Monday, April 15, 2013

The Monk Who Lives In A Cave

On Wednesday, after photographing the young boys being transformed into Sang Long, we set off to achieve another one of OUR objectives for this trip to Maehongson.

While on my first trip to Maehongson in October 2006, I visit and met with a Monk who lived in a cave.  Although he spoke no English, we seemed to have made a connection and a certain bonding.  He gave me a blessing and sprinkled water over my head to wish me good luck and good fortune.  He also placed a red string necklace that had a solid cylinder, created by tightly rolling up copper foil, hanging from the red string.  For the remainder of my trip in October and to this day my life has greatly changed and I have experienced "good luck" and the good fortune of being happy.  I do not believe that all this is attributable to our first encounter however I do cherish what I consider to be a shared experience from our first visit.

The Monk's cave is on the right hand side of Highway 1095 about 17 km north of Maehongson in the Pha Suea National Park just before "Fish Cave" (Tham Pla Forest Park).  Fish Cave is a water filled cavern where hundreds of large carp like fish live.  The shade of the forest and tall limestone craggy hills along with the coolness created by the cold water of the stream flowing out of the cavern make a stop at Fish Cave refreshing as well as interesting. As you enter the park there are also many food stalls where you sit and drink prtected somewhat from the heat and sun of the day.

On all of my subsequent three visits to Maehongson, I have made it a point to drop by and visit the Monk.  I bring him bottled water and make an offering to him to help with his living expenses.  The Monk has remembered me each visit.  Although he does not speak English and I speak neither Thai or Lao to hold a meaningful conversation with anyone older than two years of age, we have been able to communicate through either a guide for the first two visits or Duang on the other visits.

On my first two visits, the Monk actually lived in the small cave.  Outside of the cave he had a vestibule with a corrugated metal roof and tiled concrete floor where he received visitors.  It was in his vestibule where you made merit and received his blessings.  Outside of his cave there were several statues of Buddha set against the craggy hill side that he maintained.

On Duang's first visit with me to the Monk, he had converted the vestibule to a walled in living quarters underneath a large rock overhang from the hillside.  There was also a door and lock on the Monk's living quarters - a reaction to some previous vandalism.  The cave where he had lived before was converted to a shrine which could only be accessed through his living area.

During our last visit, four years ago, I was invited by the Monk to go into the cave shrine.  We had arrived at his once a day meal and a local boy was in the living quarters area cooking food for the Monk.

Duang was just as enthusiastic as I was to visit the Monk this year.  Just as in our previous visits, he remembered us.  But there were many visible changes since our last visit.  The local boy has gone away.  The Monk now was running a noisy gasoline generator to have lighting.  The Buddha statues were now surrounded by fairly heavy vegetation perhaps partly attributable to a diminished effort by the Monk to keep the relentless push by nature at bay.

The Monk looked older and more frail than on our last visit.  His hearing was also much worse.  However his kindness was as great as ever.  He was also sharing his quarters with two dogs.

As he spoke with Duang, I photographed him in the natural sunlight that streamed in through an opening in the wall of his vestibule to the cave.  The Monk was very interested to see the results of my efforts to photograph him.  Since I now shoot exclusively digital, I could easily share with him unlike the first visit when I was using film.

The Monk rummaged through his things and pulled out a digital camera.  It was a nice camera but he explained to Duang that he had dropped it and was now having problems with it.  He asked if I could see if I could get it to work.  The camera started up without a problem and requested that the date and time be set-up.  About 5 seconds into setting up the date, you never got to the point of setting the time, the camera would shut down.  I tried several times without success to get the camera to function.  I returned the camera to him and he said that he would bring it to town some day to see if it can be fixed.

After we made merit, we were blessed by the Monk.  Part of the blessing ritual is to be sprinkled over the head with water.  I believe that we got a special blessing - he used up all the water in a special bowl to sprinkle our heads several times.

Monk Holding Bottle of Special Soap
The Monk then gave us each a special amulet that he had made.  The amulets were a sort of Buddhist version of a St Christopher's medal.  They appeared to be made out of metal and had the pressed image of Standing Buddha on the front. The Monk then handed me two bags of material that he uses to make the amulets and had me smell the contents of one of the bags.  It appeared to me that the bags contained clay and perhaps a type of binder such as epoxy.  The bag that I smelled had a very pleasant mild floral type perfume odor. There was an involved discussion between the Monk and Duang about what she needed to do with the object.  He was telling her about how she needed to use some special water that he went outside and brought back to her in a soda bottle.  This water may be special but it e=was definitely not drinking water.  It looked like it had come from the Black Lagoon.  It was dark and had a great deal of suspended things in it - perhaps run off from the rocks above.  Any how she was to take the objects and bathe them in the special water to which special scented liquid soap had been added.  I was familiar with the special scented liquid soap - it is kind of like liquid Castille soap that is added to water that is sprinkled on the corpse during the cremation ritual at funerals.  The small bottles are often included in offerings of toiletries made to Monks.

We said good bye to the Monk and were off to achieve other objectives for the day... but that was not the last that we saw of the Monk who lives in a cave.  But that is another story for another day.

It had been a very good visit.  Yes, many things had changed.  It was yet another lesson and reminder that life is change, change that we can neither avoid or control.  It was also a lesson that we can control how we react to change and that despite change we still can be happy.  Not bad and it was still before Noon.

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