Chiang Mai, Thailand is a city of hundreds of Buddhist temples, some dating back centuries. So it was not surprising that on an evening walk through the old city we came upon one just off the main tourist road–an island of serenity amid the pulsing street life of never-ending traffic, shops stuffed to the gills with merchandise for tourists, and way too many brightly lit restaurants.
Taking off our shoes, we climbed the stairs to the temple, facing a giant gold image of the Buddha. We stepped into the holy place, lured by the sound of monks chanting in the sing-song monotone style of the religion.
There were three middle-aged monks at prayer–two kneeling in their saffron colored robes before the Buddha and one other, a good bit more portly than the others, sitting on a bench. We took our places alongside two other visitors at the side of the temple, crossed our legs (not as easy as it used to be), closed our eyes, and let the moment envelop us.
We soon heard a ring and opened our eyes to see: was it a bell? a chime?
The heavy-set monk was reaching deep into the folds of his robes groping for something as the ringing continued. I expected he was grasping for some sort of religious talisman that would deepen the experience.
But, nah, it was his cell phone, which he proceeded to answer and then begin a loud, extended conversation, talking and laughing away as his two fellow monks continued their devotional.
Eventually, the prayers stopped. The two monks, us visitors and the Buddha were left waiting for the conversation to end. Which, a little later, it did. Phone call ended, our seated monk seemed to pick up where he had left off, and the two monks joined in.
I had to chuckle at the irony of the timeless serenity of the place and the moment being put on hold for the transitory pleasure of answering a phone call. Before leaving, I looked up one more time. I thought I saw a little smile on the face of the Buddha, too.