Letter from Eric Arnow
Arnow Letter Index
Eric Arnow link page
Eric Arnow has his own web site now. For years I've been putting his
letters from Asia here. From now on they'll go on his site, the
Bumble Buddhist which
also now has all the previous ones from cuke and photos more. - dc
[see photos at the bottom]
Well, it took me several months to finally find a decent cheap place to
stay in Chiang Mai and then my plan to go to stay at another Temple kept
getting put off for various reasons.
Last July, I had found what looked like a great place to practice
meditation, only two hours away from Chiang Mai, unlike Burma, which
requires a visa, travel plans, and hassles associated with staying in
But there was a new Dharma hall under construction, so the Teacher (Achaan)
said to come back in late December.
I came back in late December, the day they were dedicating the new hall,
but the Achaan, said they weren't ready and to come back in January. But
it is very cold in January and the Achaan had planned to be away, so I
emailed him to tell him I'd come in February. I arrived on February 4th,
and the Achaan greeted me with "You missed your appointment".
I told him that in fact, I emailed him reminding him of his trip to India
and that I would come back in February. So he said, OK well he was going
into retreat, so I should come back in March. This after I had already
brought my things for a month long stay.
I started getting this funny feeling, like, maybe I wasn't wanted.
So I went off to Wat Tham Wua, where I had stayed two years ago. The
Achaan there was delighted to see me and we reminisced about the crazy
American who'd been there at that time. I stayed for about 17 days.
During that time, there came at one point, a 55 year old woman from
Canada, who had lived in Thailand for 15 years, a 23 year old dreadlocked
Russian, named Arkady, another 23 year old Israeli named Omer. And then a
couple days after that, another young 15 year old fellow from the USA,
named Rach (pr Rock).
Turns out we are all born Jewish. Rach told me that almost all the
Buddhist monks are Jews. Kinda strange, huh. What is that about? Jews are
about 1% of the population of the developed world, so why are so many
attracted to this life and philosophy?
Anyway, after a pleasant light retreat where some talking is allowed and
the schedule is loose ( meditated "only" 6 hours a day), the teacher there
told me I was always welcome, and he needs me to help him with his foreign
students. I came back to Chiang Mai, and I plan to go back to help out
with some land use matters. I want to have a local Thai visionary farmer
show them how to compost the tons of fallen leaves using mushrooms, rather
than burning, which creates a bad smoke problem.
But I had to get back to Wat Tham Doi Dton or else the Achaan would think
I am flaky.
I arrived on March 11th, planning to stay just ten days. After all, it is
tax season and I have to get that done.
I told him of my plan to stay for 10 days, but he urged me to stay for a 7
day retreat at the beginning of April, so I rearranged things and decided
to do another tax extension.
That's when things started to get interesting.
He had told me that my interview with him would be at 6 PM every other
day, except that he would not show up for an hour or so later. I was
getting a bit itchy, but figured he was playing a little game, which,
later one of his students told me is his habit.
When I apologized to him for coming and interrupting his busy schedule of
duties, he said, "oh I was meditating in the cave"
Lazy Hinayanist, or Bodhidharma wanna be? You be the judge.
I told him I had decided to arrange my schedule so as to do the retreat,
but needed a day in town to check my emails and prepare for an extra week
He agreed that was OK, and then the next day was sort of a transition day,
so I didn't practice so much. I was away from my kuti (meditation
cottage), but when I got there another guy had taken my things out and
dumped them on the porch.
"This is MY kuti" he said. So why had Achaan put me there?
I was pretty perturbed about this, but picked up my stuff and walked
toward the main building to find Achaan. He saw me with a serious look on
"Are you LEAVING?? I thought you said you were staying for the retreat?
He could tell I was pissed so told me to sit down on the grass, and I
explained what had happened. He told me to go to another Kuti--a better
one with an indoor bathroom rather than the one I had used, where I had to
use a common bath area.
I was getting a promotion!!
But the kuti he directed me to didn't have a bathroom, so I looked around,
carrying my 30 pounds of stuff and my pail of wet unwashed laundry, until
I found one that did have a bathroom. Why didn't he put me in one of those
in the first place?
The next morning, I went to the kitchen for the usual one vegetarian meal
There is a weight scale in the kitchen and I had already lost about 6
pounds in 10 days. But when I got there, it seems everyone had eaten early
and most of the food was gone.
So I said, (in my broken Thai) "OK that's it, I leave today" First they
throw me out of my Kuti, the air is hard to breathe because it's the burn
season and it is smoky all the time, and now they don't even bother to
feed me. These guys are FLAKES. This after being put off coming at all for
8 months, and keeping me waiting for my interview.
So I went looking for Achaan, but he had gone to town, There was only one
So I told him the whole story. It turns out that he had stayed at the well
known Pau awk Monastery in Burma for four and we knew some of the same
This guy, Phra (Monk) "____", is a pretty cool dude.
