Monday, November 5, 2007

A Buddhist Sunday

What a lovely surprise! The old Art Deco nursery clock from the rectory in Aspley Guise, where I spent my earliest days on earth, suddenly awoke after years of refusing stubbornly to work and started ticking away yesterday afternoon on the mantleshelf of our little Laguna Beach cottage, thousands of miles from its original home. Perhaps it was the fire we lit beneath it on the first cool afternoon of the fall--though we have lit fires under it many times before. Perhaps it was the good vibes we brought back with us from our visit to the Metta Forest monastery, whose monks had found refuge from the fires here at the cottage the week before... No matter, it started ticking away madly without its pendulum, which we soon unearthed and replaced, and it has been keeping good time ever since. The sound of its strike, on the half hour and the hour, takes me right back to the nursery. This morning, it timed my meditation sit for me very nicely.

That visit to Metta, then. (Note: I'll be posting photographs of the event later, when I get back to my office. Forgot to bring the connecting cord with me to hook the digital camera up to the laptop.) We made the trip down to the monastery yesterday morning, Sunday, for the annual "Kathina" ceremony--the day on which, traditionally, the lay community gathers at the end of the rainy season (in Thailand, that season ends October/November) to mark the occasion with the gift of material to the monks to make new robes. More broadly--and here in Southern California, where the rains don't usually start before January--it has become a festival to honor the spirit of generosity.

Hundreds of people swarmed to the Metta Forest monastery in Valley Center, where our teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu serves as the abbot of his band of Thai Forest monks. Ellie and I, along with several members of our sangha, made the long trip down I-5 to Oceanside, then inland through the myriad new suburban communities and into the increasingly remote and lovely hills, and finally through the rich valleys of fruit orchards and up the hillside to where the monastery sits in serene isolation from the world below. From the dusty parking lot, we made the steep climb up through avocado orchards and past the simple huts where the monks live to the splendid little Buddhist temple at the top.

This paradise was already crowded with visitors--mostly Thai. Such friendly, generous people! (Thailandchani--wish you could have been there: you'd have felt right at home!) They brought not only the traditional gift of material for robes, laid out at the temple doors, but other supplies, everything the monks might need from boxes of flashlight batteries to enormous packages of paper towels and toilet paper.

And money. It seemed a little odd to one brought up in the tradition of the discreet passing of a collection box in church to see the money trees in front of the temple, where the faithful came, often with their children, to attach their gifts of cash and stop for a moment of meditation with hands pressed together in respect. The trees were soon blossoming with dozens of fluttering greenbacks, dollar bills, fives, tens, twenties...

Down the road a ways, when we arrived, the monks were already making their alms walk past a long line of food stalls set up by visitors as yet another expression of generosity.

There was Thai food, of course--but also Indian, Korean, Chinese... Our own sangha had brought fruit, all neatly cut and speared on kebob sticks. Than Geoff spotted me in the crowd on the way back up to the temple, where the monks ate, and told me with a big smile how much they had enjoyed our house last week.

After the monks had enjoyed their meal--they are allowed a single meal only, in the morning--there was a half-hour of chanting, with the visitors seated under awnings outside the temple whilst Than Geoff led via PA system from within. Most of the chants were unfamilar, but we were able to join in with the "Sublime Attitudes," familiar from Than Geoff's monthly visits to the Laguna Beach sangha, and it was a delight to sit amongst a crowd of the Thai Buddhist faithful from the communities of Southern California and sense the powerful energy of that wider expatriate community.

Following the chanting, Ellie and I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with Than Geoff, who told us the story of the fire and their evacuation from the monastery.

Here's Ellie with Than Geoff and behind them, the mountain that burned... Then it was time for us lay people to enjoy the enormous variety of delicious foods at the stalls down the hill from the temple. The lane was crammed with people, but no one seemed deprived: there was more than enough to feed the proverbial army--some of it too hot for Ellie, who likes the spice but not so much the heat. We ate standing, walking--and far too much. I ended up my meal with an Indian pancake smothered with sweetened condensed milk from cans, something I don't remember eating since World War II! All in all, a toothsome indulgence.

Hummers, dozens and dozens of them, outside the temple. A treat to watch them feed. My little digital would only catch a few... But click on the image, anyway, you'll get the idea.

Finally, at noon, there was the ceremony of the presentation of the cloth. The monks gathered again in the temple to decide amongst themselves which one of them had that year earned the privilege of accepting it on behalf of the community--either because his robe was worn out or because of some special merit earned for other reasons. The custom, then, is for the sewing of the robe to begin and, with the help of the community of monks, to be completed before the end of the day. Ellie and I did not wait that long, and headed back down between the avocado groves to the car. A very special occasion.

George the dog was happy to see us on our return, having been left to fend for himself for several hours. This morning, a few minutes from now, I have to take him down to the vet for his tooth-cleaning operation and for the removal of a small growth on one of his hind legs. Poor George! Still, he'll be out of there in time to return with us to Los Angeles this early afternoon.


khengsiong said...

Like the story. Like the pictures. Thanks for sharing them...

Karina said...

Hey guys!
I enjoyed reading your adventures in Thailand. It is wonderful. Pictures are awesome. You made me remember all fascinating moments, which I had when I was in Thailand.
The best cultures and backgrounds makes Thailand an interesting and memorable country to visit. More people visit Thailand than any other country in Southeast Asia. Today people also are interested in investing money in Thailand property .