Life in a Thai Temple

** This article has now been published in “Thailand Life” by Panrit “Gor” Daoruang. Available at Asia Books and all good bookstores in Thailand. On the Internet, it is available at BuyThaiBooks.com.

This afternoon, I went to visit Phra Nattawud at the temple where he has been a monk for the past three weeks. This was the first time I had seen him since the time I acted as his “temple boy” during his morning alms round. I had decided to wait for him to settle down before I asked him about life in the temple. To be honest with you, I was quite shocked and amazed when I learned about his typical day. Before you read on, I should point out that not all temples are the same. Some abbots are very strict and others are more lenient. You will also find that some people will become monks as a “career choice” whilst others are doing it because of circumstances beyond their control.

I first asked Phra Nattawud to describe a typical day for him.

“I usually get up at about 5 a.m. and then take a shower. I then prepare myself to go out on the alms round. It takes a while for me to put on all of the robes. I then leave at about 6 a.m. When I come back, I put all the food on a tray and sort it out. For example: curries, desserts and drinks. We then give some food to the Buddha image and do some chanting. After that we just eat until we are full. I then usually go back to sleep for a few hours. Sometimes I walk around the temple grounds and chat with other monks. Sometimes we watch t.v. We do this until lunchtime which is about 11 a.m. We cannot sit down for lunch later than 11.30 a.m. Most people think we cannot eat after mid-day. But that isn’t true. If we don’t get up from the table, we can actually eat all afternoon! But no-one is going to do that because that is crazy. In the afternoon I might sleep again or chat with the other monks. Sometimes I watch t.v. In the late afternoon, when it has become cooler, we then do our chores. We sweep around the temple and water the plants. At 7 p.m. I go with a group of other monks to the big meeting hall to chant. Not everyone goes. It is your choice. We chant for about one hour. After that, my group of monks usually goes to sit by the river and drink and chat. When I say drink, I mean soft drinks! We are not allowed alcohol. We chat there until about 9 p.m. Then we go to bed.”

What was it like on your first alms round?

“It made me very uncomfortable to walk around because everyone had to wai me and pay me respect. Even my parents. It was hard to get used to that. I also had to walk with bare feet and it hurt a lot. Sometimes it is a concrete road and sometimes it is gravel. I think there is something in a cut in my foot as it still hurts now. I have to walk several kilometers every day. I have never walked so much in my life. Wan Phra is the worst day. This is the Buddhist holy day like your Sundays. A lot of people come out to make merit on those days. I had so much the other day that it filled up three or four bags. I had to come back by motorcycle taxi as it was too much to carry. We cannot refuse them because it would be very rude. That is also the day when we get a lot of money. They put it in envelopes for us as a way of making merit. Some monks can get 1000 baht or more. These monks have been here a long time so they know the good places to hang out. But I only got less than 200 baht. We keep the money ourselves because we have to pay for everything at the temple. We have to pay for electricity and water and things like that.”

What things have you found the hardest so far?

“The hardest thing for me so far is studying the yellow book. This is full of chants that we have to use during the day. Some chants we use everyday and they are the easiest to remember. However, sometimes we are invited to people’s houses or funerals and there are different chants for us to remember. To help us, one of the monks is a senior and he leads the chanting and we follow. I cannot just pretend I am chanting by moving my lips. I really have to chant. I go outside the temple to do this about once or twice a week. We all take turns. The abbot is the person who chooses which monks can go. But he makes sure everyone has an equal chance. This is because we usually make money when we go and everyone wants to do it. And the food is always very good. I sometimes get between 200 and 500 baht each time. But, one of my friends recently got 1000 baht for chanting at an ordination. It wasn’t my turn that day.”

Out of the 227 precepts you have to keep, which ones do you think are the hardest?

“I don’t really know them all. There are too many. I think you have to be here a long time before you can remember them all. But for me, the difficult ones are: not being allowed to be alone with a woman, not eating after lunch, not sleeping with a long pillow or on a soft mattress. But some monks do have a comfortable beds and pillows. They even have air-conditioning, cable tv and computer in their room. There are different kinds of monks here. Some are serious about being a monk. Others are here because they cannot do anything else. If you stay in the right temple, it can be quite a comfortable life. Good food and good money. I think most monks make about 10,000 baht a month. There are of course some bad monks. I know that the ones in the kuti next door to mine take drugs. They order the drugs by mobile phone and it is delivered to their door by motorcycle taxi in the evening. Talking about delivery. Guess what I had for lunch today? My aunt ordered pizza for me!”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I was pretty shocked by the layback attitude of the monks. It almost seems too simple. I thought it was supposed to be a hard life. If all temples are like this then I think it could be easy for me to be a monk. But then, what would the point be? If I am going to do something like this, I would want to do it properly. Otherwise there is no reason to do it. I might just as well stay at home. Of course, like I said in the introduction, abbots in other temples are far stricter. Some of them won’t even let monks ordain if they have tattoos or if they smoke. Now, the question is, has Phra Nattawud gained anything from this experience? I will keep that question for later. It won’t be long before he disrobes and comes back to his normal life. But first, the abbot has to consult his astrological charts to find the most auspicious day and time for doing this. Why is that so important? I will tell you all about it next time.

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