How to Study Abroad Asia I guess it all began with Charlton Heston. He was Moses, you know. And it wasn’t that he parted the Red Sea, or changed sticks into snakes – being 10 or 11 then I was usually asleep by that part of the movie anyway – it was something about giving up the throne of Egypt to return to his people and their God.
Well, some 20 years later I decided that I too would give up the throne of Egypt. My throne? Sin, lust, desire, craving, emotion and passion; all those wonderful things that at the very least help to make our species interesting. I had been Study Abroad Asia for five months studying Buddhism and Thai language with my EAP group, and when our program ended, I decided to take my studies a step further. So I became a Buddhist monk. I shaved my head, gave up my possessions (well, I left them in the village apartment), donned a saffron robe and furthered my quest for the unanswerable.
The Buddhist idea is simple. Life is suffering.
The life of a Buddhist monk in Thailand is either very difficult or very easy, according to your perspective. One may look at the lack of a “career” or a 40-hour work week, the free food and clothing, or just the general state of tranquillity throughout the temples, and be lulled into a state of misunderstanding. My 19 days as a monk were among the most difficult in my life. One need not be a Buddhist or a student of Buddhist philosophies to understand the inherent difficulties in denying oneself the beauty of sensory pleasure. To then try to convince and condition one’s mind to be indifferent to these stimuli is strenuous and tedious work. One must remember that the goal of Buddhism is not success, or wealth or pleasure or anything we produce in this world;rather, it is something that lies outside of this existence, and the Buddhist is concerned with reaching this “outside” as quickly as possible.
The Buddhist idea is simple. Life is suffering. We suffer because we foolishly cling to sensory pleasure. The key to end this suffering, therefore, lies in ending the process of rebirth into this sensory world. How is this done? Through meditation. By becoming the master of one’s own mind, by not letting oneself be controlled by desire or craving or need, one’s “soul” (for lack of a better word) no longer needs this world, has reached the legendary “nirvana” becomes free, and moves on to a higher plane of existence.
So I became a monk. I meditated and read Buddhist texts, and meditated, and meditated, and read and meditated. The experience was too short to gain any immediate, profoundly transforming spiritual breakthrough. And, by no means did I expect this. What I did get, and what I hoped for, was a deeper understanding of Buddhism, our world’s most popular religion.
I wasn’t looking for the holy grail, or the meaning of life or anything like that; in fact, I had given up looking for the meaning of life sometime during an existentialism class a couple of years ago. In lieu of that search I did begin looking for something new, something more accessible: the value of life. The difference here being more than just semantical. If we do something we value, suddenly our lives are meaningful. It’s that simple. One may note that this rather proactive philosophy of finding meaning is slightly incongruent to the Buddhist philosophy of disinterestedness. Well, you’re right, and this is where I turn left on life’s great Buddhist highway. From my perspective the Buddhist doctrine of disinterestedness does do fairly well in ending one’s suffering. But at what cost? You have given up everything that could possibly bring you pain or pleasure. The problem I have is that I believe that life should be lived for more than just an end to suffering. Things like love, companionship, and passion, all contribute to suffering. This is a fact. We are always hurt most by the things we love and have the most faith in. But it is only the attachment to these things that make this life worth living.
Some day we’ll move on past this primordial state of emotion and desire. We’ll have giant triangular heads, big black almond shaped eyes, and we’ll fly around the universe in little saucers, studying strange impassioned creatures. I have no doubt about this. Until then, however, give me a Big Mac and a pretty woman. Please.