No Shoes, No Snacks,
No Smoking

Searching for serenity among Buddhist fundamentalists.

By Alyssa Boente | “It’s 3:45. It’s time to get up!” The alarm is blaring from some corner of the pitch-black room but I don’t even care. I lie in place, waiting for one of the girls around me to stir, but no one gives in to the nagging voice. The first two-hour sermon of the day is in 15 minutes. It’s freezing. I pull the thin blanket closer and nestle into the stiff, wooden floor planks. But eventually the alarm prevails.

Hobbling down a gravelly trail in complete darkness, my three classmates and I curse the jagged rocks cutting at our bare feet. Despite their treacherous footpaths, our hosts do not wear shoes. They believe going shoeless will bring them closer to the earth. After a few minutes of experiencing this belief in the flesh, my feet are in agony and the invention of shoes suddenly seems brilliant. Before we even make it halfway to the main meeting hall, I contemplate whether anyone would notice if I went missing from the pre-morning sermon. Down the road, several other groggy, sour faces appear from the shadows. Now I have no choice but to carry on.

Soon we have joined an assembly of cross-legged students on the cold marble floor of the great, open-air meeting hall. Three monks sit upright on a low table up front, looking awfully bright-eyed and cheery for this hour. We bow our heads while they chant. I begin to nod off, hypnotized by the hum of their voices and the harmony of forest crickets, when a mosquito bites into my ankle. I raise my hand to stop the pain but catch myself. Asoke Buddhists do not believe in killing animals at any time of day, much less in the middle of morning prayer. Hand stilled, I resort to watching the insect suck my blood.

When we sit up from prayer, one of the monks suggests we use this time to reflect on the cultural differences between Thailand and the United States. One raspy voice from the drowsy crowd summarizes what we are all thinking. “I normally wake up around 10 a.m. Well, I mean, when I have a morning class.”

On a typical study-abroad program, lessons about Thailand’s Asoke community might start with a Buddhism textbook at 10 a.m., but for us, this is morning class. Living with the Hin Pha Fah Nam Asoke of Chaiyaphum District is one chapter in our syllabus on the effects of development and globalization on society and the environment. Of all the groups we’ve visited in northeast Thailand who are coping with these phenomena, the Asoke are by far the most radical. They have responded to the Western-style modernization taking over the rest of the country by rejecting it outright.

I remember the initial shock of reading the preparatory handout a week before our visit: “No Shoes, No Meat, No Snacks, No Coffee, No Alcohol, No Smoking.” The Asoke do not believe in harming other beings and thus are vegetarian. They eat twice a day because this is all they believe is necessary for survival. They do not believe in intoxicants, so you won’t find a drop of caffeine or a whiff of tobacco smoke to help ease the pain of adapting to their austere ways. In their view, focusing on the bare essentials of survival will lead to the most important kind of development—that of the mind, body, and soul.

To the owner of a mind and body long held together by a clockwork regimen of Starbucks Americanos, the bare essentials are seeming bare indeed. But such dependence on unessential items is exactly what repels the Asoke about the lifestyle brought by global capitalism. They believe the desires for progress, speed, convenience, and material wealth lead to the degradation of both human values and the planet. To escape these forces, the Asoke have created a faith-based counterculture on isolated compounds around Thailand in which they seek moral improvement and self-sufficiency in nearly everything they do, including food production and waste management. By meditating while they work from dawn to dusk, they strive to cultivate a keen awareness of their inner selves and the environment, which for them is the only path to true happiness.

At 6 a.m. the lesson concludes and all 33 of us untangle our sore, crossed legs to prepare for the morning alms round in the downtown district. In the hazy light of dawn, we shuffle in a sleepy, single-file line behind the monks, thankful for the smooth, warm cement beneath our swollen feet. Shopkeepers briefly stop assembling their wares to stare at the train of foreigners, undecided on this special new form of tourism. Eventually they venture down to the road and dole out offerings, scooping a serving of rice into the monks’ clay bowls and sometimes handing six-packs of soy milk or vegetarian dishes to their curious apprentices. Our route takes us through an outdoor market, bustling with shoppers excited over the dangling meats and medley of produce. We halt for a moment and I happen to stop next to a stand where freshly roasting coffee tortures my senses. Others ogle the grilled pork skewers. My stomach writhes from hunger but before we have time to think twice about cheating we have lost our chance. It is time to return to the compound.

