Teens turn to monk­hood to beat poverty

New Straits Times - - World -

LUANG PRA­BANG: Each dawn, lines of teenage monks in or­ange robes criss-cross the tem­plestud­ded streets of Luang Pra­bang, the re­li­gious heart of Laos and the sto­ried seat of kings and colonis­ers.

They gather in the gloom to re­ceive alms — nor­mally freshly cooked rice or snacks — from the faith­ful, a rit­ual that weaves spir­i­tual and prac­ti­cal bonds between the novice monks and the com­mu­nity they serve.

It is the cen­tre­piece of the strict daily rou­tine un­der­taken by hun­dreds of novices drawn from poor, ru­ral vil­lages to the an­cient tem­ples which fleck the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion (Unesco) -listed town.

Many come to re­ceive an ed­u­ca­tion de­nied to them in the over­crowded and un­der­funded vil­lage schools.

They also gain a ven­er­ated po­si­tion in so­ci­ety. El­ders “wai” — a re­spect­ful greet­ing with hands pressed to­gether and a slight bow of the head — when ad­dress­ing them de­spite their cal­low years.

But the boys miss out on many of the rou­tine free­doms and ex­pe­ri­ences of teenagers across Asia.

“We wake up at 3.30am and pray. Then we re­ceive alms, we eat lunch, clean the dishes and then walk in a pro­ces­sion to med­i­tate,” said 12-year-old Xeonic, who was sent to join a tem­ple af­ter his mother died.

With its river­side set­ting and French colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture, Luang Pra­bang is a mag­net for tourists.

In peak sea­son, packs of visi­tors jos­tle for pho­to­graphs of the fa­bled alms-giv­ing cer­e­mony, trail­ing af­ter the bare­foot novices who walk at break­neck speed across the town.

Af­ter their mid-morn­ing meal, the teens do not eat again un­til sun­down, in a day that arcs through prayer, school and Bud­dhist learn­ing.

Three years ago, Khao Phomme­sith, 18, left his vil­lage a few hours drive north of Luang Pra­bang to be­come a novice.

“My fam­ily is very big and very poor... so I came here to study,” he said af­ter the evening ses­sion of chant­ing of Bud­dhist texts.

“I am learn­ing English, I want to have a good fu­ture, maybe as a doc­tor or in IT, I don’t know yet... this is a place for me to start.”

Some of the novices stay in the monk­hood as adults. Most will re­turn to civil­ian life af­ter a few years of study, hop­ing ed­u­ca­tion will give them a leg-up in a coun­try where the re­wards of eco­nomic growth are skewed to­wards a wealthy elite and for­eign in­vestors. AFP

AFP PIC

Young Bud­dhist monks at­tend­ing class at a tem­ple school in Luang Pra­bang, last year.

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