Understandably, there are many tourists who want Thailand to become a permanent part of their lives. They feel called to become a monk, so we started exploring the question ‘could I become a Buddhist monk in Thailand?’
In order to help us foreigners understand the question more fully, Phra Maha Tongmee Supanla has graciously allowed The Phuket News to walk with him through a normal day at his temple. He is the senior monk at The Flat Temple in Bangkok and oversees the education of 3,000 elite Thai youth at Thailand’s prestigious Suankularb Wittayalai School.
Phra Maha Tongmee explained that a monk’s day is unique because Thai monks are not allowed to cook food, engage in gardening or otherwise alter reality. They have to accept the world however it exists, so Thai monks can only eat food that is donated by a caring community.
“All the food is donated in goodwill, so we eat whatever we are given no matter the taste,” he said.
Novice monks are up at 5am and the teaching monks are usually awake by 5:30am. In some ancient temples, such as Bangkok’s Wat Sai, arcane bell ceremonies are still held to awaken the monks but modern alarm clocks are becoming increasingly common.
Breakfast ends by 7:30am and morning chanting begins shortly thereafter. For junior monks, Buddhist classes take place between 8:30am and 10:30am. Lunch is served at 11am.
The Eight Precepts of Buddhism dictate that Thai monks may only eat food from sunrise to midday.
“Special exceptions are sometimes made to the midday rule,” he explained. “We do not carry wristwatches so, if we are in a rural area, we must guess based on the position of the sun.”
Phra Maha Tongmee explained that, while monks often rely on bygone methodologies like star position, modern monks are open to new methods as well. He pointed to Buddhist talks as an example. Until recently, it was common for monks to spend much of their free time reading sacred Buddhist texts and great speeches.
However, the 20th century’s evolution of vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, CDs and mp3s have made it possible to preserve the voices of Thailand’s great sages as though they were still standing beside us. Many modern monks spend more time listening to these Buddhist discussions than they do reading the actual Thai canon.
On this front, it practically seems as though what’s old again is simply new again because the teachings of Buddha were originally transmitted as oral histories. The Thais even have a term for heavy listeners of Buddhist talks. They’re called paharajsatha, but you certainly do not need to memorise that.
Happily, modern technology seems to be leading us back toward Thailand’s flamboyant and boisterous bygone era of storytelling. This is an intriguing expression of culture that we now understand may occupy the free hours of numerous Thai monks.
Phra Maha Tongmee explained that no two Thai temples are exactly the same and it is the monk’s duty to care for their temples. At his temple, there is no hierarchy of tasks; the monks just divide up what needs to be done on a daily basis and little protocol is exercised.
A monk’s day is often filled with a variety of unremarkable chores. Steps must be swept and pigeon poop must be cleaned. All of these chores are part and parcel of monastic life in Thailand.
However, some monks have special duties. The Flat Temple is directly across the street from Thailand’s most historic high school and Phra Maha Tongmee oversees religious class at the school. Each temple has unique idiosyncrasies.
In summary, a monk’s basic day begins around 5am and starts with alms collecting followed by breakfast, Buddhist classes, chanting and lunch. It ends with evening chanting. Numerous activities are interspersed throughout the free hours. However, this mainly describes a routine day.
There are special events, like certain holy days. These days are often marked by tremendously elaborate ceremonies and the preparations can take inordinate periods of time.
However, now that we had an idea what a monk’s day is really like, I asked Phra Maha Tongmee what he thought about us foreigners who are interested in Thai monkhood. His response? Read the next installment of All About Buddhism to see what he has to say about that.
Translation by Tanakorn Udarasak
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will do my best to accommodate your interests.