Beyond the Glittering Golden Buddha Statues

Difference and Self-transformation through Buddhist Volunteer Tourism in Thailand

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Author:
Brooke Schedneck Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, Chiang Mai University, Rhodes College brooke@iseaa.org

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Abstract

Volunteer tourism is becoming an important way to understand and experience culture. In Thailand, one option for volunteers is to teach English to novice monks in Buddhist temple schools. These volunteers choose to live in a Buddhist temple in order to experience difference through the religious atmosphere and interact with Buddhist monks. The aesthetic environment is unique and awe-inspiring to this group. However, through interviews and analysis of travel writing, this article argues that the unexpected also has a role in generating self-transformation. Beyond the golden, glittering Buddha statues are Buddhist novice monks who become not just representatives of Thai culture but particular individuals. Volunteers discuss their own transformation as a result of both the expected difference and unexpected familiarity they encounter within the temple communities where they teach.

Tourists visit many ancient temples as one of the major tourist activities and sites in the old city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The first thing they notice is the difference of this religious space compared to more familiar landscapes. The details of the architecture, from the mythical creature guardians at the gated entrances to the curved roof finials shaped like flames, provide much aesthetic beauty and sensory stimulation. Some tourists take in the atmosphere and surely reconcile that they will never be able to fully understand the meaning behind each of these details. But others feel lucky that they will be able to consider these deeper meanings by joining a Buddhist community and volunteering their time to teach English.

Buddhist travel and spiritual vacations have become a meaningful addition to the offerings within Thailand’s tourism industry, as evidenced by the variety and diversity of opportunities to learn about and practice Buddhism offered to travelers. Teaching English in temple schools is part of this larger outreach to tourists on the part of Buddhist temples, which also include temple-stay programs, where one lives as a Buddhist with the possibility of ordination, “monk chats” focused on learning about the monastic life, and meditation retreats for those interested in practice.

This article focuses on volunteers’ narrations of their experiences teaching English to novice monks in temple schools with the aim of elucidating our understanding of difference, authenticity, and possibilities of transforming the self during travel. Volunteers highlighted their own transformation not only when encountering difference and experiencing authenticity, but also when their expectations of the other are challenged. Their narratives show that the familiar and unexpectedly modern lives of novice monks is disorienting for volunteers at first, but is part of their learning and self-transformation as much as encountering difference. During periods of fieldwork in June–July 2010 and May–June 2013, as well as ongoing email communications and Internet research, I investigated programs that facilitate cultural and religious encounters between international travelers and Buddhist novices and monks through volunteer English-teaching opportunities. My data draws from twenty interviews, analysis of four volunteer travel organization websites, as well as personal travel websites and blogs written by volunteers. I argue that both expected difference and unexpected familiarity can lead to self-transformation during travel.

Buddhist Volunteer Tourism

Due to the postcolonial economy of volunteer tourism from the Global North to the Global South, the promise of difference creates unique cultural experiences (Parrenas 2012: 673). The ability to experience Buddhist temple life, with its ceremonies and robed monks, can be seen as a commodity consumed by interested English-speaking travelers from the Global North. Professional workers and young travelers see a need for volunteerism in order to stimulate a sense of purpose and facilitate meaningful encounters with locals. This is one of the reasons volunteer tourism has become the fastest growing niche tourism market (Mostafanezhad and Kontogeorgopoulos 2014: 264). Volunteer tourism attracts those in search of authentic tourism, which involves living and participating in social and educational projects in a country different from one’s own (Wickens 2011: 43). Jim Butcher in his book on The Moralisation of Tourism (2003) writes that travel is increasingly linked to being ethical, thus creating a new kind of moral tourist. Volunteer tourism combines travel with service, and appeals to participants who are interested in their own personal development, as well as helping others socially or environmentally (Wearing 2001: 1). Volunteer tourists choosing to teach novice monks English in Buddhist temples not only hope to give to their host country but also to receive new ideas and experiences. Difference, authenticity, and transforming the self are important categories used in the analysis of volunteer tourism; however, these are rarely used in combination. Because of this, my focus on how volunteers themselves narrate their own encounters with Buddhist temple spaces, communities, and the novice monks they teach not only contributes to the literature on consumption of Buddhists by tourists, but also to scholarship on volunteer tourism in general.

Volunteer travel organizations in Thailand present the vacation as an opportunity to distinguish oneself as a caring global citizen, creating cultural capital as a moral tourist, unlike the masses. There are numerous opportunities to teach English to novice monks in temple schools in Thailand. Four organizations advertise the ability to support and place volunteer tourists in temple schools or universities for teaching monks English: Travel to Teach, Friends for Asia, ProWorld Thailand, and the Wat Doi Saket Project. My research focuses mostly on Friends For Asia1 and the Wat Doi Saket Project2 because both of these organizations have solid relationships with Buddhist temple schools and place volunteers consistently throughout the year. The Wat Doi Saket Project is explicitly marketed as a cultural exchange program, where participants have the opportunity to live with and teach English to Buddhist novices and monks in the Doi Saket district, outside of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Since this program offers the opportunity to live in the temple, it is not intended for those interested in nightlife or participating in other activities, but those who wish to focus exclusively on learning about Buddhism and the life of a monk. Since its inception in 2009, the program has hosted hundreds of volunteers arriving in groups or individually. They stay for varying lengths of time in temple accommodations, teaching English and even helping with temple building projects.3 Since 2007, Friends for Asia has offered opportunities to teach monks English in temple schools. They have affiliations with five of these schools within the city of Chiang Mai and are able to place volunteers at most times of the year. Currently the Friends for Asia Teaching Monks Program receives approximately forty volunteers per year. It is one of their most popular and longest-running volunteer programs in Thailand. The volunteers I interviewed choose this program over other possibilities, such as teaching in Thai public schools, caring for elephants, or working with orphans. Volunteers within these organizations can teach for as little as one week but are encouraged to stay for at least four weeks.

