RPCVs

Being a Monk in Thailand

Daniel Rudolph, 125

I recently was ordained as a Buddhist monk and spent 21 days at Wat Uttaradit Dhammarang in Uttaradit province, which is a forest monastery in northern Thailand. It truly was a remarkable experience.

It is impossible for me to wholly share the experience with you. However, below is a poem I wrote and answers to some frequently asked questions to help give you a better idea of my life, as a monk, at the temple. If you are interested in becoming a monk or want to know more, please contact me via Facebook (Rudolph Dan) or e-mail (Drudolph@oswego.edu).

 

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DIVIDER

Relaxed Readiness

Concerned Confidence

Separate Togetherness

Impoverished Contentedness

Learning by not “learning”

 Good Intentions, Constant Awareness & Unconditional Kindness make the above a reality.

 Simplicity begets Complexity

 When you know, it becomes easier.

DIVIDER

FAQs

 

What did you do on a day-to-day basis?

 To the credit of the abbot, Lung Paw Gan, and the diligence of the other monks, everyday life at the temple was very strenuous, structured and laid back. Here is a typical day:

  • 02:30 – Wake Up – Prepare robes and alms bowl
  • 03:00 – 04:00 – Group Meditation
  • 04:00 – 05:00 – Pali Chanting
  • 05:00 – 06:00 – Cleaning the temple (preparation for morning service)
  • 06:00 – ~08:30 – Alms rounds
  • 09:45 – 11:00 – Morning Service (meditation; lecture from the abbot)
  • 11:00 – 11:30 – Meal
  • 12:00 – 13:00 – Individual Walking Meditation
  • 13:00 – 14:00 – Group Sitting Mediation
  • 15:30 – 17:00 – Cleaning the temple (preparation for evening service)
  • 17:00 – 19:00 – Drink juice, maybe a small snack; Shower; Prepare for evening service
  • 19:00 – 22:00 – Evening Service (Group meditation; Pali Chanting; either a lecture, sitting meditation or group walking mediation)
  • ~22:15 – 02:30 Sleep

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Could you talk?

Yes.

What was the most interesting aspect of becoming a monk?

It was very interesting to talk to and learn about the other monks, all of who were men. When I was at the temple there were about fifteen other monks including the abbot of the temple, who is a veteran monk that oversees the other monks and the temple.DSC_0390

All of the monks came from different backgrounds and environments, and were aged from about twenty to sixty. For
example, one man, aged about thirty-five, was involved in an illegal snake smuggling organization. One day he heard a lecture from a prominent monk and decided to change his ways. He left where he was without telling anyone and has now been a monk at the temple for four years. Another, aged about sixty, was a former teacher of twenty-five years. With others being businessmen, cooks and various other professions. Many of the monks only stay for a short period of time as a rite of passage into adulthood. Typically it is the individual monks’ choice, along with the agreement of the abbot, how long they wish to stay as a monk.

Learning about them personally and experiencing them as monks, and vice versa, enabled us to build very strong bonds in a very short period of time.

 

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What was the most challenging aspect of becoming a monk?

I am an inflexible person from a relatively inflexible country in a place with some of the most flexible people in a very flexible country. By far, sitting in one of three positions, for about six hours per day, was the most challenging aspect of my experience. Thankfully, the other monks noticed my pains, taught me a variety of different stretches and massage techniques, and gave me natural creams to help loosen my muscles. Whenever there was a break in the day I would do yoga stretches to help alleviate the pain and prepare me for the next sessions. These techniques relieved me of some of my pain and discomfort, and the monks’ eagerness to help instilled in me a sense of camaraderie and self-confidence. To borrow a motto of Peace Corps’, it truly was the toughest job I’ve ever loved.

What is one thing you learned that you wish everyone else knew?

Throughout history people are always looking for ways to improve their lives without having to drastically alter their regular behaviors. While I was struggling and on the brink of quitting due to the physical demands of sitting for such long periods of time, another monk noticed my frustration, and approached me to help comfort me. He shared his struggles and experiences with me and told me that in order to be a good monk you need to do three things, always:
1) Have good intentions; 2) Be conscious of all of your actions; 3) Have unconditional kindness/sacrifice for the betterment of others. Applying these three characteristics to your life, regardless of your race, religion, nationality or gender, can be beneficial to almost everyone in the world.

Also, two skills I learned that I think could benefit everyone are meditation and focused breathing. Both activities can be done almost everywhere, without spending money or a lot of time and have exclusively positive effects. A few of the scientifically proven benefits include stress reduction, increased concentration and self-awareness and improved cardiovascular and immune health.DSC_0459

 

Were the other monks accepting of you?

The other monks were very accepting of me. The monkhood was a microcosm of my experience in Thailand. The monks were very welcoming and kind from day one. But in the beginning, we didn’t really know how to interact with one another. My Thai language skills and experience with Thai culture helped us bridge the gap.

Once the other monks were aware of my intentions they treated me as an equal. The level of kindness I experienced from the other monks was unparalleled in my life. To many of the monks, their fellow monks are their only families. They treat one another with respect and unconditional kindness, similar to that of a sibling-to-sibling or parent-to-child relationship, depending on age and experience.

