Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 11

Luang Por Sumedho on Pindapat

Besides study­ing the three lev­els of for­mal Dham­ma instruc­tion (nak tham) and study­ing for the Pali lan­guage exams, the reg­u­lar dai­ly rou­tine for mem­bers of the saf­fron for­est includes: going on alm­sround, attend­ing the morn­ing and evening chant­i­ng, reflect­ing (paṭisaṅkhā) on the four req­ui­sites, and pour­ing water to share mer­it. Those monks who live in high­ly ‘civ­i­lized’ cities like Bangkok tend to not observe these duties very strict­ly. Those regal chao khun in the cities, for exam­ple, seem to have com­plete­ly for­got­ten the cus­tom of alm­sround. Soon after wak­ing up in the morn­ing they have lay-dis­ci­ples who come and offer them food at their res­i­dence. Why should one tire one­self by going out on alm­sround? For the most part, the shiny orange that one sees on streets in the morn­ing is com­prised of young monks and novices, and old monks who have no eccle­si­as­ti­cal rank as phra kru or chao khun.

One may won­der, in the case that there are rules and pre­scrip­tions gov­ern­ing the reg­u­lar duties of monks, whether these monks who neglect these duties are com­mit­ting heaps of offences. Hold on—don’t rush to stuff offences into their shoul­der bags. Short­ly, they will get angry and poke you in the stom­ach with their cer­e­mo­ni­al fans—who knows?

There are two things that monks need to do: the first are called ‘for­mal acts of the com­mu­ni­ty’ (saṅgha-kam­ma), and the sec­ond are called ‘com­mu­nal activ­i­ties’ (saṅgha-kic­ca). For­mal acts of the sang­ha are oblig­a­tory; these include: gath­er­ing for the Uposatha Day (in order to lis­ten to the 227 Pāṭimokkha pre­cepts as a reminder of one’s train­ing), ordi­na­tions, receiv­ing the Kaṭhi­na cloth, etc. If one neglects to par­tic­i­pate in these acts then one com­mits an offence of the for­mal dis­ci­pline (Vinaya). As for com­mu­nal activ­i­ties, like chant­i­ng and going on alm­sround, one is encour­aged to do these, but they are not required and neglect­ing them does not entail a for­mal offence. The chief senior monks know this dis­tinc­tion well and there­fore often don’t par­tic­i­pate in these activ­i­ties. In any case, it can be con­sid­ered con­sid­er­ate and kind of the senior monks to not go out on alm­sround, because this allows the younger monks to get enough to eat. When­ev­er the chao khuns go out on alm­sround, they are besieged by the laypeo­ple, and the young monks and novices go without.

Monks Chanting at Wat Nong Pah Pong

In the provin­cial monastery where I was ordained, how­ev­er, the laypeo­ple didn’t behave this way. They viewed all monks and novices as ‘fields of mer­it’ and didn’t dis­crim­i­nate between senior and junior monks. I remem­ber how we all went out togeth­er on alm­sround in a straight line, arranged accord­ing to senior­i­ty. I tend­ed to be at the end of the line because I was the youngest. The laypeo­ple would be wait­ing for us and place lumps of sticky rice into our bowls from their woven bam­boo con­tain­ers. I noticed that the lumps of sticky rice would get larg­er and larg­er as the line of monks pro­gressed. By the time it was Liam, Boonkay and my turn, the lumps would be as large as a fist. Some of the laypeo­ple would scoop out what­ev­er was left in their con­tain­ers and fill up our bowls, until I and my two ring­worm infest­ed com­pan­ions would return to the monastery with the utmost effort, but with a big smile on our faces. The senior monks would return with only half-filled bowls! I would boast about this to the old­er novices until they chased me off with a kick in the behind.

Do you know which monk the laypeo­ple in our vil­lage respects the most?’ I would taunt.

Luang Por, of course,’ Nane Lan answered with­out hesitation.

I don’t think so,’ I would drawl.

Then who?’ Boonkay would ask.

Me, see.’

Hey, you don’t know your place—ringworm will eat you whole,’ Nane Lan warned me, while he sud­den­ly kicked my back­side as quick­ly as a snake strikes.

Ring­worm and novices seem to be close com­pan­ions. Almost every novice, espe­cial­ly the lit­tle ones, had ring­worm. There are two kinds of ringworm—dry and putri­fied. Dry ring­worm appears as cir­cles on the head. At first it man­i­fests as small spots, but grad­u­al­ly it enlarges to cov­er the whole head. It caus­es the hair to fall out and cre­ates an unat­trac­tive bald­ness. Putri­fied ring­worm is even more dis­gust­ing, ooz­ing with puss. The hair falls out in clumps. Some­times it eats into the scalp to the roots of the hair. When it is cured the head is jagged and full of div­ots, because the hair doesn’t regrow entirely.

Tahn Mahā Sing says that ring­worm is a sign of trans­gress­ing the sixth precept—of eat­ing after mid­day. Any novices who sneak off to eat in the evening get ring­worm with­in three days. But I don’t agree with this. Liam and Boonkay both have ring­worm but have nev­er eat­en after mid­day (or maybe they have done so secret­ly, with­out me know­ing). I was at fault twice in regard to this pre­cept (as I described ear­li­er), but did not come down with ring­worm as expect­ed. More­over, Ven­er­a­bles Dtu, Boon­nah, and Silah, who secret­ly went off to eat in the evening and forced me to join them, did not con­tract ring­worm as claimed by Mahā Sing’s theory.

Besides ring­worm, the oth­er dis­ease that was com­mon is sca­bies. (I thought I would escape these two ill­ness­es, but in the end I suc­cumbed in my sec­ond year.) I now know why so many of the young novices had ring­worm and sca­bies, to the point of being called names like Lord Toad and King Bald­head, names reserved just for them. The old­er novices and monks didn’t usu­al­ly have these dis­eases. The impor­tant rea­son for this is dirtiness.

In provin­cial monas­ter­ies the young novices had to work hard­er than their com­pan­ions, for exam­ple by car­ry­ing water and wash­ing the dish­es. Although the novices washed the dish­es every day, they wouldn’t wash their hands first and the dirt would slow­ly accu­mu­late. In the end they would come down with sca­bies, and if one had it, it would breed among the oth­ers as a chain reac­tion. If one had ring­worm too, the con­ta­gion would be even more rapid. The novices didn’t know how to treat these dis­eases. Don’t even ask about medicine—where should this come from in a poor provin­cial monastery? In the Chi­nese phar­ma­cies there were two brands of med­i­cine to treat ring­worm and scabies—a lotion and an oint­ment. The Lord Toads and King Bald­heads relied on these two med­i­cines. They would relieve the itch­ing but not cure the ill­ness­es. What­ev­er mon­ey was offered to the novices by chant­i­ng at funer­als would be car­ried off to these phar­ma­cies, with­out bring­ing much assistance.


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