By Tom Holmes
Editors note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
I had gotten on the train in Aranya on the Cambodian border at 6:30 in the morning, and had three hours to kill in Bangkok’s cavernous Hualamphong Station before boarding the overnight train to Chiangmai at 6:30 pm.
After snacking on two Chinese buns filled with pork and an iced coffee, I set out to explore the shops surrounding the main floor. When I got to the section reserved for Buddhist monks, which all airports and train stations in Thailand provide, I saw ten monks dressed in saffron and orange sitting together.
“This is a good picture,” I thought, so I held up my camera to a monk sitting in the first row. When he gave me a slight nod, I focused the camera and took the picture. As I made a wai with my hands together in a prayer-like gesture to thank him, the monk patted the empty seat next to him.
“You mean me?” I indicated by pointing to myself.
Again a slight nod.
I didn’t think this sort of thing was permitted, a layperson much less a farang, a Westerner, sitting with the monks. He nodded and patted the empty seat again.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I love this sort of thing, crossing cultural and religious boundaries, connecting with people who think and believe differently than I do. One of my part time jobs back in the States is writing on religion for the local newspaper, a job in which I’ve interviewed everything from secular Jews to army chaplains to Buddhist teachers to Baha’is to gay pastors.
At the same time I felt anxiety about violating a culture taboo regarding how lay people should relate to monks. I didn’t think lay folk were even allowed to sit in the monks’ section, yet this monk had invited me, so this white guy with a beard dressed in a polo shirt and khaki pants joined the group of self-contained men with shaved heads.
He asked me my name and where I was from—standard questions Thais ask farang. I went along with the small talk for a minute, but decided I would shift the conversation to what I was really interested in, i.e. getting a deeper understanding of what serious Buddhists really think and feel.
“Would you teach me about Buddhism?” I asked, hoping he was willing to have an exchange on that level. “I know a little bit about Buddhism, like the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, but I’d like to learn more. What would you say are the main differences between Buddhism and Christianity?”
Without hesitation he replied, “No difference.” He rummaged in his bag and pulled out a book entitled The Truth Of The Messengers, Questions and Answers With Bikkhu Buddha Dhatu, Beggar Of The Century. He turned to the back of the book where three passages from the New Testament were printed as evidence that Buddhism and Christianity were compatible, and he repeated, “No difference.”
I was speechless. I was totally unprepared for what the monk had said. Every Buddhist I had ever interviewed, every book I had ever read on the subject had cautioned me to not try to package Buddhist beliefs in Christian concepts. Don’t go looking for a god in Buddhism. There is none. Don’t compare Nibbana (Nirvanna) with the Christian concept of heaven. It’s totally different.
But the monk had piqued my interest. “How much is the book?” I asked. “I’d really like to read it.”
“You can have it,” he replied.
“Wow. Thank you.” This was genuine serendipity, maybe even more than a chance meeting. “By the way, who is Bikku Buddha Datu?”
I thought I saw the hint of a pleased smile as the monk pointed to himself.