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In Thailand it is amazing how people can take you in as family, that is the case for my good friend Boom whose family has treated me like one of their own ever since I first met them, nearly 10 years ago. I ordained as a novice monk as a way to pay respect to Boom’s grandma, but it had a very profound affect on me, one that I wasn’t expecting. My recent focus has been solely on building up my business and I didn’t really see much else outside of that, but this experience opened my eyes up to the world around me.
In Buddhism there are precepts, like rules, that all are encouraged to follow. They’re broken down into the following; Buddhists follow 5 precepts, devout Buddhists follow 8, novice Monks follow 10, and monks must follow 227.
On Sunday, I was working in Bangkok and I received a message from my Boom’s wife, a Canadian woman named Frances, telling me Boom’s Grandma had suddenly passed away and that the funeral would be in a few days. Frances and I have been friends since I first came to Thailand. Without a thought I finished up everything I had to do in Bangkok and packed my bags and headed off to the bus station. For me, it was a no-brainer for me to come as I had known grandma a long time, and stayed at her house many times. I wanted to pay my last respects to her.
Frances also asked if I wanted to become a novice monk for a day, and explained to me everything that would be involved in the process After I understood how much it would mean to the family I realised it was something I wanted to do. Ordaining at a funeral not only gives the deceased a lot of merit, but it will make merit for you and your family too.
Sacrifice and Good Luck
The process of becoming a novice monk started the night before the funeral. My hair and eyebrows were cut and then shaved off by members of Boom’s family. Taking part meant good luck for them and Grandma in the afterlife.
After a long night of monks chanting the funeral processions, it was then off to bed as the next morning was an early rise.
The next morning I woke up at 3:30am, to ordain as a novice monk. We had to go to the temple in the next district because the local head monk had just passed away recently and a new head monk had not been appointed yet. Only certain monks are allowed to ordain others. Together with the 4 others who would be ordaining we travelled to Muang Yang temple. The process involved kneeling in front of the head monk and repeating his words. This part was difficult due to not knowing most of the words. In Thai Buddhism a lot of Buddhism chants and scriptures are in Pali, an ancient language similar to Sanskrit. The whole process took about 20 minutes. We left out clothes, mobile phones, and our possessions behind us; robes were then put on us and we were ready. If you’re wondering, the robes given at the temple and sandals were the only clothing I was allowed all day as a novice monk.
After this we went back to Grandma’s house. I was exhausted.
Before Grandma was taken to temple we (novice monks) were fed food cooked by the hosts. It was really surreal as I received a whole new level of respect and view of life for the Buddhist religion in Thailand. It is forbidden to touch women as a Buddhist monk, food served by a woman must be done so on a tray. When Boom’s cousin went to serve my food, it was really strange feeling as normally she would just hand it to me when I ate with the family before.
One of the novice monks was another westerner, Elijah, it was good to have another westerner with me as it made the day easier knowing we were both first timers.
Walk To The Temple
The monks arrived at about 12:30, this meant it was time to take grandma to the temple. String was attached to the top of the casket, that had been placed on a truck, and then extended out for everyone to hold. The the monks lead the way, followed by the novice monks, then family. The day was hot so each of us was given an umbrella to protect against the sun. With recently a shaved head I was sure to burn! The walk to the temple took around 20 minutes. While walking people stood at the gates to their houses to pay respects and join the procession. Many people knew grandma, at 99 years old she was one of the oldest members of the village.
As we walking the monks were throwing decorated money out on to the streets for people to collect. You could hear the coins hit the ground, making little pings along the hot walkway, people quickly scrambled to pick them up. Not a single Baht was left behind. This again is a way to make merit for grandma and the family hosting the funeral.
As we entered the temple the procession circled the cremator three times; three is an auspicious number in Buddhism so a lot of actions are repeated three times.
The casket was carried up to the cremator and people followed up and lay flowers in front of the casket, firstly monks, novice monks then everyone else.
After everyone had placed a flower in front of the casket they all went into the big hall, with the monks and novice monks sitting at the front.
Someone came to the front and hand moved the drinks towards each of the monks and novice monks as a gesture of giving. Sitting at the front looking at everyone was a surreal experience, it felt weird sitting higher than everyone and many people looking in our direction.
The monks chanted for a good 30 minutes, then a brief history was read, and people made donations to help with the funeral costs for the family.
Before Grandma was cremated her face was washed by coconut water, which is believed to be the purest water because it is the closest to heaven removing all impurities before the body goes to the afterlife. This was done by each monk, then family members by taking some hand picked leaves to brush the water across grandma’s face.
Once everyone had finished saying goodbye we pushed the casket in the crematorium. A senior monks released us and we went back to grandma’s. Later that night food was prepared for family (monks do not eat after lunch) and the monks came for for another round of chanting. The next morning the family returned to the temple collected the ashes and the monks returned for one last meal and one more final round of chanting.
Some novice monks will ordain for 3 days, or even up to a week. But in this day and age people are so busy with work and school that they are often only able to ordain for a single day as I did. Although one cannot prepare for a funeral, if this opportunity comes up again I will ask the head monk to allow me to stay at the temple for a full three days.
A senior monk released us and we went back to grandma’s. Although this particular monk wasn’t able to ordain us, he did have enough experience to let us go. Later that night food was prepared for family (monks do not eat after lunch) and the monks came for for another round of chanting. The next morning the family returned to the temple collected the ashes and the monks returned for one last meal and one more final round of chanting.
This day was very surreal for me, I was without any possessions and only left with myself and my own thoughts. It felt good to get away from all technology and be able to concentrate on the simple things in life. This also allowed me to concentrate more on this day and the importance of it.
Doing this has allowed me to realise that I need to think more about life and less about things, how people are more important and to focus on life more.
I want to thank both Frances and Boom Watthanaya for helping me with this post. To Boom for the great photos and Frances for helping to better explain the details about becoming a novice monk and Thai funerals. If you don’t already know Boom and Frances run a non-profit Muay Thai gym and are doing great things for the community. You can read more about it here. The gym is run solely on donations, if you would like to contribute check out their website.
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