This morning I was savouring a rich Italian espresso with some delightfully western style treats in the Segafredo Zanetti Espresso Bar on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, Thailand when a monk in saffron robes entered the cafe, an enigmatic yet beatific semi-smile shaping his features. How many times in these five months of travel in Asia (usually due to language and cultural barriers) have I been left with a nagging curiosity, perplexed by my experiences and encounters in these foreign lands? Many times, every single day. I watched discreetly as the monk silently performed a pre-meal chant ritual. This guy looked like he just might not only speak my language, but have even lived on my side of the world at some point. Perhaps his story and perspective would provide an illuminating glimpse into the mystery that is Asia.
It was with this thought and intention circling around in my mind that I introduced myself to Pa Nantyo, or Pa Glen in more western terms, and asked if he would be my first interviewee for my rapidly materializing Encounters in Asia project. He generously accepted and we sat down to talk for forty-five minutes.
Pa Nantyo has been practising Zen Buddhism for 40 years, has lived in Thailand for twelve years and has been a monk for one year. When asked how he came to be a monk in Bangkok, Thailand, he shared simply that he had decided about a year ago that he would like to die a monk. He had been living like a monk for a long time; it was time to formalize this commitment.
With this in his mind and heart, Pa Nantyo gave away all his money and possessions and was accepted into a temple north of Rayong, Thailand. He commenced monastery life, rising at 3:30 a.m. to begin his day with two hours of sitting meditation. At about 5:30 a.m. came his favourite part of the day, the alms procession. Pa Nantyo described this as an ‘orgy of Buddhist activity’. The alms procession is the tradition among Eastern monks, of walking into the community in single file, carrying wicker baskets to collect the cooked rice which provides their daily sustenance. Since his monastery was rural, he and his mentor monk (who speaks fairly good ‘Tenglish’, a Thai/English blend, according to Pa Nantyo) would head into the countryside where the rubber farmers lived. It was a long walk, about 1 1/2 kilometres to the first home, and the natural practice to follow was walking meditation. After receiving the offering of the householders, the monks would practice Metta or Loving Kindness meditation with gratitude for the giving of food. The farmers receive this as a sort of blessing for their generosity. Pa Nantyo found this morning ritual to be most pleasant and satisfying. When the monks returned to the monastery it would be breakfast time, and a modest repast would be consumed. After breakfast Pa Nantyo and his fellow monks would perform various household duties, inside and on the grounds. His job was typically the sweeping away of leaves. In Asia this is a constant requirement since most trees are in the various stages of leafing out and dropping leaves all at the same time, daily, year round. The monk’s day would then proceed with more sitting meditation, lunch as the last meal of the day, then more meditation interspersed with personal time until bedtime. Each day would be repeated thus, with this routine broken only when lay guests came to the monastery and certain rituals would be observed in their honour.
Alms Procession, Luang Probang, Laos November 2015
I couldn’t help but notice, while listening to Pa Nantyo, that he had a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. Asked about it, he was happy to display it for a photo and explain its significance. The image is called a Dakini and it is believed that just seeing it can lighten the viewer’s load of bad karma by thousands of years, perhaps even one hundred thousand years. I hungrily glued my eyes to the image as Pa Nantyo chuckled that he got the tattoo as a ‘public service to help people to have happier lives’. This female Buddhist symbol is said to remove obstacles, thousands of years of bad karma being a pretty serious obstacle in my estimation! Is it really possible to have accrued, without being Pol Pot or Hitler, such a hefty debt?
During his months of monastic life, Pa Nantyo worked to ignore some irritating physical symptoms until they became so bothersome that it was no longer possible to do so. After assessment at the small rural hospitals near his home it was ascertained that he needed treatment for multiple aneurysms at a more sophisticated Bangkok hospital, and off he was shipped. Surgery was required and, though he was reassured that it would be very inexpensive, he was eventually presented with a large bill. A Thai monk receives free medical care but his non Thai status apparently precluded this privilege for him. Still needing further surgery, and having given all his money away, he finds himself in a tough spot and plans to return to Boston as soon as possible, hoping to be chosen for clinical trials to receive the needed treatment. Although his immediate future is unclear, he muses about joining a monastery in the U.S. after receiving the needed medical care, and continuing his monk’s life in the west.
Asked how his meditation practice impacted his approach to these serious health issues, Pa Nantyo said that it gave him an opportunity to meditate on the imminence of death, that “being ill changed everything. I could meditate on pain, that was helpful. I had to learn how to be a monk lying in bed.” He wasn’t allowed to move for long periods of time and meditation was all he could do.
Offered the opportunity to add a few more words, Pa Nantyo gave advice for anyone who might be considering joining the monastic life in Thailand. “Keep your stuff! Don’t give away your money and things. Monks here don’t do that, they keep their things – some even keep their wives and girlfriends!” he laughed. “If you give all your money away, you could end up like me, unable to pay for my own health care.” When queried further about monks keeping their wives, he qualified his statement by saying that they remain celibate as monks but might not divorce, and that their time as a monk may be months, years or a lifetime; it is unknown. He further advised that one not come to the decision about joining a monastery ‘starry-eyed’. “I used to have an idealistic conception of monks, thought that all monks were spiritual all the time. It’s not really like that. The vast majority of them are on a career path. There are many, many ranks in the hierarchy and you work your way up it just like in business. Being a monk is a job.” He went on to explain that the higher monks, especially those above the abbot, have a lot of money, large houses and expensive cars with personal drivers. “It’s all about the cash,” he said. The money is donated by Thai people wishing to gain (karmic) merit by their donations. He said that he watched his abbot receive the baht equivalent of $30,000 at one event. In a country where the average monthly wage is 8754 Thai Baht (trading economics.com) or roughly $340 Canadian, this is a large sum of money (over 7 years in average wages in one pop).
After pausing to reflect upon this man’s experience and perspective – I can’t help but note that, during his time as a Thai monk, although Pa Nantyo spoke of impressions which ranged from enjoyment to disillusionment, with even a mild tinge of bitterness, still he comes away with a continued commitment to his meditation practice. Whether in Thailand or America, in robes or not, this commitment endures.
And me, what do I bring away from my time with Pa Nantyo? Is the mystery that is Asia cracked? Perhaps somewhat, perhaps not so much. More importantly this: I find myself with a renewed confirmation of the perfect imperfection of humanity; the knowledge that we are all on a path that is uniquely our own while still being an inseparable part of that greater whole that is all. Having witnessed Pa Nantyo’s story also gives me immense delight and gratitude that, because I chose to approach a stranger with open heart and listening ears, I was allowed access to an intimate piece of his life experience. What more can I possibly ask of this life?