Our afternoon with a monk

29 Mar

Wouldn’t it be great if you could spend an afternoon with a monk? A monk who said “ask me anything”?

Well. That is possible now in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The monks here have set up their own chatting club with tourists. Three times a week, you can go by Wat (temple) Susan Dok and speak with young monks together with other people who have left their swimming pools behind for some more culturally valid stuff. But if you have the time, you can always stroll through the city and look for small paper notes with 'Monk's Chat' posted outside some of the smaller temples.

For us, it was Wednesday this week that our trip in Thailand became one of culturally joyous fulfilment.

Phra Kiattisak, a cheerful 26-year old man who has been a monk for the last ten, was keen to practice his English. For me and my boyfriend Dominic, it was an afternoon of smiling to each other, either thinking “I can't believe we are doing this” or “I can't believe you just asked that”.

Phra: Most tourists ask about my daily life. In the morning, I wake up at 5am and I go out to get alms.

He points to the street, visible through the temple gates.

Me: Is it just Thai people or do tourists also give alms?

Phra: Yes, tourists too. In the morning, falang. You have to be out at six to participate.

Dominic: What kind of food can we give you?

Phra: Anything.

Dominic: Anything, so we could give you McDonalds? A happy meal?

Phra, laughs: Yes, but no alcohol.

Dominic: And what do people normally give you?

Phra: Sticky rice. Thai curry.

Dominic: If you see someone with Thai curry and you would rather have that, can you skip the guy with sticky rice?

Phra, with a laugh: No, cannot choose.

Me: And after the alms?

Phra: Go back to temple and eat breakfast. Save some for lunch. That is the last meal of the day. After, I normally go to university. But now, I live in the temple. Do you want to see?

Phra takes us to the main room of the small temple. Opposite the altar and a long line of monk's seat, a makeshift wall of bamboo shield a room about eight square metres. A thin mat is laid out on the floor, a brown thick piece of cloth hangs over his bed.

Me, pointing to the cloth: What is that for?

Phra: For meditation…and for mosquitos.

Me: Do you share the room with any of the other monks?

Phra: Only me.

Dominic: So what else do you do?

Phra: I sleep, I read, I garden..and…

My boyfriend fills the pause that follows.

Dominic:.. and talk to tourists!

Phra, laughs: Sometimes.

Dominic: Do you like tourists coming here and asking questions?

Phra: Yes, good for my English.

Dominc: Do you like Western food?

Phra, with an answer that will please my Thai sister in law Kay: I don't know about Western food. I know it's just bread.

Me: Did you have a girlfriend before becoming a monk?

Phra, with a laugh: No, I a lonely man.

Me: What did your parents say when you became a monk?

Phra: My parents want. They want that I be a monk because they believe if I be a monk I can develop in my life, in everything in my life”.

Me: Was it a big change for you to become a monk?

Phra, after a minute: I think it is not big choice in my life. Because maybe, I am Buddhist and be a monk is one duty for religion.

Dominic: And what about your robe? Do you always wear that?

Phra:If I stay in temple, I can wear this. It is just a cloth to protect my body.

He takes off the long saffron shawl and shows us an orange vest and trousers.

Phra: But, in ceremony, I have the…

He puts the long piece of cloth back on.

Phra: If I go out, I also cover…It is hot.

Dominic: Why do you shave your head?

Me: And your eyebrows?

Phra: For save money for buy shampoo.

Dominic and I both laugh.

Dominic: And what about foreigners? Can they become monks?

Phra: If foreigner would like to be monk, he should train with senior monk for one or three months to prepare mind and body. Because to be monk has to chant in Bali language.

Me: What was the most difficult when you first became a monk?

Phra: For meditation, to train mind. Because the mind is like a monkey.

Dominic, disbelievingly: A monkey??

I scribble down monk comedy gold on my notepad as quickly I can.

