“When there are two paths before you, always choose the more difficult one.”
I undertook the practice of walking tudong(1) in Chiang Mai province, Thailand, during the month of February and the first half of March 2009.
Originally, my intention was to go alone because I didn’t know of any tudong monks to go with and ‘learn the ropes.’ It was my good fortune that I met up with Ajahn Tikkhaviro just days before I started walking, and that he agreed to let me accompany him. We spent about forty days on tudong together before I returned to Wat Pah Nanachat and he continued on to Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of Thailand.
Ajahn Tikkhaviro is a Filipino monk of ten years standing. He was ordained at Wat Pah Nanachat, the branch monastery established by Ajahn Chah for the training of his foreign students, and speaks fluent Thai and English. He has a stocky, muscular build, a lighthearted attitude towards life and a fair amount of tudong experience – about four years. He had been traveling around in the north, only stopping during the four months of the rainy season to stay in some small monastery. He was on tudong himself when I met up with him.
The following is a journal entry covering a single day; my intention through this account is to relate some of the flavor of my first tudong experience.
25 February, 2009
We had stayed the night in a small village monastery with a chedi _(_2). It wasn’t really a place for monks but more of a tourist destination. We went on almsround in the local town and we received plenty of food. As we walked a man began following us as he had noticed that we didn’t accept offerings of money, and he was curious what monastery we were from. Before returning to have our meal, he caught up with us and we told him we weren’t from the area but that we were on tudong and that we never received money, according to our standards of discipline. He was very inspired because monks who don’t receive money were almost unheard of in the north.
The middle-aged monk living at the chedi was kind to us and, before we started walking, he gave us packets of ‘three-in-one,’ a handy Nescafé/sugar/Coffee-mate mixture that is nowadays regarded as the ultimate tudong tonic. We also had borapet (a bitter medicinal vine which is a more classical and natural restorative) various roots for headaches and pain, ground coffee, green tea, and salt with us. Just before setting off, the monk told us “Be careful. Where you were a week ago is one hundred percent drug dealers. The place you’re going to today is seventy percent drug dealers.” We had been in the mountains during the previous week but we had come down to the valley to explore. I remembered Ajahn Tikkhaviro’s comments about all the fancy cars in the hill-tribe village that the monk was referring to. The danger is because sometimes the villagers will believe that visiting monks are spies for the government.
Our plan was to follow a dirt road up from the river valley of Ampher Pai into the mountains. After seven kilometers we would meet Mae Yen Waterfall then continue another four kilometers to a village called Baan Huay Mae Yen. I was happy that we were returning to the mountains because the valley was really hot and the forest surrounding the valley had all been burnt to make land for grazing cattle.
The road became a footpath as we meandered up Mae Yen creek. The walk was cool and pleasant and the trail was good. At one point I jumped across the water and missed the rock I was aiming for, slightly spraining my ankle, but after about fifteen minutes the pain of the injury subsided.
We met up with two westerners on the trail. They knew the area and told us that we should turn left at a campsite about two hours walk ahead – that way we would avoid having to scale a rock-face. When we got to this place the left turn went away from the river and straight up a hill into a bamboo forest. Ajahn Tikkhaviro had reservations, since it was so steep, but we still got to the waterfall around 2:00 pm.
We made a fire, I got out my small kettle to start boiling water, then we went for a bath. The waterfall was about twenty meters high and very impressive. And cold! The water there comes from the higher mountains and reminded me of rivers in the mountains of California.
After bathing we each had a couple three-in-ones and relaxed while chatting about tudong and Dhamma. Ajahn Tikkhaviro liked to preach about tudong as a way of life – not becoming too extreme and doing yourself in through over-zealousness, then deciding that living in a monastery is better and never going on tudong again – having experienced that cycle himself, he had a ‘been there, done that’ attitude towards that approach. He said: “Ideally a tudong monk has no plans or commitments, he lives with uncertainty every day. Sometimes he sleeps under the stars, sometimes in a cave or a kuti. A tudong monk needs to be flexible and adaptable to the situations and people he meets. If he walks too far each day he’ll wear himself out and possibly fall ill. If he finds a good place he can stay there and practice for a few days or longer. He needs to cultivate great patience in dealing with cold, heat, food that is disagreeable, and people who may want to harm or take advantage of him.”
We continued up-stream from the waterfall at about 3:30 pm, thinking the village wasn’t so far ahead and that we had plenty of time before dark. We felt sure we would get there before 5:00 pm. We reached a farm where there were no people around but many buffaloes bathing in the stream. We then followed an overgrown trail that started up a mountain and went away from the river to the right. Soon we were climbing higher and higher and the trail had disappeared. We then guessed that the village was probably on the other side of the mountain, so we thought we should try to wind around the face of it, but we just kept going up. It was really steep!
When we got to the top of one mountain we would scale another. Sometimes we met a trail but then it would peter out to nothing. At around 5:00 pm my ankle started to hurt again. We just kept going up. I was sweating a lot and my bag of belongings – comprising my alms-bowl, my third robe, mosquito net and other odds and ends – seemed to keep getting heavier. I was trying to conserve my water, only drinking about half a cup at a time.
At one point we came to a clear trail with a junction. We were heading east and a little bit north towards a mountain called Dooi Chang. At this point we realized we could either turn back and try another path or plunge down into dense vegetation towards what looked like a road, very far away. Ajahn Tikkhaviro said “If we try going down, it’s suicide. We go back and look for another way.”
By 6:30 pm it was getting dark and we were lost. It was clear we would have to walk in the dark because we were really in the middle of nowhere, on top of some mountain ridge. I yelled out to check for signs of people but there was no response. My ankle was swelling and I was out of water, but Ajahn Tikkhaviro still had some. I was glad that I had new batteries for my headlamp, which would allow me to walk for many hours with a strong light.
