Living Like a Monk

As I came back into Thailand from the East, I heard about a famous English-speaking forest monastery, Wat Pah Nanachat, near the city of Ubon Ratchathani. Having completed a meditation retreat when in India and finding it useful, I was happy to hear about ‘spiritual’ places like this, where guests usually can stay for free. This monastery is known for welcoming lay guests to experience the life of a Forest Monk. Although I never had a real relation to Buddhism, I anticipated that spending a few days there could be inspirational and good for learning something more about meditation.

I reached Wat Pah Nanachat in the late afternoon after crossing the border from Laos. Rolling through the gate to the forest, I was impressed by its huge trees and found immaculately sweeped roads. As the whole place seemed very calm, I tried not to make too much noise, shut off the engine and got off the bike. I found it hard to get an overview with all the trees around, and opted for a small group of laymen wearing light-coloured clothes that looked a little like pyjamas. A guest from Denmark with smiling eyes and a shaved head approached me and introduced me to their daily schedule: Chores, morning chanting, food preparation, and first of all, a wake-up bell at 3 a.m.: This seemed to be a serious place! He told me that I could stay for the night, and register with the Guest Monk the next morning. The idea of getting up super early and only having one meal a day, at first, put me off a bit. Since I hadn’t had lunch on that day, I kindly excused myself and said I might come back another day in the morning. 

I went back to visit Ubon for two days, contemplating on going there or not… Well, what would I have to lose? There must have been something about this place, since it seemed to have quite a reputation. I decided to give it a try. When I arrived the other day at morning time, the place seemed much busier. I could see many locals from outside helping in the kitchen or coming for the morning chanting, some 20 monks and around ten to fifteen lay guests.

Being a layman for a week, it was particularly interesting to see how this monastery is integrated into the local community. Preparing the daily meal was a little social event of its own. Numerous villagers came every single day to help with cooking and neatly preparing the food.

At one day, I was able to join the monks on Alms Round, a tradition where monks go to the villages to receive food donations for the day. At dawn, we were leaving the monastery, two monks silently walking in front, and me tagging along. I accompanied the monks with a bigger bag to receive flowers or donations that wouldn’t fit in their bowls. We walked for around fifteen minutes before we approached the next village. From far away and next to the first house, I could see a woman kneeling on the side of the road, silently awaiting the monks and offering some of the rice she had cooked for the day. Seeing the graceful respect that she payed the monks was heartwarming. This impression continued throughout the village, with rows of villagers kneeling down, offering rice, food and drinks to the monks. Sometimes we had to stop, while an old lady approached or kids came rushing, also wanting to add something to the monks’ bowls. It seemed really important to them and for me being the only ‘outsider’ around, it was truly moving to witness. According to Buddhist understanding, monks are only allowed to eat what is offered and handed to them, and Alms Round has been a tradition that gratifyingly has been sustained so well.

Monks receiving food donations (picture from forestsangha.org)

Overall, I shouldn’t regret coming and staying at the monastery. Its beautiful forest setting does offer some quietude for reflection and it was also inspiring to meet other guests of various nationalities. Most of them were short- or medium-term visitors, a few were even intending to become a monk themselves. There was an American guy, who had been spending quite some time in monasteries in Sri Lanka and Nepal and accumulated a vast knowledge of the “Buddha Dhamma”, the worldview of the Buddha that is rooted in various spiritual teachings of the East and the West. He was entertaining to talk to and when asked, kept telling anecdotes from the Buddha’s life. There was a German guy who arrived a few days after me, saying he was wishing to ordain. I was impressed and at the same time asked myself whether he was running away from something. I eventually came talking to him, he told me he had been studying Buddhism for many years and now finally made the choice to become a monk. He also told me the story of saying goodbye to his parents and leaving to Thailand for good, which hasn’t been easy, he said. His father was jokingly dealing with it, saying that he would bring his mother to Thailand to visit him while he could relax at the beach.

Wearing the layman’s attire in Wat Pah Nanachat

What to learn from Buddhism

A friend was asking me whether I would become a monk myself now. I didn’t think so. Personally and at this point, I don’t feel the calling to or would adjust my life by a particular philosophy or religion. I think, however, it might be worth taking a look into Buddhism and seeing which aspects might be beneficial for the life of a non-Buddhist as well.

At a first look, Buddhism seems to be painting a dark picture of the world. With all its talk about the suffering, imperfection and impermanence that is in the nature of all things, it may raise the question what life is about anyway. What it wants to say at the core, however, is that real and lasting happiness can only come from within and never from outside. Sometimes it seems we are entirely dependent and defined by our surroundings and our thoughts, which, according to Buddhism, is not the case.

Intellectually, most people would agree with the rather simple truth that nothing is permanent and real happiness does come from within. At the same time, though, it is quite human to still cling to pleasant and to hold an aversion towards unpleasant experiences. It would be wrong to say that one shouldn’t enjoy a good meal, a hot shower, or a good time with friends, and that one shoudn’t care when something unpleasant happens. The crux that has to be understood here is that there is a thin line between liking something and then clinging to it, between disliking something and holding an aversion to it, and both forms of attachment, clinging and aversion, lead to suffering. 

The path to come to this understanding is, according to Buddhist wisdom, through mere experience. The key is to “know thyself” or, simply put, to be mindful. Establishing mindfulness surely can be a challenge, since our minds are not trained for sustained, non-judgemental attention, but rather are like monkeys, jumping from a thought to the other, from a remembrance of the past to some planning for the next vacation to a sound we are hearing from outside, and so on. You can try it yourself: Try to think about nothing for two minutes. It’s funny where your mind can take you in such a short time, and most of the time, you don’t even realise it. 

In order to establish more mindfulness, meditation comes into play, which makes you aware of the normal, above-mentioned behaviour of the mind. It’s basically just a more formal way of mindfulness. Quite naturally and in the process, meditation helps you to establish some more stability of attention. More clarity, happiness, or peace, which often are mentioned in the meditation context, are the by-products.

In a world where so many things are competing for attention, it is no wonder that the terms ‘meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’ have become so popular, and have been used exhaustively, sometimes without a clear understanding what they actually encompass. There have been many reports about the positive and insightful effects mindfulness meditation can have on one, and in this way, I can encourage everyone to take a look into it. Meditation can be done in any place with low distraction and 5 or 10 minutes are enough for the start, so why not give it a try? I’m happy to provide some reference if you’re interested — feel free to ask me about it here.

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