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Buddhist Traditions:
Holy Days, Monks and the Rains Retreat

Surely foreigners have wondered at the men in bright orange robes with shaved heads seen walking around the city. And it's difficult not to marvel at the decorative magnificence of Chiangmai's various wats. But what does it all mean?

One way to help understand the life of the This is to appreciate the vital role of their religion. Thai Buddhism offers an ideal moral code that determines one's relations with other people, nature, and the world of spirits. It is a tolerant, receptive faith, allowing followers to incorporate other early Brahmanism and beliefs not regarded as scientific philosophy.

Thai Buddhists range among varying degrees of devoutness. Time spent as a monk is considered to be the highest and most devout form of Buddhism. Only males 20 years and older may become monks, although there is no obligation. Ordination as a monk is considered one of the greatest milestones in the life of a Thai man. It is customary for a young man to enter the monkhood for a certain period in his life, usually before marriage. It is also regarded as an act of great merit dedicated to his parents. Many older Thai men spend the remainder of their lives as Buddhist monks, after having been discharged from their worldly duties and family obligations.

On the day of ordination, a man shaves his head and eyebrows, and dons a white robe. He is then accompanied to the temple by his family and friends. Once he arrives, he becomes a "naga" , a name out of Hindu mythology used according to a story: a naga (member of a Hindu serpent race) entered a monastery in human form once, in order to be ordained a monk, and therefore take a quicker path to becoming a real human being, subverting the paths of reincarnation.

During the ordination ceremony, the man is asked a series of questions, for which there is only one right answer to each:

  • Do you have Leprosy? (No)
    • Are you male? (Yes)
  • Do you have boils? (No)
    • Are you free of debt? (Yes)
  • Do you have ringworm? (No)
    • Are you released from government service? (Yes)
  • Do you have tuberculosis? (No)
    • Do your parents permit you to become a monk? (Yes)
  • Are you epileptic? (No)
    • Are you at least 20 years old? (Yes)
  • Are you human? (Yes)
    • Do you have your robes and your alms bowl? (Yes)

If these questions are answered truthfully, the man is ordained.

Most ordinations occur before the rainy season, during late June to late July, depending on the lunar calendar. This relates back to a story about the Lord Buddha's early preaching period, when a farmer complained of monks traveling by foot who trampled and destroyed his crops during the rainy season. Others criticized the monks for stepping on small living creatures, e.g. insects, crabs, etc. After hearing these complaints, Lord Buddha made a rule that all of his monks must remain within their own wiharn or abode during the rainy season, and temporarily refrain their outside activities of travelling and teaching. This 3-month period was designated the Buddhist Rains Retreat. Good behavior during this season is similar to that of Lent in the Christian religion.

Today, as then, the newly ordained monk spends his first 3-month Buddhist Retreat in study and meditation. His studies focus on parts of Buddhist doctrine he feels will be important to his spiritual advancement. A monk must find the truth for himself when studying Buddha's teachings, he may choose any time to meditate upon them. The life of a Buddhist monk is an ascetic one: he is celibate, his living quarters are simple, he is limited to a few essential possessions, and he takes no food after noon each day. His life is fully governed by 227 monastic rules until he chooses to leave, an option always available to him.

Meanwhile, the daily lives of laymen vary greatly from those of monks, depending upon their level of devotion, location, station in life, sex and age. While monks and novices are strictly governed by common rules, all Buddhists endeavor to keep the five basic precepts: do not kill, steal, be sexually indiscriminate, lie or drink alcohol. All should honor and serve their families and friends while living moderately and giving generously. And above all, they should maintain and perpetuate the Buddhist faith by ensuring the existence and well-being of the monks, who exemplify the ideal life.

Most interaction between laymen and monks involve giving food to the monks daily, and attending the Uposatha service on Buddhist sabbath days. These days are calculated according to the four phases of the moon and regularly occur about once a week, at which time laymen go to the monastery to hear the monks chant, listen to the sermon, and participate in the service.

One very sacred day in Buddhism is the Asalaha Bucha Day, which marks the coming into existence of the Triple Gems: the Lord Buddha, His Teachings, and His Disciples. Asalaha Bucha Day falls on the fifteenth day of the waxing moon of the eighth lunar month (July), and precedes the Buddhist Lent, which starts on the first day of the waning moon. It is the anniversary of the day Lord Buddha delivered the First Sermon to his first five disciples at the Deer Park in Benares more than 2500 years ago. To observe this auspicious day, Buddhists all over the country perform merit-making tasks and observe Silas (Precepts). Some go to the temples to make offerings to the monks and listen to a sermon to purify their minds.

Lent season Wan Khao Pahnsa (Day in Residence Period) begins on the first day of the waning moon (i.e. the day after the full moon in July). During this time, monks must remain in residence and spend every night within their own temple. They may not travel, except in urgent cases with the abbot's permission, and not more than 7 days away.

While Wan Khao Pahnsa theoretically only applies to monks, lay people observe it on a reciprocal basis. Monks are regarded as a field of merit. Lay people can earn merit by providing them with food, housing, clothing, medicine, etc. It's why the Prapaynee Khao Pahnsa is also known as "Boon Khao Pahnsa", which means the "boon or merit associated with entering the Lent retreat." As world renouncers, monks have no occupation to support themselves and are not supposed to be engaged in any business. They depend on lay Buddhists for their subsistence.

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