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Student of solitude

By Roy Hamric
11 January 2006 14:26
The thudong monk stands near a cottage at the base of the mountain.
He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Chicago, and conquered fear living in a cave in Khao Yai. Meet Sumano Bikkhu, an aged American monk with a tech-savvy practice.

My car bounced down a red dirt road beside a ripening corn field east of Pak Chong in the granite Khao Yai Mountains, about 100 miles northeast of Bangkok. The road passed through a gate into the Double-Eyed Cave Retreat.

I was there to meet Sumano Bikkhu, an American monk who has lived in a cave for almost 15 years. I had emailed him a few days earlier.

A friend had told me that Sumano, which means good heart in Pali, was a sincere monk who maintains a strict meditation practice, but has adopted some modern technology. For example, he writes on a laptop computer.

Orange monk robes fluttered on the porch of a one-room cottage in a grove of trees. Off to the side, a rock path led up the mountain to the Double-Eyed Cave.

Sumano, broom in hand, stopped sweeping leaves and smiled. At a certain angle, his face recalled the famous drawings of Boddhidharma, the Indian who is credited with bringing Zen Buddhism to China, but his eyes had a friendly, happy glint. Stubble colored his shaved head like a fine white powder.

At age 65, he still walks a two-mile alms round each morning and eats one meal a day before noon. When he was younger, he had experienced many of the same physical and mental hardships of earlier thudong monks, wandering around Thailand, Malaysia and India. Now he lives an easier, settled life. He has written three books on his Mac laptop.

Lets go up and you can see where I live in the cave, Sumano said. Posted beside the gate at the trailhead was a sign:

Rules of the Double-Eyed Cave:

Visiting hours 8-10am, 5-8pm

One meal a day at 8am

Do not offer money

Kindly be quiet in this area

Women must be accompanied by a man

Do not enter unless you have business with the monk

The monk does not accept invitations


Villagers told me that a tiger lived in this cave before a monk finally moved in before me, Sumano said, climbing the 300-foot stone trail. We stopped before a 20-foot-high cave entrance. Inside, the sunlight dimmed and faded to black 50 feet beyond. On the right side of a large chamber, a smaller, second cave entrance sent a narrow, slanting sunbeam into the darkness the other eye of the Double-Eyed Cave.

Musty air carried the sweet smell of incense. Stone tiles on the ground covered the caves front living area. A single-burner propane stove sat off to the right, and a large propane fuel tank powered a heating plate for hot food or tea. A white-gas lantern served as a night light. Clothes, foodstuffs and non-perishable items were all stored in sealed plastic containers. The containers keep out insects, rats and snakes, Sumano said.

A four-foot Buddha statue rested atop a raised platform in the center of the living chamber. Photographs of two renowned thudong masters, Acharn Mun and Acharn Chaa, sat at the base of the Buddha. A 40-foot walking meditation path made of fine sand lay off to the right. Behind the meditation path were metal storage cabinets and more living area with a raised platform, where sleeping pads could be placed.

Lets go down to another sleeping area, Sumano said, handing me a flashlight. We walked down hand-hewed steps into the darkness and circled back to the right. The flashlight beam illuminated two sleeping platforms along the far wall of a sunken pit.

This is another area where I sometimes sleep, he said. Ive seen cobras in this area two but they dont appear often. Thats why I built the raised beds. Theyre higher than normal.

Sumano has lived here since 1991. His life at Double-Eyed Cave is far from the Humboldt Park section of Chicago where he grew up in a Jewish-Catholic neighborhood. His grandfather used to take him to an orthodox synagogue.

As a boy, he said. I felt that to be a Jew was to be allowed to search for God.

He boxed in Golden Gloves as a teenager, and at 15 won the Junior American Bowling award for high school students, with a 277 game. He represented Senn High School on a TV game show, Whats The Answer, and placed second, winning a Schwinn bike. In the mid-1960s, he attended college, including three years of law school.

After exploring various eastern traditions during his late 30s, he ordained as a monk at 41, at an English monastery that was affiliated with the thudong tradition. He left England after four years to practice at the International Meditation Center east of Ubon Ratchathani where many westerners were starting to practice.

