A few months ago, I attended my first Buddhist monk ordination ceremony in Thailand. A Thai friend’s cousin was being ordained and she invited me to go with her. Not having been to one before, I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a serious occasion? Would it be a typical Thai excuse to have some fun? Would I be the only foreigner there? These and many more questions came to mind as I decided whether or not to go.
Of course, I did attend and had a wonderful time. I learned about how a man in Thailand ordains to be a monk and what the history is behind it. I also talked to a lot of my Thai friend’s relatives, who talked about the importance of being a monk in Thailand and how most Thai men will eventually become one.
If you too are lucky enough to be invited to a Thai monk ordination ceremony, consider the following things so you won’t be too surprised when you get there.
The Importance of Being a Monk for Thai Men – Most men in Thailand will eventually become a monk. Not as long-term as it would be in the west, being a monk in Thailand can be as short as for only a day or as long as the rest of the man’s life. Most Thai men fall in between. A week, a few weeks or a month or two is quite common, with most Thai businesses allowing unpaid leave so a Thai man can become a monk.
Becoming a monk for a man in Thailand shows his commitment to his Buddhist faith. It also is usually a precursor to marriage, with some families refusing to allow their daughter to marry a man who hasn’t been one. That was one of the reason’s my friend’s cousin decided to join the brotherhood at his local temple. He plans to get married next year, so wanted to make certain there would be no problems with his bride-to-be’s family.
What Does the Ordination Ceremony Entail in Thailand?– Of course, many Thai villages and towns will have a slightly different Buddhist monk ordination ceremony, depending on the temple the young man is joining. All though have specific things they include in the ceremony.
The first part of the ceremony involves the man’s head and eyebrows being shaved off. After this, he is dressed in a white robe and is then taken to the temple, carried on one of his close friend’s shoulders, with his family and friends following.
Once at the temple, followed by family and friends, he will walk around the temple three times with friends and family carrying offerings for the temple monks. On the third completion, the young man will climb the temple steps and throw money and candy to everyone waiting below. Then, into the temple followed by everyone else, he will be met by monks who will now officiate for the ordination ceremony.
You’ll hear a lot of chanting in the Pali language (that’s the language of the Thai temple), the young man will give offerings to the monks, then he will be taken to the back of the temple where he’ll change into the saffron orange robes of a monk and given an alms bowl (the bowl the monk uses every morning to ask people in the community for food).
He will now walk to the back of the temple carrying his alms bowl tied across his chest. One of the monks will ask him, in Pali, a series of questions that he must answer correctly in order to be accepted as a full novice monk. The questions include things like “Do you have leprosy?” (correct answer “No”), “Are you at least 20 years old?” and “Are you human?”
If he answers all the questions correctly, the monk goes back to the other waiting monks to say he has answered correctly and ask the abbot for permission to accept him. Once accepted, the young man is now a novice monk or Phra (meaning Father) and his family crawl to him on their knees to give him offerings of things he will need while he living at the temple.
What Happens After the Ordination Ceremony? – Although a Buddhist monk ordination ceremony is definitely a solemn occasion, Thais also love to have fun. Once their loved one is officially a monk, one by one or in groups, members of his family and friends will sit in front of him to have their photos taken with the new monk. This will continue until every one has had their photos taken. Everyone except the monk is allowed to smile for the photos too.
Lunch is served but, as Buddhist monks must finish eating for the day before 12pm, the monks and the new monk are served first while the rest of the gathering waits. Only when all the monks have finished eating and left to go back to the temple for daily chores can everyone else eat.
The time spent waiting is actually a great time to get to know some of the assembled guests, many of whom I found were fascinated that I was at a Buddhist monk ordination ceremony as not many non-Thais seem to attend them.
When you do get to eat, expect a huge, celebratory meal with lots of courses, loud Thai traditional music and even entertainment (at the ceremony I attended we had Chinese dragon dancers).
What Should You Wear or Take To an Ordination Ceremony? – Thais are a relaxed people so the dress code is simple. You can wear jeans, pants, a dress, a skirt, anything that’s comfortable. The only things you should not wear are shorts, very short sleeved or sleeveless shirts and anything that is black.
Black is the color for funerals, so Thais do not wear it for the temple at any other time, particularly for special occasions. Bright colors however are fine.
As far as taking something to the ordination ceremony, for most special occasions in Thailand family and friends give a gift of money. Put a few hundred baht in an envelope with your name on the front and hand it to the mother or father of the man who is going to be a monk. The monk ordination ceremony is extremely expensive, so the money is used to help pay for the cost.
Mostly, remember, Thais love to have fun so, even on solemn occasions, you’ll still have a relaxing and fun time. If you do anything wrong, don’t worry. If it’s a genuine mistake, Thais will always make allowances, and will probably laugh right along with you.
Most importantly, enjoy the Buddhist monk ordination ceremony for what it is — a unique experience most non-Thais will not get to experience. And, remember, take lots of photos as well. You’re allowed to take them at any time during the ceremony so do so.