Daily Archives: April 9, 2005

What is it like to be a monk?

If you have been to Thailand, then surely it hasn’t escaped your attention that the majority of Thai people are Buddhists. The evidence is everywhere with the multicolored glittering temples and the orange robed monks walking the streets. Although I am a Christian, the Buddhist way of life does have some appealing attributes. The more I read and experience, the more it makes sense. It has even come to the point where I am tempted to ordain as a monk myself. Well, almost. And probably only for a short time like a month. Actually, in Thailand, it is traditional for all male youth to become a monk for a period of their life. Many usually do it between finishing university and starting a job. Men can become monks when they reach the age of 20.

I have given this a lot of thought and, as usual, there are a number of obstacles blocking my path. Before I can be ordained I need to seriously consider these points:

(1) Prostrating – as a monk you need to bow down low to not only the Buddha image but also the abbot. Can I do that? My Christian upbringing says I shouldn’t worship false idols. Most Westerners see the Buddha as a god. But, really he never wanted himself to be seen that way. When people prostrate or wai the Buddha they are doing this out of respect to someone – a real person – who became enlightened. As far as I can see, that is what most people want for themselves, eventually, and so therefore they keep images of the Buddha around to remind themselves of keeping to the correct path. Also, it is useful as a mediation tool. So, this one is a maybe.

(2) Alms Round – for this you have to go out barefoot at an un-godly hour. I probably could get used to this one as the kutis (the huts where monks live) look so uncomfortable that it will probably be a relief to get up! But, the real question is whether I could go round “begging” which is how many Westerners see the alms round. Yes, there is a certain amount of embarrassment involved here, but the exercise is supposed to teach you humility. Maybe a bit of that wouldn’t hurt me. Anyway, I have never seen this practice as begging. Certainly Thai people don’t see it this way. They are grateful to the monk for allowing them to make merit by giving food. For the monk to refuse is seen as being very rude. So, again, maybe I could do this too.

(3) Monk Robes – this is a difficult one. They don’t look very comfortable nor stable. I keep seeing monks hitching up their robes as they keep falling down. And apparently they are not allowed to wear underwear! It could prove to be very embarrassing during the middle of an alms round if my robes get caught on a twig! The robes are also extremely long and I am told that it can take forever to learn how to dress yourself. I am actually really curious to know how the local people would react to seeing a farang in robes.

(4) Mosquitoes – surprisingly this one is probably one of the hardest. As a monk, you are not allowed to kill mosquitoes! I am kind of fond of my mosquito zapper now. If the mozzies are biting me I think it is only fair that I zap them back. I think I would need a lot of will power to refrain from hitting back. But, coming to think of it, doesn’t that teach us something? If someone hurts us, shouldn’t we turn the other cheek? Again, this is a lesson in control and probably should be good for me.

(5) Shaving eyebrows and hair – now, this is definitely the worse one for me! I think I would look like a right idiot with my white shiny head dazzling everyone. There is also the misconception by Westerners that a crew cut equals skinhead which in turn equals troublemaker. Funny that. If someone has a crew cut in Thailand people think they must have recently been a monk. Back in England the reaction would be completely the opposite. Now, the question is, what is my main opposition? Is it vanity? If so, isn’t this then another good lesson to learn?

(6) Sitting cross legged and Meditating – I am a big chap and this one would hurt for sure. I would probably have to do some yoga exercises in order to loosen up a bit. I am not sure how long I would be able to sit cross-legged without getting pins and needles. Then there is the problem with meditation. I am not disputing how good meditation would be for me. The problem is that the voices in my head never seem to shut up. I have tried before to sit still and to concentrate on one thing but my mind keeps wondering. Sometimes I find it difficult to sleep at night as I have all these ideas jumping around in my head. If someone could teach me how to turn off the voices like you would a light switch then I would be a happy man.

(7) Waking up before sunrise – Anyone who knows me, understands that I am not a morning person. I cannot do anything intelligent until I have had at least one cup of coffee. Would I still be able to do that as a monk? I think you are not allowed any addictions or vices and I am addicted to coffee! Then again, once I have survived the withdrawal symptoms it might actually be good for me not to drink so much coffee!

(8) Not eating after noon – You know, I might actually be able to do this. It would be difficult of course, but I think with some practice I could condition myself to be able to survive. But like anything, these things tend to work out harder than you expect. From noon until bedtime is actually quite a few hours. I would have to try an experiment before I could answer that question for sure.

(9) No Internet Connection – this is the most difficult and the one where I will probably fail. I just cannot survive without the connection to the outside world. On the days when there is a problem with the Internet I just twiddle my thumbs. Even when I am sitting here working on my blogs I have a number of other windows open. Multi-tasking it is called. I also listen to Thai music a lot at ethaimusic.com. I don’t know how we survived without the Internet before. It has changed life in so many different ways.

