Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Blessed by Buddha

One of my favourite pieces of jewelry is a silver chain with a buddha dangling from it. I often get comments on the uniqueness of the piece and get asked where it came from. Here is its story:

“Come, come,” he cried, “Come in.” The small monk looked eager, running towards us with his saffron robe swishing around his shuffling feet, calling to us, gesturing for us to stay. An excerpt from my travel guide came to my mind. Dress properly when entering a Buddhist Temple. I was wearing short shorts with a tight tee, perfectly dressed for the sultry Thai beach, not so much for meeting a man of reverence.

I revved the motor of my rented scooter, looked at my husband and gave him the international SCUBA dive sign for abort – a thumbs up. Any diver can end any dive at any time for any reason. No questions asked. We extended that philosophy to life and in times like these – wanting to flee at the precise moment a Buddhist Monk offers his hospitality - it helps to not have to verbalize your intentions. I turned my scooter to leave.

“No, no. Please stay. Please come,” he shouts, a bit more forceful this time, still shuffling closer.

When we had turned our scooters up the dirt road to Wat Khao Tham that morning, we didn’t mean to stop. Admittedly, we wanted to check it out to determine whether or not it was worth the ride back another day (which translates to “worth the shower, worth putting on long pants and baggy clean shirts and worth sacrificing a day of diving”).

As I turned the motor off I tried to hide my inappropriate clothes with averted eyes and a polite, Canadian smile, which must have worked because he warmly smiled back, shook my hand, patted Tony on the back and offered to show us around.

“Awesome Chai,” he said placing his weathered hand against his heart. “I am Awesome Chai.”

Did I hear correctly? When I was 16 I renamed myself Cherokee Rain for my fake drivers license, but Awesome Chai didn’t quite seem to fit this respectful looking monk.

“Awesome Chai?” I questioned.

“Yes, Yes. Thank you. Awe Some Chai,” he responded. Well okay then, I could use a bit of that after an hour speeding over lush mountains in the cool morning air. We followed Awesome Chai into the Temple.

“This is hall of worship, please come.” He entered another room. “This room Shrine Room, for pray to Buddha.” He looked back at us and nodded as we stepped out of our sandals and into the small room. By this time in our journey I had seen reclining Buddhas, seated Buddhas, walking Buddhas, white Buddhas, bronze Buddhas, broken Buddhas, and of course, pocket-sized laughing Buddhas, but this was the first time I was this close to what felt like the 2,300 year old man himself. And he looked it. Gold assaulted me with its antiquated shine and loose flakes dappled the black and white checker tiles on the floor.. Cracks exposed his inner core. Plastic fuchsia, magenta and tangerine-orange flowers lay on the shrine table collecting dust. Hundred of burnt incense sticks stuck out of sand pots like a field of underwater sea grass reaching up towards the infiltrating sun.

My Religious Studies classes were far behind me and I was grasping at faint recollections, anything to guide me as to what to do next. Tony and I exchanged glances that confirmed we were both baffled. How awkward.

“Please wai. Please come. ” Awesome lit a stick of incense. Lemon Grass filled my senses. I sat on my heels and pressed my hands in prayer. A twinkle in his eye confirmed I had guessed correctly.

He sat on a pillow in front of a small urn and began chanting what I later learned where verses from sacred Buddhist texts. He seemed to be entranced by his chanting. But what am I supposed to be doing? I know all about praying in times of dire need, “Oh God, please let this birth end. Let this baby come out!” or “Please God, let me survive this evening with my in-laws!” or even “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!” rapidly in times of heightened sexual energy. But what do you concentrate on during a Buddhist prayer? World peace? Wasn’t I supposed to be unselfishly praying for deeper Compassion, Understanding and clearer Comprehension. Wasn’t I supposed to be gaining Insight? My mind went blank. I should have been more prepared. I pictured white, bronze and gold Buddhas all over Thailand standing, sitting, lying and laughing at me. Finally Awesome lifted his head and smiled. I felt as though I had missed my opportunity for Enlightenment.

I bow again. Awesome dipped a bamboo brush into the urn and shook it on top of my bowed head.

“Water blessed by Buddha” he claimed before continuing with his chanting.

By now I was feeling awe struck that this gentle man had invited us into the home of Buddha and was blessing us. At this point all he knew about us were our names and that we were stupid enough to enter the grounds of the Wat as though we were heading to the beach, which in fact we were.

Prayer done, we bowed to Awesome, thanked him and left the temple. However, it was not over yet.

Rain in Thailand is like rain in Florida, it pours for a short spell and then disappears (unless you are visiting during monsoon season when it rains relentlessly), which is very much unlike my hometown Vancouver, where it rains for a short spell, and then a longer spell, and then for the rest of the year. Rain is nothing to me; I don’t even own an umbrella or rain boots. It is part of the day, like clouds, they come, they go and they do not change my routine. Sometimes, you just have to let the clouds roll by, let your hair get wet and carry on.

