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Confessions of a Monk
UPenn Monk Class: Teaches Students How To Live The Ascetic Life

Confessions of a Monk

I had the privilege of getting to know a monk on a personal level while in Thailand. Left dazed and confused from my conversation with him, I went into a frantic search for answers. That is how I learned the meaning of life.

My friend and I were headed to Chiang Mai's Doi Inthanon National Park, the site of the largest mountain in Thailand. From seeing Buddha's footprints to visiting one of his remains on our way there from Bangkok, this trip became the most spiritual of all trips I have ever taken. Everything we were surrounded by emanated spirituality and this was the one time in my life where I felt the most at peace. It got me to thinking about anything and everything to do about life.

The Monk Appears

Then God blessed us with the appearance of a hitchhiking monk on the side of the street. He was trying to get to a temple not far from where we were headed but he needed to make an appearance at another temple, which we later learned to be Thailand's oldest buddhist temple.

He was one of the many Karen tribespeople from Northern Thailand so he spoke no English and his Thai was broken.

It was not long before we got into the juicy parts about his life. He explained that he was a travelling monk who had not seen his family for years; often spending 3-4 nights sleeping in the jungle and then heading to a new location. We asked him what he thinks about when he is alone and he explained that his purpose is to reach nirvana.

I felt appalled that someone would be so willing to give up a normal existence for their religious beliefs. Given the danger involved in what he does, the thirst/hunger he feels daily, and the lack of family interaction; I had nothing but the utter most respect for him.

After a lunch break and being told our fortunes, we asked him if he wanted to get married and have kids. He was very vague and said that he had thought about it in the past. But we were vigilant in wanting a direct reply so we asked "what about now?". This made him partially uncomfortable but he responded in a very forthright manner.

He said that he still thinks about having kids and that sometimes he imagines himself married and living a normal life. So we asked him why he does not give up monkhood and just get married. Then the confession begins.

The Confession

He was nudged into monkhood out of necessity. He was a tribesperson with little money, no education, very few prospects, and family that he rarely saw. The monks were willing to help him by giving him an education, shelter, food, and the semblance of a "family" that most people long for. He said that his intentions were to be a monk just to get by for a couple of years, get himself settled. He never had any intentions of doing it full time.

He mentioned that monkhood life was simple: requiring little thought and having no pressure and stress. And it was something he could handle. He said that a normal life would be too much of a challenge for him. So he became pigenholed; his temporary safety net of monkhood turned permanent and there was no going back.

Our Proposal

My friend offered him a job and housing. We were willing to work with him if he wanted to get out. He was excited about the chance and wanted to get out. He asked about the job position we offered and we were very ademant on telling him that we would train him in as comfortable and slow-paced fashion needed. He said that he wanted to join but was not sure about how to go about it. When we dropped him off, we gave him money for transportation to our bangkok office, our phone numbers, and a firm 2 week deadline for him to make a decision. He agreed to get back to us.

He never did.

I guess he was so used to the simple life and at his age (40) unwilling or unmotivated to try and change things in his life.

The Meaning of Life

But it made me realize that above oneself, there's a higher good to achieve in this world. No, its not money. Not a good job, house, or other "posessions". It is our ability to love another human being and extend the cycle of life with children.

Seeing the prospect of having that almost convert a monk, opened my eyes to how important it is to find someone you love. It is the highest order. Now I am convinced I will never be complete until I fall in love, get married, and later hear the word "Daddy".

UPenn Monk Class: Teaches Students How To Live The Ascetic Life

Looking for a wild-and-crazy time at college? Don't sign up for Justin McDaniel's religious studies class.

The associate professor's course on monastic life and asceticism gives students at the University of Pennsylvania a firsthand experience of what it's like to be a monk.

At various periods during the semester, students must forego technology, coffee, physical human contact and certain foods. They'll also have to wake up at 5 a.m. – without an alarm clock.

That's just a sample of the restrictions McDaniel imposes in an effort to help students become more observant, aware and disciplined. Each constraint represents an actual taboo observed by a monastic religious order.

"I've found in the past that students take this extremely seriously," said McDaniel, who has taught the class twice before. "I've had very few people who try to get away with things, and you can always tell when they are."

The discipline starts with a dress code for class: White shirts for the men, black shirts for women, and they must sit on opposite sides of the class. No makeup, jewelry or hair products. Laptops are prohibited; notes can be taken only with paper and pen. And don't even think of checking your cellphone for texts or email.

The course, which focuses primarily on Catholic and Buddhist monastic traditions, stems in part from McDaniel's own history. An expert on Asian religions, he spent a portion of his post-undergraduate life nearly 20 years ago as a Buddhist monk in Thailand and Laos and says he's both a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Catholic.

Restrictions outside class are introduced gradually: Students sacrifice caffeine and alcohol during one week, then swear off vegetables that grow underground in another. The latter rule stems from an extremely non-violent sect that eschews such produce because uprooting the food could kill insects, McDaniel said.

The real test is a full month of restrictions that begins in mid-March. Students can only eat food in its natural form; nothing processed. They can't eat when it's dark, nor speak to anyone while they eat. They must be celibate, foregoing even hugs, handshakes and extended eye contact. No technology except for electric light. They can read for other classes, but news from the outside world is forbidden.

So why would anyone sign up? It could be because McDaniel requires no term papers or exams. But sophomore Madelyn Keyser, 20, of Castro Valley, Calif., said that's misleading.

"In reality, it's much harder because your grade is based entirely on your participation and your integrity," said Keyser.

As a nursing major at the Ivy League school in Philadelphia, Keyser said she hopes the class will help her become more observant and a better listener to her patients.

Students also have to write in a journal every 30 minutes during their waking hours. And required course research cannot be done online – students must consult books and librarians, or have conversations with religious leaders.

Freshman Rachel Eisenberg said she enrolled because it's important "to figure out yourself before you can really help other people."

"It would give me a chance to really listen to myself and focus on my needs and feelings," said Eisenberg, 18, of Miami.

Keyser and Eisenberg are among 17 students in the class, a group carefully chosen from among nearly 100 applicants. McDaniel said he winnowed the list by contacting each student to make sure they understood what they were in for.

The numbers thinned quickly. One cited an inability to be without Facebook, McDaniel said, while another said she couldn't go a day without talking to her mother on the phone.

There are some exceptions to the rules, such as if another class requires students to watch a film. But any other infractions require confessions and acknowledgement in their journals.

In one recent class, three students were disciplined for the minor slip of having the labels of their T-shirts exposed, violating the dress code designed to enforce conformity. As a punishment, McDaniel made them compile a list of the countries where every one of their shirts was made.

McDaniel stresses he's not advocating for a total lifestyle change. He uses technology as much as the next person and is now married with children.

But if someone is forced to just listen for a month, he is more aware of how he speaks, McDaniel said. If someone can't talk while she's eating and has to count each chew, she'll think more about her food, he said.

"It's not about individual restrictions," said McDaniel. "It's about building hyperawareness of yourself and others."

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Physical strength can never permanently withstand the impact of spiritual force. - Franklin D. Roosevelt

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