Nancy and I are in Thailand leading a group of 14 people on pilgrimage. We have been visiting monasteries and practice centers, meditating, and having profound Dharma conversation with monks and nuns.
At three p.m. on the afternoon of January 16th we visited Wat Ba Pong in Ubon Ratchatanee. We joined seven hundred and fifty monks, several hundred nuns and eight thousand lay people to honor the life and inspiration of the great Thai Dharma teacher Ajahn Chah who passed away about ten years ago. Several thousand people had spent the prior six days in silent meditation.
We waited beside the road for the monks to lead us in the annual circumambulation of the golden chedi (monument) which houses the relics of Ajahn Chah. We sat cross-legged on the ground in hushed silence. Our hands, in reverential prayer position, held a few flowers, a candle and two incense sticks. From the loudspeakers a single male voice intoned the familiar chanting of the homage to the Buddha, and refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. A few minutes later the first monks emerged from the stone gate that led from the great meditation hall where they had been chanting. The senior monks came first, carrying large bouquets of young lotus blossoms, candles and incense sticks. A river of brown robed forest monks that flowed through the gate for many minutes followed them. Among them were ancient monks who limped along and young novices, short Thai monks with dark brown skin, and a few tall and gangly western monks. All walked with dignity, reverence and mindfulness, with downcast eyes.
Nuns with their white robes and shaved heads followed the monks. They too carried bouquets and walked in meditative silence. We found ourselves among hundreds of women walking down the tree-arched road toward the chedi. We stood at least a head taller than the tallest of the Thai women.
Thousands of humans who follow the Eightfold Path of the Buddha walked together in silent ease. I found myself reflecting, “This is truly a peace march: a march of profound inner and outer peace.”
The procession took about an hour to circle the chedi three times. Each circuit, filled with people, was more than a kilometer long. Ahead of me I could see countless blackhaired heads and white clothing proceeding beneath a canopy of branches.
At the end of the third circuit, the monks walked up to a platform surrounding the chedi and circled it three times. Then they passed though the interior, performed the traditional three deep prostrations, placed their bouquets and left by another door. When we came to the end of our final tour we added our flower offerings to the thousands piled on tables surrounding the chedi.
At six p.m. we sat again by the roadside and listened to rhythmic chanting in Pali coming over the loudspeakers. Throngs of people were walking through the gate that led to the great meditation hall. We rose and followed them. The road, twenty feet wide and a hundred yards long, was lined on both sides with white-clad women four or five deep, all chanting. A small path wound down the center. Every fifty feet there was a pool of light from an overhead lamp. In the woods on either side were hundreds of tents and mosquito nets in which these women had been camping and practicing meditation for six days. It felt like a great honor to be able to walk among them.
We made our way to the front and sat near the meditation hall steps. All around were thousands of women in white, sitting on the ground, hands in prayer position, chanting. The male voice over the loudspeaker led the chants. From all directions the voices of the women kept perfect pace. Occasionally the monks would pause for breath and the voices of the women would surge forward in their higher key. At times the women would fall silent and the deeper voices of hundreds of monks at the front of the hall would fill the night. Crickets sang out into the brief moments of silence between chants. A gentle breeze same from the Southwest and rustled the leaves overhead.
A few hundred feet from the chanting were dozens of tents and stalls where food was prepared and offered freely to over eight thousand people. There was hot spicy noodle soup, piles of vegetables, mountains of rice and great cauldrons of the delicious sweet sticky rice. There was no charge for anything. Everything was provided as dana, a manifestation of the Thai understanding of the practice of generosity. I was remarkably at ease among these thousands of people. Their friendliness was palpable. Countless times we pressed our hands together and bowed, saying, “Sawadee Kap” (hello) and being greeted similarly. Smiles were everywhere. During the many hours we were there, we met two policemen, both of whom greeted us warmly. There were children of all ages helping their parents with cooking and washing pots. They greeted us playfully.