January 2, 2009

The Joy in the ABC's.

So, it's the New Year. Didn't that already happen like a year ago? Weird. Anyways, like most of my New Year's Eves, this new years was overwhelmingly and pleasantly uneventful. Over a glass of wine with a dear friend (and in typical new years fashion), we toasted to our new years resolution. We pledged to "do this more and that more and this more," all in hopes of having a new year filled with "joy." And in this quest of joy, I was reminded of an event three years ago, when I found joy in the most unusual package....

Three and a half years ago, prior to starting law school, I traveled to Thailand with my friend Hannah to work in an orphanage. It was an amazing experience, but two months into it, I was incredibly burdened. I had learned that almost all of the girls (age 5-18) had been sexually abused at least once and it was hard to reconcile the fact that while these girls needed a home, intense therapy, and schooling, all I could offer was my presence (which would soon be gone).

Before returning home, I had the opportunity to stay in a Buddhist monastery for a five days. Feeling particularly weighed down and hoping to gain some insight on happiness, peace, and divinity, I eagerly jumped at the chance. Hannah, who had seen the monastery before, quickly opted out, which was fine by me as it was the perfect chance to have some quiet time and reflect on the months past.

I didn't blame Hannah for choosing not to come. The monastery was not quite like the ones you may typically envision. There weren't 50 foot gold Buddha's anywhere, the conditions weren't pristine and white, there were no flower gardens, no views of the valleys, and no clear lake filled with orange carps. Instead, the monastery lay on the outskirts of town, where roosters ran rampant, mangled trees shaded a murky pond filled with over-sized gray catfish, and tin shacks offered a place for the monks to sleep. The temple itself was...let's say....understated . I, lucky or unlucky, was not placed in a shack, but rather placed in an empty room (minus a mat on the floor also known as "my bed") on the second floor of two story empty building. Next to the room was a "bathroom" which consisted of a hole, a bucket, and a faucet. My room had one window, which faced the duck farm next door. Perfect, I thought, as I tried to subdue my fears of the bird flu virus, which had just started to trickle its way through Southeast Asia.

While it wasn't quite what I had expected (but is it ever?) I was excited to converse with the monks about Buddhism. The only problem was that I quickly found one spoke English. Like at all. The only information that was somehow conveyed to me consisted of the chanting schedule: 4:30 am and 6:30 pm. I quickly made my usual "to do" list and tried to calm the panic I felt when all I had written was "chant." This was going to be a veryyyy looooong five days.

At 4:00 am the next morning, the roosters "politely "summoned me to awake, so I stumbled down to the temple to begin the one hour Sanskrit chanting fest. I had no idea what I was chanting, but I'm pretty sure it was holy. After chanting, the monks started walking in a straight line in silence into town for their daily ritual of "begging" for food. I, not knowing what else to do, brought up the rear. We walked for miles, into town, around town, through the market. And one by one, people in town waited patiently for the monks to arrive so they could place a bag of homemade food into the large silver bowls the monks carried. Upon inquisitive glances of locals, I just smiled and waved--I can only imagine how ridiculous I looked, a white girl with blond hair, wearing a mock nun outfit, ho-humming around behind a line of robed Thai monks.

By the time we returned to the monastery, we had accumulated enough food for a feast. Which was important because we were only to eat one meal a day (although we could continue to drink (non-alcoholic beverages of course)). This would not be good for my low blood sugar, I thought, already feeling myself get hungry the second we finished our meal. Trying to distract myself from future hunger pangs, my thoughts drifted to my disappointment that the monks would not be able to translate their knowledge into tangible words. I felt like the Little Matchgirl, standing in the cold outside and salivating upon staring into a window where a happy family is about to sit down for a warm turkey dinner. I could see the wisdom in the monks eyes, my brain salivating at the taste of such knowledge, yet I couldn't quuuuuiiiiite grasp it. This is a sick joke, I thought to myself and whipped out a book on Buddhism (I had thankfully brought), while grumbling that I could have fricking been reading this Buddhist book on a Thai beach somewhere and instead I'm reading it in a crappy farm monastery.

The next morning at 4:20, I dressed for chanting and basically slept-walked into the temple. No one was there. Typical, I thought, to myself, obviously no one communicated to me that there wasn't chanting this morning. After crawling back to bed, ahem laying on the mat on the floor, I was awakened an hour later by an eager nun. She frantically motioned "let's go." Confused, I jumped up and soon found myself being crammed into a van with 10 other monks. Two hours later, still having no idea where I was going, we arrived at a temple in Bangkok. Apparently there was a huge Buddhist festival going on (I still to this day have no idea what this celebration was supposed to be). I spent the next 8 hours walking around the grounds of a massive temple being a bewildered spectator. Monks were everywhere, eating, laughing, praying, chanting, reading, and meditating. I sat under a tree and hoped that through simple osmosis I would feel wiser and enlightened. Instead, I felt confused and dumb.

When we were ready to leave, ten tired monks and I got back into the van. Halfway through our ride home, we stopped at a Thai 7-11 and all got out. The head monk got a large cherry flavored slurpee and walked around the shop. Suddenly, I heard giggling. I turned around to see the head monk, in his robes, trying on cheap yellow sun glasses and doing a little dance which consisted of moving his arms in a robotic fashion. Completely caught off guard, I burst into giggles too. And then, once we were all back in the van, the head monk turned around to me, smiled, and said "English?" I smiled back. "Yes," I said. He pointed to himself and said "English." I looked at him curiously. And the monk, the wise and enlightened man that he was, started singing joyfully "the ABC's." Soon the other monks joined in and clapping their hands to each letter they sang together the Sesame Street Version of the ABC's. And, at that moment, I did what any other person could do at the sight of a van full of Thai monks singing the ABC's... I joined in. And once the ABC's were finished, we sang "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." And once that was finished, I taught them "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

And halfway through "Mary Had a Little Lamb," it hit me. THIS is exactly what I so desperately sought. It didn't come in the form of words or doctrine or a teaching or a lesson from a wise man. It came in the moment of an innocent surrendering. And It was joy at being where I was (in a van in Thailand), with who I was with (strange monk men), when I was there (at that moment) and feeling peace. And I realized that THIS was the fundamental teaching of Buddhism: being present and letting go and finding joy in the ABC's.

Needless to say, the next four days in the monastery were transformative. And while I often need to remind myself that joy is in the simplicity of life's moments, I am so grateful for that wonderful, albeit utterly surreal, experience. And so, my friends, Happy New Years and here's to a year filled with the joy in singing the ABC's.


  1. I don't know about the ABCs, but I find a ton of joy in this story! I totally know that feeling of being the ignorant foreigner feeling stupid in the face of seemingly simple and routine activities. And also those wonderful moments when you all find your feet on the level ground of common humanity! This adds to my recent desire to go back to Nepal.

  2. Do it! Go back! I'll come... Nepal, India, and Tibet are next on my list.