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EDITIONS
Sunday, 19 May, 2002, 00:28 GMT 01:28 UK
Boy's life for Buddhist monk
Buddhist monk
Many boys in Laos are educated in monasteries

A 16-year-old British boy is training to be a monk in Laos, where he was born.

"Going to England at the age of eight had changed me and I had forgotten a lot about what was really important," Phan said.


You may think boarding school food in Britain is bad but it was not as plain as in a monastery

Phan
"A lot of my friends in England seemed a bit superficial to me now. All they really cared about were high marks and football."

Phan first became interested in the idea of training to become a novice monk when he arrived in Laos in September 1999 to visit his aunt and Lao family in the former capital, Luang Prabang.

It was during this visit that he was asked by his aunt to help prepare food in her restaurant for a Buddhist feast day for the local monks.

Discipline

The feast day also involved a lot of drinking. But Phan claims this had nothing to do with his decision to spend time in a monastery rather than continue his schooling at a boarding school in Devon in the UK.

"It was the inner peace of the monks. I spoke to some of the monks at the feast and I suddenly remembered what life used to be like in Laos," he said.

"So I decided to stay and learn about Buddhism in the monastery."

But the next year was no holiday. It was to mean a lot of discipline and hard work, different from what he had experienced in the UK.

Grounding

Although Laos is a communist country, the authorities have allowed the Buddhist monasteries to remain.

monks in street
The monks depend on local people for food
Most boys in Laos spend at least a year before the age of 16 in one.

It is often there that a boy learns to write if the family does not have enough money to send them to school.

A typical day begins at 4.30 for morning chanting and meditation in groups.

At sunrise, groups of monks set out on their morning alms round of the local village, often barefoot and wearing bright orange robes.

The monks never beg but accept in silence what is offered to them by the local people.

Plain fare

Offerings consist mostly of food such as rice which the monks bring back to the monastery to share for breakfast.

The Vat Xieng Thong temple at Luang Prabang
The Vat Xieng Thong temple, built in 1560: A simple life
"We were taught eating is never meant for pleasure, just necessity," said Phan.

"You may think boarding school food in Britain is bad but it was not as plain as in a monastery!

"However the basis of Buddhism is simplicity, unselfishness and meditation which we think purifies the mind," he said.

"So modifying what I ate was a part of this simplicity."

Obedience to the older monks and good behaviour is paramount at all times, he explained.

Dorm life

The rest of a typical morning is spent in the schoolroom learning about Buddhism as well as writing out religious texts.

The final meal of the day is at 1100, followed by more meditation and studying and physical work such as repairs on the dormitories.

"The dormitories were about the only similarity with England. We studied, meditated and slept in them - except there were no beds. We slept on the floor.

"For most of the year I was studying the basics of Buddhism to be ordained as a monk.

"But a novice monk needs to be sponsored by a local person so that at the time of your ceremony you have enough money for robes and a special meal on the day.

Indecision

"It was a bit like getting sponsorship for a read-a-thon or the London marathon.

"Overall I think the experience taught me respect for other people and for the religion. It was a sin to point your feet towards any image of Buddha or touch a person on the head as this is sacred."

Phan is now undecided as to whether he will pursue the teachings of Buddhism in Laos or return to Anglican schooling in the UK.

"Maybe I will wait until after the annual Festival in Vientiane in November is over, to decide.

"I've heard that the Vietnamese acrobats are amazing," he said.

See also:

20 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
30 Dec 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
01 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
05 Nov 01 | South Asia
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