How I Became Facebook Friends with a Monk
Before traveling to Thailand with the Carolina Southeast Asia Summer Program, I didn’t know all that much about Buddhism or monkhood. Honestly, I imagined monks as spending their lives in constant reflection and denial, reading and studying and forgoing the pleasures of food, technology and social interaction. But my hour-long conversation with a novice monk changed all that.
What began as a shopping trip/temple tour in Chinatown with my friends and SEAS participants, Kristin Kent and Maili Lim, turned into an education on Buddhism that broke down all of my initial preconceptions. Kristin, Maili and I had meandered our way through street after street of herbal and medicinal shops, tea stands, food stalls and an entire shoe district. Then, wandering away from the shops, we walked through several Buddhist temples. At the first temple, we came across a group of kids playing basketball, and at the second, we saw a few young boys clad in saffron pajamas, denoting their status as novices, or monks-in-training.
Looking through Kristin’s tour book, we came across Wat Chakkrawat, described as a “simple temple,” so we took a tuk tuk (best described as a tin can with three wheels) down a few back roads and got out at the temple gates. At first, wandering inside, we didn’t see much to look at, except for a large monk lounging under the shade of an umbrella.
But then we saw another novice with a saffron robe draped over his shoulder, watching us from behind the courtyard gates. We asked to take a photo with him, using lots of hand motions to get our request across. He answered us in English, introduced himself as Santirat Phuangmali, and then showed us the book in his arms: an English textbook, chock full of Thai-English vocabulary and the rules of changing verb tenses.
So what began as a request for a quick snapshot turned into a courtyard conversation about Santirat’s journey to monkhood and about the five precepts of Buddhism. The 20-year-old said that he joined the monastery 10 years ago, leaving behind his parents, who live in a different province in Thailand. Santirat, who goes by the nickname of Nueng, meaning “One,” because he is an only child, said that he misses his parents but was led into monkhood because of the values Buddhism upholds. He’s learning English with the hope of traveling to Chicago in 2016 (the year he figures he’ll be fluent in English) to spread the tenets of Buddhism. He said when his English is good enough, he’d like to share those values with us.
Partway through our conversation, he left us at a checkerboard table to grab a pad and pen, as well as a few English books on Buddhism. The aids facilitated the conversation, but his English was already excellent. Santirat said he’d only been studying English for a month, a fact that made me realize how much more productive we would be if we all became monks.
Santirat may have just started his study of the English language, but that didn’t stop him from walking us through the five precepts of Buddhism. They mandate that you refrain from: hurting others, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. Pretty good, considering the fact that we were the first English speakers he’d ever had the opportunity to speak with!
I say that he had the opportunity to talk with us, but really we were the ones who benefited the most. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know all that much about Buddhism. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in learning, especially while I’m in Thailand, which has a population that’s 94 percent Buddhist.
But I gained a lot more than knowledge on Buddhism. I got an inside view of the everyday life of a monk, which consists of a lot more than hours of reflection and study, like I’d originally supposed. Santirat said he spends a good portion of his day teaching children about Buddhism (talk about social interaction!), and he also has access to a computer.
And that brings me to yet another benefit of our conversation. When I returned from Chinatown after an excellent street dinner of duck noodle soup, I had a new Facebook friend request. It looks like our courtyard conversation was the first of many to come.
Emily Palmer, a rising junior global studies and creative writing student from Durham, is an intern for the Carolina Alumni Review. She is blogging for the Review and wants to hear about your can’t-miss experiences while at Carolina.