In Theravada Buddhism, there is a tradition that the son of the family is supposed to become a monk (at least once in the lifetime) in order to repay their parents’ favors.
Some families prefer to do it since their son is still young, becoming a little monk (novice monk). Some families wait for a while until he reaches 20-year-old, which is a minimum-average age for becoming a real monk.
Actually there is no right or wrong about this. There is no obligation for when and how long to be a monk. Some families agree to make it just a perfunctory ceremony, for example, one or two days, but some families like to take it seriously. They encourage their son to be a monk for several weeks or months. In Thailand, the government office also allows its male officers, who want to follow this tradition, to take a long break (up to 3 months) being a monk in order to support and carry on this tradition.
The real purpose of being a monk is, I think, to learn Dharma and more importantly to rehearse oneself to keep one’s manners, speech, and thoughts under control.
My family is Thai. Of course we believe in this tradition. I remember since I was young, I was taught that one day I had to become a monk for their favour. My parent said to me that the merits of me being a monk would bring them to a better place afterlife when they pass away.
Actually, no one knows what is really happening afterlife, do we?
But, for me as an innocent kid, I thought, if that would make my parents happy, I would do it. So I made the promise.
When the time came,
I was twenty five. My parents came and kindly asked me for the promise I made since I was young. Previously I always had my excuse because I studied Dentistry, which took me 6 years at the university. But at this time I had no excuse and actually I also thought that it was the right time to do so because, at that time, I had just graduated and continued working as university staff. It would be a good time to learn Dharma in that transition phase before my work life.
I wrote a letter to the dean of the faculty (my work place) that I would like to follow the tradition, becoming a monk, for a short while. I wrote I would be absent for two weeks. He allowed and said to me he would rejoice in my merit.
One week before the ceremony
I went back to my home town, “Hadsiow, Srisatchanalai” Sukhothai. It is a small village located in the lower northern part of Thailand. There is a unique tradition called “Buach Chang (บวชช้าง).”
Buach Chang Hadsiow is actually a big ceremony on April the 7th each year. Local people celebrate the ordination of a group of men on elephants.
“ Buach — บวช ” in Thai language means to ordain. “ Chang — ช้าง ” means elephant. “Buach Chang” means the process of ordaining a man by using an elephant to parade him around to celebrate ( usually from home to the temple).
My parents and I were invited by the ceremony’s coordinator to a meeting. The coordinator said there were almost thirty boys who would join that year. He asked each family if everything had already prepared and organised to fit in this ceremony.
He also asked us to draw a number in order to rank the queue of the elephant in the parade. I got number one, which means I was going to be the first one in the parade, or the head of the parade. It was a great honor to my family.
On that day I also met a trainer monk. We discussed the process of ordaining. He gave me very long prayer scripts in Pali — Sanskrit language. He told me that I needed to remember every single script because in the process of ordaining they did not allow bringing the prayer book.
A temple boy
I had the opportunity to be a temple boy for three days before my ordination. I followed and helped the monks in the morning when they were going on an alms round . I got up at 4 AM and went to the temple. My job was to carry a cart and collect all the food that people gave to the monk into the cart and bring them all back to the temple. It was such a good experience because I met so many people. I learned the monks’ daily routine. Also, I got up early, I had more time to practise the ordaining prayer scripts.
One last day before the ceremony, I would say I was well prepared. I was able to remember all of the prayer scripts but I was quite nervous. My parents had perfectly prepared everything; the ceremony, the parade, and the elephant. Oh, yea I had a chance to meet my elephant also. He was so beautiful and strong. I touched him on his flank, thinking “we’re going to be alright.”
The Ceremony (April 7th, 2014)
I got up so early in the morning, probably around 5 AM. Actually, I could not sleep because I was so nervous. I had no appetite. There were so many people; my relatives, friends, and other guests since the night before. They came to celebrate and rejoice in my ordination.
