If you are a Christian, then you would know that your sabbath day is every Sunday. It is the day that you should rest and go to church with your family. Many shops and businesses are either closed or have limited opening. Buddhism also has a sabbath day called “wan phra” in Thai. You could translate this as “monk day” or maybe “holy day”. However, as Buddhism is based on the lunar calendar, you will find that “wan phra” is on different days of the week each time. This is because it is based on the phases of the moon. The two most important days are full moon and new moon. These are the days that monks shave off their hair though at some temples they will only do so on the full moon. The other “wan phra” days are on the quarter phases of the moon. So, it is about every 8 days or so. These are the 4 days a month when the monks don’t go out on their alms round and the local people instead come to the temple. To make it easier to know which day is “wan phra” you will find that many calendars have a little figure of a Buddha image on these dates.
Obviously it is more convenient when “wan phra” falls on a weekend. But, a lot of people still go to their temple early in the morning before they go to work. I know a few of my students who go to the temple with their parents on “wan phra” before school. The pictures on this page were taken at the weekend. I had arrived at the temple just before 7 a.m. and it was already crowded. I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t only elderly people making merit. They were also quite a few children with their parents as well as some youths that had come alone. To make proper merit you need to prepare the food specifically for the monks. You cannot use leftovers. These days people are so busy that you will find that at most temples there are stalls set up selling food specifically for the monks. You buy the food in bowls which belong to the temple. However, you might need to bring your own bowl for the rice and also a tray to make the offering. Once you have the food, you should crouch on the ground and raise the tray above your head in quiet contemplation. If there is a group of you, the way you can all gain merit from this act is to touch the person in front of you who has direct contact with the food tray.
On “wan phra” and some of Buddhist festival days, the monks are not lined up to receive alms as the lay people come at different times. Instead, their alms bowls are placed on a long row of tables. People go along this line and place rice into each of the bowls. If they have Thai desserts or curries in plastic bags, they then might place these in the lid of the alms bowl. Other curries in bowls can also be placed on the table. It shouldn’t be mixed in with the rice. You will notice that if there are several people from one family, junior members will follow behind holding the elbow of the person serving the food. Thai Buddhists believe that this kind of merit making passes through the body to other people. At the other end of the table, junior monks were taking the bowls of curry and tipping them into bigger pots. Similar to the pots at the food stalls in the first picture above. This food is then taken to the kitchen to be shared among the monks later in the morning. After the lay people have presented their offerings of food, they next paid homage to the Buddha image.
At about 7.30 a.m., earlier in other temples, a monk started to ring the temple bell by beating it with a stick. This was the call to prayer. After the lay people had finished making merit, they made their way towards the community hall where all of the monks were already sitting on a low platform. For about an hour, the monks took part in chanting for which the lay people also joined in at times. During this session, a senior monk also gives a sermon, and asks the lay people present to recite the eight precepts. For normal Buddhists, there are only five precepts. However, on “wan phra” days, many Buddhists like to keep the eight precepts. For many this also means not eating meat on these days. The eight precepts that they have to recite out loud are as follows:
“I undertake the training precepts…
1) to abstain from taking life.
2) to abstain from taking what is not given.
3) to abstain from unchastity.
4) to abstain from false speech.
5) to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.
6) to abstain from untimely eating.
7) to abstain from dancing, singing, music and unseemly shows, from wearing garlands, smartening with scents, and beautifying with perfumes.
8) to abstain from the use of high and large luxurious couches.”
Novice monks and nuns have ten precepts. Monks have 227 precepts. They have to recite all 227 on the full and new moons every month. I will be writing more blogs about life in a Thai temple as well as ordinations of both novice monks and full monks.