Justin Becomes a Monk


Yes, my young neighbor Justin (Pae) following the wishes, no doubt, of the family and society, decided join the lead of the rest of male Thai society and become a monk for a bit.  In his case, one month only, thank you.  He confessed to me earlier that his biggest concern was that of having all of his hair shaved off. 


He was very, VERY concerned that:

  1- he would no longer be the handsome devil that he normally is, and

  2- that with shaven head, his ears would appear larger [and which they did].


Now neither are exactly soul shattering spiritual dilemmas, but then this "wannabe American" is not exactly your normal example of traditional Thai society.


I have somehow become a member of his (extended) family and as such am frequently  invited to dinner, and on various family outings, as well as important social events such as this exercise in "Playing Monk For A Few Days".  Justin had spent the previous night at the temple for coaching, meditation and preparation for the special ceremony on the next day.  Now the ‘coaching’ was quite necessary in that he, like all monk aspirants, had to learn a considerable amount of traditional text in Pali for the following days liturgy.    Pali is a dead language, much like Latin, and used today only in  Buddhist rites.  Linguistically the Thai language is not related to the ancient Pali, although many Pali words have been adopted into contemporary Thai.


 His cousin Jeep picked me up promptly at six o’clock in the morning in her auto, which was already very full of relatives, and we headed for Wat Ram Poeng which is about 15 minutes or so from the house. Took us a bit longer in that we, following various back alleys and byways, encountered a herd of Brahma cows that were meandering down the middle of the road and we had to come to a crawl as we inched our way between them.   Arriving at the Wat Ram Poeng (whose transliterated English name sounds nothing like the Thai, and in fact there is no combination of  letters in English for conveying the actual Thai sound), we were greeted by an entire flock of relatives who had arrived from the small town of Doi Tao  (150 miles south of Chiang Mai), the ancestral home of this smiling clan with Chinese roots, for yet another milestone in the family history. 


All seemed pleased that I had, once again, joined the family for the festivities at hand, not the least of which was the matriarch of the tribe, a wispy little old lady of 93, now confined to a wheelchair.  Though her movements may have been hampered, and her sight may have dimmed a bit, her memory and hearing remain at the same level as when she was 20, and when she finally focused on my face, she smilingly began her usual jabbering at me in rapid fire Thai as if I were one of her own.


Wat Ram Poeng is one of the oldest temples in Chiang Mai, and just down the road from the Wat U-mong.  Both are connected to me in a multitude of ways, some of which I understand, and I intuitively know that there are many others which I still have to unravel completely. 


On March 27, 1835 B.E. (1292 A.D.), King Mengrai, founder of the northern kingdom of Lanna, established his residence on the spot he had carefully selected as the new site for his capital, the ”new [mai] city [chiang]”.  Some years later, King Mengrai founded the Wat U-mong, located at distance from the city to accommodate a celebrated monk by the name of Therachan and his group of forest monks from Sri Lanka.  The Wat U-mong is situated on fifty acres of tree filled park-like land and also contains a beautiful lake. In Thai the word ‘mong’ means tunnel (or tunnels since singular or plural is indicated by context), and the monk Therachan believed that silence was necessary for meditation and the underground meditation cells could provide not only the quiet, but also a tempered environment free of heat or cold. 


The Wat Ram Poeng is located less than a mile down the ancient road from the Wat U-mong and is also an oasis of peace and solitude amidst gigantic trees. It was established in the year 2035 B.E. (1492 A.D.) by King Yod Chiangrai, two hundred years after the founding of the ancient Lanna Kingdom and the city of Chiang Mai.   Today Wat Ram Poeng serves not only the local Thai populace, but is also known for its ‘Northern Insight Meditation Center’ which draws foreigners from around to globe to spend time there in meditation practice. And it was at this same temple that my adopted Thai son Tanachai was ordained some three years ago. 


