You can’t go thirty minutes on a street here without spotting a monk. Dressed in their orange and brown robes, they walk around everywhere — sometimes without shoes — to get to school or temple. They may look accessible, but that doesn’t mean you can tap one on the shoulder and ask him for directions. In fact, women aren’t allowed to touch monks at all or they will be considered impure (so no handshakes). Men could maybe strike up a casual conversation with a monk if they’ve met at a temple before, but women are advised against this.
Fortunately though, many temples have designated hours where both men and women can sit and chat with a monk: they’re called Monk Chats. These free conversations give monks an opportunity to practice their English while answering your questions about Buddhism and Monkhood.
Of course, I had to do one in Chiang Mai — where they most commonly occur. After spending my morning reading and writing at a cafe, I put a long skirt on, scarf to cover my shoulders and scurried over to Wat Chedi Luang. A group of about 15 monks sat at a few tables outside the Buddhism University talking to a few travelers. I approached Joe (his English nickname), who wasn’t talking to anyone, and asked if he was available to chat.
I thought it would be easier to breakdown our conversation in an interview-like format. His answers below aren’t word-for-word, but they’re a summary of what we discussed from the notes I wrote down shortly after.
How long have you been a monk for?
Joe: 5 years.
Why did you choose Monkhood?
Joe: The rules of Monkhood make life easier. These rules simplify life and provide us with less distractions. They reduce desire.
What are the easiest rules for you to follow?
Joe: No drinking, and not having a girlfriend. We have 207 rules from the Buddha to follow. Most of them are easy, but some don’t align with modern-day society. For example, the Buddha says you can’t wear shoes. But you’ll see a lot of us walking around with shoes. The Buddha also says we can’t have money, but most of us do because we need a home and food. We also aren’t supposed to use technology, but we do for our studies. It’s OK if the rules are broken sometimes. Monks are humans, and humans make mistakes.
What’s a regular day like for you?
Joe: We get up at 5 am and walk the streets to receive our food donations. What the people give us is all we have to eat that day. After walking we have prayer. We also spend a couple hours in the morning and evening meditating and studying. We don’t have dinner — only breakfast and lunch. In the evening we have prayer, and we go to sleep early.
I’ve noticed a lot of people in Thailand eat meat and they’re Buddhists. Do monks eat meat, too?
Joe: Yes, of course. This is another example of a rule that we don’t always follow. We love and respect all living beings, so we don’t kill the animals, but the food donations we receive are all we have to eat. Thai people love meat, so if they give us meat we eat it.
Do you have any advice on how to get better at meditation?
Joe: Meditation is hard, even for me. The best way to get better at meditating is to practice. But you have to want to get better at it, too. Even if it’s just for five or ten minutes a day, practicing will make you better and help you quiet the mind.
What is the purpose of meditation?
Joe: To clear the mind and be in the present. It can also help you in situations where there’s a lot of emotion. If someone hurts or upsets you, it can help you take a moment to breathe and sit with your emotions, rather to react and say something hurtful back.
Speaking of emotions, what’s the best way to handle a situation where someone does hurt you?
Joe: Let it go. Most of the time people hurt you, but it has nothing to do with you. It’s about them. It’s a reflection. The best thing you can do is feel compassion. On the other side, if you are the person who hurts someone, always apologize to that person.
What are your thoughts on the purpose of life?
Joe: Well, it’s different for everyone. But I think people need to remember everything is impermanent. Impermanence is an important part of Buddhism. Understanding everything changes helps us to let go of desires and attachments. Letting go helps us to be in the moment and be happy with what we have right now. People think having materials will make them happier, but they won’t. We need to be happy with what we have.
What do you like to do for fun?
What makes you laugh?
Joe: Talking with people.
Here’s a pic of me and Joe.
We did share a few laughs together. A lot of our conversation also involved him asking me questions about my life in San Francisco, why I’m a vegetarian, and about my adventures in Thailand so far.
Hope you enjoyed this. Cheers to a more simple life. <3