A Whole Lot of Monk(ey) Business
Did I mention Sarisa is tenacious? (If you didn’t read the previous story on Sarisa, I recommend you start there). After a week of getting swept up into some monk advocacy about which I will get into shortly, I no longer have any questions as to how someone with only a borrowed $6 could leave her rural farm home at the age of 17 and become a successful clothing designer in the city, Chiang Mai, by her early 20s. This woman is a force.
She also has a huge heart. Everything she does is from the heart, from the clothing she makes by hand to her lifelong assistance to resident monks at several temples. She’s the first to admit that this pure drive has led her down frustrating and often more difficult paths than some of her peers, but it’s what makes her so extraordinary.
Now to this monk business. Sarisa is very devoted to King Mangrai, now deceased for over 700 years. He was the first king of Lanna, and established the city of Chiang Mai as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Because I asked, I know that this is not a level of devotion shared by all in Chiang Mai. Sarisa has her own, personal reasons behind her particular devotion, which has led her to regular visits over many years to the second oldest temple in Chiang Mai, which Mangrai constructed.
This unassuming, ancient temple appears to have been frozen in time or forgotten amidst the newer, more glamorous temples found throughout the city. Truth be told, the temple is a bit unkempt and dusty, with largely unmanicured grounds. However, when I visited, I could feel that it is undoubtedly a special place.
Sarisa is very close with one of the few resident monks there. Her monk friend has been there for 37 years. He is older, and was born with certain physical disabilities. He has a simple, kind presence. As Sarisa explained, he’s a good monk in terms of his prayers, but he’s recently been taking flak from the head monk for his lack of initiative in beautifying the temple to look more like, presumably, the other glittering devotional sites in Chiang Mai. The head monk wants him out. The problem is that his parents died long ago and he has nowhere else to go. Having a soft spot for all the sweetest creatures on this earth, Sarisa made it her mission to see that this monk stays at the temple. A little (okay, a lot) lost in translation, she roped me into her efforts to advocate on the monk’s behalf.
We started with a visit to speak directly with the head monk at this temple about the matter. Sarisa walked with purpose right up to the head monk’s residence and demanded a meeting. After a quick prayer in the temple, Sarisa turned around to begin the meeting. I sat there on my knees trying imagine what words were being exchanged in this heated—but always respectful—exchange. One of the younger monks, also present at the meeting, would glance over at me every once in a while to share a knowing, amused look, something to the tune of “this is kinda crazy, right?” An hour or so later, the meeting concluded. The head monk’s decision wouldn’t be changed that day.
Not one to give up so easily, Sarisa began hatching a bigger plan. Within a few days, she had organized a road trip to a temple in the mountains near the border of Myanmar so that we could talk to the vice monk of the entire region. This unlikely caravan was initially supposed to include myself, Sarisa, the queen of Chiang Mai and her son. I still don’t understand this queen thing. I wasn’t aware there even was a queen but, regardless, this was a person of great wealth and respect in the city whom Sarisa had also roped into this monk business. I unfortunately didn’t get to meet the queen because she ended up having to go into surgery. Queen or not, Sarisa was undeterred. We’d just have to go it alone.
On the way to the temple we stopped by Sarisa’s home village to visit her parents. With the money she made as a clothing designer, Sarisa was able to build a house for her parents when she was 24 (she’s 45 now). The home is traditional Chiang Mai style, beautiful with its teak wood. It stands apart from the other homes in the village not because it is grand but because of the subtle design eye behind the details.
Sarisa is an only child. Her parents, as she describes them, are very good, simple people with “clean hearts.” They are in their 60s but, per Sarisa, appear to be much older than they are. She attributes this to a lifetime of working their farms, of which they have three, growing rice, garlic, tomatoes, and so many other fruits and vegetable. Sarisa explains that they are simple people, happy but for their desire to see more of their city-dwelling daughter. Sarisa wants them to stop working on the farm and come live with her in Chiang Mai, but they don’t want to stop working and have no desire to live in the city, her mother especially, who is head strong and likes things just as they are.
We shared a meal together consisting of bitter herbs, a spicy fish paste made in her village and her mom’s sticky rice. I am not a rice person at all, but I had a rice epiphany that day, and now find myself craving that sticky rice all the time. I had brought some pseudo French tarts, which Sarisa, her dad and I destroyed. Her mom, a picky eater, would not touch these strange things. Sticky rice only for mom.
Sarisa’s parents don’t speak a word of English, so we communicated through Sarisa. Her mom gave me a shirt she thought would look nice on me and invited me to stay at their home. Sarisa tried to explain to her mom that I didn’t even live in Thailand, that I was just visiting for a few more days, but her mom didn’t quite understand. She just insisted I come back and stay, maybe even buy a farm. Not a bad idea?
Her parents loaded up the car with so much food and plants for Sarisa to take home. As Sarisa says, they only ever give without expectation of anything in return. It’s clear to see where her own selflessness comes from.
