To meet a Buddhist monk is to be confronted by someone who's chosen a path that invariably makes you feel uncomfortably self-absorbed. As UK-born Phra Peter Pannapadipo - who was given pause for thought when his wealthy older brother died at 42 - puts it: "Often, fulfilling our desires is simply laying a veneer over an underlying unhappiness and dissatisfaction."
Pannapadipo's interest in Buddhism began on a visit to Thailand and came to Efruition when he returned there to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. An English Monk in Thailand describes the process, and how he began to be torn between his meditation and study and a desire to teach and to help students. This dilemma led him to leave the monastery and set up the Students Education Trust for novice monks who want to continue their education.
Little Angels is his second book, about the lives of these young monks (nearly 100,000 of them in Thailand, across 30,000 monasteries, most aged between 15 and 20). The number is increasing all the time: not, Pannapadipo points out, because adolescents are becoming more religious, but because the monastic life offers food, shelter and education. Many novices have little sense of vocation; some have been put into the monastery by parents who couldn't feed them. Even so, the author tells us, the boys rarely regret their time there.
Pannapadipo presents us with the stories of 12 novices in their own words, drawn out by means of a long questionnaire. Unsurprisingly, most of these young men struggled with the various rules by which they had to live. Many leave their robes behind when they're old enough to cash in the care and education they've had, but a few discover that they've found their place.
Novice Banchar, for example, become a monk to escape an abusive uncle. When his sister found him, there was a joyful reunion and she wanted Banchur to join her and her husband. But he feels called to stay in a monastery working with destitute children in Bangkok. "Life has taught me about Dukkha - suffering - but the Buddha has taught me love and compassion and how to overcome suffering. That's something I think I can pass on."
These are readable books offering insights into an area where real life is much more interesting than the stereotype.