The First Few Hours: The Ordination of a Novice Monk, Jan 20th 2013


I never expected to see such scenes at a temple. Young men and women competing with each other for some of the colourfully wrapped coins thrown by newly ordained monks (click movie above).

These coins, given earlier during the morning and  thrown back by the young novices, are symbols of good luck and a blessing to those that catch them, mostly family and friends who keep them at home, safe, forever. The western tradition of the bride throwing flowers over her shoulder at weddings and the favourable destiny that this bestows upon the recipients rings the same bell.

Goodbye hair (and eyebrows). Removing attachments to worldly (and bodily) possessions prepares a soon-to-be novice monk life in the robes.

Goodbye hair. Removing attachments to worldly (and bodily) possessions prepares a soon-to-be novice monk for life in the robes.

My local temple, as mentioned in many previous blogs, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, recently ordained a Thai colleague of mine. Observing some of the initial ‘hands-on’ rites of passage necessary to begin the path of Dhamma is fascinating.

The length of time young men will spend as a monk can be as little as one month or act as a catalyst for a lifetime of practice. Some will accept this shorter period out of respect for their family members, past and present. 

From this day on the short-term novice monk follows 10 precepts or rules: don’t kill, steal, have sex, lie, drink beer and wine, eat after noon, sing and dance, wear hats or watches, sleep on a soft bed and accept a lot of money. This is given in Pali language (language of many of the earliest extant buddhist scriptures of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka – the oldest form – as collected in the Pali Canon or Tipitaka).

Older monks live under 227 precepts. Ben, from New Zealand, spent over three months in the robes and confirmed that maintaining this discipline is indeed tough. During his alms round (accepting food and drink from the locals) along the 400 metre party strip of Khao San Road, he tip-toed over the remnants of a big night out… tip-toeing is a strict no-no.

The ceremony begins after the temple monks have eaten their food (there is no meal after noon). The novice signs the acceptance form and prepares for the hair-cutting rite. Seated, surrounded by friends and family, the parents begin by cutting a snip of hair and placing it into a banana leaf container. Other family members, followed by friends, each take their turn in cutting a slither of hair until everyone has participated. Familiar with various levels of hirsute-ness myself, I was enjoying the rather intimate, collective removal of this most vainly held bodily possession. 

Next, the novice washes his hair before the supervising monk begins to remove it (and the eyebrows) with the razor. Nothing symbolises the surrender to the path quite so explicitly as this.

The novice is then dressed in white robes and allowed photo-sessions with onlookers during which coins are donated in golden vessels for the next rite – coin tossing.

In a nearby ordination hall, a riot of outstretched arms reaching for beautifully wrapped coins (in flower forms, see video above) being tossed in all directions by the young, freshly shaven men was in full swing. I saw two men squatting on the ground with a bag collecting the fallen coins before the a bona-fide recipients (relatives of the soon-to-be novice monks) have a chance to pick them up. At first this seemed most uncharitable, but from the temple’s perspective coins are given as a donation back to lay people from all walks of life.

The elderly remained out of the action, and the sun, in a shaded area, hoping that a representative of their family brings home the coinage for keeps.

The ordination ceremony formalities continue in the main temple building. Novices recite the Precepts in Pali and change into the familiar orange robes that will see them walk the streets of Bangkok receiving alms from locals, barefoot at the crack of dawn.

© Warren Field 2013

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