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Life in a Thai Monastery (Part 4 of 7)
These monks at Nanachat had a mystique about them. . . unmistakable but difficult to explain. They were almost indistinguishable, so modest and reserved, children in many ways, and our hearts couldn’t help but go out to them. This was not Bangkok, where the monks of the city took up their robes only to gain merit for relatives, or for reasons other than devoting their lives to meditation and enlightenment. This was the real deal at Wat Pah Nanachat and I wondered if the stories of near death in these areas were exaggerated. I had a funny feeling we were going to find out.
The next morning I ran into a peasant and a monk, chatting and busily working on a corpse. It was lying on a bamboo table under the shade of some banana trees near the sala, and it appeared to be an animal, or something. They seemed to be peeling off the skin. Hmmm. I didn’t think monks did that? So I got closer and found out what they were working on – a human skeleton! “Whoa,” I thought, remembering my beloved autopsy photo, “maybe I should pack up Janet and head back to good ol’ Colorado now!” This was truly ghastly – they were actually scraping dried flesh off dead, gray bones.
Later that day, overcome with curiosity and a sense of the macabre, I asked around about the skeleton. What I pieced together was that it had apparently been curing in a sealed box under one of the boxes for two years, a process necessary so that the meat could be removed more easily without damaging the bones. The two years were now up and it was time to scrape off the flesh before sending the clean bones to Bangkok for fixation and bleaching.
During the years that the body was preserved, many monks lived in the box to overcome their fear of ghosts and, as might be expected, had unusual meditative experiences. The ghost of the skeleton was believed to roam the grounds of the monastery every night looking for his children.
The remains were those of a young woman from the local village. She and her husband (the bone-scraping peasant) regularly visited the monastery to offer food and listen to dhama talks, or sermons. The couple had a beautiful, healthy baby boy and another baby on the way. They were very much in love and looked forward to an uncomplicated life in the country, raising their children and growing old together.
It was clear that this couple was not asking for much. . . Were they? They were content with the simplest things; farming, raising children and then dying in the same village where they were born. It was 1981, just before Thailand was westernized to the extent it is now, and the humbleness and humility of these people overwhelmed us time and time again.
The skeleton’s story continued: After their daughter was born, the woman began to experience increasingly worsening pain. It became so intense and relentless that she could only lie curled up in bed all day. With no money available for treatments in Bangkok, village medicine and aspirin were her only options, and the pain finally became unbearable. One night she asked her husband to bring their children into the room and just hold her. She was saying goodbye.
Her soft cry was not so much from the pain now, but from what she would ask her husband to do. She wanted to die, the pain was too much, but how could she abandon her young children? What would become of them and her husband? Her dreams were shattered. She asked her husband to leave his gun on the table.
He refused! How could he do that? He felt ashamed and unworthy, that he could not do well. He would take his gun and rob someone and get money to take him to Bangkok, but there was no one to rob; the monks had no money and neither did the poor peasants.
The woman he loved was in pain and he was powerless to do anything about it – except help her kill herself. How could he live with such a thing; he would have to kill him himself and spare him the horror of pulling the trigger. Then he would kill himself. . . but what about the children?
He could not do it; all she could do was place the revolver on her desk and quietly leave the room, unable to look him in the eye. Moments later, a shot rang out.
It was a sad story and I couldn’t help but wonder who really pulled the trigger. If she did, was it wrong for her to take her own life? Yes, according to the monks, it was, but I reserved judgment for myself. How could I know what she was going through unless I stood in her shoes?
I watched the monk and the peasant talking and working on the skeleton from a vantage point across the yard, and every now and then I noticed the small, gentle peasant with stooped shoulders put down his knife and be silent, looking out into the forest. His lined face and weak smile revealed the pain of a poor peasant’s life that had faded away and now he was doing the only thing left for him to do, fulfilling a promise to the woman he loved for most of his life his.
Her dying wish was that her skeleton be displayed in the main hall for all the monks to contemplate daily, reminding them that death can come at any time and that death was always painful, and therefore they should not to delay in their efforts to find. freedom in their hearts and hopefully they will not experience death for many more lives.
The touching story and the actual experience of seeing this skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull touched me deeply, much more deeply than any lecture about us being mere “bubbles in a stream that can burst at any moment.” I was actually living the Buddha’s words now.
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