Bangkok is fascinating.
It grabs you by the throat with the hectic, humid grip of a city which never falls asleep. The scent of spices and food from the street vendors, mixed with the lingering smell of heated tarmac and thick tropical air. I have never seen so many barefoot children living on the sidewalk. Certainly not in a city with such impressive gilded palaces and lavish temples.
I had never seen so many barefoot children living on the sidewalk. Certainly not in a city with gilded palaces and lavish temples.
Unlike most tourists, I am not here to indulge, and I am not into the city’s neon light temptations & its substance abuse reputation. My checklist is a bit a different. And at the top, there is also a Bucket list item of mine – “talk to Buddhist monks”. I won’t get into details but let us just say that I had been fascinated with Buddhist philosophy and culture for almost 20 years: the concepts of wú or mu (nought), the Four Truths and so on.
Of course, naive expectations eventually have to face reality. While I was trying to take photos of the first monks I saw, they would sometimes take out their iPhone to snap a shot of their own. Ultimately, it is unrealistic to imagine that Eastern spiritual traditions remain detached from the influence of globalization.
At least I learned to tell the difference between differently colored robes: orange and spice colors (often obtained with saffron or turmeric) are typical of South-East Asia and red robes are associated with Tibetan monks.
As great it is to travel with others, groups get in the way of doing impulsive things: everything has to be negotiated so that it fits everyone’s plans. On my last day in Bangkok, I found myself alone for the first time. As soon as I saw several groups of monks entering the same city backyard, I decided I will just follow them and see if I can take a short interview and maybe a few decent portraits.
I was lucky. Not only did I find several monks willing to exchange some words, but it also turned out that I had accidentally walked in the courtyard of Mahamkut- one of the two public Buddhist Universities in Thailand!
I had accidentally walked in the courtyard of Mahamkut- one of the two public Buddhist Universities in Thailand!
I found three young students who spoke English and kindly agreed to tell me more about themselves. They were all Nepalese. Turned out that Thailand attracts many foreign monks in its public universities. Although many people have the stereotype of a male monk, women have been allowed to fully participate in the monastic community since the dawn of Buddhism. The monks tell me there are many girls studying in Buddhist schools or attempting to become nuns, but there are some core differences in the education they receive. Boys and girls have to obey a different number of rules: 227 for the monks (bhikkus) and 331 for the nuns (bhikkunis).
“I don’t know how they cope with the task to detach yourself from emotions. I don’t think women can do that” says one of the monks and flashes a broad child-like smile. He does not mean to offend and says it most nonchalantly and sincerely. I am talking to Nepalese boys, but that attitude seems to be typical of the Thai people as well: whether they speak about a loved one passing away, hardship or something good, they just extend their smile to you and say what they want to say.
Being a monk is a great honour and a ticket out of poverty for many young Buddhist children, but completing the education does not necessarily lead to monastic life. One of the three boys said he was also taking classes which will allow him to be a teacher if he decides he would not take monastic vows. All of them smiled and said that they receive really quality education (including English classes) which also prepares them for secular life.The Pratimoksa (list of rules) governing fully ordained monks and nuns is very strict.
I asked them about their names and one of the monks said he could write it down. I had no pen with me so I handed him my phone with the Notes app on. He smiled and he shook his head: “I cannot take anything directly from a woman. Could you please it here on and I will take it”. And so I did. I am glad he helped me because I am sure I would have misspelt Ven Asahir Bajracharya, Buddhi Chaudhary and Rashes Bajracharya.
“I cannot take anything directly from a woman. Could you please leave the phone here and I will take it”
As I write them down now I checked online, just in case. I am beyond amazed to find photos of Buddhi online: turns out he has a blog about Buddhist philosophy! I told you to forget your naive expectations about where is the line between Eastern Philosophy & Globalization, did not I?