the ordination program is in honor of HRH Princess Sirinthorn's birthday
The first draft of this I wrote while listening to a samanane / novice training session, in Thai. I could pick up around a third of it if I paid attention but it's hard to focus on missing two thirds of what is said. I'm at Wat Pho, one of the main temples in Bangkok (with a FB news page here). In updating a Trip Advisor review about the temple I noticed it's listed as the number one attraction in Bangkok there; not bad.
I'm the only parent here, at 8:30 PM. These kids have been through a long day of listening to all sorts of talks, and religious ceremony, and a once in a lifetime haircut experience. No adult would be as fresh as they still are.
Other families were here earlier, all day today during the actual ordination ceremony, and yesterday during a day-long training session. We've given up the game of making Keoni not seem different than everyone else through initiating differences like that, of me being here longer. He's not different in any important sense but he is the youngest novice in the group, the only one who is mixed race, and a member of two different cultures.
Keo as a samanane / novice!
his best novice friend Sony is just behind him
In a sense Thais are better with generalities and differences than Americans anyway. They don't blow all that out of proportion. Sure, they drag in some error based on expecting people from different countries or cultures to be similar in some ways, and that goes way too far in some cases, but to a limited extent generalizing sort of works too. You just have to subtract back out when patterns that only sometimes apply make no sense (culture or gender stereotypes), versus mostly rejecting that there are any generalities instead.
friendly owners of that family business
88 boys are becoming novices to make merit in honor of the Thai princess HRH Princess Sirinthorn's birthday, if I've got that right (every event reference is always in Thai). She is the princess I just gave tea to in that event in Kamphaeng Pet, which is a completely different story.
the "before" picture
before picture with his sister and our cat
From how Keoni might see this event it could be comparable to a strange form of summer camp. Thai Buddhist religious practices in general are all about mystical forces bestowing merit (good karma). One might expect that I'd be more on that page, having ordained myself.
I don't completely reject those ideas since I'm very agnostic, but I'm also a bit plain minded. Simpler explanations work better, and being skeptical about the supernatural makes sense to me. No matter whether the mystical forces kick in or not he'll come back different after two weeks, a time frame that includes this past weekend. His range will be stretched just a little.
the training class first day, still wearing lay-person's clothing
There isn't much for novices to do, other than helping out a little. The role is mostly about learning. When I ordained one Thai aunt said being a monk is a lifestyle choice as much as anything, and it sort of works with that. This experience is a little like being in a Christian school. No one would go to a Christian school for two weeks but of course it's only a sort of analogy. A Christian camp theme is conceivable, and I went on one such outing as a child. It wouldn't make as much sense in the US now, with all forms of ideology and group orientation there drifting towards extremes.
I suppose they will brainwash him a bit. Good luck to them making that stick; he's on the independent side. I wouldn't mind if they spent some time on Buddhist teachings. I dedicated about a decade of my life to the study of that, before I went back to school to formally study religion and philosophy in two different degree programs, which took another five years.
novices in training sleeping beside Buddha statues
Jordan Peterson--my favorite psychologist--has done a lot with developing that interpretive theme. He's a bit of a controversial figure for a complicated set of reasons, but most of his work isn't about the themes that work out to be controversial.
In some cases those stories in mythology are just stories, and not really encoded wisdom condensed into a story format. Sometimes they can be a derivation of content that had probably been much more central and relevant before the changes.
further along the process, in white robes, with their heads shaved
Keo and Sony
A little about the temple, Wat Pho
It's been 10 years since I stayed at Way Pho while ordained for just over two months. That was more or less one form of introduction to Thai culture for me. I knew a good bit about Buddhism then but I'd only been in Thailand for two or three months at that point, so not so much about Thai culture.
Related to when I'm writing these initial notes, the temple is fantastic at night, the best time of the day to experience the look of it. The peace and quiet is unusual for anywhere in Bangkok; parks don't even seem this quiet. I just learned that the temple is now open to visitors until 10 PM, and I am seeing people coming in at 9 to walk around, often with a tour guide.
She and I met in Hawaii in grad school when we both studied there. It's a longer story about why a former journalist with two Master's degrees trained to be a tour guide.
My wife has an unusual level of connection to this temple: her father and grandfather's ashes are here, under a Buddha statue that her family contributed funds to have renovated. For a Thai all of that is familiar ground, how ashes are stored in different places, often in a religious establishment, or oddly potentially even split up (per my understanding).
their "family Buddha," which of course they don't own
All that leads to a superstition that temples might be haunted, which I'm not sure that many people would accept. The room I slept in part of the time as a monk had lots of shrines to deceased relatives, and remains (ashes) stored there. I had no fear of ghosts. If those people came back as disembodied spirits they'd probably be interesting to meet, even if they couldn't communicate clearly. And they'd probably go somewhere familiar instead, to their old homes, not to the temple.
