One of the best books about Buddhism in Thailand is undoubtedly “Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand” by Phra Peter Pannapadipo. Even if you are not interested in becoming a monk yourself, his vivid description of his ten years as a foreign monk in Thailand will give you an insight into Thai life and culture that would be difficult to find elsewhere. It is certainly one of my favourite books about Thailand and I was really happy when I was finally able to catch up with “Phra Farang” at home in Nakhon Sawan.
Since the events described in his book, he has now disrobed and resorted back to his previous name of Peter Robinson. He now works full time for The SET Foundation (SET), which awards scholarships to needy students. In this first interview, I talk to Peter about his time as a monk in Thailand. Next week, I will be asking him about what he has been up to since he left the monkhood. Peter now has three books published about Buddhism. “Little Angels: Real Life Stories of Thai Novice Monks” is also one of my favourites. His third book, “One Step at a Time”, about meditation techniques, has just been published by Bamboo Sinfonia.
Q. Before you became a monk in Thailand, how much were you prepared for the experience?
I was well prepared because I trained at the Thai monastery in the UK for three years before actually ordaining in Thailand. I had a fairly involved business and social life in London and I needed time anyway to withdraw from all that. For me, it was a gradual process.
Q. Was Thailand monasteries up to your expectations?
Not quite, because I had been trained by very senior and very disciplined Thai monks in the UK, so I naively expected to find the same level of discipline, understanding and commitment in Thailand. Almost immediately after ordaining at a monastery in Bangkok, I realized that many monks were not at all disciplined, some even knew very little about Buddhism and very few knew even the basics of meditation.
Q. If you had the time again, what would you have done differently to prepare yourself for life as a monk in Thailand?
Nothing. I think my way was the best way, to ease into it, but that was because of my particular circumstances in the UK. Although my studies and meditation practice were often difficult in the UK, at least I didn’t have the added difficulty of living in a strange environment at the same time. I have since met Westerners who have decided to ordain and who have come straight to Thailand, without any real preparation at all. Sometimes they don’t last very long in the robes.
Q. How would you describe the differences between a Thai temple in the West to one in Thailand?
I have no experience of Thai monasteries in the West, except in the UK. There, if it’s an official Thai monastery, the monks will usually have been chosen carefully by the Thai Sangha (Order of Monks) before being sent abroad. The monks will also often speak English and will have at least a basic understanding of British culture. They will also usually be able to teach pure Buddhism – which is what Europeans want – rather than the sort of hybrid Buddhism/Animism that is so common in Thailand.
Q. What kind of duties do the monks undertake for the lay people which is not strictly Buddhism?
I think the majority of Thai monks give the people what the people want, which is mostly blessings, charms and the like. If that helps the people then I suppose it’s not too bad, but it’s not exactly Buddhism. Unfortunately, many monks come from little country villages and are not well educated either in a secular or religious sense – which isn’t their fault – so they believe that the non-Buddhist practices they undertake actually are Buddhist.
Q. When there are no lay people around, do some monks just act like normal people by joking around and teasing each other?
Of course, but the point is that they are normal people. Lay people seem to think that the moment a man puts on the robes, he instantly becomes something special, but it can takes years to fully develop as a monk. Many young monks in Thailand are ‘short-time’ monks; they’ve ordained with the idea of staying in the robes for a couple of years, or for one Pansa (the 3-months Rains Retreat) or even just a couple of weeks. Of course they act like ’normal’ people. But there are also many long-term monks with 10, 20, 40 – even 60 – years spent in the robes and their behavior tends to be quite different.
Q. Over the years the Thai monkhood has received some bad publicity due to the antics of a small minority of monks. For example, sexual relations, drug use and other inappropriate behaviour. Is this only the tip of the iceberg and will things just get worse?
There have been and still are some very bad Thai monks, but I think the majority do the best they can, depending on their level of understanding of the Buddha’s teaching and their commitment to the teaching and way of life. But I think – or at least hope – that there are also some extremely good monks, maybe even arahants (saints) living in isolated caves and forests. We never see them, we never hear about them, but I believe they are there.
Q. Some abbots seem to be spending more money constructing bigger temple buildings or Buddha images rather than using the money to help people who really need it. Why is this?
This is a thorny issue, even within the Sangha. The monks only duty towards lay people is to practice well, thus becoming good examples to the lay people, and to teach the Dhamma to them. They have no mandate to be actively socially-involved. There are monks who are socially-involved – in helping the poor, protecting forests from illegal logging, in environmental issues and even in one case by setting up an AIDS hospice in the monastery – but they come under great criticism, both from other monks and from lay people, who claim that is simply not the monks’ job and that, anyway, monks are not trained in these issues.
Additionally, abbots must make a periodic report to the Sangha to say what they have achieved at their monastery. Their advancement up the monastic ladder, and the gaining of monastic titles, may be based on what they have done or are seen to have done. It is easier to show some new temple building, or another installed Buddha image, than it is to show Compassion in a solid and quantifiable form.
Q. You once said that you were expected to act more like a monk than a Thai person. That any indiscretion by a Thai monk is more forgiveable than if you had done it yourself. Why do you think that is?
Simply because there are so many Thai monks that they become part of the background for Thai people. But a Phra Farang (foreign monk) will always stand out in a crowd, so he must be more vigilant about his behavior than a Thai monk.
Q. At what stage did things change that made you feel that you were as good a monk as any Thai person?
From my first day!
Click A Foreign Monk in Thailand to read the second part of this interview.
I have written quite a few blogs in the past about Buddhism in Thailand. Here are a few of my favourites: