Maybe I’m a cynical old whatever but… “monk chat club” sounds a little like monk feeding time in Luang Prabang. Not that it’s the tourists’ fault: the monks seem more than happy to go along with it. Luang Prabang novices have never been so well fed and Wat Chedi Luang donation boxes are brimming. But is this a laudable attempt by an ancient religion to move with the times or merely Buddhism’s modern day adherents jumping on the bandwagon of 21st century commercialism?
What is a ‘monk chat’ you may well be wondering? In wats frequented by tourists there are sitting areas set aside where m0nks who can speak some English, and or who would like to improve their English-language skills, make themselves available for informal chats with tourists.
Obviously highly dependent upon their language skills — and for that matter the English skills of the visitors since we haven’t seen many monks yet who can converse in French or Hebrew — but the ‘chat’ or conversation could be about Buddhism, Thailand, Chiang Mai or anything you want really. It could be questions on finer points of Theravada doctrine or just ‘my girlfriend doesn’t understand me, what should I do’; but if you bear in mind a popular question for Thais for a monk is ‘what number should I play in the lottery’, it certainly doesn’t need to be anything especially profound.
Again, these monks may often be novices or young lads and even if you have genuine questions on the finer points of doctrine don’t necessarily expect detailed answers, though of course you can still expect an interesting chat about some of the basics: their life, Buddhism and all things Thai.
Don’t forget the donations box on the way out. There’s the rub: the essential elements of a monk chat are seats, table, monks and donation box. You’re not exactly paying for your chat but if you’ve sat and wasted a few hours of their meditation time would you feel comfortable leaving and ignoring the large and strategically placed box with donation written on it?
It seems like half the temples in central Chiang Mai — certainly those down Ratchadamneon Road — have areas set aside for monk chats with perhaps Wat Chedi Luang being the most popular. Having strolled around said wat last weekend we hesitated at the monk club since two temple-related questions did spring to mind. First, why are touts, preying on gullible tourists, tolerated in the temple precincts? And second, if someone has taken the trouble to stick up worthy signs saying ‘please don’t buy the captive birds it only encourages this cruel practice’, do you see the same bird sellers there day in, day out as well?
Anyway try it out for yourselves if you have an hour to spare and see what you think — and remember — donation box is up to you!
By Mark Ord.