When I was monk in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I made friends with temple dogs that wandered around my kuti, living quarters. There were three of them: Whitey because he was white; Baller because he liked to play fetch; Bodyguard because he made sure I was safe on my morning walks for food. Greeting these dogs became part of my daily routine, and in the early morning, they waited for my whispered hellos, wagging their tails on the dirty cement, stretching and yawning at first light.
In Thailand, strays wander everywhere—in alleys and sidewalks and sometimes the middle of roads. They belong to no one. They eat scraps. They hunt in fields. They beg for food. Sometimes, they fight each other for morsels. They are dirty with ticks and worms. Some have large battle scars—patches of fur missing, oozing scabs on their sides. At night, they howl one long sad song. Most of them are traditional Thai mutts—broad-chested, sharp-perked ears, the color of stained wood. But sometimes you find smaller ones, the ones that could become food for snakes and other predators.
I never understood how a country devoted to Buddhism could allow such neglect to exist. According to The Five Precepts, weren’t we suppose to love all living things? Wasn’t a dog a living thing?
My mother, since I was young, told me to avert my eyes. Pretend they are not there, she would say. Dogs are different here, she would say. They are not like the ones at your friends’ houses. Here, they are wild. Here, they bite first ask questions later. So look away.
Every time I return to Thailand, I try and try and try. There is only so much the heart can take, however, and eventually, I find myself weeping for the dogs, all the dogs of Thailand, and praying that they’ll have better lives in their next incarnation.
Buddhist temples in Thailand have become a place to abandon dogs. Wat Phra Singh, the monastery I stayed at, was no different. At least thirty dogs lived on the property. Because the monastery occupied nearly a full gated block, the dogs did as they pleased. Coming in out of the temple gates, rolling around in grassy areas, sleeping on the cool marble steps of the temples. They developed a social hierarchy, but always understood that men in orange robes were always the Alpha.
During my three weeks as a monk, someone had left a box of puppies on the temple grounds. “They looked like squiggly fur balls,” my teacher said with a sigh. He housed a Chihuahua that liked to poop in the main temple, chase roaches, and nip at his robes. “Do you want to see them?”
I shook my head.
I did want to see them. I was a dog person and the thought of seeing puppies always made me giddy—their puppy fat, their puppy fur, their puppy sound, their puppy breath. I was practicing to control my emotions, however, to find ways to alleviate anxiousness from daily life, and I knew if I saw the puppies, I would love them immediately, and then I would worry for them, and that worry would keep me up at night, that worry would make me dig at my cuticles until they bled, that worry would make me dream of lonely howling puppies.
“Does this happen often?” I asked.
“What do you do?”
“We do what we can.”
My teacher was a soft-spoken man. He explained to me the hard truth: some dogs lived and some dogs didn’t. This was true with life.
I asked him about euthanizing dogs, the ones that suffered. My aunt in Bangkok took care of a dog that was born without legs. She carried him in and out of the rain, bathed him every day, fed him. The dog suffered, and would cry throughout the day, long mournful wails that broke her heart. When I mentioned putting the dog to sleep, she looked at me as if I had said the most preposterous of things.
My teacher was kinder. A Buddhist shouldn’t kill, no matter how noble, he told me. All living things were born to understand their own suffering. This logic didn’t sit well with me. But the truth was hard. Outside the confines of temple were not only suffering dogs, but suffering people, suffering children.
At the temple, the monks would take care of the puppies, would feed them, pet them, name them, knowing that one could be lost the next day. But here, they were loved. Here, their existence mattered.
On my last morning as a monk, I woke early and sat with my three dog friends. I talked to them. I thanked them for their companionship. I patted them gently, tapping their heads with my knuckles, the way other monks did. I wished them the best.
Bodyguard led me to the temple, trotting with his tail up, looking in both directions. After the ceremony, when I became a man again and emerged out of the temple in shorts and a T-shirt, Bodyguard was nowhere in sight. Instead, he and my other canine friends during those three weeks lounged in the hot sun, their paws touching like the tips of Buddha’s meditating fingers.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com), and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. For more information about him, please visit: www.sukrungruang.com.