Sunday, May 07, 2006
Timbuctu Tales: Thailand: Lessons in Mindfullness 8/2004
Thailand: Lessons in Mindfullness 8/2004
Living for a couple of months in a country where mindfulness originated with the forest Buddhist monks and therefore is a way of life, one would think that a little of it would have rubbed off on me. But alas no. On three occasions I realized just how unmindful I was. It was not until the third time that the lesson was driven home to me however.
Unmindfullness number 1: One day while teaching at the Hinngompittayakom High School in Nongkhai, Mr. Elvis (everyone goes by their first names in Thailand) talked with me about the going away party the Director of the school was planning for me. I'd brought some 2004 uncirculated US dollar coins so knew I had my symbolic present ready to give the Director at the party. That evening, I checked my money belt I kept in my locked suitcase for the silver coins. No silver coins! My mind raced trying to figure out when I'd last had them out of that safe site the same site where I kept not only those coins, but also my credit cards, ATM cards, addresses and a few hundred dollars in cash. After a good deal of mind searching it came to me. (or least wise I think so) while in Bangkok some two weeks earlier, I'd taken the coins out so as to give one to Soavanee the Director of the Friends For All Children (adoption agency) as a thank you for her helping me find a school to teach at this summer. Thinking back I figured I'd taken the small brown bag containing the coins out of the money belt, probably laid it on the bed, after selecting one for Soavanee, and then not putting it back into the money belt immediately. The brown bag maybe matched the color of the bed spread, and me not thinking, (unmindful) did not do a thorough check of the hotel room before leaving Bangkok. That night, I was really upset with myself when I realized the coins were gone. The silver coins I'd bought as gifts, not only for the school Director in Nongkhai, but also the school director in Khecknoi were missing. The words dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb just kept repeating themselves over and over and over in my mind. Told myself to just let it go. I could find the Directors some other symbolic gift. Just let it go. Easier said that done!
Unmindfullness number 2: Usually whenever I travel, I leave all of my jewelry at home. This trip to Thailand however, I decided to wear the sapphire and diamond ring I'd bought in Egypt a few years back. One night after coming back to my very simple, basic cottage at Hinngompittayakom School in Nongkhai, I realized that I wasn't wearing my ring. Searched high and low through that house. Since there was almost no furniture in the place, didn't take too long to look everywhere. No ring. I was not a happy camper as I realized that now on a second occasion, I'd lost something. For days, I tried to think of where the ring might be. I even searched the bottom of the cistern holding the water in the bathroom. No ring. That's when it struck me, or again, I think this might have been what happened. While taking my bucket bath, I'd taken the ring off and just laid it down on the tile floor in the bathroom. Not thinking, I used the plastic bowl to scoop out water from a pail and pour it over myself. Well guess what I thought to myself, all that water being scooped up and splashed everywhere would have sent the ring on a trip down the drain and into the septic tank. Second time I didn't use my brain too well, but boy did it bug me each day that the ring was gone. Even after I'd come to the conclusion the ring was probably in the bottom of the dirty sewer, I still frequently would find myself making but yet another futile search to locate my treasure from Egypt. However, with all my vane attempts to find it, the ring never turned up. It was only a ring, I kept telling myself. In the back of my mind however, another word however kept popping up.. expensive. Yes only a ring..... expensive ring. Eventually I rationalized the rings strange disappearance to the work of the sinister looking monster spider that lived in my bathroom. And speaking of the spider, while packing my suitcase the night before leaving Nongkhai, guess who I found hiding there? Yup. The spider! Unceremoniously, the spider quickly found itself thrown out of my suitcase.
Unmindrullness number 3: After having chastised myself again and again for the other two unmindful mishaps, I really got jerked out of shape when I realized I'd screwed up for the third time. This one bummed me out big time.
Just a couple days before leaving Nongkhai, I looked into the famous money belt (same one where I'd kept the silver dollar coins) and realized the envelop with a few hundred dollars was missing. I nearly tore that money belt apart trying to find what I knew was not there. When had I last seen it? When had I last had that envelop out of the money belt? Then it came to me. The previous weekend, I'd stayed at a Guest House in Nongkhai had taken the envelop out, probably laid it on the bed (white sheet so it blended in well), forgot to put it back into the money belt, and then while packing, was not that thorough in making sure I had everything before I left my room. I think that is what happened. When I realized the money was gone. I was bummed! Actually, I think it was about five hundred bucks I had in that envelope. Why I was carrying the dollars when an ATM works just perfectly here, I'm not sure. Guess I'm just use to having some backup money available, just in case technology should fail.
Okay .... so I stewed and fussed about the missing envelop with the dollars big time. Even though I told myself to let it go, I couldn't. I knew that I was responsible for losing it. No one had stolen it from me, only I was to blame. That did not make the situation any better. I was upset with everything and everyone. The school I'd been teaching at in Nongkhai, the teachers, the students, the Mekong River, the house where I'd been staying, that darn spider, the roosters crowing so early each morning, and on and on and on.. basically my world turned very bleak and black. My mind painted a picture of a very grim, nasty world. A picture that took over all of my emotions and made me just out and out angry. Angry at everything.
As Mr. Elvis, one of the English teachers at Hinngompittayakom High School, drove me to the airport to catch my flight to Bangkok, I can only hope that I was civil to him. Elvis had taken such good care of me the whole time I'd been in Nongkhai, taking me on site seeing trips, making sure I had bottled water at my house, food to eat, etc. But on that early morning drive, my mind would not let go of that darn lost envelope, how unfair the whole world was, how I never, ever wanted to come back to Thailand again in my whole life, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I was on a roll. I was deep into planning a gigantic pity party for myself and only myself. Sad party for one. Let me tell you, I was actively decorating for the party with all the self indulging streamers and poor me confetti I could find. This was the biggest pity party I'd planned in a very, very long time and I was doing a bang up job of it. The theme song for this party. Oh poor, poor me was blaring over the loud speakers of my mind.
As the airplane lifted off from Nongkhai, my mind was telling me good riddance. Last time I'll ever be back here anyway. Arrive in Bangkok, caught a cab to my hotel, the pity party was now in full swing. I don't think the party would have gotten so big and quite frankly, so out of control in my mind, had it been just the envelope with the green backs that had gotten lost, but those combined with the silver dollars and the gold ring from Egypt. Just tooooooooo much!
Got checked into my hotel and headed off to find a hardware store to buy a lock for one of my suitcases. I planned to leave one suitcase in Bangkok while I traveled to Kheknoi, where I'd teach school for another three weeks before returning to Bangkok and a flight home. While walking along the street, I must have had my typical lost look on my face, for this Thai guy (Wan) asked me what I was looking for. Told him I wanted a lock.. he didn't understand, but he sent me off to an InterNet Cafe where a friend (Kee) of his who spoke good English was playing on a computer. Kee and Wan helped me find what I needed, then proceeded to ask me if I wanted to come back to their place. By now I knew both of them were gay, so agreed to visit them, but later on that afternoon. I had a few things I needed to get done for my trip the following day to Kheknoi.
