Never Touch a Monk

I’ve never considered myself to be a religious person, but despite my lack of religion, there is a strong amount of wonder and respect that comes over me when I see Buddhist monks. My first real encounter with Buddhist monks was on Semester at Sea during my travels through Burma. My three traveling partners, our four guides, and I woke up early one morning and watched hundreds of monks in deep red robes walk barefoot through the streets of Bago. It was a silencing experience. And now, being here in Thailand, I find myself feeling the same way. It’s a hard feeling to describe. A lot of it is respect, extreme respect.

A few weeks ago I found myself on a songtow (the pick-up truck bus system) with a Catholic nun who spoke English and I realized quite how differently I felt about Buddhist monks and Christian nuns. Nuns give up everything to devote themselves to their religion like monks do, so why do I feel filled with respect and awe when I am around a monk and not when I am around a nun?

I think it comes down to the differences between the two religions. As a foreword, I am by no means an expert on religion and I most certainly do not mean to offend anyone with this post. With that being said, Christianity conjures a defensive feeling for me. It has always felt like such a conquering and invasive religion. I know there are many good things that come out of the Christian church, but I always feel like I need to be ready to strongly defend my beliefs when I encounter the Christian religion.

With Buddhism though, an overwhelmingly peaceful aura is instantly created for me. I feel that I do not need explain myself, they are okay with who I am and no judgment is passed on me. Maybe that’s what it comes down to, judgment. I don’t feel judged for my beliefs. Whatever the reason, I really enjoy the Buddhist culture here.

This is what I have been thinking about this week after my field trip to Wat Poh with the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders of Nonthun School. The students stayed at the temple for three days and two nights. Unfortunately I was only able to go for one day because the other two days I had to work at a different school. It would have been fun to spend three days there, but I’m not sure if fasting after lunch for three days is quite my cup of tea. Anyone who knows me knows that I get grumpy on an empty stomach and dealing with kids and trying to speak Thai without any fuel is a little too much for me at this point in my stay here.

The temple was small but the grounds were enchanting. The art teacher and director of Nonthun School are amazing artists and have painted the entire area as you can see below.

Front entrance

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P'Tamaron

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While the kids had classes with the monks, I practiced my Thai with the other teachers. It was the first time I really began to feel like part of the faculty, which was extremely exciting. At one point I decided to walk around and take pictures of the building and as I was doing so one of the monks started talking to me, in Thai of course. We had a conversation about where I am from, what I do, where I work, our names, and religion. It was invigorating. Not only was I having a conversation with a monk, but was I doing it all in Thai!

After he walked away, I continued taking pictures of the building. I heard him call out Duan (it means moon and is my other Thai nickname) and when I walked over to meet him I found him holding a flower for me. He told me the name of it, which translates to blue chicken flower, and held it out for me.

The next part was especially interesting for me. Monks can’t touch women. I have to sit and stand as far away from monks as I can in order to make sure an accidental touch does not happen. I found out after I went to the temple that women should not so much as hand something to a monk. If a woman is touching something at the same time as a monk, it is considered to be a connection and is not allowed. I wish I had known this before I’d gone to the temple. When this monk reached out to give me the flower I wasn’t sure what to do. The moment and the memory of it seem to go in slow motion for me. As I reached out to take the flower I wasn’t sure how to get it. In retrospect I should have cupped my hands under the flower and let him drop it into my hands, but I am still a little clumsy with Thai customs, so I lightly grabbed the other end of the flower. He then let go of his end and moved away.

Afterward I was filled with delight. This was the best flower I had ever received. Not only was it an exotic flower with a great name, it was given to me by a monk. I felt so special. Now though, after talking to a friend about the experience, I am afraid the gift may have not been as wonderful as I imagined. Apparently he should have put the flower on the ground and let me pick it up so as to make sure that no connection would be made. I did not know this before, but he must have, so I’m not sure now if this experience was inappropriate or not. It didn’t feel inappropriate for me, but then again my scale of what is appropriate or not is slightly different. His intentions will remain a mystery for me, but I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that he was making a kind gesture toward a foreigner living alone in Thailand.

The Blue Chicken Flower.
The Blue Chicken Flower.

**If anyone knows the name of this flower in English let me know.