My Experiment Is Over
For the last few weeks I have been a samanera, which is the Pali word for a novice Buddhist monk. I have been staying at Wat Baanpa in White Water, CA, and Ajaan Charlie, the abbot has been inviting me to become a monk practically since I arrived.
I am quite open to learning the Dhamma well enough to be a layperson teacher, however I am not really interested in committing to monastic life.
That didn’t mean I didn’t desire to know what it was like to be a monk from a first hand vantage point. Not wishing to be disrespectful to those who have given their lives to the Dhamma as monks, I politely declined the invitation.
It wasn’t until I learned that in Thailand, it is common for people to become monks for short periods of time to learn the Dhamma that I began to consider it. Ajaan Charlie said I should try it out for a month and see what I thought.
Burmese Monks vs. Thai Monks
I began to see what a day in the life of a monk was like when I visited Mahapajapati Monastery, and I learned it can be quite different from tradition to tradition.
The Mahapajapati Monastery is of the Theravada school of Buddhism just like the Thai temples I have visited. However, Mahapajapati is of the Burmese tradition. From what Ajaan Charlie has explained, the Burmese monks are far more devoted to meditation, and the study of the Tripitaka studies.
For those who don’t know, the Tripitaka are the three bodies of work that compose the Pali canon. They are the Sutta Pitaka (the discourses of the Buddha), the Vinaya Pitaka (the monastic rules), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (a philosophical analysis of the teachings of the Buddha).
Keep in mind that there are plenty of Thai monks who are quite serious about meditation and scriptural study. Typically they are found in the Thai forest monasteries more than in the city temples.
This was actually the biggest shock for me in becoming a samanera. I was shocked at how little the majority of monks that I met seemed to even care about meditation. They were mostly focused on performing rituals for the Thai community like offering chants in exchange for food and money offerings.
One monk spent a good deal of time digging through astrology books to give readings in exchange for dana (generosity) offerings. I haven’t a clue what astrology readings have to do with Buddhism, but a lot of Thai people were very interested in getting theirs done.
I had him look up mine, and was no more impressed than the astrology readings you can get at metaphysical shops and newspapers.
When I was at Mahapajapati, the monks (nuns) kept a fairly consistent schedule. Every morning around 4-4:30am they went to the meditation hall for chanting and an hour meditation session.
As a lay-helper, I would make them breakfast, and have it ready around 5:30am. The reason times were not exact was because monks are not aloud to eat until after sunrise. The technical rule allows them to eat when they can see the lines in their palm with their arm stretched out, or when they can see the colors in the landscape.
After breakfast, the monks were free to do whatever they wanted until lunch. Typically they would listen to Dhamma talks online, and study Buddhism.
The lay people visiting the monastery would have lunch ready by around 11:30am, and everyone would eat together in silence. Monks aren’t supposed to handle or store food according to the Vinaya Pitaka, however this is not a very strict rule amongst the Thai monks.
The food must be eaten by midday to keep with the rules unless they are traveling. Then everyone helps clean up. The monks do the dishes, and the laypeople put away the food.
After lunch everyone is free to study, meditate, or whatever really. Life is chill out as a Buddhist monk. At 7:00pm everyone at the temple gathers in the meditation hall for chanting and meditation. The monks meditate for an hour, and the laypeople are encouraged to stay as long as they are comfortable.
Compared To The Nuns, The Thai Monks Are Slackers
Keep in mind that I am stating my opinion here, and the monks I hung out with are in no way representatives of all Thai monks. Again, the Thai forest monks are much closer in discipline to the Burmese. The Thai monks typically practice one or more of the dhutangas (Buddhist ascetic practices).
At Wat Baanpa, Ajaan Charlie was by far the most serious about his position as a monk. Perhaps that is why the Thai community trusted him to be the abbot.
He loved to do his chanting. He did not meditate as much as I expected he would, and when he did, it was always for very short sittings. The monks at Wat Santi in Landers, CA were more into meditation from what I saw. They held meditation nights for the local community, and invested quite a bit into their meditation hall.
I was listening to a Dhamma talk online by Noah Levine where he stated that only about 10% of the monks in Asia actually meditate. After my experiences with the Thai monks, I do not find that statistic difficult to believe.
I am really looking forward to visiting Wat Metta for two weeks in the end of February (2013) to see first hand what a Thai ‘forest’ monastery is like. I have a feeling that it will also be a more rewarding experience for me because it is run by an American. I will be able to understand the teachings much better.
After listening to his talks, Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a lot more analytical from what I gather. That is right up my alley. Ayya Gunasari of Mahapajapati was like that, always studying her books. She was a doctor before becoming a nun, and you can tell she loves to learn.
Anyway, Ajaan Charlie was a talk radio personality in Thailand, and a journalist before becoming a monk. He would spend most of his time writing for the Thai newspaper, and his daughter’s Thai magazine. There was even an article he wrote about me in there.
The other monks here at Wat Baanpa spend most of their time hanging out on Facebook. They would all get together and chant in the evenings … most of the time.
The Lessons I learned
First of all, monks are given a ritualistic reverence just for being monks. This is more so in Asia. I discovered that this is a mistake. They are regular people under those robes, just like us. Being an American, I was brought up in a culture that expects the people we respect to live up to it, or we drop the special treatment.
The Thai people I met were very different than that. They practically started worshiping me as soon as I had the robes on. It kind-of freaked me out to be honest with you. They acted like I literally became a different person after becoming a monk.
Suddenly I was capable of meditation and understanding the teachings of the Buddha. I really don’t think most Thai people believe they are even capable of meditating simply because they are not monks.
I also learned that I am far better suited to learn and share the Dhamma as a layperson. I know that some people are quite suited for monastic life, but I am not one of them. Wandering yogi maybe, but not a monk.
The big thing is, I’m not so sure that American culture is ready to embrace monastic life so much as we incorporate the Dhamma into our lives. I was watching When the Iron Bird Flies last night, and it was talking about this very thing.
The documentary is about how Tibetan Buddhism is moving to the west, and how it is finding its way into western culture. Buddhism has adapted and changed in every culture it spread to. Ours is no exception.
Of course that is one of the core principles in life … Everything changes, including Buddhism. This movie was named after a prophesy by Padmasambhava of the eighth-century. He was the man who brought Buddhism to Tibet, and founder of the first Tibetan monastery.
When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the Dharma will come to the land of the red faced people.
How crazy is that? He nailed that prophesy, huh?
What Are Your Thoughts About The Dhamma’s Journey To The West?
Do you feel that the teachings of the Buddha are as relevant to today’s societies as it was 2,600 years ago? Have you considered giving everything up, and becoming a monk? Do you think a strong emphasis on monastic life would help or harm the spread of Buddhism to the west?
If you’ve read this far, you obviously like what I have to say, so leave a comment, and join the conversation. If you know someone interested in Buddhist monastic life, then share this post on Facebook or Twitter.