Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 11

Luang Por Sumedho on Pindapat

Besides studying the three levels of formal Dhamma instruction (nak tham) and studying for the Pali language exams, the regular daily routine for members of the saffron forest includes: going on almsround, attending the morning and evening chanting, reflecting (paṭisaṅkhā) on the four requisites, and pouring water to share merit. Those monks who live in highly ‘civilized’ cities like Bangkok tend to not observe these duties very strictly. Those regal chao khun in the cities, for example, seem to have completely forgotten the custom of almsround. Soon after waking up in the morning they have lay-disciples who come and offer them food at their residence. Why should one tire oneself by going out on almsround? For the most part, the shiny orange that one sees on streets in the morning is comprised of young monks and novices, and old monks who have no ecclesiastical rank as phra kru or chao khun.

One may wonder, in the case that there are rules and prescriptions governing the regular duties of monks, whether these monks who neglect these duties are committing heaps of offences. Hold on—don’t rush to stuff offences into their shoulder bags. Shortly, they will get angry and poke you in the stomach with their ceremonial fans—who knows?

There are two things that monks need to do: the first are called ‘formal acts of the community’ (saṅgha-kamma), and the second are called ‘communal activities’ (saṅgha-kicca). Formal acts of the sangha are obligatory; these include: gathering for the Uposatha Day (in order to listen to the 227 Pāṭimokkha precepts as a reminder of one’s training), ordinations, receiving the Kaṭhina cloth, etc. If one neglects to participate in these acts then one commits an offence of the formal discipline (Vinaya). As for communal activities, like chanting and going on almsround, one is encouraged to do these, but they are not required and neglecting them does not entail a formal offence. The chief senior monks know this distinction well and therefore often don’t participate in these activities. In any case, it can be considered considerate and kind of the senior monks to not go out on almsround, because this allows the younger monks to get enough to eat. Whenever the chao khuns go out on almsround, they are besieged by the laypeople, and the young monks and novices go without.

Monks Chanting at Wat Nong Pah Pong

In the provincial monastery where I was ordained, however, the laypeople didn’t behave this way. They viewed all monks and novices as ‘fields of merit’ and didn’t discriminate between senior and junior monks. I remember how we all went out together on almsround in a straight line, arranged according to seniority. I tended to be at the end of the line because I was the youngest. The laypeople would be waiting for us and place lumps of sticky rice into our bowls from their woven bamboo containers. I noticed that the lumps of sticky rice would get larger and larger as the line of monks progressed. By the time it was Liam, Boonkay and my turn, the lumps would be as large as a fist. Some of the laypeople would scoop out whatever was left in their containers and fill up our bowls, until I and my two ringworm infested companions would return to the monastery with the utmost effort, but with a big smile on our faces. The senior monks would return with only half-filled bowls! I would boast about this to the older novices until they chased me off with a kick in the behind.

‘Do you know which monk the laypeople in our village respects the most?’ I would taunt.

‘Luang Por, of course,’ Nane Lan answered without hesitation.

‘I don’t think so,’ I would drawl.

‘Then who?’ Boonkay would ask.

‘Me, see.’

‘Hey, you don’t know your place—ringworm will eat you whole,’ Nane Lan warned me, while he suddenly kicked my backside as quickly as a snake strikes.

Ringworm and novices seem to be close companions. Almost every novice, especially the little ones, had ringworm. There are two kinds of ringworm—dry and putrified. Dry ringworm appears as circles on the head. At first it manifests as small spots, but gradually it enlarges to cover the whole head. It causes the hair to fall out and creates an unattractive baldness. Putrified ringworm is even more disgusting, oozing with puss. The hair falls out in clumps. Sometimes it eats into the scalp to the roots of the hair. When it is cured the head is jagged and full of divots, because the hair doesn’t regrow entirely.

Tahn Mahā Sing says that ringworm is a sign of transgressing the sixth precept—of eating after midday. Any novices who sneak off to eat in the evening get ringworm within three days. But I don’t agree with this. Liam and Boonkay both have ringworm but have never eaten after midday (or maybe they have done so secretly, without me knowing). I was at fault twice in regard to this precept (as I described earlier), but did not come down with ringworm as expected. Moreover, Venerables Dtu, Boonnah, and Silah, who secretly went off to eat in the evening and forced me to join them, did not contract ringworm as claimed by Mahā Sing’s theory.

Besides ringworm, the other disease that was common is scabies. (I thought I would escape these two illnesses, but in the end I succumbed in my second year.) I now know why so many of the young novices had ringworm and scabies, to the point of being called names like Lord Toad and King Baldhead, names reserved just for them. The older novices and monks didn’t usually have these diseases. The important reason for this is dirtiness.

In provincial monasteries the young novices had to work harder than their companions, for example by carrying water and washing the dishes. Although the novices washed the dishes every day, they wouldn’t wash their hands first and the dirt would slowly accumulate. In the end they would come down with scabies, and if one had it, it would breed among the others as a chain reaction. If one had ringworm too, the contagion would be even more rapid. The novices didn’t know how to treat these diseases. Don’t even ask about medicine—where should this come from in a poor provincial monastery? In the Chinese pharmacies there were two brands of medicine to treat ringworm and scabies—a lotion and an ointment. The Lord Toads and King Baldheads relied on these two medicines. They would relieve the itching but not cure the illnesses. Whatever money was offered to the novices by chanting at funerals would be carried off to these pharmacies, without bringing much assistance.


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