Category Archives: Thai Buddhism

Boat Parade on Gulf of Thailand

One of my favourite festivals in Thailand is undoubtedly Luang Phor Pan Worshipping Festival in Bang Bo District of Samut Prakan. I went last year for the first time and had no idea what to expect. There were so many surprises that I had a really great day. I went again this morning fearing that it wouldn’t be special any more. However, it still was as fantastic and intense as ever. The highlight of the day is the boat parade out into the Gulf of Thailand. Literally hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes followed the vessel carrying the image of the revered monk Luang Phor Pan. Once out there we did a massive “wient tien” which involved going around in circles three times lasting about forty minutes.

Luang Phor Pan was a revered monk at Wat Mongkol Kothawas in Klong Dan Sub-District during the reign of King Rama V. He was famous for his meditation techniques. Although he died nearly 100 years ago, he is still worshipped by the local people. We had to get up very early this morning in order to get to the temple on time. We arrived there at about 6.30 a.m. thinking that we were early but it looked like many people had already been there a long time. Some were sitting on the temple floor praying and others were lighting joss sticks and sticking gold leaf on the images of the Buddha and the monk. The air was thick with smoke. Not long before 7 a.m., the sound of a Chinese Dragon dance signalled that the Governor of Samut Prakan had arrived.

There were brief speeches first by the City Mayor and then the Governor, a large gong was banged and the image of the monk was then carefully lifted aloft and carried out of the temple. The auspicious time was now 7.09 a.m. Outside were hundreds of people waiting to pay homage to the monk. The pallbearers almost had to fight their way through the crowd to the waiting boats on the nearby river. The Governor went onto a barge together with the image of Luang Phor Pan and nine monks. They would be chanting for most of the journey out into the Gulf of Thailand. The barge was pulled by another boat that was full of other people. As this pulled away to lead the parade, another large boat pulled in and I quickly jumped on board. It was an open-decked boat with no seating, no shelter and very low sides. We now set off to be part of the parade worshipping the revered image of the monk.

There were about five or six boats that left the temple. However, along the way there were dozens, if not hundreds, of other boats. Some only had half a dozen people on board while others had at least a hundred if not more. There were also people on the banks waving to us. We passed a fleet of fishing boats that were moored and off-loading their fish. A few of them also joined us for this merit-making water parade. By the time we reached the open sea twenty minutes later there was quite a large flotilla of boats. It was really an amazing sight and a wonderful atmosphere that is difficult to capture in still images. On my boat were the Chinese dragon dances so we were accompanied all the way by banging drums and crashing symbols. I shot some video of all of this which you will be able to watch on Paknam Video Blogs.

We went about three kilometres or so off-shore to a point where we started to do a large “wien tien” three times around an imaginary point. Everyone was following the barge carrying the image of Luang Phor Pan. Whilst this was going on, monks on that barge were chanting and consecrating sacred water which would be used later to bless the local people. We seemed to be going around in circles forever. I tried to count the boats taking part but I lost count after one hundred. There were also a dozen jet skis. About forty minutes later we had finished going around in circles. Then there was a mad scramble for each boat to get a small flag with an image of the monk and sacred writings. These were being handed out by the barge with the monk’s image. They used a long pole but still it was chaos as everyone wanted to get a flag for their boat. Luckily, even though we hit a few boats, there were no serious incidents and we soon headed back to shore.

We finally arrived back at the temple nearly two hours after the start of the festival. The time had gone quickly but I felt exhausted; as if I had already experience a full day. However, this was far from being the end. Waiting for us on the banks and along the road were literally thousands of people waiting to pay homage to the image of Luang Phor Pan. The image was carefully carried off the boat, through the crowd, and onto the back of a truck that had been beautifully decorated. The monks climbed up with it and then it set off for the next parade. This time, on land around the city. However, the way ahead was blocked by literally hundreds of motorcycles. I walked back up towards the main road where I discovered that there was a bottleneck where all the motorcyclists were waiting to receive little red or yellow flags much the same that was given to the boat captains. This was a kind of reward for taking part in the parade as they were handing them out to all the drivers.

