Tuesday, 27 March 2012

What's it like to be a monk?

One of the things I love about books that are autobiographical is that they allow you to vicariously experience another perspective, lifestyle, or environment. With that in mind, I recently picked up Phra Peter Pannapadipo’s book Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand from my local library.

Of course as a woman I could never be a monk, but travelling in Asia I have enjoyed wandering through many temples and often wondered about the lives of the orange-robed Buddhist monks that inhabit that world. For author Phra Peter (surname Robinson, before he became a Buddhist and moved to Thailand), the contrast between the monastic life he entered into at the age of 40 and his former life as a successful British businessman couldn’t have been more startling. (Talk about somebody experiencing a mid-life crisis!)

However, having a “normal” British background gives Phra Peter a most unique outsider/insider viewpoint not only into the meaning of Buddhism and monastic life—for himself and for the other monks and everyday Thais he interacts with—but also of the cultural contrast between the modern, Western world and the age-old beliefs and traditions of rural Thailand. And as a native English speaker, he is able to tell many interesting, wonderful, and often funny stories about the events he experiences and his thoughts about those events without any of the awkwardness that might come were his stories filtered through a translator. As his understanding of himself and his experience grows, so too grows the understanding of his readers.

One of the fundamental Buddhist precepts is that attachment creates suffering. Thus it is not surprising that a Buddhist monk relinquishes his worldly attachments (stuff, people, places, goals) as much as possible in his pursuit[i] of personal internal spiritual growth. Life without stuff, without attachments, is fairly simple.

Although he was resident at several monasteries in Thailand, as well as his “original” monastery, Wat Buddhapadipa in the UK, much of the book details Phra Peter’s life at the small, rural monastery Wat Nahoob several hundred miles north of Bangkok. Here he rose at 3:45 a.m.—first one up at the monastery—to ring the morning temple bells calling the monks for morning chanting. At 6 a.m., the monks would walk the morning alms round through the village, followed by breakfast from the food they collected. (In Thailand, this is not seen as begging; the Thai people give to the monks to make spiritual merit for themselves, a two-way sharing that benefits both parties.)  Lunch, the final meal of the day for the monks, was at 11 a.m., and the bells were rung for evening chanting at 5 p.m. The rest of the day for Phra Peter was spent meditating, studying, teaching, and with routine house-keeping and maintenance unless there was some “event” on at the monastery or village: an ordination, a funeral, a festival.

Phra Peter sums up: “At Wat Nahoob I had everything I needed: a delightful little kuti[ii] in a beautiful forest setting, I admired and respected my abbot and I got on well with the village people. I had all the food I needed and all the time I needed.” But then he goes on to say that such idyllic conditions can lead to complacency, “a potential hindrance, for it could lead to torpor and apathy. A monk should always be satisfied with things and situations just as they are, but not to the point where his mind becomes stagnant.”[iii]

Phra Peter chose to “disrobe”—cease being a monk—ten years after his ordination. He devotes his life now to a charity known as the StudentEducation Trust (SET) which he established for disadvantaged Thai students. SET has provided over 4000 scholarships for Thai students to obtain vocational training or university degrees, and continues to provide cash grants for textbooks, school uniforms and other requirements for Thai children from impoverished backgrounds, enabling them to stay in school and learn.

For Phra Peter, the experience of being a monk was an important step on his life's journey. His contribution to the world, though writing about his experiences and through his charitable work, is commendable. 

This is a fine and insightful book, easy and enjoyable to read, and recommended.

[i] “Pursuit” is probably not the best word choice since that implies a deliberate action to achieve a result, whereas the Buddhist precept of non-attachment would imply that the result of such inward looking is of no consequence.
[ii] Hut, cottage—his was about 9 feet square, on stilts, with a significantly overhanging roof for rain protection. 
[iii] Extracted from the book, Pp 263-264.

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