In which Eric gets a lesson in manners from a monkey

Date: Wed, 2 Feb 2005 04:39:43 -0800 (PST)

Dear Friends:

I am in Chiang Mai on another visa run, but this time I got one that lasts through November. So I can decide how long I want to stay without worrying about getting a visa every month or so. I do have to report to a visa office every three months, but that entails a half day trip rather than multiple days.

Anyway, its been about a month since I have been out of a monastery, except for a brief “flea run” two weeks ago.

I was getting lots and lots of insect bites, some of which were from fleas, so I took all my stuff into Chiang Mai, and bought a good quality sleeping bag as well. When I got back after three days, I thought the problem would be solved, but with two kinds of mosquitoes, black flies, and I think no see-ums, I still have lots of bites.

So this time I went to a local department store and got an electric hi frequency sound wave producer that is supposed to drive the various bugs crazy and out of my cottage. We’ll see.

But enough of that. It has been a really great time for me. I have never been happier since I spent time at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center 30+ years ago.

One of the coolest things about this part of Thailand is the large number of caves, and the place I am staying at. “Wat Tam Wua” means “Cow Cave Temple”.  Set in a valley, there are high butte type outcroppings, hundreds of feet high, with sheer cliffs that are virtually impossible to climb. Earlier on in my stay, three of the younger monks (not the Abbot who is about 50) took Nen, a 15 year old novice, Newi an 18 year old from Bangkok, and Jason, a 30 year old American, up the mountain, causing one of the nuns to lie awake all night fearing for their lives. (they didn’t ask me-and I am sorry and glad I didn’t go)

The American, a former rock and roll singer, anarchist sympathizer guy told me that the risks they took–climbing up sheer cliff with a rope and wearing only sandals–he lost one of his and had to climb barefoot until he came upon another sandal apparently abandoned in a previous expedition–caused him to get pretty angry. They were crazy to attempt it, but attempt they did and succeeded too. But the Abbott told me both before and after that I was not allowed to attempt a climb, even from the “easy” back side trails.

Anyway, these mountain/buttes are deep in the Thai hinterland, where Tigers and malaria were rampant just ten years ago. They are also honey combed with caves, and I met one monk who actually lives in one of those caves. Thailand’s mountain monks are definitely the most free spirited folks I’ve ever met.

In fact being a monk in Thailand is like having a license to be a total nonconformist–as long as they don’t violate the 227 precepts starting with no sex. But just talking to them , you know they are a breed apart. The one guy in the cave had been living there for 8 years, and it smelled like he hadn’t bathed in all that time. But he had a bunch of wild monkey friends to keep him company.

One day, Jason, the ex rocker, Nen, the Novice and I, decided to pay these monkeys a visit.

So we set out for a brief walk through the local village. Picture a narrow dirt path along the mountain side, by  a creek, past ragged villagers, many with missing teeth, watering their vegetable gardens, past thatched roofed huts, down the “main street” a one lane alley past more huts, hovels and occasional “upscale” 2 story dwellings that might have cost $2000 to build, and probably have dirt floors.   I ran into a guy from the USA recently who is marrying a woman from the hill tribes, who are more close to indigenous. He was a builder by profession in the USA, and when I asked him a question about building codes, answered my own question realizing that a good 70% of Thailand’s population lives in such places.

IF there were building codes 70% would be homeless. So Jason, Nen and I buy a few cinnamon cookies at the local version of 7-11, but remember this is rural Thailand so don’t get your expectations up, head on down the road to the main highway, not unlike Hwy 1 or Hwy 49 in California, two lane windy roads, where drivers think double yellow lines are a signal to pass (well that’s a bit of an exaggeration but not by much), and close encounters with a herd of water buffalo are not uncommon.

