“If you have time for yourself, you have time for others.” It’s impossible — indeed, highly inadvisable — to go to Chiang Mai, Thailand, without exploring its temple and Buddhist culture, as Abra and Jess of Team Outpost found out. Here’s why.
By Abra Atkison | All photos by Outpost/Michael Fraiman
Imagine the Disney movie Aladdin, with the temple that Princess Jasmine lived in, and there you have it: that is Wat Suan Dok, a.k.a. The Flower Garden Temple. The picturesque temple of glittering gold and crisp, clean white is located just off of a busy street in the western corner of Chiang Mai. If you’re in the area, the unique whitewashed shrines are definitely worth a stop at this magical place.
These beautiful monuments contain the ashes of former royal families of Chiang Mai, and walking among these spectacular gravestones gives you a feeling that is eerie but equally intriguing. And it was here that we met KK, a colourful, quick-witted monk with a sense of humour as wonderful as his heart.
KK told us the temple got its name because it was built in a garden belonging to King Ku Na, and that the initial construction of the temple was completed in 1371, but over time it fell to ruins. It remained in shambles until King Kawilla ordered the temple to be reconstructed more than 200 years later.
Towering far above the delicate shrines is a bright, golden bell-shaped structure called a stupa. A stupa is a circular structure containing relics or remains of Buddhist monks and is used as a place of meditation. Commonly known as a chedis in Thailand, these prayer halls are sacred, religious buildings that can be found all over Southeast Asia.
Although each region of Southeast Asia had its own stupa style, they’ve mixed and shared the architectural blueprints over the years and now the types of chedis vary all over the country. At the entrance of each stupa you will find statues of fire-breathing dragons, scaly serpents and other fierce looking creatures that act as guardians of the temple scaring away bad spirits and negative energies.
Jess, my travelling companion, and I had the opportunity to explore the royal graveyard further as the sun glistened off of the gold and white maze that surrounded us. On each shrine was a description, carved into the stone and written in Thai, to whom the monument was dedicated along with an offering of incense, flowers and coins. What a beautiful way to remember those that came before us, and a very magical place to rest in peace.
Patience is a virtue, and KK has a lot of it. He answered our endless questions about his life, his philosophies and Buddhism. Maybe the most common question, and one of our first, was: “What is Buddhism?”
KK paused, gathered his thoughts and said, “Buddhism is not a religion. It is a philosophy of everyday life.” He told us about enlightenment and purity with such passion, and in his eyes, you could easily see his passion and admiration for life.
KK became a monk after his parents passed away. I didn’t ask what age he was when he started, but he did tell us that a youth may become a monk as young as six or seven. Some reasons for becoming a monk include getting an education, desiring discipline, and achieving spiritual development. This may sound daunting for a child, but many see it as an opportunity and privilege.
KK told us that a monk has more than 200 rules to follow, but the three main rules are: 1) Take care of yourself; 2) Take care of the temple; and 3) Take care of others.
Being a nutritionist and wellness educator, I was most interested and surprised by the fact that monks don’t eat after noon. They eat once at breakfast and once just before 12 p.m. The reason is that they are meditating often but are not engaging in a lot of physical activity and must abstain from too many distractions we take for granted.
Don’t get me wrong; they do many chores such as clean the temple, take care of the gardens and maintain the statues and stupas; but as KK informed us, “A monk exercises the mind more than the body.”
Speaking of exercising the mind, a monk meditates at least twice a day, sometimes more. Once in the morning and once in the evening, a monk will sit on a mat in one of three positions: full lotus (if your meditation skills aren’t on point, this one hurts), half lotus, or cross-legged.
During prayer, when bowing to the Buddha, a monk will bow three times. The first bow is to show respect for the Buddha. The second is to show appreciation for Buddha’s teachings. And the last bow is to represent the disciples of the Buddha.
KK showed us life at a slower, calmer pace. He told us to do good unto others and they will do good to you. He also gave us a lesson in being selfless.
“If you have time for yourself,” he said, “then you have time for others.”
Seeing life through KK’s eyes was a refreshing reminder to live a stress-free, happy life. “If you are not happy, then life is meaningless.” Respect, forgive, and accept. Thank you, KK.
Meditation for Dummies: My Quest for Mindfulness
By Jess Abran
I’ve always been fascinated with meditation. I grew up with a sort of voodoo Haitian grandmother who adopted Buddhism and claimed she could astroplane in her sleep; she was a very spiritual person for whom mental health was a lifestyle.
Me, on the other hand, I’ve always been an anxious person, even since I was little. I remember significant parts of my childhood being peppered with self-doubt and depression, which eventually led to chronic insomnia by the time I was 14.
As a teenager, I never told anyone about these dark thoughts, not even my parents. Since then, I’ve spent years trying nearly everything to help get me to sleep: pharmaceuticals, exercise, yoga, changing my habits and my diet. I didn’t try meditation until my early 20s. I wasn’t so good at first; my mind was so busy that meditating seemed like a dark and scary place where time stood still. So when I had the chance to visit a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, I was eager to get a new lesson in meditation.
After a tour of Wat Suan Dok, our guide and newly-minted monk friend KK delivered us to his office and sat us down. I knew this lesson would be different than the others I’d had before.
The meditation room was dripping in gold and various Buddha statues. The silence was intimidating; I worried my thoughts were so loud maybe KK could hear them. I calmed myself and sat in a half-lotus pose opposite KK. Abra and I both closed our eyes as KK began coaching us through the meditation process.
He explained that it is okay to feel distracted, it is okay to feel uncomfortable and to feel pain. That we should acknowledge these “distractions” (or, in my case, insecurities and anxieties), and breathe past them. To KK, it was always important to breathe and have a focal point. Focus as long as you can on relaxing different parts of your body until your entire body is relaxed. Distractions are normal. Don’t feel caught up in them. It’s better to feel them, speak to them and accept them as welcome neighbours to your mind, letting them pass into your mind and out as swiftly.
Instead of anxious thoughts, I focused on my own breathing. By the time I opened my eyes, it felt like far more time had passed than what really had. The internal struggle was real. I can’t say for sure whether I’ll sleep better tonight, but I’m feeling more rested now.