PERSPECTIVE: In 2008 Phra Goh was ordained in the Theravada tradition. At the age of 23 he became the youngest Singaporean monk.
Having been a monk for the past 13 years, the 36-year-old reflects on this monumental life decision, the numerous rules by which he lives and why he has never regretted choosing this path over the secular life.
As Tanya Ong says
In 2008, I was ordained a monk in Malaysia at the age of 23. That was after I finished my national service.
I am the youngest Singaporean monk. Most of the monks in Singapore are over 40 years old.
(How did you get ordained in Malaysia?)
After all the overseas retreats that I had been through, I found that there were many visas and administrative problems to become a monk overseas. I decided to go to a local monastery to be ordained.
When I visited Wat Palelai, the monk told me to go to an attached temple in Johor, as Wat Palelai did not have an ordination hall at that time (it was only built in 2017).
After training in Thailand for some time, I returned to Singapore.
Phra Goh currently lives in Wat Palelai. Photo by Tanya Ong.
What is your daily routine as a monk?
5 am: Wake up
6 o’clock in the morning; Morning singing
6.30 a.m.: breakfast
(What happens at breakfast?) For breakfast we have volunteers who prepare a simple meal for the monks, usually porridge and some dishes.
7 a.m. or so: Surface cleaning
8:15 o’clock: Alms around
There are some designated places, usually coffee shops or hawker centers, that we have been visiting for over 10 years so that regular followers will know about them and will be waiting for us there every day.
It’s a different place every day. What happened, we just go to the place and wait outside. There is a group of volunteers who help us carry the food.
Like me, the monks will have lunch around 10:45 or 11:00.
(You don’t eat after lunch?) Our rule is to only eat until noon.
In the afternoon we have our own free time. Different monks will do different things, such as their own practice, reading, or research.
But at 6 p.m. there is the evening singing.
There is no set time for me to go to bed here. Personally, I sleep around 11 p.m. every night.
(Are you allowed to leave the temple grounds for other purposes?) Yes, sometimes we may be invited to give lectures outside. We can also go for a walk or be examined.
Photo by Tanya Ong.
What was the hardest thing you had to adapt to?
Since the transition was new, the transition felt very uncomfortable at first.
We don’t call it “begging”, we call it “waiting for alms” because we are not supposed to speak and people would only give us food. It feels very weird because we’re used to buying our own food all the time. This time we depend on getting food.
(Have you ever doubted your decision to become a monk?) I was young when I became a monk, so I didn’t have to give up much. In addition, this spiritual life is more fruitful for me.
I have never regretted this decision.
With other newly ordained monks. Photo courtesy of respondent.
When did you decide to become a monk? Can you share the thought process behind your decision?
During my childhood, my parents went through a period of separation before they divorced. The breakup made my father more spiritual and he participated in spiritual activities including meditation workshops and obtaining Buddhist books from different temples.
In elementary school I thought, when I get older, maybe I can become a monk.
I was a high performing student in secondary school. Then (due to these family issues) my grades fell because I couldn’t focus on school. I woke up and wondered why that was. I also began to question what real success and happiness are.
My father was a businessman and almost went bankrupt because of the economic crisis. This also made me realize that the monetary aspect of life can be so volatile. My parents’ relationship broke down too, which let me see how ephemeral everything can be.
At a music performance for Buddhist events before he was ordained. Photo courtesy of respondent.
And you felt that choosing this path to become a monk would bring you luck?
Not exactly. I wanted to consider alternatives in terms of options in life other than the “normal” paths, like a “successful” career.
How did your parents react after you told them you wanted to become a monk?
After graduating from high school, I told my parents about my plans to become a monk.
My father was all right, but my mother hesitated, so it took me several years, through my polytechnic years and even up to my sophomore year of community service, to try to convince her before she finally agreed.
What made you so confident that you could commit yourself to it?
