Yesterday we visited Wat Pho (pronounced “waht po”), which is widely considered Bangkok’s top attraction. Wat means “temple” in Thai, and this vast temple complex is older than the city of Bangkok itself. To describe it as stunning is an understatement. Wat Pho holds over 1,000 Buddha images but is famous for the Reclining Buddha: an awe-inspiring, gold-plated statue over 130 feet long.
While exploring the grounds, a monk who was sitting in a quiet, shady corner engaged us in conversation. After we told him that we were from the United States, he invited us to sit down with him. He explained that he comes to the wat every day in his free time to practice English with foreigners.
We sat down, introduced ourselves and began the most enjoyable hour of our trip so far.
The young monk asked us about some new words he had learned in English so that we could help him understand. We explained the difference between “tropical” and “typical.” He asked us how we like Thai food and I told him that I loved all the fruits. He then asked us to explain “fruit” and how it is different than “food,” because they sound very similar. His expressions were so animated as he listened and asked questions to better understand our language.
The monk (properly addressed in Thai as luang phi because of his age) told us about his life. He grew up in a small village in Northeastern Thailand. His father had taught him about meditation from a young age, which was powerful. Meditation and the teachings of Buddha helped him to understand the truths about life and to understand humans.
The monk was a novice for several years before being receiving full ordination. He shared the five precepts for Buddhist laypeople: refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying or stealing and drinking alcohol. Novice monks must follow five additional precepts.
Monks do not eat after noon; in fact, their only food is what is given to them by laypeople. Thai people highly revere monks for their commitment to spiritual development. The giving of alms is an important practice of “good action” or karma. As luang phi also explained, many people from neighboring countries come to Thailand as beggars because of the Thai people’s commitment to generosity.
Novice monks must sleep on the floor rather than a bed and they must not participate in singing, dancing or playing musical instruments. They do not wear any jewelry or body decoration, and they cannot accept gifts or money. If these precepts sound strict, consider that once a novice becomes a monk they must follow 227 guidelines. It’s easy to see why Thai people have so much respect for the monks who live their lives with so much discipline and devotion.
I asked luang phi about his family. He told us that his mother had died one year ago, and we immediately responded that we were sorry. But he calmly explained that he does not have to feel sorry because his mother talks to him in his dreams. “We all have the same universal destination,” he said.
I felt the power in those words. Too often in our daily lives, we forget this ultimate truth. But to embrace our humanity, we must recognize what we share with others. Each of us is born to a mother. We all want to be happy. And one day, we all must face death.
If we focus on these similarities instead of feeding our tendency to judge and compare ourselves with others, we open ourselves up. We overcome prejudice and embrace the human connection. “You are not a stranger to me,” luang phi said. Throughout the timeless story of life, we have infinite connections.
What a beautiful lesson to remember as we start this journey in a foreign land.