24 Apr 2016

Making merit: monk's ordination in Thailand

A few weeks ago I was lucky be invited to attend an ordination in Eastern Thailand during the Songkran holidays; I had read and seen multiple articles and pictures of this event beforehand, so I thought I was more or less familiar with the ceremony, in which a boy over 20 years old gets ordained at a temple for a short amount of time (that usually ranges from a few days to a few weeks) to make merit for his parents or relatives, as the highest form of merit making conceived by Buddhists; nevertheless, I immediately jumped in the opportunity to be present in one of them directly, since I wanted to experience it from within. Although I'm sure each ceremony varies and has its own idiosyncrasies and specificities, I understand that this was a very reliable depiction of the event that, in the end, turned out to be much more complex and rich than I had anticipated. They were two days full of big and small details that I tried to capture with my eyes and my camera and that I will try to portray here as best as I can. 

Atrezzo, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Day 1 started in the afternoon, when the soon-to-be-ordained young man paid a visit to the local temple he had chosen (normally the temple closest to his hometown) to retrieve some religious items that would be necessary in the ceremony; he then brought them home where some of the neighbors, all of them old women, were awaiting to polish them in order to carefully set all the decorations and arrangements the house had to undergo for the following day, which also included untying the cords from plaited ropes and cooking the meals that everyone would eventually eat. It was very apparent to me from the very beginning that this was not an individual event, nor even a private, familiar one, but a celebration that involved the whole community in several ways and in which everyone took part performing different tasks. Perhaps in the cities this atmosphere of neighboring collaboration has faded, but in the rural areas definitely this was a party for everyone where the host was but the excuse for the whole celebration.

Preparations, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Untying the cords, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Once the preparations where in motion at home, the young ordinand returned to the temple where he was dressed with the appropriate clothes, again with the help of the old women from neighbor houses, and awaited the arrival of the monks who would perform the first important and very symbolic ritual of the ceremony: cutting his hair. One by one, every family member, elder from the village and friend of the ordinand cut a lock of his hair as a way of wishing him luck and expressing their love and friendship, while all the fallen hair was being collected in a vase covered by a banana leaf.

Expectations, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The first cut, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
What stays behind, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Traces I, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Traces II, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Traces III, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Once everyone had cut a lock of hair, the monk took the razor, and the final step of this ritual was performed in complete and total silence: shaving his head and his eyebrows to clean his head of all current attachments to his former self and granting him a fresh, new beginning. Once the head was freed from all hair, the family members, those receivers of the merits, spilled cold water over his skull to clean it from all stray tresses.

The holy barber I, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The holy barber II, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The drop over the eyebrow, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
New beginning, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The wash, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Back from the temple, and as the evening slowly gave way to the night, the friends proceeded to decorate the car that would be used the following day with colorful ribbons tied in beautiful, flowery patterns, while the one-step-closer ordinand walked alone, visiting all the houses of the elder neighbors as an act of thanks-giving, praying individually for each of them. Once back in his house, there were some more prayers and the last day of freedom extended well into the night with food, drinks, and endless chit-chats and conversations with friends and relatives long-time absent.

Car decorations I, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Car decorations II, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Thanks-giving, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Day 2 started as early as the sun rose; the house was all ready since the previous night so, when the monks arrived with the sunrise, along many neighbors, the traditional alms-giving ceremony started. After the prayers, the monks and all the guests were treated to a copious breakfast paid by the family of the ordinand, who was already halfway between us, the guests, and monkhood (you can see the process of cooking some of those dishes in this post here).

Lighting the candle, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Offering alms I, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Offering alms II, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Offering alms III, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Soon after the people finished their food, the ordinand was surrounded by a constant stream of neighbors and friends that, one by one or in small groups, tied the cords around his wrist along with money, offering him their prayers and best wishes in a never-ending procession of hands and whispers. The ordinand was the center of a beehive of people that never seemed to fade and, in a prolonged ritual, his arms became full of white and orange cords, the urn beneath brimming with notes, both big and small.

Tying the cords I, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Tying the cords II, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Neighbors I, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Neighbors II, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
It was then when the ritual abandoned the house for the first time that day and the parade to the temple started. Noon was fast approaching, and the sun was fierce and mighty, yet nobody wanted to miss the last (and most important) stages of the celebration, so the car opened the march, with the ordinand carried in the back of the pick-up, flanked by his closest family members, the ones for whom he was actually enduring this ritual, and everyone else (us: friends, neighbors, relatives, observers) followed on foot to the temple grounds.

The parade, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Bonds, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The way to monk-hood I, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The way to monk-hood II, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Once in the temple, and after a short interval of refreshment, dance and picture-taking, the ordinand was risen on the shoulders of a neighbor and carried 3 times around the temple, with everyone else following, as the final preparation before the real ordination, that was already a stones throw away. After the three rounds, he was lowered to the floor again and, removing his shoes, he climbed up the stairs to the shrine where he would ultimately be ordained. The monks were already awaiting inside the sacred chamber, but one last crowd-pleasing task had to be performed before: with a bright smile, the ordinand threw lots of small laced-flowers with coins inside, while all the guests, particularly the children, awaited at the foot of the staircase to catch as many as they could grab.

Over the shoulders, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The gifts, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Thus the ceremony entered the final and most important stage, while at the same time becoming the most intimate; the few people who could gather at the door of the elevated shrine kept total silence while the ordinand received his new robes from the hands of his closest relatives, and then he entered the shrine where he would be changed into those new clothes by the monks themselves. Silence fell upon the temple as most of the guests dissipated, and only a handful of close relatives remained to see how, from the darkness of the shrine, the ordinand reappeared in his bright, saffron robes, ready to receive the final prayers. Once he stepped out of the threshold of that shrine he was no longer the boy he used to be, but an ordained monk, so there were no farewells nor words of encouragement, for he silently followed the procession of monks towards his new home for the following days, while we saw him leaving under the hot sun of April.

The robes, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
A new life, Lumix GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm


  1. Thanks for taking me to this interesting ceremony. As always I enjoyed your way of visual story telling very much. My favorite is Offering alms II; I like the reflections.

    1. Thank you! It was a very special ceremony for me so and I'm happy that those feelings could be somehow expressed through the pictures.

  2. Well done. The camera and lens allow an up-close experience of the young man and the family seeing him off. Most respectful and enlightening story-telling.

    1. Thank you very much Rev. Heng Sure; coming from someone that knows Buddhism as well it really means a lot to me.

  3. Amazing images and well written account of a beautiful ceremony.