We had the amazing chance to spend a week in a Buddhist Temple near Chiang Rai in North Thailand. During a few days, we lived the life of Buddhist monks. It was not a retreat or meditation class. Here we were alone with them, sharing all the moments of their lives, and it has been the most enriching experience we have lived so far!
There were about ten monks living in the temple: two master monks that we would meet only for breakfasts and prayers, two experienced monks named Krissana and Chan, and novices including Donut, Kim, Jay, and M (the youngest) with who we shared a lot.
The temple was composed of several buildings, the temple itself where they pray, and the buildings where they live. They gave us a place to sleep, on the floor under a big mosquito net, in a large common room just next to the temple. Chan also slept in this building, on the second floor. The floor was quite hard, there was no hot water, and the place was full of mosquitos, but surprisingly it did not bother us, as we get used to it more and more now we travel! During these few days, we lived a simple life and we felt better than ever!
Every day we would wake up at 6 am and go around the village with the monks. Indeed, every morning monks receive food from the people of the village. People offer food to the monks because this is how Buddha was fed by the people before becoming a Buddha. Monks should eat only the food received from the people. By offering food, people act with kindness and generosity to get closer to happiness. So monks walk around the village every morning and people wait for them in front of their door. It is an intense moment as people pray and put food in the monks’ jars, and then knee down to receive a chanting prayer from the monks. Then the monks put the food they received in a big cart and carry on their way in the village.
The first day, Alex’s role was to push the cart to receive the food with Kim, and then the second day with M, and then the monks got a brand new cart with three wheels, so there was no need to push it anymore! On my side, I was allowed to take plenty of pictures.
Monks cannot receive money in their hands from people. If people want to give them money, they also have to put it in directly in their jars or their bags.
After receiving the food, we would go back and have breakfast at the temple. Monks eat the food which is given by the people, rice, meat in sauce, bananas, omelets, rice and coconut in banana leaf. There is a lot of food and it is delicious! Every morning they shared some food with us, sweet rice in banana leaf topped with sweet egg, rice and omelet, fruits…
After breakfast, at 8.30 am, we would go to school to teach to monk students. The school is just across the road from the temple. At school, there were about 65 monk students, from our temple and coming from other temples. The day at school starts with a prayer and then students go to different classes. Alex and I were helping to teach English. We presented ourselves and France, we made the students guess the specialties of some parts of France, and we ended up talking about football teams! We had also a map of the world to play with them and look for countries. We tried to make conversation with them as much as possible. Indeed we noticed they knew a lot of vocabulary but they did not know how to make sentences with it. We think that our presence showed them the importance to speak English in order to communicate with foreigners like us.
After school, at 6.30 pm, the monks and us would all gather in the temple to pray and chant. Alex and I did not chant as we are not Buddhists, and the chants are in sanskrit. Monks totally respected the fact that we are Christian and never questioned about our religion. One of them told us this beautiful phrase: “Religion is like school. At school we have a lot of teachers and we can choose the teacher we like the most, but he still teaches the same things as the others.” We also think there are not several religions, “God” is the same for all of us, we just call it differently. We will talk more about Buddhism in a futur post, so keep reading!
On Thursday, it was holy day, so we spent the morning at the temple where master monks held prayers. At 4 am, people from the village started to come at the temple to hear the first prayer. They were all dressed in white. But it was so early for us and we did not know how long it would last, so we stayed in bed, surrounded by the beautiful and peaceful sound of their prayers.
At 6 am, a second prayer was held, that we joined. The temple was full and they all looked at us when we came in, smiling and waving at us. This second ceremony was a very long one. During this ceremony, people prayed and brought rice to monks. People from the village were so kind with us, they gave us some rice to offer to the monks. We wanted to speak together, but they did not speak English at all. Hopefully one of them finally could speak a little English so we manage to talk a bit. Then people asked if we can come and live with them in their house instead of being at the temple!
All day, prayers were held. We went again to the last one which lasted more two hours until 9 pm. During this ceremony, we did meditation with the monks for the first time. Again, people showed us how to do, taking care about us. Surely this was a long but beautiful day.
On Friday, Chan invited us to go to university where there was a seminar for monks and students. The seminar was all in Thai so we did not understand anything, but on our way back we visited the Black House and then the White Temple. The White Temple or Wat Rong Khun is a magnificent temple being built by the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. It was supposed to be achieved in 2008, but the artist said that it should be completed in 2070! It is one of the most beautiful buildings we have ever seen! The pure white color of the temple makes it unreal. The complex white scultptures look like precious lacework. What a tribute to Buddhism!
On our last day at school, students thanked us for teaching English to them, and then wished us good luck and safe trip.
And in the evening we were invited by a family of the village to have coffee and go to the pond to eat fresh fish. Several people from the village joined and only one was speaking English, but we had so much fun with them. After that they drove us to Chiang Rai to make us visit the Night Bazaar and we finished the evening by dancing popular dances in the street!
We will keep a deep memory of these few days in a Buddhist temple. We know we were very lucky to be allowed to live with them in the temple. Generally women are not allowed in the temple, but because we were married we had the chance to stay there together. And we learned a lot about people and about us.
Buddhist monks have to respect 327 rules from Buddha, some of them include not having dinner, not playing, not doing sport. If they go against the rules, people can denounce them and they go to jail.
Before going to the temple, we would imagine that monks are poor, they do not have any money, they pray all day, they are very serious. We discovered that monks have a simple life but it does not prevent them to be happy like us, check their smartphones, play checkmates, do fun poses for pictures (they loved to be photographed!), broadcast the prayers on Facebook Live…! We had a lot of fun with them, especially when we hang out together in the evenings and use Google Translate to communicate!
Our stay in Chiang Rai was a true lesson for being welcome by people. We wish we could have stayed longer, because we truly found kindness and peace with the monks and people from the village. Our mission was to carry on our trip back to France, but surely when we have finished it we will go back to the village!