Just Trying to be Normal

Sunna means ‘empty’ in Pali – the language of early Buddhism – and if it wasn’t for the sign at the top of the drive, one could have been forgiven for thinking that the aptly named ‘Sunnataram Forest Monastery’ was nothing but an empty field on the edge of a wooded hillside about an hour north of Auckland. The field, which was effectively the monastery compound, was bordered on one side by a neighbouring farm and on the other by a river running through the trees at the bottom of the hill. In it was an old corrugated iron cowshed: open at one end, with a raised floor, which served as the main communal living area. Nearby they had built a wooden sala (an open-sided pavilion), in which to house the Buddha image, and use as a prayer hall. The six monks, all from Thailand, lived either in a couple of caravans that were parked around the edge of the field, or else in little wooden huts, called kutis, that they were in the process of building in the woods. Rainwater was collected off the roof of the sala and stored in large drums for drinking. In winter taking a bath meant a bucket of river water heated in a big cauldron over a wood fire; in summer it was just the river itself. The toilet was a plywood hut over a hole in the ground.

It was August 1994. I had just arrived in New Zealand from India, and was visiting some relatives who, knowing of my interest in such matters, had taken me to meet the monks. After lunch the Abbot, Phra Chusit, asked me if I’d like to stay a couple of days, just to see what it was like.

I was there for the next six months.

I took to monastic life quickly and easily, with an enthusiasm that was rather unexpected, given how much I had hated boarding school. Much to my surprise, I found the rigour of an ascetic discipline to be as joyful as it was demanding; entering into the life, I felt myself being swept along by a powerful current that transformed the very foundations of my identity and worldview. If ever I had been under the impression that Buddhist monks were sombre and intense, it was soon dispelled by my experience of life at Sunnataram where, it seemed, nothing was ever taken too seriously, and our days were filled with playful laughter. Apart from morning and evening sessions of chanting and meditation in the sala, and lunch – which had to be eaten before midday – the timetable was quite loosely structured. But there was always plenty to do: huts needed to be built, and I often found myself assisting the novice, Nan Do – who had to do all the cooking – by chopping vegetables and doing the washing up. A couple of the monks were interested in yoga, so I gave them some lessons, and also helped those that wanted it with their English. My main duty, however, was to be their driver. This gave me a central role in the community, as we were several miles from the nearest town and Buddhist monks are not allowed to drive. For the most part, this involved trips into Auckland to visit Thai families, and would usually include lunch in a Thai restaurant. Since Buddhist monks only eat one meal a day, and preparing food to offer the monks is one of the main ways in which laypeople earn merit, it was often quite a feast.

As every tourist knows, monks are a familiar sight in Thailand. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Thai are unusually pious since it is customary for all Thai men to do a stint as a monk at some point in their lives, and there are all sorts of reasons why people think this is a good idea. I knew a man who, when his business wasn’t doing too well, reasoned that rather than, let’s say, going through the books and cutting costs, he should become a monk for a month, and thus reverse his ailing fortunes by clocking up some good merit on his karmic balance sheet. Needless to say, the company went bust. He didn’t last the month in the monastery either.

Of the monks I lived with, most of whom were in their twenties, one explained matter-of-factly that he had taken the robe after the death of his father. At the time, I couldn’t see any obvious connection between these two events. Later I learned that this is a fairly standard way of expressing one’s filial obligations, undertaken in order to earn merit on behalf of the father who might thereby enjoy a more favourable rebirth next time around. Another had recently left university, after taking a degree in law. The impression I got was that he saw being a monk as beneficial to his personal and professional development. It would look good on his CV, and it was a bit of time out before getting caught up in the rat-race. A third came from a family of farmers and had the ruddy complexion of a man who had spent much of his life working outdoors. I never quite managed to figure out why he had become a monk. It occurred to me that given the privileged status monks enjoy in Thai society, someone from a poor family, with little or no education, could suddenly find themselves elevated to the highest rank, and have politicians, millionaires, and royalty quite literally bowing at their feet – simply by becoming a monk.

One afternoon, shortly after my arrival, I wandered over to the cowshed to join the monks for a cup of tea. I found Phra Chusit nursing a baby goat, feeding it milk from a bottle, and beaming like a proud parent. Feral goats are common in New Zealand, where they are considered to be a menace to farmers, and we had several living on our land. I have no idea how the monks had managed to catch the animal, but from the state of their muddy robes, it had clearly been quite a chase. They decided to call it Pui, and together with the yellow Labrador (whose name I forget), he soon became established as a full member of the monastery. From what I could gather, some of the younger monks were missing home and finding it quite hard to adjust to life in a foreign country; having pets seemed to cheer them up a bit. Perhaps by way of further consolation, the Abbot suggested we might like to start a kitchen garden. Strictly speaking, Buddhist monks are required to live entirely off alms given by the laity. This means no farming, no growing of fruit and vegetables; indeed no economically productive work of any description. They have to be completely dependent. But discipline at Sunnataram New Zealand was a little more relaxed – in a number of ways – than it might have been back home, and most of the monks seemed quite okay with that. Over the next few days members of the local Thai community started bringing plants to the monastery. The novice and I were instructed to dig holes, and half-a-dozen young fruit trees were duly planted.

