How Men in Thailand Become Monks

A young monk sitting peacefully in a temple | © Allen Warren / Flickr
A young monk sitting peacefully in a temple | © Allen Warren / Flickr
Photo of Sarah Williams
1 June 2018

Becoming a monk is an incredibly important (and extremely common) rite of passage for young Thai men. Ordaining shows devotion to the Buddhist faith and one’s respect to parents, helping individuals gain personal and familial merit within Thai society. It is seen as one of the most significant events in a Thai man’s life, full of ceremony and tradition.

Before ordination

Upon making the decision to ordain, a man must have studied and memorised the chants used in Buddhist rituals. This is no easy task as monks do not chant in the Thai language, but in the ancient language of Pali. To mentally prepare for the major changes about to take place in their lives, many men also undertake additional religious studies.

Monks are not allowed to deal with matters seen as worldly problems, and should ensure that their affairs are in good order before taking their monastic vows. For example, monks are generally not allowed to handle money, so arrangements for bills and payments should be sorted prior to entering the monastery. If in employment, they must have also arranged time off work.

A man’s intention to ordain should be communicated to the monastery of their choice. Often he will choose to study at a monastery close to his family home, or at one with particular significance to him and his family, arranging a date for his prospective ordination.

Monks praying | © Colm Britton / Flickr

Ordination rituals at home

As per tradition, there is a large, spectacular ceremony that takes place before a man joins a monastery. First, monks visit the prospective ordainee (at this point known as a nak) at his home to pray and chant before shaving his head, eyebrows and facial hair. Care is taken to ensure that the hair doesn’t fall to the floor, catching the debris on a lotus leaf to later be kept aside or set afloat on a river.

The man then bathes and monks pour water over his newly shaven head in a symbolic act of cleansing, reciting chants and blessings in the process. He then changes into a white robe, symbolising purity.

A man preparing to have his head shaved | © Ben Stephenson / Flickr

Travelling to the monastery

The monk-to-be is then taken to the monastery in a massively extravagant and joyful procession, travelling by car, tuk-tuk, elephant, or any other means of transportation – what is important is that his feet do not touch the ground until he reaches his destination. If the temple is close, a man’s friend may carry him there on his shoulders. Along the way, it is common to see well-wishers follow ordainees to the temple’s gates, carrying huge amounts of offerings for the temple and things their loved ones will need for their time as a monk.

Ordination rituals at the monastery

Upon arrival, the man and his family show their respect and seek good luck by circling the temple building three times in a clockwise direction. The man then meets with the abbot (head monk). After reading some Buddhist scriptures, conversing with the abbot, and answering set questions, he is ordained into the sangha (the Buddhist monastic order).

His family members approach him on their knees to show deference, and present him with everything he will need for his time at the monastery. This includes saffron robes, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, and a water strainer, which are among the eight prescribed items for any monk. Optionally, the man will be given a pair of shoes, usually basic sandals or flip flops, a bag, a sleeping mat, a pillow, and other essentials.

Having taken his vows and been honoured by his relatives, the man will change into the orange robe. He is now a officially a monk.

Naks, or prospective monks, in white | © Michael Coghlan / Flickr

Family celebrations

The monks, including the newly ordained brother, will generally eat lunch soon after the rituals. This is to ensure they complete their meal before noon, after which they do not eat again until the following day. Proud family members often remain at the monastery to wait and eat their lunch after the monks have finished.

After a man has been admitted to the monastery it is common for family and friends to have a big party, with lots of eating, drinking, and music. Karaoke, live bands, free-flowing Thai whisky, ladies promoting Thai beer, and hired dancers aren’t uncommon. Though the centre of celebrations, the man isn’t a part of his own party!

The monk will remain at the monastery for any time between one week to three months.

Family members posing with a new monk and senior monks | © Akuppa John Wigham / Flickr

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