The volunteers I spoke and communicated with about their motivations thought of Thailand as a context in which they could immerse themselves in an interesting culture, learn about Buddhism, experiment with teaching as a career, and, for some, as a jumping-off point before going to less developed nations like Cambodia or continents like Africa.4 Because of these various motivations, encountering authenticity and difference in a Buddhist community along with learning about Buddhism and teaching English, volunteer tourism organizations’ advertising assures potential participants of their role and impact. The Wat Doi Saket Project website offers background on the socioeconomic status of most novice monks, explaining that they are often poor boys from rural villages who are seeking an education. Not only will volunteers be offering this important service, the novices and monks will reciprocate through helping their teachers understand Buddhism and Thai culture. Therefore volunteers are assured by their sending organizations that they will be able to make a valuable contribution, “give back” to a worthy cause, and understand more about the Buddhist religion.

The costs for these programs vary depending on how long one stays. If one stays for one week the usual cost is around $700 USD, but this per week cost is discounted if one stays two weeks or more, depending on the program. These organizations offer English teaching support as well as airport transfer, accommodation, some food costs, trips, and twenty-four-hour support for any emergencies or concerns. This volunteer fee does not cover a donation to the temple. Some organizations suggest volunteers bring souvenirs from their home country or more useful items like notebooks, books, and pencils to donate to monks or the school library.

Most volunteers are native English speakers from England, America, and Australia. However, non-native English speakers from Europe and East Asia also volunteer. Program coordinators stated that this presents a challenge for temple placements, as most abbots of temple schools state they prefer native speakers. East Asian volunteers can usually be placed in a classroom teaching Chinese or Japanese. This minority of volunteers from East Asia also has a different experience because they are usually familiar with temples and the monastic life. However, the particular Thai Buddhist codes of behavior are often new and a basis for comparison.5

Both the Wat Doi Saket Project and Friends for Asia emphasize that it is up to the individual how much they want to learn about the religion. The Friends for Asia website is quick to point out that Buddhist practice and learning is not compulsory. If a volunteer is not interested and wants to concentrate solely on teaching no one will be offended. The Wat Doi Saket Project also notes that through volunteering there are limitless opportunities to learn about Buddhism and meditation, if one chooses. There are a few monks who can speak some English and will answer any questions the volunteer has about the religious practices they are seeing around them. There is also a meditation teacher, and if a volunteer is interested they can practice with that teacher and attend meditation retreats with monks from the Doi Saket region. Thus, religious learning and practice is not a formal part of the program, but an added benefit. Both organizations’ advertisements state that the main appeal of the program comes from the cultural exchange one is able to experience by teaching the monks and experiencing a different life at the temple.

Buddhist ceremonies and events like funerals, house blessings, local fundraisers, etc., will occasionally take precedence over a planned class, and volunteers are always invited along. We view this as a great benefit of the program and a unique opportunity for the volunteers to experience Buddhism, life in Thailand, and life at a temple. As a volunteer living at a Wat [temple] you have several unique opportunities. You can observe daily life and how monks actually live and what they think and feel. While living with and teaching novice monks, you are able to interact with them (and the older ordained monks) on a daily basis. Although there are no scheduled classes or seminars, the monks are eager to teach what they know about Buddhism and the potential to gain knowledge and insight is endless.

(Wat Doi Saket Project website)

For these volunteer tourism organizations, religion becomes something optional to experiment with or be curious about in a pluralistic manner.

Through relationships with temple abbots, these organizations provide the connections necessary to experience teaching and living in a Buddhist temple while traveling the region. In addition to the organizations and the volunteers themselves, temple school abbots and monk students are an important part of the volunteer experience. Temple school abbots affiliate with these outside agencies that help promote and manage the volunteer programs to attract foreign teachers. Temple abbots coordinate with these volunteer organizations in order to benefit the education of their monks as well as spread Buddhism internationally. It is important to note that although the abbots and temples remain in charge of allowing volunteers to stay, they task these volunteer organizations with administering the volunteer program, by advertising to and screening potential volunteers, and helping to acclimate them. With abbots’ busy schedules, it is much easier to affiliate with these professional organizations to run background checks and take care of orientation to the temple environment. But this orientation, of course, cannot prepare the volunteers for all of the experiences and possibilities they will meet while teaching novices and living in a Buddhist temple. While encountering “the other” in these Buddhist temples and its classrooms, volunteers have their ideas of difference and authentic Asian Buddhism both confirmed and challenged.

