Monday, August 13, 2012

Mother's Day, 12 August 2555 and Connections

Merit Making On Mother's Day In Isaan
Yesterday, 12 August 2555, was Mother's Day here in Thailand.  The day coincides with the birthday of the Queen who is considered to be the mother of the Thai people.  The Thai people consider the holiday to be a very important celebration.

People travel from all over to return to their home in order to pay respect to their mother.  Gifts are given to the mothers and just as important, children prostrate themselves in front of their mother and supplicate for her blessing for the upcoming year.  This year Duang's son and his wife drove ten hours from their workplace in Rayong to Udonthani to be able to pay their respects to their mothers.

Although the holiday is on Sunday, the celebration actually starts on Friday.  On Friday, school children invite their mother and grandmother to attend a party at their school.  Food and drinks are served, entertainment is provided by the children, and speeches are given.  Typically trees or flowers are also planted on the school grounds by the children and their mothers.

This year the Thai government provided 800,000 trees to be planted to honor the Queen's 80th birthday.  The Queen is well known and honored for her contributions to sustainable development and conservation of Thailand's natural resources as well as reforestation efforts.

Duang, Tey, Mai, and Peelawat Plant A Flower for Mother's Day 2010
Duang and I had attended the school festivities at her old elementary school in Tahsang village in 2010 or 2553 if you use the Thai calander.  It was a very nice affair of which I wrote of in my blog

Baan Tahsang Elementary School
There were a great deal of tears during that celebration two years ago.  The school principal had told the children about how much their mothers loved them and about all the things that their mother did to take care of them and make them happy.  This is not an isolated occurrence in Thailand.  This week another expat in the Udon area wrote on the Internet about having attended a similar "celebration" at a school where a song was started.  All the people started to sing the song but quickly everyone was crying.  The songs lyrics were about a mother who left home and her children to work so that her children could have food and clothes.  This is not uncommon here in Isaan.  The region is very poor with many mothers and fathers leaving the rice paddies and cane fields to work in Bangkok, the industrial estates surrounding Bangkok, or the tourist centers of Pattaya or Phuket Island.  The expat wrote that the sadness was too much for him to bear so he would not be attending the elementary school "celebration" this year.

Mai, Tay, and their Grandmother Crying At School Mother's Day Party
Due to Duang's shyness regarding her face, we did not go to the Tahsang Village Elementary School celebration this year but we did celebrate in other ways.
Friday night, Duang's son and wife arrived from Rayong.  They stopped at Tahsang Village on their way to Udonthani.  Peelawat wanted to be with his Aunt and Uncle so they brought him to Udonthani.  Saturday they took Duang clothes shopping for Mother's Day.  Duang ended up with two pieces of silk from which she will sew some new outfits.  Perk and Puii wanted to pay to have the cloth cut and sewn but Duang was happy to just have the cloth as a gift.
Peelawat spent the night with us and we had a very enjoyable time. He likes to look at my photographs of airplanes on the computer and I am teaching him how to use the mouse.   Although he was determined to sleep with me Saturday night, Duang and he slept in one of the spare bedrooms.  Sunday morning we had to be in Tahsang Village for a special merit making ritual at 7:00 A.M.  I had set the alarm clock for 5:00 A.M. but there was no need for that - Peelawat was up and about at 4:55 A.M.
We arrived at the village just before 7:00 A.M. for the start of the merit making ritual at Duang's Aunt's house.  The merit making ritual was to feed the local Monks from the two village Wats.

Four of the Five Monks to be Fed
Five Monks arrived - four Monks from the Wat inside the village and one Monk from the Wat outside of the village.  It is very important in religious matters to have an odd number of Monks in attendance. The Monks are from different sects as distinguished by the color of their robes.  The Monks from outside of the village wear a dark red robe and follow a more strict regimen such as eating only one meal a day.  The Monks from inside the village wear a more orange colored robe and can eat two meals a day.  Duang's family favors the "Outside" Monks and Wat so many times we have driven the dirt road past the rice paddies and through the cane field to get to the Wat on the edge of the flood plain.

As part of the merit making ritual, a bobbin of cotton string, very similar to what in the USA is called butcher's string - the string that you find binding a beef roast togetherwas rolled out and held by the Monks as they chanted. . This is very typical of the rituals, Buddhist as well as Animist, that I have observed here. Short lengths of the string  are tied around the wrists of people during Baii Sii ceremonies for weddings, healing, exorcisms, bon voyages, and to honor esteemed guests.  Longer and heavier lengths of the string are used in the funeral ritual.  As part of the blessing ritual for vehicles, intermediate lengths and smaller bundles of the string are wrapped around the steering column to protect the operators and passengers of the vehicle from bad luck as well as harm.  In some prayer rituals, single strands of the string descend from a grid of string above the worshipper with the free end coiled on top of the worshiper's head.

I am not an expert on the full meaning of the strings, but I have come to the conclusion that the string connects and facilitates communication from this world to the other world.  In a certain way, the string also binds the people together, with each other as well as with the spirit world.

A String Binds and Connects the Monks During the Ritual
Well, yesterday was a day of connections for me as well.  My number one camera is in Bangkok for repair.  Two weeks ago I brought my old digital camera, Nikon D2H, out to the village to photograph a family member becoming a Buddhist Monk.  To my disappointment, I discovered that the camera is also in need of repair.  The camera is not taking properly exposed photographs in any of the automated modes.  Once the first camera arrives, I will send the second out for repair.

