Saturday, May 13th 2023

All Men Become Monks in Thailand, Now Women Want To

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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All Men Become Monks in Thailand, Now Women Want To

If you’re a digital nomad like me, then you’ve likely seen monks in orange robes on the streets of Thailand. They’ve become a symbol of the Thai people and their culture. However, what most people don’t know is that, traditionally, all Thai men must do a stint at a Buddhist monastery.

Though I don’t practice Theravada Buddhism like they do in Thailand, I did a short stay at a Zen monastery in my youth and I can say it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The monastic lifestyle wasn’t for me, nor is it for most Thai people, however, a short stay at a monastery offers a great opportunity to find one’s spiritual center.

Theravada Buddhism in Thailand

All Men Become Monks in Thailand, Now Women Want To

It’s unclear exactly when Buddhism arrived in the area that’s known as Thailand today, but we do know that Buddhism predates Thai people in the region. Early Buddhism in the region was an Indian form of Theravada Buddhism (which states, just follow the teachings of the Buddha, focus on your own enlightenment, and the world will be a better place).

During the reign of the great Buddhist king, Ashoka (268 – 232 B.C.E.), missionaries were sent around the world to spread the buddhadharma—or the teachings of the Buddha. Archaeology tells us that soon after, early Buddhist symbols like Buddha footprints and dharma wheels began appearing throughout Southeast Asia.

It wasn’t until the 7th century that Chinese people migrated south to occupy the area of Southeast Asia, such as Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. And though they came as conquerors, they would eventually be conquered by the religion that existed there.

Today, Theravada Buddhism is a huge part of the culture in Thailand. It’s estimated that between 90% – 95% of Thai are Buddhist. It’s even written in the Thai constitution that the King of Thailand must be a Buddhist.

Short-Term Ordained Monks in Thailand

All Men Become Monks in Thailand, Now Women Want To

In Thailand, men are expected to become short-term ordained monks at some point in their lives. Thai people stay at a monastery for anywhere from a few days to several months, and during that time they live like monks. That means shaving their heads and eyebrows, going out in orange robes before dawn to beg for food, eating only one meal per day, and hours of intense meditation.

Thai men are expected to do their stay at a monastery after the age of 20—once they have the maturity needed to endure the strict guidelines of monastic life. However, it’s also common that men do their stay before they marry. This is because it’s hard to seek non-attachment after you fall in love and agree to spend your life with someone.

For more traditional families in Thailand, parents will arrange marriages for their children—often on the condition that the man does a short stay as an ordained monk in Thailand. In fact, it’s very common that people ask for a leave of absence from work to do their stay at a monastery in Thailand.

This practice of short-term ordination is unique to Thai Buddhism. In the past, it was a way of preserving Thai Buddhism from becoming extinct. Today, these monastic stays are a way of highlighting and cementing the Theravada faith in the hearts, minds, and cultural landscape of Thailand.

Reasons why men become monks in Thailand are:

Women consider a man who's been to a monastery as a good future spouse, who will likely be a devoted and thoughtful husband–willing to work hard on himself and for the family.

Men can manage their internal emotions better, like anger, lust, attachment, and suffering, after a short stay at a monastery.

Also men who become monks are seen as fulfilling a societal duty, and basically becoming a model citizen. It looks very good on a resume.

Becoming a monk is also a way to show gratitude for the family, bringing your family honor as opposed to shame if you forgo the stay at the monastery.

It signals their dedication to Buddhism, similar to a Confirmation in the Catholic religion.

Wats and Sanghas in Thailand

All Men Become Monks in Thailand, Now Women Want To

The monasteries in Thailand are known as wats, and Thailand has just under 29,000 of them. They’re lovely communities built around serene temples adorned with golden Buddha statues. It’s not hard to stay in the present with the rich smell of incense in the air.

Wats are the home of the sangha (or the Buddhist community). Thai monks are expected to take vows when they ordain—even for a short time—and live by the 227 rules and 5 precepts of the Vinaya Monastic code. One of them is that women should never come in contact with a monk. When monks beg for food, women donate food to them by placing it on a cloth that the monk keeps with him at all times.


Female Monks in Thailand

All Men Become Monks in Thailand, Now Women Want To

Women cannot be monks, a law from 1928 has forbidden the ordination of women. However, many of them are allowed to be bikkhunis, which is basically the same thing. Pushing the limits of tradition in a very progressive way, bikkhunis are female monks that often get ordained overseas in countries like India and Sri Lanka, and then return to Thailand as full-fledged buddhist monks.

The first Thai woman to become ordained as a Buddhist monk is Dhammananda Bhikkhuni—now 74 years old. She was ordained in Sri Lanka in 2001. Women like her then return to Thailand and found communities of their own offering their own short monastic stays, some of which are female-only, while others welcome all genders.

Unfortunately, these women-run wats can’t ordain their own female monks. That requires a ritual of 10 female monks and 10 male monks—a ritual that's been illegal in Thailand since 1928, which is why they have to go overseas to become ordained. Because of this, Thailand only has 270 female monks, where it has roughly 250,000 male monks.


All Men Become Monks in Thailand, Now Women Want To

In conclusion, as the centuries pass in Thailand, becoming a monk is still a strong tradition in Thai culture. If anything, it’s only gaining popularity as half the population—namely women—are fighting to be able to join in that tradition. Monks will continue to be a respected part of society, and supported by the people.

If you go to Thailand and you’re up in the morning, be sure to give your local, wandering monk some food to help feed the sangha.

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