“Come in. Stay for rain,” Awesome urged.

“No, no, really, the rain is okay, we will go,” I replied. After much smiling and insisting, I realized that nothing I could say would change his mind, we were there to stay.

Awesome led us into his home, one sparse room with one bed, one chair, one desk, and many photo albums. We drank tea from his one teapot. As I looked around I suddenly wanted to dive in and know everything about him- about being Buddhist, living in Thailand, living at the Wat, his teaching, about being Enlightened and Wise. About how he can live in such a small space with so few things, while I needed a three-storey 2,400 square foot home filled with enough toys and trinkets to keep the entire island occupied during the rainy season. But I didn’t get a chance to ask anything before he started firing questions at me.

“We are from Canada,” I replied. “Yes, that is a long way to go – 37 hours in fact. Yes, we have good jobs. Yes, we own a house. Oh, we are very happy. You are right, it is nice to be filled with love. Yes, we are married. We are on our honeymoon, well, actually our 3rd honeymoon - our boys went on our first honeymoon so we had another one without them. We have two boys. No, we don’t have a girl. Yes, it would have been nice to have a girl, but that is okay. No, we are quite happy with boys, they are very good kids. 2 and 9. Yes, they grow fast. Yes, we would have been happy with a girl, too.”

I am not sure why, but Awesome was quite fascinated with our obviously missing girl.

He opened the first of his photo albums and showed pictures of wedding ceremonies he had performed. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized we had not been the only travelers inappropriately dressed for our rendezvous with Buddha. In fact, many of the photos showed couples with even more skin showing than us, never mind their tattoos and body piercing. Lovers from all over the world posed with our host. On each page he pointed at a different couple and told their story. The young couple from Salt Lake City went home and had a girl; they still keep in touch with him. The couple from London also went home and had a girl, and flew Awesome to meet her on her first birthday. Happily married with girls in Australia. Happily married with girls in Sweden. Happily married in France, but still waiting for a girl.

“I will give you a wedding ceremony and bless you to have a girl,” Awesome declared. “You go home, you work hard, you be happy, you have girl.”

Once again I sat on my heels. Once again I bowed and closed my eyes. Once again I am sprinkled with blessed water and sacred chants.

This time, though, I am more prepared. What Awesome did not know, and by this point I didn’t have the heard to tell him, was that the reason we went on this trip, our 3rd honeymoon, was to spend a few weeks without our boys to celebrate Tony’s vasectomy – I was done giving birth and was giving the whole experience a diver’s thumbs up. We would never have a girl, or another boy, – and we were happy about that!

So while Awesome was chanting away, blessing us for a girl, I was busy chanting myself. Enlightenment and Insight pushed aside, I knew exactly what to focus on this time and selfishly shouted within myself “I will not have a girl, I will not have a girl, I will not have a girl.”

He placed a Buddha charm on a bright orange, green, turquoise and pink string around my wrist and held my hand. “You go home, you work hard, you be happy, you have girl.” I silently screamed louder “I will not have a girl, I will not have a girl.” I open my eyes and looked at my gift. Ladies must not on any account touch a Buddhist monk, give things direct to him or receive things direct from him. Perhaps the rules can be bent a little on a tiny Thai island full of international backpackers that is best known for scintillating behaviour during a Full Moon Party.

The rain stopped. Awesome opened his desk drawer and pulled out a piece of paper. At the back of the drawer I see an entire box of Buddha charms on bright string. I see an envelope full of money, with even more peeking out from under papers. He closed the drawer quickly.

“I make Buddha myself for you. Please, would you like to make a donation? We are making a new building. We have more visitors in new building and need money to make building.” Ahhhh! I see what it going on here. The economy of the world has entered even this remote Temple.

He smiles and hands me the paper. “Here is my address. You go home. You have girl. You write to me from Canada. You send me picture.” I looked down at his name. Phra Sum Chai (last name may not be spelled correctly). Laughing at my mistake, I gave him my biggest Canadian smile. “Of course, we will write to you,” and pressed 800 bhat into his palm. If he can touch me and give me things directly, I assume I can do the same. Besides, you can’t get a ceremony like this for $25 back home, and get a charm to remember it by and be filled with blessing for a girl. It seemed like a good deal on my part.

I still wear my Buddha charm, which is now dangling from a black leather choker. I touch it and think back to Our Blessing Ceremony. Tony and I have agreed that if I ever do get pregnant, we will embrace Buddhism and will name our first daughter Phra. Smaller miracles have happened.

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