I suppose all lives are punctuated by occurrences that are unforgettable precisely because they defy explanation. One particular incident that happened to me some years ago I have still not been able to get out of my mind. In fact, through the decades it has slowly gained in significance. I was visiting Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, one of the sacred wats (temples) near Chang Mai in northern Thailand. This site is particularly venerated because one of the shoulder bones of the Buddha is believed to be encased in its foundation.
As I recall, it was early afternoon when, wandering around the temple grounds, I came upon a room where a monk was leading a good many people in some sort of ceremony. Since I knew just a few tourist phrases in Thai and am not a Buddhist, I stood outside the door and quietly observed. Apparently something I did (or didn’t do) attracted the attention of the monk. He looked up from his service and, gazing directly at me, motioned for me to come into the room. I quickly turned to see if it was someone else standing nearby who was the object of his attention, but I was quite alone. He was without question gesturing at me.
Still not quite believing him, I cocked my head and pointed to my chest – the universal language for “Who, me?” The monk nodded and smiled and indicated with his hand that I should not only come in the room but also sit directly in front of him. I was honored, confused, amazed, and apprehensive all at the same time. My shoes already removed (as required in the temple precincts), I entered and sat cross-legged where he had pointed, at the very front of the roomful of worshipers.
From here on, the story gets stranger. Apparently some amount of time passed, but for the life of me I can’t say whether it was seconds, minutes, or hours. The next thing I remembered was being splashed with water. I opened my eyes to see a beatific smile on the monk’s face. I also saw his wet hand flicking more water in my direction. I smiled back at him, not really knowing whether to be embarrassed or thankful. How could I possibly have fallen asleep while sitting in what for me is a most uncomfortable position on a hard wooden floor?
Turning my head, I noticed that, aside from the monk and I, no one else was in the room. What good are questions without a common language in which to launch them? My bewilderment was significantly lessened by the kindness in the monk’s eyes. He then did the most extraordinary thing. He dipped his hand once more into the bowl of water at his side and produced a tiny effigy of the Buddha, no more than 3/4 of an inch high.
I accepted this precious gift from the monk and bowed with my hands in prayer position, as is the custom in Thailand. He returned the greeting, and I felt between us an exceptionally deep, albeit nonverbal connection. I left the room fairly floating on air.
Whenever I think back on this incident, the skeptic in me – the part of my psyche that isn’t satisfied until the magician reveals the secret of the trick – demands a rational explanation. None of the possibilities my mind comes up with is truly satisfying. Perhaps I was delusional and only imagined a roomful of people. Perhaps the monk did something that caused me to go into deep trance. Or – the explanation my inner skeptic esily found the most satisfying – perhaps the only place these events occurred was in my overactive imagination.
For years, I bought into the fantasy option as the most probable. Then one day some fifteen years after the trip to Thailand I came across the little Buddha in a royal blue velvet pouch, along with a few other relics of that trip, cached at the back of my sock drawer. I was forced to admit that I hadn’t been making it up after all.
Holding the little Buddha in my hand reconnected me with Doi Suthep, the monk, and the impossible-to-explain series of events. My wife, Arianne, and I had just moved into a new home, and a dear friend who had recently returned from a trip to Thailand had given us a hand-carved spirit house as a house-warming present. Just above the central entrance was a narrow opening that made a perfect resting place for the newly recovered treasure.
It wasn’t until I began writing this article that the saga of the little Buddha and the monk took its next an unexpected turn. I began to examine the tiny statue more closely; the countenance was incredibly serene, as with most likenesses of the Buddha, but something else drew my attention. The little Buddha’s left hand lay palm up in his lap, his right hand reaching over his right knee as the extended fingers just touch the ground. I wondered if this position has a special meaning. A few conversations with Buddhist friends led me on a fascinating journey of discovery.
Each presentation of the Buddha (the pose and the positioning of the hands, called a mudra) has special significance, denoting a particular energy or quality. This particular one is called Bhumisparsha in Sanskrit, which translates as “touching the earth” or “earth witness.” The right-hand fingers touching the ground symbolize the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. The left hand held flat in the lap symbolizes the union of method and wisdom as well as the apprehension of both conventional and ultimate truths.
I thought back on the timing of this gift and was hit with a sudden realization. I was given the Buddha statue at the very beginning of my journey of discovery, right when I had released the material trappings of my old life and begun my search for wisdom. Somehow, the monk knew what lay before me far better than I. He saw something in me that I myself was many, many years away from discovering. The gift of the Buddha was the monk’s recognition of the life of service I would someday choose to live. It was to be a constant reminder that I would do well to emulate the Enlightened One and look past conventional truths. Perhaps, if I continue in earnest, I might someday have some small thing of value to share.
As for how the monk materialized the little statue and how an entire roomful of people managed to disappear? The answer suddenly seems crystal clear: everything happened exactly as it was meant to.
Jean-Claude Gerard Koven is a writer and speaker based in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. He was a featured weekly columnist for the UPI (United Press International) Religion and Spirituality Forum and is the author of Going Deeper: How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense, recipient of both the Allbooks Reviews Editor’s Choice Award and the USABookNews.com Award for the Best Metaphysical Book of the Year.
©2004 – 2020. Jean-Claude Gerard Koven / All Rights Reserved.