Travel presents opportunities we don’t always take.
When my friend Vivienne asked if I wanted to accompany her to a Buddhist temple, I nearly declined.
It was a hot day and a long walk from Siem Reap.
But this was to be no ordinary visit.
After all, how often do you get to meditate with a Buddhist monk?
Robert the monk
Vivienne had met a monk named Robert the previous day. He invited her to visit his temple and offered to teach her meditation.
This was the reason we were walking down a dusty road, under Cambodia’s baking sun. Kids rode past on bikes, while men fished in the sleepy river.
We stopped outside a red and gold gate. Two young monks sat by the entrance, joking with each other. We greeted them. One ran off to find Robert.
I thought to myself, what makes a youth become a monk?
Robert then arrived. He was lean, with a shaved head and glasses. His orange robe was spotless and he had a learned air belying his 30 years.
He wanted to show us the temple grounds. We walked past a school, vegetable gardens, the monks’ huts and a cemetery.
The final stop on the tour was the temple itself. The doors were shut, making it look forbidden. Robert turned to Vivienne and asked, “should we meditate?”
We entered the temple. The inside was black and our footsteps echoed in the cavern.
I helped Robert open the windows. Light flooded in, revealing intricate murals on each wall.
A large Buddha statue resided at the rear of the temple. Robert sat with his back to the statue and crossed his legs.
Vivienne and I sat facing Robert while he explained what to do.
“Copy my pose. Close your eyes. Breathe deep. Try not to think of anything. Most importantly, don’t move. Even if a fly lands on your face, don’t hit it away. Relax and be still.”
“We will do this for 20 minutes. Begin.”
I closed my eyes and tried to free my mind. I took long breaths, and started to feel calm.
But everything quickly fell apart.
The telltale sign was the tingling feeling in my left leg. “Please not pins and needles,” I thought.
Within minutes, my entire leg was dead. It was a melange of pain and tickling. A hopeless distraction when trying to sit silent and still.
Rather than being completely relaxed, my body screamed for some bloodflow. The stress made my heart race and breathing shallow.
But I remembered Robert’s words. Don’t move. To disobey this seemed disrespectful after Robert had welcomed me into his place of worship.
I spent the next few minutes deciding how to move my leg without Robert knowing. I had to adjust my pose, for my own sanity. It was anti-meditation.
Finally, I went to stretch my leg. And it didn’t budge. It was so dead that it wouldn’t twitch, let alone move. I kept suffering in silence.
I hadn’t heard a peep from Robert or Vivienne this whole time. Pride had got me this far, but I could handle it no more.
I opened my eyes and pulled at my leg with both hands.
To my surprise, Robert was staring at the ceiling. His watch showed that twenty minutes had passed.
“That’s enough,” he announced, looking at me as I massaged my thigh.
“Usually I only do this for ten minutes, but I wanted to try longer today. It’s very hard, isn’t it?”
As wonderful feeling returned to my leg, I figured I couldn’t get mad at a monk.
Memories of a massacre
There was another temple Robert wanted to show us. Jumping at the chance to exercise my legs, I hobbled after him.
The temple was run-down and missing a wall on one side. Pigeons nested in the roof. My feet left deep prints in the dusty floor.
Robert pointed to the ceiling, which was adorned with paintings. They showed the Buddha praying, meditating and performing wondrous acts.
But the paint was badly faded and chunks of scenes had peeled off.
“How old are these paintings?” I asked.
“They were made in 1954,” Robert responded. It took a moment for the date’s significance to strike.
The Khmer Rouge persecuted Cambodia’s monkhood in the late 1970s. It’s been estimated that out of 50,000 monks, 1,000 survived the genocide. A whole way of life, dating back six centuries, had nearly been destroyed.
It was likely then, that the monks who’d once admired the paintings when new, were now lying in a mass grave. Murdered because of their compassion and desire for peace.
I looked at Robert, as he smiled and chatted with Vivienne. If he’d been alive during that era, he’d probably have a bullet in the head.
Today, he’s leading the Buddhist revival.
As we walked back through the temple grounds, some scruffy Cambodian boys ran past us.
Robert said the boys were from poor rural families. They were living here to help their parents and to get some education. A few, but not all, would become monks.
“What I really want, is to buy a computer. It’s important that the kids use technology. Soon I will go to Phnom Penh and try find a cheap computer.”
Robert then asked, what was my religion?
I said that my Grandma was Christian and that I’d been baptised. I don’t know what I expected, but Robert was very accepting.
“I think it’s good for people to believe in something. Whether it is Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, it doesn’t matter to me.”
I was impressed by this tolerance. Robert was no dogmatic preacher, trying to convert people to a one true faith.
Rather, he was just a good person who lived to help others.
I didn’t have the heart to to tell him I was an atheist.
The 21st century
It was time to leave. I asked if I could take a photo with Robert to remember him.
“Yes,” he said, “and can you send me a copy?”
“Sure, but how?” I replied.
“Do you have Facebook?” Robert asked.
It shouldn’t have surprised me. But I had to laugh.
And I still get Robert’s status updates to this day.
Would you perform meditation with a Buddhist monk? What’s the most rewarding experience you’ve had while traveling? Leave a comment below