New Year’s Day
Coughing, sneezing, and severe respiratory congestion are not as much fun as the holiday week celebrations would have been. I won’t bring my germs around the monks, children, or general public so, except for short food runs to local markets, I stay home. Two weeks of sudden isolation, after two months of whirlwind activity and immersion in a very strange culture, provides an interesting insight. It has come to light that in contrast to several other wonderful qualities, I can be an ungrateful pinhead. Many things that other people would regard as miraculous good luck are things that I have not been appreciating enough.
It seems that the deep gratitude from my experience with the chanting monks has triggered an even deeper train of thought. Not every car in that train is firmly on its tracks. This leaves me a bit derailed and uncomfortable with myself. There are obviously a few pieces missing from my puzzle, but I’m not sure what they are.
I prefer to be healthy but the illness gives at least one benefit. It lays me flat for long enough to trace the problem to a source.
It all starts with gratitude for being alive. I don’t have much of it. A severe bout with cancer pushed the envelope of death so far that the seams of that envelope tore open a bit. What I experienced through the cracks was beautiful enough to make verbal description impossible. I have had some trouble coming completely back to and thoroughly loving life ever since. This must be remedied! It doesn’t matter what is on the other side of this incarnation. If I am indeed going to be in a body for a while, a much stronger appreciation of what “alive” can mean needs to be rebuilt. I will have to stop referring to my body as a meat prison.
I also haven’t been grateful enough for the money my parents left to me. It will last at least another year and has already afforded me several years free of financial concerns. During that period, there were two books written. Travel was done in relative comfort and a lot of live music shows were enjoyed. There was an expensive natural treatment of cancer. Death would have been a certainty without the resources that the inheritance allowed.
After a lifetime of sub-poverty and homelessness, you might think I get up every morning and kiss pictures of my generous deceased parents. Such is not the case. The money, in my father’s own words, was his way of apologizing for the damage done to his children. Mother did far more damage to her children than father did, but was still too arrogant and narcissistic when she died to admit a similar motivation for leaving us her money.
I emulate some of my mother’s arrogance and some of my father’s weak character by spending any time focused on their faults, rather than appreciating their better traits and parting gifts.
It goes further. The real friends I have had during this life, the good people I have met, the places seen and things done, the current plentiful supply of food, the nice place to live, and so many other things are not being given as many “thank you”s as they deserve.
It makes me feel a little bit like a jackass. I am going to change that right now! A good first step seems to be a walk around the Dragon neighborhood on New Year’s Day. A walk with a much greater awareness of, and appreciation for, things that haven’t been given enough attention and appreciation recently.
I often start the day buying a coconut from the coconut lady a quarter mile down the road. She always smiles as she chops the top off with a machete and sticks a straw in it for me. She speaks to me in her language and I speak to her in mine. Neither of us understands a word of what the other one says, but we both have fun. We laugh at ourselves and each other. When I leave her today, I add a “thank you very much for your kindness and coconuts” to the end of our conversation.
Next stop on my New Year’s Day tour to reestablish gratitude is the Peace Café to meet Neill, a recent acquaintance, and his family. This bit isn’t much different today than it is on any other day. I am always thanking the Peace Cafe people for who they are, what they do, and how they do it. The place is an exemplary venue.
Neill De Kort is an exemplary human. He is a Dutchman whose family relocated to Canada when Neill was in his teens.
We ran into each other at the bank. I never had a bank account, in America or anywhere else, until I was over fifty years old. If my parents hadn’t left me money that needed to be processed through a bank, I still wouldn’t have an account. To this day I‘ve never had a telephone or driven a car, and have spent the past forty-five years without a bill in my name. Friends tell me to expect technical trouble throughout the twenty-first century because I haven’t adapted to the twentieth century yet.
The Cambodian bank requires me to have a telephone number in order to open an account. The account is required in order to get money sent from America. My funds are running low. The irony of beating cancer only to possibly die homeless and hungry on steaming Asian streets makes me giggle. The facts that it could happen because I don’t like telephones, and while having several thousand dollars in an American bank, makes me laugh out loud—for a minute. Then it makes me argue with the bank officer. Neill is in the bank and walks by us while that discussion is going on.
