It was the last day of a five-day retreat at a beautiful Buddhist retreat center. All of us were coordinating where on the beach we would meet for lunch, taking goofy photos, and just being happy.
A woman walked out of the building and said, “Please. Please be quiet. We have teachings and meditations going on.”
We apologized and decided to leave, but I admit that I rolled my eyes. I know, Ahimsa fail. Here’s why….
Our first day in Bangkok, we decided to walk to a temple that sits on top of a big hill. We could see it from the guesthouse where we were staying.
To get there, we first walked along a canal on a walkway that was about five feet wide. Lining the walkway were homes. Some homes doubled as shops for motorcycle repairs, food, souvenirs….name it. There were also tents and carts selling produce, fish, and various noodle concoctions. Chickens ran around, fish were pulled out of the canal, we constantly dodged the oncoming motorcycles.
When we got to street level, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge political demonstration. Not an orderly one, like the one we went to in San Francisco before the Iraq War. There were trucks and cars parked seemingly at will in the street, all with loud speaker systems blasting music and speeches. Motorcycles and cars still wove through to get through the street, so we had to be very careful about crossing. We were also dodging food vendors and crowds of people who were very ready to voice their opinion about politics. To them, it was organized. To us, it felt like chaos.
All along, I was thinking, “It’s going to be quiet at the temple. It will be peaceful there.”
We got to the temple grounds and bought bottles of water. (I should also mention that it was really, really hot in a polluted city and I was wearing an adorable black sundress that was now sticking to me like a second skin.)
There is a long, long stairwell that winds around the hill to the top of the temple. It was quiet for about five minutes and then the loudspeaker system kicked on as a monk began teaching. Sounds cool, right? Well, it was really loud, in Thai, and did not stop the entire time we were there. The temple was crowded. The constant clanking of bells, fellow travelers, and the sounds from the political demonstration built heavy layers of sound over the droning voice of the monk.
“Maybe at the top, next to the Buddhas, it will be quiet.”
Upon entering the temple, we were bombarded with offerings for sale. Bells, candles, lotus, incense, marigolds, birds…you name it. And it’s not like there was a counter where someone just asks if you would like to buy something or politely asks, “May I help you?” We were practically being told: “You buy good luck – bells? Incense? You buy! Lucky Buddha!” The cramped space was full of people praying, taking photos, or just hanging out. Our senses were overloaded.
Who knew a Buddhist temple would be one of the most chaotic places I had ever been?
We took a different route back to the guesthouse, just wandering through the streets of Bangkok in the general direction (“The canal is this way, we’ll figure it out from there….”) and found a small neighborhood wat. I went inside and sat on the scratchy carpet and just took in the silence. I was hot and my head was buzzing from all the sensations. My hair was sticking to my forehead and the back of my neck. I looked at the Buddha statue and had a realization.
He was smirking.
In the middle of all the noise, smells, and sounds – all the Buddhas were just hanging out with a smile (or smirk) on their faces. They were in the quiet all along. I realized I had just had one of the best hours of my life. I loved it. I absolutely loved every minute, smell, and sound of it.
This happened over and over again. The temples were the loudest, craziest places we encountered. I even had a man literally put incense in my hand in front of a statue in Cambodia and then tell me, “Miss, you must give money for offering to lucky Buddha.” (That Buddha was definitely smirking.)
I decided to surrender and just ride the hustle and bustle throughout the journey. At the famous reclining Buddha, I tossed coins into the brass pots and enjoyed every loud clank. My ears were ringing after I got through the line, but I loved it.
I am not a Buddhist. There are some teachings in Buddhism that have helped me in my life. It really wasn’t until I encountered the hustle and bustle of Southeast Asian temples that I realized how little I know about what we talk about on a daily basis in yoga classes.
I learned more from those chaotic times of letting go of how I thought a Buddhist experience “should” be and laughed at myself for even having expectations. Seriously, what is a middle class white girl from the Bible Belt who teaches yoga in California doing with expectations of how one should experience a Southeast Asian temple?
(Now I have a bad case of wanderlust – where are we going next? Can I really take my infant to Cambodia?)