Phra: Because if you have to meditate you just breath in and out and your mind concentrate and you breath in and out. If you concentrate, your mind is thinking a lot, 'to your hometown, your girlfriend, boyfriend', it is difficult to learn to control.

Dominic: So, what is the best and the worst with being a monk?

Phra: The best is how to be good man and is the highest of the Buddhism, enlightenment. And the worst for monk is four things. If monks do, you must stop the monk. One, you don't know about the enlightenment but you tell another one that you know about the enlightenment. Two, you have sex with human. Three, stealing, stealing money, everything. The last…” he trails off. “We have 227 principles we must follow”.

Dominic: Are you going to continue to be a monk or can you stop?

Phra, firmly: I can stop.

Me: Are you planning on stopping?

Phra: If I graduate with study. Still studying at university, last year. I study philosophy of religions.

We are back in the garden, where Phra and three other monks planted flowers when we first came by this morning. A poster saying “Free WiFi” is laid out on the table.

Me, holding up the poster: Do you use the Internet?

Phra nods.

Me: And facebook?

Phra nods again.

Me: Can we become friends on facebook?

Phra: Yes, ok.

Yes, the excitement is clearly on my side. Phra replies in the same tone of voice as when he explained his morning ritual. But a monk friend is a monk friend.

Me, helpfully: So can we do it now?

He checks the wifi on the computer.

Phra: I don't think open wifi.

But we are in luck and soon Phra is showing us one of his facebook albums.

Phra: Last week I came back from walking in meditation. We walked 178 kilometres. Over 15 days.

And there it is. An album filled with photos of robed-clad monks in a long procession. The monks have tagged themselves.

Me: So how long have you been on facebook?

Phra: Two to three years.

Me: Are all the monks on facebook?

Phra shakes his head. A chat window pops up on his screen.

Me: And do you use it to chat with your parents?

Phra: No, they don't know about modern technology. They are farmers.

Me: How often do you use facebook?

Phra: If I go to university. And if there is wifi in the temple.

Phra: Where are you going next?

Dominic: India.

Phra: I would like to go to India. That is where my Buddha was born.

The world may be even smaller than we thought.




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One Response to “Our afternoon with a monk”

  1. Elisabeth 01. Apr, 2013 at 15:43 #

    Très intéressante la conversation avec le moine!
    Patricia et moi, sommes allés aussi voir des moines, mais ceux-ci étaient cisterciens à l’Abbaye de l’île Saint- Honorat .
    Nous avons pris le bateau ( la mer était très agitée!) en face de Cannes tôt le matin pour assister à la messe de Pâques dans l’église. Ce fut une une très belle et sobre cérémonie en français et non en latin par les vingt moines qui habitent dans l’Abbaye). Cette Abbaye accueille des personnes de tous les horizons qui veulent venir faire un retraite en silence sur l’île.
    Patou a rencontré le moine économe qui est un client de sa banque et avec lequel elle est en relation de business.C’ est un homme exceptionnel en affaire et il exploite 8 hectares de vignes et il fait un excellent vin ( rouge, blanc, rosé) qu’il vend dans le monde entier , mais assez cher!
    Son vin est assez fort ( le rouge titre 15°) et délicieux! Ce moine s’appelle “Marie-Pâques” et il a écrit un livre “en quête de sens” qui en surprendra plus d’un , un traité sur l’économie!
    Nous avons déjeuné dans le restaurant que le père “Marie-Pâques”exploite au bord de la mer dans un très beau cadre.
    Puis nous avons fait le tour de l’île qui possède quelques chapelles ainsi que l’ancienne abbaye fortifiée et qui domine l’île.
    Quand nous sommes revenues sur le continent, nous avions encore le bruit de la mer qui était assez agitée et qui était partout autour de nous.

    Bonne route en Inde et attention aux problèmes d’insécurité , à la nourriture et l’eau. Moi-même j’ai été malade en faisant extrêmement attention!

    Que Dieu vous garde dans la joie et la paix de Pâques de la Résurrection du Christ.

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