From Thai Boxer to Buddhist Monk

Fear, hate, want and suffering. The four things that led me into learning how to fight. They were also, completely unexpectedly, the four things that led me into a Buddhist monastery in Thailand to learn what it takes to become a monk. Violent, angry, in conflict with myself, my environment and other people, I was living and working in Bangkok as a pro nak muay (Thai kickboxer), and nearing the end of a long but inglorious career as a part-time pugilist.

Muay Thai boxing is a savagely competitive professional sport. Buddhism is a peace loving religious philosophy. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, Muay Thai kickboxing and Theravada Buddhism, go fist-in-glove in the topsy-turvy culture of Thailand. 95% of the kingdom’s subjects are Buddhist (the other 5% are Muslim), and going into the reclusive environment of a “wat” (monastery), for a short or long spell, is a rite of passage for men of all ages and social extractions.

Some background is needed at this juncture. Buddhism is one of the oldest religious philosophies in the world, coming to prominence 560 years before Jesus Christ and 1,200 years before the Prophet Muhammad. The Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from the Indian-Nepalese border who left court life to become an itinerant wanderer. After years of inward contemplation, he reduced the human condition to “Four Noble Truths.” Life is suffering, suffering has its cause, desire is that cause, desire must be eliminated. The cure? To live a life of simple morality, harmlessness and meditation. Easier said than done though, right?

I’d been an ersatz Buddhist for most of my adult life. Now I decided to try the real thing, to drop out of the Bangkok Muay Thai scene for a period of prayer and asceticism in North Thailand as a novice monk. Could a spell of abstinence in the cloistered world of the temple save a cankered soul from further rot? Could I imitate the Buddha and find mystical union with the true self?  I really wanted to try. For decades, I’d been interested in the disciplines and privations of monastic life. How hard is it? What do monks really do? How do they live? In situ, living in a functioning monastery, I soon found out how tough the monk’s life really is.

After a grueling, three-hour road trip from the northern city of Chiang Mai, I arrived at the temple in Fang, a dusty town on the border with Myanmar (aka Burma). The temple grounds, full of towering spires and Buddha statues, each seeming higher and more ornate than the next, are guarded by a wild pack of dogs. The Abbot of the temple, Dr. Abhisit Pingchaiyawat, pointed out a mangy mongrel he called “Saddam Hussein” and asked if I’d had any rabies shots.

The Beginning

For the first month of monastic life, I was to live in a monk’s cell, a “kuti,” with a low, rickety bed and humble mosquito net. According to the Buddha, the possessions of a monk are few. Sandals, a rug to sit on, towels, orange robes, alms bowl, walking staff, needle, thread, a belt and a filter for straining drinks — so not even accidentally to take an insect’s life, even a pesky mosquito. Compared to the gadgets of everyday life, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, it’s a humbling bundle.

The main temple, where monks and novices pray day and night, is full of gleaming Buddha statues and the air is heavy with the fog of incense. Aloft, up in the rafters, bats squelch and defecate on our kneeling bodies. The young monks stare back at the westerners wiping the bat turds off their shoulders. They have no choice but to live here. Some are orphans, some hail from families too poor to support them, some are refugees from Shan State in neighboring Myanmar. These boy monks will grow to manhood and some will fill the ranks of the Thai underclass as motorcycle cab drivers or street food vendors. Only a few will stay on to become full time men of the cloth.

During evening prayers and meditation in the temple the silent reverie is broken by a cellphone. Then another. And another. The Abbot, the father of the house, does not stir and waits till the end of the service to speak. “Look,” he says, in a soft, smiling voice, “I have a cellphone too but I always leave it in my room or switch it off for evening prayers.” Mine remained switched off for the duration of my retreat.

As a “postulant,” a monk-to-be, the senior monks of the temple taught us the right way to meditate: sitting down; standing up; walking around; they instructed us in the five precepts: no killing; no stealing; no sexual misconduct; no lying; no alcohol. We had to learn the right handed virtues of the eightfold path: right view; right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right awareness. That wasn’t the end of it. There were more rules and regulations of “right” to follow. No gossiping, no singing, no dancing and no handling of money. It was an exterior and interior life of constant spiritual discipline. With no left turns.

