During the annual three-month Rains Retreat (Phansa in Thai), Buddhist monks are committed to remaining in their monasteries overnight. The tradition predates Buddhism. In ancient India, all holy men, mendicants and sages spent three months of the annual rainy season in permanent dwellings. They avoided unnecessary travel during the period when crops were still new for fear they might accidentally tread on young plants.
In deference to popular opinion, the Buddha decreed that his followers should also abide by this ancient tradition. This initiated a move away from an itinerant life to a more or less settled existence as the advantages of communal living became apparent. Similar monasteries were founded in other countries where Buddhism became established.
Phansa represents a time of renewed spiritual vigour. The monk meditates more, studies more and teaches more. Laymen, too, traditionally endeavour to be more conscientious, perhaps abstaining from liquor and cigarettes and giving extra financial and physical support to their local temples. Phansa is also customarily the season for temporary ordinations. Young men enter the monkhood for spiritual training, to gain merit for themselves and their parents, and to conform to the widespread feeling that a man who has not been a monk cannot be considered a mature adult. In some areas, a man who has never been a monk is avoided by marriageable girls, who regard him as a khon dip, or an ‘unripe person’.
The Buddhist ordination is a mixture of religious solemnity, merit-making and boisterous celebration reflecting a Thai belief that the three most important events of a man’s life are his birth, his ordination and his marriage. The ordination ritual itself evolved over 2,500 years ago during the Buddha’s life as the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order) took form and has changed little to this day. Socially, the ordination is something in which the entire village participates. Village monks comprise the presiding chapter and preceptors. Villagers gain merit by accompanying the tonsured, white-robed candidate for monkhood (known as naag) in a colourful procession to the temple. Small children join the procession which is often marked by joyous dancing and the heady throb of long drums.
Symbolism permeates every aspect of the ordination ceremony. The naag’s white robe connotes purity; the royal umbrella held over his head before he enters the chapel reminds participants of the royal heritage Prince Siddhartha Gautama renounced during his spiritual quest to become Buddha. The naag leads the villagers in a triple circumambulation of the temple chapel to evoke the Buddhist Triple Gem-the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha (the Teacher, the Teaching and the Taught).
The naag carries, in an attitude of worship, an incense stick, flower and candle ‘bouquet’. The candle stands for the transitoriness of light (life); the incense symbolizes pure life's fragrance; and the flower is a reminder of the impermanence of beauty.
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Article Added on Thursday, January 7, 2010
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