The Venerable Louis

It’s only natural that during my time as an English teacher here in Asia, I have made an interesting assortment of friends.  Many of them have done the same thing as me: teach for a few years before moving on to something zanier.  Several members of my cohort from Daegu have since moved to Southeast Asia – and even as far as Saudi Arabia – to continue teaching English.  Another has swapped English for Yoga and is now somewhere in France.  Another is a lawyer in Myanmar, another works as an English teacher and agricultural advisor for an NGO in Cambodia, and another is on a tropical Thai island following her dream of becoming a belly dancer.  It’s hard to say who’s the bravest/craziest/awesomest, but a few weeks ago, a new challenger entered the ring by ordaining as a Buddhist monk in the Thammayut Nikiya forest tradition somewhere in eastern Thailand.

Say whaaaaaaattttttttttt?!

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Meet Louis P!  Born in the USA and raised somewhere in the midwest, he’s now officially on his way to gaining direct fundamental insight into the nature of things and thereby escaping the otherwise endless karmic cycle of birth, illusion, suffering, death, and rebirth.

Now that’ he’s been ordained, he gets a couple titles: “Kruba,” (“Pa” for short), which I believe is Thai for “monk,” and “Than,” Thai for “venerable.” At ordination, his abbot also gave him a name in Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures: “Janasaro,” the meaning of which I promptly forgot.  The other lay people at the monastery, mostly cooks and groundskeepers and such, referred to him as “Pa Louis.”  He referred to the other monks sometimes by their Pali names, sometimes by their Pali names shortened and then with “Than” in front, and sometimes by their Thai names.

I’m going to go with the Venerable Louis, both because it’s respectful and because I feel some coolness by association.

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The abbot and other monks assented to my picture-taking, but asked me not to disclose the name of the temple, its location, or other identifying information.  The abbot wants to make sure that this particular monastery remains dedicated to depth – that is, a place of serious Buddhist study and practice where the monks can focus on their own development – rather than to breadth, i.e. explaining the basics of Buddhist philosophy and meditation to those who are just getting interested in it.  This may sound a little heartless, but I can sympathize.  There is no lack of places where travelers can go for brief temple stays and Dharma talks and, moreover, I remember from my time at Sadhana that one of the main reasons that volunteers who had promised to stay for several years wound up leaving after six or eight months was that they felt that they spent too much of their time instructing new volunteers on the basic principles and operations* of the community and not enough of it on delving into the things they were there to learn.

I was nonetheless accepted without question, and was quickly allowed to participate in many aspects of daily temple life.  I would say that perhaps Ven. Louis had put in a good word for me in advance, mentioning that we had done temple stays in Korea together and that it had been me who had introduced him to Vipassana retreats, but in actuality he had no clue that I was coming!  Knowing I was on a bike in Asia, he had emailed me about a year ago with some general updates about his whereabouts but hadn’t included enough information for me to find him, nor did he have frequent enough access to email to give me further details.  Thus, it turns out that I actually passed within about 100km of him on my way from Laos to Bangkok for the first time back in July.  Then sometime not too long ago, maybe after getting notification that Ven. Louis was about to be officially ordained, Ven. Louis’ mother posted his address on Facebook.  Score!  I took it down and made a plan to pay him a visit.  I didn’t bother to tell him, since getting places on time is not my forte’ nowadays, and since he wouldn’t be able to check anyway.

I wish I had a photo of the “Yeah, Mike’s the sort of guy who would do something like this” smirk that lit up on his face when scraggly old me came rolling into his monastery.

*e.g.: “pee here [point at squat toilet], poo here [point at opening of giant ceramic jar in the ground], wipe like this [grotesque demo]!”)