Expectations of Difference and Authenticity

For international tourists, the promise of difference and authenticity through encountering “the other” during travel creates unique cultural experiences. In contrast to tourists’ urban, busy lives, the cultural other has the potential to provide authenticity and difference. In Thailand this difference is contained primarily within one figure: the monk. Michael Jerryson discusses how the Buddhist monk is a symbol of the Thai state and nation (2011: 50). With its majority Buddhist population, the conflation of Buddhism and Thailand becomes a large part of tourist imaginaries of Thailand (Schedneck 2015). Jane Iwamura discusses the ways the “Oriental Monk” figure within popular culture, through his nonsexual solitary spirituality, is made acceptable and appealing for mainstream consumption (2011: 22). Monks become representative as symbols of Buddhism and values ascribed to it, including peace, kindness, and calmness.

Teaching English to monks allows volunteers to interact directly with the people who are perceived to represent the essence of Thai culture. Temple environments and communities are seen as authentic and become popular not only as spaces of difference but also as a site of learning about Thai culture and religion. The ability to experience Buddhist temple life, with its ceremonies and robed monks, embodies this difference and authenticity, especially for interested English-speaking travelers from the Global North. Indeed, as we will see, international visitors’ most memorable moments engage multiple senses: seeing the sunrise and orange robes of monks, the glittering golden Buddha statues, hearing the Pali chanting of the monks and bells chiming in the morning and evening. These sensory moments match the experience of visitors hoping for difference.

Encountering the other and confronting difference depends, of course, on one’s own lifestyle and worldview, and volunteer organizations employ the perspectives of volunteers from the Global North in their promotional materials. The website of Friends for Asia utilizes the ideas of Thailand as a “traditional” society:

Saffron robes, morning alms and novice monks—and not a tourist in sight. It’s hard to believe that such a staunch traditional life still thrives in the 21st century, but Chiang Mai’s temple schools are a world away from “everyday.” As a volunteer English teacher, you’ll experience the difference first-hand. Morning comes early in Chiang Mai’s temple schools. As you arrive, novices line up to receive morning announcements from the faculty. Prayer and meditation follow, leading up to the start of class at 8:30 am. Another round of prayer and meditation follows lunch. Education in these temple schools is holistic—a marriage of mind and body rarely seen in the West.

(Friends for Asia website)

Daily morning activities at a Thai Buddhist temple school here are contrasted with one’s life at home. Besides the oversimplification of daily life in “the West” and the romantic ideas of Buddhist education in Thailand, this statement assumes difference is a sought-after commodity. Why would someone volunteer in a familiar place just like home? Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan write that the otherness of foreign peoples is hoped to aid in “rejuvenating a humdrum domestic culture” (1998: 48). These volunteer organizations have developed specific ways of advertising that play with their target audiences’ ideas of difference and the other.

Volunteers repeat these ideas in their reflections upon volunteering. Participating in the daily schedule of the temple can meet sensory expectations of Buddhism. Lauren,6 a middle-aged American volunteer at Wat Suan Dok, echoes this emphasis on difference in an interview: “It was all so different from anything I have ever experienced. The chanting, the rules of respect, taking off shoes … this was all very different for me.”7 As well, living at the temple constitutes difference and authentic experiences hoped for, as volunteers encounter the aesthetic beauty of the temple through Buddhist material culture. Brady, an American on a gap year, lived in Wat Srisoda in Chiang Mai for two months. During this time he commented on his blog about the beauty of the architecture, mural paintings, golden statues, pillars, and also the sonorous sounds of Pali chanting. Brady remarks: “Every morning and evening, close to dawn and dusk, the temple grounds are filled with the wholesome, peaceful sound of the monks chanting in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali” (Brady 2013). But he also points out other forms of difference that are not as pleasant: the garbage dump and damp bathrooms. He writes: “In other places, it is not so beautiful, such as in the permanently damp bathrooms (all of them are uber moist!), or in the massive and fragrant open-air garbage dump that sits just outside the … cafeteria. (Yum” Brady 2013). Both negative and positive forms of difference are interesting here, as both instances are still very far from life in the United States. The attractiveness of difference is apparent from these quotes. These volunteers underscore that their travel experiences allowed them to partake in something new and different from their everyday lives.

Victoria, a recent college graduate from England, records how a favorite activity during her volunteer period was visiting temples, finding some that were peaceful enough to meditate in. Sitting in meditation in a Buddhist temple embodies an authentic experience and encounter with difference in the space of the cultural other. Victoria also had such moments during the school day. She writes “before lunch there’s always a chanting of thanks, which completely moved me to my very soul the first time I heard it. It was all overwhelmingly beautiful, the temple, the kindness, the peace and serenity of it all, I shall never forget those first feelings” (Victoria 2013). The difference of the ritual and sounds as well as participating in the life of the temple community creates experiences of difference that volunteers highlight.

Interacting with Buddhist monks is another experience of difference emphasized by volunteers. Hunaid, a middle-aged American, volunteered for two months at Wat Doi Saket and took part in the daily alms rounds. The abbot, Phra Sirichai, allowed him to carry alms for him. Hunaid writes, “He also gave me a Thai name, ‘Kaa ja-om’ which has brought many smiles on Thai faces. It refers to the person who helps the monks on their daily alms rounds. It was a delightful experience as I met many welcoming villagers” (Hunaid 2013). He calls volunteering and living in Wat Doi Saket an incredible learning experience.

