FANG, Thailand — Two freshly shaved white guys, scalps an uncommon pink, mill about the Sri Boen Ruang temple’s courtyard.
The duo mingles with a flock of orange-robed novice monks, busy sweeping the plaza with straw brooms. Like the resident “naehns” — or child monks — these grown, pale-skinned, monks-in-training rise before dawn for alms runs and devote hours to quiet meditation.
But in a twist that would startle most Buddhists, both men paid $700 to become apprentices here through a charity called “Monk for a Month” that attracts Buddhism-curious foreigners via Facebook.
In Thailand, which is about 95 percent Buddhist, meditation centers and various Buddhism-themed tour packages abound. But there is nothing quite like “Monk for a Month.”
Though it offers non-Thais unfiltered access to Thai temple life, it is criticized as spirituality-for-pay — a practice some compare to charging tickets to church.
“We’re aware that combining commerce and spirituality is a bit of a tinderbox,” said Ben Bowler, the 35-year-old Australian creator of “Monk for a Month.” “I’m prepared for all the question marks.”
In Thailand, gilded Buddhist temples are found crammed between deluxe shopping malls, tucked into quiet neighborhoods and gleaming on emerald mountainsides. Ostensibly, any man can enter any temple’s gates and — after swearing off sex, intoxicants, materialism and more — live on temple grounds and begin the path to monkhood.
For Thai men, it’s a rite of passage that lasts as little as one week or as long as a lifetime. Bowler, who runs a small non-governmental organization near the Thai-Burma border, now wants to offer the experience to foreigners. For a fee.
“Look, you wouldn’t climb Mount Everest without a tour guide,” Bowler said. “This isn’t easy. It isn’t pre-packaged for foreigners, like a human zoo.”
Erik Jorgensen, a 27-year-old recent monk-in-training from Los Angeles, was looking for a place that wouldn’t just “drop me off in a golden room and say 'meditate.'"
Seeking an escape from his hectic job, which involves faring the seas to lay underwater fiber-optic cables, Jorgensen discovered “Monk for a Month.” Days after arriving, his hair and eyebrows were razored off, leaving wet clumps clinging to his shoulders.
“This is more genuine. There’s a non-appetite driven life at this temple. You don’t look at girls. You don’t drink or smoke. Everything that equates to ‘vacation’ in the west, you can’t do it here,” he said.
The temple, located in a verdant northern Thai valley, is also a de facto orphanage for neglected boys. Its head abbot, Phra Aphisit Pingchaiyawat, views the project as a way to expose his young flock to foreigners, who are expected to help teach English on the side. These skills, the abbot said, can unlock opportunities for his novice monks.
“Honestly, I don’t pay attention to the money that’s made,” Phra Aphisit said. “I only care about the benefits to the novice monks and the community.”
After successfully pitching to the abbot, “there was just a question of how to market it,” Bowler said. With about $1,500 set aside for advertising, he started with the obvious: posting fliers, contacting the STA travel agency, which is popular with backpackers, and launching a website, monkforamonth.com.
Then he moved on to Facebook, creating a “Month for a Monk” page and user-targeted Facebook ads. (For every ad click, Bowler is charged 10 cents.) About 80 to 90 percent of the participants find the program through Facebook, Bowler said.
But the “Monk for a Month” Facebook page, while attracting would-be monks, has also put his endeavor on the defensive.
Some have called “Monk for a Month” misguided, Disney-like and just plain crude. Buddhist monks are expected to distance themselves from commercialism and even refrain from handling cash. “You can explain what you’re trying to do as much as you like,” posted Kirk Gillock, listed as founder of Isara Charity, also located in Thailand. “But the fact is, you’re exploiting a religion.”
Bowler insists that he is hardly raking in tons of cash. He admits the project “has begun on a commercial footing.” But he distinguishes selling spirituality from selling English-language guidance into a world most westerners will never see.
The $700 price — equal to the average monthly salary for a Thai — is mostly funneled to The Blood Foundation, an NGO that he runs with his wife, Jildou Brower. They freely admit that “Monk for a Month” is in large part a fundraiser for their true passion: aiding ethnic Shan refugees scraping by in Burma and Thailand.
After paying for a month’s worth of food and supplies, and the salary for an English teacher at the temple, Bowler says $250 is left over from each client.
Since the project’s inception last year, he has attracted nearly 40 participants, including an Australian grocery store employee, a nerve-shot U.S. aid worker fresh out of Afghanistan and a Swiss man hoping the temple life will help him quit cigarettes. Most achieve the “novice monk” ranking without becoming fully ordained.
“Even though I don’t know how to look at the Internet, I support it, no matter how it’s advertised,” Phra Aphisit said. “Consider my novice monks. At first, they wouldn’t even talk to foreigners. They didn’t know how to act. Not anymore.”
The project survives with the abbot’s grace, Bowler said. “If the day comes where he doesn’t want it, it’s gone.”
Seemingly unrattled by controversy, he is considering yet another spirituality-meets-commerce endeavor.
“I’d love to start ‘Muslim for a Month’ in Malaysia,” he said. “We’re looking for a good imam.”
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