Monday, February 26, 2007

A Day in the Life

When I refer to the monks of Buddhist monasteries in South East Asia, I talk not only of grown adults who have dedicated their remaining days to prayer and meditation but also the novice monks who make up at least half of any given monastic community. These novices vary greatly in age from as young as 8 up to 23 years old and the reasons for their early noviture are many and varied. However more often than not they relate to the unfortunate individual situation of the young monk who receives from the monastery the basic assistance that government cannot or will not provide. Thus in many ways the Buddhist monasteries endeavour to make up for the shortcomings of society that are the result of idealogical wars, aloof politicians, indifferent regimes and just plain and simple inescapable poverty.

In Laos just as in bygone Ireland the monastery serves as an orphanage for a large number of male children, although the vast majority who I came into contact with live there as many village families either live too far from a school, are too poor to provide an adequate education or of course because this free education is commonly believed to be the best available in the so called socialist state.

Still and all while a home, companionship and education are thankfully provided, it does not change the fact that the daily life of the young monk is an extremely austere one, especially when seen from my cushioned point of view. With their shaved heads, orange garb and astonishing humbleness it is easy to forget that the adolescent novices are not at all different to any other random teenager to be found in Laos or even Ireland for that matter. It is only after much conversation that they eventually discard their monastic mask and you see the very proof of this. Indeed I am inclined to think that the reason that it takes so long for them to revert to the personality and behaviour that truly befits their age is that the devoted public never give them the slightest opportunity to do so. It seems they hold them in such high esteem that a monk is never ever to be touched and to the absolute extreme, women stop to bow as they pass.

The day begins at 4am when the monks rise and gather for an hour of prayer and meditation. Later come 5 AM they reach for their alms bowls and begin the street rounds which may last over an hour before finally sitting down to eat at about 6:15 with the food being prepared and served up by the loyal local "merit makers". At 7:15 the novice monks join those of the other monasteries for class which continues until 11am and they are then free until five in the evening. However the last opportunity to eat until the following morning is this one hour between eleven and twelve noon and for the remainder of the day only liquids are allowed which fortunately includes coca cola and coffee. Nonetheless while that may be so whenever I visited they quickly produced crackers and chocolate from their hidden stashes that they secretly raid in times of extreme late evening hunger. It is only later at 4pm when the sun has calmed down that the bell sounds which in yesteryear called on local housewives to prepare rice for the evening meal but which nowadays only calls on the monks to wash. Another prayer session takes place at 5pm which leads right up to the resumtion of class at 5.30. School finishes at a quarter past seven and all are asleep, dreaming of food no doubt, by 9pm.

While the life of the Buddist Monastery fascinates me so, I recognise that it is the last place on earth that I could ever reside. Aside from the fact that orange doesn't suit me, there is also the issue of too many early mornings, too much rice, too little hair, and far too little tactile contact!

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