Kee had a very nice, clean, small apartment near my hotel. Located on the 10th floor, he had great views of the Bangkok skyline. Basically a one bedroom, with a separate bathroom and small balcony. No kitchen facilities in these little $150 a month apartments, but no problem since street food is so good and so cheap in Bangkok. Kee did however have a refrigerator and a small dining room table and chairs. When I arrived, Kee and Wan were watching T.V. nice flat screen TV. For the next couple of hours I talked with these two guys, both of whom had good English. I was curious about their lives, the gay scene in Bangkok.
Kee had one of the most expressive faces I've ever seen in my life. Shaved head? and could have been the lead in The King and I. Very handsome guy. He could be an actor, for he seemed to be able to play different roles at different times throughout our conversation. He also was Mr. Personality! This guy had such an outgoing, vivacious personality, it was hard not to like him. He was just plane funny, insightful, the life of the party kind of individual. Kee was 31, had been the manager of an optical store in Bangkok before the company had been bought out and he lost his job. I soon learned that Kee had boy friends in many countries and so I dubbed him Mr. Butterfly. One in Australia, another in Spain and yet another in France. Like everyone else in Thailand, Kee had a mobile phone, and he showed me recent text messages he'd received from each one of these guys. The guy from Australia was coming to Bangkok in early August, so Kee was all in a dither about this upcoming visit!
Wan was also a very good looking guy with a light hispanic type complexion and short straight black hair. He had a more subdued personality, as compared to that of Kee. But then Phyllis Diller would seem pretty calm compared to Mr. Personality Kee! Wan was 36 and an orphan since infancy. No family what-so-ever. He'd been a cook at a small restaurant, but something had happened to make him jobless. Wan came across as an extremely sincere, hard working guy. The kind of guy you could trust to help you out with anything. The kind of person who would do anything for you. Nothing pushy about him, just a salt-of-the-earth kind of individual. He showed me the dog eared English book he carried with him everywhere. He told me he studied English every day. He really wanted to learn the language. Wan as compared to my Butterfly friend Kee, had never had a boy friend.
I decided I'd rather eat dinner with these two guys, so gave Kee $2.00 and he set off to buy some food from the street vendors. About a half an hour later, Kee returned with a big bag of boiled rice and three different Thai sauces. Delicious! More than enough food for the three or us in fact, two other guys showed up while we were eating and they ate too.
While Kee was out buying the dinner, I spent some time just chatting with Wan. It was at this point he told me his age, the fact that he was an orphan, and about how he got by with no job living in Bangkok. Obviously Kee helped Wan out whenever possible, such as with a place to stay at night from time to time and food as well.
It was here in our conversation that reality began to hit me and my self absorbing pity party took on a new and very different dimension. Wan told me that when things got really difficult for him, he'd go to the temple where the monks would share the meager food they received once a day. He looked at me and with a smile on his face said, I have food for today and I have food for tomorrow. The next day, I don't know. I don't know. But what he said next broke my heart looking off into the distance he quietly said I'm just afraid of getting sick, at which point he became emotional, tearing up, and excused himself so he could go into the bathroom.
Little bit later Wan emerged from the bathroom, could see he'd been crying.
I listened as Wan talked. This was a young man who had nothing, truly nothing, no job, no family from which to fall back on, often no roof over his head, little food. Really not much if any kind of a social, emotional, or physical safety net. His biggest fear, given this lack of support, was getting sick and what that would mean. I could sense the very real feeling of desperation that came from Wan's very soul as he spoke.
In that instant of listening to Wan talk, I immediately let go of the envelope with the greenbacks, the silver dollars and the ring. None of them were important. None of them suddenly meant anything. My pity party came to an abrupt end.
How self absorbed I'd allowed myself to become, over things. things, just things, and how I'd allowed these things to cloud my view of the world. Here was someone standing before me who did not know where his meal the day after tomorrow might come from, his biggest fear was getting ill and probably being alone too, and yet, I did not sense that he allowed any of these things to control his life, make him angry or upset. In spite of his expressing to me what must have been one of his deepest fears, that of getting ill, Wan still had a calmness and inner peace that seemed to radiate out of him.
Did I learn anything from the three unmindful events? Was the chance meeting with Wan a positive life changing encounter for me? I can only hope the answer is yes.
Hey Buddha! You know, I want to be enlightened.... I want to be free from all suffering, including that pain in my frozen shoulder!... but does enlightenment have to come at the very top of a mountain!
While staying in the port city of Krabi, a small quaint village situated on an inlet leading to the Andaman Sea, I'd heard stories of this rather mystical Buddhist Temple and Monastery located at Tiger Cave. One afternoon I'd even seen the Temple, aglow
with the late afternoon sunlight, sitting high on a steep, rugged jungle covered limestone mountain. The highest peak of all the limestone mountains which make this such an unusual part of Thailand.
Yup there it sat, high on the mountain, and I'm thinking to myself. Hey, that would be cool to visit this mysterious and mystical Buddhist site. Trick here being... I'm afraid of heights! Never really liked getting my feet too far off the land. So how do I fly? Well.... simple. I never sit at the window, if at all possible,
preferring to have an aisle seat. I remember being at a meeting in San Francisco one time, while working for Food For All, when I had an opportunity to stand next to a floor to ceiling window on the 15th story of a downtown office building. With my toes pressed against the window, I looked out at the beautiful bay.... and then I looked down! Bile rose up in my throat as I immediately felt dizzy, cracked my head against the perfectly clean window as I fell forward, and had it not been for that sheet of glass, I'd have fallen forward and become about as flat as a California road kill gopher after a day's worth of traffic! So why it was that I felt the "need" to make my journey, my pilgramage to this mountain top site, I'm not exactly sure.
Yes I do know.... I had heard there was a footprint of the Buddha at this site and I wanted to see it. That and along with the fact that I felt this could be an excellent experience for me, on my path to enlightenment. Now this whole thing with the actual footprint of the Buddha rather intrigues me. As far as I knew, the Buddha never made it out of India during his life time. So a footprint in Thailand? My mind sort of conjured up this image of several thousand years ago, this large ceremony here in Thailand where, like on the streets of Hollywood where the celebrities have their hand prints, a group of dignitaries and devotees got together for the Buddha to put his foot in wet cement. I could see the masons leveling out the cement as the Buddha slowly made his way through the throngs of people, to arrive at a spot where, very carefully, he put his foot into the wet cement, a huge cheer goes out from the crowd, and then he gently pulls his foot out and someone wipes the wet cement from off his shoe. Ceremony over, as the gate to the fenced in area is closed to protect the footprint for eternity.
