Friday, April 18, 2014

The Samanens of Ban Tahsang

During the past two weeks here in Isaan, I have taken many photographs of Novice Monks, Samanens, at the wat outside of Thasang Village.

Although Novice Monks can be of any age with the term "Novice" reflecting more on the Monk's degree of training and the rules they are to follow rather than their physical age, the focus of my photography recently has been young boys aged 8 to about 12 years.

Students in Thailand go to school throughout the year but have a major break during the hottest part of the year, Elementary school students have roughly 6 weeks off - a month prior to the Songkran holiday and two weeks after the holiday.  During this period many young boys, typically 8 years and older, enter their local monastery and become Novice Monks.

The most ornate and culturally unique aspect of becoming Novice Monks or Samanens that I have witnessed has been the Poi Sang Long Festival of the ethnic Shan people of Maehongson Province on the Thai-Myanmar (Burma) border.

Young Shan Boy Participating in Poi Sang Long Festival
Here in Northeast Thailand the tradition for young boys 8 to 12 yers old to become samaneras is much less elaborate and extravagant.  I missed out on witnessing the ritual for 8 boys from Tahsang Village to become Novice Monks this year.  But our paths crossed a few days later.

Duang and I often use the adjective, "naughty", in regards to many of the young boys and girls that we encounter here.  Rather than being a judgement of their character or morals, we use the adjective as a term of endearment; an adjective related to the child's exuberance, enthusiasm, and joie de vivre.

I often find myself smiling and in admiration of the confidence, curiosity, and Independence exhibit by the children - often starting as early as they are able to walk.  Although I write about "Allen's World", more often than not I am more like a resident or guest in their world!

I especially enjoy photographing young Novice Monks.  For me there is a dichotomy related to the young samaneras - Monks on a journey to enlightenment, people on a higher level of enlightenment than the laypeople around them but at the same time, and at certain times very apparent, they are still just very young boys.  A sort of ying and yang, a spiritual ying and yang.

There is the dichotomy of the discipline and constraints of the monastic life and the exuberance, energy, and enthusiasm of young boys.

Samaneras Building Pop Guns Out of Bamboo
Earlier this month we drove out to the wat located in the sugar cane fields outside of Tahsang Village to prepare the site for where the tat for Duang's father would be installed.  A tat is a decorative structure in which bone fragments of ancestors are interned at a wat.  On 12 April after a bone washing ritual, bone fragments from Duang's father were interned in the family tat.

As Duang and her brothers cleaned and planted around the tat area, I went off to where the 8 village boys were occupied.  Novice Monks ... were they meditating?  No.  Novice Monks ... were they studying scriptures?  No.  Novice Monks were they chanting or reciting prayers or something like that? No.  The Novice Monks were all occupied, very busy with knives, machetes, and one bow saw - making pop guns out of bamboo.

The pop gun mechanism was very similar to some of the parts of the snares that Duang and I saw in the Khmu villages of the Luang Prabang area in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.  The boys carefully cut almost through a small diameter section of a particular type of bamboo.  They skillfully used knives to separate the bamboo into two pieces - a barrel piece with a smooth bore and a section piece with a solid portion and an extended piston that would slide into the barrel.

The boys were having a grand time building their pop guns.  The boys worked intently to properly fashion and fit the pieces of their guns.  They giggled, laughed and joked as they worked.  A couple of the older boys with more experience in these types of matters helped the less experienced boys in constructing their guns. I found it quite entertaining and even educational to see the young boys enjoying themselves on a hot late morning in Isaan.  The boys were also entertained by my interest in photographing them - laughing, posing, joking, and at times hamming it up for my camera.  Yes these were samaneras but they were definitely "naughty" boys.

Hamming for the camera

Once the pop guns were completed, the Novice Monks loaded them with ammunition.  The pop guns were single shot muzzle loaded devices.  The ammunition was water soaked toilet paper - spit balls.  The boys would make a ball out of wet toilet paper - the ball being slightly larger than the bore of their gun. Using their fingers and the solid section of their gun to shove and pound the wad of wet paper into the open end of the gun.  When the wad was completely inserted and jammed into the bore, the gun was ready to be fired. The gun is fired by rapidly and forcibly shoving the rod portion of the gun into the barrel section sending the spit ball flying through the air with a loud "pop".

As the Novice Monks finished their guns they set off to what appeared to me to be training for urban warfare.  They ran around the grounds, hiding behind trees and the small cabins to ambush other Monks.  They were having a grand time.

After a while of urban warfare, the Novice Monks headed over to their quarters to prepare for lunch.  The Novice Monks walked the short distance to the usobot where they slept inside of small mosquito net tents.  Inside of the bot, the boys adjusted and put on their robes - no small task.  Older boys and boys with more experience in donning robes helped the other boys.

Getting Dressed for Lunch

Donning On the Monk's Robes

After they were completely and properly attired, the Novice Monks went over to the sala, meeting hall, to have lunch.  The Monks of the "outside" Wat are members of the Dhammayuttika Nikaya sect of Theravada Buddhism.  They are more orthodox in their practises than the Maha Nikaya sect of Monks.  Dhammayuttika Monks eat only one meal a day which must be consumed by noon.

