Each day, the Western bhikku allowed himself one indulgence: to walk near the Thai women’s meditation hall before dawn while they chanted the Refuges and Precepts. He justified it to himself, saying it was a time of privacy and upliftment of his heart, and necessary to compensate for loneliness: He was the only Westerner at this wat in a patch of forest two hours north of Bangkok. His justification was unstable, though, working against a more solid sense that he should not have been walking there, in the deeper predawn darkness under the mango tree. Each of his days began with this ambivalence, two thoughts fighting against each other. Mere thoughts, he noted.
It was always quite dark, and the women silent, and no birds yet chirping as he slipped off his rubber thongs and began quietly pacing up and down in mindful meditation. The ground, redbrown clay, was cool and springy under his feet. When he stopped at one end of his track he could glimpse, without turning his head, the women dressed in white, sitting in long rows. Like jewelry in a lighted window, they displayed an undecaying realm where faith and time did not move. Their hands prayed; their legs were tucked neatly, like deer’s legs, behind them; their dark, shining heads were slightly bowed. Their submissive postures excited his respect. How much better women really were than men! His teacher always said that women attained enlightenment more easily, because they were more obedient and flexible.
He did not care for their Refuge chant. The tune that was too flat, their voices nasal and dull; but he started really listening when they swung into the Precepts. They sang round syllables and clear divisions, in a mournful sliding tune no Westerner would ever invent.
“Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadhiyami…” The Buddha’s words turned them away from killing, stealing, lying, sex, intoxicants, eating after noon, music, dancing, the wearing of garlands, perfumes and ointments, and the use of high and luxurious beds. The Western monk’s mind filled with contentment as he imagined the purity of vigilant women. Secretly he imagined them as protectresses whose white-hot dedication could burn away his mental defilements.
The women’s reedy, Third-World voices began joyfully and then, halfway through each intention, slipped into a minor key. At that instant the Western monk’s heart turned over and slipped downward into some belly region cold and pure and dark as the water of a jungle river. This abrupt motion of his heart was the deepest reason for this morning habit—why he became a shadow walking among shadows, choosing the thicker darkness under the mango tree that rose above the walkways like a thunderhead, instead of the lit road where the Thai monks walked, getting up even earlier than he. He had to stay in the dark, because the chanting made him tremble all over, sometimes even hyperventilate and cry. At these moments he was completely naked and did not want to be thought of, much less seen, by anyone.
In more ways than one, his listening was a dangerous practice. One morning in rainy season a green viper jumped in fright against his right ankle and attached itself by sheer momentum, as the tail of a whip would wrap and cling. Cool, dry and alive! Luckily, the snake did not bite the monk as he leapt and danced, shaking his foot so violently that his under-robe slipped off. The snake flew into a bush; he stood trembling for a little while, his skirt loose at his knees, before composing himself. Only at breakfast did the monk actually feel the smooth, leathery life that had touched his skin—the memory came to him vivid, the past experience wrinkled over to replace the present. “I and the snake felt the same fear,” he realized.
For the rest of that morning his mind filled with towering uncontrollable thoughts and emotions, so that in the afternoon he went to confess to his Thai master. He had been doing something strange, creeping in shadows among legless serpents. Was listening to the women’s chanting an infringement of the sixth precept against music?
Absolutely not, the old Ajahn said; and countered with two questions. Was the Western monk troubled by visions of the women’s sensuous forms? Did rapture arise in hearing the Dhamma? The Western monk said yes, there was rapture; and no, he was not troubled by visions of the women’s sensuous forms, but there was attachment to the rapture. The explanation sounded narrow and flat—his Thai had been learned in ten total-immersion lessons before boarding the jet for Bangkok, with a few Buddhist enrichments gained since reaching the wat. Dham-MAH: the Truth. The monk had been an electrical engineer in his previous life, a man who did everything properly.
It disappointed him that Ajahn often answered him in English. As now: Ajahn shrugged and said, “You too much worry,” then suggested that the Western monk inspect the ground with his flashlight before each stretch of walking meditation. Then he leaned forward on his chair and asked, in Thai, intently, what was the experience just when the snake had wrapped itself around his ankle. The Western monk said he’d lost his mindfulness completely. He waved his arms to show his consternation.
“And?” Ajahn said. “What left?”
His mind had been unified by the shock into one massively heavy lump with nothing left over. Or a wave, engulfing itself. He had failed to experience the experience. This was beyond his capacity to explain in Thai, so he said, in English, “Nothing.”
“Sword cannot cut itself,” the Ajahn said. “Chanting is okay for you. You hear, faith increase.” He was always instructing the Western monk to observe Thai habits.
And so, the next dawn, the Western monk resumed his morning custom, inspecting the ground as his teacher had told him. Of course, today there was no viper. Why did he find the bare dirt so ugly? He switched off his flashlight, taking his chances in the dark.
The women began chanting, the words flattening against the backs of their throats. “Buddhang saranang gacchami. Dhammang saranang gacchami. Sang-hang saranang gacchami.”
The Western monk felt ashamed, defiant: with each step forward he was proving Ajahn wrong. Walking near the women’s hall was not a source of faith, but the pivot of his delusion, a seed from which ruin had spread through his practice. It was not that he desired the women, but that he felt love for their voices, for his own emotions as he listened. He stood still, waiting for that instant when their song changed key, and his heart flipped over, and he no longer wished for escape from this world.