Asia is scattered with solid orange and red as monks are around every corner—making an already brilliantly vibrant country even brighter.
(Their robes reflect colours traditionally worn when they used to dye the cloth with berries.)
My first encounter with a monk in Cambodia was when I walked into a ruin. He was there studying, cross-legged.
When I introduced myself, I was not so sure how to greet him. I bowed with my hands crossed in front, like in prayer. He said hello, and then, of course, I proceeded to ask him how to greet a monk.
He taught me how to greet a monk in Pali, a Buddhist language closely related to Sanskrit. Neh-ma-see-gan is what the greeting phonetically sounded like to me.
How wonderful it is that I can now pay respect to a monk personally. I felt very honoured that he taught me.
I was in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand for a day, where there are over 500 temples. I rented a bicycle, as the motorcycle traffic was insane, and I thought I would see where my adventure took me.
“At the end of the evening we lit the sky lanterns and set them off. Olay told me to make a wish.” PHOTO: Rebecca Hogarth
I pulled into a few temples. One was Wat ChediLuang, a gorgeous temple with a huge golden Buddha image inside.
After spending quite some time inside, paying respect and so forth, I headed outside and stepped into the “Monk Chat” I had seen and heard about. What luck!
Wat Chedi Luang is beside a Buddhist school where many, many monks attend, and Monk Chat is a place set up for certain hours where tourists can go and ask questions about Buddhism, Thailand, etc.
A very friendly, yet shy and somewhat nervous monk approached me and asked how I was doing and if there were things I would like to know about monks or Buddhism. His name was Olay, he was from Laos and he spoke incredible English.
We proceeded to chat for over an hour. I asked him things such as whether I could take pictures. He told me monks are not all vegetarians and most eat meat.
Some of the monks at the Chat were hilarious, so relaxed and funny. Many of the monks I met I continued to hang out with.
At one point, I was passed the microphone and asked by one of the funny monks to invite others over for Monk Chat as no one was showing up. So, I did.
I think many people are intimidated by monks somehow. Some came over anyway—a group of three. So they asked the monks questions and the monks showed a PowerPoint display with some of the points on Buddhism.
Then Olay and his friends (monks) invited me to Magha Puja Day, a holiday which marks a time where nine months after Buddha’s enlightenment, he had 1,250 Arhats (spiritual practitioners) show up with no schedule.
It was good timing on my part, and I was able to partake in this celebration. I got to hear traditional Thai music with drummers, dancers and fire breathers.
It was breathtaking. At the end of the evening we lit the sky lanterns and set them off. Olay told me to make a wish.
I was invited back again, and again, to chat or meditate. I felt very blessed to be pulled into a fold of monks who were as interested in me as I was in them.
Before parting, Olay and I exchanged books that we both inscribed for one another. Olay gave me his Dali Lama book, How to Practise: The Way to a Meaningful Life.
“Rebecca, I hope you enjoy reading this book very much,” he wrote in it. “I like your smiling and hanging out with me. I would like to thanks for your kindness which you have spent times with me. Take care, Olay.”
It took arm twisting, but I bought him a book of his choice, Buddhism in Southeast Asia. (I bought myself a copy too.)
A few times Olay escorted me to book stores, vendors, etc.—places I could not find on my own. Respectfully, I always followed behind. It is not that women are inferior in any way, but women should not be directly seated or standing beside a monk.
We both knew that some people looked at us with disrespect, however we decided that we felt being friends was not wrong. (Lord Buddha said to look inside to seek the truth.)
When I left Olay also gave me a mini Buddha image that he had bought for himself. Most locals carry a Buddha around their neck—some have many.
I will miss him more than anyone I met in Thailand. He was a real thinker.
He is now friends with me and my family on Facebook, and my sister and mom have messaged me with how happy they are to know Olay. My sister who not very often talks about spirituality is finding herself quite interested.
I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to bond with a monk. Not expected, but what a great experience.
Rebecca Hogarth has been a resident of Dawson City since 2007. She feels the energy of the Yukon and the encouraging people within allow her to shine in so many ways.