Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Keoni's take on being a Thai Buddhist novice monk

typically cheerful, Keo is on the left, with Sony in the front

Following on the last story about my son ordaining as a novice monk, we visited the temple complex  where Keoni and that group of 88 monk novices (samananes) were staying for retreat for the last two weekends, outside of Cha-am.  I had mentioned one main point of the event was to honor and dedicate merit to HRH Princess Sirinthorn, that same Thai princess we briefly met not so long ago, who I was honored to be able to give tea to.

There are lots of pictures and videos from that novice retreat on the Wat Pho FB news page.  The initial draft of this had been about visiting a first time, but by this final version we visited a second time and joined another ceremony back at Wat Pho in Bangkok (Wat Phra Chetuphon, the longer name), for him to return to lay-person status.

At the end it does get back to covering what he thought about all of it, but this drifts through some background first, about the experience.  He did what novices would do on a retreat:  sit through lectures, meditate a bit, go out on alms round, tour local areas related to the Buddhism theme, and practice chanting sutras in Pali.

On that first visit he seemed to be doing well in one sense, adapting to the environment, and enjoying time with the other kids.  He also really missed us, the most that first week, and it was hard for him.  There were long-day demands of sitting through lectures and meditation sessions.  In one sense I think this will be a great experience for him and in another I couldn't believe we agreed to it in the first place, that I would let him go through it.

Keo is a bit high-energy even as young kids go, not good for sitting in place 8 hours a day.  And he's a bit sensitive, not well-suited for adjusting to that kind of separation from family.  They let him call us a few times, even though the general theme was to not really be in close contact with family.

It's nice that he was front-left in the live sitting-session videos the temple showed, like this one, where it was also pretty obvious that he's the least composed of all the kids.  He was by far the youngest, as I'd mentioned in that last overview post, the only novice who was 9, with only two 10 years old.  I think those personality issues factor in more, not really because he's more Western-culture based, just how he is.

Keo in the front left; this broke my heart to see

He was smiling and playing with the other kids during that first visit, then even more comfortable and at ease in the second, that next weekend.  Keoni said he had no problems with any of the boys, that they all seemed very nice.  Then in quieter moments of that first weekend the seriousness of what he was doing crept in, and the fact that he was going to go through several days of separation from family again.

Phra Vichai (left), Nane Keo, and Phra Kwan

The monks seemed to go out of their way to help him.  One in particular he knew from before, Phra Kwan, a monk I stayed with when I ordained as a monk for two months ten years ago.  He and one other spoke English, a lucky break for me.  Another was more or less a supervisor (Phra Vichai), and he seemed to be particularly concerned and helpful.  Not concerned as in worried; I mean that he was actively looking out for how all the kids were doing.

eating ice cream with lunch

We brought ice cream for the novices on both Saturdays we visited, for with their lunch, lots of it.  I didn't hear much feedback from them the first time related to being busy helping scoop it out but I'm sure they loved it.  The second weekend I rushed the dishing out process to take some pictures, and that minimal interaction with the kids was nice.  Their smiles meant a lot to me.  They would try out their minimal English on me too, even if it was limited to saying "hello."

Another positive:  while we were waiting for Keoni to get back on alms round quite early that first morning Kalani and I walked around the grounds there, which were beautiful and quite natural.  Chickens and roosters walked around pecking the ground between bamboo clusters and other tropical plants, while a few temple dogs kept an eye on us.

The main assembly hall was spacious and modern, with lots of space for 88 boys to sit or sleep, with adjoining bathroom facilities and space for preparing meals.  The other buildings were much smaller and more basic, with monks' residences only very small cottages, as the monks' rules specify they have to be:

saṃghādisesa #6Not to build a housing exceeding 2.70 metres by 1.60 metres (2.95 yards by 1.74 yards), without the agreement of the saṃghaa, and doing harm to living beings, or not providing enough space to turn around it.