I waited near Klong Dan Market for the parade to approach. The monks on the back of the truck were chanting and two monks on either side were sprinkling the local people with the sacred water that they had prepared earlier. Hundreds of people were lining each side of the narrow road to receive the blessing from the monks. Everyone was in a joyful mood and several people kept offering me food. Last year I just put it down to the local people being so friendly to strangers. However, I knew this year that this was a major part of the parade. The hundreds of pickup trucks and cars following on behind were handing out food and drinks to everyone who had just been blessed by the monks. Some people reached out their hands while others had baskets. People were handing out food cartons, ice cream, Thai desserts and drinks. It was really amazing the scale of generosity of the local people taking part in the parade.

The truck carrying the image had long since gone but the queue of vehicles stretched as far as the eye could see. A local told me that it would take more than one hour for the parade to pass their shop. From this Soi, the parade turned left onto Sukhumwit Road and headed towards the border with Chachoengsao Province. I didn’t follow it this year as I remembered how bad the traffic was. I also wisely parked my car on the main road pointing towards Samut Prakan. As I drove home, I kept spotting groups of people waiting with baskets ready to receive food and drinks from people taking part in the parade. It reminded me a little of Songkran with people driving up and down in pickup trucks. However, instead of throwing water at the local people, here they were handing out goodies to them. This was such a great thing to witness and to take part in. I didn’t stop to watch as I knew that the parade wouldn’t reach Samut Prakan City until nearly 2 p.m. and it would be getting on to 4 p.m. when it finally returned to the temple. But, I knew that hundreds of others would be following the truck.

We are posting news and information of all events and festivals in our province in advance over at the Samut Prakan Forums. Click here to see some more pictures of today’s event. We still have more to go this week which includes Loy Krathong Jay tonight and three Chulalongkorn Day ceremonies tomorrow. The Vegetarian Festival is still going strong and we will have the big Chinese Parade next Tuesday. So, plenty of pictures to share with you soon.

Novice Monk Ordination for H.M. The King

During the school holidays in Thailand, it is common for Thai students to ordain as novice monks for a short time. In the olden days, before there were government schools, poor boys would ordain in order to get an education. However, these days, their parents want them to ordain for a short time during holidays in order to keep them out of trouble. They also have training in ethics and Buddhism which is good for them. At Wat Chai Mongkhol in Samut Prakan, over one hundred Thai boys recently ordained as novices to honour the 82nd Birthday of H.M. The King. They will be novices from 17th to 25th October 2009.

On the first day, the boys went to the temple with their parents and other family members. All of them were wearing white. The first important ceremony is the cutting of the hair. The first few snips are symbolic and are usually done by an elder member of the family or honoured guest. Here the abbot and local politician went around cutting a small piece of hair each. The other family members then took turns. Finally, all of the hair was shaved off including the eyebrows. Once this was completed, the boys took part in a parade through town to visit the city pillar. At the shrine they made an announcement to the spirits of the shrine that they were ordaining for H.M. The King. In this picture, you can see some of the boys carrying portraits of His Majesty. Others are holding yellow flags.

In Thai, novices are known as a “samanen” or just “nen” for short. A monk is called a “bhikkhu”. The main difference between a novice and a monk is that novices only have 10 precepts while monks have 227. If you are a male and are less than twenty years of age, then you cannot become a fully fledged monk. Everyone first ordains as a novice. The first part of the ordination procedure is called the “Going Forth in Homelessness”. This is where the candidate requests to become a novice. He is instructed about the Triple Gem (the Buddha, the Teaching, and the Community of Monks) and the purpose and benefits of the ordination. He is then told the five basic objects of meditation which are: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth and skin.

The first half concludes when the shoulder cloth is put over the head of the boys. After this, all of the candidates are taken outside to change from their white clothes to their robes. These are not easy to put on. The boys certainly couldn’t do it themselves. As there were so many of them, they needed the help of monks and family members who may have once been monks themselves. The novices basically wear the same robes as monks, but they don’t put on the double-thickness robe. When you see the monks go out on the morning alms round it is easy to spot the novices as they have one shoulder uncovered. Novices and monks can only wear the orange robes. They are not allowed to wear vests or underwear.

Once they have the robes on, then all of them go back into the hall. They next request to take Refuge in the Triple Gem and the Ten Precepts. They say: “I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge.” This is then repeated three times. The abbot then tells them that they are now “samanen”. As a novice monk, they have to obey the ten precepts. This includes basic things like not stealing or lying and also not eating after noon. But they can drink liquids in the afternoon like milk.

