Recently, we had the privilege of witnessing our new friend Felix become temporarily ordained as a monk. His hair was shaved, his possessions were given to somebody for safe keeping, and he was dressed in the crimson robes of Myanmar.
Ordaining for short periods of time is common in Myanmar. It is a good way to create merit for yourself and your family, and also for the benefactors who donated your robes, bowls, and other monk essentials.
Felix, from Germany, was a very interesting person to meet. He was a devout, practicing Buddhist, about to start his PhD on Monastic Schools and Buddhist Social Engagement in Myanmar (five years to go!)
He spoke very good Burmese, and watching him interact with the local people made it easy to forget he was a westerner. I’ve heard often that Buddhism isn’t a religion, but Felix had a slightly different take on that. Buddhism isn’t a “rational religion/way of life” from top to bottom as is sometimes portrayed in the so-called west, but it is built on metaphysical assumptions that can’t be proven by modern science.
To find out exactly what the ordination ceremony entails, this website details the process very well, and all the photos below are part of this process. However, the words of this post will mainly focus on Felix’s thoughts and feelings during the short time that he was a monk.
The following interview-ish thing was done by email, several weeks after Felix became a layperson again:
Why did you want to ordain when you knew it was only going to last for two weeks? Couldn’t you just live by the same principles without actually becoming a monk?
My motivation for ordaining was threefold: For years I pondered whether the life of a monk could be a long-term life-model for me, and so I wanted to try it out for a short time to get a ‘feel’ for the robes. I know it’s romantic, and am aware that I wouldn’t get to properly know the monks’ life in such a short time. Still, I’ve learned that this probably isn’t my way.
Secondly, I was very interested – both as an academic and as Felix the nerd – to experience the social relations between monks and lay people from the other point of view. I had been living for extended periods together with the monks, bowed to them a thousand times, and read and written about them. I thought it might be interesting to get a glimpse of the other side of the coin.
And it was! Man, it’s so strange to witness how fast the behaviour of other people changes just because you’re wearing robes: Burmese friends of mine threw themselves into the dust in front of me; accomplished nuns told me not to sit on the floor with them (as I had the day before ordination), but on a higher chair. When the nuns wanted to talk to me they would approach the chair, sometimes bow, and then talk with their palms put together. If I were a power-hungry guy I might have enjoyed that, but I found it rather bewildering and didn’t particularly like it.
I will say, though, the robe’s power actually came in handy during a bus ride to Mogok. The Mogok area is restricted to foreigners and you need a special permit to enter. We stopped at the checkpoint (a table at the roadside with three officers). I was talking to the officers in Burmese, and asked them if I should just write down my name and visa numbers. Their answer was, “Tin ba paya” (You’re right, Reverend), which is the typical answer of a layman to a monk’s question. Afterwards, I said a nice, but bossy, “That’s all?”
“Tin ba paya, tin ba paya,” was the reply.
The third reason for me ordaining was actually pretty funny: I told a Burmese friend that I would stay for a few weeks in Thabarwa Dhamma Centre, although I had no plans of ordination at the time I spoke to her. The next time we met, she told me that her husband’s old and sick mother, who was engaging in a lot of meritorious activities in her final years, bought two robes for me, “Just in case you want to ordain.” No pressure!
Because I didn’t want to deprive that old lady of a chance to gain great merit (donating the ordination robes is supposed to give a lot of merit), and because I had thought about ordaining short-term at some point anyway, I decided to go for it.
What did you learn?
The most significant experience was the changing behaviour of the lay people and nuns. Although they knew that I was not an accomplished meditator (or anything of the sort), they treated me with the utmost respect. As you wrote in one of the blog entries (this one), it’s the robes that people pay respect to, but some robes seem more worthy of respect than others. That has some truth to it because lay people tend to know who a serious monk is, and who is just taking a cheap ride.
The deep current of respect in Myanmar culture is beneficial because it teaches humility and other good character traits, but I came to find that paying respect to monks can be problematic. I met some monks who didn’t live a very religious life; smoking, eating in the evening etc. Sometimes I wondered if the Burmese people should be stricter with their monks. I often felt out of place when people were prostrating to me, because I still felt like Felix – just wearing interesting clothes.
The robes really set you apart from the world of normal people. That might be good for intensified practice, but it’s also conducive to feeling somewhat lonely and strange because you can’t mingle normally with people.
Also, you have to be naked under the robes. Underwear isn’t allowed. I heard that wearing a linen cloth as underwear would be okay, but I went for the freedom of nakedness. You’re never allowed to take all your robes off; you have to wear your under-robe, even if you’re showering in a closed bathroom.
When we chatted, you spoke about monks not being ‘Counted as humans,’ and of ‘Becoming human again’, after taking off the robes. When I asked another monk about it, he’d never heard of that concept.
Probably that particular monk just didn’t reflect on it in the same way you were. Monks and lay people have a symbiotic relationship: the monks receive all their daily necessities (TV sets and expensive cars?) from the lay people, and in turn give them ‘The gift of Dhamma,’ i.e. they explain the Buddhist teachings to them. They are mediums for giving merit. Some monks, like Sayadaw U Ottamasara, are furthermore engaged in social activities which are beneficial for the lay people.
This symbiosis aside, monks are set apart on a deep level. In the Myanmar language, there are many words which are different for lay people. When eating, lay people simply ‘eat,’ while monks ‘give merit.’ When talking to monks, lay people name themselves something translatable as ‘humble student,’ and monks call lay people ‘benefactor.’ This opposes the common lay person kinship terms in Myanmar like, ‘older sister,’ ‘uncle,’ etc.
When a monk disrobes, the Burmese expression used is Lu htwet. Lu means ‘human,’ and htwet means ‘to depart’ / ‘take off’ / ‘go away.’ So taking off the robes literally means, ‘To depart to human.’
Monks have by far the highest status in society, because they’re believed to be closest to (and protectors of) the Sasana. Sasana is often translated as, ‘Buddhism,’ but the connotations are wider. I would translate it as, “The Buddhist dispensation through time and space encompassing all its institutions, and especially the way The Buddha taught to Nibbana (Nirvana).”
Another important factor of the relationship which sets apart monks and lay people are the myriad forms of culturally shaped behaviour. A good example is the offering of food and other things. When something is offered to a monk, he will touch it or lift it slightly. This means that the monk has officially received it; monks aren’t allowed to take or consume anything which wasn’t intentionally given to them. By accepting (touching) it, it becomes a possession of the Sangha (order of the monks) or of the individual monk. It is then allowed for consumption, and the donor gets merit.
One interesting thing about when you and Caroline went collecting with the monks (this post), is the packaged food would have gone into Caroline’s basket after the monk received it. This means it actually wandered back into the lay world. Before lunch, this food would have to be formally ‘given back’ to the monks before they’d be allowed to eat it.