Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Learning Faith In Isaan - Starting Out Young

Tey, 4 years old and Peelawat, 21 months, Worshiping
Last Saturday, we drove out to Tahsang Village early to participate in a merit making ritual that is related to Duang's decision to make special merit.  For the close of Buddhist Lent on October 23rd, Thot Kathin Day, Duang dressed all in white and sat with the other women who had decided to participate in a religious retreat at the Wat that night.  As Duang described it to me it greatly reminded me of Religious Retreats performed in the Catholic Church.

Duang and Other Women Preparing to Attend A Religious Retreat
Once we arrived at the Wat located amongst the sugar cane fields outside of Tahsang Village, Duang could no longer communicate or touch me - it was not personal it was just that I was a man.  Just as Monks can not touch a female, Duang and the other female retreat attendees could not touch a man.  There was one bright side to this requirement for me, Duang could not care for Peelawat, our 21 month old grandson, until the next morning.  I had the responsibility to care for him until after the morning alms giving ritual when I would return him back to his mother back in Tahsang Village.

Peelawat and I sat on the left hand side of the Wat while Duang sat with the other women on the right hand side.  Peelawat lasted 45 minutes when he decided that he had had enough of that "old time" religion.  I brought him back to the village and returned to the Wat to await my mother-in-law to complete her worship.  Well, part of the time was spent in ritual but a great deal of time was spent waiting for her to finish eating.  People earn merit by offering food to Monks for the Monk's single meal of the day.  Monks are not allowed to save food after they consume their morning meal so once they have taken their portions of food that they have been offered, people are invited to eat the remaining portions.  With this being Isaan, eating the remaining food becomes a great opportunity to socialize.  Everyone had a grand time eating, drinking water, and most of all chatting.

From the commencement of the morning ritual the women studied Buddhist dharma and meditated .  They also fasted for the entire day.  Breakfast on Thot Kathin Day was their only food until the following morning.

Motivated from their retreat experience Duang and Tey's Grandmother decided to follow up on earning additional merit.  They could earn additional merit by performing a special ritual for seven Wednesdays in a row by fasting, dressing in white, practising abstinence, chanting and meditating.  From their retreat they had a book with teachings and chants written down for the Wednesday rituals.  On each of the seven Wednesdays, they can not touch or even talk to a man no matter how old the male is.  They can eat only a meal of rice in the morning and liquid intake is restricted to just water.

Wednesday 10 October - Duangchan Worshiping At Her Shrine In Our Upstairs Alcove
On Wednesday night they sleep in front of the shrine located in their homes.  On Thursday morning they able to resume their normal life.

Four days ago, Saturday, we went to Tahsang Village for another special ritual.  In addition to the typical morning offering of food to the Monks, Duang and Tey's Grandmother were going to get a shower from the Monk.  This was something new to me.  This was something that I had to see because I had no idea what it was like.  Duang told me that she would wear all white clothing to go to the Wat and wear a change of dry clothing to come back home.  We left our home at 6:00 A.M. in 75F weather to pick up Tey's Grandmother before going out into the fields to get to the Wat.  At least that was our original plan.  When we got to Tahsang Village, we discovered that Tey, 4 years old, wanted to go with his Grandmother.  Since Tey was going, his sister, Mai, 5 years old wanted to go too.  When Peelawat, 21 months old, realized that his friend Tey was going, he wanted to go.  As we were finally loaded up in the truck, Kwan, 3 years old, wanted to go with her cousin Peelawat and friends Tey and Mai.  With the four children all under six years old loaded into the truck we headed off to the Wat.


Tey, Mai, Kwan and Peelawat Prepare to Worship Under the Supervision of Tey's Grandmother



Sometimes Lighting Joss Stick Offerings Can Be Difficult - Especially When You Are 2 or 3 Years Old
 The children are always well behaved and I welcomed their accompanying us out to the Wat.  I was not expecting to witness what was to be a very special morning.  Fortunately I had brought my camera gear to document the morning's activities.