Keo being different
Keoni isn't just different related to race, age, appearance, being bilingual, and having over-protective parents. He's outgoing. In the US that would stand out less, but he would seem outgoing there too. There's a cool saying tied to that related to Japanese culture: the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Thailand isn't like Japan, culturally, but it is more social group and norm-compliance oriented than my original culture, in the US.
Keo just reminded me of that by commenting during the talk, their training class I'm watching. He does that. I remember during a school presentation when he was 4 or 5 when the principal was talking about different groups participating, younger kids clapping at a certain cue or something such. He piped up recommending parents could also participate. The idea worked, they used it, but the point was more about him being outgoing than clever. He's also a little sensitive, which is the only part that had me concerned about this. He's the only 9 year old that ordained with this group of 88 kids, and only two were 10, with the rest older.
beside the abbot of Wat Pho, Phra Rajvachiraporn
he's still cheeky
He's never been away from us, except to spend one night at a friend's house a month or two ago, perfect timing for that. He doesn't really even visit grandparents. We live with one, his grandmother, which makes more sense in Thailand, but don't see that much of my family, less than every other year.
with Phra Kwan and Than Jaukun Udon (right)
Thai culture related to race, and differences in general
I was explaining to someone recently about how Thais haven't embraced the American obsession with political correctness and being touchy about differences. They don't use the concept of "privilege" in any special way, and of course that wouldn't map literally and directly since the majority here isn't white. An example: you can tell someone they're fat here. I saw a high ranking monk I hadn't seen in awhile walking into the temple on Friday evening, and he mentioned that I'd put on some weight.
It's also not a big deal for people to be transgender here. It's on individuals to define how they want their self-identity and social role to come across, and people don't make much of all that. Men identifying as women is better known and more common but the reverse comes up too.
I suppose there are pros and cons to the differences, as they extend to race and other issues. People are more open to racial stereotyping, and treating people of different social levels differently isn't just accepted, it's more or less mandatory. The focus on not accepting the more negative sides of all that in US culture is positive, of leveling out effects of differences, keeping options and opportunity more open to more people. On the negative side it could go too far back there, actually restricting speech instead of making it more polite, or extending into conclusions or perspective that stopped making sense somewhere along the way. All this has to transition back to the theme of Thai culture related to religion instead, but some of what I'm saying about Keoni can't be interpreted without being aware of some differences.
88 of them together, all such sweet kids
Positive racial prejudice gets to be a strange part too; Keoni could experience preferential treatment and more options than others, in some cases. A lot of Thai television and movie stars are mixed race, Asian and white / of European origin, perhaps related to appearance as much as any culture-themed issue. If the mix of features works out well the kids and adults can be beautiful.
There is hardly any race or culture background mix or condition that would be relevant or appropriate to ever mention in a religious or educational setting back in the US. Here it's nothing to be avoided; it's interesting that he's different, in that setting too. Even being his parent it's hard for me to fully appreciate what that means. He is Thai but also American, related to having passports, but beyond that he can "do" both perspectives. Switching back and forth between languages seamlessly is absolutely amazing but in a sense it's not the most amazing thing he does.
You might think he would just soak it up, as with the languages; he hears two and learns both, from birth onwards. It wasn't that easy. We moved him from a British school to a Thai school and it was hard for him, a shock, and then later to another different school. He's been through more diverse cultural exposure than most people experience in a lifetime, at 9. Visiting a lot of countries on vacation was hardly even an issue compared to all that; you just see a different background as you go through roughly the same tourism activities.
his grandmother offering food to the new samanane
Ordination, and how it's going so far with Keoni
Learning vows was the big hurdle, with lots of training about what to expect and restrictions. They can't eat after noon, as monks don't. Getting a really early start and doing a big breakfast and lunch offsets that. You sort of don't miss it. Monks can drink a milk or a soymilk and those help with a craving.
Of course he did get his head shaved; that part makes for a big transition. Keo walked around asking the other kids he knew "who are you?," emphasizing the oddity of the appearance transition. I was wondering if he'd look cute bald and he most definitely does. I'd have to choose "with hair" as a preference but he totally pulls it off.
It was odd for them to train to be samananes for a whole day but not actually be that, but now they are. More rules and restrictions apply, mostly. And they all look cute in orange. The temple monks and staff are taking them on an outing (to Cha-am) so they'll be out of the way of some of what they shouldn't be doing.
It doesn't really work to describe the steps involved with ordaining. There is a lot of chanting in Pali involved, taking vows, and that haircut, and at one point the novices-to-be walk around the main temple three times, followed by lay-persons carrying offerings. They throw coins wrapped in bright cloth or ribbons at one point, which are good luck to possess. All of it is good luck, it seems, or different steps relate to accumulating different degrees of merit.
that is a really dramatic part of the process
the eyebrows go too; that's why he looks so different
Spending the weekend at the temple with Kalani
It was interesting spending two days at the temple with his four year old sister. She and I kept checking out during the talks to go see Buddha statues (just never the main one, a huge reclining Buddha), and whatever was going on in the main ceremony hall. And one day day we more or less crashed what I think was a memorial service to eat a Thai desert. They hold memorials for the deceased annually in Thailand, continued forever, so grief is less of an issue than when someone close to the family just died. We were welcomed as visitors where we already happened to be.