In my days in Section 3 or Section 4, I was introduced to some meditation classes, so I was quite inspired and benefited a lot from them. I tried to practice every day and got more and more interested. After the O levels, I went to meditation retreats, which could include spending about two or three weeks in a temple. I’ve done at least one every year.
It was then that I discovered that it was a very peaceful life, and I wanted to follow that way of life.
On a meditation retreat. Photo courtesy of respondent.
(But going through the retreat as a lay person is surely different from living as a monk?) Yes, for a layperson they would not know the monastic perspective.
Tell us more about what this “monastic perspective” is about. What was the process of becoming a monk like?
After I was ordained, I completed a five-year apprenticeship as a monk. During this time we should learn from our teacher.
Ordination ceremony on a raft. Photo courtesy of respondent.
There are rules that we had to learn and follow.
There are five principles for a layperson: to avoid, kill, steal, commit sexual misconduct, tell lies, and get intoxicated with beverages and drugs.
For a person who wishes to stay in a monastery during a retreat, this can be expanded to include a few more rules, including not having afternoon meals and no entertainment.
There are also monastic rules for monks. An important point is not to accept any money. Other rules are sub-categories of the eight, and there are different categories of consequences depending on the seriousness of the crime.
They are undressed for very serious crimes. Slightly less serious crimes may require rehabilitation that temporarily removes monk status.
What happened to all of your money when you became a monk? What if you have to pay for services like a doctor’s visit?
Monks are not supposed to have any money. Before I ordained, I gave my father my bank account book and card. He basically has all the money (laughs).
If we need to undergo a medical examination now, the temple staff will make arrangements for us. Or if we see a family doctor, for example, they can come with us and pay in cash.
There is a monastery fund that we can generally use for four things: clothing, food, shelter (anything related to the maintenance of this temple), and medicine. The money comes from the donations of the devotees.
(So you don’t have any personal items? What about the phone you use to contact me?) My phone was given to me by my mother.
For basic needs like toiletries, these are usually bought for us by the temple.
(What kind of things are you allowed to accept / keep?) At first I didn’t have a phone, but it was inconvenient to get in touch with me when, for example, people wanted to invite me to talk. We need to think about whether it is useful for the spiritual life.
Let’s assume someone wants to offer me something, let’s say a Mercedes Benz, then definitely no (hahaha).
Photo courtesy of respondent.
How often do you keep in touch with your friends and family?
We will meet occasionally when there is a function. For example, my friends might invite me to their wedding when they get married.
Some of them could be actively involved in Buddhist organizations, so they could invite me to give lectures and the like.
For my parents – my mother – she will visit me every week. She’s coming during our lunch break and will bring me some food.
I usually meet my brother over the Chinese New Year.
What kind of growth do you hope to see in yourself over time, and how do you think it relates to conventional notions of “success” in Singapore?
Meanwhile, I think my progress has been pretty consistent. Of course everyone has their own expectations of how they want to be, but I would say [for me]It is still a work in progress.
There are people who want to perform very well in terms of KPIs, for example. They may be top earners, but they are still full of greed and anger.
They could pursue everything in their material wealth and due to the lack of a foundation of spirituality when they are older they start to ask: what is the meaning of life?
Then the other extreme is like for us as monks. We lead a religious life and just ignore the material aspects.
Sure [for a layperson]they can continue their career and be “successful” and not neglect spiritual growth. However, it can be very difficult to juggle both sides.
Photo by Tanya Ong.
(So you believe that the best way for your spiritual growth is to become a monk?) At the time, that was my calling.
So if someone asked you, “What do you think is the meaning of life?” Do you have an answer to that?
This is a very deep question. In fact, I think it’s a trick question. Let’s say I adopt Buddhist philosophy, then everything in life is an illusion.
The whole idea is that whatever we do, we can reduce greed and hatred and promote goodness. That would be of real value so it doesn’t matter what you do in life as long as you have all of these.
Top photo of mothership. Quotations have been edited for grammar and clarity reasons.