Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dying In Isaan - The End of Days Part 2

Duang's father died on Tuesday the 19th.  His cremation at the "Inside" Wat of Tahsang Village was planned  for Friday the 22nd.

Wednesday, and Thursday were busy if not frenetic.  Just prior to his death, Duang's father, acknowledging, and accepting the end of his days, had asked her to take care of everything rather than waiting to complete the rituals related to his death.

Here is Isaan, when someone dies they lay in their home for typically three days while arrangements are made and family travel to the home.  The body is cremated on the third day after death.  One hundred days after the cremation there is a ritual called "Tamboon  Roi Wan"

Tamboon Roi Wan, also referred to as "Bone Party" is a merit making ritual that is held 100 days after the cremation of the body.  If for some reason, typically financial, that the ritual can not be held 100 days after the cremation, the ritual can be held at a later date and is called "Tamboon Jaak Khao". Whether 100 days or many years after the cremation, the ritual is identical and the merit is the same.

Rather than waiting 100 days and going through duplicate arrangements as well as costs of the funeral ritual Duang, in accordance with her father's wishes, decided to have the Tamboon Roi Wan for her father on Sunday November 24th.  This added to the duties and tasks that Duang had to complete.

On Wednesday, Duang had to go to the police station in Kumphawapi with the document that was created by the Tahsang Village headman verifying her father's death.  The rest of the day she spent telephoning family, friends, and others notifying them of her father's death as well as giving them the schedule for the various rituals.  She along with her son and his wife were busy buying huge amounts of vegetables, cases of beer, cases of soft drinks, cases of drinking water to feed the mourners who were already arriving at the family home.

Duang also had to make arrangements for the rental and delivery of canopies, tables, plastic chairs, commercial meat grinder, glasses, cookware, ice chests, and all the other items necessary for the next 5 days.  There was also the matter of purchasing pigs, a cow, and chickens to prepare for the visitors and family's consumption.

Duang's youngest brother, who is in the business, was delegated to making the arrangements for the entertainment both traditional Lao music and the modern upbeat Mahlam Zing for Sunday.

After witnessing the activities that were necessary to support the rituals, I now have a better understanding why I do not witness crying at Theravada Buddhist funerals.  In addition to the Buddhist philosophy that accepts death as a necessary part of living and the preparation throughout one's life for their death, the people especially the close relatives are too occupied with the rituals and preparing for the rituals to be able the luxury of grieving and emotional displays.

Elderly Women Maintain their Four Day Vigil In the Home
During the death watch and up the cremation, a contingent, typically 10 to 15, of elderly women maintained a vigil in the room where the body lay inside of the refrigerated coffin.  These women or similar contingents of women at other funerals spend their time gossiping, eating, and sometimes making special handicrafts for the rituals.  No matter what they were doing they were always chewing betel nut (kill maak).  As part of the funeral arrangements, Duang had to provide the vast quantity of leaves, nuts, and tobacco that these elderly women consumed.  The women provided their own lime, spittoons, and tools for making the plugs that they chew.

Throughout the days and evenings people arrived to pay their respects and make their offerings.  They would make an offering of incense to the spirit of Duang's father.  They would light incense from the large yellow burning candle set on a scrap piece of corrugated metal set on the bright blue tiled floor of the home.  The people would hold the burning incense in their praying hands while they softly chanted or just reverently looked at the coffin.  They then placed the burning incense sticks in a sand filled ceramic bowl next to the yellow candle.  They then would seek out Duang to offer their condolences and give her a white envelope containing a cash offering.  Their cash offering would be recorded in a ledger and made as offerings to the Monks in the name of the donor's as well as Duang's father.

I was continually amazed at the help and division of labor that was swirling about me.  Family and neighbors seemed to instinctively know their function to prepare and support the ritual.  At any given time there were at least 5 women cooking food over charcoal fires and portable propane stoves.  At any given time there were a minimum 6 women washing, slicing, chopping and peeling vegetables to be cooked or served raw to the guests.  Men focused on chopping up the beef or pork to form pastes to be cooked or for some of the beef to be eaten raw after being mixed with seasoning.  The men also took care of cutting the pork and beef.

The pigs arrived at the home split in half with all their parts.  Men drank beer and whiskey as they cut and prepared the various parts that the women would cook for specific dishes.  Liver and intestines went into soups.  Bones were also used in soups.

The women and men worked on raised bamboo platforms about 2 feet above the ground surrounded by flies and several village dogs wandering about and often getting underfoot.  Toddlers wandered about oblivious to the work going on all around them.

