By Pippy Giuliano
The first night in Bangkok, I found myself at a temple complex in the city center. A handsome monk in saffron robes approached me. He called me sister and I was beguiled until the talk turned suspiciously intimate. I ignored his suggestion to sleep with him, which didn’t register or make sense at the time. Twenty-one-year-olds are often impervious to malicious intent. Surely, nothing evil could happen in this land of gentle people.
After learning of my nighttime encounter, Clare Rosenfield, my high school French teacher invited me to live at her home in Bangkok with her husband Allan and their two children. Allan worked for the Population Council as a physician and advocate for women’s reproductive health. The only available space in their house was the dining room, which was transformed for me into a bedroom. Imagine disrupting your household to accommodate an itinerant traveler with no plans or timeframe. The Rosenfields scooped me up out of harm’s way, fed and housed me. What an incredible testament to their generosity.
Clare, a natural linguist, spoke Thai fluently immersing herself in Thai art and culture. As a member of the Thai History Study Group under the auspice of the National Museum, she wrote and collaborated on Ten Lives of the Buddha, a series of Jataka tales with photographs of early Thai temple murals. Clare was a practicing meditator and introduced me to Josephine Stanton, wife of the first American ambassador to Thailand. Mrs. Stanton was instrumental in developing a program of Buddhist study for foreigners at the royal temple, Wat Bovornives.
Mrs. Stanton invited me to tea in her garden situated on the grounds of the crown prince’s estate along the Chao Phraya River. I was warned not to pay attention to the king cobra who lived among the flowers. Fortunately, he remained concealed but we would encounter each other some months later when I was housesitting for Mrs. Stanton, affectionately known as Mem Mem. Snakes seemed to cross my path many times in this tropical paradise. The heavy midday rains often drove them out of hiding. Alternatively, seeking warmth, they emerged out of the thicket in the cool evening. Their ever presence became a symbol and object of my meditation practice. Serpents are often represented in Thai painting and sculpture.
After the Buddha obtained enlightenment, the Naga king emerged from underground creating a great canopy of protection over the Buddha.
Mrs. Stanton and Clare invited me to attend evening Dhamma talks held by the Somdet, Phra Nyanasamvara, Supreme Patriarch at the royal temple in the heart of Bangkok. The meditation training was Anapanasati (single-pointed concentration) with attention on the breath at the tip of the nose. Attention on the rising and falling of the breath, noting its qualities, leads to a quieting of thoughts. This form of meditation training stabilizes the untethered mind. At that time, there were no cell phones, TV or movies to fill my head but as usual, there was a cacophony of internal mind chatter to observe and deal with.
Evening classes were held within the temple grounds on a canopy-covered platform. The marble floor was refreshingly cool and a light evening breeze filled the air with the fragrance of frangipani and jasmine.
In soft-spoken English, His Holiness, the Somdet, delivered comprehensive teachings on the Pali Canon (Tripitaka) or three baskets: monastic rules, discourses of the Buddha, and Theravada Buddhist philosophy. A period of meditation followed the teachings. An hour or so later, we would quietly disperse into the night: treading softly, moving quietly in silence.
The Somdet was an extraordinary scholar, teacher, and patriarch of the Thai people. A monk of few words and gestures his intentions emanated from his quietness and carefully selected comments. Many years later, I learned that the Somdet and H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama were friends. It should not have been a surprise that two extraordinary monks from different Buddhist traditions and cultures would find friendship in one another. They were alike in so many ways though, one an introvert and the other an extrovert.
I am forever grateful to the Somdet for his Dhamma teachings, his love, and his compassion. Under his guidance, I learned the essential foundations of Theravada Buddhism and a method for training the mind. Prior to studying with the Somdet, my searching was simply a string of events in an exotic adventure. At Wat Bovornives under the Somdet’s tutelage, the clouds parted and the way made clear.
