Thailand, but he needed help much more than I did – and I, in fact, was closer to the ultimate goal of enlightenment (or whatever they call it) than he was. I looked into his eyes and I saw a plea for help, I saw confusion and bitterness and a sobering helplessness. An intense fear gripped me, but I remained calm, because he was good, and he meant well, and after all, we were on the same journey.
And before I could even process what was happening, I let all the barriers I had superimposed to shield me from the harm society could impose on me fall, and I sat before him humbly, in full vulnerability. I answered his questions more honestly than I had ever spoken to anyone, and I told him of my true dreams for my life, devoid of the taint academic vanity had already cast on my ego. He understood me, and I could see that he almost envied the clarity with which I vowed to follow those dreams. And as I sat there, cross legged and fully vulnerable, he announced that he did not normally work this late, and that it was time for him to leave.
As the door closed I almost burst into tears, and feelings cascaded over me – I felt as if I had lost my only friend, I felt abandoned and dejected, almost crumpling under these feelings. I remained in the cellar for a couple of minutes in a display of politeness, but knew that I was not in a meditative state, so left shortly after. Outside, the Bangkok night spun around me, and I was disoriented and disillusioned. Almost immediately, the absurdity of the situation mounted my consciousness, but I could not find humour in it, as I normally can, and I merely felt afraid, afraid of the sense meaninglessness which was already threatening to creep in, and this was a meaninglessness which took me years to shed and I still battled every day. On the ultimate quest to find enlightenment, I had only found sin and an utterly misled and unwise monk, and this path had proven to be a cleverly disguised dead end. The cosmos laughed at me in its rigorous indifference, and the stars above felt colder and further away than ever. I sat by the river and watched the weeds that had been washed into the currents by a recent rainstorm, and three party cruises floated by slowly, with music echoing over the water and lights flashing. A stranger, uprooted and unknown, I felt more lost than ever before. I could see people on the boats, dancing and singing, rowdy and carefree, unburdened by this desperate existentialism which was torturing me.
However, in another unexpected turn of events, the usual grief, fear, and disdain for the philosophical bleakness of my existence which was to be perpetually plagued by indifference and meaninglessness did not set in. With my feet dangling over the river under the parapet of a large outdoor temple, suddenly, an immense feeling of relief washed over me. And it was this night that I experienced an epiphany, an enlightenment that was almost unparalleled throughout my life. In this moment, I shed all belief in organized religion. Why should I follow a set of guidelines that, without exception, glorified suffering and sacrifice? Why should I shed my satisfaction to don robes? Why should I sacrifice my contentness to follow the dicta of bleak pages? Why should I give up life’s pleasures – whether they be music, art, sex, family, or beauty? If religion was the quest for meaning, why should I give up the only things which had ever shed light on it for me? I did not want to sit cross-legged for the rest of my life, merely observing feelings and thoughts as if they were physical phenomena, practicing indifference to the highest degree, I wanted to partake in them as vivaciously and as ferociously as I could. I looked at the trees, swaying gently in wet unison. The sheer abundance of life that surrounded me shook me to the bone, and I could feel the antithesis of life and death, of prosperity and poverty, of truth and falsehood, of beauty and ugliness, of light and dark, of air and sea and of the earth and space which define our universe of duality and of opposite, a contrast which defines all consciousness and all existence, a wild cosmic dance that we are all invited to partake in if we only open our eyes.
For there is no room for gospels, or thick books, for traditions, for rites, for sacrifice and the glorification of suffering. We do not need to partake in rituals in dusty old temples, because each one of us is the keystone of faith, and true spirituality is immanent in everything around us, dead or alive.
And on that night, I was finally free from the chains of any religion, free from my days in Catholic school, free from my atheistic qualms, free from my dabbling in Buddhism, and free from any temptation offered by the doctrines falsely proclaimed as true and as eternal. Because there it was – truth – in its purest form – all around me, inevitable, unmistakable, and ultimate.