Younger women and teenage girls traveled back and forth between the tables in the front yard and the people sitting on sahts inside of the home carrying trays of food and dirty dishes.  This is typical at these type of events.  Starting at around the age of 12, young girls contribute to the event by being servers - ensuring that people have food, drink,and ice along with cleaning tables and returning dirty dishes to be washed at the outdoor wash station.

Duang's daughter was for just about the entire time was occupied washing huge plastic tubs of dishes, glasses and cooking pots with plenty of help from younger female cousins.

Duang skitted about welcoming guests, paying bills, socializing, bringing ice to where it was needed, ensuring people were comfortable, and going off several times to local markets to purchase more items.  She had very little sleep during the night because Lao Loum people love to socialize.

I stayed away during the day but returned in the evenings for the evening rituals involving the Monks.

Places Setup for the Arrival of the Monks
Each evening, six to seven Monks arrived at the home around 7:00 P.M.  The purpose of their visit to the home was to conduct a special ritual for the offering of food to the spirit of Duang's departed father.  Duang's cousin who is an Abbott at a Wat in another village arrived each night with the Monk that assists him and most likely replace him in time.  Duang's cousin took the lead in the ritual chanting with "Rocketman" the senior Monk at the "Inside" Wat in Tahsang Village supporting him along with two other monks.  The other Monks did not fully participate in all the chanting.

Duang Making An Offering of Incense to Commence the Ritual As "Rocketman" Looks On
This Spirit Feeding Ritual was special.  There was a special wood carved gilded table that supported  a special wood carved gilded box that contained Buddhist scripture. The special box reminded me of the Ark of the Covenant.  The scripture was a special, perhaps hand printed, book of writing and pictures.  The book was about two feet wide and six inches long.  Before the start of the ritual, the book was removed from the chest, the cover returned to the chest, the book opened to a specific page, and placed on top of the chest.

Duang Makes Offering to Each Monk
As is typical in many of these religious rituals, offerings of cash were made to the Monks.  Cash is presented to each Monk in a plain white envelope.  Themes that I often write on in this blog are "There is the way that things are supposed to be and then there is the way that things are"  and "Things are not always what they appear to be"  These themes definitely apply in the case of these offerings.  Monks give up all their possessions and renounce worldly possessions upon becoming Bhikkhus.  Monks are not supposed to touch or handle money.  Despite that, people seem to always be offering and collecting money for the Monks.  I was shocked to learn that 20,000 baht ($666 USD) had been given to the Monks each night.  I questioned Duang why so much for people who renounced worldly goods.  She told me that it was for electricity, water, septic service and maintenance of the Wat grounds  I make no judgement and only share observations.  We live the good western life in our home - 1,500 baht average a month for electricity, 150 baht a month for service water, and have our septic  tank pumped once a year for 1,000 baht.

Duang Participating In Evening Ritual

Since Duang is the youngest daughter and responsible for taking care of her parents, she represented the family in participating in the ritual.  Rather than sitting with the other women on the other side of the room, she sat on the saht covered floor on the side with the men.  To start the ritual she lit two yellow candles and two joss sticks (incense sticks).  The candles and incense were placed on the top of the ornate table in front of the chest.

This ritual featured some different type of chanting than I am accustomed to.  For the most part of the chanting, the four senior or lead Monks had hand held fan like object shielding their faces.  I asked Duang about what was going on.  The Monks were speaking to the spirit of Duang's father.  When Monks are speaking (chanting) directly to Pii (spirits) they shield their faces.  I asked Duang what they were chanting.  She said that they were saying things like "Good luck to you"  "You go up now"  "You are loved and will be missed by people here"  I pressed her for more details but she did not know.  The Monks were speaking in Pali.  Duang can speak Pali to the extent that it is used in daily offerings but this was beyond her comprehension.  Whatever they were saying it was impressive, almost hypnotic, and reassuring.  Part of the ritual involved the reciting in Pali of the Three Gems of Buddhism which I am able to participate in - always to the surprise of the local people as well as Monks.

Food Offering On Tray to Feed the Spirit of Duang's Father
Part of the ritual involved placing a tray of food and drink in front of the Monks to be blessed. The tray also contained the same offerings of 3 cigarettes, green leaves, and prepared betel-nut plugs that were on plates next to each of the Monks.  As the Monks were chanting into the hand held shields, the Abbott sprinkled water on top of the offerings for Duang's father.  The sprinkling of water and pouring of water in Theravada Buddhism conveys the merit being made by people of this world to the spirits of departed people.

