Thursday, August 10, 2006

Monk-ing Around

Monks on vacation at ancient temple ruins.
Pra Vihan temple at Thai-Cambodian border.

Being around Buddhist monks is part of everyday life here in Thailand. If you get up early enough, you can see them, barefooted, walking the highways and byways to beg for their daily food from the local population. We have some monks on staff at nearly every college and university, and one has even been my student.

Every birth, death, marriage, and new-home dedication involves many long hours of chanting by monks from the local temple.

There's another interesting side of monks.... In fact, I thought of a future blog with the title "Monks are people too." For example, I remember raising my eyebrows the first time I saw a group of monks sitting on a bench at a bus stop in Bangkok, all of them smoking. It didn't seem to fit the decorum of a "religious leader", in my western mind. (I had the same problem watching Christian Reformed ministers from Holland lighting up their pipes and cigars at a ministerial meeting in Europe, too.)

A couple years ago, I went with a friend to visit his brother who had recently become a monk. We entered his little bamboo hut on stilts within the confines of the temple compound. He was a big man in his 50's, muscled, rough lines in his face, and a couple of fiery-looking dragons tattooed onto his forearms. All this, cloaked in the saffron robes of a monk, seemed incongruent.

After a short visit which involved my friend bringing food and cigarettes to his brother, I asked him in the pick-up truck on the way home, "What did your brother do before he became a monk?"

"Nothing much. He bounced from job to job, while mostly gambling, drinking, and womanizing." End of conversation. I could only surmise that entering the monkhood was his way of personal reformation.

Or was it?

Here in Thailand, a British expat teacher's former student was recently admitted to the monkhood of a local Buddhist temple. Three months into the student's monkdom, the teacher visited his former student, and here's the eye-popping account of the kid's daily life.

Please don't mistake my tone here, as merely blasting Buddhism. We all know there are charlatans and counterfeits in every religion. (Yup, Christianity has its Jimmy Swagarts, Jim Bakkers, and medieval dueling popes). However, it does stand in contradiction to my impression of a monk's life up to now. It just might shake up your impression too.

And the Adventure Goes On...


Chaichakri said...


Interestingly, I was once NEARLY a samanera too, but I backed out last minute. Perhaps, I did not have the karmic affinity.... hee hee

Buddhism is slightly different in my country. Unlike Thai Buddhism, here there are multi-sects, multi-traditions and even multi-language!

Even to be a Theravadha monk, you have the choice of being a Thai, Burmese or Sri Lankan, amazing right?

Over the weekend, I had two merit-making family eventt at a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple. Even as a Thai, I do sometimes visit Sri Lankan Buddhist Temples as the monks would always speak English, and they tend to be more orthodox and less cultural affliation!

dome said...

I once thought, too, that monks should be holy (more than respected) people, refined and pure in thought, speech, and action...until I became one for a Rains Retreat at a forest monastery (วัดป่า).

I emphasize forest because during my time as a monk, all the monks in the county I ordained in assembled in sort of an orientation for the Rains Retreat. The only group of monks at the assembly that followed the Forest Tradition was the one I came with. All the other monks of other temples were city monks. And there was a big difference.

Those city monks carried their own money and bought things at the market nearby. I can imagine them watching TV, too, when both are forbidden in a novice's precepts, moreso a monk's. Don't even mention smoking, because that's forbidden in a Buddhist layman's precepts.

But I can tell you, living up to the Buddha's teachings as handed down in the Forest Tradition is hard. And I learned to be sympathetic to those who are trying, but fail in certain ways every now and then. (Not smoking, though.) So I totally support your future blog, if you decide to write it, especially the title "Monks are people, too."