In Burma and in Thailand it is very common for a man, especially a young man, to ordain as a monk temporarily, often for just a few days. This constitutes a completely valid ordination, going through all the steps, including shaving the head and beginning to wear the robes. But in this case the intention is not to remain a monk for long. Almost all Burmese men are ordained temporarily at some point, and of course many permanently. I don’t think there is temporary ordination for women, since ordination for nuns is a different kind of thing (that is quickly changing in the West, and in Sri Lanka).
Last weekend I participated in a temporary ordination, and next weekend I will participate in another. Next weekend will involve three novices (under 20 years old) and five full monks (bhikkhus), and apparently they will live here at the Vihara for about a week. Interestingly I will be the senior monk from July 26 on, and so I will be responsible for offering them some training, scheduling meditation, etc. An ordination is an Sangha Action, that is it is actually offered by a group of ordained monks, a sangha, who thereby accept new members. So when I say I participated, it was as an existing member of a sangha.
I learned a couple of interesting new customs at last week’s ordination ceremony, which I would like to describe here. One is boat ordination, and the other is maidens offering the use of their hair.
A complicated aspect of ordination is that it, as an Act of a Sangha, has to take place within a clearly marked territory, called a sima. This is necessary because all monks within the sima are asked to participate, and monks outside of the sima are presumed to belong to other sanghas. It is all very legalistic. A sima can be a given monastery, it can also be something like the City of Maplewood, with its established boundaries. An ordination requires at least five fully ordained monks, so we generally need to assemble the sangha from more than one monastery, at least in the USA. One way to easily define a sima is simply to have the ordination on a boat, and declare the boat the sima. The acting sangha then consists of any monks who are on the boat. That is what we did last weekend for the temporary ordination ceremony.
We filled a power boat on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes with monks, pushed away from shore and conducted the ordination in the boat. There is actually a part of an ordination ceremony in which the ordainees and their teacher need to separate themselves from the existing sangha. This was accomplished by using a second boat, which is technically outside the sima of the first boat, but can be steered close enough for monks to hop from one boat to the other and back. Of course the whole scene was quite a curiosity for the other totally uninvolved people who had brought their boats to the lake to fish: a boat crowded with bald, burgundy-robed, chanting monks was more than they expected.
The second custom was enacted after the ordination, on shore. A lot of Burmese came to make offerings to the old and new monks. This takes the form of an alms round, with a long line of people offering various things like toothpaste, snacks, soap, flowers, finally culminating in a lunch lunch offered at a picnic table. The custom I had never seen before was enacted at the beginning of the alms round.
Three young women with long hair knelt, and leaning forward, their foreheads touching the grass, and their hair spread forward across the path the monks were about to walk on. The monks then began the alms round by walking on their hair! I had to ask what this was about after the event.
Buddhist practice often involves many forms of ritual symbolic offerings. This is as true from my experience in Japanese Zen as in Burmese Theravada. A prime example is a food offering made to a Buddha statue. Such enactments in Buddhism, though symbolic, have a quite practical purpose: they bring forth positive states of mind which are reinforced through the mindfulness of ritual. So, for instance, although there is no Buddha actually there as a recipient to receive a food offering, the enactment of the donation creates merit for the donor. This means it actually helps the donors character develop karmically in a positive direction. This is the logic of symbolic offerings.
The maidens offering their hair in this way is apparently a reenactment of a Sir Walter Raleigh-like story of someone who did this with hair rather than with cloak, presumably for the Buddha so that he wouldn’t soil or dampen his feet. For the maidens it produces merit, as in a food offering. However in this case the offering is symbolic not because there are no recipients for the donation (we monks were the recipients), but rather because nothing was actually offered (our feet were in no real danger of becoming soiled for want of hair). Mostly the whole thing was fun.