A couple of days ago, in the town of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, I went out one evening to visit a Buddhist wat for a chat with the monks and some guided meditation. I got out of my tuk tuk on a quiet street of what looked like a one-street village, with a temple in the middle.
Then a smiling young monk approached me and we sat down for a chat. Touy Yai was his name. He laughingly translated his name as Big Fat, reflecting his hefty constitution. He explained to me that the high monk is typically in charge of visitors but he was away for a month of meditation. He was here to stand in. He offered me some water and we started our chat.
I was curious about his background. Touy Yai was 22, from neighboring Laos, and only joined the monks as a novice at 18. Before that he didn’t appreciate his family’s urging to enter the Buddhist ranks (ordaining as a monk is seen as a way of “repaying” the boy’s parents for their work in raising him) but now he knew it was the right thing for him. When I asked whether he’ll remain a monk for the rest of his life, in a typical Buddhist fashion he said there was no way of knowing that.
He then went on to explain the basic differences between the two main branches of Buddhism: Theravada (practiced primarily in Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand) and Mahayana (spread in Tibet, China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea).
Touy Yai told me about the five precepts of Buddhism, undertaken by lay followers as well as monks: to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. I learned that there were two types of monks: hermit-style monks, who live in forest monasteries and spend most of their time meditating and village monks, who spend their time studying and spreading the Buddhist teachings to lay people.
Touy Yai described his typical day at the temple. The monks rise at 5 each morning, chant and meditate together in the wat, and then head out barefooted on their alms round. At noon they gather to have lunch of whatever the people donated. This is their last meal of the day; they are only allowed to drink water after that. The afternoon is spent cleaning the temple area and studying. I asked Touy Yai whether they’re given a particular study by the high monk, assuming that their studies must be focused on the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha). I was surprised to learn that the monks are allowed to learn about anything at all, from business to politics, as well as spend time doing research on the internet.
I wondered what Touy Yai loved the most about being a monk. “Freedom to study, all the time,” he said, ” and learning mindfulness.” When I asked him to elaborate on the concept of achieving mindfulness through meditation, he explained that the idea was to quiet our “monkey mind”. I didn’t quite understand the term, until the following morning a yoga teacher used it again. Then the meaning dawned on me, as I followed my mind jumping around restlessly. I finally have a name for my affliction: monkey mind!
If in Chiang Mai, visit Wat Sri Suphan (100 Wulai Road; 053/200 332), for a monk chat and guided meditation every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening. And don’t forget to leave a (voluntary) donation for the monks.