Calum McSwiggan

Atop The Forest Temple

In Eat, Love on July 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Tiger Temple Thailand

‘If we taught all eight year olds to meditate, we would eliminate all violence from the world within one generation’ 

– Dalai Lama

We lay on the floor in the stifling afternoon heat, listening to the peaceful silence in the forest canopy, and awaiting the dreaded sound of the chorus of chanting monks. We groaned in unison as their peaceful verse began, stripping out of our filthy work clothes and throwing on our meditation robes with displeasure.

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go to meditation, it was just that we were exhausted from a day of hard labour. Learning Buddhist Meditation was one of the top items on my bucket list for 2013, I’d even had my robes hand tailored in the heart of New Delhi for the occasion, but now that I was here, my gusto was rapidly waning.

Dressed entirely in white, I’d accompany my fellow volunteers across the forest floor, and we’d complain and drag our feet as we climbed barefoot to the temple. Despite my dying enthusiasm, though, I still made an effort at each and every session.

Snatching up a meditation mat and dancing across the wooden floor in perfect silence, I’d sit and try to imitate the posture of the monks who sat above me on their sacred platform. Focusing my energies on the towering golden Buddha statue as the evening sun glinted over its surface, I’d shut my eyes and let in a whole new world of sound and bothersome thoughts.

Atop the forest temple, rested amongst the treetops, this was the perfect environment for serene meditation. The branches lulled lazily in the wind, and the peaceful chatter of the birds perfectly complimented the dulcet tones of The Abbot’s soft voice. If I listened carefully, I could hear the break of a twig as a deer pranced through the forest, the ferocious roar of a nearby lion, or the restless growl of a tiger pacing below. Everything was perfect, and yet still I hated every moment.

This was not the spiritual experience I had hoped for, I shuffled uncomfortably, folding and unfolding my hands, and trying to straighten my aching back. I tried everything to engage, focusing on my breathing, and trying to adopt perfect stillness. I refused to move an inch despite the sweat that trickled down my forehead, the insects that relentlessly plagued my open wounds, and the twisting knots in my stomach from the Indian poison that refused to leave my system. I tried to embrace the discomfort and bend the pain into something comforting, but my whole body was on fire, and every moment was a living hell.

The same verse was spoken over and over again, and despite my best efforts to learn, I never did understand any of it. I treated the whole thing as a game, counting each breath to try to eradicate each and every thought from my mind, and trying to see how long I could sit perfectly still for. The problem was, that sometimes meditation went on for hours, and one time I even found myself awaking suddenly after having fallen asleep for the entire session.

After weeks of frustration, I approached my favourite monk and asked him for guidance, and only barely overcoming the language barrier, he gave me some poignant advice. He advised me to embrace my inner peace and then share that with somebody I love, somebody I hate, and somebody I was indifferent to.

Finding somebody I loved was easy, I cycled through all of the important people in my life, students, friends, and lovers, and wished them all pure happiness. The same was true for indifference; I wished peace to strangers I’d passed in the street, tourists and taxi drivers, and any unknown face that popped into my mind. Finding somebody I hated, however, was far more difficult.

There’s not a lot of hatred inside of me, but there are a few names that strike a dark chord in my soul. I tried first focusing my energies on my ex and his new fiancé, and wishing them a happy life together, but that dark period of my life had passed, and it was so easy that it felt like that didn’t count. There was nobody I harboured negativity for, absolutely no one, that was until a new staff member arrived and gave me the perfect outlet for my hatred.

He’s a homophobic sexist prick, I said, throwing down the chicken carcass I was de-boning and sighing with exasperation. What happened to your Zen meditation regime? My friend said as she stopped cleaning the tiger cage to mock me. That twat doesn’t deserve my positive thoughts, I grumbled, tearing chunks from the chicken’s breast and letting the six week old tigers eat it from my fingertips. That’s the whole point, though, isn’t it?

She was right, and I knew it. I doubled my efforts and although it was truly agonising to sit and calmly wish this man happiness, my blood boiling as I pictured his face, it took so much of my attention that the rest of my mind fell quiet. The people who mean the most to me would then flutter in and out of my mind, and everyone regardless of love, hatred or indifference would receive the same kind wishes, until all of the negativity was exiled from my mind.

It became so routine that it all happened like clockwork and my mind began to feel lighter. The only person you hurt by harbouring negative thoughts is yourself, and only then did I realise the importance of truly letting go. Eventually those foreign words in the background began to make sense, contorting themselves into something I could understand. It was almost like I had fallen asleep, only this time I was aware of it, and with my eyes shut and my mind emptied, it was as if they were telling me a story.

Everything became as clear as that golden Buddha that burned with fiery brightness just beyond my eyelids, and as time dragged on, it felt like only a very short time had passed. When I finally opened my eyes, I found myself surrounded by darkness, the orange robes of the monks fluttering in the cool night breeze, and the golden Buddha extinguished by the blanket of the night sky. I quietly rose to my feet, followed the other volunteers back down the steps and across the forest as if nothing had happened at all, and then readied myself to complain again when the next session rolled around.

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