Initiation into The Tao

P’Bang is probably the hardest worker at Kanlayanee Si Thammarat school. She’s one of the janitors, and her hours, as far as I can figure, are 7am to 6pm. 11 hours. A. Day. And unlike me, who gets to sit comfortably in an air conditioned office or stand uncomfortably in an air conditioned classroom, almost all of her work is outdoors and physically demanding. In the Thai heat and humidity, no less.

Nevertheless, P’Bang (“P” is an honorific for someone older than you) completes her work with truly admirable focus and grace, and when she bows hello, “Sawasdee,” she always stops what she’s doing, turns to face you and bows deeper and slower than most. Almost more outstanding than all of that – though not more than her work hours – is the fact that she’s a kind of Thai renunciate: she doesn’t eat meat, onions, garlic or anything produced from an animal. THAT is outstanding in Thailand. She’s , a Chinese variety of vegan.

Naturally, when she asked me what I was eating and I described the green/brown melange over rice as bai liang with black beans and string beans, stir-fried with cumin and turmeric – hold the sirloin tips – she was ecstatic. The new teacher is vegetarian.

Of all reactions, why ecstatic, you might ask? In Thailand vegetarianism is synonymous with observance of the first of the 5 Buddhist Precepts, i.e. refraining from taking life. The other Four are 2. refraining from taking that which isn’t given freely 3. refraining from sexual misconduct 4. refraining from wrong speech (lying, idle speech, slander, etc.) and 5. refraining from intoxicants that cloud the mind. So vegetarians are considered very serious and ambitious Buddhist practitioners, people intent on sowing little to no unwholesome karmic seeds. Traditionally these are the Precepts that laypeople take, and there are many more for monks and nuns, but it basically implies that you’re living like a monk/nun in The World. And it turns out there’s a gathering of these such people one km from the school.

P’Bang told me she joins this gathering every week and invited me to come. I couldn’t understand everything she said, but caught the parts about “reaching Nirvana … all the way up … reborn again and again … come and practice” and was certainly intrigued.

“Is there a monk who comes and gives a dharma talk?”

“No, not exactly. Come tonight and find out. Meet me back here at 6pm, bring 200 baht and wear white.”

So that’s what I did, having no idea that I was on my way to a Daoist women’s group. We met at 6pm, the sun had already set, and I drove behind her as she, on a motorbike, easily navigated the twists and turns of a very narrow alley. As for me, I had to pull every trick I had just to keep up, dodging the potholes, swerving around dogs, cats, motorbikes and cars which somehow all fit on this 2.5 meters-wide road. I arrived at the shrine of dharma just about breathless.

It was the first floor of a person’s home, and there was a heavy scent of incense coming through the open doors where some people were greeting each other and entering. I was given a sanitized towel with which to wipe my hands before entering; cleanliness of the shrine is paramount. Inside there was a desk off to one side and women in navy blue full-length robes were mingling under the oppressive fluorescent lights typical of Thai homes. I was told to sit down, write my full name out and pass over my offering (the 200 baht). I was somewhat surprised to see so much Chinese written about, red decorations and laughing Buddhas, but bear in mind that I didn’t know what it was I was signing up for, literally. I didn’t see any Tai-Chi symbols, the yin-yang wheel, and I only discovered this was a Taoist group when I was handed a manual that said “Orientation and Suggestion for Receiving Tao.” My name was written in English and then in Chinese on a slip of paper that was a little thicker than average paper.

The Master (Dian Chuan Shi) then came in to greet me and asked about what I was doing in Thailand. She was calm, pleasant and dignified and apparently she’d come from Phuket, a five-hour drive away, to lead this chapter’s services for the week.

In the next room we sat down, men on the right and women on the left, on plastic chairs some distance away from the large, decorated altar in the front, on which sat a large laughing Buddha, wreaths of flowers and a bowl for holding candles and incense. Offerings of oranges and apples were made and I was intrigued that the whole ceremony was in Chinese. There was Marine-like precision and order about the whole thing, but truthfully I didn’t have a clear idea what the whole thing was. I was then told to come kneel before the altar on the padded bench, right knee down, left leg off the bench, and make three prostrations. What happened after was very intriguing largely because it was dawning on me that I wasn’t just coming to listen to a dharma talk but was being initiated into this order.

