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Lan Po En

– by Gerry Roach

Phuket, Southern Thailand, 1993

When I vaulted airborne, the heavy disco beat pulsed through my ears to every cell of my body. Unseeing and uncaring, I let the throbbing finger my soul. After tears crusted my cheeks, my sweat poured through the mess, then dribbled down to my outstretched tongue, but the salty sauce did little to salve my pain. My wife was gone from my life, and the dance floor was far too hard to comfort me. Only the deep beat could touch me. Eyes closed against my stinging sweat, I twisted into the air again and again in a vain attempt to leave the Earth.

Normally, I had visited Thailand coming and going from my many journeys to climb great Himalayan peaks, but this time was different. Now, I was sweating and vaulting into the tropical, disco-jammed night to escape the emptiness that threatened to take me. After Deirdre left, I sank to the bottom immediately to bump along like a buried, but still-beating beast. Now, there was only the beast-beat and the airborne moments; I had just escaped Boulder for the second and last time, and had no intention of returning to my former Colorado life with its pretty peaks and endless expeditions. All I had left was my fitness and my passion, so I ran the beaches by day, and danced the nights away. Let Deirdre look; she would not find me here.

As always, the dance floor was packed with a humanity just as crazed as me. Jostling for position night after night, the diminutive Thai girls quickly learned to give me sufficient space for my vaults. Occasionally, I thumped into one of their dates, but the gleaming girls steered their lurching men away from me, until it was the girls who surrounded me. Thus, they gave me my space and protected me at the same time. They knew that I was on a mission of personal salvation, and that I danced alone. When I did open my eyes, the girls were there, and I danced with all of them at once. Our dance-floor communication was unspoken, but covered volumes. When I did catch an eye, the unpretentious smiles salved my seeping soul and allowed me to feel the beat a little longer.

I often caught the girls looking at the gold amulet that I wore around my neck, but they were too shy to ask about it. It was obviously high-quality Thai gold, and likely a gift from someone special, but they were too polite to intrude. Thus, the offer in their demure smiles, always said, “We feel your pain, and hope that your gold lady come soon. If she doesn’t, we are here.” That was really the last thing on my mind, but as always, the mistresses of inveiglement were way ahead of me. Patiently, the girls watched me stumble night after night into the steamy dark in my sweaty stupors. Then one night, my gold lady came.

Intensely airborne, I saw no one for an hour, but gradually felt her eyes. Opening mine, I saw only my protective girls at first, but then spun round to see her flashing eyes across the crowded room. As the girls parted their ring to let her approach, she swayed toward me then seemingly from nowhere and everywhere, Kanya was dancing in front of me. Our eyes flashed wide, then locked. We danced like this for several minutes in our protective ring until I asked, “How did you find me Kanya?”

Without missing a sway, Kanya just patted my upper chest where the amulet that she had given me did its own dance, and said, “I see Lan Po En flashing - I see you.” Grinning, I just nodded understanding. Returning to our dancing we moved together as one until the end of the set, then hand-in-hand, we sidestepped through the crowd to escape the dance floor. I steered Kanya toward a dark corner near the disco’s only air conditioner and the small couch that I sprawled on occasionally to lower my body temperature.

Once nestled in, I took off my tee shirt, and spent several minutes using it as a towel to slow my fluid loss. With less than half my body weight, Kanya did not have my heat-dissipation problem, so she just watched me intently. Finally, I turned sideways to find her eye, grinned, and asked, “It’s good to see you Kanya. I was beginning to wonder if you were still here. What happened?”

Wincing, Kanya crossed her arms out in front of her chest with inner wrists together, and let out a definitive clicking sound. “Some trouble. Bad cop take me away.”

The Bee Gees’ wails rose higher as the air conditioner hummed its indifference. “What?” I bellowed over the din.

“Lockup!”

Lurching, I blurted out, “Jail? You’ve been in jail? Kanya, why?”

Lowering her gaze, Kanya took my hand, licked her lips and began, “After you leave the first time, I take money you gave me and start good business. I open Rainbow Bar, and soon have fifty customers every night. Then, we making money.”

“We? Were Pan and Noi working with you?”

“Yes. We three sisters working every night. Work hard to making money. We stay off street like you ask.”

“That’s great news! I’m glad Pan and Noi are OK, but then?”

Taking my eye again, Kanya continued, “One night, fight start in my bar. Pan screaming, Noi kicking at mad man, I take gun and bad cop come - I go lockup.”

After absorbing this for a minute, I just stroked Kanya’s hand, then said, “That’s all you’re going to tell me isn’t it?”

“Lockup finished. Problem finished. I find you, so happy time again.” Then, nodding toward the door, she said, “Too noisy here. Now, we go to our late place.”

