In Thailand, nearly 95% of the country’s population identifies as being Buddhist.
Hardly a surprising statistic for anybody who has ever been to Thailand. With over 41,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand and countless shrines and monuments, it’s hard to miss Buddhism’s influence over daily life in Thailand.
In Buddhism, there is a symbiotic relationship between the faithful lay people and the monks, who have devoted their lives to following the path of mindfulness first taught by the Buddha.
Together the monks and the lay people are known as the Sangha, or community.
When one decides to become ordained as a monk, they put aside all possessions and distractions, to study and practice the teachings of the Buddha, referred to as the Dharma.
With no practical means of supporting themselves, the monks rely on the lay people to shelter and feed them. Each morning the monks walk barefoot through the local community where people offer them food.
The keyword is “offer” as a monk is not permitted to ask for anything from a lay person other than water if he is thirsty. Anything that the monk receives from the lay people must be freely offered to him.
In return, the monks guide the lay people in the teachings of the Buddha and the lay people believe that their good deeds of supporting the monks will bring them merit, or good karma, either in this life or a future one.
In Thailand, it is customary for all young men to become ordained as a monk, at least temporarily.
In fact, the Thai government encourages businesses to give their employees paid time off to become a monk via tax incentives for those businesses that do.
Typically before a man has turned 20 years old, he will become ordained as a monk, for anywhere between a few days to several months.
During the period that one is a monk, they must adhere to all of the rules that any other monk must follow. They study the teachings of the Buddha, meditate, pray, learn to chant, and do chores around the temple.
There are a total of 227 rules that monks must abide by while they remained ordained. The rules range from mindful things like not lying or killing animals to more practical communal rules such as not speaking with your mouth full or doing anything that would create division with other monks.
This is my nephew, Sep. This photo is from about 10 years ago.
I think it’s the first time I met him. I showed him this photo this evening and we both had a good laugh.
This is Sep now at 20 years of age.
He is preparing to be ordained as a monk.
Sep will only be a monk for two weeks, but it is considered an important rite of passage for Thai men.
To prepare for ordination, Sep will have his head and eyebrows shaved by friends and family members.
There are several theories as to why shaving the head became popular for Buddhist monks, with the most common theory being that it is a symbolic gesture to demonstrate that one is abandoning ego and vanity.
Like most Thai rituals, this one will involve copious amounts of food, music, dancing, and alcohol well into the wee hours of the morning.
The next day, the party starts up again before the crack of dawn.
After Sep is donned in his white supplicant robe, he is joined by his parents, and I drive the group to the temple following a rowdy band and well-wishers who trek on foot.
A new monk entering the monkhood is important enough that police block traffic for the procession to the temple.
According to tradition, Sep’s feet cannot touch the ground before he enters the temple grounds.
After arriving at the temple, the procession of friends, family, and well-wishers, circles the temple 3 times.
With alcohol flowing freely since early morning, everyone is in a festive mood.
Even the monks at the temple seem amused by the celebration.
After Sep’s feet are washed by his mother, he is lifted into the temple.
He throws coins wrapped in colorful tissue as a symbol that he is renouncing worldly possessions.
And finally, he must touch the entrance of the temple before entering.
Sep enters wearing a white robe.
After taking vows to follow the rules of the temple, he changes into the safron colored robe of a true monk.
His parents gift him his alms bowl, one of the few possessions he is allowed to have while at the temple, as now Sep will go out every morning while he is a monk and locals will place food in his alms bowl.
Food given to him each day by the locals will be the only food he consumes while he is a monk, and he is only permitted to eat between sunrise and 11am.
Many of his lifelong friends lay down and make a path for him to walk over them. It is considered good karma for them to shelter the feet of a monk from touching the ground.
When Sep’s time here is over, he will ask the head monk for permission to return to being a lay person.
But for now Sep must leave the festivities and take residence with the other monks until then.