A Coffee Shop Fuelled on Dharma
The rumour of monks serving free lattes on silver platters was so quintessentially Chiang Mai I hardly dared get my hopes up. But having rushed off to Sankampaeng to check it out, I can now speak from experience that yes, in between temple duties, studying Pali and Sanskrit, spiritually guiding the flock and staying true to Buddhist precepts, the monks at this temple also double up as baristas.
San Kangpla temple (oddly meaning fish backbone) has undergone some recent changes that add a twist to the typical temple visit. An on-site cafe full of modern coffee equipment, including coffee gimmicks you will see at any respectable coffee shop along Nimmanhaemin – cute resin statues, Instagram-friendly backdrops, loungy seatings and a cute garden – is run entirely by monks, novice monks and volunteers, and has been incorporated into the temple operations. A monk serving lattes is intriguing enough, but staying true to their Buddhist focus on compassion, there are no fixed prices for drinks. If you can afford it, please donate, and if not, the drink is free.
Coffee Boon aims to offer benevolence in the form of caffeine – a shot of espresso with your dharma anyone? – opening their doors to all people (the youth are especially encouraged) to engage in conversations about dharma and Buddhist philosophy. For anyone who is intimidated by the traditional temple atmosphere, this is a great, comfortable avenue for any sort of Buddhist inquiry.
Coffee Boon started out as a simple, modest booth on the temple grounds, but has since expanded into a full brick and mortar store just outside the temple. On my visit I was served by the bright eyes and kind smiles of the volunteers at the counter and enjoyed the pleasant air conditioned breeze. The atmosphere was cosy, three Thai woman were lounging on a large L-shaped sofa while they were served their iced mochas on, yup, a silver platter.
I received my foot-tall iced Americano and sat back to peruse the reading materials at the “Dharma Book Corner” while chatting to Phra Tawatchai Kattirat, an English-speaking monk who works at the cafe. “All profits come from donations, and go towards the health and education of the monks. Boon,” he clarified, “is a Buddhist concept representing a kindness and generosity without expecting anything in return.”
The San Kangpla Temple currently houses fourteen monks and fifty novice monks, but regularly hosts meditation courses and Buddhist teaching classes for large groups numbering over 100. Phra Tawatchai Kattirat says that the coffee shop is a way for the participants in these free courses, some lasting up to three months, to give back to the temple monetarily or by donating supplies for the cafe.
So far Coffee Boon makes most of its profits from those who work near the temple and others that appreciate the cafe’s values, but with such a remote location and little guaranteed profit, will the concept of boon be enough to sustain the operation? Phra Tawatchai Kittirat hopes to spread the word of the coffee shop to other abbots and have additional temples adopt the concept. In the meantime, I left there spiritually and physically energised, thanks in equal parts to the dharma and the caffeine.