My parents called me to the house’s courtyard. “It’s time,” I told myself. I walked to my parents in the courtyard. At the yard, there were a chair and a big jar which was full of water. This is the process called “bplong pŏm nâak — ปลงผมนาค.” It is the process that people cut the man’s hair and wash (take a shower) his body.
A “Naga” or “nâak” is actually an animal in the South Asian and South-East Asian literature/legend. They are a special kind of creature in the form of a big snake with a prominent crest. They have supernatural power that can disguise themselves as a human.
According to the legend, one of the Nagas overwhelmingly believes in Buddha and Buddhism. He really wants to be a monk and learns Dhamma. He disguises himself as a man and asks Buddha for ordination. But Buddha knows he isn’t human. So Buddha rejects his will and explains that animals can not be a monk. However, Buddha says he can learn Dhamma and allows him to do so. The Naga feels so sorry. He then asks Buddha to let him be his disciple. He will support and protect Buddhism for life. Buddha accepts.
According to this story, if you visit any Buddhist temple, you will always see statues of big snake in front of almost every temple’s gates.
Therefore, to worship him devotion, Thai people call the man who is going to be a monk as Naga or nâak.
They asked me to take off my clothes. They gave me a piece of traditional fabric to cover my lower body. An elder monk came and started to cut my hair. Followed by my dad, my mom, grandmother, aunt, sister, friends, and then the rest. The monk finished shaving my hair and eyebrows with a razor blade. It hurt and cold. Everyone came once again to help me wash my body. They believed that if they touch me or cut nâak’s hair, they could get merits.
Then they had me dressed up in fancy clothes. There were a white shirt and pants, and a see-through cloak. Next, a shaman came and started the ritual. He prayed in Thai, but I think it was pretty much like singing songs, performing a ceremony for chanting parents’ loving-kindness. The meaning of the songs was about parents’ unconditional love. It was so emotional. I cried. This shows how Thai people are so attached to their parents and family.
After that, they have me dressed up again in a super fancy outfit. I wore a pink cloak. There were so many accessories and a beautiful flowery headgear. They made up my face, put on lipstick, and draw my eyebrows again, and the last piece — sunglasses.
I asked them for the reason that I had to put on all those things. They said, in the tradition, they believed that the man is always full of desires and defilements. Those accessories and make-up reflects impurities. The sunglasses has a meaning that those desires blind his eyes and mislead his life.
Ready to go
After finishing dressing up, my elephant arrived. My parents carried me on to his back. There was only one sheet of fabric under me. I could feel his rough and hairy skin.
My elephant, my guests, my parade, and I were ready. So we marched from my house to the temple (around 1.5 km). The music band started playing. People were dancing around me and my elephant as well as gradually moving forward. My parents were very very happy. I was happy too. I was happy to see everyone was happy.
I arrived at the temple 30 minutes later. I was almost not able to stand up nor walk because I had straddled on the elephant’s back for half an hour. It was painful up there. I complained to my parents, but we had no choice. The show must go on…
The big parade
I had waited for the other nâaks and their elephants to arrive at the temple for a while. Then the big ceremony started. We made a huge parade and marched around the town.
I got number one, so I was the head of the parade followed by twenty-nine elephants. In front of me, there was a group of traditional dancers whirling beautifully. They were prepared by the mayor to join the ceremony.
At that time, it was in April, which is the hottest month in Thailand. You might hear “Thailand’s Songkran Festival” where people splash water to each other. Yes, in this parade, people splashed water to each other or to the elephants to cool the temperature down from the scorching sun.
One of the gimmicks of this tradition is that the parade of nâaks and elephants must march across Yom river. However, I was not able to achieve it because, in the middle of the way, there was a house where someone kept horses there. I have just known that elephants are so afraid of horses (not only mice that we see on cartoons).
