For the second year in late November 10,000 monks assembled in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a two hour morning ceremony of chanting, sermons, blessings and alms distribution. Two of the main purposes were to honor the king and to support poor temples. The crowd of spectators easily matched the number of the monks, and a main city street was blocked off for several kilometers to accommodate all the participants.
Monks were bused in from hundreds of temples in northern Thailand and arrived in Chiang Mai before 6 am. Thai monks own only simple orange robes and a begging bowl. One of their vows is to collect alms every morning, walking the neighborhood of their temple, and people fill their bowls with food. The donors receive blessings from the monks and the temples receive their food. This daily ritual starts people’s day off on a spiritual note and enables the temples to exist.
On this particular chilly morning, right before dawn thousands of barefoot monks streamed into the area in long lines while equally long lines of spectators streamed in on the other side of the street holding bags and boxes full of alms. Thousands of plastic chairs were set up in the middle of the street to accomodate all the monks while the onlookers lined the sidewalks, many dressed in white for the occasion, hands folded in gestures of respect.
It is a tradition in Thailand that young men spend some time as monks, anywhere from a few days to a few months. They benefit by learning Buddhist principles and discipline, and they obtain good karma or merit for themselves and their family. When they enter the temple, a ceremony takes place in which their hair is shaved off and they begin following the rules of monkhood. When their time in the temple has ended, they go back to their normal life again.
However some decide to remain monks for life. This is a decision which they can reverse at any time. In the procession there were monks from under 10 years old to monks in their 70s or 80s. The oldest and most respected monks are important members of the Thai social fabric. They were seated on a platform and lead the ceremony and the chanting. To hear thousands of monks chanting in unison is a powerful experience.
Local celebrities were seated opposite the monks to represent the secular powers and demonstrate the connection between these two institutions. Monks fulfill a very important role in Thai society. They preside over marriages, funerals, a multitude of ceremonies, and they are routinely consulted about many matters of life not only by the average citizen, but also by the highest ranking politicians and business leaders.
Even novice monks are shown respect by everyone. Some monks have become very famous for their intuitive and healing powers, and for their accomplishments in terms of building temples, settling disputes, giving advice and educating people. Before public schools became established in Thailand, education took place in the temples. Even healing arts like Thai massage were originally practiced in temples. The famous Wat Po temple in Bangkok is the official institution that preserves the art of traditional Thai massage and many of the therapeutic positions are carved into the temple walls.
After the ceremonies had ended, all those thousands of monks streamed by the pious spectators to collect their alms. Every monk had his bowl filled up dozens of times and helpers were standing by with large plastic bags to collect all the alms. The monks did not keep the alms for their temples but donated them to poor temples, primarily the ones in the three southern provinces bordering Malaysia where a violent Muslim insurgency is waging constant terror attacks against the Buddhists, and where monks cannot leave the temples to collect alms out of fear for their lives.
This event is the largest gathering of monks in Thailand. Although everyone knows that among the majority of devoted monks there are also cases of human weakness, abuse and failure to follow the principles properly, the Thais acknowledge that the monkhood is one of the fundamental institutions of Thai society and it is preserved with respect and fervor and commitment.
You would have to see the devotion of the people, shivering in the chilly morning air while waiting for the monks, bringing mountains of alms, paying respect from their hearts to the monks, and demonstrating that secular life and spiritual practices can not only coexist peacefully but can create a mutually beneficial and enriching connection between these two worlds.
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