Growing up a Catholic, I had never paid much interest in other religions and philosophies. But when I started a self discovering journey I find myself unconsciously and unknowing drawn to Buddhist philosophy. So when I was in Chiang Mai and found out that a wat offers a monk chat session, I went and have an interesting talk with 2 young monks.
Q: What are your names? How old are you?
T: My name is Ton. I’m 21.
A: My name is Anuson. And I’m 21 too.
Q: So how long have you been a monk?
T: Only 1 year.
A: For 10 years now.
Q: Why did you decide to become a monk?
T: I like the kind of simple life that monks have; there’s no much worry. I also enjoy meditating.
A: I want to improve my mind. I used to be a very angry child and I killed animals. I want to change that. Also being a monk gives me an opportunity to better education. Now I’m studying English in the Buddhist University.
Q: Where is the Buddhist University?
T: Here in Wat Chedi Luang. That’s why there’s a monk chat session here, for the monks who are studying English to improve by speaking to foreigners. Actually there are 3 academies here: 2 high schools and a university. One of the high schools is for the public while the other is for novice monks.
Q: What faculty do they have in the university?
T: There are 5 faculties; Humanity, Social Science, Philosophy, Education in English and Education in Thai.
Q: Do you study about other religions as well?
A: Yes but only the basic. We focus mainly on Buddhism.
Q: Why do monks wear robe?
T: Our robe is almost our identity, to differentiate us from others and to express the uniqueness of monks.
A: We are allowed 3 pieces of robe only: a thin one, a thick one and a more formal skirt-like one.
Q: Why do you Ton wears a brown robe while Anuson wears a yellow one?
T: The color of the robe the monk wears depend on the temple. Basically there are 5 colors that monks’ robes are made of: orange, yellow, saffron, dark brown and dark grey.
A: In general, Thamayut – forest monks wear brown robes while Mahanikayat – city monks wear yellow robes. But it also depends on donors. If someone donate a certain color robes to the temple, the monks would wear that color robes.
Q: Why these colors?
T: In the past, the monks used jackfruit to dye the clothes so that’s why monks’ robes are mostly yellow and saffron.
Q: Interesting. And why do monks shave their head? And how often do you shave them?
T: It’s the first thing we have to renounce of the physical body. It’s a symbol of monkhood.
A: We shave our heads once a month. Also with a shaved head, it’s easier to mange; no comb, no shampoo, no gel, etc.
Q: How about other rules and regulations?
T: There are 227 monastic rules for monks. The most important being no killing and no stealing. It’s wrong to intentionally kill any living beings.
Q: What’s your diet like?
T: We eat whatever is given and offered to us. Vegetables, meats, etc.
Q: You can eat meat?
A: Yes, as long as it is offered to us we accept it with gratitude. We have no problem eating meat.
T: But we cannot eat the meat if they are intentionally slaughtered for us. So for example, if someone gives us a plate of meat and says that they prepare it especially for us, then we cannot accept it.
Q: Monks go on alms round only once a day? What do you usually get?
T: Yes, we go on Bintabat – alms round once a day, early in the morning. The most common things given to us are instant noodles, rice, sticky rice, carrot and vegetables.
Q: Would that last you the whole day?
T: We eat only twice a day; breakfast and lunch. And lunch has to be before noon.
A: According to Buddha it’s not good for health to eat after noon.
Q: What’s your routine like?
T: We usually get up at 6am. We go for alms round, do chatting and meditations.
A: In the afternoon, we dedicate to learning. We learn from the abbot about monastic rules and Buddha’s teachings.
Q: So the abbot is the monk in charge of a temple?
T: Yes, the abbot takes care of every monk in his temple. Every temple in Thailand has 1 abbot.
Q: What’s people perceptions about monks?
T: People think that monks are people who are spiritual, who follow the teachings of the Buddha, especially of The Triple Gem.
Q: What’s The Triple Gem?
A: The Triple Gem is the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. In the Buddha, we learn about the enlightened one. In the Dharma we learn about his teachings. And in Sangha we learn about community.
Q: Are there different treatment of young and old generations towards monks in general?
A: Yes, the younger generation doesn’t respect the monks, unless it was taught in school. The older generation still pays respect to the monks, by doing a wai – bowing, give way for the monks and even give up seats on public transportations.
Q: How has Buddhism influence the Thai culture?
T: I think that 80% of Thai’s societal, cultural customs comes from the teaching of the Buddha. Ceremonies usually involve inviting a monk to officiate and sanctify the event. People go to temple every 7 to 15 days to hear sermons from the monks and perform their religious duties.
Q: What about tourists/travelers? What do they come to talk to monks about?
A: Most tourists/travelers come to temple for relaxation, to get away from their problem. They also come to talk to us about relaxation and meditation techniques. However, most of the time it’s actually a cultural exchange, they ask us about our cultures and they tell us about theirs.
Q: How does tourism affect you as monk?
T: It’s interesting to see and hear about other cultures. We are very different but no one is right or wrong, just different. I think it’s more us influencing them. I see tourists/travelers as disciples to bring Buddhism to their countries and communities.
Q: So what are some tips and meditation methods you can give me?
T: Focus on your breathing when you are meditating. Also focus on the movement of your body. Concentrate on what’s going on inside and outside. But this is just a general method as each person meditates differently. Activities such as cleaning, sweeping the temple is a form of meditation too.
A: There’s a saying “wisdom comes from inside, and purity of mind comes from concentration”.
Q: How often do you meditate?
A: There’s no set time. But forest monks spend longer time in meditation than city monks.
T: We also meditate with corpse.
Q: Meditate with corpse??!!
T: Yes. We look at corpse and meditate on life, about life’s impermanence.
Q: Do you go to the hospital to do that?
T: Sometimes, but most of the time the hospital will send a corpse to the temple for the monks to meditate with.
Q: What do you learn about life while meditating with corpse?
T: That life is short but very important. That every real thing is valuable for humans.
A: Every life has suffering and is impermanence. Buddha says to release everything, feeling and suffering to bring peace and with peace comes happiness.
Q: Can you tell me a little about nirvana?
T: Nirvana is inside each one of us. But we overlook it when we try to look for it outside of us. Therefore, we need meditation to help us find nirvana inside us.
A: Achieving nirvana depends on the desire of the person. There are lay people who achieve nirvana and there are monks who don’t. Morality + concentration + wisdom = nirvana.
Q: How about temptation?
T: Temptation exists. But it depends on how much time you spend on it or give in to it. Like all things, temptation is only a feeling in a short moment, it’s also impermanent.
Q: What do you think about other religion?
T: I think the core of all religions are the same. But it’s the leaders who interpret differently and therefore cause conflicts.
Q: Are you happy?
T: Yes. Life is beautiful for me. I’m learning not to take this happiness for granted.
A: Yes, I’m happy too.
Q: Any last word?
T: Avoid bad thing, do only good and purify the mind, these will lead to a good life.
A: Body is changeable and life is impermanent.
If you are in Chiang Mai, drop in at the Wat Chedi Luang for a chat with the friendly and very approachable monks. They are there most days from morning till afternoon.