For most Thai men, the question is not whether to become a Buddhist monk -it's when to become a Buddhist monk. Most will be ordained at some stage in their lives, amid scenes of great celebration from family and friends. From Phuket to Chiang Mai, Buddhism and the saffron-robed monks are a part of daily life.
Like a scene from some Oriental fairy tale, scores of boys dressed in flowered turbans and regal costumes are paraded shoulder-high through the streets of Mae-Hong Son, a sleepy town hidden in the hills of northern Thailand.
At Haad Siew, close to the ancient ruined city of Si Satchanalai, youths robed in a similarly sumptuous style ride through the village atop the swaying backs of caparisoned elephants. In Bangkok, a solitary young man plainly attired in a white robe is carried shoulder high by his friends from his family home to a nearly temple.
The scenes differ in degree of pomp and ceremony, and in the number of participants, but their purpose is the same - all mark the important occasion of becoming a Buddhist monk.
Buddhism, Thailand’s national religion, runs as a constant through the nation’s cultural and social fabric. It was the faith under which the people (originally animists) were first united, and it has remained a visible force in daily life for more than 700 years. Today, it is as vital as ever, practised as well as professed by 94 percent of the population.
Quintessential to Buddhism are the monks and it is customary, now as before, for most young Thai men to be ordained at some point in their lives, commonly just prior to marriage. Although there is, naturally, a permanent religious community, the majority of monks are ordained for just a short spell. It may be only a few days, but the usual practice is to remain in a monastery throughout one Phansa, the three-month Rains Retreat, often referred to as Buddhist Lent.
The reason for becoming a monk is the same as it always has been, and is basically twofold.
In being ordained, a young man earns generally by good deeds, being central to the practice of Buddhism.
For himself, a monk furthers his progress towards nirvana (a release from all suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism) by gaining a deeper understanding of Buddha’s teachings achieved through study, self-deprivation and meditation.
To be ordained, even temporarily, means cutting all ties with mundane life. A monk-to-be, for example, must have no worldly obligations such as outstanding debts. As for quitting one’s job, so accepted is the practice of becoming a monk that government agencies and private companies all have provision for “ordination leave” in their terms of employment.
Once decided on becoming a monk, the candidate will be given a date for his ordination by the abbot of the temple he is to enter. In the meantime he should pay visits to all his acquaintances, announcing the news and begging their forgiveness for any misdeeds. This clears away temporal ties, loose ends, as it were in human relationships.
At this time, the candidate is known as chao nak, literally “dragon”, a reference to a Buddhist myth in which a dragon sought to become a monk. On the eve of the ordination a lay ceremony is held, usually at home, during which the monk-to-be has his head and eyebrows ritually shaved. The first few locks are generally cut off by his parents and other family members, while the job is completed by an experienced hand.
The shaving of head and eyebrows is a symbolic denial of vanity and sexuality. At this stage, a transitional phase between layman and monk, the candidate is believed to be especially vulnerable to accidents, and it is probable that the adoption of the title chao nak (effectively a temporary disguising of one’s personal identity) is used to confuse potentially harmful spirits. Such a practice parallels a traditional belief in the protective power of nickmanes, as well as the custom of changing names if a child becomes seriously ill.
Once shaved, the monk-to-be is dressed in white robes and becomes the focus of the Thom Kwan Nak ceremony, conducted not by monks but by a professional expert in such affairs. For as long as two or three hours this master of ceremonies recites verses that essentially recount the suffering of the hardships endured by the parents in raising their child. The ceremony is usually concluded with feasting and entertainment. The candidate will take part in this, his last such indulgence before accepting the austere lifestyle of a monk. It perhaps also symbolizes the princely state of the Buddha before he renounced the material world in quest of enlightenment.
One the day of the ordination the candidate, in white robes, is carried on the shoulders of friends to the temple. Again this most likely parallels the point in the Buddha’s life at which, as Prince Siddhartha, he rode away from his father’s palace on horseback. On reaching its destination, the joyous and lively procession thrice circles the temple’s main sanctuary. At the same time the chao nak scatters coins in a symbolic gesture of rejecting material possessions.
The candidate’s father, carrying a saffron robe, leads his son into the temple where the monks are assembled. Accepting the robe from his father, the chao nak kneels in front of the abbot and humbly pays his respects before asking to be ordained. In so doing he pledges to observe the 10 basic vows of a novice monk - five in addition to the five fundamental precepts all Buddhists should follow.
Next an examination takes place, conducted in Pali, during which the candidate attests to his fitness to become a monk. He should, for example, testify that he is over 20 years of age (younger novices are accepted in certain ordinations), that he possesses the saffron robe and alms bowl, that he has been given a Buddhistic name and has had an instructor in the faith (the latter usually being the abbot presiding at the ceremony).
The results of the investigation are reported to the assembled monks, asking for their acceptance of the candidate into the order.
Once accepted he is then helped into the saffron robes. To conclude the ceremony the new monk pours water from a silver container in a symbolic gesture of transferring the merit he makes in becoming a monk to his parents.
All ordination ceremonies follow essentially the same pattern, but there are variations in the pre-ordination celebrations. Although some, especially the mass ordinations, offer far more colourful displays than others, their symbolic meaning is the same as in less elaborate pre-ordination rituals. All is meant to parallel the historic events in the Buddha’s life.
Prior to questing and achieving enlightenment, the Buddha was the son of the ruler of a small kingdom or City-State. As such he lived a life of luxury, material comforts protecting him from the ills of the world. Then one day he was confronted with the inescapable fact of temporal suffering when he glimpsed sight of sickness, old age and death. So saddened, he left his father’s palace and sought through self-denial to find a path that could release man from suffering.
The grand mass ordination ceremonies of Mae Hong Son and Haad Siew, mentioned earlier, complete with elaborate costumes and even elephants, thus highlight the renunciation of material wealth. In the pre-ordination festivities the candidates appear as young princes. When they go to the temple to be accepted either into the priesthood or as novices, they discard the finery, the jewellery, and the make-up as a gesture of relinquishing worldly goods and the vanity and desire that accompanies them.
Whether it is a relatively simple affair among family and close friends, or a protracted grand celebration in which a whole community participates, ordination is one of the most important events in the life of a man. It is an occasion that will be remembered always, marketing the transition from youth to adulthood.
After a spell in the monkhood a young man should have a more meaningful understanding of the world, and be better prepared to lead a life in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha.
Composed by Francis Hill