Rising, Kanya led me by the hand around the edge of the dance floor, as the young girls swayed their approval. My gold lady had come, and their wistful eyes flashed volumes. Outside, the dank, tropical night did nothing to cool me, and I felt my temperature rising again. Steering me expertly through her dark streets, Kanya led me to the open-air, all-night bar that we had used so many times for conversation. Our drinks arrived quickly, and as always, I held the cold can to my forehead. After a long draw, I fingered the amulet around my neck, rubbed my forefinger across the raised image of the monk, and said, “Kanya, I want to know why you gave me Lan Po En.”

“Yes, he protect you. He send you back to me.”

Now, it was my turn to wince. “As you know, I need all the protection I can get right now. Kanya, this amulet has been around my neck since the day you put it there. So I still wonder why you gave me Lan Po En instead of Buddha? Isn’t Buddha more powerful?”

Now it was Kanya’s turn to grin. “Maybe not. I tell you story about Lan Po En.” Looking away, but sliding toward me as she had done so many times before, Kanya began, “One day, Lan Po En meditating long - meditating deep.”

“In his monastery up north?” I asked.

“Yes, his place south of Chang Mai. Many monks there then.”

“Go on.”

Still looking at the night-seeped street, Kanya continued. “While he meditating, plane fly over. Pilot on regular flight from Bangkok to Chang Mai.” Kanya’s next words floated away into the dark like a falling petal. “Pilot see Lan Po En in clouds.”

Taking the now warm can from my forehead, I clicked it onto the bar. “Wow! He felt him!”

Now, Kanya turned toward me, displaced my can with her slender arm, and gave me her serious boss look. “More than feel. Pilot sober, pilot sane, pilot not thinking about this or looking for anything. Pilot see Lan Po En meditating in clouds.”

Ever the scientist, I asked, “Did the pilot know Lan Po En?”

“He never meet him, but he know and recognize him. Lan Po En well known - most loved Thai monk ever.”

“There’s more isn’t there?”

Kanya slowly sipped my beer, then squeezed some sweat from her long black hair and flipped it toward the street. “Yes. Pilot look and look to be sure, but Lan Po En was there in clouds sitting in lotus position. Pilot so shook by sighting that he go to monastery to meet Lan Po En. When he describe sighting, other monks let him in.”

“I think I know how this is going to end.”

“That’s why I’m with you, Gerry. You tell me.”

Now it was my turn to get the sweat out of my brow. “OK. When the pilot described his sighting to Lan Po En, the famous monk listened carefully, admitted to having been meditating at that time, but then said something like, I am just a man. I could not have possibly been in the clouds.’” Then I added, “He denied his own power, but he didn’t deny the pilot’s sighting!”

Circling my forearm with ten tawny fingers, Kanya breathed, “Yes! Lan Po En so powerful that he send image - perhaps even self - into clouds. He go beyond body.”

“He transcended! But, unlike Buddha, he hung around to deny it. Wow!” Now it was my turn to find and flick the sweat from Kanya’s hair, while she expertly mopped my brow with the beer blotter. We let the nightlife roll by for another minute before looking at each other anew. “Kanya, you know what I’m going to say now don’t you?”

Fingering my amulet, Kanya replied, ”Yes. We must go there. Go see Lan Po En for ourselves. I know a way.”

“We’ll start north tomorrow!”

“No. Day after. Now, we go sleep. Come Gerry, I have place.”

“Is it air conditioned?”

After expertly guiding me off my bar stool, and leading me into her street shadows, my gold lady said without looking back, “No. We sweat.”

 


 

Several days later, Kanya and I approached Lan Po En’s monastery cautiously. We had been warned that Lan Po En had died several years earlier, and that the grounds were now deserted. Nevertheless, drawn to this countryside place, we continued our pilgrimage to learn whatever we could. Droopy untended trees overhung the stone path leading toward the main gate, and shuffling through leaves, we felt the quiet compound ahead exuding a sense of peace, but it did seem deserted. The gate was ajar, so we slipped through sideways.

Seeing no one, we walked slowly up the path between obviously unused buildings, however the leaves on this portion of the path had been swept away. At a junction in the path, we paused to look around, and realized how extensive the monastery was. Multiple curved paths led off toward unseen gardens and distant buildings. Closing my eyes, I could almost hear the hushed footsteps of a hundred monks padding to their appointments. When Lan Po En was alive, he had attracted quite a following, but where were they now? I had assumed that, touched by his powerful presence, the other monks would carry on his teachings in this special place. Why had they all left? How could Lan Po En’s life and death make such a difference to so many? I sensed that this place held as many questions as answers. Looking over Kanya’s shoulder, I saw a monk approaching.

Holding a straw broom, and wearing sun-bleached saffron robes, the monk greeted us casually. Kanya gave me a knowing glance, then spoke with him in Thai for a minute. The monk noticed my amulet of Lan Po En, nodded, waved us up one of the paths, and went back to his sweeping.

