Ten years ago I made the decision to move to Thailand. At the time I was in my third year of serving with Public Affairs in Iraq. The decision was a very personal one, I was engaged to be married to a Thai woman, Jang. I was about to start my education in Thai culture the best way possible, by living in Thailand. After I moved to Thailand, another decision needed to be made. Where to live. Initially, I was in Bangkok. My wife-to-be was working in Bangkok and she was doing as so many Thais do, commuting to her home in rural Thailand on the weekends to be with her two-year-old daughter Gammy. Gammy was the real reason Jang and I met, but that is another story for another post. The decision to move to rural Thailand was an obvious one for me. I believe that families should be together, and rural Thailand was a much better place to raise a family than Bangkok IMHO.
Living in rural Thailand gave me the opportunity to start a long term documentary project, photographing the lives of the people in a small rural community.
Fast forward ten years. Three of my Wife Jang’s brothers, and two friends, decide to become Buddhist monks at the same time!
This is not as unusual as it might seem. You see in Thailand, which is something like 95% Buddhist, all Thai Buddhist men are expected to become monks at some point in their lives. It is also accepted that usually, this will not be a lifetime commitment. Usually, men become Buddhist monks for a few weeks or months and then return to the lay world and their day jobs. The length of time spent in the Sangha is up to the individual, I have seen men spend several years as monks, and also seen men only spend a few days.
The reason three of Jang’s brothers chose to become monks at the same time was that it made things easier for the family. When a man becomes a monk it can be a costly affair. Celebrations are held, which can sometimes be quite elaborate depending on the status and financial resources of the family. The celebrations usually last for several days and have multiple events. Typically, a dinner party is held on the day of the head-shaving ceremony, which is the day before the ordination. In rural Thailand, this is usually a community gathering. It is customary for the guests to give gifts of money to help offset the expense, but this is still a costly affair for the hosts.
The events of a Thai ordination usually follow the same order. The ritual to “make monk” as the Thais say, starts with a small celebration the evening before the day of the head shaving. This event is for family and friends. It is also the last time the monks-to-be can indulge in a beer or drink whiskey for a while as Buddhist monks cannot drink alcohol.
The following day the men who will become monks, with family and friends head to the local temple for the head-shaving ceremony. Buddhist monks have their heads shaved before ordination as a symbol of losing attachment to their ego and to the lay world. The head-shaving is also a community event, with family and friends cutting locks of hair which are saved as memories and have spiritual significance as well.
After the head shaving the men put on special white robes that symbolize purity and pray with local monks at the temple. They then travel with close friends and family members in a motorcade to several places of spiritual significance and then to the homes of their families where they again pray. From this point on until the ordination, they are novices and must conduct themselves in a spiritual manner. For example, they cannot touch women or drink alcohol.
A side note – I have witnessed many Thai ordinations in the ten years I have lived in rural Thailand. Each time I notice a significant change in a man’s personality after the head shaving ceremony, and putting on the white robes of a novitiate Monk. I can understand and appreciate the reason the act of becoming a monk is so esteemed in Thai society. It is a profound, sometimes life-changing event for many Thai men.
When the head-shaving ceremony is over, preparations begin in earnest for the community dinner held in honor of the monks-to-be. Many women from the community join together to prepare the feast. Cooking and preparing for the event is as much a community activity as the meal itself.
The day of the ordination starts early. The monks-to-be are given a blessing by their mother and father wishing them luck, and thanking them for the honor they are bestowing upon them. It is considered great merit for everyone involved when a man becomes a monk. It is only in the last few years that some Thai women have become monks. This is very unusual and there is some question as to whether these women are recognized as monks by the Thai Buddhist governance. So traditionally when a man becomes a monk it is to make merit for his mother since she cannot become a monk and make this merit herself. Needless to say, mothers are a significant part of the process.
Following the morning blessing, the community gathers and there is a procession to the temple. When I first came to Thailand, this procession was always on foot, and the monks-to-be were sometimes carried by villagers. Today cars and trucks are used to transport the future monks, and devotees either walk or use vehicles.
I said walk, a more accurate description would be the devotee’s dance to the temple, accompanied by loud live music from a pickup with the musician’s amplifiers blaring. The ordination procession to the temple is worthy of a trip to rural Thailand all by itself. It is an absolute must experience if you ever get the chance!
When the procession reaches the temple the dancing continues, devotees circle the ordination hall three times for luck, and the monks-to-be throw trinkets to those in attendance, also for luck and a remembrance.
After the procession around the ordination hall, the band truck leaves and the ordination begins. Before the men enter the ordination hall they pray at a shrine in front of the ordination hall.
As the monks enter the ordination hall they are lifted by those in attendance to touch the top of the door frame for good luck.
The monks recite their vows inside the ordination hall, which in rural Thailand is usually a small building with only enough room for a small group to witness the ordination. During this ceremony, the monks step outside, usually through the rear entrance and change into the orange robes of a Thai Buddhist monk.
After the ceremony when the men leave the temple, they will be Four Monks from Pakpli, Thailand. Their first duty will be to collect alms from the people waiting outside the ordination hall.
The first days in a new monk’s life, as you can imagine is just getting used to the idea of being a monk. I would think those first days would be easier going through them with a friend and two brothers. Support of a family always helps as well. Monks are bound by the rules of Buddhism to walk for morning alms. The Buddha thought it important that his followers collect the food they eat from the generosity of others. There are many reasons, a couple are, that being given the food and clothing one needs to survive mostly eliminates the need to purchase food and clothing, and although temples do need money to keep running, individual monks are forbidden from touching money. This is a sticky area. Most people in Thailand have seen a monk with money, I’m not going to get into that can of worms, let’s just say there is an ideal, and there are also those that for whatever reason don’t adhere 100% to the ideal. I’m not a Buddhist and frankly don’t care. The second major reason is by receiving alms the monks are giving the community an opportunity to make merit by giving morning alms. One important first task a new monk staying near their home gets to do is the first walk for alms in which they collect alms from their mother and father. Having seen alms given for quite a few years, I can tell you the new monks mom, gave some great food to her sons. I distinctly remember thinking that first morning “dang that’s some good stuff!”
Becoming a monk close to home is full of other good things.
I can just imagine how cool it must have been to be served water at a temple service by your 2-year-old nephew in his Superman outfit.
Or having your dad bring in an electric grille from home to cook up some BBQ during a prayer service. Something you just don’t see every day.
We had no idea how long the men would stay in the Sangha. I asked a couple of times and I believe the men were unsure how long they would stay. I think that in itself is a good thing. No pressure either way. They were free to just do whatever felt right. After about 8 weeks we got word that the monks had decided that it was time to return to regular society. This was great for me as I had never photographed monks leaving the monkhood. It turns out there is a ceremony very similar to becoming a monk. There were prayers and then changing out of the orange robes into white clothing, then a walk around the area to become adjusted to life away from the temple. All that was left after that was for the men to turn in their bowls used to collect alms, and some great memories of a life-changing experience.
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