Musing on the Monkhood

Not long ago I was taking the #8 bus to Boystown when I noticed a girl beside me speaking Thai. We got to talking, and the topic turned to when we'd go home next. She said she was waiting another two or three years until she got her degree. I told her I might go back next year - for my ordination. In fact, my mother had mentioned the topic about a week prior, and the plans were still fresh on my mind.

Ordination. Traditionally, all Thai men are expected to enter the monkhood at some point in their lives. Usually this is at the outset of adulthood, and the ordination is like a rite of passage for the young man. For a period of one to three months, he gives up his secular life to enroll in the sangha, the community of monks, and to follow an ascetic path reaching back thousands of years.

Traditional, however, doesn't mean I'm completely at home with the idea. It's strange to think of myself as a monk. To begin with, his life is austere. His days are highly regimented and spent in quiet contemplation, humble service, and meager settings. On the other hand, I am among the laziest, most unproductive people I know. I am messy, disorganized, and self-indulgent. I lack the discipline to stick to my own workout plans. And I am lustful. My head is perpetually in the gutter. But there are stories of men even more profane than me reaching Enlightenment. And I sort of think even the holiest men were like me once.

I've looked in the mirror before and imagined how I would look as a monk. After His renun-ciation of the courtly life, Siddhartha is depicted shearing off his long, princely hair as the first step in His journey towards Enlightenment. It is a symbolic act showing one's readiness to give up worldly things. I imagine my own hair shaved off, the hair I always fuss over, as well as the eyebrows I keep neat and trim each month. Without them, the face that stares back always looks strange and unfamiliar. But things like hair and eyebrows, I suppose, will be gone someday no matter how I take care of them. And this is the goal of monkhood: to develop a calm detachment to material things and an equanimity towards the transience of life.

The girl on the bus, however, looked surprised at my ordination plans. "Really?" she asked. "Why? You really want to?"

Her question caught me off guard, and I fumbled around for an answer. "Of course I do," I replied, not very convincingly. "Think of it as...preserving our old traditions."

She looked at me incredulously. "Really? That's strange, especially since you grew up here. Even people back home don't say that."

The conversation left me disappointed. Her reaction reminded me how quickly Thai society is changing as the younger generation turns away from its ancestral roots. It really bothered me that she asked why I would want to enter the monkhood. More and more, such practices are becoming seen as a holdover from an antiquated past, a practice out of place in a "modern" (and "Westernized"?) Thailand. I fear that in 10-15 years we'll be just mimes of other countries, our traditional practices surviving only in resorts and tourist brochures. And of course, my response didn't help. The monkhood to me is not a mere exercise in cultural restoration, and I should have told her that.

Part of me wants to be ordained to make my parents happy. Whatever the strain on myself, I could never deny my mother the joy of seeing her only son dressed in the yellow robes of the Lord Buddha. And I would be lying if I said a part of me doesn't feel compelled to join the monkhood to perpetuate traditional Thai values. Not a mere cultural exercise indeed. But along with that, I want to be ordained because I feel it's worthwhile to be ordained. If some time in the monkhood can instill some good in me, some discipline, some selflessness, or even some serenity, it will be time well spent. And maybe that's all that matters in the end - how I lived my life.

But perhaps I'm thinking too much about it now. Depending on my family's financial situation next year, we may not be able to afford flying both my parents and myself to Thailand and arranging the ceremony, which is typically a pretty big to-do. But one day, I will spend some time in the monastery, shaved head and all. I hope I can be a better person for it.

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