In 1993, I visited China with five lucky School of Technology students at my University. Before going, I asked around for some cool things to say and “Chī le ma?” or “Have you eaten yet?” was the phrase I learned besides asking for the toilet. It does not mean what it literally says. Instead, it means a little bit like “How are you?”, but more casual like, “How’s it going?” It sounds funny in English and that is why I say it in English to my Chinese monastic friend when I see him.
Recently, one of my friends who is well respected and trusted with many admin duties came down with a mental problem. He was not eating for a few days and stopped talking. He was not rationally thinking and wanted to sustain himself with the “Food of the Dhamma.” I have done two separate ten-day fasts before… but this was different. It was not normal, and there was no end to his self-starvation.
Does it sound sad? Imagine watching this happen to your very own good friend, asking him why he is not eating, and he does not answer. Add a factor of “he is a monk,” and it makes it more sad. Many monks were worried and he had two monks sleeping in his kuti each night with many visitors throughout the day and night. A mass of slippers were always parked outside by his door. We had chanting in his kuti to try to snap him out of it. Eventually, after a few days, the MD Sayalay (nun) assigned to his case said, “If he does not eat tomorrow, he will get an injection.” She had a syringe and medicine with her the first day but decided to give it some time to settle.
“Injection” means anti-psychotic medication and he will be brain dead for a long time and be a walking zombie. A little bit like Jack Nicholson at the end of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Not only that, they usually don’t want the injection because they are not taking the pills that have been offered in the first place. You often need 4 or 5 strong monks to hold him down while the needle goes in the right cheek. I’ve seen this all before in Sri Lanka. I was in that country for six years and twice asked to help hold down people (one was a monk) while the needles went in. It is not a pretty site.
In 2009 or 2010, I helped bring one monk to a mental hospital in Kandy. At 11pm, there was only one police officer and one big guy dressed in white. We were holding the monk down while waiting for the on call doctor to arrive. During that time, I started chatting with the orderly dressed in white. I said, “There are all these patients (40) in this room, but only you. What if they get out of hand?”
“They are all on medication, and nothing is going to happen”, he said with a calm and relaxed smile.” Zombies. They were all medicated zombies.
So today, Tuesday, Dec 8th, was the last day. My monastic friend either had to eat or get an injection. If no food, the injection was sure to come. He was given 3 or 4 days of not eating and enough was enough. It was not an immediate emergency for himself, but action was eventually needed and today was the day. His kuti was filled with friends offering support during the day with two attendants sleeping in his kuti at night. Yesterday, we started warning him about the pending injection orders. We were really worried but he was not saying much.
I stopped by his kuti this morning after eating my breakfast to see if he had eaten yet. However, all the food was in front of the Buddha like all of the other days. He was leading the chanting, with a few other monks, to the Buddha and I didn’t want to play the game and decided to leave. I went back to my kuti and sent a text message to him by Viber and went about my morning business and meditation.
After lunch I stopped by his kuti again and I could hear laughing and loud talking as I was going up the concrete steps. I gave a quick double knock and then opened the door myself. My friend was still eating.
The attending monks pulled up a chair for me to sit beside him and they asked me to offer him some food. I sat down and I pulled out some cakes from my bag. I asked him which ones he wanted and offered him my tea that I was going to drink in his kuti during my visit. He was eating and happy to eat. He was probably very hungry too. He told me my text to him meant a lot and thanked me for sending it.
Later, that night I stopped by after my weekly Meditation Hall cleaning duty. Again many monks were visiting, and this time drinking the fresh avocado juice that was served to the monastery that evening. He had a few bottles for himself and the crew and I checked if my friend had drank some juice too, which he did. Things were looking good.
Inside the kuti was a Myanmar monk who knew how to speak Chinese but had never been to China. I told him about the phrase, “Have you eaten yet?” It was related to situation of this whole ordeal and meant to be funny, but he had never heard of it and challenged me. After all, he was fluent in Chinese, and what could I know? We had a big debate which Google settled for me, but he still thinks I’m wrong. We laughed some more and then I left again, this time with a smile.
And so that is the happy ending to this story. Most of these types of stories don’t end this way.
Update: I suspected that the all night Ratana chanting (for Covid-19), was a cause since one monk noticed something strange about the monk immediately the day after such an all night event. I expressed my concern because I have seen mental problems arise from lack of sleep at other monasteries. The all night chanting has now been stopped. The monk had some trouble sleeping, but now seems to be doing fine.