Thursday 16 August 2012


Ordination of a Thai Monk

Before a would-be monk is ordained,
he is called Nāga (Great Snake).
Jain Narong (He Who Has Long Campaigned)
has come of age
and, for his grandmother’s sake,
sits in the afternoon before his ordination
and waits for a drama to unfold.
He faces a table with a palm-leaf fan on
and wears a robe of brocaded white and gold.

There are no monks present.

Around the edge of the red carpet
is a three-sided circle (yes),
where thirty five people are set
(and one baby).
Outside the circle, a dozen (more or less),
hang around to see
what the outcome will be.

Nāga sits next to Doctor Spirit
and Lady Doctor Spirit.
She has been in a trance for half an hour,
hands pressed together,
body inclined towards the table with the flowers,
preparing for the occasion.
Nāga’s parents sit behind.
His mother is gaunt and pale as a Caucasian;
enormous eyes in shadowed lids slide
restlessly from side to side.

The Band starts with a boom;
trumpets, trombones, boat-shaped gamelans,
a kong and two double-headed drums.
(It is a big band for a small room.)
Just as suddenly, it stops.

Doctor S begins chanting;
in the Indian style
(the meaning
is in the wailing).
The language is Pali
and though the sound
is shaped by syncopation,
there is a disregard for cadence
(and sense).
It is the language of magic and incantation
rather than instruction.

Next comes an Invitation to Devas of All Classes;
Devas from the planes of Sensual Pleasures,
Rupa Brahmas, Bhuma Devas,
Nature Spirits, Ether Devas,
Guardians of Treasures,
Yakkhas, Nāgas and Ghandarvas,
Devas from celestial mansions,
jungles, fountains,
rice fields, streams and rivers, mountains,
garden spirits and Chao Ti’s,
all are invited to these festivities.

Devas, they say, like peace and solitude,
(they may also, of course, enjoy an interlude)
and such an all-inclusive invitation
to the universe’s unknown, furthest stations
needs musicians who will do their best
to boom it where the deafest
Devas hide undisturbed.
How many have made it here? I cannot guess.
But Doctor S
seems satisfied
(and the baby unperturbed).

There is an unexpected hush.
I wondered what that golden bowl was for.
From it, Dr S takes a decorator’s brush
and carefully paints Nāga’s head,
neck and shoulders with water,
which he then splashes round the room.
Is this to cool us – it is unconscionably hot?
Or purify the room? Probably not.
More likely it’s a signal
that the Performance will begin,
this drama Doctor S and Lady Doctor S are in.
They are both narrators and performers
and will give voice to the traumas
of spirits, which otherwise were dumb
and will, in Thai, speak for them
(and with high decorum)
every time they come.

Doctor S tells Great Snake the debt he owes
his parents, particularly his mother,
and goes on to propose
a review of Great Snake’s life.
He says he’ll start with day one in the womb
(that tiny, expanding single room).
Lady Doctor S wails and shrieks and groans
to express the discomfort, the confinement,
the mother’s pains and premature contractions,
with the sympathy and encouragement
of gamelans, kong, trumpets and trombones;
and to everyone’s apparent satisfaction.

The trombones blare, the drums boom louder.
The emotional temperature rises.
The metal keys of the gamelans
are hammered ever harder.
Lady D is inspired. She writhes, she agonises
in a most enthusiastic trance.
Two small boys, aged two and three,
jump on the monks’ platform and dance.
Onto the red carpet, two women crawl
and offer money to Doctor S,
who takes it with no acknowledgement at all.
The birth pains become more intense
and the music goes full volume.
A group of girls start clapping their hands
in time to the kong and the gamelans
and swaying with excitement.
Two older women start beating the floor.
This is contagious and soon there are more.
A plump woman is bouncing
on her buttocks while bending her knees
and slapping her feet
to accompany the mother’s agonies
and her clamouring
for exotic foods to eat.
At last, the climax is reached,
the midwife is sent for,
the waters are breached.
The girls wail hysterically,
the music blares apoplectically,
(the baby screams epileptically).

After fully forty minutes in the womb,
Great Snake is born,
to the immense satisfaction
of almost everyone in the room.
Great Snake himself
has shown no particular emotion
through all this commotion
and is no doubt practising Detachment
(the fourth Brahma Vihara) quite untainted.
His mother looks as though she has fainted
in a sitting position.

I decide it is time to move on.
For ninety minutes, fruit flies
have been trying to get into my eyes,
mosquitoes have been biting me,
I have been sharing my blood with a flea.
What is more, it now appears,
Great Snake’s life has another twenty years
to run before his spiritual consummation.

Tomorrow, he will become
Jotipanno (Bright Wisdom).


The next day, to clashing music and shouts,
Jotipanno is carried
around the Uposatha Hall
by yesterday’s revellers
and deposited at the door.

Inside the Hall,
no revellers and no music.
On a raised platform
there is a notice banning women.
On a green carpet
sits the Preceptor
with incredibly tired eyes
and twelve powerful looking monks,
aged from forty-five to eighty-two;
a spiritual bodyguard
on the lookout for Māra.

Jotipanno asks to be a novice.
He is given ten precepts,
which he accepts, and changes
his white robe for yellow.

Now he asks to be a monk.
He is told to wait by the door
where two senior monks interrogate him.

Are you a human being?
Are you a man?
Are you in debt?
Are you on bail?
Do you have your parents’ permission?

He has learned the responses by heart
for he speaks no Pali.
The interrogators are satisfied.
Jotipanno is led to the platform
to go through it all again
before the Preceptor
and the Spiritual Bodhi Guard.

Finally it is over.
Venerable Jotipanno leaves the Uposatha Hall
to a throng of relatives and well-wishers outside.
Each places a bundle of flowers and joss sticks
(and a brown envelope)
into his shoulder bag.
He wais his thanks.

“You don’t have to wai now,
  you’re a monk already.”

Thirteen days later,
Jotipanno leaves the Sangha
and reappears in the world
disguised as a layman.
His grandmother, it seems, is satisfied.

Brian Taylor from Bamboo Leaves

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