Thursday, October 10, 2013

Special Merit Making

Last week we drove out into the countryside to visit and make merit with the forest Monk.

Duang had learned of the forest Monk from a friend of a friend. That is often the way that news and reputations travel here in Isaan.  Many Monks have the reputation for being able to cure people, predict the future, determine lottery winning numbers, cure alcohol and/or drug abuse, exorcise evil spirits, and many other skills.  This really has nothing at all to do with Buddhism.  It is not the way that Buddhism is supposed to be.  However just as in any other place  in the world or in any other religion, there is the way that things are supposed to be and then there are the ways that things actually are.

Animist Spirit House Plays Central Role At Buddhist Wat

Originally the peoples of Thailand were Animists, believing in spirits and the power of spirits to affect their life.  Hinduism then arrived in Siam and rather than getting rid of the old beliefs and practices, the peoples just incorporated the new religion into their cultures.  Later Buddhism arrived and just as was the case with Hinduism, the new religion was incorporated into the previous religions.  Today the influences and elements of all three religions play a very meaningful daily role in the Lao Loum culture.

One of the traits that I was first impressed about Duang when I first met her was her spirituality.  Now after seven years of being with her and witnessing her faith as well as seeing her live her faith every day, I am even more impressed and convinced.

Duang had heard from her friend's friend about the ability of the forest Monk to help people.  We ended up taking both of the women with us to visit the forest Monk.  Duang's stomach has been acting up again so she wanted to consult and make merit to alleviate her condition.  She is also consulting with doctors at the nearby military hospital too - much to my relief and insistence.

Duang's friends also believed that for her upcoming birthday, she should participate in special merit making to bring her good fortune and good luck.

We arrived at Wat Ban Mat in time to participate in the typical morning merit making ritual of offering food to the Monk.  Since he lives in a very rural location, the forest Monk does not go on a daily alms walk.  The people bring food to him at his primitive Wat.

Duang Lights Candles Before Making Offerings
After the people had made their food offerings to the Monk, there was a ritual that involved chanting by both the Monk and lay people.  Part of the ritual involved pouring water into a container while the Monk chanted.  This is a common ritual that to my understanding transfers the merit making to the spirits of departed family members through the flowing of the water.  After the ritual is completed the lay people respectfully pour the water from their individual containers on the base of the trees and plants of the Wat's grounds.  As the people pour the water on the ground they say prayers for the nourishment of the spirits that dwell within the trees and plants.

After the conclusion of the ritual involved with offering the Monk food and after he had eaten his one meal of the day, Duang's offerings of 52 fresh flowers, rice, 52 large candles, some coins, a small square of gold foil, small yellow birthday cake candles, 52 joss (incense) sticks, Jasmine buds, and a white envelope with a cash offering, all topped by a passport sized photograph of Duangchan was relocated from the shrine inside the primitive sala, where the food offerings were made, to an outside shrine adjacent to the sala.  The offerings were placed on sahts that had been laid upon the concrete slab in front of the shrine.

Duang's Special Offerings Placed Before Shrine

The forest Monk walked over to the outside shrine and after bowing his head to the ground twice, commenced the special merit making ritual by setting seven of the 52 larger pale orange candles into a brass vessel in the shape of the Royal Barge, Subanahongsa (Golden Swan) the mythological swan like steed of the Hindu god Brahma.  The first candle was lit using a cigarette lighter.  Subsequent candles were lit using a previously lit candle first lighting the wick and then melting some of the bottom before placing it the brass holder. He then ignited 52 joss sticks (incense), one for each of Duang's fifty years (she is actually 49 in US terms but in Thailand your birthday marks the end of your year so the day after your birthday you are considered already a year older i.e. day after your first birthday you are in your second year of life)  plus one for Buddha and one for the teachings of Buddha (Dhamma) using lighted candles. This was the reasoning behind the 52 flowers and larger candles. There is also more to the symbolism of the offerings than just the number of them.  Duang was born on 17 October 1963 which was a Thursday.  Here in Thailand there is a color associated with each day of the week.  The color for Thursday is "Orange".  The color of the HRH King Rama XI is"Yellow" because he was born on a Saturday.  Often in Thailand you will see people wearing a shirt or a blouse of the appropriate color for the day of the week.

Duang's offering of flowers was also supposed to coincide with the color of her birth date.  However orange flowers are difficult to find, the forest Monk had told Duang in a previous consultation that "pale pink" flowers would be acceptable for her special merit making related to her upcoming birthday.

Monk Igniting 52 Joss Sticks

Tamping Out The Joss Stick Flames
Once the flames of the Joss sticks had torch like intensity, the forest Monk tamped out the fire on some cinder blocks conveniently located arm's distance from his location in front of  "Seated Buddha".  He then gave Duang the smoldering sticks that wafted light pungent grey smoke into the still late morning air by placing them on a ceramic plate in front of her.  He, as a Monk, has a vow to not touch women, so transfers of items between women and Monks is achieved using a plate, tray, cloth, by tossing/dropping or male intermediary.

As Duang was making her offering of the incense, the Monk was busy placing her offering of fresh carnations on each side of the shrine, along with the other offerings.  Once Duang had finished offering the incense, she stuck them into a sand filled ceramic bowl to the right of the Monk.

Sii Sein (cotton string) Connects Monk and Lay People in a Great Circle

The forest Monk then unraveled some cotton string from a bobbin, much like butcher's string, and strung it out in a great circle passing from the bobbin in an offering plate placed on an offering tray, through the hands of Duang's friends.  The sii sein is used in connection with special merit making rituals.  Although the cotton string is used in many events, it is only considered to be sii sein when used by a Monk at funerals, special Buddhist holidays, and special merit making rituals.

After the conclusion of Duang's special merit making ritual, the forest Monk returned to the concrete raised

platform where he had  eaten his meal of the day.  From this position he socialized with the lay people.  The people asked him for his opinion and advice regarding all types of family issues such as jobs, health, children problems, and good numbers for the upcoming lottery that afternoon.  The forest Monk would tell them of his dreams and contemplate what would be best for each person.

Duang went and played the lottery using the numbers that he had given.  Things got very exciting at our home around 4:15 P.M. when a relative called with the winning numbers - Duang had won 10,000 Baht ($330 USD)!  I was very happy for her and relished seeing her excitement.

Like so often it happens here in Isaan, I am left wondering.  I don't necessarily believe all that I write about.  I may also not always understand what I have observed and documented.  However, I always find it interesting and often, fascinating.

I seem to be learning and experiencing something new just about every day.  That is what makes life so interesting and keeps the passion going ... even after many years.

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