At first I was hesitant when I was asked to be a Novice Monk for a Thai funeral for two reasons: I’m not exactly what you would consider a religious person, and I wasn’t too keen on getting my head and eyebrows shaved. My eyebrows are one of my most defining features and just the thought of parting with them, even temporarily, was like a blow to my stomach. When I asked if there wasn’t anybody else who could do it I was told that it would mean a lot to the family if I’d step in. So I agreed to do it to help make merit for the deceased.
Preparing to be a Novice Monk
On Sunday, after the bathing rite for the deceased, I met with a monk at the temple to find out what exactly I had to do. He gave me a book in the Pali language (but written in Thai script) and showed me some of the passages that I would have to repeat during the ordination and the funeral ceremony. I recorded the monk reading these passages (listen to a sample) to have an example which aided me in practicing the proper pronunciation. Since Thai books are typically written with rather small fonts, I also typed the passages as a text document to enlarge the font for easier reading during my practice.
On Wednesday, I arrived at the temple at 6:00 am to get ready. The first step in the ordination was to get my head and eyebrows shaved. Leading up to the ceremony, I did some research as to why I had to say goodbye to my eyebrows as well. I learned that only Thai monks do this and the reason for it goes back a long time. Apparently when Thailand and Burma were at war the Burmese sent spies across the border dressed as monks. So the Thais ordered all their monks to shave their eyebrows to distinguish them from the Burmese spies. Of course the Burmese spies started shaving their eyebrows to blend in, but when they returned to the Burmese court the Thai spies there were able to easily identify them. I’m not sure of the validity of this explanation, but to this day, Thai monks are the only ones that not only shave their hair, but eyebrows as well.
I know, I seem obsessed with my eyebrows, but they are such a defining feature of my face (and help my facial expressions to make a point while communicating) that some of my friends did not recognize me without them. In fact, the first time I looked into a mirror without my hair and eyebrows, even I had the feeling a stranger was gazing back.
Once I had all hair above my shoulders removed, it was time to meet the head monk for the actual ordination. At this time, I was still dressed in my civilian clothes: jeans and a white T-shirt. I requested to become a Novice Monk and was presented with my monk’s robe. This was a very short session that consisted of a prayer the head monk did together with me. As the language barrier presented a small obstacle, the head monk only said a few words at a time rather than full sentences, as it was easier for me to repeat them.
The next step was to get dressed in the monk’s robe. I was assisted by three monks who had the routine down to perfection. They quickly transformed me from a civilian into a Thai Buddhist Monk. There are a total of three pieces and some ropes to hold things together. The under-robe (sabong) is worn around the waist, covering the navel and falling to just below the knees. The sabong is held up by a fold and a tuck as well as a cord belt. It was fastened quite tightly, which at the beginning seemed uncomfortable and restricted my movement a bit. Over time, it either loosened up a bit or I just got used to it being so tight. The top part is a sleeveless waistcoat (ungsa) which covers only the right shoulder and is joined together on the left side by ties or buttons, depending on the particular design. The third piece of the robe is an additional robe (sanghati) which is folded in a particular way and hung over the left shoulder and fastened with an outer belt around the belly. During the dressing procedure, I also found out what monks wear underneath their robes: nothing. Yes, I had to discard my underwear and after doing so, one of my dress assistants made sure I was not cheating by asking me: “You really are not wearing anything underneath anymore, right?”
Ordaining as a Novice Monk
After I was fully dressed it was time for the actual ordination. We returned to the head monk, who had been waiting patiently in the same spot we did the pre-ordination. This time the chanting went on much longer and it was sometimes difficult to follow along with proper pronunciation and tonality. The head monk was very patient and every time I slipped up, he looked at me with a big smile on his face. His gleaming eyes communicated to me that all was good. Sometimes he repeated a word or phrase so I could get it right, other times he just moved on. The most central part of the chant was the instruction about the three jewels (the Buddha, the Written Word, and the Community of Monks). It seems Buddhism has been aware long before Steve Jobs about the Rule of Threes, as the instructions are not only describing three parts central to Buddhist practice, but is also repeated three times.
After the ordination, we ate breakfast (a simple rice soup) and then pretty much just relaxed until about 11:00 am, when it was time for lunch. This meal was cooked by relatives of the deceased and was actually quite a feast. I don’t have any photos of the food, as it seemed inappropriate for the occasion to take snapshots of my meal. I recall being served a wide selection of foods, which included a beef curry with pineapples, fried pork, mixed vegetables, rice, and fresh fruit including durian. The one thing that made the meal a bit less enjoyable was having to sit on the floor in a lotus position, which is rather difficult for me to do. My hips hurt quite a bit after a while and getting up afterwards was a bit difficult. After the food and plates were cleared from the monks, it was time for the funeral attendees to eat.
The early afternoon was then spent doing nothing. I just sat around and mediated, contemplated, and checked my Facebook from time to time. I’ve uploaded some photos of my ordination to Facebook earlier in the day and the number of likes and comments were quite high. Many of my friends expressed their surprise of seeing me as a Novice Monk. I also watched the decorating of the crematory building. The decorations included long strips of black and white cloth up the stairs, as well as beautiful flower arrangements.
The Funeral Ceremony
At around 3:00 pm the monks came back from their quarters and lead the final chanting session for the deceased before the coffin was carried outside and placed onto a beautifully decorated cart. Once the coffin was on the cart, we were ready for the procession to the crematory. In front were the family members carrying the deceased’s portrait. The monks of the temple, including me, lined up behind them, holding a white thread that was attached to the coffin. The other mourners walked behind the coffin as we circled the crematory building of the temple three times counter-clockwise. The coffin was then carried up the stairs and placed on a long table in front of the crematory. The portrait of the deceased was placed next to the coffin. We were ready to start the final part of the funeral.
During the actual funeral ceremony, honored guests came up the stairs and placed monk robes on a tray in front of the coffin. Monks followed each of the guests and said a short prayer before receiving the robes. Once all the robes had been received, a eulogy was read. Then, all of the mourners lined up to say a last goodbye to the deceased. They walked up the stairs and placed a flower, made from wood shavings, on the tray in front of the coffin. They “waid” and said a short prayer to forgive the deceased any wrongdoings he may have done in his life. On the way down the stairs they received a souvenir, which can be anything that will remind the mourner of the deceased. At this particular funeral, it was an aluminum cup with the deceased’s name, birthdate, and date of death on it.
After all the mourners had an opportunity for a last farewell, the decorations were removed from the coffin and it was placed on the floor in front of the crematory. Its lid was removed and close family members gathered around, many placing money or memorable objects in the coffin. Then, a coconut was opened and the juice poured over the body inside the coffin. Once this was done, the coffin was placed inside the crematory and the deceased’s son and I used the flowers made of wood shavings to light the fire. The doors of the crematory were closed and the funeral was officially over. I met one more time with the head monk for a short prayer before disrobing and changing back into my civilian clothes.
My Five Most Memorable Observations
- Buddhist monks are very forgiving of mistakes.
- Monks don’t wear underwear.
- Using Facebook and smoking seems quite accepted for Thai monks.
- I find sitting in a lotus position for long periods of time highly uncomfortable.
- Thais seem to love taking photos with a monk, especially if it’s a Farang (caucasian) monk.
Becoming a novice monk definitely ranks as one of the most unusual things I have done. It was an experience I will treasure for my entire life. What are some of the unforgettable moments you have experienced in Thailand? I’d love to read about them in the comments below.