When most people hear the word “monk,” what appears before them is a stereotypical image of a person with a shaved head, isolated from the world in a remote temple living a life of sacrifice and abstinence. A daily ritual that starts well before dawn, invoking washing in cold water with only a bowl of rice to eat, and endless hours of chanting and rigorous cleansing.
These stereotypes are shattered by American photographer Enoch Contreras’s portrait project <Seeking Sacred>. I can tell that these young monks living in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat seem to be no big different from your common urban youth. Some of them have tattoos; some smoke; they don’t mind wearing chic sunglasses to show off how hip they are. It’s also common for them to use Facebook and other social media during their free time.
The impact of globalization and the Internet seems to be reaching every corner of the world, even temples that were thought to have abandoned secular lifestyles.
I used to take a week-long meditation class in a temple in Thailand. It is not a new thing for temples to take in participants through the internet. Our young and wise abbot told us that in addition to teaching courses in temples, he also offers courses over Skype video call. I assume that if I pitch to him about livestreaming his course for all the meditation enthusiasts worldwide, he wouldn’t say no. When we asked him why his English was so good, he told us he self taught through online courses. This seems to form a positive reciprocal cycle —— the Internet teaches monks English, and monks can spread the Dharma to more people in the world.
In the age of the Internet, young monks seem to have more opportunities to be themselves. Back over at the small Cambodian temple where Contreras’ subjects were found: “when there were no tourists around, the young monks would tease and play pranks on one another. They were gritty and playful, yet balanced by their beliefs.” After becoming friendly with this group of monks, Enoch Contreras ended up staying with them and following their daily routine
“I wanted to show that, despite their decision to walk the path of Dharma, they were still holding on to who they were before they became devoted.” Enoch says.
After all, the first step to letting go of one’s ego is to identify the ego itself.