Friday, March 20, 2009

Monk Ordination

At the end of this month, we will be travelling to Maehongson to witness ans photograph the Shan people's celebration of "Poi Sang Long". During the celebration of "Poi Sang Long" young Shan boys are ordained as novice Buddhist Monks.

This will not be the first time that I have witnessed the festivities associated with a young Thai boy becoming a Monk. Many of the parties that we have attended have been for family member's and friend's sons entering into the sanga (religious community). Every Thai male 20 years or older is expected to be a Monk at some point in his life. It is believed that a boy can only become a man after serving as a Monk. Even the current King of Thailand spent time as a Monk.

Being ordained as a Monk earns great merit for a boy's mother and to a lesser extent his father. The boy's mother gains more merit because the act of becoming a Monk is not available to women. The boy's father naturally had the opportunity to earn the merit by becoming a Monk himself.

Duang's son became a Monk in early January of 2007. His ordination occurred during my first visit to the Isaan region and her home village of Tahsang. The following is a description of the events and rituals culminating in his ordination. The events as well as rituals are typical of all ordinations but not exactly the same for all.

On Tuesday Duang, her mother, an aunt, and an uncle went into Kumphawapi to purchase all the trappings and accoutrement's deemed as necessary to become a Monk. We went to a very small and dark wooden shop that specialized only in Monk accessories. To me it was like going to a specialty store to outfit your child back in the USA for Boy Scout or Summer Camp. The Monk articles included robes, towels, candles, drinking cup, soap, matches, flashlight, wash bucket, candle holder, ceremonial fan, and so on. Monk things are of a special color - saffron. The shop keeper was very gracious and considerate much like a bridal consultant or wedding planner in the USA. Just like in the USA she worked the angles well to insure that the young man had everything that he should have for his special day.

That night after a large family meal - large in terms of the number of people and amount of food, we went to one of the local Wats. There is a Wat inside the village, but for some reason we went to the Wat that is set out in the middle of the rice paddies and sugar cane fields. At the Wat, Duang's presented himself to the Monk and told him that he wanted to become a Monk. Some candles were lit, some incense was burned, some prayers and chants were made prior to going back to the village.

Duang's son spent the next two days preparing to enter the monkhood. He had to go see people that he may have hurt, apologize, and seek their forgiveness if not their blessing.

On Friday we arrived at Duang's parents house in the early morning. The place was a center for all kinds of activities. The narrow village road in front of the house had been commandeered for the festivities. Two large awnings had been set up in the middle of the road. Underneath the awnings wood platforms had been placed and covered with sahts (woven reed mats) for guests to sit upon. Although we had arrived fairly early in the morning, several family members had already started to eat as well as to drink. For this great celebration the beverages of choice were beer and Lao Kao (moonshine whiskey).

In the backyard in front of the rice shed, a temporary outdoor kitchen had been set up. Underneath temporary tarps, numerous female relatives were occupied cooking food in large woks, kettles, and cauldrons over propane gas burners and charcoal fires. Other women were busy preparing foods on hand made wood tables. The air was filled with the sounds of gossiping relatives, the chopping of foods, sizzling food, boiling liquids, the sounds of Duang's uncle's water buffalo next door as well as all of the village's chickens and dogs. Other women were busy washing the continuous procession of pots, pans, dishes, and other paraphernalia associated with the food preparation and consumption in the front.

Inside the dimly lit house, several men were sitting on the floor with some large round cutting boards, heavy knives, a leg of a cow, and assorted pieces as well as parts of a cow. Items such as stomach, liver, skin, and intestines were cut and sent out to the kitchen to be boiled. The meat from the leg was cut and chopped with the heavy knives until it became a pasty consistency. It was then mixed with cilantro, garlic and chilies to be used a a raw dipping sauce for sticky rice. This dish is served at all celebrations. The leg of beef is purchased from a local open air stand where beef products hang for sale. The men were busy with their cutting, chopping, scraping, and drinking Lao whiskey and beer.

The first ritual, cutting of the hair, started at 9:30 AM. After washing the feet of his mother, father, and grandparents, Duang's son came out to the front of the house and sat in a chair placed in the middle of the road. Family members lined up to take their turn in cutting off some of his hair with a pair of scissors. In accordance with tradition and as a sign of respect for elders, his grandparents were the first to cut his locks, followed by his mother, his father, and then surprisingly me, his wife, and then his sister. The remainder of the relatives and friends some how managed to sort themselves out orderly and without any difficulty.

Duang's son sat bare chested with a pakama (a article of clothing - a cotton plaid strip of cloth used for many purposes) draped over his shoulders. He held two plastic lotus blossoms in his hands that were kept in a chest high wai gesture. In his lap was a large lotus leave where the shorn locks of hair were placed as they were cut by each person. As each person cut his hair they gave him their blessing, forgave him for any of his past transgressions and wished him good luck in the future.

