Thursday, May 20, 2010


On April 29th, I went over to Pa and Mae’s house bright and early. Pa was getting ready for his usual weekend group of students who come over to study English, and the house was full of relatives (she’s the youngest of 12, and with cousins and nephews and nieces, her family tree is rather impressive). They were making food and ornaments for my ordination celebration [gnaan bpuat].

I took a seat with a group of women on the living room floor and began wrapping slices of banana, uncooked sticky rice and peanuts in banana leaves to be cooked later (this is apparently an important treat for ordinations). Eventually I was called away to help Pa teach while he coordinated something else outside.

When I got outside, men were setting up canopies and tables under them, as well as Pa’s karaoke setup. A couple men were splitting poles of bamboo and making a big ornamental bed, and another group was splitting and scooping out a huge pile of coconuts. I entertained kids for a little while. Then kids went home and the back of the house got taken over with out-sized cooking equipment.

By this time (as I may have implied) quite a few more relatives had shown up and preparations really got under way. A whole pig had been acquired for the occasion (and I mean whole) and about a dozen people went to work separating the different cuts of meat, slicing intestines and skin (to be fried for laab), saving blood, and I don’t even know what else. I got to see the kidneys, and a whole liver, and the pig’s face and watch while they cut the flesh off the tail. If you’re curious, a whole pig is 5,500 Thai baht, a bit over $150. It was my job to distribute whiskey to the people working.

Then we had lunch.

They day continued about that way. I continued to make social rounds, sitting with Pa at a table with a group of men talking and drinking. Pause. While sitting at this table, a number of people selling things came by (I guess when they see celebrations when they ride by on their motorcycles, they stop to check things out), like lottery tickets and peanuts. One guy pulled up and showed us a huge mass of honeycomb in a plastic bag full of honey that he had inside a bucket. Negotiations were made and a price of 100 baht a bottle (that’s 3-ish dollars) was decided upon. He started pulling empty whiskey bottles out of a shoulder bag and pouring the honey from a corner of the bag that was cut off, then rubber-banding a piece of plastic over the top. He said he could get about 10 bottles out of the piece of honeycomb he had, and he sold 5 or 6 bottles while he was there. I think the best part was watching people hand him shots of local whiskey (sticky rice moonshine) as he poured the honey. I think he had 3 shots and a cigarette. Then he hoped on his motorcycle and took off. And now I have one of the bottles in my cupboard.

Later in the afternoon I did a bit of prep stuff (studied some of the Pali I would be saying a bit more, that’s the language all the monk chanting stuff is in, so it felt a lot like studying Hebrew for a Bar Mitzvah). We also made epic quantities of Kanom Baat, another traditional ordination treat. We boiled rice in a huge pan until it was very well done, then added all the coconut that had been shredded in the morning and several kilos of raw cane and palm sugar, all the while stirring the concoction with the stems from palm fronds (it was a two-person stirring job, and went in shifts). It comes out like a really thick, sticky pudding. Tasty. We made like 40 trays of it and gave some to everyone who visited the next day.

Then in the evening I took advantage of my last chance to drink whiskey and sing and dance for a while (though I did so in moderation, jing jing).

At 9 the next morning, we went to the temple by Pa and Mae’s house and I had my head and eyebrows shaved. The hair was all collected in a big lotus leaf (though I’m not sure what they did with it). It was pretty cool. All the people who came all took a turn cutting my hair, and then pouring water over me. Then I was dressed all in white and we gave some respect to Buddha.

Then I got loaded in the back of a pickup truck (I sat in a big wooden chair, and Pa and another guy held umbrellas over me) while another pickup truck with big speakers in the back played loud Thai music. All the people who had come with us got in front of the trucks and we proceeded on a tour around the village, with everyone in front dancing and drinking and picking flowers. I think we did that for the better part of two hours. And don’t worry, people brought whiskey to my umbrella bearers, and at some point they traded places with other people so they could dance, too.

When we got back to the house, I took up residence in what became my corner of the living room. The bamboo bed (it was purely ornamental) was covered with all the things that I would be using as a monk (my robes, my baat [the bowl monks use when collecting alms], etc.) and some banana tree-based sculptures were there, too, though I still don’t understand the symbolism behind them (no one I’ve asked has actually known either). I was given lunch (I had to eat alone, that is, not from communal dishes). After everyone ate, we did one of the banana leaf sculpture chanting things and I gave a blessing (the one I’d been practicing) over the microphone.

The party continued outside, but I spent the rest of the day in my corner of the living room, accepting gifts (people give money to help cover the expenses of the celebration) and bestowing blessings. The party continued outside, and people came and went. Mae sat with me for most of the day, and explained to me that staying in my little space was meant to acknowledge the discomfort and suffering and hard work I have inflicted upon my parents. And not that I have been a terrible child or anything, but in having children, parents sacrifice some of their freedom and take on more responsibility. Not being able to go do stuff was to help me practice patience.

So I sat in my corner, and I slept in my corner.

Interesting note, Mae invited 60 or 80 people (mostly family and teachers), but in the ledger Mae kept (tracking expenses and donations and people, she’s all organized like that), there were I think just over 170 donations, and presumably most people who gave something didn’t come alone. So that’s pretty cool. It felt really good to see so many people coming out to support me for whatever reason, whether they just wanted to see a farang with a shaved head giving blessings or because they know me personally and wanted to share the event. I liked it.

