Not every Buddhist temple is set up for outsiders wishing to saunter in and grab a meditation pillow. Just a few doors down from the Zen center stands a Thai temple. I couldn’t find a website, so I called the phone number and spoke with a resident monk. I asked if there was daily mediation. In a thick accent, he explained that meditation and chanting took place in the sanctuary twice a day. I asked when and he offered the hours and I thanked him.
A few minutes before the evening session on a weekday, I arrived at the temple. The openings in the high gate—one for foot traffic and one for cars—were both shut tight. I loitered in front, thinking someone would come to unlock them, but no one did. A few days later, I phoned again to make sure I had the times right. The same monk answered. “You called before,” he said. He assured me that my information was correct. Then it occurred to me to ask, “Am I permitted to attend?” “Of course,” he said, though he seemed surprised by the request. “Tomorrow?” I asked. “Of course,” he replied.
The following evening, the opening in the gate for cars was ajar. Beyond was a scene of hustle and bustle. I could see through to a kitchen as two young men worked diligently scrubbing pots. Another attended to a small pond outside while still others carried large tables from one end of the courtyard to the other. Some wore ordinary Western-style clothes, and some donned the traditional marigold-colored robes. These were unlike the robes that the monks wore at the Zen center, which were subdued hues but ornately layered with folds as complicated origami. The robes here looked to be a single swath of fabric wrapped around the body and casually tossed over one shoulder, leaving the other bare in the mild afternoon air. The color shocked in its vibrancy, but the loose drape was relaxed. I stood watching them, but no one paid me any attention. Finally, I approached the kitchen door and caught a young man’s eye. He was wearing shorts and flip flops. “Meditation?” I called to him. His English was not so good, but he understood what I was asking. He came out of the kitchen and motioned for me to follow him. We went around to the back of the building and he pointed to a door up a flight of stairs.
Inside, I was greeted by the older monk I had spoken with on the phone. He bowed slightly and welcomed me. At last, it dawned on me what was going on. I was being permitted to observe their spiritual practice, but not necessarily to participate.