You may have seen groups of Thai people taking over the road with much dancing in a party atmosphere and a young man dressed in white being carried on a mobile platform looking a little nervous. He’ll soon be a new monk.
Being invited to a Monk Ordination Ceremony in Thailand is a privilege and indicates that you have gained some respect from the family. It’s an opportunity to learn more about Thai culture and Buddhism. Some information about the ceremony and what you may expect will be useful.
This is what it is all about!
The Importance of Being a Monk for Thai Men
Most men in Thailand will eventually become a monk. Not as long-term as it would be in the West, being a monk in Thailand can be as short as for only a day or as long as the rest of the man’s life. Most Thai men fall in between. A week, a few weeks or a month or two is quite common with most Thai businesses allowing unpaid leave so a Thai man can become a monk.
Becoming a monk for a man in Thailand shows his commitment to his Buddhist faith. It also is usually a precursor to marriage, with some families refusing to allow their daughter to marry a man who hasn’t been one. Deciding to join the brotherhood at the local temple helps to avoid problems with a bride-to-be’s family.
What About Thai Women?
Women in Thailand who want to enter the temple are called mae chi or mae ji, a term of unknown origin. They may shave their heads, take vows and wear traditional robes which are white (not saffron) in colour. However they have no official status and are not ordained. There is also no ceremonial aspect comparable with the process of men entering monkhood. They are neither clergy nor laypeople or they are both, depending on circumstances.
Because giving alms to mae chi doesn’t confer the same merit as giving alms to monks, Thai laypeople give the mae chi much less support.
Since they are not ordained, the mae chi may not teach or perform rituals. Many Thai women enter the temple for short periods of time (no head shaving required) especially when they are looking for the time and space to meditate on difficult personal circumstances to help them regain their composure and peace of mind.
In modern times there has been debate about the status of women in Buddhist temple life. This remains as a controversial subject within Thai society.
Before Ordination into Thai Monkhood
There is likely to be a big party prior to the ordination ceremonies, perhaps something akin to a 21st birthday party of a young man in Western countries. Before the day of ordination, the prospective monk visits all family members to ask their forgiveness for past misdeeds, in order to sever the bonds of human relationships.
On the eve of the ordination, usually at home, a ceremony is held in which he has his eyebrows and head ritually shaved. The first few locks are cut off by his parents, grandparents and other family members according to rank. This ritual shaving is a form of denial of sexuality and vanity.
Now comes the donning of the white robes and the Tham Kwan Nak ceremony. This is conducted by an expert in these affairs and for approximately two hours or so he will recite verses recounting the sufferings endured by the parents in raising their child. After this comes the feasting, the young man’s last indulgence before he renounces the world of the flesh and embraces the austere life of a monk.
What Does the Ordination Ceremony Entail?
Of course, many Thai villages and towns have slightly different ordination ceremonies, depending on the temple the young man is joining however there are some things generally included in all ceremonies.
On ordination day there will be a procession to the Temple. This is the most public part of the ceremony with friends and family (including Mum and Dad) dancing and celebrating as they slowly move towards the destination. There may be an amplified band (battery powered) playing somewhat raucous Thai music and other traditional musical instruments amongst the followers. Traffic will give way with well-wishers joining in along the route. A variety of vehicles can be used to carry the person including open carts, modern motor vehicles or even an elephants!
The novice monk is then carried to the temple on the shoulders of his friends where they progress around the temple three times, scattering coins in a symbolic gesture of renouncing material possessions.
The young man’s father leads his son into the temple where, in front of the assembled monks, he presents his son with a saffron robe. Having prostrated himself before the monks and paid his respects, the candidate now vows to observe the 10 basic vows of the novice monk – the fundamental precepts that all Buddhists should follow.
One of the monks will ask him, in Pali (that’s the language of the Thai temple), a series of questions that he must answer correctly in order to be accepted as a full novice monk. The questions may include things like “Do you have leprosy?” (correct answer “No”), “Are you at least 20 years old?” and “Are you human?”
If he answers all the questions correctly, the monk goes back to the other waiting monks to say he has answered correctly and ask the abbot for permission to accept him. Once accepted, the young man is now a novice monk or Phra (meaning Father) and his family crawl to him on their knees to give him offerings of things he will need while he living at the temple.
You’ll hear a lot of chanting in the Pali language, the young man will give offerings to the monks, then he will be taken to the back of the temple where he’ll change into the saffron orange robes of a monk and given an alms bowl (the bowl the monk uses every morning to ask people in the community for food).
What Happens After the Ordination Ceremony?
Although a solemn occasion, Thais also love to have fun. Once their loved one is officially a monk, one by one or in groups, members of his family and friends will sit in front of him to have their photos taken with the new monk. This will continue until everyone has had their photos taken. Everyone except the monk is allowed to smile for the photos.
Lunch is served but, as Buddhist monks must finish eating for the day before 12 Noon, the monks and the new monk are served first while the rest of the gathering waits. Only when all the monks have finished eating and left to go back to the temple for daily chores can everyone else eat. Expect a huge, celebratory meal with lots of courses, loud Thai traditional music and other entertainment.
What Should You Wear or Take To an Ordination Ceremony?
Thais are very relaxed so the dress code is simple. You can wear jeans, pants, a dress, a skirt, anything that’s comfortable. The only things you should not wear are shorts, very short sleeved or sleeveless shirts and anything that is black. Black is the color for funerals, so Thais do not wear it for the temple at any other time, particularly for special occasions. Bright colours however are fine.
