Learning How To Pray From A Monk
Before I went to Thailand I knew very little about monks. In fact, they were like make believe characters to me. I had never seen one and I was naïve enough to think that maybe there just weren’t that many monks these days, that they were something of the past.
I was very wrong.
As I spent time in Chiang Mai it became a common occurrence for monks to pass me by on the streets as I looked for breakfast. After spending twenty years never seeing a monk, they were suddenly everywhere in their beautiful saffron robes.
Women are not allowed to have any physical contact with a monk, not even between a monk and his mother (unless there is a special circumstance such as one being extremely ill) and are not permitted to even be alone in the same room with a monk. If a woman would like to offer a monk a gift, the gift must be laid on a piece of cloth and the monk may take the gift from the cloth. I was always nervous that I would accidentally bump into one on the sidewalk and break this sacred rule. Thankfully, that never happened. But what if it did? What would happen then? I don’t know the answer to that but I’m hoping both parties would just go about their day.
My first memorable encounter with a monk occurred one morning in a temple on the mountain in Chiang Mai. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a Buddhist temple situated on the mountain, Doi Suthep. After walking up the 309 steps (you can also pay 30 Baht to take a tram) I spent my time exploring the pagodas and statues that fill Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep with a few other travelers. As we walked we came across an elderly monk who began a conversation with us. He was from further North and was here to pray and visit the temple. We parted ways but soon found ourselves in the same room, facing the same Buddha statue. He was on his knees praying when he spotted us watching him and with a smile filled with the lines of a long life, gestured for us to join him.
Let me begin by saying that I’m not huge into prayer. I couldn’t remember the last time I actually had a go at praying for real and I was nervous. Praying in North America is one thing. Praying in Asia is another entirely and I had no idea how to do it. Following the monk’s lead, I sunk to my knees with the Buddha statue in front of me. I placed my hands in prayer, I prayed, and I bowed my body towards the ground three times before standing up.
That moment, praying before the Buddha with a monk beside me, was an incredibly surreal experience and I certainly won’t ever forget it.