by Larry Calloway

In Cambodia, any photography of monks can arouse their suspicion.

Theravada Buddhism, not represented among the Crestone spiritual centers, is practiced in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Under the non-democratic regimes of Burma, Laos and Cambodia, the monks in saffron robes are constantly watched, but they are embraced under the constitutional monarchy of Thailand, where I lived as a novice monk for a month last spring.

I found that Theravada differs from the Mahayana tradition of China, Japan, Tibet and Vietnam not so much in practice as in its back-to-the-sources dharma, which is all about the Buddha and his teachings in an ancient Indian language called Pali. It does not rely upon latter-day sacred texts or venerate bodhisattvas like Avalokitesvara.

I was at a Wat Sri Bhun Ruang near Fang, north of Chiang Mai.  Wat translates as “temple,” but the word applies to any religious complex, from the rich royal temple grounds in Bangkok to humble village centers. I was impressed by the devotion of the local laypeople, who assembled on Sundays and full-moon holidays in the sala, a spacious pavilion dominated by a single white figure of the seated Buddha. Led by the young abbot, Apisit Pingchaiyawat, or his senior monks, whole families would sing the Pali sutras.

Refugees in Thailand on their way to a temple festival.

Fang is near the militarized Thai border with Burma (also called Myanmar). I discovered that “Joy,” the young monk who unceremoniously shaved my head and eyebrows at ordination, was from a village of people who had escaped Burma. They are Palaung, a million-member ethic minority that was virtually at war with the Burmese army. Most refugees, from Cambodia and Laos as well as from Burma, go officially unrecognized by Thailand, so they have no country, no actual rights. It seemed to me that this young man’s only protection was the universal Thai respect for his saffron robe. He had just received his high school diploma, was fluent in English and Thai and aspired to learn Chinese so he could teach in the region, which has communities of earlier refugees, nationalists from China.

Theravada monks walk with their begging bowls in Luang Prabang, Laos. This is a morning ritual throughout southeast Asia.

One evening we arrived by pickup at Joy’s village in the mountains on the border where army outposts of both Burma and Thailand face each other across a no-man’s land of barbed wire. The Burmese army could watch every move in the village and once shelled it after some sort of altercation, but the people were carrying on with their lives without fear. They sat in family circles eating the evening meal in porous bamboo houses.

A small NGO called the Blood Foundation, host of my month as a novice monk, operates day-care schools for children of Burmese refugees, many of whom work in the local orange groves. Ben Bowler, the Aussie head of the foundation, had an agreement with Dr. Apisit under which fees from the foreign novices helped support the foundation. The abbot in turn was hoping to build a retreat center. He had bought some adjacent land for this and other projects, including a hospital.

A monk named Joy shaves the writer in a Thai monastery.

Monk photographs Burmese mountain top outpost, a military outpost where soldiers keep constant watch on a refugee village in Thailand.

Monk photographs Burmese mountain top outpost, a military outpost where soldiers keep constant watch on a refugee village in Thailand.

Dr. Apisit is a gentle and compassionate man who keeps two beloved monkeys as pets. His remarks to me at my ordination forewarned that the four weeks were not going to be a holiday. Besides accepting the universal Buddhist precepts and seeking refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha, I also pledged to take no food after noon, sleep on a hard bench, wear nothing decorative and avoid trivial conversation. Dressed in white and without hair or eyebrows, I had trouble recognizing myself in our digital photos. Which was the point. All this, the abbot counseled, was intended to aid the practice:  Vipassana meditation.

But mere monastic quietude and recognition of personal impermanence does not define the fullness of Theravada Buddhism, at least in Thailand. It incorporates the broader community. Charin Khayan, director of the wat school, one evening invited me and another novice to come with him in his small pickup to an event marking the completion of renovation work at a wat down the highway. As we approached it I was surprised that Charin had trouble finding a place to park.

Money tree

Inside the gates, the old wat was—excuse the cliché—rocking! There was a rock band playing. There was a stage where Thai “lady boys” sang like girls. There were dance groups in colorful ethnic costumes. There were lines of food vendors. (Ignoring them was a test of my vows). And then came the parade of “money trees.” Coughing up a donation is nothing compared with the work that goes into these ornate constructions by community groups, businesses and families. The focus of these gifts is the leaves: crisp new Thai 20-bhat or even 100-bhat bills (as valued locally as $20 bills here).

But for expression of community engagement, to me the most profound Theravada tradition is the morning rounds of monks with their begging bowls. I have seen hundreds of barefoot monks in bright saffron file down the sunny side of the ancient avenue in Luang Prabang, Laos, at 6am. (Tourists with cameras are on the other side.) Townspeople and merchants drop small parcels of food—sticky rice, packaged noodles, cakes and such—into the bowls. The monks receive the gifts impassively and walk on. It’s the givers instead who express gratitude, putting their palms together, because they are earning merit under the inexorable law of karma. In the 2007 protests in Yangoon, Burmese monks turned their begging bowls upside down.

The meritorious giving takes place everywhere in the Theravada countries, although the pictures elsewhere are probably not as spectacular as in Luang Prabang, which is a U.N. world heritage site. At my wat, Joy and other young monks would walk to the ugly and noisy highway, stopping at business stalls. Sometimes he would stand alone with his bowl in the dimly lit early morning market.

Joy was impassive, but he was also preoccupied. If he left the order, replacing his robe with civilian clothes, he would be vulnerable. But it was the only way to enter the private college and pursue courses in Chinese. If he continued as a monk, he would receive a free Buddhist education but the language study would be limited to English.

After four weeks and a disrobing ceremony, I hopped a bus for Chiang Mai, a baseball cap pulled down around my ears. Joy, Charin and my Blood Foundation friends waved goodbye at the highway stop, and I was sad …. A few days ago I got in touch with some of them on Facebook and asked about Joy, his decision. He chose Chinese.

The writer is a retired journalist and Stanford Knight fellow with a 2001 master’s degree in Eastern classics from St. John’s College of Santa Fe.