Monday, October 11, 2010
Monday, October 4, 2010
I was happy to receive my monthly stipend early, though it's probably not a good thing because I'll likely spend it a little faster than I'd like to... I missed beginning Thai because I couldn't drag my sorry ass out of the bed. This is a problem, and I probably will do something similar this week... This night will likely be a blurry one, also. Today, I met some cool Thai guys on the street that I usually turn onto on my way to Wang Lang pier. They were both younger, and quite friendly.
The crazy forty year old Thai woman that I met on the ferry on my way back from Ko Chang has not stopped calling me...I just don't what good could come from a...sexually aggressive...woman following me around Bangkok. And, yes, she WAS a woman. OK so hopefully she'll quit harrassing me soon and I can forget about the whole ordeal.
I went to some markets with friends, stayed up late into the night playing music on the roof with other international students from my building....
I always thought that as long as you work hard, you can play hard as well. With few in-class assessments at Thammasat, I feel like I haven't been working hard at all, or at least don't really know where I am at with everything. Things move quite slowly at Thammasat, but then again, Thais (from what I hear) see Americans as hasty, impulsive and rushed. This is probably true, but I really enjoy the feeling of completing “projects.”
Successfully woke up on time today, also making it to class on time- Buddhism with Dr. Mano. He is one of the most knowledgable instructors I have ever taken a religious studies course under. Some of the students find his methods, I don't know, perhaps dry or “not personal enough.” I try to tell them that he is going to give you a rather exhaustive academic overview of Thai Buddhism. He does not at all intend to teach you how to BECOME a Buddhist...
Attended a great Thai barbecue buffet near 3J court. I also pulled more food off the buffet than I was able to eat, and felt like a stereotypical wasteful American. I guess everyone is a product of their native culture. I am usually quite frugal with resources, even if they are not my own. Part of the problem in this particular situation was that the ENTIRE group of students- not all from America, I might add- all “over shot” how much they could consume in one setting. I wonder if any of the Thai locals around us thought the same thing I was thinking.
The music tonight was quite an improvement, and the group is getting bigger (onlookers, at least). I've got a good feeling about this.
I felt a litte feverish this morning, so I missed Thai class again. I CANNOT let this happen within the next month. Bad habits form quickly, and that is a class I NEED to learn something from, at least while I'm here in Thailand. I finally got up, and decided to give my room a good clean. I organized all my things, as I have neglected to do for a week or so. After a shower, I started to feel pretty good about my day. Maybe some errands are in order; perhaps I will stay away from Khao San and head to Ayutthaya early tomorrow morning. I decided to not take the tour of the grand palace with Society and Culture, as I had already visited twice in August.
My friend here, Taiju expressed interest in going with me to Ayutthaya, and our friend Chris also wants to go.. so now we have a little group, Three Musketeers, haha. I do, however, wish we had a few cute girls coming with us too. Sometimes, however, girls somewhat complicate things... There are plenty of cool girls here, but chances are, if you have a group of them, one will have special needs. Perhaps maybe I say that because I have experienced 'demanding' situations with females a few times... I'm sure everyone is a little needy sometimes, however. I realize perspective clouds judgement.
Ayutthaya was AMAZING. It was so nice to visit Ayutthaya and Khmer era wats. The more 'modern' ones that are common to Bangkok all begin to run together after awhile. I tried to avoid those (the more modern ones) in Ayutthaya.
This was the first place that I encountered impatient, rude Thai people- they all worked at the ticket booths at the UNESCO sites! I guess I just have to get over it. Some people are just going to be impolite because I am both a sort of tourist, and I am farang. Overall, VERY enjoyable trip, but I was so pissed my camera battery was dead for the entire time spent touring. No pictures.
I was particularly impressed but the wat that one could climb down into to look at beautifully preserved frescoes. I enjoyed climbing on another two or so, though it felt slightly dangerous without rails or anything to really hold onto in case someone was close to taking a tumble off the edge. I was amazed that some of these wats were adorned with “monk-orange” cloth around the tops and figured that only a monk or lay person that knows the wat or stuppa very well could climb a specific route in order to hang the fabric. It is definitely an amazing feat. When I think more about “dressing” the wats and chedis, I can't help but wonder if the practice might be influenced by animism-type beliefs. Someone is, in a sense, personifying a beautiful inanimate object.
I woke up around 15:35, this was very late for me. At Kuhn Khai Kitchen, I had some green curry chicken and rice, and soon went with a friend to the the Hare Krsna center on Itsarahap Rd. We ended up in a district occupied mostly by people from Nepal and Burma (Myanmar). I say Burma, because that is what many of the immigrants refer to it as, most likely for political reasons. If they claimed to be from Myanmar, that is the word I would use to describe their geographical location of origin. Meeting was great...kirtan(singing) was enjoyable, and prasadam(a meal offered to Krsna) was great as well...I love a good vegetarian meal.
