Monk Week – How service-learning and Buddhist immersion came together

As my tuk tuk pulled into the grounds of the pagoda, I did not have the faintest idea that within the next twenty-four hours I would be completely bald. And that I would have no eyebrows to boot. For the past week, I have been a monk. A robe-wearing, four A.M. chanting, meditating Buddhist monk. Though my stay was brief, I have gained tremendously in the past week, more so than words can convey. But for you, my faithful readers, I will try the best that I can.

Venerable Metapolo, the head monk, proposed ordination when he visited me in the guest room that first evening. Doing so would immerse me fully in monastery life, enabling me around the clock interaction with monks and participation in daily rituals and tasks. I said yes almost immediately. The next morning rolled around within a heartbeat, and I was sitting in a plastic chair having my head shaved with a razor and watching as black clumps of my hair fell neatly into a giant water lily. Soon I made the traditional vows in the Pali language, the ceremony concluding with a presentation of a new set of orange robes for me to wear. In a surreal haze, I had entered monkshood. The remainder of the week was to follow a fairly standard routine. Morning chanting was at four, where the monks would pay homage to the Buddha and recite Dharma in Pali (I would have said the day started bright and early, except that it was still dark for at least another hour and a half!). After chanting, all the monks gathered to clean the pagoda, and a lull settled over the monastery as the sound of sweeping brooms dominated. Breakfast soon followed, a task, like all others, characterized with a mindful grace as the monastery residents entered single file, hands firmly held together.

For all aspects of the monk lifestyle, it is through the generosity of the laity that provides for the monk–food, shelter, clothing, you name it. For a monk, every last necessity is a donation, a gift that is more likely than not from a stranger. I participated daily in alms giving, a custom where I would walk around the neighboring village clutching an urn and, through the generosity of others, I would be granted more than enough food for lunch. My reliance on such generosity was intimate and beyond words. Through the giving nature of others, I, an individual who was forbidden to handle money of any sort, was given the sustenance that I needed to last through the day. Here I was, a foreigner and a beggar. And yet here I was, one of the most respected figures in all of Cambodian society. For a monk, even the King and Queen would gladly bow. In between meals and the end of the day, much time was occupied with learning about Buddhism through books and conversations with the other monks who could speak English (a surprisingly fair amount). I would spend one to two hours each evening teaching English to the monks who were less proficient in the language, an enjoyable service that I happily provided to the monastery in exchange for the new outlook I was gradually forming with each passing day.

Looking back at this past week, though, I am more surprised as to all that I have gained. Though brief, my time at the pagoda really exemplified how service was a two-way interaction. As I taught the monks, they in turn taught me. I learned much about Cambodian culture, monk life, and Buddhism. I learned much about mindfulness, inner peace, and elements of a spirituality that I only superficially knew. As I disrobed and boarded the tuk tuk to leave the monastery, I carried out with me three lines.

Not to commit any harm,

To do good,

And to purify one’s mind.

For the remainder of my days, it is a philosophy that I am privileged to follow.

Shawn A. Buddhist Immersion Program, Cambodia 2013

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