Apparently out of deference to their youth, the young samanens eat more than one meal.  As they entered the sala they were greeted by one of their mothers.  The  semanens were directed to sit on some sahts placed on the unfinished sala's concrete floor.  A charcoal stove was blazing away at each end of the saht covered area.  As another woman, off to side, was busy preparing food, the mother placed conical pans atop the charcoal stoves and poured water in the trough around the cone.  I instantly recognized that the boys were going to have "mukkatah" (Thai BBQ) for their meal.

Mukkatah is a very popular Thai dining experience.  A conical metal pan with a slotted cone rising out of its center is placed over a charcoal fire.  Chunks of pig fat are rubbed over the conical section of the pan to season it.  Water or broth is poured into the trough that surrounds the conical section of the pan.  After the conical section is properly seasoned the diners using chopsticks place thin pieces of squid, chicken, pork and sometimes beef on the slotted conical section to grill them.  Rice noodles along with various greens, mushrooms, garlic, and onions are added to the to the trough liquid to create a hearty soup flavored by the juices rolling down the conical section.

Samaneras Enjoying Their Afternoon Meal

It was interesting to watch the interaction of the Novice Monks and the women who were feeding them.  As Monks, the boys can not touch females.  There are procedures and methods to avoid contact with females.  As Monks, the boys are also in a position of high respect despite their age or relationship to the laypeople.  Even little sisters were careful to not to touch their brother or his friends.  The mother had the Novice Monks recite a mantra or prayer before they started their meal.

During our stay I had witnessed the Novice Monks building pop guns, playing with their pop guns and having a great lunch.  To me this seemed like a great deal of fun - perhaps too much fun.  I asked through Duang when the boys would have class or instruction.  It turns out that the Novice Monks have instruction starting at 5:30 P.M.  It sounded pretty good to me - good food, and plenty of time to play with friends .  I asked our grandson, Peelawat if we should become samanens together next year.  he knew that I was joking and smiled.

Samanen With His Bowl Waiting for Food Offering Ritual to Commence

Novice Monks From Ban Tahsang Participate in Food Offering Ritual

Being a Monk requires following many rules and regulations.  The higher that you go in monastic life the more rules and regulations there are to be followed. Since Samanens are just starting out in monastic life, they have fewer rules and simpler rules to follow.  Novice Monks are required to follow the "Ten Precepts" (training rules).

     1.     Refrain from killing living creatures
     2.     Refrain from stealing
     3.     Refrain from unchaste behavior and thoughts (sensuality, sexuality, lust)
     4.     Refrain from incorrect speech (lying)
     5.     Refrain from taking intoxicants
     6.     Refrain from taking food at inappropriate times (after noon)
     7.     Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment programs
     8.     Refrain from wearing perfume, cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories)
     9.     Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on luxurious, soft beds
    10.    Refrain from accepting money

The "Ten Precepts" seem rather reasonable to follow - perhaps easier for a 8 to 12 year old than a 65 year old, but reasonable for all.  But as I have written many times before ... there are the ways that things are supposed to be and then there is the way that they really are - especially if you are a young boy and a "naughty" boy at that.

We returned to the wat on April 14 for the celebration of "Songpoo Day". During this visit I witnessed another example of the dichotomy of the life required in adherence to the Ten Precepts and the life of 8 to 12 year old "naughty" boys.

On Songpoo Day, there was a big swarming and hatch of some kind of insect near the cabins at the outside wat.  The hatch was concentrated in the area where the Novice Monks played during their free time.  I do not know exactly what kind of insect was swarming or hatching  but they seemed to be a sort of flying ant perhaps termites.  The bugs had two large delicate wings - extremely large in comparison to the body.  The body was reddish and appeared to be a larval stage.  The insects were in gyrating masses on the bare ground.  Wings were falling off leaving maggot sized reddish larvae writhing on the ground.  Ants were busy capturing the larvae and dragging them off to shove and pull them down underground to their colonies.

The drama of life and death was played out on a massive scale for those willing to watch Nature's way.  Some of those willing to watch and willing to become involved were the Novice Monks - young boys bound to follow the Ten Precepts but at the same time still 8 to 12 year old boys.

"There are the ways that things are supposed to be and then there are the ways that things actually are"

Some of the Novice Monks were occupied assisting the ants.  They gathered up some of the larvae and placed them near or in many cases placed the insects in the ant holes.  In some cases they utilized twigs to herd either the larvae or ants into a confrontation.  The Monks in reality were not cruel.  They did not remove any wings from the insects and did not kill any of them.  But the little boys did set the stage for the insects to be devoured by the ants in a sense facilitating the natural order of things.

Busy with bugs
The dichotomy was not lost to me.  I am not judging or would I choose to judge this type of behavior.  I am only reporting what I witnessed.  I am sharing the incidents with others in perhaps a sort of celebration of the reality of boys being boys no matter their current circumstances - a celebration of non-conformity and a celebration of being "naughty".

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