Monday, March 13, 2023
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Thai Monks on COVID Inside the Monastery

March 13, 2023 marks three years since COVID was first declared a nationwide emergency in the US. This week, we’ll be sharing items that replicate on how COVID altered all of our lives. 

Once every week, for greater than 5 years, seven Buddhist devotees met with Phra Atid, a resident monk at Wat Thao Thaen Noi, exterior of Chiang Mai, Thailand, the place they might examine English and follow meditation collectively. This easy group connection was taken as a right till March 2020, when all the pieces modified. “There were no Buddha Day ceremonies, monks had to wear masks on alms rounds, people could not come to the temple, and monks could not go to their homes. Everything was quiet. Monks were afraid of COVID-19, and people were also afraid of catching COVID from monks. This has never happened before,” recollects Phra Atid. 

In temples throughout Thailand, every day life for monks is usually crammed with group interplay. From the morning alms spherical to the night chanting at the temple, laypeople work together with monks as each supporters and non secular companions. Laity cease by temples in the afternoon to make choices of “monk baskets” (referred to as sangkhathan), the place they provide requirements like rest room paper, cleaning soap, and toothpaste. They invite monks to their houses and companies to offer blessings. When somebody dies or is ordained, or throughout Buddhist holidays, teams of members of the family arrive to assist cook dinner, clear, and enhance temples. Most temples actually have a common group of volunteers, often older women and men, whom they rely on to offer the supplies and group vital for every day affairs and particular occasions.

The pandemic disrupted this essential codependent relationship. In March 2020, temples needed to restrict their availability to exterior group members, the majority of whom weren’t allowed to return till July 2022. During that point, there have been occasional durations when Thai Buddhists have been allowed to enter temples, however these usually led to temple closures and additional monastic isolation from the exterior world. 

To the uninitiated, Buddhist monks may look like remoted figures who wouldn’t essentially be disturbed by a worldwide pandemic. But the Buddha purposefully designed monastic life to rely on laity in order that monks wouldn’t retreat into themselves. The Buddha taught his lay followers to handle monastic materials wants, and monks to handle laity’s non secular wants. The Itivuttaka: The Group of Fours, a group of brief sayings from the Pali Canon, makes it plain:

Monks, brahmans, and homeowners are very useful to you, as they give you the requisites of robes, alms meals, lodgings, and medical requisites for the sick. And you, monks, are very useful to brahmans and homeowners, as you educate them the Dhamma [dharma] admirable in the starting, admirable in the center, admirable in the finish; as you expound the holy life each in letter & that means, solely full, surpassingly pure. In this fashion the holy life is lived in mutual dependence, for the goal of crossing over the flood, for making a proper finish to emphasize.

The pandemic straight challenged this built-in, mutual assist. During the top of the pandemic, the laity, significantly the aged, have been afraid to be near the monks throughout their alms rounds, and with outlets and markets closed or working in restricted capacities, the assortment of alms turned inconceivable for prolonged durations. 

Likewise, at the starting of the pandemic, monks have been too afraid to let laypeople inside the temple. After listening to of job losses and different financial troubles, nevertheless, they realized that the monastics wanted to handle the group, not flip away from it. Wat Sansai Don Kok, a temple on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, organized a fundraiser to donate to these in want. In May 2020, the temple’s monks arrange an providing desk, the place round 200 folks donated every day. With all the meals and cash collected, each monks and laypeople handed out meals to feed the group. This reversal of roles, with monks providing materials items to laity, is uncommon however not exceptional in excessive circumstances and is an instance of the symbiotic relationships monastics type with the group.

There was additionally an sudden development in the assist that village temples obtained over metropolis temples, with village monks usually receiving extra assist than metropolis monks. For instance, two monks who studied at Chiang Mai–based mostly monastic faculty Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University however who stay in the village temples of Wat Sansai Don Kok and Wat Thao Thaen Noi—each located exterior the metropolis—felt supported by their temple’s lay group, even throughout isolation. One monk said: “We are lucky to stay outside the city because at least we get enough food. In the city temples, like Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang, friends told me it’s hard to get enough food for everyone, because the number of monks is more crowded there.”

Phra Jarun lives at Wat Sansai Don Kok, the place a handful of devoted group members commonly assist the monks. One middle-aged layman, Phra Jarun recalled, was significantly devoted earlier than the pandemic. He arrived early for each temple exercise, and at any time when the temple was fundraising for development or renovation tasks, he could possibly be counted on to donate. These shut relationships, constructed over a few years, translated into continued assist and concern throughout COVID.

