Sunday, July 21, 2013

Vassa

A woman reaches to her son while he prays in front of his parents at Wat Benchamabophit - the Marble Temple - in Bangkok.

The three month annual rains retreat starts this week. It marks the season that Buddhist monks stay in their monasteries for reflection and meditation. People support the Sangha (the Buddhist clergy) by bringing food, candles and necessities of monastic life to the temple. Devout Buddhists also frequently give up something - smoking, drinking, meat or similar - during Vassa so it's sometimes called "Buddhist Lent" by Westerners. 
Three generations make merit by presenting a monk with food at Wat Benchamabophit. 

It's also a time that a lot of men enter the clergy. The notion of clergy is a little different in Buddhism compared to Christianity. In Christianity, becoming a priest or minister is frequently a lifetime commitment. 

In Buddhism, it's more transitory. It's certainly a lifetime calling for many monks, but most join the monastic brotherhood for a short period of time. Sometimes as short as a few weeks or months, other times for a couple of years. (A friend of mine in Chiang Mai was a monk for nine days.) Another difference is that almost every Buddhist male is expected to join the Sangha at least once in his life (although in industrialized nations in Southeast Asia, like Thailand, there is some evidence that this tradition is waning).  

I went to Wat Benchamabophit Sunday morning to photograph people making merit by presenting alms to the monks. After the alms presentation I wandered through the temple grounds and came upon a couple of young men getting their heads shaved as they prepared to enter the monastery for the rains retreat.
A man grins while a family member cuts his hair before his ordination.

After the haircuts the men don special robes and make merit with public prayers in front of their families. It's the last time they will have physical contact with their mothers, sisters, girlfriends because monks are not supposed to have physical contact with females. Like so many life passages, there's a lot of laughing and crying at the same time during the ordination ceremony. 

After I finished at Wat Bencha I went to Wat Mahabut, a temple in a residential part of Bangkok, about 10 kilometers east of Wat Bencha straight out Sukhumvit Road. It was packed with people making merit and praying in front of monks and shrines. Wat Mahabut is famous for its shrine to Mae Nak, the most famous ghost in Thailand, and the fortune tellers and seers that line the streets around the temple and populate the temple grounds. 

People at Wat Mahabut also have a tradition of making large candles for the temple in the days before Vassa. I photographed people making merit and pouring molten wax into the candle molds. The street in front of the temple was lined with people selling pre-made merit kits - bundles of candles, monastic robes, incense and flowers all wrapped and ready for presentation to the monks. The fortune tellers were doing a brisk walk up business with mostly younger people. 
People wait in line to make merit at Wat Mahabut.

The scene around the candle making station at Wat Mahabut. 



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