I should ask Ellen to tell me the story again, but it goes something like this: A man in her neighborhood, back near the Sutep Hills of Chiang Mai, needed to make merit. Making merit, tham boon, is a Thai Buddhist practice of making an offering, usually at a temple, but in other ways as well, of money or other desirable things, as a kind of atonement. Making merit is a way to restore something out of balance, and hence to burn away bad karma, and perhaps even a way to accumulate good karma, which then goes in the karma bank account, of sorts.

So, this man needed to make merit, and a lot of it.  From this strong need, it’s logical to assume that whatever he did was pretty bad, or at least, in his mind, it was pretty bad and demanded a lot of balance-restoring. It was bad enough, worth enough weight, that he purchased 10 white cows. These beautiful creatures, when you see them wandering through the neighborhood, make you think, if you know the story behind their presence, a plethora of dark thoughts: What could have happened? It must have been something terrible. Did someone die? Was it worse than that? The cows, as they wander, make you wonder.

Even in modern Chiang Mai, a cow is a costly and valuable item, and 10 of them, purchased as recompense to God, is impressive. In fact, Ellen said, people would probably like to kill those cows. They would like to eat those cows (even though it is a Buddhist country, but you would never know it from the amount of meat Thai people consume.) A cow still has a lot of meat on it, even in modern Chiang Mai. But no one would ever harm these animals. To kill a cow, especially a white cow, bought for the making of merit, would be a terrible deed – possibly worse than whatever made the man buy the cows in the first place.

So, now, the cows wander free. They wander in the neighborhood, and through wandering free, the process of nature and the passage of time, they have become a sizeable herd of cows numbering close to 30 strong, from what I can count. I can’t remember certain parts of the story. The man may have kept the cows somewhere for a while, on a piece of land that belonged to him, and then died and now the cows wander around in this humorous and wonderful way, but I’m not sure, because when Ellen sees the cows, she often says “those are my neighbor’s cows,” not like someone talking about a dead neighbor.

In any case, the cows move around in the neighborhood, but prefer places with lots of sweet greens, like a defunct palm tree farm with big leafy plants that crunch with juice when bitten, which is where Ellen and her husband Joe live. In the mornings, when I sleep in their sala covered with a beautiful white mosquito net that creates a kind of Thai Bedouin tent lit by candles in the evening, I sometimes open my eyes to them just beyond me, taking large and noisy bites out of anything green. They have soft eyes, and the young ones have spindly legs. As soon as they see me, a kind of alarm goes through the herd. I can feel it being passed through glances and the change in the rigidity of ears and skin. If I move anything more than my eyes, they back away. If I move a hand, they start to run, stirring the still morning air with animal movement, hurried, frightened, moving themselves to a place they consider to be just out of human reach.

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Aside from Pichest, Mary and I did some studying with a couple of other teachers in Chiang Mai. In fact, Mary has been doing a lot of studying with Mo Noi, living with her on her piece of land and assisting in her clinic there, and I hope she will write a blog post about her experiences, if she’s still writing on the blog. I’ve met Mo Noi a handful of times. She’s an amazing woman – a traditional Thai doctor who in the past years has begun working almost entirely energetically with her patients. She does very little manipulation of the physical body, and instead works on the deeper layers of energy. She talks a lot about feeling places of heat in the body, and about the imbalances “floating” up to the surface. She has a wonderful piece of land which is her and her husband’s home as well as a restful therapy center for her patients. She’s also an herbalist and amazing cook, preparing therapeutic meals with plants from her own land. Mary, please write more!

Back in November, Mary and I both studied with Jack Chaiya for a 3-day Advanced Nerve Touch Course. We were very excited to meet him, and also hopefully to meet his mother, Lek Chaiya, who is now nearly 80 and doesn’t teach much anymore. She does still teach a 4 day course on Thai Massage and Pregnancy, and I hope to take that at some point in the near future, when I return to Chiang Mai. During the 3 days we were there, we only saw her briefly.  Here she is preparing the herbs for some herbal compresses:

Walking into the Chaiya’s studio is a respite from the busy street outside. They are just around the corner from Tha Pae Gate, one of the most active and most touristed areas of the old city in Chiang Mai. On this corner, you can buy coffee drinks with whipped cream, pizza, tickets to a Thai boxing show, rent motorbikes for the day, anything.  Just inside the door of the Chaiya’s studio is a wall of the many kinds of herbal teas they package and sell, and sometimes give to you when you’re sick during class. You can also buy various balms and herbs for Thai herbal compress.

Jack told us this tea has deer urine in it….a special potent addition his mother likes to add, obtained from a Chinese shop near Wararot Market…but how they obtained it from the deer he doesn’t know. And whether he’s serious or not, we don’t know. The tea is strong and sort of minty and also rather musky…or is that just our imagination?

