Recently I have been really fascinated by Buddhism - especially the intense devotion and motivation of the people to study the religion. To be frank, I was never curious about learning about Hinduism and I don’t see many being curious about the same. I met several people in Thailand who have been staying there for months to learn more about the teaching of the Buddha and practice meditation. There sure must be something of Buddhism which even attracts several atheists to give religion a shot.
So there I was, walking into Wat Chedi Luang - a buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, on scorching Saturday afternoon with the hope of attending the “Monk Chat”. The northern part of the temple has some tables where the monks welcome curious travellers to interact with them who in turn get the chance to practice their English. What I imagined to be a good short & an awkward conversation, turned into a two-hour intense discussion about life, goals, meditation and death. An American couple from Texas joined us on the table, and if I may say, we all left a bit wiser.
I so wish I could have recorded the discussion, but then maybe it was better that it took place in the moment. I have tried to accumulate all that we discussed on that day, and as you will observe, the monk always had a simple anecdote to explain a complex idea :
- What is so different about Buddhism that it attracts so many people?
There has always been this curiosity regarding what is different in various religions that the human race follows. I used to believe that religion is something that divides the human race and have been the fire to some of the world’s deadliest wars. However, Sapiens made me realise that the concept has equipped us to bring humans closer.
When I asked this to the monk, he had a pretty interesting take on it. He drew a river of which, on one side is where all humans exist, and the other he termed as the “Happy Land”, where everyone wants to go. He then showcased three teachers, who are followers of three distinct religions. For Buddhism, he shared that Buddha & his teachings can only guide you how to build a boat, but the real work of building it and crossing the river is on the human. Every religion will have a different way to build that boat - but, in every case, the end goal is the same. Buddhism does not force its followers to visit temples and perform certain rituals - but they sure do exist if you want to be a monk. But as a normal person, you are free to follow the teachings and consider yourself as a Buddhist.
- Do the teachings of Buddha suggest the followers to give up materialistic possessions and live an aesthetic life?
Nope. Never. As a matter of fact, the monk showed me his Apple tablet with a wide grin. He went on to narrate the story of Gautam Buddha and how he attained salvation. Buddha preaches that the life you are living is yours, and you are independent of living it the way you want. Earn money, buy a big house, but do good. Be good, do good and spread happiness, and it does not matter if you are the richest or the poorest.
- What controls our life? Does past affect us?
I have always wondered how the cycle of life works. How our past sins can carry forward in our next birth and are we really stuck in a cycle of death-rebirth-death?
The monk took out his water bottle and told us to imagine the water as our life. Whenever we do evil, we add blue ink to it. And whenever we do good, we add clean water to it. The goal of the life is to try and maintain the water to be as clean as possible. Buddhism, as he suggested, does not take past sins into considerations - you always live in the now. Even a murderer can achieve moksha if he does good in the remaining life time he has.
- What happens after we die? Hell, heaven, nirvana?
Disclaimer : this particular answer was lost in translation.
But as far as I can remember, heaven & hell is down on earth itself. If you are a drunk husband misbehaving at your home, it is hell for you. But if you are a loving man, you make it heaven for your family. The everyday activities determine whether we are living in hell or heaven. And about nirvana, that is what every person aspires to reach. He tried explaining what nirvana is, but I could not make sense out of it.
- Buddhism talks a lot about doing good. How to do good?
Gratitude. Respect. Forgiveness. One can never articulate on how to do good - it is a matter of perspective. However, if you follow such practices in your daily life, you will eventually spread happiness.
The monk narrated how they are given jobs in the temples, right from sweeping the floor, washing clothes to cooking food. It teaches them to be grateful of what they have. And pointing to his trademark smile, he said, this is the one of the most powerful weapon we have. Smile as much as you can, and you will see the difference.
- What is meditation?
Everything is meditation. If you are giving your 100% to a certain activity, it is meditation. Religions and teachers preach the very specific meditation that we learn because it is easier to close your eyes and focus on your breathing. But the end goal of this activity is to train ourselves to live in the moment.
I would suggest you to stop reading and contemplate what the monk meant by this!
- What is one thing you would want us to do more in life?
These are my favourite types of question because it forces the person to think.
The monk went on to express how the digital age has forced our mind to wander off and not concentrate on one thing. “There are too many distractions”, he said while showing off his mobile phone. He said he would really want us to practice meditation, everyday. He also suggested to learn and live in the present. As a generation who is known to be competitive, we sure do tend to miss out on the little things in life.
- Do monks eat meat?
Monks are dependent on alms and donations given by the people around the town( I was lucky to witness this solemn practice where monks walked around the city centre of Chiang Mai in the morning to collect alms). Therefore, as monks they do not have much choice and have to accept what they receive. However, the scripture sure do restrict eating certain animals.
- Who is Dalai Lama and why are there no picture of him in Thailand?
There are two groups in Buddhism - Mahayana & Thervada. Theravada Buddhism is prevalent in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, parts of Southeast Asia. On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism is prevalent in countries like Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, India. Though both the groups are based on the same set of teachings by Buddha, there are certain difference in the way they practice. And Dalai Lama is the spiritual head of the Mahayana sect of the religion and therefore Thailand is totally void of any presence of him.
I know for a fact that I am missing out on a lot of things that we talked, but I don’t seem to remember them. I tried to paraphrase most of the wisdom as much as I could remember from my notes.