Ever since I first experienced Vipassana meditation three years back, I’ve felt a longing to have a spiritual guide or mentor of sorts; not just any Vipassana practitioner, but someone who I connect with on other aspects of life as well, and with whom I can have conversations and clear my doubts about both Vipassana and life in general. While this has been a ‘want’ for a long time, I do realize that it’s not yet a ‘need’, as I still have a lot of homework to do at my end (such as regular practice), and I’m certain that when I’m ready, I will definitely attract the guidance I seek.
So in the meantime, when I got a chance to have a two-hour long personal conversation with a Buddhist monk in Thailand, I couldn’t believe my luck! It felt like an interim dream-come-true (if that’s even a thing!).
The conversation went from the mundane to the deeper questions of life, although overall it was meant to be light.
The particular monk I got the opportunity to speak with was 24 years old and a monk-in-training. He is originally from Myanmar, currently studying social science at a university in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Here are some excerpts from the conversation!
(Please note that all views expressed in the excerpts below are the personal views of the monk, and may or may not represent the views of the Buddhist tradition/scriptures/community at large. Further, this was more of an informal chat than an interview, therefore certain topics were only touched upon, but not 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 friend was also enrolled to be a novice monk, so I thought it would be fun, and that I’d get to play around the temple all day. Once I joined, I learned that wasn’t the case! I stuck on because I too believe that training as a monk makes me a better person. I can focus on learning and self-improvement, and as Buddha said, learning is key to a fulfilling life.
Q: Do you get to visit your family? You must’ve missed them a lot when you were younger!
Monk: Yes, I get to visit them twice a year, when I have vacation at University, and if I can afford the travel. I did miss them when I was younger, but they would visit me once or twice a year.
Q: What is your daily schedule here like?
Monk: I wake up at 5 AM. We have one hour of group prayers in the temple, and then one hour of individual meditation. We then walk around the city collecting alms. We come back and eat food together. We then go to our respective classes (college or school). In the evening, we again have group prayers at 6 PM at the temple.
Q: Do you read 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 too. We have to write papers, give exams, and make presentations to complete our course.
Q: What are your plans after you complete college?
Monk: I want to focus more on practicing what I’ve learned from the scriptures. College is more focused on the theoretical understanding of the scriptures. I now want to get better at practicing the same, spending more time meditating, etc.
Q: Do you have any money of your own? How do you manage your expenses?
Monk: No, I don’t have any money of my own. I survive on donations. Academic study and living expenses are managed by the monastery that I am part of back home. They give scholarships to select students every year to pursue education abroad. In case I fall short of money for basic expenses, then sometimes I borrow from my siblings or parents. Typically, the leader of the Buddhist institution allocates funds based on the donations received and the needs of the Institute/monks, as different monasteries receive different amounts of donation.
Q: Do monks have to follow any specific rules?
Monk: Of course. There are different levels of rules, about 262 in total if I remember correctly. The most strict ones are- no killing, no theft, no sex, no lies, and shouldn’t proclaim that they are enlightened. The less strict ones include- one should always be dressed appropriately, one shouldn’t sleep on a very comfortable/luxurious bed, and so on.
Q: Is there any hierarchy amongst 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 head?
Monk: The main reason is to be detached from one’s appearance and ideas of beauty, however, it’s also easier maintenance.
Q: Do you eat meat?
Monk: Yes, I do. There are some forms of meat that aren’t allowed- like insects, snakes, humans, lions, tigers, etc. 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. Many 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 ever want to?
Monk: Yes, one can leave 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 enables me to keep doing that.
Q: What’s the hardest part about being a monk?
Monk: The hardest part is controlling one’s emotions- greed, anger, ego, etc., 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 to all 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 the way you eat food to nurture your body and keep it alive, meditation is like food for the mind. So the more you practice, the sharper your mind 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 largely the same.
Q: What do the different coloured robes worn by monks signify?
Monk: There are about seven permitted colours for robes that monks can wear. The seven colours are yellow, mustard, maroon, red, orange, saffron, and brown. The colours don’t signify anything in themselves. The Mahayana Buddhists tend to wear darker coloured maroon robes. In Buddha’s time, robes were made up of scraps of cloth donated by people. They were stitched together and coloured 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 colour 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, if we look back in time, women took care of the households, they cooked, 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 they have 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 school. Though do note that female monks are different from nuns. Nuns wear white and have basically given up luxuries to follow the Buddhist way of life. However, they are not monks, and they do not train in the scriptures and other aspects of Buddhism.
Q: Why are some monasteries so grand? They have statues made of gold and other gems. We usually associate Buddhism with simplicity. How does this kind of grandeur tie in with Buddhism?
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 normal life compared to when you’re living as a monk?
Monk: Yes, maybe, as normal people are more focused on their work and family. They are amidst chaos all the time. If someone can train themselves to remain detached and calm in normal life then they are the truly enlightened ones! What meditation helps you do is observe situations with detachment and respond accordingly. If I have to go back to lead a normal life I’ll need to adapt to the chaos, and it’s likely to be difficult for me after so many years of monkhood.
Q: What’s your advice to people who aren’t monks?
Monk: My only advice and request to people is to try and 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, schools, etc. these days, and many of them add their own ideas and interpretations to the original teachings. Don’t blindly believe or follow what anyone says until you see value in it and experience it yourself. The best place to start is by seeking out the real, essential teachings of the Buddha, before exploring the 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 out there- on the internet (in the form of videos) as well as books. It’s not like earlier times when one had to go to monasteries to learn from monks.
Q: Could you suggest any names? I’m only familiar with the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.
Monk: Yes, I’ve read Thich Nhat Hanh’s books and they’re very good. He explains Buddhist teachings very simply, yet directly. 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, as well as the understanding level of whoever he was teaching. So the Buddha’s teachings cannot be summarized into one single book or message. 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 to us anymore, or may not be relevant to all of us. We have to keep all of this in mind when consuming the teachings shared by various monks.
The MCU Buddhist University (as well as several other monasteries and institutions) in Chiang Mai, Thailand offers the unique opportunity of having a ‘Monk Chat’ with monks-in-training (who are also students enrolled in academic programmes) at the University. Anybody can come and clarify their doubts about Buddhism and learn about monk-life while helping the monks improve their English speaking skills. There’s no prior appointment required; one can simply walk into the Monk Chat office at Wat Suan Dok between 5PM-7PM on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and get paired with a monk to chat with.