Actually, the footprint (from what I've heard) is actually in stone. So I guess the whole idea of the Buddha's footprint being in stone, could be considered something of a mirrical...similar to those found in all major religions, like that of the corpse of Saint John, which after having been beheaded in the early 1st century,
was carried by angels to the western coast of Spain, only to be identified several centuries later by the King, who then had a huge church built over the tomb which became a pilgrammage site during the Middle Ages. Yup... the Buddha's footprint in stone... I needed to see this...
A slight rain was still falling when I caught the mini-van from Krabi Town to Sai Thai Temple. Short ride, through the mountainous cliffs, and there I was at the base of one of the limestone cliffs.... a huge statue of a Buddha, laying on his side greeted me as I descended the vehicle. Off to the left side of the Buddha
statue, a huge, new, modern Buddhist crematorium. These crematoria are built in the achetectural style of a Buddhist Temple, the only differences being that they are smaller and then there is this huge, tall chimney that reaches to the sky.
Finding what seemed like a trail that would lead me to the steps that would take me to the top of the mountain, off I went. The path, a legal nightmare had it been in the States with broken steps, wet and slippery from the night's rain, was not what I had been expecting. I'd no more than begun my pilgramage journey to experience "enlightenment" at the top of the mountain, when, the fruit that I'd been eating a lot of over the last few days, kicked in. Being on what I considered to be rather holy ground, I did not just want to duck behind a tree or slip into a little cave, I searched and was lucky enough to find a decrepit, run down squat type bathroom. whipping away the spiderwebs which covered the door entrance, I was not sure I wanted to close the door behind me as I cautiously ducked my head into the dark, dank little wooden room. Nothing seemed to be moving around in the
dark recesses as I got down to busness. Searching through my fanny pack, I realized I had not brought any TP along with me! What to do? What to do? As with all Thai bathrooms, there was a bucket of water and a small bowl floating in it. This was not a time to stand on protocol, so when in Thailand.... do as the Thai!
I was ready for my mountain climb. Off I headed, up the slippery, slimy, broken down steps. I'd climbed some 50 or more steps when it seemed to me that I was on the wrong path. All I came upon were some Buddhist tombs holding the bones of monks.
The path deadended. Down the mountain I headed and find out where the 1000 plus steps were that would lead me to the top.
Fortunately there was an old monk at the shrine below. In Thai, I asked him if he spoke any English. "A little" came the reply. I asked him where the path was. He pointed in the direction I'd just been! Then he added "Carefully.... wet." Yup.... I knew that much already! Since I must have had a very sceptial look on my face, the old yellow robed monk asked a young man to show me where the path was. Up the mountain side we headed again. Got to the area of the tombs and the young man pointed me in the direction of the path that headed off into the grass, then a mud path that went straight up at about a 70 degree angle! What? That's that path? Sure didn't look like steps to me!
I wanted to see that footprint and experience the mystical atmosphere of the mountain top, so off I went again. The path was impossible! The night's rain made the path almost impossible to move forward the only thing I could do was to
grab hold of the bamboo pole which served as a rail along the left side of the path. Now a slight problem here.... left hand side... also the side where I'd been having so much trouble with my shoulder. With each pull of my left arm as I grabbed hold
of the bamboo rail, pain shot up my left arm! This could not be good for my recovery! I'd just seen MorGit, the massage guy who's been working on my shoulder for the last week, the night before. Much of the pain had gone away, following my four
visits to this old man's house. But now.... I had barely started up the mountain muddy, slippery path and my shoulder was sending me some warnings loud and clear.... keep this up buddy and I'll cause you incredible grief tonight when you try to sleep!
Up, up, up I struggled. I was sweating, even though the temperature was relatively cool. It was only about 8 in the morning, and the sun had not had a chance yet to really warm things up. I'd been crawling (literally!) slowing up the mountain,
swatting mosquitos that swarmed around my head, when I saw a small landing head. Now it truly was neigh onto impossible to follow the path... it was more like I had to whack my way through the jungle. So the little landing ahead was a welcome site. Climbing up to the site.... there was... a golden Buddha! Not that big, only about 5 feet high. But the Buddha was looking out over the valley below. Beautiful view as I looked out at the limestone mountains jutting out of the endless green rows of palm trees below. My view seemed to go forever... only blocked slightly
by the billowy cumulus clouds far off in the distance. There I sat, huffing and puffing, sweating, swatting....
The path went no further. All I could do was go back down the same way I'd struggled to get to this point. Actually, I was rather happy, since it had been such a struggle to get as far as I did, I knew my shoulder would not allow me to go the additional
1000 or more steps that were needed to get to the top. So, with a slight amount of dismay at not having reached the mountain top and seen the Buddha's footprint, I slipped and slid back down the dirty, muddy, slick path. I was wringing wet when I got back down.... Happy actually to be in one piece, since on the way down I thought I might loose my grip and just slide down on my butt!
At the bottom of the mountain, I ran into a family that was visiting the Temple. The man, European (Swiss actually) with his Thai wife and two children. Even though I felt a little buised and beaten from my initial climb up the mountain (plus something
had puncture the skin on my right little finger next to the nail and I was bleeding like a stuck pig!), I still wanted to get to the top of the mountain, so asked the man if he knew where the steps were? He looked at me.... "You are at the wrong temple!" Really!!!!! "You want Tiger Cave Temple... Watt Tham Sua... this is Wat Sai Thai." The Tiger Cave Temple was in the opposite direction.....
okay.... back to square one.
Back to the main road to wait for the white mini van to Krabi Town. It was still early in the morning, so I waited for more than a half a hour before a van came my...... by then... the day was beginning to heat up....
I arrived back in Krabi Town, stopped by my hotel, washed out my bleeding finger wound (actually very, very small!) and got back on a different colored mini-van.. red one... which was to take me to Tiger Cave! This vehicle wandered around Krabi Town, picking up people, dropping off people, picking up people, dropping off people... I thought I would never get to the temple! Eventually I was the only one left on the van, and as the vehicle seemed to be heading back into town, I thought to myself, did the driver forget where I wanted to go? But no... he'd remembered... for I looked off into the distance and could see what I thought was the Tiger Cave Temple sitting high on the mountain peak. It was nearly 11 a.m. when the van came to a stop at the base of the mountain.... I had arrived.... at the base of the mountain! I walked along the paved road, past the various food vendors, souvenier shops, and
temples under construction until I came to the starting up for the mountain climb.
The steps up the mountain side were VERY well identified. There was a sign.... 1237 steps to the top and the Buddha footprint. The heat of the day was there, the sun burned down into the valley... and I was about to begin my climb to the mystical top of the mountain... What's that old saying about "Only mad dogs and Irishmen" being out in the heat of the day? Well.... that was me.
As I walked up the cement sidewalk, leading to the steps, I intentionally decided I would not count each step as I made my way to the top. Instead I thought, this would be a good time for me to focus on the moment. Think just about each step,
what I was seeing, how my body felt, everything around me. A good Buddhist walking, or in this case climbing, meditation. Being in the moment.... on my journey to enlightenment...
