Peeps at Many Lands: Siam  (1908)  by Ernest Young
Chapter 8 The monks

A group of Buddhist monks. Chapter VIII.

Chapter VIII
The monks

Siam has been called the "Kingdom of the Yellow Robe," on account of the presence everywhere of large numbers of monks, all of whom wear the yellow robe. Every man in Siam enters a monastery at some time or other in his life, and lives as a monk for a period varying from a few months to many years, or even for the whole of his life. The usual age for entering the priestly circle is about nineteen, and the shortest stay that can be decently made is for two months. The person seeking admission goes to the temple wearing his best clothes, and attended by a crowd of friends and relatives, who take presents to the priests. The presents include rice, fish, matches, fruit, cigars, betel-nut, alarm-clocks, vases of flowers, incense sticks, and dozens of other curious things. These are all distributed about the temple floor, till the sacred building looks as though it were about to be the scene of a glorified "jumble sale."

Occasionally children enter the temple service and wear the yellow robe. It often happens that when one of a boy's parents is cremated he becomes a "boy-monk," because by this means he hopes to help his father in that other world to which he has been called. As a rule, too, each monk has a boy servant, or disciple, who cleans out his cell, and does other work of a lowly character for him. Monks may not possess silver money, but these disciples may receive it and spend it for the benefit of their masters.

In the early morning the big bell of the monastery calls the monk to rise and go out to beg for his breakfast. He takes a big iron bowl in his hands, holds it in front of him, and then with downcast head walks slowly through the streets allotted to him. He may not wander into another man's street, but must keep to his own. As he walks along, the people come out of their houses and put food into the bowl. One puts in a handful of rice, another a spoonful of curry. Someone else adds a few bananas, or some stale fish, or some scraped coco-nut. The monk looks neither to the right hand nor to the left, and gives no thanks to the donor of the meal. By the time he gets back to the monastery it is no exaggeration to say that his bowl often contains a very varied and weird assortment of oddments. It looks rather "a mess," and there is not much to be surprised at when we learn that some of the monks, who do not keep the rules of their Order very strictly, throw all this motley assortment of fish, flesh, fowl, and stale red-herrings to the dogs, afterwards partaking of a rather more tempting breakfast that has been prepared for them in the monastery. At certain times of the year only a few monks from each monastery go in search of food. The others stay at home at the temple. If a monk has rich relations, his disciple often receives for him well-cooked and appetizing meals upon which to break his fast.

When breakfast is over, the brethren of the yellow robe go into the temple for service, after which there is work for those who care to do it. The majority do nothing, a form of employment which suits the average Siamese a great deal better than work. As the monks are drawn from all classes of society, there are always amongst them some who can repair the buildings or help in building boats, or even, perhaps, teach in the school.

At noon another meal is eaten; after that there is neither tea nor supper, so that the monks get nothing more to eat until the next morning. They manage to stifle their natural hunger by drinking tea, chewing betel-nut, and smoking tobacco.

Towards evening the priests bathe, either in the river or in some pond in the temple grounds. As soon as it is dark they must confine themselves within the monastery walls. Every evening at about half-past six the bell rings to tell the monks that "locking-up" time has arrived. The bells, which play so important a part as clocks in the temples, are hung in a wooden framework, usually built in three stories. Strictly speaking, it is not correct to say that the bells are rung. They are not rung—they are beaten with a thick piece of wood. There are generally a number of little boys playing about in the cool, shady grounds who are only too willing at the proper time to scramble up the rickety wooden ladders and hammer away on the bells with a lump of wood.

From July to October, when the heavy rains fall, the priests meet together in the evening and chant prayers. The only light in the temple is that of dim candles or smoky lamps, and the dull rays fall on the kneeling yellow-robed figures below, or lose themselves in the blackness of the lofty roofs above, while there rolls out into the evening air the rich, mellow notes of the voices in prayer. The frogs in the pond croak a sonorous bass, the crickets add their chirpy treble, and the fireflies flash on shrub and palm, all adding their share to the evening service.

The cells in which the monks live are small whitewashed rooms, with practically no furniture. There are a few mats, perhaps a bedstead—or, failing that, a mattress on the floor—a few flowers, and an image of the Buddha, the founder of their religion. In a little cupboard the monk keeps a teapot and a few tiny cups, and he is always glad to give a visitor as much tea as he can drink. Most likely he possesses a chessboard and a set of chessmen, for most of the Siamese are fond of this ancient game.

The prayers and chants are written with a hard, fine point of ivory or iron upon long strips of palm-leaf. The strips are held together by a string or a piece of tape passed through a series of holes. The bundle is gilded round the edges and carefully preserved in a chest. These "books" are written in a language which the common people do not understand, and, in fact, only those monks who stay long enough in the temple service to learn the language have any idea what the chants are about that they so diligently repeat.

Amongst the few possessions which a monk may lawfully hold is a big fan made of broad palm-leaves. This he is supposed to hold in front of his face as he walks about, in order that he may keep his eyes from beholding the things of the world. But as often as not, during the heat of the day, he holds it over his head to shield him from the fierce rays of the sun. And one can scarcely blame him, for he is not allowed to wear a hat of any kind, and every bit of hair has been shaved off the top of his head.

There is a chief priest to each monastery, whose business it is to see that the temple services are properly conducted, and that the monks behave themselves in a becoming manner. If one of the brethren does anything wrong, and his superior hears about it, punishment is sure to follow. For a very serious offence the guilty one is expelled from the monastery and handed over to the police. Such a man gets the severest punishment allowed by the law. But if the offence is only a mild one, then the punishment is a light one. The sinner will perhaps be set to draw water, to sweep the temple courtyard, or to perform some other menial duty usually undertaken by the ordinary servants.

Some of the "sins" that the priest may not commit are very curious to us, and many of them are, in fact, committed regularly without any punishment following. For instance, it is a sin to sleep more than twelve inches above the ground, to listen to music, to eat too much, to sleep too long, to swing the arms when walking, to burn wood, to wink, to slobber or make a noise when eating, to ride on an elephant, or to whistle.