‘Boy I’m glad I’m not a monk.’
This thought came to mind after my first sunrise alms round accompanying the barefoot monks from the wat where I was staying as part of a unique temple stay programme. Not because of getting up pre-dawn every day (I’d like that part) and not because of having to shave off my hair and eyebrows. Not even because of having to forgo any form of sexual pleasure and follow 226 other ‘precepts’ or rules for everyday living.
No, when I saw the typical contents of the alms bowls, and the donated food the monks are supposed to live on, I knew a life in orange robes was not for me! Apart from the odd bag of curry, the bowls contained mainly cakes and sweets, and not ones I found appealing either. But then Thais love their sugar and I’m amazed the country does not have an obesity problem, I guess genetics dictate otherwise for most people but I imagine dentistry is a good line of work to get into.
I’ve stayed twice at this unique programme in Wat Sriboonruang in Fang, a tourist-free town, three hours from Chiang Mai and close to the border with Burma. Guests become a part of everyday temple life and the temple is a thriving part of the local community so it’s a look at Thai life and culture most tourists never see. Male guests are allowed to ordain as novice monks for a short time, as is common for Thai men. Everybody gets guidance in meditation and talks on the Dhamma (Buddha’s teachings) from a native English speaking monk. On my second stay at the temple the resident American monk was stranded, ill, in Bangkok, so I had the great honour of having my meditation guidance from the head of the temple, the abbot, the wonderful and dynamic Dr Apisit.
I found the temple a place of great peace but it’s by no means quiet all the time. It’s part of the community and there are always people coming and going, making it very different to the quiet and hushed tones of most Islamic and Christian places of worship I’ve visited. There are many novice monks around as the temple runs a school for novices which teaches the youngsters from surrounding temples – guests who are interested have the chance to help teach English in the school.
Taking the Eight Precepts
As well as the usual temple rules that everybody has to follow such as no killing, lying, sexual misconduct, stealing or taking intoxicating substances, I decided to ‘upgrade’ and take what’s called the ‘Eight Precepts’ to give me a little bit of a better understand of the lives of the monks. The additional precepts, or rules, are:
1 Don’t take food at inappropriate times – so no eating between noon and the following sunrise
2 No dancing, singing, music, entertainment, make up, jewellery or beautifying yourself
3 No sleeping on ‘high and luxurious’ beds – the beds in the guest rooms are pretty hard but I got used to them quickly.
I was worried about the not eating after midday part but I found it fairly easy. I loved the short Eight Precepts ceremony which involved me, guided by a monk, repeating a number of phrases after Dr Apisit. The phrases are in Pali, the ancient language of northern India, but I was given a laminated copy in advance so I could practice and had support during the ceremony which was serious but not intimidating.
Afterwards, I was wearing the traditional Northern Thai white clothes which identified me as an Eight Precepts meditator. I managed to keep them pretty clean despite lots of games with my new friends, the temple dogs, who would run and play with me and always accompanied me if I left the temple grounds to visit the nearby shop.
One of my favourite parts of the day was the evening chanting. All the resident monks would gather, along with the abbot, in the ‘wihan’, a gorgeous building in the centre of the temple compound, and chant in Pali. I might not have understood what they were saying but it was beautiful and filled me with peace to sit at the back and listen.
The temple have now added some meditation huts at the side of a lake about ten minutes walk from the main temple compound so those wanting more peace for their practice can stay there. There is also the rare chance to stay at a forest temple and experience true tranquility.
I can’t wait to go back to Wat Sriboonruang to continue learning about Buddhism. Maybe I’ll take some healthy snacks for the monks!
Fang is three hours from Chiang Mai, buses leave hourly from Chang Puak bus station and cost 80 baht. You can ask to be dropped off at the temple gates, just outside of Fang town.
Payment is by donation as it’s not allowed to charge for spreading the Dhamma. The programme has to cover costs of electricity in the guest rooms, cleaning of bedding after you’ve gone, supply of drinking water, and wireless internet. They will not suggest an amount so I just donated slightly less than I had paid in my last guest house. Any excess goes to supporting the many community programmes run by the temple for local people.