“What, if anything, am I?” Woody Allen, White Cloth, and Meditation

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Being in Chiang Mai, Thailand and writing about some place on the other side of the world for 12 hours a day, for weeks on end, can do strange things to a traveler’s mind. Luckily, this is a city with plenty of opportunities to look inside and slow things down. For instance, last Sunday, while Tay was participating in a women’s yoga weekend (to “celebrate the goddess”) with one of four mermaids, I hopped in a tuk-tuk to the Wat Umong forest temple to join “an informal discussion, in English, on the Buddha’s teachings.”

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There, in the Chinese pagoda next to the catfish lake, a soft-spoken Australian monk described Woody Allen’s bleak outlook on life as essentially Buddhist, and he defined the ultimate question as, “What, if anything, am I?” as opposed to the more presumptuous, “Who am I?”

I sat among a group of curious Western Sunday afternooners for two hours before hitchhiking back into town with a non-English speaking Thai family, driving in for the Sunday market. Later that day, I would receive a humorous email, a quote from David Bader’s “Zen Judaism,” in which it all boils down to: “Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?!”

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After picking Tay up at the yoga studio, we wandered through the market, and, while she browsed hanging lamps and draw-string pants, I treated myself to a half-hour foot massage (for $1.50) before getting back to work.

So here I am now, researching private schools and visa applications in Nicaragua, but later, I am going to take another break, a 24-hour meditation retreat at Wat Suan Dok, home of the famous Monk Chat program. My emailed instructions are simple: “Please show up at 2.30 pm Tuesday and just bring your personal belongings. We will provide you white cloth, food and room. See you then, Monk Chat.”

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