Also refreshing, was being in a central-asian community. Many of the Nepali people speak better English than Thai, and I love their accent. I always percieved Hare Krsna as a Hindu movement in the west, but it appears that its influence is quite strong in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India as well. When I spoke with a Nepali man, Alex, on Koh Chang, he told me that crowds at the center were typically thirty or forty people. There must have been at least eighty in the tiny upstairs room we occupied. Kirtan (singing) lasted nearly two hours! This is much longer than I am accustomed to...
No class, just wandered around the amulet market and made friends. Buying an 'authentic' amulet is going to be quite a challenge, I think. I spent time talking with a friendly vendor who was genuinely interested in learning about America. He told me he wanted to travel there one day with his son. We exchanged contact information and I told him I would be back to see him one day.
Just walking around that market gives me the impression that Thai people are really preoccupied with their luck. It is not uncommon to see a Thai man in his early fifties walking around with a chest covered in numerous varieties of sacred objects and amulets. The most common items appear to images of the Buddha, which may depict him standing or meditating (most common). Also many people wear a sort of tube- either filled with a roll of tiger's skin upon which a mantra has been written, or perhaps some sacred earth. Tiger and human teeth are worn, as well as carved wooden phallic objects. From what I understand, there are “authentic” amulets that are kept for some time by a monk and perhaps made with some sacred earth or cremation ash, which one wears around one's neck. These are differentiated from ones that look similar, with oftentimes less detail and made with a sort of stamp; they kept in an owner's pocket for good luck. Some Thais maintain that the “authentic” amulets actually protect the wearer from harm.
Thai Traditional Medicine was a breeze today. I was kind of pissed off that so many people were ill-prepared for our quiz and tried to leech off me. I need to relax, I suppose. Took an early nap and woke up in an awful mood. Decided not to drink tonight...beer has become too regular, really. Beat IT before it beats YOU.
The homeless lady grabbed my balls...ughh she's gross honestly, but she also told me a bunch of things in Thai I didn't understand, and it was nice that a local opened up to me. THEN she showed me her dog-bite. I'm actually freaked out, and it takes ALOT to freak me out. Still, I did not run away. I suspect that the woman is mentally insane, and this is sad for me.
I think that Thailand's social programs are not quite as good as the states, when it comes to rehabilitating people, etc. On the other hand, however, there are plenty of people who would rather live on the street as a drug-addicted beggar than sober up and actually own some things.
YES! I made it to Thai class today. I didn't really miss much last week, and we are going to begin writing. It's going to be a drag to fill out these practice sheets, but whatever. Presentation tomorrow in Buddhism. Group meeting went OK. I met a monk at Wat Mahatat; he fed me well and sent me away with food and an invitation to come back. Also, after an hour or so of discussion, he said that I could go collect food with him early in the morning if I so desired. I plan to take him up on this awesome cultural opportunity. Also, on the roof we had a great group and I met some cute girls that, though funny, still a little childish perhaps.
I soon turn twenty-four, and I feel like others and myself in the twenty-two to twenty-five range are a a real weird spot, emotionally and responsibility-wise. I'm probably just realizing that I have grown up (more or less). This summer, I found myself invited to many more parties and 'get-togethers' by people three to ten years older than me. I'm beginning to perhaps 'fit-in' a little better with young adults; by 'young adults,' I mean people ranging age twenty to thirty. The only problem with all this is that I, and many of my same age peers still seem to be in a bit of an in-between place. Perhaps sometimes we are ultra-responsible, while at other times we still hold on to a little bit of our former childish personality traits.
Today, I sat and thought about the learning opportunity I had been presented with at Wat Mahatat. For an aspiring American anthropologist and religious studies scholar, this type of opportunity is rare and fortunate. I would not just be learning about Buddhism and monastic life, but I would also learn about Thai culture, and myself.
Almost as interesting as the opportunity Ajarn Charan had offered me was the way I came across him. I was walking around Wat Mahatat, looking for someone from the clergy to interview regarding Buddhist genesis and eschatology. I had a presentation to do on the subject in Buddhism in Thailand, and thought it only fitting to get the perspective of a knowledgable Thai Buddhist, regarding their persepective on the beginning and end of things.
I walked with Ajarn Charan today(for the first time), and learned many things about Thai Culture as well as Buddhism. It was an amazing early morning walk, and I was able to wake up with the rest of Bangkok. I also ate lunch at Salak 3 (his place), and enjoyed easy, free-flowing conversation. I will post a letter to my friends back in the states...this is TOTALLY where I am coming from at this point.
