Thailand is perhaps one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world. Our national religion is “Theravada Buddhism” and is practiced by over 95% of Thais.
According to Thai tradition, a Thai male once he reaches the age of 20 is expected to live as a monk some time during his life. While no-one is compelled to follow this tradition, most Thai males have a sincere desire to do so – even if it is just for a short time. Some, however, will chose to live as a monk their entire life.
Thais regard this custom as an essential step in preparing to be a man, or to be the head of a family. Therefore, most Thai males will enter the monkhood and be ordained before they decide to marry. Living as a monk also provides him with an ideal environment in which to study the Lord Buddha’s teachings and to purify his mind and keep true to his Buddhist beliefs.
Living as a monk also enables him to demonstrate his gratitude to his parents and to bring them greater merit. This is especially significant for his mother who cannot be monk herself. It is also believed that additional merit will be earned if the man undertakes this ‘spiritual journey’ in the three months of the Rains Retreat – sometimes called “Buddhist Lent” (July – October).
The length of time and location may chosen either by the man or his parents. However, the date and time of his ordination ceremony and his final day of being a monk are based on his date of birth and are usually developed by a senior monk or Thai astrologer.
The ceremony involves the man’s hair and eyebrows being shaved and him being bathed by elder family members. After this, the “Naak” or “Naga” in English is clothed in a long white robe. He then enters the Sala building – a huge meeting hall where the head monk will deliver a sermon.
The ordination ceremony must be performed in the “Ubosot” or “Ordination Hall” in the temple, ideally with 28 monks (or at least 10) present as witnesses, including an instructor and two other senior monks.
During the ordination ceremony, the ancient Bali language (original from India) is used when chanting and delivering the sermon. It is therefore important that the pupil is able to chant in correctly in this language.
In fact, the Thai Buddhist monk will take a Bali name for himself, which is given by his instructor during the ordination ceremony. “Bhikkhu” (in Bali) means “Monk” and is usually abbreviated to “Phra” in the Thai language.
The Buddhist monk is obliged to observe the 227 precepts established by the Lord Buddha. He can access property which is owned jointly to the sangha (ecclesiastics) but he himself is supposed to own only eight items – three robes, an alms bowl, a razor, needle and thread, a belt, and a strainer to purify drinking water. A novice monk (under 20 years) is expected to abide by 10 rules.
The practicing Buddhist will conduct himself according to the 5 principal precepts:
- To undertake the training so as to avoid the taking of life. This precept applies to all living creatures, not just humans. All beings have a right to their lives and that right should be respected.
- To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given. This precept goes further than mere stealing. One should avoid taking anything unless one can be sure that the thing is intended for you.
- To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct. This precept is often mistranslated or misinterpreted as relating to only sexual misconduct. However, it also includes overindulgence in any sensual pleasure, for example gluttony, as well as sexual misconduct.
- To undertake the training to refrain from false speech. As well as avoiding lying and deception, this precept also includes slander as well as any spoken word which is not beneficial to others.
- To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness. This precept is in a special category. It does not denounce natural substances (such as alcohol), but aims to prevent any abuse of natural substances that might lead to a violation of the other four precepts.
All photos were taken in late May 2011 when I was ordained at the local temple “Wat Po” in Sara Buri – my hometown for 15 days.
During my monkhood, I stayed in a very small (2.5 x 3.0 meter ) room. There were no creature comforts, such as TV, bed or air-conditioning. I was one of only 6 monks, including the abbot.
Every morning I would wake at about 4 am whereupon I would walk among the local villagers seeking alms. Buddhist monks are expected to eat only what lay people offer. The food we were given was our breakfast and lunch for the day. The last meal must be taken before noon. Afterwards, only liquids, such as milk and water are allowed. I found it rather painful to walk bare foot for 5 km on the rough local roads.
During the day, I read the Buddhist books and went out occasionally to assist at Buddhist ceremonies, such as funerals and weddings. Later in the afternoons, monks are expected to clean the temple and chant in the Bali language in the ordination hall. At night, most monks will study Buddhist texts or practice mediation.
Fortunately, I was able to participate with hundreds of other monks at the local meditation center in Saraburi. This place used to be a local graveyard and so I found the atmosphere a little frightening, but it was peaceful with all the trees and a few lights illuminating the communal bathrooms located some distance away. We had our own tents and brought our own torches and candles for the 10 days we were there.
In order to purify our minds, we were allowed to eat only one dish for breakfast. Our food was mixed together and served in an alm bowl.
Each day, the monks would chant together for one hour after waking up at 4 am and we would listen to the teachings of senior monks while we meditated.
We were fortunate that a large number of local villagers gave alms at our camp. During the day, we were separated into two large groups (comprising new monks and those who had been ordained for over a year). We were also rotated so that we could participate in different activities, such as learning insight mediation, walking meditation and learning the Buddhist precepts.
Once I asked the senior monk how long it took him after joining the temple before he could dream as a monk. He replied that it was very difficult and that it took him almost 7 years before he could finally dream as a monk.
It never happened to me though I tried to think about before going to sleep. But finally the dream of being monk came to me after the day I left the temple !!!!