At the feet of the Buddha

I touched my forehead to the ground kneeling before the golden Buddha. I surrendered to the bow. Excitement coursed through me as I waited for the master monk, Phra Ajahn Yantra Amaro, to enter the temple. He had put a white handkerchief on the carpet as was the Thai Buddhist tradition. It was an honor to have his brown feet walk on him. I looked up just long enough to see the graceful form of him enter and take his place on the raised platform. He was followed by the other monks from the Sunnataram Monastery. I felt deep feelings of affection. Their bodies were draped in the traditional saffron robes of the Monk of the Forest; their heads were shaved. They settled cross-legged and gathered their robes around them, looking very much like the huge golden Buddha that filled the shrine at one end. They closed their eyes in meditation. I instantly felt blissful.

The monks placed their alms bowls in front of them. They would eat only when we offered them food. It was their tradition when walking through the villages in Thailand for people to welcome them by placing gifts of food in the bowls. Today was Sunday and after Phra Ajahn’s teaching and singing we ate together. Blankets were spread out on the floor of the temple and large steaming plates of delicious Thai food were placed on them. Sitting in a circle we ate. Most of these foods were unrecognizable to the western eye and palate, and if you asked if they were spicy, you were always told no, with a smile. Thai food is one of the hottest foods known to man.

Phra Ajahn was forced to flee Thailand. The government of that country felt threatened by his popularity. On his birthday in October every year, ten thousand devotees would follow him and the lines of serpentine pilgrims would stretch for miles. He nearly died from being poisoned, and those who loved him smuggled him out of the country. They tried to enter the United States illegally. Detained by US immigration and returned, he was surely a death sentence. His devotees, undaunted by him, smuggled him into the California desert, where a group of passionate advocates began the arduous task of building a case that would allow him to stay. With the successful legal battle, there was still a lot to do. The Thai community came together to provide Phar Ajahn with refuge and a base from which to continue the work towards the coveted Green Card so that he could stay and teach. Sunnataram was born.

Phra Ajahn was an amazing presence. In his 40s, chiseled face, eyes reflecting the vastness of his practice, he would go into ecstasy just looking at it. He told more than one person that I was often in this “Samadhi” or spiritual state of bliss absorption. He was intoxicating. He had yet to understand the true origin of the experience; therefore, I experienced the disappearance of bliss when Phra Ajahn left the temple. I became obsessed with his return because I knew he would reignite the fire of bliss. Here, with a great teacher, I had a rare glimpse of a vastness of being that was beyond words.

I did not consider myself a Buddhist. When my friend, Mary, said that we had the opportunity to study and live at the monastery, she was actually directing me to Baja. Giving myself over to my spiritual quest, I had given up all hope of comfort and a “normal” way of life. I didn’t really consider myself anything, just a seeker of something I couldn’t define yet. I was looking everywhere for him. It had led me here, living in a tent for a year, on a hillside among the macadamia nut trees north of Escondido, California. I don’t know about life in other monasteries. I had always thought they were a place of peace and reflection. It was a complete surprise to find Sunnataram bustling with activity, cleaning and cooking and visitors coming and going; clashing personalities, ruffled feathers and even jealousy among Thai fans.

The monastery was actually a very large house that housed the monks and nuns and those who led the legal defense. The kitchen was not big enough to feed so many people, so the nuns created a larger kitchen in a patio open to the valley. It was a lovely setting. The only problem was that the very large field rats loved to come in and hang out on top of the counters. On the nights that they came for a snack for dinner, it was common to see them sneaking through the trees. Buddhists recognize the god in all things, so no trap was ever set to catch them. One simply considered it part of their “practice” to remain “aware” and at peace. I never perfected this, but I was able to see them without jumping out of my skin.

