Mundo Volunteer visit to a Forest Wat in Bueng Khan, Thailand
I have always viewed Wats and Buddhist monasteries as mystic places that those of us not knowing about the Buddhist ways were restricted from visiting. Nalinrat, my new friend from Mundo Exchange, helped me overcome that odd, farang (foreigner) thinking. On my second day of volunteering at Mundo Exchange in Bueng Khan, North Eastern Thialand, Nalinrat and the Mundo team awoke early and announced we would visit the Wat for morning temple. This is the time in the morning that the Buddhist monks and nuns join together with locals to meditate and learn about the Buddhist ways.
This Buddhist Wat is situated on a very large acreage of land that is bordered to the North by the Mekong River. The open-air temple sits on a high bluff above the River, offering spectacular views of the muddy waters, river birds, river boats and barges, and other swift moving debris. As per it’s name, the Temple is surrounded on land by huge old growth trees and diverse shrubbery. Butterflies, ants, betels, lizards, iguanas, spiders, snakes, and other amazing insects and amphibians share the grounds with the monks and nuns.
On a hot day, this wat is a wonderful respite from the heat found elsewhere in the Bueng Khan province. There are several small cabins where the nuns and monks live and where visitors can come to stay and practice meditation. On many of the river banks, small alcoves have been built for the contemplators to sit and watch the river move along. The Mekong looks as if it moves slow and gentle, but locals say it is swift and dangerous. If one falls into the river, they will quickly be swept downstream in into torrential holes that can trap one until they can no longer survive. The river banks have snakes who do not appreciate human visitors. Their venom could be deadly. One must walk with care!
We arrive at the Wat at 8:00 in the morning. Already the area is bustling with the business of sweeping and readying the land for another day. Nalinrat introduces me to all the nuns and monks, as well as to other visitors. She seems to know everyone. Even though I do not speak Thai, she does such a good job of helping me feel at home. We first walk the grounds. As women we can walk on all of the Forest paths, but it is forbidden for us to enter a Monk’s living space. It is also true that men cannot enter a Nun’s living space, but it is OK for women to do so. (I am learning many new rules with regard to proper etiquette in the Buddhist world. I am lucky (chok dee) to have Nalinrat at my side guiding me.)
After wandering through the old growth forest, we return to the center of activity where many nuns and laypeople and the head monk are sweeping sand across newly laid red bricks. We each take brooms with handles made from bamboo and broom hairs made from coconut leaves. (It seems all the plants have a utilitarian purpose in North Eastern Thailand. So many are good for eating and healing the body, while others make amazingly effective tools.) We join the others in “sweeping meditation” of wisking the sand into the cracks between the bricks. It is mesmerizing. One feels very much at peace amongst a group of people working in harmony toward a common end. When the bricks are swept and securely in place, the gong sounds and people come to Temple. We take our shoes off at the edge of the tile before entering the temple. We put our hands together high on our forehead, facing the monks in greeting, bending down a bit so as to be careful not to have our heads above the monks. We kneel down on the tile, our feet folded under our bodies so that the souls NEVER face the monk. We put our two hands together at the top of our forehead and bow three times to the monks in front. The everyone chanted together – ever so beautiful alongside the river sounds. The celebration went on for maybe 30 minutes. Then food that had been brought by the local people and also collected by the monks on their early morning walk through town was blessed by the monk. Slowly each plate was passed first to the monks, then to the nuns and then to those of us from town. For the monks and nuns this is their only meal of the day. They are allowed to drink throughout the day, but have committed to eating solid food only in the morning.
It was an amazing plethora of (for this farang) exotic dishes, all vegetarian, many from ingredients found in the local forest – mushrooms, various leaves and herbs all with unique flavors,. Some were spicy hot, some were sweet, many were a combination of sweet, spicy, bitter, and salty. Although I recognized only a few familiar foods, all was delicious. We ate mostly in silence. The monk is taught, according to Yoon, not to savor or crave certain foods, but to appreciate the food for its nutrition and caloric infusion for energy. As a farang it was hard not to appreciate the food for the diverse and excellent taste, texture and smell.
Each of us ate to our contented fullness (“Im Laoa.” “I am full.”). The monks and nuns went off to their various work sites and the visitors (the women visitors) began the “washing-the-dishes meditation”. It was a joyous task enjoyed by all.
The cool water felt wonderful as the morning temperature was already climbing. Amazingly, although I spoke only “Nit noy” (a little bit) of Thai, we all seemed to speak the same language of enjoyment and comeraderie of working together in such a beautiful, peaceful spot. Stomachs and hearts full of happiness and the minds a bit less preoccupied by the daily worries that seem to follow us. I will look forward to my next visit…maybe an overnight stay and helping with writing important Buddhist sayings into English to help Farangs become a bit more enlightened. Thank you Mundo and Logatat!
By Volunteer Joan Williams