Forty-three years later, I joined my Tibetan teacher, Geshe Gendun Konchok on a trip to Southeast Asia. Bangkok was almost unrecognizable but when I found my way to Wat Bovornives, the compound was celebrating the 100th Birthday Anniversary of H.H. Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara. Throngs of pilgrims filled the temple compound to pay respect and make offerings to their beloved patriarch. It was a blessing to arrive just at that time to pay homage to my teacher.
Some months after my arrival in Bangkok, the National Museum art historian, Victor Kennedy, organized a river trip along the Chao Phrya River to the Malay border. Our accommodations were a rustic barge where the best sleeping was on deck under the stars.
Following the intrepid Victor, we climbed mountains and thrashed through the jungle to visit remote Siamese temples. On a jungle walk, we cooled off in a waterfall. On another occasion, we swam in the South China Sea on the night of the full moon in May.
After traipsing through a wooded area, we had an audience with a forest-dwelling monk. He used a magnetic figure to demonstrate the technique of walking meditation. What happened next remains a mystery but one of our members succumbed to his voice and movements as though hypnotized. She may have lost consciousness, which turned into her thrashing and crying uncontrollably. All while trying to subdue and comfort her, the monk remained detached and rather amused at the outcome of his demonstration. He was completely unflustered by the commotion going on around him.
At some point along our rather pleasant journey, Victor induced us to visit a reclining Buddha deep within a cave. We lined up single file along a path leading to the cave’s center. Before long, the tunnel narrowed to the point where we had to turn sideways and inch along shoulder to shoulder. The cave wall was a few inches from my nose. Panic shot through my mind and body. I suppressed a fit of screaming that would hardly be effective as there was nowhere to escape. I had no other choice but to quiet the mind and meditate on impermanence.
When we made it to the vast open chamber of the reclining Buddha, my first irreverent thought was to strangle Victor for not warning us of the narrow passage. He was not a bit contrite and remained quite unperturbed, not unlike the forest monk. The adverse conditions were a form of purification preparing pilgrims for meeting the Buddha within. It was a long practiced ritual of great merit.
I employed the death meditation with the same positive results in my panic as a novice scuba diver some years later. The focus on impermanence freed me from a sense of fear and claustrophobia during those initial dive lessons. The repetition of mantras kept me from freaking out in the deep end of the YMCA pool. Strangely, open ocean diving was challenging but never as terrifying as those Friday nights at the Y in Ipswich. Recitation of mantras floated up with the bubbles.
Somdet and Mrs. Stanton
Pip and Mrs. Stanton
Pra Kasalla and a Boy From The Village
Somdet, a Colleague of The Dali Lama
Villagers Making Offerings
Assembly Hall Wat Monchamsil, Lampang
Mrs Stanton and Thai Friends
Clare and Allan Rosenfield with Jill and Paul
I made a bunch of friends whose families were in Thailand for research. Not unlike me, the kids were young and privileged; Thai domestics made their beds, did the shopping and served delicious food in a most gracious and refined manner. Life was neat and tidy and the kids were free. So, three of us planned an excursion to northern Thailand. Food, lodging and transportation were incredibly cheap.
One of our last towns was Lampang where we hired a taxi for the day. At sunset, we ascended a steep hill to a monastery with a cluster of individual dwellings. We were warmly greeted by the abbot of the small compound. In perfect English, he addressed me; “Where have you been? I have been waiting for you. You will study with me.” My reality was shaken. Encounters like these are the stuff of fantasy. I promised to return after straightening my affairs in Bangkok.
Wat Monchamsil, Lampang, Thailand
I returned to Lampang on August 24th on the full moon of the second month of the rainy season retreat. Phra Khun Chao Kosalla accepted me as a student in Vipassana (insight) meditation, in the Burmese style. I addressed him as Ajahn, (teacher).
Part of my initiation required a vow to uphold the eight precepts; in particular not sleeping in a soft bed and abstaining from food after noon. Following the other precepts were less challenging. I wasn’t wearing jewelry, drinking alcohol or keeping company with the opposite sex and there was no temptation to kill, steal or tell lies. I was prepared for this retreat. An authentic and willing teacher had materialized on that hilltop offering his knowledge. At the temple compound, there was no pretense and no distractions. Engaging in this practice would be one of the most significant and difficult undertakings of my life.
