So empty of what?

Learning to put on a monks robe in the heat of northern Thailand. Being the butt of all the jokes, and at least a foot taller than all the other young novices. Eating fire, sitting till my knees broke. Waking at dawn. Wanting it so bad. I thought this was cool.

The sitting was the best part, we were equals when our butts were planted on the cushions. Working around the temple, sweeping, cleaning, these boys knew a lot more about me than I knew about them. Their laughter came easy, born mimics. Teasing me at every moment. The big American. Inventing things for me to get down from the top shelf, in the kitchen, giggling and shamelessly pointing. Until I came undone, laughing at myself covered in rice flour.

Each of these young men had grown up knowing real evil, real hunger, real families. They were expected to spend a year or two here, learning the ropes, paying there respects, gaining some ground. Asking the Buddha for the winning lottery number. After a while even that made sense.

I was here too, asking, taking refuge. Trying to find a Dharma. Becoming looser with myself. Unwinding all that knowledge pumped into me in college. What I wanted was answers. What I was getting was a lot stranger — the right questions. All these guys liked to make lists. The four noble truths, the three gifts, the five mental conditions. the eightfold path, the seven hindrances. I soon saw that I could spend a lifetime here and never get to the end of my breath. But slowly the universe was clearing up. I felt this was closer to reality than anything I’d seen before. The more I looked at it, the simpler it became, like a smile. Wherever I traveled, people would respond to a simple smile. So I was asked to sit, to just sit down with my smile. To practice, hour upon hour, bringing my attention back and placing it on my own suffering. To smile at suffering. This was the starting point.

When the monsoon came I thought I’d be prepared, but it rained so hard it hurt. All you could do was squat in the mud under the bamboo overhang and wait. This was a land of mud or dust, nothing in between. The pounding rain was like a bell, it broke through to a place inside me I had never seen. It drove me to listen to my own heart. To open up. To know for the first time that I was ok, not broken. That each drop of water was connected to every other drop. That surrender is an act of coming to be empty of anything to let go of.

Emptiness was not the null set I had learned about in physics, nor was it the singularity of a timeless void. Emptiness was empty only of separate thingness, of separate self. Empty was full of everything.

The rain was one solid force, made up of an infinity of interconnected parts. I saw in my tea, all the world, all the rain, all the people picking tea leaves. I smiled at them.

Now I was waiting for my ticket, in the tourist section of Bangkok. Sitting in western clothes, at an outdoor restaurant. Two years in the monastery, and I felt like I had just arrived on an interstellar flight. Take a bit of Mexico city, a bit of Los Angeles, most of Las Vegas, plop it all down on a flood plane some of which is below sea level. Erase all traces of civil engineering, as well as a sewer system. Add a million more people than the place could possible hold. Age for three thousand years, and you have some idea what downtown Bangkok smells like.

I did not really know why I was leaving. Here I had found a trace of what I was looking for. Here I felt more alive, more awake than ever before. I had been told by the eldest monk, the head guy, that my karma was back in the states. That I was done here, and needed to go and mold the ideas and concepts I had learned here into an American vocabulary. A western culture experience.

What he really said was, “You go now. You think too American. You need sit more. You go bring sound of bell, to west.”

Lin Mu reports that he is an “Adult, Male, Human. Lives and works close to the old trees, in the northwest. Trained as a physicist in that confusing decade called the sixties. Has done stints as a Scientist, Buddhist monk, Revolutionary, Homeless drunk, and Parent. Now divides attention between a blinking cursor, and paying the rent.”