The cutting of one's hair goes back to ancient times. The first Buddha was originally an Indian prince named Siddharta. In the times of Siddharta long hair symbolized royalty. Siddharta prior to becoming enlightened and becoming Buddha had shaved off his hair to indicate his renouncement of all his worldly possessions. That act is repeated by young men becoming Monks. After their relatives and friends have cut off his hair, a Monk shaves the young man's head and eyebrows. The lotus leaf along with the cut pieces of hair are taken back to the Wat by the Monk

The young man is now after renouncing his worldly goods is considered to be a "naga". Naga is a mythological serpent that can take on many forms. When Buddha was walking around preaching and teaching his disciples, Naga The Serpent King took on human form, asked to become a Monk and followed Buddha around listening to the sermons. One day the naga fell asleep and reverted back to his snake form. Buddha told him that he could not be a Monk because he was not of this world - only humans could be a Monk. The naga agreed to leave the Monkhood but requested a favor. He asked Buddha that all young men who are about to be ordained as Monks be called "nagas". Buddha agreed. To prevent a recurrence of this incident, all young men as part of their ordination are asked if they are human. The naga despite leaving the monkhood continued his devotion to Buddha and is often depicted in art as the seven headed cobra shielding Buddha from the rain. Nagas also are depicted as statues running along the handrails on stairs into temples.

After having his head as well as his eyebrows shaved, Duang's son showered and put on some special clothing. He wore a special red garment that he had borrowed from a wealthier relative with a white crocheted shawl over his shoulder. Duang loaned him her gold necklace and bracelet to wear. He then placed a handkerchief atop his shaved head and then his fancy headdress. There is no apparent religious significance to wearing of the gold. It is more like just an opportunity to show off to the neighbors the family's economic status. The Shan people of Thailand do make a similar demonstration of wealth as well as the heavy use of makeup to dress up their young nagas which is most likely attributable to their wish to imitate Buddha's young princely son who followed in his father's footsteps and was the first Monk.







Around 3:00 P.M. and after some serious drinking by most of the revelers, except the naga (Duang's son), the procession through the village started. The family pickup truck was brought up to the house. People draped pakamas across the hood as well as along the sides of the truck. Pieces of wood were placed in the pickup truck bed to create tiered platforms upon which heavy wood chairs were placed for the naga and his grandparents. The naga sat ahead of his grandparents clasping two lotus blossoms on long stalks and three joss (incense)sticks. His hands were supported by two colorful square pillows called "mohn" in the wai (praying position). Behind him his grandparents sat side by side - his grandfather holding the ceremonial fan while his grandmother carried offerings of monks robes, ceremonial bowl and floral arrangement. A large ceremonial umbrella (sapatone) towered over the naga. His grandmother also carried her own umbrella for protection from the afternoon sun. An uncle sat in the back to ensure that everything stayed in place and Duang's granddaughter (three years old) also rode in the back of the pickup.



Following the pickup truck was a large farm truck outfitted with a sound system. The sound system consisted of a portable generator, over 24 industrial or rather concert sized speakers, a P.A. system, and CD player. Loud, driving, and native music "Mahlam Lao" blared from the truck. "Mahlam Lao" is the music of Isaan - very conducive to dancing no matter how much or little you may have been drinking. Dispersed amongst the vehicles were family members, friends, and well wishers. They all had been drinking for most of the day so this was to be a dancing rather than marching parade through the village. The purpose of the procession through the village has nothing to do with Buddhism. The origins of the procession is linked to the region's religions prior to the arrival of Buddhism. The intent of the procession is to let the spirits know that the young man has decided to become a Monk - consideration to the elements of Brahmin and Animist faiths that remain active and prevalent today throughout Isaan.



The parade danced through the village, crossed the main country road, danced through the second half of the village, and retraced its steps back to the starting point. All the while, people were drinking whiskey and beer. Young people ran up and down through the ranks of dancers ensuring that dancer's glasses were filled. Some people would break off from the parade to stop into small local markets to ensure a fresh supply of beer for everyone. People drank from bottles, glasses, and plastic pitchers. There was a great sense of community and affinity with people coming out of their houses to watch or in many cases join in the celebration.. Occasionally fireworks were launched into the late afternoon sky - loud whistling spinning disks that after reaching their apogee high in the sky would explode in a large bang.

Upon return to Duang's parent's house, her son went off to spend some time with his wife and child. The revelers continued their socializing, drinking, and eating once again. Although the awnings had been removed from the street, the family had not relinquished possession or control of the street in front of the house. Around 4:30 P.M., two large trucks arrived filled with scaffolding and roadies.

The roadies immediately commenced erecting a large elevated stage that spanned the width of the street. Duang's father had been an entertainer when he was younger. Her younger brother continues the family tradition and is a professional entertainer. He stages and stars in stage shows unique to Isaan. These are song, dance and comedy extravaganzas that remind me somewhat of the USO Tour scene from the American film classic "Apocalypse Now". The music is mahlam lao and mor lam with go-go dancers as well as anywhere from 8 to 16 piece bands. These shows are very popular and are employed at all kinds of celebrations in Isaan.

