My stay with a monk enlightened me, but not in the way you would expect.
When I was 27, I took 9 months off to travel the world. My travels took me to a 4 day stay with a monk in Malaysia that was definitely one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had.
As expected of a stay with a monk, I intended to meditate and try to attain enlightenment, much like everyone else would. But things took an unexpected turn of events.
The initial telephone call to establish contact with the monk promised a tranquil place high up a mountain where I can wake up to the smell of fresh air.
The first surprise came when my cab reached the location- a small knob of a hill. Confused, I asked the cab driver if he had made a wrong turn. He shook his head, “no”. At this point in time, the monk, all smiles, came forward to greet me.
He ushered me to his house where I was met with a TV blaring aloud the latest entertainment. I thought a monk was supposed to take a precept not to indulge in entertainment, but apparently not this monk. The monk always gave the same reason: “let’s relax by watching some news, we must always be well-informed.” Strangely, we always ended up watching the latest cooking show or variety programme.
Then we fasted for one whole day, or more precisely, 35 hours – I was painfully keeping count. We ended the fast with a huge breakfast of fruits and a big bowl of limewater, hoping to flush out toxins. It worked its magic, with me dashing to the toilet seven times in total, testament to its effectiveness. At the end of it all, I glanced up at the mirror to admire the glow that radiated from my skin after detoxification… or was that… just sweat?
There was also this time that we recited 8,000 times of “o- pu long sa”. I had no idea what it meant, except that it was a mantra of some sort. Only after 8,000 repetitions, he told me that I had recited it wrongly and proceeded to correct me. But the old pronunciation was etched in my subconscious mind after 8,000 times and I kept reverting back to the wrong way.
Exasperated, he looked at me and said that all the meditation seemed to have made me more stupid. He cited a study which talked about a theory of how mingling around with stupid people makes you take on some of the same poor characteristics. At this point, I egged him on by saying that I had indeed spent some time earlier working with the intellectually disabled. He nodded vigorously agreeing that it had to be the reason why I was stupid. At least he kept a distance from me for a while after that.
I told him that I was jobless to which he assumed the reason I stayed with him was for a free lunch, with free breakfast and dinner thrown in for good measure. Intending to make me work for it, I would get called in the middle of my meditation to sweep and mop the floor, mow the grass and clean up the dung of his dogs. To his credit, he did chores too, just not when it came to cleaning dung. That was for my privilege.
Then, there will be pointed remarks regarding the price of the food he gave me or the cost of how much insect repellent I was applying. On the last day, I finally handed him a red packet (a Chinese version of payment in the form of putting money into a red packet), which I intended to give him from the very start. Receiving it with a look of incredulity, he stammered: “But… aren’t you jobless?”
That was when his attitude changed drastically.
We were supposed to work later that day, but he brushed it off and said it was fine if I didn’t have enough time to finish it as there will always be someone else who could do the job later. When mosquitos starting biting us, he generously offered me insect repellent and insisted that I use it. He even cooked my dinner before I left for Singapore. I had planned to stay for 6 days but made up an excuse to leave after 4 days after assessing the situation on the first day.
What has this experience taught me? It became clear to me that who you really are inside, not the role you take on, is more important. Your stature or position does not determine who you are and what you know. You don’t have to be a monk, priest or a holy man to understand the sacred. Neither does changing your robe or position fundamentally change who you really are.
For the first time in my life, I gave up the idea that I had to be a monk or anyone else except for who I already am right now. I may not be enlightened yet, but well, I am sure it would come…
P.S. I don’t mean to imply that all monks are the way I described. In fact, I have a profound respect for people who decide to follow the spiritual path, whatever form it may take. This is just an experience which I found funny and ultimately shows the humanity in all of us – monks and laymen alike.