This is continuing my interview with Peter Robinson, who is probably better known in Thailand as “Phra Farang”, the foreign monk. (Click here for part one.) Peter spent ten years as a monk before finally disrobing in order to spend more time with his student charity,The SET Foundation (SET). I will be talking more with Peter about SET in a later interview and how you can help needy Thai students get a scholarship.
Q. In Thailand there are two Buddhist sects. Can you briefly explain what these are and the main differences?
The biggest sect is called Mahanikaya and the smaller sect is Dhammayuttika. Both follow exactly the same teaching and rules, but Dhammayuttika monks have traditionally been more strict in their practice. They tend to live in isolated monasteries without as much contact with the lay people and spend more time in meditation. Mahanikaya monks are often teacher or scholar monks, so they live in larger cities and towns where the people are.
Q. Sometimes you see monks wearing different coloured robes. Is there any significance in this?
Not really. Dhammayuttika monks usually wear a dark brown robe and city-based Mahanikaya monks often wear orange. Some monks may wear a deep red robe. It often depends on the choice of the abbot. In my ten years as a monk, I wore all three colors at various times.
Q. Some Western people see the alms round as monks going around the community begging for food. Do the lay people see this differently?
Definitely. Monks anyway do not beg and the rules forbid them from asking for anything. They simply walk in the streets with their alms bowls and if people want to offer food, the monks accept it. If the people don’t offer food, then the monk must go hungry.
Q. Do you still remember your first alms round? What were your main concerns when you were doing this?
I will never forget my first alms round because it was such an extraordinary spiritual experience. At first there were practical difficulties, like keeping my robe from falling off, or dropping my alms bowl, or being careful not to step bare-footed in dog crap. But I got use to these practicalities in a very short time.
Q. Did you ever feel embarrassed when you went on the alms rounds? Did you ever feel like you were a fraud or that people would treat you as a joke?
Not at all. What was to be embarrassed about? I was doing exactly what the Buddha did everyday and his monks have been doing the same thing for more than 2,500 years. Thai people never treated me as a joke – though my appearance seemed to give some foreigners a good laugh.
Q. I have seen some monks go out on their alms round on the back of a motorcycle taxi or standing outside a 7-Eleven convenience store. I have also seen some defending their “turf” from rival temples. Are there many Thai monks out there who are just there for an “easy life” or for the money that they collect?
Sometimes the monks you see standing around at 7-Elevens or wherever and asking for food or money are not actually monks at all. They are ‘false monks’ and the Sangha is very aware of the problem. It has its own investigator monks who go out with police looking for them and the police immediately arrest them, though they are not too harsh on them.
It is true that there are men who ordain just for an easy life, for free food and accommodation, and to make a little money by chanting blessings, but there are lazy people to be found in every walk of life.
Q. Why do Thai people prefer to give food and money to monks rather than to a charity or a poor family down the road?
Simply because they believe they make more merit by giving to the monks. One day, when I returned from alms round with enough food to feed six people, I found a lady waiting for me at my kuti, wanting to offer yet more food. I explained that I already had more than enough and suggested she take her food to the nearby orphanage. She looked at me as though I was crazy, and said “but there are no monks there”.
Q. I know monks are not supposed to handle money, but what expenses do they have that calls for money. I am thinking here of electricity bills?
Monks have no real expenses. The bills for water and electricity are paid for by the monastery from funds given by lay people, and monks don’t have to pay for their accommodation in the monastery. But even monks may need a little money sometimes. Thai lay people are very generous when it comes to giving food on alms round, but they may not think to give things like toothpaste, soap or other toiletries. I often had to buy these things myself when I was a monk.
Q. I sometimes see monks on buses or in taxis. Is this free for them?
The back seat of public buses is (or was?) for monks and they could travel free. Taxis or private transport are not free.
Q. These days many foreigners seem to want to become monks for a short period of time. Do you have any advice on how they can go about doing this?
For several years I ran a course for Westerners who wanted to ordain short-time as monks or novices. Most of the men responded very well but that was because there was no language or cultural barrier between us. I was also able to teach a more pure form of Buddhism than is generally taught or understood by Thai monks.
To really get the most out of it, any Westerner wanting to become a monk should ordain at a monastery with a senior English-speaking monk; someone who can really explain not only the rules but also the why of being a monk. Otherwise, it can be a total waste of time. Probably the best place for a Westerner to ordain is at the international forest monastery – Wat Pa Nanachat – in the northeast.
Q. You have lived in temples in both towns and rural countryside. Which do you prefer?
In my early days as a monk I needed the peace of a rural monastery because I had to practice very intensive meditation. Years later, I was needed to teach meditation to others, so I had to move to a city monastery. As a monk, I felt I should go where I was most needed, or where I could do the most good. But – country or city – it’s all the same really. Your personal space and your reaction to your immediate environment is all in the mind. Personal preference doesn’t really enter into the decision after a while.
Q. Life in temples can be quite challenging for Westerners used to soft beds and sitting down to three meals a day. What can they do to prepare themselves mentally and physically for life as a monk?
Unless they are in the same position as me and able to prepare over a long period, there is very little that can be done. But if the Westerner is truly committed to the Buddha’s teaching and the life of a monk, he shouldn’t be at all concerned about losing some home comforts. The benefits to be gained far outweigh any disadvantages.
Q. Even with all these preparations, will it still be a shock to the system?
Next week I will be doing one more interview with Peter about his work with Thai students and how he needs your help in finding them scholarships. About four years ago, I wrote a blog called What it is Like to be a Monk? . I was basically wondering aloud whether I could one day ordain as a monk myself. It is interesting to read now. Take a look.
Further information: We have two more stories about Wat Pa Nanachat. Please check out Steve’s Blog on his meditation retreat and also Yeow’s informative post on our ThailandQA Forums. You can buy two of Peter’s earlier books at amazon.com called Phra Farang and Little Angels. His latest book about meditation techniques called One Step at a Time can be bought at www.BuyThai.Books.com. For more information about Peter’s student scholarships, please visit The SET Foundation (SET) website. You can read more about Buddhism in Thailand at our www.ThaiBuddhist.com website.