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Monk Chat at Wat Suan Dok

As the last rays of sunlight spear across the grounds of Wat Suan Dok, I soak up the serenity that surrounds me while still within a stone's throw of the evening's rush-hour traffic. Saffron-clad young men stroll through the campus, (for this is the Maha Chulalongkorn, MC, Buddhist University), making their way to and from prayer.I have come to experience Chiang Mai's Monk Chat program; an operation of international renown just six years since its creation by Pra Ajarn Saneh Dhammavaro, Ph.D, Director of Academic Affairs at the university.(Pra = monk, priest / Ajarn = educated person).

People meditating at Monk Chat

Monk Chat was established with a view to serving the needs of visitors and novice monks alike. It has no hidden agenda. This is not a centre of religious indoctrination; nor does it get financial backing from the university, relying instead on public donations. Monk Chat was set up to allow local and international visitors to make conversation with young monks on subjects as diverse as Buddhism and religion. Think you have spotted a misprint? Buddhism is described in almost every English dictionary as being a religion. Pra Ajarn Saneh disagrees.

"Buddhism is a way of life," he explains. "The way of Lord Buddha, in layman's terms, is a code of conduct as opposed to religious dogma." Pra Ajarn Saneh is quick to add that Buddhism mocks no man's religion. "People of all religious faiths come here," he explains. "I recently spoke with a young man of Middle Eastern origin who was most distraught over the political and religious divisions between his faith, and that of his neighbors. I am, of course, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis," he says. "But I have no need to identify this young man's race; suffice it to say that he came to me for an independent and unbiased viewpoint."
"Buddhism is, contrary to common belief, not an organized religion," says Pra Ajarn Saneh. "To follow the teachings of Lord Buddha is to follow what we refer to as being "The Middle Way", a path to enlightenment; to understand the cause and relief of the pain experienced in daily life."

As Pra Ajarn Saneh moves from table to table, I eavesdrop on the conversations taking place between his young monks and their guests. David and Carla are visiting professors from Vermont in the USA. They are in Thailand with a view to setting up a course in cultural psychology, and have come to Monk Chat to expand their knowledge of Buddhism. "I was born into the Catholic faith," says Carla. "I find that Buddhism teaches a very practical way of life; living in the now, as you might say." Indeed, I have found that the simplicity of Buddhism has deepened my opinion and understanding of Christ."

David is by birth a Protestant, and like his fellow professor and partner, Carla, has discovered something of value in the teachings of Buddhism in general, and the Monk Chat program in particular. "The psychology of Buddhism fits into my beliefs," he says. "We have set up courses in cultural psychology in Bali, Belize, and Samoa, and have come to Chiang Mai with a view to expanding that program."

Erin, who in spite of the Celtic name, hails from the sun-drenched city of Carmel in California, and is deep in conversation with three novices. "This is the sweetest thing to do in all of Chiang Mai," she tells me. "Just being in the presence of these young people is the very essence of spirituality." Erin has not gone "All California" on me; she is a serious student of Buddhism; has studied the way and the teachings of Lord Buddha for more than a decade, and is a vibrant and intelligent educator.

I move on to hear Peter, a German who now lives in England, and a man who does not enjoy good health. "My entire system has been out of kilter, "he tells me. "I am not saying I have come here to be healed. No, I have come here to listen, and hopefully learn how best to deal with my problems." He listens, and is clearly learning.

Stephanie is a mathematics graduate from Scotland who, like Peter, now resides in England. (Why, I ask myself, are sane and sensible souls moving to England?). Stephie must have been a joy to teach; she is the perfect sponge; soaking up every drop of information being offered freely from her chatty monk companions.
Pra Gabe is from Laos, and a student at the MC University. He's an English major who enjoys meeting and discussing all manner of topics with farangs (foreigners). Along with his colleague and fellow monk, Pra Brandon of Lampang, they engage Stephanie in a conversation on: education in Britain, Buddhism, meditation, the daily life of a monk, and her choice in music. I move to another table as Pra Gabe explains the difference between a city monk and a forest monk. Want to know? Get yourself along to Monk Chat!

Anne lives close to the English seaside resort of Brighton." I came here for the meditation course, but these young men have been so helpful in allowing me into their lives. They have wisdom beyond their years," she says, before resuming her chat with two novices. I am a fly on the wall:

"Religion and politics are no more than brand names." Pra Ajarn Saneh explains to an Australian nun who is here to attend meditation classes. "Accept people as individuals. Don't stick labels on people: I am Buddhist, you are Catholic, he is Protestant, Khun Thaksin is….well, you understand what I'm saying, yes?" , he asks.

The good sister understands, and smiles in agreement. "Respect everyone on equal terms; water is water, and when rivers reach the sea who can tell whether that water came from the Ping River or the Nile?", asks the monk. Parables included, I think to myself.

Monk Chat was set up with a dual purpose in mind; to help others to understand Buddhism, and the way of life followed by Thai monks, and to help young novices improve their linguistic skills by chatting with foreigners. Monk Chat operates out of Wat Suan Dok on Suthep Road. The program is free, but all donations are warmly welcomed. Meditation courses are also available. Contact: Email to thaimonkchat@yahoo.com or read more at http://monkchat.net/.

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