On Religion

PART I

Monks__Comic_Strip_Panel_by_Kentholamue

The Monk

One fine December day, about two weeks ago, my mom and I went to a temple near our house to give ‘Sang-kha-tarn’ (as we say in Thailand) to the monks. The day marked a one year anniversary of my late grandmother’s passing, and giving ‘Sang-kha-tarn’ (essentially a package of household goods – medicine, robe, canned foods, etc.) to the monks is a traditional (Buddhist) ritual for such occasions.

I’m not sure what the actual significance of the ritual is. Two explanations come to mind: first, that you’re giving these goods to the dead via the monks. Second, giving the monks ‘Sang-kha-tarn’ is an act of goodness, and this goodness then gives peace to the dead. Actually, now that I think of it, it’s really the same explanation expressed in a different way. I’m tempted to include a sentence that features the word ‘meta’ here, but I’m not sure I’ve got the application to this instance exactly right, so I’ll just leave it. For now. The maniac that I am, I’ll probably return to this once I’ve had the time and the willingness to figure it out.

Anyways, I have nothing against the ritual of ‘Sang-kha-tarn’. Monks are supposed to live in a detached world. In Thai, we say the monks have forsaken the ways of the world for the ways of dharma. So they cannot handle money, touch women, have jobs, etc. So it makes perfect sense for those still trampling the ways of the world to provide the monks with the goods they need to sustain themselves, but which they cannot procure through worldly means.

Actually, let me tell you a bit more about how monks maintain their livelihood in Thailand. Some of you may find this interesting. [If you don’t, feel free to skip – that’s what paragraphs are for, if I’m not mistaken. As I may well be. Shut up, Val.] So, every morning, the monks come out of the temple so people can ‘tak bart’. ‘Bart’ is a large round bowl (usually black). This is what it looks like (commission-free). The act of ‘tak bart’ is the act of putting things into the ‘bart’.

[If you’ve skipped the previous paragraph, skip this one too.] If you’re visiting/living in Thailand and you’re up early enough, you’ll see rows of Buddhists waiting to ‘tak bart’ to monks from nearby temples in the residential areas, or areas with restaurants selling food (usually rice with side dishes) in the morning. Once the monks have done their rounds (and usually by then their ‘bart’ is brimming full with food), they go back to the temple to eat the food they’ve been given. I am not aware of the custom elsewhere, but in Thailand the monks eat between 11am and 12pm. And here’s some wiki info on monks and Buddhism in Thailand, should you wish to know more.

[Now we’re good.] We must have arrived at the temple around 11am. I wanted to go in the afternoon, but my mom said it’s best to go in the morning, before the monks have their lunch. For the very simple reason that, after lunch, they usually go have a nap. So it’s hard to find a monk out and about in the temple after lunching hours. We were lucky that day. The ‘Chao-a-vart’ was out to receive ‘Sang-kha-tarn’ from a few other people who had arrived before us. ‘Chao-a-vart’ is, if I understand correctly, the chief monk in a given temple. Even in the worlds of dharma, hierarchy appears necessary.

So there we were – about six of us. We had each given the ‘Chao-a-vart’ our bucket of goods, and he was reciting the prayers appropriate for ‘Sang-kha-tarn’. And the phone rings.

Now, I’d turned my phone on silent. Out of respect for the temple, of course. But also – well, more, to be completely honest – for fear of embarrassing myself in front of other Buddhist devouts should my phone decide to make sounds during the 15 minutes when it shouldn’t (what are the odds? 15 out of 1,440 minutes in a day – but it gets you every time). My mom doesn’t usually carry a phone, and if she does it’s usually turned off (*hint, hint* mom). I looked up. No one had budged.

Except the ‘Chao-a-vart’ who – still chanting the prayers in a low, monotonic voice – was calmly rooting about in the fold of his robes. A few seconds later, he found the pocket (I never knew monk robes had pockets. I mean. What would they need it for? Keys?) and there was the offending phone – beeping away. It wasn’t ringing, really. It was beeping with incoming Line messages.

The ‘Chao-a-vart’, always chanting, not-so-discreetly takes out the phone. Puts it on silent. And then you’d expect him to put it away, no? No. He checks his phone. Before casually putting it away.