Downstairs, in addition to the desk where you can sign up for classes and the teas, there is a small cloth shop and a fashion studio. Lek Chaiya’s other son is a fashion designer, and clients are often coming in for consultations.  Like many places in Thailand, these multiple activities going on at the same time give a feeling of the integration that is the structure of society here. The family business is one whole, with many aspects, none of them perceived to be in any conflict with one another.

Upstairs there is a small room where class is held. While we are studying – it’s just the two of us; private study with Jack can be only one or two people at a time – there is an introductory course going on simultaneously. Since I had already been in Thailand for a month and a half at that point, I was quite used to this Thai style of putting everything together, not separating, not creating distinct and removed private spaces. So there was no problem, we were studying one thing, and two feet away, a small group of students were studying a different thing.

I enjoy the natural interplay that happens when spaces are not clearly divided. You could interpret the situation as being one that creates confusion, or you could see the same phenomena of multiple voices, multiple levels, tasks, events, as being in conversation with one another. I like this second interpretation very much, and try to follow it, especially when I do feel a sense of distraction creeping in.

Jack is a gregarious and kind man with a lot of energy, with a feeling of constantly arranging things and putting them in order. He never seems to come to any sort of rest, even when he’s resting.  On the third day, because of this, Mary decided that he needed some work himself.

And a day before, his ankle hurt all of a sudden, right in the middle of the kitchen, and Mary fixed it.

Study with Jack was wildly different from study with              Pichest. First of all, there was a book. (Yes, it was hard for us to believe as well.) Second of all, there was a lot of technique, and the technique was rather difficult for us. And thirdly, we actually had to do the sequence in the book, step by step.

Mary and I both found it a bit of a shock to be back in the world of finding exact lines and following them precisely, counting the number of points and repetitions, having to keep “this move comes after that move” kind of order in our heads. It made us realize how different things had been at Pichest’s. We were certainly a bit out of practice with this kind of approach, and sometimes we would both think “really, this is just an awful lot of work.’ But it was interesting work, nonetheless, and certainly valuable to have a strong counterpoint of style and technique to put Pichest’s technique (the techniqueless technique) in perspective.

Nerve Touch involves a lot of pressure given with the hands and fingers, and so requires a lot of strength in these parts as well as in the upper body.

Here, these two moves. both of which I have learned to do with my foot, are being done with the hand.  Jack has very powerful hands, and does a lot of work with his fingers, seemingly without injury to them. The emphasis on lines and points is very strong in this work as well, and we are often following and flipping the entire length of a tendon. In that sense, these 3 days were a good review, to some extent, of both the physical and sen/energetic anatomy of the arms and legs. Following the line of a tendon is often done with the hands, which are of course very precise, but can surely also be done when working with the knees, elbows, feet, etc., though this requires great sensitivity in those less familiar parts of the body.

On the 3rd day, Mary and I both had our own ody problems – my right shoulder, a long-standing injury, was aching, and Mary’s digestion was troubling her.  These things, combined with our residual Pichest energy of just exploring and feeling, were enough to shift the intense focus on the lessons from the book and following the sequence to something more open and spontaneous, and we all just worked on one another’s various ailments instead.

Jack did some very nice work on my shoulder. I particularly enjoyed these two simple supported positions that allowed him to go very deep into the shoulder joint from practically any angle. (But you can still see clearly in both pictures how focused this work is on the therapist using his hands and fingers, often without the weight and leverage of the body behind them. Of course, Jack also uses his elbows, feet and knees, but the focus is definitely on work originating with the arms, at least in our lessons this was true.)

Later in the day, Jack did some work on Mary’s abdomen with the lovely Thai herbal compresses his mother was making. The herbs smelled amazing, and the simple cloths the compresses were wrapped in gave a delightful feeling of the simple traditions that Thai medicine is based in. I sat there opening them in my lap and examining them, enjoying touching the moist and pungent plant matter inside. We had already learned some abdominal work in the 3 day course, and this was a nice way to review both those positions of the hands and the use of the herbal compress. And it was wonderful and warming for Mary.

We didn’t have time during the 3 days to learn to make the compresses ourselves, so a few weeks later, after I took a trip through northern Thailand with my good friend Sarah Nelson, and Mary and I went to Laos for a week to renew our visas, I met Jack one morning at 6 am in Chiang Mai market and he walked around with me showing me all the herbs he buys for the compresses. Some of them, like the yellow ginger, can’t be bought at the market most of the time and have to be ordered from farmers who bring it in large quantities for the Chaiyas from the hills. The herb market is quite small, a few stalls that seem to be a part of the larger vegetable market, and a few women with blankets in the very back of the market. Jack also bought me some delicious sticky rice mixed with black sesame, a Thailand treat I hadn’t yet tried. Later, after the day at Pichest’s, I rode my scooter back to the Chaiya’s and Jack and I mashed, cut, squashed and ripped limes, ginger, lemongrass, turmeric, jasmine and other herbs and grasses in a big bowl and then tied them in simple brown cloth. I went home with 4 herbal compresses, still moist and alive inside.