A common misconception with monks is that they live like monks for life, and while this maybe true for some, for the majority it is not. Most Thai men will in fact serve in temporary ordination at some point of their lives, for days, weeks, months or even years. Once their term at the temple is complete they leave behind monastic robes and return to ‘laity’ in normal life. The purpose of many Buddhist Monk ordination is to bring merit to a family and to build status within their local community, and for this reason monk ordinations commonly take place in rural homes of Isaan (rather than big cities). A common period for the Buddhist Monk Ordination (but not exclusive) would be Thai summer, between April and June, when the number of monks in Thailand can double and up. Young, male adults of the family are the most common to take the Buddhist Monk Ordination joining the temple between graduation or work, and in many ways it is seen as a rites of passage to adulthood. Ordination is also common to those who feel ‘misguided’ in later life as they join the temple to clear past misdemeanors and put their lives back on track. Much of the ceremony for the Buddhist Monk Ordination is intimate, among close friends and family, and I feel fortunate to have joined before as a guest (later parts of the ceremony are more open and welcoming for others to join).
Much ceremony happens in the background as the to-be monk prepares for his term at the temple. Five days prior to ordination day he will join the local temple to practice life and rituals as a monk. In early mornings he will follow “bintabaht” and help carry food donations for the current monks of the temple. At this stage he is known as “Dek Wat” or temple helper and his role is to help the existing monks and to learn from them. After five days in practice he will be ready to ordain. The full preparations then start the day before ordination when locks of hair are first cut by close members of the family, his head then shaved completely by local monks, and then the eyebrows. The hair is collected in a lotus leaf to later be floated on a nearby river (if not kept for luck). The family then bless him, pour water over his head and cleanse him using a mix of turmeric and water. After a final wash the ‘Dek Wat’ dresses in white robes and is ready to ordain the following morning. He is now known as ‘Naak’, referring to a Buddhist teaching where a ‘Naga’ serpent became a monk through ordination.
Ordination day starts early at the family home where the Naak sits in centre of the living room surrounded by religious shrines and donations. Friends and family will crawl up one-by-one to join for a photo-op and to offer donations. Offerings are often come as cards with a small money contribution to expenses (monk’s robes, alms bowl etc.) or maybe a ‘Sang Kathan’ a gold wrapped basket containing monk requisites for daily life e.g. candles, incense, toilet paper, toothpaste, coffee, medicines… At the front of the house the local women prepare a feast for the guests who sit at tables at the front of the home. The popular celebratory snacks at Buddhist celebrations include local Pad Mee (fried noodles) and Khanom Jeen Nam Ya (rice noodles with spicy curry), along with other bites and drinks. When the family ceremony is complete the ‘Naak’ will leave the home and travel to the local temple for completing of the Buddhist Monk Ordination. Between the house and the temple the feet of the Naak may not touch the ground and he is lifted from the house altar and carried to a decorated ordination car, where he will sit under the shelter of an umbrella. The procession begins.
The procession line is led by a mobile band stand blaring traditional music and closely followed by a parade of friends, family and other locals. The crowd grows as others join on the streets and they dance their way to the local temple. The Naak and the procession car travel at the tail of the parade as the procession leads through local streets en route to the temple. The more enthusiastic dancers join the front and the rowdier share bottles of beers and rice whiskey (Lao Khao). The weather is almost always sweltering and the journey can travel for miles so a refreshment car follows alongside, stopping at intervals to hand out bottles of water and drinks along the way. The procession is a bit like a party, anyone is welcome to join and observers are likely to be swept along in celebration.
The procession arrives to temple grounds where it circles the central temple three times clockwise in ceremony (circumambulation). The alcohol has been left behind at this stage but the dancing and celebrations continue. The final procession ends at the entrance to the central temple where the crowds calm and huddle to surround the Naak as he reads from Buddhist scripture. Completing his chants the Naak is then passed a golden bowl of ‘Taan’ ribbon flowers (coins wrapped in colourful ribbons). He takes handfuls and throws them scattered into the crowd who scramble frantically hoping to catch the luck and blessing which comes with the ribbon flowers. The crowds then disperse and the Naak is ready to enter the temple for the final stage of the Buddhist Monk Ordination.
The Naak’s feet are again cleansed with water before entering. He is then lifted by a family elder and carried through the temple entrance, touching the entrance roof as he passes. He takes place at the back of the temple and joins prayer with the existing monks of the temple. Soon after he is led to the front altar where he will pray with the senior monks and make offerings of incense, candles and flowers to the central Buddha statue. He is welcomed to the temple and the ordination is complete. Now as a fully ordained monk his Naak status is left behind. To finalise the ceremony he returns to family who wait at the entrance of the temple where he prays and is handed his monastic orange robes (Phra Trai). The family and guests leave and the newly ordained monk joins his new home at the temple. For the period to come he will live on temple grounds.
Monks living at the temple will learn reading, writing and memorisation of Buddhist prayers and scriptures. Everyday starts early, as early as 3.30am, before joining prayer between 4am and 5am (Tam Wat Chao). At 6am the monks take to the local streets for “bintabaht” ceremony, collecting donations of food and requisites for the temple from the local houses. Finishing Bintabaht the monks then return to the temple for their first meal of the day at 8am. A second meal follows soon after at 11am and this will be their final meal of the day (monks don’t eat after midday). Monks will remain on temple grounds through the day unless needed elsewhere, maybe for blessing ceremonies in the local community or necessary travel to other temples or areas. After the novice monk completes his time in ordination he will speak to the head monk and tell them it is time to leave (lasika). They join a final prayer at the temple where he asks for the temple to remember him as a monk and his contribution to the community. He will then return to laity in normal life.