At the end of the ceremony, the abbot reads the 10 precepts out in Pali which is the ancient language of the scriptures. The novices have to repeat them after him.

1. Refrain from killing living things.
2. Refrain from stealing.
3. Refrain from un-chastity (sensuality, sexuality, lust).
4. Refrain from lying.
5. Refrain from taking intoxicants.
6. Refrain from taking food at inappropriate times (after noon).
7. Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment programs.
8. Refrain from wearing perfume, cosmetics and garland (decorative accessories).
9. Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on luxurious, soft beds.
10. Refrain from accepting money.

The new novice monks now prostrate three times and leaves the hall. We have posted more pictures over at the Samut Prakan Forums. You can read more stories about Buddhism in Thailand at our www.ThaiBuddhist.com website.

Acting Supreme Patriarch of Thailand

This morning in Samut Prakan we had the rare honour of a visit by Somdet Phra Phuttacharn (Somdet Kiaw) the abbot of Wat Saket in Bangkok. However, this is no ordinary monk as he is the Acting Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. He is effectively the leader of all Buddhist monks in Thailand. He came to Samut Prakan to open a new building at Thong Siang Vegetarian House. Tomorrow is coincidently the start of the Chinese Vegetarian Festival and for the next ten days there will be religious ceremonies here every day. I will be going there tomorrow for the opening ceremony and I will be reporting here and over at the Samut Prakan Forums and at our Samut Prakan Online News website. We have quite a few interesting news stories being published there recently.

Candlelight Procession at Phra Samut Chedi

On the evening of the fourth day of the Phra Samut Chedi Temple Fair, it is traditional for the local people to come together to take part in chanting and a candlelight procession around the pagoda. This happens every year and it is always a beautiful sight. The best way to come to this temple is by ferry boat from Paknam Market. The pagoda and temple buildings are all lit up and the reflection on the water is both colourful and beautiful.

The chanting was done by some monks in the European style pavilion. Housed in this pavilion is a statue of King Rama II whose idea it was to build this temple. Once the chanting was over, the Governor and the Abbot led other people in a candlelight procession around the pagoda. This was done three times in a clockwise direction. As there were hundreds of people, the flickering lights were really beautiful.

I have posted more pictures of this event on the Samut Prakan Forums. We have a lot of festivals and events going on at the moment and you can read all about it at our www.Paknam.com website. You won’t find any of these events in guidebooks such as Lonely Planet or the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s website.

A Foreign Monk in Thailand

This is continuing my interview with Peter Robinson, who is probably better known in Thailand as “Phra Farang”, the foreign monk. (Click here for part one.) Peter spent ten years as a monk before finally disrobing in order to spend more time with his student charity,The SET Foundation (SET). I will be talking more with Peter about SET in a later interview and how you can help needy Thai students get a scholarship.

Q. In Thailand there are two Buddhist sects. Can you briefly explain what these are and the main differences?

The biggest sect is called Mahanikaya and the smaller sect is Dhammayuttika. Both follow exactly the same teaching and rules, but Dhammayuttika monks have traditionally been more strict in their practice. They tend to live in isolated monasteries without as much contact with the lay people and spend more time in meditation. Mahanikaya monks are often teacher or scholar monks, so they live in larger cities and towns where the people are.

Q. Sometimes you see monks wearing different coloured robes. Is there any significance in this?

Not really. Dhammayuttika monks usually wear a dark brown robe and city-based Mahanikaya monks often wear orange. Some monks may wear a deep red robe. It often depends on the choice of the abbot. In my ten years as a monk, I wore all three colors at various times.

Q. Some Western people see the alms round as monks going around the community begging for food. Do the lay people see this differently?

Definitely. Monks anyway do not beg and the rules forbid them from asking for anything. They simply walk in the streets with their alms bowls and if people want to offer food, the monks accept it. If the people don’t offer food, then the monk must go hungry.

Q. Do you still remember your first alms round? What were your main concerns when you were doing this?

I will never forget my first alms round because it was such an extraordinary spiritual experience. At first there were practical difficulties, like keeping my robe from falling off, or dropping my alms bowl, or being careful not to step bare-footed in dog crap. But I got use to these practicalities in a very short time.

Q. Did you ever feel embarrassed when you went on the alms rounds? Did you ever feel like you were a fraud or that people would treat you as a joke?

