Joy in a Monk Bowl

After traveling to many places throughout this wondrous world of ours, I can’t help feeling that the romantic days of “untouched cultures” are quickly disappearing, if they haven’t disappeared altogether already.  More often than not, even in a place as far away as Southeast Asia, natives either seem to be suffering from “tourist fatigue,” or they have come to view Westerners (especially pasty-white 6′ tall white-bread Americans such as myself) as walking ATM machines”¦and I can’t really blame them.

Knowing that, I wasn’t expecting much when I went to a place called the “Monk’s Bowl Village” in Bangkok.  The Monk’s Bowl Village is the only remaining village of three that were established by Rama I for the sole purpose of handcrafting the ceremonial bowls (called baat) that Buddhist Monks use to collect alms from the faithful every morning.  (This is a truly sight to behold if one can drag themselves out of bed at 6:00AM and wander by any Wat in Thailand.)

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More nails in the coffin of my romantic vision:   most monks in Bangkok now choose to purchase cheaper, factory-made bowls instead of these hand-crafted ones.  And to my dismay, I have seen those same monks running to Seven-Eleven to buy Sprite and potato chips with some of their alms money that they collected in their cheap factory-made alms bowl.  (My Month As a Buddhist Monk article describes my frustration with organized religion in general, including Buddhism which I used to have such a romantic view of as well.)

Hand-hammered bowls are crafted from eight separate pieces of steel representing Buddhism’s Eightfold Path.  The joints are then fused with melted copper wire, and the bowl is painstakingly hammered for many hours, by hand.  This process typically takes about 8 hours of work for a single large bowl, and the cost for one of these hand-crafted bowls is typically $20.00 for a smaller bowl, up to $60.00 for a larger one.  They are very similar to “singing bowls” and are just as musical when struck.

The moment I passed the edge of the community, peering down the alleyway with my camera strapped around my neck, someone approached me repeating “You want monk bowl!”. It was in that instant that my romantic vision once again dissolved on the spot.  But, after almost instantly recognizing my skepticism, we were ushered past the glass case of finished bowls and taken deeper into this small artisan village, hidden from the road.

And in this small village of dilapidated shacks in one of the poorer alleyways of Bangkok was something that I had rarely experienced when traveling to places where there is such a disparity between the “have’s” and “have not’s” living in such close proximity to each other:  It was the unshakable and unmistakable pride that radiated from everyone I met.

Living spaces spilled out into the alleyway; plastic chairs, kitchen tables, makeshift boxes crowded with various aluminum, steel, and plastic containers lined the alleyway.  Then, as if out of a dream, the alleyway was also lined with artisans working on monk’s bowls, each in a different stage of progress.  Some were heating and sculpting the initial shape of the bowl, some were welding the copper wire on, many were hammering the bowls into their final shape, and a couple were firing and glazing the finished bowls.

Being used to people on my travels not wanting to have their photo taken, I was unprepared for how everyone in this small community encouraged me to take their photos.  All I could think of, is that this community took great pride in the fact that they were crafting something as beautiful as these bowls, and this could be what made them so different than most people I try to take pictures of in emerging nations and 3rd world countries.  They weren’t sitting on the dirt floor on an overcrowded shack, hungry and angry at a Westerner like me; they were artisans who have a craft that anyone could be proud of, elevating their small community into something more.  I am convinced they knew that the more curios and interested folks like me to came to visit them, the more they could pursue their craft, the better their standard of living would be, and the better any one of them could provide for their children.

And this is what made me want to buy every bowl they had.  After some well-fought bargaining for the best prices, I ended up with a few more than expected.  That being said, I’m not often moved to collect “things;” most simply weigh me down unnecessarily.  But this community and the bowls they were crafting moved something deep inside me: Maybe it fulfilled that romantic vision of mine that I felt was lost, maybe it was the fact that such a poor community could find such pride in their rickety shacks and dirty alleyway, maybe it was the fact that I felt more joy emanating from these people than I had felt from anyone else so far on my trip.

This moment offered me so much on so many levels:  It gave me hope that there are still places in the world that aren’t overrun with tourists and want and greed, it reconfirmed my belief that art can connect peoples and cultures over great time and distances, and it made me realize that the American Dream of cars and houses and big screen televisions aren’t required to feel such connection and joy in one’s life, and that those things are most-likely detrimental to finding the joy that we all so desperately seek in our lives and our worlds.

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