It’s in our nature to ogle at a full moon and be equally full of wonder. The full moon is a devoted emblem for several faiths. Ancient Indian traditions pose that the moon controls the Earth’s water, even the water in ourselves. Many people find a correlation between their mood and the fullness of the moon, with their emotions reflecting its cycle. Some find ties between the moon and the earth’s cultivation and plants, as well as its animals.
Buddhism too finds its beliefs embracing the full moon. It’s thought that the full moon relates to the most significant experiences of the Buddha’s life. As a result, festivals in Buddhist countries often orientate around the timing of the full moon in particular months.
The first full moon day of May has been celebrated as the holiest of holidays in Buddhism throughout history and continues to be so today. Visakha Puja Day, or more informally “Buddha’s Day”, marks the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. Because of its entanglement with spirituality, emphasis is put on this day to rest, to take time to reflect on ourselves, and to invest our time on spiritual development.
I felt incredibly blessed in my experience of Visakha Puja. On the day prior to the festival, I witnessed 93 monks walk down the promenade near Korat’s own Thao Suranaree monument in the 7am sunlight. Crowds of people dressed in white shirts and black trousers, each person in the tranquil state of meditation and prayer. It’s customary to give dry foods or other goods to the monks as means of offering alms, yet never before have I seen such a contribution of locals lining up to do so.
Visakha Puja Day fell on Monday 1st June this year, so with another 7am start (eesh) I ventured with Thai friends to Wang Nam Khiao, a district in Southern Nakhonratchasima. Wang Nam Khiao is one of the few tourist hubs in Isaan and is fondly nicknamed by many as the “Switzerland of Thailand”. It’s pretty easy to see why.
I met two farang monks that morning. The first monk known as Ajahn Sumedho chatted briefly but warmly about the concept of the Dhamma with a constant smile drawn across his face. My question to him was, quite simply, “what is Dhamma?” Sumedho answered, equally simply, that The Dhamma gradually awakens the student up to reality. The process of this awakening is explained to be at the very top of a mountain where the gradient is only slight and the the trail is long and winds slowly up to the summit.
I felt like my talk with Sumedho had placed me at the beginning of a long path, but it was the Abbot of the Monastery, Ajahn Nyanadhammo, who took my arm and started to lead me down it. Nyanadhammo has an interesting journey of his own, with his roots not far from my own in Yorkshire, emigrating to Australia while young and continuing his journey into Thailand. It was somewhat comforting and learning about his life and having experiences that I could relate, especially from the western side of the world. He recalled being a strongly anti-religious character in his youth, saying “if you had told me at the age of 18 that in the future I’d become a Buddhist monk in Thailand, I wouldn’t have believed you”.
Not enough of a mutual language makes explaining something as complex as the Dhamma a very tricky job. Talking to Nyanadhammo gave me the impression that even when explained by those who speak English, some of the concept might be lost in translation, or through linguistic relativism. The example he gives for how different language reflects the culture it transpires from is that in Thai, there is no word for the meaning of ‘guilt’. The word with the closest meaning literally translates to something more along the lines of ‘regret’, the difference being something redeemable against something that is not. Time is also viewed differently in Thailand – rather than thinking on a linear path of time as we learn to in the west, Thai people will often think of time as a cyclic pattern.
During my time at the monastery, both monks spoke of mindfulness, a concept we hear more and more about in the west mainly via social media. Mindfulness is, in its purest and simplest form, being aware of the present moment. The here and now. It is our thoughts, our actions, and our words in the here and now. It isn’t about what we said or did yesterday or what we might do or say tomorrow, or even this evening, but what we think about in this moment alone. Mindfulness is, however, not a simple concept. It is all-encompassing.
The Dhamma teaches that to understand and achieve mindfulness, it’s necessary to gain acceptance for the temporary nature of absolutely everything. It’s necessary to learn to observe feelings, rather than lose ourselves to them, regardless of whether or not they are positive ones. It is in this respect that Buddhists might explain the feeling of suffering as an overriding feeling we are ignorant to until whatever is making us happy is taken away. If we only expect good things and experiences to happen, we work and allow those feelings to become what we are at that moment, then when that positive experience is replaced by something negative and difficult, we ourselves become negative, allowing feelings of unbearable sadness, anger or even perhaps hate to take control of us, for one moment or maybe many. The Dhamma teaches us to simply notice and accept emotions, almost from an imaginary distance, in a way where we aren’t defined and posessed by them in the present time.
Visakha Puja Day was probably the most spiritually insightful experience I’ve had while in Thailand, and yet I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface with how much there is to learn. As they say, “the (English) teacher becomes the student”!