Since coming to Thailand, I have been working hard to understand in insides of the Thai culture and why things are the way they are here in the Kingdom. I want to let you in on some of the things that I am learning in the hopes that you will better understand typical Thai life.
One of the observations I’ve made has to do with the expectations that are put on young men when it comes to religious matters. Here in the Northeast, just about every young man is expected to become a Buddhist monk at some time in his life. By around age 20 or 21, in and around the time of college, they are expected to be a monk for a minimum of a few days.
Once the boys are “ordained”, they then ride around in a procession of pickup trucks in order to let the “spirits” know that they are now monks. Some stay longer than a few days and choose to live as a monk for many years. There head and eyebrows are shaved and they are expected to listen to a sermon and chant many ancient Pali texts. Once ordained, the boy is now known as “naak” or “naga” in English. This is a mythical serpent from Indian legends.
The story goes that one day the serpent disguised himself as a human in order to be ordained as a monk.When the Buddha found out, he told the naga that only humans can become monks. The naga agreed to leave the monkhood but asked the Buddha for one favour. He asked that in future, all young men who were about to be ordained be called “naga”. The Buddha consented. Feel free to draw conclusions here.
The main reason most of these young men do this ceremony is to please their parents who believe that the only way to “heaven” is ride the robe of a monk who is a family member.
When someone in the family dies, a chosen young man in the family can choose to become a “monk in front of the body.” He literally becomes a monk just for the benefit of the family member who just died. Once he has performed his family duty he is released from the obligation or can continue in it as long as he desires.
From talking to other Thai young people, many of them don’t want to do this, but they are obligated by a Thai tradition of “repaying the parents.” If they refuse, most are kicked out of the family and ostracized. In the villages, I hear that it is almost impossible to be married if a man has not yet been a monk. There are even derogatory terms for calling that person who has shamed the family by refusing the ordination. If they have not yet become monks, they are called “unripe” which basically means they haven’t even become men yet.
In addition to this, many young boys become monks over their summer breaks from school. It’s sort of like a summer camp for them where everyone shaves their heads, learns Buddhist principles, and goes out walking the streets of the village to receive daily alms of rice, foods, and gifts. They are only expected to keep 10 precepts and not the normal 227 that most monks keep. By doing this, the boys bring great honor to their families.
The societal pressure for these boys to do this for the family is HUGE. Of the top three ways of “making merit” in Buddhism, number one and two are becoming a monk or having a son become a monk. So, for mother’s, their sons are literally their salvation. The third way is giving money to temple building projects…so that’s why there are so many temple buildings here!
When I consider these things I think of them against the backdrop of certain scriptures (Eph 6:2-3, Matt 10:36-38, Luke 14:26, Hebrews 11:26 ,Matt 13:44) and realize that there is much to overcome in becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ here in this nation. But some brave souls have broken through. Will you pray that many more will do the same?
What I have written briefly is just one aspect of a typical boy’s life in Thailand, in the future I will write about other cultural aspects of life here such as state required Buddhist education, city gates and shrines, wedding ceremonies, funerals, street level religious views, and family dynamics. Until then, feel free to weigh in on this topic.