I would be amiss if I did not write a bit about daily life at Wat Doi Saket. Without having lived at the wat [temple], I would not have had such a rich experience. Most of all, I would have probably never learned what it takes to go from a novice monk to an ordained monk and what it is like to live as a monk. I did not need an alarm clock as I was woken up each morning at 5am from the sounds of the monks praying and chanting in Pali. Most often, I would go to the mondop [chanting hall] so I could feel the energy of the prayers.

(Hunaid 2013)

For Hunaid, difference relates to the ways he was able to engage with the Buddhist monks as well as the Thai villagers while following the schedule of daily life in the temple. For many volunteers the most different experience is taking part in temple life.

The Wat Doi Saket Project is one of the only programs that offers the opportunity to live in a temple, which is taken advantage of by about 90 percent of the volunteers. Volunteers living at Wat Doi Saket are often able to develop relationships with monks, especially those volunteers that are interested in learning more about Buddhism. Brady wrote this about the monks he taught: “The monk friends … what can I say? They are awesome. The best people. Most of them are around my age, 18 or 19, and they call me their brother. I hang out with them almost every week night, since we all live in the same monastery, and we just seem to connect really well” (Brady 2013). Similarly, Jonathan, a middle-aged American, wrote to me about his friendships with monks:

I befriended a couple of monks and got to know about their backgrounds and how they happened to become monks. I tutored 2 novice monks and learned about their life and how they left home and chose to become monks. It was these relationships that engaged me with Buddhism above and beyond just reading about them in some book.8

Making friends with these novice students constitutes the authentic interactions that volunteers stress in their communications and memories about their experiences.

Experiencing rituals and speaking with monks constitute the difference hoped for. In an interview, Nina told me that she wanted to live in a Buddhist temple to learn about new ways of life and cultures. She stated: “I want to know who I really am and test myself by entering into new situations. I don’t want to be another farang [foreign non-Asian person] in a resort or tourist market.”9 Instead, she sought the authentic experience of meeting and interacting with Buddhist monks. These encounters with difference and experiences of authenticity are significant for travelers in recounting their time volunteering. However, these moments of difference are not surprising, but expected. Although this difference is interesting and exciting for volunteers, challenging perceptions of difference and authenticity also offer possibilities for learning and transforming the self.

Challenging Difference and Authenticity

Jonathan Skinner and Dimitrios Theodossopoulos’s book (2011) on expectations in tourism discusses the ways tourists must deal with cultural perspectives and worldviews that are challenging and surprising given their initial expectations. In some intersections of Buddhism and tourism, if expectations of difference are not met, the Buddhist religion, temple space, and the lives of monks can be critiqued. Laos commodified the culture and religion of the country beginning in the early 1990s, especially Luang Phrabang as a place of “romanticism and royal mystique” (Holt 2009: 187). During this period, novice monks’ ritual activity of the morning alms round has become a major tourist attraction (197). Because of expectations of Buddhism and its monks to be exclusively serene and contemplative, French and other Euro-American tourists sometimes critique Luang Phrabang’s novices (191). In my previous work on international meditation centers in Thailand, this critique was evident when any form of commercial activity was seen in the temple space (Schedneck 2015: 106). The particular Western imaginaries of Buddhism is at odds with the reality of novice monks sitting in Internet cafés, being outside of the temple in the afternoon, and answering cell phones (Holt 2009: 193). As a consequence of the Western perceptions of Buddhist monasticism, when novices and monks do not act as perfect mindful embodiments of Buddhist ideals, tourists’ expectations are not realized. In contrast to these tourists in Laos and Thailand, the volunteers’ experiences in Thai Buddhist temples are more immersive. Because they have extended exposure and possibilities for understanding the temple community, their response to the similarly unexpected behaviors and actions of their novice monk students is, for the most part, accepted rather than critiqued, adding to the perceived authenticity of the temple setting and the monks themselves. Authenticity, as a form of intimacy, is found in the encounters with monks and other temple community members, even if they are not fully meeting the ideals held by the volunteers.

As described above, English-teaching volunteers in Thailand hope for difference and authenticity, in which they will come to know the other and gain cultural capital back home. However, most volunteers find, after being asked about their experience, that Buddhist monks are “just like regular people.” This familiarity is surprising but not criticized by the volunteers who were expecting a space apart from modernity. Britney, a recent American college graduate, said to me in an interview after her experience teaching for a month at Wat Phra Singh: “I thought the classroom would have a much more serious feel to it,” but she learned through her interactions with the novices that “they really are just like any other boys, they can be loud and rowdy.”10 Beyond the aesthetic differences of the temple space and monastic robes, the monastic life is more similar to modern Western lifestyles than imagined. While interacting with novices and monks, most participants are struck by their ordinariness. Through experience and interaction, they learn this group is composed of unique individuals, some more serious about Buddhism and the monastic life than others.