He comes into the conversation out of nowhere, intervenes, and gives the bank officer his phone number. I didn’t know that Neill and his Cambodian partner had owned a coconut farm here for years. He recently sold it and is now into Cambodian real estate on the side, although his main and more global business is textiles. That would account for the pull he has in the bank. They must handle a lot of his business. My account opened without any further hitch. Neill and I had never met. He just saw someone having a problem and became the solution.
Neill’s father was also in the textile business, so the younger De Kort has two generations worth of related business connections all over Asia and the rest of the world. Neill is six feet five inches tall. He is a twenty year student of boxing with arms the length of a giraffe’s neck. I’m guessing he has won more fights than he’s lost. This is also a very intelligent, resourceful, accomplished guy. We hit it off well after hanging out a bit in the bank and arranged to have lunch at the Peace Cafe so that I could meet his family.
We meet on schedule. Neill’s gorgeous Dutch wife is named Bo. The legendary Bo Derek, in her prime, was no lovelier. Mrs. De Kort is graced by blond hair, green eyes, and two beautiful preschool aged children. She is probably five years younger than her thirty-five year old husband.
We all talk for several hours. It is by far and away the best conversation I have had, with the most like minded folks I’ve met, since leaving New Mexico. Mister and Misses De Kort have both used Rick Simpson Oil, as I did for the cancer. He for asthma. She for Lyme disease. Both had positive outcomes. Both have gone through health and attitude changes similar to the ones I went through. We share many common ideas and mutual attitudes.
Sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss something until you get a little taste of it again. I do well by myself. My days are filled with activities that are mostly solitary. These activities are usually productive, or at least harmless. Some are very interesting. There is rarely a sense that anything important is missing.
But folks like the De Korts make me remember that a real connection with other humans is an essential part of being human yourself. I appreciate the differences in people—but it is always a booster shot for the psyche and a strengthening of the heart when we find someone else who is on same wave length. It adds just a little concrete credence to the “we are all one” thing. That phrase is very obviously true on certain planes of existence, but it usually gets more lip service than validation in every day life. Folks who can make it blatantly real for you don’t seem to come along every day.
The De Korts will be leaving Cambodia on January second. Loneliness is a feeling that does not visit me often, but I feel its potential lurking nearby. I resolve to get the hell out of the house more often and go to places where people congregate. This should increase the odds of finding more people like the De Korts. Inexpensive living and adventurous surroundings are wonderful, but the company of kindred spirits is like water in the desert. I have no problem being grateful for this. Kindred spirits make gratitude easy.
The next stop on the New Year’s Day gratitude walk is the Domo Café. The Domo is a three block walk down River Road from the Peace Café. I silently thank the sun for the light and heat, the folks passing by for being so beautiful, the people who built this sidewalk under my feet, and the river for giving life to all the trees on either side of it.
At this point I have to wonder if this is all a lot of pretentious bullshit running through my head and I am just plain full of crap. But gratitude toward everything in general, as well as many things specifically, has been away too long. A little overkill may be necessary to bring a proper appreciation of life back to balance. I thank the crippled dog a few yards away for using the riverbank as his toilet instead of this sidewalk, then head into the Domo for my muffin. They are sold out. I thank them for saving me from the sugar consumption and move on.
The pattern of thanking everything and everyone continues for a few more stops. Gratitude is still not coming readily enough for me to feel altogether comfortable with myself. I appreciate my good fortune, but the glow around the memory of near-death still overpowers that appreciation.
Sometimes gratitude takes an unexpected shape. The coffee shop lady is spaced out and gives me a cup with very little in it. I am grateful for the ability to stand up for myself and tell her so. Language problems and the feeling of being a guest can make it too easy to become a sheeple when one is in a foreign culture. She laughs at herself, apologizes, and fills the cup.
The next stop is the White Rose massage parlor. It is a strictly legit place where they always give a good rub and never approach clients to buy semi-sexual extras. Semi-sexual seems to be a good term for how far they go in the places that do offer such services. At six dollars for a well done therapeutic full hour massage without need to explain my sexual habits in sign language to a non-English speaking stranger, there is no problem feeling gratitude here either.