So we get back on the road to the Temple, and take the turnoff to the cliffs where the monkeys live.  They weren’t home when we got there, so Nen said we should go to the caves where they hang out as well–and where the monk lives.  We get there, start calling out to the monkeys waving our cookies, and then Newi, the student from Bangkok shows up. He is a Lady Boy-very effeminate fellow who might otherwise have become a transvestite, or even had a sex change operation. But he wants to become a monk, and the Abbott won’t let him, until he gives that up.  Newi has brought bananas, another favorite of the apes.

Before you can say, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys”, they all start coming down, shooting down the vines, scampering down the sheer rock faces with incredible speed and agility.

I see that they read rock walls the way we read books. What looks totally unsafe they negotiate with ease.

Se we start holding out the cookies, and at first , they shyly reach out and then quickly grab them and jump back. But then they get used to us and the bananas are just too tempting. They grab the bananas right out of our hands and eat them by biting off a section of the skin and then eating them from the inside.

So I decided to be a good teacher. I held up a banana for one monkey to see. I said, ” see you hold it in one hand and then take the top and peel it–like this.” The monkey watched this  without my noticing his impatience,  until he hit me on my hat.  He then grabbed my hand.

I said to him, “that was rather rude!” and then realized he was telling me, “Look stupid human. I am a monkey. I know perfectly well how to eat a banana, so stop preaching and just give me the damn banana!”

They would climb all over the monk, and were, after initial shyness, willing to be more personable with us visitors. What a great experience hanging out with our wild creature friends!

Later on as my initial month was ending, I had to decide whether to return after my visa run or got another place. I had considered checking in a couple of places I had been to, not feeling really sure of what would be best.

But the last couple of days were very exceptional. I had decided to repeat what I had done at an earlier Temple–one exercise they gave retreatants–which was to stay up meditating –alternating sitting and walking meditation–without lying down for three nights. I also decided to spend time in one of the caves that the original teacher  in that line of monks had used (though I didn’t know it at the time.) Spending time in caves is transformative. It is so quiet and still that at times I felt like how it must be in the womb. And in fact we are in the womb of Mother Earth As you can guess, I got pretty tired at certain points, sometimes exhausted, sometimes riding on a second wind. sometimes just sort of zoned out.

After that was over, I took a decent nap the next day, and a good night’s sleep the next night.

But there was something different. In the middle of the night I woke up for a short while and thought, “Gee, I feel like I am 21 again….no, I feel like 10!  This meditation stuff must work! “Taking a walk in the forest the last day, I remembered how, when I was 4 years old, I imagined myself a great explorer as I trudged through snow. And a feeling of weight lifted off my shoulders.  So this is how “carefree” really feels.

While some of this feeling has faded, I feel that I am on the right track here and that my initial impulse–to come to Thailand, get out the toxic atmosphere of the USA was a really smart move.  On the phone with a guy from Northwestern Mutual, with which I still have a policy that needs some servicing, I was telling him about the monkey story and how, in the Temple cut off from phones and news, no news was good news. I could tell he understood.

Which brings me to an end to this dispatch. There are so many things for me to write about, but if there is just one thing I want to convey, it would be to look at your priorities, given the, in my view, uncertain state of the world, and do what you really want to do in life.

The Abbott said in his instruction the last night I was there

“The sun rises and sets. Our breathe rises and falls. In the outer world everything is the same. Rising falling. But there is a place in our mind that doesn’t change. There are things in the outside world that we cannot control, but we can learn to control our own minds.”

Please take good care of yourselves.

Kind regards,


First published at


1 Comment

Filed under Bumbling about

One response to “In which Eric gets a lesson in manners from a monkey

  1. Hi there! My name is Katrin and I’m currently teaching near Mae Hong Son. In early April, I am planning to leave here. Then I have until June 6 to explore beaches, and spend about three weeks in a monastery. I’m trying to figure out where to go, and a monk told me about Wat Tham Wua. Would you be willing to give me some basic details, like can I just show up, do you recommend being there in April or May, can I stay as long as I like, and what a typical day is like? I’d be much obliged. Thanks for your entertaining blog!

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