Learning to Walk Fully in Thailand
Story and photos by Luke Maguire Armstrong

A man dealing with chronic pain travels to a Buddhist temple in Thailand and looks for peace in the monks' life of mindfulness and simplicity.


The gong wakes us at 3 a.m. The sound breaking through the silence is felt as well as heard. It is time for morning chanting and meditation. Wearing robes and walking without a sound—like Jedis in the mist— the monks move from their sleeping quarters to the temple and enter the sacred space within. I place my cushion behind everyone else’s so no one will notice my frequent fidgeting. How do these old monks power through these three-hour meditation marathons, I wonder? (When I am supposed to not be thinking…)

After morning meditation, the monks converge in silence on the temple’s ground floor. The only sound is a metal clang of bronze alms bowls being taken from their place.

The monks separate into groups to visit different villages. Mott, Ess, Nam, and I walk to the nearest village of Ba-liet, a name I remember by mnemonically associating it with Bud Light.

Mott in forest

We walk in darkness in the coolness of morning. Ess and Nam are in front in their paprika-colored robes, Mott and I are a few steps behind in our white garbs. We are dressed as pacow, which means “pure,” for the novices.

We set out for bintabot, or to ask for alms. Thai Buddhists belong to the Theravada tradition, which avails to the Pali Canon, in which monks must not have money or engage in commerce. The morning meal they eat every day must come from donations given that morning. There is a story in the Pali Canon where a king asks The Buddha what is the fruit of an ascetic's labor. His answer is that in receiving, the ascetic teaches people to give.

Mott is the only one at the temple who speaks some English. The abbot has told him to speak with me as little as necessary. He is my only window to the world of what is going on. I tell him that his name means “word” in French and this causes a smile to erupt across his face as he learns something new about the oldest thing he knows.

Mott the Monk

Mott has told me just a bit about his life. He has worked many jobs, but at 32 decided that working—as he had done—was empty. He spent the next year walking thousands of miles from temple to temple across Thailand. At some he stayed several months, others only a few nights.

Mott monk in white garb

Sometimes he slept in the forest. "It's very free," he says, "to be able to go wherever you want, where in every temple you can have a place to sleep and something to eat and a new lesson to learn."

Since he’s talkative, I ask how he manages to sit so still and peaceful for our twice-daily three-hour meditation sittings. “Don’t your legs begin to hurt?” I ask him. His smile grows. He’s beaming as he says, “Oh pain? Pain is your best friend. When pain goes away it is like your best friend has moved away.”

Pain has become a theme at this point in my life. It has not been my best friend. It has caused me a lot of sorrow and uncertainty.

Asia was supposed to have led elsewhere. I had wanted to travel overland from Bangkok to Nepal and provide coverage of this adventure to promote my just-released book, The Nomad’s Nomad. But neck pain put me in no position to take such a trip. I saw the right doctors and chiropractors, but none had been able to help much. Some gave false hope, some dire predictions, some adjustments, some physical therapy—nothing that got me out of the hurt bag.

Yet I carried on with my trip to Asia. A week after my arrival in Bangkok, a strange series of unlikely events, chance meetings, and happenstance led me to this remote part of rural Thailand where I live as a novice monk at a temple that translates to “Temple of no Worries.”

A week of meditating and my neck will be better, I assured myself when I entered. But my time living in the monastery wasn’t at the end of the story of my physical pain. It was somewhere towards the beginning of that story.

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Read this article online at: Learning to Walk Fully in Thailand

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

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