We also knew that Thai monks forego all possessions. They are not allowed to touch money and only wear saffron robes. You can read part one here.
Having been asked about foreigners who want to become monks, Phra Maha Tongmee explained that monkhood is open to any man who has faith in Buddhism, but he sees only two major kinds of monks.
The first kind is a prayer-based monk. The second is what was translated as something of an ‘educating monk’, the kind who ferries Buddhism into new lands or sceptical hearts.
Thus, if we are interested in becoming foreign monks, we have to decide precisely what our goal is after we have finished ordination. Is it purely personal, or is it something else?
Although there may be two kinds of monks, Phra Maha Tongmee said that there are three tiers that permeate Thai monkhood. These tiers are actually quite familiar to many Thai people and they can be rather simplistically explained as representing various levels of general skill attainment.
Looking back to December, the All About Buddhism series explained that every Thai high school student must pass a series of general Buddhist knowledge examinations that are based on a similar three-tier platform. It takes at least three years to pass the three different levels and Phra Maha Tongmee explained that Thai monkhood is grouped into levels that are substantially similar to this structure.
At this point, Phra Maha Tongmee interrupted the interview to say something to Western tourists regarding some of the differences they may encounter if they convert faiths.
Brilliantly translated, he said, “It is very good for you foreigners to see the value of Buddhism and we thank you for that. However, Buddhism and Christianity are not the same thing. Christianity teaches that God created us but Buddhism teaches something different. Everything has its reason. A child is born to his parents and karma is why we are born differently.”
He continued by saying, “There are many Buddhists in Thailand, but precious few understand the core of Buddhism. The core of Buddhism is to do good deeds and to find the way of nirvana; for it is nirvana which provides an escape from the wheel of suffering and the wheel of rebirth. Nirvana is an escape from the afflictions of birth, age, pain and death.”
To understand his comments more clearly, it should be clarified that enlightenment and nirvana are somewhat different. Nirvana is a state of being, whereas enlightenment is an event that facilitates the nirvana state.
Phra Maha Tongmee is very inclusively saying that nirvana is a place on Earth and he is inviting us foreigners to go there. He is evangelising Buddhism as a religion of radical welcome, just as Buddhist monks from ancient times past have done.
I asked Phra Maha Tongmee what it is like to reach enlightenment. Speaking through our translator, he explained that the key to reaching enlightenment lies within controlling your desires. To reach enlightenment, you have to cleanse your heart of everything that glues you to this world.
“Monks do not want to be attached to money or material things,” he said.
However, he explained that an enlightened monk does not want to be cut off from all desires. Instead, the idea is to cut off only the desires that lead to unsavoury ends. The goal is to maintain desires that neither cause you any suffering nor cause suffering to anyone else.
It would be fair to say that one could interpret Phra Maha Tongmee’s comments as something of a call to arms for those of us foreigners who are sincerely interested in Thai monkhood.
In fact, Phra Maha Tongmee asked me, “Do you want to be a monk?”
I needed a moment to regain my breath but, having steadied myself, I gave the most simple of answers…
I said, “Yes.”
The Phuket News would like to extend a very special thank you to translator Tanakorn Udarasak. At only 14 years old, Mr Udarasak is a high school prodigy whose linguistic skills are known to routinely exceed those of Thailand’s finest university professors.
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.