Just before dark we climbed down a small rocky face and I lost my balance. I had no choice but to break my fall with my bad foot. All my weight landed on that ankle and I cried out in pain. After that I was limping. When it got dark we started scaling the steepest hill yet and there was no trail at all.
It was so sheer that if you were to fall backwards you could tumble all the way down. Also, the vegetation was taller than us in most places. I was glad I had a walking stick – it saved me many times here from not falling. I laughed to myself as I reflected that I would never choose to walk up a mountain like this, let alone with all my monastic possessions. In situations like this Ajahn Tikkhaviro would always say, in a very calm voice, “Yeah, tudong is like this sometimes.”
By then it was around 8:00 pm and we were still ascending. The hill seemed to go up forever – we had been climbing for over an hour. Then Ajahn Tikkhaviro’s sandals both broke, one after the other, which was unfortunate because there were many trees which dropped spiky seed-balls all over the ground. He said “This is the end of me.” Then, after another few minutes, a small twig went deep into the corner of his eye and I had to pull it out with my tweezers. His eye was very red, but not bleeding.
We reached a flat spot on the slope and stopped to rest. I had some really strong tape which I successfully used to fix Ajahn Tikkhaviro’s sandals but, even with this small relief of our predicament, still the hill relentlessly continued up. We were both exhausted but I thought that, maybe if we made it to the ridge, then we would meet a fire-break. This would then give us some hope as such open tracks usually met up with a road somewhere. Nevertheless, it was still completely uncertain as to where we were actually going.
I never panicked, and Ajahn Tikkhaviro was really calm, but I started thinking that this is true anicca, real uncertainty in life. We didn’t know what would happen or if we would walk all night, and there was no use fantasizing about it because that wasted vital energy. No use being afraid because fear can cause one to make hasty and unwise decisions. No use stopping and giving up, because then we would never get anywhere. My years of training in letting go were definitely coming into effect at this time.
At one point Ajahn Tikkhaviro said “Wait – we go this way.”
“We just came from there,” I said. It seemed like he was just turning around.
“No we didn’t, this is a different way.” It went up more. I was convinced we were just turning around, but we weren’t. The mountains can be tricky like this. At 9:30 pm we finally met a fire-road on the ridge.
I was relieved, but we still hadn’t seen a village and we really didn’t know if we would get anywhere. We stopped on the side of the road and Ajahn Tikkhaviro shared the last of his water with me. We each got less than half a cup. “Now water is like gold” is all he said.
We were both so tired we considered just falling asleep right there with our bags still on our backs, but a wind was picking up and it would have been cold. We thus continued plodding on along the dusty fire break, climbing and descending according to the contours of the hills.
We spotted some lights in the distance, on a different mountain, but the road seemed to head roughly in that direction. We realized it was where we had stayed before heading down into the river valley. Now, just a week later, we had returned to the same spot – the palace! The lights were over ten kilometers away.
During the previous week we had camped out in the backyard of the King of Thailand’s Chiang Mai palace, which is only used for special occasions. Normally it stays empty and we had had it completely to ourselves (we couldn’t go inside, of course). The yard was a beautifully tended garden with orchids and other colorful flowers which sent a subtle fragrance into the air.
There were three radio towers next to the palace – these were the lights we had seen. We kept walking and the lights got closer, then we saw more lights which looked like they were coming from a few houses. At 10:30 pm we found some abandoned buildings. A sign said that these were guest-rooms for firefighters, but there was no water. Then Ajahn Tikkhaviro stepped in a huge pile of human excrement. After all the difficulties of the day and our utter exhaustion, this was just too much. We laughed for a long, long time.
Sometime after 11:00 pm we arrived at a campground and found that the house lights had been coming from this place. We had walked about ten kilometers since finding the fire-break and the palace was still a few kilometers away. The campground looked like a government- owned place so we decided just to stay there; it was also the case that we were out of energy and couldn’t have gone much further, even if we had wanted to. It turned out to be really pleasant and we had it to ourselves. There was water for drinking and bathing.
We bathed, drank our fill of water, then made a fire in a very large fire pit and drank hot three-in-one coffees.
I was filled with immense gratitude for Ajahn Tikkhaviro, and I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had been on my own in this situation. I got the feeling that he’d been living a tudong lifestyle long enough that he was just taking everything in stride and not giving so much importance to whether a day was difficult or easy – it all can be used for the practice.
Just after midnight we set our ground-sheets down and lay on the tended lawn under the stars. The wind was whipping through the mountains so we found some rocks that provided some shelter for each of us. I took a Tylenol for the pain in my ankle then crawled under my makeshift blankets – my upper and outer robes plus mosquito net folded in half. I slept very comfortably that night.
Many days were like this. It would seem really difficult – when there wasn’t enough water, or when I’d be dirty, tired and sweaty – but then, when I had bathed, when there was enough food again and a place to sleep, the difficulty would just be another memory. Thinking in this way helped me not to take these experiences so seriously. Everything that happens in life is just this way. This is the ‘tudong meditation’ – used for building wisdom and cultivating the art of letting go.
1. Tudong – Term for Buddhist monks who have taken up a wandering lifestyle, with no fixed location except for the three months of the rainy season. The word is a Thai transliteration of the Pali ‘dhutanga,’ the literal translation of which is ‘a means of shaking off.’ It refers to the thirteen ascetic practices that were allowed by the Buddha – such as eating only one meal a day or living at the root of a tree – as well as to the monastics who follow those practices.
2. Chedi – A monument which usually contains bone relics of a great sage.