Many temples in Chiang Mai offer Monk Chats, where English-speaking monks are available to chat with, answer questions, or share knowledge about Buddhism or their life as monks. It’s an awesome opportunity to learn about Buddhist culture and real practice straight from someone who knows about it firsthand.
We were nervously looking over (just like the sign says not to do), and a monk waved us over with a smile. I’m happy to report we didn’t walk away (like the sign suggests many do). Another monk at the table next to him was with a group of Christians and we overheard they were discussing Christianity. There was no tension or awkwardness in the air though, it was a very welcoming setting.
The first thing we learned was that he was actually a novice; not all the people we see in robes and with shaved heads are monks. You can enter practice and become a novice at any age, but must be 20+ years old to be a monk. Some can even just become monks at age 20+ without having ever been a novice.
I’m afraid I don’t remember the name of the novice we met and talked to, but he was kind and patient in answering what we were a bit afraid were silly/basic questions. He was very open and friendly and I never felt like a question we asked was silly, or repetitive, though I imagine people come and ask the same questions day after day.
Here’s a bit more of what we learned from our conversation, in no particular order.
- He became a novice at age 12, and is soon to become a full monk (he’s recently turned 20). He knew he wanted to become a monk as a child because he liked temple, praying, and his studies, which he continued at school at the temple.
- He lives at the temple, wakes at 5:30 every day.
- He and the other monks meditate every day. Sometimes it’s 10 minutes, sometimes it’s 30, sometimes more, but it’s something that needs lots of practice. Meditation and mindfulness can be practiced while doing other activities, such as eating lunch, or washing dishes. It’s just the focus on the present.
- The mind rules the body. Our state of being is very much psychological. He told us an example of something that happened in Europe, where people were sentenced to death, they were blindfolded, someone used a blade-less knife to “cut” the neck (without actually cutting), and water was poured from the neck to the feet, mimicking the sensation of blood. People actually died because they believed in it even though ostensibly, there was no harm done. The mind is so powerful, nothing is impossible.
- There is black magic and white magic. White magic can never be used to harm. Black magic is when people use their thoughts to inflict ill on others. According to him, there are accounts of people going to the doctor for mysterious/unexplainable pains or illnesses. For example, people have found that there are literal nails in their stomachs, but they have no recollection of eating any. This would likely be black magic.
And my favorite insight:
- Being a monk is a daily decision. He decides each day that he wants to be a monk. If at any point he doesn’t want to be a monk, that is ok, and it’s that easy to leave. Talk about true mindfulness and living each day in the present!
Here are a few monks made of wax inside a few of the temples:
I forgot to ask why they were there, but that’ll be my first question for another Monk Chat 🙂