CALL yourself a traveller? Nah, you’re not a traveller. Admit it, you’re a tourist.
What, leave home without planning every minute of your trip? Choose accommodation by gut feel, or walk cold into an overseas restaurant without checking its star count on Trip Advisor? Yo, why do you think God created smartphones?
Okay, I shall now let you in on the secret of my generally sound state of health. Meditation? Veganism? Exercise? Sure, they’ve all helped. But what has done me the most good is strapping on a medium-size, seven kilogram backpack two or three times a year, then, with the minimum of planning, shooting off on a journey. Can you do it? Would you? Or do you break out in hives just contemplating the what-ifs? Well, shame on you coz I reckon backpacking the world freestyle is the absolute best thing a person can do for mind, body and spirit.
Quicky quiz: Name the first backpacker on record. Give up? Why, the Buddha of course.
Young Siddhartha Gautama left the comforts of home – wealthy, loving family, brilliant tutors, security – and hit the road to discover what life was about. And for sure he did just that.
A couple of millennia later I, too, abandoned the comforts of home – sofa, television, junk food – to cut a similar path of discovery. Did I succeed? Oh, no question. I discovered bed bugs in Afghanistan, blocked-up crappers in India, apathetic guest house staff, surly border officials and intestinal parasites everywhere. Many a time did I hear myself uttering the Buddha’s legendary line: All life is suffering.
But it wasn’t always like that, and for this I had the Buddha himself to thank because by the time I first hit Asia there existed numerous temples and monasteries on the backpackers circuit. These were laid-back oases where you could hang out for a week or six, do some meditation, scoff down primo veg food, and listen to clued-in bald bods called bhikkus and venerables, lamas and rinpoches, talk up the Buddha’s choicest words. All on the cheap.
Best thing, to me, was the easy-going camaraderie amongst the ’packers. There was little we didn’t share: food, music, dope, stories. And boy, did we ever take to the Buddha. To our way of thinking, he was the sharpest cat ever. (As example: the sharpest whitey ever broke down the mind into three primary components. The Buddha, 85,000.) Even more important to us roadies was his scoring of heart over head: the Buddha’s main theme, first, last and always, was compassion.
My most memorable venue during those years was a two-month hang at a Theravada wat (monastery) in the northwest Thailand forest. Memorable for something truly good, and as well for something so ghastly I’d prefer to forget it, but for the life of me I cannot.
The good was meeting my brother-in-heart, a huge German monk a couple of years my junior in age but light years senior in wisdom. We hit it off from the get-go. He called me Professor, and I called him, simply, Monk.
The Theravada order exists mainly in the steamy tropics, and long ago adapted their dietary habits accordingly. They eat their biggest meal at midday (all foodstuffs donated by adherents on the monks’ morning alms rounds), then consume only liquids until the following morning.
To provide his post-noon liquids a bit more oomph, I went out and bought Monk an electric blender. He quickly thrilled to the new toy, and every evening would create work-of-art smoothies, mixing condensed milk and ice with the fresh tropical fruit plentiful on campus.
Reflective of his 20-stone predilection for food (gluttony as substitute for his Buddhistic vow of celibacy?), as time went on the smoothies became thicker and denser, until a spoon could stand straight up in the glop. Still, it passed as liquid, because that’s the very definition of smoothies, and we enjoyed them every night.
The not-so-terrific experience was instigated by Monk himself. “Hey, Professor, care to join a group of teenage novices at a dhamma teaching event?” he wondered early one evening as we were chewing our drinks. When I tried to extract details, he made like a garden Buddha. No matter. Always willing to take on new spiritual experiences, I agreed, and an hour later joined 10 monklets as we piled into tuk-tuks and clamoured off. Curiously, our destination turned out to be a hospital, where we were escorted inside, through corridors and down a dimly-lit staircase into a large, bare, air-conditioned room where we stood around waiting – for what, we had no idea.
Two men in full-bodied aprons and face masks then entered wheeling before them a gurney. On the gurney was a body, which, when the sheet was removed, revealed a beautiful young woman. We were informed (in Thai, with English subtitles for my benefit) the woman had recently died of heart failure. There was nary a blemish on her lovely face and body, prompting heartfelt sighs and groans from the robed young bucks around me.
We were instructed to approach and stand alongside a high, narrow table onto which the body now was placed. The next some minutes, we were told, would provide concrete evidence that physical beauty was no more than illusion, underscoring the Buddha’s concept of impermanence. Whereupon one of the men flicked on a small electric Skilsaw and went to work.