Wat Thao Thaen Noi has about forty common supporters. After the pandemic started, a number of of those common attendees referred to as to inquire about the monks’ well being and wishes. The monastic residents obtained meals that was dropped off at the entrance gates of the temple, as an alternative of of their alms bowls. Although the 4 monks in the temple have been well-fed, Phra Atid missed the intimacy of the group. At the identical time, he felt grateful for the care and assist provided to him and the different monks at the temple, reasoning that, “Because I used to walk on alms round to collect food before COVID, people knew me and that I would need food during lockdown. That is why they thought to ask what we needed. If monks didn’t used to go on alms round, then people might think they are OK in the temple. If you don’t go on alms round, then it’s difficult to make connections.”

City temple communities, against this, are extra diffuse, making metropolis monks extra dependent on the donations of a wide range of folks. Some of those metropolis monks are lucky sufficient to have a important sponsor for his or her wants. However, these monks discovered it laborious to request every day meals, when often the assist can be unfold out amongst the group. Monks dwelling in metropolis temples additionally rely on invites to conduct funerals or blessings for brand spanking new houses, vehicles, or companies, at the least as soon as every week, and so they obtain financial donations for these companies. These invites stopped solely due to COVID-19 protocols. Moreover, with the economic system struggling, many metropolis employees returned to their residence villages. 

This distance between monks and laity throughout the final two years additionally influenced monastic schooling and recruitment. High faculty lecturers at monastic faculties often take a number of weeks earlier than the faculty 12 months begins to go to a number of rural villages, finding households who would love their sons to check as novice monks. Novices are boys below 20 who ordain with ten precepts, as an alternative of the 227 guidelines of the absolutely ordained male monk (bhikkhu). At Wat Nong Bua, a temple faculty exterior of Chiang Mai, solely 108 novices enrolled in 2022, in contrast with 180 novices of 2019. 

Parents in these rural villages turned accustomed to being residence with their kids, and now contemplate sending their kids to the close by public highschool as an alternative of monasteries, which can be hours away. It is tough to know if hyperlinks reminiscent of these will probably be repaired shortly or if the severed connections between temple faculties and villages may have extra long-lasting results.

The pandemic additionally disrupted non permanent ordination, one other widespread monastic recruitment effort. Temples sometimes host summer season novice ordination packages for middle- to high-school–aged boys, adopted by a sort of summer season camp, for 3 weeks of the faculty vacation in March and April annually. These camps happen at temples with services giant sufficient to ask boys from the countryside to take part. Before the pandemic, as much as 100 novices may ordain at one in every of these camps. Not all the boys keep on with the monastery, however a major quantity, often from extra deprived households, stay and create a pipeline of monastics for temple life. At Wat Chetuphon in Chiang Mai, a few dozen used to remain in robes, however for the final two years, there was no camp, leading to low monastic recruitment.

Unfortunately, monastic enrollment decreased, whereas the variety of monks disrobing elevated. According to a instructor at Wat Nong Bua, for not too long ago ordained boys, the expertise of monasticism and schooling was boring as a result of they have been compelled to check on-line and spend all their time inside the temple. Many of those boys determined to disrobe, preferring to attend weekend faculty and to work throughout the week. 

Without monks and laity having the ability to work together commonly, monks have been unable to share teachings, give blessings, or obtain choices. At the identical time, laity had restricted entry to advantage, the temple setting, or growing relationships with monks. As effectively, fewer boys participated in monastic life and schooling, making the future technology of monastics unsure. Laity have gotten out of the behavior of going to the temple, and the new technology has not but adopted the customized of commonly making choices to monks and attending temple festivities.  

This lack of participation in the monastic life and interplay with the laity throughout the pandemic may have a ripple impact for the way forward for monasteries throughout Thailand.  

After lastly having the ability to accumulate alms once more and provide blessings after one 12 months of feeling trapped in his temple, Phra Achinta of Wat Suan Dok felt “like the freedom of leaving jail.” He missed educating meditation to the laity and all the discussions he would have with fellow monks from different metropolis temples. Clearly, there are monks who missed the regularity of the monastic life, which they may rely on as a strategy to unfold and follow the dharma. However, for these younger males who usually are not but accustomed to the joys of temple life, the pandemic made staying in robes a tougher proposition. It stays to be seen whether or not these two years may have a long-lasting impact on the monastic inhabitants in Thailand, or if the dharma will proceed to draw these prepared to place forth the effort.


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