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Window on Southeast Asia: From Monkey to Monk

"Only a few years ago, Thailand was a far off, mysterious place about which I knew very little. Then, one day as I was studying for a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate, an instructor in the course mentioned Thai food and told the class that we all had to try it. So, a few days later, I stopped for dinner at a Thai restaurant having no idea that one dinner in a restaurant would change the direction of my life. As I looked around at the wall hangings, the mysterious paintings and pictures of customs of which I knew nothing, I realized that Thailand was a complete mystery to me. Over dinner I decided that it would be exciting to live in such a place and absorb this mysterious culture. So it was that I took a teaching job in Lampang in the north of Thailand and have been learning about the country and culture ever sense."

From Monkey to Monk

A few days ago, the head of the English department, Aj. Kath, asked if I wanted to teach a class at the bank of Thailand on Friday or see her friend Somjit's son, whose name is Niw, become a monk. "Niw become a monk?!", I thought.

Niw as a monkey I could picture, but the Niw I knew, the kid always bouncing off the walls when not glued to video games, didn't fit my image of a quiet, reflective monk lost in meditation or study of Buddhist scripture. But it was true she assured me, he and 99 other students from Assumption School would become monks for 1 week.

Assumption doesn't sound like the name of a Buddhist school, does it? Well, it's not; it's a Catholic school in a Buddhist country where about 1% of the population has converted to Christianity after 400 years of proselytizing. A Catholic school ordaining monks? Yep, 100 of them to celebrate the Catholic school's 100th anniversary.

Normally they are ordained during the rainy season and remain monks from 1 week to 2 months. It is often seen as a rite of passage. Large-scale temporary ordinations can also occur to mark an important event or celebration. For example, the immediate male family of a dead person will become monks for 2 days during the funeral. I missed the first part where the monks-to-be had their heads and eyebrows shaved. Monks shave their heads and eyebrows because they have no need for physical attractiveness. When I arrived 100 soon-to-be monks, mostly between 10 and 12 years old, were wearing white robes (not yellow ones yet) and seated in the auditorium facing a small Buddhist altar. They were practicing some chants and being given instructions by a lay person overseeing the event. After lunch they returned to the auditorium and were given a lotus blossom and three sticks of incense. A white thread was wrapped around the monks, symbolizing their unity in the Buddha's teaching. The lay person took the microphone and began chanting. I asked Somjit what he was saying. She said he was telling them that if they are frightened to turn their thoughts to the Buddha and his teaching. He was also telling them how to behave for the week. Outside a truck was decorated with a circular pyramid of flowers, jasmine garlands, wooden nagas, the flag of Thai Buddhism, and an Abbot's fan, which is blue and has a picture of the Buddha.

After about an hour the monks-to-be got up and made their way outside where over a dozen horse carriages were awaiting them. In the villages, the soon-to-be-monks are taken to the temples on the shoulders of male relatives, but it was too far to the temple for that. In Myanmar (Burma), children are taken to the temples on lavishly decorated horses in their finest clothing (often purchased just for the occasion). It is a reenactment of the Buddha giving up his life as a prince for the life of a monk. Three or four monks-to-be sat in each carriage while a boy about their age but not becoming a monk held a colorful umbrella, often embroidered with gold-colored thread, over their heads. The truck with the flowers left first for the temple while the horse carriages followed.

Photo of procession around the wiharn (prayer hall of the temple).

Kath, Somjit, and myself drove ahead of them to the temple where they would become monks. The venue that day was Wat Chedi Sao, a lovely northern-style temple. It was amazingly hot that day so it's a good thing the monks-to-be had umbrellas over their heads. While we waited, yellow robes were handed out to the parents of the children. After a little while several musicians began playing the drums and gongs as they saw the procession coming up the road. It was quite a sight with the horse carriages topped by colorful umbrellas coming up the road. When they reached the temple they all got out and walked into the temple grounds. After a few minutes to regroup, a procession around the wiharn, the main prayer hall, began. At the front of the procession were several lay people holding gold trays with the flowers from the truck, the fan that was to be offered to the abbot, and the yellow robes. After them came the monks-to-be. They walked 3 times around the wiharn before going to a large hall next to it. There the abbot was seated facing the soon-to-be-monks, while the other monks sat to the side of them. The fan was offered to the Abbot. This was followed by a sermon and prayers. At more than one point everyone bowed three times to respect the "Triple Gems," —the Buddha, his teaching, and the community of monks.

Photo of monks-to-be arriving at Wat Chedi Sao.

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