Full transcript of my time speaking with a Monk at a Monk Chat program at Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Culture, meditation, and the meaning of life.
First, a few thoughts:
A Monk Chat is a free program available at hundreds of Buddhist temples in Thailand. It allows tourists to speak with a Buddhist monk for as long as they wish. It’s a perfect way for local Thai Buddhists to spread teachings to foreigners, to reduce cross-cultural naivety, and for Buddhists to practice their English.
I was very excited to partake in a Monk Chat, as I was quickly compiling a handful of questions. This was also an optional assignment, so I made sure to write down everything the monk said.
I went to Monk Chat at Wat Chedi Luang with four friends. We approached the tables cautiously, telling each other that we might just pop in for five or so minutes, depending on whether or not we were enjoying ourselves. We ended up speaking with Siddharth for two full hours. The experience was incredible and surreal. We spoke about gender, afterlife, meditation, philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life.
Harmony bells tinkled brightly in warm breezes, and at one point we could hear a lilting monk chant being sung from one of the nearby buildings. The grand temple was reflected in the Monk’s brown eyes, and as the sun began to set, the shifted light fell upon his body. There was one moment in which I really felt as if I was living true to Buddhist ways; in the moment, with the entire world around us ceasing to exist. There was nothing but us, the surrounding temple, and the monk speaking before us.
As mentioned before, I went to the chat with four other friends, so this transcript does not specify who asked which questions.
What is your name?
Where are you from?
Born in India, came to study at MCU in Thailand.
Studied humanities at wat sonduk (temple MCU)
Were you raised Buddhist in India?
There is no definition to “Buddhist”. Just people who follow Buddha. I was born in different country and was fascinated with the teachings of the Buddha. I had an amazing opportunity when I was 12 years old. My school arranged a trip for Buddhist sightseeing. I saw the Bodhi tree, I saw where the Buddha gave his first teachings, I saw where the Buddha died. I was also inspired by a book written by a famous author, who wrote many books.
What made you decide to come to Thailand?
In India, I was studying to get my Bachelor’s of Commerce. I met Thai monks in India, and asked about Buddhism in Thailand. They explained, and it was exactly what I was looking for. Nature, free from suffering of India.
What is the difference between India’s Buddhism and Thailand’s?
Buddhism in different countries have different beliefs. What is pure Buddhism, you have to search. All have the same origin: Buddha was prince in palace 29 years. only good things, all kinds of happiness… (Here he went on to explain briefly what we already learned from class: the story of Buddha).
Monks are interested in enlightenment, removal from suffering. They live in forests.
Everyone wants happiness, they do not want truth or suffering. Happiness and Suffering are connected. Buddha never talked of happiness. He taught that there is a way away from suffering, and explained how to achieve it.
Have you reached enlightenment?
Very far from enlightenment!
I know if I have greed or anger or delusions. I am able to recognize my own suffering.
Enlightenment = happiness = end of suffering.
How do you know what is true and what is false?
Truth is the truth (laughs). Something that is practical is difficult to explain. Everything that is explainable can be explained, but truth must be found. Thinking is not how you reach truth. Thinking just gives you the way to practice. If you want to reach truth you must practice.
So it’s similar to faith?
Belief and faith is different. There are four pillars. First, buddhism is saddha(?) which is faith, next, it is effort. Faith requires no effort, it’s just a concept. You have to apply effort, you have to practice. Third, is being patient. Practicing. Fourth, is let it go. Accepting the way things are.
How does Buddhism view other religions?
Every people are different, every individual is different. Even within one family. Experience and thought conform to personal experiences with cultures.
Do you, or other Buddhists, believe that Buddhism is the only truth?
Buddhism is not comparable. It’s about what’s best with you, about accepting your life. Truth is beautiful. It’s ridiculous to say “This food is good” or “This food is bad.” It doesn’t get us anywhere. We’re talking about food, not eating it.
What does your tattoo mean?
(Footnote: His tattoo featured an image of Buddha. Buddha tattoos are legally not given in Thailand, because the country’s cultural beliefs about Idyllic respect)
What is the significance of head shaving?
Flashback to the times of Buddha, there are two types of monks, there are the ones who don’t shave, and ones that do. Buddha chose this way because it was comfortable, clean, and without worrying. Don’t have to fuss with hair.
Do you think that the lavishness/ornate architecture of Thai Temples is distracting from the teachings of Buddha?
You need house to live, you need school to learn. A Temple is also essential. These are worldly. It’s about individual preference.
Statues and pictures are for those who like the stories of the Buddha. The buildings are reminders of the stories.
What are your thoughts on tourists who come to see the temples? Or when they act disrespectful?
Tourists come to travel. We can teach them if they do something disrespectful. There are actually many advantages, like Monk chats, where tourists can come to learn and monks can practice their english.
