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!

7 responses to “What is it like to be a monk?