Sunday, May 25, 2014

Thailand Adventure: Mahabodhidham Monastery

Mahabodhidham Monastery gate.
While in India, I received an invitation to visit Mahabodhidham Monastery in Thailand. I took Damrongdham and Oat up on their invitation, traveling to the monastery with them on Wednesday, May 7.

One of the monastery's buildings. Oat and Patrick are pictured.
Damrongdham founded Mahabodhidham Monastery in 2007, when he was 35. (For background on how this came about, read the transcript of my interview with Damrongdham.) The monastery is in the mountains, surrounded by fruit plantations. It is a 2 hour drive from Bangkok to the monastery.

During our ride to the monastery I learned that Damrongdham was in need of some communications assistance, including an updated website. I was happy to spend the next 12 days brainstorming ideas to bring Damrongdham’s vision for Theravada Buddhism to life along with Damrongdham, Oat, and Patrick, the monastery’s volunteer English teacher.

Brainstorming with Damrongdham, Oat, and Patrick.
I also created a communications strategy for Damrongdham, and set up a communications toolkit. Check out his Facebook fan page, called "Damrongdham" and YouTube channel. (Beautiful videos coming very soon – I just need to upload them when I have faster wifi.)

Monastery office.
I spent a lot of time sitting in the monastery’s office, in front of a computer. Due to the office’s central location on the monastery’s campus, many of Damrongdham’s young students would regularly pass by the office doorway. As a result I got to regularly interact with the students, and help them with their English. We worked on their responses to these questions: “How are you?” “What is your name?” “How old are you?” and “Where are you from?” I was amazed at how well the boys could mimic my American accent and pronunciation.

One of my students and I, picking fruit.
In addition to all of the ongoing maintenance projects, the boys were busy with some big construction projects. It was amazing to see the novices (boys under age 20 studying to become monks) driving tractors and operating heavy machinery while wearing their orange robes. It will be exciting to see the finished products next time I am in Thailand. Damrongdham and Oat kindly invited me to come back any time.

Construction site.
I also got to know some of the monastery’s regular volunteers, through preparing for and celebrating two of the monastery’s big annual events – the Buddhist holiday Visakha, and Damrongdham’s Birthday. 

Volunteers from Bangkok arrived several days prior to the two consecutive events to create flower arrangements and set up for the events. They worked through the night, with the help of the novices, to make beautiful decorations out of flowers and leaves.

Naga, made out of flowers and leaves.
The core is made from styrafoam. The flowers and leaves are held together using sewing pins.
Monastery supporters from Bangkok began arriving by the carload on May 12, all dressed in white clothing, the appropriate attire for Visakha celebrations. The event began in the afternoon, with a dharma talk given by Damrongdham.

Celebrating Visakha.
A six year old who has been a novice for one month also addressed the crowd from a spot next to Damrongdham’s throne. He was one of my English students. I was so amazed – and proud – when the first thing he spoke into the microphone was a self-introduction of himself, in English. I later heard him do the same when he was on a radio program, produced and aired by the monastery, and broadcast to the local community.

Six-year-old in the center.
We then had a candle lighting ceremony, followed by overnight chanting of a sutra. The chanting ended at about 6am the following morning, May 13. The novices and guests then briefly rested before Damrongdham’s Birthday celebration began.

The candles spell out "Happy Visakha" in Thai.
Overnight chanting inside of the monastery's temple.
Both Visakha and Damrongdham’s Birthday celebrations took place in an outdoor courtyard, at the base of a hill, surrounded by trees and mountains. The monastery’s largest Buddha statue was perched on the hilltop behind Damrongdham’s throne, which was surrounded by amazing flower arrangements. The whole thing was beautiful.

Damrongdham is seated on his throne, on the right.
I sat in the audience, the only foreigner there, and marveled at how fortunate I was to be present for these two big events. (In fact, I think I was the fourth foreigner to ever visit the monastery.) I think everyone there enjoyed that I had come, that I am from New York, and that I am Buddhist. Everyone was so welcoming and lovely. I had such a nice time. There are a lot of photos from both Visakha and Damrongdham’s Birthday celebrations on his Facebook fan page.

After making an offering to Damrongdham.
I also got to know the monastery’s supporters by spending a lot of time in the local community, located just outside of the monastery’s front gate. Some Thai families bring their boys to monasteries to keep them away from negative influences in society and to have them study the Dharma, Buddha’s teachings.

Families are still involved in their sons’ lives, though by volunteering at the monasteries where their sons live and study. At Mahabodhidham Monastery, these parent volunteers stay in the community outside of the monastery front gate when not at their homes elsewhere. They make food offerings to Damrongdham and Oat, cooking meals for them, and serving them at a home in the village. They included me in this ritual, cooking very elaborate and delicious breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for me each day. (I should point out that I was the only one eating dinner – Damrongdham and Oat do not eat after 12 noon.) My visits to the village were fun, and I definitely enjoyed my food.



Another highlight of the meals was getting to better know Damrongdham and Oat, and to receive answers to many of my questions about Theravada Buddhism. Oat would translate for Damrongdham and I – translating my questions into Thai, and then Damrongdham’s answers into English. Oat also taught me a lot. By spending so much time with Damrongdham, Oat, and the monastery volunteers, I also learned to speak a little bit of Thai.

Damrongdham, Oat, and one of the monastery's dogs.
Through walking back and forth between the monastery and the village for meals multiple times each day with Damrongdham and Oat, I got to know the many dogs and puppies living outside of the gate, and the monastery’s four dogs. Oat helped me contact the local government vet, who came out to assess the situation, and agreed to come back to spay/neuter, and vaccinate 14+ dogs, including the monastery’s four dogs against rabies. To date, two of the monastery’s dogs have been fixed. I am so happy to know I was able to be of benefit to these dogs and the community.

Vet vaccinating one of the dogs with the help of the dog's owner.
I left the monastery on Monday, May 13 with one of the volunteers, who was driving back to Bangkok. She reminded me that I am welcomed to return to the monastery any time. If you are in Thailand then contact the monastery to find out when they are holding their next monthly event, so that you can attend. They are open to the public. You are also welcomed to stop by the monastery any time – maybe just contact them first, to let them know you are coming, and consider bringing an offering of food, supplies like toothpaste, or money to support the monastery, which is run entirely on donations.

Patrons making a large donation of goods to the monastery.
If you are on Facebook then consider liking Damrongdham's fan page, so that you can stay up to date on his activities. He and Oat will be leading two Vipassana meditation retreats at Deer Park Institute in Tibetan Bir Colony this summer. There will be other opportunities to study with them in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment