Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 3

Buddhist novice walking down the road in Burma

Yes, I under­stand,’ I mum­bled in reply to Luang Por, the abbot. In fact I had only been ordained for about a week and didn’t under­stand much. I remem­ber that I was the small­est of the rough­ly thir­ty novices (sāmaṇera, or ‘nane’ in short) in the monastery. The two oth­ers on par with me were Boonkay and Liam but these two chaps (let me call them ‘chaps’) had been monastery atten­dants for a long time and knew a lot more than I. They were con­stant­ly try­ing to dupe me. For exam­ple, one day while I was mem­o­riz­ing the ‘Instruc­tions for New­ly Ordained Monks’ (Navakovā­da), Liam came up to me with a stern face and said: ‘Dtom, have you “bindued” yet?’

Ever since I ate the steamed rice cake in the after­noon of my ordi­na­tion the monks and novices in the monastery called me ‘Steamed Cake’ or ‘Steamed’ (Dtom). Only Luang Por still called me by the affec­tion­ate nick­name ‘Tad­pole.’ (As for the imper­son­al pro­nouns ‘goo’ (‘I’) and ‘meung’ (‘you’), they could only be used with oth­er new­ly ordained novices—we didn’t dare use them with any­one old­er for fear of get­ting kicked.)

What is a bindu?’ I replied.

Eh, don’t you know about bindu-kam­ma? Every new monk must bindu. Kay and I have already done it. If you don’t do it too, you’ll com­mit an offence,’ he bluffed.

Accord­ing to the bhikkhu dis­ci­pline (Vinaya), before wear­ing a new robe, a monk must first mark its edge with a pen­cil or pen, while utter­ing the words: Imaṃ bindukap­paṃ karo­mi (‘I make this mark’). Before this I didn’t know about mark­ing robes, but I had a vague idea it only con­cerned the bhikkhus—the ful­ly ordained monks.

Only the monks do this, don’t they,’ I argued. ‘Our pre­cep­tor didn’t say any­thing about it.’

What on earth!’ Liam shout­ed. At that moment Boonkay appeared in order to join forces and asked what was going on. When Liam told him he shout­ed even loud­er, ‘Oh my God!’ I was begin­ning to feel uneasy and thought: ‘What bad luck. On the day of my ordi­na­tion I was seduced by a rice cake, which was a monastery scan­dal. Now what have I done wrong?’ I there­fore spoke in a low voice: ‘If you don’t tell me, how am I sup­posed to know?’ (With­out being aware I began using the polite pro­noun ‘pom’ (‘I’) because I was afraid they would report me to Luang Por.)

Don’t wor­ry, don’t wor­ry,’ they con­soled me. ‘It’s not too late—we can do it now. Boonkay, you advise Dtom on what to do.’ They nod­ded in assent, led me to a room, and closed the door firm­ly. They then ordered me to lift my sarong and pull out my lit­tle ‘lingam,’ and had me rub it against my bowl, against my robes, and against my belt, all the while chant­i­ng in Pali: Imaṃ bindukap­paṃ karo­mi.

Although I was ter­ri­bly embar­rassed, I had to fol­low their instruc­tions because they were act­ing so seri­ous­ly with­out any trace indi­cat­ing that they were play­ing a trick on me. The cer­e­mo­ny was only inter­rupt­ed when Ven. Mahā Kam­pan the vice-abbot came walk­ing by and heard me being molest­ed, and thus he shout­ed out:

Hey, nane, what strange things are you doing, mark­ing your robes like a monk? “Ring­worm eats the head”—you don’t know your place!’

Thus I knew that I was being swin­dled by these two mon­keys. I got up and start­ed kick­ing them around the room. Ever since that day I declared offi­cial war on these two crab-eat­ing macaques and even got into punch­ing fights. It was a love-hate rela­tion­ship in the nor­mal man­ner of children.

