The sun was just coming up in the east, brilliant, red. The cicadas were screaming in the trees. The rice soup was warm and satisfying in my stomach. Time to meditate.
I went to the back courtyard to walk under the Boddhi tree. There was an old nun there, quietly sweeping the leaves. She wore all white, with a white cap on her head. She had swept three quarters of the courtyard clean already. I considered walking to the back section, and beginning to walk on the freshly swept bricks. But then I remembered the previous evening, when I had been sweeping and a young girl came and helped me finish. It was so nice to have her help. So I walked to the corner, behind one of the small huts, and took out a broom and a basket. I began sweeping the piles of leaves into a large, standing dust pan, and dropping them into the basket.
Suddenly the nun was standing before me. I saw her feet first. I looked up, surprised. She was standing before me, her hands pressed together in front of her heart. She gave me a glorious smile and then bowed deeply. “Kop kun kaaaa…” she said, thanking me. Her smile took my breath away. It was absolutely radiant. All of those nuns are beautiful when they smile, whether they are twenty or they are eighty. I’m not kidding. I looked at them all, one by one, at different times in different places. And in their simple white clothing, leading their simple lives, they are at peace, and their smiles are unbelievable. They are entrancing. I could watch them all day. This nun smiled and thanked me and I was at a loss. I stuttered a thank you in return- she had done most of the work- and returned the bow. Then I dropped my head and shyly returned to sweeping.
Ten minutes later I finished with the last of the leaves and saw that the nun had disappeared. I put the basket near the sliding golden gates for the young monks to pick up later in the evening, and walked to the back to begin the mindful prostration. This is a slow, deliberate prostration that you practice four times a day- upon waking, after breakfast, after lunch, and after reporting to the head monk in the afternoon. I had just begun to bow down when I heard a crinkling beside me and saw a sweep of white. I looked up. The nun was walking away, but she had left a small plastic bag by my side. In the bag were two custard cakes, a handful of tamarinds, and a packet of mint tooth powder. I thanked her, and she turned and flashed me another brilliant smile. I realized in that moment that I have no idea how to accept small kindnesses. I was totally flabbergasted by that gesture. It unnerved me and warmed my heart at the same time. How is one to accept something so sweet?!
The next morning I helped her again. Another Thai girl was there, and we finished the work in short time. At the end, the old nun walked up to us both, and gave us each a deliberate bow with her hands pressed together in front of her heart, and then a joyous smile that turned into a laugh. We both laughed with her and bowed back.
Until my hours got too long, I often went there and helped her in the mornings. She would always go out of her way at the end to come up and thank me with a smile and a bow. It was one of the best parts of my day. One morning she gave me another gift- two small packets of hot chocolate. I accepted them with both hands and a huge smile. I tried not to feel too uncomfortable. Mostly just happiness flooded my heart.
I realized that someone could buy me a car, and I could probably accept it more easily than I can accept these small offerings from the heart. Why is that? I guess the purity in these offerings is so dazzling, it takes me aback. In the monastery, there are many such offerings. Some mornings at breakfast, a nun would come up and offer a plate of watermelons to our table, looking deliberately at me as she did so. She would speak quickly in Thai, but I would pick up the word ‘farang’ (foreigner), and see her nod at me. The women at the table always gave me the first pick of the fruit. It had the same effect as when the nun gave me the gifts. I didn’t know what to do, so I just said thank you, and ducked my head, something between laughter and tears in my throat.
There was another old woman who stayed there the whole time I was there. She walked with a cane. She was very devout. I heard a clicking sound on the bricks one day, and opened my eyes to see her practicing a walking meditation with her cane. At meals, I would watch the Thai girls take her plate and cup when she was finished, so that she didn’t have to go through the line and wash them. One morning, she was sitting at my table. She finished eating and started to stand up, pushing herself up on her cane. She said something to a girl at another table who was still eating, and then gestured at her own empty plate. The girl had a spoonful of food halfway up to her mouth, and I had just finished eating. “Mai, mai,” I said. No, no. “I’ll do it!” She looked at me strangely for a moment, and then I mimed with my hands. “I’ll wash it for you,” I said. She understood and broke into a gleaming smile. She bowed down to me, hands pressed before her heart. “Kop kun kaaaa….,” she said, deliberately bowing her head. She stopped and thanked me three more times before she went out. After this, I would wash her plate and cup from time to time. When she would see me anywhere, she would hobble over on her cane, put one warm hand on my arm, and look into my eyes with a kindly smile. “Ka….” she would say again. “Kop kun ka….”
Small kindnesses are the best ones. I read somewhere that it is as important to be able to receive graciously as it is to give graciously. It completes the circle. I can give, but I am only now learning to receive.