Right after Asalaha Bucha Day, the full moon day in July, is the beginning of Khao Phansa, the Buddhist Lent. It lasts for a phansa or a vassa, the rainy threemonth period, until the full moon day in October. This is the time when the Lord Buddha declared that monks and nuns should not travel from the monasteries unless necessary. In the middle of the monsoon season when the weather is torrential and wet, travel can be hazardous. He was also afraid that monks may traipse through the paddy fields, damaging young crops. Among all religious holidays, this may not be the most significant but it is the longest period of abstinence from all vices and many Thai men enter monkhood during this time.
Thais have freedom to choose one’s own religion but more than 90 percent are Buddhists. Buddhism has three main components or ‘three jewels’: Buddha (the Enlightened One), Dhamma (the Truth and His teachings), and Sangha (His association or company). As the third part of the jewels, Sangha or monks have many duties and one of them is to spread Buddhist teachings.
The first five monks that listened to the Lord Buddha’s first sermon and were ordained by Him are called Panjavakkiya – they were Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji. All of them became Arhats, who attained Nirvana. However, the Lord Buddha had many disciples. The two chief noble ones are Sariputra and Mahamoggallana, often depicted sitting or standing on each side of a Buddha statue.
Upon reaching the age of 20, most Thai men are eligible to be ordained as a Bhikkhu, a Pali word for “beggar” or “one who lives by alms”. It also means “the person who sees danger in samsara or the cycle of rebirth.” Thais call monks “Phra”, which means ‘the perfect one’. If they are younger than 20, they can become novices or ‘Nane’ or‘Samanera’. Almost devoid of possessions, monks are only allowed four items other than their robes: a razor, a needle, an alms bowl and a liquid strainer.
A day in a monastic life starts very early. At 5am, they wake up and perform morning chants. About 6am, they walk to receive the morning alms. If a temple is on the canal, they may row a boat and collect them. In a remote temple in the northern Thailand, monks have to ride horses to town to receive the alms. After breakfast, they will have a brief chant or prayer. They have lunch before noon because they are not allowed to consume any solid food after that. However, some beverages and juices without pulps are allowed. In the afternoon, they may study or teach Dhamma, meditate, or conduct some ceremonies, rituals or blessings such as chanting at a wake. These rites are mainly Brahman mixed with Buddhist practices. In the olden days and even now, some monks also teach students in the temple schools, which are attached to the monasteries. After the evening prayers, they retire to bed.
Monks’ robes are often described as saffron. Actually, they are dyed from the natural pigments of flowers, fruits, leaves, tree barks or roots, mainly from jackfruit trees.
Originally, they were made in patchworks from discarded cloth and modelled after Indian corpses’ shroud to convey the samsara. A set of robes contain three pieces: sabong (a sarong piece), jeevorn (a big tube to twist and wear), sanghati (a shoulder sash), and sometimes a cloth belt for formal occasions. In Thai Theravada Buddhism, there are different shades of these robes, from yellowish orange to dark brown. The darker ones in browns or even black are for forest monks. The muted orange or ochre ones are called Phra Raja Niyom – or the royal style.
As a Buddhist layperson, I try to conduct my life within the Five Precepts. But for monks, they have to observe 227 rules and disciplines or vinayas. For example, if they are very strict like the monks from Thammayut Nikaya, they are not allowed to even touch money or receive donations directly from the patrons. So once they commit these misdemeanours, they can avow them by asking a senior monk to perform some prayers to dispense their offences. However, if these sins are critical, they will be expelled from the monkhood.
Far from being perfect, some monks have had misconduct exposed by the media. Some minor ones include making predictions and telling fortunes, practising
astrology and performing shamanistic rituals or giving out talismans. Others include gambling, either official lotto or underground ones. More serious transgressions
include sexual acts with either women or men, going out in disguise to nightclubs and participating in illegal gambling or money laundering.