Prior to the start of the show at 10:00, Duang and I went along to pick up the go-go dancers. We went to the nearby city Kumphawapi some twenty minutes away. The dancers were arriving from Udonthani on a regular commercial bus. We picked them up at the intersection of the main road to Bangkok and the road that lead back to Kumphawapi city center.

The show was great and ran from 10:00 P.M. until 3:00 A. M. Everyone in the village as well as many people form nearby villages attended. Local policemen ensured that the fights did not get out of control. These shows or perhaps the drinking associated with these shows are famous or rather infamous for fighting. In two years of attending many of these shows, I have only witnessed one where there wasn't an incident or two. This celebration was no exception.

After resting for an hour we got up at 4:00 P.M. for the next ordination ritual. We drove to the large Wat in Kumphawapi. Because Duang's parent's were coming along, we sat in the open pickup bed. The combination of the previous night's partying and the cold pre-sunrise temperature made for a long and uncomfortable journey.

Upon arrival at the Wat, we circled the building carrying the offerings for the Monks three times in a clockwise direction. We climbed the stairs into the bot following Duang's son. As he got to the top of the stairs, he threw some coins and small candies over his shoulder. This was another sign that he was renouncing his worldly possessions. People quickly gathered these up as they are considered to be good luck charms.


We presented the assembled nine Monks with our offerings. After some chanting by the Monks, Duang's son presented himself to the head Monk, the Abbott. He placed his Monk robes to his left and prostrated three times (once for Buddha, once for the teachings of Buddha, and once for the religious community). Duang's son then placed his robes over his forearms, made his hands into a wai position and started chanting in Pali - the ancient language of Buddhist scriptures. After a short period of time, he took off his white shawl and the Abbot placed the Monk's shoulder cloth (amsa) over his head. Duang's son then went off with a couple of Monks and very shortly returned wearing the rest of the Monk habit.


Fully dressed as a Monk, he faced the Abbot and formally declared in Pali:


I go to Buddha for refuge


I go to the Dharma (Teachings of Buddha) for refuge


I go to the Sanga (the Buddhist religious community) for refuge


He was now declared to be a "samanera" much like a seminary student in the Catholic religion.


A Monk then told him the 10 rules that had to be followed as a "samanera" Duang's son repeated each rule as it was given.

The samanera then placed his alms bowl over his shoulder and told the Abbot that he wanted to be a Monk. The Abbot then taught him the Pali names for the three robes and alms bowl.


Duang's son then went to go to the back of the temple and prepare himself for the examination. He stood with his hands pressed together in a wai. He was asked a series of questions in Pali to ensure that he was fit and prepared to be a Monk. These questions included ensuring that he did not have certain diseases, he was debt free, he had his parent's permission, and that he was at least twenty years old. There was also the question of "Are you human?" to ensure that he wasn't the Serpent King "Naga"up to his old tricks.


He was then brought back to the assembled Monks and through chanting they were informed that he was found to be worthy and acceptable. Duang's son prostrated three times. The Abbott accepted his request to become a Monk and then asked him the previous questions again to be sure that he was in deed ready. There was some more chanting and the ceremony was completed with him being a full fledged Monk.

Since it was now around 6:00 A.M. with sufficient light for the Monks to see the lines on their hand, it was time for the Monks to go out and make their alms rounds. As Duang's son walked down the temple steps as a Monk, he was greeted reverently by his immediate family who were the first people to offer him his first food as a Monk. It was a very touching scene and one that I will always cherish.

We returned to Duang's parent's house. Although we had left early to complete the ordination rituals, the house was not vacant. During our absence, some of the many aunts and uncles had been busy. They had used the early hours of the morning to prepare "The Mon's Breakfast". To celebrate the ordination of the new Monk and to earn additional merit, the family was going to feed the Monks. We arrived back at the house around 7;00 A. M. to help finalize the arrangements. This included opening all the windows, laying sahts on the floor, setting out trays with various foods and fruits. The relatives who remainded behind had already set up a small shrine in the room and set out bottles of drinking water for the expected esteemed guests. The ten Monks arrived around 8:00 A. M.

Duang's uncle who is a Brahmin acted as the master of ceremonies. He performed some sort of welcoming ritual with chanting, lighting of candles, and burning of incense. The ritual included the binding of spirits with cotton string. The Monks did some chanting and gave their blessings. They were offered the various trays of food and placed what they were going to eat in their alms bowls. People also made some offerings such as buckets of Monk toiletries and supplies to the Monks. After they had eaten, the Monks including Duang's son left to return to the Wat in Kumphawapi.

It had been a very special two day celebration that I had been priveldged to participate in.

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