Renouncing the World
In January 1992, I sponsored an independent J-term project in which Luyen Phan became a Theravada Buddhist monk. He took ordination in a Laotian Buddhist monastery, since this was close to St. Olaf College (where I was teaching and he was enrolled). Aside from examining how immigrant communities try to preserve theircultural identities in a different cultural setting, this project was certainly also connected with exploring his own identity..
Theravada Buddhists see the Buddha as an enlightened human being, and a teacher who showed others the way to Nirvana. For this the Buddha is respected (and revered), but he is not worshipped. Rather, the Buddha is seen as someone who pointed out the way for others, which they must then follow for themselves--a way in which the Buddha's own life is a paradigm for spiritual growth and attainment.
A Theravada ordination is modeled on the traditional life story of the Buddha, who renounced a life of ease as a prince to take up greater questions of birth, death, suffering, and life's meaning. Here Luyen, dressed in a white robe with gold braid, is (symbolically) a prince like Siddhartha. His head is shaved as a sign of renouncing the world. This is often done right before donning the monk's orange robes (since the Buddha himself shaved his head to symbolize cutting his ties with the world), but Luyen told me later that he had done it early to speed up the process, since his parents were highly ambivalent about the whole notion of becoming a Buddhist monk.
|During his three week residency, Luyen lived the austere life of a Buddhist monk, and the red rug in the back was his home for that time. The vases (foreground) contain offerings of fruit, flowers, and money that Luyen offered to the monastery upon ordination. The earliest Buddhist monks begged for alms from whomever would give them (and the word bhikku, which now means "Buddhist monk," at one time simply meant "beggar"). In Southeast Asia it has become the practice for prospective monks to find someone who will sponsor them, in order to pay for their food, and these money offerings essentially fulfilled that function.|
|At this point the ceremony moved from the well-lit community center to a dimly-lit temple, and it took me a little while to adjust my camera. Here we see Luyen standing before the monastery's monks, professing his desire to renounce the world and become a monk.|
|Here Luyen bows to receive his robes, holding the bundle
in his hands, and with the sash tying the bundle looped around
his neck, perhaps as a symbol of the restraints that he will have to uphold
by becoming a monk. For Theravada Buddhists, being a monk is completely
voluntary, and one can join (or leave) the order at will. Thus, those
joining the community vow to observe the Vinaya, or the rules of
conduct for Buddhist monks.
The Buddha established an order of nuns as well as monks. Theravada monk and nun orders both often died out in one place or another, but the monk orders were always re-established by the ruling monarchs (which reinforced their image as righteous kings). The nun orders were not, probably perhaps reflecting their lower prestige; orders of Mahayana nun survived in China, Tibet, and Japan.
More Ordination Pictures
These pages are in progress.
Page maintained by James G. Lochtefeld.
Last modified 27 December 2005