I hope you are well...heard that you got a LITTLE BIT of rain not too long ago. Hope you or nothing of yours was swept away or smashed by a fallen tree (or whatever else could happen)! I guess fall is happening there right now; thankfully, I won't have to deal with the cold until I return to the states January 1st. The weather here is hot and muggy- just like MHC, actually, so I'm doing pretty well. Also, people in Thai cities LOVE their air-con...on the islands, not so much, but when you're at the beach, it dosen't really matter either way.
I really feel like this is the friendliest place in the world. Even in Bangkok, I have yet to even hear about someone getting into a confrontation- except for cases like when some Arabic guys the other day (drunk as shit)- one of them got pissed at a big American (marine or army-looking) dude that got in his way or was rooting for the soccer team that he didn't like or something. He started saying 'fuck America, FUCK America!" His Arabic friend was like shut the fuck up you're drunk...and the Thai people that owned the bar were like ..he needs to calm down.. The big American marine guy was super cool and didnt even care... Well then the guy eventually goes "FUCK AMERICA, FUCK YOUR MOTHER!!" The Thai guy KICKS him to the curb outside...and then his friend was trying to apologize and he gets karate chopped in the neck HAHA! AND SLAPPED!! Basically, unless you are a complete douche, you will not EVER have problems...and the people that ARE douches, well I like to watch.
Don't worry, you know I will have PLENTY of stories to tell you next time I see you...you'll probably get tired of them, there are so many equally as crazy as any other. I got to ride an elephant, and that was cool. I haven't... any prostitutes or picked up a hard drug habit, either, like so many people in the US assume Thailand is conducive to.
I have actually found a Thai Buddhist master and I spend four to six hours a day with him. He is a sixty-three year old monk that has been a monk for forty years. Definitely one of the wisest people I have ever met. I eat twice a day at the temple and wake up at 4:45 a.m. every day so I can meet him at his home in the temple complex before six a.m. We go collect food offerings in the mornings, sometimes it's just him, another younger monk and I, or sometimes a few others come too. We always have extra food and it feeds the monks, me, and members of the community we redistribute it to. Classes here are so chill, that without a job, I was just drinking ALL DAY for awhile, but this is good, because now I have something really positive to do with my time. The whole thing is a committment, but for me, such a special opportunity. I get to give back and learn at the same time.
I'm sure everyone is looking forward to the Seafood Festival. I'm not really trying to think about working whenever I get back, but I WILL be excited to cook some of the delicious food I've eaten here. I hope you are happy and healthy, with some good things to say when you write me back! I will try to make it out there in January. I look forward to trying to see all of you!
OK, love you guys!!
This is not the first e-mail I plan to post here. After careful thought about my life over the past month, I think that including my correspondance with people back home is an excellent way to document my experiences. In my mind, it is not that different than using interview transcripts a data-gathering tools for anthropological research. Anthropology is my strong-point, discipline wise... or at least, I am most familiar with its methods and practice.
Attended Thammasat's “Mangrove Forest Conservation Trip.” We did some good things, but the trip had so little to do with any environmental education that it was disgusting. Who decided we were to be lied to and wrote our itenerary? That whole schedule of events was a lie, or perhaps highly disorganized. The trip was extremely touristy and we would sometimes spend 2 hrs. at a meal, instead of making the most of our time- the trip was only for less than two days total...but the 'puddle sliding' and mudfight were fantastic, I admit.
Instead of a brown sugar making presentation, we had a somewhat lame karaoke festival. This was not a productive or even mildly educational adventure, but sometmes I just have to tell myself 'mai ben rai,' and just deal. No worries because good times don't really find you, you just have to find a way to always have a good time!
Second day of mangrove trip...most of it was the ride back. It totally blew. I hated that a 1.75 hr. trip really took 4 hours. I donlt mind taking my time, but sitting on a bus for 30 or 40 minutes before even moving does kind of piss me off. I like taking time at meals or in conversation, within reason- I think I am more patient than most westerners, but if nothing is happening and we could be making more of our time...why are we just sitting around? This is culture shock...I must still not be over it or something.
Either way, we are running on 'Thai time'- once again: 'mai ben rai'...
My foot was injured so I didn't walk with Ajarn today. Waking up with an injury two days post accident is usually the worst, pain-wise. I did, however, hang out with the motortaxi drivers later during the night... Knowing the people you pass every day, back and forth towards home is one of those things that really makes one feel at home. Before I left, a few of my co-workers in the states told me that they were making bets that I would not return back to the states, for whatever reason. Right now, I feel like I can see the logic behind that type of conclusion.
Walking early today, with two friends. We were “learning together.” Also, group discussion on mindfullness, among other things. Ajarn says “You mind, look like a monkey. Always going here, there, into everything; cannot to stay- still. Meditation calm you mind. You meditate, you have mindfullness.”