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Much in line with the Abbot’s wishes, it took some serious dedication to find the monastery.  A Google search for the name in English reveals very little except a mostly useless blog entry from someone who visited a few years back.  Nor does anything show up in Google maps when you type the name in English or in Thai.  Once I had cycled to within about thirty kilometers, several restaurant owners were able to tell me that I ought to go another ten or twenty and look for a sign.  They all agreed that it was on the left side.  What they didn’t know was that the sign had fallen over some time ago and the abbot had given explicit instruction not to put it back up.  Unsurprisingly, I overshot the monastery, eventually finding it after before being told by a kind villager that I ought to turn around and go down the first dirt road after the school over there.

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Funny note: I must have asked about ten people for directions, and to another fifty or so that I was going to a certain monastery near a certain city to see a certain friend.  However, due to a little linguistic mix-up – I should have been saying “Peu-an,” not “Peu-ying” – I spent the whole time saying that I was searching for the monastery where my “woman” resided.  When asked for clarification, I’d say that he was a head and a half taller than me, bald, from America, and a man.  You know, my “woman.”

I’m assuming that it was precisely because I had both climbed a mountain and also overcome such an array of natural and self-exacerbated difficulties that the Abbot granted his consent for me to stay for a few days.

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As you can see from the first picture, the temple is totally my style.**  Austere yet gorgeous.  Beautiful simply by virtue of its shape and the materials it’s made from.  In need of minimal gilding and adornment.  Stern and imposing, but all the more inspiring for it.   No references to guardian spirits or to old Buddhist myths, no promises of heaven if you obey or hell if you don’t.  Just clean and graceful, with one statue of the Buddha in the inside to remind everyone about which teachings they’re trying to follow.

When I asked Ven. Louis for advice on how to behave properly while at the monastery, he told me that in addition to keeping the “Five Precepts” (no killing, no lying, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no intoxication – same as at Vipassana retreats), the other monks and higher-ups would probably appreciate it if I would follow their habit of bowing to this statue before taking my seat in the main hall.  This sort of thing usually sounds pretty silly and superstitious to me, but in actuality it’s a nice habit that gives you a convenient way to remind yourself frequently of the things you think are important.  Every bow is an opportunity to think once again about the teachings the Buddha gave, recall the good they’ve done you, and re-dedicate yourself to living them.

That is, if you believe them.  If you don’t, what are you doing here in the first place?

** By this I mean that I like its style, and not that it in any way resembles me in my current state of emaciation of the torso, elephantitis of the glutes, bushiness of the face, and patchiness of the tan.

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“Lumpaw Samedo,” (“Lumpaw” being something like a higher form of “Kruba” reserved for older monks, “Samedo” being his Pali name received at ordination) had just celebrated his 80th birthday and was the oldest of the fifteen or so monks at the monastery.  He’s American and been in robes for about fifty years, thirty-four of them in England.  Now he speaks with a British accent – that is, when he’s not speaking to the locals in what sounded to me like just about perfect Thai.  The villagers revere him and shower him with “Dana” (gifts, donations, charity, pronounced like “dah nuh”), including coffee, chocolate, honey, gift baskets, blankets, cleaning supplies for the monastery, cash, and so on, in addition to daily alms.

Ven. Louis explained to me that Thais believe giving Dana to monks to be one of the primary ways of “making merit,” or accumulating positive Karma through good acts so as to be born as a more fortunate or more insightful person in their next life.  Strictly speaking, I don’t buy it.  However, there are various sociological reasons for which I think this works out well.  1)  Many of the villagers’ sons will someday be monks somewhere, so the system of Dana is in some ways like a Rotary club spreading a given village’s wealth out over time amongst its inhabitants.  2)  On a similarly pragmatic front, the monks don’t need much of this stuff (after all, they are ascetics!) and will donate the rest either to other monasteries or to other worthy causes, which is probably more convenient than having each villager find out about a charity to give to and how to donate to them.  In particular, many monasteries here are on the same grounds as schools, so that leftover alms can go to feed hungry children.  3) Monks can genuinely provide services to a village or society, either in the form of advice to individual parishioners on family or spiritual matters, or in the form of protesting governments that enact cruel policies, so to the villagers the economic cost of keeping them around might pay off in certain ways;  4)  Participating in a ritual of daily good-willed giving probably makes people nicer, less greedy, and more likely to share, which I would expect to be good for communal bonds and general happiness.  5) There’s probably also an element of civic/village pride in being able to support a certain number of people who are not exerting themselves trying to make a living.  Put a little less nobly, monks might be the (subconscious) equivalent of a white complexion (in the Orient), a nice tan (in the Occident), or a “trophy wife” (anywhere).

I have to add that the Dana system has benefitted me pretty frequently.  Not only do I receive some leftover alms for breakfast almost every time I spend a night at a monastery or temple; I often receive enough food to last me through lunch and even dinner.  This in addition to a free place to pitch my tent and shower.  Most amazing, one woman at the temple offered to let me stay at her family’s hotel in Bangkok – I got a solid, glorious week of sleeping in a king-sized bed, showering with scalding water, and living right in the center of Bangkok, all for free because I was the friend of a monk.

I’m also convinced that the readiness with which so many Thais offer me snacks, meals, and roofs to sleep under is related to the fact that they’re already in a giving mood.

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The view from the main meditation hall.  Several small lakes dotted the monastery grounds.  The place felt a little like a resort.

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Or a nature sanctuary.

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Or a zoo, even.  Check out these peacocks!  They were free to roam around the monastery premises, but seemed to have a pretty settled routine: over by the meditation hall in the late morning after the visitors had left, then over on the other side of the lake in the afternoon, then up in the trees in the evening.  That’s right, did you know that these little buggers can fly?  Not just chicken-style, but proper cross-lake and up-mammoth-tree style.  They seemed to mostly roost about twenty meters above ground, presumably a safe distance from predators.  Not that there are any predators in the monastery.

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I begged and begged this guy to flash me, but he wouldn’t do it.  It’s reserved for special occasions, I suppose.  He did let me listen to his caw though – it sounds sounds something like a cat’s “meow,” but without the “ee” and without the whiny tone.  Interesting things you learn here.

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What else?  I was given permission to set up camp just outside of Ven. Louis’ hut, or “Khuti” in monk parlance.  The Khuti was hardly big enough for Louis, who’s probably about 6’2”, to lie down in.  I’m sure he couldn’t have stretched out all the way.  I guess that’s a way to push yourself to meditate more?  Also, notice that covered catwalk that runs out behind the tent?  That’s a little path for walking meditation.

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All of the monks’ Khutis were located out in the forest, fifteen or so minutes on foot from the main hall.  Ven. Louis’ was mostly surrounded by bamboo thickets.  The trunks on these were thicker than my thighs, and when the wind blew they’d all rub against one another and let out a slow, creepy groan.  No wonder people once thought that forests were filled with spirits.

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Speaking of trees and stuff…There wasn’t much to the monks’ schedule.  I was expecting it to be kind of hardcore, like the Vipassana retreats I’ve done where you’re expected to be meditating for about ten hours daily.  Not so.  The few things they did have to do included the morning alms walk (called “Pindabat”) and sweeping meditation in the afternoon from 3-4.  I hadn’t had the chance to try sweeping meditation before, so I gave it a shot here.  The essence is just to try to remain aware of your breathing and acting for as long as you can at a stretch.  “Breathing in.  Breathing out.  Stepping forward.  Sweeping.  Sweeping.”  How long can do it before you find that your mind is off reliving some past moments, or dreaming up some “what if I had done/said X instead” speculation, or wondering how you ought to spend the remaining hours of daylight?

The point of this is not only some (age old) New Age thing about living in the present moment (though there is that, too), but also to develop the strength of concentration necessary to perceive your own emotions and desires arising and passing away of their own accord.  Once you are able to experience them as appearing and disappearing essentially at random, it begins to get easier to see through them, to regard them as arbitrary and insignificant, and to free yourself from their tyranny. The idea of paying them any heed or acting according to their dictates sounds silly; better instead to act kindly, thoughtfully, compassionately, and intelligently no matter what the circumstance.

