15 October 2017

Temple Life

As I mentioned in my previous blog, with my time in Laos coming to an end I decided to fulfil something I have long thought about since coming back to Laos last year, becoming a Buddhist Novice Monk. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to complete the full ten days as I had originally planned due to complications with the police, however, I was able to complete seven full days.

I was very fortunate to spend most of my time inside the temple with Monk Pali, an ex-student I have known since I began working with GVI Laos last year (click here to read a blog post I wrote about him last year). This time the roles were reversed, he was my superior and mentor and I was able to learn a great deal from him. With very few commitments outside of the temple, except for the occasional village ceremony and language classes, Monk Pali and I spent the majority of the seven days together at the temple. 
After overcoming the initial shock of looking like something out of a horror movie with no hair and no eyebrows, I quickly settled into temple life, with Monk Pali showing me the ropes.

Our days consisted of waking at 4 am, preparing for the day, morning chanting and meditation. Collecting alms at 5:30, breakfast and daily chores (cleaning dishes and around the temple) until 7:30. This would be when the younger Novices venture to school, to return for lunch, around 11:30, before leaving again to be back before evening chanting and meditation at 5:30 pm. 
During the day I spent my time reading, washing my robes, discussing various thought-provoking subjects and meditating with Monk Pali. Other idle time was spent sleeping. While at times it was hard not to feel like I was being lazy and unproductive, that is what temple life is all about, the act of doing nothing. This was a valuable opportunity for me to switch off my brain and lead an ascetic life for a short time and focus on what is important.
Temple life is very peaceful, calm and uncomplicated. It is the perfect opportunity to contemplate, focus on studies and learn, however, due to the growing accessibility of technology and the internet, it was hard to truly immerse oneself into that life. Between schedule activities, there wasn’t a time when I didn’t see a Novice Monk staring at a screen, on occasion certain younger Novices preferred to stay at the temple playing on their phones rather than go to school.

In contrast, collecting alms, Buddhist monks daily pilgrimage to receive the day's supply of food, was one of the most rewarding and purest things I have participated in. It was one of the rare times I would leave the temple grounds (a personal decision, as to not draw attention to myself) and every time I felt honoured to see the same people, who would wake early to offer freshly cooked sticky rice and treats to us and expect nothing in return.
While it was unfortunate that my time in the temple was cut short, as I felt like I was just truly adjusting to the lifestyle, I will cherish every moment I had and continue to practise what I have learnt.

For now though, it's time to lock myself away until my eyebrows have grown back as not to scare the children.

Luke T.

5 October 2017

Religion and Me

Recently, I have been exploring and writing a lot about Buddhism and I thought it was only fair to share my thoughts on religion as a whole.

Although I was Christened at a very young age, religion has never been a big factor in my life. Sure, I was brought up singing hymns in school assemblies and celebrate Easter and Christmas every year, mind you in a very secular fashion. Religion was never imposed on me (a mindset I seek to carry forth), in fact for some time I disdained religion.

Marx’s ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ has long been a quote that resonates with me. I originally saw religion used as a tool for people to justify and escape the consequences of their actions and the realities of the world.
My first encounter with devout religious believers came while volunteering in Zambia. I recognised that a lot of developmental issues were largely linked or hindered by blind faith in religion, primarily due to ingrained prejudices. Yet after politely declining the invite to church week-on-week by my host mum, something she said struck a chord with me. She believed that religion is only for the poor and that those with money do not have time to think of religion and God. While I disagree with her to a certain extent I do understand where she is coming from. For her and her family, religion gives hope and more importantly a sense of purpose, ideals that everyone seeks.

While I still may not fully believe and at times disagree with certain teachings of all religions, I understand it’s importance. For a long time, and still to this day, I have struggled with my own happiness, something I may one day write and publish about, but learning and practising certain elements of Buddhism while in Laos has helped me ground and slowly come to terms with myself.
With that, I have decided that before I leave Laos for the foreseeable future I will be joining the temple as a Novice Monk for ten days beginning this Saturday. If you’re not sure what this will entail, read part 3 of my guide to Buddhism in Laos from last year. I have also decided to abstain from using any technology while in the temple, so the next time I speak to everyone, hopefully, my eyebrows will have grown back and I will be used to having dinner again.

Luke T.

