I had just arrived in Thailand and in fact was leaving the Bangkok airport when I spotted my first Buddhist monk. He was dressed in a saffron robe with simple sandals on his feet. But he was pulling a suitcase-on-wheels and heading towards the taxi stand just like me. A little too urban, I thought.
A few hours later, in the historical Bangkok district of Rattanakosin, I spotted my second monk, this one chatting into a cell phone in a rather engaging way. Then two more monks “parted the traffic”, so to speak, walking diagonally and rather quickly through the masses of vehicles to get to the ATM machine on the other side of the 4-lane road.
What did I know about monks when I arrived in the country? Well, I knew that monks depend on lay people for all their needs. They go out early in the morning to collect alms. They eat at most twice a day and finish eating by noon. In Thailand, Buddhist monks are respected for their chaste life, good works and knowledge of spiritual practice. I assumed they spent most of their time at a temple and not out doing what looked like rather ordinary errands.
I since learned that most Buddhist males over 20 years of age in Thailand (and 95% of the population is Buddhist so that is a lot of young men) are ordained as monks at least temporarily and for three or four months devote themselves to studying the teaching of the Buddha. So these new monks who are often city-bred may not have the air of serenity that a non-Buddhist would expect them to have!
There is societal pressure for young men to be ordained. You see, one of the greatest gifts a Thai man can give his parents is ‘merit’ and when he enters the monkhood—even for a short period of time—he earns great merit that he usually dedicates to his parents. He usually is ordained just after he turns 20 years and before he marries for if he is married his wife receives half the merit. His parents, of course, need it more for they are nearer to death and with enough merit they can achieve a better rebirth. A man who has not been ordained is not considered a mature adult in Thai society. One who has been is called “Thit” which means “learned man”.
The night before ordination the parents of the soon-to-be monk hold a big party of family and friends. The whole village is often involved in the festive procession to the temple and the luncheon and dancing that follow. It can be an expensive undertaking but many contribute for it is another way to gain merit.
The man who is to be ordained is asked several questions such as: Are you male? Are you free from debt? Do you have your parents’ permission to become a monk? If he answers the questions correctly he has his hair and eyebrows shaved as a symbolic rejection of ego and vanity. Finally he is given a robe and enters the monkhood.
Ordination often takes place at the beginning of the 3-month Rains Retreat in July or August, which is the Buddhist Lent. Historically, monks did not leave the temple during the rainy season to avoid stepping on young crops. Today, they do not leave their temple overnight during this period.
At the end of the 3-month Rains Retreat (about July to September), monks throughout the country are free to move from place to place and are eligible to receive new robes in an annual presentation ceremony called “Thot Kathin”. This ceremony is the most significant way to earn merit next to the ordination of their close kin. Everyone hopes to sponsor at least one Thot Kathin in their lifetime.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012