What’s it really like to live a life in robes in Thailand? Brooke Schedneck finds out.
We were on our way out of the temple grounds at Wat Chedi Luang when I spotted a sign: “Please come and talk with us. If you only look and walk away, we feel disappointed.” I pointed it out to my husband, William, and my sister, Jillian, and we chuckled at the monks’ unabashed plea for company. A temple boy spotted us tentatively taking seats at one of the outdoor tables and said, “I go get monk. Please wait here.”
Jillian fidgeted on the bench, adjusting her wrap more tightly around her shoulders. “I don’t know what to say to a monk.”
A young Thai man with a confident demeanor appeared, sipping a yogurt drink. I admired his neatly arranged, bright orange robes and noticed his youthful face and closely shaven head. As he took a seat beside me, he introduced himself as Phra Narong and asked us where we were from. When we told him we were American, he began spouting city names: “Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago?” We chose New York and he expressed his interest in studying at Columbia University. Phra Narong then decided to test our knowledge of Buddhism.
He asked us, “What are the five precepts?” We responded in list order, slowly counting them with my fingers, “ …no lying … no stealing…” After this attempt, Phra Narong stopped us, obviously wanting to give more detail.
“No lying. Does that mean we never lie?”
“Yes!” I said quickly, thinking the monk would be impressed with my assured and correct answer. He just looked at us for a while, gauging his audience.
Then he finally said, “Sometimes people must tell lie. Sometimes people have to steal. If someone has a starving child, shouldn’t they steal a loaf of bread to keep the baby living?” I expected a more literal and conservative interpretation from someone in monk’s robes, so I was surprised at his flexible attitude toward these fundamental Buddhist rules of life. As he spoke, I reflected on the unique experience of this chat—how else would I get to learn a young monk’s opinions about the practice of contemporary Buddhism?
After a year of studying for a PhD concentrating on Thai Buddhism, I decided that a trip to the country was long overdue. I had a somewhat unstructured plan: five nights in Bangkok, touring the major sites and collecting any interesting books I could find in temples and bookstores. After this, we would spend a month in the less-hectic northern Thai city, Chiang Mai. I had thought I would mostly be working on my Thai language skills and observing Thai Buddhist practices but found that learning from and talking directly to the monks was also a worthwhile way to utilize my time. After my first monk chat, I learned that the Monk Chat Program started in 2000 and since then has been initiated in other highly tourist-ed temples. The point of the monk chat program is to fulfill foreign tourists’ curiosity about Buddhism and provide answers to foreigners’ questions about the Buddha’s teachings. Because of these programs, tourists can feel more connected to the traditions of the country. The program also gives the novices who are studying English in university a chance to practice and exchange information. Although there are monk chat programs in other Buddhist countries, such as Cambodia, Thailand has the biggest and most successful one. Before this trip, I hadn’t realized it was possible to speak with a Thai monk in such an informal way.
A few days after our first Monk Chat, we found another one at Wat Suan Dok. This temple had a room in one of its buildings set aside just for Monk Chats. Inside there were five other anxious tourists and about a dozen monks eager to chat. The monks were younger than I had expected— some of them looked younger than eighteen years old. One of these monks asked if the three of us wanted to talk to a monk one-on-one or if we’d like to chat as a group. We chose the latter and sat at a round table with two young men: a Cambodian monk named Phra Suriya and a Lao monk named Phra Prawit. They told us that many foreign monks come to the Monk Chats eager to practice their English but the “Thai monks are more lazy.” We later found that the monks who frequent these Monk Chats attend the Buddhist college, Mahachulalongkorn University, Chiang Mai campus, which is affiliated with Wat Suan Dok. At this college there is an English track and a Thai track. Most of the foreign monks take their classes in English, so with all this practice they are usually more confident. We learned about their daily lives— how they balance their religious duties of chanting, eating two meals a day before noon, and waking up at 4 a.m., while attending a full load of classes in Buddhism and typical subjects expected at any college such as math, geography, and science.
My sister had to clarify this: “You learn regular subjects— not just about Buddhism?” The monks nodded, smiling proudly of their modern education. Once questions about their lives were exhausted, the two monks asked us if we had any experience with Buddhism.
When I told them that we practiced some meditation in America, they asked, “You learn from Thai monks? They come to live in your country?” I explained that we practiced at a center where lay Americans teach other Americans. The monks were visibly surprised.
Phra Prawit repeated back to me, “Lay people teach other Americans?” They wondered where the monastic community was and from whom the American teachers received their authority. Coming from a place where the monastic tradition is the core of Buddhism, I realized how strange my description of American Buddhism must have sounded to them.
I continued: “In America, there are meditation centers for laypeople to meditate— that’s our main Buddhist practice.” The monks were not critical of Buddhism in America, just very interested, and this helped to open up the exchange of information about different ways Buddhism is expressed across the world. They soon began discussing meditation with us, admitting that as students they aren’t able to find time to meditate often.
The Cambodian monk confessed: “Meditation is very difficult.” He shrugged. “Maybe you are a better Buddhist than me.”
We didn’t expect such a candid admission from a practicing monk. But we learned that many of the monks and novices ordain so they can receive education. The support of the monastic institution is the only way some of these monks from poor families can afford to go to school. After graduating, Phra Prawit said he wants to open an English school in Laos. All of the monks clearly respected Buddhism but it was also apparent that for some of them a life in robes was not their goal.
Although I learned about the monastic institution in graduate school and had read books by monks, this experience made me realize that I had seen monks solely as religious persons without other dimensions to their personalities. As we continued to attend various Monk Chats, I learned the monks’ styles of conversation were all different— some gave impromptu sermons on the Buddha’s life and Buddhism’s role in the modern world, while others wanted to talk about anything but Buddhism. These monks wanted to know about our jobs, education, and even the weather in America. When Jillian mentioned that she lives in Dubai, one monk was excited to talk about the recent building projects there, asking Jillian if she had been to the Palm Islands or the Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world. When Jillian expressed her surprise at his knowledge he revealed that he watches CNN everyday and uses the Internet to read news in English. But of course he stressed the importance of not misusing the Internet for harmful reasons.
Our chat table at Wat Suan Dok grew bigger and bigger until there were seven or eight monks listening or contributing, sitting around and behind their novice friends. We watched as the monks playfully touched and joked around with each other— making fun of their friends’ English or the questions they had asked.
Watching them I was struck by how normal and sincere these young men were. They asked us why Buddhism appealed to us, and were genuinely curious about our answers. When my husband said that Buddhist teachings just make sense to him, they listened, smiling and nodding in agreement. One Cambodian novice told us that he was glad we were sympathetic to Buddhism because often he speaks with missionaries at these chats. Some have called him a heathen for not believing in God.
“How do you respond?” I asked.
He said “I just stare at them, nod my head.” I admired his quiet confidence, and all of the monks’ curiosity and openness to exchange.
We observed tourists constantly photographing monks at many of the temples we visited— especially when they were chanting, performing rituals, or engaging in any other group activity— seemingly awed by this exotic and unfamiliar sight. Yet it is only by talking to monks and observing their lifestyles that the mystery begins to peel away.