novice monks meditating

During his monkhood a novice obeys the same rules governing diet, celibacy and material possessions that discipline the senior monks. He lives in the temple monastery, collect his morning food in the community and recites sacred texts. Temporary monks may return later in life either for another short period or to enter the monk hood permanently.

In some cases a monks is initiated when he is a boy about 5 years of age. In other cases he is initiated when he is a teenager or young man. Monks under the of 20 may enter the Sangha (monkhood) as novices. Traditionally this has been for a period of three months during the Buddhist Lent which begins in July and coincides with the rainy season. These days some monks serve for as little as 15 days or a week. A family earns great respect and merit when a son becomes a monk.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Religious Tolerance Page ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Introduction to Buddhism ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; View on Buddhism ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism ; Buddhist Centre; A sketch of the Buddha's Life ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ; Buddhist Tales ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi ; Victoria and Albert Museum ; Theravada Buddhism: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, Access to Insight ; Readings in Buddhism, Vipassana Research Institute (English, Southeast Asian and Indian Languages) ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica ; Pali Canon Online ; Vipassanā (Theravada Buddhist Meditation) Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Pali Canon - Access to Insight ; Forest monk tradition ; BBC Theravada Buddhism

Ordination of a Theravda Buddhist Monk

In countries where Theravada Buddhism predominates, the novice monk initiation ceremony is an important rite of passage for young boys. Conducted when a boy is around 13 years year old, the event includes the offering of gifts to the Buddhist clergy at the temple where the ceremony is held, a feast hosted by the boys family, a formal head shaving ritual, and lots of prostrating by family members to the boy to symbolize the elevation to adulthood and the boy's new position as a son of Buddha.

Richard Barrow wrote in Thailand Life: “Most Thai men do this once they become of age. Nattawud isn't actually 20 yet. However, they are, apparently, allowed to count the time spent in their mother's womb! Thai men are not considered to be mature adults until they have become monks for a period of time. Thai people call those people "unripe". Once they have become a monk and left the monkhood, they are then called "thit". Thai men in government jobs are legally allowed to take three months leave of absence to become a monk. Most do this during Buddhist lent which starts in July. During lent no-one is allowed to leave the monkhood. As Nattawud's birthday is in July his family decided to bring the ceremony forward to this month. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, April 14 2005**]

The parents gain merit by offering their son to Buddha and the grander the ceremony the more merit they earn. Elaborate ceremonies sometimes last several days and have musical performances, singing and chanting of poems that recall episodes of Buddha’s life.

Monk Hair Shaving Ceremony

hair cutting ceremony in Burma

While the boy’s head is being shaved, he is instructed by an abbot or senior monk to meditate on the action, contemplate its meaning and repeat thing like, "They are of this body, hair of the head, hairs of the body, nails, teeth and skin, which are unclean, abominable, filthy, lifeless and insubstantial." The hair of a novice monk is considered sacred. It is not allowed to touch the ground and is collected in a cloth spread out by the parents. After the head is shaved the boy turmeric and saffron powder is rubbed into the scalp and the newly anointed monk is given a robe and sent off to the monetary for several weeks or months. After that time he returns to a normal life.

Describing the hair shaving ceremony, ordination of a monk, Richard Barrow wrote in Thailand Life: “The first part of the ordination that I will talk about today is the hair shaving. Preceding this, Nattawud paid respect to his dead ancestors and then bathed the feet of his elders. Once he had finished, he prostrated himself at their feet. Then his elders and other relations all took turns in cutting a piece of his hair. At the same time they gave him a blessing for a prosperous future. He wears a lotus leaf. None of the hair is allowed to drop to the ground. This is exactly what happened to Nattawud during his fire-hair shaving ceremony when he was a baby 20 years ago. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, April 14 2005**]

“Cutting of the hair is symbolic. In the old days, long hair was a sign of royalty. Siddharta, before he became enlightened and therefore the Buddha, cut off his hair as a renouncement of all his worldly goods. Apparently, cutting the eyebrows is more of a Thai tradition and monks in other countries do not follow this practice. Next, everyone took turns in pouring water over his head and body, again giving him a blessing. Finally, some herbs, which are yellow when mixed with water, are rubbed all over his head. I am not sure if there is any significance of using this plant but it apparently helps your hair grow again later. Looks like he will have a hairy chest later!**

