At times I get the impression that experience is inextricably tied up with survival. That’s far from astonishing given that experience is primarily geared towards equipping us to react optimally to our circumstances and our environment – in order not to get hurt, not to get into danger, to successfully overcome the odds, as it were. When we face an existential challenge, our experience can become very finely fibrous and precise. And the question or challenge does not need to directly affect our life and limbs – it is enough for us to have to accomplish a difficult task: for example, to make a choice or to write a text.
When it’s not an existential issue, when our survival is rendered easy, then we power down experience: our perception becomes less precise, our senses are blunted. On a group journey, when we can simply let go or allow ourselves to fall, for instance, we power down our receptors and at the same time raise the threshold of our stimulus – at such a time it requires quite a bit for us to perceive anything at all in our environment. The bored manner in which tour groups trot through an area illustrates this fact perfectly – a landscape that would, please note, even perhaps make every single member of the group anxious if s/he were journeying alone. When we form groups we make ourselves immune to the demands of our surroundings. A person who needs to cross a busy street on his own notices every vehicle going past – but a person who crosses the street as part of a group and feels protected and guided by the group, can or must consequently completely miss seeing all the motor traffic.
I still do not quite understand what sort of experience meditation presents. It’s definitely not about concentrating on one’s surroundings. And its goal is obviously not to listen to oneself or to detect one’s self – on the contrary, it is said to be about the experience of emptiness. Must we then imagine meditation as a group tour that one undertakes entirely alone?
About 30-odd kilometres south-east of the city of Bung Kan, a sandstone rock rises out of the totally flat, rubber plantation-covered plain – it’s looks as if God has lost a giant pebble from his pocket. Right around the rock, audacious engineers and fearless artisans have created steps, stairways and bridges – to enable visitors to climb the rock or to go around it at halfway point – of wooden construction that creak and crunch over the precipice. There are seven levels to be climbed, and, everywhere, one comes across small shrines or Gùtì (meditation shacks) on account of the 50-odd monks who live around the hill. They seek its peace and seclusion so that they can meditate better. One reaches Level Seven after a harmless climb over a few roots – and finds oneself, again quite alone, on a relatively flat plateau thickly encrusted with bamboo and undergrowth.
The stone is called Wat Phu Tok and is therefore revered as a temple. Its founder was a monk named Ajahn Juan, a meditation master of mystic calling. A few of his bones and personal possessions are enshrined in a mausoleum at the foot of the hill. Ajahn Juan was killed in a plane crash in 1980 while he was on his way to Bangkok to attend the birthday celebrations of Queen Sirikit – or so the story says. With him on the flight were other masters and forest monks from the north-east of the land. Ajahn Juan, legend has it, made it clear to his students when he was taking leave of them that he would not return from this journey. He must have had a premonition about what was going to happen – is the general opinion. Or, to the monk’s mind, was this kind of group tour simply suspicious?
First Publication: 3-4-2014