It's great the way focus groups basically evolve out of an informal gathering of like-minded individuals. Other people really help expand issues and I know from experience that an organic-type focus group is also a great tool for anthropological research. It's amazing what collective energy can do.
Even thinking more about collective energy reminds of the idea of collective effervescence. This term has been used to describe the inexplicable events that occur during religious ceremonies and rituals. Even outsiders present at indigenous religious ceremonies have remarked that they may very well have witnessed so kind of spiritual event. There are also scholars and theorists in Metaphysics that believe thought contains, or has its own sort of energy... We are going to try to get some kind of group together for guided meditation. We will see what kind of collective energy we can create and share beween ourselves.
My day began early, once again. I gathered food as the only lay person, so I had to push the small food cart, take it back to the wat with the other monk, and then dash back out to meet ajarn for the last of his route. When I came alone, he said : “You very good man. Many people practice, practice, practice, but they never able to change themselves to do some things.” He then said a few things that basically emphasized the importance of plasticity when it comes to learning the most from another culture.
This was rewarding for me to hear, as I think it may indicate my future success as an Anthropologist. I knew somehow that my time in Southeast Asia would be a good gauge for my aptitude as a cultural researcher and analyst. So far, so good.
Special Buddhist day today. We collected a massive amount of food. It was likely eighty-five kilos, compared to an average of around fifty.
I also had a presentation in Buddhism class. My first part was not so well delivered, and I probably seemed quite nervous, but the second part was quite natural. Our subject, 'Genesis and Eschatology in Buddhism'- was actually quite mind numbing after awhile.
Following our presentation, Dr. Mano gave a particularly long and mindnumbing lecture. He is a true scholar, of course, but I think he could do a better job engaging students sometimes.
My friend Jill attended the food collection with me- 'bin ta baan.' I really enjoyed spending the day with her. We had never hung out before or really talked much, but she was pretty cool. You never know how someone is going to act/feel at five in the morning.
Thai class was actually nice. We mostly covered writing letters, which is fun for me. It's also fun to laugh at the people that are unable to write the letters in an intelligable way. I'm not laughing in a mean way, it's just plain fun.
Eddie and I awoke early to reach Wat Mahatat before six a.m.. It was tough to get moving, but we had such a good time just hanging out with Ajarn. It rained, which sucked, but it was interesting that during the rainy food gathering, people gave mostly perishable goods- which is exactly what the monks rely on for sustainance when the cannot walk. Ajarn gives me a key, in case I return when he is not there.
Today, we also swept and mopped the floor of Ajarn's outside are that we keep the food in. My tasks are not just limited to carrying food in the morning, but I also try to keep things clean, neat, and organized. I am typically used to mainaining a job in addition to a full school schedule when I am in the states. The tasks and duties I perform at Wat Mahatat really seem to round out my routine here in Thailand.
I show up for morning food gathering with three girls. It was interesting watching them interact within a group. Girls are much more talkative and 'together' as a tight little group when there are more than two. I can say this, because Jill was not so talkative when she was with me, and a group of guys is also much more somber. I am probably making a large biased generalization here.
Today was my birthday. I received two amulets. One from a lay-person: a monk from Chantaburi named Som Chai; and one from my teacher along with a prayer and the pouring of holy water. This holy water was very old and mantras had been recited over it many times. The amulet was given to my teacher by his master and was an original, older than twenty years. Many mantras and prayers have been recited over it as well.
That night, I met with twenty-five or thirty people on the roof of Amarin Mansion. People presented me gifts of food, whisky, and beer. It was nice to feel appreciated. We drank, sang, told jokes, took funny pictures, hugged- all the things you're supposed to do when celebrating anything. Unfortunately, I had to be at Thammasat by 7 AM the next day and get on a bus for a Thai Traditional Medicine field trip...so I just kept it 'low-key.'
Field trip in the morning was not exceptionally interesting. I was tired and did not have a good time. Attended lunch at Wat Mahatat with a group of five friends.
The issue came up during a lecture regarding Thai Traditional Medicine's official stance on collecting endangered species for curative purposes. The woman from the Ministry of Public Health who spoke to our group said that those issues came under the jurisdiction of international law. I wondered if this is really a substantial solution protection-wise. Perhaps one day the Ministry of Public Health will include a statement about protecting endangered species, and educating indigenous practitioners about why certain species need protection, in their list of future goals.