“After he took a shower, he then changed into his white clothes. The outer garment is a bit like net curtains with a gold trimming! Very dandy. At least he didn't have to wear makeup like they do in northern ordinations. At this point he is now known as "naak" or "naga" in English. This is a mythical serpent from Indian legends. The story goes that one day the serpent disguised himself as a human in order to be ordained as a monk. When the Buddha found out, he told the naga that only humans can become monks. The naga agreed to leave the monkhood but asked the Buddha for one favour. He asked that in future, all young men who were about to be ordained be called "naga". The Buddha consented. **

“After the hair shaving ceremony was over, Nattawud got into the back of a pickup truck to parade around the local area. The idea was to show the spirits that he was about to become a monk. Along the way he stopped at two shrines. As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with Buddhism. This is quite typical in Thai ceremonies which mix together both Buddhism and Brahmin. Once the spirits had been informed of the upcoming ordination, Nattawud returned to the temple for some chanting and a sermon. **

Chanting and Sermon of a Newly Ordained Monk

novice ordination in Thailand

Richard Barrow wrote in Thailand Life:“After the hair shaving ceremony went for a ride around the neighbourhood to announce to the spirits that he was about to become a monk. Back at the temple, he went straight to the sala which is a kind of a large meeting hall. This place has Buddha images. People will come here to listen to the monks chanting and also to listen to a sermon. There is a pulpit on the left. However, ordinations cannot be held in this hall. This will take place in the bot which usually houses the main Buddha image. The difference is that the boundary of the botsemas. You will probably see them in the photos tomorrow of the parade around the ordination hall. Don't ask me about the dog in the picture. I have no idea whether it had official duties during the chanting. However, at one stage it did get up on the raised platform. No-one seemed to mind. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, April 19, 2005***] ▪” If you have ever witnessed monks chanting you might have spotted that there always seems to be nine of them. Nine monks went to Nattawud's wedding. Nine monks went to bless his aunt's new house. The number nine is seen as an auspicious number so that is why we have nine monks. After the chanting had finished, everyone presented the monks with a traditional offering of incense, a candle and a flower. You can just see that in the left picture that the woman is placing her offering on a piece of cloth. That is because women are not allowed to have direct contact with a monk. Also notice that the man behind her is holding onto her blouse. He is doing this because he wishes to receive some of the merit that the woman is making. ***

The final chanting is shorter and is basically offering blessings to everyone. This is when people take part in a ceremony called kruat nam. What is happening here is that a portion of the good merit they have just made is being passed on to someone else not present. This could be a living person, though quite often they are doing it for dead ancestors. They do this by slowly pouring water over the index finger of either their right or left hand. At the same time they have to think clearly of the person or persons they are passing the merit on to. They might also murmur something in Pali or Thai.***

“Once the chanting was finally over, most of the monks then left the hall. Then Nattawud lit a candle and incense sticks in front of another shrine. This one was at the base of the pulpit where the monks deliver their sermons. You cannot really see in the small pictures, but at the base of the pulpit are all the items which will be used in the parade the following day. The monk then chanted a sermon for about half an hour. He read this not from a book but from words written on palm leafs. I asked Nattawud before it started what the monk would preach about. He just said that he will talk about the importance of family and parents and that the monk will be doing his best to make him cry. Judging by some of the pictures, there were certainly some tears in his eyes. That concluded day one of the preparations for the ordination ceremony. Some people do everything in one day. However, for Nattawud, this was split over two days. For the actual ordination, many more people will turn up. ***

Procession around the Temple for a Theravda Buddhist Monk

Richard Barrow wrote in Thailand Life: “Following the chanting and sermon is the procession around the temple. That was certainly a treat for all the senses. As you can see from the above photograph, Nattawud is still wearing his white clothes. Between his palms he is holding three lotus flowers, three incense sticks and a candle. His now bald head is being sheltered from the sun by a large umbrella which you can see more clearly in the following photos. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, April 20, 2005+]