Speaking of sexual activity that is not my particular preference, it is time for another adventure! I have to get the clog out of my chest. A steam room is essential. It is among the best things a person can do for their lungs. Being prone to upper respiratory infections, like the one I have right now, I look in every travel spot for a sweat lodge, hotel, or health club with a steam room. Taking care of the lungs is even more important than usual in this city where most citizens publicly burn garbage that includes rubber and plastic while thousands of motorbikes pump additional toxins into the air as well.
My research shows that the only option for a steam room in Siem Reap is the city’s lone gay bathhouse. Gotta think about this one!
Within a minute’s thought, it turns out to be a no-brainer. This is no problem for me—and it shouldn’t be one for the other guys frequenting the place. I have no interest in sucking a dick myself, but I’m glad folks are having fun with it, if that’s what they want to do. No one has the right to tell another person how they should enjoy themselves. It takes a lot of the wrong kind of balls to tell people how they should live when those people aren’t hurting anyone or anything else. Many of us New York City basketball playing kids have carried a “no harm, no foul” attitude into adulthood as a way of life. It might be the best notion that growing up in Brooklyn gave me, and one of the few I decided to keep. If the rest of the planet shared this attitude, a lot of other problems would solve themselves. If the rest of the clientele in the bath house shares the “no harm, no foul” notion towards me, my experience will be pleasant and medically helpful.
It also seems logical that I am too old, unattractive, and worn for any gay guy in his right mind to hit on.
I go, and am right. The Men’s Resort and Spa is on a back street flanked by apartment buildings, a couple of temples, and a theater company’s office. The folks here are young enough to be my grandkids, and certainly looking for someone in their own age range. It seems peculiar how they walk around wrapped in towels, just staring at each other. There is no audible conversation and no visible participation. Something must happen between some of them eventually somewhere, but I see no actual interaction.
The steam room has eucalyptus. It does great things for my lungs. After three ten-minutes shifts, I silently thank the steam and the gay dudes, then catch a tuk-tuk back to The Dragon.
The Other Side Of The Coin
As is true with nearly everything else on this two-headed planet, the gratitude thing has tripped that trigger in my brain that looks at the other side of the coin. There is some tarnish on parts of paradise.
1— In general, gender equality has further to go in Southeast Asia than it does in The West. Part of the problem is the Cambodian male attitude toward local women who take up with foreigners, which resembles the mind-set of a horse with blinders on.
While it is true that some foreigners are here only for sex with younger women, this scenario only works because the older-men-with-money-keeping-young-mistresses thing has always been part of the culture here, and probably in most of the rest of the world too.
Many Cambodian males hide jealousy behind righteous indignation, prejudice, and sometimes even anger. Men in the company of their wives or girlfriends have occasionally stared at me with dagger eyes. They assume that because I am a white foreigner, I must be trying to buy or steal their women. As is true almost everywhere, media does its part to fan the flames of divisiveness and distrust. There are Southeast Asian soap operas on TV depicting evil, mustache twirling, devilish looking white men literally showering money on gorgeous, innocent, very intimidated looking Asian women.
But the local men here that assume the worst about tourists are not the majority, and they are not exactly knights in shining armor defending the honor of their maidens. Southeast Asian culture defines one of a daughter’s most pronounced duties as the care of her parents in their old age. It is not uncommon for a young woman to look for a man with money as a way of guaranteeing that she will be able to successfully fulfill that duty. “Arrangements” are as common as marriages. The practice of paying family support in exchange for devoted female company is not at all limited to foreigners.
It also seems that foreigner/native couples work out well for both parties, and the children that are usually involved. There are a lot of single women with children here. Almost every foreigner I know that is in a relationship with a local woman has at least one child attached to that relationship, and treats that child much better than daddy did. The foreigner usually treats the child’s mother better than daddy did as well. But the attitude of many Cambodians towards that foreigner, and even more so towards the woman he is with, is often far from warm and fuzzy.
2— Most of my Buddhist study has been done with Tibetans. In most cases, to enter the Tibetan Buddhist monastic order requires some very serious commitment.
