Alaska

Learning the Robes: 11-year-old devotes summers to sampling the monastic life (Anchorage Daily News, Alaska)

KRISTA MAHR, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska: Five minutes ago, Oni Malamon had his hair shaved clean off for the third summer in a row. He sat on his heels on a towel in the basement of Wat Dhamma Bhavana Buddhist Center, a Thai Buddhist temple on a suburban street in South Anchorage. His eyes were squeezed shut, one cracking open periodically to watch two monks’ orange robes as they spread shaving cream over his head.

Getting bald was the second step that 11-year-old Oni, whose full name is Natachai Malamon, took in June to live as a novice monk for the summer at Wat Dhamma Bhavana. The first step was asking if he could.

As a novice, Oni gets a glimpse of a monk’s life: He sleeps at the temple, wakes up for chanting every morning at 5:30, eats only (mostly) before noon, practices meditation and learns how the principles of Buddhism can apply to everyday things. Like keeping his room in the temple clean.

Glops of shaving cream and hair fell on Oni’s baggy black jeans.

“Why do you have to do it so hard?” he asked. Two monks took turns with the old-fashioned metal razor, encouraging Oni to put his hands back together in prayer now and then to officiate the event. They scraped neat rows in the shaving cream.

“Hey, I feel bald. I need some hair in my life,” Oni said to no one in particular.

His little sister, Oum, sat on a low, green vintage couch, watching the procedure. Their grandmother was upstairs, waiting for the small ceremony in which Oni would be ordained.

“You look like Grandpa now,” Oum, 9, observed.

Oum has inquired about being a nun, an option for girls and women, but isn’t interested in sacrificing her shoulder-length black hair, which some nuns do.

“You’re next,” her brother warned.

The monk leaned in toward Oni’s face. “No, not my eyebrows!”

Oni has been a novice monk three times already: as a 3-year-old in Thailand after his father died and for the past two summers here in Anchorage. He lifted a lanky arm. “How about my armpits?”

Oni’s eyebrows were gone with two swipes of the razor, pale patches of skin left under the ghost of fine black hair. The Venerable Sarit Phunjan leaned in to take a digital photo. Oni grinned and gave a thumbs-up for the camera.

Later, upstairs with his shirt on and his hair off, Oni moaned, “My girlfriend’s going to see me bald.”

In Thailand, it’s common for young men to spend some time removed from the world, either as novice monks or, when they reach age 20, full monks. In Alaska it’s more rare, but every summer novices come to stay at Wat Dhamma Bhavana and other Buddhist temples in Anchorage for anywhere from a few days to the whole summer.

Novice monks of Theraveda Buddhism, the branch practiced widely in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia, are ordained in the same way that full monks are. (High monks’ ordination is different.) After a request to become a novice, the boy gets a set of robes and has his head shaved by the monks at the temple.

During the ceremony, Oni officially received the robes from the temple’s senior monk. He’ll wear them for the rest of the summer. At the temple, he’s required to follow 10 training rules of Buddhism. Full monks follow more than 200 rules of conduct.

In the prayer room upstairs, the temple’s senior monk read the 10 rules to Oni, and Oni repeated them back: Do not kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie, drink, eat after noon, wear makeup or any scent, dance or sing, sleep on a mattress, or spend money as you would in the secular world.

The robes, which aren’t kid-sized but can be folded to fit big or small people, were handed over.

Once Oni got help with the complicated folding process, he returned upstairs in the robes and sat on his heels in the middle of the ruby carpet in front of four of the temple’s five monks (one was visiting a temple in North Hollywood). He bowed from his waist and was promptly told how to do it right. Phunjan took another digital video.

Oni sighed loudly and tried again.

CULTURAL EDUCATION

It was Oni who asked his mother, Supamit Khuntavichai, if he could come back to live at Wat Dhamma Bhavana this summer. During the school year, Oni and Oum visit the temple every weekend with their grandmother while their mom works as a housekeeper in a hospital in Anchorage. Their immediate family of three moved to Alaska in 1996 from Udon Thani in northeast Thailand.

Oni’s mother misses him when he’s not at home for months at a time, she says, but it’s up to him how long he stays.

“The monks teach him to be nice and a good boy,” Khuntavichai says in the temple’s kitchen after a Sunday-morning food blessing.

She wants him to learn about Thai culture. In Thai communities outside of Thailand, monks are vital links to the cultural, social and spiritual worlds that are a part of daily life back home.

“You can use everything you learn in monk life in a normal life,” says Somchai Thonkratok, who left the monastic order two months ago to work for BP Alaska on the North Slope.

One thing Oni was not banking on this summer was wearing his monk’s robes to math class.

He can deal with living away from home, all the way across town, during this summer between fifth and sixth grades. He can sacrifice warm evenings hanging around with friends from school to sit around with five men more than twice his age. He can handle his girlfriend seeing him with the pale scalp of a freshly shaved head.

Clothes were another matter.

But things change. First, there was the offer Oni couldn’t refuse: His mother would give him $100 if he’d wear his robes to summer school until the last day of class in late July. He said the only thing kids at school asked him is if he ever gets to change colors.

Second, there was the matter of the robes themselves, a subject on which Oni has developed some expertise since his ordination in June. After continually being late to morning chanting because he was too slow folding the robe, Phunjan took him aside and showed him some tricks.

Now he’s pretty fast. Not only can he do his own robes, he’s teaching the new novices how to do theirs.

EXPERIENCED

In early July, it’s a full house at Wat Dhamma Bhavana. Three novice monks, ages 7, 12 and 18, have joined the temple for a few weeks, and it’s Oni’s job to show them the ropes.