As I said, there were about thir­ty novices in the monastery, of all ages. The youngest ones were eleven and twelve years old like me, where­as some of the old­er novices were already twen­ty years old but hadn’t yet been ordained as monks. We feared these ‘over­grown’ novices more than we feared Luang Por or Tahn Kam­pan the vice-abbot, because these bul­lies treat­ed us like ser­vants: ‘Go car­ry water!’ ‘Mop the room!’ ‘Wash the dishes!’

In fact three or four peo­ple were assigned these duties each day with one of the old­er novices in charge. But this was sim­ply the the­o­ry; in prac­tice these fel­lows didn’t do anything—they mere­ly forced us small­er novices to do the work. If one resist­ed or argued, one was prompt­ly ‘dealt with’ accord­ing to reg­u­la­tions. We lit­tle ones would keep our resent­ment inside. Once we were big­ger we would com­pen­sate by doing the same to the small­er novices. This was a charm­ing tra­di­tion of ret­ri­bu­tion in the Saf­fron For­est, resem­bling the fra­ter­ni­ty haz­ing at universities.

* * *

One day Liam, my friend and ene­my, whis­pered to me: ‘Hey, tonight do you want to go see novice Lan fight with the vice-abbot?’

Ha! If Nane Lan fights the vice-abbot it would be so bad!’ I cried.

Shush, you bas­tard! Some­one will hear us! I over­heard Lan telling Nane Dtu that if Kam­pan was so sure of him­self he should meet him at the school field.’

What has got into him to chal­lenge a monk to a fight?’ I asked.

Don’t you know? A few days ago ten of the novices got a thor­ough beating.’

I heard, but I don’t know the details. All I know is that Lan was the insti­ga­tor and was per­form­ing some kind of spell. The mat­ter even reached Luang Por.’

That’s right. Do you know what happened?’

You tell me,’ I said abruptly.

Here’s how it is,’ he began. ‘Ven­er­a­ble Mahā Kam­pan knew that Lan has some knowl­edge of spells for arous­ing ghosts and for con­vers­ing with the minds of girls while they are sleep­ing. Tahn Kam­pan knew that the old­er novices per­form these rites reg­u­lar­ly and he want­ed to know how it is done, and so he asked Lan to demon­strate. Lan agreed under the con­di­tion that Tahn Kam­pan does not divulge the secret to any­one. When the aus­pi­cious moment arrived, Lan, Tahn Kam­pan, and some of the oth­er old novices per­formed the cer­e­mo­ny in the mid­dle of the night.’

In the end Luang Por found out,’ I countered.

That’s just it. When they were able to com­mu­ni­cate with the con­scious­ness of Ann (Ann-Dtah, the most beau­ti­ful girl in the vil­lage), they all crowd­ed in to ask ques­tions: “What is your favourite food?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Do you fan­cy me?” There was an ensu­ing chaos and dis­or­der. Nobody knew when Luang Por arrived and secret­ly began lis­ten­ing in. All of a sud­den there was a whoosh­ing sound as his rat­tan whip fell onto the backs of these bald sor­cer­ers. They quick­ly scat­tered and ran. The next day they were all called to the abbot’s kuti to get a fur­ther taste of the whip.’

So why did Nane Lan chal­lenge Tahn Kam­pan to a fight?’ I asked in doubt.

On inquir­ing, Lan found out that dur­ing the séance Tahn Kam­pan dis­ap­peared, and is there­fore con­vinced that he must have gone and told on them to the abbot. I don’t know if this chal­lenge is wicked or not, but I don’t feel good about this.’ These last words Liam said almost in a whis­per, the expres­sion in his eyes reveal­ing his anxiety.

Chal­leng­ing a monk to fight?—it’s def­i­nite­ly bad,’ I said with­out hes­i­ta­tion. I thought of Nane Lan, whose stur­dy, mus­cu­lar frame was like an ogre. If it came down to fight­ing, there wouldn’t be much chance for Tahn Kam­pan, who was as del­i­cate and weak as a lead­ing actor in a musi­cal folk drama.

Don’t shout! It wasn’t Tahn Kam­pan who secret­ly told the abbot—it was me!’ Liam confessed.

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