Becoming a monk is a rite of passage for two men

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(Host) In 1980, Anon and Bouala Sengaloun-Homsab fled the communist takeover of Laos with their two small children.

Now after nearly three decades in this region, their middle son and oldest grandson thanked them in a uniquely Laotian way — by spending a week in a Buddhist monastery.

VPR’s Susan Keese tells their story.

(Keese) In the Lao Buddhist culture, when a man reaches marrying age, he has the option of becoming a monk for a short period of time.

Thirty-one-year-old Ousa Sengaloun-Homsab and his nephew Dane have decided to do that. They’ll spend a week at the nearest Lao temple, in Fitchburg Massachusetts, chanting with the monks, praying and fasting.

Sitting on the floor in his family’s living room in Hinsdale New Hampshire, Ousa says it’s a way of building up spiritual merit for his parents.

(Monks) “It’s really for both parents but it’s very important to the mother because the mother can’t be a monk. Basically it’s a repayment of debts for carrying us in their womb, giving us money to go to the mall, driving us to soccer practice. I know you can never repay it, But this is as close as you can get to it.”

(Keese) Ousa’s mother Anon says some Lao parents believe they can lift themselves to heaven on their sons’ robes, if the son does this.

The preparations last three days. First, their heads must be shaved. In a special ceremony, each of his parents snips a lock of his hair.

(Sound of cutting hair)

(Parent) “You make me really proud…”

(Keese) Friends, and relatives from as far away as California, sit barefoot on the living room carpet. They take turns snipping a lock and giving their blessing.

Ousa was born in Laos but grew up in this house. Now he has degree in finance and a job in Dallas.

He says didn’t get serious about Buddhism until he lived in cities with Buddhist temples and lots of Southeast Asians.

(Ousa) “The Laotian community is not that big here. You hang out with your friends. All your friends are white or American, which is fine. But I think the bigger the Laotian community, the more you keep in touch with your native language and your religion.”

(Keese) Ousa says not too many young Laotians are interested in doing this sort of thing. That’s why he’s so proud of his nephew Dane, who’s spending the week with him at the temple in Massachusetts.

Dane is 15, and a student at Brattleboro Union High School. He’s half-Laotian, the child of Anon and Buala’s oldest son. He lives with his non-Asian mother but he’s very much drawn to his Laotian family.

(Dane) “I’ve always strived to keep up with my Asian culture. This is just a great opportunity to dive in and see what I’ve been missing.

(Laotian kids) “The mom! The mom!”

(Keese) When it’s Dane’s turn to get his hair clipped, the Laotian guests coach his mom.

(Mom) “I just give him my blessing?”
(Woman) “Yeah, you have to give him permission to go do this.”
(Mom) “I give you permission to become a monk. I give you permission to grow, to learn, to become stronger and more in touch with everything around you.”

(Keese) The monks-to-be are whisked away to a bathroom where their fathers shave their heads.

Meanwhile the kitchen stays busy.
Women old and young sit on the floor socializing and cutting up food for the days of feasting to come.

Second generation kids pass through with their non-Asian friends. Everyone is offered something to eat.

(Woman) “Green curry!” “Okay he’s coming.”

(Keese) The two young men appear in white robes, their heads shaved clean. They’ll be given orange robes at the temple tomorrow when they’re formally ordained as novice monks.

Now they’re led back into the living room, to sit before a metal-framed bed decorated with beadwork and gold cloth. The bed is heaped with blankets and household goods — all brand new. A friend explains.

(Woman) “And you see all of the pots and pans and everything the human being needs. But when he become a monk you have to renounce from all of these and then they going to offer them to the temple.”

(The sound of chanting)

(Keese) But first there’s a blessing ceremony, led by a local elder.

(More chanting)

(Keese) A Big bowl in the middle of the room is heaped with flowers, sweets and candles.

Also in the bowl are lengths of string. Well-wishers tie the strings around the novices’ wrists symbolically tying soul and body together.

(Woman) “I’m proud of you and hope you learn more and more.”
(Woman) “And good luck.”

(Keese) Near dusk, they leave for the temple. They’ll be ordained tomorrow.

(More sounds of chanting)

(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

Note: After Ousa and Dane were ordained in Fitchburg, the monks from that monastery traveled home with them to perform a ceremony – the chanting you hear is from that event.

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