Within typical Buddhist culture, monks are revered as a highly respected and enlightened being. They are spiritually connected to Buddha, and are eternally in service to Buddha and all that Buddhism upholds. Novice monks are the first stage of entering the monk world. It is when young males, and females in some cultures, are taught the ways of Buddhism and how to become a monk.
Novice life is something that I have had the pleasure in experiencing and discovering within my travels in Laos. I have been able to see how they live, how they learn and how they interact with their surrounding community. The life of a novice monk requires focus and dedication to living and behaving in a certain way.
Typically, novices and all monks are considered higher and more respected than the average person. Therefore, people within Buddhist communities treat them as such: Women are not allowed to touch them at all and when talking to them must always be at their height (which I can tell you from experience makes for difficult teaching!). When I personally teach and interact with my young novices at the temple, I am never allowed to pick up anything that they grab, they must place it on a table instead of handing it to me. Also, any type of sport, clapping or songs are not allowed in the classroom. Having come from a North American way of thinking and being a student without so many restrictions, I really had to curb most of my behaviour to accommodate to such expectations. I wanted to respect and experience their culture at the same time, something that became quite difficult but that you grow used to as time goes on.
Novice monks have quite a rigorous daily routine, where they wake up at 5 am, walk the streets for alms giving at 6 am, eat only at 6 and 11 am, prayers to Buddha 3 times a day, and have around 13 subjects of classes a day. It is always typical to see young novices nodding off in class around 1 pm; they’re regimented days don’t give much space for nap time.
Some boys as young as 10 join the temple, usually until the age of 20 or so and then they decide whether they want to continue being a monk or quit the temple and go to work or university. Most of the time, especially from what I have seen here in Laos, a lot of these boys are from nearby villages where educational opportunities are extremely limited. They join Buddhist temples for the opportunities and doors that it can open without having to pay a full price education. They are provided with support, proper clothing, essential student supplies, accommodation and food, something that they may not have access to at home. For many families living in such a poor country, sending their child to become a novice monk is a blessing; they as an individual are able to get the education that they need and in the future be able to support their families.
Having lived and grown up in two very wealthy societies, Canada and Switzerland, I hadn’t personally experienced what it meant to come from little to no means. Seeing how novices live day to day, and having that be an amazing opportunity for those young boys, I can only imagine what life at home must be like. All novices that I have met and had the pleasure to meet are hard-working young people, just like you and me. They want better for themselves and their families, and I have gained mass amounts of respect for the institution. It may not be the best option out there by far, but they are all dedicated to making their lives better and heading off to university one day.
The educational system in Canada I feel is always taken for granted. We have consistent access to good public education as well as optional private education, we have loans, universities, colleges and higher educational institutions in almost every part of the country. I understand and see the value in these opportunities more clearer than I ever have, and learning and understanding the novice life has helped me in doing so. If they had access to the same opportunities as we had, things might be a little different in a beautiful country like Laos. Laos is a beautiful and booming country on the rise so hopefully we will see these transformations happen as time goes on.
IMAGE CREDIT: Maier&Maier Photography