Life as a Buddhist monk in Thailand

Travel Tales, Windows into Culture — By on May 28, 2011 at 9:58 am

Buddhist monk ThailandIf you’re interested in learning about Buddhism, Thailand is not a bad place to spend some time. You can visit numerous historic temples in Bangkok, while Chang Mai is home to scores of Buddhist shrines and a monastic university. It was in Chang Mai that we had one of our more memorable travel experiences during a morning chat with a Buddhist monk.

At the Wat Chedi Luang temple, the monks make an effort to interact with the public by scheduling a weekly “Monk Chat” evening. This gives visitors a chance to learn about Buddhism and the monastic life and allows novice monks to practice their English. But as we wandered the grounds of this temple one morning, a young monk strolled over to us. Apparently, we were going to be lucky enough to have our own private monk chat.

I was excited for this opportunity, since some of my most vivid memories of Thailand were the daily sightings of monks wandering the streets. They are so omnipresent that public buses and boat ferries even have special seats reserved for monks. In Chang Mai, due to the presence of the Buddhist university, these saffron- and orange-robed young men were especially plentiful.

The monk that we met called himself James, because his father liked James Bond. Honestly. James said that he’d been studying at the Buddhist university in Chang Mai for five years. He appeared hesitant and nervous at first over the prospect of conversing in English, but his language skills were better than he realized.

“What is a normal day like for you?” Lisa asked.

James said his typical day was to get up before dawn, walk the streets to collect alms before breakfast, participate in morning prayer or meditation, spend the bulk of his day in classes or studying and then take part in an evening prayer session.

“Is it true that monks are only supposed to eat twice a day?”

“Yes,” he smiled, “but when I study hard I get hungry, so sometimes I have to eat more.”

He also confirmed that monks are not allowed to have any physical contact with females. Because of the “different feelings” that arise from touching a woman, he said, it would “distract the mind” from focusing on spiritual activities.

Later, I questioned him about meditation. Did it ever become easier? After doing this every day for five years, could his mind now slip more easily into a state of emptiness?

“It is still difficult,” he admitted. “It is always easy to become distracted, to think about other things.”

Later, a group of novice monks came into the sanctuary with an instructor and took a seat on the floor. James said they were learning about meditation. As the teacher spoke, the young monks took notes and occasionally goofed around with each other. They didn’t look very different from any other group of teenage boys in a classroom elsewhere in the world, save for their shaved heads and saffron robes.

Would any of these young men, I wondered, devote their lives to monasticism and Buddhist study? A majority of them, of course, would re-enter what they call “common life.” Most Thai men become a monk for a period of time, but it is voluntary. They usually serve for a period of three months, although some enter a monastery for as little as a few weeks and others remain for several years. I recalled a conversation with Pravat, a local guide who had spent 11 years in a Buddhist monastery, six years as a novice and an additional five years as a full-fledged monk, before leaving to get a paying job.

“By becoming a common person, I could make some income and then send money home to my parents,” he said. “They are still farmers and make little money.”

The practice of serving as a monk is a rite of passage in this culture. Some have likened it to a Thai version of a sabbatical, giving young males the opportunity to remove themselves from their normal routine for a period of time in order to reflect on their lives before they take on the full role and responsibilities of being an adult. In its own way, it’s comparable to the ritual transition that Masai tribesmen undergo on their way to becoming adult warriors, or the Australian Aboriginal tradition of the walkabout.

This reinforced to me the incredible influence that Buddhism has over the lives of the Thai people. Everywhere in the country are men who have spent from a few months to a few years as a Buddhist monk. It has to significantly influence how Thais view their lives and the world. How different would my life be, or the life of my friends, if we’d spent our teenage and early adult years focusing on spiritual growth in a monastery?

“James, can I ask what attracts you about being a monk?” I said. “Why have you stayed in the monastery for five years? Many of your childhood friends must be doing other things in their lives.”

“I believe Buddhism speaks to the true reality of our life here on earth,” he said. “I am interested in learning more about that, in trying to understand it if I can.”

“Do you know yet if you will remain a monk, or if you will eventually leave the monastery?”

“I don’t know yet,” he admitted. “I will see. But it is good now, I am happy.”


Photo credit: Tevaprapas Makklay via Wikimedia Commons


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