My name is Kyle Creech. I am currently a 2020-2021 Fulbright Thailand ETA in the province of Kalasin. I initially became attracted to the opportunity to teach in Thailand both due to my background and passion for education, as well as my deep interest in Buddhism. I studied a lot about Buddhism both in class and during my own time in college, but I did not have any formal exposure to Buddhist practice until I came to Thailand. What follows is an incredibly personal and memorable experience of my first interaction with a Buddhist monk. I first wrote this narrative on my own personal blog, and now I would like to share it on behalf of Fulbright Thailand. Enjoy!
When I told my host teacher that I chose to teach English in Thailand because I wanted to learn Buddhism firsthand, well, I think I had underestimated what I was in for. I arrived to my host school in the rural province of Kalasin on a Thursday after spending two weeks in quarantine in Bangkok. By that Saturday my host teacher offered to take me to the temple that she had attended her whole life. She said that I could talk to a monk there, and not one that has a cell phone like I kept seeing in Bangkok (which really disillusioned me when I first arrived). After a 30-minute drive through nothing but rice and sugar cane fields, we arrived at the wat (temple).
My Introduction to the Monk
It was night by the time we arrived. I couldn’t make out the wat very clearly because of the lack of lighting. The only lights shone from an open-air wooden porch that we parked in front of. It was made out of wooden logs with stairs on either side. I couldn’t see the middle part very clearly from down below, but that was where the source of the light emanated.
She made a quick call in Thai and then led me down a dirt path. I followed behind the dim flashlight of her phone until we arrived at a shed containing hundreds of planks of wood stacked upon one another. As we got closer, I made out six monks wearing their orange robes and sandals, each of them moving and stacking a wood plank one at a time. They worked with no lighting whatsoever.
My host teacher began speaking to an older aged monk when we arrived at the shed. He was standing in front of the shed, watching and directing the others. Many of them looked at me with curiosity as I walked up (which I have become very used to since moving here). I gave the older monk a proper wai (hands together in a prayer position with a bow), as is common in Thailand. I made sure to bow my forehead down to my thumbs, which is the formal wai for monks, and greeted him with a “Sawadee kap” (“Hello”, politely). All the monks chuckled at this, which again, I was very used to at this point.
The Monk’s Advice
Then my host teacher began talking to the older monk in Thai. I assumed she was speaking about me and why I was here, both in Thailand as a teacher and at the wat. They laughed a bit back and forth while I stood there (unsuccessfully) trying to decipher what they were saying. I knew they were talking about me because he was looking dead in my eyes the whole time. After a moment, she looked back at me and said that he had a piece of advice for me: “Breathe in, breathe out”.
And I immediately became enlightened.
I’m kidding. What really happened was I stood there in bewilderment at that the fact that for years I have been anticipating coming to a place like Thailand to speak to a monk about Buddhism and have him share his wisdom with me. I traveled many miles through rural farmland in the outskirts of a region that most people in Thailand never even visit to meet this monk. After such a long time coming, that was the wisdom he bestowed on me? “Breathe in, breathe out”? I couldn’t believe it. I thought this was only the stuff you saw in movies. Seriously.
My host teacher spoke a few more words with him and then she told me the monk said now wasn’t a good time. Obviously. So, we walked back to the porch where she said we can wait until they finished moving the wood. As we arrived at the porch and ascended the steps, I began to feel that same feeling that occurs when you walk into a quiet cathedral. You know, that weird peacefulness that comes with being in a beautifully constructed building where everyone there is silent and trying to be with God. Well, there is no God in Buddhism, but I still had the same feeling. Maybe that feeling isn’t God after all…
When we arrived at the middle portion of the deck, I could see the lights illuminated a set of six square mats, a wood bench, and a collection of photos of a monk who seemed even older than the one I just met. My host teacher and I sat on the floor facing these photos as she explained that this was the monk who formerly led the wat. Apparently, he was the most renowned monk in the whole region of Isaan (the northeast region of Thailand).
Unfortunately, he passed away about a year prior to my arrival. The photos seemed to boast the impressiveness she claimed he had, but I couldn’t tell you why. It could have been the look on his face, seeing him sit in full lotus as an elderly man, or maybe just in virtue of her telling me of his respect I also respected him with the same reverence. I don’t know.
A few minutes later the monk we had just met walked up the stairs and sat in front of us. I told him, in Thai, how long I have been practicing meditation (about 18 months) and for how many minutes each day (about 10-15). He nodded his head and kept staring at me with the same look he had earlier: piercing but inviting, and not at all authoritative. He carried an aura of calmness about him as he sat there. It was like I knew he was legit; something I didn’t get the vibe from when I saw the other monks in Bangkok on their iPhone and smoking cigarettes.
He was seated in half lotus along with my host teacher. They tried to make me do the same but even my skilled flexibility wouldn’t allow for it. Instead, I remained seated in crisscross applesauce like the immature Buddhist farang (white foreigner, in Thai) I am. He told me again, in English, “Breathe in, breathe out” and signaled with his hands an up and down motion at his chest. He sat up straight, suggesting I do the same, and then put his fingers over his eyelids as if to shut them. I picked up on the fact that he was telling me to begin meditating. And so, I did.
My Meditation Practice
As we sat there and began to meditate together, I went through the familiar routine of following my breath. How I understood “Breathe in, breathe out” was that I was only supposed to breathe. Nothing else. Just breathe. When your mind distracts you, return only to your breath. This is what I came to learn from teaching myself meditation over the last 18 months. That’s why it was so funny that it was his only advice. Yet, it was also reassuring that there wasn’t anything I was missing. In fact, as I came to understand throughout that night, my biggest issue was trying to find something more to Buddhist practice.