The first set up steps were a piece of cake. I nearly ran up the 20 or so steps that lead to the first landing. I was no wimp! I could do this! I could stay focused, I could be mindful, I could....
It seemed the steps were like the switch back roads that wind back and forth to the top of mountains in the states. Climb one series of steps, reach a landing, the next series of steps would make a sharp turn and take one further up the mountain side. Now the beginning stairs shot up at about a 70 degree angle. Sharp climb to say the least. Long about the second landing, I came to a turn in the stairs that stopped me cold in my tracks... not just me, but also the Thai people who were coming down the stairs. Here the stairs dramatically shot up at about a 90 degree
angle! Unbelievable! Everyone coming down this part of the stairs where either coming down backwards, or were holding on to the metal railing with both hands to keep from falling! I let the group that was coming down pass before I headed up that cruel part of the stairs! It was so steep I was darn near crawling up on my hands and knees! Of course the thought came to me that was it possible the whole rest of the climb would be like this? Thankfully not... well, not quite as steep as this.... still very steep.
My being mindful had begun to slip too. It was getting hot. Each landing I hit seemed to place me closer and closer to the sun... and it got hotter and hotter the higher I climbed... or so it seemed. I began looking for any shade that might be available. Hey I would accept shade the size of a banana leaf if possible. Instead, I had to accept shade the size of a rose leave and be ecstatic about it!
I'd been climbing for what seemed forever.... pulled myself up to the landing. Dropped to my knees, then plumbed myself on the cement step.... breathing heavy! The sun baked down on me... my clothes, wet. It was if if I'd pulled my clothes out of the washing machine before the spin cycle! I dripped water.... I stared out at the valley view below... the rugged mountains on the horizon, the endless groves of palm trees, and then my focus came back to my general area.... there on the metal post holding the railing was written, 868. Immediately I knew what that meant...... I'd come up 868 steps.... 1237 needed to see the Buddha footprint, visit the mystical temple on the top and.... perhaps gain enlightenment?
Now... I'd not been counting the steps, did not want to know.... but now I did! Thought to myself... the monk who had painted this number on the post had either been very kind (wanting to let people know where they were in their journey to the top) or mischievious (letting one know, in general, how much further they had to do!)
On and on I climbed. By now mindfulness was out the window as my mind began to speculate how much money one could make by installing an elevator! I even began searching for potential sites where the elevator could be installed and the doors might open..... Up and up and up I climbed as the muscles in my legs began to scream out at me with each upward thrust ..... Now I knew there was no turning back, but I also noticed that I was now stopping to rest, not just at each landing, but rather after every two or three steps. At this rate, I grumbled to myself, I'll get to the top sometime tomorrow!
The last 200 steps were sheer torture! My whole body ached, I felt dizzy whenever I would look back down the stairs from where I'd come; my stomach felt queezy, it churned and turned; I felt dehydrated but did not want to drink from the water bottle
I was carrying..... with each step, that water bottle seemed to get heavier and heavier; and general heat exhausion set in. No one around. Just me.... I could pass out on the steep climb, fall backwards down the cement stairs, and no one would find me for hours.... my baked, sun burned body a heap on some landing......
Turning on a cement landing, I looked up and there I saw at the very top of the next series of steps, I saw the top step had been painted white with blue Thai writing on it. Above... I could see part of a building. I felt as though I'd died and was opening my eyes .... only to look upon Paradise! I could not believe it! I
was almost at the top of the mountain where I'd at last see the legendary Buddha footprint, experience the spiritual mysticism of this Buddhist site,..... and as for Enlightenment.... well... I just wanted some water and a little shade... if possible!
When I reached that top step... I collapsed onto the floor! All my muscles felt strained to their limits. The sweat poured off my forehead .... my breathing labored. Overhead, the massive 50 foot high brightly painted seated Buddha statue gazed out toward the sea. Eventually..... eventually my breathing slowed, my brain seemed to clear and I was able to remove my shoes and move up to the tiled mountain top where the Buddha sat.
The view was spectacular! I could see for .... I'd like to say hundreds of miles, but that might be a bit of an exaggeraton! I could see the sea, far off in the distance, the islands which are so plentiful in this part of Thailand... and there was a breeze! Even though the sun was baking the top of my head as it beat down
on me.... the breeze was cool and refreshing!
The top of the mountain was divided into three different levels..... all with cement slab flooring with an enormous seated Buddha that dominated the main area of this site.
Where's the footprint? Okay... got this gigantic Buddha sitting here..... where's his footprint? I searched every part of that mountain top, but to no avail. I could not find any footprint. I'd been told that there was a separate area one could walk to, an area most visitors to the mountain top never see, and that if I had time, I should try and visit. I'd been given general directions on how to get there, and thought to myself, perhaps in it in this other area that the Buddha's footprint is....
I wandered around and did find the path leading to the area where the monks lived in caves and where there was a mini rain forest. However.... the monks had placed green plastic in front of the area leading to this path, and when I looked beyond the green plastic, I could see I was staring into monk's living quarters. With the rains, perhaps the monks had moved in directly below the huge Buddha statue.... I could see beyond the hard beds in this small, cramped area, a short stair leading
upward.... but did not dare to enter the monk's living quarters.
So I wandered back to the area around the big Buddha.... by now some Thai had also made the incredible climb to the top and they too where taking pictures and walking around the various shrines built into the mountain top. At first I'd been by myself at the top of the mountain, feeling the power of the moment.... but this passed
rather quickly as the new comers began trying to communicate.... no, they were shouting.... to their friends who had remained at the base of the mountain. Pretty hard to feel much mystic energy when someone is shouting something to the equivalent of "Hey
Joe... you're a wimp... the view is great."
No footprint, no real mystical experience, .... Enlightened? Time to head back down the mountain.....
Now it is true that it is easier to fall down a mountain than it is to fall up one.... but the climb down was just about as hard as the climb up. By now my legs had turned to rubber. Each step, the muscles in my legs seemed to spasm! Rubber legs! I found myself stopping frequently... catching my breath.... letting my leg muscles relax...
About midway down, I met a group of 5 or so young Thai who were head up the mountain. It was interesting to note they too were sweating profusely! After they'd passed, and as they'd turned a corner which gave them a view of the stairs which seemed to go on forever... I heard one of them shout out...."Oh my god." Yup... that had been my feeling too when I'd turned that corner and seen the long steep stairs before me...
Nearing the bottom of the downward climb, again I met two young Thai who were headed up the mountain. Feeling a lot better, and perhaps a little bit devilish seeing how they were huffing and puffing with each step, I pointed out to them the red numbers painted on the post.... 313. They'd just gotten to step 313... they still had a very long way to go!
I could hardly walk by the time I got down to the bottom of the mountain and stepped down my very last step. My legs truly ached. The muscles by now had begun to tighten a little too, so that with each step I probably looked a little bit like the Tin
Man in the Wizard of Oz!
