Monday, August 22, 2005

Monk chat

Like most of Thailand, Chiang Mai is a city full of temples, and with Buddhism being the major religion, that means we've also seen alot of saffron-robed, shaven headed monks too: monks buying and using mobile phones, monks hanging out with their non-monk friends, monks clipping each other around the ears, monks browsing in the markets looking at the things for sale.

At first I was surprised by monks engaged in such ordinary and consumerist behaviour, but then I learned that in Thailand training to become a monk is considered a rite of passage for most teenage boys, usually after military service. It is not unusual for them to train for several months -- earning spiritual "merit" for themselves and their families -- before returning to "civilian" life.

In some notorious cases, senior-ranking monks in this country have been accused of murder, rape, gun-running, drug-dealing, carousing in bars and flaunting Mercedes and Rolexes.

Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai is a spectacular chedi that once stood at 90 metres but was toppled to 60 metres by an earthquake in 1545. It's here that we first encountered the phenomenon of Monk Chat (Monday to Saturday, noon to 6:30pm), giving lay people the chance to chat with monks about Buddhism. Thai culture, and any other topic, in English.

Monk Chat was free, but carried a large enough warning on a signpost, giving rise to the realisation that there could be "bad" monks:

"Notice: The Monk Chat Club wants to inform our foreign guests for your own benefit that you are advised to chat with the monk who carries his ID card only because he has passed proper training in Buddhist knowledge and manners. If you encounter any monk who has been impolite or has caused you any trouble, please write his ID card number on a piece of paper and put it in the comment box [below]. The Monk Chat Club will not be responsible for any trouble that may arise if you talk to any monk who carries no ID card outside of the specified area."

We also visited Wat Umong -- a gorgeous temple set in a tunnel complex amid the tranquil mountainous forests surrounding Chiang Mai.

The temple was built in the late 1300s by a king who wanted to keep his brilliant but deranged monk Jan accessible at all times. Jan tended to wander off into the forests to meditate, so the king built a wat and decorated its tunnels with murals of trees, flowers and birds to simulate Jan's beloved forest.

Monks had attached Buddhist maxims in English and in Thai to all the trees around the wat:

"With each day passing, what have you been doing?"

"Merit making calculate to impress is not real."

"It's easy to know a man's face, but it is difficult to know his thought."

"A fool thinks of survival of his body at the expense of his spiritual death."

And my favourite:

"Indulging our senses and drinking salt water are alike: the more we partake, the more our thirst grow."

I'm afraid to say we have been doing nothing but indulging our senses in Thailand: there is so much to see and do and eat. This afternoon, for example, we indulged in a luxurious 2-hour spa treatment involving Thai massage, hot herbal compresses and aromatherapy massage at the Oasis Spa, owned by an American ex-pat who has settled in Thailand. And we plan on having several more treatments again at the Oasis and also when we return to Bangkok and stay at the Marriot Spa Hotel. But more on these later.

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