Duang's Aunt had called to ensure that we would be attending this ritual and that I would be photographing it.  It was a given that we would be attending. Duang is very religious and I do not want to interfere with that.  However, taking photographs did present a challenge.  I started thinking and gave it some serious thought.  I ended up using the camera the old fashioned way - "manual mode".  I used a light meter to get the exposure, set the camera manually, and used a speedlite for fill in flash.  It worked,  It worked like it used to be in the old days.  I had been reconnected to a camera that I had not successfully used in two years.  I had reconnected to a technique that I can't recall having last used.  These connections reaffirmed the adage that "you can't always get what you want but if you try you just may get what you need".  Hmm ...sounds like that it would make a great song.  Whoops ... Mick Jagger already wrote it.  Once again the saying "Where there is a will, there is a way" proved to be prophetic and a lesson to never be forgotten.

A Familiar Face?
A while into the ritual I kept looking at one of the Monks,  He looked familiar.  I started thinking about the stereotype that certain races of people all look alike and was feeling some pangs of guilt.  After a while I moved over to where Duang was praying and asked her if the Monk was Kwan's uncle.  She confirmed that it was and that he has been a Monk for about a week now.  Another connection had been made or rather realized for the day.  I first met Kwan's uncle on my first visit to Baan Tahsang.  It was not a pleasant experience.  I had gone to the village for our wedding and the ordination of Duang's son as a Monk. He was not the village idiot although he acted like it for the entire 5 days that I was there.  He was in reality the village drunk.  It had gotten to the point where I had squared off and was prepared to punch him in the face.

Sometime later, he went off and saw a special Monk to get help to stop drinking.  I alluded to him in my first story about alcoholism cure here in Isaan,  There was a remarkable transformation in him after he visited the Monk and took the cure.  He became a very nice hard working person.  I actually ended up liking and respecting him very much.  He has been a subject of many of my photographs involving daily life here in Isaan.  To this day, over three years later, he remains alcohol free.

Every Thai male 20 years or older is expected to be a Monk at some point in his life. It is believed that a boy can only become a man after serving as a Monk. Even the current King of Thailand spent time as a Monk.

Being ordained as a Monk earns great merit for a boy's mother and to a lesser extent for his father. The boy's mother gains more merit because the act of becoming a Monk is not available to women. The boy's father naturally had the opportunity to earn the merit by becoming a Monk himself when he was young.

Not all young men become Monks.  There is a great deal of peer as well as societal pressure on the young man as well as his parents for a young man to become a Monk. So for a Thai man to not become a Monk at some point in his life is a bad reflection upon his parents as well as on him. Due to economic considerations, some young men do not become Monks.  I suspect that may have been the case for Kwan's uncle.  But at 46 years old and more importantly, while his mother is still alive, he became a Monk.  I was excited and pleased to see him as a Monk.

Since he has been a Monk for just one week, he was not up to speed with all the aspects of the ritual.  However the other Monks helped him out.  After some words and encouragement, he got up to sprinkle water on the participants and home in a "blessing" ritual.  In the blessing ritual which I have witnessed many times, a bundle of coarse reeds are dipped in a bowl of special water (holy water?) and flicked on the heads of people or walls of a home.  For some reason, perhaps because they feel that I need more because of my size or faith, the Monks, wherever I go always seem to be able to sprinkle (drench?) me with more water than anyone else - much to every one's amusement and delight.

Monk Blessing the People With Water
Well yesterday I got my typical heavy dose of water blessing.  I don't know if if he done something wrong the first time or not but the Monk returned to give me another blessing.  In addition to another heavy sprinkling of water on my head. he tapped the top of my head with the bundle of reeds.  We all laughed and I was told that I was very lucky and fortunate to get such a good blessing. That could be true but I was just happy to reconnect with an old friend - and most happy to see him still sober and living his faith.  Since he was part of the "Inside" Monks, he was putting some of the food into a plastic bag to eat for his second meal back at the Wat.  He was taking so much food that I offered him the use of my backpack to fill and carry back to the Wat.  Every one understood my joke and we all had another good laugh.

After the Monks had finished eating, they left the home to return to their Wats.  There was plenty of food leftover as well as food back in the kitchen so every one sat down to have a meal together.  It is planned that way and also part of the ritual.

Young Boy Praying As Directed by His Mother
The merit making ritual was very interesting to witness.  There was a great deal of chanting both by the Monks and the people.  The chants were in Pali, the original language of the Monks who brought Buddhism to Thailand.  The use of the original language and ritual connected the villagers to their long distant past.  The participation of the young children and the instruction that they received during the ritual was a connection to their future.

Last night, after Duang's son and his wife prostrated themselves on our living room floor in front of my wife seated on the couch and remained motionless as she gave them her blessing, I was so impressed with the order of Thai society.  I posted a photo of mothers, grandmothers praying with a small child in their midst and wrote " Without mothers there would be no children. Without children there would be no mothers. We need to love and protect them both for without them there would be no life."  Words for Mother's day and every other day of the year.  Mothers are our connection to the world.

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