It's two-thirty a.m. I light a small candle, hang up my mosquito net, and put on my robes. The forest is quiet now in this backwater rural area of northeast Thailand. I have been meditating since 10:00 p.m. in my tiny hut.

The narrow, half-mile trail through the forest is about 930 steps, which I have counted many times on my way to the main hall. I direct my lantern a few yards ahead in case a Banded Krait, Cobra, or Russell Viper might be lying on the path. The morning is pleasant, no torrential rains or mud today.

My mind is easy and free. Living on my own in this forest has had a tremendous effect, as has the meditation and the Buddhist discipline of 227 rules. Many major rules had to be followed, such as not killing living beings, no sex or even masturbation, no stealing, no lying. Minor rules include such things as not standing when urinating, not picking flowers, picking fruit or killing plants in any way, even breaking live twigs. No digging in the ground, touching money, alcohol, etc. I could only eat what was offered, and only once a day before noon. And I could only eat food that I was offered that morning - I wasn't allowed to save or store food, and when I did eat, I had to eat quickly, not leisurely.

This was definitely a life of dependency and discipline, and it had more of an effect on me than I imagined it would. It really calmed down the urges that had blinded me in the past and kept more subtle things at arm's length.

I continue walking through the night toward the main hall. A barking deer abruptly jumps up near the path and crashes through the jungle. I look over, calmly, intently, with fear no longer plaguing me. The illnesses and the contemplation of human existence, sharpened by the shifts in consciousness brought about by my meditation practice have quelled the implications of fear.

In the moonlight, I can see the meditation hall ahead. My job is to ring the monastery bell at three AM, alerting the community that it is time to meet. I climb the bell platform and notice in the adjoining cremation pit a skull from yesterday's cremation. It looks like it's smiling in the glow of the dying embers. I ring the bell in the traditional cadence; the Buddhist training that I am doing has been unchanged for over 2500 years, since the Buddha's time.

I light the candles in the hall and find a spot on the cement floor. I go back into meditation. Soon, the community arrives and the monks and nuns find their places as well. We meditate until we can make out the lines on our palms in the breaking light, after which we put on our outer, formal robes and begin walking to the surrounding villages for alms. I join a small group of monks that have a route across some fields toward the east and the rising sun, where we pass many rice paddies with scores of snakes, both in the water and on the banks, craning their bodies and flicking their tongues to smell what is coming. Mango and banana trees speckle the landscape as a floating red ball dances on the horizon to greet us. Everything is pristine and peaceful - with all the monks walking in silence, concentrating on their meditation.

Our four-kilometer walk to the village and back would begin in the forest, past orchids and blossoms of every description that closed in on our path. Colorful birds would frolic in the trees and large eared squirrels would busily scurry along the ground. Oozing out of the clacking bamboo groves and large feathery ferns hung pungent odors of the jungle that accompanied us until we broke out into the rice fields, eventually making our way down the narrow lanes that were fenced on both sides.

Water buffalo tied underneath villagers' dwellings would cast wary eyes, lowering their heads in annoyance as we approached. Whether our presence reminded them that soon they would be led to the rice paddies for a day of toil, or whether they just didn't care for orange colored robes was immaterial - the fact was; they didn't like monks!

The villages were filled with activity - dogs with horribly scarred bodies, missing ears and mangy fur running wild and fighting in streets, many infected with rabies, while smiling mothers stood outside their huts washing their babies by throwing cold buckets of water on their naked, chilled bodies. The villagers would stop their activities for a moment with their hands clasped at their chests or at their foreheads when we walked by, out of respect for the men who had dedicated their lives to the higher ideals.

I glanced back at one of the mothers one day. She was happy within this precious snapshot of her life. Who in the many worlds could be more content than this impoverished villager and her baby at that moment? What wealth and power could trump the happiness she was feeling in that small village?

My feet have finally toughened up, and the rough, pointed gravel in the villages no longer make me sweat with pain. It has taken many months. It's been a good year for the villagers, and I find in my bowl a few fruit drinks in their customary little square, waxed packages. We return to the hall with our food and place it in front of us. This will be our only food for the day.

The villagers file in and sit in the center of the hall, watching intently. We sit cross-legged, upright and respectful with our covered bowls in front of us. Some villagers file by and offer additional food. I try not to look too closely at what they are offering. I mix it all together later to disguise the more course insects and things that find their way into my bowl. The villagers go without in order to feed their monks and nuns, giving us their best food, including what scarce protein they can literally dig up. They look up to us as their ideals, and I feel a tremendous responsibility to in turn live up to their expectations by training as hard as I can.

After the meal, we go outside and wash our bowls, leaving them tipped up toward the sun for a few minutes to dry inside. We say a few words to each other, and then retreat to our huts for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. This is when I did most of my napping and walking meditation, so that I could sit in meditation most of the night. It was cooler at night, and I found my meditation most concentrated in the wee hours of the morning.

(Next: A Day in the Life of a Buddhist Monk (Afternoon)

Author's Bio: 

E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is cofounder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center, http://www.SouthwestFloridaInsightCenter.com His twenty-nine years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers. Visit http://www.AYearToEnlightenment.com