During the blessings before lunch, in which all the monks sit in a row to chant, Oni sits next to Phailuck Rasavong, the youngest novice. When the boy’s hands drift unconsciously from prayer to his lap, Oni props them back up for him. When he starts to lean over from morning fatigue, Oni gently nudges his shoulders back against the wall.

After the food blessing, as the formality of the chanting wears off, the boys sit down at their table to load their stomachs for a long period without solid food. Monks don’t eat after noon, though novices can drink Ovaltine or eat yogurt and ice cream as the day wears on and hunger pangs set in.

“I want some eggs,” Phailuck says after surveying a table of home-cooked Thai food.

“We don’t have eggs,” says J.D. Lyberger, 12, ordained the day before. He runs a hand over his shaved head. “We have noodles and stuff.”

“Eggs?” Phailuck asks again with hope. Somebody hands him a napkin.

He holds the white square blankly. He came to the temple four days ago to be a novice along with his older cousin, Ramsey Rasavong, who is 18. Everything is still brand new. “What do I use it for?” he asks, napkin in hand.

“Your hands, man,” Oni says, oozing something between disbelief and sympathy. Right here, at this table, Oni is the resident authority on all things great and small. Though second youngest, he’s been in this role the longest.

A young boy in street clothes sits on a large mat in the dining room with the temple members, watching the monks and novices finish their lunches before he can eat.

“Do you want to be a novice?” Phunjan asks from the monks’ table, aiming his thumb at the novices.

The boy shakes his head from the safety of 10 feet away.

“You can try,” Phunjan encourages. “If you can sit down for 30 minutes of meditation … if you wake up early at 6 o’clock, you can try.”

During summers in Thailand, Phunjan has had more than 500 novices at a time under his watch.

“I’m not very strict with the students here,” he says, smiling. “But they shouldn’t know me in Thailand.”

When the boys start to complain about the rules at Wat Dhamma Bhavana, Phunjan tells them about when he was a novice in Thailand, when for two years he woke up at 4 a.m. and learned about Buddhism without watching television or listening to the radio. At night in Thailand, all the novices go to bed like soldiers, he says.

BREATHING IN AND OUT

It is Sunday afternoon, and Phunjan, two other monks from the temple, Oni, his sister and J.D., the newest novice, are out getting afternoon exercise, climbing a steep, dusty trail on the back of Flattop Mountain. The monks often go hiking, but it’s J.D.’s first hike in robes.

Before getting on the trail, Oni helps his friend pull the awkward, loose robes over his head and shoulders so his pale scalp and shoulders don’t get sunburned. Though they go to different schools, they’ve known each other from the temple since they were 8.

Oni turns from the group and bolts straight up the trail in a jog. J.D. is not far behind.

“You OK?” Phunjan shouts up the slope at them. The heat this afternoon is fierce. He calls up for them to stop hiking and find a spot to meditate. “Make your power come back!”

Phunjan catches up and finds places for the boys to sit, facing them in different directions toward expansive views of the valley and Anchorage. “Thirty minutes,” he announces.

“Thirty minutes?” J.D. asks, looking up at his teacher from his seat on the scree.

“You want more?” Phunjan looks down at him.

Oni’s eyes are already shut tight. Cross-legged, hands on his knees, his skinny chest rises and falls with the breathing in and the breathing out. Phunjan sits next to him, and they count breaths out loud together: One in, one out. Two, two. Three, three. Four, four.

“You just concentrate on the air going in and out of your lungs and on the wind,” Oni explains later.

Phunjan says that is the level of meditation that children practice, a basic focus on breath and the movements of the stomach for 30 minutes every day. Not on the sirens they could hear from Anchorage. Not on Oni’s little sister poking sticks into mysterious rodent holes in the hillside.

After meditation, J.D.’s and Oni’s attention shifts to throwing J.D.’s wood walking stick like a spear into the hillside. Oni’s throws land at a satisfying perpendicular angle in the scrubby hillside plants. J.D.’s throws aren’t sticking.

“I messed up,” he says. “Are you spinning it?”

“Try again.” Oni hands him the stick.

The hardest part of J.D.’s first 24 hours as a novice was the no-dinner part.

For Oni, the hardest part of his first three weeks has been learning the chants, though now he is the only novice who can follow along at least part of the time. He had three days to learn five verses of a chant in Pali, the language that the Buddha’s teachings were written in during the first century B.C.

“If you can remember one word, you can remember another one too,” Phunjan told Oni a few weeks ago when the boy was frustrated with his lessons. Phunjan talked Oni through the temple’s food blessing word by word, repeating one word five times so Oni could get used to its sound. Eventually, Oni got it.

Now J.D. feels the frustration of hearing and not understanding the foreign words.

“How do you remember?” he asks Oni, readjusting the robes around his spindly frame. “I never remember anything. I don’t even remember anything from school last year.”

Oum, diligently keeping up with the older boys in her flare jeans with rhinestones on the cuffs, is getting bored watching them throw the spear.

“You guys play too much,” she says.

“It’s not play. It’s competition,” J.D. tells her.

“You guys competition too much,” Oum says.

Oni is already looking up the yet-to-be-climbed hill in front of him. One of the monks has hiked ahead and is a bright, distant dot on the trail far above.

“We gotta climb more,” Oni says. It’s only late afternoon, and there’s a whole lot of daylight and no dinner in sight. “I don’t want to go do chanting.”

“We need two hours,” J.D. agrees. The novices set out to catch up under the cloudless blue sky.

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