Volunteers quickly realize from their observations that the actuality does not fit their impossible expectations. The placement coordinator at Friends for Asia stated that volunteers choose the teaching monks program because they want to experience something “other.” During the course of the teaching, volunteers soon discover that novices are regular boys—not holy little boys, just little boys. She remembers that one volunteer was shocked when some novices took off their outer robes and started fighting. Volunteers also have misconceptions about the rules of monasticism and expect that monks won’t break any of these rules. Volunteers wonder why they see some monks eating after noon, playing sports, or smoking, all of which are prohibited within the Thai Buddhist monastic code. They see monks with smart phones, chatting on Facebook, and wonder how they could afford this luxury. Where do they get the money? Shouldn’t they live simply? They are attracted to difference and the experience of a non-typical tourist with special access to the other. When the other acts not as expected, volunteers are challenged to think about difference and reevaluate their perceptions of authenticity.

Expectations of monks as silent, stoic, wise, and always in a meditative repose come from media and popular culture, which has perpetuated these impossible stereotypes. Unlike what some have found in (Laos Holt 2009) and among the hill tribe groups of northern Thailand (Johnson 2007; Novelli and Tisch-Rottensteiner 2012; Walter 2016), when these expectations of monks’ behavior and demeanor are not met, volunteer tourists adjust their ideas to match reality. Mike, a young man from Switzerland, also had the goal of learning more about Buddhism. He described to me how he wanted to volunteer in order to explore an interest in Buddhism he had had since high school. He wanted an immersive experience and hoped that by living at the monastery he would get to experience what it was like to really live in the tradition, and experience the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk. However, the reality did not align with his expectations of the other. He was surprised at how flexible the schedule was and how comfortable the young novices seemed in their environment. Mike learned that the monastic life, in some cases, is not so strict, with every hour not spent in meditation. Because there was less distance than he expected, he was able to create more close relationships and a more realistic understanding of monastic life in Thailand.11

Authenticity, as a form of intimacy, is found in the encounters with monks, even if they do not fully meet the ideals volunteers hold. Kevin used his summer vacation from an American college to volunteer through Friends for Asia after taking a course on Buddhism. He was placed at Wat Pan Tao and assisted with conversation classes for first-and second-year middle school students in speaking and listening. He was surprised by the technology monks used, as he thought Buddhism valued silence and contemplation. In an interview he said: “The monks don’t follow the rule about entertainment and are clapping, singing, dancing, especially to K-pop [Korean pop music].” He was surprised by this ordinariness as he continued: “I think I wanted to see the monks in Thailand with my own eyes, more so than actually learning about Buddhism here academically. I have to admit that I was looking for a different, unique experience. Going and doing something different and unfamiliar was quite appealing to me.”12 The difference of the experience was attractive, but Kevin was more interested in reality, as his main objective was to see how monks really lived through observing and interacting with them.

The dissonance in expectation between difference and reality can lead to new knowledge. Rather than perceiving the experience as a failure because it does not delivery the expected authenticity, volunteer tourism has the potential to challenge and stimulate, leading to insights about the self. Some volunteers are practitioners of Buddhism and want to learn more about the practice beyond meditation, hoping to integrate this into their lives at home. Jonathan, who I interviewed after he had returned to his home in America, lived at Wat Doi Saket for two months because of his interest in Buddhism, calling himself a Buddhist. He was interested in volunteering as a way to add understanding of the religion to his planned meditation retreat. Jonathan was curious about the monastic life and admitted that he had little idea about how monks lived. He wrote:

I did not have any idea whatsoever as to what a life of a monk is like, except that they live in a monastery and go out for alms to deliver blessings to the local residents. I certainly had no idea that there would be novice monks living in the temple; as a matter of fact, I did not even know of the concept of a novice monk or for that matter how a person comes about being a monk. It was my basic understanding that a person can give up their worldly belongings and move into a monastery and start meditating.

Surprisingly he found that monks are not all perfect beings who dedicate their lives to silent contemplation. This familiarity instead of difference was unexpected for Jonathan. He continued: “Now, when I see a monk, I know what he has gone through to get where he is and I see him more as a person.”13 Despite this perceived lack of difference and unmet expectations, Jonathan now sees monks as people and describes himself as a transformed person, intellectually and emotionally.

In this way, the volunteer experience serves to humanize the monk figure. The novice monk becomes not a representative of the culture but rather a unique individual. Teaching the monks, even for a short while, challenges the perspectives of volunteers and debunks some of the popular cultural myths about the monastic life. These interactions personalize the monk, who volunteers otherwise would imagine being an isolated, stoic figure who would have no interest or opportunity to speak with them. Jonathan found that the most surprising thing for him was that all monks are different: some are loud, some don’t meditate, and some are quiet. He had put monks on a pedestal before, thinking they are more than human. He wrote: “There were many stores inside the temple for monks to buy things for their daily consumption—this I had not expected. I had just never thought about monks having any money to buy simple things. It had never occurred to me that monks have to swim in the same water as we all do.”14 But in reality, he found, they are just normal people who dress differently and have specific rules. Therefore, the experience showed him that monks are unique individuals rather than remote hermits, serene in their solitude. The first realization for many of these participants is that monks are people too. This opens them up for further exchanges that come to be seen as more authentic despite their unmet expectations of the other.

Volunteers hope for difference where they will come to know the other. But processes of self-transformation for volunteers also occur when expectations about differences are challenged. At the same time as volunteers learn about the monastic life, they also gain insight into themselves, often calling their immersive volunteer experiences transformative or life changing.