Hundreds of people caught part of what Keoni was doing too. They gave away free drinks at one other station there, but I think those drinks were unrelated, just something else that was happening. Wat Pho is a busy place, a major tourist attaction, so there's often lots going on.
It was fun hanging out with Kalani. She is so bright and sweet that she's always a joy to spend time with. On the second ordination day I wasn't feeling 100 percent based on staying busy and not sleeping well and it was nice having a cousin and his wife step in as playmates.
with my wife's cousin's wife during one ceremony
She's funny in ways that overlap with how Keo is. In a sense she's more reserved, not quite as quick to open up to people when she first meets them. In a different sense she's even more socially oriented, less into interests like video games and toys that build things, Legos and trains, and more into pretending to be a teacher or a nurse, or dancer. For Keo Minecraft helped him combine those two interests, and although he's now past that phase he built lots of elaborate structures and worlds at an unbelievable pace.
Being four she could only understand what's going on with Keoni being a novice on a limited level, but monks aren't new to her. Her grandmother gives alms to the local monks every Monday, food she cooks herself. And we're at temples for birthdays and those memorial services, and when other things come up, just not as often for religious holidays as we might get around to. I kept asking her if she could be a "samanari," a female novice, and sometimes it sounded like a good idea to her and sometimes it didn't. Obviously we aren't going to try to go anywhere with that idea; it was just a discussion point.
as in the case of the 227 monks' rules, or as a culturally based restriction or observance, any of the rest is flexible.
At one point Kalani reminded me that it was the part of a ceremony where you need to hold your hands in a prayer-like position, and at the end she reminded me to do a different version of a "wai" three times, a combination of that hand gesture and a bow. She catches a lot.
That's the funny part about four year olds in general, not just her, that they combine silliness and random play with a very sophisticated worldview. Different kids would pick different things up, at different times, and it's amazing how much a relatively bright four year old knows. It's not theory to them, of course, they absorb ideas and practices by observation, and copy it all.
About Wat Pho, more detail
Wat Pho is one of the two best-known temples in Bangkok, along with the Grand Palace temple Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Jade Buddha, which is part of a larger complex. Wat Pho is an abbreviation of the former temple name, the real name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn, or just Wat Phra Chetuphon is sometimes used instead. I just wrote a Trip Advisor review that would make for a good blog post, except that this isn't a travel blog, titled "what you may not know about Wat Pho." I'll just include a few ideas from that, a much shorter version.
hours: it's open until 10 PM now, but I'd already mentioned that. Due to evening events and living at the temple I'd been around in the evenings before and it's by far my favorite time of the day there.
Buddha statues: the giant reclining Buddha statue is best known but the main ceremonial hall has a really impressive version too, and there are lots of other giant Buddha statues in other buildings. Open walk-ways include countless Buddha images, many restored to original condition, and many others in various states of aging and wear. There are other things to see everywhere, very old panels documenting Thai massage practices, and small statues on the same theme, even an old alligator pen, although that part may be closed now. It's my understanding that the many chedis (conical structures) around the temple grounds, some huge and some smaller, all really do contain remains of the deceased.
the Buddha statue in the main ceremony hall
massage and meditation classes: the temple offers these. Their website leads to a second official massage school website, but the meditation classes are new enough that I'm not aware of much web content describing that yet. My wife studied massage there (she's really into pursuing tangents; she's studied Japanese and Mandarin languages too, in addition to journalism and education), but I'm not sure how that works for foreigners studying there, if the instruction is as complete in English. I just spoke with the head of the meditation school, a monk I knew from being ordained there, and with an instructor, and both of them speak clear English.
in Cha-am; taking a break to clean up and lighten up
I'm editing this final version during the first days Nane Keoni is on his own in Cha-am, two days after their initial ordination, so I'll leave off in the middle of this story. Of course I really miss him. They keep posting live direct links to real time videos of them on their Facebook information page. He's sitting in the front left corner, if they stay in that arrangement. It's the same place he was in the classes back at the temple, grouped with the other youngest novices. They seem to sit a lot, but maybe since I've only checked in now and again they might have spent a lot of time on break. They did an interview post with him the next day, but of course it's in Thai.
I later realized I wasn't paying attention to when a live-feed post was really live and when I was watching the posted video version. And I heard from a monk there that Keoni was having problems, not feeling well in the evening. I think it was just homesickness combined with all the transition, changing when he eats, and sitting a good bit. It probably didn't help having an extra parent around for those extra evening check-ins over the weekend; that part may have been a mistake. That time gave those kids exposure to the idea of separation while they were still there, and were still going to have parents there to see them off on retreat on Monday morning.
I might write a follow-up in two weeks about how it went, with more on his take.
in Cha-am, in a session, with Keo on the left in the front
on retreat; great to see those smiles (credit Wat Pho's news page)