We all had to work, and I found myself part of the legal team as an English speaker, as well as cleaning bathrooms, greeting American and European guests, and taking care of the stray dog ​​drawn to the smells of the open kitchen. . It was a very full and long day starting early to prepare breakfast for the monks. The nuns were nothing more than glorified kitchen helpers, which always shook my sense of righteousness. However, they served with joy and open hearts. I was given the honor of carrying the breakfast trays upstairs, where the monks began their mornings. Almost breathlessly she waited to see Phra Ajahn. I placed the fruit tray and a tureen of light vegetable broth on the floor where they would sit. I left feeling disappointed rather than glad to be of service.

Every day we would gather in the temple to sing, in Thai and Sanskrit. I knew what I was singing but was often transported to pure bliss by the sounds of the voices. After lunch, the last prepared meal of the day, we gather around the Master for his wisdom. He spoke of the “super nature” as the life force in all things. This spoke to me, as he had lived in Yosemite for ten years and understood the power and energy of the uncorrupted natural elements.

Most of his talks were about kind love and how we had to learn to quiet our minds in order to be at peace. He instructed us in what the Buddhists called the “middle path” and this was the beginning of a profound change in my way of seeing life. The Buddha had taught that the mind and its opposites were the source of all suffering. If one took the middle path between these opposites, one could free oneself from a life of suffering. I was all for it. Instead of fighting the mind and its needs, its likes and dislikes, or its terrible desires, one would know peace. I saw this clearly for the first time in my own life. I was encouraged by a deeper insight into the “Fourfold Path” which said that if you were aware that you were suffering, it was actually a heightened state of realization. The fourth step was to end the suffering. This they called Nirvana, or Enlightenment. I wanted this more than anything.

Tired from the day, I plan to have a light snack outside the monastery. A life-size statue of Green Tara led the way to my shop below. The sculpture captured a beautiful slender woman sitting cross-legged, her skin a deep green. Her form was draped in a gold-trimmed sari. In Buddhist mythology, Green Tara was known as a “savior-goddess of compassion.” As a deity, she was especially worshiped for her ability to overcome difficult situations, helping her followers with danger, fear, and anxieties. When she was called upon, she was told that she was quick to act.

My tent was set up on a wooden platform built on stilts, giving me an incredible view of the valley with macadamia nut and avocado ranches. I sat down to reflect on my desire to return to Baja with my sister Alisabeth. She had been cleaning up her life and wanted to follow her dream of living there. I couldn’t see myself letting her go without me. I knew my time here would end one day, and it seemed like the next step into the unknown. A warm wind was blowing from the east, whipping the dry leaves into a frenzy. The Santa Ana had been blowing all day, but this was a strong gust and my poor tent shuddered with the impact. It was never made to withstand the abuse that had been given it in a year of full sun. It had been disintegrating for some time; mice were becoming frequent guests.

I crouched down to protect myself from the wind and prepared to read until I fell asleep. The walls of the store moved in and out as if they were inside a balloon. At some point in the night, the wind turned to a gale, and when I looked, the mountains were on fire, giving off a menacing red glow. The tent was lifting on one side and the fabric had foot-long rips in several places. I was being torn apart! A feeling of helplessness arose at that moment. This wasn’t just a matter of a tent, it was my home. I left what had once been my haven. I was really scared. Haven’t I learned anything since I came to Sunnataram? There was no calm mind, just an urge to run. I ran up the hill and ran past Tara. Panting from the climb, I stopped. I turned to the green deity. Something drew me to her. Standing in front of her, the wind ripped my clothes. I knelt down in surrender. I reached deep inside to find an inner strength I didn’t know I had. Suddenly, I was no longer a victim when I looked at Tara’s green face. He was in a relationship with her, and even with the wind at that time. My voice rose above the force of the gale. I begged Tara to ask the wind to save my store, my home.

I bowed my head, my hair whipping around my face. In silence I waited. I was in a kind of suspension, as if I were the silent center of the storm, and an amazing force revolved around me. I was the stillness. Centered in this inner peace there was nothing to fear. In moments, as if kissed by the wind, a cool breeze touched my cheek. The hot fury died. The wind changed and blew from the west. Green Tara and I were bathed in the soft breath of the ocean.