It is estimated that about 1 in 3 male Laotians join a monastery for at least some period of their lives, ranging from a few months or years to an entire lifetime. Most novices enter monastic life at an early age, learning the ancient chants and sutras, while also attending a regular school with a curriculum similar to that followed by most young students around the world.
For many children in rural areas of Laos, joining a monastery is the only available option for education. Life in the monasteries can be tough and some novices from remote communities are only able to visit their families once or twice a year. The young monks follow a strict daily routine, living communally, sharing food and daily chores.
We asked some former novices about their experiences and reconstructed a day in the life of a novice monk in Laos. While many aspects of monastic life may still seem old-fashioned and austere, some influences of modernity have managed to seep into the ancient monasteries, with sugary snacks and mobile phones playing an ever increasing role in the lives of these child monks.
Rise and Shine
The novices have to get up bright and early at 4 a.m. to attend communal chanting and prayers. Learning the complex sutras and ancient holy texts of Theravada Buddhism is quite difficult and prayers must be performed without fault. After chanting, the young monks take to the streets to beg for their daily food. In Luang Prabang, the monks and novices leave the monastery at 5 a.m., walking in a long procession to receive offerings of sticky rice, fruits and other foods in their alms bowl.
The novices eat communally and share from the alms they were given. They will usually only eat twice a day. The meals mostly consist of sticky rice, but many novices still consider the food more nourishing and varied than what they received in their home towns. One former monk we talked to said that young novices were also permitted to eat some meat, and those with families nearby would often sneak some food on their short daily visits.
School and Chores
After breakfast, the young novices attend school. These schools are very similar to those attended by other children, with many of the classes taught by senior monks. There are also foreigners teaching at these schools, so that guests are often struck with the language proficiency of the monks, many of whom speak English, French, German or other languages. These foreign teachers often instruct the novices in exchange for learning the Buddhist scriptures.
After school, the novices must perform chores such as washing, cleaning, sweeping or other tasks relating to the upkeep of the temples. Adolescents will sometimes learn a trade, which is useful to the community but can also provide work after they leave monastic life. Many of the former monks we talked to were not only well versed in Buddhist scripture, spoke several languages, had extensive experience in a trade such as carpentry, but had also attended or were planning to attend university overseas.
Homework and Leisure
At 6 p.m. the young novices will attend group meditation and prayers, usually lasting around two hours. Afterwards, they will need to finish their homework before going to bed. Older novices are expected to help the younger ones. Some former monks said that they would often go to bed hungry, but that this was to help them prepare for life as a fully-fledged monk, who often practice strict regimes of fasting and meditation.
These days, many of the young monks have mobile phones or tablets and are able to communicate with their families at home, some of the novices come from as far away as Thailand or China, or engage in less spiritual activities such as playing computer games. However, it is important for the novices to finish their homework, wash and prepare for bed as early as possible, as they will have to be up by 4 a.m. again the next day!
If you are interested in learning more about visiting Laos, do not hesitate to contact us today for your completely customized tour of this amazing country! You can also read A Day in the Life of an Elephant Veterinarian in Thailand or discover more about Buddhism in Southeast Asia on our blog.