I sat there with this intention in mind and as always, my mind distracted me with many other things besides breathing. Stray thoughts, movements, and especially pain from sitting on the hardwood (I am used to sitting on a pillow) began to distract me from my breath. Each time I caught my mind going astray, I gently returned my focus back to my breath.
“Breathe in, breathe out”.
After some unknown amount of time, I decided to open my eyes to look at both the monk and my host teacher meditate, just out of curiosity. The monk was perfectly still, with his back erect in the same half lotus position I saw him in at the start. He looked incredibly peaceful. I looked at my host teacher and she was also very calm, but her head was drooped and she had a slight sway. I can only imagine how I looked sitting there, fidgeting and struggling to focus.
My Questions for the Monk
When we stopped meditating, my host teacher asked if I had any questions for the monk. This is what I had been waiting for. I had so many questions lined up before coming to Thailand, but I felt at a loss for words once I finally had the opportunity. It seemed like anything I could ask would be trivial in the face of a 50-year practicing monk. Especially after considering the simplicity of his initial meditation advice, I was sure my questions would seem completely off track. And for the most part I was right. They were.
I will say that much of what follows was probably lost in translation because a lot of English Buddhist vocabulary was unknown to my host teacher, and there is only so much she can do to help the monk and I understand one another.
The first question I asked was something that had always confused me and I could never find a satisfactory answer for. I asked, “How is rebirth determined? What dictates whether a human is reborn as an animal or as a human again?” I was curious to see if his answer would involve morals, which was the only caveat in Buddhism that I struggled to agree with. Morals seemed so ordinarily religious and used as a form of control that I could not understand how it could fit into the practically of Buddhism. Luckily, his answer was nothing of the sort.
He said that rebirth is determined based on the condition of the mind through one’s life and at death. If one craves to be reborn a human, so they will be. If one craves to be reborn an animal, so they will be. Whatever condition the mind finds itself in, the result of rebirth will follow. This is the best I could understand his answer but it was very difficult for me to grasp if I am being honest.
Although, I was glad to hear he said nothing about a moral determination of rebirth, like those who do good are born as a human and those who do bad are born as an animal. That would have totally turned me off to Buddhism. In fact, his answer directly aligned with other notions I understand of Buddhism, such as karma being physical and mental cause and effect. It also aligned with my understanding of the interdependence of all of existence, whereby nothing is absolute on its own but only brought forth into being under a set of external conditions.
After this, his answers began to be more and more mysterious, yet more and more elucidating to the nature of Theravada Buddhism. I asked, “Why are you a monk? And why do you meditate?” I’m not sure why I asked this because I had never thought of it before I arrived. It was just something about looking at this 77-year-old man living with no possessions other than robes, sandals and an alms bowl that made me wonder what the attraction was. I ultimately planned to follow up with whether he was enlightened, what that felt like, and whether he would be reborn. But his answer took away any hope I had to ask those questions.
He replied, “Why do you?”
This took me aback and I was a bit speechless at first. He continued and said, “Why do you meditate and want to learn about Buddhism? First you must know yourself. Start from the beginning. Breathe in, breathe out”. I sat with that for a second and had to laugh to myself. I was at a loss for words. He was right, I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for him.
It was also such a stereotypical response one would expect from a monk, although it didn’t feel like he was messing with me. He looked me dead in the eyes when he spoke and I could tell he meant every word he said. There was a conviction about him that I didn’t question. And after all, he was right. I didn’t know myself well enough to be at peace with my answer.
Struggling with a response, I said that I began to meditate to calm my mind and make myself more present. I found the Buddha’s teaching practical to everyday life and a proven way to improve my mental health. Other religions never clicked with me because they all focused on an afterlife in the future, morals one must follow, and beliefs that could not be self-verified. Buddhism, on the other hand, did not contain any of that. Buddhism was focused on the here and now.
My host teacher translated my answer to him but he was still persistent in his response. He never let his eye contact with me falter, even when speaking Thai to my host teacher. Again, he said, “You have to start from the beginning. Breathe in, breathe out. Once you understand yourself, everything else on the outside will stop and become clear”. This seems mystical and vague when I write it, however when he said it, I felt an intense spiritual connection to everything around me in that moment. I stared at my host teacher as she translated his message, and I almost began to cry.
As general and unsatisfying as his answer may seem, it was exactly what I needed to hear. I realized that I was far too focused on figuring out the outside world, including the Buddha’s teachings, but neglected to try and understand myself. Like I said before, I didn’t even know why I wanted to ask him that question. And he could tell. I knew nothing of the source of my question. I was only eager to discover the answer as if his reason for meditating would verify or inform me of my reason to meditate. This extends to all aspects of my mind and I think that was what he was getting at.
My Understanding of the Monk
After this, he exited briefly to bathe and I continued to discuss meditation with my host teacher. We talked about how the mind becomes cluttered with life’s daily stresses and that meditation reigns our focus back to the present. This can be done while sitting she said, but it may also be done while walking or even driving. It is not limited to a specific posture, place or activity. It is a constant practice.
When the monk returned from bathing, my host teacher asked if I had any more questions. As if his last answer had no impact on me, I followed up with the loftiest of philosophical questions pertaining to Buddhism. I asked him about the four noble truths and if he could elaborate on their meaning. When my host teacher translated, they both began to laugh. He told me that the Buddha’s teachings are hard to understand so again I must first start with the breath.
“Breathe in, breathe out”.
Then he said to me, “You seem to know much about Buddhism. Yet, here you are asking me all the questions”. I hesitated for a second and then burst out in a nervous laugh. I had no more questions after that. That about summed up lesson number one…