The Mindfulness Project
We were in Khon Kaen because we had volunteered to help with the Mindfulness Project, a Buddhist monastery that was being built in the jungle along with a sustainable community to give housing to the homeless of the city.
We met up with our hosts, a young German couple called Christian and Anja, and they took us first to the city temple that was sponsoring the project. It was a festival weekend, so we spent a few days celebrating with the monks and the locals.
The celebrations ranged from the monks leading chants and prayers, to big community meals, to processions.
We spent one evening at a temple where there was singing and prayers. Christian showed us a great statue of the Buddha and explained some of the basic principles of Buddhism then he and Anja joined the singing while the volunteers watched from a distance.
Afterwards, we bought little boats made of banana stalks and flowers. We lit candles that nestled in among the flowers and set them adrift on a small pond that was lit up with the twinkling of dozens of little floating boats. There were also sky lanterns, much like those in Taiwan, that were being sent into the sky full of wishes and prayers.
In another festival we woke up very early in the morning and headed to the temple. The monks stood in a long line in their bright orange robes holding baskets and silver bowls, the oldest with bent back and years of wrinkles lining his face, the youngest so small he could barely lift the bowl he carried as he tottered along. All had shaved heads and eyebrows, and most looked very solemn, although a few of the older monks looked playful and threw smiles at the crowd.
The townspeople (and us) had all brought cookies, crackers, fruit, bottles of water and milk and juice, packets of coffee, sugar, rice, and handfuls of coins. The monks walked through the crowd with their bowls and baskets and the townspeople carefully placed an item or two into each monk's container as he passed. Soon the bowls were overflowing and new ones had to be brought.
Monks do not buy or prepare any of their own food, but live off of the generosity of others. This practice is to discourage their own preferences and to encourage acceptance. The people were so generous during this festival that the monks had a huge surplus and divided the goods into three piles. The first was for them, the second was to give to a nearby orphanage, and the third was given to the Mindfulness Project. Christian loaded up the beat up old truck the project used and Nicole, the other volunteers, and I sat atop the pile of food at the end of the day as we drove off to the jungle.
Life in the jungle is pretty basic. They have a building to house volunteers, but beds are mats on the floor with mosquito nets over them. When we arrived there were no showers so we bathed in buckets, and there was only one electrical outlet and one lamp, so evenings were a bit dark. We cooked over a single gas burner, but the meals managed to impress. Homemade peanut butter and fruit smoothies, sweet and sour vegetables, spicy rice, and big bowls of muesli were all our daily fare (all vegetarian-- quite a feat for my carnivore-friend, Nicole!).
We woke up at 5am in the mornings and Christian would lead a yoga practice and then vipassana meditation. He taught us many basic principles of meditation and my desire to eventually take a 10-day vipassana course was reaffirmed.
After breakfast we worked on projects to help build the monastery and community. The project is very new, so a lot of the things we worked on were in the earliest stages, but we both learned an interesting array of new skills. Nicole installed showers, I worked on a large mosaic, and we both spent afternoons gardening, cleaning, and welding.
Learning to weld was my favorite task. After a quick lesson, I was left in the silence of the half built temple in the jungle. As I worked along I'd take occasional breaks and sit in the shade, surrounded by deep green vines and swaying leaves bigger than my body while the tropical birds chirped out a small chorus above me. I laid out on the floor of the temple and let out long slow breaths. The air was warm and flowed over me in small breezes, and I was quietly alone. It gave a simple peacefulness that is hard to find.
The couple, Christian and Anja, were a beautiful example of two people building a life together. Anja laughed easily and it was infectious. At dinner she'd tell us stories that would make her laugh, and by the end of it she'd be doubled over in giggles; the rest of us couldn't help but laugh along with her, whether we'd heard the funny part of her story or not. Christian is a teacher to the core, and was always ready to answer questions or show us new things with a steady and quiet patience. And they often wondered aloud at how amazed they were at the beauty of their lives, thankful for every small thing and always excited for the future.
One morning Christian made crepes, and Anja ate several platefuls. "I'm so full! I love pancakes!" she announced with satisfaction.
"Yes, I think you married me for the pancakes I make," Christian decided.
"What?" she laughed, "I married you for about a million reasons! Your pancakes are on the list, but not at the top. There are so many other things!" she found his comment extremely funny and was giggling at him. Christian just looked at her and smiled.
That was the way they did everything; work, play, rest, and meals, all were done without haste or worry, with expressions of joy and patience.
Life with the Mindfulness Project was simple and happy; a brief glimpse into a different, slower world. Nicole and I were both thankful to have gotten a chance to experience and learn from it