When we came into the airport, there were signs warning foreigners about disrespecting the Buddha image, warnings against buying Buddha art, Buddhas on furniture, Buddha head statues.
We don’t know what buddha looked like. His teaching is enough, there is no need for an image. Statue is just a representation. Inspiration, that’s all.
Respect is cultural, not Buddhist.
Can culture get in the way of Buddhist teachings?
If you are enlightened, if you are free, then if someone disrespects, it’s not going to matter.
What is the significance of the robes that monks wear?
With Theravada, practices are close to original Buddhism. Mayahana is changed, the newer form.
Theravada is more traditional, with robes after the fashion of the time of the Buddha.
There are 6 different categories of robes, dyed from different plants.
This is not only a reminder of Buddhism, but also when you wear the robe, a reminder to you and everyone around you that you are a monk.
Mahanika(?) is an old tradition, study Buddhist scripture, focused on teaching people.
Tamayud(?) started 200 years ago, it is the forest monks. Forest monks are not so much focused on study, but focused on meditation.
I am Tamayud, I can study.
Most monks are Mahanika
Forest monk’s robes are darker brown. The color differentiation is used as identity.
Where do monks get their robes?
They get cloth from forest, from in the street, from dead bodies. Monks will take clothes from bodies, wash and sow, make it new to wear in different ways.
What goes through your mind during meditation?
(laughs) Many things go through mind. When you study, the goal in meditation is concentration. If you are able to stop thinking. Focus on breathing. In and out. Mindfulness. Observe self. Start from feeling body (head, to face, to whole body). Observation of grass, get more and more specific. once concentration becomes deep, observe your mind. same as you would your body.
“the mind is like monkey, you have to use this monkey to learn four island: 1. body. 2. feelings of body. 3. mind. 4. realities of mind.
You mentioned the forest monks. What is your thought on monks using technology? Phones etc, do you think it is a distraction from enlightenment?
It’s not about the outside, not how you live, not what you use. The problem is mind. Using or not using technology can be more or less distracting.
Live a sober life doesn’t automatically mean you are free and pure. Everyone has to free their mind no matter what they use. Technology is evolution, inevitable, not in your hands. Before the Buddha died, he explained that things will change in the future.
If something causes problems in the future, then change the temple. Truth cannot change. You are born you die. That will never change, the only thing that changes is how to reach.
If you go to Bangkok, you wouldn’t take a horse just to avoid technology. You would take a train or plane.
Nature of the mind is the same. What is outside may change: how you live.
Nature of mind and body are the same.
What are your thoughts on the paradox of Buddhists seeking truth? Reaching enlightenment requires getting rid of desires/attatchments, and yet Buddhists are attached to the idea of obtaining truth.
Sometimes it’s possible to not understand. Truth is unknown. Once you reach truth, you don’t need words to explain. You’ve reached the point. We are searching to get enlightened. You can use your desire to not desire. Everyone starts with desire, that’s ok. It is normal. So start from desire, practice and effort rids yourself of that. It’s already in your mind. Either you want or don’t want. Anything you study, you desire. But after practicing, now you stop creating more, and instead begin to stop desire. Stop that which creates desire.
I started to be a monk 2 years ago.
In India, I had jainism. zainism [?]
In Hinuism, you must have old age before becoming monk
everything you learn helps
doubts are no problem.
What is Buddhism’s view on afterlife?
Buddha was asked about hell and heaven. When you live in suffering/anger/greed, that is hell. Your hell. When you are happy/pure, that is heaven.
We had a guest speaker on Buddhism, and he mentioned that, when asking westerners about the meaning of life, they gave long, drawn out answers. But when asking Buddhist students, they said the meaning of life was getting through this cup of coffee, this class, this moment. What is your thought on the meaning of life? Is it this living in the moment?
Future depends on the present. Present is very important in Buddhism.
You can learn the past perfectly, but cannot change it. Future is comprehendible, but not changeable. Neither are very important.
Buddha said there is no future or past, it’s only in your mind. There are only moments. Past or future is an image in your mind, an object you keep with you. Imaginary.
Life = the present. Mindfulness and concentration is everything. When you lose that, your mind tricks you. Meditation= not letting your mind trick yourself. Mind is not your friend. It tricks us.
Our mind collects everything, hard to escape.
But knowledge from the past can help make decisions in the present.
There are benefits to comprehending past and future. Living in present only means that there are no side effects. Your past can be very important if it helps you do something good in the present.
Buddha says, “don’t waste your time in the past.”
Self is always changing. Consciousness is different per moment.
Being a monk is about practicing, a chance to learn through first hand instead of just books.
What is Buddhisms ideologies about gender?
Women can be monks
There is no 100% man or 100% women
We have parts from our father and some from our mother. Just different roles in our life. in nature, you need woman and man. A man cannot have a baby.
