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Learning a Hard Lesson from a Monk

January 31, 2011

My trip to Laos has been very enjoyable but also incredibly frustrating. I’ve had to learn some very hard lessons. The toughest of these was from a 19 year old monk.
Laung Prabang is well known for the daily morning ritual of the tak bat, when hundreds of monks walk in single-file, silently through the streets of the town, to collect food offerings from the local community. It happens at dawn, is an important religious ceremony and an iconic image of Luang Prabang.
I wanted to do an audio slideshow for the BBC, interviewing one of the monks, to explain the significance of this morning ritual. My hotel manager offered to take me to one of the temples, where I met a 19 year old monk called Lai, who spoke reasonable English. I explained what I wanted to do and he agreed to be interviewed. It went well and we covered all the important points.
After we finished, I described in more detail how the interview would be used. When he realised it would not only go out in the UK but would also be on the internet for everyone to see around the world, he became uncomfortable. Lai said he could get into trouble from his superiors if I used the information in an inappropriate way. I tried to reassure him that this would not happen, but he had not heard of the BBC or knew of its reputation.
The BBC has a strong code of ethics that governs everything its journalists do, one of which is that you cannot use an interview without the consent of a person. During our interview Lai mentioned that one of the main beliefs in Buddhism is the idea of good karma and bad karma. Good, skillful deeds and bad, unskillful actions produce “seeds” in the mind which come to fruition either in this life or the next. As I thought about that, I realised the only reasonable thing to do, was to offer to delete the interview.  He told me he did not want to upset me, but he would prefer it if I did erase the recording.  Although the interview would have made a great audio slideshow, ethically I knew, there was just no way I could use it without his consent. It’s times like these when it is very hard to be a journalist, to accept the story is not everything and good karma is more important.

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