When British-born Dominic Stafford sent in an email with a subject line including the words “tech savvy monks”, we were intrigued. Regardless of the branch of Buddhism — the two main strands of the religion are Theravada and Mahayana — monks have a vital place in Southeast Asian society. In countries like Thailand and Cambodia, spending a period as a monk is seen as a rite of passage. Buddhism is at the centre of society. In Vietnam, the likes of Thich Quang Duc, who self-immolated in protest against the war, have been a mobilising force for peace and tradition — Buddhism has been one of the few constants over 150 years of turbulence and change.
Yet, monks using technology? It’s not that they’re prohibited from embracing the modern world. Far from it — in Vietnam you often see monks driving motorbikes. But the monks photographed by Dominic live in Wat Bo Pagoda in Siem Reap, and are Theravada monks. In the Theravada tradition, monks are not allowed to have worldly possessions.
“I have spent a lot of time within Wat Bo over the last six months,” explains Dominic. “The monks there are particularly friendly, modest and a little more respectful than at other pagodas. I [now have] a great bunch of friends.
“I found it amusing when I was first added on Facebook by one of them, and that moment triggered the interest into the subtle changes that modern monkhood is going through. Most of Wat Bo is covered by Wi-Fi, and many [of the monks] have an old laptop under the bed.”
Thus Dominic had his idea, to photograph the monks embracing the modern world and in particular, its technology. Most of the photos are natural, although on occasion the monks do insist on robing up properly prior to Dominic taking shots.
“I believe that many rules are there to be broken in this region,” he adds, “and within a pagoda is no exception. The monks are aware of what is expected of them, and behave accordingly where it really matters — but in response to my questioning of phones, a lot of laughter breaks out! They claim to be rather bored at times, and are also keen on communicating with family back home.”
And thus an age-old tradition is bridging an important gap between itself, the modern world and the rest of society.
To see more of Dominic’s work, go to dominicstafford.co.uk