Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Night Before Song Poo

Duang Participates In Merit Making

Wednesday, 24 April, was the night before Song Poo in Tahsang Village.  Duang and I had spent the day in Tahsang Village attending once again yet another family funeral.

After the funeral, we drove the short distance on the dirt road through the rice and sugar cane fields from Duang's parents home to the "outside" Wat.  Duang's mother along with several other of the village women were attending a religious retreat at the Wat.  During the retreat the women wear white clothing, study scripture late into the night, are lectured by the Monks, and participate in merit making.

We went out to the Wat to see Duang's mother and to check on the family arrangements at the Wat for the next day's Song Poo celebration.  As Duang was visiting with her mother, I wandered over to the Sala which has been under construction for a couple years now.  The Sala interior was decorated for the next day.

Buddhist Statues Inside of String Cage Inside of Sala
At the main entrance to the Sala, there were some tables upon which offerings were placed.  Offerings are a very common sight in Salas but these offerings were unique.  The offerings were placed on small shelves inside of pyramids constructed of slivers of banana stalks.  A majority of the pyramids had three shelves which I understood the significance of.  A very strong symbol of Buddhism is the number 3.  In Buddhism, the number 3 is symbolic of the 3 gems of Buddhism - Buddha, The Teachings of Buddha, and the Sanga (Buddhist religious community).  One of the pyramids had nine shelves which I do not completely understand other than it is a multiple of three - which is good.  Whenever you attend a merit making event such as a house warming, there will be 3, 5, 7, 9 or 11 Monks.

Banana Stalk Pyramids Containing Offerings
The entire Sala had a string grid approximately two meters (6-1/2 feet) above the floor.  White cotton string, the same type used in funerals and merit making rituals, called siesein, was used to create the 2 meter by 2 meter grid. One meter lengths of string dropped down from the intersection of the strings of the ceiling grid at 4 meter spacing.  The grid was connected to the large Seated Buddha statue in the corner of the large room.

Approximately 1/3 from the north wall of the Sala there was a rather large ceremonial decorated platform constructed in the middle on the east-west axis of the room.  A large Walking Buddha statue that normally resides in a small outside pavilion on the Wat grounds was wrapped completely in coarse cotton cloth and bound with many wraps of siesein.  In front of the wrapped statue were many smaller Buddha statues of various types.  The entire assemblage of statues was surrounded by its own string grid enclosure which in turn was connected to the Sala's grid.

Walking Buddha Wrapped Statue and Buddha Statues
This configuration only occurs once a year - "The Night Before Song Poo".  I have questioned my wife as to the significance of this and I have not gotten much information other than it is good for people, good for phii (spirits) and good for Buddha.  She apparently was embarrassed in not being able to provide me with definitive answers because she called her Aunt who is more familiar with these matters.  Duang's Aunt could not answer my questions.  We just got back from visiting our neighbors across the street.  She is also from Isaan and knows about Song Poo Day and the strings but was unable to answer my questions.  I have written a few times that often in the case of religion is more a matter of accepting rather than understanding.  I will chalk up Song Poo to be one of those cases where accepting is as good as it gets - at least for now.

I did witness a similar ritual in June 2003 in Cusco, Peru.  As part of the ritual for the Feast of Corpus Christi, patron saint statues were removed from their local churches, paraded around the main plaza and placed inside of the main cathedral.  The intent of placing the patron saint statues in one location was to allow the spirits to communicate and renew their miraculous powers. On the last day of the Festival there was another grand parade around the central plaza after which the statues were returned to their local churches.  Perhaps the Night Before Song Poo has a similar purpose.

The ritual for the Night Before Song Poo was such a big event that even the Monks from the Wat "inside" of Tahsang Village were in attendance.  Duang and I were surprised and pleased to see "Rocketman", the head Monk of the Wat inside the village, enter into the Sala.  Duang's uncle the Abbott of a Wat from another village also attended.  They had also participated in the funeral that we attended earlier in the day.

A Tahsang Village Novice Monk - Age 8
Besides the Monks from both Wats there were some special Monks in attendance.  This time of the year many schools are in recess for approximately 5 to 6 weeks.  Just as we had just witnessed in Mae Hong Son, it is during this school break, that young boys 8 to 14 years old become Novice Monks.  The boys remain Novice Monks for two weeks in a sort of summer camp and intensified religious education experience.  One of our 4 year old grandson's friends had become a Novice Monk five days earlier and was in attendance.  There were also three visiting Monks who showed up for the ritual.

Novice Monk Points Out An Aspect of the Ritual to Peelawat
One aspect of living in Southeast Asia that I find very fascinating is the life of the Novice Monks.  These young boys are taking their first steps into a spiritual life that will lead them eventually to a higher status in their culture as well as society.  At the same time these boys are young boys - full of energy, enthusiasm  curiosity, and some times a little mischief.  It is at the times that the spiritual world and the child's world collide that I find most entertaining and interesting.  The Night Before Song Poo provided such a moment, a personal moment.  Peelawat's friend, a Novice Monk for five days, took care to teach and explain things to Peelawat - no doubt wanting to help him if not to demonstrate his new found knowledge.  This is not uncommon here in Isaan.  It almost seems to be out of instinct, older children look out for and after younger children.

