I have been fascinated with religions for most of my life. In college the study of world religions was one of my favorite subjects, in part because of a wonderful teacher, an older woman who had a triple doctorate, one of which was in the history and philosophy of religion. Dr. Ogden would challenge us to look deeper than the surface, and to look for similarities in all religions. She once told me she had not accomplished anything special in her life, but she had read 3 books a week related to her fields of study for the last 50 years. Her nonjudgmental curiosity has stuck with me over the years, and my many travels have reinforced my belief that we humans are all the same, we only have different ways of expressing the same feelings.
This in depth study of religions, and my personal experiences, such as once being a novitiate in the Franciscan order for a year, have taken away any false idea that priests in any religion are different from the rest of humanity. Priests in any society take the vows for personal reasons. Some highly noble, some very ordinary. Sometimes becoming a priest, or brother, is simply an escape from the pressures of society, other times there are deep commitments to try and help humanity. In Thailand becoming a monk, is a very ordinary thing to do. Something like 90% of all Thai men become a Buddhist monk at some point in their lifetimes. For most the length of time spent in the robes is short. 1 to 3 weeks is the norm here in rural Thailand. For a Thai man this act of becoming a monk is a way to make merit, for himself and for his mother. Making merit in Thailand is related to the concept of karma. In the west there is confession for the Catholics, and some form of absolution in most Christian religions. This atonement for sins is an important aspect of religions in a western culture. In Thai culture karma is like a spiritual bank. The more things you do to make merit the larger your spiritual karma balance becomes. Although there is the concept of atonement for doing wrong, there is also the concept of evil spirits in the world that are out to get you. You can make merit to keep these evil spirits at bay. This is a very important belief to understand in Thailand. So prevalent is the belief that a few months ago, after a plane crash a major airport, the manager blamed the crash on evil spirits that were hanging out on the runway and he vowed to build a bigger spirit house and give more offerings to keep passengers safe. Westerners may chuckle at these beliefs, but it is no different than a guardian angel, power animals, or making a novena to the Virgin Mary, that take place in the west.
Today in Nakhon Nayok, we had three men take the vows as Buddhist monks. I see more and more multiple ordinations here in rural Thailand. This is done to keep expenses down. The festivities associated with ordination can get quite expensive. Thais are very superstitious and 3 is a good number. The party associated with becoming a monk lasts 3 days, the congregation walks around the temple 3 times, and so today there were 3 men becoming monks. Two of the men were a typical age to become a monk, in their early twenties, but today we also had one older man. Not many people seemed to know him so I don’t know what his story was. It is possible he was going through the process a second time – maybe this time to stay in the robes, or perhaps he just had not taken the vows to become a monk before, until now. He was in his 50’s.
The festivities associated with becoming a monk start with a party the night before which I opted out of. I don’t drink, and the party which has plenty of food and song, is also a drunk fest. I used to go to these quite often but being a non drinker in a party filled with heavy drinking is not a lot of fun, so today I opt out. It is interesting to me that Buddhists are not suppose to drink and monks have taken a vow against it, But it is a Thai thing, Thailand has the highest percentage of Buddhists, and the highest alcohol consumption in Asia. So it goes. I don’t condemn people who drink, I don’t get on a soap box, but alcohol almost killed me years ago, and I would not be here if I had not quit, so I don’t drink – ever – for any reason, and I’m very grateful to be here.
After the all night party, the next morning there is a procession to the temple and the congregation circles the temple 3 times, then the men who will be ordained pray and enter the ordination hall for the ceremony. The ordination hall is usually small so only the participants and family members go inside. I am always invited to go inside because I give the photos I make to the men and their families, and they appreciate my photos and I appreciate the opportunity. After the ordination there is another party that lasts usually until the next morning.
I highly recommend going to an ordination if you come to visit Thailand. In Bangkok there are hundreds of temples and an ordination is always taking place somewhere. You can go through a tour guide or you can just find one on your own. Just ask if you can attend, be polite, stay out of the way, and always give an offering to the new monk(s), and you will be fine, the Thai people love the attention.