The Monks of Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, Laos
In Luang Prabang, the Theravada Buddhism culture is instantaneously discernible and adding to the town’s general harmony, there’s a certain level of spirituality to be found observing thousands of monks and novices go about their lives and perform their rituals amidst a thriving town. Around 2,100 monks and novices reside in the town and make up a significant portion of the population. Having been the religious and spiritual center of the country for centuries, the town is scattered with wats and their coinciding schools, monasteries, and dormitories and it’s very normal to see hundreds of monks in their burnt-sienna robes strolling around town going about their day.
At some point in their young lives, between the ages eight and twenty, Lao boys are expected to become novice monks for a period of at least three months, bringing honor to themselves and their family. Leaving home for the first time, many of the boys will temporarily move to larger towns, like Luang Prabang, where they gain access to a far superior education than if they had stayed in their remote village. They become novices by making a formal request to a bhikkhu (senior monk) to enter into ordination. Once they receive permission, the boy shaves his head, acquires the iconic saffron robes, and participates in a ceremony where they pay respect to the elders by bowing three times and reciting a passage prescribed for the custom. He then formally asks a senior monk to give him the robes (having only acquired them earlier) and then receives help putting them on before taking ten vows (precepts):
(Repeated 3 Times)
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dhamma
I take refuge in the Sangha
1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from harming or taking life).
2. Adinnadanna veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given).
3. Abrahmacariya veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from any sexual contact).
4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from false speech).
5. Sura meraya majjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from the use of intoxicants).
6. Vikalabhojana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from taking food after midday).
7. Nacca gita vadita visuka dassana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from dancing, singing, music or any kind of entertainment).
8. Mala ganda vilepana dharana mandana vibhusanatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from the use of garlands, perfumes, unguents and adornments).
9. Uccasayana mahasayana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from using luxurious seats).
10. Jatarupa rajata patiggahana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake to abstain from accepting and holding money).
These ten recepts are just a small percentage of the two hundred vows monks take when making a lifetime commitment.
The novices and monks keep a strict routine. They wake for prayer around five in the morning and to meditate together in their temples before forming the procession for the morning alms – the ancient tradition of Tak Bat. They then return to their temples to clean the grounds at which time, more villagers come to the temple to donate larger dishes of food. Villagers consider feeding the monks to be a good deed and a form of honor and merit with many elderly people donating food because they believe they will soon die and want to increase their merit as much as possible in preparation for their next reincarnation. Half the sticky rice from Tak Bat is saved for lunch, but the main dishes are eaten in full since the villagers will drop off additional entrees around eleven. After lunch, the monks fast for the remainder of the day to show alliance with the Buddha, who ate only when necessary to emphasize the Middle Way. (The Middle Way implies a balanced approach to life and the regulation of one’s impulses and behavior, close to Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” whereby “every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice.)
During the day, novices attend school and even college programs in addition to Buddhist school. When not attending school, they are put to work around the grounds either building new structures, repairing the existing ones, and just performing general maintenance. The temple grounds are then once again cleaned before prayer resumes in the temples at 5:30p.m. In the evening, the boys attend “college” or are expected to study and meditate.