After a while, the villagers arrived in the Sala and the ritual commenced.  The vertical strings that had been rolled up to keep them off the floor, were unfurled and the ends placed on the plates of offerings that the people were making.  The plates held folded cash, flowers, leaves, and small yellow candles.

A Siesein Connects the Chanting Monks
Several Monks were seated upon a decorated raised platform located between the worshipers and the statues within the string cage. For over an hour the Monks chanted in Pali, the original language of the Monks who initially brought Buddhism from Ceylon to Siam (Thailand).  It is one of my favorite experiences to sit and listen to the rhythmic and at times almost hypnotic chanting of the Buddhist merit making rituals. For me there is a comfort in knowing that this chanting just as other religious chants or calls to prayer is a direct link to a long distant past that still binds millions and millions of people together today.

In front of the raised platform where the chanting Monks was a rather large pyramid made from three long pieces of sugar cane.  The pyramid was also festooned with freshly cut banana stalks.  Buckets of pieces of cut cane were placed on the floor outside of the pyramid.  I asked Duang about the significance of the cut sugar cane and got an answer about them being offerings for the spirits.  Pressing her further she told me that the sugar cane would later be planted because it would be good and have power.  At the start of the ritual a woman dressed in white entered into the pyramid and remained there for the duration of the ritual.  I asked Duang about why this woman and not Duang or Duang's mother got to be inside the pyramid.  Once again I did not really get much of an answer other than this woman wanted to be there, she was not chosen to be there, and that no one would want to be there since she was already there.

Connected to the Grid, A Young Girl Worships
As is typical of these events, people of all ages were in attendance.  To a great extent, women were on one side of the Sala and men were situated on the other side although there were some men with younger children sitting with their family.

Duang Worshiping After Placing Siesein On Her Head
After about an hour, one of the Monks walked through the Sala sprinkling water from a pressed metal decorative bowl on the heads of the worshipers using a stiff brush made with bundled reeds.

Monk Sprinkles Water On Devotee, Duang, At Conclusion of Ritual
As people were leaving the Sala, Duang and I knelt before her uncle the Senior Mon and received his blessing as well as our personal water sprinkling ritual.

Water blessings, white strings, pyramids, statues and so forth?  These objects and practices many purists will tell you are not Buddhism.  Most likely these people are not Buddhists.  Buddhism accept theses items if they are helpful to people to better to learn and understand the teachings of Buddha.  I am in no position or feel entitled to lecture any one who believes that they are devout adherents to any religious system what and how they should practice their faith.  To me to do so would be extremely arrogant especially for some one who only knows what they have read.

I have written before that many rituals and practices here that are performed under the umbrella of "Buddhism" are Animist or Hindu in origin.  The rituals that I witnessed on the Night Before Song Poo were performed by Monks and devotees that consider themselves to be "good" Buddhists - for me, that is good enough.

As I climbed into the truck to return to our home in Udonthani, I heard a voice speaking to me in broken English.  I looked out into the darkness and determined that it was one of the three visiting Monks.  Just as I was reaching this conclusion, Duang entered the truck and informed me that we would be taking these Monks to Kumphawapi on our way home once we brought Tey's grandmother back to Tahsang Village.  That was no problem for me since both destinations were along our way back home.  As Tey's mother sat in the back of our crew cab, and the Monks settled in the pick up bed, someone ran up to our truck and told Duang that Buddha wanted to talk to her.  Duang immediately left and returned a short time later.  Buddha, "Rocketman", had told her to not take the Monks anywhere.  He had not invited them to the ritual and did not know them.  He was also not certain if they were in deed whom they appeared or claimed to be.

In Thailand it is very easy to buy Monk's robes.  There have been instances where some men have impersonated Monks and committed crimes, very serious as well as violent crimes.

We drove the short distance from the Wat to Tahsang Village.  I parked the truck in front of Duang's parents home, and shut off the lights and engine.  Duang got out of the truck and was immediately joined by her two brothers in the street.  I sat in the truck for a while since I figured that I could not add much good to the situation.  After a while I got out of the truck to find Duang and her two brothers kneeling in the very dimly lit street before the three Monks receiving blessings and several amulets as well as religious medals.  The Monks then walked down the side street heading towards the inside Wat where they would spend the night.

Duang, Peelawat, and I continued on our return journey home.  About 20 minutes after we left Tahsang Village, Duang got a phone call from "Rocketman".  he was calling to determine if we were OK.  Duang told him that we were fine and that the three Monks were going to stay at his Wat.  It was very comforting to know that Buddha, "Rocketman", was concerned about our temporal as well as spiritual life.  Monks fulfill many roles in Thai society.

The next morning when we returned to Tahsang Village we found out that the Monks were actually Monks.  After the morning merit making ritual they had enough money to call for a car to help them on their journey to Phuket,  This was comforting and reassuring on many levels for us.

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