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Life of a Teenage Dai Monk

"To be a monk student, you cannot smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, stay out late or play billiards outside," said the 17-year-old sweeping the Buddhist temple courtyard planted with talipot palms, bodhis and other tropical and subtropical trees, "Otherwise you will be fined 100 yuan (US$12)."

The temple that Ai Handi lives in is located in Jinghong, capital of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China's Yunnan Province. More than one third of Xishuangbanna's population are Dais, who are Theravada Buddhists.

Generally, young boys at Ai's age are sent to temples to learn to read and write, so the temples are both home and school to them.

Buddhism, founded in India in the sixth century BC, later divided into Mahayana and Theravada (known to Mahayana Buddhists as Hinayana) forms. The Dai people set the year Theravada Buddhism was introduced from Myanmar to Xishuangbanna, AD 639, as their year zero.

Their religion calls on all Dai men to become Buddhist priests at some point in their lives. "During childhood, we have to leave our homes and spend a couple of years in the temple, but the girls don't have to be nuns," Ai said, adding, "Only those who are or have been monks are regarded as literate and respected in society."

Altogether, 40 student monks are studying in Ai's temple, which is supported by the government and local people. "The oldest student is 21 and the youngest 15," said the boy.

Before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, boys were sent to Buddhist temples at the age of eight or nine. Due to compulsory education in recent years, the prefecture has stipulated that children are entitled to become monks only after finishing primary school, so "it's rare to see little monks in temples nowadays," according to Ai.

The priests are divided into several grades according to age and learning, including Panong, Du and
Huba. The rules have been assimilated into Dai culture and are pretty flexible. They allow monks to eat meat, participate in sports and entertainment activities, be monks for a lifetime or return to secular life and get married at any time they want to.

But the life of the Dai monk students is busy and they have to do all kinds of hard work in the temple. Besides Chinese and English, they learn subject such as the Dai language and Buddhist scriptures that other children don't have to.

"We get up at 5 AM to chant scriptures, then eat breakfast and clean the temple. We are given lessons in the Normal Technology College of the prefecture, having some 20 courses in all, four classes in the morning and two in the afternoon. Usually, after our studies at night, it's already 11 PM," Ai said, counting on his fingers. He said his most precious time of the day is the afternoon when class is over and he can play basketball with other kids.

For his future, Ai said he wants to advance to Du then resume to a secular life because "when a monk is promoted to the level of Huba, he can hardly go back to being an ordinary person, so most people choose to have their own families and careers after being a Du."

(China.org.cn by staff reporter Li Xiao, May 12, 2005)

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