Student spends summer in Thailand as a monk seeking nirvana
Virginia Tech sophomore Theeratart “DJ” Sukthavorn ventured to his parent's home country of Thailand to take part in the deep cultural and religious experience of becoming a monk to come of age. In the solitude, Sukthavorn did more than fulfill the experience. He found himself.
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There are a lot of rules that a bhikkhus monk must live by — 227 to be precise.
And if it’s a rule, there’s a good chance it’s because a monk has done it in the past.
But as a monk-in-training with the in the forests of Thailand, Theeratart “DJ” Sukthavorn, a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Food Science and Technology from Springfield, Virginia, only had to follow 10 of these rules, such as no singing and no killing – even a pesky fly on the wall.
In Thailand, it’s customary for young men at about the age of 20 to ordain for a short time.
“At first, I did this because of my parents and the importance of this tradition,” Sukthavorn said. “But about halfway through my time at the temple, something changed. I began to feel the effects of a clear mind and of following the teachings of Buddha as closely as possible. I was no longer doing this for just my parents.”
He built up his mental fortitude in his brief time at the temple, where his sole task was to reach nirvana – something that is challenging in a lifetime, much less a month.
“Through my time at the temple, and my meditation, I learned how to approach hurdles and difficulties in life with acceptance,” Sukthavorn said. “I don’t have to like what’s happening. But what’s happening is real, and I have to accept that before I can do anything about it. The way I see life has completely changed.”
Sukthavorn’s time in the temple was short, but it did help him find himself in other ways too. It helped him find focus for his studies in food science.
“I want to study food preservation techniques used in Thailand because of how fresh the food was,” Sukthavorn said. “Right now, we have the timeless technique of canning for fruit preservation. I want to work with Thai producers to find new and effective methods for transportation of their products to the United States.”
Sukthavorn wants to start small with his goal and work at smaller businesses in research and development as a food scientist.
Sukthavorn’s daily routine as a monk inspired him. Each day started at the wee hour of 2:30 in the morning. He was required to be at the temple by 3:15 a.m., where the group of forest monks would chant until 4 a.m.
Then came one of the hardest parts of the early morning – meditation until 5 a.m.
“At the beginning, I would wiggle left or right or fall asleep because it was so early in the morning,” he said. “After a little while, I was able to notice when my mind was wandering and I could make it stop. I was much more centered and focused with practice.”
After meditation, the monks would clean the temple. These duties rotated between sweeping the streets, the temple itself, or the president monk’s quarters. Once everything was spick and span, the monks began the neighborhood walk of nearly 2 miles with alms bowls as the sun rose.
“While monks are detached from the physical world, we still rely on people,” Sukthavorn said. “When we walked around the neighborhood, we are given offerings in our alms bowls, usually consisting of rice.”
But the offerings do vary. Thai people possess the belief that you give good food because monks are the messengers to deceased family members. These offerings are usually among the family members’ favorites.
“The food is usually high-quality and fresh. I was surprised when I saw mushroom carbonara one day and cream spinach,” Sukthavorn said. “That threw me for a loop. Our temple is strictly vegetarian inside the walls, so meat can’t be brought inside but laypeople can consume it outside of the temple.”
Although the good food given to the monks, one of the rules that they must follow is not yearning for it.
“Oftentimes, our food ends up being bland because of this,” Sukthavorn said. “If the food's really good, the technique is the monks have to accept that it's good. When you yearn for it, you start to think about the food and it impacts your daily life.”
The first walk
A first-person story by DJ Sukthavorn
As a monk in training, we’re quickly shown how to put on towel-like pants. On the first day, we put it into practice ourselves and our morning walk is a test. This fabric is the size of a beach towel and is essentially rolled up with a belt to keep it up. Then, you have the orange robes that all monks wear that cover everything else.
So, the first day, I’m on the walk when a hear a flap-like sound coming from my pants. I tighten the robe, thinking everything is OK.
But the coil is getting looser and looser, now to the point where it inhibits my pace. I’m not keeping up with the other monks now.
We got to a hill and I take a stride that is just slightly too long. I heard a woosh and my pants are gone.
Monks are supposed to be orderly and sophisticated. And my pants just fell.
We had one more house left and I try to hide the fact my pants aren’t up. But the villager looks down and exclaims, “Monk! Your pants! Your pants!”
Now all the other monks are panicking.
I slung my pants over my shoulder and started to power walk – which is semi-against the rules of being a monk. We can’t run. An elder monk saw me, eyes wide, and said, “I know this is your first day but I think you should have common sense. Stand in line and don’t be on the wrong side of the road. Please get back in line.”
I showed him my pants and he says, “Go! Go!”
I hurried back to the temple as quickly as I could without running.
After the walk around the neighborhood and a meal – all food had to be finished before noon – the monks heard sermons ranging from the following the right intentions to the purpose of individual rules.
Every full moon, there’s a tradition of the forest monks that targets forgiveness of the 227 rules. The entire group prays all of the rules in Bali, a dead language. To a layperson, though, it sounds like rapping.
Distractions, such as delicious food, impair the focus of the goal of monks on their journey toward enlightenment, Sukthavorn said.
As a monk, Sukthavorn didn’t have to think about what to wear, what to eat, or even what to do. Routine is paramount in a monk’s life, and Sukthavorn’s time at the temple was no different. Each of his days followed this template.
When his time at the temple came to an end, Sukthavorn’s mother came to his disrobing ceremony or the readjustment to the life of the laypeople.
“In the car on the way back, I had a sense of peace and understanding,” Sukthavorn said. “I began to grasp Buddha’s concepts of philosophy and it helped me understand my parents, my studies, and my life in a whole new manner.”