Not at all. What was to be embarrassed about? I was doing exactly what the Buddha did everyday and his monks have been doing the same thing for more than 2,500 years. Thai people never treated me as a joke – though my appearance seemed to give some foreigners a good laugh.

Q. I have seen some monks go out on their alms round on the back of a motorcycle taxi or standing outside a 7-Eleven convenience store. I have also seen some defending their “turf” from rival temples. Are there many Thai monks out there who are just there for an “easy life” or for the money that they collect?

Sometimes the monks you see standing around at 7-Elevens or wherever and asking for food or money are not actually monks at all. They are ‘false monks’ and the Sangha is very aware of the problem. It has its own investigator monks who go out with police looking for them and the police immediately arrest them, though they are not too harsh on them.

It is true that there are men who ordain just for an easy life, for free food and accommodation, and to make a little money by chanting blessings, but there are lazy people to be found in every walk of life.

Q. Why do Thai people prefer to give food and money to monks rather than to a charity or a poor family down the road?

Simply because they believe they make more merit by giving to the monks. One day, when I returned from alms round with enough food to feed six people, I found a lady waiting for me at my kuti, wanting to offer yet more food. I explained that I already had more than enough and suggested she take her food to the nearby orphanage. She looked at me as though I was crazy, and said “but there are no monks there”.

Q. I know monks are not supposed to handle money, but what expenses do they have that calls for money. I am thinking here of electricity bills?

Monks have no real expenses. The bills for water and electricity are paid for by the monastery from funds given by lay people, and monks don’t have to pay for their accommodation in the monastery. But even monks may need a little money sometimes. Thai lay people are very generous when it comes to giving food on alms round, but they may not think to give things like toothpaste, soap or other toiletries. I often had to buy these things myself when I was a monk.

Q. I sometimes see monks on buses or in taxis. Is this free for them?

The back seat of public buses is (or was?) for monks and they could travel free. Taxis or private transport are not free.

Q. These days many foreigners seem to want to become monks for a short period of time. Do you have any advice on how they can go about doing this?

For several years I ran a course for Westerners who wanted to ordain short-time as monks or novices. Most of the men responded very well but that was because there was no language or cultural barrier between us. I was also able to teach a more pure form of Buddhism than is generally taught or understood by Thai monks.

To really get the most out of it, any Westerner wanting to become a monk should ordain at a monastery with a senior English-speaking monk; someone who can really explain not only the rules but also the why of being a monk. Otherwise, it can be a total waste of time. Probably the best place for a Westerner to ordain is at the international forest monastery – Wat Pa Nanachat – in the northeast.

Q. You have lived in temples in both towns and rural countryside. Which do you prefer?

In my early days as a monk I needed the peace of a rural monastery because I had to practice very intensive meditation. Years later, I was needed to teach meditation to others, so I had to move to a city monastery. As a monk, I felt I should go where I was most needed, or where I could do the most good. But – country or city – it’s all the same really. Your personal space and your reaction to your immediate environment is all in the mind. Personal preference doesn’t really enter into the decision after a while.

Q. Life in temples can be quite challenging for Westerners used to soft beds and sitting down to three meals a day. What can they do to prepare themselves mentally and physically for life as a monk?

Unless they are in the same position as me and able to prepare over a long period, there is very little that can be done. But if the Westerner is truly committed to the Buddha’s teaching and the life of a monk, he shouldn’t be at all concerned about losing some home comforts. The benefits to be gained far outweigh any disadvantages.

Q. Even with all these preparations, will it still be a shock to the system?

Oh yes!

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Next week I will be doing one more interview with Peter about his work with Thai students and how he needs your help in finding them scholarships. About four years ago, I wrote a blog called What it is Like to be a Monk? . I was basically wondering aloud whether I could one day ordain as a monk myself. It is interesting to read now. Take a look.

Further information: We have two more stories about Wat Pa Nanachat. Please check out Steve’s Blog on his meditation retreat and also Yeow’s informative post on our ThailandQA Forums. You can buy two of Peter’s earlier books at amazon.com called Phra Farang and Little Angels. His latest book about meditation techniques called One Step at a Time can be bought at www.BuyThai.Books.com. For more information about Peter’s student scholarships, please visit The SET Foundation (SET) website. You can read more about Buddhism in Thailand at our www.ThaiBuddhist.com website.