Surachai is 66 years old, a taciturn man who commands respect among the more than 100 monks of his community. Despite a hip ailment that hampers his gait, he moves steadily into the dawn light, across the square in front of the wat and to the gate where the first alms are already waiting.
A woman kneels, presents her plastic bags of food, and when Surachai has stowed the donation in a balloon-shaped drum - like his monk's robe the color of saffron - she bows once more and kisses her empty tray. For it is not the recipient who must be thankful: devout Buddhists consider it a privilege and blessing to help the barefoot ascetics with their shaved heads realize a worthy existence.
Surachai makes his customary rounds: along the commuter railroad on its massive concrete stilts, through quiet alleys where the acrid smell of frying pours forth from food stalls. Passersby greet him with reverence; Surachai nods back respectfully. He acknowledges every donation - individual portions of cooked food, juice, yoghurt, the occasional 20-baht note (half a dollar) - with a humble smile that always seems mildly surprised.
Into the sweet nothing
His container is quickly filled. Soon his fingers are clutching the knots of a dozen bags of steamed rice and he returns to the temple. Surachai enters the abbot's room and piles his takings on two big metal trays.
Abbot Luangta, a 75-year-old doctor of sociology, has lived at Wat Pathumvan for half a century. His spacious, dimly lit room resembles a rummage shop, in which holy objects and junk - the sacred and the profane - are jumbled together. Along the wall, rows of Buddha figurines and cheap vases glisten with colored glazes, and gilded frames hold photographs - one pictures the abbot with the young King Bhumibol. In front are cordless telephones, a microwave oven, desks ready for the salvage heap, file cabinets, and a grandfather clock, its pendulum long stilled.
Adhering to a belief system that is at least 2,500 years old, devotees of the Buddha care little about time. After all, if nirvana - the dissipation of existence into the sweet nothing - isn't achieved in this lifetime, there are always future lives in which to approach the condition beyond pain and beyond need.
"Take this," says Luangta, a roly-poly Buddha figure as he extends a strand of blue and red prayer beads. "Let the beads slip through your fingers; keep repeating: 'Bud-dha, Bud-dha.' Inhale deeply through your nose, all the way down to your belly, and then exhale. Concentrate on your breathing." He who circles the strand 50 times, the master promises amiably, will feel "really happy" and taste the delight of salvation. He will overcome all physical and material needs and be delivered from this earthly vale of tears.
Tolerance and forbearance
Is this then the ultimate purpose of existence? When the clock within stops ticking, when the contents of the file cabinets no longer command interest, when greed, ambition and the pursuit of pleasure are overcome - is the human being then really happy?
In Thailand, at least, nearly an entire nation lives by this creed: 95 percent practice Buddhism. Most are able to reconcile their rampant consumerism with the dharma - the teaching of the Buddha. Buddhism prevails elsewhere, as well: in Laos and Cambodia, in Vietnam and Burma (Myanmar), on Sri Lanka, in Mongolia and in Tibet, despite its suppression by the government in Beijing. Buddhism's practice of tolerance and forbearance seems to provoke suspicion among authoritarian regimes, notwithstanding the Buddha's recommendation that his followers pursue an apolitical existence.
Buddhism does not reject people of different beliefs. Unlike other major world religions, it does not preach conversion. Neither crusades nor jihads nor zealous missionary movements are part of its history. The current Buddhist resistance in Tibet against Chinese occupiers is modeled on the example of Mahatma Gandhi, India's Hindu leader who brought down a colonial empire without resorting to violence - a particularly subversive type of rebellion from the vantage point of totalitarian rulers. Consider the 14th Dalai Lama, today's best-known face of Buddhism: The charismatic holy man, who serves as a celebrity peace emissary and preaches the non-extremist "middle way" of the Buddha, was forced to flee from Lhasa in 1959.
In the civil war on Sri Lanka, however, Buddhist monks are showing that even this gentle religion can be reconciled with a suitable quantum of violent aggression.
Some 450 million adherents make Buddhism the fourth-largest religion in the world. In many respects, however, it is closer to a philosophy, based as it is on ancient concepts of natural science and psychology. Its image as a source of energy, a sort of spiritual aerobic exercise, makes it an easy fit for a very modern way of life in Asia - and in the West.
Buddhism is not a uniform identity
Half of history's foremost German philosophers - Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Herder, Schelling and Schopenhauer - studied Buddhism. An estimated 250,000 Buddhists currently live in Germany. Every third German regards the Dalai Lama, the man with the scholarly glasses, as "the wisest man of our time."
