It is first important to make the distinction between ordained monks and novices. The latter are young boys who live and often grow up in monasteries and temples throughout Thailand, set to spend their lives devoted to the faith. The vast majority of monks in Thailand only do so temporarily, taking on short term ordinations for any period between a week to three months.
Short term ordinations are somewhat unique to Thai Buddhism, with the practice neither common nor expected in many other Buddhist nations. In the past, encouraging citizens to enter monastic life was a way to prevent Buddhism from becoming extinct. Today it is more about empowering the rich traditions and cultural importance of the faith, by cultivating it in the hearts and minds of Thailand’s people.
Culture Trip spoke with three Thai men to gain some personal insight into Thai monkhood. Joe, in his early 30s and married with a child, ordained for two weeks when he was 21. Passter, in his late 20s, unmarried and heterosexual, ordained for 11 days when he was 23. Noom, in his late 30s, unmarried and homosexual, has never ordained.
Thai men can enter a monastery at any stage in their life. However, doing so before marriage is often seen as a sign that a man will be a devoted and thoughtful husband, able to guide his wife on the right path. Some women may even not consent to marry a man who has not ordained, with those who have spent time as a monk is considered ‘ripe’.
Traditionally, parents in Thailand play a big part in choosing spouses for their children. It is not uncommon for a woman’s family to look unfavourably upon a suitor who has not spent time in a monastery. For them, displaying a willingness to live a simple life and learn more about the Buddhist faith can say much about a man’s character.
“I never thought that having a lot of free time and having a simple slow life would be such a life-changing moment,” says Joe, who spent two weeks in a monastery (though wishes it was longer).
Many men face challenges during their time as monks, showing that the monastic life can be a character-building experience as well as a spiritual one.
Passter found it difficult to wake up before 5am to collect food from people, alongside the firm dietary restrictions (he was only able to eat at 7am and 11am, though drinks were permitted throughout the afternoon). Joe similarly found the lifestyle change quite dramatic, finding it challenging to “suddenly have to act like a monk.” He felt like he needed to try and act as though he fitted in and was at ease with this quick change in lifestyle.
Regarding potential wives, Passter believes that “women maybe don’t care” about monkhood, and Joe feels that (while he’s not sure what women think), it’s probably not so much of a consideration in modern times. He believes that a “stable job and bank account are so much more important,” hinting that as the years go by, Thai society is slowly moving away from placing faith at the centre of romantic endeavours.
While showing your devotion is one aspect to taking the cloth, there are other, more practical reasons that come into play.
Buddhist monks are required to be celibate with a strong prohibition on touching women. In Thai society this is generally interpreted as an all-out ban of any physical contact between a monk and a woman. When couples are married, it can be difficult to remove tender feelings and temptations, and treating a wife as one would treat any other layperson, with no feelings of attachment, can be incredibly difficult for both parties – which is why it tends to be best if the man ordains before he ties the knot.
Becoming a monk is often seen a rite of passage in Thai society, with many holding those who have ordained in higher esteem. Taking the cloth ensures that a man gains the respect of a prospective wife’s family, and can make the difference between his acceptance into family and community circles.
“Thais think it will make you important,” says Passter, who deems ordination a “cultural thing” he observes people taking very seriously.
Joe, an older Thai, says he felt like a tradition he “should do,” at the time deeply curious about what it would be like.
Thai society expects a layman to lead a noble and peaceful existence, thought to be only truly achievable having spent time as a monk. However, the experience is also beneficial to those who want to rise up society’s ladder. Villages in Thailand often have a village leader, a man known as the poo yai who helps to maintain peace among neighbours, inform the community of important events, and maintains hierarchy. Often, a man cannot become a village leader unless he has previously ordained as a monk. It is an essential criterion for undertaking leadership roles within communities.
Today, young men sometimes enter the monastery through a sense of obligation, largely to please their parents. Ordination bestows great merit on the family and helps improve their karmic consequences. For many, is the ultimate act of filial piety: demonstrating obedience, respect, gratitude, and devotion to the people who raised him.
Men may also become monks to honour relatives who have passed away, with a belief that spirits can be given extra merit. Noom, who is a practicing Buddhist (yet has never ordained for various personal reasons), believes that his family was disappointed by his choice.
Some sections of Thai society believe that marriage decreases the amount of merit received by a man’s parents. When other strong connections form in his life, merit may pass to the wife instead of the parents, thus diluting the good luck that can reach them. Ordaining before before marriage ensures that a man gives his family the respect he wants them to have.