When I see Buddhist monks, clad in maroon with shaved heads, I thought them to be polite, serious and courteous people who smile more than talk. Well they are courteous and polite but they crack jokes, have a good sense of humour and tech-savvy, I found out.
It was a Saturday evening and I was at Madras School of Economics to listen to a panel discussion on role of ethics in the modern world. The topic was abstract and not as simple as it sounds given the profile of speakers – S Gurumurthy, Ex-Prime Minister of Tibet-in-exile and a professor from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
To listen to these set of eminent speakers, five monks had come from the Tibetan settlement in Hubli, Karnataka. Even as they entered the auditorium they got everyone’s attention, including mine. People in Chennai do not get to see Buddhist monks often, do they? So when they sat in the row right in front of me, I couldn’t help but start a conversation.
But I was not sure if they can speak English, (stupid of me to even think that considering they have come all the way from Hubli to Chennai to participate in a panel discussion, where language used is obviously English). Nevertheless I did ask the question and got, “Yes we do,” as reply, with a smile.
I had so many questions like why they became a monk and when. How is their life like being a monk? What do they do for a living? What are they studying? Will they be able to go back home? Do they like what they are doing now? What kind of future awaits them?
I got them all answered, one by one.
Of the five monk I met, four are from India and one from Tibet. Sherap (28) and Shesal (28) are from Ladakh, while Lobsang (30) and Konchok (32) are from Arunachal Pradesh. The youngest of the lot Tsepak (24) is the one from Tibet.
Sherap joined the monastery when he was five and has been separated from his family since. “When I was small, whenever I used to see monks, I admired the way they carry themselves. I decided then that I will become one,” he said. But Tsepak’s case is different. He became one because his mother wanted him to be one. “I come from China occupied Tibet. When I was nine, my mother sent me to India to become a monk. I have not been home since then. I’m not sure if I can go back and visit, since getting a visa is very difficult,” he said politely, again with a smile.
But you could feel none of these tensions in their demeanor as they spoke to me. They were charming and fell into conversation very easily. Five of them are students of Drepung Loseling Monastic University, Hubli. Lobsang and Konchok are PhD students nearing graduation, whereas Sherap, Shesal and Tsepak are graduates and have close to six years completion. There are close to 3000 monks studying in that university.
“We learn Buddhist philosophies and read ancient scriptures written in Tibetan. We try to practice philosophies of Buddha in everyday life,” said Sherap, the most talkative one in the group. Most of them complete their PhD before moving out from the University. “Once we graduate we can pursue our own way be it teaching or preaching Buddhism around the world,” he said. If you ask them what is it they want to do, all you get is that smile again. Lobsang and Konchok, who will be graduating in 1-2 years, smiled at each other and just laughed out loud. Well they are just like us, have no idea what they want to do. It somehow makes them more human.
So what is their day-off like, I asked. “We have only one day off. It is Monday, as it is bazaar day in the Tibetan settlement. So most of the day is spent in buying daily essentials, as we are busy with studies rest of the week,” Shesal said. They also catch up with friends and just relax, mostly on their day-off.
What was I even expecting? That they will tell me, they would get up at dawn, read scriptures and perform some ritual. May be. But hearing them talk, broke down my prejudices about monks and their life.
So like a tourist in a foreign place, I took pictures with them. Even as I was thinking, how to keep in touch Tsepak came to me with his smart phone and asked my Facebook id. I could hear another wall of baseless assumptions breaking. Why did I not think that they could have access to internet or they will be in Facebook? I realised I’m the one trying to put them in a box that would fit my image of a monk. They are the ones who interact with people on a regular basis and being in social media definitely helps them. I gave out the Facebook name and got their contact details.
It was an evening of revelation for me. I should have known better than to assume what a life of a monk is.
But getting to know at least a little bit about what drives them, answered a bit my curiosity. I often wondered if they ever regret becoming a monk. Being a monk is the most difficult thing as far as I’m concerned. They had to stay away from family, not allowed to indulge themselves and should never give into temptation. But looking at them, I could feel that it does not matter. If they had chosen it because they wanted to or imposed upon, they do not regret what they had become.
“It all depends on which side you want to be. Either do want you want and accumulate sin. Or be a monk to live a sin-free life,” Sherap said, in a matter-of-fact tone, still smiling.
Well, though I would rather accumulate sin, may be it is not all bad being on the other side.