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The monks all wake up early, usually around 3:30 or 4:00AM.  This time of day is said to be conducive to meditation, since all the business of tomorrow is still a few hours off, and all the stimulation of yesterday has been alleviated by a few hours of sleep.  (Ven. Louis reported only needing four or so hours of sleep a night; advanced monks often report going weeks without sleeping at all, though they do spend hours and hours in deeply relaxing meditative states.)

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At about five, the monks would head over to another room near the main hall to wash their bowls and prepare for the Pindabat.  Just before the sun rose, the monks would split into a few groups and each start heading off in their own direction.  The Pindabat walks varied in distance and density of villagers, but the monks rotated every full and new moon, so they got to see all of the villagers who were supporting them, and vice versa.

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I stuck with Louis and his group for Pindabat.  Our course started in the monastery, took us out a back route through the national park, then over some paved roads and back along the road I had entered the monastery on.  It took a little over an hour to complete, and the monks do it in bare feet.  I mentioned that it must be quite painful in the hot season, when the asphalt scorches your soles; Ven. Louis said that it’s actually worse when it’s cold and the skin on your feet starts to crack.  Apparently it got down into the single digits (Celsius) over the winter and was pretty difficult to endure – especially since the monks aren’t allowed to own or wear jackets.

I didn’t ask why they do the Pindabat barefoot, but I was told that removing one’s shoes before receiving gifts, and particularly food, was a symbol of humility.  The Thais are sensitive both to feet (which you’re never supposed to use to point at things) and to elevation (lay people shouldn’t sit on chairs or surfaces higher than whatever the monk is sitting on).  It’s easy to think that these sort of rules are superficial, but having a prescribed way of displaying gratitude and humility does help you to remember to express them.

There’s a parallel here to the Korean language, in which every verb can be conjugated into four different speech levels: roughly, one used when speaking to friends and people younger than you, one for writing or for speaking out loud to oneself,  one for general polite interaction, and one for elders, superiors, business partners, and so forth.  This is really frustrating at first because it’s a lot to memorize and the lines aren’t so clearly drawn, but if you get used to it, then you miss it when you switch to a new language.  You have to think up other ways to express authority to children, fondness and familiarity to friends, politeness to strangers, and humility in front of superiors, and you can’t be sure that the other party will understand that that’s what you’re going for.

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The monks walk in order of seniority, so Ven. Louis, having been ordained about three weeks beforehand, pulled up the back of the line.  Except for me, that is.  Actually, it was pretty bad manners of me to run ahead of the main monk for the photo, but he had given me permission.  I made sure to get back in place when we were within sight of the villagers.

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Men, women, and children all came out to give alms.  Most of the time, they’d just be sitting around their houses chatting, and then they’d kneel down on the ground and hold the food above their head when they saw the monks approaching.

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Once the monks had stopped in front of the house, the villagers would stand up and start with the Dana: first, curries, soups, eggs, fruits, vegetables, snacks, and boxed drinks were given to the first two or three monks, who passed them on to me to stuff into a giant carrier bag, then the villagers spooned rice out of their special alms bowls and into the monks’.

Most of the monks I’ve seen out on Pindabat elsewhere in southeast Asia perform some sort of chant for whoever has given them Dana.  I think the gist of it is usually something like “I intend to use the energy from this food in the service of the health and happiness of all sentient beings.  May you and all beings be peaceful, happy, free, and liberated.”  The Thammayut tradition saves the chant for just before meal time, so the villagers get nothing in return for their Dana other than the merit and other benefits mentioned above.

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Among Ven. Louis’ fellow monks:

– Lumpaw Samedo, American, in robes for 50 years, 34 of them in the UK and the rest in Thailand.

