Buddhas and Barbells
About a month and a half ago I went on a trip to Thailand. One of the things that I was stubbornly insistent on doing was going to a monk chat. There are temples scattered throughout one of the cities we were in, called Chiang Mai, and at these temples some of the monks take an hour out of their day to talk to foreigners. It gives them a chance to teach people about their culture and learn about how other people live.
I wanted to learn more about Buddhism because it seems interesting to me and I felt like we were getting a watered-down version of it in the Western world. It seemed to me that Buddhists were people who shopped at Whole Foods, did yoga, and said “namaste” a lot. I also thought that one of the main focuses of Buddhism was meditation, which was just as misguided.
I dragged one of my friends through the hot, stinky, and narrow streets of Chiang Mai to one of the most famous temples in the city, Wat Chedi Luang. We wandered around the temple grounds searching for the monk chat when we finally saw the huge yellow sign that read in clear English “MONK CHAT.”
We walked into the tent and were immediately greeted by a monk. In Thailand, all the monks are male. They have short haircuts and wear orange robes that are draped over their left shoulder. The monk that greeted us led us to a table and we sat down. He introduced us to his friend, who did not seem very excited to chat.
I noticed that the monks looked young and asked them their age. Both were 23. I was relieved because that meant I could ask more...umm…progressive questions. We started by talking about girls. Apparently, a monk can have a girlfriend, they just must leave the temple while they are dating. If they want to come back to the temple, they just ditch their girlfriend and come back.
Now we were starting to get more comfortable with the monks and both were engaged in the conversation. I decided to test out some of the other myths that Westerners have about Buddhism. So, I asked, “do you guys meditate a lot?”
The friendlier monk answered “maybe a few minutes a day. We’re pretty busy.”
I had to chuckle at the answer. I had always pictured a bunch of monks sitting in a temple on the top of a mountain meditating the days away searching for inner peace. As it turns out, meditation is low on their list of priorities.
The less talkative, more intense monk decided to jump into the conversation. “Buddhism is more about how you live your life. Meditation is just a way to calm the mind.”
“OK, so how are you supposed to live your life?” I asked.
“Buddhism basically means…be a good person.” He answered and nodded his head, content with his answer.
I paused for a second and waited for him to continue. He didn’t, so I asked: “so, how do you define a good person?”
“In Buddhism, we have five precepts. No killing, no stealing, no lying, no intoxication, and no sexual misconduct.” The other monk nodded his agreement.
However, I wasn’t happy with his answer. I felt like there was something beneath the surface, another myth that I had to bust about my perception of Buddhism. So, I asked “what if you break one of these precepts.”
The more intense monk was now getting into the conversation and decided to take the answer.
“We have laws in Buddhism about the way you are supposed to act. There are over 40,000 of them. I will probably never learn all of them in my life, so I learn a few and follow them. We know we won’t be perfect, so we follow as many laws as we can. There are five precepts, but sometimes I can’t follow all five. So, I do the best I can. Some days I can only follow four, but that’s OK. In Buddhism, there is no perfect.”
Now I finally felt like I was getting to the core of the conversation. I sat silently and waited for him to continue his passionate explanation of Buddhism. He told us about how he used to be a Muay Thai fighter and drug user. He found the temple in his teenage years and became a monk. He reminded us that he could leave whenever he wants, but much preferred his life now.
He also talked about how monks avoid attachment to things like how they look, so they all wear roughly the same clothes and wear their hair the same way. He also talked about how they’re not supposed to work out if it’s for the sake of appearance, only to get a job done or release energy.
He wrapped up his speech by giving me two more rules. “Imperfect is perfect, and impermanence is permanent.”
To me, this one line summed up everything that intrigues me about Buddhism. And, being a fitness nerd, I immediately related it back to fitness in my head.
The more time I spend in the fitness industry, the more hostile it seems. People have opinions and fitness systems that make you feel like you’re wrong if you do something different. They’ll make you feel like you must eat or workout a certain way and that if you don’t you’re wrong.
I didn’t know it before I spoke to those monks, but I have a Buddhist approach to all this fitness stuff.
In Buddhism, you come and go as you please. If you want to improve your life and Buddhism is attractive to you then you just do it. You try your best to follow the guidelines and you put them into practice every day as best you can. However, if you can’t follow a guideline one day you’re not out of the club. You just wake up the next day and try to do better.
Once you take away that crushing fear of failure and the guilt that comes with violating rules, you make room for change and growth. Instead of living your life as a better person because you’re afraid of punishment that comes from breaking rules, you live your life as a better person because you genuinely want to. Buddhism isn’t forced.
I’ve taken the same approach to fitness in my own life. I’ve done some crazy diets and lifted weights until I hurt myself. None of that made me feel good or made me happy.
At the end of the day, fitness is something that should make you feel better. If it doesn’t, then you’re probably going about it wrong. You’re not going to have much fun if you feel like you must eat a certain way, work out a certain way, and look a certain way.
I sustained a back injury over two years ago that I’m still recovering from. After the injury, I lost a lot of strength and muscle. I had grown attached to my larger and stronger self. I felt like I was less powerful and attractive because I couldn’t lift as much weight. It wasn’t until I started to slowly change my workouts and find things that I enjoyed that I realized I had been unhappy with fitness. The less I cared about how I looked or how much weight I could lift the more I enjoyed myself at the gym.
As I found out from my injury, things don’t always go the way we plan. However, if we can get over the idea of who we used to be and get used to the idea of who we are we can move past all of our little attachments. Part of that is saying “screw the rules” and simply doing the best you can every day. The other part is simply forgiving yourself for not being perfect.