“He say we can look around, but nobody here.” Kanya explained.

“There’s something here. I can feel it.” I answered. “Let’s look around.”

With the luxury of time on our hands, we wandered slowly along a gently rising route to a garden where I realized just how abandoned this place was. Former flowerbeds ringed a dry pond, which was complete with a small arched bridge sprouting paint peels. “Kanya, why did all the monks leave?” I asked.

“Don’t know Gerry, but answer is with Lan Po En. Not obvious answer.”

Walking on, we eventually reached a large building. “This looks like a main temple. I wonder if we can get in?” I mused. Gently trying the door, I found it locked. “Oh well, no matter.”

“Yes matter. Answer in there.” Kanya said softly. “Answer in lockup!”

“Yes, I feel it too. Maybe we can get the caretaker monk to let us in?”

Walking another curving path back down the hill, we followed the swept path until we caught up with the lone monk. As I waited impatiently fingering my amulet, Kanya spoke with him in Thai, gesturing at me several times, then finally holding her hands to her chest. In silence, the monk measured us with his broom for a full minute, first studying Kanya, then me, then looking back at Kanya. He asked a single short question in Thai, and Kanya immediately bowed slightly while holding her hands to her chest again. After another pause, our nameless monk gave a small nod, carefully set his broom aside, and walked past us toward the temple. Hearts thumping, we followed.

Unlocking a side door with unseen keys, we entered a large nearly dark room where shafts of light entering through aging slats caught the unsuspecting dust in an ancient dance. Disturbed by our entrance, the dust swirled sedately toward an unknown sanctuary. When we could see enough, we crept toward our monk who was standing in the center of the room waiting for our eyes to adapt to the dim light. Waiting another minute to let the peace of this former prayer-filled place regain control, our monk said nothing. Finally, his faded robe fell to the side as his thin bare arm rose to point toward the far corner of the room. Then, to our astonishment, he turned and quickly left us alone in the temple. After the light from the closing door finished sweeping the temple floor, we blinked and stared at his pointed-to corner.

Fingers interlacing, we fumbled forward together. Reaching out into the dark, my hand finally found a glass surface. Glass! Here in the corner? Feeling along the glass, I set science aside, and said simply, “He’s here.” For a response, Kanya just squeezed my other hand. Feeling farther, I found a corner, and beyond, a light switch. “Ready?” was all I could croak. After another reassuring squeeze, I flipped the switch.

Lan Po En popped to life a few feet in front of us. Not an image in a cloud, not a painting, not a photo, it was Lan Po En. With my neck hair springing to attention and my breath coming fast, I blurted out, “Oh my God, he’s alive!” Sitting in the lotus position, head slightly cocked to one side, he looked to be in deep meditation, just like the day the pilot had seen him in the clouds. Taking a step back, we absorbed the surreal scene. Inside a double glass container, he wore a simple saffron robe, his face, bald head and one bare arm were visible, and it was clearly Lan Po En. He was unmoving, but as present as a live man.

As I knew it would, my inner scientist came knocking at my brain soon enough. “Gerry, Lan Po En has been dead for years. This is either a wax figure, or possibly some sort of mummy, but he is certainly not alive.” A wax figure? Here in hot, humid, rural northern Thailand far removed from such circus acts? It seemed unlikely, but I stepped forward again to study his face. After a thoughtful inspection, I concluded that it was not wax. Could the figure be a carefully preserved mummy? How could a group of monks do that in this climate? I carefully examined the corners of the outer glass container. The cubical container was low tech, not some high tech space bubble. The inner cube also looked to be low tech. Lan Po En could not be sitting in a vacuum, since these flimsy, low tech cubes would never withstand such a pressure difference. In any case, any hi tech answer for this presence would require electricity, pumps, and other supporting equipment. There was none of that here; only a lone monk sweeping leaves.

Squeezing Kanya’s hand, I whispered, “Whatever this is proves that Lan Po En is as present in death as he was in life. He has done more than just transcend, he has made a mockery of the gulf between life and death. The only difference is that he can no longer speak to deny everything, but he doesn’t need to do that anymore!”

Squeezing back, Kanya pulled my ear down to her level to softly say, “Yes, some pilots still see him in clouds, but not just above here. Lan Po En is everywhere now.”

“So that’s it then. The answer is that we don’t need to be here either. That’s why the monks went out into the land - they can better teach others out there. We can be present wherever we go.”

“Not just present Gerry, enlightened. We go now. We have work to do.” After a long last look at Lan Po En, my gold lady re-laced my fingers, then flipped the switch.

 

Lan Po En Lan Po En

Photo by Gerry Roach - 1993

 

 

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