A nun stood on my left and ordered me sharply to bow – 3 prostrations – as the Master invoked my name to the deity and burned the slip of paper with my name on the altar. “Zachary Steiner Aldridge” is now logged on the list of initiated beings. A fire ritual came next in which a long flame-holder with a thick oily flame atop (the kind they use in churches – is there a name for that?) was circled before the deity – more prostrations – then brought from the deity’s face to mine, and back again, then on either side of my head. More prostrations. The Master touched my forehead, about where the third eye is, all the while reciting the invocation. I was then told to recite the words spoken to me by the Master, who was standing on my right now. It was all in Chinese so I had absolutely no idea what I was saying, but it was probably something like taking refuge in the Three Jewels in Buddhism. Five single-syllable words would be spoken to me and I’d repeat them aloud, still kneeling of course. I closed my eyes because it was easier to focus on the sounds and tones of the words and the invocation was quite long. The nuns in the audience were very impressed when it was finished because I mispronounced very few words, a sign to them that there was strong affinity between me and the Tao. I was ordered to make many more prostrations and then backed away from the altar, always facing the deity, and took my seat. The whole thing took probably 7 minutes.

After this, another layperson, a woman, was initiated. It was harder for her to repeat back the invocation and the Master became a little impatient because each word had to be pronounced clearly and correctly otherwise her initiation wouldn’t be entirely legitimate. The nuns congratulated us afterward, pleased to share in the considerable merit of two beings receiving initiation at their shrine. We were brought to another room where, on a chalkboard, four main attributes of the Tao were drilled into us. These are 1. their worldview, the cycle of rebirth and its end (samsara/nirvana); 2. the central figures, the Buddha and bodhisattvas Chi Gong and Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy); 3. the importance of the Third Eye and 4. a mantra which I am forbidden to share with anyone not initiated. And if you’re already initiated you should know it.

If anyone reading this has corrections to what I’ve shared or would just like to offer more information about the Tao please comment at the end, you’d be enlightening all of us.

P’Bang has since invited me back to various events and things, but I don’t feel like Tao is the vehicle for me. I am most inclined toward Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, the Mahayana and Vajrayana, but I did read over the information they provided me and can’t say I disagree with anything. One book they gave to me after the initiation was a little cartoon with 40 pages or so of this-then-that scenarios of karmic significance (see earlier pictures). Scold your parents in one life then you’ll be born with a cleft lip in the next, etc. etc., and even though that’s just a rough sketch of what karma is, it certainly is a reminder to think, speak and act from a place of virtue and goodness always.

I especially appreciated the comparison in one of the pamphlets between Inner Spirit and Physical Body (shown in the last picture just above). It’s something I think about all the time, how these physical bodies are subject to smelling funky, subject to cancers, subject to flabbiness and so on. Even if they look good for a moment and we get the best #angles, our bodies merely take form for a moment, arising from the elements and then dispersing again. The spirit, on the other hand, is the deathless, energetic continuum that carries the imprints of an individual’s karma while remaining a drop in the ocean of something inexplicably infinite, present and primordial. The Atman, to Hindus and other names to other people. In the eye of the infinite, this physical realm is a dream, a fluctuating manifestation and emanation. And in the eye of all of our past lives (millions, by the estimates of those who See and Know), this one life is very much dreamlike. Like our own nightly dreams which we quickly forget upon waking, we’ll forget our last life when we take a new karma body, elemental and mortal, unless you’re lucky and happen to remember it, like some people.

So was the whole initiation into the Tao a dream?

I’ll leave you to think about that.

And I’ll also leave off with a wish that we each recognize for ourselves reality as it truly is, beginning-less and endless, experienced in physical bodies that die and are reborn – nothing to fear there – as well as with our inner spirits which flow with karma until the karma is spent and we’re left with just reality itself.

Wishing you well, too.

Zak

the dream journal and cushion
treated myself to a one-night stay at this stunning resort – not missing America or winter too much

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