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Want to play monk? Fork over $700

Drawing Buddhism-curious foreigners to a Thai temple through Facebook.

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.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on religion:

Taiwan: The sea goddess and the web

Turkey: The little-known Alevis

Pakistan: The fate of the Kalasha

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/090429/want-play-monk-fork-over-700