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In Southeast Asia everywhere you look there are monks! In this place everyone is reminded of their religion constantly by numerous temples and the consistent presence of monks, the keepers of Buddhist teaching.
Through extensive Buddhist law or Dharma, the life of a monk is shaped specifically to support their spiritual practice, live a simple life, meditate on the Buddha's teaching, and work toward that goal of attaining Nirvana: the “great Nothingness or Obliteration” that awaits Buddhist followers.
All monks must take the five vows referred to as the "Five Precepts" of Buddhism:
I will not take the life of a sentient being (you shall not murder)
I will not take what has not been given to me (you shall not steal)
I will refrain from sexual misconduct (you shall not commit adultery)
I will refrain from false speech (You shall not lie)
I will refrain from becoming intoxicated. (You shall not get drunk)
Most Monks have over 200 other rules that govern a wide range of behaviors including their speech, entertainment, sleep patterns, and use of cosmetics.
One of the words used for Monk literally translates as “beggar” or “one who lives by alms.” It is part of Buddhist cultures that orphan boys are often taken in by monasteries and raised as monk novices as a sort of social service solution in countries lacking state welfare programs. Early in the morning you will witness a procession of monks collecting alms that are used for their support as well as upkeep for the numerous temples.
We visited a remote monastery in Sh*n St*te where monks and their novices live and work by the Vinaya framework of monastic discipline that governs their conduct and education. These Vinaya or rules vary from country to country, but in this community they have 227 specific ordinances to live by.
In the countryside, the local altars are much more homespun than the lavish gold altars found in major cities. In an attempt to devote themselves thoroughly to the Buddha's Dharma or teaching, most Buddhists use rituals in pursuit of their spiritual aspirations. Buddhist will often kneel before these altars and offer prayers or meditations while burning incense.
The largest of the big cats, the tiger is indigenous to this region and serves as an important symbol in local mythology. Animal Planet recently voted them the world's favorite animal (just beating out the dog of course), which should help raise awareness of their status as an endangered species in most of their natural habitats. I confess, they are one of my favorite animals, too, how about you?
Tiered-roof buildings for religious functions in this area are commonly called pagodas. Here some monks oversee construction of a pagoda that will be used as an altar to receive the adoration of Buddhists worshipping their enlightened teacher. Somehow I think this wasn't actually what Siddhartha Gautama Buddha had in mind when he founded Buddhism, but since his teachings were not written down for at least 400 years after his death there is plenty of room for misinterpretation today.
Here is a rare glimpse of Bhikkhuni, or female monks. Women monks are not often well accepted here and even looked down upon. It seems that these patriarchal societies are not quite progressive enough to accept women in these spiritual roles yet. Although women have been monks since the founding of Buddhism, their second-tier status continues 2500 years later.
Giant statues of the Buddha are quite prevalent in this culture. Depending on the culture, depictions of the Buddha can vary widely. Some feature the Buddha as a gaunt, seated ascetic and others as a fat, laughing wanderer. Every attribute is chosen carefully to reflect some purported truth about the character of the historic Buddha himself.
With somewhere between 230 to 500 million adherents, Buddhism is far and away the most popular religion in Asia outside India and the world's fourth largest religion after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Join me in praying that Buddhists everywhere will truly become enlightened and see the one we know as the “Light of the World.”