August 14, 1996

Teen Gives Up Material Things For Ascetic Life Of A Monk

Darith Keo Scripps-Mcclatchy

Like other American teenage boys, Phet Srimoukda loves sports, baggy clothes, Nike shoes and girls.

This summer, he decided to give all that up.

At his father’s request, the 16-year-old Laotian-American left his family in west Modesto on June 30 to live at a Buddhist temple as a monk for about a month.

And he has plenty of company.

More than a dozen Laotian-American boys, most of whom are from Modesto, also have chosen to spend part of their summer at Wat Lao Buddharangsy, the Buddhist temple in Ceres.

The boys are trained by the half-dozen adult monks. The junior monks - as they are called by their mentors and other Buddhists - also are taught the language and culture of Laos.

“It’s a peaceful life, a simple life,” said Phet, who expects to leave the temple before the end of this month to get ready to return to Modesto High School as a sophomore. “I like it.”

Why do these boys choose to become monks? The common threads include:

Desire to learn about Buddhism.

To become a better person.

To honor their parents.

Phet, the fourth of 11 children, said his reason was slightly different from his colleagues. He elected to join monkhood because his father told him that that was the only way his mother, whose spirit was wandering, could be set free.

He thinks his father also had another reason.

“To keep me off the streets,” he said.

So far, Phet said, it’s been working. Life in the temple is harder and more structured. But there are certain things about temple life that he “kind of” likes, like being worshiped by Buddhists visiting the temple.

But Phet has paid a price to earn such status.

Before he received his title as a junior monk, Phet was required to go through an all-day initiation ceremony.

During this ceremony, he had to renounce all his personal belongings - Izod shirts, baggy Code Zero jeans, boxers, Nike Flight basketball shoes - and all his attachments to his family and friends. (They’re allowed to visit, but forbidden to touch.)

He had to let a Buddhist priest shave his head. Phet said he “really misses” his long hair.

In exchange for his baggy clothes and athletic shoes, he put on orange, yellow and brown garments provided by the temple. These cotton and silk garments don’t make any fashion statements. They’re made simply to cover a monk’s body.

In place of his Nikes, he was given a pair of rubber thongs.

The ceremony ended when Phet took the oath of a holy person. This meant that he pledged to be caring, nonjudgmental and celibate.

Phet said that being a monk is not so bad. Each day he knows exactly what to do.

But he doesn’t believe that becoming a monk has changed him much. He said he can’t wait to free himself from the monk garments, whose style dates back hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, and slip back in his Izod shirts and baggy pants and let his hair grow long again.

Furiously shaking his head, Phet said with a grin, “No, I’ll never cut my bangs again.”

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