Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 4

Bhikkhu Ordination at Chithurst Monastery, UK

Those of you who have lived in the Saf­fron For­est know that when a per­son is ordained as a monk, his pre­cep­tor bestows on him a new Pali name, which in Thai is called the chāyā (from the Pali, mean­ing ‘shad­ow’). I had no idea why the new name is referred to as a shad­ow but this mat­ter was clar­i­fied when I asked Luang Por.

Luang Por told me that the first let­ter of this Pali name is deter­mined by the birth day of the ordi­na­tion can­di­date (in Thai called a nāk—from the Pali word nāga: a divine ser­pent), fol­low­ing this rule:

Born on Sun­day: the name begins with a vowel.

Born on Mon­day: the name begins with k, kh, g or gh.

Born on Tues­day: the name begins with c, ch, j, jh or ñ.

Born on Wednes­day (dawn to dusk): the name begins with ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, or ṇ.

Born on Wednes­day (dusk to the fol­low­ing dawn): the name begins with y, r, l or v.

Born on Thurs­day: the name begins with p, ph, b, bh or m.

Born on Fri­day: the name begins with s or h.

Born on Sat­ur­day: the name begins with t, th, d, dh or n.

A per­son born on a Mon­day may be named Kan­tad­ham­mo or Khan­tipā­lo, for exam­ple. Some­one born on a Tues­day may be named Can­davaro, Chan­dad­ham­mo, etc. This way in the cir­cle of monks when one knows some­one else’s Pali name one can deter­mine the day of the week he was born, unless the pre­cep­tor uncon­ven­tion­al­ly ignores this con­ven­tion which doesn’t hap­pen often.

Guardian Naga Serpent

(An inter­est­ing aside from Don­ald K. Swearer’s book ‘Becom­ing the Bud­dha: the Rit­u­al of Image Con­se­cra­tion in Thailand’:)

In the case of novi­tiate ordi­na­tion, the ser­pent, a rep­tile that renews itself by shed­ding its skin, is asso­ci­at­ed pri­mar­i­ly with trans­for­ma­tion. The rea­son the can­di­date for sāmaṇera ordi­na­tion is called a nāk is giv­en in the fol­low­ing folk legend:

Dur­ing the Lord Buddha’s time, a cer­tain nāga or mytho­log­i­cal snake, by its mag­i­cal pow­er turned itself into a man and became by ordi­na­tion a monk. One day the nāga monk dur­ing a deep sleep turned into a nāga and was seen by broth­er monks. The mat­ter was report­ed to the Bud­dha, and the nāga monk had to relin­quish his monk­hood for no crea­ture except a human being may be ordained as a monk. The nāga asked a favor of the Bud­dha that his name as a nāga might be giv­en as name­sake to the can­di­date for monk­hood in mem­o­ry of the fact that it was once a monk.

Stan­ley J. Tam­bi­ah inter­prets this leg­end adapt­ed from the Mahā­vagga as sym­bol­iz­ing a novice’s renun­ci­a­tion of male viril­i­ty, which he iden­ti­fies with the ser­pent. While male sex­u­al viril­i­ty may char­ac­ter­ize the ser­pent as a myth­ic arche­type, the Mahā­vagga tale on which it is based sug­gests a dif­fer­ent con­struc­tion … In short the sto­ry illus­trates two kinds of trans­for­ma­tion: from crea­ture instincts to human behav­iour reg­u­lat­ed by the Bud­dhist sāsana, and from a lay eth­ic gov­erned by the norms of sīla to the monas­tic pur­suit of nib­bānic liberation.