I have written several times about the daily role of spirituality and religion in the life of the Lao Loum people here in Isaan.  The people's faith provides them with answers to daily concerns, a sense of direction for their life and comfort in the face of the hardships of life as well as confidence in the future.  I had noted that even at his early age Peelawat can recognize and demonstrate respect for Monks and religious objects.  Children participate or at least witness all the rituals related to Buddhism as well as Animist rituals that are performed here in Isaan.  There is no sense that the children are "too young" in regards to attending ceremonies or events.  However it was not until Saturday that I saw how much the young children knew about worshiping or witnessed their training.  For me it was a special treat.  Knowing the children personally made the experience even more special.

Kwan Performing One of Three Supplications Before A Statue of Buddha
Tey's Grandmother supervised the children at the various shrines located on the Wat's grounds.  There are different statues of Buddha representing days of the week.  Some of the staues are located in different buildings or pavilions on the grounds.  The children worshiped at two of the three places that we stopped at.


Flanked by Mai and Kwan, Peelawat Makes His Offering

Peelawat and Kwan Finish their Ritual By Placing Their Burning Joss Sticks in the Receptacle In Front of Buddha statue
Tey's Grandmother left to participate in the offering of food to the Monks while I finished with the children - mainly ensuring that they did not set themselves or anything else on fire.  It was so very nice to see the children learning of a power and entity greater than themselves. Peelawat, the youngest, was particular enamored in the burning Joss (incense) Sticks.  After awhile, after giving me sticks and a lighter for me to make an offering, he finally completed his worship.


Peelawat Contemplating His Burning Joss Sticks
 Peelawat and I walked to the large outdoor shrine just in time for the offering of food to the Monks. There were three Monks receiving food; the Abbott around 50 years old, a Monk around 25 or 30 years old and a Novice Monk about 12 years old.  The Novice Monk was excited to see me.  He had reminded Duang that last year I had given him 20 Baht.  I remembered him too.


The Wat's Young Novice Participates In Morning Ritual
Last year, at a village celebration where Duang's brother was performing a Mahlam Lao Show the boy was also attending.  Many of the children were snacking on ice cream, soft drinks, or other goodies.  This boy was not and appeared to be alone.  I gave him some money so that he could buy some treats to enjoy like the other children were able to.  His face was disfigured and I asked Duang about him.  The boy had been mauled by a dog and blinded in one eye from the incident.  He was also an orphan being cared for by an uncle.  He is not the first child that I have seen disfigured by a dog in Isaan.  Dogs are very common in the villages and Wats of Isaan.  The dogs are not kept in the manner and style of pet dogs in the United States.  They are definitely not pampered.  The dogs in Isaan are not neutered either.  The dogs are tolerated and there are no wide spread attempts to control the dog population.  The village dogs coexist, most of the time, with the villagers.  I guess they offer some protection against snakes.  Some dogs help with herding the cattle.  Except for selling them to the travelling dog meat agents, the villagers would never consider destroying a village dog. 

In Isaan the Wats are more than places of worship.  Wats also retain their traditional role of providing education, shelter and sustenance for those in need.  The young boy has been taken into the Wat and seems to be happy with his new set of circumstances.  Duang and I once met and spoke with a 38 year old Monk who had entered into his Wat when he was 9 years old.  The tradition of caring for others continues today. Seeing that the young boy is now in better circumstances made me feel good inside as well as reassured that the Lao Loum people can and do take care of each other without involving the government.

Duang About to be Blessed
At the completion of the morning food offering, we walked to another building.  Duang prayed at the shrine inside the building and then set a saht (woven reed mat) on the ground outside of the building's porch railing.  Inside the building the 25 year old Monk was praying as he dropped burning candle wax into a plastic bucket of water.  Duang knelt ouside on the saht.  The Monk came out on to the porch and sprinkled Duang using a brush made out of coarse reeds or rushes. This was apparently her "shower".  I had seen this type of blessing before as well as been on the receiving end of many of these blessings.  Later I found out that Duang had opted out of the shower because it was "too cold" (23C, 73F).  Tey's Grandmother, perhaps because she has more body insulation, went for the full shower.  She sat on the saht wearing a long skirt pulled up to her under arms and had the same type of water poured on her head and shoulders by the Monk.  After she changed into dry clothing we gathered up the children and returned to Tahsang Village.


Tey's Grandmother Being Showered With Holy Water

A Chicken Relaxes In Buddha's Lap
Once again I went home "smiling inside" thinking about all that I had seen and experienced that morning.

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