In Southeast Asia, kids go to temple and become monks for a month as if it was summer camp. Most folks routinely spend a month as a monk in the temple after a close relative dies. An advantage to the Southeast Asian system is that it allows a much broader access to both foreigners and natives. I was able to live in a Thai Temple for half a year. That would not have been possible for a person like me within a Tibetan monastery.
A disadvantage to the Southeast Asian system is that, with the mesh in the net being so wide, more bad fish can slip into the organization. There are some monks with some very un-monk-like qualities.
I have never heard of pedophilia, homosexual or otherwise, within the Buddhist system. I should also say that, as in Catholicism, the majority of priests are well-motivated, morally admirable, and dedicated. But they are all human. Some falter. Instances of a Southeast Asian monk using his position of spiritual influence to take advantage of a woman happen occasionally. Much more often the trespasses involve money and business.
Although the following is just a rumor, it came from a very reliable source—enough so that I feel comfortable repeating it. If true, it is certainly not the first instance of corruption within the monastic system. Similar reports reached my ears every month or two in Thailand during my year and a half stay there.
The latest sad story involves a couple of humans in one of the Siem Reap temples. One head monk is reported to have stolen thousands of dollars from his temple. Most followers are poverty-stricken but the contributions from rich local businessmen, political hopefuls, foreign ex-pats, and even tourists can get hefty—especially by local standards. This head monk was fired, then cried and repented to the congregation. Instead of pressing charges, the congregation forgave and reinstated him. This will tell you something about Southeast Asian people. They often take that biblical, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” thing more seriously than most Christians do.
The other current rumor is of a deputy head monk who was caught stealing and was fired, but then reinstated by his head monk friend. He continues to own and drive a car, and operate a business out of his monk house. These are all definite no-nos for a Southeast Asian monk.
It may not kick you in the gut as hard as learning that TV’s saintly Cosby is a serial rapist in real life, but knowing that your spiritual guides can be as corrupt as your politicians isn’t fun.
3—This place is almost exactly on the other side of the world from East Coast America. This is true figuratively as well as literally. A lot of the differences are wonderful. Some just seem fuggin crazy. Communication is difficult. A lot of the problem stems from misinterpretations of language, but many communication problems happen due to conflicting interpretations of reality! Time and space themselves are looked at differently here. Any meeting arranged at a certain time has a very slim chance of actually happening at that time. Cambodians would be right at home in Latin America, as they seem to operate on manana time as well. Locals who speak English very well have told me such things as, “We will do it every Sunday, twice a month” and “I can do that thing but I cannot do it.” Either/or questions often get answered with “yes.” The folks here have no concept of north, south, east, or west. Really!
4—It is ninety-plus degrees and humid even during winter.
There are bags of garbage all over the place. This garbage is eventually burned and includes toxic materials within the ever-present smoke.
Much of the food is fried and much more of it is heavily sugared. Cambodia is still two or three generations away from Whole Foods Markets and increasing life spans.
Many locals look at a foreigner and see only money, not human. Charging foreigners more than locals is standard in many markets.
It may be safer, friendlier, and saner in many ways than most of the world. Southeast Asia is warmer during winter than almost anyplace else on Earth. It is less expensive to live comfortably here than it is to live at all on most of the planet. But some of the things that make up a paradise are blatantly missing. I love all the wonderful things that Cambodia and Southeast Asia are, but Pollyanna couldn’t pull off her act here.
I am usually very grateful for my ability to see both sides of any story.
Sometimes, not so much.
***If you missed the Intro to this third book (that the above piece is from) and would like to see it or other previous pieces, go to the Puppy website blog section, or send an email request to email@example.com, or check out fearlesspuppy at WordPress. This is a book in progress. You are seeing it here as I write it! And as it says in the Intro, it is a totally true story and may be the only book ever written by a corpse! I don’t know what the next chapter is going to be about either!***The books Fearless Puppy On American Road and Reincarnation Through Common Sense by this same author, as well as sample chapters by, very entertaining tv/radio interviews with, and newspaper articles about him are available at www.fearlesspuppy.info
I finally have my first good therapeutic massage without complications. The rub costs eight dollars for a full hour and is nearly professional quality. It is good to have someone pay attention to what needs attention instead of having them greedily focus on their own gratification while employing manipulative attention exclusively to my genitals in order to reach their goals.
Anyone else ever had that problem?
