July 25, 2024


Travel Anywhere

Life in a Thai Monastery (Part 4 of 7)

Life in a Thai Monastery (Part 4 of 7)

These monks at Nanachat had a mystique about them . . . unmistakable, but difficult to explain. They were hardly noticed, so unassuming and restrained, childlike in many ways, and our hearts couldn’t help but go out to them. This was not Bangkok, where city monks took on the robes only to gain merit for relatives, or for reasons other than dedicating their lives to meditation and enlightenment. This was the real-deal at Wat Pah Nanachat, and I wondered if the stories of narrow escapes with death at these wats were exaggerated. I had a funny feeling we were about to find out.

The next morning I ran across a villager and a monk, chatting and busily working on a carcass. It was lying on a bamboo table in the shade of some banana trees near the sala, and appeared to be an animal, or something. They seemed to be skinning it. Mmmm. I didn’t think monks did that? So I moved closer, and discovered what it was that they were working on – a human skeleton! “Whoa,” I thought, recalling my cherished autopsy picture, “maybe I should round up Janet and head back to good ol’ Colorado right now!” This was really ghoulish – they were actually scraping dried flesh off the dead, gray bones.

Later that day, overcome with curiosity and a sense of the macabre, I asked around about the skeleton. What I pieced together was that it apparently had been curing in a sealed box under one of the kuties for two years, a necessary process so that the flesh could be more easily removed without damaging the bones. The two years had now expired, and it was time to scrape off the flesh before shipping the clean bones to Bangkok for pinning and bleaching.

During the years that the body was being stored, many monks inhabited the kuti in order to overcome their fear of ghosts, and, as could be expected, had unusual meditation experiences. The skeleton’s ghost was believed to roam about the monastery grounds every night looking for its children.

The remains were that of a young woman from the local village. She and her husband (the villager who was scraping the bones) would visit the monastery regularly to offer food and listen to dhamma talks, or sermons. The couple had a beautiful, healthy little boy and another child on the way. They were very much in love, and looked forward to an uncomplicated life in the village, raising their children and growing old together.

It was obvious that this couple wasn’t asking for much . . . were they? They were happy with the simplest of things; farming, raising kids, and then dying in the same village where they were born. This was 1981, just before Thailand became westernized to the extent it is now, and the humbleness and humility of these people overwhelmed us time and again.

The story of the skeleton continued: After their daughter was born, the woman began experiencing pain that steadily worsened. It became so intense and unrelenting that she could only lay curled up in bed all day. With no money available for treatments in Bangkok, village remedies and aspirin were her only option, and the pain finally became unbearable. One night she asked her husband to bring their children into the room and just hold her. She was saying goodbye.

Her soft crying was not so much from the pain now, but from what she was about to ask her husband to do. She wanted to die, the pain was too much, and yet how she could abandon her young children? What would become of them, and her husband? Her dreams were shattered. She asked her husband to leave his gun on the table.

He refused! How could he do this? He felt ashamed and unworthy, that he could not make her well. He would take his gun and rob somebody, and get money to take her to Bangkok, but there was nobody to rob; the monks had no money, and neither did the poor villagers.

The woman he loved was in pain, and he was helpless to do anything about it – except help her to kill herself. How could he live with such a thing; he would have to kill her himself and spare her the horror of pulling the trigger. Then he would kill himself . . . but what about the children?

He couldn’t do it; all he could do was place the revolver on her table and quietly walk out of the room, unable to look into her eyes. A few moments later, a gunshot rang out.

It was a sad story, and I couldn’t help wonder who really pulled the trigger. If she did, was it wrong for her to take her own life? Yes, according to the monks, it was, but I reserved judgment myself. How could I know what she was going through unless I stood in her shoes?

I would watch the monk and villager chatting and working on the skeleton from a vantage point across the courtyard, and occasionally I would notice the small, gentle villager with stooped shoulders put his knife down and become silent, looking off into the forest. His lined face and weak smile revealed the pain of a poor villager’s life that had come undone, and now he was doing the only thing left to do, fulfill a promise to the woman he loved for almost his entire life.

Her dying wish was that her skeleton be displayed in the main hall for all the monks to contemplate every day, reminding them that death can come at any time, and that death was always painful, and therefore they must not tarry in their efforts to find freedom in their hearts and hopefully not experience death too many more lifetimes.

The poignant story, and the actual experience of seeing this skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull affected me deeply, much deeper than any lecture about us being merely “bubbles in a stream which could burst at any moment.” I was actually living the Buddha’s words now.