The monk who beaned Saytavin with a rock.

June 1, 2006

I don’t suppose I’ll ever learn the real reason the little monk beaned Saytavin with a rock yesterday. There was poor Saytavin asking no more from life than a refreshing bath in the river following a sweaty day in the forest cutting brush. Then, out of the blue, a rock cracks him right in the noggin. Good thing he didn’t pass out or he might have drowned. No. Come to think of it, his buddies were near him at the time. They’d have fished him out. Still, having a monk hit you in the head with a rock is disturbing, especially during your bath.

Saytavin’s pals helped him to shore and then back to camp where our medic stitched up his scalp. Lucky for him that Lao men rarely go bald, even late in life. His good hair genes should provide him with lifetime cover for the scar. I should be so fortunate when I’m that unlucky.

There was no mistaking the prime suspect on the bridge overhead. When Saytavin’s friends gathered their senses and scanned the bridge they could clearly see a small monk in a mustard-yellow robe beating a hasty retreat in the direction of the local Buddhist temple. In fact, running. Running in the heat of the day is so rare an event in Laos that most people would consider it suspicious behavior. Our guys immediately considered the case solved, but Saytavin needed medical attention at camp before seeking justice at the temple.

Picking a little monk out of a line up of other little monks is not an easy task. Describing the culprit as, “short, thin, shaved head, wearing sandals a robe”, would not narrow the field. In fact, it wouldn’t eliminate a single novice monk. Don’t bother mentioning the black umbrella.

When informed of the day’s events, the abbot at the temple mentally composed a short list of likely suspects. He promptly summoned a particular novice that he suspected might have useful information. Apparently, he knew his novices well; that little monk was momentarily missing. Our guys left the monastery feeling confident that the case had been delivered into dependable hands.

So… what to make of a rock throwing monk? It would be wrong to assume that every novice monk has set his life on a deeply spiritual course. While all temples have monks, old and young, who are committed to a life-long spiritual journey, most are in that community for only a small portion of their lives, usually for less than a year; often for only a few weeks. Little monks are, first and foremost, little boys.

Often boys come to a monastery because it is their best opportunity for an education. Sometimes parents place a child in a monastic school because they want the addition of moral education to accompany conventional course work. Orphans sometimes end up in monasteries where they receive, food, shelter, education, and adult supervision that they would otherwise lack. Sometimes a family will have a son who has misbehaved and gotten in trouble with the authorities or brought shame to his family. They might pack the boy off to a monastery in the hope that the monks will succeed where they themselves have failed.

My interpreter, Tawon, lived in a monastery for six years. He was a step-child in a poor family and had slim prospects for obtaining an education. At the age of 10 he became a novice in a temple near his home in Savannahket. There were usually about a dozen school-age monks living at his temple; they all attended classes in what he calls a “monk’s school” that served novices from several temples.

Tawon’s classes included the basic subjects which you would commonly find in any public school in Laos: reading, writing, math, science, geography and so forth. In addition, he had classes in Sanskrit where he learned to read Buddhist holy scriptures, and in moral education. His classmates were all boys; all fellow novices.

During Tawon’s years in the monastery he followed the ten precepts that all novices must obey. Among the rules that guided his young life were prohibitions against killing animals, stealing, lying, drinking, sitting or sleeping in a high position, enjoying fragrant smells, eating any food after noon, flirting with women or even receiving something from a lady’s hand. Apparently the wayward, rock-throwing monk had not learned that there is a specific precept (believe it or not) against “throwing any object.” Had Tawon chosen to remain in the monastic community, his life would have been ordered by the 208 precepts that adult monks strive to obey.

Tawon had few possessions at the monastery. In keeping with the value of living a simple life he possessed only his robes, an umbrella, a steel bowl in which he collected rations of donated food from townspeople and a small assortment of items for his personal hygiene: tooth brush, toothpaste, and a bar of soap. He needed no comb, as his head was shaved weekly, in the custom of all monks both young and old.

Tawon did not choose to live his adult life as a monk. He claims that the most common topic of conversation among his classmates was what they each would do when they left the monastery. When asked how many of the young novices would commit themselves to a life in the monastery, he laughed and without hesitation predicted, “Two in one hundred. Maybe only one in one hundred!”

When I asked Tawon what form of discipline the adult monks might impose on a novice he was emphatic that there was never any form of physical punishment. He said the monks would talk with the novice and teach him how he could improve his future behavior. Tawon predicted that the little monk who beaned Saytavin would receive lectures on making wiser decisions but would not be punished for his thoughtless act.

When I asked what discipline of last resort was reserved for boys who would not abide by the rules, he emphasized that the monastery had the option at any time of expelling a boy. He pointed out that because many novices came from poor families, they usually appreciated the monastery as their best hope for food, shelter, and an education. He knew from experience that novices take the threat of expulsion quite seriously.

Saytavin, our victim, was content to leave the matter in the hands of the abbot. The abbot was confident that he had a prime suspect to track and apprehend. Tawon, an ex monk himself, was certain that the adult monks would firmly attend to the little monk’s moral education. My only regret was that I would not get to eavesdrop on the little guy’s side of the story. In my twenty-three years as a school principal I heard just about every excuse in the book. A few students staggered me with their imagination and creativity. I’d like to know if the little monk came clean or tried to weasel his way out of trouble. And if he did try to weasel, just how imaginative might a little monk be?

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