While at the top, I had searched for the Tiger Cave as well, but had found nothing that even looked anything like a cave which might have housed a tiger at some point in time. I guess that at one time, tigers did live in this area and a tiger had taken up living in a cave... until the monks took over the area and began mediating in the caves. Well..... once I got to the bottom, I did take a little time to wander around the various buildings at the base of the mountain. Most everything was in Thai, so little hard to figure out what was what... BUT... kind of by accident, I stolled into a huge cave... filled with Buddhas. Low and behold.... there was
a sign "Tiger Cave." Off behind one of the golden Buddhas was indeed, a marble stair (short one thank goodness!) leading to a large cave with a smaller cave off it where I guess the tiger lived and slept. The smaller cave had a wire mess door covering it, so one could not actually go inside the cave itself. Mystery solved....
I'd seen the Tiger Cave! I'd been to the mountain top! I'd climbed the 1237 steps to the top.... but as for the Buddha's footprint....
Later that afternoon, I headed off to the home of the teacher I'd worked with at the Ban Klog Hang School. I explained to her my adventure. We had a little discussion about how many steps it actually was to the top, she said one number and I another.
So I showed her the picture I'd taken at the base of the mountain, stating that it was 1237 steps to the top. Digital cameras are fantastic! I then went on to express my disappointment that I'd not seen the Buddha footprint at the top of the mountain.... "At the top of the mountain?" She exclaimed.... "It's not at the top of the mountain! It is right next to the sign you took a picture of showing it is 1237 steps to the top."
I don't know why the expression "Wherever you go.... there you are" came to my mind at this point.... but it did.
The thought that had started my adventure....So Buddha.... I want to gain Enlightenment, but must I climb to the top of a mountain....
I'd thought I needed to make the strenuous climb to the top of the mountain..., and although very beautiful (and I'm glad I made the climb) the mystic experience I thought might be there was about as long lasting as the breeze which dried my persperation!
I looked for the Buddha's footprint on the top of the mountain.... only to find that in reality, the footprint had been right where I was.
Mexico City: Standing on Holy Ground 7/2003
She’d always been something of a mystery to me, I thought to myself as I rode in the mini-van. My limited knowledge of her was based on some vague stories I’d heard about her in Los Angeles. All I wanted to do now as to spend a little time with her. I don’t know how long I’d mused about this meeting, but then breaking out of my mental reverie, I found myself walking along the sidewalk that would take me directly to her.
The sidewalk leading to her wa filled with people. I looked out at the deeply tanned and tired looking faces that glanced hopefully up at me. Their clothing was thread bear and worn. Years, if not lifetimes of poverty etched on their brows. There they sat, directly on the cement, seeking alms from those who passed by. A Holy Site, I thought to myself? The area seemed to be totally surrounded by the endless poverty ridden urban sprall which is so much part of Mexico City.
Hawkers of religious artifacts pushed forward, and with hand held racks of wooden and stone crosses, amulets, necklaces, and rosaries, tried vainly to make a sale. Given these surroundings I found it hard to believe that I, like thousands, if not millions before me, was entering Mexico’s Holiest Site. As the people moved forward along the sidewalk, I looked up and there were the guards smartly dressed in their perfectly pressed military uniforms. It’s hard to remember,now if they were armed, since I was so busy trying to figure out where I was going. But the eyes of those guards were very alert and vigilant as they visually scanned everyone entering the site.
The day of pilgrimage was absolutely beautiful, with huge white clouds floating slowly against a perfectly robin’s egg blue sky. The light rain the night before had not only cleaned the seemingly ever present chocking smog, something this world’s largest city is famous for, but it has also removed the ash that Popocateptl had rained down on the city the previous day, following what must have been a very mighty volcanic eruption! Mindlessly I followed the throng of people as they weaved their way past the guards and into the very simple entrance, through the main door and on into the long dimly light hallway.... the crowd pressed forward into a small basement like corridor ....and then all of a sudden, the crowd fell totally silent, some dropping instantly to their knees.
All eyes looking upwards There she was.... Her complexion was dark, her face serene. Her standing figure, with its turned down head, was dressed in an off white, almost sepia colored robe, over which she wore a full length deep blue hooded cape. Her hands, held over her bosom, upright, palm-to-palm in prayer. Her face seemed to embody the eternal peace of God as a bright yellowish red glow surrounded her figure and seemingly radiated outwards from her. I could only see her from a distance as I looked up into her downcast eyes.... eyes filled with compassion.... eyes that silently searched every soul in the small room.
Like the rest of the people, I was speechless as I stared at her in silent adoration. Her peaceful presence surrounded me and seemingly lifted me upwards. In one of those life changing moments, I realized I was standing on holy ground, for I was in the presence of Our Lady of Guadeloupe .... the very same image of the Virgin Mary, miraculously imprinted on the cloak of an illiterate Indian peasant some 500 years ago, hung on the wall before me.
The holy image I was now looking at, had, for centuries been housed in Mexico City’s Roman Catholic Basilica within whose walls I now stood. The image of The Virgin captured my heart, mind and spirit, as it has millions of Mexicans ever since the miracle first took place on that cold December day back in the 16th century. Intrigued, I stood silently in Her presence as the sounds of the choir, the rich chords of the massive organ and the sweet smell of incense from the morning mass underway in the Basilica, all reached out and touched and hightened my senses.
Nearby, a teenage Mexican boy knelt in silent prayer, his eyes fixed on the Virgin. Still others, Mexican families, nuns, tourists, pilgrims, all visitors, stepped forward to catch a short ride on one of the two slow moving trams or walkways which passed directly beneath the Virgin.
As I stood there, taking all this in.... the history of this miracle passed through my mind.... December 9th, 1531, Juan Diego was walking in this same area, located about 12 miles from downtown Mexico City. It ws here the Virgin Mary first appeared to Juan Diego and asked that a church be built on this spot.
Historically, this appearance of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego, was very early on in the Spanish conversion of the local indigenous people to Christianity. Hernan Courtes had only begun his conquest of Mexico in 1519, aided to a large degree by the Atec believe that he was the far skinned god Quetzalcoatl, whom myth had decreed would return one day to conquer Mexico. Of course Spanish armor, guns and horses which were unknown in Mexico at that time, also greatly helped the Spanish quickly advance and take over the country. Juan Diego, a simple uneducated Indian peasant told the Bishop of his encounter with the Virgin Mary. The Bishop however, did not believe Juan and demanded proof that the message was indeed from the Virgin Mary.
On December 10th and 11th, the Virgin Mary again appeared to Juan as he walked in the same area. On one of these days, a couple of men had followed Juan as he walked. When the two men lost track of Juan, they returned to the Bishop only to tell the Bishop lies about Juan of how Juan was not only a liar but a drunkard who could not be trusted.
