When I learned I would have this opportunity to spend a couple of days in Bangkok I immediately had two hopes. One was to visit the site where Thomas Merton died. And the second was to visit the grave of John Blofeld.
I was able to do both. Not without a lot of effort on the part of a number of people, only a handful of whom, I knew. I just want to thank first Justin Whitaker, a friend who made contacts with a friend of his, Will Yaryan, who in turn introduced me to Joe Shakarchi, and through him Joe’s wife, Daru. Joe and Daru set a couple of days aside to join with me in my quest. Daru was especially important as she speaks fluent Thai and could make phone calls as well as translated for us on the spot in our two pilgrimages. Sholto Leslie and Dan Reid were enormously important in helping us to locate the actual site of the temple where John Blofeld’s ashes are interred, providing both the name of the temple and a phone number.
For a little on John Blofeld’s story, you might go here. He was terribly important to me as an early twentieth century convert to Buddhism who wrote personal accounts of his spiritual journey along with books about Buddhism and Daoism and some important translations. Among these, while I understand later critiques of some of his assumptions, his offering of the Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind was incredibly important to me.
So, I was unspeakably excited when we took off from Bangkok to go to the temple. For anyone who may wish to visit in the future it is Wat Pho Yen, 106 เทศบาลตำบลลูกแก 6 Don Khamin, Tha Maka District, Kanchanaburi 71120
We got from downtown Bangkok to Wat Pho Yen in about an hour and a half. It would take two hours to return.l
Wat Pho Yen is a Chinese temple and is Mahayana. It also seems to have some Tibetan connections.
It has an open campus, although “open” is a bit misleading as everything is sort of crowed up together. Stuff happening all over. The entrance area is like a church’s parish hall. In front various tables and lots of chairs. I could see a kitchen area. Lots of people, women and men, mostly wearing white. We went into the first shrine, purchased incense in the Chinese and Thai manner of large sticks in bundles, the general rule seems to be the more the merrier. Daru brought me a plastic bottle of oil with a piece of paper pasted to the front and instructed me to put my name on it.
A major aspect of popular religious practice in Thailand, and I think China, in the Thai terminology is “thambun.” It is the generating of merit, the term seems to translate directly as “merit-making.” It can and is transferred but it is also for oneself. I think it can be directed toward things like being lucky.
Then Daru found someone who could guide us through the various shrines and courtyards. He explained details and she translated for us. We would purchase small bundles of incense, offer it, and make bows.
Finally we made our way to a temple structure that turned out to be a columbarium. It had hundreds, maybe thousands of niches for ashes. But up near the top in what was clearly a place of honor, there it was: John Blofeld’s niche. His name was in English. I made bows, and thanked him for everything.
We lingered a bit. Then we went down into the crypt where the Buddha images were, offered more incense and more bowing. Then we visited two other shrine rooms. One featured a picture of the founding abbot sitting in a chair with three Westerners standing behind it. One was John Blofeld.
After that we were ushered into a room where the abbot greeted us. There was a discrete pile of envelopes for people to put offerings in, which we did. The four of us (including our driver who enthusiastically threw herself into the pilgrimage aspect of the day) sat in chairs across a small table from the abbot. He was dressed in the Theravada style. Although I noted there was a large portrait of him on a banner in the common room where he was wearing traditional Chinese robes. Considering the heat, I believe it was pushing a hundred degrees and with perhaps a hundred percent humidity, so the much lighter and less layered robes certainly made sense.
Daru explained who we were, including that I was a Zen teacher from California. He seemed to like that, and said how I must have created much good karma in a previous life that I could both find myself working for the dharma and also be able to come and visit their temple. I had the impression he felt the visit was the more propitious of the two things. But I may have misread his body language.
As it happens the day was the inaugural of a Chinese vegetarian festival, and he invited us to stay for lunch. We were escorted out and ushered to a large round table that had several men in white already sitting. We were given bowls of rice and Daru explained we were to pile various vegetable dishes onto the rice. I think there were six, maybe seven different options. And some sauces. We were also offered chopsticks, the first I’d experienced since arriving in Thailand, where they seem to prefer forks.
Thanks to Daru we had an interesting conversation. Again she explained I was a visiting Buddhist dignitary and they thought it wonderful that the dharma was being spread to the West. One of the men was disappointed when I did not know how to speak Chinese. But, they liked us enough that they dug up a camera and had a friend take a picture of all of us at the table together.
Then we went down the road a bit to the River Kwai (we were not terribly far from the notorious bridge) where we created a small ritual in honor of Rosh Hashanah Buddhist modified. We had purchased a loaf of bread and took it with us. We each took a slice of bread and tore off pieces and as we threw them into the river thought of and sometimes said out loud negative things that we wanted to throw away.
Then we repeated the process with another piece of bread, but with thoughts of what we wanted.
The river is very fast moving. It’s nearly brown and I wasn’t sure how much that was simply silting or something more ominous. But, as the bread floated down the river we saw boiling in the waters. A large school of fish made their way toward us gobbling up the bread. Later I looked it up and they were probably snakeheads. We tore up the remaining slices of bread and continued feeding them until the bread was all gone. They migrated up to us and we see them roiling together contending for the free treats.
After we finished Daru offered a brief dedication of merit in Thai. I added in my own gratitude and wishes for my family, both in the conventional sense and within the dharma, but especially for the repose of John Blofeld’s spirit.
And then we proceed to return.
On the way up we saw a gigantic stupa. On our way back we stopped and visited.
As we came to the end I made my thanks to Daru and Joe, I really, really was grateful. I couldn’t fully express it. Their generosity all along the way was astonishing.
I gave Daru the price of the taxi rental, including a tip, it ran 1700 bhat, which is $55 and change.
Finally I was rolled out at the train station and made my way hotel.