becoming a monk

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March 6th 2013
Published: March 6th 2013
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Every teacher has a student who drops out at some point. But not many can say their student dropped out to become a monk.

It is a Burmese tradition that three times in a man's life, he must stop what he's doing, go to a monastery, shave his head, and become a monk for at least two weeks. I think, if society allows for this (no one losing their job), it is a wonderful tradition. A time to get a personal reality check, get some perspective, and refocus those goals.

In this case, my 20 year old student became a monk because his father died last weekend. His mother had already died when he was quite young, and now he and his sister are parent-less. The death was apparently quite unexpected. My student took his university entrance exam, got a call from his father that he was feeling dizzy, and the man died a few hours later.

Yesterday another student got a call from him, asking if we'd like to visit the monastery. So we made a plan for today. The director of my school arranged for a car, to leave at 11:30. Typical Burmese style, the pickup truck arrived for us at 12:30. Then there was a little catch. For some reason, they had been confident that the students would be safe (from police; with no papers, they can't go into the main part of town) but when the car arrived, it was the exact same driver who had been driving when the police arrested a whole car load of students a few years ago. I don't know if it just seemed a bad omen, or if the man was distrusted as if he had tipped off the police, although he is Burmese, I really couldn't tell. But when he arrived, the director of my school spoke in hushed tones and no one got in the car except for the old grandfather (the director's father) who would stop by the monastery to say hi before going to the hospital, the director, myself, and my bike. The students all rode their bikes on back roads and met us there.

When we arrived at this Burmese temple, we pulled up a gravel road to see several buildings, including some housing for monks complete with clotheslines outside with brilliantly colored orange and orange-yellow monk clothes flapping in the breeze. And there stood my student! With a shaved head and wrapped in orange. I felt so happy to see him, and so uncertain about how to approach him and what to say. Death is a sensitive subject and handled so differently in different cultures, I wanted to be supportive but respectful. He came out to talk to the old grandfather, who couldn't leave the car. Then a few students arrived, and we followed our monk into a tiny building just large enough for a few people to kneel and for him, as monk, to sit like a cross legged statue on a mat. The other students and the school director then bowed to him, kneeling, foreheads to the floor, 3 times.

In a culture that so strictly values the hierarchy of elders and teachers, it was amazing to see the one thing that trumps both: being a monk. This young man, so recently a student and friend, was being revered as a holy person.

When the rest of the students arrived, the school director and grandfather left, and we walked around to see all the statues. It's interesting to see the differences between Thai and Burmese buddhism, if no more than the shapes of the Buddha statutes. He explained that there have been 4 gods on earth in this world, and we are waiting for the 5th and final god, at which point the world will end.

Later on, we sat around a table, drinking water and talking. Mostly they reverted to Burmese, which I can't blame them for, and I hoped that our visit served to lift our monk's spirits a bit. One student proposed playing a fortune game. Since our student-turned-monk must have some holier powers, he picked our fortune, between choices of: teacher, politician, king, monk, rich man, wise man, and doctor. My fortune for my future life was "king". They said maybe I could be king of my family. We tried again a different method, and I once again received the fortune of "king". Well, everybody knows monks can't lie, so I am pretty sure a kingdom is in my future.


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