Jul/Aug 2004 Travel

The Rucksack Letters: July 23, Decatur

by Joseph Mourning

In July of 2001, I left Florida with a backpack and a journal. I had a few good pens and came equipped with two standard sized thumbs. What else to do but hitchhike and write? What followed were 44 letters, written to an ever-growing group of friends whom I met along the way.

It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.

I drove through a fog-drenched morning and didn't see sunlight 'til Georgia—miles of forest lost in a milky haze as my car moved two miles over the speed limit, and I had no need to go faster. The morning mirrored my mood: calm, peaceful, quiet, lost only in the moment, which lasted thirty yards in any direction. I saw not where I was going, nor from where I had come, nor any decisions otherwise, only the lucidity of now, as life should be.

I maintained this madness for the greater part of the day as I drove 441, a long, slow meander through the small towns of Georgia. Red clay bordered the road and branched every now and then to places unseen. Each village had its own individual charm, which somehow reminded me of the last one: tiny bergs of dilapidated houses, fruit stands, main street centers, and red brick churches which were somehow always the cleanest buildings and had the best manicured lawns.

Just after noon, I rolled into Decatur and searched for two communities I hoped to visit. As plans went, the first one to be found would be the first one visited. Thirty minutes of following bad directions to find the Community of Hospitality left me a little frustrated, and I moved on to find the Buddhist monastery. On the way there, I found a Buddhist church, the likes of which I had never seen, and decided to stop for a look.

A brook babbled behind the simple rectangular house, and I stopped and watched it a moment before going to the door. This was the second visit I was making in my search for faith, and I still didn't know what to tell them I was looking for. I knocked on the door and was greeted by an elderly Asian woman and a tall, slender American girl. The girl introduced herself as Lauren after a few moments of my bumbling on the doorstep. The woman, Mrs. Lee, motioned me in with the little English she knew, and Lauren gave me a short tour of the temple, which would have been the living room had this been an average house. An altar on the far end of the room held candles and artifacts—I couldn't fathom a guess as to what they were exactly—with three padded stools in front of it.

Lauren asked me more about my journey and told me more about the church. Mrs. Lee invited me for tea, which had been shipped in special from Shanghai, and we drank it from Styrofoam cups as she peppered me with questions in Chinese that Lauren would interpret, adding a few herself. I asked about the monastery, but the two were not related, the church being of the more liberal practice of Buddhism, drawing from the teachings of Confucius and the I Ching. Lauren even gave me some books, comic strip Confucianism for the cluttered western mind. I thanked them exceedingly for their hospitality and, not wanting to take up too much of their time, went on to the monastery.

It was only a few driveways down, leaving me little time for retrospection as I pulled into the driveway and parked by a sign that may have said "Reserved," but I guess it was in Thai, so I couldn't be sure. There were two brown buildings, both long and split-level, that ran parallel to each other on either side of the driveway. There was an "Open—Come In" sign on one of the doors, and I paused slightly to remove my sandals and put them with the rest that adorned the patio.

It was quiet and dimly lit, but the office looked like any Thai Buddhist monastery you might find in Decatur, Georgia. There were posters and flyers pinned to bulletin boards, all in Thai and unintelligible to me. I called "Hello?" and moved to the next room back, where I found the Golden Child playing Tomb Raider. A small, Asian boy of twelve or so looked at me blankly as he sat behind a computer with his shaved head and brown cloak. Before I could ask him a question or be sure he would understand, he entered the room again from the right fifty years later. The older monk greeted me with a smile and took my hand as I extended it and introduced myself.

It took him no time and few words to escort me back onto the porch where he sat cross-legged on one end of the bench, his smile alone as an invitation to join him. I straddled the other end of the bench in true American fashion. In labored English, he told me about monastic living and Buddhist ways, about the four noble truths and the eight-fold path, repeating himself often for words I didn't understand. We talked about Kung Fu movies and how often people had asked him, a man of peace, to teach them the martial arts. There is something pure in the laugh of a Buddhist monk. It was almost surreal as he told and laughed at jokes I didn't understand but laughed at anyway.

