A candid chat with a Buddhist monk has been an experience I’ve longed for since I first attended a Vipassana meditation retreat in 2016. So I couldn’t believe my luck when I got to have a one-on-one conversation with a Buddhist monk in Thailand. The conversation went from the mundane to the deeper questions of life. The monk I met was 24 years old, originally from Myanmar, and was studying social science at a university in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
(Disclaimer: all views expressed are the personal views of the monk and may or may not represent the views of the Buddhist tradition/scriptures/community at large. This was an informal chat so some topics could not be discussed in detail.)
Life of a Monk
Q: When did you become a monk?
Monk: I became a monk when I was 11 years old. My parents wanted me to train as a ‘novice monk’ (i.e. till the age of 20 years) because they believed it would make me wise and disciplined. My childhood friend also enrolled with me, so I thought it would be fun and that I’d get to play in the temple complex all day. Once I joined, I realized that wasn’t going to be the case! I stuck on because I believe that training as a monk makes me a better person. I can focus on learning and self-improvement, and as the Buddha said, constant learning is key to a fulfilling life.
Q: Do you get to visit your family? You must have missed them a lot when you were younger.
Monk: Yes, I get to visit them twice a year during my vacations, provided I have enough funds to travel. I missed them when I was younger but they would visit me once or twice a year and I got used to it.
Q: What is your daily schedule like?
Monk: I wake up at 5 AM. We have one hour of group prayers in the temple, followed by one hour of individual meditation. We then walk around the city collecting alms from donors. We share the food among ourselves at the monastery. After eating, we attend classes. In the evening, we have group prayers at the temple.
Q: Do you read the Buddhist scriptures in Pali?
Monk: No, I read the scriptures in English or Thai, but we chant prayers in Pali.
Q: Do monks have to write exams too?
Monk: Haha, yes. Just like any other student, we have to write exams and make presentations to complete our University degree.
Q: What are your plans after University?
Monk: I want to focus on practicing what I’ve learned from the scriptures. College is useful to gain theoretical understanding of the scriptures. I want to improve my practice by spending more time meditating.
Q: Do you have any money of your own? How do you manage expenses?
Monk: No, I don’t have any money of my own. I survive on donations. The cost of my academic study and living expenses is covered by the monastery that I am a part of in my hometown [in Myanmar]. They provide scholarships to select students who wish to pursue higher education abroad. In case I fall short of money for basic expenses, I borrow from my siblings or parents. Usually, the leader of the Buddhist institution allocates funds based on the donations received, operational expenses of the monastery, and needs of the monks. Since donations vary from place to place, the opportunities also vary, though the Buddhist federations try and disburse funds equitably.
Q: Do monks have to follow any specific rules?
Monk: Of course. There are different categories of rules — about 262 rules in total (if I remember correctly). The most stringent rules are — no killing, no theft, no sex, no lies, and that monks shouldn’t proclaim that they are enlightened. The less stringent ones are that one should always dress appropriately, one shouldn’t sleep on a very comfortable or luxurious bed that makes us want to sleep in longer than we need to, and so on.
Q: Is there a hierarchy among monks?
Monk: In this part of the world, monks till the age of 20 years are called ‘novice monks’. They are ordained at the age of 20 years. Then there are senior monks with a lot of experience.
Q: Why do monks have to shave their heads?
Monk: The main reason is to be detached from one’s appearance and ideas of beauty, however, it’s also easier maintenance so that we can focus on meditation.
Q: Do you eat meat?
Monk: Yes, I do. There are some forms of meat that aren’t allowed, like insects, snakes, humans, lions, and tigers. Monks can choose whether or not to eat meat. As such we eat what is offered to us as alms by people, but the Buddha said we still make a choice. Mahayana Buddhists don’t touch meat. However, in this part of the world, most monks eat meat.
Q: Can you quit being a monk if you want?
Monk: Yes, one can renounce monkhood whenever one wants.
Q: Have you ever thought of quitting?
Monk: No, I haven’t. I know what normal life is like when I visit my parents. I come from a poor family, my parents are farmers. If I quit being a monk and go back home, I’ll only end up working in the field. I like learning and building my knowledge, and being a monk allows me to keep doing that.
Q: What’s the hardest thing about being a monk?
Monk: The hardest thing is controlling one’s emotions — greed, anger, ego, being still, and training oneself in detachment. Practicing mindfulness in daily life helps train oneself to get there.
Q: How do you control your thoughts?
Monk: Distraction and emotions are natural for all human beings. Monks are no different! One shouldn’t fight this, as this is how it’s meant to be. Instead, observe, accept, and bring your mind back to where it should be whenever you realize that it is distracted. Just like how you eat food to nurture your body and keep it alive, meditation is like food for the mind. The more you meditate, the sharper it becomes.
Questions About Buddhism
Q: What school of Buddhism do you belong to? What’s different about it?