Food gathering with DJ and Audrey. Thai class today was definitely not my favorite one so far. I'm losing steam by now, as I never did take a nap. DJ and Audrey took a blissful nap in the library. Perhaps I should have joined. In class, I could see the exhaustion on their faces. I reassured them that this was the way I sometimes feel at beginning Thai. Language classes, in particular, can be very difficult to stay awake in, especially when the instructor is working with people individually. The only thing is that when the instructor eventually gets to you, you may have already fallen asleep from boredom. Hearing your name called loudly across the classroom is far from an ideal way to wake up. Fortunately, noone fell asleep! During our break, I drank two large cups of coffee which actually made me sooo jittery. Sometimes coffee is not the solution; rather than feeling fresh, one can experience shakiness and anxiety. Ugghhh.
Today, Ajarn told me to shave. He said an unshaved face is like a face covered with dirt that you must wash. I decided to act on his advice, as I am supposed to be learning about Thai culture through participant observation. His suggestion (or command, rather), gave me the feeling that bin-tha-bhath requires a little more of a commitment than a community service project.
Ajarn spoke about learning opportunities today, regarding one of my friends who stated that it is very difficult to wake up in the morning. He said: “You can sleep anytime. Knowledge is like a wide and deep hole with water, usually very far down (a well). Sometimes the water comes up and if you say 'wait a minute,' the water is gone, quickly. When the water comes, you must grab a jar, bucket, cup, anything...and get the water before it is too late; if you do not, it is gone again.”
During our typical rounds in the morning, a man with a professional set of cameras approached us and began to rapidly snap pictures of me and the two monks I walk behind. He took many pictures and asked for my phone number. I didn't ask quiestions, though it was all strange for me. He said a few quick things to my teacher, and left.
Later on, after we returned to my teacher's quarters, Ajarn Charan told me he was from the Bangkok Post and that someone would contact me shortly regarding an interview! Their interest was humorous, but also rewarding. I left Wat Mahatat quite happy! Not only do so few American students get to spend so much time with Therevada monks, but there are likely none that have made it into the Bangkok Post. This is very exciting.
Four friends, Eliza, Gwenn, Jack, DJ, Mirriam all joined me today for bin-tha-baht. This was the largest group yet, and I was so happy that everyone actually showed. It was nice to receive help carrying things, thus making the workload light for everyone. We all had an amazing time, and I really loved having a diverse pool of fellow students to talk with, and to laugh with.
It is such a peaceful walk in the morning. As the sun comes up, we are usually walking by the Grand Palace, behind two monks in their burnt-orange colored robes. Everything is quiet, Bangkok is waking up, and the sky is so beautiful, contrasting with the white washed palace walls. I was so happy to share this experience with so many people. When the three girls came with me, they all remained stand offish and the spirit of togetherness was nowhere nearly as strong as what I experienced today.
I was rather sick this morning, so I was unable to make bin-tha-baht. Fortunately, I recovered by around twelve p.m., and was still able to meet up with a reporter from the Bangkok Post for an interview. The interview was laid-back, but I was doubtful of how I would be represented in the upcoming article when the reporter pulled out a 'scratch' sheet of paper and randomly jotted things down. The interview lasted no longer than forty-five minutes. When she arrived at Ajarn's there were perhaps five other local lay people visiting, but we made room for the reporter and conducted the interview right there. After she finished asking me questions, she asked my teacher some as well. Everything went quite smoothly, and I said what I wanted to say, even though I don't think the reporter quite understood my perspective.
Dissappointment. The following is a copy of an e-mail that I sent to my instructors at my home institution, post publish of the Bangkok Post article:
I thought you might think it interesting that I made the front page of the Bangkok Post. It's about my role in the local Buddhist community.
There is some degree of 'mis-representation,' however. They stated that I am from North Carolina State University. Also, I didn't have any 'doubts' about Buddhism, just questions. I don't know what my religious affiliation is at this point, but I told The Post interviewer that I was raised in a Christian Tradition, and that I tend to focus on similarities between Buddhism and Christianity, rather than differences.
I am the only international student that has done this kind of thing, at least in a while... That it what I am told. There are many great students here from the US, and a few Anth/Religious Studies majors, but I think that I was perhaps better prepared to join a community as a "foreigner" than other students. Part of my success is due to my personable disposition and whole-life experiences, but I also believe my career at ECU played a big part in all of this! We really do have great Anthropology and Religious Studies departments.
In the US, people are typically not allowed to put something in quotation marks that was not said verbatim, and that's exactly what happened in this article. The Post quoted me as saying that I am a Christian, but meditation is good for everyone. Though I don't have a problem with Christianity, I never said that. She asked me a question during the interview that was preceded by 'So you're a Christian, right?” I told her I came from a Christian family, but I don't know if other Christians would recognize me as one of them, because I have quite a different interpretation of the Christian bible, and use its concepts, rather that believing (sometimes) outdated rules for conduct,and outrageous stories. Maybe some of the things in the bible did happen, but I think that we only have the stories now because Judeo-Christian religions, just like all the others, did not originally have text and instead remained an oral tradition for quite some time. The stories in the bible were 'teaching tools.' They were easy to remember for many people and they got a basic point across. Many of the stories in the Tipitika are probably also 'teaching tools,' rather than actual events, miracles, whatever.