(10) Keeping the Precepts – Lay people have to keep five precepts. These are a bit like the ten commandments. During Buddhist Lent, some people will try to keep ten precepts. I think most of these I could manage if I knew it was going to be for a limited period of time. However, as a monk, you need to keep 227 precepts! Now, that is a lot. I have probably broken ten of those just by sitting here! This one for sure needs more research.

In conclusion, I think it is quite plausible that I could become a monk. I believe that the experience would be very beneficial. I just need to do some more research and also try not to be so addicted to the little things in life – like coffee and the Internet! Maybe I will work on these things first. And of course I would need to do some yoga exercises and learn how to meditate.

As it happens, I just learned that Nattawud, I mean Panrit, will be ordained as a monk soon. I knew he would be doing it this year as he will be 20 in July. However, I didn’t think he would do it so soon or indeed that it was allowed before your twentieth birthday. But, apparently they are allowed to count the nine month spent in their mother’s womb! The main reason Panrit wants to do it now rather than later is that once the Buddhist Lent starts he won’t be allowed to leave for three months. His plan is to be a monk for about 2-3 weeks.

So, I hope you have an interest in Thai Buddhism, because you will soon be getting a crash course in everything you need to know and were afraid to ask about being a monk in Thailand!

Thailand’s Teachers…..Part Two

In the second part of this two part series I thought I would go on to write about that other odd bunch of teachers: the Thai ones.

To say that I have had a run in with a few of my Thai colleagues over the years would be a heck of an understatement. Even stevesuphan himself has been on the other end of the telling off stick a few times, a fave of which has to be ‘Don’t speak Thai in class!. Well all right it does defeat the objective in a way but it does help in controlling the class at times and at getting just a bitta more respect out of them. Plus, if the students are a herd of kids or adults who hardly speak a word of the English lingo then it only makes sense to use Thai!

Then at one well-known private High school over there on Samsen last year, I was during the summer, hired to teach their snotty grade nine class who were only in there to listen to their walkman, read cartoon books and chat about a three letter word. For the first ten minutes they were already bored of my face as they had done nothing but study with other Farang for the past three years. To grab their attention, I just had to resort to speaking some Thai. When I started waffling away in Thai it completely freaked them out as they’d never learnt with a Thai speaking Farang who spoke better Thai than they did English before and from that moment onward I was raved to by the Thai teachers downstairs “The kids luv ya can you come to teach on a full-time starting in May”, I did turn the job down however.

Next, at me old High School over there in Thonburi I was told off just a little by my friend the asst. director who came up and said to me one morning “Ajarn Steve, I heard yesterday that you have been playing snooker lately with some of the lads from grade twelve, well I regret to inform you that that is against school policy im afraid, but just wait til next month when they’ve graduated”. I was a little disappointed to hear this as I had been winning loads of cash from them. Next she went on to inform me “Ive heard that a couple of your grade twelve girls have ‘the eyes for you’ well, if you care to any extra-curricular activities with your girls, again pls just wait til they graduated in march, when they are no longer considered ‘our’ students” Well, thanks for the thoughtful advice! (Now who were these girls!)

(Down South…some good old-fashioned caning!)

Talking about Thai teachers breaking school policy well I could go on all day! There was I time once when I asked one of me older mature students to give me the lowdown on what it was like when he used to study at his temple primary school in the jungle. “It was fun all right but I do remember our Thai language teacher an old guy who on giving us a page to read would get out his packet of cigarettes, ice bucket, soda and whiskey and a snack of dried squid” . On top of this he said “Many of the parents would come in to see him too as he was the local moneylender”.

Well, things have certainly changed over the years but some of their antics still bewilder me! A few years back I was hired at a govt primary school up there in Bangkapi for a few months. It was a great school and I was the first Farang ever to teach there. Now the science teacher was this randy gay teacher who being popular with the kids told me once “Just like week on bringing me science videos from home got one mixed up and when I turned on a video I left the room for ten minutes only to come back and see the whole class in open-mouthed disbelief watching this obviously dirty movie! Well, im sure the kids will remember that biology lesson for a while. Now if that were a Farang teacher I darent imagine he would be showing anymore such vids, instead just be shown the back door and a boot to go with it.

A lot of Thai teachers, especially the females have a fascination for one thing and it isnt the “present perfect tense’, its called ‘playing cards’. Now gambling is actually illegal in Thailand but in the soi near my school a group of them would gather each evening at one of them’s house and play cards for the rest of the night, even one time on a boat trip down the Chao Praya, with a whole stack-a-kids onboard there they were playing away with a bottle of whiskey to go along with it!” The dealer I just mentioned, well her husband happened to be the wife of a Police Superintendent, now you gotta problem with that?