The next day (that’s May 1st) around 1 in the afternoon I got loaded into a pickup (I wasn’t supposed to walk) and was taken 50 meters to the temple. I did some “repeat after me” stuff and answered some questions and traded my white clothes for orange robes, and I was a monk! We took a bunch of pictures, then people started leaving, and eventually it was just me and the fam and Jay (he was my kanyom, the kid who hangs out with me and runs errands for me, like buying ice; he volunteered). And then eventually the fam left.

For five days I stayed inside the temple. For the same reasoning as the staying in the corner of the room. I got up at about 5:30 and took a bath, then swept the building I was staying in (the main building with the big Buddha statue). Then I meditated for a while (usually 40-50 minutes) and waited until Gam brought me breakfast. I’d eat and we’d talk for a while. It was interesting, because the interactions had to be “proper,” which meant no touching (avoid my robes brushing against her or something, we kept our distance) and our conversations were reserved. But it was still nice.

Then she’d go home and I’d wash my spare set of robes, then hang out with the Nen for a while. Nen are the boys who live at the temple for whatever reason and act as novice monks. All the Nen at that temple were there to be taken care of and attend the monk school. They were an interesting group. On the one hand, they were perfectly typical 11-13 year olds with all that that implies, but at the same time they observed a set of rules and way of life (to at least some degree).

At around 11:30, Gam brought me lunch and we’d hang out a bit more, then she’d go home and I’d meditate again. After noon, monks aren’t supposed to chew anything (though that wasn’t observed at that temple and they ate dinner together, though I followed the rule, figuring since I was only a monk for 15 days, I could do everything all “riap roi”), so I drank a lot of water and soy milk. I wrote in my journal a bit, and sat and thought a lot. I started getting bored on about my third day and started reading my book (I took Les Miserables, which I’d already started). In the evening I bathed again and meditated one more time. Members of the extended family came to sit in the evenings, and Pa slept in the temple with me.

On the morning of the 6th, my initial confinement was lifted and there was a short ceremony and special breakfast at the wat with all the monks (counting me and the Nen, 9 of us) present. Then my day was exactly the same as the previous days, except that I went for a short walk with the Nen in the afternoon to get some drinks for the monks.

The morning of the 7th I collected alms [bin ta-baat] for the first time. We took off our shoes and walked around the village while one of the Nen went ahead banging a little gong (to let people know we were coming). Then when people came out to the side of the road (or yelled for us to stop if they weren’t quite ready, we’re pretty laid back up here in the North) we’d stop, they’d put the food in our big bowls or in the cart Jay pushed along behind us, and we’d give a blessing. Then we’d keep walking. It was way cool. When we got back to the temple, we ate breakfast, and the rest of the day went pretty much the same as before, though I ate lunch from the leftovers.

On the 8th, I bin ta-baat-ed one more time, then Pa took me to my own village (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that he lives in a village about 1km from my own) where I moved into MY local wat. And continued doing about the same thing I had been for the past week. The only real difference was that every evening around 7 and every morning around 5:30 we would “Tam Wat.” All the Nen and the monks who were around (I don’t know where the ones who didn’t come were) would get together and do some group chanting. There was a book, and I tried to follow along, and in the slow parts I did alright (it felt like good reading practice), and when I inevitably got lost when they got into the fast chanting towards the end, I’d just close the book and put my hands together. In the evenings, after Tam Wat-ing, Pra Kruu (that’s how the head monk is referred to) showed me new methods of meditating. It was way cool. I especially liked the walking meditations.

Bin ta-baat-ing in my village was cool. I am a more generally recognized face there, and I saw a lot more people I knew. I feel like it was a good means of further integrating myself into the community, and I was proud that I was able to do the two blessings I learned.

One morning we went to a gathering (as I understand it was a general, making merit ceremony) where we were fed (feeding monks is a big deal). At the end, Pra Kruu grabbed the microphone and told everyone that I would teach English to their kids at the temple on Sundays. Whups! Kinda wished he’d run that by me beforehand. But no biggie. It’s pretty clear that no one is super serious about anything here, and I’d like to give it a shot and see if any kids actually show up (and if not, I’m sure Pra Kruu will play English lesson with me). But it was funny.

Then one day (the 15th), I was done. At 1 in the afternoon there was a brief ceremony where I did some more “repeat after me” chanting and reviewed some of the stuff I had learned at the wat (mostly just the meditations) and changed back into regular clothes, then was ferried back home.

Having written this all, this is definitely mostly just a journal entry of what happened. And that’s all I’m going to give you. All the quiet time I spent sitting and thinking without all the distractions I typically impose upon myself, that was for me. But it was nice, and if you get a chance, I’d highly recommend taking a break from everything that you usually do and find a spot and sit quietly and just let your mind wander for a while. Speaking of which, have I told you the difference between meditation and sitting quietly? Meditation (to me) is when you try to unfocus your mind and disassociate from yourself and everything. You actively try not to think. Sitting quietly looks pretty much the same from the outside, except you impose no restrictions on yourself. You give your mind free reign to go where it may, and sometimes you come to a revelation, or solve something that’s been bothering you (or identify what has been bothering you) or come up with an idea for a lesson plan (or what have you), or get side-tracked and think about that movie you watched last week. They’re both awesome.

And now people call me Nan Eli (Nan being the northern way of referring to someone who has been a monk). I’ll post pictures soon. Gam managed to take something like 1,100 photos, though, which is a little intimidating.


Oh, and while I was spending all that peaceful, quiet, introspective time at a Buddhist temple or two, Thailand continued to embroil itself in insurrection. Hm. At least it looks like it MIGHT be wrapping up now…

PEACE (that’s an order, not a request)
Nan Eli

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