I didnt know what to anticipate, Sumano said. But it certainly wasnt anything like I thought it would be. It was much harder. It was just about over the top. Youre coming to a new place, youre 45 years old, you dont know the food, the culture. Its so bloody hot, and now Im suddenly eating geckos, and all sorts of things I didnt know what. I had stomach problems for years. But I had made a commitment that I was going to do it. I dont know if I would have gone into it if Id known how hard it was going to be.

The thudong lineage is revered in Thailand. It has a tradition of wandering, meditating monks, who still follow the strict rules set down by the Buddha 2,600 years ago.

The legendary master thudong monks of the past wandered through the pristine Thai jungles and forests in the east and north and encouraged their disciples to live alone in isolated caves, under trees, in cemeteries or in charnal grounds.

Stories of the exploits of thudong monks in this country abound. Wandering thudong monks were expected to use their fear, their loneliness, their doubts and their daily struggle to survive in order to deepen their understanding of how the mind works. The master teachers were very clear about fear that one should use fear to understand the nature of oneself.

Sumano said fear fully entered into his mindfulness practice in the lower cave area one night.

Sumano exits his home of some 15 years, the Double-Eyed Cave.
Come over here, I want you to see this, he said. Along the chambers left wall, an aluminum door covered a narrow cave passage only a few feet wide, about six feet tall and 10 feet deep. He swung open the door. Several crumpled blankets lay on the ground.

The door wasnt always here, Sumano said. The first year I was here, I slept right there without the door. I found it to be a place of great concentration. Of course, I was the intruder in this cave. I knew rats sometimes ran through this area to get to a small hole back there. Some bats would fly through. I decided I had to get used to them, or I couldnt stay here.

He said he grew used to the sound of rats scampering through the passageway. But one night he heard a strange sound.

It was pitch dark, he said. The sounds were in distress and seemed to be saying, Im in pain...pleading. It sounded wrong, and it kept on. The thought snake flashed through my mind.

He reached for a flashlight, only to knock it over. When he found the flashlight nearby, he flipped it on. The head of a very large snake was staring at him, six inches from his face.

The point of the story is that I knew the mind and the body were not the same, he said. But I fully experienced it at that moment. Physically my body was very afraid, but my mind was calm and absolutely still even though my hands were shaking. I experienced a totally calm mind. But when I tried to walk, I was weak-legged.

Sumano said solitude offers everyone a taste of what all people are here to know if they are not compromised by distraction.

One of the most important things I learned when I began to live alone was the pervasiveness of fear in my life, he said. There is some level, some variety of fear, at play all the time. It can manifest as a well-known fear, such as a fear of physical pain or illness, the fear of spinning into insanity, the fear of loss of dignity, the fear of loss of friendship, the fear of hitting a dead end, the fear of dying before one completes the practice or the fear of death these are some of the fears that become clearer in solitude.

Though he has embraced solitude, Sumano said he was lucky to have known Acharn Chaa and Acharn Tate, another legendary thudong master. Acharn Chaa didnt have a lot of energy left, he recalled. He couldnt speak and he had limited movement, but his eyes and brain were fully functional.

Sumano attended to Acharn Chaa on several occasions and gave him foot massages. In the past a lot of teachers were available, but they left no records, he said. Chaa was western-oriented. He liked tape recorders. He had a sense of the value of that. He understood that any dharma talk was a manifestation of a teachers whole life. He would pull a tape recorder right up in front of him to be sure it captured his words.

The importance of leaving a record probably explains Sumanos interest in writing and his acceptance of computer technology. He works on his books on the laptop in 45-minute bursts, and then recharges the battery.

Since the publication of Questions From The City, Answers From The Forests and Taming The Monkey Mind, he said he receives letters and emails from around the world. He checks his account a couple of times a week at an internet café in town.

It amuses Sumano that when people order one of his books from Amazon.com, the website automatically suggests that they may also like a book by Acharn Chaa.

Thats electronic karmic connection, he said.

He has also self-published a free book, The Brightened Mind, which he wrote for young people.

The evening shadows grew longer. A local Thai family had arrived at the compound, part of a flow of visitors and disciples who pay visits on weekends. Guests are a regular part of Sumanos practice now, but he said he doesnt take the life he lives at Double-Eyed Cave for granted.

All of this, everything could change quickly, he said, looking toward the mountain. My commitment is not as a teacher or writer, but to be enlightened. With that, he went off to share some dharma talk with the visitors.

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