28 September 2017

Bali - Not the Asia I Know

I contemplated for some time whether to even write a blog about Bali as I felt there was no way not to come across as being pretentious, nevertheless, I enjoy having my thoughts written down to look back at later in life, so here it is.
Although classified as being in Asia, Bali is very much in its own touristy wonderland. With Minimarts and K Marts at every turn, fluent English speakers young and old, western food at every restaurant, signs written in English wherever you go, there is no way you will ever be lost, both physically and mentally. I’m in no way trying to bash Bali, rather it is an island that has clearly embraced its tourist appeal and capitalised on it to its fullest. While this may appeal to those looking for that kind of experience, to me it did not feel like the real Asia I have lived in for the past two years.
While at times you gain fleeting glimpses of what true Balinese culture is, you can’t help but feel it has either been brushed under the carpet or hidden behind literally locked behind gates, as to not interrupt the tourist industry. As you walk down the streets lined with Aussie Bars, spas, and shops selling hideous tank tops you occasionally see Hindu shrines with people praying juxtaposed to the loud music blaring out of restaurants located next door.
I’ve come away from Bali with more questions than answers. While it is definitely a relatively cheap, luxurious holiday destination, I find it hard to recommend it to anyone seeking any kind of unique cultural experience.

Luke T.

18 September 2017

My Thoughts on the Land of Golden Pagodas

While the Shwedagon Pagoda, Inle Lake and the temples of Bagan are certainly amazing sights to behold, there was nothing that really took my breath away in Myanmar. With long, arduous overnight bus journeys between each major location and steep, sometimes hidden, foreigner admission fees, 12,000 kyat (+$10) and 25,000 kyat (+$20) just to enter the Inle and Bagan areas respectively, Myanmar feels like a well-oiled tourist money grabbing machine that results in a surprisingly expensive travel destination. Especially, when modern shopping malls with the likes of Hugo Boss and KFC, are situated a mere couple of stops away from almost slum-like living conditions.
Although it's true that Burmese people are extremely kind and helpful you can't help but feel the majority is financially motivated. Obviously, the tourist areas are packed by those who are simply trying to get as much money from you and it's almost impossible not to get mobbed and ripped off once you step off the bus by taxi drivers. Once you head out off the beaten track the culture of kindness truly shines through.
The only thing that truly stood out to me is the unique culture. Witnessing two very stereotypical old men, one of Indian descent and one of Eastern Asian descent, standing side by side on the old, rickety circle train in Yangon, both donning the traditional longyi, conversing loud enough for each other to hear above the plethora of yelling food vendors making their way up and down the train carts, was certainly extraordinary.
Finally, with all of the turmoil happening in the Rhakine state and the Rohingya people, I half expected to witness some form of tension in Myanmar. Rather I witnessed young students and Novices bearing the Rakhine state flag on their bags, clothing, and even with face paint, in support of the people. While I'm not denying that the unfortunate events are happening and that there is tension, I was simply taken aback by the openness of support for the controversial issue.
All in all, unfortunately, Myanmar has not massively impressed me. It has always been a country on my list and while the sights of Inle Lake and the temples of Bagan helped to redeem it, ultimately, you can't help but feel that the money grabbing nature of its government and the people have tarnished the intrinsic value of the country.

Luke T.

2 September 2017

Philosophy and Buddhism

I recently wrote about existentialism and modern day life. While I know little about philosophy, knowledge based on the Great Political Thinkers module I took during university, the fantastic YouTube channel The School of Life, subsequent follow up readings, having lived in Laos for over a year and a half, and working almost exclusively with Buddhist Monks and Novices last year, my interest in Buddhism has grown exponentially. As my time in Luang Prabang comes to an end I decided to cut my hours down at the hospital and spend my free time learning more about Buddhism.
My comparisons between philosophy and Buddhism were largely sparked by conversations about Philosophy with Monk Anthony. A newly ordained Monk who reminds me a lot of myself at his age trying to figure out what I want to do but also questioning everything we are told.

While discussing the merits of various thinkers, links were constantly drawn to Buddha and the teachings of Buddhism. Plato’s cave allegory was linked to Buddha achieving Enlightenment, Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’ and the concept of the non-self, Camus’ absurdist thinking and Buddhist focus on the present. The most incredible part of our conversations is when you look at how old Buddhism is and its increasing relevance in today's society.
When I began my travels I never anticipated becoming interested in Buddhism, or any religion for that matter, yet I was drawn in by its practical, applicable teachings and practices. But rather than let me, a walking cliché (a Westerner preaching about the benefits of Buddhism after living in Asia for a short time), explain what it's all about, I spent some time making a short film project all about Buddhism in Laos.

Luke T.

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