Becoming A Buddhist Novice

Writer Ma Thanegi , photo By (c) Gnomeandi |

One of the greatest joys that Buddhist parents find is the chance to have sons enter the monastery as a novice for a few days at least. The boys too, consider it an honour to become sons of the Buddha and bear with uncommon dignity the strict rules they have to live by, including not eating after 12 noon until dawn of the next day. Usually cousins and nephews are included in the ceremony.The first novice was Rahula, son born to the Buddha when he was Prince Siddhahta and who at seven years of age followed his father to a lifetime in the Order. To signify the fact of Rahula leaving the life of a prince, the soon-to-be novices are first dressed in princely raiment and paraded through town on horseback or on open cars before they return to the monastery to beg of the Abbot that they be allowed the honour of becoming novices.

During the parade when the procession is led by a loud music band and even dancers, they are shaded with golden umbrellas and if young, carried on the shoulders of their uncles or elder brothers. Even for a private ceremony for one family, the community of neighbours and friends will rally around to help with anything from arranging transportation, be it open backed trucks, horses, or carts and to cooking enough for the monks and hundreds of guests. Then their heads are shaved and the yellow robes donned.

The next morning, great feasting for hundreds of guests follow after a meal offered to the monks and the new novices. This too, is a community affair with girls and young women of the neighbourhood taking part in the procession, led by the proud grandparents and parents of the boys.The novices may stay a week, a month, or some years, according to their wishes. . Some become novices as often as they wish; many do so annually and they have the same choice to become monks after the age of twenty. They are never forced and the ritual is not a life-long commitment, but some prefer to stay in the Sangha they had joined as young as when they were five. For those who do so, it is a life filled with study of the Buddhist texts in the old Pali language. There are schools, colleges and universities and various exams mark their process in their studies, up to one on level with a doctorate. Mass donations are often collected to novitiate poorer boys of a village or town, giving a chance for their parents to see their sons in the holy robes. A boy or man can just go to the Abbot of a monastery and request permission to be made a member of the Order, and if certain criteria are met, then he will be accepted. It is as easy as that, but then it is also the pride of the community to hold a lavish ceremony for the boys. Boys about to become novices must be careful just before the event for people believe that evil spirits would try to take his life before he attains this noble chance. Parents would tell their sons not to go swimming in the river or climb trees if a novitiation ceremony has been planned.Girls also enter nunneries for the summer but there are usually no festivities connected with this ritual. However, sisters of the novices are not to be left out from the ceremonies and they have their ears bored at the same time. The girls are also richly dressed as princesses. They must endure the pain of earlobes being pierced with gold pins, but they do not lose their hair. In a few days when the holes have healed, the gold pins would be replaced with bigger earrings. The most important part of the ceremony is the Soon Kyway offering of food to the monks, performed before 11 a.m. The monks sit around the low round tables laden with dishes, and the tables are each lifted a few inches off the floor with both hands by the donor family, while the monks touch the table top with their fingertips. It is to symbolise that the food had been lifted by both hands and offered to the monks, and had been accepted by them. After reciting sutras, the monks would leave and then only could the guests be fed. The boys and girls sit quietly on silk cushions and usually must wait in all their finery before they too have their lunch after most of the guests have departed. In the monastery, the novices must get up at 4 a.m. to pray and eat a frugal breakfast. Around 9 a.m. all the monks led by the Abbot and ending with the youngest novices go on their daily alms round. Returning to the monastery, they eat lunch at about 11.a.m. for no solid food must be taken after 12 noon. They wash up their alms bowls after lunch and bathe and do laundry and rest until 1 p.m. when lessons or mediation resumes until 4 p.m. They can have non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated drinks in the evening and when they are ill, are allowed to have gruel or a thick honey and butter medicinal concoction called S’du Matu. Bedtime is at 9 p.m.Life in a monastery is not easy, but the boys enjoy the prestige of becoming Buddha’s sons for some days and they try to behave themselves with dignity befitting a member of the Sangha. They know the importance of this step in their lives, and what it means to their parents.

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