The sections of society most often seeking equilibrium and mental fitness through the Eastern practice of meditation include people in the arts, the affluent and the educated middle classes. Because charitable work plays a subordinate role to "selfwork," this teaching fits well with the neoliberal zeitgeist, while offering the bonus of a relaxing balance, particularly for the prosperous and stress-plagued urbanites of the 21st century.
Buddhist centers are therefore booming in Germany as well. They bear exotic names - the Bodaisan Shoboji Rinzai Temple in the Bavarian hamlet of Dinkelscherben; the Yogacara Meditation Center in Neckarbischofsheim; Semkye Ling in Schneverdingen in the North German heath; the Chodzong Center in Furth. And they teach a Far Eastern wisdom that differs from one school to the next: Buddhism is not a uniform entity.
Yet all these institutions embrace meditation as a principal tenet, as a high road to unfolding the self - be it in the older, traditionalist Theravada Buddhism, which holds sway in Thailand and on Sri Lanka, the reformist Mahayana variant that arose more than 2,000 years ago to more effectively engage laypersons, or the Vajrayana, which incorporates practices to accelerate the enlightenment process. These movements are sometimes known as "small vehicle," "greater vehicle" and "diamond vehicle," respectively.
German hobby Buddhists, who decorate their garden nooks and windowsills with statues of the Enlightened One, do not take such distinctions too seriously. When they twist their legs like pretzels, sit with straight backs and close their eyes in concentration, they are merely seeking better quality of life, striving to focus their diffused consciousness into a sharp laser of spiritual energy. And they needn't fear conflicting loyalties of faiths. They're not forsaking the God of Christianity for another - the Buddha never regarded himself as such. He enjoins others to follow his example, but he does not demand this unconditionally.
Buddhism offers a practice for coping with daily life, a guideline for a higher existence. Even those who meditate only occasionally may be rewarded by an increased sense of well-being. And on the horizon, the Buddha's great revelation draws nearer: the decomposition of the individual, the peaceful deliverance, the evaporation into nirvana - an attractive though abstract goal.
Siddharta Gautama, who devised this teaching, is said to have been born around the year 563 B.C.E., the son of the Hindu nobleman Suddhodana and his wife, Mahamaja, in what is today South Nepal. The mother delivered standing up. Legend has it that the earth shook, the sick became healthy, and ghosts, gods and serpentkings deluged the baby with heavenly blessings and flowers.
Immediately, the infant took seven steps and proclaimed a supremely demanding agenda: "I am born for Enlightenment for the good of the world. This is my last birth in the world of phenomena."
Seven steps: a magic number, and not the only one that plays a role in Buddhism. The soles of Siddharta's feet bore the sign of the wheel, in Hinduism the symbol of kingship since ancient times. All told, his body displayed 32 marks of a higher being. And so the chosen one, a wheel-lord in six previous lives, entered for the last time the cycle of life and the four stations of suffering: birth, sickness, aging and death.
After gods appeared to him, one after another - as frail elders, the ill and ailing, spirits of the dead, and ascetics - Siddharta left the golden cage of his youth to seek knowledge and redemption in the natural world. Reflecting under a fig tree in rural Bodhgaya, Siddharta the wanderer ultimately discovered the way out of the cycle of rebirths. The answer lay in the condition of the "not-self," the "not-soul." One could, of course, move closer and closer to this state through a sense of the common good, he later declared, but only the complete break with all the things of this world would lead to nirvana - the "end of the structure of the human personality"; a state "without an origin, not created, formless."
Powerful inner struggles and convulsions plagued the human Siddharta during his metamorphosis into the Enlightened One. Demons with drooping bellies accosted him as he sat stoically for days. Hatchets and weapons flew through the air, mountaintops caught fire, glowing coal poured forth. Entire communities, according to the saga, crumbled to dust under the influence of evil winds. Yet his willpower proved stronger than the evil forces that sought to defeat him.
He recounted his travails and teachings to his first followers in a park near the city of Varanasi (Benares) on the Ganges River. Later generations recorded the principles of the Buddha in Pali, an old Indian dialect, codifying a religious outlook that offers no god of creation and no guiding or intermediary powers. A philosophy of self-deliverance, a system providing refuge from a globalized world in which the frenzied pace of life is dictated by sober-minded analysts and business executives.