These are just broad strokes; I'll get back to more from his perspective after addressing a couple of tangents.  I wanted to mention reception for that first post and explain why we ever let him do this in the first place (or convinced him to; it was sort of a mix).

an outing day; they visited a few local places

A tangent:  blog post viewership about him becoming a novice

I was surprised that first blog post about his ordination weekend drew the most interest of any I've written, by far.  A conventional tea review post might draw 250 to 400 views over a week or so, and a more popular research or topic theme post could exceed 1000.  That post had over 9,0000 page views in less than a week.  Ordinarily I'd think a lot of that was probably from my loyal bot followers but in this case the numbers gradually climbing and related discussion indicated it was probably mostly humans reading it.

stats after a week

Why Keo became a novice, and why we went along with it

In a sense this would either be familiar within a cultural perspective or not, but I can fill in some of the background.  There are two main reasons:  it's a learning and development opportunity, in the same way attending a boy-scout camp would be, and also a Thai tradition. Those both do apply, and ultimately both are the real "why," but it's not that simple.

Keoni has been familiar with visiting temples since he was a baby.  It's not really different than a Christian being actively involved in a church, and that connection seeming normal would equate.  I did go to a local church camp when I was around his age, it just seemed a lot less formal (although details are a little hazy; I was just a kid).

with Than Jaukun, early 2014

she was a bit young in this

My wife had him practicing meditation for a number of months around a year ago, thinking that would help him focus.  He went to another local temple for that, not really a class, just informal lessons from a local monk.

proud, protective parents

All of this makes me consider how parenting involves some guesswork.  Would this be too much for him, a bit traumatic for involving more separation and adjustment than he's ready for?  Would bad experiences come up?  Or would it be fun, and a positive experience?  I didn't know.  I guessed it wasn't more than he can handle, and he would like it more than suffer due to it.  I'll add more on that in conveying his own conclusions.

We hedged that bet a bit by perhaps overdoing it with support.  He was ordained for 15 days, counting the ceremony days on both ends, and we were with him or visiting for 8.  It was hard to let go, to just give him to the temple for two weeks at his age, so we split the difference.

Keoni's take

We finally did get him back this past Sunday.  He seemed fine, comfortable and at ease, not reluctant to leave the novice position and his new friends but not in a hurry to see it finished.  He was always playing around with the other kids, kind of how he always is.  He's bright but not focused, at least not focused on things that don't interest him.  For building something out of Legos or in Minecraft he can focus as intensely and for as long as he wants to.  School is easy for him, but focusing during it doesn't seem as natural.  I think he humors me by paying just enough attention to be a straight "A" student ("4's" as they score it here), which still leaves him class time for messing around.

Kalani had a nice day that un-ordination ceremony day.  She has good patience for the waiting around parts, and played with Keo's best friend's younger sister and two other girls a lot of the time.

Kalani with her grandmother and some new friends

I was telling Phra Kwan about how they were always that way, back to the very beginning.  In the first minutes of being born Keo was quite upset by the experience, crying very loudly.  Later it occurred to me that the staff didn't seem concerned because a baby would have to be very healthy to cry that intensely, and he was just put off by it all.  Kalani was relaxed; she cried, then was curious about what she was experiencing, and was too occupied by taking things in to stay upset.

Keo was excitable even before he was born.  I sang to both kids for months before that milestone event and he would kick his mother's stomach to respond, later wriggling instead as space got tight.  Kalani would acknowledge the singing but was more subdued about it, kicking a hello only when she  felt like it.  Keo knew me the minute I held him and talked and sang, but with Kalani I could see the recognition as her expression changed, when she was only around a couple of hours old.

Back to the novice monk experience.  I had planned to get Keoni to do an interview in English, to match a version he did in Thai in that first day or two.  We kept talking to different monks, including a couple with the authority to make that happen, and all agreed to do it, but no one ever did.  Thai culture can work out like that.  My wife took it badly, and I reminded her that in Thailand sometimes yes means yes, or it can mean maybe or no instead.  It's her culture--she's Thai--but that's not the page she is on.  The idea was for Keo to tell other English speakers about his experience, not for me to help raise his visibility.  Since he was almost certainly the least orderly novice I can see why they might've had reservations, even without it being awkward doing an interview in a language they don't speak themselves.

So I'll convey his impression here instead.  One reason why that wouldn't have worked well turned up immediately, that he didn't have thought-through answers to the draft of questions I had prepared.  I'll use those as talking points since the structure works.

with his best friend there, Sony

What was most difficult about being a novice?