– Ajahn Ayah, the abbot, Australian, in robes for 30 years, including 15 as a wandering/walking ascetic in Thailand.  He told stories of walking along the Thai/Burma border twenty five years ago, saying that villagers often begged him to stay in their forests – logging companies mostly ignored the Thais, but wouldn’t intrude on a forest with a foreign monk living in it.

– A slightly mysterious Thai monk who showed up saying that his “Samadhi” (concentration) had disappeared all of a sudden.  He never joined us for meals; my guess is he spent all his time meditating in an attempt to get his groove back.

– Ari, an Israeli monk of ten years or so who was also practicing the wandering ascetic lifestyle, traveling with a tent, and alms bowl, and little else.  When I asked him if he was going anywhere in particular, he answered “Nirvana.”

– Rahn, a German monk of eight years who was mainly affiliated with a monastery in western Virginia.

– A 29 year old Thai monk who had received his BS and PhD in theoretical mathematics at Berkeley.  He went to some Zen sittings there in California and found himself thinking, “What are all these foreigners doing here practicing my country’s religion?  Is there something to it?”  I guess he decided that there was; as soon as he came home, he ordained.

– Tor, an employee of the Thai state department, who had been posted for several years each at embassies in LA, DC, and Tokyo.  Tor was only planning on staying a monk for about three months.

– Than Shanti, a young American who had had some strange meditative experiences while even younger and been invited by Thai monks he met in Texas to come to Thailand for further exploration.

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Towards the end of the Pindabat, there was almost always a crew of ladies dressed in simple temple garb; I later learned out that they were lay people on retreat at another nearby temple where the abbot, Lumpaw Gunha, was a prominent monk known for taking only vegetarian alms.  Or, rather, he accepted everything, but always gave the meat away.  His lay volunteers brought over several trays of vegetarian alms every morning.  Lumpaw Gunha walked around Thailand for thirty years and over 60,000 kilometers, eating only whatever fell into his alms bowl.  Often this meant only rice and bananas.

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Ven. Louis and the other monks at his monastery (including their own Lumpaw) held Lumpaw Gunha in high regard, so when we took a walk one night over to his monastery, I felt like I ought to make use of the opportunity and ask him I question.  I couldn’t think of anything particularly deep or pressing and asked him instead what he thought I ought to do when monks and villagers at other monasteries offer me meat; I don’t want to turn down their hospitality or put on “holier than thou” airs, but I also don’t want to eat it or condone doing so.  His answer: “If you don’t want to eat meat, just come stay at my monastery.”

Then he gave me this amulet, a handful of candies (one of which he fed me directly), and several boxes of banana milk, the latter to be conveyed to Lumpaw Samedo.  I did so the next morning, after which Lumpaw Samedo gave them to the kitchen staff, who gave them back to me for my ride the next day.  Around and around it goes!

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Let’s take a brief break from all this chatter and explication and just enjoy the pure beauty of the monastery grounds.

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A couple times, just before sunset, I walked out the hill where the monastery bumped up against the national park.

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I enjoyed sitting there, and then lying there, surrounded by the chatter of birds and bugs just starting to come awake.  When I closed my eyes and concentrated a bit, I was able to distinguish what seemed like hundreds of different sounds, each from a different creature going about its life.  In that moment, it felt like all other forms of entertainment were artificial and superfluous; there’s more than enough to enjoy in the world, full sensory overload at every turn.

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If your head’s calm enough to let it all in.

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Perhaps it’s just my own idiosyncratic interests, but it seemed to me that most of the action of the day was related to food – first collecting, then eating, then cleaning.  After the monks brought their food back to the monastery, they handed it over to the kitchen staff.  All the curries and other wet dishes that had been given to the monks in plastic bags were decanted into these metal containers,

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all the trays of vegetarian food from Lumpaw Gunha’s monastery were set out,

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and loads of fresh fruit were prepared.