Also, the article says I had 'doubts about Buddhism.' Ironically, the day I found Ajarn Charan, I was looking for a monk to interview, and I made that clear in the interview. I thought the reporter would understand that concept, since she was interviewing me and likely interviews people ALL the time. The article makes it cound like a critical western christian 'found' Buddhism. I guess this might make it a little more interesting, but it is untruthful. I have always had a deep appreciation for Buddhism, and I wish an article about me on the front page of the Bangkok Post would actually represent me properly.
I understand that English is a second language for people at the Post, and there were probably some cultural assumptions that the reporter made about me, but she was not the most professional interviewer I have ever come across, organization-wise, so of course her writing will be a little skewed. I wonder if this is common for Thailand, or if I just got stuck with an inexperienced reporter...
Today, I received an offer to become a novice for a month and live at Wat Mahatat. Initially, I percieved this as an opportunity for an anthropological experience. Eventually, I achieved some sort of clarity regarding the offer, and realized that becoming a novice would likely be no summer camp. Here are the letters/e-mails I sent my professors during the few days that I considered Ajarn Charan's offer:
I received an offer today from my teacher to become a 'novice' for one month before I leave Bangkok. I know that this is an amazing opportunity, but a month is a long time right now. One of my goals while in Thailand was to travel 'around' at least every two to three weeks... I am wondering how this will benefit me later on down the road, say for grad. school. Would this experience technically make me a more competitive applicant? I am also afraid that I really lack the degree of discipline that Theravada Buddhism requires.
I feel like both of you can help me reason through this- and decide whether or not I will "take to plunge."
Thank You for your Input.
It doesn't surprise me at all, but I am so glad you are having such a meaningful experience in Thailand. I write you now as a friend thinking through this question, not as your professor.
I can imagine you would find some good adventures and make some good connections if you traveled around for a few weeks. That could be good and a lot of fun. I also think that you would learn a great deal on a deep level if you took and maintained novice vows for a month. If those two are mutually exclusive and you must choose between them, I would encourage you to weigh the two options in terms of what will be most meaningful to you, not for what they might bring you in terms of a grad school application. I don't think a month in the monkhood will, in itself, make you a more viable grad school candidate. Rather, it might give you personal depth that could serve you in all kinds of other ways in life. Doing it with integrity, as I am sure you would, could not help but bring you to an awareness of the potentials of the mind that would inform everything else in life for you. Surely, this kind of experience could help to make you a more serious and more mature person, and that would certainly feed back into your applications to grad schools in an indirect way.
From a purely Buddhist perspective, I think motivation is quite important. Taking vows is a very serious matter, as you know. I think most Buddhists would say that taking them should be driven by a desire for spiritual development, not for any sort of material or personal advancement. I know you are not reducing the whole thing to that. But you might speak with your potential preceptor about what he thinks the proper motivation for assuming vows should be. He may be able to help you think about this question in a good way.
I don't think your self-perception that you now lack the requisite self-discipline should count as an argument against taking the plunge. That's why they call it practice. You will gain discipline; you are not required to start out with the fully formed capacity at the beginning.
All things considered, it looks like a great opportunity, but I am sure that there are many other issues that prevail. Whatever you choose to do will, I am sure, be the right choice for you.
This is a big decision. Unless you really and truly feel a strong calling to live as a novice monk, you should perhaps decline. I would think that a variety of experiences with Thai religious and cultural traditions would be more in line with your goals at this time including graduate school. You can perhaps try to keep the eight precepts for a while to see how it feels and as an expression of your connection to Buddhism. If, in the future, you feel a calling to become a mink, you can look into it at that time,. This is my advice, but please do what ever is best for you. Best wishes. R. Bunger
I felt like the issue of whether to become a novice, and what that kind of commintment means was needed some more in-depth discussion. I didn't want my professors to think that I was coming across as an opportunist when I mentioned grad-school. The truth is that I really want to get into a good master's program, and I also want a real participant-observation field project. I suppose becoming a novice is a little more serious than an anthropological experiment.
I want to add that this was the most I had ever actually corresponded with either of these instructors pertaining to one topic, though we know each other quite well.
Thank you for your comments. I probably need to say that I respect Buddhism a great deal, and believe it is possibly the noblest of religions, but I still cannot find total faith in it (in Therevada, at least). I was thinking about this as an opportunity for research and cutural learning on a participant-observer level, but now after more careful consideration, I realize that it is much more than that. My teacher made it sound so open-ended... maybe he is just that comfortable with me, and he assumed everything else (commitment to Buddhism) was implied. I was so hesitant when he first mentioned the idea because I know that the Buddhism here does not quite satisfy me, and I am more interested as a 'student of life,' rather than a committed practitioner.