Then on December 12th, 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared before Juan, now for the 4th time. Juan explained the Bishop’s demand for some proof to which the Virgin asked Juan to go out and collect roses. This being December, winter in Mexico, roses were not in bloom. Juan went out, picked the roses and brought them back to the Virgin. The Virgin touched the roses and told Juan to take them to the Bishop. Juan gathered the roses up in his cloak and set off to see the Bishop. Having heard the stories of Juan being a liar and drunkard, the Bishop kept Juan waiting for most of the day. In addition to the rumors, the fact that Juan was just a simple Indian peasant might have played a part in the Bishop not wanting to meet again with Juan.
All the while as he waited to meet with the Bishop, Juan held the roses chose to his chest. Eventually that same day, the Bishop gave Juan an audience. Juan explained to the Bishop that the Virgin had appeared to him again that day and as proof of Her appearance, the Virgin had requested that he pick roses for the Bishop. However, when Juan let his cloak fall to show the Bishop the roses he’d collected, the cloak was empty, they were all gone.... replaced instead by the dark faced image of the Virgin.... Our Lady of Guadeloupe.... imprinted on the fabric of his simple cloak.
Now in July, 2003 I was looking at the same image the Bishop first saw on the folds of Juan’s cloak some 5 centuries earlier. Immediately, the indigenous population was able to relate to this Mother of God, who, color wise, looked like them. Historically, Her appearance on Juan’s robe proved to be a major turning point in the conversation of the Mexico’s population to Catholicism. Prior to this event, the Aztecs had had a very difficult time relating to a mild, meek God figure. To the Aztec mind and culture, their gods were violent warriors which demanded the same of them.
Their sun god set daily in the west to do battle all night and every night with the gods of the underworld.... only to rise the next morning, bright red.... bloody from the battle. The sun god rose not only bloody, but thirsty and hungry. Only human sacrifices with the blood and hearts would satisfy their god. Likewise, the Aztecs immatated the violent nature of their gods in their daily lives by killing who knows how many captives on a daily basis. In addition to their holding high to their hungry god the still beating hearts, freshly ripped from the chest of captives, Aztec warriors participated in gladiator type games. Standing fully armed on a large rock slap, about a foot thick and 8 feet in diameter, three Aztec warriors would fight an unarmed captive, who might also be in chains. If the captive was able to kill all three Atec warriors, he would gain his freedom. If not, the captive would die. A hole in the middle of the rock with a drainage canal leading out to the edge made me to believe these gladiator type battles were brutal and very bloody. With such a violence permeating the Aztec society, the concept of a peace loving God was totally foreign.
The appearance of Our Lady of Guadaloupe was to become a major milestone in Mexico’s history. The significance of the Virgin’s appearance in 1531 was further underscored during the Pope's visit to Mexico in 2002, when he elevated the status of Juan Diego to Sainthood.
Breaking out of my silent, almost trance like state.... I looked up for one last time at the sacred image, then slowly walked up the stairs into the main part of the Basilica and observed the mass that was in progress. Built to hold over 10,000 worshippers, the huge structure is daringly modern in design with what for me was a sweeping, uplifting feel to the whole building. From there in the center of the Basilica, the golden framed image of the Virgin was clearly visible.... just to the right of the foot of the massive cross that was suspended from the ceiling over the alter. Mass ended and I watched as people left the Basilica, stopping to touch a glass case near the exit. The case I was to find out, held a badly bent two and a half foot gold cross.
In the 1970s’s, a religious fanatic placed a bomb on the alter of the old Basilica which at that time housed the sacred cloth image of the Virgin. The bomb exploded, but the cross took the brunt of the explosion, leaving it severely damaged. The cloth, with the image of the Virgin was left untouched. The old Basilica was built in 1709 to house the sacred image.
The new Basilica was opened in 1976, next to the old Basilica, to house Juan Diego’s cloak with its image of the Virgin Mary. Rather fascinating architecture in the new Basilican, incorporates the moving trams directly beneath the main alter allowing people to pass by the cloth image without distrubing mass which is going on directly over head.
Side note on the old Basilica: it is a very ornate structure which has been slowly sinking into the soil of the Tuxcoco lake bed, causing the building the shift and tilt. Present day Mexico City sits in a large valley surrounded by mountains. The valley on which Mexico City rests is a shallow lake bed, which means the whole city is slowing sinking.
Knowing my time at this holy site was quickly drawing to a close, I took one last look at the Lady I’d come here to see, and walked out of the new building and over to the old Basilica. Near the entrance was a life size bronze statue of Juan Diego. I watched as people slowly filed by the statue, stopping to touch the statue, to say a prayer, and to request of miracle. Juan’s hands and feet were bright and shiny from the many people who, over the years, had gently touched him, hoping for a miracle in their lives.
Behind and to the right of Juan Diego’s statue, was a large board covered with red cloth. The board was about 10 feet high and probably 4 feet side. This was the board where people had attached small amulets, requesting a miracle. The amulets were thin, maybe a quarter inch long, and represented different parts of the human body.... an arm, a leg, eyes, the head, etc. Each amulet a request for healing of that part of the body. So many amulets are hung on this cloth daily that, as I understand, the cloth must be replaced every six months or so, allowing room for new amulets.... allowing for more request of miracles to be placed on the board behind Juan Diego.
Leaving the old Basilica, I knew I had just enough time to visit the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego. The site, now an enclosed garden was filled with manicured trees and...... hundreds of roses. Tranquility filled my soul as I mentally prepared myself to leave this holy site. The Basilica and grounds which is now home to Our Lady of Guadaloupe.... a powerfull site with a powerfull story... one which seems to be as much alive today as it was when it took place, so many centuries ago.
Thailand: Encounter with the King of the Naga 6/04
Growing up in Minnesota with its the Land of Paul Bunyan influence, mystical folklore was just a natural part of my culture. As a young boy prone to believing in strange monsters hiding under my bed, long haired Norwegian trolls living under the bridge north of my folk's farm, and gigantic red finned lunker musky swimming in the lakes, myth and reality often became intertwined. Interestingly enough, the two still do! So when I heard people in Northeastern Thailand softly whisper about an enormous, mysterious and revered serpent living in the nearby river, my imagination was sparked and my curiosity immediately peaked!
As I began looking into this historically influential creature, I found that mighty rivers are often a powerful source for creating legends and myths. Frequently, these stories are based on some historically distant fact. The Mekong River that starts its two thousand kilometer journey in the cold mountains of Mongolia, passing through tropical Thailand on its way to the sea, is no exception. Deeply embedded in the Buddhist way of life, as well as the local folklore of Northeastern Thailand, is the story of a gigantic river serpent living in the depths of the Mekong River near the city of Nongkhai.
Fact and fiction are often difficult to separate, especially when history, religion and culture are all involved. I heard passionate stories from people who said they'd seen the river serpent. I'd seen old, colorful paintings of it in the temples. I'd touched some of the statues that form such a basic part of temple architecture. Was everything I'd heard, seen or touched, simply legend or were all these things, a way of recording historical fact?
