National Gratitude 

Waiting for our flight from Ubon back to Bangkok from this airport built by the US military as a bombing base during the Vietnam Nam war. I wanted to capture this image. There’s a monk sitting under the sign, so I took the picture from across the way. I’m continually struck by the relationship between the Thai people and Buddhism. Every location has a shrine to the Buddha with incense lit daily to honor their ancestors. It’s about gratitude rather than worship. Our guide was “so proud” of our familiarity with Buddhism.

I’m continually struck by how the Buddhist precepts infuse this culture. Adjacent to our hotel in a sort of suburb of Ubon is the regional prison with its hydroponic gardens and palm groves just outside the inmate area with its barbed wire and guard towers. How unlike the typical US prison, off in some isolated no-man’s land far from families and difficult to reach without a car.

For all our religious righteousness, we often fall short of compassion. We could take a page from the Buddha’s teachings and be better for it.

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Pilgrimage 

So here we are in Ubon Ratchatani in a hotel on one of the main streets. Karaoke and linen tablecloths in the restaurant. Another day of travel.

Ubon is the location of Wat Nong Pa Phong, the monastery founded by the Venerable Ajahn Chah in 1954 that put the Buddhist Thai Forest tradition on the map for Western seekers for many decades.

When I told one of the hotel employees on Koh Samet this morning that we were traveling to Ubon to visit this Wat, his face lit up. “Are you a Buddhist?” he asked me. How to answer clearly through cultural and linguistic differences?

No. I am not a practicing Buddhist today. But almost a decade ago in the depths of my seeking, I was led to Theravada through first Vipassana, then Insight meditation practice and ultimately through teachers who had trained with him, to Ajahn Chah. His writings were the metaphorical raft of the Buddha’s teaching that carried me across a difficult stretch of water. I spent a summer reading one of his books on the stoop of my house. It was, He was, my “balm in Gilead.”

I had studied with two of his students, Thanissara and Kittisaro, at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts and heard their stories about their time at the monastery. So when the opportunity came to travel to Thailand this year, it was an easy decision to add Ubon and Wat Nong Pa Phong to my itinerary.

Tomorrow our driver will take us there, to the place where Luang Por founded a sanctuary and passed his remarkable life. My days as a Dedicated Dharma Practitioner in the Theravada tradition are behind me, but the wisdom of Luang Por, with whom I share a birthday, and the hours of darkness lit by those who followed in his path, reside in my spiritual DNA. It will be a pilgrimage in the truest sense of the word. Decades later, I will sit with him in spirit, in reverence, in the place that he carved out of the wilderness for all who came seeking the light.