There were six aspirants for today's ceremonies, all in their early 20's, each attired in simple, loose white pants and shirt.   After each had greeted their relatives, it was time for the head shaving ceremony.  First each was seated and given a large lotus leaf to place in their laps.  Then the eldest member of each family approached the aspirant and scissors in hand, ritually clipped a bit of hair which was placed in the leaf.  This process is repeated by various members of the immediate family, usually grandparents, followed by parents.  Don’t know my exact standing in the hierarchy, but I was also passed the special gold handled scissors, and as I clipped a lock of Justin’s hair, he whispered to me, “Et tu brute!” and sort of smiled.  I silently wondered if this was perhaps the first time that Shakespeare had become a part of the ordination process. 


Then, after the remaining hair had been lathered with shampoo, a monk appeared for each of the aspirants with razor in hand and proceed to carefully shave the entire head.  In Thailand the head shaving process also includes the eyebrows. 


It was now seven o’clock and the sun, a fiery red ball,  was peeking through the large trees in the east,  and head shaving, or pre-ordination ceremony had been completed.  Though the air was still tempered by the coolness of the night, it promised to be yet another warm day as the northern Thai ‘summer’ (March, April and May) was entering its final weeks. 


The monk ordination ceremony is referred to as “Buan (ordination) phut (Buddha)”, or often commonly known as “buan nahk (ordination serpent)”.   According to legend, a ‘nahk - snake’ who was a profound admirer of Buddha and his teachings disguised himself as a young male human and ordained as a monk.  But then one night the magic wore off and he reverted to his natural serpent form, to the horror of his fellow monks. The Buddha is said to have summoned the nahk and gently told him that only humans were allowed in the monkhood.  “In that case”, said the serpent sadly, “please use my name so that henceforth all the young men who are about to be ordained will be called ‘nahk’. “  The Buddha consented and the name has persisted for well over two thousand years.  And this no doubt also explains why one of the ordination questions asked in Pali during the ceremony is “Are you a human?”


While the monks-to-be retired to shower and change into their special garments for the ceremony, the crowd of people which had now grown to over 200 people retired to the special area near the ages old stupa, and shaded by enormous trees, where the outdoor investiture would be held.  Large woven straw mats had been placed on the tiled surface for our comfort.  A raised outdoor platform, with a large golden statue of Buddha, it was one of those special areas, much like the inside of a wat, where shoes are removed prior to entering.  



Finally the ‘nuak’, or aspirants, appeared and now they were all clothed in white shirt, loose white pants and a gold embroidered translucent gown which came to just below the knees.  After they were seated the monk in charge of the ceremony, and the abbot of the wat, began chanting in Pali.  After they had finished with this introduction to the ritual, a number, perhaps 10 or 12, Buddhist nuns, with clean shaven heads, chanted for a considerable length of time.  Their crystalline voices hovered in the clear morning air and lent an especial lightness to the ceremony at hand. 


Then each aspirant in turn approached the abbot, began their individual chanting in Pali, asking to be admitted to the monkhood, promising to adhere to the Buddhist precepts, and finally they were questioned by the Abbot, still in ancient language of Pali,  and had to respond to his questions.    Then more chanting by the monks and chanted responses by the assembled crowd of people.    The aspirants then retired to the nearby ‘bot’, or main temple building where they donned their saffron robes.  They returned, circled the Buddha image three times, and then went back to the main building for a special ‘closed session’ ceremony.


And fortunately for my legs, unused to the more than two hours of sitting in a semi-formal position, I was informed by Jeep that we would have about a half hour break.  An opportune time to wander around the beautiful ground, filled with flowering trees and well tended plants, stretch our legs and of course indulge in that all-time Thai favorite activity of having a small snack. 


After we returned, and the new monks solemnly filed in they were joined by perhaps  9  of the regular monks attached to the wat.   Another hour or so of ceremony, and considerable chanting and the last item was a small pep talk by the Abbot.  By now it was nearing 11:00 am and almost time for lunch, and the monk’s last meal of the day in that they are not allowed to eat from noon until dawn of the following day.  And while waiting for the gong summoning the new monks, the regular monks and the assembled relatives to eat, time for photos with family and friends. 


I know that I haven’t dealt with the countless smaller details and symbolism of the ceremony but rather have tried to present the broader picture of the ordination of a new monk in northern Thailand.   And did I forget to mention that in that vast sea of relatives and friends who had arrived for this special day, I was the only farang (foreigner) in attendance?  An honor which I appreciate with every fiber of my being.


 Justin with his mother and aunt