At the risk of appearing self-centred, I'm going to start this story with a little background information about myself. I trust you'll understand why as you read the story.
Some years back I took early retirement and came to Asia for a number of reasons, one of which is a long-standing interest in Buddhism. I am open to the various schools of Buddhism, as indeed to other teachings that make sense to me but I do find that, generally speaking, the basic teachings of Theravada appeal to me.
After ten years spent mostly in Asia, I have reached the point where I have decided that I want to return to Australia. I want to spend time with my grandchildren before they grow up. However, there are now complications in my life which make it difficult to return at this point in time. I have to say this has been frustrating me and the feelings of frustration were very strong when I recently took a trip from Malaysia to Hat Yai in southern Thailand.
Whenever I visit Hat Yai I usually take the opportunity to enjoy a traditional Thai massage. It is a cheap and effective way of getting rid of any aches and pains in the body. But this time the massage only brought me pain. I realised I was feeling very uptight. The other thing I usually do in Hat Yai is take lots of photos but this time I had not taken one that I feel inclined to upload. Like I said, I was uptight.
The train I catch back to Penang is called the Bangkok-Butterworth Express. It stops at Hat Yai in the morning. People who travel the full distance take a sleeper. Those who board at Hat Yai have to find an empty seat, usually one vacated by someone who just got off.
When I got on I noticed in the first compartment there was a guy talking to a monk. The two seats opposite them were vacant except for some luggage. I thought I'd look further to see if there was a seat that was more clearly vacant. I couldn't find anything as most were still made up as beds so I returned to the first compartment and asked if one of those seats were free. Both were. I sat down.
As I sat I could hear the conversation between these two and I realised that the monk was an Australian. Being an Australian and being a Theravada monk, he spoke my language in more ways than one. It didn't take long until I became part of the conversation. I asked his name and he replied 'Mark'. He prefers to stick with his English name rather than take on the Buddhist name that came with his ordination.
I asked if he was a forest monk (he is). He didn't seem to think it made much difference. I said I felt that forest monks were more serious about their Buddhism. He said that as you get deeper into your understanding you realise that seriousness stands in the way. He didn't think that seriousness was really a good thing.
Perhaps he didn't understand my meaning. There were many rules laid down by the Buddha for his monks to follow. For example, the clothes they were to wear; they must beg for their food and could only eat that which was freely donated; they could not eat after midday; they should not handle money; must have no physical contact with a woman. In my travels I have seen many monks, mostly the general ones. Some have mobile phones, some are spending money. This is what I meant by not being serious. When I explained this we agreed to use the word 'committed' rather than 'serious', however Mark insisted that many forest monks are no more committed than the others.
I should point out here that this refers specifically to Theravada monks. Mahayana monks have different rules. Their clothes are more like ours. I'm told some drive cars (but I haven't seen it) whereas a Theravada monk should not even ride a bicycle. They may ride pillion on a bicycle but should not pedal it themselves. Each group will have reasons why they stick to or change the Buddha's original rules and I can understand that many rules don't make a lot of sense in this day and age but I do admire those who undergo the hardships entailed in sticking to the Buddha's original rules.
Knowing all this, perhaps I should have been more thoughtful but initially I wasn't. I didn't realise that Mark had not eaten breakfast on the train. He explained to me later that he could walk up and down the passageway with his begging bowl and eventually someone would have given him something to eat. However, for whatever reason, he had chosen to not do this and had not eaten at all. When the train crossed the border from Thailand to Malaysia the time changed by one hour. Not long after we crossed Mark asked the time and it was around 11 am. If he was going to eat he had to do it because the rules prohibit him from eating after midday. He had a carton of juice with him and took that out. The guy sitting opposite him, a Malay and a Moslem, must have understood and known better than I did. He had some sticky rice with meat wrapped in leaves. He insisted that Mark eat it saying that his wife would have lunch ready for him when he got off the train. Later I offered Mark an apple but he said he'd eaten enough. To me, he'd had only a snack.
When he declined the apple he said, 'If you want to help me, I need to get across to Penang on the ferry.' At first I thought he wanted me to show him the way but then I realised he had no money to pay the fare on the ferry. I wasn't sure about how he would handle such situations. I'd never known a monk in such a situation before. I said I would be happy to help.
At some point, I raised the subject of taking his photo. I've taken photos of monks before. I used to teach monks in Cambodia. My students would be laughing and joking with me but when I pointed a camera at them they'd put on a serious face. I'd ask why they couldn't smile for me and they'd reply, 'Not appropriate for monks'. Mark was more open. He even made some silly faces (not shown). I like the one I've uploaded. His smile may not be over the top but I feel the warmth of his smile shows in his eyes.
In our conversation while still on the train I asked where he would stay in Penang. I assumed he would stay in one of the Theravada temples. I know of three on Penang Island. Sometimes when I go to the market near my home I see Theravada monks doing their alms round but I wasn't aware of a Theravada temple in that area. He said he would stay at Bodhi Heart Sanctuary, a meditation centre which happens to be not far from my place. He chooses to stay there as it is not specific to one particular stream of Buddhism. He likes the interaction with those from other schools. He said perhaps the monks I'd seen were staying there too.
I asked how he would get there. It's about five kilometres from the ferry terminal as the crow flies. He said he was happy to walk. He wasn't carrying a huge amount but what he had was heavy. I know because I picked some of it up at some time. I texted Lucy* who was going to meet me at the ferry and she was happy for us to offer him a lift. I did and he accepted.
When we reached Butterworth we walked together to the ferry terminal and Lucy met us there on the Butterworth side. She was coming early to surprise me and reached us just before we got to the turnstiles to enter the waiting area for the ferry. When we went through Mark followed me. After I passed through I had to reach back and put the money in for him as he would not touch it.
I asked what would happen if I had not offered to pay his fare. He said he'd done this in the past and stood waiting near the turnstiles for about two hours until someone came along who realised why he was standing there and paid his fare.
When we reached Penang we had a little walk to reach the car. Usually, whenever we go anywhere, Lucy considers that I walk very fast. Later she told me that Mark and I were walking very slowly. She and Oliver* were walking ahead and slowing down so they didn't get too far in front. Obviously I had adopted Mark's pace which was a monk's mindful walking pace. He is in no hurry. There is no where to go.
When we got to Bodhi Heart Lucy parked the car and got out. I was in the front on the passenger side and got out too. Mark had opened his door. Lucy shut hers and came around to get Oliver out. When she opened the rear-left door Mark, still sitting on the other side, calmly and quietly said 'Could you please open your door for me?' He must have gripped the pillar between the doors (perhaps not mindfully) and Lucy had shut her door on his fingers. He didn't yell or scream as I might have done under the same circumstances. He calmly sat there until Lucy came round to the other side and then quietly asked her if she could open the door and free his hand. I'm sure it hurt but he did not complain.
We wandered around the sanctuary grounds for about an hour with Mark. He and I continued our conversation during this time. I took a few photographs. And then we parted.
During our time together I had touched on some of the issues that had been concerning me. I certainly did not go into any detail. Mark made a few comments and somehow they spoke to me. I've been feeling a lot more comfortable about my situation since.
I offered to give him a link to the page where I would upload his photo or to send copies to him. He wasn't interested. We have no way of communicating in the future and that's the way he wants it. His commitment is to meditation. I know that keeping in touch with people takes time and for him it is not a priority. If somehow we meet again in the future, so be it; if not, that's fine too.
* My partner and her son. Not their real names.