I used to see one every once in a while, in an airport or crossing the street, maybe talking on his cell phone. Shaved head, saffron robe, sandaled feet–holy men of a religion different than my own. They have always inspired a deep sense of reverence in me. What is it like to wander the world with a sense of enlightenment? I recall little Zen imponderables like: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and imagine the answer settled somewhere in the still water of their souls. How could I understand, or relate to, or speak to such a man? Were I to engage a Buddhist monk, one or the other of us might evaporate. Would I be talking to a human being or a little glimpse of Nirvana? What is one supposed to do when encountering wisdom and belief so different from one’s own?

I have yet to have a conversation with a full blown monk, or Zen master, but here in Thailand I have met several novice monks. Six of them were children and I was told to teach them English. One was an older novice, 27 years old and he was told to teach me and my classmates about Buddhism.

I met the child monks first. Tira and I taught them Simon says and the hokey-pokey. We had them draw a picture on a random scrap of paper in the hopes of teaching them the English words for the objects they drew. They ended up drawing a man with a flaming head who might be some sort of Manga super hero, we don’t know. In the background there were mountains, clouds, flowers and a flying saucer. Nobody evaporated.

The other monk (his name was Domnan and he was from Cambodia) had been a novice for 14 years. He said he had become a monk because more than anything he wanted to learn. His favorite subject was psychology. The meaning of life, he told us, was to understand oneself. He talked a bit about how the root of all suffering is ignorance, and about the importance of balance. He said that real monks have both wisdom and morality, not just robes and a shaved head, confessing that the first two still eluded him. And he echoed the Buddhist teaching I have heard most often repeated on this trip: you come into this world with nothing and you leave it with nothing. Nobody evaporated during this conversation either.

So as usual I come away with more questions than answers.
What is holiness? What does it look like in someone from Cambodia and what does it look like in someone from the Maritimes? What is wisdom? Can a religion be judged apart from its followers? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Even though Domnan told me that you can’t tell a real monk by his outward appearance, I still can’t help feeling some awe when I see a monk. But is it the man that I feel awe towards or the holiness he represents? It’s a mystery to me. I guess I still don’t fully understand myself.

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