Pumpkins and papayas piled high in the back seat, we set off for Wat Taton to talk to the boss monk. Let me start by saying that “boss monk” is how Sarisa refers to him, which is a title I like and will use here. In reality, his official title is the Abbot of Wat Thaton and the Vice Governor of Buddhist Monks in Chiang Mai Province. Anyway, the boss monk wasn’t expecting us and, without the queen, Sarisa wasn’t even sure we’d get a chance to speak with him. When we arrived the boss monk was working as foreman on the construction of the last and largest temple of many on the grounds. He at first summoned for two chairs so we would speak to him right there so as not to disturb his work but, when Sarisa mentioned she had brought gifts from her parents’ farm, his eyes lit up and he told us to follow him to a patio off another temple.
Sarisa told me before we got there that this monk was really wealthy. What, then, do you get a monk who has it all? Turns out you give him pumpkins and tomatoes from the farm. You cannot imagine the joy these pumpkins gave him as we set them down on the table before him. Like a child with ice cream, he was delighted.
The entire time I’m wondering what the proper etiquette is around the boss monk and whether or not I was violating it. I had already become accustomed to Sarisa nudging me when I’m supposed to press my palms together and bow in greeting or in gratitude, so I was kind of over using that to make up for any other cultural missteps I was likely making. But the monk didn’t seem to mind. He seemed genuinely happy to be in our company. Before we got down to business, he asked about my outfit, a beautiful black linen suit in traditional Thai cut with hand embroidery, which Sarisa had made more me. He said he really liked it. Monk seal of approval! He also offered us fresh watermelon juice and coffee (in the back of my mind wondering whether 1. it was okay to drink anything after noon because of Buddhist restriction and 2. whether it was in any way rude to eat or drink in front of the monk).
It’s hard to convey the beauty of the valley and river over which this patio in the mountains overlooked. I kept having those “Am I really here?” moments while Saris and the monk spoke thoughtfully about this monk concern of hers. On occasion the boss monk would shoot me a knowing smile. He told Sarisa that he was sorry we couldn’t communicate but knew from eyes that there was understanding.
While lost in translation, I always found myself a few steps behind what was happening or about to happen. This, I discovered, can make for some incredible surprises where expectations are not in play. What happened next falls into the category of one of those stupidly lucky experiences where I just happened to be along for the ride.
As storm clouds of the season’s first rain rolled in and the wind started tearing down branches around us, it was decided that we would go on a “VIP” (boss monk’s words, not mine) tour of the temple grounds. Now, I had no idea there was more to the temple than what we had just seen. We already had to wind high up into the mountains to even get there. What I didn’t know was that we were only on the first level of the temple. There were actually nine different levels of temples, each unique and perched higher in the mountains than the level before it.
Winding through the mountains in an older Lexus SUV, the monk told us more about his story and the construction of these temples. Boss monk was from the same area as Sarisa, and had been at this temple for 43 years. The temple he oversees consists of 1600 acres and, now, nine distinct structures of his own unique design.
Each level is just magic. I have seen a lot of temples, but I had never seen any like the ones he constructed. I told him he’s an artist, to which he replied that he is actually an architect. He says he makes everything from the heart, which is something that Sarisa also repeatedly says about her work. I was in great company.
We pulled over at the seventh level to admire the gigantic gold and silver dragons before stepping into what I later found out is called the Crystal Pagoda.
Surrounded by statues of happy little creatures and as colorful as St. Basil’s Cathedral, I knew this was something extraordinary. The inside of the pagoda has a sort of golden core, around which silver coils of a dragon wind up to the top. Boss monk showed us some of the historic artifacts on each floor, stopping to point out the ones that seemed to make him happiest. At the top, surrounded by glass on all sides with this glass orb in the middle filled with what looked like glitter (and what I later found out to be bones from famous monks), I kinda just lost my sh** while Sarisa prayed and I tried to take it all in. Boss monk looked over at me and, in English, asked “happy?” Yeah man, you could say that.
Maybe for fear that I would break down in sobs, we quickly left the magical pagoda for our next leg of the tour: the ninth, and final level. The ninth level, his first design, sits high atop a winding peak overlooking the valley and river below. There he lives in a square teakwood house with windows on three sides, giving the impression of a floating treehouse in the clouds. We sat outside his home to chat and take in the view before heading back. Leaving his home, it began to rain for the first time that year.
Boss monk handed me his business card and asked Sarisa when I’d return. Now that’s not a business card you get every day! I said maybe next year, which he thought was too long from now. He invited my husband and I to return and stay at the monastery.
On the drive back to Chiang Mai Sarisa and I were both very quiet. The visit clearly had a profound impact on us both. As the sun set, Sarisa looked over and said that we were “very lucky,” wanting to be assured that I grasped the importance of what had just transpired.
Postscript: Boss monk came straight to Chiang Mai the next morning to meet with the head monk of the Mangrai temple. The boss monk convinced that head monk to let the elderly monk stay, under the condition that he help in the renovation of the temple. The boss monk then brought in crews to begin clean up right away. In other words, Sarisa persevered.