Transformations of the Self

Stories one tells about oneself serve to construct an identity, one’s self, one’s narrative. A number of scholars have analyzed narratives of self-transformation within volunteer tourism (Allon and Koleth 2014; Lepp 2008; Wearing et al. 2008; Wickens 2011; Zahra 2011). This literature on self-transformation in tourism highlights broadened perspectives, challenging oneself, expanding one’s possibilities, and creating a cosmopolitan identity through international friendships (Mostafanezhad 2013: 111), but also reveals the impact of simple living and the romantic naturalness of the local communities in contrast to the lives of the volunteers (Bruner 1991; Novelli and Tisch-Rottensteiner 2012). But unlike these findings, volunteers in Thai Buddhist temples do not often comment on comparisons between West and East, development and non-development, or materialism and the simple life, but instead on particular ways of being that they noticed and valued within a Buddhist culture. Although volunteers’ motivations often include “giving back” and “making a difference,” the experience serves to mobilize self-reflection and insight into oneself because of the sustained periods spent within foreign communities. The volunteers I spoke with came to learn about and appreciate Buddhism as they were immersed in a Buddhist environment. However, because of the limited time frame and lack of thorough study, their knowledge of Buddhist doctrines remains superficial. The volunteers’ narrated changes in themselves were more directly related to new experiences and environment along with the unexpected familiarity of monks’ lifestyles than any particular Buddhist insight into the nature of the self.

In their writings and my interviews, volunteers focus on the experiences that indicate their transformations. In addition to understanding other societies, volunteers transform themselves by using the body in different ways. Amanda, a young American teacher, commented on how she had to adopt behaviors she was unaccustomed to when teaching the novice monks. She discussed all the ways she had to use her body differently when around a monk: “When you pass a monk, get out of the way so he can go first, stay a few steps behind him, lower your head if you are walking by a monk, when you see a monk, wai [a hand gesture to pay respect] deeply to him.” This is especially so for women, as she learned to “hold an object with both hands and set it down for the monk to pick up, and when he wants to hand something to me, I cup my hands so he can drop the object and we do not touch.” She also tried not to sit next to a monk or touch an object at the same time. She felt awkward when she looked at a monk for too long or conversed with locked eyes. All of this brings an attention to the body that Amanda had not felt before. She also discussed her relationship to her body outside of interactions with monks. She writes: “I’m walking slower, breathing slower, I move around things and reposition things with much more precision as I try not to make noises. None of that is necessary, they’re just byproducts of being constantly cautious and trying not to offend.” She also comments that, surprisingly, she is not offended by the way monks treat her, calling her fat and commenting on her wet hair. She states that, uncharacteristically, she is not insulted but instead has learned to “let it go” and not be concerned with how she looks (Amanda 2010). Although these particular differences might not have been expected, it was the distinct social norms and behaviors she encountered in this environment that led to Amanda’s personal transformation in this space.

Many volunteers who live in the Buddhist temple reflect on comparisons between the monastic life and their own. Volunteers noted the ways they think differently as a result of their observations and the lifestyles they experienced at the temple. This is especially evident when they return home. Mike, from Switzerland, reflected on changes in his perspectives of his home country:

I definitely learned a lot and changed quite a bit in different views and opinions. I think one of the most beautiful things I learned is metta, the lovingkindness … And now when I talk to people from home (Switzerland), I realise how different they see certain things. One of my friends for example couldn’t believe that people were actually giving food on alms round without expecting anything back. That really shocked me, but also showed me how much I have learned regarding generosity.15

Mike here isolates one Buddhist teaching, that of metta, or loving kindness, the attitude of friendliness and generosity. He saw this embodied each morning as lay Buddhists would offer food to monks. He had internalized this value without noticing it. Only when his Swiss friends at home challenged this value did he realize how the volunteer experience had changed him.

Another aspect of Buddhism that volunteers mark as transformative is its meditation practice. Although these volunteer experiences are not meditation retreats, some volunteers are exposed to meditation for the first time. Sam, a young British volunteer, responded in this way when asked if his life in England was different after his experience teaching and living at the temple:

The truth is, my time at the temple in Thailand was really my first exposure to a meditation practice and was one of the first steps I took in exploring a contemplative lifestyle. Now I am deeply involved in several types of spiritual practices, including meditating as often as possible, and I have started to make a “career” out of creating spaces for people to have transformative experiences. I can trace my experience at the temple as being one of the first major events that set my current path in motion.16

Sam took the opportunity to learn more and practice meditation while teaching the novice monks. This initial exploration in Thailand led to a deep involvement in meditation and spiritual practice. Joanie, a British volunteer in her thirties at Wat Saraphi, has also taken Buddhist meditation seriously as a result of her encounter with the temple and monks. She said to me: “I’ve always wanted a peaceful and happy life so Buddhism and I go wonderfully together, but meditation has definitely helped me to be wiser and even more patient and I’m already very laid back! Buddhism has helped me to find faith in humanity again.”17 She credits the older novices and monks with teaching her how to meditate and breathe, which she finds not only coheres with her values but also helps her to be a better person.

