We were all excited when we learnt we had the opportunity to have a conversation with a monk during our visit to Wat Chedi Luang. In Sri Lanka, where I grew up, women were usually not allowed to chat to monks so this is certainly a first for me!
We sit around the table and the conversation starts with talk of soccer. England and America have tied and Australian has just been beaten rather badly by Germany. None of us are very happy (except Emily) about how the soccer is shaping up right now. Monk Champa is a Manchester United supporter and has been up till 2.30 this morning watching the world cup! He is certainly a soccer fan.
Monk Champa is originally from Laos and came to Thailand after high school to go to University. The Thai and Lao languages are similar which does make the transition a little easier. The University building is right here in the same premises as the temple and he has majored in English. You can study up to the Master’s level here.
The ‘Monk Chat’ is basically a living lab for the monks and gives them a great opportunity to chat about their beliefs with travellers, who by their nature our curious about other cultures and gives the monks a chance to fine tune their English skills. A win win really. The beginners and less confident monks gather round to listen. There are 4 faculties here mostly in the humanities and social sciences and 400 students, some of who are lay students.
Monk Champa has been a monk since he was 10 and is now 24 years of age. Enrolling their children in the temple is the only way poor families can educate their kids and give them prospects for their future. He was born to a poor farming family and is one of 10 children. He is the only one in his family to graduate from College and his family is very proud of his accomplishments. He is now completing his job training which includes spreading the Buddhist faith to tourists! He is doing a great job.
The choice of journeying toward monkhood has many sacrifices and in the case of Monk Champa it has meant long periods of separation from his family. He has not had contact with his family for 4 years. The village they live in (in Laos) is isolated and has no post office, phones or computers. The closest post office is in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, 800 km away. Someone from his family will have to make the trek to pick up the mail if he does write. It is definitely too much trouble and expense to write. He gets news through other monks who might travel back..but of course he misses his family and the farming life he grew up with.
I ask him about his wardrobe. He has 4 different coloured robes, red, yellow, orange and dark brown. The colours have no significance but even a monk likes a bit of variety in his dress. The robes helped keep mosquitoes away in the days when bug spray was not available but he does admit it can be a little stifling in the heat of the Thai summer. It also restricts him from playing sport but he does practice yoga and admits there are poses he can’t make with the added complication of robes around his ankles!
He dreams of getting a Master’s in Linguistics as he would like to translate Buddhist scriptures into English. He wants to continue living in Thailand but getting Thai citizenship is not easy for a man from Laos. He tells us that the easiest way would be to marry a Thai girl but of course that option is not open to him if he does continue to be a monk!
His second option is to give up the robes and be a tour guide. He definitely enjoys chatting to travellers and sharing his culture and country with them, so I think he would make a great tour guide and he could still continue to spread his faith. His sense of humour has captivated us all and we continue bombard him with our questions…
He tells us how he goes out each morning with his alms bowl to get his food for the day from the local folk who have grown up in a culture that encourages donations to the temple. The day starts early but after lunch these monks do not eat another meal till the next morning. They believe that you can’t eat till you see your palm in the morning! Wow…it is a hard life being a monk and I am certainly impressed! He tells us they eat to live rather than live to eat…mmm…monkhood is definitely not an option for me!
He invites us to teach English at the University and we wonder about the close interaction with the opposite sex and if that would cause any problems. I gently ask him some probing questions about that aspect of his life. He laughs…he tells us he doesn’t really miss anything he hasn’t had!
We ask if he has considered moving to an English speaking country so he can perfect his English (which by the way is truly impressive) and improve his vocabulary. Travelling is certainly one of his passions and he would love to take a plane ride one day. He dreams of visiting places such as Burma, Australia, England..and Canada but would also just love to get down to Bangkok and experience life in a big city. He wishes he could understand all English accents with ease and admits he has trouble with the Irish and Scottish in particular. We reassure him about this and tell him nobody can really understand the Scottish anyway! :)
He was once invited on an all expense paid visit to the US once but after a lot of expense and trouble and visits to Laos, his visa application was rejected. The US embassy wanted to see his bank statements! I guess of all the ridiculous requirements we have encountered with embassies, a bank statement from a monk must make surely make it to the top of the pile! He looks a little crest fallen as he recounts this story but it has not dampened his spirits or his dreams and plans for the future.
It is time to go. We have taken up a lot of time..and it is quite a bit past his lunch time. I tell him about my blog and pass him the link, expecting that he will be quite chuffed to think he will be on the internet. He smiles and tells me he has Googled ‘Monk Chat’ previously and even found himself on U Tube. Ah..how times have changed! I’ve been chatting to a “Gen Y Monk” and of course blogs and such like are just as much part and parcel of his life as they are any lay persons…OK..almost! We wish him well and hope his dreams eventuate. Another experience that has touched us all…
"In the middle ages people were tourists because of their religion, whereas now they are tourists because tourism is their religion."