11 May 2012


We arrived at Songdhammakalyani around 2:40. I've been putting off writing about this because I don't really know what to say about it. For roughly 48 hours we stayed at the monastery and did pretty much what the monks do. We went to morning chanting at 5:30am, evening chanting at 7:30 pm, participated in community time from 5 to 6 each day, ate vegetarian breakfast and lunch with them (monks don't eat after noon until the next morning but they made dinner for us), went on alms rounds with them, and slept in un-air-conditioned roms rooms on very hard mattresses.

Physically, it was demanding and very uncomfortable. But it's the way they live. There's a reason not everyone is a monk. And the no air conditioning thing is not different from how the general population lives.

And here, there is one fully ordained monk and several lower-level ordained monks (novices). What is truly unique about these monks is that they are female. The Venerable Mother is the first fully-ordained female Buddhist monk in Thailand. She's been interviewed by many magazines and broadcast media. She's been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She's highly educated, lived in Canada for many years and has a delightful sense of humor.

She taught a number of classes for us on meditation, the history of Buddhism, and Women in Buddhism.

The first 24 hours were so miserably hot that I didn't sleep, wasn't hungry and felt kind of sick. After that, it either wasn't quite so hot or I'd sort of gotten used to it. Or, I was so exhausted it didn't matter. It was probably the closest we came to actually living the way the majority of Thais do in terms of hot conditions, small meals and carrying on.

Average Thais probably don't chant and meditate daily, though.

So what did I take away from the experience?

1 - monastic life is not for me. I can see where the focus and discipline would be appealing to some, and most of us could do with more of it in our lives, but not everyone is cut out to live it to that degree.

2 - chanting is cool. Since they were chanting in Thai, I mostly didn't know what they were saying although there were English translations of some of it. But just the sound of the 6 or 7 voices synchronized had a resonance that was appealing.

3 - walking meditation works better for me than seated meditation. I'm always more comfortable doing SOMEthing and walking meditation fills that desire. But perhaps that means I need to cultivate still meditation. I should meditate on that...

4 - I'm not sure I have an answer to the question(s) I had going into it.
--Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? It doesn't have a deity or deities the way most religions do. And the way the common person probably understands Buddhism, it probably is more life philosophy than religion. But the monks at the monastery certainly approach it in a way similar to Catholic monks in the US would.
--Can you be both Buddhist and Christian (or Muslim or Jewish...or agnostic?)? We got mixed results on this one. Ken, the retired Presbyterian missionary, said "Yes." The monks at the monastery said, "No. If you follow Buddhism fully, there is no room for anything else." Which is what I imagine most religious leaders would say, too, from the other side.

5 - as with Christianity in the US, the average person-on-the-street's idea of what his/her religion is like is somewhat different from the point of view of some who has decided to seriously study it and live it. In other words, your average person has a much more superficial understanding than a priest, minister or monk does.

6 - different from most Christianity followers, Buddhism is much more individual. Most Christian followers go to church, attend Sunday school, listen to sermons, and generally get some degree of organized education on Christianity. There is a value placed on the 'community of faith' and sharing that faith with others. Buddhism is more individual...at least in Thailand. If you are so moved, you seek out a teacher, study the teachings of the Buddha (contained in 45 volumes), and seek your own enlightenment. It's very personal andyou don't generally talk about it with others. The average person in Thailand gives offerings at the local temple and seeks merit but doesn't go much beyond that.

7 - There are so many similarities between stories of the Buddha and stories of Christ (who came along 500 years later), you have to wonder if the Christian stories were just Buddha 'repackaged' for another time and place...kind of the way Christianity, Judism, and Islam all have flood stories, Abraham stories, and Adam/Eve stories. There are differences, though...Christianity has God, hell and heaven. Buddhism has Buddha, suffering and rebirth. Wait...is that really different?

Long story short I know a little more about Buddhism without really knowing anything. So, I know that I don't know. Does that make me more enlightened...or less??

one of our community time projects...clearing brush and debris from this area

Another community time project...dredging mud from this canal to haul up front. One of the monks and two of our guys were in the water filling buckets with mud. They'd pass the buckets up to others who would put them on a cart and wheel them to the plant bed up front.

buckets of mud

mud ready to move.

final destination for the mud.

raking leaves

heading out for alms rounds with the monks

community members donate food to the monks

alms rounds

Our group with Oh and Oh.

Empty cart heading out for alms rounds
Sunday service

Oh and Oh...temporary monks. Their names are not the same but I don't know how to designate the intonations. One is mid tone, one is rising.