I did not agree to anything like this yet, and of course, time will tell. When he asks me again, what would be a graceful way to decline if I so choose? I do not wish to come across as culturally insensitive. I feel like I was offered an amazing opportunity to experience another way of life, from that person's perspective. I do, however, feel like I need to actually BELIEVE the Theravada doctrine. I haven't found what works for me yet, and that is okay, I think. I'm pretty sure my teacher will understand.
I think this is what you are trying to get across to me.
I recently really a better perspective on my teacher's proposition. According to him, it is traditional for every Thai man to become a monk or novice at some point in adulthood, or even childhood. Though it won't change my mind, my teacher informed me that it is not necessarily unusual for a man with a family business or large company to become a full-fledged monk for just a week or two.
This is very strange to me, but it tells me a little more about why I was offered this opportunity, even though my master knows I am not Buddhist and do not even know if I would ever become a devout practitioner. I think that I now understand the difference between studying religion from the inside, vs. studying anthropology using participant observation. In Anthropology, though you want to benefit the host community somehow, your initial goal is research(that is what I understand, more or less). I'm searching for an opportunity to begin a field project that will show I have a real committment to Anthropolical Studies. That is why I was inquiring about how this experience would benefit my academic career. I quickly realized, however, that joining a host community as a novice is not just a way to 'get inside,' and that my teacher was likely asking more of me than he made clear.
I do not want you to think I have not learned anything, as my initial e-mail might suggest. I suppose I have simply become accustomed to studying, rather than believing.
Thank You for Everything
I wish we could sit down for some tea for an hour right now. I have more thoughts than I am likely to type right now.
One thing is that there could be nothing culturally insensitive about declining the opportunity to assume vows. Nobody could possibly have an expectation that another should do that. I think you can say that this is not the right time for you, but you are grateful for all this monk has done for you. Maybe don't wait until he asks you.
I disagree that you have to believe in Theravada. That is a very Judeo-Christian-Islamic mode of thought, i.e., that a religion consists of a set of beliefs and you are counted in or not depending on whether you belief that x, y, and z are true. The closest thing in Buddhism would be that you should not take vows unless you think doing so might be/would be effective in helping you train your mind. You don't need to belief anything about karma, merit, the possibility of becoming an Arhant, etc. Think about the difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy on one hand and orthopraxy and heteropraxy on the other. Buddhism is much more in the latter matrix while the monotheistic religions are in the former.
Yes, you have me just right. Whatever decision you make is just right. You should not feel pressure from anyone or even from yourself. If it feels right, do it. Your intuition will be right. If it is not a good fit, you already know that. But I think you will find that most Buddhists will make no judgment either way. It took me a long time to understand something subtle about Buddhist attitudes as revealed in linguistic practice. I used to translate my custom of saying thanks all the time into Buddhist languages, but people do not say this very much in Tibetan or Pali. It is not that they are rude, it is just that it is not for one person to give credit or blame to another. Each person assumes that others are responsible to themselves to do the things that are best for them at that time. If I visit someone's house, they serve me tea. I don't need to say thanks. That is just what is to be done in that context. Don't you find this? So I think the monk will receive your decision with quiescence, assuming you have taken care to determine what is right for you at this time.
Also, just as you don't need to worry about what the monk thinks, you don't need to worry about what I think. I understand that I can't know all that is in play for you. I know you're a serious reflective person carefully navigating his way through life.
Take care of yourself.
I think that you are right. It would be of very little good to anyone to undertake this without a very clear sense of calling and commitment. In worst case scenario, it might be mistaken for a deception on your part. There are said to be 84,000 different ways to practice Buddha Dharma and each person should find his/her own best way. You might just say to him that you are grateful for the opportunity, but that you are not yet ready for such a step and that you need to read, study, and experience more of life before considering it. If he is the wise man he seems to be, he will accept and understand this. Maybe after your return you can check out some of the Mahayana centers like Karma Triyana inWoodstock NY or Garchen Institute in Arizona. Both of them occasionally advertise for a chef. Best wishes. R. Bunger
As I discussed all these things with my instructors, I began to understand more about Buddhism in Thailand and what it means to the people here. Many Americans are familiar with Mahayana Buddhism, which is quite open and...permissive. Buddhism here, as I percieve it, is very strict, conservative, rooted in traditional practice. Also, ritual and legalism come across as more important than understanding the basic theme/ideology behind Buddhism. This is why I feel like I can learn many things from Theravada Buddhism, but I recognize at the same time that it is not the right path for me. I am including the final e-mails related to my discussion with professors from home.