He was one of two full-time monks at the monastery. He became a novice, like the Golden Child inside, at twelve, and a monk at twenty. That was thirty-five years ago, the last seventeen spent here. There were also two novices and a part-time monk here only for a month.

We talked a little about my journey, and he described it as "samvega," which means that you realize that life doesn't make sense, but must try to make sense of it anyway. At least that is my interpretation. He told me that balance must be gained by reaching "pasada," clarity and serene confidence in life's journey.

We had talked for hours like this when he offered me a place to stay and a hot shower, which was a spiritual experience in its own right after a week of bathing in a creek. He allowed me some time to myself after that, and I found some picnic benches out back where I read the books I had been given and pursued my dharma, the Buddha's life purpose.

There were aspects of Buddhism that drew me, but many I couldn't agree with. The first of the Four Noble Truths is that all life is suffering, which brings me pause after the serenity I've felt over the last few weeks. The second truth is that suffering is caused by desire. The third is that the suffering can be stopped, if you cease to desire. This is accomplished by following the fourth Noble Truth, the eight-fold path to righteousness, which is right belief, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right endeavor, right memory, and right meditation. I don't claim to be enlightened, by any means, but I'm starting to understand. The eightfold path is a little much for me now. Maybe I'm still a glutton for suffering.

At eight o'clock, the chanting began. The monks and novices, all dressed identically, knelt on burgundy pads and faced the altar where candles burned in Siddhartha's lap. There was one other person there with skin as light as mine, and I was amazed at how fluidly she spoke Thai with the few other people there. I found a white pad to sit on and attempted the lotus position the monk had shown me earlier. I only managed the half lotus, but that was enough for my first time. The American woman slid a book in front of me and let me know the chants we would be doing. I noticed that everyone else was on bended knees, so I quickly slid my legs under myself to match their position and struggled to keep up.

The chants were written in phonetic Thai and were translated into English directly below. Trying to simultaneously read both, I was lost by the second stanza and opted to just go with the flow, trusting that God wouldn't strike me down if I said something wrong. We chanted for several minutes—they chanted, I mumbled—bowing occasionally for reasons I still don't know.

When we finished, I followed them back into the lotus position and focused on my breathing as I had been taught to meditate. Planes flew overheard, birds sang in the trees, but the room was silent and still. I breathed in. I breathed out. My own mind raced against me, carrying me to thoughts of tomorrow and memories of yesterday. I focused back to my breathing, on being here, being now. My mind would sway, and I would ardently come back. Meditating on nothing is hard.

I finally began to get lost in myself, but then my posture began to slump and my back began to ache. I remembered the Marines billboard I had seen earlier in the day that said pain was weakness leaving the body. I breathed in. I breathed out. Forcing myself to remain steadfast in posture and attention, barely moving a muscle, I struggled for tranquility.

My legs were slow to move when the timer went off at 8:45. The monks put their mats back and left the room to busy themselves with other things, while I moved my legs to slowly regain feeling. I'm not even in good enough shape to be a monk, I thought, and I want to walk across the country.

I found the younger monks in the kitchen making hot chocolate, and I sat and talked with the older one. He was the part-timer, a 21-year-old college student making his third and last visit to the monastery. We talked about Buddhism and philosophy, Christianity and religion. The differences and the similarities mingle so closely. There was a painting of Siddhartha, who became enlightened and is now called the Buddha, sitting under a tree, an aura of gold around his head. The young monk pointed out the similarities between that and the paintings of Christ with his halo. He wasn't so bold as to say they were the same, and he didn't have much to say about Jesus at all. But he felt that the painted auras were more than just an artist's rendering. And I must say that I have to agree with him.

I've heard it said that Jesus was Buddha for the West, as Buddha was Jesus for the East. Like the young monk, I can only point out that the message of peace, love, and acceptance inherent in both when used as a philosophy and way of life are far more beneficial to the human condition than the legends and stories that have been written about them since. The monk and I were better off discussing the similarities than squabbling over which one was right.


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