Sunday, February 21, 2010

Laos - Monks In The Mist

On Monday, 1 February, I got up at 5:30 A.M. It was our last day in Laos and I wanted to accompany the local Monks at Ban Khone on their Tak Bart (alms walk). I had accompanied the Monks in Luang Prabang last year but I did not take many photographs. The camera that I was using at that time needed a flash to be able without unacceptable levels of noise in the photograph. Although I had a flash with me at the time, I did not want to use it out of respect for the solemnity of the ritual. I have a new camera now that is much more versatile in low light conditions. As was typical for this trip, there were low light conditions in the morning not completely attributable to the early hour. Once again there was a heavy fog bordering upon being a light mist blanketing the Luang Namtha valley. Just as in life this was not an ideal condition that presented itself. Just as in life this non-ideal condition when accepted and embraced, the fog offered opportunities for success. The fog provided a soft diffused light, although diminished in intensity, which eliminated harsh shadows that natural light often causes. This morning there was no problem of the sun always being in the wrong place which I had experienced so often in the afternoon on this trip.

In Thailand the Monks set out on their Tak Bart when there is just enough light for them to see the lines on the palms of their hands. Typically they have completed their alms walk between 7:30 and 8:00 A.M. In Luang Prabang, the Monks had set forth on their Tak Bart starting about 6:00 A.M. I retraced my walk from my previous morning excursion to the Vat and arrived at 5:45 A.M. During my walk along the dirt side street and paved main road, I experienced once again the sights, sounds, and smells of village life. People walking, squatting around small fires, riding bicycles or motorbikes, and passing by on small farm trucks smiled and said good morning as I walked along. I could sense the spirit of community that binds the people in their daily activities.

Since it was a Monday, schools were open which increased the traffic on the main road. High school and college students joined the typical traffic headed for the new town. Students rode bicycles and motorbikes as well as walked amongst the women and men headed to markets or work. Many carried an umbrella to ward off the early morning fog and mist. Just as in Thailand the students wear uniforms. Unlike Thailand the female students wear a modest mid calf to ankle length "phaa nung" (sarong- literally "one cloth" in Lao) rather than the more provocative skirts worn in Thailand. The phaa nung for students is typically made of cotton. Adult women wear phaa nung made from either cotton or silk depending upon their status or event. Phaa nung for the students that I saw were solid dark blue with a band of lighter colored embroidary at the bottom. The girls wore the same light blue freshly pressed simple light blue cotton shirts. To ward off the early morning chill on their journey to school they wore sweaters - a concession to individuality and personal style.

Back at the Vat not much was happening. The roosters were stirring and greeting the morning. Hens were flying from their roosts in the trees on to the ground where they were sometimes vigorously pursued by a rooster intent on starting off his day right. Occasionally I could here sounds emanating form some of the small huts where the Monks sleep. I began to suspect that I was too late for the start of their alms walk for the morning. I did not see any Monks out and about. I sat on the wide rail of the Vat to take the heavy load of my backpack of camera gear. Once in awhile I walked around the grounds to find nothing going on. I also popped my head out of the entrance to the Vat and looked both ways down the main road. Traffic was building with more and more bicycles, motorbikes, farm wagons and pedestrians but not a Monk to be seen. At 7:00 A.M., the loudspeaker mounted in a large tree inside the Vat compound alongside the main road came to life. The broadcast started with a instrumental rendition of a typical mahlam lao tune. Then an announcer gave a short introduction - "Good Morning Laos!"? Afterwards it seemed like the announcer read the morning news. I didn't pay much attention because in addition to not understanding Lao, the Vat was coming to life! Monks were coming out of their houses and headed for the bathrooms. Having brushed their teeth and taken care of whatever else they needed to do, the young Monks started milling around prior to heading out on their Tak Bart. I approached a small group of the Monks and through my limited Thai and pantomime jokingly let them know that I had been waiting since 5:45 A. M. and I was wondering where they were. We enjoyed a hearty laugh and at 7:07 headed out the gate on the Tak Bart. There were about 32 young Monks so they split up into smaller groups to go off into the villages. I went with a group of 5 Monks that turned right as they exited the Vat onto the main road headed away from the new town.

The Monks walked silently and barefooted in a single file along the paved road travelling in the same direction as the road traffic. Up ahead in the fog, we could see people kneeling barefooted alongside of the road patiently waiting for the Monks to approach. As the Monks approached the people, the people lifted up their offerings to a prayer like posture and position. The Monks, barely slowing their aggressive walking pace, opened their bowls for the people to place their offerings in each bowl. When necessary for the people to properly place the offerings into the bowl, the Monks would slow down or even stop for only the time necessary to complete the offering. The offerings were made and accepted in silence. The Monks did not acknowledge or thank the people for their generosity. It is not that the Monks are rude. It is the belief and attitude that the Monks are only the vehicle and instrument through which the people can make merit. They are not purveyors of the merit or blessing but are necessary participants in the ritual. In Thailand as part of the merit making ritual, the Monks recite a mantra or chant some blessing or prayer to the people as part of the merit making ritual. Here in Luang Namtha, the Monks after receiving the food offerings, walked past the donors a short ways, stopped, faced the donor's home or business, and chanted in unison what I believed to be a blessing. It was very tranquil as well as calming watching and listening as this ritual repeated itself during the day's tak bart. There was a connection with the ancient past, the chanting was in Pali, the original language of Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of Sri lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. The daily merit making ritual precedes Christianity by centuries.

By 7:45 A. M., the Monks had completed their Tak Bart and returned to their Vat to have their single meal of the day. I bid farewell to the Monks. Having worked up and appetite as well as a sweat, despite the crisp morning, keeping up with the rather brisk pace set by the Monks, I gladly trudged back to the hotel to shower and have breakfast.

It had been a very interesting and fulfilling morning for me but the day had not even begun for some people yet. Duang, exhausted from the long day before at the Lanten village, was still asleep.

There were still events to experience on this our last day of this trip in Laos - subjects and topics for the next blog.

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