“You may sit here,” the monk said, pointing to a section of floor toward the back of the room. A photocopied prayer book lay at the spot. I sat directly on the carpet, which was so magnificently plush there was no need for a meditation mat.
I thought: so, this is a monastery of the Theravada tradition. The monks here do not seek to hold off attaining Nirvana for the sake of teaching others about that egoless state. Unlike the Mahayana tradition, these monks strive daily to dissolve their individual identities. This effort is their unique contribution to society. While not so prevalent in the U.S., this type of Buddhism is the most practiced in some Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Many young people, some just children, spend a portion of their lives working in monasteries and ascending the various monastic ranks. They receive education and Buddhist training. Most will leave eventually to rejoin mainstream society and have families, others will stay on. It’s a bit like the military in the United States, only theirs is a different method of obtaining peace.
Several younger monks, also in orange robes, filed in. They arranged themselves along with the older monk on the floor at the front of the room near a tall gilded statue of Buddha. Radiance from the setting sun flooded in from west-facing windows. I pressed my palms to the carpet, which was a rich crimson hue. Everything was glowing gold from the sun, the statue, the robes. The monks alternated between periods of quiet and chanting. From the snippets in English, I understood they were paying homage to the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Their deep tones vibrated the air and lingered. Light and sound saturated the room, spreading a buttery warmth. One of the young monks began to nod off, slumping forward by degrees. He would catch himself and sit tall, only to slowly melt again.
I had no idea I would be witnessing this sight—completely ordinary in the lives of these monks, but extraordinary in mine. I’ve operated under the impression that worship practices of the Theravada tradition are too private to have much effect on society at large. This experience gives me a new perspective. Like contemplatives or hermits of other traditions, they are working diligently to capture all that is bright and good and, through sheer force of concentration, send that energy out into the world. Sitting in the room with them, I was overcome with gratitude for their commitment to this taxing exercise meant to benefit us all. Even if most of us never see it, it is happening on our behalf every day.