Lunch with a Monk

By August 24, 2014 Thailand, Writing
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It’s eleven o’clock in the morning and I can feel the beginning stages of a full-blown hanger attack creeping in, the type of irrational wrath and fury that can only come from being underfed.

It was this same fragile emotional state that fueled a series of arguments cumulating in WWIII in the hotel lobby just moments before. How my boyfriend slept in too late; how I was as impatient as I was stubborn; how he played it too slow and safe; how I was restless and ready to risk it all to see the world. We hurled these recycled reproaches back and forth until our reasons for shouting were forgotten and our egos turned black and blue.

I stumble out from the frontlines into a wall of Bangkok heat. After three days of navigating the cacophony of sidewalk touts, I barely register the innocuous calls of “took took” from the drivers lounging on their motorcycle taxis as I pass. With laser-like focus, I am on a mission – to find sustenance.

A few steps from my hotel, a street stall calls my name. Bright reds, yellows and greens heaped in precarious piles, recycled bottles filled with fish sauce and spices occupying the little spaces in between. The cook moves methodically, hands passing seamlessly from ingredient to wok as she prepares steaming hot dishes for a gathering crowd perched on plastic stools down the narrow alley behind. I place my order and take a seat, my agitation already subsiding at the promise of food.

The sound of footsteps jolts me from my own little world of self-loath, and I look up to find a monk clad in faded orange robes shuffling down the alley towards me. I smile and gently bow my head as I had seen others do in quiet reverence whenever monks pass. Unexpectedly, the monk pauses, claims the seat next to me as his own, and demands in English, “Where you come from?”

The question feels like it could have a deeper meaning coming from a monk, but I assume he is just trying to place my blonde hair and white skin. We quickly establish that I am from Canada and that he was born in nearby historic Ayutthaya, known for its majestic temples and equally divine boat noodle soup.

Our meals come and we continue to chat over spicy Tom Yum soup (my favourite) and what appears to be a medley of greens and seafood next to a bed of rice, topped with a perfectly fried egg. I dig into the large slices of tomato, oyster mushroom and shrimp swimming in my bowl. The spicy broth makes my nose run and the monk offers me a packet of tissues, as he wipes stray grains of rice from his chin.

“How old do you think I am?” asks the monk. A loaded question, but judging by his smirk clearly a game he has played before. I smiled and indulge him, “You can’t be any older than fifty-five.” Pleased with himself, the monk burst into a throaty cackle that elicites stares from every table down the alley. “I am seventy-three, but people never believe me!” With scarcely a line on his face and mind as sharp as a tack, I hardly believe him myself.

When only chunks of lemongrass and ginger remained in my bowl, I begin to sense that my time with the hungry monk is coming to a close. My thoughts drift back to the hotel. I spin the harsh words of the morning’s argument around in my head and wonder if I even have anyone to go back to. The tom yum does flips in my stomach and I turn to the monk for reassurance. “How do you find forgiveness?” I ask.

My cliché of a question is met with a genuinely puzzled stare. The silence between us grows long and uncomfortable, and I begin to wish I had asked where to eat for dinner instead. Just as I open my mouth again to fill the void, the monk offers a single, weighty word. “Meditate.” He pronounces each syllable with urgency, as though he has looked deep into my soul and voiced the one thing that eluded me most – stillness.

The monk puts down his spoon and motions for me to do the same. I follow his lead and breathe in deeply, letting wafts of tom yum enter and exit through my nose. My mind wanders everywhere, from the curious stares of the other patrons, to the sweat dripping from behind my knees, to all the words spoken this morning that I wish I could take back. If the monk notices, he doesn’t let on. Instead, he exhales absolutely and smiles, “I am happy to have seen you today.”

Belly full and mind at peace, I am truly happy to have seen him too. I exit the alleyway and head back to the hotel in search of forgiveness and a way to still my restless soul.

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