Becoming a monk in Thailand


To begin, I was ordained as a monk in Thailand for two months at the end of 2007.  It's not typical for foreigners to become a monk, and typically wouldn't make sense for someone to, but I'll explain the background and what is involved.

My own background:  I ordained at Wat Pho in Bangkok (the "reclining Buddha" temple).  This was related to a prior study of Buddhism, and even more related to being a member of a Thai Buddhist family.  There are no formal limitations on who can or cannot ordain but without personal knowledge of a candidate monks in a temple would typically not accept ordaining anyone.  Typically it's like being a member of a Christian church, just in a different form; it's a role related to that personal involvement as a "church member."

Thais ordaining as temporary monks:  it is considered a rite of passage for young Thai males to become temporary monks at some point in their lives.  Often a death in the family is a trigger for this, since merit (positive karma) is generated through this activity, and some of that can pass on to family members, even those who have already died.

Why was there ever a temporary monk role?  There was some allowance in the early Buddhist tradition for men to ordain during the rainy season, and then return to agricultural work during the rest of the year.  My understanding is that this was more related to the spiritual role than to them being supported by the community with food offerings for those three months, but a social-support purpose may have overlapped.  The rainy season paradigm is no longer used, with modern temporary ordinations typically for two weeks only, often also in observance of a significant event, like the birthday of the Thai King.

Can women be monks?  The short answer is no, with a few qualifications.  Originally women were able to ordain as a form of monks in the Buddhist tradition, per early teachings.  One "renegade" Thai Buddhist group in Australia has ordained at least one woman, per my understanding, but this action was later rejected by central Thai Buddhist leaders.  Women can serve in a similar role in Thailand today, as nuns, just without taking the same types of vows and without serving a completely identical role.

Do monks need to be Buddhists?  An odd question, right?  During my stay as a monk people did ask if I was a Christian, and without Buddhism being as faith-based as Christianity, more activity / ritual / role based, it doesn't make as much difference.  Obviously it makes sense that anyone ordaining would accept all related Buddhist teachings as completely valid, to be Buddhist.

How many rules (restrictions) are there for monks, and how would one learn them?  There are more than 200, and versions of the rules are available online, some of which require interpretation.  Many are basic, like monks are required to only wear robes.  Others:  monks cannot eat after noon (technically sit down to a mid-day meal after noon, but roughly the same); monks cannot sleep in typical "high" beds, they cannot drink alcohol, cannot touch women in any way, not even to the extent of a woman handing something directly to a monk, and cannot own or handle money.  Some seem a bit obsolete but in general every rule is followed very strictly and very literally, with some exceptions.  Typically new monks are given classes or direct instruction by other more senior monks.

What is the ordination process like?  The hardest part is learning the vows, substantial chanting in Pali language.  Beyond that there is a ritual shaving of a new monk's head (Thai monks shave their heads monthly, not frequently like Zen monks), and other ritual steps common to other ceremonies.  One difficult process is that all the rules apply as soon as you are ordained, with additional expectations related to observing the demeanor of a monk, so all that can be a bit of a shock.

What are monk's duties?  It varies by temple, but in general monks go on alms rounds (receive morning offerings), attend daily religious observations, and take part in ongoing ceremonies, memorials or weddings, etc.  Other roles might involve helping set up for ceremonies, cleaning up living areas, or helping care for elderly monks.  A temporary monk might take up meditation practices, or might not have a lot to do, depending on guidance and oversight.

Would it make sense for someone to ordain for a meditation retreat, or just to have a unique religious experience?  No, not really.  There are meditation retreat centers for that.  It's most valid for active participation as a member of the Thai Buddhist religion, based on religious beliefs, and grounded in the context of ongoing observation of a lay-person's religious role.  There is a spiritual-experience vacation agency that ordains foreigners as novices (samananes, the role typically reserved for children), but in general going on meditation retreat as a lay-person is a similar and more appropriate experience.  For a Thai Buddhist there is a difference related to karmic (merit) effects of participating in this role but for a non-Buddhist this would seem to not be relevant.

I wrote more about this experience, personal accounts of conditions, and more on rules and restrictions in a blog post:

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bkk tea blog Serial expat
Member since 20 August 2014
Bangkok, Thailand
bkk tea blog
bkk tea blog
11 months ago

Interesting that I've just been watching a video series that overlapped with some of these ideas, just not all of them. To be more specific one video in Jordan Peterson's University of Toronto Maps of Meaning course lecture series just covered a bit on the role of male and female dominance hierarchies in setting up cultural patterns, related to the perspective of Darwinian evolution (which he uses in a different sense than the common take on what that is): The following description for that video is a bit poetic but he breaks it down into clear, simple social-system influences as I just mentioned in the video: [his course video description] Our experience takes narrative form, under the influence of biological, cultural and uniquely individual forces. This is partly because our minds are based in social cognition. Experience manifests itself comprehensibly as the unknown itself, the great dragon of chaos; the unknown as we experience it, the great mother; culture, the great father, and the individual, the center of conscious being, Each of these categories manifests itself in action. Each has a positive and negative element. I would agree that the current the form of Theravada Buddhist religions and what the Buddha taught probably vary as much as they overlap, I just don't see a "testosterone dominated" basis for either. As related to him covering the roles of religion, mythology, archetype influence, dominance hierarchy, etc. in personal perspective and society (more on the former, for what he's doing) it's not so simple to deconstruct those elements and re-arrange them. One complication: we are building on what our ancestors did when "we" were a lot more like chimpanzee's are today, and those patterns have roots that go back to when our earlier ancestors were other animal forms. It's not as simple as re-coding culture, as if we could somehow just shift it all, especially since our models of what we are doing (on most levels, related to how our brains work, our mind, our society, etc.) are still pretty limited. You seem to imply that maybe we could swap out female-dominance structure as a basis for society (at the level of a worldview and cultural assumption) for a male-dominance one, and that more specific point is problematic for different reasons, although it does make for an interesting idea. The simple version of why that won't work: that's not what we basically are, it's nothing like what we do at a level of assumptions. From what he's saying it seems likely we are only now folding women as participants into the structure of male dominance hierarchy, related to trying to practice gender equality (my guess, not what he's said). That's an odd thing for us to be doing, since male dominance hierarchy is the basis for sorting positions of males into certain orders, of status, and the women's version of a hierarchy relates to sexual selection based in part on that. That latter (about female dominance) is both a dependent outcome of the former (as the next step) and a cause for it (as a main reason it's happening in the first place). Who knows how we could ever reshuffle all of that. If we ever understood it all, not like now, with different related researchers piecing together bits, and arguing over those bits, that may or may not help. Certainly people are scrambling those gender roles a good bit now, but it's hard to be clear on how all that really "rolls up" to the level of a society perspective, never mind how those changes factor in.

11 months ago

Organized, Testosterone dominated religions, have (historically) created more social tragedies, than they have ever resolved. Buddhism is certainly no exception, despite the 2560 years of proselytized ethical platitudes. I seriously doubt the 21st. Century Theravada notion of Buddhism is what Siddhartha (ultimately) had in mind. Sigh! In the interest of creating an intelligent "survival-of-the-species" evolutionary platform, perhaps the time has arrived for the Estrogen to take the "suicide-preventive", Mother Nature control of the helm, for a welcomed change. Eh?

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See also

Discovering Bangkok: information to get to know the city of Bangkok, The City of Angels
The Wai in Thailand, the graceful greeting gesture of the Thais, appropriate also to express one's thanks.