Though climbing mountains, exploring temples, and walking through markets are on the ‘to do’ list of most visitors of Thailand, one of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai is talk to the Monks. As part of my service learning during my stay here, I have the honor of going to a public ‘Monk Chat’ where lay people (mostly foreigners) such as myself can chat up Buddhist Monks for 2 hours every MWF. I’ve been going to the monk chats at least a couple of times a week for a few weeks now so I’ve become a bit of a veteran and many of the monks recognize me and some even know my name (though most can’t pronounce it correctly…not that I can pronounce theirs either). The monks attend a local University (just for monks) so most of them are college age and, since the university is English speaking, the Monk chats give them a chance to practice their English speaking skills. There aren’t any rules about topics so topics range from Buddhism to pop culture and everything in between. Most of the Monks started as a ‘novice’ around the age of 10-12 and became a Monk at the age of 20 (the age you can officially become a Monk). Most are from surrounding countries like Burma, Cambodia, and Laos so a common discussion topic is their country and culture of origin.
So, I would like to share with you a few things that I’ve learned from my chats with the Monks. Please note that this is my interpretation of what the Monks have said and I am far from an expert on Buddhism. The following is true based on my knowledge, learning, and experience and I in no way claim it to be true for anyone other than me. With that said…
One thing that is almost always brought up, as it is the foundation of Buddhism, are the 5 precepts.
1. Refrain from killing (instead treat all living creatures with loving kindness)
2. Refrain from stealing (instead give to charity)
3. Refrain from sexual misconduct (the Monks abstain from sex but, as I understand it, lay people practicing Buddhism should not use sex in a hurtful or harmful manner)
4. Refrain from lying (instead practice honesty and truthfulness)
5. Refrain from intoxicating substances
Another idea that comes up quite often is that of impermanence. We, and everything around us, are constantly changing. Buddhists seem to embrace this change because it signifies that they are learning and growing.
Everything revolves around Karma. If you are a good person and have good intentions, you will have good karma which will follow you into your next life (via reincarnation). If you hurt others or have bad intentions, you will have bad karma which will also follow you into your next life and you will, in a sense, have to answer for it. Also, all living things have karma not just humans.
Everything is connected. The Buddha says that if you point to the ground you will not find something that isn’t a part of you.
The Monks all wear robes that are some shade of orange. One of the big questions the Monks get asked is if the different colored robes have any meaning. I asked this during my first Monk chat. This was the answer I got: “We have different colored robes because we have different minds and we like different colors. Are you not wearing something different than the person next to you?” Monk humor! Got it! Haha
It is less important to worship or celebrate a god or spirit. It is more important to strive to be like them.
In the end, all religions basically have the same goal: happiness, peace, and kindness. They just have different ways of getting there.
There are a few things that I really like about Buddhism:
1. It focuses on peace and respect of all living creatures.
2. It encourages questioning! They encourage everyone to seek their own truth and path. They do not claim to know what is right for anyone other than themselves. Just because something is true for one person doesn’t mean that it’s true for another.
3. It is respectful of other religions. They don’t claim to have all the answers or that it’s their way or the highway.
4. It is extremely open minded.
I’ve genuinely enjoyed each chat with the Monks and I strongly encourage anyone visiting the Chiang Mai area to pull up a chair at a monk chat and broaden your horizons!