Many Monk Misconceptions

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.


See, monks can use cameras and cell phones too!

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.


Novice monk enjoying some good old homemade waffles!

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.


Recent monk chat at Wat Doi Saket between two resident monks and students from a high school in Connecticut, USA!

Please contact us at or leave a comment below if you or someone you know might be interested in an ATMA SEVA monk chat!

Jamie Shannon, On-site Intern

Photography Corner – Thimphu Tsechu (Thimphu, Bhutan)

Thimphu tsechu is an annual religious, cultural, and social festival, held in Thimphu Bhutan.  Each district has its own ‘tsechu’ or celebration.  Tsechus take place on the 10th day of the particular month according to the lunar calendar.  It honors the memory of Guru Rimpoche (Indian saint Padmasambhava who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 7th century).  The tradition of Bhutanese tsechu was established by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (the man who unified Bhutan) in the 16th century.  This year, Thimphu tsechu took place on September 25th, 26th, and 27th.  The festival signifies good over evil and is to wish for good luck and a prosperous new year.

The celebration includes dancing, shows, and cultural displays.  People usually bring their own lunches to ensure they do not miss any part of the show.  The festival is both cultural and religious, as both are very intertwined in Bhutanese culture.  The belief is that anyone who attends a tsechu can make merit and gain positive karma.

Hope you enjoy the photos and make sure to subscribe to learn more abut Bhutan!


Photos by Sonam Lhaden

Photography Corner – Wat Nong Bua (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

Wat Pratum Sararam (full name of temple but people refer to it as Nong Bua) is located in the District of Doi Saket, which is roughly twenty-five minutes outside of Chiang Mai city.  This temple is very close to Wat Doi Saket, which is the main temple we work with and our headquarters for meetings and general project organization.  (Wat Doi Saket project)

Wat Nong Bua is a very small temple with approximately ten-fifteen monks and novices who live there.  Even though it is small it has unique attributes, like this stained glass window, and is surrounded by several ponds.  To better protect and conserve the fish, there is no fishing in the pond directly across from this temple.  Since fishing is not allowed, feeding the fish is one way some people choose to make merit.  Below is a short video of feeding the fish.

The Thai word for making merit is ‘tam boon’ and generally means donating to either monks or a temple.  Ordaining as a monk is also a way to make ‘tam boon’.  The Thai belief is that every time you make ‘merit’ you increase your good karma and it is something positive for this life and other lives.

The Abbott of Wat Nong Bua, Phra maha Sen, is a good friend of the program and has helped out with various projects.  I hope you enjoy the photos and if you have any questions please leave us a comment!


Photos by David Poppe