Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Buddhist Monks

Cambodia is a mostly Buddhist country. Because of this, it was not at all uncommon to see monks wandering about.

I was completely fascinated by the monks. I was just as excited to see my first one as I was my last. I was intrigued by their orange robes, their shaved heads, their devotion to their faith, and the air of mystery that seemed to surround them. And some of them were so young. I wanted to know everything about them. Were they planning to be monks for life? Or serve for just a short stint (like the Mormons do?) Were they serving because they really wanted to, or doing it to please someone else? Didn't they ever want to see what their hair would look like a little longer than 1/8th of an inch? Or wear a pair of jeans? Or kiss a woman? Or more?

The following picture was taken one morning during our walk. Here we were, traipsing through the temple grounds at 6:30 in the morning, and we stopped and talk to these monks. They were friendly enough, but you know they were thinking, What the hell?

I didn't find out until way later that females aren't even supposed to look at monks, let alone talk to them or touch them. Look at me in this picture, doing all the wrong things. So I was an alcoholic, rule breaking, monk stalking missionary. The part that I find the funniest in this photo is the monk in the background, laughing. You know he is thinking ...Ooooohhhhh! You guys are in TROU-BLE! And it seems my eye-contact has already corrupted that monk on the right. Looks like he's flashing a gang sign.

I love this picture of this old monk.

I don't think this monk was planning to stab his monk brother. If I remember right, he had some fruit.

Do you suppose they wake up in the morning and think, which shade of orange shall I wear today? Saffron or pumpkin?

Usually, I'd just spy on monks from afar. I loved just observing their silent ways. It's like, they'd be lurking around in the shadows, and I'd be, well, lurking around in the shadows...taking their picture.

I'm closing this post with an excerpt from the book Committed. It is a new release that I just finished reading, written by my favorite author Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert is known for her phenomenal best selling memoir Eat Pray Love. In Committed, Elizabeth and her fiance Fillipe are living in exile in Laos, while waiting for permission to return to the United States to marry. While living in Laos, Liz, like me, is fascinated by all of the monks (I knew I liked her!) and commences to spying on them too. In this part of the story, she talks about how she often sees the monks in the internet cafe, and she can't help but sometimes peek at what they are looking at online. From Commited...

On this day, though, the young monk sat down right beside me. He was so close that I could see the faint hairs on his thin, pale-brown arms. Our workstations were so near to each other that I could also see his computer screen quite clearly. After a spell, I glanced over to get a sense of what he was working on, and realized that the boy was reading a love letter. Actually, he was reading a love e-mail, which I quickly gleaned was from somebody named Carla, who was clearly not Laotian and who wrote in comfortable, colloquial English. So Carla was American, then. Or maybe British. Or Australian. One sentence on the boy's computer screen popped out at me: "I still long for you as my lover."

Which snapped me from my reverie. Dear Lord, what was I doing reading somebody's private correspondence? And over his shoulder, no less? I pulled my eyes away, ashamed of myself. This was none of my business. I returned my attention to Delaware Valley real estate listings. Though naturally I found it a tad difficult to focus on my own tasks anymore, because, come on: Who the hell was Carla?

How had a young Western woman and a teenage Laotian monk met in the first place? How old was she? And when she wrote, "I still long for you as my lover," had she meant, "I want you as my lover?"- or had this relationship been consummated, and she was now cherishing a memory of shared physical passion? If Carla and the monk had consummated their love affair- well, how? When? Perhaps Carla had been on vacation in Luang Prabang, and maybe she'd struck up a conversation somehow with this boy, despite the fact that females should not even gaze at the novices? Had he sung out "Hello Mrs. Lady!" to her, and maybe things had tumbled toward a sexual encounter from there? What would become of them now? Was this boy going to give up his vows and move to Australia now? (Or Britain, or Canada, or Memphis?) Would Carla relocate to Laos? Would they ever see each other again? Would he be defrocked if they were caught? (Do you even call it "defrocked" in Buddhism?) Was this love affair going to ruin his life? Or hers? Or both?

The boy stared at his computer in rapt silence, studying his love letter with such concentration that he had no awareness whatsoever of me sitting right there beside him, worrying silently about his future. And I was worried about him- worried that he was in way over his head here, and that this chain of action could only lead to heartache.

Then again, you cannot stop the flood of desire as it moves through the world, inappropriate though it may sometimes be. It is the prerogative of all humans to make ludicrous choices, to fall in love with the most unlikely of partners, and to set themselves up for the most predictable of calamities. So Carla had the hots for a teenage monk- what of it? How could I judge her for this? Over the course of my own life, hadn't I also fallen in love with many inappropriate men? And weren't the beautiful young "spiritual" ones the most alluring of all?

The monk did not type out a response to Carla- or at least not that afternoon. He read the letter a few more times, as carefully as though he were studying a religious text. Then he sat for a long while in silence, hands resting lightly in his lap, eyes closed as though in meditation. Finally the boy took action: He printed out the email. He read Carla's words once more, this time on paper. He folded the note with tenderness, as though he were folding an origami crane, and tucked it away somewhere inside his orange robes. Then this beautiful almost-child of a young man disconnected from the Internet and walked out of the cafe into the searing heat of the ancient river town.

I stood up after a moment and followed him outside, unnoticed. I watched as he walked up the street, moving slowly in the direction of the central temple on the hill, looking neither to the left nor the right. Soon enough a group of young monks came walking by, gradually overtaking him, and Carla's monk quietly joined their ranks, disappearing into the crowd of slim young novices like an orange fish vanishing into a school of its duplicate brothers. I immediately lost track of him there in this throng of boys who all looked exactly the same. But clearly these boys were not all exactly the same. Only one of these young Laotian monks, for instance, had a love letter from a woman named Carla folded and hidden somewhere within his robes. And as crazy as it seemed, and as dangerous a game as he was playing here, I could not help but feel a little excited for the kid.


  1. I would personally go with Saffron, unless the harvest moon was near. Then I'd have to go with Pumpkin. Great post Jess, if I didn't have such a severe case of attention deficit disorder, I'd totally buy Commited.

  2. Love this post..and the article from Commited was great too. Maybe you could loan me the book when you are done....hint hint.


  3. I LOVE the pictures where you can see the Monk down the hall in the stone building. Not to mention the older Monk. Great work Jessie.

    Don't you wish you could have been a fly on the wall (and of course understand their language) after you left to hear what they had to say about you.

    Love this post...cracked me up!

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Age 32. Mom, wife, smart aleck.