“The procession got off to a good start with some wailing and the beating of the long drums. Then the hired dancers led the way clockwise around the bot. The procession is made up of family and friends. In addition to the drums and dancers you saw at the front, there was also a brass band half way down! The procession was that long! People are carrying some of the things that Nattawud will need as a monk. In the right hand picture, his father is carrying his ceremonial fan and alms bowl. Nattawud is walking barefoot. Actually, he did tell me originally that he would be carried around the temple. This seems to be the traditional way but you don't often see it being done these days. +

”Whenever people walk around the bot, there are two things that they must remember: first you walk clockwise and secondly you do it three times. Someone said to me once that if you walk anti-clockwise then that means someone has died. In July, several hundred students from my school will be doing a similar procession at a temple to mark the start of the Buddhist Lent. I will tell you more about that later. As I have done this quite a few times I was a bit puzzled why the dancers then led everyone around for a fourth and then fifth time! When I asked why, the women said that they were having fun!+

“Finally, after five trips around the bot, Nattawud stopped at the shrine outside the entrance. He lit a candle and incense stick and then prostrated in front of the shrine. Just before he entered the temple, he threw coins over his shoulder into the crowd behind him. This symbolizes renouncing of his worldly possessions. Although he was only throwing one baht coins everyone was running wildly to pick up as many as they could. The coins are considered lucky. He then entered the bot with many people grabby on to his shirt tails. I am not sure exactly why they did that, but I guess that they were trying to share some of the merit he was about to make by becoming a monk. For Buddhists, there are many ways you can make merit - but many people believe that the most powerful (or the one that gains you the most Brownie points) is for you to become a monk. As women cannot become a monk themselves, this was a very important even for Nattawud's mother.” +

Ordination Ceremony of a Theravda Buddhist Monk

Richard Barrow wrote in Thailand Life: “After all the lead up, it was now time for the ordination of Nattawud as a monk. Nattawud is facing towards the Buddha images and directly opposite the abbot. He is surrounded by 22 monks. I was actually quite surprised how casual the whole affair was. The abbot was just sitting there chatting away and a monk to his right was busy making him a cup of tea. I know for the past week or so that Nattawud was worried that he would forget his lines or do the wrong thing at the wrong time. They had given him a small yellow book which contained all the words for the ordination. Most of this he would repeat after one of the monks, but some sections had been underlined as these ones he had to learn off by heart. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, April 21, 2005++]

“After some introductory chanting, Nattawud came forward on his knees and entered the group of monks. He put the robes down to his left and then did the five-point prostration three times. To do this, your forehead, two forearms and two knees must be touching the floor. He then made an offering of different trays to the monks. Finally, he again placed the robes over his forearms, joined his hands in respect and then started chanting in Pali. That is right, the ordination is not in Thai. They use the ancient language of the scriptures. This is what makes it so difficult. But, the monks around him were very kind and kept prompting him if it looked like he had forgotten his lines. After about five minutes or so, Nattawud took off his white shirt and the abbot placed the amsa (the shoulder cloth) over Nattawud's head covering his left shoulder. He then told him to go with one of the monks to get changed into the rest of the robes. ++

“They then went to the back of the ordination hall behind the Buddha images. I can imagine it is not at all easy to put the robes on. You can see in the left hand picture Nattawud is trying to slip off his white trousers and underpants and still keep some dignity. Notice how the monk smiles at him. I think I am right in saying that the robes consist of four pieces. And as I have mentioned before, underwear, for some reason, is not allowed. Obviously he would have to be careful when he goes back to do his prostrations. The lay people in the audience might get more than they bargained for!” ++

“Once he was properly dressed, Nattawud went to kneel down near his family in front of a single monk. Here he requested the Refuges and Precepts. The basic translation goes like: "I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge." Then the monk informed Nattawud that he is now a samanera (which is like a novice monk). He then told him the ten precepts he would have to keep as a samanera. This was again done in Pali and Nattawud had to repeat after each line. Do you see the guy in white? He has been at Nattawud's shoulder for most of the time. In some of the pictures you can see him making a loud stage whisper whenever Nattawud couldn't quite repeat after the monk.++

