Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 4

Bhikkhu Ordination at Chithurst Monastery, UK

Those of you who have lived in the Saffron Forest know that when a person is ordained as a monk, his preceptor bestows on him a new Pali name, which in Thai is called the chāyā (from the Pali, meaning ‘shadow’). I had no idea why the new name is referred to as a shadow but this matter was clarified when I asked Luang Por.

Luang Por told me that the first letter of this Pali name is determined by the birth day of the ordination candidate (in Thai called a nāk—from the Pali word nāga: a divine serpent), following this rule:

Born on Sunday: the name begins with a vowel.

Born on Monday: the name begins with k, kh, g or gh.

Born on Tuesday: the name begins with c, ch, j, jh or ñ.

Born on Wednesday (dawn to dusk): the name begins with ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, or ṇ.

Born on Wednesday (dusk to the following dawn): the name begins with y, r, l or v.

Born on Thursday: the name begins with p, ph, b, bh or m.

Born on Friday: the name begins with s or h.

Born on Saturday: the name begins with t, th, d, dh or n.

A person born on a Monday may be named Kantadhammo or Khantipālo, for example. Someone born on a Tuesday may be named Candavaro, Chandadhammo, etc. This way in the circle of monks when one knows someone else’s Pali name one can determine the day of the week he was born, unless the preceptor unconventionally ignores this convention which doesn’t happen often.

Guardian Naga Serpent

(An interesting aside from Donald K. Swearer’s book ‘Becoming the Buddha: the Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand’:)

In the case of novitiate ordination, the serpent, a reptile that renews itself by shedding its skin, is associated primarily with transformation. The reason the candidate for sāmaṇera ordination is called a nāk is given in the following folk legend:

During the Lord Buddha’s time, a certain nāga or mythological snake, by its magical power turned itself into a man and became by ordination a monk. One day the nāga monk during a deep sleep turned into a nāga and was seen by brother monks. The matter was reported to the Buddha, and the nāga monk had to relinquish his monkhood for no creature except a human being may be ordained as a monk. The nāga asked a favor of the Buddha that his name as a nāga might be given as namesake to the candidate for monkhood in memory of the fact that it was once a monk.

Stanley J. Tambiah interprets this legend adapted from the Mahāvagga as symbolizing a novice’s renunciation of male virility, which he identifies with the serpent. While male sexual virility may characterize the serpent as a mythic archetype, the Mahāvagga tale on which it is based suggests a different construction … In short the story illustrates two kinds of transformation: from creature instincts to human behaviour regulated by the Buddhist sāsana, and from a lay ethic governed by the norms of sīla to the monastic pursuit of nibbānic liberation.

Naga Serpent

There are stories of preceptors who have no knowledge of Pali but who became preceptors by chance, through the power of their frequent gifts of shrimp paste and fish sauce to the ruling monk of the district. As a reward for this generosity these influential district administrative monks appointed these monks as preceptors, who we can colloquially refer to as ‘shrimp paste preceptors.’ These salty, stinky preceptors are not sussed as regards ritual and ceremony; even with the custom of choosing a name for candidates they are unfamiliar. One day an ordination candidate came to one such preceptor. The candidate’s deportment was composed and pleasing to the eye. ‘This guy keeps his rear-end well-composed,’ the shrimp paste preceptor thought, and thus chose the Pali name Tuṭṭhasaṁvaro (‘Tut’ in Thai means ‘bum’; saṁvaro is Pali for restraint). When Pali scholars asked him what this name means, he answered nonchalantly: ‘Tuṭṭha’ means bum and saṁvaro means restrained: together they mean ‘with bum restrained.’ In this way he evaded the scholars before they could open up the books to check.

When the ordination ceremony is complete the preceptor measures the sun’s shadow (chāyā) to determine what time of day it is, because in the olden days there were no clocks and people relied on sundials to tell the time. The time of day is then kept as a record, that a monk of such and such a name was ordained when the shadow had reached a particular point. This procedure is technically called ‘to take the shadow’ (chāyā-pariggahaṇa). Originally the term chāyā referred both to the time of the ordination’s completion and to the Pali name chosen by the preceptor, but later it referred exclusively to the Pali name.

Generally a chāyā is only given to bhikkhus, and not to novices because in the novice ordination there is no formal announcement of the saṅgha. But it is strange that at Wat Bahn Huay where I was ordained as a novice Luang Por gave a Pali name to all the novices—I don’t know from where he got this example. This matter only became clear to me when I later went to Bangkok and learned that all of the novices in the Dhammayuttika Nikāya had Pali names. Luang Por must have imitated the Dhammayuttika order and not just in this matter: even the way we wore our robes and the chanting were copied from the Dhammayuttika order. One can say we were an adaptation of the Mahā Nikāya order.

It was important to remember one’s Pali name because at morning and evening chanting Luang Por would check the attendance by calling out each person’s Pali name from a list, for example by calling out: ‘Is Sobhito here?’ and the owner of this name would have to answer loudly: ‘Āgato, bhante’: ‘Yes sir, I’ve come.’

There was once an amusing incident. There was a newly ordained monk whose name was Dtaw. He was very dim-witted and it was extremely difficult for him to memorize any of the chants. It took him an entire day of struggle in order to memorize the single line of Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa. His Pali name was Tantidhammo, which sounded very similar to Khantidhammo, the Pali name of Tahn Jarat, who was an older monk. When Luang Por called out the name Khantidhammo, Tahn Dtaw would answer, ‘Āgato, bhante.’ When Tahn Jarat found out that he had a substitute answering to his name he slept at ease in his kuti and wouldn’t come to chanting very often.

Many weeks later Luang Por called this minister of dim-wittedness to learn a new chant.

‘What is the chant?’ asked Nane Sompon, who was the only novice ‘mahā’ (someone who has completed the first three levels of Pali studies) in the monastery.

‘The chant is: Ahaṃ ummattaṅko homi’ reported Nane Boonkay.

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ laughed Sompon, bent over in mirth.

‘What does it mean,’ I inquired.

‘It means: “I am insane”!’ said Sompon, having to sit down from laughter.

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