Whether the river serpent is fact or fiction, the reality is that people in this part of Thailand say that this strange, supernatureal creature influences every aspect of their daily lives. The entrance to Buddhist temples is guarded by these enormous, snarling river serpents. Frequently, the Lord Buddha statues within the temples have the tempestuous looking serpent rising up to protect them. The architecture of peoples' homes incorporates the river serpent into the design of the roof decorations. Parents recount the legend to their children, grandparents to their grandchildren. And every year, thousands of people flock to the Mekong River near Nongkhai to observe the supernatural phenomena attributed to the famous river serpent.
Locally it is believed that in Muang Badan, a massive underwater city the size of the whole Province, there lives a huge river serpent called "Phaya Naga." or the King of the Naga. From all accounts, this creature has a massive dragon type head with a large round, snake-like body. Ancient paintings in Buddhist Temples indicate the body to be much, much bigger than that of a very large horse. Its length is pretty much undeterminable since the King of the Naga is a water serpent and stays in the Mekong River. However, if the photograph taken by US soldiers at a military base in Loas is any indication of its length, the King of the Naga is truly of gigantic proportions. In the early 1970s, US soldiers captured a Naga creature, which as the picture indicates, measured well over 24 feet in length. This was an ordinary young Naga with a small parrot like beaked head. What these soldiers photographed almost 30 years ago, appears to be just an adolescent naga and not the enormous, colorful, and legendary centuries year old King of the Naga that lives in the river, close to where I was teaching English for the summer.
From all accounts, he King of the Naga is a beautiful, yet awesome, fierce looking creature. The huge head sitting on the scaly serpent like body is enormous. Its wide mouth is filled with long sharp white teeth and a slender red tongue. The eyes are wild, dark and penetrating. A fire-like tuft sits atop its angry head and a short flowing beard grows out of its lower jaw. Long slim unruly cat-like whiskers flow from its upper jaw, past what look like tiny ears but are actually a continuation of the tuft on top of its head. Its cheeks are large and puffed out as if it has the ability to spit shooting flames of burning hot fire. The body is long, a mass of toned muscle. This is a body that is extremely powerful, one that appears to be able to move with incredible speed through the water. The Naga gives the impression it is ready to strike at a moment's notice, capturing its prey in its powerful jaws, wrapping its muscular body around that of its victim and instantly crushing every bone.
Building on and enhancing its fierce appearance, the King of the Naga is a very brightly multi-colored reptilian creature, with a dark green back, brilliant red belly and scales which show just a hint of gold as the sun reflects off them. Its face is a golden yellow with black whiskers and red highlights around its mouth, beard and crown tuft. A series of small yellow dorsal fins runs straight down the top of its green back. A similar, but smaller yellow fin, runs down the middle of its red belly. It wears a spectacular gold necklace in which is set an ancient sparkly and extremely rare gemstone. This creature, even with what appears to be an extremely vicious temper, is in fact truly beautiful to look at.
This magnificent creature is also the one that is believed to cause a strange natural phenomenon that happens only in Nongkhai, and only once every year. It is also the same amazing creature that for centuries, the local people believe, has been guarding the sacred bones of Lord Buddha that were lost in the Mekong River while in transit from India to Thailand.
In spite of its wild, angry, and incredibly scary outward appearance, the King of the Naga is not a creature that invokes fear in the local people. Rather, it is revered and looked up to, since as the people in this part of Thailand believe, it worships and protects the earthly remains of Lord Buddha. It is because of its protective nature and guardian care taker characteristics that Buddhist temples incorporate naga statues into the design of the buildings. Every temple I visited in the Northeastern part of Thailand had at least one naga statue. At one extra-ordinary temple I visited in Nongkhai, there must have been hundreds of beautiful guardian green and red nagas. Massive green naga bodies forming the foundation of the temple, ten to 15 foot high nagas forming a powerful fence around the temple, numerous naga forming the door frame to enter the temple, plus naga river serpents carved into the wooden door, the rafters, windows. I was unable to enter the temple, but was told that there were even more naga figures inside the building.
There are people, including high ranking Buddhist monks, who convincingly state that they have seen the Naga with their own eyes.. For one 40ish year old woman I spoke with, her encounter with the King of the Naga, initially put her into a near coma state for a week. Following her face-to-face meeting with this powerful creature her life was totally changed, her career, her lifestyle, her basic spiritual beliefs.
Most people, however, only observe the mystical aspect of this legendary creature one night a year. For one night, and one night only, the King of the Naga shoots red and pink fireballs into the night sky from far beneath the surface of the Mekong River. This unique, colorful exhibition by the King of the Naga last only for a couple or hours and then is gone.
The supernatural display by the King of the Naga takes place the very last day of Buddhist Lent in October. Buddhist Lent lasts for 3 months. This is the Rainy Season, when monks much stay at only one temple for the entire period of Lent. This 3 month period is when it is believed Lord Buddha went to heaven to preach to his mother. The Buddhist historical record states that on the last day of Lent, a gold and silver bridge was created for Lord Buddha to return to earth from heaven. Buddhist along the Mekong River believe the gates of heaven, earth, hell and the underwater are all open this day, allowing the Nagas to worship Buddha with their fireballs.
Two prominent monks in Thailand have explained part of the fireball phenomenon in this way. Traditionally, the local people would make torches made from insect waste collected from trees. These torches would then be placed on 50 to 90 foot long poles on their boats. The floating fireboats were the local people's way of expressing their respect and tribute to Lord Buddha. In order to make their boats even more spectacular, the people fired small handmade rockets (Ban fai) into the night sky. It was with the addition of these rockets, that an unexplained phenomenon occurred, rockets were fired from under the water, as if the King of the Naga wanted to participate in this end of Buddhist Lent event.
The mysterious, colorful fireballs appear from 6 p.m. to about 2 a.m. on the last day of Lent. Sometimes as few as 50 may appear during the one night celebration, while during other years, thousands may shoot some 60 to 100 feet into the air. The fireballs can come from near either the Thai or Laos banks or from the middle of the river. The strange fireballs light the night sky, then disappear without any noise or smoke. Thousands of people come to Nongkhai every year to participate in this event and observe for themselves the supernatural appearance of the King of the Naga.
I would have loved to have been in Thailand this coming October to observe this supernatural event myself, but, that's a busy time for new teachers in California. The beginning of the school year is when I spend a lot of time assisting the newly hired Special Education teachers in Rialto Unified School District. Maybe when I retire, a visit to the Mekong River in October could be my way of celebrating my teaching career!
So knowing that my stay in Nongkhai was coming to an end, I biked down to the Mekong River to say goodbye to some friends and to spend a little time meditating next to the river. I'd often seen a young monk meditating there at sunset, and on a number of occasions had followed his example of focusing on my breath as the sun would set. Sitting on he banks of the slow moving Mekong River can be very peaceful and relaxing.