Monk Life

After a couple of weeks living as hard as I could by the five precepts and eightfold path, I was finally ordained as a monk, a “samanera,” complete with shaven head and eyebrows. Life in the orange robes isn’t a picnic. Every day, at the crack of dawn, a monk must leave the temple to perform daily alms rounds. Barefooted, and braving packs of semi-rabid wild dogs, I collected food freely donated by towns people, blessed them with a chant in Pali (the language of the faith) and proceeded to the next parishioner. Apart from the hungry dogs snapping at the hem of my orange robes, it was all distinctly humorless. But touching and, yes, humbling.

Back in the stone walls of the monastery, the process of bodily mortification begins. These days fasting is seen as a fashionable way to lose weight. As a monk, fasting is mandatory for 18 hours a day with only a six-hour window to eat between dawn till noon. You get headaches. Nausea. Even a persistent feeling of cold. The fat strips off your body and you soon begin to have exotic hallucinations about pizza and fried chicken. I wasn’t enlightened. I was starving. I had lost five kilos and could almost pass as a featherweight. What was the point of all this abstinence? Then it came to me, at sunrise pace, this was about self-control and mastery over wants. This was the noble truth of suffering at first hand, and slowly, but surely, a window began to open on the soul. As soon as I began to deny these “pleasures,” and devote time to meditation, and the various rules of the monk’s life, I soon started to comprehend their strong simplicity. I was becoming, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, stronger of mind, and will, more content with my lot.

Nothing is Permanent

As a Thai boxer, and as a Theravada Buddhist, you must come to realize that nothing is permanent and nothing is owned. Disrobed and outside the monastery I returned to the world of Thai boxing with an altered state of mind — altered for the best, I hasten to add. In the spiritual ring of combat I had demonstrated the ability to go the distance, and my internal struggles and petty paradoxes were slowly beginning to resolve themselves. I had, in some small measure, freed myself from some of the more destructive elements of the competitive, fighting spirit. It wasn’t something metaphorical or vague. It was born of a concrete, spiritual experience as a Buddhist monk.

The vocation of priesthood has been put aside but not the endless fifteen-round bout between conflict and awakening. Aged 47, and far beyond the concerns of the Thai boxing world, I live a quiet life in America, with few amusements, trying to avoid things that threaten the passions to riot, like sparring and fighting. These days I am trying to remove the sting of people deemed “enemy.” I try and wish them happiness. It’s a bit of a tall order. Does that make me weak or wise? I’m still not sure. I’m just trying to live in the world as if I were still a monk in the monastery. It’s not an easy existence. It’s not for everybody. But it’s not impossible, even in a world that shrieks material satisfaction, to live a life of simple morality, harmlessness and meditation.

What did I learn playing holy fool to the Buddha? For the first time, in a very long time, I was able to control my prejudices and live in peace and accord with my environment. I came to the realization that I had been living a life troubled and hindered by the ill discipline of my own heart, and, in some small way, I had overcome a measure of personal suffering. The biggest problem, as a lay practitioner, is applying this newly found sense of tolerance to the world beyond the walls of the temple. It is a constant endeavor. An endless challenge. But, if I did so, and do so, I may grow in humility and wholeness, overcoming the darkness of adversity, the absurdity of life, its ill winds and mockery. Perhaps I could stay free. Perhaps.

Enlightenment is a high ideal, a high aim. Being a monk even for a while put me on the long journey to enlightenment within my own lifetime. Am I free of the spiritual tangle and suffering that I had gone through my entire life? No. But becoming a Buddhist Monk in Thailand and leaving the world of competitive violence behind was one of the most spiritually fulfilling experiences of my life. Most of us are used to living out the span of our lives trapped in a cycle of fear and hate, want and suffering, without ever knowing how we got into it in the first place. How, as human beings, do we learn to break the cycle and attempt to reboot our lives? I’m not sure what the trick is. I’m still fighting to be a better person, you see.

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