Coffee and Religious Dialogue


I met Tha the second week we were in Phayao. I saw a sign for a coffee shop (and, as you know, finding coffee shops was priority #1 in those first few weeks), so I stopped in to check things out. Immediately I knew I would be frequenting this establishment quite a bit because of the huge air conditioning unit I saw above the front door. (At the time, it was one of two coffee shops in Phayao that had A/C. There are now four. We’re moving up in the world.) I also noticed something else very unique about this shop. High up on the main wall inside was a large picture of the Dalai Lama. This is not normal in Thailand. (The majority of Thai Buddhists belongs to the branch of Buddhism called Theravada, thus Thais don’t typically honor him in this way.) I then scanned the multitude of books displayed on the other wall. These were not your typical books. I could tell from the titles that the subjects ranged from Buddhist philosophy, to environmentalism, to the legacy of Gandhi. I knew I was going to like this place.

This particular coffee shop is run by a nice woman and her son Tha. After a few more visits, I asked them about the books and the other interesting displays around the shop (there are lots of pictures and references to Tibet throughout the shop). I found out that Tha got a Masters in Buddhist philosophy in India, emphasizing Tibetan Buddhism. He had then worked for a Christian NGO in Laos under the leadership of a Quaker woman. In other words, he is not your typical Phayao resident. And over the next several months we had periodical conversations about various topics, including religion and politics.

So, when we reached the point in our research that we wanted to focus more explicitly on religious themes, we decided to ask Tha to help us understand Buddhism at a deeper level, particularly the specific contours of Buddhism in Thailand. He agreed, as long as it was more of a dialogue than a monologue, which is exactly what we were wanting. He continually insisted that he was no expert in the area, but we soon learned differently.

He invited us to meet in his home. We met on Tuesday mornings for five or six consecutive weeks, about three hours each time. For two of the discussions, he had prepared powerpoint presentations. He spent some time on foundational Buddhist concepts and ideas. Though I had a decent awareness of Buddhism already, the learning curve was steep because it was the first time any of us studied Buddhism in Thai, which is primarily borrowed Pali words. Our brains were fried, but it was extremely helpful. He also described the differences between the various branches within Buddhism, along with portions of his own journey within Buddhism. I wish we could have recorded all of it.

For me, though, the most insightful and fascinating portion was the section on the development of Buddhism in Thailand’s history. He traced how Buddhism developed alongside Animism and Hinduism, with a deep influence from Indian culture. And the most intriguing part was how he illustrated the strong interrelatedness between politics and religion.

I could say so much about what he taught, but I am not sure many of you would find it so fascinating. However, there is one thing that caught my ear that I think others might find interesting. He stated that, historically, Theravada Buddhism does not ordain nor recognize female monks. Yet, there are female monks in Sri Lanka, which is also predominantly Theravada. A few years ago the first female Thai monk was ordained into the monkhood (though she had to do it in Sri Lanka). The majority of the monkhood in Thailand still does not recognize her nor the practice of ordaining females. But, she continually speaks out (she is a respected professor at the most prestigious university in Bangkok) for the inclusion of women in the monkhood. Soon after she was ordained, she was asked why she was doing this. She explained that it was true to the Buddha’s teachings and that she was following her call. But, she also gave this little statement (my paraphrase):

There are approximately 200,000 male monks in Thailand. (Each one of them receives an education, paid for by the state, a place to live and food to eat. Thus, a vast majority of monks come from a fairly poor background because it is a way out.) Interestingly, there are approximately 200,000 prostitutes in Thailand.

That will give you a lot to think about.

Those few weeks listening and talking with Tha were so insightful. I feel like I understand Buddhism better. But, more importantly, I feel like I understand my neighbors and friends in Phayao better.



  1. Ya the issue of female ordination is really tricky, because in order to change the rules, then a counsel of buddhist leaders have to come together and agree. Basically it has to be ordained members making the decision about the rules of the ordained

    A bhikku in Australia started ordaining female nuns and he had to leave his thai forest lineage. He’s a western monk trying to shake things up, I think its good some people are trying. Here is his monastery’s website


    Many of the female nuns in the tibetan buddhist tradition, they actually ordain through the chinese tradition or go to Taiwan to have it done because their monastic code is similar

    • Your words touched me depely. I have major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, and major anxiety issues. I understand what it’s like to have an illness that you don’t have much control over. You sound like you’re doing everything right and I commend you for that. Keep it up. Your article reminds me of one that I wrote, Living With Chronic Pain which can be found on my website. This article has been featured on a popular social site that caters to people who suffer from just about everything. It has made a difference in many people’s lives and I have been thanked from around the world for putting their misery in words so that people will understand. That’s what you’re doing, too. I wish you the best and commend you for speaking out.

  2. […] Coffee and Religious Dialogue […]

  3. What a fascinating statistic. I, for one, want to know more! I don’t know if everyone else hears statistics all the time about prostitution in Thailand, but I’m constantly stumbling across it. Education is one of the easiest and most proven ways to raise women out of poverty. I would never have thought of the monkhood as giving opportunities to boys that it doesn’t to girls, but of course it makes sense. Interesting.

  4. As always I am fastinated by the way you describe your experience……and the insight it brings. Hope you are continueing your relationship with Tha and the great coffee!

  5. Very interesting and insightful Derran. I for one will read whatever you write. I say keep it coming. I look forward to watching God continue to work through your relationship with Tha.

  6. Hey, nice post. If you don’t mind, I’m borrowing a chunk from the paragraphs near the end and using it as a case study in class tomorrow. Thanks for that.

    • What a great post, Derran, and a great teaching idea, Mark. Loved reading it on this snow-bound day.

  7. D, bring it, I will read anything you write and I think all of this is so fascinating. Wish I could’ve been there to hear it all. You’ll have to tell me more sometime. As always, I am blown away by all that you are doing and all the hard work and intentionality you put into it. So thankful that you guys are there and for all that you are learning and doing. Love you!

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