Along with the expected difference of being exposed to Buddhist doctrines and meditation, volunteers also highlighted their interactions with monks as creating changes in themselves. Jonathan describes his volunteering at Wat Doi Saket as transformative:

It was the monastic life and its connection to the people that have stood out the most and which I feel has given me a day to day perspective where things that seemed so frustrating in the past are just not as important … For me, even at this late age, spending 2 months in Chiang Mai was a life affecting experience … the 2 months at Doi Saket has given me a new point of reference.18

In Jonathan’s case it is both the unexpected familiarity and the expected differences that he identifies as factors in his self-transformation. Encountering new lifestyles allows volunteers to reflect on their own worldviews, while the differences of the environment reminds them of the newness and unfamiliarity of the experience. Most important to many of these volunteers in Buddhist temples is connections with locals. In this case, because of their sustained period of living in the temple, the reality of the monks’ life is part of Jonathan’s transformation. Their volunteer work is not centered on improved material development but instead on interpersonal interactions with their hosts.19 This becomes one of the most salient and self-transformative aspects of Buddhist volunteer tourism.

Joanie also discussed the ways the unexpected familiarity with the monks changed her focus from not just learning about Buddhism but also teaching them English. She said:

I was surprised, nicely surprised, with the way the novices took to me and made me feel a part of the school, wanting to talk to me outside lessons, and the patience and compassion that goes with the teaching at the temple school is just bliss. The novices made me want to stay and try to be a good teacher for them, they made me change my mind about being a teacher.20

From these narratives it is clear that volunteers not only learned about Buddhism and how to teach English, but also themselves. For many volunteers the trip to Thailand is taken as a wish for personal change, using tourism as transformation (Bruner 1991). The experience offers a model of an alternative way of life that is informed by both the expected differences and unexpected familiarity of the temple environment.

Along with experiencing and questioning difference, the appeal and goal of volunteer tourism for international visitors is the possibility of sampling and experimenting with not just Buddhist ideas but a different way of life, leading to transformations of the self. Although some of the similarity is unexpected, as the monks’ life is more modern than imagined, this makes the volunteers’ interactions more memorable. Buddhist volunteer tourism encourages participants to experiment with an alternative way of living. In this way it is the mixture of both experiencing difference as well as challenging ideas of authenticity that aids in transforming the self for volunteers in Buddhist temple schools.

Conclusion

This study of volunteer English teachers in Thai Buddhist temple schools demonstrates how volunteer tourism can create transformations of the self for foreigners attracted to experiencing a Buddhist way of life. In all of these temples, English teaching is mixed with learning about Buddhism through intercultural exchange, providing a desirable balance for those interested in Buddhism and service. English-teaching volunteers in Thai temple schools seek authenticity and difference. In some cases this is found through sensory aspects, as volunteers in interviews and blog posts often mentioned listening to Pali chanting every morning and evening, seeing the gold statues in the temple buildings, and smelling the incense, candles, and flowers during rituals. However, beyond this superficial difference, the monastic life is more similar to modern Western lifestyles than imagined. These similarities between the volunteers and the monks are accepted rather than critiqued, indicating that volunteer tourism functions differently than other forms of tourism. This is because of the nature of the exposure to local life and the length of time many of the volunteers spend in Thailand. Volunteers learn most importantly that monastics are regular people, and in some cases are able to imagine an alternative worldview and take some of these ideas and practices into their own lives. They learn how they react to difference, to being in new environments, to understanding different worldviews and alternative lifestyles.

Both the expected differences and the unexpected familiarities offer an opportunity to reflect on the self and how one has changed. The volunteers are proud of their new knowledge, their understanding of new social norms, and their ability to debunk the popular myths of Buddhism and the monks’ life. These discourses of self-transformation do not include broad reflections on materialism or capitalism, but are grounded in interactions with people and the temple space and what it can offer for consideration of a way of life. Volunteers’ encounters with monks, the temple community, and the aesthetic environment of the temple demonstrate that difference as well as familiarity can be significant for narratives of self-transformation.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Nick Kontogeorgopoulos and the anonymous reviewers of Journeys for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

Notes

1

Friends for Asia website, http://www.friendsforasia.org

2

During the majority of my research this program was called the Wat Doi Saket Project. Visit the website at http://www.atmaseva.org. This project was founded in 2009 when the abbot asked Atma Seva—the NGO Wat Doi Saket has worked with since 1990—for increased English learning opportunities for the resident monks. However, starting in January 2014, the staff has affiliated with Future Sense Foundation and changed names.

3

The program maintains an affiliation with Phra Maha Insorn, principal of the school at Wat Nong Bua. Volunteers currently teach in this temple and tutor in nearby temples where novices live. Other projects that volunteers have been involved with are building temple structures, such as the ordination hall at Wat Nong Bua.

4

This has also been noted by Mostafanezhad (2013: 326), who explores why Thailand is seen as a safe option for those who have not traveled before, while Africa is perceived as a place where volunteers can “really make a difference.”

5

During my field research and investigation of these programs, I did not encounter any volunteers from Asia.

6

The names of interview participants whom I communicated with in person and through email correspondence have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

7

Interview with Lauren in Chiang Mai, 10 July 2013.

8

Email communication with Jonathan, 6 June 2013.

9

Interview with Nina in Chiang Mai, 9 July 2013.

10

Interview with Britney in Chiang Mai, 27 May 2013.