I am refreshed and ready for Monk Chat.
Monk Chat means something different here than it did when I attended a few in Northern Thailand. There the chat was held at the temple. The monks were anxious to learn English and most of the chatting revolved around that. We conversed and made friends. We went places together outside of class.
Here it is more like a lecture and takes place at the Peace Café on Mondays at 3 PM. The monks are from the Wat Angkosar temple just a few blocks away. Two of them sit up front, explain what they do and how they see things, and then take questions from the group. The inquisitive group that I am part of totals thirteen people from all over the world.
Venerable Ura is the nineteen year old monk center stage. He is sharp as a tack and speaks English nearly as well as I do. The first thing he explains are the four main activities carried out every single day by a Cambodian monk. They are:
1— The most important activity for the whole community is the monks’ morning walk around the neighborhood. They collect food while blessing the people who donate it. The Southeast Asian people often get up before daybreak to start cooking rice for the monks. They consider donating food to them, and receiving the blessing, as essential beginnings to their day. The monks survive on this food, share it with the needy, and give leftovers to resident dogs and cats.
2—Morning chanting is supposed to happen at sunrise, but the timing can be adjusted depending on the inclination of the head monk at each different temple. Wat Angkosar’s head monk prefers to have the morning chant after breakfast. All the monks collectively repeat phrases that remind them to act as much like the Buddha as possible.
3—Evening chanting happens every sunset. A different set of phrases are used in the evening than in the morning, but all chants are directed toward the same purpose.
4—Night Dhamma study entails the reading of scriptures and the discussion of these Buddhist texts.
Venerable Ura next explains that the system is age related. If you are under twenty years old, you are a novice. If you are over twenty years old, you are a monk.
Neither a monk nor a novice can eat at any time except between sunrise and noon. They train themselves this way so that once they get used to that schedule, the craving for food doesn’t interfere with the potential to maintain purity of thought throughout most of the day and night.
Among the very cool and deep things Venerable Ura has to say is that hate, greed, and jealousy are the main enemies. Eliminate these and you will find happiness.
He then asks the group to say, “I want happiness.” We all say it out loud. He follows with, “Cut out the ‘want’ and cut out the ‘I.’ You will have nothing left but happiness.”
Introduction To The After School Sessions
The scuttlebutt around town is that nearly every school needs volunteer after-school English teachers. I go down to the temple/public school where Venerable Ura lives. The rumors turn out to be true, and one of the regular volunteer teachers invites me to stay for an observation session. Being a half hour early for the 5 to 6 PM session gives me time to jump onto the adjoining basketball court to play with the kids. I have been in parts of the world as the only white man the kids have ever seen. In those places, the game stops as bewildered faces stare for several minutes. Such is not the case in Siem Reap. Many tourists pass through here to see the famous ruins of Angkor Wat, the largest temple ever built on Earth. Even in outlying neighborhoods such as this one, the school-aged children are familiar with people from all over the world. We pass the ball around. We trade shots and laugh as if I am one of them.
The after-school English classes are held in an outside “room” containing long rows of desks about five deep and three blackboards up front. Beginner, medium level, and advanced classes are held simultaneously. There is a roof but no walls. I head back to this room to speak a bit with my host. Andries looks to be somewhere between sixty and seventy years old. He strongly resembles Santa Claus without the beard. Andires also acts like Santa Claus without the beard. He is never without a smile.
His English is very clearly understandable, although colored somewhat by a South African accent. This former motor mechanic from near Capetown is completely dedicated to what he does. His tone of voice has an obvious joy riding through it as he says to me, “It’s all about the kids. What they need and want is what it is all about. What you have planned or think you want to do, doesn’t mean fuck all!” He continues, “You have to make it fun for them and get them involved, get them interested. I see some of the local teachers just writing out words in English with the Khmer translation under those words. Then they just have the kids repeat like parrots over and over. They try to teach long sentences and grammatical structures to children who don’t even know what the fucking words in the sentences mean! The kids understand almost nothing of what they are being told, and when they leave here they don’t know shite. They forget the little bit they have learned by the time they get home. Bring the kids into the process! Give them something they can relate to, instead of throwing words at them that don’t mean anything in their world. Do that and they will end up retaining the material!”
