by Andrew Biggs
I once was special guest on a kids TV show where my task was to explain the story of Father Christmas.
My audience, on the set, was a dozen six-year-old Thai kids. I did a good job. I built up the story well, starting with Santa’s factory in the North Pole, and climaxing with him coming down the chimney and leaving gifts under the tree.
That bunch of kids was transfixed. Especially one little boy, who kept drawing closer and closer. By the time I got to the chimney part, he was standing right next to me, wide-eyed, staring at my mouth.
“And that’s the story of Santa Claus,” I concluded. “Do you have any questions?”
The little boy next to me shot up his hand.
“Why are your teeth so yellow?” he asked.
Never work with children or animals goes the old adage in the TV industry. I can see what they mean, but I don’t agree with it. I can’t imagine anything more fun than working with kids on TV.
It is not often your favorite columnist is ripped out of his daily hectic Bangkok life and hurled towards a forest temple in the middle of nowhere.
But that is what happened to me this week. And as I write this column, I am sitting in a dense forest just outside a structure known as the “Pavilion of Knowledge”, having just completed my evening task of mentoring.
It is here a group of 12 boys aged 8-11 years have come from all over the world to be novice monks for the month of July. Their ordination service is today, but I am writing this on Wednesday night, sitting outside, trying to to remain in a meditative state, but being tested by a swarm of menacing oversized mosquitoes. Buddhist Precept Number One states it is a sin to kill. The mosquitoes are thus spared. Begrudgingly.
It’s not just me and the kids who are here. There is the small matter of 20 cameras and 200 staff surrounding us.
You see, it’s a reality show, live and being beamed across the country and the globe.
Like you, I have only seen reality shows consisting of young people, whose gene pool has sacrificed wisdom for physical attraction, wander around pools in skimpy outfits, either back-stabbing or fornicating, or both at the same time. In hundreds of years, when they study the downfall of human society, they will find a correlation between these shows and social decay in the early 21st century.
It took Thailand to cut a swathe through the detritus of the reality show industry and come up with an ingenious idea. And in many ways, it was an idea that was staring them in the face.
Take 12 kids, have them ordain as novice monks in a temple, and follow their spiritual journey.
That has been the idea for an annual reality show called True Little Monks on the True cable channels 60 and 99. It has been a big hit locally for seven years now and has picked up numerous awards.
Then this year, they decided the children would not be Thais. They would be foreigners, and the show would be in English.
Thus 12 amazing little boys were selected from a field of 500 candidates. There is a British boy as well as Australian, Kenyan, French, New Zealander, Nepalese, Portuguese and Chinese representatives.
Last week they were bundled off to a temple called Wat Pa Sai Ngam in Ubon Ratchathani, 613 km to the northeast, not far from where Thailand, Laos and Cambodia converge, which is where I am sitting now swatting the mosquitos.
It’s a meditation temple surrounded by giant boulders stacked on top of one another. As a result, there is almost a Jurassic Park feel to the place.
Right in the middle is the very serene Pavilion of Learning, bathed in foliage, and it is here the 12 boys gathered, starting last Monday, on their spiritual journey.
For one week they learn how to be a monk. Then today, they shave their heads, don saffron robes, and become monks throughout July.
I am on the show as well. My official title is spiritual mentor, and by god if you spit out your coffee like that one more I swear I’ll end this column right here and now.
My task is to guide these young people along the correct path. Each night I spend an hour with them asking about what they learned. It is very intimate; just me and the kids … and 20 cameras, glaring studio lights, and 200 staff running around holding up whiteboards reading WRAP IT UP – FIVE MINUTES.
For the past week the boys have learned about the Five Buddhist Precepts, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path to Happiness. They have learned how to “wai” to monks and Buddha images. They have been taught how to walk while meditating.
It goes without saying that their so-called mentor is as much a student as they are. And yet for all that spirituality, they are still little boys full of energy and often forgetting they should be well-behaved. But that is what is refreshing about this experience. They may end up little monks, but for now they are little monkeys.
When I first get to meet them, they are excited to tell me, live on camera, that my name is “Werdna”. I thought it was Pali Sanskrit. Wrong.
They have decided to call each other by their names spelt backwards. Thus, little “Bin Bin” is now “Nib Nib”, and I seize on that opportunity to teach them that a “nib” is a tip of a pen.
Attempting to pull the conversation back to more ethereal matters, I ask them: “So tell me, children, how do you feel about being here in this temple, about to embark on a wondrous journey?”
In unison: “HUNGRY!!!!!”
They are unable to eat after 12 noon, and my session is at 8 pm. This aspect of being a monk, along with daily waking at 4 am, is the mostchallenging.
“What do you think you’ll do after you leave the temple?” I ask. I want them to talk about spreading the word, but instead one of them shoot his hand up and says: “I’m gonna sleep in till 10 am, and eat as much as I possibly can whenever I like!”
There are problems, too, with sitting in the lotus position for extended times, and early meditation efforts result in occasional yawns and lapses into sleep. I’m talking about myself, dear reader. Sometimes the kids.
Meanwhile Jaydet from Australia is breaking out in a heat rash and requires a clandestine hospital visit. Ar-tee, one of the quieter boys, is feeling homesick. Little Put, 11 years old, reads fantasy novels for fun. When the other boys have their nap time at midday, he reads. This latest one, a Magnus Chase fantasy novel at 520 pages, is the third in a series. He explains in great detail the synopsis, and I nod my head sagely as mentors are supposed to do, hoping he doesn’t notice the story goes over my head. But how refreshing to see kids engrossed in books.
Tonight’s mentoring session ends by my asking each of them: “Tell me the one important thing you learned today.” The first answer is: “I learned that a nib is the end of a pen.” Not exactly the answer I was looking for.
Wrapping it up, I ask the all-important question: “Children. You’ve learned so much these past few. Are you ready to become little monks?”
I fully expect a joyous affirmation drowned out by the title music and final credits of that day’s broadcast.
Instead they blurt out in unison: “Nooooooooooo!”
Never work with kids or animals? Getouttahere!