Like tenpins at a bowling alley upon a perfectly placed roll, one after another of the teenage monks began to spin around and collapse to the floor. Before the path of the saw reached the breastbone, only one of the visitors besides myself was still standing, and he was leaning precariously at a 45 degree angle against a pillar before gradually folding like a beach chair. I suppose only my brief experience as a military medic kept me vertical, and even then it took an effort to keep the smoothie from making a comeback.
Yeah, great times, wonderful stories. As the years passed, however, what once had been laid back R and R for alternative lifestyle roadies became a fervent quest for instant nirvana by the emerging dot-com set. And somewhere in the transition, compassion began to undergo a serious redefining. Take this brief dialogue with a mid-60s British woman encountered at a Burmese monastery:
SHE: In the late ‘60s I dropped acid to open my mind. Came the ‘70s, I did est, Lifespring and Rolfing. The ‘80s it was radical feminism, ‘90s, intensive therapy. Now I’m a practicing Buddhist.
ME: So you’re happy?
SHE: Hell, no! The monks take so damn long handing out their bits of wisdom. Why don’t they just bloody get on with it!
The newly-arrived California couple were expounding on their 10 day journey to Kathmandu for the purpose of doing a course with “our lama” (speaking as of a cute furry four-legged). A year before I’d spent three months in the mountainous Nepalese hinterland volunteering at a church-mouse poor Tibetan refugee village.
“Airfare and gift to our lama cost us over $20,000,” the California man announced proudly, “but worth every penny.” His wife nodded approvingly. I thought what 20y thou would do in the village: new school, a hospital, housing for dozens of families. Compassion.
On a subsequent visit to Nepal, I was telling a new friend of the good old days when I had resided several weeks at the Kopan monastery outside K-du. How we’d all slept on bare wood boards, the temple an ancient marquee with dirt floor, no electricity or flush loos.
“Take me there!” she pleaded.
On the lovely walk along a winding track, Himalayas in full view, the only sounds bird calls and the wind whistling through the trees, suddenly, no warning, a shiny new SUV comes roaring around the bend, headed directly for us. Horn blaring, no slow-down, no swerve.
We just barely leap aside, the vehicle missing us by inches. Within, I glimpse four monks, the driver-monk wearing shades and – was that really a Rolex on his wrist?
Present day Kopan? Spanking new temple, all glitter and glitz. Posh vehicles. Satellite dishes. All paid for by Western “gifts”. Compassion.
My brother-in-heart has been a Theravada monk 50 years, most of these at the previously noted Thai wat. Then a few years ago he was offered the abbot’s post at a monastery created by wealthy late gen Xes and early millenials outside Sydney. “I’m just a monk,” he told them upon acceptance. “I can teach you the dhamma and how to apply it to your lives. But please understand – I do not come here as some sort of exalted guru.”
To which the gen-X/millens replied, “Yes, O exalted guru!”
The grounds were country-club magnificent; the spanking new buildings elegant and glorious. The dialogue between abbot and sangha increasingly strained.
“What are you doing!” they cried one day when Monk appeared in coveralls, brandishing a spade.
“Hard work,” he laughed. “A Catholic priest can do it, why not a monk?”
“But you’re not supposed to do physical labour. We want you to just sit there and look serene.”
My brother-in-heart sighed. “I’m only a monk,” he pleaded for the umpteenth time. “No more than that.”
A weekday morning some months along saw a clot of Mercedes, Beamers and the odd Tesla suddenly rolling in from The Smoke. Everyone, it seemed, had been apprised of the unscheduled meeting. Everyone except the abbot. They even tried to bar his entrance, but he wasn’t buying it. So my brother-in-heart sat there, party to his own excoriation.
“I understand your feelings,” Monk said finally. “I’m not what you wanted, what you expected of me. No problem. I just ask of you one favour. You know I left Thailand behind and have no home there anymore. In fact, I have no home, period. I’m 74 years old. I would like to stay on here, in any capacity, until my Australian residence is granted, a month at most, else I will be in violation of my visa and forced to leave the country.”
To which request the born-again Budes put their sum-total compassion on the table:
Fortunately, a small monastery of expat Lao monks nearby heard of my brother-in-heart’s plight and took him in. Through their kindness he was able to gain Aussie residence.
And a tear forms in the eye of history’s first backpacker.
OHOPE author Barry Rosenberg is writing a health book titled The Kickass Guide to Well-Being and Longer Life, to be published later this year. Sections of his work will appear from time to time in the Eastern Bay Life.
By Barry Rosenberg