Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Special Ok Phansa in Tahsang Village

We were unable to witness the wax castle procession in Sakon Nakhon this year because of our commitment to attend Ok Phansa celebration in my wife's home village.  Ok Phansa occurs on the day following the full moon in the 11th lunar month (October) of the year.  It signifies the end of Buddhist Lent which is also referred to as the end of the Buddhist Retreat.

In Thailand the Buddhist Retreat is known as Vassa.  Buddhist Lent starts the first day of the waning moon in the eighth lunar month (July).  Buddhist Retreat lasts thre lunar months.  During the period, Monks are supposed to remain at their home Wats or monasteries.  The practise predates Buddhism when religious holy men in India would not travel during the rainy season would not travel about in order to prevent damage to crops growing in the fields, reduce the likelihood that they could kill insects that they were unable to see in the mud or water, and also to reduce the likelihood that they could injure themselves.

For the Theravada Buddhists of Thailand, there is also a connection between the practise of the Retreat and the life of Buddha.  There is a legend, a belief for others, that Buddha retreated to heaven to give a sermon to his mother who had died seven days after his birth.  He stayed in heaven for three months.  When Buddha returned to Earth, he was welcomed back with great enthusiasm and joy.  The welcome back celebration was so joyous that the gods and goddesses joined in.

With this background I can better understand why Ok Phansa is such a joyous celebration here in Isaan.  This year Ok Phansa in Tahsang Village (Baan Tahsang) was an even greater celebration.  For two years the "Outside" Wat's Bot has been being rebuilt.  The "Outside" Wat which is the Wat that Duang's family prefers is located outside of the village on a dirt road in the middle of the sugar cane fields at the edge of the seasonal floodplain.  The "Outside" Wat is home to Dhammayuttika Nikaya minority sect of Theravada Buddhism.  Dhammayuttika Nikaya Monks are more strict than the majority sect, Maha Nikaya. The robes of Dhammayuttika Nikaya Monks are darker - more of a brownish color than the bright yellow-orange of the Maha Nikaya Monks.

The Bot was being constructed as funds were available to pay the general contractor.  Currently the roof is completed with at least 1.2 meters of perimeter walls installed. About 20% of the exterior walls, the portions where the Buddha statue is located and the area where the Monks sit to eat and perform rituals, have been erected.  The walls are a type of cinder block with skim coat of cement on both sides. The floor is rough finished concrete which eventually will be tiled.  Since people place woven reed mats, sahts, on the floor for worshipping the absence of tile is not a problem.

To mark the end of the Buddhist Retreat which coincides with the end of the rainy season, and to help raise funds to complete the Bot, 100 Monks were going to the "Outside" Wat to participate in a special merit making ritual.

During Buddhist Lent many women made extra merit by wearing white clothing when participating in merit making rituals and when praying.  Some of the women also attended overnight women's retreats at the Wats where they recited and studied scriptures.  They also listened to sermons delivered by the Monks.  On the night of Ok Phansa there would be one last retreat for women.  My wife, and her mother were going to participate along with a couple of the other grandmothers that I knew in the village.

The celebration at the Wat was a large community event.  Water and soft drinks were provided to the Monks and other attendees.  Drinks were free.  Underneath canopies that you see throughout Isaan for religious celebrations, weddings, funerals, and Monk ordinations, people were passing out food to the attendees.  Once again the prepared food had been donated and passed out for free.  Some people donated ice cream for the Monks.  Others had donated green coconuts to refresh the Monks.  Other people donated ice tea, and juice cups for the attendees.  It was a very impressive demonstration of generousity and community commitment.

As Duang tended to the distribution of soft drinks and water, I remained in the Bot taking photos of the preparations for the arrival of the Monks.  After a while a felt a little tap on my shoulder.  I turned my head to see my 3-1/2 year old grandson smiling next to me.  Peelawat remained with me for just about the entire day.  That was very fortunate for me.  After the local Monks had eaten, one of them brought a plate of food for Peelawat and I to eat.  Later in the afternoon, one of the visiting Monks brought a small cup of ice cream for us.  A little later another Monk brought us a big bowl of ice cream.  Peelawat took the bowl and gave me the little cup!  After a while Peelawat, placed his head on my feet and went to sleep until Duang came to take him back to the village,

Since we had donated drinking water and soft drinks for the celebration, we arrived at the Wat early so that Duang could help distribute them to people.  There was an air of excitement punctuated by the staccato of innumerable firecrackers thrown by young boys.  Morlam music blared from the PA system which added to the festive atmosphere.

Monks Consulting Upon Arrival At the Bot
Gradually the Monks arrived.  Just before the designated time for the merit making ritual, the Monks entered the Bot.  As a Monk arrived he would greet the other Monks and break off with typically an older Monk.  They seemed to enter into a ritualistic consultation.  It reminded me of the portion of the ordination ritual where the person to be ordained is questioned to ensure that he is a  human and not a Naga (snake) pretending to be a man so that he can be a Monk. I was observing a ritual for sure because I saw a couple of the younger Monks stop, retrieve a book from their cloth bag, and refer to the book as they recommenced their consultation.

There so many Monks that there was no room for other people inside of the Bot.  Along three sides of the Bot were canopies where people sat on sahts to worship or clusters of people under the shade of trees to worship.  Like all events that I have attended here in Isaan, all generations attended and participated in the ritual.

The merit making ritual lasted for about one hour.

After the Monks left, most of the people left for their homes.  Many Tahsang villagers remained behind to clear up and clean up the grounds.  I retreated to a small building on the Wat grounds that is used to prepare food and where sahts are sometimes woven.  Underneath the corrugated metal roof of that open air structure I managed to get a photograph of one of Duang's aunts.  I had attended her husband's funeral ritual almost three years ago.  To me, this aunt epitomizes the hardship, suffering, and dignity of the Lao Loum people.

It had been another interesting day for me in Northeast Thailand and I had witnessed a little more of the Lao Loum culture.

When I was a young school boy I had read a special book, "The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion" by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James Fraser.  The book contains information on many religious practises and rituals from around the world as well as across the ages.  I was impressed to learn that so many of today's Christian beliefs as well as rituals have roots to cultures far and distant in time as well as space.  As I am immersed in the Lao Loum culture especially its religious heritage of Hindu, Animist, and Buddhism practises, I am experiencing some of what piqued my interest so many years ago in the far away land of Connecticut.  I am fond of stating in regards to current events that nothing happens in a vacuum.  For something that happens today, if you look carefully you will see the foreshadowing, warnings, and the signs of it to come in the past.  So I believe it is with religion.  Whatever today's faith maybe, it's foundation is connected to other faiths in the past.

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