Duang Pouring Water  To Convey Merit to the Spirits, Specifically Her father's
Duang then carried the tray and drink for her father's spirit the short distance to his coffin and placed it beneath the tripod holding his framed photograph.  She reverently placed the tray on the floor and spoke some loving words to her father in Lao.

The ritual was then concluded with the Monks returning to their Wats and after saying good bye to my wife, me returning to Udonthani.

Thanksgiving 2016

Tomorrow is Thursday November 28th here in Thailand; a day like every other day here.

Thailand does not celebrate or recognize Thanksgiving.

However, people do not need any government sanctioning of any specific day to reflect upon, give thanks, and to rejoice for all that is good in their life.

Yes, tomorrow will be a day like any other day for me here in Isaan.  Every day I contemplate, appreciate, and take comfort for all that is good in my life.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays.

Thanksgiving is a time for families to gather together to feast and celebrate the blessings of the past year.

Some years are not as bountiful as others.

Some years are more challenging than others.

However Thanksgiving Day is a day to be thankful for what we have and not to focus on what we wish that we had, or to focus on what we do not have. If for no other reason, being alive is reason enough to give thanks on Thanksgiving. With life there is hope; hope for a better tomorrow or some other day after.

This Thanksgiving I am once again thankful for the things and experiences that I have or have had. As much as I am thankful for my current situation, I am also thankful for the many blessings that I have had and some that I no longer can enjoy.  If it were not for the trials, tribulations, and challenges that we have endured, I believe that we would not be who we are today.

As much as what we have today brings us joy and contentment, it was yesterday and our past that have brought us to today. It is our past that has prepared us for today and for all the days to come.

Tomorrow, as well as for all other days, I will be thankful for the love, experiences, and guidance that I have received from family and friends. They affected my life in ways that are impossible to quantify or for me to fully express in words. Shared experiences with them taught me and assisted me in developing my personal values. The memories of shared holidays, vacations, celebrations, and ordinary days with them remain both a comfort as well as inspiration. The gifts of family, companionship and friendship are reason enough to give thanks tomorrow as well as every day.

There is abundant reason to be thankful for having been raised in a country and during a time where excellent quality free public education was available to everyone. Even today in many parts of the world, children do not have access to a free quality education.

I am thankful for having been raised in a country where I was free to fail and much more importantly free to succeed to the extent that I, myself, determined. My position and goals in life were not restricted by anyone or any institution. My parent's education, occupation, economic, or social status did not limit my prospects. Today, this is not true for many people even in some Western countries.

Another reason to be thankful is for our families and friends that are part of our daily life.
More and better possessions will not necessarily make anyone happy, more happy or even provide contentment.

Happiness and contentment are a state of mind.
It is the longing and preoccupation with what they do not have that prevents so many people from being happy.
My wish for everyone this Thanksgiving is that you can realize, and appreciate the happiness a well as contentment that the opportunity of life provides.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dying In Isaan - The End of Days

WARNING:  This blog contains images that some people may find disturbing or perhaps offensive.  The photographs of death are documentation of the rituals and customs of the ethnic Lao people of Northeast Thailand.  These photographs were taken at the request of my wife and with the acceptance of the family.  I was not alone in taking photographs of this nature.  The intent in sharing the photographs and observations of the rituals is to describe a culture that many people may not be familiar with.

Duang's 76 year old father has been dying since July.  A lifelong smoker and a heavy drinker, he had been in ill health for a long time.  But it was in July that his health deterioration accelerated.

He had been hospitalized several times only to be released to return to his home.  I do not know what his diagnosis was but according to Duang "his insides no good"  Upon pressing her further as to what was wrong with her father, she said that she had seen and x-ray and one of her father's lings had "too much white inside".  It seems that her father had lung cancer.  Given his history of smoking, it seems to be a reasonable assumption.

The preceding anecdote give a glimpse into the state of health care for the majority of people here in Isaan.  Patients and their family are not fully informed of the condition or alternative treatments - much like US health care was in the 1950s - "The doctor knows all and knows best.  Details will only confuse the patient and people"

There is a stereotypical belief that "Life is cheap" in Asia.   I have not seen evidence of that during the seven years that I have been in Southeast Asia.  To the contrary, I have witnessed the love, care, and nurturing of the people for each other.

The Buddhist attitude towards death is best expressed by Wade Davis, a renowned Canadian Anthropologist and contributor to several National Geographic documentaries, in his documentary series "Light At the End of the World" ... "The Buddhists spend all their lives getting ready for a moment that we spend most of our lives pretending does not exist, which is the moment of our death

Here in Isaan, death is a milestone of life which is familiar to and accepted by the the people from a very early age. The conclusion of this life, which for many people has been very difficult, presents the hope as well as opportunity for a better and easier life in the future - another step towards enlightenment.

