It Was Not Shambala, This Village Full Of Life

Recalling a Buddhist ceremony in pre-modernThailand

In a Thai village off the Gulf of Siam about 40 years ago I was swept into an ordination ceremony that, as an Eastern Classics MA would teach me in later years, defined the difference between the two vehicles of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana.

Theravada, with its orthodoxy of stories about the Lord Buddha in colloquial Pali, is the official religion of Thailand and Sri Lanka. It is the unofficial religion of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Buddhism elsewhere, including Zen, is Mahayana, the “larger vehicle,” which follows expansive texts in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan.

These are distinctions, however, that I knew very little about 40 years ago. What struck me then was how Theravada Buddhism fit in with village life, which was imperiled even than by modernity. I loved the way the high chedi decorated the village. I had never thought of Buddhists as communal, but they were in rural Thailand, with its 20,000 wats. Bringing everybody together to break bread (or eat rice), sharing the loaves and fishes — that was a Christian thing, even an American thing.

The experience stayed with me and found its way into my novel, Guide To The Lost Mountains as a story told by an old man to a young woman:

He tells her how he sat at breakfast in a food stall in a small village market. . . .”I ordered an orange soda and noodles with chicken from a woman with black teeth. She laughed at my order, but I didn’t know enough of the language to determine why. I looked around.

“Across the dirt street in another market stall a young man was sitting under a white parasol. He was wrapped in a white garment, a monks robe, but white not saffron. He was clean like a baby and his eyebrows and the hair on his head were gone. His identity, his individuality, had been shaved away.

“Pretty soon some revelers arrived on a flatbed truck. They were drinking and singing. They had an amplifier and speakers on the truck and passed around a microphone with a long cord. One was singing a love song, it seemed.

“Another flatbed truck arrived. The boy in white arose and was escorted to the second truck. He sat cross-legged on a platform on the truck with his back to the cab. His family got on. He stared impassively at the drunken crowd. The parasol shaded him from the terrible sun.

“Curiosity drew me to them, and of course I immediately became the center of the scene. I was a farang. Tall and pale. The drunks surrounded me. They pushed me onto the first flatbed with them, and the trucks rolled.

“They handed me the microphone. I sang “Heartbreak Hotel,” and they cheered: ‘Erl-vis! Erl-vis!‘ We rolled through the village with my amplified voice resonating in the heavy air in the tall trees. And then I was singing the Hank Williams song about the midnight train and the sad birds who are too depressed to fly and the moon hiding her face and the silence of a falling star. . . .

“The initiate wrapped in white sat under the parasol, unmoved. The trucks turned down a little road to the local wat, temple. The people piled off, yelling and partying. And I joined them, laughing now and screaming. They had no idea who I was—just another insane farang.

“We were following the initiate around the wat. Three times around the house of the Lord Buddha. Clockwise, screaming. We were pleading—selling: making a sales pitch on behalf of the world and all its pleasures. His girlfriend—lovely in a flowered sarong—beckoned. Spoke to him of love. Her eyes were dark and erotic and there were yellow flowers in her hair. The initiate wrapped in white did not respond.

“We, the young men, passed bottles and offered him whiskey. We taunted him, questioned his manliness. We followed him clockwise around the temple of the Lord Buddha under the tall trees in the sun. His father held the parasol as he walked impassively. We pleaded. His face was cool as still water. Third time around, he turned inward toward the steps and the open yellow and red doors. An old monk in a saffron robe was waiting for him.

“We sold, screamed, saying, ‘Enough! Paw-lau‘. Don’t leave this life, this joy. See what you are forsaking. Love, friendship, family. Children! Do not abandon your future children!’

“The last thing he did before he was taken in, before he left his thin sandals on the top cool white step of the ordination hall, was to pay us our due. He opened his colorful purse. And with absolutely no expression he tossed us coins by the handful from the purse. The young boys scrambled for the coins on the stones, fought for them. When the money was gone, he tossed the empty purse impassively. And he entered. The yellow and red doors closed.

“Just as the Prince (Siddartha) left his wife and baby, his home and future kingdom. Just as the Prince rode away to the forest, to the river. And no matter what the revisionists say, he never came back—”

I learned in later years that Theravada monks do come back. In Thailand a man can be an intermittent monk. It is not a lifetime commitment, but an intermission, a spell of reckoning. The Buddhists where I live are all Mahayana. They keep to themselves. It’s a very quiet Himalayan sort of place. I sometimes wish there were a few Theravada believers around.