Andires teaches both the 5 to 6 and the 6 to 7 p.m. after school classes five days a week. He has been doing it as an unpaid volunteer for five years. He considers it a privilege, not an obligation. When the children come in, he lights up and so do they. I watch him write vocabulary words on the board and have the kids match those words to the pictures in the book they are working from. He tells interesting one or two sentence stories around each word so that students are inspired to pay real attention, and also have a context to wrap the word around.
In the next part of the lesson, Andires writes out a series of words and has the children pick out the one that is in some way different. The first series is “wanted, waited, lived, ended.” It brings a yell from most of the dozen children. “Lived is only one syllable! The rest are two!” This advanced class nailed it. The teacher gives them a broad smile and enthusiastic compliment.
What I see is an inspiration. It gives me confidence. In spite of my lack of experience, it seems like I can do this. It should be just like playing basketball with the children, except we will be using nouns and verbs instead of a basketball. Now all that is left to do is find the director in order to get my appointment. He is a twenty-five year old monk with other obligations, and a hard man to locate. Andires is working on it.
On the walk back to my house from the school I stopped at what is called the Skybar. It is in the fancy Jaya House hotel. Alcohol is out of the question considering my medical condition. My liver has had all the abuse it can stand for one lifetime. A juice or tea on the second floor with some fellow English speakers seems like a good idea, but I do miss the alcohol. It is not because of the buzz. It is the socialization. A couple of drinks in a friendly atmosphere always seems to lubricate the lines of communication between people.
The Jaya House is beautiful but not really my kind of place. The view from this second floor bar is nice, but not as nice as the view from my fifth floor swimming pool rooftop. The apple juice is delicious but costs the unheard of sum of five American dollars. This is a full ten times the price it costs on the street, and almost twice as much as it costs even in the expensive downtown district. But neither the cost nor the view is the real problem. Jaya House could honestly be called gentrified, uptown, or luxurious. I am just as uncomfortable in extreme opulence as I am in extreme poverty. The people who frequent such places are often harder to get to know than the folks you meet in a regular bar. Many act as if they are protecting something instead of sharing something.
None of them here tonight seem lubricated enough to be sociable. Maybe I am not lubricated enough to be sociable, either!
The first few days of my teaching experience are baffling for myself, the children, and Monk Chheang my Cambodian co-teacher.
I remember mentioning to Monk Chan, the after school program’s director, that I would do much better with a group that was advanced enough to know what, “use that word in a sentence” means. Maybe my communication didn’t travel well. One of the problems here is that many of the volunteer Cambodian English teachers are local monks who are only a short step ahead of the children in pursuing the language. Another is that we are using a sixth-grade text with kids who are at a first grade level. I might as well speak Martian to them!
Unable to effectively communicate with my co-teacher or students, I decide to quit. I have a lot of experience quitting things and have gotten very good at it. I’ll stick with writing. Writing in English is my thing. Folks tell me that I do it fairly well as a rule and very well in spots.
Knowledge of something doesn’t always equate to the ability to pass that knowledge on to someone else. I know English well enough, but absolutely suck at teaching the language to elementary level students.
I arrive early, figuring to give it one last frustrating day, turn in the text book, and say goodbye. Andires is always there earlier than anyone else. He is surprised to find me there before him. We trade laughs and hellos before I tell him that this will be the last day of my teaching career.
