This video from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly shows a family in the U.S. sending off their pre-teenage son to become ordained as a nen ...
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The nen (an abbreviation of samanen) ordination practiced by followers of Theravada Buddhism allows boys under the age of twenty to become "novice" monks for a period of time. The ordination is not intended to induct the boys into the Buddhist community of monks, or sangha. Rather, it signals their commitment to Buddhist teachings and gives them the option of later joining the sangha.
In regions where Theravada Buddhism is prevalent, such as Thailand, nen ordination is socially incumbent on all males. The ceremony is more elaborate in some communities than others. A boy can be ordained a samanen at any time with little fanfare, but the occasion is usually an honored celebration for parents who gain merit when their son takes the "robes and bowl."
The initiation ceremony is a reenactment of an event from the life of Buddha. Prince Siddhartha (before he became Buddha) began his quest for enlightenment by renouncing all worldly possessions. In the middle of the night, he slipped away from his palace and ventured into the forest. He erased all signs of his princely life by cutting his long hair (a sign of royalty) and shedding his silk garments in exchange for the robes and bowl of a mendicant.
Similarly, the boys to be ordained as nen shave their heads and eyebrows, and trade in their clothes for robes. In imitating Buddha's actions, the boys renounce all worldly attachments, which are believed to give rise to suffering and impede enlightenment.
The boys then request permission from a senior monk to enter the sangha. They change from white robes to saffron robes and take the oath of the "ten precepts," in which they vow to abstain from killing, stealing and indulging in worldly things. After the ordination ceremony, the boys live among the sangha.
During these retreats, which should last at least a couple of weeks for thorough training, the nen live and practice the "four necessities": clothes, food, shelter, and healthcare. The boys wear only their saffron robes and eat just two meals a day (breakfast and lunch). The nen chant, meditate and study the Dharma, the Buddha's teachings. Their daily activities are intended to prepare the young men to rejoin the laity with a deeper knowledge of their faith to better navigate the world.
- Why do the boys shave their heads and eyebrows? What might this symbolize?
- Why do you think cutting hair and bathing is required for becoming anen?
- Why can't their mothers or other women touch the boys?
- Is this like any other ceremony you know of?
Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: "Belief and Practice: Nen Ordination"
Learn more about the Religion & Ethics segment "Belief and Practice: Nen Ordination."
Produced by Thirteen.
Produced by Thirteen.