“She must hold my robes to go to Heaven”
Today we visited the same village as yesterday, a small Shan village in Northern Thailand. We immediately went to the temple and took part in our second interview with Oh.
As soon as we started talking with Oh he began to take us on a tour inside the temple. He first pointed us to the Tai Yai (or Shan) Buddha, which was white; sitting down; and of a medium build, neither thin like the Thai Buddha nor fat like the Chinese Buddha. Then he pointed us to the Thai Buddha, which was thin, with a gold color and looking down, Oh said this was because before judging others we must first look at ourselves. Oh said the fat Buddha was a disciple of the Buddha. The fat Buddha became fat because when he was young he was very attractive and many women were attracted to him, so he prayed to become unattractive so that the women would leave him alone so that he could meditate more, and so the Buddha made him very fat and therefore unattractive to the women. Oh then directed our attention to 8 different Buddha idols that were located to the right of the main platform. (Each Buddha had a moneybox beneath it.) Oh explained how each idol represented a day and each was to be worshipped on the individual day, there are 8 because Wednesday is split into two days.
MIKE: How long have you been a priest here?
OH: I have been a priest here for 2 weeks.
MIKE: Were you at a temple elsewhere, or did you just become a monk?
OH: I just became a monk. There are 2 ways a man can enter the priesthood: 1. Before the age of 20 one is considered a novice, 2. After the age of 20 one is considered to be a priest and has to follow 227 laws. Novices are not full-fledged monks. When a man becomes a priest, his parents have to “Wai” him, but he does not have to “Wai” them back. One rule is that women cannot touch priests; only the priest’s mother and sister can touch him.
MIKE: You seem knowledgeable in Buddhism; did you go to school to learn all this?
OH: I have been learning since I was a child but I am not as knowledgeable as an older priest. There is a course of study that one can begin when young and then one can go to the university.
MIKE: Why did you become a priest?
OH: I became a priest because of my father and mother, when I die my parents can hold my robe and go to heaven. (Oh mentioned a saying, “A mother can hold onto the robes of her son.” This helps explain why so many mothers want their sons to enter the priesthood.)
MIKE: How do your parents gain good Karma by your actions?
OH: My father is a man and therefore he should gain merit by becoming a priest, but my mother cannot become a priest, so she will hold onto my robes. In Buddhism there are many ways you can make merit and holding onto my robes after I die is only one way. My mother must still follow the 5 laws. She can also earn merit by bringing food to the priests, and by sweeping the leaves in the temple grounds, but she could not sweep inside the temple since she cannot enter the temple.
MIKE: Is that enough merit?
OH: I do not know. I cannot prove this it is just a belief we have. Another way to make merit is to come and sleep in the temple starting on July 14 during Buddhist lent called <Khao Pen Saa>, <Khao> means to enter. The tradition comes from when the priest would go into the woods during the rainy season but there were a lot of mosquitoes. During this period of three months monks must stay on temple grounds. Tomorrow is holy day [<Wan Phra>] when a priest comes and teaches and they chant.
MIKE: Does the priest come from another village?
OH: You participate at the specific temple to which you belong.
MIKE: Do you have any siblings?
OH: I have an older sister.
MIKE: How does your family feel about you becoming a monk?
OH: My family is proud and happy.
MIKE: Are you from this village?
OH: I was living in Chang Mai and I will only be here until the 10th of this month. >
MIKE: Did your family have a celebration when you came to the temple?
OH: There was a ceremony in the temple where they brought in 10 older and highly respected priests. During this time nobody can enter the temple and the priests chant. It is their chanting that elevates them. They perform different kinds of chanting depending on the event; it is different for new house ceremonies, funerals and ordinations.
MIKE: What was your role in your ordination ceremony, did you participate?
OH: Those being ordained wear white robes and they have to shave any hair on their head. Then they put on the saffron robes over the white.
MIKE: What is the significance in wearing the white the saffron?
OH: Those who wear white have not yet become priests. Saffron indicates priesthood. The Burmese wear reddish robes.
MIKE: How many other people were ordained with you?
OH: I was the only one, but sometimes there is a lot. If you were to be ordained in the temple after the 14th then you must stay in the temple for the remaining of Buddhist Lent. [Buddhist ceremonies follow a lunar calendar. The 14th was the first day of Buddhist Lent this year.] There is a lot about Buddhism that I do not know; you have to study for years.
MIKE: How do you like being a monk? What is it like?
OH: I place a high importance on priesthood and see it as a high responsibility. People bring the best food to the monks because after they die they get this food back.
MIKE: What do you know about Christianity?
OH: I know that Jesus is the owner of the Christian religion and you have to follow his teachings, I only know a little. You must confess your sins to the priest. One of the responsibilities for the novices is that they must put the food before the priests and arrange it and then take away the dishes when they are through. One of the main responsibilities of the priest is to learn Buddhism and to teach others.
