by Anna Idler
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” – Gautama Buddha
When I walked in the doors of the classroom on Chiang Mai University’s campus, the monk at the front had just wrapped his bright orange robe around his head.
“And so this,” he addressed the room faceless, looking like just a walking piece of clothing, “is another way to wear our outfit.”
Everyone in the room was laughing and so was the monk; I smiled and pulled up a chair.
I’d come in at the end of the all-day meditation retreat that the university holds with the local monks, who are housed at a temple nearby called Wat Suan Dok. A girl I’d met at my hostel recommended the “monk chat” to me the night before. It’s a meeting that occurs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in Chiang Mai for two hours in the evening, after the retreat. Small groups can talk to the Buddhist monks and ask them anything; it’s also an opportunity for the monks, who come to Thailand from all over the world, to practice their English.
After the monk wrapped up the retreat, he blessed the room and set up chairs for the upcoming chat. Soon there were four of us sitting across from two young monks, only 22 years old. Both were from Nepal and had been monks for around five or six years.
I was so excited to begin my questions I could barely sit still. I was expecting the conversation to be enlightening and interesting, but very serious. It was all of those things at different points in the night, but mainly, it was lighthearted and fun. The monks were so sweet and had the best senses of humor. When I asked what made them want to become monks, one that he was walking with his mom in Nepal when he was seven years old, and saw a monk walking ahead of them. And he loved his robe.
“I pointed and said, ‘that is what I want to wear, Mom,’” the monk told us chuckling. “I first want to be a monk just because I like their clothes!”
He began studying to become a monk a couple of years later, and fell in love with the lifestyle and teachings thankfully just as much as the ensemble.
One of my favorite insights came when a man from Germany asked the monks about anger. He explained he has trouble letting things go and holds grudges, even though he tries hard not to. He asked how to manage his frustrations at people. The monks looked at the group with easy smiles.
“If I am angry at you, it is my suffering,” the monks said. “Not yours.”
The monks preach forgiving and forgetting. They believe life is full of suffering; it is simply a fact. But it is how we choose to deal with the suffering that will decide the kind of life we live. There is no point to anger, to disappointment. All emotion is fleeting and it will pass. They believe the past is gone, and the future is completely impossible to know. All we have is the present moment: so why not try to be happy?
I left the monk chat feeling refreshed, relaxed and content. Just being around them filled me with a deep calm.
Letting go of resentments, staying in the present, seeking quiet moments: I think all of these lessons are important to keep in mind as Rachel and I continue our travels. Especially since we’re back in the wild city of Bangkok to pick up our Vietnam visas. Trying to find some zen among the traffic and humidity is challenging. But not so hard I think if I remember the monks, and hold their words close.
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26 year-old Anna Idler lives in Montgomery County, PA and is a freelance writer for Montco Happening. To learn more about her travels, check out her website Outlaw Summer.