Monk: I belong to the Theravada tradition, the most ancient form of Buddhism, and the most dominant school in Southeast Asia (particularly Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos). Mahayana Buddhism developed out of the Theravada tradition roughly 500 years after the Buddha attained Enlightenment. The basic difference is that the former is more conservative.
The Buddha had said that as society evolves, some rules of the practice could be changed to keep the practice relevant to the times. However, he didn’t specify which rules could be changed, to what degree, and which rules could not be touched. Therefore, the Theravada school decided to preserve the original practices and rules, and practice it the way it was done in the past. On the other hand, the Mahayana tradition has made some modifications to the practices. However, the basic premises and fundamental teachings of the Buddha in most traditions are mostly the same.
Q: What do the different colored robes worn by monks signify?
Monk: There are about seven permitted colors for robes that monks can wear. The seven colors are yellow, mustard, maroon, red, orange, saffron, and brown. The colors don’t signify anything in themselves.
The Mahayana Buddhists tend to wear darker-colored maroon robes. In Buddha’s time, robes were made up of scraps of cloth donated by people. They were stitched together and colored with natural dye to make the patchwork look uniform. For example, jackfruit boiled in water produces a kind of yellow/orange that you see on robes. That’s how the color of the robes originally came about. Now we just buy ready-made, machine-manufactured robes! Some robes are easier to wear, some more complicated.
Q: Why are there such few female monks?
Monk: Historically, women took care of the household; they cooked food in their homes, and thus, were the ones who donated alms to monks. In that sense, their presence in households supported the practice of Buddhism from the onset. Further, since their presence was central to the household, not many women were encouraged to become monks. However, in the Buddha’s time, there were many female monks, but over time the number has largely reduced. There are very few female monks now.
A few years back a female monks’ school was started in Thailand. However, they remain very secluded and cut off. They need to train and ordain well in order to adjust to a male-dominated institution.
Female monks are different from nuns. Nuns wear white and have basically given up luxuries to follow the Buddhist way of life. But they are not monks and do not train in the scriptures and other aspects of Buddhism.
Q: Why are some Buddhist monasteries so grand? They have statues made of gold and precious gems. We usually associate Buddhism with simplicity. How is this kind of grandeur justified?
Monk: Haha, good question. Most monasteries were donated by influential leaders and rich businessmen who committed to spreading Buddhism during the time of the Buddha, and later during the time of King Ashoka. The monasteries and donations allowed more monks to undertake training. While some leaders built simple ones, others built fancy ones in order to preserve their legacy. Since these were donations, one couldn’t always tell them how to build them. Hence, in Thailand especially, you see some really fancy monasteries. However, that doesn’t take away from any of the tenets of Buddhism.
Q: Do you think practicing detachment is more difficult while living a conventional life compared to when you’re living as a monk?
Monk: Yes, maybe. Most people are occupied with their family and livelihood. They are [living] amidst chaos all the time. If they can train themselves to be detached and equanimous while leading a conventional life, then they are the truly enlightened ones! Meditation helps train the mind to observe situations with detachment and respond accordingly. Being a monk and living in a monastery where everyone is pursuing the same makes it easier to focus.
Q: What’s your advice to people who aren’t monks?
Monk: My only advice is to learn more about Buddhism and the original teachings of the Buddha. Don’t believe or follow what anyone says or writes until you learn more about it and are convinced yourself. There are many teachers, writers, and schools these days and some of them add their own ideas and interpretations to the original teachings. Don’t blindly believe or follow what they say until you see value in it and experience it for yourself. The best place to start is to seek out the real, essential teachings of the Buddha before exploring modern renditions of his ideas.
Q: How does one access the original teachings of the Buddha amidst so many renditions, schools, teachers, and information sources these days?
Monk: Yes, it is hard. However, there is a lot of good content on the internet (on YouTube) and in books. It’s not like the past when we could only learn about Buddhism at monasteries.
Q: Can you suggest any authors? I’m only familiar with the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.
Monk: I’ve read Thich Nhat Hanh’s books and they’re very good. He explains Buddhist teachings in a simple, direct way. His books are a great place to start.
The thing is, the Buddha taught in different ways. His teachings were contextualized as per the situation and the level of his student(s). So his teachings cannot be summarized into one single book or message for all. His message was different for novices versus for the senior monks. Therefore, not all his teachings are understandable to everyone in the same way, and this creates complexities, varied interpretations, and so on. Some of the examples he used back then may not be relevant anymore, or may not be relevant to all of us. We have to keep this in mind when consuming the teachings shared by monks.
The MCU Buddhist University and several other monasteries in Chiang Mai, Thailand offer the unique opportunity of having a ‘Monk Chat’ with monks-in-training enrolled in academic programs at the University. Anybody can attend these chats to clarify their doubts about Buddhism while helping the monks improve their English-speaking skills.
There’s no prior appointment required; walk into the ‘Monk Chat’ office at Wat Suan Dok between 5 PM-7 PM on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.