A Theravada monk with an iconoclastic Mahayana streak, he was planning to
disrobe after 7 years as a monk to take care of his 87 year old mom back
home. But that conveniently freed him to do what he wanted now, like maybe
visit a Rajneesh community where they practise free love.
He truly has an open mind. He explained that things were indeed rather
disorganized and encouraged me to use my own judgment. So I told him I
planned to leave but would think it over overnight. He was going to Chiang
Mai the next day and I could get a ride back with him, anyway.
That night I thought, "Who the heck is this Achaan anyway?. Who cares, I
changed my plan to stay another week, I came here to practice Samadhi, and
I won't have another chance for awhile. The hell with it, I'll stay. Even
if he decides not to feed me, people have gone on hunger strikes for that
long, so I can too.
The next morning I told Phra "___" that I was staying, rather than leaving
for Chiang Mai with him and he told me I needed to talk with Achaan.
"I've decided to stay for the retreat' I said.
"So you are going back to Chiang Mai with Phra George"
"No I am staying for the retreat"
"You are going back to Chiang Mai with Phra George"
"I SAID I WAS GOING TO DO THE RETREAT AND I AM DOING THE RETREAT"
"You must follow the schedule and not talk to Phra George"
I thought, you shithead, if it weren't for George talking with me I'd have
So there I was. He had said that 20 people were coming for the retreat,
but by the end of the day, only 9 had showed up.
Now the usual ratio of women to men at these retreats is usually 4 to one,
and this one was no exception, But the problem is that there was only one
or two really cute girls, and what fun is a retreat with no cute girls to
look at out of the corner of ones eye?
Anyway, things went pretty well. The food for the retreat was extra
special and there was plenty of it, so I only lost another couple of
pounds--about 9 in all over 17 days, bringing me to 135 what I weighed
when I was 22.
Achaan told me I would have an interview at 8 PM, and he had his assistant
get me, along with a translator since his English is not so good.
We talked for two hours, in front of all the Thai people, kind of like an
extra long Shosan Ceremony(public dokusan/interview)and when I told him
about Chao Chou's answer to the question, "Does a dog have Buddha Nature",
saying "Muuuu--or NOT", Meaning not yes or no", he laughed and said NOOOOO.
Was he ignorant or was he baiting me for my attachment to old Chao Chou,
maybe the greatest Zen Master off all time?
Then I asked him what his opinion was of the statement, "Form is
emptiness, Emptiness is form" according to the Mahayana Heart Sutra, what
is your opinion on this?
He said, "Do you mean emptiness in the sense of nothingness, or in the
sense of dynamic openness" I Thought that was a good answer, if
Then the last day came and he told me we were to stay up sitting all
night. I think he maybe wanted to scare me. So I called his bluff, and
said, "fine, I stayed up all night sitting with another monk in Chiang
Mai, and sat up three nights twice before at other retreats I did.
Of course my sitting was often horizontal with my head on the floor but
let's not quibble, I didn't lie down.
The fact is though that I was pretty worn out.
So the all night sit started off with everyone setting up tents the Temple
provides at the top of the hill around a maybe 20 foot high pagoda. And
sitting at night with candle light,
Ahh, those romantic nights of sitting meditation!
Anyway, at 9 PM Achaan said, OK time for bed, if you want you can
continue to sit in your tents.
I sat an extra hour I guess and then woke up early and sat in meditation
some more, but when no one rang a bell to get up , I went back to sleep
and overslept about 45 minutes. But no one came to get me up. They'd been
in retreat really only 4 days, since day one was arrival day, days 2-5
were silent, but day 6 allowed talking.
So we packed up and went back down the hill. Day 7 had arrived and
everyone was to leave after breakfast. So the retreat was really a pretty
loose 4 day affair, far easier than my own self retreat.
Before I left, I had felt my practice deepen pretty well, and that on
balance, it was a good idea to have stuck things out, rather than leave in
So I asked Achaan, "so why did you encourage me to leave?"
"I was testing you".
I guess I had passed the test because he said it was OK to come back.
Some Thai folks I had met at Wat Tham Wua know of this monk, but they say
they don't go there, "He's too strict"
Another American friend I went with in December said Achaan had told him
to leave the Dharma Hall, since it was only for Thais.
Yet, he has been invited to the US for a series of retreats in multiple
sites from Massachusetts to San Francisco. So this rather unusual and
shall we say playful monk, who encourages us to just "see things as they
are", has something in common with his Zen compadres.
He reminds me of Suzuki Roshi, Nakagawa Soen Roshi and with his
unpredictable exasperating personality, even Richard Baker (without the
women and the BMW--though the temple does have a nice new Honda and a
So that's it for this latest adventure of the Bumble Buddhist.
PS - Pretty neat Cave, huh? There are lots of caves
in Thailand and lots of temples with caves and an occasional monk--I met
one--who actually live in a cave. That was near Wat Tham Wua which I wrote
about. He smelled really bad, and who knows when he had bathed last. But
the monkeys loved him.
hit thumbnails to enlarge