I had the opportunity a while back to spend some time with the children of rural Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, as they became novice Thai Buddhist monks for a few weeks in the summer. I love children so it was a great deal of fun for me to spend time with the boys. We laughed as we tried to learn each other’s names, and like all children everywhere they loved the attention especially from this old foreigner with white hair and a funny name.
I’ll start the post with a word of explanation for my western friends. I’ll be honest and open from the beginning. – I had a negative comment on the photo below from a friend that was angered that Thai children are forced into religion at a young age. He stated that he had “an obviously false religion rammed down my throat as a child”, and that “to see kids indoctrinated this way goes against everything I believe about freedom and responsibility”.
Ok … well I think I’m well equipped from my own experiences to address those issues. I was in a Catholic school from the first grade all the way through Junior High School. For me, similar to what my friend wrote, a Catholic school education had the reverse effect of what it was intended to do. Instead of becoming a good devout Catholic, I rebelled against religion, for a time, and started searching. My search led me to study many religions in college and beyond. At different points in my life I have studied and called myself a Buddhist, a Taoist, a Shamanic practitioner, I even lived with monks and studied to be a Franciscan priest. Today I simply call myself “Lee”, and I’m happy not being associated with any organized religion. Today I am a documentary photographer, documenting the world and lives of those around me. I don’t like to over explain my work; I would rather the viewer find personal meanings in my photography. However, some work, as with these photos, may need some background to more understand what is going on.
The child monks of Thailand are a popular photographic subject; after all they are very cute and photogenic, but few from the west really understand what is happening.
Young Thai children go to school the same as American children (actually I have found they start at a much younger age). The parents have a choice of the free public education or private schools. They also have a summer break the same as American kids. The quality of the Thai free public education varies according to location, which determines the amount of funding for a school. In our rural area of Nakhon Nayok the teachers are very good and dedicated, however funding is small for the facilities, so you won’t find things like computers, and you won’t find foreign language instruction. Thailand does have summer camps like the U.S., but these are very expensive, so you won’t find many parents in Nakhon Nayok, that can ship their children off to summer camps like many people do in wealthier countries. All this is leading up to why children become novice monks for a few weeks of the summer in Nakhon Nayok. First and foremost it is a cultural thing, much like me having to go to Corpus Christi in first grade. Unlike me and the small Catholic community however, the Buddhist culture is prevalent in most of Thailand. Thai young novice monks are respected by Thais everywhere in the country. These Thai boys get to spend a few weeks in the summer living with their best friends, the same children that live next door, and the same friends they go to school with.
The cultural aspect of becoming a novice monk is the idea of merit. Merit has to do with karma, and one gains merit by certain things and this merit makes life better, and can also help in the after life. Becoming a monk is an act of great merit. However only men can become monks in Nakhon Nayok, so a woman cannot gain this huge amount of merit that is generated by becoming a monk. But, when a woman’s son becomes a monk or a novice monk the mother gains a great amount of merit. This is one of the main reasons an older man becomes a monk, for his mom. To say: “thank you for everything you have done for me mom”. For these reasons almost 90% of all Thai men become a Buddhist monk at some point in their lives. It is important to note that this commitment can be any length of time the man wants, a week or a lifetime. Most become a monk for a few weeks.
When these children become novice monks for a few of weeks in Nakhon Nayok, they go to school every day, they have access to a computer, they will get some English language training, and discipline training, they eat as well if not better than at home, they get to be with their best friends all the time, and for a short period of time they will be highly respect by everyone Thai that they come into contact with. The program is very sophisticated and the young men travel to many locations to receive instruction from experts in various fields.
Granted, the education and advantages of this process are only for a relatively short time, but the education is top notch and the experiences are priceless. A little more education and healthy experiences are always a good thing in my book.
So, do they have some religion “rammed down their throat” by monks? Yeah, in a way they do, but the question also shows a lack of understanding of Thai culture, which I will try to explain. Thailand is over 90% Buddhist, and Buddhism in Thailand is not just a religion, it is a way of life. Thai Buddhism is part of every aspect of life in Thailand, and the philosophy is what makes Thailand such a wonderful place to live or visit.
So it makes sense in Thailand for young men to become novice monks for a short time. I wish this opportunity was available for my daughter, I would love for her to have the education, travel and experiences these young men are enjoying. So instead her mother and I look for different opportunities.
Details of my Time with the Novice Monks:
The first day I was with the children was the head shaving ceremony. What I took away from the ceremony was the pain. As a man there have been many times in my life I have dry shaved without shave cream or a shower and it hurt. The kids with a little longer hair were in pain. I saw several bravely trying to fight back the tears. I guess the lesson here the parents learned is to cut their sons hair as short as possible for this day. I know keeping a lock of hair is good luck, but the boys suffer much less when they have a close military style haircut prior to shaving the head.
At the end of the day we had a rainstorm move in just as the head shaving was finishing, producing some great dramatic light for my images, until we had to run for cover because of lightning. Lightning does not play around here. My wife calls them “Sky Bombs” and she is not kidding. As I was taking cover I heard the shhhhhhhk-zap POP, which was lightning hitting a transformer a few yards from me followed by a loud thunderclap.
Notes on day two:
I was struck by the profound difference in the boys. Yesterday there were many times when “boys will be boys” and there were cut-ups and playing around just like all children. Today with their white and then orange robes and shaved heads they were acting like miniature monks, aware of the role they were playing, and aware of the importance of this day for their mothers. All of the young men were very proud to have taken their vows. I was duly impressed, and they have not even started their training yet.
Notes on day three:
Day three is the first walk for morning alms. Thai Monks are not allowed to eat anything after noon, and Buddhist law calls for them to beg for their food by walking for alms. The process is a twofold way of merit. The monks make merit by walking for alms and the people make merit by giving alms.
The rules for eating is relaxed for the boys, but they still walks for morning alms whenever possible. I thought back this morning to the time I was studying to be a Franciscan. Food is not an issue for the friars but ownership is. Franciscan’s take a vow of poverty similar to Buddhist monks, and similarly it is misunderstood. One can see friars with credit cards, driving cars and having spending money, which is ok as long as the friar does not personally take ownership. We used to have discussions on the subject, it is like having access to everything you need, but owning nothing. That is usually a bothersome prospect for the novitiate, the desire to call things “mine” is strong in the human spirit.
There has been much press lately about bad monks in Bangkok extorting money and doing very un-Buddhist like things, which has given yet another bad mark to Thai Buddhism. It can certainly be said there are bad practitioners in every religion, but I can say that in my little community none of that goes on. All the monks I have met are really nice people, which, if you remember how many men in thailand become at least short term Buddhist monks, that says a lot about why I feel the way I do about Thailand.