Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 1

Buddhist Novice Monk Teaching

Seren­i­ty, Puri­ty, Light

Life in the Saffron Forest

An Autobiography by Sathienpong Wannapok

Chapter 1 

Please lis­ten to my sto­ry. My name is Tai Tam­tang. When I had fin­ished fourth grade, my father was deter­mined to have me com­plete a high­er edu­ca­tion and to become a man of dis­tinc­tion. My father told me that he wished to send me to live with his sis­ter in town so that I could con­tin­ue my stud­ies. But I was of a lazy dis­po­si­tion and replied: ‘I won’t study.’

My father coun­tered: ‘If you won’t study, what will you do?’

I’ll become a novice monk.’ I don’t know what spir­it pos­sessed me to say this since this thought had nev­er occurred to me. I had walked past the monastery every­day on my way to school and seen the pock­marked novices run­ning around the monastery grounds. Some­times I had seen the abbot sit­ting at ease out­side his kuti (hut) talk­ing to the laypeo­ple and thought: ‘Being a monk is sure­ly com­fort­able – one doesn’t have to work in the fields and rice pad­dies. When the drum is struck lay­folk come to offer food.’ It may have been these sub­con­scious thoughts that made me say what I did.

Become ordained? That’s great,’ my father answered. He prompt­ly went out and bought a set of robes in the mar­ket on that very day. My mother’s voice, how­ev­er, shout­ed out behind him: ‘Don’t waste your mon­ey on robes. He is still as naughty as a mon­key. How many days can he sur­vive in the monastery?’

Let me say a few words about my moth­er. As a child my moth­er was my num­ber one ene­my. I tru­ly thought this at the time because she was as fierce as a demon. She used what­ev­er was at hand, whether a stick or a stone, to teach me a les­son. She fre­quent­ly com­plained that I was not a human child but rather a mon­key child. In that case, I said, she too must be a mon­key. Uh-oh! She would pick up a large stick and chase me around, but all in vain – she could nev­er catch me. But I had to stay clear of the house for two days because my demon mother’s anger did not sub­side quick­ly. Only lat­er did I real­ize that my moth­er loved me as much as my father did. When I went to fol­low my teacher to Nakhon Panom it was my moth­er who burst into tears fear­ing that I would expe­ri­ence difficulty.

In my heart I was so glad that I wouldn’t have to study any­more: ‘After break­fast I will lounge, after lunch I will lie down, in the evening I will rest, and at night I will sleep!’

My delight, how­ev­er, died an ear­ly death. When my father took me to the monastery and left me with the abbot, the abbot gave the appear­ance of being a friend­ly per­son, chew­ing his bee­tle nut and smil­ing. But strange­ly, I end­ed up fear­ing him more than my for­mi­da­ble mother!

So you have brought this tad­pole to be ordained,’ said the Abbot. ‘Good, young boys have good mem­o­ries. Tad­pole, take this book and learn the ordi­na­tion chant­i­ng.’ The abbot tossed me a book and gave me a new nick­name: ‘He is as tiny as a tadpole.’

At the time there were two oth­er boys of my age named Boonkay and Liam who were also can­di­dates for ordi­na­tion. They had already been liv­ing in the monastery for some time and had mem­o­rized the ordi­na­tion chants. When I would sit alone recit­ing the chants they would pass by and chant loud­ly in uni­son as if mock­ing my efforts. But they could not mock me for long. I learned the chant­i­ng in two days. I even learned the morn­ing and evening chant­i­ng, so that the abbot praised me: ‘Lit­tle Tad­pole here has a sharp memory.’

It was the sea­son for ordi­na­tions. The vil­lagers pre­pared to have their sons and grand­sons be ordained as monks and novices with great fan­fare. Our vil­lage monastery did not have an offi­cial pre­cep­tor, who had to be invit­ed from a near­by town. On the ordi­na­tion day the pre­cep­tor per­formed all the novice ordi­na­tions in the morn­ing and then con­tin­ued the bhikkhu ordi­na­tions in the after­noon, last­ing all the way till evening.

At three in the after­noon I began to feel a bit peck­ish. I looked around and saw a tray of sticky-rice desserts by the wall, grabbed one and put it in my mouth. I hadn’t even swal­lowed it, when Boonkay appeared abrupt­ly and shout­ed out loud­ly: ‘Hey, Tai is eat­ing cake!’

Just this much and the sto­ry of me eat­ing cake spread through the vil­lage like wildfire.

That evening the abbot called me to his kuti. He was lean­ing back against some cush­ions, swing­ing a light cane in his hands. The whoosh­ing sound made my hair stand on end. I crawled close to him, my heart beat­ing like a drum.

Tad­pole, you haven’t even been ordained for a day and you are already eat­ing sup­per?’ the abbot said while swing­ing his cane. ‘Didn’t your pre­cep­tor tell you this morn­ing that it is for­bid­den to eat supper?’

Yes, he told me,’ I said, voice shak­ing and feel­ing chills all over.

If he told you, why did you eat the cake?’

I didn’t think that cake is sup­per,’ I replied. I said this because I real­ly thought it was true. I had had no inten­tion of trans­gress­ing the monas­tic rules.

The sound of loud laugh­ter filled the kuti, the abbot’s laugh­ter loud­er than any­one else’s. He was bent over hold­ing his stom­ach, tossed the cane away, and waved me out­side: ‘You can go – cake is not supper!’

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