Sunday, 24 June 2012


It had been a while since I'd had a decent conversation about Buddhism so I decided to attend "monkchat" at Wat Chedi Luang, a stunning temple in the centre of the Old City in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.

The monkchat set-up is a collection of tables and chairs shaded by trees in the temple grounds where young monks and novices (monks not yet qualified), take it in turns to attend for a few hours each day to talk with visitors, one on one or in groups. These conversations allow visitors to ask questions about Buddhism and the life of monks, and encourage the young monks to improve their language skills and learn about the lives of foreigners. Great idea; everyone's a winner!

As well as myself, my monk chat group consisted of a small collection of visitors from the US and France and our monk was Tung, a friendly 20 year old newly qualified monk with good English skills, from Wat Suan Dok, a nearby Buddhist monk university. As I didn't have a voice recorder it would be unfair to quote everything Tung told us as I'm only going from memory and a few scribbled notes which are, of course, open to interpretation but, here's what I got out of it:

If you were to give a Westerner just one piece of tangible advice to take away, what would it be?

"Practise meditation," Tung replied with a laugh. He went on to explain that monks in Thailand generally learn two types: 'insight meditation' and 'tranquility meditation' but that in Theravada Buddhism (the type of Buddhism they practise in Thailand) they only practise insight as it makes them more knowledgeable.

Insight mediation or "Vipassana", also known as "mindfulness" meditation, is the meditation of nirvana - the end of suffering. This type of meditation is about observing physical feelings in the body, and observing one's emotions, but without focusing on them and without attachment; just noticing them.

Tranquility meditation or "Samatha" is the meditation of enlightenment - the wisdom of emptiness. There are several types of tranquility meditation but one often used is a focus on the breath in order to calm the mind.

The Buddha practised both types but Tung stipulated that it's very important to have a meditation teacher and that you study it before you practise otherwise if you practise before you study you are likely to go the "wrong way". (I'm not sure what happens if you go the "wrong way", we didn't ask.)
Why do Theravada Buddhist monks not practise Samatha?
Because it doesn't give knowledge but Samatha meditation is like magic - "monks can fly!" (I couldn't get a solid explanation for this but, believe me, I'm looking for one!)

What happens to a Buddhist's soul when he dies?

Tung explained that we never see the soul, we can just feel a love. We go to one of four places when we die, depending on our lifestyle / state of mind:

1) If we are an angry person, we will go to an evil place
2) If we are a desirous person, we will become a "hungry ghost"
3) If we keep the five precepts, we will be reborn into the human world
4) If we have high merits we will go to heaven. 

What are the five precepts?

No killing
No stealing
No sexual misconduct*
No lies
No alcohol.**

*I've looked into this and as long as nobody gets hurt it's fine. Phew!
**Yeah, it is what it says; bad luck.

How do you know if a Buddhist is enlightened?

Apparently you don't. You continue to go to your Buddhist meetings and they will go to their enlightened meetings to talk about things but you will never get to find out.

Do monks pray?

"We don't pray, we chant and meditate."

Fascinated, and eager to learn more, I returned a week later and, this time, spoke alone with a monk named Supot, aged 23.

Supot, who travels to attend monk chat almost every day from a monastery outside of the city in the countryside, explained how difficult it can be to speak to visitors who have strong religious beliefs. "They're not open to new ideas," he told me. Because they're so focused on a "God" figure, he went on to clarify, they can't get their heads around a religion without one, and constantly try to push Buddha into that role which, of course, won't fit because Buddha was a regular guy (albeit a prince - but he was still human like the rest of us, and that's the point).

Supot quoted a Buddha proverb, "Everything is dependent on your actions."

His point is that Buddhism is all about taking responsibility for yourself, rather than relying on being judged, rewarded or punished by an external God. "When I put something on my Facebook," Supot told me, "not everything is about Buddhism. You must not only pray for things, but you must also take action. Things happen, not because of their wishing or praying but because of their action."

I told him I'm still amused to find that monks use Facebook but he didn't respond directly, although he did express disappointment that the world seems to be reducing face to face communication, which he deems important for happiness, in favour of spending more time making and maintaining relationships online. He advised me to live in reality because virtual friendships are not real. And oddly that echoes exactly what my good friend Karen told me the day previous. (I guess I need to listen!)

There's a fair bit of information here and everyone will make their own interpretations but, for me, there's a big question jumping right out that cannot be answered by a Theravada Buddhist monk:

What'll happen if we practise tranquility/Samatha meditation, the meditation of enlightenment? Will we find that "prayer" (or a form of prayer) can manifest our wishes without action?

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