I was fortunate on our recent trip to Thailand to spend time chatting with Puttatammo Photilath, a monk studying at the Buddhist University in Chiang Mai. The university invites students who are learning English to take turns sitting outside Wat Prah Singh, a Buddhist temple. Visitors can join the monks and ask questions about their life. It’s a great way for the monks to practice English and for the tourists to learn more about Buddhism. Monks in Thailand are easily recognized because of their bright orange robes and closely shaved heads.
Puttatammo is twenty-two years old and was born in Laos. He left his parents’ home at age seven to become a temple assistant. He lived and worked at a Buddhist temple for three years until he was old enough to become a novice monk. He was ordained at age ten. The country of Laos does not have a Buddhist university so Puttatammo came to Chiang Mai to further his education.
Puttatammo’s parents live in a small Laotian village far from the temple where he trained to be a monk. He has not seen them since he was seven. He can’t write them letters because his parents, who are in their sixties, are illiterate. He phones them periodically and after he graduates from university he will finally be able to visit them. His parents have a small rice farm. They are very proud of their son, because as a monk he has the opportunity to get an education. Puttatammo tells me in Laos only the children of poor people become monks. Parents know if their son is a monk he will have a good home, enough to eat and get a good education.
Puttatammo majors in English at the university but is also studying economics and politics. He lives at a temple in Chiang Mai with fourteen other monks and meditates and prays with them for two hours every morning and evening. He spends about three hours a day studying the teachings of Buddha and six hours a day at the university taking classes. He has only two meals daily, breakfast at 7 am and lunch at 11:30. He eats noodles and sometimes adds a little chicken or a vegetable. I asked where he got the money for his university tuition and food. He told me he begs for money for two hours every day. He walks around with a small bowl and people give him donations. He collects around 50 baht or $1.50 American a day. His university costs $50 per term. Puttatammo says all monks are required to beg.
Puttatammo does not plan to spend his life in the monastery. He wants to be a tourist guide someday. He also wants to go back to Laos so he can look after his aging parents. He says in Laos professionals and business people need rich parents and government connections in order to succeed, so those careers won’t be open to him.
He told me one thing he appreciates about being a monk is the rules for good living he has learned. Monks must not kill or harm living things. They must not steal, lie or use hurtful speech. They need to eat simply and avoid drugs, alcohol or anything that interferes with the clarity of the mind. They are not to engage in frivolous entertainment or irresponsible sexual behavior. These are rules Puttatammo feels will serve him well even after he is no longer a monk.
I was sorry when it was time to leave Puttatammo. I thanked him and told him I’d learned many new and interesting things from our ‘monk chat.’