Time In Buddhist Monastery Shaped ISU Professor's Life

Oct 19, 2016

ISU Professor Pruthikrai (Winn) Mahatanankoon said he cherishes his time spent time in a Buddhist Monastery in Thailand.

Mindfulness, meditation, non-violence, non-attachment. These are all key practices of Buddhism.

In fact, Buddhism has been described as a practice rather than a religion.

In Bloomington- Normal, there are are not Buddhist temples where people can go to practice their faith in community. But individuals manage to practice the principles of the faith on their own, said Illinois State University Professor Pruthikrai Mahatanankoon.

Mahatanankoon, who is also known by the first name "Winn," teaches  information systems, and computer analysis design as part of the school of information technology at ISU. But like many young men born in Thailand, Mahatanankoon spent time as a Buddhist monk.

It was an experience he says shaped the rest of his life.

'In a Buddhist country like Thailand, being a monk, even for a brief moment, is considerid a rite of passage," Mahatanankoon said on GLT's "Sound Ideas."

"It is a cultural tradition for most men ...Once you go through this ordination, you become more aware of yourself, the people around you and more educated about life."

In Thailand in the past, the education system centered around the religious temples, and many families sent their sons to be educated. Monks are still considered surrogate parents, Mahatanankoon said. Still today, families with fewer means will send their children to the monks to be educated in the temple.  

Mahatanankoon was 25 when he entered a monastery and spent only a short time as a monk, but said it had a profound effect on him. 

The monks woke before sunrise and were required to follow hundreds of precepts.

"There were many rules on how to behave, on how we walk, we could not run, rules even on how to use the bathroom," he said. (Sitting rather than standing for bathroom use is the norm because of the robes male monks wear).

One of the most memorable experiences was the process leading to his entry as a monk.

"Before you become a monk, you ask your parents, grandparents, and any close relatives for forgiveness of any wrong-doing that you have done in the past, (whether) physically, mentally, even thinking about it. And you thank them for everything they have done for you and you confess many personal things," he said.

Relatives do the same as well for the person becoming a monk, and it is all done face to face.

"Its a very emotional stage for most people." Mahatanankoon said. 

The process of "letting go of the ego" was another life-changing experience.

"In the ordination process, you are creating a new persona," he explained. The shaved my head, even my eyebrows, and you are given a new name. that resembles no other name."

Mahatanankoon said he was given a religious name in Thai meant, "light of wisdom."

He is still moved to tears by memories of the respect his elders and his peers showed to him when he was a monk. He said it placed great responsibility on him to live what he calls "a virtuous life."

Strangers would sometimes bow to him in the street. "They would sometimes down to the floor, It changes you in a way where you have to be good in order for them to do that to you. It's not about you anymore, but about your relationship to others," he said.

He tearfully recalled an elderly woman who was living in a hut, but still insisted on giving him food. "I knew there was no way for her to (afford to) give me food, but she tried to do her best. If I were not a monk, would say your should keep this food for yourself, but I could not refuse as a monk."

The only thing the woman wanted in return, Mahatanankoon said, was his blessing.

"It's still kind of emotional for me," he added. "It changed you as a person and allowed you to give more, if she could give something like this, why can't I give to others as well?'

There is not requirement to remain a monk for a lifetime in Buddhism as there is in Christianity.

Mahatanankoon said it was always his intention to eventually leave monastic life and resume his studies in the U.S. He wanted to marry, he says, and calls marriage another kind of vocation. He and his wife have  two small children.

He said he would not have traded his time with monks.

"The purpose of Buddhism to understand yourself and to learn to let go," Mahatanankoon said. "We don;'t consider Buddha as God. He is a human being who found a way to make us live in a more happy way." 

His definitions of enlightenment is a simple one. He said it is a matter of "knowing who you are, recognizing pain and knowing how to deal with pain in a more effective way, then then let it go." 

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