First the monks would come through and take what they wanted while all that day’s visitors waited in the main hall.  Once the monks had returned with their food and chanted a blessing, everyone else vacated the hall.  The monks ate there in silence while the visitors, staff, groundskeepers, and volunteers headed to the kitchen building for their meal.

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The rest of my morning, usually from about 9AM until 11 or so, was occupied with the aftermath.  Silverware, serving spoons, small bowls, medium bowls, huge bowls, trays, trays for carrying trays….you name it, I pre-washed it.  Just like Louis did for a year before being ordained.

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Had I been alone, I would have made some sort of mindfulness experiment out of the dishwashing – observing breath, counting scrubs, or something like that.  Instead, I had a team of Thai ladies helping me out.  Or rather, shouting “Mai!” (No!) at me whenever I scrubbed the wrong thing.  I guess when you do it for several years on end, you get a system worked out.

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On a somewhat related note…trash.  In the past, villagers would spoon rice, curry, cooked vegetables and meat, raw fruit, and other Dana directly into the monks’ alms bowls.  That, or local children would follow the monks around on their alms walks, making merit by collecting Dana in small, stackable, reusable tiffin lunchboxes and delivering it to the temple for the monks.  Times change – now everything with the exception of rice comes in plastic bags.   Bound by the rules the Buddha laid down for them, the monks aren’t allowed to make explicit requests, such as for plastic-free meals (just as they aren’t allowed to request vegetarian food), so it piles up.  Indeed, excessive wrapping is often seen as a sign of wealth out here; anyone can give a banana straight from their garden, but it takes a bit of cash to visit the supermarket and buy a bunch of them on a styrofoam platter.  Or to give the monks bottled water.

This seems to me to be one of the biggest failings of modern Buddhism; if a monk has vowed to make an effort to end all suffering, he ought to also be bound to do what he can to reduce environmental harms, as these will eventually result in the suffering of untold numbers of humans and other sentient beings.  I recognize, though, that it’s not so easy.  Changing the rules that monks have been following for millennia would certainly have unforeseen consequences and might not be a wise move; further, refusing to accept plastic would result in great inconvenience for the villagers, who might well respond by resenting the monks and their fastidiousness.  And there’s also the fact that the environmental cost of all that trash, as ugly as it is, is probably pretty small compared to the cost of lay people driving the 200km from Bangkok to the monastery to pay respects, or the cost of foreign monks flying home or to other monasteries abroad every so often.  What lines to draw, and where?

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As for the PM hours…well, it was really up to the individual monks how to spend it.  Some returned to their Khutis to practice meditation, some went on walks in the forest, some just seemed to disappear.  Ven. Louis was in the habit of spending his afternoons mostly in and around the “Sewing Khuti” working on making robes, bags, and other necessities.  There was also a library of books to read, and sometimes visiting monks would give Dharma talks in the evenings.

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Just before I left, Ven. Louis prayed a protection prayer for my bike.  So far, so good…

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Not much else left to say.  For better or for worse, the monks didn’t seem to spend a lot of time discussing their own experience and insights.  Part of this is because they’re not supposed to get attached to whatever they experience; they’re just supposed to note it, accept it, and see what happens next.  They’re also forbidden from boasting about their achievements, and given that what might seem to one person to be a simple objective statement might come across to another as a boast, they’re better off remaining silent than trying to stay on a certain side of that line.

So, I didn’t really get to ask Ven. Louis or anybody else those big questions – is it true?  Are you smarter?  What’d you learn?  Are you happier?  Are you progressing?  What’s it feel like?  This thing that happened to me – did it happen to you, too?  To anyone you know?  What’s it mean?

I guess I shouldn’t expect to receive definitive answers about stuff like that quite so easily.  Maybe it’s one of those lifetime pursuit sort of things.  In any case, my old friend Ven. Louis was healthy, happy, peaceful, and planning on staying a monk for the indefinite future.  I guess that says something.

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Goodbye, mystery monastery.

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Farewell, Ven. Louis.  May we meet again someday.

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