South-East Asia religions: in class with Thai Buddhist monks

Photo by Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash

In academic year 2019/2020, Ca’ Foscari inaugurated the South-East Asia curriculum of the Bachelor's Degree Programme in Language, Culture and Society of Asia and Mediterranean Africa: this course allows students to explore the languages, geopolitics, history, culture and literature of a region that is emerging in the global economy, but is still rooted in its culture. 

One of the courses that the curriculum offers is Religion of Contemporary South-East Asia, held by professor Edoardo Siani. It is in the context of this course that, on 4 November, students had the opportunity to meet two Buddhist monks from the Thai tradition. This tradition, which is based on the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama (“the” Buddha), is thought to be the most ancient Buddhist school among the ones still in existence and is particularly common in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Laos.

"Meet the Buddhist monks of Thailand's forest tradition" was organised with the precious help of Thai language professor Sara Bellettato and was welcomed with great enthusiasm. The meeting started with a formal offering of food to the two guests — a common practice in Buddhist South East Asia, where lay people contribute to supporting monks, whose rules forbid them from buying food. Ca’ Foscari’s students followed this custom with the support of some members of the Italian-Thai community. Each participant poured a spoonful of rice in the monk’s bowl, and the monks thanked everyone with a song. The rice, which was served with typical Thai food, was then redistributed and tasted by all. 

In the classroom, the students spoke with the monks, asking them questions about anthropology and doctrine and listening to their testimony regarding what prompted them to choose a monastic life. The guests were very different in terms of their origins and cultures, although both of them live in the Santacittarama monastery in the province of Rieti (Italy). Thai monk Ajahn Ko Suwacho chose monastic life after the death of a friend, while Italian-Dutch monk Anagarika Luca described how his initial interest in Buddhism led him to choose this path after his graduation in neurobiology. The monks also described their daily routine, focussing on the challenges of adapting to monastic life. 

According to Professor Siani, “The aim of this course is to equip students with the tools they need to study religion in contemporary South-East Asia. Opportunities like this meeting with two monks allow students to develop experiential learning that complements what they do inside the classroom. The offering of food — which might seem extraordinary in a city like Venice — is an opportunity to observe and participate in a practice that is ordinary for countless people in South-East Asia. Moreover, talking with monks allows students to draw closer to doctrinal perspective and to the monk’s background stories: this bridges the gap between the students and the religious culture we talk about in class.” 

The initiative was welcomed with great enthusiasm: this is why Ca’ Foscari’s Department of Asian and North African Studies is planning to continue to organise meetings such as this one, to create opportunities for students to deepen their knowledge of South-East Asia’s cultural roots and traditions. 





Photos by Boonchan Chanloung

Author: Federica Biscardi / Translator: Joangela Ceccon