Life in the Saffron Forest
An Autobiography by Sathienpong Wannapok
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!’