Not Quite Nirvana

When Young Men Live A Week As Buddhist Monks, The Lessons Are Many -- Including That Boys Will Be Boys

Rites of Passage

Cover Story

July 10, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

One at a time, they walked through the side door of the temple and into the courtyard. They wore the apparel of the life they knew: Oversized shorts. T-shirts bearing the words Red Sox and Nautica. Thirteen mops of hair, each as black as polished coal.

Like the 12 other boys, Paul Kasemphantai stopped in front of a white chair that had been left for him. Fifteen and slender as a greyhound, he had been attending the temple for as long as he could remember, studying Thai music, language and chants. But Paul knew none of that would matter if he failed to take part in this: the ritual called buad nane, a week of spiritual training among the bhikkus, or monks, that makes a Thai boy a man.

He took his seat, pressing palms together in anjali, the Buddhist sign of respect. A monk who appeared to be grinning circled behind him, electric clippers in hand. The blades buzzed and rattled, cold on his scalp as clump after clump of hair fell into his lap.

His parents appeared, bowl in hand, and scrubbed his head with soap and water. Other parents did likewise. Then the boys disappeared, returning before long in identical white robes. Thirteen Thai-Americans, ages 11 to 16, were now the hairless nanes, or novices, of Wat Thai D.C.'s summer session, Year of the Buddha 2548.

They said goodbye to their parents. To running and singing. To three meals a day, to sleeping past 5 a.m., to underwear, anger and impure speech. They made their way to the ubhosata, or prayer room. Their buad nane had begun.

In the nearly new ubhosata of Wat Thai D.C., brightness resounds, clear as a hammered gong. Daylight pours through windows high above a pink-carpeted floor, gleaming off a golden Buddha six feet high. A sapphire banner screams, "80th Birthday Celebration for Phra Vidhesdhammarrangsi," and below that, "Summer Novice Program, June 26 - July 3, 2005."

Three weeks ago, Luang Ta Chi, the abbot here, attained the age of Lord Buddha in his final year -- a milestone auspicious enough among Thailand's Thervada Buddhists that this year's group of novices is twice its usual size. The large class echoes the fortunes of Wat Thai D.C., which had its humble birth in Washington 30 years ago. Twenty years later, it moved to a tree-filled plot of land beside a flowing stream in Silver Spring. The temple teaches Thai language and culture, as well as the life wisdom of the Buddha, and has grown to nearly 2,500 members.

Nine monks live at Wat Thai, with temple members' donations their only support. This is as prescribed by Buddhism's Second Precept, which says no monk may take any gift that is not freely offered. The monks depend on civilians to bring, prepare and serve every meal.

Their generosity allows the monks to spend their time following and sharing dhamma, the rules of living Lord Buddha discovered in the 5th century B.C. Since then, monks have shared those principles with aspiring novices, training them in sessions that might last three months (as in some places in Asia) or one week (in the United States). The time embraces meditation and ancient chanting for focusing the mind, and 10 precepts that promote mindfulness, right thinking and good cheer.

"The best book in the universe is inside us," says Venerable Ampol Sudhiro, a Thai-born monk at Wat Thai.

Most of the boys who take part in this annual ritual return to lay life after their training, having achieved, it is hoped, new maturity based on selflessness.

It's an expected rite of passage, says Paul Kasemphantai, a first-generation American who lives nearby. "I did it for my family," he says. "It will get your parents to heaven and bring blessings to your ancestors. But I did it for myself, too. In our culture, it's the monks who pass along wisdom."

The sun had yet to rise on the third day of buad nane, but lights were on in the temple's main building, where the novices slept on the floor in bedrolls. The older boys stirred the younger ones to action.

"Get up!" said Oakey Sathirabarabongse, 16, the oldest member of the group. "We have to be ready by 5:30."

Across the room, Paul took up the robes he had laid out neatly the night before. The youngsters had swapped their white gowns for the robe-like jivran, traditional, three-piece garments that are orange in color to reflect nature's cycles. With a partner, Paul stretched and folded the fabric to create a long sash one foot wide. They laid it across Paul's left shoulder and tucked it into place. "Now you," he said, and they performed the ritual in reverse.

Lined up in the foyer after dressing, some boys leaned on others for support. Simon Kasemphantai, Paul's 14-year-old brother, spied his reflection in a window and winced, running his hand over his head. "I hope it grows back," he said.

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