Monk Chat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Monks chatting
Monks chatting

What do Richard Gere, Uma Thurman, Tiger Woods, Kate Hudson and Keanu Reeves have in common? They have each professed to follow the principles of Buddhism. What is Buddhism? What do Buddhists believe in? What is the role of the monk in Buddhism?

With 300 temples in Chiang Mai alone, monks are everywhere in Thailand. They wear a bright orange sheet-like cover-up cloaked over one shoulder, leaving the other shoulder bear. They often keep to themselves when out in public. As a foreigner, I looked at the monks as a curiosity, but fully aware that this was due to my own ignorance.

I was thrilled for an opportunity to have some questions answered in a supportive, friendly learning environment, thus taking away some of the mystery surrounding the life of a monk. Monk Chat, held three times per week at a university in Chiang Mai invites members of the general public to sit down one- on-one with monks.  There is no topic off limits.

Here are some highlights of my conversation with two monks: Yuta from Burma and Vuvan from Vietnam, both pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Humanities, majoring in English.

What is your secret to finding happiness?

We find happiness through living a simple life.  We literally don’t sweat the small stuff. We don’t compete for material possessions. We do not seek out rewards or self-gratification. We don’t carry our worries or those of the world. Of utmost importance, we take pleasure from being able to teach and to pass on the ways of the Buddha.

Is it possible to be both Jewish and a monk? Or Christian and a monk?

Yes. Buddhism is not a religion. It’s a way of life.

What lead you to become a monk?

To become a monk we need the support of our family, we must be disciplined and we should have an aptitude for learning. For most monks, once they are ordained, this becomes a life-long commitment, but not always.

What are the main duties of a monk?

We follow the teachings of the Buddha and make it our mission to educate others on how to follow Buddhism. A monk must follow 227 rules. The most important of these rules are the following:

  1. Abstain from killing humans.
  2. Abstain from taking what is not yours.
  3. Abstain from engaging in sexual relations.
  4. Adhere to the principles of modesty.

What are some of the restrictions on a monk’s daily way of life?

We cannot live at home with our families. We cannot be in a room alone with a female, including a mother or sister. We do not consume alcohol. We only travel for the purpose of learning rather than for pure pleasure. We do not celebrate our birthdays - only national holidays and festivals. For us, these are not challenging restrictions but a way of life for a higher purpose. It is in part through this lifestyle that we attain happiness.

How does a monk sustain himself financially?

We receive financial support from our families and monetary donations are made to our temples by members of the community.  It is considered a blessing for people to make food donations, so they line

the streets each morning in a procession to provide rice, beans and other staples. Typical expenses include transportation, tuition, books and technology.

Is a monk allowed to access modern technology?

Yes. We have cell phones and computers.  We watch television and movies. We use Facebook and other social media. We are encouraged to understand modern political, economic and social issues.  A monk’s studies are not restricted to Buddhism, but also include more mainstream subjects such as math, psychology, history, religion and linguistics for example.

What role does meditation play in the monk’s everyday life?

Meditation plays an integral role in everyday life. It allows us to discover and explore the mind and body connection and by so doing to help attain peacefulness, happiness and tranquility. Meditation can be done all the time through breathing and remaining mindful.

When our chat was over, I left Monk Chat feeling like I had gained an appreciation for a way of life that was previously a mystery to me. I also left with two new friends in the world. I know that we’ll keep in touch…at least through Facebook.

Donna Salle is a freelance travel writer and can be reached at or follow her on twitter @TravelsWithHeart.