Separation from family, not eating dinner, the hours they slept (waking up at 4, after going to sleep at 9, with a nap filling in the gap).  He mentioned being afraid of ghosts there, which is not unprecedented related to what he says at home.  Thais really do go on too much about all that stuff.  There's a prayer room in our house dedicated to dead family members, the "monk's room," and a small shrine that pays tribute to some local elephant headed god (which has nothing to do with ghosts, it's just interesting).

I asked him if wearing a robe was a problem or not, since those are tricky to fold and keep in place, but he said it just seemed normal soon enough.

a bit emotional in a part about honoring parents

that session did make for a cool visual theme though

I think the stress of being separated from family really set in on him during a session about family roles later in the outing, about respecting your parents.  Oddly we were visiting at that time, so he knew we were right outside the door, and that he would meet with us after the session ended, but it all still really got to him.  It was good timing being there for that part.

What were your favorite parts?

Meeting the other kids, making friends.  As we talk further he might fill in details about activities he liked best but for now we didn't get to that.  He did tell me a bit about kids he liked best and one he described as "his enemy," which didn't seem like a particularly rough form of an adversarial relationship.  It's all what you'd expect; some kid was nice, another funny.  He really liked Phra Vichai. 

Keo mentioned that one had been to 5 prior versions of temporary novice ordination (I think it was), which explains why more of them didn't have problems with the process; apparently many had been through it.  11 might have been a more typical starting age, since only three were younger than that, so if Keo elects to do it again at 10 he would be a rare case of a very young but experienced temporary samanane.

might be asking for trouble putting him on the mic

at the final ceremony, more ice cream and more playing around

What is Buddhism about, what is the main point of it?

His answer:  worshiping the Buddha, more or less, and supporting good karma, learning to do what you are supposed to do.  I don't accept that the Buddha is supposed to be seen as an entity you direct attention to, but that is how Thais tend to frame that.

Per my understanding people are reborn, as much as Buddhism even needs any afterlife scheme, and the Buddha is an exception to that, since he just more or less stopped existing.  To me Buddhism really isn't about all that anyway, afterlife explanations and guesses about existence of other realms of being.  It's more or less practical psychology, just not in a form people would be familiar with in Western countries.  I was going to get Keoni to convey some meditation tips for this, or practical guidance, but that seems more appropriate to ask of a 10 or 11 year old instead.

Keo and the Wat Pho abbot, Phra Rajvachiraporn

Are there any monks you are most grateful to for their help?

with Phra Vichai (left) and Sony

One monk I knew as monk myself, Phra Kwan, and he helped me by updating me on how Keo was doing.  I would have expected him to be the main support for Keo, but apparently another called Phra Vichai, a supervisor of sorts, was the one who looked after him most.  Keo slept beside the two of them, which somehow related to being more protected from ghosts that way.  Monks sleep on the floor, of course (that's familiar, isn't it?), but he said rather than being too hot, as it normally is in Thailand, it was a bit cool sometimes.

All of that monk staff did seem nice.  Phra Kwan said they all seemed to like Keo, that him being cheerful and positive was more a factor than him being a trouble-maker was a problem.  He was teaching Phra Vichai some English, they said; nice that he tried to be helpful.


Keo and I will both be awhile placing all that happened.  I probably never will do that interview with him, since that made more sense while he was still a novice (samanane).  We'll go easy on him at first and by the time Songkran rolls around at the end of this week, the Thai traditional New Year, only the haircut will be a reminder.  I'll have him visit those monks, to say thanks, and to get to see them again, although Phra Kwan we already see, related to religious events or just stopping by there.  We will most likely give them tea (what else), but that will be it.  I probably took those concerns more seriously than I needed to, and stressed out for those two weeks over nothing.

Keo misses those friends and has already talked about going back to do it again next year to see them.  But he was happy to get back to familiar territory, to see his mother and grandmother, to play Risk and Monopoly, and read to his sister before bed.  She won't have him caught up enough on hugs anytime soon.

offering alms to Nane Keoni in Cha-am

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