I did something forbidden today simply because I’m clumsy. Ask anyone who knows me (Ryan, my fiancé, could certainly attest to this): come near me and I’m bound to bump into you. It’s like I have some sort of people-radar (or wall-radar, or door-radar, or anything-else-radar). If I’m walking next to, toward, behind, or in front of something, I will inevitably meander over—unconsciously, mind you—and bang right into it.
Well, I walked right into a monk.
Now, banging into anyone in a huge monastery complex seems like a very real possibility, as there are throngs of Thai Buddhists and curious travelers meandering through the temples all at the same time. Accidentally bumping into a civilian is certainly a normal event, and one that, if you’re at all like me, happens far too often to be barely noticeable. But bumping shoulders with a monk, especially if you’re a woman, is something you should never, ever, ever, ever (did I say never?) do. The reason is because monks are generally prohibited from touching what most Thais (among most other people) feel are two of the most tempting pleasures in life: money, and women. They do everything they can to avoid these material temptations.
When it happened, I was rushing through the crowds of people at Wat Po monastery in Bangkok. Moments before, I’d been intent on photographing a magnificent pink lotus flower growing on a lilypad in a large pot, and because I’m still learning how to operate the camera that nearly broke both Ryan’s and my savings accounts’ backs, the endeavor took me longer than I’d imagined. By the time I finished operating the camera, I knew I needed to speed up so I wouldn’t get the reputation of the dreaded “media group person everybody’s always waiting for.
So I went off running, camera slinging from my neck, and before I knew it, I bumped right into a monk. He was walking past our tour guide, Tippy, a lovely young woman from the north of Thailand. Tippy gasped when she saw me bumbling toward the group, called out “no!”, and attempted to save me from the embarrassment, but unfortunately, it was too late—the damage had been done. I fumbled an apology as best as could with the few Thai words I’ve learned in my two days here, but everything came out jumbled and awkward. The monk didn’t look up, and his bald hed and saffron-colored robe eventually disappeared from our view.
As might be expected, I was mortified. My second day in a country I have only dreamed about visiting one day, and there I was committing a cardinal sin of the Buddhist culture. “I am so sorry, Tippy,” I said, my head down, cheeks flushed. I wanted to cower into a ball and hide underneath one of the gold-plated statues surrounding us.
Tippy turned to me, lowered her pink “TAT-LA MEDIA” sign (TAT is for “Tourism Authority of Thailand” and LA is for “Los Angeles”), smiled at me, and gave me some of the best words I could have ever hoped to hear in such an embarrassing moment: “Kris,” she said, gesturing toward the direction the monk had walked, “an unintentional touch is still the right intention. You are o.k.”
As I would read in my research later that afternoon, having the right intention is more significant to following the Buddha’s path than being a perfect practitioner of his teachings. According to his teachings, having the right intention (which is the second tenet of his eightfold path) refers to the mental energy that controls our actions. Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental well-being and existing, and he distinguishes three types of right intentions: 1. the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, 2. the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and 3. the intention of harmlessness.
I learned a valuable lesson today: unintentional mistakes are bound to happen, but if we do our best to go through life with the intention of harmlessness, even touching a sacred man in Thailand is something you can overcome with grace.
So far, I like this path. Very much, indeed.