“No, you can’t do that! You are good at this. I looked over a few times yesterday and saw how well the students reacted to you.” I thank him for the bullshit compliment and explain the situation. Andires asks to see the book. He goes haywire when he sees it. “What the fuck are they thinking, giving you this book for those kids!?!? My advanced kids couldn’t do this shite! Look, you can do this job and you can do it very well. I have been at it for a long time and know my teachers by now. And you are right! Those kids are getting taught way over their heads. Here’s what you have to do. Just pick a category like shapes, or types of vehicles, colors, whatever. Take three or four examples from the category. So like for shapes, draw a triangle, square, rectangle, and circle on the board. Ask them to tell you what each one is. Write the English word under the shape so they visually associate the word with the shape. Then write out “This is a_______.” on the board. Have them repeat several times, jumping back and forth between the shapes as you point to them. They say “This is a square.” as you point to the square shape on the board. Do the same with the other shapes. Then tell them that “together these are all shapes.” Point out the appearance of the “s” at the end of the word “shapes” and get them into a singular/plural practice. Draw a few more circles next to the original one and have them add an “s” on to the word “circle” to make “circles.” Draw the word they already know, and make the plural out of it, explaining the only one/more than one difference between singular and plural. They may not have enough vocabulary to understand your explanation, but your co-teacher should, and he should be able to explain that to the students. All this time you’re making them say everything in full sentences. “This is a circle. This is a square.” Then you can get into teaching them “These are…” for the plural instead of “This is a…” for the singular. Again, you are probably going to need the co-teacher to explain some things in their own language. They sometimes just don’t have the vocabulary to understand even simple explanations. Holy shite! I still can’t believe they gave you that fucking advanced book to use! OK, give it a try! Work in little baby steps with them, because that is where their language level is at. If they learn three or four words, singular/plural, and practice these while making short but full sentences around them, that’s a miracle of a day. It can certainly be done! You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. These kids teach me more about life than I ever knew—certainly more than I teach them! Do yourself a favor. Stick around for a while.”
Andires doesn’t have me altogether convinced. I walk off still feeling like the time would be better spent writing books, but his enthusiasm is so contagious that anyone within range catches some. I decide to give this last day a very serious try.
I return the book to Monk Chheang explaining the problem as best possible. Then, except for a few personal creative variations, I do exactly what Andires told me to. It clicked! When something sparks children enough to wake up a little extra brain circuitry, anyone alive can see it in their eyes. It is as obvious as whether or not the electric lights have been turned on in the room. Every eye in the student body was lit.
Quitting doesn’t seem like as good an idea right now as it did several hours ago. Days like this are worth showing up for.
I will, however, be missing tomorrow’s school session in order to move apartments. My current digs on the third floor are still a little smoky, hot, and noisy. A move up to the fourth floor should help. Room 401 is a little more than I actually need. Two bedrooms, three bathrooms, a monster kitchen, an even bigger living room, and a private balcony facing the river are admittedly overkill for one person. But the cleaner air, quieter atmosphere, and cooler positioning of the place make it worth paying three hundred and seventy dollars a month instead of two hundred and fifty.
I am very interested in being there when the monks do their chanting thing in the main temple. I ask my Cambodian co-teacher about it. He introduces me to the only monk on the grounds that is a native English speaker. I will be able to understand his answer clearly..
Monk CharleKym is a seventy year old Australian native with colon cancer. He is covered from top to bottom in sacred tattoos, including the face, head, and feet. A bag attaches to the side of his body and catches what would ordinarily run out the bottom of a person. But in true monk fashion he remains smiling, sociable, and anxious to help. It is a joy to speak with him.
Monk CharleKym lived among the natives in Papua, New Guinea for the forty years before he became a Buddhist monk. Charles is the only white man to ever be considered a blood member of that culture, and be privy to their rituals, initiations, and secrets. Part of that accomplishment hinged on the fact that, inspired by the book Black Like Me, Charles took a chemical to help darken his skin. It was something of a photo-negative reversal of the Michael Jackson move, but Charles did it several decades before Jackson.
I want to hang out with this guy for a hundred years but can see he is tiring rapidly. Vowing to myself to get back and talk more with him—actually just listen more—as soon as possible, I get right to my question. He answers that there is a 10:30 a.m. chant in the temple.
Monk CharleKym tells me, “You will hear the big bell ring. Then one monk will unlock the temple and other monks will start filing in. The chanting lasts about twenty minutes, then the Head Monk talks to them a bit, then they file out. If you ever just want to get into the temple to meditate by yourself, come see me. I am one of the people with the key.”
I thank him very sincerely. Meeting him and having temple access are both wonderful, humbling privileges. I am very grateful for them.
The Head Monk—Mahati Ta
Thirty plus orange-robed monks and a large American wearing overalls in ninety degree heat are sitting in the temple. One monk is sitting up front with a microphone. He is facing the Buddha images in front, with his back to the other monks and me. No one has to tell me that this is the Head Monk. An aspect of benevolent authority radiates from him. As soon as he starts chanting, so does everyone else in the room except me. I don’t know the words.