A few hours earlier, a big thunderstorm had moved through Nongkhai and was now just across the river making its way slowly into Laos. What an extravagant sound and light show nature put on for me as I watched the lightening flash across the sky, followed by the deep resonate rumble of distant thunder. If the distant tropical monsoon rainstorm was not enough, the setting sun made a spectacular appearance as it dropped through the clouds and over the horizon. Rarely have a seen a sky so beautiful as it was that evening. The horizon was filled with large white, gray and black cumulous clouds that billowed high into the early evening sky. Dramatically the sun would peak through these clouds, sending long yellow shafts of glimmering rays, overlaying them against the clouds which were turning from the pastel shades of pink, blue and white to deep crimson red and orange. It was the type of visually and emotionally charged sunset, that as a kid, I always envisioned as the celestial backdrop the second coming.
Because of the rain and the intense heat still coming from the setting sun, the evening was stifling hot, with near suffocating humidity, and not the slightest breath of a breeze to stir the air. The river was mirror calm, perfectly reflecting the colorful clouds and the beautiful setting sun.
From the corner of my eye, I saw movement on the water's surface near the middle of the river. At first it was hardly noticeable. Then the disturbance below the water's surface grew larger, creating a mass of ripples that began traveling faster and faster toward the banks of the river.
Suddenly from the very depths of the wide muddy Mekong, the whole river seemed to explode upwards, as the water began to boil violently. Involuntarily, I fell backward against the damp riverbank. From one side of the river to the other, the water churned, frothed and swirled with a terrifying, massive earthquake type magnitude and force. Out of the brown foaming muddy waters, the section of a large dark green undulating body surfaced for a couple seconds, its sides briefly catching the sun's reflection giving it a gold shimmer before its sleek smooth body twisted and rolled sideways, exposing the red belly underneath. Then, the creature slipped back under the broiling water surface. I sat totally frozen. I couldn't breath. I couldn't move. I felt my heart racing.
My muscles were tense, tight, strained to exhaustion. My heart was pounding so hard in my chest, I feared for my life. All my senses were on their absolute highest alert. My body ached and tingled at the same time.
That's when it happened... another huge eruption of foaming muddy water boiled massively upwards from somewhere near the middle of the river. Out of the foaming, turbulent water shot a mammoth yellow and red dragon-like head, pushed higher and higher skywards by its enormously muscular green and red serpent like body. Riding high in the water, the creature was racing downstream away from me. I wished my heart would stop pounding as I held my breath, not wanting to make the slightest move that could possibly attract any attention to me what-so-ever.
But my luck did not hold. In complete shock and absolute terror, I stared out at what was happening in the hectic churning river before me. In the blink of an eye, the creature had suddenly changed direction, and at a break neck speed, the serpent was charging straight at me. I was petrified, I laid there motionless, scared to death. I couldn't even trust myself to look directly at the creature I was so scared. From the corner of my eye, I could see the angry serpent violently tossing its head back and forth as it got closer to the bank. Water flew off its whiskers and beard, drenching me. Still I could not, dared not move even a muscle.
Its huge wet body slid to a stop right at the water's edge, immediately in front of me. I could feel the cool air coming off its body caused by its abrupt stop. Without a sound the serpent reared its dragon-like head high into the night sky and stared directly down at me with those incredibly wild black, piercing eyes. For what seemed an eternity, those ancient eyes stared down at me.
I lay on the bank totally immobilized by fear. I had no idea what this angry looking creature might do next and was deathly afraid to speculate, for those eyes seemed to bore right into my very being. My brain felt as though it would explode, my heart was pounding so hard. I wished my body into action, but my arms lay dead on either side of me. My legs lame, lifeless. I couldn't even feel my toes. My jaws were so firmly clamped together, I thought my molars might crack. And still, the unearthly force of those intense black eyes firmly pinned me to the damp bank of the river.
Then, a brilliant flash of light from the setting sun's reflection off the creature's water drenched head, temporarily blinded me with its glare. With a mind deafening crash, the huge river serpent fell back into the muddy brown river. Its mammoth sized head and powerful body cracking the water's surface, before silently slipped back into the river.
It was gone. The Mekong River became calm again.
Post script to The King of the Naga: Hours later, probably still in shock, I lay in my bed unable to sleep. By now my heart had stopped pounding and the tips of my fingers no longer felt numb. Blindly, I stared through the pink mosquito netting at the dark ceiling overhead, trying to understand my unearthly encounter at the river earlier that evening. My mind struggled vainly to make some sense out of what had happened. All night I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, unable to get comfortable as I lay on my paper thin mattress, the only thing that separated me from the hard wooden floor.
The soft resonant sound of the 6 o'clock bell being rung by a Buddhist monk at the local temple gently awakened me from what must have been a very light sleep. The bell announced it was time for the monks to walk out into the community to be given the one meal they would eat for the entire day.
Lightening fast the events of the previous evening flashed through my still frazzled brain. My mile or so bike ride past the rice paddies on my way to the Mekong River. The heavy monsoon rains falling over Laos followed by a spectacular and dramatic beautiful red sunset. The incredibly oppressive humidity as night approached.
The calm, peaceful river turning into a caldron of foaming, boiling muddy water as the glistening side of a monster sized serpent emerged and then quickly disappeared back under the water. The fierce yellow dragon's head shooting straight up out of the river, creating a small tsunami that sped toward the bank. The mammoth green body crashing downstream through the water, only to change course and come charging directly at me. My initial feelings of fright turning to absolute terror as the creature came to a halt immediately in front of me, its wrathful head towering high over me. The wild eyes, those incredibly intense, penetrating black eyes. Eyes that stared down at me from behind a gaping mouth filled with razor sharp teeth. The ear shattering crash as the enormous serpent fell back into the river, then silently slipped into the murky water.
On the most superficial level, my brain seemed able to compute simply that something incredible and extraordinary had happened to me. To say my experience had been a once in a life time experience is probably a bit of an understatement. But at the time, that was about all my mind could handle.
On a much deeper level, as my brain began to clear, I felt blessed. No, not blessed in the sense that I felt relieved by the fact the creature had not drug me unceremoniously deep into the river only to crush my every bone. That wasn't it. There was something more, something just out of my feeble mind's reach. Yes, I indeed felt very blessed to still be breathing, to just be alive. But it was more than simply having a pulse and not being either on the critical list at some local hospital or inertly lodged against a slimy boulder at the bottom of the Mekong River. Laying in my bed, my mind kept searching and searching for some answers, but none seemed to emerge from my overly befuddled brain.
The final ring from the temple's early morning bell resonated through my room. For a split second, as that last soft gentile ring slowly drifted off toward the Mekong River, I saw again those piercing eyes of the ancient, protective river serpent I'd encountered the night before. In that fraction of a second, I knew that the very same fierce river serpent that for centuries had guarded the sacred bones of the Lord Buddha, now stared directly into my eyes, penetrating the depths of my very being.
I knew instantly, in that one single fleeting moment, I had been blessed. Truly blessed beyond words.
I had encountered the King of the Naga, and I experienced the unexplainable.