By Doug Harder in Thailand — In the heart of the city of Chiang Mai stands one of the most famous of all Thai temples, known locally as Wat Chedi Luang. Like any Buddhist temple, this one is home to a community of monks who study and live here. Visitors to the temple are always welcome to interact with the resident monks. So I found my way to the temple and sat down with two young monks in their saffron robes.
John and Por were both born in farming communities in rural Thailand. Like many poor families, the only way to see their boys advance beyond Grade 6 was to bring them to a local temple and release them as novice monks.
The young men left their homes at the age of 12 and have been serving as novice monks ever since. Here are their responses to some of my questions:
What does a typical day look like for you?
We get up at 4:30 for morning meditation and chanting. At dawn, we move out into the streets to collect food from house to house. Returning to the temple we eat breakfast together. Most days we have classes in the Buddhist school on the temple grounds from 11-4.
What do you study?
The Buddhist holy writings include three distinct parts. The first is the rules and regulations of Buddhism. Second are the stories from the Buddha’s life. Third are the teachings of the Buddha. These are all written in Pali, the ancient language that Buddha spoke. We study all of these in Pali script and learn to chant many of the stories of Buddha.
Why do you chant every day?
Chanting is the way the stories of the Buddha have been passed on from generation to generation. When Buddha was alive, there were no books. The only way to pass on his ways was to chant his stories and teachings. Chanting makes it easy to remember.
What is required to become a novice monk?
There are only 10 rules that a novice monk must abide by. The first five are the basic tenants that all Buddhists are expected to keep. These include:
- No killing
- No stealing
- No alcohol (intoxication)
- No sexual misconduct
- No lying
The additional rules for a novice monk include:
- No dinner (we only eat twice a day)
- No entertainment (dancing, sports, etc.)
- No jewelry (wearing a wristwatch, rings, etc.)
- No soft bed (we sleep on mats)
- Simple living (no extra money)
What would it take to be ordained as a full-fledged monk?
Well, first of all, you cannot be an ordained monk until you are 20 years old. If you choose to become a monk, you must keep not just 10, but 227 rules. For a female the count increases to 311. (Though the Thai government does not permit female monks). An example of an additional rule for an ordained monk is the prohibition on picking flowers!
What is the main purpose of Buddhism? What do you strive for?
There are two main purposes, really. The first is to abstain from doing bad and choosing, rather, to do the good. The second goal is to purify the mind.
There is one thing that confuses me. Another monk once told me that the Buddha taught the way to live, but that he never claimed to be God. He showed us the way, but told us he could not help us. Each one had to pursue the path on his or her own. Is this correct?
Yes, that’s right!
But when we enter the magnificent temple next door, I see golden images of the Buddha. I see people kneeling before them, and offering incense, flowers and meditations. To me it looks like they are worshipping Buddha as a god and seeking his blessing. Can you help me understand this?
The images of the Buddha were only first introduced 600 years after his death. The Buddha never intended this. But these images are only there to remind us of him and of his teachings. We prostrate before the Buddha three times for three reasons:
- To show our respect for the Buddha.
- To show our allegiance to his teachings.
- To show our respect for the Buddhist community.
These images cannot help us. We don’t pray to the Buddha for anything. Buddhism is a self-practice religion. No one can help you.
So are you saying there are no gods? And what about heaven and hell?
No, there really are no gods. It is true that there is a heaven and hell in Buddhist teaching. But by far the best goal is nirvana. Nirvana is nothingness, where there are no feelings or desires. It is where everything is in perfect harmony and balance.
Okay, but when I talk to Thais, they often tell me that what they fear the most are ghosts. It seems that they are afraid of spirits that live in the trees and land around them. In fact I see spirit houses everywhere with offerings of fruit and soda.
Well, Thailand has a long history, and before Buddhism came, the people believed in these things. They were afraid to cut down a tree, in case the spirit would come out and kill them. They thought that a rainstorm was punishment from angry spirits. But Buddhism does not teach this. Buddhism does not believe in ghosts. Our King Rama the IV gave us a different statue of Buddha for each day of the week, so that from our birthday, we would identify with one posture of the Buddha.
So what about you, Por? Do you believe in ghosts?
Half- half …
And you, John?
Oh yes, I believe in the spirits. When someone gets sick, this comes from a bad spirit.
What do you think will happen to you, Por, when you die?
Well, though nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, it is not my goal. I cannot reach it. As for heaven and hell, they are for me a state of mind. When I do bad things, it is like hell for me in my mind. But when I do good, it makes me happy, and that for me is heaven.
What about you, John, what do you think will happen to you when you die?
I choose to believe in this life. I do everything I can to make the best of this life. I really don’t know what will happen to me in the next.
* * *
At this point, John turned to me and for the first time in the conversation asked me what I thought would happen to me when I died. I told him I was a follower of Jesus, and that in his holy writings, Jesus had promised that all who believed in him would spend their life for all eternity in a place called heaven that he had prepared for them.
John said that he had heard of Jesus and liked what he heard. He thought Jesus had taught us to love one another.
I told the monks about how Jesus had demonstrated love to his 12 friends one day, by taking on the most lowly of servant roles and washing their dirty feet. Por and John had never heard of this before.
I then asked John how he received such an interesting, non-Thai name. I’d never heard of a Thai called John before. He responded that his mom gave him the name, and he doesn’t know why. I told him that when the God-man Jesus came to earth, he made many friends, and some followed him very closely. But his best friend of all was a man named John.
John the novice monk was fascinated. We laughed and talked some more. Then we exchanged names so we might stay in touch on Facebook. I walked away praying silently for Por and John, and the tens of thousands of monks like them all across Thailand.
- We’ve gathered resources about interacting with Buddhists and engaging them in spiritual conversation on our Path to Peace page.
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- Intro to Buddhism: A three-part series covering basic Buddhist beliefs, symbols and traditions, and how to engage Buddhists in meaningful spiritual conversations.
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Banner photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/96/Chiang-Mai_Thailand_Wat-Chedi-Luang-01.jpg