MIKE: What is your daily schedule like?
OH: Everyday we wake up at 5 AM, at 5:30 we chant, then we clean the temple, then we walk around the village and collect food. At 7 AM we come back to the temple and eat breakfast, and then after that you can do what you want to, either read, memorize the chants, or chant. Then at 11 AM, we eat again because we cannot eat anything after 12 until the next morning, we can only drink liquids.
MIKE: Can you only drink water or can you drink any drink?
OH: Any drink, as long as it does not need to be chewed.
MIKE: Would you like to know the difference between Christianity and Buddhism?
MIKE: I believe that because of what Jesus has done for me, he has wiped away my guilt.
OH: In Buddhism one’s sin cannot be taken away unless they make merit, when you die you must pay for sin.
MIKE: I believe Jesus paid for me.
OH: This is a point of difference in your beliefs and mine.
MIKE: How do you pay for the bad that you have done?
OH: One way is when people go to hell there are various levels. The different amount of suffering depends on the sin. For example if you lie to your father and mother you get your tongue pulled and stretched out really long and then your tongue is tortured. Another punishment is to have to climb a tree with thorns. Another punishment is a big pot of boiling water that you are thrown into. And if someone is promiscuous then a big eagle with a big beak chases you and pecks at you. And if you steal from the temple then in hell you will get a closed mouth and you cannot eat or drink anything and you have to guard the doors in the temple. In days gone by you could more easily perceive the spirits; the trees would bend with no wind. There are good and bad spirits. The good sprits protect and the bad spirits cannot enter the temple grounds.
MIKE: Earlier you said that people go to hell when they die and they suffer for the bad things that they have done and then they get the opportunity to go to heaven when they have suffered for the bad that they have done. Is this correct?
OH: A lot of them come back to earth; they are reborn into the cycle of reincarnation.
MIKE: If there was a way you could escape and go to heaven would you want to do that?
OH: I believe the only way to enter heaven is to be like Buddha through enlightenment.
MIKE: I believe that when I die I will go straight to Heaven.
OH: Will you have the right to be a human again?
MIKE: No, but I would not want to be a human again.
OH: What is heaven like?
MIKE: It will be beautiful. I believe that when I get to Heaven I will see God’s face, and He will see mine, and He will smile at me, and I will smile at Him. And God will give me a big hug and say, “Welcome home.”
OH: Does that mean that God has been punished for everyone?
MIKE: For you.
MIKE: Have you heard of the cross?
OH: I have seen pictures of the cross
MIKE: God’s love for us was so big that he sent Jesus to us. Jesus was fully God, and also fully human. No one can explain this mystery, but that makes it no less true. Since Jesus was fully human he was man’s representative to God, and since he was also fully God he was God’s representative to humankind. Jesus lived a perfect life, he did no wrong, but he was killed on the cross and all of our bad deeds were transferred onto him, he took upon himself the punishment that we deserve, and then he died. But three days later he lived again. Because he was God he conquered death and he now lives in heaven. Jesus told his disciples to tell others about him and if you believe this is true, that Jesus has taken your punishment away, then God will give you peace and will take your punishment away. What do you think of this?
OH: It is not strange and is the same as Buddhism. I noticed that you got excited when you talk about Jesus. There is a difference in Jesus’ teachings.
MIKE: What teachings?
OH: In Buddhism you have to do good.
MIKE: Christianity also teaches that you should do good, but I can never do enough good to take away the bad, that is the reason Jesus did what he did. Would it be alright if I prayed for you?
OH: I am a Buddhist. Will I receive the blessings of your prayers even if I am not a Christian?
MIKE: If you believe, then God will answer your prayers. What would you like me to pray for?
OH: That my father and mother will go to heaven. When you pray do you pray to go to heaven?
MIKE: I thank God that he has taken my punishment away so that I can go to heaven.
OH: Pray that when I get out of the priesthood that I will get a good job. Can you pray even in a Buddhist Temple?
MIKE: Yes, because God is everywhere and that he always cares and hears you, no matter where you are.
OH: There are many churches in this area. What do you do when you go to church?
MIKE: We pray, worship, and the pastor teaches about heaven and also about life here on earth because God created everything and therefore He knows how everything was created to work.
OH: I have seen examples of church in movies with people singing, is that a part of worship?
OH: Where will you go when you become a pastor?
MIKE: I will go to America and maybe even Thailand, but I am really not sure.
[At this point, our translator explained to us that Oh was inviting us to the ceremonies the next morning and that Oh would be teaching. We told him that we will be going to church tomorrow and we will therefore not be able to attend]
MIKE: Good luck tomorrow.
OH: Thank you.
[This interview was conducted in July, 2003.]