As I mentioned, I was the first one in the parade. No one knew this would happened. When my elephant was approaching that horse’s house, my elephant became panic and uncontrollable. He tried to run out because he smelled horses. The elephant’s keeper tried to stop him while I was on the elephant’s back. I was so scared. I thought he was becoming musth. He flounced and hit the nearby tree. I was hit by the tree and fell down from his back. Luckily I did not get hurt.
People came to me while the elephant was kept away. The parade stopped and moved to the other street avoiding the horses’ house. I was then carried back to the temple by a Motor tricycle. It was a bit disappointing because I had no chance to carry my elephant across the river, but it was also good that I was safe.
It turned out that I was the first one who arrived at the temple. The abbot decided to ordinate me alone first. I changed my outfit to the one in the morning again and followed the monks to the consecrated assembly hall. The monks sat around me and prayed. I also prayed with them according to what I was told to remember the prayer scripts. This process took almost one hour. Then a few monks helped me change my clothes. I had to take off every piece of clothes and put on the monk’s yellow robe.
I came out of the hall. People applauded loudly. My family and relatives asked me to step on their things like clothes and cash. They believe that the newly ordinated monk is full of lucks and merits. If the new monk steps or touch anything, it will bring luck and merits to the owner as well.
My parent prepared coins which were decorated with ribbon to small flowers. They asked me to put one coin in my mouth and scatter the rest around. I do not know the reason for that, I thought they might want to keep one for a souvenir. After it was done, I was brought back to my house for one more night following my family’s tradition. After that I stayed in the temple near my house.
The Buddhist Temple
The first temple I stayed in was the closest temple to my house. It was around one and a half kilometer away from the center of the town. It was a small and poor temple. It was not as beautiful and neat as the community monastery where I ordinated. There were only four adult monks, including me, and two novice monks. My room was around 3x3 meter. There was nothing but a wooden bed and a pillow. No decoration. It was silent and peaceful. I felt empty. This taught me how to discipline and accept nothing.
Nothing is so important.
We were born with bare skin, nothing more.
When we die, we can not bring anything with us as well.
It’s the truth.
My parents offered me later a mosquito net and a fan. It was OK to have them because I thought at least I should keep myself healthy.
The second temple was a community monastery, the one where I ordinated. I moved there because one of my relatives asked me to. He said there were other relatives who wanted to see and offer me food while I went on the alms round. It’s because the new temple was in the center of the town. So if I moved there, those relatives could visit me.
The second temple was bigger and full of facilities. The buildings there were very beautiful and full of artworks. There were more than fifteen adult monks and many novice monks.
Monk’s daily routine
I got up at 4.30 AM, washed my teeth, and prepared my bowl and bag for an alms round. We (the other monks and I) started the alms round around 5 AM. We walked along the main road to the town in a circle. People, especially old people, would prepare their food and offered us by putting it in our bowl. There would be a temple boy helping us if our bowl was full of food.
After coming back (around 6.30), the abbot would call out for the morning worship. It took about an hour. Then we had breakfast at around 7.30. Then we were free. I usually went to sweep and clean the temple, or sometimes read books. I had to go out occasionally for special events, for example, the Buddhist holy day, Songkran day, House blessing ceremony, or a funeral.
I had lunch before 11.00 and went back to discipline or volunteer until 18.00, which was the evening worship. I went to bed at around 20.00.
What I have learned…
Although I learned to be a monk only eleven days, I saw how much people attached to religion.
To be honest, I do not really know the meaning of the scripts I prayed or blessed because I do not know the Pali-Sanskrit language. And, of course, eleven days were not enough to learn all of it. However, whenever people come to see the monk, there must always be some reasons. Usually, they are worried about something.
And whenever, I, at the time being a Buddhist monk, gave them a blessing. They then became ease and less worried.
I realize that this must be, what people say, Spiritual Anchor.
Not only those people who received my blessing, or my parents who were fulfilled by the tradition, but I also feel happy for them too.
It is obvious that this is a synergistic power between Buddhism and Thai people in society.