As I witness the pain and suffering of people in the West as they artificially struggle at great costs; emotional, suffering, and monetary, to delay the inevitable, I often give pause to contemplate the best way to live and die.  Here in Isaan, death comes quicker due to a lack of money and facilities. Surgery and chemotherapy were not considered to be an option for Duang's father due to concerns over quality of life issues, a lack of financial resources, and a rather accepting attitude towards the inevitability of death.  At what point should we allow ourselves or others to let go and conclude the suffering?  For me, accepting the inevitability of death and deciding to not needlessly prolong it does not constitute devaluing life let alone causing life to become cheap.  The care, love, and respect that was given to Duang's father in his final days indicated to me that his life was in no way considered to be cheap rather it was cherished and respected.

Duang's father went back into the hospital on Monday 18th November.  He had not been eating for a few days and was prepared for his death.  He went to the hospital because he had difficulty breathing and wanted to die at the hospital.  He was admitted into the Intensive Care Unit at the Kumphawapi Hospital.  Duang was given a list of items to purchase for the care of her father in the ICU.  Here in Thailand at the smaller hospitals where the local people go for care, family and friends are responsible for the non-medical car of the patients.  Family and friends bathe, dress, and change bed linens for the patient.  They also are responsible for assisting the patients to the bathroom, emptying bed pans and urine collection bags.

Duang returned from the hospital Monday night with her son and his wife.  She said that her father was on oxygen and that they would give him blood transfusions in the morning.  Tests had been performed, family members screened and identified as blood donors for the morning.  He then would be released to return home after being examined by the lead doctor.  Duang's son and his wife stayed at our home since it would be an early wake-up in the morning.

At 6:00 A.M., our daughter-in-law knocked on our bedroom door.  She had gotten a phone call from the family in the village informing her that Duang's father had been taken off of oxygen and would be sent home after the hospital doctor had examined him.  Duang, her son and his wife left immediately.  Duang requested that I drive out to either the hospital or the village after I had showered, shaved and eaten breakfast.

Duang later called me to inform me that her father had returned to his home in Tahsang Village.  After the one hour drive, I arrived at the village around 10:00 A.M. to participate in the death watch.

Death watch in Isaan

Arrived at Duang's parents home to find her father laying upon a makeshift bed on the tile floor in the main room of the house surrounded by family members.  His hands laid in his lap clutching a wad of baht, Thai currency.  The money was given to him for the journey that he was about to undertake.  The money along with other offerings will be cremated with him.

There was a very strained atmosphere in the room.  People were tense awaiting the inevitable. Many of the people had tears in their eyes but every one was reserved as well as in control of their emotions.  There was no sobbing or audible crying.  There was a great deal of caring, concern, and tenderness.  Duang's father was still alive but seemed to be comatose.

As the youngest daughter, Duang is responsible for taking care of her parents.  As such, she took the lead during the death watch and for all the activities that occur after the death.  I was amazed and proud at her strength, tenderness and dignity - not that I did not expect it.  However one does not really know exactly how they or any one will perform when confronted with extremely difficult challenges until they actually occur.

Duang speaking to her father

A great focus of the death watch was determining if the person had died.  Duang periodically placed her finger under her father's nose in an attempt to determine if he was still breathing.  At other times she would touch his arm or his forehead.  Her older brother also did the same.  Other family members would arrive and touch Duang's father and speak to him - pretty much saying "good bye and good luck to you".  Duang also spoke to her father in an attempt to determine if he was still alive.  She also was asking him to stay alive until her son, his oldest grandchild, had returned to the home.  Duang's son had driven off to pickup up one of his cousins to participate in the death watch.  It seems that in the ethnic Lao culture it is important to witness the death of a loved one.  Unfortunately Duang's son was not present at the time of his grandfather's death.  From Duang I learned that her son was very upset but he expressed his grief in private.

I had never been a part of a death watch before.  Just as in America where popular culture makes such a daunting and intimidating spectacle of witnessing child birth for men, I was conditioned to be apprehensive about witnessing the death of a person.  I witnessed the birth of my first son to support my wife who was far from home and family.  After seeing and reading so many stories of men passing out when women gave birth, I was concerned that rather than supporting my wife in her time of need, I would cause her concern or create problems for others.  Well witnessing the birth was nothing like what is commonly portrayed in the media.  It was fascinating.  It was interesting.  It was watching a miracle - nothing upsetting, disturbing, or cause to pass out.  I was so pleased that I took advantage to witness that event.  I looked forward to the birth of my second son.  Having experienced the first birth, I knew that there was nothing to be afraid of.  Faced with the challenge of a death watch for the first time I approached the ritual  with the same attitude of wanting to support my wife in her time of need and with the same degree of trepidation as I had regarding witnessing child birth.