I listen for the nearly half hour that it lasts. But to say “I listen” doesn’t tell the whole story. The chant produces pure positive energy. Everyone reciting it is of the same mind. There is no interference to its power from the diversions of every day, regular-people life. No one in the room is thinking about the bills they have to pay, how to make it work better with the spouse and kids, or what they are going to eat tomorrow. Each individual within the group is giving total attention to the same resonance. They are so much on the same wavelength that it seems the chant is the product of a single voice. This is actually true in a very real way! Not only does each individual within the group share the same desire to reach spiritual heights and help humanity, they are each pronouncing the same very familiar sets of words that have been used for millennia. They are the same words that have been chanted by untold millions of monks just like them over uncountable generations. In addition, the monks all eat the same food and live together. They share very similar schedules and attitudes as well as common motivations. They have a big head start on the road to what is called Unity Consciousness. The energy is so intense that, much more than just listening to it, I have the feeling of being it. That may sound weird, but it is a very accurate description. Beautiful, otherworldly, transcendent, strange, joyful, clean, and perfect are words that come to mind when the chanting stops and I remember that I have an individual mind for things to come to.
Actually, after an experience like that, a collective mind seems like the only reality. My individual mind feels like a joke, a silly distraction from holding on to the bigger truth of the collective mind. This is no hocus-pocus bullshit. Ancient seers, Carl Jung, modern mystics, almost every quantum physics professor, as well as John Lennon and the Beatles share the same view on this subject. Even a walrus knows that “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
When the chanting ends, the guy up front turns around to face the rest. He talks to them. It is again obvious that this man is in a position of authority. He speaks to the monks in a very firm tone. I don’t understand a word of it, but it sounds like he might be reminding them of how important certain types of discipline become when pursuing a deep experience of what the Beatles or the Buddha were talking about.
He then starts addressing the individual monks one at a time. The authoritative tone turns to honey. There are still a few serious sounding sentences coming from him but all conversations are gentle and contain laughter on both sides. It is very obvious that this man has a concern for his students right at the top of his list. It is just as obvious that the other monks have a great affection for this elder, teacher, and adviser. The air is as thick with these sentiments as it had been with the power and purity of the chanting a few minutes earlier.
On my way out, I go up front to put ten thousand Cambodian Riel (two dollars and fifty cents U.S.) in the voluntary collection box. I bow to the head monk and thank him. He gets up, shakes my hand, and holds it for several minutes as we talk and walk out of the temple. His English language skills are very good. He holds my hand as a grandfather might hold a grandson’s hand, although he is obviously decades younger than I am.
He asks about me. We exchange names, home towns, and ages. He is named Mahati Ta and is forty-five years old. He seems a little impressed that I made it to sixty-eight—or maybe I’m just projecting.
Mahati Ta says, “You can come to chanting anytime. Visit and have lunch with me some time! And thanks for doing volunteer teaching in the temple’s after school program.”
He tells me that he is Cambodian but has just come back from Viet Nam where he was studying. This has me curious, so I ask, “What different kind of Buddhism were you studying in Vietnam? How does it vary from Cambodian Buddhism?”
Mahati Ta surprises me by answering, “I am studying for a doctorate in public administration!”
I didn’t know monks do that!
We say goodbye and I walk towards the gate. There are still several hours until class. Stepping outside the gate of the school and temple grounds, a sudden wave of gratitude washes over me. The wave is immense. I laugh with the thought that drowning in massive gratitude would be a wonderful way to go—but living in it seems like a much better idea.
***If you missed the Intro to this third book (that the above piece is from) and would like to see it or other previous pieces, go to the Puppy website blog section, or send an email request to firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out fearlesspuppy at WordPress. This is a book in progress. You are seeing it here as I write it! And as it says in the Intro, it is a totally true story and may be the only book ever written by a corpse! I don’t know what the next chapter is going to be about, either!***The books Fearless Puppy On American Road and Reincarnation Through Common Sense by this same author, as well as sample chapters by, very entertaining tv/radio interviews with, and newspaper articles about him are available at http://www.fearlesspuppy.info