ORDINATION AS A MONK
Although one does not have to be ordained as a //bhikkhu// (monk) to
follow the path of the Buddha, the monastic life can be most conducive
to the practice of meditation. It is a life relatively free from the
worry of worldly cares and distractions. One has the opportunity and
environment in which to live a life-style that the layman cannot
Monks receive the greatest respect in Thai society, for ordination
implies that the person has turned away from worldly desires and
ambitions in pursuit of the highest wisdom and purification. Ordination
is considered by Thai Buddhists the most worthy act a man can perform.
So worthy is it, in fact, that most every Thai male will at some time in
his life, generally after completing his studies and before marriage,
spend a period in monkhood. Ordination traditionally takes place with
much celebration before the commencement of the rainy season and the
newly ordained monk remains in the monastery for a period of a week to a
few months. During that time he learns to chant some Pali scriptures,
studies the Buddha's teachings, and receives instruction in meditation.
Upon completion of his time in robes, he reenters society as a layman,
wiser for the experience, "ripe," and ready to fulfill his
responsibilities as an adult. Some boys receive novitiate ordination as
a child and remain novices throughout their youth before receiving
higher ordination as a monk. Some men spend their entire lives draped in
the saffron robes of the Buddhist order.
The sight of a foreigner ordained as a monk brings pleasure to the
Thais. It's a sign that the foreigner accepts and respects their beliefs
and wishes to experience what they consider to be a very important
aspect of their lives. To wear robes means to place oneself as a symbol
of the Buddhist way of life, thus it's essential to learn the proper
behavior for a monk beforehand. This may take more time and effort for
the foreigner than for the Thai who is "born" into Buddhist culture.
Usually one spends a period at a wat as an 8-precept layman to learn the
rules and some chanting. Laymen in some monasteries wear the white robes
of a pakow (anagarika). Novices wear orange robes, follow 10 precepts
(basically the same as 8 precepts except no money can be possessed), and
have 75 training rules. Prior to full ordination as a monk, one must
meet the requirements of being a man at least 20 years old, free of debt
and government/military obligations, and have consent of immediate
family. The ordination ceremony uses Pali language, which must be
memorized. In the first part one takes the going forth as a novice; the
second part, which can be done immediately following the first,
comprises the higher ordination of a monk. Monks follow 227 rules of
When one has made the decision to lead a monk's life and selected a wat,
one approaches the abbot or his secretary for an interview. One is then
accepted as a //naga//, an applicant for ordination and given training
in rules, daily chanting, and the ordination procedure. Some abbots
feel that a short-term ordination is worthwhile and readily grant
permission. Others believe that one should try to stay in robes as long
as possible (1-5 years minimum). Length of training before ordination
can be one month or even less at some wats; at other wats the abbot
might expect an applicant to spend at least 9 months as a layman and
novice before higher ordination. As the famous Ajahn Chah put it, "Easy
to ordain, easy to disrobe."
The Monk's Life
To become a monk requires conviction. To remain a monk requires patience
and understanding. These attributes can be cultivated and will arise
naturally with the development of meditation. The life of a monk has its
highs and lows and requires constant effort. There are always periods of
discouragement, but with the right attitude and a balanced view of one's
emotional changes, one will learn from the difficulties that arise and
gain understanding. Time spent as a monk will be a valuable and
ON BECOMING A NUN
When the religious order was first established, women were excluded.
After several requests, and after carefully considering the social
values of the day, the Buddha agreed to allow women to be admitted to
the order. The first woman accepted into the Sangha was Paccabadi
Gotami, the Buddha's stepmother, who was ordained by the Buddha himself.
In establishing the //Bhikkhuni Sangha//, the Buddha stipulated that
future ordinations should be conducted with a fully ordained bhikkhuni
present as a witness.
For over 1,400 years women sought and received ordination. In later
years, however, the number of women seeking to live the holy life began
to dwindle until the day came when there were no longer any fully-
ordained bhikkhunis living in the world. Without a bhikkhuni present as
a witness, ordination could not be given to female applicants and the
Bhikkhuni Sangha ceased to exist.
Women have not been deprived of the opportunity to live the holy life.
White-robed maechees can be found following ascetic practices in many
temples throughout Thailand. In fact, in some temples they outnumber
monks. Ordination for women in Thailand means undertaking to live by the
8 precepts, dressing in white, and shaving the head. A woman intending
to stay for only a short period does not have to shave her head.
The life of a maechee in a wat or meditation centre follows much the
same pattern as a monk's, but with a greater emphasis on service (i.e.
cooking and cleaning). Maechees, although living and practicing in a
separate area of the wat or centre, follow a daily routine which
includes meditation and chanting sessions and interviews with the
teacher. They usually do not go for alms rounds, however, and sometimes
eat after the monks.
Maechees generally do not receive the same high degree of respect as
monks, but as a foreigner, the reception will always be warm and
welcoming wherever one goes. Women's liberationists may find plenty to
support their cause, so to avoid conflicts, it's better to leave such
thoughts at home.
Thailand offers a rare opportunity for women to experience and live the
contemplative life. Foreign women have taken advantage of this
opportunity to live the life of a Thai maechee, many quite successfully.
Sometimes the struggle may become difficult, but with patience and
understanding, and a sense of anatta (selflessness) and humor, all
obstacles can be overcome.
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