 

How did you find and/or choose where to become a monk?
I chose to be a monk to give back to my surrogate motherand community because they took such good care of me. In the Buddhist culture merit is very important. Throughout life people try to accumulate as much merit as possible, by either giving, being virtuous or mentally developing themselves, in order to have a positive effect on their present life or next reincarnation. The most merit a son can give his mother is by becoming a monk and following the Buddhist precepts to the best of his ability.

AnotherDSC_0507 reason was for the experience. Initially my mother wanted me to ordain and be a monk in our village of FakTha, Uttaradit, at the same temple where her other sons ordained. The abbot at that temple denied me because he said he would not be able to teach me enough due to the language barrier and hi
s schedule. I then contacted a friend of mine, a government employee at the local municipality. He is very into Buddhism and took me to his temple a few times when I was living in northern Thailand.

He belongs to a “forest temple”, modeled after the Venerable Ajaan Chah’s monastery in Ubon Ratchathani. The “forest temples” have to abide by a much stricter set of rules than the “city temples”. My friend contacted the abbot and asked permission for me to be a monk there. The abbot wanted me to stay longer than I could so that I could gain more insight, but nevertheless accepted me to become part of their spiritual community. So, I ordained in my community and stayed at a local temple for three days, enabling community members to gain merit by giving alms, and then I went to the “forest temple” just outside of Uttaradit City for the remainder of my time as a monk.

 

DSC_0488What were some of the rules you had to follow?

In the stricter temples monks are expected to follow the 227 rules that were passed down directly from The Buddha. Before entering the temple I was aware that there was a set of rules, but not of the specifics. The rules which I had the most trouble adhering to were; sitting down while drinking, various rules about the handling of the alms bowl (which is to be treated as the “The Buddha’s head”), sitting down while urinating and not conversing with females one-on-one.

The other monks were very helpful reminding me when I did something wrong and kindly informed me the proper way to act.

 

What kind of clothes did you wear?DSC_0495

 When I entered the temple I was given seven pieces of clothing: a light and a heavy robe, two undershirts, a belt and two long skirts. At all times monks wear a skirt and undershirt. Before sunrise we had to have our thick robe with us at all times. While collecting alms and performing a ceremony outside the temple we wore both the light and heavy robes. During early morning, late morning and evening services we wore our light robes. While sleeping we wore a skirt and undershirt.

When I first arrived at the temple I was taught, by a veteran monk, how to properly tie the robes and the skirts. Before I left the monastery I was able to properly dress myself in a time efficient manner.

How often could you eat? And what kind of food?

We were able to eat one meal a day. Two of the rules are that monks cannot carry money or prepare food. Therefore, people in the surrounding villages, in return for blessings, which gave them merit, donated all of the food we ate. We followed a strictly vegetarian diet.

Is it something you would do again?

If there were an opportunity I would definitely return to the temple, if not as a monk, as a congregant. Wat Uttaradit Dhammarang is a wonderful temple with beautiful natural surroundings conducive to serenity and focus and with a strong dedication to following The Buddha’s direct teachings.

At this temple there are many congregants that stay overnight, for as long as they choose, and help maintain the temple and assist the monks.

meditation    Merit Making Ceremony 2    Merit Making Ceremony

Was everything exclusively in Thai and Pali?

I was the first foreigner to be a monk at this particular temple, Wat Uttaradit Dhammarang, therefore everything was in Thai with the prayers being in both Thai and Pali. The other monks’ English skills were very limited. There was a German guy, Andréa, who has been a congregant of the temple for over 10 years. His knowledge of Buddhism, fluency in both Thai and English, and kindness helped me a lot. He transliterated the prayer book into phonetic English, which enabled me to participate in the Pali chanting. Also, I was given a booklet of the prayers with English translations so I was aware of the meanings of the prayers.

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What did you actually do during ‘training’?

There was no official training, per se. I prepared on my own by studying Buddhism and meditation. Then prior to my ordination, I spent three days at the temple. In those three days I got used to the schedule, learned how to put on the robes and how to properly take care of my alms bowl. Usually, people spend more time at the temple to prepare for the monkhood, but due to my work schedule and closing out with Peace Corps I only had a short time to prepare at the temple.

 

Did Peace Corps give you the time or did you have to use vacation?

Peace Corps staff, especially my country director, Kevin Quigley, and program manager, Chadchaya Wattanya, were quite encouraging and flexible with me, as was my community. But it did take some time to set up an arrangement that would provide me with ample time to have a fulfilling experience at the wat while also allowing me to fulfill my Peace Corps responsibilities to my community and to headquarters in Bangkok. In the end, I didn’t have to use vacation time.

Becoming a monk is an intensive and time-consuming experience that demands quite a bit of planning and preparation. If you begin to explore becoming a monk over a period of more than two weeks, I definitely recommend speaking with Peace Corps and your community about your plans well in advance. And of course, feel free to reach out to me.

 

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