11

Email communication with Mike, 3 July 2013.

12

Interview with Kevin in Chiang Mai, 10 July 2013.

13

Email communication with Jonathan, 6 June 2013.

14

Ibid.

15

Email communication with Mike, 3 March 2014.

16

Email communication with Sam, 15 March 2014.

17

Interview with Joanie in Chiang Mai, 10 July 2013.

18

Email communication with Jonathan, 6 June 2013.

19

Kontogeorgopoulos (2014: 247) has found similar discourses among the volunteer tourists he interviewed in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

20

Interview with Joanie in Chiang Mai, 10 July 2013.

References

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  • Wearing, Stephen, Adrian Deville, and Kevin Lyons. 2008. “The Volunteer’s Journey Through Leisure into the Self.” In Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism: International Case Study Perspectives, ed. Kevin D. Lyons and Stephen Wearing, 6371. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI International.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zahra, Anne. 2011. “Volunteer Tourism as a Life Changing Experience.” In Volunteer Tourism: Theoretical Frameworks and Practical Applications, ed. Angela M. Benson, 90101. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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Journeys

The International Journal of Travel and Travel Writing

  • Allon, Fiona, and Maria Koleth. 2014. “Doing Good: Transforming the Self by Transforming the World.” In Travel and Transformation, ed. Garth Lean, Russell Staiff, and Emma Waterton, 1128. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Amanda. 2010. “In Which I Could Be Offended.” Chitarita blog, 23 June. http://chitarita.blogspot.com/2010/06/in-which-i-could-be-offended.html (accessed 15 September 2013).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brady. 2013. “The Gist of It.” Campus Y blog, 25 September. http://campusyblog.web.unc.edu/2013/09/25/9202913-the-gist-of-it/ (accessed 15 February 2015).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bruner, Edward. 1991. “Transformation of Self in Tourism.” Annals of Tourism Research 18 (2): 238250.

  • Butcher, Jim. 2003. The Moralisation of Tourism: Sun, Sand—and Saving the World? London: Routledge.

  • Holland, Patrick, and Graham Huggan. 1998. Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holt, John. 2009. Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

  • Hunaid. 2013. “Two Blissful Months in Thailand.” Wat Doi Saket Project blog, 28 May. https://atmaseva.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/two-blissful-months-in-thailand/ (accessed 30 August 2013).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Iwamura, Jane. 2011. Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Jerryson, Michael K. 2011. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Johnson, Andrew Alan. 2007. “Authenticity, Tourism, and Self-Discovery in Thailand: Self-creation and the Discerning Gaze of Trekkers and Old Hands.” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 22 (2): 153178.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kontogeorgopoulos, Nick. 2014. “The Relationship between Volunteer Tourism and Development in Thailand.” Tourism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 62 (3): 239255.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lepp, Andrew. 2008. “Discovering Self and Discovering Others through the Taita Discovery Centre Volunteer Tourism Programme, Kenya.” In Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism: International Case Study Perspectives, ed. Kevin D. Lyons and Stephen Wearing, 86100. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI International.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mostafanezhad, Mary. 2013. “The Geographies of Compassion in Volunteer Tourism.” Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment 14 (2): 318337.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mostafanezhad, Mary, and Nick Kontogeorgopoulos. 2014. “Contemporary PolicyDebate: Volunteer Tourism Policy in Thailand.” Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure, & Events 6 (3): 264267.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Novelli, Marina, and Anne Tisch-Rottensteiner. 2012. “Authenticity Versus Development: Tourism to the Hill Tribes of Thailand.” In Controversies in Tourism, ed. Omar Moufakkir and Peter M. Burns, 5472. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI International.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Parrenas, RheanaJunoSalazar. 2012. “Producing Affect: Transnational Volunteerism in a Malaysian Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.” American Ethnologist 39 (4): 673687.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schedneck, Brooke. 2015. Thailand’s International Meditation Centers: Tourism and the Global Commodification of Religious Practices. London: Routledge.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Skinner, Jonathan, and Dimitrios Theodossopoulous. 2011. Great Expectations: Imagination and Anticipation in Tourism. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Walter, Pierre G. 2016. “Travelers’ Experiences of Authenticity in ‘Hill Tribe’ Tourism in Northern Thailand.” Tourist Studies 16 (2): 213230. doi:10.1177/1468797615594744.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wearing, Stephen. 2001. Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that Make a Difference. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI International.

  • Wearing, Stephen, Adrian Deville, and Kevin Lyons. 2008. “The Volunteer’s Journey Through Leisure into the Self.” In Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism: International Case Study Perspectives, ed. Kevin D. Lyons and Stephen Wearing, 6371. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI International.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wickens, Eugenia. 2011. “Journeys of the Self: Volunteer Tourists in Nepal.” In Volunteer Tourism: Theoretical Frameworks and Practical Applications, ed. Angela M. Benson, 4252. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Victoria. 2013. “Eat, Pray, Love, Give.” Wat Doi Saket Project blog, 31 July. https://atmaseva.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/eat-pray-love-give/ (accessed 30 August 2013).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zahra, Anne. 2011. “Volunteer Tourism as a Life Changing Experience.” In Volunteer Tourism: Theoretical Frameworks and Practical Applications, ed. Angela M. Benson, 90101. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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