The first day that Tom and I set out on our motorbike adventure, we accidentally encountered a forest monastery called Wat Tam Wua, set back from the road about 2 km, thinking we had turned off to see a temple. When we arrived at Tam Wua, we turned off the motorbike engine and heard nothing but the sounds of nature and the demand of silent respect for the place. We had no idea where we were or what this place was but it was stunningly green, lush and manicured – quite a surprise from the dry barren landscapes we’d been seeing from the road.
As we were curiously looking around, the Abbot of the monastery came up to us and introduced himself, inquiring if we needed food or shelter. We graciously thanked him and explained the 600km route we were doing. Noticing my 5D Mark II, he suddenly says, “ooooh BIG CAMERA, very heavy!” with a huge smile and a laugh. It’s completely contagious, leading me to smile and laugh back, joking that it’s my workout while I’m traveling. I ask him if it’s okay to take his photo and he smiles at me and nods, immediately fixing his robe and preparing himself for the photo. As soon as I look through the lens and compose the shot, I can’t help but smile behind the camera. The Abbot looked like he was glowing. His face was radiating happiness, his kind eyes gentle and peaceful. I shot just one image of him, reviewing it and showing it to him, pleased with the result. He laughs and nods when he sees it, and when I told him how handsome he looked, he replied back with just two words: “happy, happy.”
He nodded and thanked us for coming, inviting us to stay next time. He walked off, repeating “happy, happy…happy, happy.”
Taking the Abbot up on his offer, my friend Emily and I decided to return back to the monastery a few days later. Having no way to contact them, we thought we’d take our chances and just show up, like Tom and I did last time. We caught the local taxi/tuktuk and rode three hours back down the windy road to Tam Wua. By the time we got there, it was about 6:30pm, just a few minutes before evening meditation was to begin. Emily and I were welcomed and told to quickly put white clothes on and run to the meditation hall. Having no idea what was about to happen or what we were getting into, we were given an evening program and sat on two empty mats at the back of the room. Still slightly confused, we chanted for 45 minutes before beginning an hour of silent meditation. Sitting in the meditation hall with everyone wearing white, being completely silent and hearing only the sounds of nature in this spiritual place was extremely calming. Closing my eyes and listening, my breath became a rhythm and my mind fell black and silent. An hour later, the monks start chanting again, closing the meditation with a few words of guidance: “Breath in, happy. Breath out, happy.”
Leaving the meditation hall, Emily and I waited outside to say hello to the Abbot, who introduced himself as Long Tah, meaning ‘grandfather’ or ‘father figure.’ He nodded and welcomed us, saying he he was happy that we’d decided to join them. He looked at me and exclaimed “ooooh PHOTOGRAPHER!” as I explained that I had been there a few days earlier. He smiled at me, laughed and wandered off again saying, “happy, happy.”
Over the next few days, we participated in five hours of daily meditation. We began each day with a 6:30am rice offering to the monks, followed by a silent vegan breakfast. Shorty after, we began another session with an hour of chanting followed by an hour of walking meditation, an hour of sitting meditation and a half hour of laying down meditation. A vegan lunch ended our meals for the day, and we had a bit of free time before beginning the afternoon and evening sessions all over again.
Wishing we had more time there, Emily and I were sad to leave the monastery, but glad that we had gotten a chance to experience such a peaceful place, even if only for a few days. Every time I see the photo of Long Tah, I can hear him saying, “happy happy. Breathe in happy, breathe out happy.”
(all photos except of Long Tah taken on iPhone 4s – active meditation photos taken at the beginning of each session before chanting commenced)