As far as taking something to the ordination ceremony, for most special occasions in Thailand, family and friends give a gift of money. Put a few hundred baht in an envelope with your name on the front and hand it to the mother or father of the man who is going to be a monk. The monk ordination ceremony is extremely expensive, so the money is used to help pay for the cost.
Thai people love to have fun so even on solemn occasions you’ll still have a relaxing and fun time. If you do anything wrong, don’t worry. If it’s a genuine mistake, Thais will always make allowances and will probably laugh right along with you. You’ll be encouraged to join in the dancing, regardless of your ‘style’, why not? The more involved you are, the more the family will appreciate it. Most importantly, enjoy the unique experience and take lots of photos. You’re allowed to take them at any time during the ceremony.
The Daily Life of a Thai Monk
The Sangha World in Thailand consists of about 200,000 monks and 85,000 novices at most times of the year. However, these numbers increase during the Buddhist ‘lent’ to 300,000 and 100,000 novices. Young boys may become novices at any age, but a man cannot become a monk until he reaches the age of twenty. He can then remain a monk for as long as he wishes, even for just one day. Three months is more usual, although some choose to remain in monkhood for the rest of their lives.
There are over 29,000 temples in Thailand and the daily routine of the monks in all of them is pretty much the same.
4.00 am – The monks wake up and meditate for one hour, followed by one hour of chanting.
6.00 am – The monks walk barefoot around the neighbourhood while the local people make merit by offering them food.
8.00 am – Returning to the temple, the monks sit together to eat breakfast, then make a blessing for world peace.
Before 12.00 noon – Some monks choose to eat a light lunch at this time. This is the last solid food they are allowed to consume until sunrise the following morning.
1.00 pm – Classes in Buddhist teaching begin. Some monks may attend school outside the temple.
6.00 pm – A two-hour session of meditation and prayer begins.
8.00 pm – The monks retire to do homework.
Besides these duties, all monks are given specific roles to play in the day-to-day running and maintenance of the temple and its surroundings.
After being in the monkhood for several years and demonstrating extreme dedication to both social work and spiritual study, a monk can be promoted gradually until he reaches the Sangha Supreme Council; the governing body presided over by the Supreme Patriarch.
All monks must follow 227 strict precepts or rules of conduct, many of which concern his relations with members of the opposite sex. When a monk is ordained he is said to be reborn into a new life and the past no longer counts – not even if he was married. Women are forbidden to touch monks and should not even stay alone in the same room as a monk. If a woman wishes to offer an object to a monk, it must pass through a third medium, such as a piece of cloth. Monks always carry a piece of cloth for this purpose. The monk will lay the cloth on the ground or table, holding on to one end. The woman places the offering on the cloth and the monk then draws it away.
Thai monks can be seen wearing various shades of robes, from dark brown to the familiar brilliant saffron. There are no rules, but the darker shades are preferred by monks in the Dharmmayuth sect and Thu-dong or forest monks.
All ordination ceremonies are conducted in much the same fashion with one or two variations depending on area and the money available for the ceremonies. In the northern areas, around Mae Hong Son, the Shan people have mass ordinations held over two or three days accompanied by spectacular ceremonies.
Ordination is one of the most important events in the life of Thai men, marking the transition from youth to adulthood. This period is dedicated to Buddha and during this time, nothing is allowed to interfere with the gaining of merit. When he returns to the real world, he can take up his life as before but in accordance with the teachings of the Lord Buddha.
Behaving Towards Monks
Monks are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. The monks that you see sweeping the temple stairs may be less concerned about dirt and more interested in removing the insects so that no one accidentally steps on one!
I will always remember entering a Buddhist temple and hearing a deep resonant voice in the distance saying ‘Man, come here!’ I didn’t realise I was the subject of the demand (request really) so I ignored it. Again ‘Man, come here!’ This time I knew that I was being spoken to. I nervously shuffled towards the monk in the corner and sat before him. Then next; ‘And good luck to you always.’ Wow; I’m sure this would never have happened in any Western Cathedral!
- Eating: Monks do not eat after noon; be mindful about eating or snacking around them.
- Body Language: If a monk is sitting, show respect by sitting before starting a conversation. Avoid sitting higher than a monk if you can help it. Never point your feet at any Buddhist while sitting.
- Right Hand Only: Only use your right hand when giving or receiving something from a monk. It’s anticipated that you have used the left hand for another purpose!
- Travel: Monks have the first choice of seating and may even have a special place reserved for them on some forms of public transport, usually free. Everyone, including you, should give up their seat if necessary. Even walking on a busy pathway, give a monk right of way. You may see a Thai motorbike rider stop and offer a ride; they shouldn’t need motorbike taxis!
Advice for Women
A woman should never touch or hand a monk something. Even accidentally brushing against their robes requires that they fast and perform a cleansing ritual. Food or donations must be passed to a man first and then on to the monk – even the monk’s own mother must follow this rule!
Nearly every temple has a small metal box for receiving donations from the public. These donations keep the temple running, usually on a very thin budget. If you enjoyed your visit, giving a small amount would mean a lot.
Going a Little Extra
While certainly not expected, these gestures will show that you took the time to research Buddhist customs before your visit to a temple.
- Enter the shrine with your left foot first, and exit by leading with your right foot.
- The traditional greeting for a monk is to place the hands together in a prayer-like gesture and give a slight bow. Known as the wai in Thailand, the hands are held higher than usual (near the forehead) to show more respect to monks.