The Laughing Monk
I’ve been interested in Buddhism for years – it speaks to me in ways that other religions do not. So when I saw the sign that said “Monk Chat” at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to one of the 700 monks who train at this temple. Just beyond the sign I found three young monks in mustard and saffron robes, sitting at concrete patio tables, deep in discussion with a middle aged man. When I approached, one of then quickly broke away and greeted me, proffering me a seat at a second table.
My monk was a tall, thin young man with a wide smile and huge ears protruding from his smoothly shaved head. He was clad in a silky burnt orange robe that hung from one shoulder, baring both arms and half his chest in the midday heat. He sat, arranging the yards of ankle-length material in his lap to keep it from dragging on the dusty cobblestones in the yard. In good English he told me his name was Udon and asked me what I would like to discuss.
I have read that monks are not allowed to have contact with women. In fact, if a woman wishes to make a donation to a monk or provide food for their begging bowls, they must either hand their donation to a man, who then gives it to the monk, or lay it on the ground so the monk can pick it up without having any direct contact with the woman. So the idea of sitting at a table, speaking directly with a monk, was a bit intimidating, but Udon quickly put me at ease by asking me the ubiquitous question, “Where are you from?” I told him I was from the USA, currently living in Florida.
“Well, the first thing I must tell you is that I am not Thai,” he said.
“Oh, really?” I said. “Where are you from?”
“I am from Ooosa,” he replied. Seeing the puzzled look on my face, he continued with a grin, “You do not know Ooosa?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“You do not know U..S..A?” he said between guffaws of laughter, his eyes squinted shut by the grin that split his face from ear to ear.
“No, really, I tell you the truth,” he continued. “I am from Laos but I study in U.S. for a year on scholarship from my high school.”
Udon is 21 years old and has been a monk since the age of 13. He became a monk ‘quite by accident’ as he says, when his mother died and his remaining family took him to the monastery. He explained that every monk is a novice until the age of 22; after reaching 22 monks have the option to be fully ordained.
“So, are you going to be fully ordained when you turn 22?” I inquired.
“Oh, noooooooo!” he said. Surprised, I asked him why not.
Again that grin crept onto his face as he explained, “Because when you are novice you have only ten rules – not to kill, not to steal, not to use cosmetics, not to lie, etcetera. But when you are ordained monk you have 227 rules. I think too many rules for me to remember.” He leaned back on his bench, snorting with peals of laughter.
For about a half hour we had a most interesting discussion about Buddhism, Udon explaining to me the Four Noble Truths, which declare that we suffer, that there is a way to end suffering, and that the way to end suffering is to eliminate desire. Additionally the Lord Buddha preached loving kindness and compassion. Udon declared that he could teach me the secret of eliminating suffering and offered to meet with me later that evening, as he had to leave for a prior appointment at that moment. Although I told him I would try to meet him at 7:30 PM, I was so exhausted by that time that I just couldn’t drag myself out again after dinner. I guess I will just have to learn how to eliminate suffering another time.