The nuns had prepared my hut. Raised off the ground on stilts, it had a small front space for sleeping and meditation, an indoor toilet hole and a long narrow exit to the cistern on the rickety porch facing the forest. The cistern collected rainwater and was teeming with mosquito larvae. The occasional shower were scoops from the cistern poured over the body.
I found the corpse of a huge spider by the toilet. I left it there as a reminder to conquer my fear of similar creatures and snakes whose place I had invaded. Just in case, I wrapped the mosquito netting tightly around me at night to prevent any nocturnal visitors. It is hard to subdue fear living in the open at the edge of the forest. My quarters had spaces for windows and doors but nothing to close them.
The daily routine involved continuous walking and sitting meditation. Reading of spiritual texts was not encouraged. Anything other than meditation was considered a distraction. The one daily meal was prepared by an elderly nun; fried greens and rice. Onions and garlic considered stimulants were eliminated from the diet. I was allowed to have tea at night. On occasion, Ajahn added sweetened condensed milk to the evening tea. The sweet cream became the elixir of life after a day of sweltering heat.
The period of silence was lifted when Ajahn would come at the end of the day. I would give an account of the day’s practice. Sometimes my teacher would ask what I saw or experienced and he would give directions for the following day. We chanted prayers to end the teaching.
Sundays, people would come to the Wat bringing flowers and gifts for the abbot and nuns. People would gather on my steps, delirious with questions about the supernatural. They were mostly interested to know if I had seen ghosts or spirits. Given the opportunity to speak, I indulged myself in some storytelling.
The abbot encouraged me to shave my head, as was the custom for retreatants. Part of me wanted to for all the wrong reasons. But I held firm not out of vanity but to protect my parents from more shock. At that point, I didn’t know how soon I would be returning home. Even if my return was not imminent, the inevitable photo might provoke their distress.
My parents were constantly fearful of the dangers of solo travel. They were aware of the proximity of the monastery to the Laotian border where America was conducting a covert war. The evening news was a constant reminder of the horrors of war throughout Southeast Asia. Ajahn forbid me from venturing at night beyond the monastery compound toward the stupa in the field. I never asked why but suspect there was some danger beyond.
At one point, Mrs. Stanton arrived at the monastery as an emissary of my parents. She insisted that she knew I was all right but agreed to lay eyes on me. She found me a bit underweight and insisted that my daily meal include some protein. Ajahn had peanuts added to the meal. They were heavenly. At the time, it was unclear when I would leave the monastery and Mrs. Stanton was content with my answer. She had made good on her promise returning to Bangkok satisfied with what she had found.
The Theravada Buddhist tradition in Thailand had no gender bias or restrictions. Study and practice was open to anyone, foreigner or Thai who sought meditation instruction and spiritual guidance. There was a generosity and accessibility of the training compared to the rigidity I found in Japan. Temples all over Bangkok welcomed the wanderer who settled in to meditate. One’s intention was not questioned and no one to report to. No gold stars were handed out because you made the sacrifice to spend a scorching day alone in a remote temple. You were the only monitor of your own quiet journey.
At some point, it became clear that the time was right to leave Wat Montchamsil and head for home. I felt confident, happy, and ready for life’s next chapter. I felt a bit sad leaving Ajahn after three intensive months but our connection was firm and deep – no time or space would interfere. We would stay in touch.
A few months later, I received a letter from Lampang with the news that Ajahn had died. It is customary during the rainy season to return to the place of one’s ordination. Ajahn and a number of monks perished in a fire that swept through the place where they were sleeping.
My heart goes out to all who helped me along the way. To the people who assisted with lodging, visas, food and friendship, I am eternally grateful for your generosity.
To my teachers for coming again into my life with wisdom and compassion, I dedicate the merit of my practice.
May all beings have happiness and its causes.
May all beings be free from suffering and its causes.
May all beings never be separated from sorrow less bliss.
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from bias, attachment and anger.