Buddhist monks and novices had been bused in from temples all over Thailand to attend this event. Thousands of them filed into Changklan Road outside the walled city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand to attend this annual mass alms-giving ceremony. They assembled in the chilly darkness of pre- dawn to take up their positions along one great avenue of plastic chairs, set up in rows and receding back along the length of the road for kilometres.
I had been tipped off about this ceremony by a local shopkeeper, who had handed me a leaflet a few days before, which proudly proclaimed a gathering of 10,000 monks and I must admit to being dubious about whether that would be true or not. I had trouble envisioning what 10,000 monks, let alone everyday people, would look like assembled in one of Chiang Mai's ancient streets, far less imagine how they would organise themselves. Yet here I was confronted In the dawn twilight with this surreal sea of saffron, orange and yellow robed boys and men. All silently seated, braving the early morning chill with woollen hats and throws, clutching their bowls and glowing together against the blue dawn light in a kind of orange unison. They continually filed past, barefoot and with otherworldly grace on their way to find seats in this almighty row of 10,000.
This mass of serenely patient, seated figures immediately absorbed my camera's attention. So much so, that I completely forgot about the purpose of the event. Failing to realise that there were thousands of devotees also gathering like an opposing team and with just as much military order along the opposite direction. These two columns were separated by a platform where the oldest and most respected monks sat ready to lead the ceremony and the chanting. White-clad local dignitaries were seated opposite the monks and beyond them the people respectfully gathered - ready with their alms and offerings. A huge spiritual stand-off was in place.
People had brought along boxes or bags of food offerings. Many of the people had dressed in white and waited kneeling and with their hands folded in respect. By offering food to the monks, not only are Thai people supporting the important role of monks in Thai society but - based on the Buddhist doctrine, they’re also making 'merit's'. Following the concept that merits attract good fortune and develop spiritual growth. Monks are an integral part of Thai society. They preside over marriages, funerals and a host of other ceremonies such as blessing the construction of a new building or venture. They can also act as consultants to everyone from your average citizen through to the captains of industry, business leaders and the politicians.
After the ceremonies had ended, all those thousands of monks stood up and streamed by the pious spectators to collect their alms. Every monk had his bowl filled up many times and uniformed helpers were standing by with large plastic bags to collect all the alms. I later discovered that the monks did not necessarily keep the alms for their own temples but donated them to the poorer or more remote temples instead.
Much of my trip prior to this spectacle had been spent as a monk-chasing tourist, in an earnest attempt to capture the visual and spiritual mystique of these saffron clad figures. Like every travel photographer (who is honest with themselves), I am aware that images of monks in Asia can potentially be nothing more than a photographic cliche. Yet, I still held onto the hope that my shots would be the "wow" ones that summed up all the spiritual essence of. . . . something that I again realised that I knew next to nothing about.
So here are, after a wee bit of research and a December morning spent with 10,000 of them- are some "Monk Facts" :
"Taking the robe and the bowl" is part of growing up. A Thai family earns great merit when one if its sons opts to become a monk. It is an expectation for Thai males to join the monkhood for some short period in their life - yet it is not compulsory. Between the time he finishes school and the time he starts a career or gets married a young man under twenty years old may enter the 'Sangha' as a novice. This might be for a few days or for a few months. During that time they shave their heads, study Buddhist principles, learn meditation and get trained to be aware of a spiritual aspect of life. When a man reaches twenty years old he may become a monk and he can then remain a monk for as long as he wishes.
To be a monk is to be a scholar. In the past, before schools were established, the temples and monasteries ("wats") were the education system. Nowadays Thailand has a normal government school system, but to this day temples still can function as important educational institutions. There are about 32,000 monasteries in Thailand and 460,000 monks ; many of these monks are ordained for a lifetime. Of these a large percentage become scholars and teachers, while some specialize in healing and/or folk magic.
Early starts. All around Thailand the daily routine for monks is pretty much the same.
- 4.00 am - The monks wake up and meditate for one hour, followed by one hour of chanting.
- 6.00 am - The monks walk barefoot around the neighbourhood, while the local people make merit by offering them food.
- 8.00 am - Returning to the temple, the monks sit together to eat breakfast, then make a blessing for world peace.
- Before 12.00 noon - Some monks choose to eat a light lunch at this time. This is the last solid food they are allowed to consume until sunrise the following morning.
- 1.00 pm - Classes in Buddhist teaching begin. Some monks may attend school outside the temple.
- 6.00 pm - A two-hour session of meditation and prayer begins.
- 8.00 pm - The monks retire to do homework.
- Besides these duties, all monks are given specific roles to play in the day-to-day running and maintenance of the temple and its surroundings.
A spectrum of robes. Thai monks can be seen wearing various shades of robes, from dark brown to the familiar brilliant saffron. The Sangha is divided into two main sects : the Mahanikai (Great Society) and the Thammayut (from the Pali dhammayutika or 'dharma-adhering). The latter is a minority sect (the ratio being one Thammayut to 35 Mahanikai) The orange robed Mahanikai and the stricter, more academic red-brown robed Thammayut who can eat only one meal a day (before noon), provided for them by those who wish to make merit. They cannot touch money. The darker shades are also preferred by monks in the Thu-dong or forest monks.
Men only. All monks must follow 227 strict precepts or rules of conduct, many of which concern his relations with members of the opposite sex. Women are forbidden to touch monks and should not even stay alone in the same room as a monk. If a woman wishes to offer an object to a monk, it must pass through a third medium, such as a piece of cloth. In fact, monks always carry a piece of cloth for this purpose. The monk will lay the cloth on the ground or table, holding on to one end. The woman places the offering on the cloth and the monk then draws it away.
Cradle to the grave. When a monk is ordained he is said to be reborn into a new life and the past no longer counts - not even if he was married. Some retired or widowed men choose to join the Sangha after their wife dies or when their working life is over.
Room for growth. After being in the monkhood for several years and demonstrating extreme dedication to both social work and spiritual study, a monk can be promoted gradually until he reaches the Sangha Supreme Council, the governing body presided over by the Supreme Patriach.
Blessings. Tied in with merit making -one of the roles of monks is to provide blessings to people. Most if not all ceremonies in Thailand are not complete without the blessings from monks. Sometimes Thai people will engage the individual or personal blessings of monks. Monks are respected members of society and even novice monks are shown respect by everyone. Some monks have become very famous for their intuitive and healing powers, and for their accomplishments in terms of building temples, settling disputes, giving advice and educating people.
Monk Chat. Some temples have “monk chat” sessions where monks answer questions by the audience. Those are normally done by Thai monks in the Thai language. However in temples that are frequented by westerners, those chats are sometimes in English as well.
Tolerance. Monks will never preach or try to persuade or convince others to do something. They do not try to move you toward their lifestyle or beliefs but simply live by their Buddhist principles and do not expect you to change your behaviour or your way of life. That is left up to you.
You can view my photo essay on the morning of 10,000 Monks and I am grateful for the understanding that I have gained about Buddhist Monks in Thailand from this experience and from this trip to the ancient city of Chiang Mai.