I got the amazing opportunity, last week, to go to a monk chat with my Religion and Culture class. For the past few classes we had been studying Buddhist religion and how Thai people practice their beliefs. I’ve taken many field trips to temples and finally was getting the chance to ask unanswered questions face to face with a monk. I’ve been working on this specific blog post for about a week now. Thanks to @quinnkirby.raw recording the whole conversation, I have written down every detail to give you an inside look on Buddhist beliefs.
We walked into the Monkchat Meditation Retreat located in the heart of Chiang Mai. A variety of Buddha statues decorated the meditation room. We took our seats and waited for the student monks to arrive. We sat on the opposite side of the room due to the fact that monks aren’t allowed to touch women and the majority of my class is female.
Once they entered the room, we introduced ourselves to each other. Most of the monks were not originally from Thailand and had traveled from surrounding countries, like Vietnam, to study becoming a monk in Chiang Mai. Once we separated into groups, 3 of us from the USAC program took a seat at a table across from the monks. I was thrilled to be getting the opportunity to dive into another culture and mostly nervous about the placement of my feet under the table in case they were to accidentally brush the robes of the monks.
We began the conversation with our names and ages. They were 21, 22 and 27. Around my age. Same age, completely different lifestyle. We continued with basic starter questions like, “how long are you here,” “where are you from,” “how long have you been studying.” It was difficult to break the ice at first, kind of awkward and uncomfortable. They spoke english pretty well but sometimes it would be difficult for them to understand us and vice versa.
They all had one year left of studying before graduation, like me. What do you plan on doing after you graduate? “Internship.” He said. “To improve my speaking skills in English.”
An internship? Hmm? Your initial thought of what a monk would say about what he was going to do after he graduates would probably be along the lines of “continuing to be a monk.”
Do you want to continue your practice as being a monk? I found what they said next interesting, they all looked at each other and the eldest began to speak, “I’m not sure what I’m going to do. In Buddhism, we live in the present. We don’t really care about the future.”
In American culture, we are constantly planning our future around what we have to do in order to be successful. But you don’t really know what your future is going to be. So why worry about it now?
They started to ask questions about us and the United States, when we graduate etc.. It didn’t shock me that we were more interested in them then they were in us.
What are your responsibilities as a monk? “To study and practice meditation.” How long do you practice meditation every day? “It depends on the temple and the monk.” Monks gather after the morning and evening chants to meditate as well. Depending on their schedule,if limited on time, they typically meditate 5-10 minutes every day on days with more time, they set aside 30 minutesor more.”We usually practice meditation at the temple together once per month for 10 days.”
We were laughing and joking around. The conversation started to become more natural. I was curious to know more and so were the other USAC students I was with. It felt as if asking the questions I truly wanted to ask would cross a personal line, but the monks were very open.
Why do you meditate?
What they proceeded to say really struck me.
“To purify our minds. We are busy, we think a lot. Think of it as like taking a shower. When you’re dirty you take a shower to clean your body. Meditating is like that in the way that you have to take care of your mind. Meditation cleans your mind. It teaches us to think positively before we speak so we don’t say negative things.”
In American culture, we’re influenced by money, money, money. The only way to happiness. But the monks believe that you can buy things to make you happy with money but real happiness is in the mind.
Well what about negative feelings? Do you reject those or accept them? “We accept it, we cannot reject it. Because it’s nature. We can get angry or happy but we accept it because it’s impermanent. It happened and we can observe that feeling but it is gone in a moment.”
This specific quote reminded me of the Lion King. The scene where Simba and Rafiki are having a conversation and Rafiki hits Simba with his stick. “Oh yes, the past can hurt but the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” It is in the past.
What we know about Buddhism is that the goal is to achieve enlightenment. So in turn, I asked:
Is your main goal to achieve happiness? “We achieve peace. Not happiness.” He began. “If you want to be happy, there’s still a cause of suffering. We have eyes, nose, body, ear, tongue and those all have feelings. When we see something we feel, hear something we feel, touch we feel. So we have to solve those feelings by being peaceful.”
Enlightenment generally isn’t achieved by student monks because of their attachment to things.
Attachments? What are you attached to? “As a student, we are still attached to many things. We need to separate necessities and desires. We need food and water. But we desire our phones, hair, makeup, clothes. This is why we shave our heads and wear robes. No desires.”
As a consistent yoga student, I wanted to ask what yoga meant to them. Does it mean anything at all? Yoga is a mix of Buddhism and Hinduism. Since Buddhism in Thailand is mixed with Hinduism as well, I was interested to hear what the monks thought of yoga.
They at first were confused on what I was asking. Is it a practice of Buddhism? I asked. They responded, “a concentration meditation. Basic Buddhism. It occurred before Buddha was born.” They also said that since monks aren’t allowed to play sports, they use it as a form of exercise.
So what about the Om? The Om is more associated with Hinduism then Buddhism. “It’s not a bad symbol. When worn, it is a reminder for you to do good.”
What defines good? “Completing your duty. If you are a student, your duty is to study. If you are a friend, be a good friend.”
If you read my blog post on “Uncomfortable Differences Between Thailand and the U.S.” you will understand why I brought up the next category. After I told them I was an Animal Science major, they were interested in what that meant. I briefly explained that I was interested in helping sick animals. They were shocked at subjects I mentioned such as euthanasia.
Since Thailand isn’t too focused on keeping up to date on yearly vet checks, I was curious as to how all of the stray dogs looked well fed and healthy.
They laughed, “Dogs on the street get dropped off at the temples because people know that the temples take care of the dogs.” They name the dogs, play with them and feed them. In Thailand, animals are very valuable. They are never intentionally killed (even spiders) unless in means of protection.
Lastly, we asked about family. Since one of the student monks was not originally from Chiang Mai we touched on the subject of visiting family members. They go pretty often and when they go, they continue to practice being a monk there. I was interested in whether they would be allowed to touch their female family members because of the rule monks have to follow. “We can touch our mother because there is no feeling.” Meaning, they aren’t attracted to her. I asked if it was the same for a sister but they denied and said it wasn’t.
Being able to have a conversation with people my age that were raised in another culture was a memory I’ll never forget. They asked us questions about America and the differences and similarities between Thailand and the U.S. The conversations flowed and we learned a lot about each other. They still watch movies and go on their Iphones but they practice different beliefs. If you’re ever in Chiang Mai, I highly recommend Monkchat Meditation Retreat. By the end of it, you will learn and have a different perspective on the way of living.