At the same school and in the same soi we had this classic Art teacher who painted so well that the school invited him to continue teaching after his retirement. Now this guy must have been good in class to have been kept on as some of his antics outside of class can described as strikingly bad! Right outside of the school in the evenings outside of the ‘teachers soi’ on many an occasion could be witnessed ‘absolutely plastered’, so drunk that the local shop who on seeing him dressed only in his undergarments refused to sell him anymore beer that evening. I asked his girlie students about how he was in class and was told “He often sits there in his office with a few bottles of Beer Chang with a copy of the latest mens magazine ‘Penthouse” and I am NOT joking!

Talking about the same school and same soi, now there was the husband of one of the English Teachers a high ranking Airforce officer whose liking for alcohol was as bad as the Art teacher’s. Living in the same soi he too could be seen at times at night walking up and down the soi wobbling away with a bottle of scotch in-hand and to be found the next morning sleeping under the tree in full view of all the students. Then on one occasion his wife the English teacher came storming into the office ranting “the big boss is on the phone saying” “A guarantee of sickness was to be brought to his office straight away or he would be kicked out of the services”, we all found that he gone on a bender and be completely drunk for the past two weeks and not gone to work!

Now her herself can also go down as a ‘classic’, even though she was an English Teacher she was pretty ‘anti’ anything Farang and had a heck-of-a dislike of anything American. I remember full-well the day after September 11 and she’s there in the office dancing around laughing at the fate of the World Trade Centre while the voluntary teacher from New York was downstairs bawling her eyes out not knowing to the fate of her dad. One time one of the students told me the antics of her lesson last week when on arriving in class decides to give the class a full-on lecture, in Thai language on ‘Thai bananas’. She was pretty much ‘bananas herself’.

At another one of me High Schools one time, we got in this good-looking respectable English teacher, who is a friend of mine today’. After a month or so I very much mistakenly upset one of the Thai English Teachers, a divorcee. I did nothing to try and upset her but for a few months she would completely ignore me and rant on to the other teachers about how I arrived to class five minutes. No worries for me, as they all knew she was a bit on the ‘loony’ side. As she was pretty lonely she decides to chat up my friend the other teacher as she had realised that she wasn’t to MY taste. She wasn’t exactly to shy about showing her ‘feelings’, and was there in the office eyeing and touching him up before the first morning class when the other Thai teachers had yet to arrive.

After this episode I was pulled over one day by the Head of Languages and asked “Is it true that Miss so-and-so has a big fancy for our Farang teacher” to which I replied “Sure, too right she does”” and gave her the rundown. Well lusty Miss so-and-so must have found out that I had grassed on her and refused to look me in the eye from that day on for a few months!

Talking about attitude, Richard here can also tell yous, im sure about some of the discipline that goes on in Thai High Schools. Now we had this other English Teacher, who was actually a very kind woman to us all but certainly not to her grade eleven girls. My God did she have a temper! She would blow her rag every week and take it out on them and gladly not us teachers. One day I sees her with all her girls lined up outside the English Dept and there she is cutting away at her all girls’ hair giving them all a more than laughable haircut. I found out that just one of the girls had put in highlights, against school policy, punish the lot of them!

Then at the same school we had this old male English Teacher who had to teach the naughtiest and not so clever snooker playing class of grade 12 made up of nearly all boys. Having to teach this class personally once a week he would ‘sometimes’ come in to observe, of which he did, for about five minutes before completely falling asleep and snoring away to the amusement of the whole class. Im sure he would have killed me if he had known, but at the start of the school year I told the class that he looked like Mr Bean only for this to ‘stick’ and that was his nickname for the whole year! To his complete ignorance.

Thai teachers, I have to say, have a right tendency for stealing other peoples lessons plans and games and especially mine. Right in my school here I got one teacher on helping out with me weekend classes has decided throughout the year to copy up each of my grade 4 lesson plans. When I asked her “Why you doing that?” replied “Oh.. just for me to use them next year, saves me a lot of time and energy making up my own lesson plans!” Then there was another teacher that I witnessed at me old school who own enjoyed my scrabble game that I played with grade 9 so much takes it upon himself to play the game non-stop with every single one of his classes for the next two weeks, I think he liked the game more than the kids.


Odd = strange
Have a run with = to have a confrontation with
To tell of = ดุ
Fave = favourite
Snotty = posh
To freak out = to be completely shocked
Lowdown/rundown = all the information
Plastered = very drunk
To bawl = to cry
Bananas/loony = a little crazy