One kernal of rice a day
Buddhism's number-studded cosmos encompasses 37 requisites of enlightenment with the Four Noble Truths, the last identifying a means to end suffering - the Eightfold Path, which, in turn, is divided into three practices: virtuous behavior, meditation, and discernment. The first of these is guided by five precepts of morality. In addition, there are Seven Pillars of Enlightenment, Three Characteristics of Being, and a complex theory of causality - dependent origination - which leads to the inevitable truth that we are all one. Probably no other religion appears more complicated. But upon quiet scrutiny, the design becomes less confusing. Finally, all the tangled threads of thought weave together into a seamless veil enfolding an inner peace.
The most earnest monks, pursuing asceticism as the "source of happiness," take abstinence to extremes - as Buddhism expert Tom Lowenstein describes it, "eating one kernel of rice a day." Through renunciation and contemplation, their exalted role model teaches, the eternal migration of the soul, the riddle of Hinduism, can ultimately be solved.
But what most appeals to the world's seekers of the ultimate truth, especially those who want no part of righteous fundamentalists or tedious preachers, is the Buddha's undogmatic approach. And the belief that, through practice and meditation, one can transform into a better person.
Self-improvement, a contemporary buzzword, is a value embraced with passion today. Awareness and perfection are other seductive terms in the Buddha's message. Some decide that the best way to achieve these states is to enter a cloister - adherents such as Danu Chotikapanich, a 27-year-old engineer who spent time in a wat in northern Thailand's city of Chiang Mai.
A Buddha image in an oval brooch dangles from the chain around Danu's neck as he picks up a silver butter knife. "A knife is a knife," he says. It can butter bread - or it can kill. Even a dull knife. From the perspective of natural philosophy, though, this simple tool is a random collection of atoms. Like any material, even the human being. "The essence of Buddhism is to internalize the atomic character of all things that exist," Danu explains, "in order to achieve the state of extreme freedom."
"Are you human?"
The search for the ultimate truth, the knowledge of the universal, is Danu's driving force. Attaining the highest level of meditation will allow him to transcend worldly trappings and gain insight into the essence of being, perhaps ultimately atomizing his consciousness and letting him land as soft as butter in the final state of nirvana.
"Are you human?" The monks of Wat Suan Dok asked Danu this question before he was permitted to enter his service there - as if to ensure that the atoms making up Danu's body would not, when rearranged, take on the form of a malevolent spirit.
The question, a purely rhetorical one, is posed to every newcomer. Young Thais are willingly taken in at the country's some 30,000 wats und monasteries. A stay at a wat is tantamount to a national rite of passage, part of a respectable resume
New entrants must have their heads and eyebrows shaved. They're given a robe and a Spartan room. Men must obey 227 rules, women only eight. The nun-tomonk ratio is one to 30.
Danu rejoices in the "well-balanced mood" that such regulated life imparts. Even after several weeks' sojourn, parttime monks such as Danu - and there are millions of them - retain what he describes as "a more intensive awareness of what one is doing," even if this is only a sense of his "feet on the ground."
The reinvigorated inner balance may have helped him slip easily into his future job. Danu Chotikapanich is breaking in as junior boss at his father's company, Cobra. Its 3,000 employees produce more than 50 percent of all the windsurfing boards sold worldwide.
Such contemplative vacations on the temple grounds may not be a convincing reflection of "serious" Buddhism. The true rejection of a life of wine, women and song must certainly look more radical. But even the more orthodox Theravada Buddhism has adjusted, accepting compromises. In various international cloisters, the working language is English. Some monks cruise through the countryside in their Mercedes; others, according to malicious scuttlebutt, even watch porno films on the sly.
Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere
Such laxity may even enhance the appeal of Buddhism as the ideal faith in the age of the individual. Without enforcement of a rigid regime, anyone can pick and choose a few agreeable elements to follow. Typically, these include the concentration exercises, which dissipate stress and promote a sunny disposition - leading to a hip state of coolness with its own brand of chic sex appeal. Think Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere.
The effects of meditation on the brain have also piqued the curiosity of neurologists. The Dalai Lama dispatched eight monks from his inner circle to the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison, where they exposed their shaven heads to CAT scans.
The findings were persuasive. In the left frontal brain lobe of all the monks tested, astoundingly high bars of stimulation were measured, typical signals of a contented disposition. Researchers interpreted gamma wave readings at a frequency exceeding 30 hertz as an indication of attentiveness, particularly during phases of inner calm.
"Happiness can be learned, just like a sport or a musical instrument," concluded one of the experiment's directors. "The wiring in our brains is not fixed. In other words, no one has to end up staying the person they are today." These findings support the conviction of many meditation practitioners - that meditation does indeed have healing power over body and soul.
