February 4th 2019:
My wife Jang told me three of her brothers were going to be ordained as Thai Buddhist Monks, and asked if I would document the event. I gladly accepted, even though I had officially retired from event photography a couple of years back. I had photographed many ordinations over the past few years, but this event, being that it was family would give me an opportunity to capture more details, and tell the story visually better than I had ever done. It was a unique opportunity for a documentary photographer.
Becoming a Buddhist monk in Thailand is something that the majority of Thai Buddhist men do sometime during their lifetime. It is part of Thai culture. It is expected that a Thai Buddhist man will become a short term monk in their early adulthood, if not before. They become monks out of Thai tradition, to make merit and to honor their families. When becoming a monk one is rewarded with great merit, a spiritual belief that doing good will be returned to you at some point in your lifetime, or in the next. What goes around comes around, so to speak. Merit is also won for the man’s family by becoming a monk. This is important for the Thai mother, who cannot become a Buddhist monk. Times are changing and there are a few women recently who have been allowed in some areas to be ordained as a Thai monk, and wear the orange robes, but this is very rare, and so for the most part is it fair to say that it is usually taboo in Thailand for a woman to be ordained as a Buddhist monk.
In many ways it made sense that three of Jang’s seven brothers would be ordained at the same time. In the long run it would be less expensive to have one ordination event rather than to have three separate ones, especially since the brothers are close in age, and all self employed, enabling them to take the time needed away from work at the same time.
An ordination is Thailand is a big deal for the families. There are many things that need to be planed, and coordinated. The pre-ordination events such as the head shaving, temple visits and the like culminate in a dinner party the evening before the ordination. This party reflects the wealth and status of the family hosting the party. Having three brothers ordained at the same time enabled the family to host a large dinner party, that would imply great status in the community. When I asked Jang how many would attend she told me she had sent out three hundred invitations. I was rather taken aback when she told me her father had given her one hundred thousand Baht (a little over $3,000.00 U.S. dollars) to plan for the party. When I expressed my shock at the large amount (my family is a rather poor working class family) Jang told me it is tradition that the guests bring an envelope with money in it as a gift, and her dad was hoping to recoup most of what he was forced to spend on the party.
March 29, 2019:
Preparation for the pre-ordination party begins in earnest. A dinner party for 300 people in rural Thailand is labor intensive. However, the community bands together setting up tents doing food prep, and then cooking and serving the meal.
March 30, 2019:
Before a man is ordained a Thai Buddhist monk he has his head shaved and facial hair removed. This is done with a ceremony held at the local temple the day before his ordination. It is a community event. A monk starts the proceedings by clipping a few locks of hair, followed by village elders, then family and friends clip the hair. The hair is saved as it is considered part of a spiritual event. Then the shaving begins. The shaving itself is done with an ordinary safety razor. Anyone who has shaved with a safety razor using only water, knows that, yes, it is painful.
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After having their heads shaved the men go to several spirit houses that have significance for them. Here they pray and ask for blessings. They then return home to pray with the family and Buddhist monks from the temple, after which the dinner party begins.
This pre-ordination dinner party ended at a reasonable hour. I have seen them go all night, and even last for days.
March 31, 2019:
The day begins early for the men who will be ordained today. At 6:00 AM there is another blessing and prayers, followed by an impromptu breakfast. Then there is a procession to the temple which begins around 10 AM. The monks to be will ride in a pickup near the front of the procession. The procession itself is a lively affair with live music and villagers drinking, dancing and partying during the two mile walk to the temple.
After the 2 mile walk to the temple, monks and the congregation circle the ordination hall 3 times for good luck.
In part 2 we will follow the 4 original men (Three brothers and a friend) as they finish the ordination process and put on the orange robes of a Thai buddhist monk. We will travel with them as they do their first alms walk and more …. stay tuned.