"did our homework" "for the time being" "reverence in the eyes of the peasants".....
After a few days of this hardship, I moved to the Forest Monastery, Chiang Khong, where I was to be officially ordained. Joy's brother Jate, a young man of 36 years, decided at the last moment that he would ordain with me. The second monastery, which was under the guidance of the Venerable Abbott Arjarn Ekachai, was more comfortable then the previous one in that we had running water.
The ordainment ceremony required us to memorize some of the teachings of Buddha and chant them in Pali. Pali is a Sanskrit derivative language and was indeed the language spoken at the time of the Buddha. Surprisingly, I did not find it difficult to memorize the verses that I was asked to recite for the ordainment. The ordainment ceremony began at 6:00 AM in the morning at the Forest Monastery, Chiang Kong. About 1,000 villagers from 13 neighboring villages showed up to witness it.
After a lot of chanting and instructions by Venerable Arjarn Ekachai and another senior monk on the responsibilities of an ordained monk, including following the five precepts, understanding the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-fold Path to Enlightenment, we also had to undergo a head shaving ceremony. I did not realize that the shaving would include my eyebrows. But by this time, I had let go of all attachments for the time being and decided to surrender to the whole process. My son Gotham was there to witness and film the ceremony as I and Jate went through the process.
After the head shaving ceremony, the villagers lined up one by one to tie threads around our wrists. This was symbolic and meant that the villagers and monks had embraced us as their family. This part of the ceremony took two hours, and Jate and I sat cross-legged on the floor for it.
After the "thread ceremony," all the villagers were fed food that had been cooked by volunteers. All this took us to about noon, after which Jate and I mounted two elephants as part of a parade to the Buddhist Temple, where the ordainment and wearing of the monks robes was to take place. The parade was very festive, with drumming and chanting, and the villagers were all dressed in colorful celebratory outfits.
We dismounted our elephants upon reaching the temple where the actual ordainment ceremony began. This lasted five hours with me and Jate reciting our Buddhist chants to prove that we had done our "homework."
Finally, we were asked to give up our clothes and exchange them for the monk's robes. As Jate and I walked out of the temple at about 5:30 PM in the evening with our begging bowls and in monk robes, all of the villagers prostrated themselves at our feet with reverence, made offerings, and filled up our begging bowls. We were now ordained.
Back in the monastery the Venerable Arjarn Ekachai instructed us on our routine, which was to be similar to the one at the previous monastery. Over the next week, we maintained silence and kept the routine as instructed.
My only challenge was walking barefoot through the villages. The country paths were at times rocky and at times full of bristles and thorns, but we marched through it despite the pain. The Venerable Arjarn Ekachai would meet with us in the afternoon and late evening where he would go over our practice of mindfulness.
Because there were no mirrors, we did not know what we looked like to ourselves. The others treated us with great respect and reverence and the villagers were very generous in the giving of alms, which mostly included rice, vegetables, fruit, boiled eggs, and sometimes even a bar of chocolate.
It was amazing to see to see the generosity and love and the reverence in the eyes of the peasants as they offered food to us. We ate once a day as in the previous monastery.
By and by, I started to feel that I was losing my sense of my previous identity. Physically, I was without hair on my scalp or my eyebrows. I walked barefoot. I wore the robe of monks. I practiced mindful awareness day and night, in addition to meditating on impermanence and on my own physical death. The Venerable Arjarn Ekachai explained that being in this mindful state and shedding our previous identity allowed divine qualities to emerge -- lovingkindness, compassion to all beings, happiness at the happiness of others, and equanimity. Indeed I felt the truth of all this in my experience. I realized that holding on to anything is really like holding on to your breath. You begin to feel suffocation. It was freeing to let go.
Before we went to the closing ceremony, we took our hair and packed it in palm leaves and went to the Mekong River, which runs between Thailand and Laos. We boarded a boat and went toward a shrine along the river banks, where we offered our hair to the river and it floated away. This was symbolic of letting go of our habitual certainties and attachments and creating the space for new and better and more spiritual things in our lives. The hair, which is part of our body and came from the elements, was returned to the elements.
After a full week, Jate and I returned to Bangkok once again wearing our regular clothes. But, when I looked into the mirror, I could not recognize myself and burst out laughing.
Does sound a bit spooky if you re-read carefully. Chopra didn't just do a 2 week vipassana retreat, he ordained as a monk in a deeply meaningful public ceremony, with about a thousand witnesses. I can appreciate how bhante appicchato and others (who take ordination very very seriously) might feel a bit sick or queasy...