Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 3

Buddhist novice walking down the road in Burma

‘Yes, I understand,’ I mumbled in reply to Luang Por, the abbot. In fact I had only been ordained for about a week and didn’t understand much. I remember that I was the smallest of the roughly thirty novices (sāmaṇera, or ‘nane’ in short) in the monastery. The two others on par with me were Boonkay and Liam but these two chaps (let me call them ‘chaps’) had been monastery attendants for a long time and knew a lot more than I. They were constantly trying to dupe me. For example, one day while I was memorizing the ‘Instructions for Newly Ordained Monks’ (Navakovāda), Liam came up to me with a stern face and said: ‘Dtom, have you “bindued” yet?’

Ever since I ate the steamed rice cake in the afternoon of my ordination the monks and novices in the monastery called me ‘Steamed Cake’ or ‘Steamed’ (Dtom). Only Luang Por still called me by the affectionate nickname ‘Tadpole.’ (As for the impersonal pronouns ‘goo’ (‘I’) and ‘meung’ (‘you’), they could only be used with other newly ordained novices—we didn’t dare use them with anyone older for fear of getting kicked.)

‘What is a bindu?’ I replied.

‘Eh, don’t you know about bindu-kamma? Every new monk must bindu. Kay and I have already done it. If you don’t do it too, you’ll commit an offence,’ he bluffed.

According to the bhikkhu discipline (Vinaya), before wearing a new robe, a monk must first mark its edge with a pencil or pen, while uttering the words: Imaṃ bindukappaṃ karomi (‘I make this mark’). Before this I didn’t know about marking robes, but I had a vague idea it only concerned the bhikkhus—the fully ordained monks.

‘Only the monks do this, don’t they,’ I argued. ‘Our preceptor didn’t say anything about it.’

‘What on earth!’ Liam shouted. At that moment Boonkay appeared in order to join forces and asked what was going on. When Liam told him he shouted even louder, ‘Oh my God!’ I was beginning to feel uneasy and thought: ‘What bad luck. On the day of my ordination I was seduced by a rice cake, which was a monastery scandal. Now what have I done wrong?’ I therefore spoke in a low voice: ‘If you don’t tell me, how am I supposed to know?’ (Without being aware I began using the polite pronoun ‘pom’ (‘I’) because I was afraid they would report me to Luang Por.)

‘Don’t worry, don’t worry,’ they consoled me. ‘It’s not too late—we can do it now. Boonkay, you advise Dtom on what to do.’ They nodded in assent, led me to a room, and closed the door firmly. They then ordered me to lift my sarong and pull out my little ‘lingam,’ and had me rub it against my bowl, against my robes, and against my belt, all the while chanting in Pali: Imaṃ bindukappaṃ karomi.

Although I was terribly embarrassed, I had to follow their instructions because they were acting so seriously without any trace indicating that they were playing a trick on me. The ceremony was only interrupted when Ven. Mahā Kampan the vice-abbot came walking by and heard me being molested, and thus he shouted out:

‘Hey, nane, what strange things are you doing, marking your robes like a monk? “Ringworm eats the head”—you don’t know your place!’

Thus I knew that I was being swindled by these two monkeys. I got up and started kicking them around the room. Ever since that day I declared official war on these two crab-eating macaques and even got into punching fights. It was a love-hate relationship in the normal manner of children.

As I said, there were about thirty novices in the monastery, of all ages. The youngest ones were eleven and twelve years old like me, whereas some of the older novices were already twenty years old but hadn’t yet been ordained as monks. We feared these ‘overgrown’ novices more than we feared Luang Por or Tahn Kampan the vice-abbot, because these bullies treated us like servants: ‘Go carry water!’ ‘Mop the room!’ ‘Wash the dishes!’

In fact three or four people were assigned these duties each day with one of the older novices in charge. But this was simply the theory; in practice these fellows didn’t do anything—they merely forced us smaller novices to do the work. If one resisted or argued, one was promptly ‘dealt with’ according to regulations. We little ones would keep our resentment inside. Once we were bigger we would compensate by doing the same to the smaller novices. This was a charming tradition of retribution in the Saffron Forest, resembling the fraternity hazing at universities.

* * *

One day Liam, my friend and enemy, whispered to me: ‘Hey, tonight do you want to go see novice Lan fight with the vice-abbot?’

‘Ha! If Nane Lan fights the vice-abbot it would be so bad!’ I cried.

‘Shush, you bastard! Someone will hear us! I overheard Lan telling Nane Dtu that if Kampan was so sure of himself he should meet him at the school field.’

‘What has got into him to challenge a monk to a fight?’ I asked.

‘Don’t you know? A few days ago ten of the novices got a thorough beating.’

‘I heard, but I don’t know the details. All I know is that Lan was the instigator and was performing some kind of spell. The matter even reached Luang Por.’

‘That’s right. Do you know what happened?’

‘You tell me,’ I said abruptly.

‘Here’s how it is,’ he began. ‘Venerable Mahā Kampan knew that Lan has some knowledge of spells for arousing ghosts and for conversing with the minds of girls while they are sleeping. Tahn Kampan knew that the older novices perform these rites regularly and he wanted to know how it is done, and so he asked Lan to demonstrate. Lan agreed under the condition that Tahn Kampan does not divulge the secret to anyone. When the auspicious moment arrived, Lan, Tahn Kampan, and some of the other old novices performed the ceremony in the middle of the night.’

‘In the end Luang Por found out,’ I countered.

‘That’s just it. When they were able to communicate with the consciousness of Ann (Ann-Dtah, the most beautiful girl in the village), they all crowded in to ask questions: “What is your favourite food?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Do you fancy me?” There was an ensuing chaos and disorder. Nobody knew when Luang Por arrived and secretly began listening in. All of a sudden there was a whooshing sound as his rattan whip fell onto the backs of these bald sorcerers. They quickly scattered and ran. The next day they were all called to the abbot’s kuti to get a further taste of the whip.’

‘So why did Nane Lan challenge Tahn Kampan to a fight?’ I asked in doubt.

‘On inquiring, Lan found out that during the séance Tahn Kampan disappeared, and is therefore convinced that he must have gone and told on them to the abbot. I don’t know if this challenge is wicked or not, but I don’t feel good about this.’ These last words Liam said almost in a whisper, the expression in his eyes revealing his anxiety.

‘Challenging a monk to fight?—it’s definitely bad,’ I said without hesitation. I thought of Nane Lan, whose sturdy, muscular frame was like an ogre. If it came down to fighting, there wouldn’t be much chance for Tahn Kampan, who was as delicate and weak as a leading actor in a musical folk drama.

‘Don’t shout! It wasn’t Tahn Kampan who secretly told the abbot—it was me!’ Liam confessed.

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