The East tempts with its comforting promise of Zen. Minimalism. Meditation. Monks in orange robes. A sitting Buddha. Chat with monks. A peaceful world where salvation from our algorithm-conducted western lives awaits. Or does it?
I arrive at dawn. The morning nurtures hope as I set feet on the land of the world’s most Buddhist country. The buildings are architecturally miserable, it smells like frying oil and the air is dense with smoke. Occasional perfume island traces of tourists, left in the open to vanish, remind me of life’s transience. Yet, this colorful city lures foreigners from all over the world and bounds them to stay. It works its charms on me, as well.
Once the ancient capital of the kingdom of Lanna, Chiang Mai has now transformed into a creative hub with explosive 4G connection. It is also home to some of the best cafes I’ve ever been to – not only because of their unique ambiance but also because of the exquisite, state-of-the-art cups of coffee they serve. There, in between the vibrant life and hippy-like westerners, locals in orange robes mingle and smile.
I pick up a taxi from the airport to the Co-living space where I will be staying. It is closed for another 2 hours. As I sit and wait, I take in the city’s ambiance—busy traffic with a dash of monks, walking on imaginary sidewalks. If you do a search on the best things to do in Chiang Mai, an exotic suggestion comes up— “Chat with Monks”. The phrase inflames a sequence of thoughts in my mind. Somehow the randomness of a chat seems to clash with the profound nature associated with a monk. That orange robe which speaks of wisdom just does not fit into the frame of a shallow chat. The following days, I explore the city beyond the browser’s suggestions, but the monk experience haunts me and eventually, I give into my curiosity.
Chat with Monks
“Chat with Monks” is an informal cultural exchange program that allows younger monks to practice their English. It is a great way to learn about Buddhism and Thai culture while sharing curious facts about yours. The event takes places in a few different locations. I choose Wat Chedi Luang, which is nestled in the Old Town of the city and is one of the more popular and grandiose temples. I check on any prerequisites, other than respectful long sleeve clothing. Nothing. There is no need to RSVP, so I just go. As I enter the premises of the temple which consists of multiple buildings, I search my way to the tables where men dressed in orange robes, sitting under the shade, welcome those who wish to have a chat.
Even though I am respectfully covered, an initial awkwardness stretches in the air. The presence of a women is something monks seem to be uncomfortable with. I choose the power of laughter to stir up the tension and I ask them to teach me Thai. Laughter is in order! Thai is a language of tones, you don’t speak it, you sing it. One and the same word, pronounced with a different tone may end up being an offense rather than the intended compliment. My vocal skills are poor. I believe I end up ‘singing’ curse words and that amuses the monks. We laugh. The ice breaks.
I spend an afternoon in the company of Phra and a few other teenage monks. We talk about their routine, their perceptions of life and motives to follow the path of enlightenment. Beyond any transcendental reasons, most of them do so because their families are too poor to support their education. Becoming monks is their only chance to grow and learn.
I can see the spark of curiosity that lurks in their eyes. They, too, wander about the world, seeking answers in ancient readings and beyond. Their hunger for knowledge is so vivid, it makes me think of all the lazy kids in developing countries who skip school, spoiled by the opportunities and choices they have. A waste of a sort, isn’t it? I wonder, why does scarcity have to be the primary fuel to discipline and desire for knowledge? Why can’t appreciation ignite the same?
I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life (both human and non-human).
I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given (for example stealing, displacements that may cause misunderstandings).
I undertake to abstain from sexual activity.
I undertake to abstain from wrong speech: telling lies, deceiving others, manipulating others, using hurtful words.
I undertake to abstain from using intoxicating drinks and drugs, which lead to carelessness.
I undertake to abstain from eating at the wrong time (the right time is after sunrise, before noon).
I undertake to abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories).
Most of the things they need to abstain from are not very surprising. And while I don’t see anything wrong with singing and dancing, who am I to say? Then again, why does Buddha laugh? The paradox, though, presents itself when I ask whether they have smart phones. They sure do! This is the point when absurdity reaches another level. Is it that having a meal in the afternoon sabotages your journey to spiritual awakening, but being online does not? Is it possible that social media is strong enough to breach through thousands of years of religious traditions?
“Chatting with monks” may be a clashing oxymoron, yet the experience itself is binding. The utopian image of the East is wired with the progress of the West. In the womb of globalization, comfort and peace are a journey within. Life is full of contradictions. Instead of avoiding or banishing them, why not marry them in an oxymoron? After all we live in times of virtual reality, unbiased opinions, paid volunteers and, at the end of the day, I am sure we can all agree to disagree.