You know, about the whole 'Faith' thing, I didn't really ever think that that is a part of Buddhism, but several Theravada monks I have talked to in Thailand tell me that they observe precepts and live as a monk or novice because they have "much faith." Also, many of the stories about the Buddha, such as lotus flowers springing beneath his feet when he walked as an infant are taken quite literally...similarly to how Christians accept some of the craziest bible stories. I'm sorry if what I just said offends you, but i want you to understand my surprise. I hear many Thai Buddhist clergy and lay people alike maitain that, though other forms of Buddhism are ok, Mahayana Buddhists are "wrong," and Theravada is the only pure form of Buddhism taken directly from the Buddha himself. Of course, they recognize that there will always be a certain manipulation/error in the Tripitika, but ONLY Theravada is the right path. This threw me off, of course, as I was hoping to get away from that type of mentality. Is Thailand unique in this respect? From what the four monks I have spoken with have said (three from Bangkok, and one from Chiang Rai), a Therevadan Buddhist believes everything in the doctrine, and to do otherwise may not send one to hell or make one a ghost, or born a lesser creature, etc., but is accepting lies to one extent or another. I did not think that Buddhism could be like this, but it is religion afterall, soo...
Also, since this has slightly turned me off, I would have only practiced ten precepts, taken vows etc., as more of an academic project than anything else... I thought that, for the level of acceptance Buddhists have, it would be ok for me, but this is no summer camp. If I want to observe life there, I found I am welcome to stay in the temple complex from time to time, and I attend chanting sometimes anyway. Maybe this is the extent of what I really need.
I think you are right, Buddhism here is still more accepting than Judeo-Christian religions, but how does truly feel free to practice "their way" when it is written off as false and ignorant. You are not shunned literally, but something negative is definitely implied there. Well, either way, I feel like I am able to participate in a local community and serve the people here. The merit system is kind of like spiritual community service, because I am helping a monk collect food so that he can give a certain number of people merit every day through the acceptance of donations. I also help re-distribute to homeless, etc., as we do collect much more food that he could ever eat in one day. He is an excellent teacher of meditation, and fun to talk to. Perhaps I will always be a student of religion, but never a practitioner. I DO however, think I prefer hanging out with the local monks than with the (sometimes wacky) live-in ISKON guys, haha.
I don't want you to think I'm completely confused, just maybe a little more surprised than anything, as what I'm experiencing here is much more different than what I thought I would encounter in a "Buddhist country."
I can't wait to see you and talk in person about all these things. I get the surprise aspect of it. And I have seen the sort of intolerance and judgment you are talking about. I see it as being quite at odds with Buddhism, and so when I see Buddhists displaying it, I just let it pass. The literalism is also at odds with other things you see in Buddhism, such as the famous passage that says:
Just as a goldsmith tests gold by cutting, scorching, and burnishing it, so you should not just take my words as true because I spoke them. Instead, you should assess them carefully yourself.
But to simple people, Buddha taught simple things which they believe literally. To scholars, he taught subtle things which do not require a literalistic outlook.
Like any religion, Buddhism has adherent from all across the menu of human existence.
Also, it is important to realize that many Buddhist have come under the influence of Christianity and Islam, rendering their own religion in the form of those two great faiths and trying to provide a Buddhist version. Thus, you get people who talk about faith in a very Christian way. So it goes. Religions evolve.
We have lots to talk about.
Thank you for your email. Although I know that it is not at the right timer for you, I have forwarded to you a notice about a Dharma center looking for a chef. As I see these, I will send them on to you just as examples of how your various interests might be combined. There is something to be said for keeping the viewpoint of the sympathetic outsider rather than becoming an insider, particularly if your interests are primarily anthropological rather than those of a spiritual seeker. I follow Mahayana Buddhism and I believe that its view points on the nature of reality and the human condition are essentially correct. I have never been able to generate the unquestioning faith and enthusiasm that some have and I keep an open mind about the tales of miracles etc. I rely more on physics and chemistry that on Buddhist logic to tell me about the structure of the material world, but I have some serious differences with biological science. Although religious organizations may transmit truth, they are still human creations with all that it implies. Gandhi said that life is an experiment in truth and I like to see my various journeys in that light. With best wishes always. R. Bunger
In retrospect, this three-day discussion was perhaps the most stimulating one I have had yet while in Thailand. I plan to keep further records of these e-mails, because I feel like they attest to my ability to develop thought and reasoning as well as my ability to learn and analyze others as well as myself.
I will continue following my teacher for awhile, and also plan to have a good time, hang out with friends, and chase women. My interests may all seem somewhat contradictory, but I am (like I stated in one of my e-mails) a 'student of life.' I want a complete experience, and I take every available opportunity to learn new things about the world outside, and the self which dwells within.