Before I came to Thailand, I had never met a Buddhist monk in person. Sure, I’d seen pictures, maybe a clip or two on tv, but I’d never actually sat down and had a conversation with a monk. In my head, monks were shy, quiet people who dedicated their lives to meditation. I’m not quite sure where I got this idea, but it is a stereotype that I’m sure I wasn’t alone in believing.
After arriving in Thailand and spending a week in Chiang Mai, I had the opportunity to live at Wat Doi Saket, a temple located about thirty minutes outside of the city and the hub of ATMA SEVA’s volunteer program. My time at the temple was my first exposure to monks. Despite my expectations, some of them were actually quite outgoing, approaching me and greeting me in English! I quickly realized that most of my ideas about monks were wrong, or at best were a gross generalization.
Men enter the monastic community for a variety of reasons: to continue their education, to learn more about Buddhism, or to make merit. Some stay for a week, some for a year, and some for a lifetime. You can become a monk, disrobe, and then decide to join again at some later date. There is no expectation of a lifelong commitment. Many men will become a monk for a few weeks or months during Buddhist lent or during summer holidays as a way to “make merit”. Often times the motivation to “make merit” is for family members, their mothers, or because of a recent death in the family.
The majority of novice monks (boys under the age of 20) join the monastic community because they lack the financial resources to finish their education. Becoming a novice monk is free and a way for these young men to complete their high school degree.
Another misconception I had about monks is their lifestyle. I envisioned meek, quiet souls who spoke little and spent most of their day meditating. The reality? I saw monks talking on cell phones and watching movies! It’s easy to forget that underneath the shaved head and saffron robe, the novices are just teenage boys. As novices, they certainly live with more rules and restrictions than the average teen, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still teenagers at heart.
I’m glad that I had the chance to meet a variety of monks in person and see where my preconceptions were not a complete picture. For those who aren’t able to drop everything and travel to Thailand tomorrow, a Skype based “monk chat” is an excellent way to get to learn about the life of a Buddhist monk. ATMA SEVA offers monk chats with some of the monks from Wat Doi Saket for only $10 a person, money that goes directly towards a scholarship fund for the monks. These chats are a great chance to ask any questions about Buddhism, what it’s like to live as a monk, and more.
Jamie Shannon, On-site Intern