In June of 1983 I had just finished a one year contract as a teacher and writer in a refugee camp in the Philippines. Working in the Philippines was the worst experience of my life. In retrospect it's easy to say that the Philippines is where I learned all about corruption, incompetence, and how far desperate people will go to get out of a desperate situation. At the time, however, I was sure that I knew how American soldiers felt when they left Vietnam in the early 1970s. It had all been too much too handle.
Fortunately though I had learned meditation while traveling around India in the late 1970s and, although I had never been there, I knew that Thailand was a Buddhist country so I figured that I could come to Thailand and meditate my troubles away.
I flew from Manila to Singapore and promptly went to the Thai embassy to get a visa. When my turn came to step up to the window to pay the visa fee, I asked the clerk where I should go in Thailand to do meditation.
Apparently no one had asked him that question before; he told me to wait a minute. He then discussed my request with his colleagues, came back to the window, and said, “We think you should go to Suan Mokkh.” I showed him my tourist map; he put a circle around Chaiya, wished me well, and I was on my way.
From there I took a bus through most of Malaysia, got on a train to Thailand, crossed the border, and shortly thereafter stepped off the train in Chaiya from where, by mid-day, in my first day in Thailand, I was able to take the ten-minute bus ride to Suan Mokkh.
In those days there weren't any restaurants or tourist facilities outside the temple—there wasn’t anything except a bus stop on a quiet country road. I walked around for while thinking that surely if there was anyone here who could speak English they would talk to me. After all, I thought, a place this isolated must have very few Western visitors. When I grew tired of walking I sat on a bench opposite two monks, one of whom was Achan Buddhadasa although I didn’t know it at the time. The two monks had a lively conversation in Thai, not one word of which I could understand. Neither man spoke to me. By this time it had already been a long day; soon I fell asleep.
When I woke up both monks were gone. Okay, I thought, this is it, I'm out of here.
I found my way back to the bus stop.
After a few minutes a Thai woman joined me in the bus stop. I didn’t look at her; she, however, must have looked at me and noticed that I looked downtrodden. “Where are you going?” she asked me.
“You're going to Bangkok to get chicks!”
By chicks she meant prostitutes. I come from a small town in Ohio where we don't "get chicks." We don't even know what the word means. I was offended. “No one here speaks English so what am I going to do?” I asked her defensively.
“The monk here speaks English,” she said. “Go back and talk to him.”
What could I say? I walked back into the monastery, found Achan Buddhadasa, and asked him if I could stay and practice meditation.
“We have nothing for you here,” he said with what I later learned was his usual humility.
“I just need somewhere quiet to sit,” I said.
He then proceeded, as if I was in a visiting dignitary or an international scholar, to give me a tour of the temple. Our tour included a visit to the sculpture garden, the spiritual theatre, and other temple sites.
By the end of our walk he somehow sensed that I was sincere in my desire to practice meditation. He said that I could stay and summoned an aid.
Shortly a tall and athletic-looking monk by the name of Achan Poh appeared. Achan Poh escorted me to my quarters, a small cabin in the forest. He made sure that I was comfortably settled in before leaving me to begin my sitting. I stayed for two weeks, enjoying the serene meditative atmosphere of Wat Suan Mokkh
A few years later, in the mid-1980s I attended one of the first meditation courses for lay people that was organized at Suan Mokkh. One morning we walked across the road to a cocoanut grove where a few years later the International Meditation Center was constructed.
In those early days after every meditation course, Buddhadasa would give an audience to the Western meditators. I remember him saying, "Now you have something very precious -- mindfulness."