“Here is a rough translation of the ten precepts: 1) Refraining from killing living beings; 2) Refraining from taking what is not given; 3) Refraining from unchaste conduct; 4) Refraining from false speech; 5) Refraining from distilled and fermented intoxicants which cause carelessness; 6) Refraining from eating at the forbidden time; 7) Refraining from dancing, singing, music and going to see entertainments; 8) Refraining from wearing garlands, using perfumes; 9) Refraining from using high or large beds; 10) Refraining from accepting gold and silver. Nattawud then prostrated three times which concluded the first part of the ordination. This is as far as he got last time when he ordained as a novice monk during the funeral of his grandfather. What happens next will make him a fully fledged monk. I will tell you the rest tomorrow and about the incident which had everyone

Final Part of the Ordination of a Theravada Buddhist Monk

“Richard Barrow wrote in Thailand Life: “This is now the final part of the ordination. Nattawud had already been ordained as a novice monk about nine years ago during his grandfather's funeral. This is actually quite common. Every now and then, a boy at school will come in with hair and eyebrows shaved off after being absent for a few days. It usually means the same thing: someone in the family had just died. The ordination of a novice monk is exactly as I described it yesterday. To become a full fledged monk, he had to be given an alms bowl by his family. He then took this to the abbot and requested to become a monk. The alms bowl was then hung over his should and the monk proceeded to teach him the names in Pali of the three robes and of the alms bowl. As he did this, he pointed at each piece. He then ordered Nattawud to go to the far end of the temple and prepare himself for the examination. I was hoping this part would be funny, but the humour came from a completely different direction. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, April 22, 2005++]

“Nattawud stood at the far end with his hands pressed together in a wai. By this time he was sweating. What followed was a close examination to see whether he was fit to become a monk. Basically, he was about to be asked a series of questions in Pali. The first four he must answer "no, sir". The fifth question is "Are you human?" and he must obviously switch to "yes sir" and continue like that for the remaining questions. We were all waiting with baited breath to see if he would get it right. "Are you human?" No! “Two monks then approached him, I will call them Phra Laurel and Phra Hardy. They then started chanting in Pali which roughly translated as "Listen, Nattawud. This is the time for the truth, the time for what is factual. You will be asked in the midst of the sangha about things which have occurred. Whatever is so should be affirmed. Whatever is not should be denied. Do not be embarrassed. Do not be confused." ++

“Well, that is what they should have said. But Phra Hardy kept getting his words wrong and they had to keep restarting. Then in the middle of the third or fourth attempt they started having this discussion about what they should be saying. Then Phra Laurel excused himself with a little wai and went back to the abbot to ask permission to consult the book of chanting. We were all laughing at this stage as it was so comical. Anyway, after flipping through a few pages, Phra Laurel came back and the chanting resumed. Then it was the time for the questions:++

“Do you have diseases such as these: 1) Leprosy? - no, sir; 2) Boils? - no, sir; 3) Ringworm? - no, sir; 4) Tuberculosis? - no, sir; 5) Epilepsy? - no, sir; 6) Are you a human being? - yes, sir; 7) Are you a man? - yes, sir; 8) Are you free from debt? - yes, sir; 9) Are you exempt from government service? - yes, sir; 10) Do you have your parents' permission? - yes, sir; 11) Are you fully 20 years old? - yes, sir; 12) Are your bowl and robes complete? - yes, sir; 13) What is your name? - Venerable sir, my name is Nattawud; 14) What is your Pereceptor's name? - My Preceptor's name is Venerable. ++

Then it was finished. He had just about answered correctly though the man in white kept giving him stage whispers. If you are wondering about the human part, then read my earlier blog when I said a naga (serpent) once disguised itself as a human in order to be ordained as a monk. The two monks then returned to the assembly of monks and chanted that they had examined the applicant and if they were ready, he would like to invite Nattawud to join them. They agreed and Nattawud came forward and prostrated in front of them three times. As he still had his alms bowl over his shoulder, one of the monk had to steady it for him. Nattawud then requested acceptance. The abbot accepted his application and asked the other monks to gather around for further examination. ++

