One of the best books about Buddhism in Thailand is undoubtedly “Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand” by Phra Peter Pannapadipo. Even if you are not interested in becoming a monk yourself, his vivid description of his ten years as a foreign monk in Thailand will give you an insight into Thai life and culture that would be difficult to find elsewhere. It is certainly one of my favourite books about Thailand and I was really happy when I was finally able to catch up with “Phra Farang” at home in Nakhon Sawan.
Since the events described in his book, he has now disrobed and resorted back to his previous name of Peter Robinson. He now works full time for The SET Foundation (SET), which awards scholarships to needy students. In this first interview, I talk to Peter about his time as a monk in Thailand. Next week, I will be asking him about what he has been up to since he left the monkhood. Peter now has three books published about Buddhism. “Little Angels: Real Life Stories of Thai Novice Monks” is also one of my favourites. His third book, “One Step at a Time”, about meditation techniques, has just been published by Bamboo Sinfonia.
Q. Before you became a monk in Thailand, how much were you prepared for the experience?
I was well prepared because I trained at the Thai monastery in the UK for three years before actually ordaining in Thailand. I had a fairly involved business and social life in London and I needed time anyway to withdraw from all that. For me, it was a gradual process.
Q. Was Thailand monasteries up to your expectations?
Not quite, because I had been trained by very senior and very disciplined Thai monks in the UK, so I naively expected to find the same level of discipline, understanding and commitment in Thailand. Almost immediately after ordaining at a monastery in Bangkok, I realized that many monks were not at all disciplined, some even knew very little about Buddhism and very few knew even the basics of meditation.
Q. If you had the time again, what would you have done differently to prepare yourself for life as a monk in Thailand?
Nothing. I think my way was the best way, to ease into it, but that was because of my particular circumstances in the UK. Although my studies and meditation practice were often difficult in the UK, at least I didn’t have the added difficulty of living in a strange environment at the same time. I have since met Westerners who have decided to ordain and who have come straight to Thailand, without any real preparation at all. Sometimes they don’t last very long in the robes.
Q. How would you describe the differences between a Thai temple in the West to one in Thailand?
I have no experience of Thai monasteries in the West, except in the UK. There, if it’s an official Thai monastery, the monks will usually have been chosen carefully by the Thai Sangha (Order of Monks) before being sent abroad. The monks will also often speak English and will have at least a basic understanding of British culture. They will also usually be able to teach pure Buddhism – which is what Europeans want – rather than the sort of hybrid Buddhism/Animism that is so common in Thailand.
Q. What kind of duties do the monks undertake for the lay people which is not strictly Buddhism?
I think the majority of Thai monks give the people what the people want, which is mostly blessings, charms and the like. If that helps the people then I suppose it’s not too bad, but it’s not exactly Buddhism. Unfortunately, many monks come from little country villages and are not well educated either in a secular or religious sense – which isn’t their fault – so they believe that the non-Buddhist practices they undertake actually are Buddhist.
Q. When there are no lay people around, do some monks just act like normal people by joking around and teasing each other?
Of course, but the point is that they are normal people. Lay people seem to think that the moment a man puts on the robes, he instantly becomes something special, but it can takes years to fully develop as a monk. Many young monks in Thailand are ‘short-time’ monks; they’ve ordained with the idea of staying in the robes for a couple of years, or for one Pansa (the 3-months Rains Retreat) or even just a couple of weeks. Of course they act like ’normal’ people. But there are also many long-term monks with 10, 20, 40 – even 60 – years spent in the robes and their behavior tends to be quite different.
Q. Over the years the Thai monkhood has received some bad publicity due to the antics of a small minority of monks. For example, sexual relations, drug use and other inappropriate behaviour. Is this only the tip of the iceberg and will things just get worse?
There have been and still are some very bad Thai monks, but I think the majority do the best they can, depending on their level of understanding of the Buddha’s teaching and their commitment to the teaching and way of life. But I think – or at least hope – that there are also some extremely good monks, maybe even arahants (saints) living in isolated caves and forests. We never see them, we never hear about them, but I believe they are there.
Q. Some abbots seem to be spending more money constructing bigger temple buildings or Buddha images rather than using the money to help people who really need it. Why is this?
This is a thorny issue, even within the Sangha. The monks only duty towards lay people is to practice well, thus becoming good examples to the lay people, and to teach the Dhamma to them. They have no mandate to be actively socially-involved. There are monks who are socially-involved – in helping the poor, protecting forests from illegal logging, in environmental issues and even in one case by setting up an AIDS hospice in the monastery – but they come under great criticism, both from other monks and from lay people, who claim that is simply not the monks’ job and that, anyway, monks are not trained in these issues.
Additionally, abbots must make a periodic report to the Sangha to say what they have achieved at their monastery. Their advancement up the monastic ladder, and the gaining of monastic titles, may be based on what they have done or are seen to have done. It is easier to show some new temple building, or another installed Buddha image, than it is to show Compassion in a solid and quantifiable form.
Q. You once said that you were expected to act more like a monk than a Thai person. That any indiscretion by a Thai monk is more forgiveable than if you had done it yourself. Why do you think that is?
Simply because there are so many Thai monks that they become part of the background for Thai people. But a Phra Farang (foreign monk) will always stand out in a crowd, so he must be more vigilant about his behavior than a Thai monk.
Q. At what stage did things change that made you feel that you were as good a monk as any Thai person?
From my first day!