But in life, differences should not be compared. Every human is different than others. Qualities make you better or worse.
Animals and humans are different, but not comparable. Just different forms of life.
Human= someone seeking truth
Enlightened= someone reaching truth.
You can’t compare.
What are your thoughts on the different perspectives on truth?
Every human has to find themselves. Outside experiences affect you, but you must find your own way to enlightenment.
There is no wrong if there are so many truths.
Reach your own truth.
Buddhism teaches that you should never fully follow any teachings without first questioning them for yourself. Do you deny any teachings of the Buddha?
Buddha says “Just accept what you think is right”
You don’t have to believe everything. If you cannot understand or accept, thats ok. If you think Buddha is wrong, that is ok. Focus on what’s important or right for you.
Buddha knows the truth, he doesn’t have to use words.
Thailand doesn’t have many laws protecting animals, and yet elephants etc are very sacred in Thai culture. What is Buddhism’s views on animal rights?
I live in monastery and don’t have many chances to go outside and see, so I don’t really know anything about that. We must respect every being.
There is a story.
Two monks in japan. One Japanese monk is old, they are from different forms of Buddhism. They are at a shoe stand. The old monk said thanks to shoes. He treated his shoes respectfully. The other monk laughs at him, not very respectful to his shoes. Just tosses them aside. The old monk got angry at young monk’s lack of respect. They argue. Young monk says “shoes are not beings! uUseless!” Old monk says, “Nature created shoes, nature created you. If you think your shoes are pointless, then you are pointless too.”
Everything is connected, everything is significant and deserves respect.
[I didn’t write down the question that prompted this]
Enlightenment is peak of life, of existence.
Buddha taught that there are two universes. One is the outside universe that you experience, one universe is you.
You cannot access the outside universe. You can only describe it. “The temple is gold.” You cannot experience it, cannot feel it. You can only learn yourself, because you feel it yourself.
It’s all just matter.
Maybe there is only mind, no matter. But we don’t know for sure.
There is wisdom in knowing yourself.
Learning about the outside is not wisdom, it’s just knowledge.
When you know yourself, you know everything.
Earth, wind, water, fire
We can describe the outside, but can’t experience it. Only your own body and mind.
Your body and mind is your whole world.
You only have the capacity to know yourself. That small part of the infinite.
Wisdom, enlightenment, is from yourself. Knowledge from outside is merely science.
Buddhism is the study of self.
Matter + mind = self.
There is no such thing as good/bad people. Just a collection of individuals. Whether it be people, animals, anything. Society, country, this is only name. There is not anything which is society. Just a collection of individuals.
Why is there a building that says women are not permitted to enter?
Hindu culture is prominent in Thailand. Rama is a hindu word. Women exclusion from temples etc is a hindu idea.
How can there be such an emphasis on selflessness when enlightenment is reached by knowing yourself?
When “I” comes up, you are losing consciousness by making comparisons.
Consciousness is an emptiness, just being, experiencing. Not comparing.
When interacting with other people, you are a universe and they are just objects in your universe. you are the only one who is conscious. If you are treating them as conscious, you lose your own consciousness. They are unconscious objects in your universe.
With true consciousness, we release the anger and suffering.
The mind is faster than anything.
Suffering and unhappiness is all in you. Reality is always changing, that’s the process of the world. We attach to things, which makes us lose our consciousness.
Does it get easier over time to access awareness/consciousness?
Practicing consciousness is not like practicing other things. Every time you reattempt to slip into consciousness, you are starting from scratch. Every time, you are escaping from new greeds etc.
Once you are enlightened, can hate, greed get back in?
No, you are totally free.
What is the purpose of chanting?
Chanting is process of learning teachings of Buddha, the scripture and the stories.
Creating a place of mind to meditate.
It’s not the same as praying. Praying= asking. Not in buddhism.
Buddhism teaching is that you are your own savior.
Why can’t monks buy or cook their own food? Alms ceremonies?
Monk life is for people who have enlightenment as their main goal. This means they need time away from distractions, including loved ones (a form of attachment). Most of your mind is dedicated to attachments such as work, relationships, chores. Small oceans or big oceans, your goal is to swim.
Monks leave these attachments behind. Therefore they get food from people instead of attaching to money, chores, etc
Buddha said there is nature. Bee and flower. Bee flies and takes juice from flower. But the flower needs that thing. If the bee doesn’t come, The flower cannot bloom. Bee depends on food from flower, and flower depends on bee. Monks have to live like the bee. Not trying to create a problem for people, so they must give something back. By your own practice, you give them teaching. You provide them by reducing their ignorance.
People are dependent on each other. Cycles.
You cannot create food, you must find it in nature.
We are in debt on nature.
Breathing, light, food, water.
There are two ways to live life in accordance with nature: destroy or protect.