Pui the goat must have thought the gardening project was a splendid idea, as he discovered that the tender young leaves of our new apple trees were much tastier than the tough old grass that grew in the field. We surrounded the plot with fencing. Being a goat, he jumped over it. The monks were slowly beginning to realise that their cute little baby was fast growing up to become an obnoxious adolescent. In short, having a goat around the place was not actually such a great idea after all. They tried tethering him, but he made such an unbearable fuss that rather than put up with his bleating it was preferable to let him roam freely – and suffer the consequences. Having been taken from his mother and raised as a pet – albeit not quite house-trained – he had grown accustomed to being treated as one of the family, and it was too late to do anything to change that. Imitating the dog, he followed Phra Chusit around wherever he went.

During the six months I spent with the monks in New Zealand, I felt happy and free for the first time since early childhood. Slipping effortlessly into the simple, steady rhythm of monastic life, I realised I had discovered something really worthwhile and fulfilling: at last I felt like I was being true to myself, and doing what I was really meant to be doing. I intuitively understood that the whole of creation was in a state of balanced equilibrium: what is simply is. I saw the unity of all being, that in essence I and the universe were one. I was a wave in the ocean, and therefore I was the ocean too. In this euphoric state, all the concerns of everyday life that had once seemed so important just paled into insignificance. I had no interest in money or possessions; my highest aspiration was just to do what I was doing. Of course, a spiritual high, like any other, cannot last forever, but while it did last, it was pretty damned good. For a few blissful months I walked barefoot in the cool green forest. I was part of the one conscious ocean of being that is life itself. A tree dies here, a seed sprouts there. What is simply is, and I am that.

Every morning I would ask Phra Chusit if we had any appointments that day; whether, in other words, he would need me to drive them into town, or whether I would have the time to myself to read or study. Sometimes having been told that there were no plans to go out that day, I would just be settling down with a book, or perhaps already meditating, when all of a sudden I would hear the furious honking of a car horn. Emerging from my caravan I would find all the monks robed up and sitting in the back of the minibus: engine running, driver’s door open.

“Come on, come on, hurry up! We’ve got to go now!” The Abbot would shout impatiently.

“But I thought you said…”

“Never mind, never mind. Come on, let’s go!”

“So, where are we going then?” I would try and say as nonchalantly as possible, even though I’d actually be quite irritated that he hadn’t told me the plan when I had asked earlier.

“Don’t worry,” he would reply dismissively, “I’ll give you directions. Just drive!” He was always like that, and I’m sure he did it on purpose. Although it could be very annoying at the time, it forced me to be in the moment and prevented me from indulging in my own private world where everything was just the way I wanted it to be. Alternatively, he was just winding me up.

One day, however, we got lost.

“So which way do we go now?” I asked with an air of smug satisfaction. But he still wouldn’t tell me, preferring instead to carry on just issuing directions until we eventually found our destination – by luck, I would like to think, as much as anything else.

Before becoming a monk Phra Chusit had lived in the United States for several years where, among other things, he had worked as a barman at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go, the famous Los Angeles nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. Consequently, he not only spoke perfect English, but also had a somewhat incongruous penchant for junk food and Coca-Cola. Since becoming a monk, he had also spent a couple of years studying Zen Buddhism in Korea, and would often encourage me to practise my meditation in a more Zen-like manner. To this end, he gave me a koan to meditate on, saying that the practice of concentrating on the breath was all well and good, but that when thoughts arose, as they inevitably do – however well-developed one’s powers of concentration – I should simply let them go. As he spoke, I looked towards the river and noticed some leaves bobbing downstream on the current. Just let go…

After lunch one day Phra Chusit came up to me as we were washing our bowls and said:

“What colour is the sky?” I looked up. It was a brilliant azure blue, but I said nothing and just smiled at him. Everything we say about the world is also a construction of the world.

“Exactly!” He said, “You got it!” And then he added, “Do you know what this is all about, what we’re trying to do here?”

“What?” I replied.

“Just trying to be normal. We’re just trying to be normal. You understand?” I did, and it’s stayed with me ever since. In a world gone mad, in which everyday life becomes increasingly dysfunctional and alienating, those who follow a spiritual path – far from opting out – are just trying to be normal. To live life according to what really matters is to live a stable, integrated life united by a story that makes sense of things; as opposed to a fragmented life of disparate goals and agendas. This is what is so fascinating and indeed beautiful about the religious life: its singularity of focus, the way everything points towards… well, God I suppose. Or Reality, or Truth, if you prefer those words. By contrast, what we have come to regard as ‘normal’ is, when looked at more closely, a life with no unity of purpose, no coherent ethos, no over-arching story, no big picture.

This is an extract from my book Tantalus and the Pelican: Exploring Monastic Spirituality Today, Continuum, 2009.

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