One of the delights of Chiang Mai, Thailand (and there are many), is that as you wander through the unmarked streets, smog lovingly stretching across the horizon, as you pass the countless temples, you might randomly cross paths with a monk. Adorned in orange, their hair cut close, monks blend in seamlessly with the city. Up until now, I had only seen monks through American TV and film. The experience of actually sitting down and having a full discussion with one moved me to rethink a number of assumptions I had placed on these people draped in saffron. Here are three things that stuck with me from our conversation:
Baby Monks Are a Thing
There is literally nothing more precious than seeing small children draped in monk robes joyfully bounding down the street. Speaking with a Sangha monk made me realize that you can join at any age, as long as you’re committed to the vinaya, the 227 rules they must follow. To my surprise, joining the monkhood is also not a lifelong commitment. Need a little structure? Hop in! Got your life together and you no longer want to wake up at 5 am every morning? Deuces! But you are always free to come back.
Buddhism Has Nothing to Do with Yoga
Okay, this one was probably me being a dummy. But there are certain phrases that you just associate with each other. You know the ones: “meditation”, “namaste”, “crystals”, “Venus in retrograde”. I associate all of these things with each other the same away I’ve always associated yoga with Eastern Asian culture and unconsciously, with Buddhism. In dialogue with a monk a realized nope, that’s just something I made up. Google was my friend and I forgot about her.
Monk Rules are No Joke
The vinaya are the 227 rules of monastic code prescribed by the Lord Buddha, and they are NO JOKE. There are some obvious no-no’s, like drinking, sex, lying, killing. But monks who prescribe to this tradition also can’t have any physical contact of any kind with a female, can’t ride a bike, and as this monk described, can’t even create art. This level of conservatism took me aback. As a woman and an artist, I had to squash the prejudice sprouting up that wanted to judge this tradition that outlawed someone shaking my hand, much less painting a canvas. But this perspective gave me an greater respect for the discipline this monk who, in his early twenties, was exercising tenets of a faith that I would certainly struggle with.
Our dialogue reminded me that it’s easy to believe you understand a culture when the reality is usually far more complex and often exponentially more interesting. Taking the time to actually connect with the locals in the community is the key to creating new lines of thinking, challenging your own perceptions, and building travel memories truly worth savoring.
What has been the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a local while traveling?