Project Conversion

My youngest daughter: “That’s a whole lot of bald, Daddy.”

Me: “Well, you could shave your head like me and become a Buddhist nun.”

Youngest daughter: “No, because nuns don’t get to say bad words.”

My youngest daughter, at five years old, cannot wait to turn 19 so that she can say the ultimate bad word: “stupid.”

Good morning, and welcome to one of my most interesting experiences with Project Conversion. One of the most iconic aspects of Buddhism is the monastic order/community refered to as the sangha.  In the Theravada school, living a monastic life is seen as a high honor and the best way to attain the state of nirvana.

I’d love nothing more than to chill with monks in a monastery for the next month, however I have a wife and kids. Although my lovely wife has been very supportive thus far, if I want to keep her around, then I had better stick around as well. But life is full of compromise.

As a carry-over from last month (Judaism), I’ve decided to keep a modified observance of Shabbat, that is, a day of the week to keep holy. Here is the compromise: In order to glean a balanced perspective between the monastic and lay forms of Buddhism, I will use my “Shabbat” day to live as closely as possible as a monk, and the other six days as a layperson (householder). But in order to be a monk, I had to do something I’ve never done before…

"You've done this before, right Dad?"

Shave my head.

Normally if one wishes to enter the monastic life (and this can be for any length of time), the interested person would go through an initiation process in which 1) the person asks for permission to be ordained by the senior monk. This is called Pabbajja. 2) If accepted, one enters in the novice monk ordination (samanera). 3) From here, a ritual follows in which the initiate asks the senior monk for the saffron robes, has his head shaved by the temple monks,  takes refuge in the Three Gems, and accepts the Ten Training Rules or Precepts by which he will live.

The Three Gems:

1) I take refuge in the Buddha (the Supreme teacher of Dhamma)
2) I take refuge in the Dhamma (the Law the Buddha taught)
3) I take refuge in the Sangha (the monastic community)

The Ten Precepts of a Novice:

“I will undertake to abstain from…

1) Harming or taking life.
2) Taking what is not given.
3) Any sexual contact.
4) False speech.
5) The use of intoxicants.
6) Taking food after midday.
7) Dancing, singing, music, or any form of entertainment.
8 ) The use of garlands, perfumes, unguents and adornments.
9) Luxurious seats.
10) Accepting and holding money.

After reciting this, the novice formally asks the senior monk to be his Preceptor and to receive a name in Pali (the language of many Theravada texts and the one believed to have been spoken by the Buddha).

This is the normal procedure for entering monastic life, but again, my marriage depends on my not being normal. But compromise is compromise so last evening I asked my parents to shave my head so that I could live one day out of the week as closely as I can to that of a monk. I also picked up some cheap fabric for my grandmother to sew my modified robes.



The first victim. Tradition holds that the initiate gazes upon the first cut piece of hair while his head is shaven as his first lesson in meditation.

Meditation fail...

Missed a spot

Monk Andrew

And here is the final result. Notice two things here. One, the color of my robe is brown instead of burnt orange (saffron). Also, I am not wearing the three-piece ensemble of actual monks. Instead I am using two pieces: One as my torso/shoulder piece (the uttarasanga or kashaya), and the leftover length as a sanghati, a piece used for warmth. I am also wearing linen pants instead of the lower piece of the robe set called the antaravasaka. The robes and their color are deliberately false and incomplete because I am not an initiate at any temple and therefore do not want to disrespect the rituals and sanctity of this practice. My purpose is to experience as much of any belief system as I can without insulting existing devotees.

So, why go through the motions? The monastic order was established by the Buddha himself to both carry on his teachings and to serve as an example to the lay population. Monks are therefore held at a higher standard in the realms of study, piety, and meditation. Just as my Shabbats were spent with extra study and extreme rest, I will spend my “monk days” cut off from from as much of the outside world as possible in order to meditate on and study Dhamma (the wisdom and law spoken of by the Buddha). This means taking the Ten Precepts above very seriously.

I am also planning a weekend trip to a local monastery where I will spend time in a small hut and at the feet of the senior monk to get a fuller education in Dhamma and the monastic life.

Just in the past twelve hours, I have been told that I look like a variety of things. My daughters want to paint a blue arrow on my head so I look like Aang from our favorite cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” My dad thinks I look like a penis.

Good ol’ Dad.

As I mentioned, the monastic order is seen in the Theravada school as the highest honor a person can take and the best road toward liberation. What do you think? Does one need to renounce the world to gain liberation? Can a layperson achieve the same state? How do you feel about monastic orders across the religious landscape in general? Are they necessary?

Do I really look like a penis…? Wait, don’t answer that.

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