I’m not a religious person. Technically speaking I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in God. The premise that God created everything and has a plan for all of us just doesn’t seem plausible to me. Having said that I totally respect anyone who lives a religious life, worshipping a ‘higher being’ and living according to the ideals set out in their Bible or Torah or Quran or whatever religious texts they consider sacred.
However, lately I’ve wanted to learn more about Buddhism, and since I’ve been living in Thailand it’s virtually impossible to escape it. The country is 95% Buddhist, and in Chiang Mai there are literally hundreds of Wats filled with monks. I must admit that until recently, and this may sound naive, I assumed Buddhists also worshipped a higher being. I’ve since found out this isn’t the case, and a lot of the teachings are what I’ve always thought anyway.
Making plans to see a monk
Now that I’m in Chiang Mai for a couple of months, I decided to go and talk to a monk. What better way to discover what Buddhism is all about than speaking to a monk, or at least, a monk in training? Every day at Wat Chedi Luang between 9.00am – 6.00pm there’s ‘Monk Chat’, an opportunity for anyone, as the concept suggests, to talk to a monk. These opportunities are also available at several other Wats in the city, but Wat Chedi Luang is close to where we live and is by far the most popular. You can talk to them about virtually anything such as Thai life, a Buddhists day to day life, the learnings of Buddhism, while the monks get to practice their English skills.
The day of the chat
I sat down at a table with an unoccupied monk and starting making small talk. It didn’t start so well as my new monk friend continued texting on his mobile phone for the first five minutes of our conversation. The only excuse for that kind of behaviour is if the person receiving the texts in Elle McPherson, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case! I was getting a little miffed so I started to get right into the meat of what I was there to discover, if Buddhism was for me. I soon had his undivided attention and the real conversation started.
I already knew Buddhism was about leading a good life and being a good person, which is the way I try and live my life anyway. I’m sure most of us try and live our lives like that, which is why I wanted to get deeper into what Buddhism is all about. Surely there’s more to it, right? So after my monk put down his phone and started answering my questions, I found out a lot more.
Here’s what I learned after ‘monk chat’
- Buddhism is all about a journey along a path of meditation and leanings until, eventually, they achieve Enlightenment, the true nature of reality. At the moment of Enlightenment, they achieve Buddhahood. At this moment they see life clearly, representing the end of suffering.
- I assumed there was only one Buddha, but in fact anyone can become a Buddha.
- Everyone is responsible for their own actions, you make decisions of your own accord that determines your own journey, and you can change your path at any moment. This contradicts the notion that God has a path set out for all of us.
- Buddhist monks rely on the generosity of local Buddhists who provide them with their daily food at the beginning of every day.
- The orange colour of their robes has no meaning. It’s simply a colour they use, which correlates with their ideals that everything they own has a function. For example, if they own a car, it’s for a purpose and not for fashion or status. I assumed they didn’t have possessions, but clearly my monk had a mobile phone, and they have other possessions to. But it must be for a clear purpose.
My monk rises at around 4.00 – 5.00am every day, chants and meditates, then heads off to university. He is studying to be an English teacher, but ultimately would like to travel the world spreading the teachings of Buddha and learning new languages. I actually found him quite difficult to understand. He had a slight lisp and that, coupled with his strong Thai accent, made it hard to digest what he was saying. I found myself trying to compute his previous point while he’d started to make his next point. Having said that, after a while I started to understand his accent more clearly and started taking on board more of what he was saying.
He couldn’t convince me of everything
One aspect of our conversation I simply didn’t buy was Buddhism’s notion of reincarnation. As far as I’m concerned you are born, you live, then you die. To me, it’s simple science. However, as I said right at the start of the article, I totally respect the belief and faith people have in reincarnation. My monk tried to justify the fact you can’t remember past lives by saying we can’t remember everything that happened a few days ago, even less a few years ago, and not remembering past lives was simply an extension of this. This makes no sense to my science-based mind, but the extension of this conversation resonated with me.
He said because we lose memories and the past is the past, and because we don’t know what is going to happen in the future no matter how much planning we do, and because we won’t remember past lives, we must live for and focus on the present. We must enjoy this moment, NOW, and make it the focus of our lives. As a nomadic traveller with a shocking memory, I can totally relate to this. I’ll often have discussions with friends in Australia who I’ve travelled with about places we’ve visited, but I won’t have a clue what they’re talking about. My memory is that bad! Sometimes we’ll actually be driving through a town on a similar road trip we’ve done before, and I’ll start talking as though I’ve never been there. So the Buddhist concept of living in the now resonates greatly with me.
We sold everything we owned to go on this trip, we have no idea what we’ll do for work when we get home, no idea where we’ll live or how we’ll make ends meet. That is a scary thought, particularly when you consider I’ll be in my mid-forties when we get home and as we all know, the older we get the more difficult it is to find full-time employment. But because of my horrible memory, I’ve been happily forced into living in the now. So while I don’t believe in the concept of reincarnation, I do agree with the extension to that premise of living in the moment.
The next step
I’m giving some serious consideration to joining the two-day meditation course offered at Wat Suan Dok. It only costs 500THB ($AU17) and it includes food, transportation to the meditation training centre, accommodation, and all of the classes associated with the course. What an experience that will be, to live a little like a monk and learn more about Buddhism for just over 24 hours. It would mean a night away from Sarah and Jack, but I have no doubt Sarah will want to do it herself, so maybe we can have a go on separate weeks. If I go I’ll let you know what it’s like.
So has my ‘monk chat’ taken me any closer to becoming a Buddhist? Not really, but I do respect their way of life and am far more closely aligned with their beliefs than any other religion. Perhaps after I spend a night living in a monastery like a monk my thoughts will change. Only time will tell.