After a lunch of green vegan mash, rice, and chunky soy milk, I usher my plate through the mind-bogglingly scrupulous communal dishwashing routine. Scrape, swipe, dunk, soap, rinse, rinse, rinse. When I am sure I have scraped all the kernels of uneaten rice from my plate into the pile saved for organic compost, I try to move on to the next station. Hot breath hits the back of my neck. Frowning at my efforts, our host mother shakes her head and points to the back of the line.

When at last the dishes are clean, we are taken to a field, handed rakes and hoes, and left to our amateur devices to make vegetable beds from the hard, dry soil. Hours go by as we clumsily scratch out a few crooked trenches. I eventually wilt and collapse in the hot dirt. Several yards away a few young schoolgirls giggle at my inadequacy. Unamused, I admit defeat and look around for some weeds to pick.

The communication barrier leads me to believe that we have finished for the day, but a trip to the massive compost pile makes it plain that our toil is far from over. Ten of us are given a single shovel to fill old rice sacks with fertilizer and one squeaky wheelbarrow to ferry them to and from the field. After one sack splits open on my shoulder, sending dirt, worm-castings, and leftover meal slop cascading down my back, I will no longer negotiate. It is time for me to go.

Limp, sunburned, and covered in mud, I make my way to the shower hall—a concrete building without a roof. After walking on razor blades and through hot, stinking compost on an empty stomach, I want nothing less than a private, perfumed bubble bath. What I get instead are two communal vats of cold water accompanied by small plastic buckets, accoutrements of the traditional Thai-style trough-and-splash shower. Because the place is teeming with women and young girls, everyone must wear a modest uniform, a thin, cotton wrap covering everything between the chest and the knees. I hopelessly try to soap myself without disrobing but the futility of my attempt sends gasps and nervous laughter through the crowd of spectators. After pouring a few buckets of icy water over my head, I sulk, give in to the grime, and track back to my room in my sticky, sopping garment.

It is in keeping with the promise of a “peaceful nature walk” on our final morning that I find myself teetering on an unstable rock, straining to grab a thick root above me for support. I am still inching my fingers upward, almost there, when my foot slips abruptly, sending me tumbling into a thorny bush. I can hear evidence of similar struggles from the long line of students clawing their way up the steep mountainside behind me. It is clear that no one finds this pre-dawn rock climb on flat-lining blood–sugar levels and two days of sleep deprivation particularly peaceful. I scramble out of the prickers and up the trail, itching to escape the thorns, the hike, the entire Asoke experience. Three hours go by in fits of sweat and anger, but at last we behold the end of the trail. I charge ahead, batting my way through swarms of gnats and mosquitoes. With one last heave, I pull my aching body over the final ledge.

And what happens next could be a scene from a cliché-ridden movie, but no matter how trite it may seem in the context of my memories of the last week, it also contains an element of purity and truthfulness that strikes me as profound nonetheless.

Before me at the cliff’s edge stands a barefoot monk, beaming, not a drop of sweat or a hint of unease on his face. He has been standing there in solitude for over an hour, sensing the cool soil press against the soles of his feet, the light breeze touch his skin, the songs of birds fill his ears. His tranquil gaze sweeps the great, green valley below and he slowly inhales all its beauty.

I am frozen, entranced by his serenity. He has just made the same steep ascent as I have, climbed over the same crags, through the same hordes of insects, on the same empty stomach, in half the time, drawing ecstasy from the same experience that has left me beside myself with irritation.

By believing that all discomfort is fleeting, he is able to tread on the gravel without scorn, wake up on the bare floor without annoyance—even work after five hours of sleep without a boost of espresso. Instead, his mindfulness of each moment in his life leads him to a deeper understanding of himself and a richer appreciation of his surroundings.

Whether it’s the next time I find myself hiking through a forest compound in rural Thailand, or walking up Locust Walk to a 10 o’clock class, I hope this perspective is one I can keep near.


Alyssa Boente is a College junior from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.


FIRST PERSON: Essays

Notes from the Undergrad The bare essentials
Alumni Voices The mad gene
Elsewhere Pole position
Expert Opinion Value all families

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