This is continuing my interview with Peter Robinson, who is probably better known in Thailand as “Phra Farang”, the foreign monk. Peter spent ten years as a monk before finally disrobing in order to spend more time with his student charity,The SET Foundation (SET). I will be talking more with Peter about SET in a later interview and how you can help needy Thai students get a scholarship.
Q. In Thailand there are two Buddhist sects. Can you briefly explain what these are and the main differences?
The biggest sect is called Mahanikaya and the smaller sect is Dhammayuttika. Both follow exactly the same teaching and rules, but Dhammayuttika monks have traditionally been more strict in their practice. They tend to live in isolated monasteries without as much contact with the lay people and spend more time in meditation. Mahanikaya monks are often teacher or scholar monks, so they live in larger cities and towns where the people are.
Q. Sometimes you see monks wearing different coloured robes. Is there any significance in this?
Not really. Dhammayuttika monks usually wear a dark brown robe and city-based Mahanikaya monks often wear orange. Some monks may wear a deep red robe. It often depends on the choice of the abbot. In my ten years as a monk, I wore all three colors at various times.
Q. Some Western people see the alms round as monks going around the community begging for food. Do the lay people see this differently?
Definitely. Monks anyway do not beg and the rules forbid them from asking for anything. They simply walk in the streets with their alms bowls and if people want to offer food, the monks accept it. If the people don’t offer food, then the monk must go hungry.
Q. Do you still remember your first alms round? What were your main concerns when you were doing this?
I will never forget my first alms round because it was such an extraordinary spiritual experience. At first there were practical difficulties, like keeping my robe from falling off, or dropping my alms bowl, or being careful not to step bare-footed in dog crap. But I got use to these practicalities in a very short time.
Q. Did you ever feel embarrassed when you went on the alms rounds? Did you ever feel like you were a fraud or that people would treat you as a joke?
Not at all. What was to be embarrassed about? I was doing exactly what the Buddha did everyday and his monks have been doing the same thing for more than 2,500 years. Thai people never treated me as a joke – though my appearance seemed to give some foreigners a good laugh.
Q. I have seen some monks go out on their alms round on the back of a motorcycle taxi or standing outside a 7-Eleven convenience store. I have also seen some defending their “turf” from rival temples. Are there many Thai monks out there who are just there for an “easy life” or for the money that they collect?
Sometimes the monks you see standing around at 7-Elevens or wherever and asking for food or money are not actually monks at all. They are ‘false monks’ and the Sangha is very aware of the problem. It has its own investigator monks who go out with police looking for them and the police immediately arrest them, though they are not too harsh on them.
It is true that there are men who ordain just for an easy life, for free food and accommodation, and to make a little money by chanting blessings, but there are lazy people to be found in every walk of life.
Q. Why do Thai people prefer to give food and money to monks rather than to a charity or a poor family down the road?
Simply because they believe they make more merit by giving to the monks. One day, when I returned from alms round with enough food to feed six people, I found a lady waiting for me at my kuti, wanting to offer yet more food. I explained that I already had more than enough and suggested she take her food to the nearby orphanage. She looked at me as though I was crazy, and said “but there are no monks there”.
Q. I know monks are not supposed to handle money, but what expenses do they have that calls for money. I am thinking here of electricity bills?
Monks have no real expenses. The bills for water and electricity are paid for by the monastery from funds given by lay people, and monks don’t have to pay for their accommodation in the monastery. But even monks may need a little money sometimes. Thai lay people are very generous when it comes to giving food on alms round, but they may not think to give things like toothpaste, soap or other toiletries. I often had to buy these things myself when I was a monk.
Q. I sometimes see monks on buses or in taxis. Is this free for them?
The back seat of public buses is (or was?) for monks and they could travel free. Taxis or private transport are not free.
Q. These days many foreigners seem to want to become monks for a short period of time. Do you have any advice on how they can go about doing this?
For several years I ran a course for Westerners who wanted to ordain short-time as monks or novices. Most of the men responded very well but that was because there was no language or cultural barrier between us. I was also able to teach a more pure form of Buddhism than is generally taught or understood by Thai monks.
To really get the most out of it, any Westerner wanting to become a monk should ordain at a monastery with a senior English-speaking monk; someone who can really explain not only the rules but also the why of being a monk. Otherwise, it can be a total waste of time. Probably the best place for a Westerner to ordain is at the international forest monastery – Wat Pa Nanachat – in the northeast.
Q. You have lived in temples in both towns and rural countryside. Which do you prefer?
In my early days as a monk I needed the peace of a rural monastery because I had to practice very intensive meditation. Years later, I was needed to teach meditation to others, so I had to move to a city monastery. As a monk, I felt I should go where I was most needed, or where I could do the most good. But – country or city – it’s all the same really. Your personal space and your reaction to your immediate environment is all in the mind. Personal preference doesn’t really enter into the decision after a while.
Q. Life in temples can be quite challenging for Westerners used to soft beds and sitting down to three meals a day. What can they do to prepare themselves mentally and physically for life as a monk?
Unless they are in the same position as me and able to prepare over a long period, there is very little that can be done. But if the Westerner is truly committed to the Buddha’s teaching and the life of a monk, he shouldn’t be at all concerned about losing some home comforts. The benefits to be gained far outweigh any disadvantages.
Q. Even with all these preparations, will it still be a shock to the system?