I first saw Wat Buddharatanaram, a Thai Buddhist Monastery in Keller, Texas, in 1995; it was comprised of several modest buildings arranged in horseshoe fashion. At the open end of the horseshoe, monks who had come over from Thailand were building a new Temple.
That was the day I met Phra Thamrong Kamlangdet. He was a senior monk, assistant to the Master, and one of the few at the monastery who spoke English. After a brief visit, he showed me around the property and explained his daily routine. Upon my departure, he invited me back for Wednesday evening chanting and meditation – and he gave me a gift. He would later become my mentor, teaching me the Thai Buddhist tradition (including the importance of giving gifts) and, to my surprise, preparing me to become a novice.
Wednesdays at the monastery soon became a regular part of my weekly routine. Each week, after meditation, Phra Thamrong and I would meet for discussion and instruction. I taught him English, and he taught me everything Thai Buddhist that I could comprehend. As the weeks passed, the instruction became more intense. Before long, he decided it was time for me to take the next step – I must come and spend a weekend.
When I arrived at the monks’ quarters Friday afternoon, Phra Thamrong greeted me with an armload of clothes – white drawstring pants, white long-sleeved shirt, white socks and a white toboggan cap. This was to become my attire for the remainder of my time.
The accommodations he arranged for me were spartan – a thin pallet on the hardwood floor with no pillow, some sheets hanging from the ceiling for privacy. I was to be living in the same conditions as the monks. Before long, my schedule at the monastery, in addition to Wednesdays, included one or two weekends a month.
When Phra Thamrong told me he wanted me to become a novice, I was quite surprised. I knew that most young Thai boys traditionally become novices, even if only for a brief time. But for me, at fifty-seven, still working and with a wife at home, I thought it a little strange. Phra Thamrong said he had already discussed it with the Master; in spite of my limitations the Master said it would be fine, and we should proceed.
A service was scheduled at which we would take the Ten Precepts, I as a novice monk, and three Thai women as novice nuns. The ceremony consisted of the four of us taking refuge in the Triple Gem (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), and taking the Ten Precepts. Through a series of readings by the Master and repeating the words by the novices, we vowed:
To refrain from:
- Taking Intoxicants
- Taking food after noon
- Singing and dancing
- Decorative accessories (jewelry, rings and wristwatches)
- High chairs and soft beds
- Taking or using money
Those rules I would be required to follow at all times while at the monastery. The first five are expected of all Buddhists; the remaining five are expected of novices. Thus began my weekends as a novice monk. The experience continues in Part Two.