“I should point out that up to this stage I had pretty much free reign to move around and take photographs. Of course I did this in a humble way by continually bowing my head as I walked behind and between people. However, at this stage I had to leave the raised area. Even the back door was bolted and the side windows were shut. Nattawud was then asked the same questions as before. This time he didn't have the help of the guy in white. No-one was allowed near. Then more chanting continued which went something like "He is free of obstructing factors. His bowl and robes are complete. Nattawud requests acceptance from the Sangha." This was then repeated in chant three or four times. Finally he was accepted as a monk! What happened next, was the pouring of water like before to pass some of the merit on to people not present. Then family and friends made merit by making offerings to him. Basically giving him things he would need as a monk. ++

“The whole ordination had taken less than an hour. The lay people then left to eat their mid-day meal. Nattawud, or should I now say Phra Nattawud, went with the other monks to the sala - the place where it all started. By the time I arrived there the chanting had begun and people were preparing to offer food to the monks. I couldn't see Nattawud anywhere and so I asked where he was? Then I saw him. Of course, there he was on the platform with all the other monks. I hadn't recognized him. How much he had changed in such a short time. Phra Nattawud is now living in the temple and will remain there for at least two or three weeks. I will let him settle in before going to see how he is coping with life as a monk sometime next week. It is possible, of course, that he might stay longer. It is up to him.

Leaving the Monkhood

On what’s involved in leaving the monkhood, Richard Barrow wrote in Thailand Life: Yesterday I went to visit Phra Nattawud at the temple again. He rang to say that the abbot had set an auspicious day and time for him to leave the monkhood. Actually, the day was set for Wednesday but the time could have been anytime between noon and midnight. Originally they were going to do the ceremony at 9.59 p.m. but I asked him if they could move it to the afternoon as it would be easier to take pictures. So, they made it 1.49 p.m. instead. Notice the "9" in the time? It is an auspicious number. You may be wondering why an auspicious day had to be set for leaving but he could ordain on any day. Well, this is because when you leave the monkhood it is like being born again. If your original birth date was deemed to be unlucky, then you are allowed to use this new time as your birthday. I suppose it is a bit like the Queen of England who has two birthdays. Phra Nattawud's second birthday is now 11th May at 1.49 p.m. [Source: Richard Barrow,Thailand Life, May 14, 2005=]

“The ceremony and chanting started with the passing of the sacred ball of white string to the end of the row. This is a kind of way of connecting everyone together and to the alms bowl you can see in the picture. Notice that the candle is lit and is dripping candle wax into the water. The monks are chanting and the energy from this passes down the white string and into the bowl. This water then becomes sacred. The chanting went on for about 20 minutes. Next Phra Nattawud had to take off his outer robes. This included his belt and so he was only left with his shower robe. You can image he was doing his best to keep this up as he left the kuti to go outside. Don’t forget, monks are not allowed to wear underwear. =

crowd at the cremation of the famous Thai monk Chan Kusalo

“Outside, the monk signaled the others to start chanting and then he slowly poured the sacred water over Phra Nattawud's head. In the bottom of the bowl were some coins worth exactly 99 baht. As these fell out and dropped to the ground, some local kids quickly ran to pick them up. As before, these coins are considered lucky but I guess these kids would be just spending the money on sweets! I suppose by this time I should stop calling him Phra Nattawud. He would now be just Nai Panrit. The old Nattawud would remain as a spirit in the temple and hopefully the new Panrit will have a prosperous future. Back inside the kuti, Panrit offered candles and a garland to each of the monks. And of course a white envelope containing some money. =

“The monks then started chanting again while Panrit poured water from one bowl to the other. As I mentioned before, this is to pass the merit he has made onto people who are not present. The family monk then gave Panrit a short and stern lecture. He told him that he had been a bad boy in the past and now he must give up that kind of life and look to the future. He must be more supportive of his parents and family and concentrate on his studies. He then banged Panrit on the head, I suppose just to make sure he was listening. That was about it. After clearing up, he went back to his grandmother's house to pay respects to his elders. This time they didn't have to wai him back. That night he had to sleep in the kuti with Phra Daeng. Then in the morning he had to go on the alms round with him as a temple boy to carry his food. Panrit asked me if I wanted to go as well to take some pictures. I smiled and said maybe. He knew what that meant.” =

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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