It was an iPhone – pretty sure it was an iPhone 5. It had a flip cover and everything. And his swiping action was, well, I can only say he swipes better than my dad who recently got his first smartphone. With all due respect, monk got skillz.

All this time, he prayed on, then – phone checked and put away – proceeded to splash us all with (holy?) water. Once all had been said and done, we got up and went our separate ways. My mom and I went home, and I started this entry. I felt the urge to write something about this event. And then other things got in the way. Other posts which needed immediate attention. And it is only now – two weeks after – that I’m sitting down to actually write it out.

I’m not sure what I found more offending: the monk having an iPhone, or him checking his phone during service. Probably the latter.

I mean, I can sympathise with the monk having an iPhone. I’m sure they’re not meant to. In fact, I can think of few objects that are more ‘worldly’ than an iPhone; they’re branded, expensive, image-oriented, consumer-centred – really, a perfect embodiment of capitalism: sleek, stylish, and cool. Maybe someone gave it to him. Most likely so. Maybe he’s using it to justifiable ends – to keep in touch with his family, who may live far away and cannot come see him at the temple, maybe?

I know I’m speculating on zero grounds here. But all I can say is, I don’t mind too much a monk having an iPhone. Materialism get to us all. And I’m not that idealistic or naive (?) a person to expect monks to behave entirely as they should. Scandals of monks with young boys (and girls) abound. Of course these things happen. Unfortunate, but they do.

What I found super offending is the fact that the monk took the opportunity to check his phone, after it rings, which itself shouldn’t happen in the first place. (I wonder if they joke about it, the monks. I wonder if, after the service, the other monks go: ha-ha, you forgot to put your phone on silent! But I shall never know. So let’s not speculate more.)

And it wasn’t just one swipe. He was clearly checking his phone, spending time looking at each screen. The entire swiping scenario probably lasted about 10 seconds, but I think that’s more than enough to qualify as inappropriate. I have been in services (religious or other) where someone forgets to turn off their phone. And it’s almost always the same scenario. The phone rings. The person jumps. Stumbles in bag for phone. Takes phone out. Turns it off/on silent. Practically throws the phone back in the bag. The person is usually so embarrassed they’re just doing their best to get it over with as fast as humanly possible.

But not the ‘Chao-a-vart’, no. He switches the phone on silent, then checks his phone. It’s as if his mind went: ah, now that I have the phone out, might as well. All this during a service, which he was giving. Now this, I cannot sympathise with.

I think this indicates a fault in character that should be condemned in purveyors of religion. First, it indicates a lack of respect for the activity for which you demand respect from others, an activity which has been ritualised – put beyond all question. But second, and more importantly, it indicates a lack of respect, a lack of consideration for others – one expected from men of any religion, profession, or race.

To give an example, this – I find – is akin to pushing in front of a long line of people queuing for something without due reason, when there is no mistaking the queue for anything other than a queue. It’s not a big thing, you say? I agree, it’s not a big thing. A lot of people do it. But this small thing indicates said lack of consideration and/or respect for others which I find a big lack in a person of religion – a person whose way of life you’re supposed to learn from, whose teachings you’re supposed to listen to. This, to me, is unacceptable.

Do you think I’m being too harsh on the guy? Could you argue that it was done on a whim? I find this argument hard to construct. There was nothing whimsical about the actions he took. And the easy manner in which the ‘Chao-a-vart’ went through the episode suggests this wasn’t the first, nor the only, time this has happened.  

I have more things I want to say on religion. Not that I’m an expert. It’s just a topic that often comes to mind. So I’ll continue this in a later post. Next time, I’ll talk about my religion. What I was born into. How I reacted to it. When I decided to change, and why my current religion is what it is.

Stay tuned.

TO BE CONTINUED

2 thoughts on “On Religion

  1. You should try consume this thing called Zen.

    There’s nothing holy or unholy either. What we see tells us more about our eyes than what is actually seen.

    Either all is good, I guess.

    Enjoy ja

  2. I don’t think you were harsh on the guy at all. I think there should be a level of discipline everywhere. Like you said, turning it silent and putting it away is alright. Not checking it, specially not during a ceremony thats important!

    Mark

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