Naga Serpent

There are sto­ries of pre­cep­tors who have no knowl­edge of Pali but who became pre­cep­tors by chance, through the pow­er of their fre­quent gifts of shrimp paste and fish sauce to the rul­ing monk of the dis­trict. As a reward for this gen­eros­i­ty these influ­en­tial dis­trict admin­is­tra­tive monks appoint­ed these monks as pre­cep­tors, who we can col­lo­qui­al­ly refer to as ‘shrimp paste pre­cep­tors.’ These salty, stinky pre­cep­tors are not sussed as regards rit­u­al and cer­e­mo­ny; even with the cus­tom of choos­ing a name for can­di­dates they are unfa­mil­iar. One day an ordi­na­tion can­di­date came to one such pre­cep­tor. The candidate’s deport­ment was com­posed and pleas­ing to the eye. ‘This guy keeps his rear-end well-com­posed,’ the shrimp paste pre­cep­tor thought, and thus chose the Pali name Tuṭṭhasaṁ­varo (‘Tut’ in Thai means ‘bum’; saṁ­varo is Pali for restraint). When Pali schol­ars asked him what this name means, he answered non­cha­lant­ly: ‘Tuṭṭha’ means bum and saṁ­varo means restrained: togeth­er they mean ‘with bum restrained.’ In this way he evad­ed the schol­ars before they could open up the books to check.

When the ordi­na­tion cer­e­mo­ny is com­plete the pre­cep­tor mea­sures the sun’s shad­ow (chāyā) to deter­mine what time of day it is, because in the old­en days there were no clocks and peo­ple relied on sun­di­als to tell the time. The time of day is then kept as a record, that a monk of such and such a name was ordained when the shad­ow had reached a par­tic­u­lar point. This pro­ce­dure is tech­ni­cal­ly called ‘to take the shad­ow’ (chāyā-parig­ga­haṇa). Orig­i­nal­ly the term chāyā referred both to the time of the ordination’s com­ple­tion and to the Pali name cho­sen by the pre­cep­tor, but lat­er it referred exclu­sive­ly to the Pali name.

Gen­er­al­ly a chāyā is only giv­en to bhikkhus, and not to novices because in the novice ordi­na­tion there is no for­mal announce­ment of the saṅgha. But it is strange that at Wat Bahn Huay where I was ordained as a novice Luang Por gave a Pali name to all the novices—I don’t know from where he got this exam­ple. This mat­ter only became clear to me when I lat­er went to Bangkok and learned that all of the novices in the Dham­mayut­ti­ka Nikāya had Pali names. Luang Por must have imi­tat­ed the Dham­mayut­ti­ka order and not just in this mat­ter: even the way we wore our robes and the chant­i­ng were copied from the Dham­mayut­ti­ka order. One can say we were an adap­ta­tion of the Mahā Nikāya order.

It was impor­tant to remem­ber one’s Pali name because at morn­ing and evening chant­i­ng Luang Por would check the atten­dance by call­ing out each person’s Pali name from a list, for exam­ple by call­ing out: ‘Is Sob­hi­to here?’ and the own­er of this name would have to answer loud­ly: ‘Āga­to, bhante’: ‘Yes sir, I’ve come.’

There was once an amus­ing inci­dent. There was a new­ly ordained monk whose name was Dtaw. He was very dim-wit­ted and it was extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for him to mem­o­rize any of the chants. It took him an entire day of strug­gle in order to mem­o­rize the sin­gle line of Namo Tas­sa Bha­ga­va­to Ara­ha­to Sam­māsam­bud­dhas­sa. His Pali name was Tan­ti­d­ham­mo, which sound­ed very sim­i­lar to Khan­ti­d­ham­mo, the Pali name of Tahn Jarat, who was an old­er monk. When Luang Por called out the name Khan­ti­d­ham­mo, Tahn Dtaw would answer, ‘Āga­to, bhante.’ When Tahn Jarat found out that he had a sub­sti­tute answer­ing to his name he slept at ease in his kuti and wouldn’t come to chant­i­ng very often.

Many weeks lat­er Luang Por called this min­is­ter of dim-wit­ted­ness to learn a new chant.

What is the chant?’ asked Nane Som­pon, who was the only novice ‘mahā’ (some­one who has com­plet­ed the first three lev­els of Pali stud­ies) in the monastery.

The chant is: Ahaṃ ummat­taṅko homi’ report­ed Nane Boonkay.

Ha, ha, ha!’ laughed Som­pon, bent over in mirth.

What does it mean,’ I inquired.

It means: “I am insane”!’ said Som­pon, hav­ing to sit down from laughter.

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