My interest in a Buddhism lasted all of a week. Mesmerised by the beauty of the temples and intrigued by its popularity, I picked up a copy of the revised Pratimoska. This is the complete list of dos and don’ts for monks and reading it shattered any illusion I had that, as far as organised religions go, Buddism made sense. All interesting moral and social concepts are lost when a religion dictates what sort of tv shows are ok to watch or how a nun should control her menstrual flow.
No one likes to talk about religion, except those who think they have it, so it was in a state of apprehension that I found myself sitting in chain restaurant in Bangkok called Simply Delicious waiting to have breakfast with two Buddhist monks.
Do I stand when they walk in? I know we don’t shake hands because they’re not allowed to touch me, or be touched by me to be more accurate so I opt for an awkward little sitting bow with hands pressed together in that way the Thais love so much.
We had a table for five but the two monks stood uncertainly to one side before settling into seats on the next table. Monks eat only with other monks, I’m told. One smiley and chatty, one serious and quiet, we make polite conversation as we decide what to eat. No mention of religion yet. Everyone’s looking, but I’m not sure if it’s at us or them. I suspect novelty’s in the combination. The manager brings the monks their meals and all the staff take their bowing into overdrive. I’m told monks are supposed to eat before everyone else and look at my food getting cold on the table feeling annoyed until the smiley one says it doesnt really matter outside the temple and I get stuck in.
Monks can only eat before 12pm and can never buy their own food, living on the offerings they collect each morning on their alms rounds. Although collect isn’t really the right word as people cant wait to give, they’ll give their last in return for a blessing and its here and only here that one of the monks touches on his beliefs. In the western world people are always wanting, want, want, want, he says, more, more, more. They don’t realise that everything you need will be provided. A comfort for the poor who have nothing, a justification for the rich who have everything. I don’t buy it but they’re both nice chaps so I smile and say nothing.
The monks are both Myanmar and, presumably, are doing well in their monk careers to be living a grand temple in Bangkok. There’s a hierarchy in monkhood, just as in everything else. We pay the bill and suggest a walk around Lumphini Park. As soon as we arrive at the protest site I can see the monks are uncomfortable. Monks are above politics I suppose and they completely ignore all the people around, but all the same people bow and pray to them as we walk past. Again, three westerners and two monks walking together get a bit of attention, especially walking through the heart of the Bangkok Shutdown protest site.
They’ve clearly had their fill of the outside world and as soon as we reach an exit, the monks depart. With no explanation or ceremony they say goodbye and walk away, back to the monastery.