Even spectacular effects aren't beyond the realm of possibility. The Berliner Matthias Hoffrichter (39) experienced one himself at Chiang Mai's Wat Rampoeng. Since 1997 he has visited a few weeks every year, sleeping on the floor in a wooden shed, empty save for a fan, a kettle and a side table.
Hoffrichter, an IT expert who stays connected to the world through various digital devices and claims to eschew esoteric mumbo-jumbo, compares meditation to washing clothes: "The most dirt comes out in the first cycle." But during his own second time around, he says, "I had ghastly pains from the punishing sitting position, when suddenly everything clicked into place. It may sound absurd, but I looked down on myself from a height of 15 feet - for two minutes or maybe even 20, I don't know. I saw myself suffering, but the pain meant nothing to me. Everything was in equilibrium. The moment was all that counted. The past and the future were no longer relevant."
"I would not otherwise have dared"
Since then, meditation for Hoffrichter has been "something of a drug, but then again it isn't a drug. Everything takes place inside your head, controlled only by your own will." The experience in the monastery, he claims, changed his attitude toward life, his motivation. An avid partygoer in Berlin, Hoffrichter moved to Bangkok - "a big step that I would not otherwise have dared."
But those who regard Buddhism not merely as a source of inspiration and relaxation, but who aspire to truly follow the Enlightened One with all this entails, may be best-served at one of the 300 Thai forest cloisters. Wat Boonyawad, founded 10 years ago, is tucked between palm groves and teak forests in the quiet backcountry of the Gulf of Siam.
Sturdy benches, carved in a single piece from the trunks of massive tropical trees, are positioned around the assembly square near the entrance. Like bleachers, they all face a roofed but open area with a packed dirt floor. In the mornings, 15 monks squat on the painted gallery inside and partake of their only meal of the day. Many eat only twice a week.
Teapots and brass bowls filled with rice and vegetables make the rounds. The visitors do the dishes - that's not a task for pious men. The monks conclude their communal dinner with prayers and the monotone mantras that have been chanted through the ages. Then they disappear deep into the primeval forest to their shelters, where their lives are "diametrically opposed to the screwed-up ways of the materialistic world," according to Sudhammo, a permanent resident who hails from the German city of Ravensburg.
Sudhammo - "he bears dharma in him"- has followed the Enlightened One for years, "without ifs, ands or buts." He has discarded his conventional name and abandoned everything that tied him to his past. As a youth who never wanted to be a "proper citizen," he camped out in the Swabian forest - which didn't win him friends among the local police. After an interlude as a carpenter, Sudhammo moved to India and eventually to Wat Boonyawad. "In Germany monks are regarded as people who can't cope with life, as losers, but here it's just the opposite."
Already too degenerate
Buddhism teaches respect for the superior, and humility before the great, says Sudhammo. The 51year-old, who grew up during the antiauthoritarian movement in Germany, finds this only fitting. "As the pupil of a master, I have to know exactly how I am supposed to treat him. I have to jump to attention when he arrives. I have nothing but duties."
Only two significant occurrences have intruded on his cloistered solitude: Sept. 11, 2001, and the tsunami. But Sudhammo understands "how the world works"; he doesn't need to know "every last detail." He is fully content to listen to the master. Even reading, he says, is no more than a "distraction from one's own condition and from the self."
Sudhammo doubts whether it is possible to practice serious Buddhism in today's Western society where, he claims, "everything is already too degenerate." Nevertheless, he believes the teachings have something to offer his compatriots at home. Even their "light" version of Buddhism, this nonconformist concedes, is "better than nothing."
By embracing the code of the Enlightened One - not lying, not stealing, not taking that which is not offered, not killing any living thing, not committing sexual misconduct, not taking drugs, in essence a good thing - "you can be almost certain of going to heaven," or to nirvana.
Lose yourself and you will find your- self - a paradoxical promise of freedom from the Far East. Those who command the inner awareness - and anyone can - will understand problems, sadness, pain. They will alter their view of existence and of themselves, the monk explains.
Of course, the path to ethical maturity, to spiritual calm and to knowledge of the ultimate truth is fraught with difficulties. It involves a constant sharpening of the senses to the extreme. "It can happen," says Sudhammo, chuckling softly, "that a snail will annoy me during meditation. In such phases the tiniest details are painfully clear to me. And that basically means I'm moving toward absolute wisdom."