Friday, February 22, 2013

How a Temple In Bangkok Entered My Life and Novel

by Richard Marranca
The other day I was having a discussion with my students about special places where I have been, like Florence or Cusco or Stonehenge or even the Delaware Water Gap (nearby wilderness). So I told my students about Wat Mahathat in Bangkok and also showed them some images. Wat Mahathat was amazing, even beyond words. It’s one of those places that changes you and infuses your life with inspirations and new connections, and how it all comes out in the end is even more surprising.

The temple complex is very old and has a college and a high school, eating areas, a few temples, lots of stray cats and dogs, lots of people visiting, orange-robed monks galore – and two meditation areas. These temples in Asia are a lot like temples in the ancient world – a city within a city, a center for culture, education and spirituality.
Not only did I get to study walking and sitting medication (mindfulness meditation) there, but one day (Buddha Day, I recall) when I was having lunch outside, some teachers began speaking with me and soon enough they invited me to be a guest teacher at their high school, which was for monks. I have a photo of that experience on my website

A few days later, I visited the wat and, while walking around under the blazing sun, I found a wallet. I found the owner, a man about 75 who was visiting his old monk friends. He was so surprised I gave him back the wallet (with a lot of money inside) that he invited me to visit one of the lesser members of the royal family. He also spoke to me a lot about the monks and how it was when he was a young monk, and the way he studied Pali, the ancient language believed to be the language of the Buddha. So it was very insightful for me. He also introduced me to a monk with the nickname “Computer monk.” I have a character named Computer monk in my novel, who helps the young couple flee from danger, from the Dragon. And another thing -- something I never told anyone is that I modeled the character of the Burmese general on the old man I met at Wat Mahathat. What they both have in common is the precise use of language based on being monks and studying Pali for a few years when they were monks. Most boys in Southeast Asia spend a few months or a year or more as novices and monks; most leave to continue their regular life.

One more thing about Wat Mahathat: I saw a dog feeding her puppies and I hurried down the street to get her some food. Sumalee (I learned later that she was a professor at one of Thailand’s great universities, Thammasat) saw me and said it was a nice thing I was doing. “Well, most people would do that,” I said. Anyway, we got to know each other and Sumalee and I wrote a few essays on philosophy, which appear in a few journals. I also borrowed some ideas and language from our essays and conversation and put that in my novel too. She represents a very authentic life, a very authentic path of Buddhism.

But I think I had a small role in changing her life. After I saw how authentic and brilliant she was, I encouraged her to get out of her country and learn to write better in English – I think she can reach a huge audience. Also I thought that her home situation was a bit repressive with her traditional family. Maybe a year or so later back in New Jersey, I went to my mailbox and found a letter from India: she had gotten a grant to study for her doctorate at Nehru University in New Delhi. (Perhaps by now she has finished.)

So a lot of this stuff – the people, the monks, meditation, the flavor and exoticism and more ends up in my novel Dragon Sutra. And that’s just one reason that this giant temple complex is a power place for me, a center, an oasis, a retreat, an inspiration. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell would call this my axis mundi. Of course, these outward places and journeys always correspond to something inside.


Julie Luek said...

What richly descriptive experiences to feed your writing! Another good reason it's important for writers to live outside their desks.

Holli said...

I visited your website- your photos are beautiful. We are fascinated by Asia in the U.S., most of what we know learned from action movies. It's a really hot topic to write about and you definitely have the knowledge to make it real. Your new one sounds good and should do well.

Beryl Reichenberg said...

I was in Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia in December. Wonderful places! Burma especially where there are few tourists. Like you, meeting and talking with the local people was one of the special highlights of my trip. Visiting ancient sites was another, especially in Began. And, of course, I found new story ideas for my children's books. By the way, I have your book. Beryl