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Published: June 10th 2017
Geo: 11.5588, 104.917
Early every morning in Thailand, around 6 or 6:30AM, barefoot monks go walking through the streets, the markets, past stores, stopping at every doorway, carrying their silver pots in front of them, pausing to collect the foods they will eat that day. Whatever offerings they receive are eaten only before noon; monks in Thailand do not eat after 12PM.
And this is what I have seen, and heard from reliable sources: every day, at various times, monks in Cambodia walk through the streets, wearing flipflops or sandals, sometimes talking on cell phones, carrying their silver pots in front of them, stopping to collect the foods offered to them. This is partly what they will eat that day, at least until their snacks come out during the afternoon.
How can monkhood vary so much from one country to another? In Thailand women can become monks; I have a female friend who was a monk for three years. In Cambodia women can only become nuns, to me a very different thing from being a monk. In both countries, male monks shave their heads, but female monks apparently can choose to do this or not, at least at some temples.
In Thailand I have seen many monks riding together on motos, also talking on their cell phones, wearing real shoes, shopping in malls, sitting in restaurants. None of this fits with what I understood being a monk was all about. When I see a monk, I respectfully offer a high wai; yesterday, in Phnom Penh, a young monk I wai-ed to said, "Yeah, right." I wondered if what I had learned and read about monkhood had any basis in fact. And yet yesterday I also saw and heard a monk chanting prayers right in the street, facing a man who had obviously asked to be blessed.
Another friend from Cambodia said that some men become monks when they have hit bottom, and think that by becoming a monk at least they will get fed and have a place to stay. This, to me, is disturbing, as I thought that being a monk was a calling, a spiritual decision, a life choice not made lightly, and certainly a decision that is not based on a physical need for food and shelter.
I have learned that many people become monks for only a short period of time, and then move on to other occupations, or may choose to become a monk on and off throughout life. This is a new concept for me, as, being brought up Roman Catholic, once an individual joined the priesthood or became a nun, it was supposed to be permanent, it was supposed to be their calling, their life. A few left, but in disgrace; here in SE Asia, it seems to be readily accepted for men to become a monk, at least for the first three or four times he does it; more than that is looked on with some disfavor. One older Thai man told me that all Thai men become monks for a period in their lives. Here is the life of every Thai man, he said: first there is young childhood, then school, then mandatory joining the armed forces for two years, then becoming a monk for a period of time, then he must find a job and work, and finally he can marry.
While I considered staying at a wat for a week or two early on during this trip, I don't think I ever could become a monk. First, I do not want to shave my head, but mainly, even though leading a contemplative life encompassing some solitude, and becoming more zen as I age are attractive, I am not Buddhist, and do not think I would make a good agnostic monk. Also, my feet are very sensitive, and I could not walk barefoot through streets, nor would I want to eat whatever people gave me as I trick-or-treated, monk-style, through the streets. That just does not seem to be a very healthy life choice in terms of eating, nor, as a vegan, would I survive long, as most of the food that was collected I could not eat. But another main reason for my not trying out monkhood is that I believe helping others is very important in life, and I do not see where most monks live a life of service, or help anyone. So I will continue to meander along on my current path, and just save any trick-or-treating activities for Halloween.
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