Monks at the Marble Temple

One of the most beautiful of the daily Thai traditions is the early morning alms round. If you have been reading my blogs for a while now then you would know that I have written about and also taken part in quite a few different alms rounds over the years. I have even acted as a “temple boy” at one time carrying the bag of food for the monks. Most alms rounds involve monks setting off barefoot from their temple even before the sun has started to rise. I have also witnessed a number of times monks going on alms round by boat. But, today at the Wat Benchamabopit in Bangkok, I saw something completely different.

Wat Benchamabopit is more commonly known by tourists and tour guides as the Marble Temple because it was built with marble from Carrera, Italy. It is one of the most beautiful temples that can be found in Bangkok. It is certainly unusual with its blend of Western and Thai architectural styles. The Marble Temple is located on the corner of Si Ayutthaya Road and Phra Rama V Road in the Dusit area of the city. It is very close to the King’s residence at Chitralada Palace. It was built by King Rama V towards the end of the 19th Century.

I had heard that monks at this temple don’t go out on alms rounds like monks at other temples. Instead, they stand in groups in front of the temple and wait for people to come to them. So, I got up at 5 a.m. this morning and drove into Bangkok to go and see for myself. As it was a Sunday morning there wasn’t much traffic and so I was there by 6.15 a.m. Even though it was still dark, there were already quite a few monks standing in the car park in front of the temple. As I drove up and parked my car, a group of monks quickly came over to my car thinking that I had come to make merit!

At this time it was still too dark to take pictures so I sat in my car and just observed the activity. The way it worked is that a car would pull into the car park and the monks would walk quickly over to the vehicle where they would quietly form a line. This is even before the driver had turned off the engine. Usually there were about 9 or 10 monks in the line even though they didn’t know how much food was going to be offered. If another car came, some of the monks might leave this line to form another. The people making merit were giving food, flowers and incense sticks, and sometimes money in an envelope.

At first it felt a bit like vultures swarming around the people as they arrived. But, after watching for a while I decided it wasn’t as bad as that. It was actually a very practical situation for a modern society. These days, many people, particularly ones who live in condos or housing estates, aren’t on the route of the morning alms round. So, for them, it makes more sense to drive to the temple where monks are waiting patiently for them. The monks also weren’t taking more than they needed. As soon as their alms bowl was full, they would quietly leave.

A number of Westerners mistakenly think that the monks are begging. But, this is not true. Thai Buddhists are happily helping to support the monks by giving them food and at the same time they receive merit for doing this. However, there are strict rules on how monks should behave on alms rounds. A good monk should never go seeking for alms. He walks slowly and with purpose and only stops if he is beckoned or called. Then he stands there quietly, with the lid of his bowl open, while the local Buddhists give him rice. There is a worry that the monks at the Marble Temple may seem too eager to collect alms.

What do you think? Should the old rules of Buddhist monks be adapted for the modern lifestyle?

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6 responses to “Monks at the Marble Temple

  1. In a few weeks I will be visiting Bangkok after several years of absence. To prepare myself for the visit, I made a list of what I want to do when in Bangkok. On the top of the list is a plan to visit Wat Mahatat where my father and I spent countless Saturdays and Sundays practicing Vipassana and learning Phra Abhidham. I was too young to really get into it, but my father was very devoted. Alas, I couldn’t find out much about Wat Mahathat. I plowed on the Google path ’til I bumped into your posts.

    Seeing your blog about Life in a Thai Temple, I was very excited that someone took time to write about it (Thank you!). I read every single word, twice over on some passages that .. yes.. stunned me. I used to brag to my Jesuit friend that Thai monks are very strict and they follow the 227 Precepts without questions. Monks thinking about how much money they make on an alms round? Watching cable TV? Paying for their utility bills at the temple? Drugs???? That was amazing, I will have to discuss this more with my Jesuit pal.

    Now to your current post.. I believe, one of monks’ duties is to give lay people opportunities to offer alms. So they have to try to be available. I am sure monks feel uncomfortable to have to stand there and wait for food to be offered to them. I do see the need for the monks to be available at the temple for new Bangkok dwellers to come to them instead of walking around busy bangkok streets. Looking at the monks through your photos, I must admit that they do not look as Sam Ruam (humble?) as monks did when I was younger and living in Thailand.

    Time has changed and I am getting old! Perhaps this phenomenon is not prevalent in the rural areas of Thailand.

    Thanks for your posts. Keep them coming.

  2. Pim Little, there are of course good monks out there. The problem arises because all Thai men are expected to becomes monks for a short period of time in their life. So, there are bound to be some bad apples in the barrel that will give the rest a bad name. Hardly a week seems to go by in the Thai newspapers without another scandal involving a monk.

  3. Some great pictures there and a useful tip for tourists who want to witness the alms round. I was lucky to see it once during a trip to Chiang Mai. Normally I am not up earlier enough.

  4. Bad monks as in the movie นาคปรก ??

  5. Khun Richard, I am very impressed what you write. This is a good view from foreigner who live in Thailand. You’re right, there are some good monks out there, doesn’t matter good or bad. If we want to make merit, we just do. Those monk is representative of Buddha. We follow the Lord Buddha teaching not person.

  6. Thank you Sue. That is a very good point you make.