Monk-y Business

A little while ago, I was walking around the Riverside region of Phnom Penh with this guy who has become a friend (an American who hasn’t lived in the U.S. in over a decade, I’ll call him J – he was the one who ate the frogs from my last post), and I asked about interacting with monks. “What are you supposed to do when you see a monk? Like if you walk past a monk?”

“What do you mean, what are you supposed to do?”

“Like, do I have to bow, avert my eyes, or make some other gesture of respect? Do I have to give them something in their awesome little bags they carry?”

“You don’t have to do that stuff, I guess. All I really know is you just don’t touch a monk. Especially as a woman, you should never touch a monk.”

I accidentally touched a monk. Well, not exactly accidentally.

I’ve been going to vipassana meditation sessions at Wat Langka. They have public sessions four times a week. When you google it online, every site seems to have the days and times wrong, so it’s taken me weeks (and multiple failed attempts, also inviting J to wrong days/times) to get the schedule correct. But now that I’ve got it, I try to get there at least a couple of times a week.

This what the door looks like when you show up at the wrong time. Or on the wrong day.

The hardest part (well, other than getting there when sessions actually are happening)? These are hour-long sessions. An hour. If you meditate, you get how long this can feel. Here’s what the first 5 seconds in my mind typically looked like:

(1 second)

*focused on feeling the breath in the nose*

Is this cushion harder than usual?

Should I have sat closer to the front?

Maybe the breeze would have been better off to the side.

Where’s that monk right now?

Is he watching me?

Am I doing this right?

(2 seconds)

*focused on breath in the nose*

Man, my hips are tight tonight.

How’d my feet get so dirty?

Why can’t I get my shoulder blades to feel comfortable?

Is that an ant crawling on my leg?

(3 seconds)

Good god, it’s hot in here.

Is it sacrilegious to say “good god” in my head while meditating in a Buddhist Wat?

Is it sacrilegious to be in a Buddhist Wat when I’m not even a Buddhist?

Am I doing this right?

Oh yeah, the breath.

*focused on the—

Why is that guy wearing the world’s loudest pants and moving around so much?

Is that rooster crowing more than usual?

Why do roosters crow?

Because they’re hungry?

Or they’re looking for a hen?

I’m fairly certain that thinking of chicken relations is sacrilegious while meditating.


(4 seconds)

Will that Indian restaurant be open on my way home?

That paneer was so damn good last time.

How can my ankle already be uncomfortable?

Well, it does feel like I’ve been here a long time.

Maybe it’s been 20 minutes or so, so I guess it makes sense.

At this rate, I’m going to sweat so much I’ll only be 10% water.

(5 seconds)

So many people have sweated this profusely on this cushion before me.

Do monk duties include washing meditation cushions?

Do monks even do their own laundry?

Aaaaaaah! There’s the breeze! This is what nirvana feels like!!!!

No, nirvana’s that beautiful bell he rings at the end of the session….

About at this point, the same monk usually says something to the extent of, “First time meditation? First time at meditation, come with me. Come with me, one moment.” As I found out my first time (well, my second time, actually, since the first time I had gotten there too late for him to give me the spiel), he shows the people a tiny book and instructs them to start reading on page 16. The section about seating postures. It’s directly followed by what to actually do in vipassana meditation. It’s a wonderfully simple book with great directions. I actually wish I could get a copy, but the monk is very adamant to each group that the books get returned, and I didn’t notice any publisher information on it. All that to say that I wanted to re-read it the next time I went back.

The door is open when you show up on the right days at the right time.

Before getting settled in on my next visit, I took a small book to the monk and asked if it was okay if I read it again. He looked at me and said, “You read Chinese?”

I looked blankly at him for a second and finally responded, “Umm…. No….”

He kindly said, “This book Chinese. Go get English book.”

I giggled and, in a gesture of “how-silly-of-me-to-have-grabbed-the-Chinese-book-ha-ha-ha,” reached my hand out to touch his arm.


His monk arm.


My fingers just glanced his robe as my conscious brain finally connected to what my body was doing.

He had no response. Luckily I responded with a double cringe. And a bow. And an apology, before scurrying off to get the English book. He never showed any negative response, even when I returned with the book I could actually read, a reaction beautifully in line with the Buddhist teaching of forgiveness.

Let’s just say that I put more than 500riel (that’s about 12 cents) in the box that time around. A Western white girl in a wat can at least try to buy her way out of guilty feelings, right????


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