Buddhist monks are a prominent part of Southeast Asia culture. You can’t go very far without seeing an orange, yellow or red robe sauntering by. In terms of a fashionable lifestyle, the Buddhist order appears fairly limited and yet, you might still be surprised by its options. I know I was.
In countries like Thailand and India, you notice monks range from young adult to older ranking monks. But in countries like Myanmar and Laos, you’ll find many child and teen monks lined up and donning robes, as well. It’s enough to create a small army; in some countries, it might be larger than an army.
Much has to do with whether a family can afford an extra mouth to feed, as temple living affords free education, board and meals. For many of these young monks, spirituality and the path of enlightenment is not a choice, but a family’s choice of survival. The lifestyle of Buddhist monks are very supported by the temple and the generosity of its local community.
How do Buddhist monks fashion their lifestyles?
Walking the “middle way” on the road towards non-materialism, many monks have two robes (at least) and some books or spiritual amulets as their possessions. Some monks can collect more than others depending on their years of temple living and you’ll find some places tweak the rules on possessions a little more than others. Non-materialism is clearly not an easy life for many humans, especially if you’re living beside a modern society.
In countries such as Thailand, the local community supports their neighborhood temple monks by offering food for morning alms. The staple offering for many Southeast Asian countries is rice. But depending on the wealth and generosity of the community, offerings can be as nice as candy, desserts, bottled juices and well-prepared meals left outside in tiffen containers. The Thai also buy monks new robes and gift baskets, donating them to the temples on special occasion. The gift baskets are filled with many items from candles, umbrellas, flashlights, toothpaste and incense to candles or statues for a room altar. However, it’s certain that these more generous offers go to the elder monks first.
Read Abducted by a Monk in Thailand to see inside a monk’s room
Some temples also give their monks a small allowance to afford simple personal or lifestyle items, like a pack of cigarettes or whatever makes their living tolerable but not too material-bound.
VIDEO: How to wrap a sari and lungi
When I was in Yangon, exploring the area around the Shwedagon Pagoda, I found some “monk boutique shops” (that’s my term for it) catering to monks, nuns and their lifestyle needs. They sold begging bowls, bags, robes, slippers, devotional books and incense, tiffen containers and many simple items you might fashion a monk’s lifestyle with. Monks shop there, but clearly, it’s also a place where the local community can do so also.
I found out about how Buddhist monks dress, which might surprise you…
People are often surprised to find that Buddhist monks and nuns are generally wrapped in two to three pieces. Depending on country or sect, the main pieces are a lungi (aka skirt-like pants) and a sari (a drape-like fabric that wraps around the top part of the body). Sometimes, there are additional pieces, like a petticoat or a thicker wrap for cold weather.
Below is a video tour of my shopping experience and a nice demonstration on how to wrap a lungi and a sari.
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