In Thai, if you want to put a quantity onto a noun, you need what is called a ‘classifier’. The classifier specifies what is being quantified. For example, to say “we are four students” you must say “rao naksiksa sii khon” which translates literally to “we are students four persons”. In this case, the “persons” is the classifier.
The classifier for monk, or praak, is not the expected “khon” meaning “person”. Instead it is “ruup”means ‘image’ or ‘picture’. Linguistically, therefore, monks are considered to be images or pictures of the Buddha. Their reverent status is literally imbedded in the Thai language.
On our journey thus far, we have had many unique opportunities to become intimately acquainted with the lives of monks. Indeed nearly every night we sleep in a wat, and sometimes we are actually housed in the monks’ quarters. It is somehow remarkable to brush your teeth at a water faucet while a monk takes a shower just next door, or to hang your padded bike shorts on the same line with those saffron robes.
I am amazed by how open and inclusive the monks have been, inviting us into their living spaces, welcoming us to follow them as they take alms, or laying down mats for us to join in their 6 o’clock prayers.
To my knowledge, the life is a monk is usually shrouded by an inaccessible and sacred cloud of mystery. It seems as if we common people are not supposed to imagine monks eating, sleeping, brushing their teeth, or feeling emotions of boredom, discouragement, anger, happiness. We are to regard them as somehow more-than-human, beings that have chosen a path of spiritual enlightenment, humility, denouncement of material possession, etc.
So far on this trip, however, I have had several encounters with monks that have surprised me:
One monk hurried out of bed at 5am to fire a slingshot to scatter a flock of cackling birds.
One monk used his iPad to take a selfie with us.
One monk crouched in some bushes talking on his cellphone.
One monk grabbed Anshuman’s arm, and insisted he take a photo with him.
The most memorable encounter, however, I will recount in more detail:
We arrived in a small village (the name of which I have forgotten) somewhere in the mountains between Mae Sot and Mae Sariang. It had been raining all day, but the clouds finally surrendered when we arrived, so the air was cool and calm. I sat on a wooden porch overlooking the wat’s parking lot. From my position, I could look across the parking lot and see perfectly squarely into the prayer hall. My viewpoint was optimum, one of these rare and special ‘seeing but unseen’ moments.
The clock struck 6:00 and a young monk hurried to the prayer hall, leaning his small body to push open the heavy metal sliding gate. From my seat I could see the brilliant gold of the various statues of the seated Buddha, looming over the small boy.
The monks began to arrive, walking with quick directed steps, as they assumed their seated positions and began their daily prayers and chanting.
Soon after the arrival of the monks had calmed down, one small boy-monk (probably 9 years old) approached the prayer hall. He walked with even measured, almost marching-steps, turning sharply to enter the front door square on. As he approached the steps, however, he hesitated, his pace slowed. He clasped his hands behind his back and tentatively, slowly, turned away from the prayer hall. He meandered his way, guiltily it seemed, to a nearby tree, and began to play with a low-hanging leaf. He looked at the branch fondly, indulging in this distraction.
After some minutes he quietly approached the prayer hall again, this time, taking a curved path, sneaking in to sit in company with his age-mates.
Soon after, an older monk idled up to the side of the prayer hall. He finished his cigarette before entering, a certain sheepishness in his gait.
Two young monks sprinted up the prayer hall, panting. They consulted each other silently, with gestures, realized they were too late to reasonably join prayers, and ran off again into the larger wat grounds.
Minutes later, I watched, in awe, as two of the young monks inside the prayer hall began to poke and tease each other. They took turns, making sure the senior monks couldn’t see them. One would reach out his arm to jab the other one in the ribs. Seconds later, the jab-victim would respond by sticking his tongue out at the jabber.
This prodding and teasing went on for sometime, all while the senior monks sat diligently, the chanting continued, and the great Buddha towered, golden, his lips curled in serene contentment.
I watched all of this from my porch, in awe. I felt somehow astounded at the’ humanness’ of these monks. I could suddenly empathize more deeply than ever before with the complexity of emotions that young (and all) monks must feel at choosing this spiritual path.
Indeed the boy-monk’s hesitation – his choice of the trees over the prayer hall – did not lower him in any way in my eyes. If anything, he became a more accessible and endearing character, and perhaps one even more deserving of respect.
Are these praaks truly images of the Buddha? Do they aspire to be? Or are they merely boys and men who have chosen a path of enlightenment, status, poverty, and indeed inherent contradiction.