Duang and her oldest brother attend to their father

When confronted with challenges, most people will perform as is necessary to support others and to do what is necessary.  Once again I realized that during the death watch.  Here in Isaan most people die at home.  There is no doctor, no Medical Examiner, or Police in attendance at the passing of a person in the home.  Family members are responsible for the process.  After about an hour, it became apparent to me that Duang and others were having difficulty determining if her father had died.  I asked if any one had a compact - a small mirror that we could place under his nose to see if it would fog up from his breathing.  After explaining
exactly what I was talking about, I realized that no one had one.  I checked his pulse on his wrist and on his neck but could not find one.  I was not certain that I had done it correctly.  I then realized that I had in my hands something that could determine if he was still alive - my camera's speedlight (flash).  I asked Duang to open her father's eye and I fired the flash at his face.  She did not see his eye react to the light.  We repeated the test and there was still no reaction.  I then opened one eye, stared deeply into it and fired the flash a third time.  His pale grey eye did not react at all.  The pupil did not change size at all and I felt like I was staring into nothingness.  I released the eyelid and told Duang that he was dead.

The death watch was over. After the pronouncing his death, three fusillades of fire crackers were set off to scare away and drive off any bad spirits in the area.  The Village headman was summoned to the home to record the passing and to document the death.

The death watch was over.  It had been dignified.  It had not been revolting or disgusting. It was nothing to be in fear of once it had been experienced.  The desire to support loved ones had gotten me through experiencing it for the first time.

The tension in the atmosphere immediately disappeared. People who seemed somewhat paralyzed by the watch process and its uncertainties now sprung into action.  Several woman gathered his clothing and personal belongings.  After selecting his clothing for his cremation, the remaining clothing was placed into two cardboard boxes and each box secured with string.  These items will be burned in an open fire when he is cremated on Friday.

Aunts prepare Sai Sein

Some of the older aunts sat down with cotton string similar to butcher's string, "Sai Sein".  This string is fundamental to religious rituals here in Isaan.  Pieces are tied on the wrists of people in Bai Sii Kwan rituals, rituals to ensure that the 32 internal spirits necessary health, wealth and good luck are bond to a person's body.  Baii Sii Kwan ceremonies are performed at many events including weddings, illnesses, New Year celebrations, retirement parties, prior to a big journey, and to honor dignitaries and guests.  Vehicles and motorbikes have hunks of sai sein wrapped and tied around their steering columns for protection.  A thick and long rope like sai sein connects the coffin to the procession of Monks leading the funeral cortege from the home to the local Wat for cremation.  During the funeral ritual at the Wat, a thin sai sein connects the coffin, and by proximity the deceased person's spirit, to the Monks in the nearby Bot.

The aunts were preparing pieces of sai sein to be used in preparing the body to be placed in the coffin. They paid particular attention to ensuring that each piece of the sai seins had a predetermined number of strands.

After washing, baby powder is placed on the body

Duang's son and to of his cousins took the lead in carrying the body into the nearby bathroom for washing.  There was a crush of people, both male and female, into the bathroom.  The clothing was removed from the body and the body carefully placed on the floor of the shower with the young men holding the torso upright.  People pressed to get into the room for the opportunity to have dish washing detergent poured on their hand to then wash the body.  The detachable shower head was used to rinse the body.  The young men then moved the body into the adjacent kitchen area where it was dried.  Prior to dressing the body in the selected clothing for cremation, people placed baby powder on the body - just as people do to babies and children every day.

After the body was dressed it was placed on a saht and thick blanket on the tiled floor.  Three face clothes were placed over the face of the body.  After a while someone came with a section of undyed muslin cloth - a sort or shroud.  The body was lifted up and the cloth was placed underneath it with a great deal of conversation and discussion as well as two adjustments to get it placed correctly.  There was a great deal of conversation in the room as if the people's grief was being transformed into verbal communication.  It seemed to give the people a positive focus and to keep their minds active rather than lapsing into morbidity.  There was a great deal to be done and the people were fully engaged in getting it done.

The shroud and all the shrouds that I have seen here did not completely cover the body.  The cloth was about one meter (one yard) wide and when the sides were pulled towards each other did not completely cover the entire body.  The arms and hands were re-positioned so that the hands were in the "wai" (praying) position. In addition to the paper currency that was in Duang's father's hands, some green leaves were added and held in place with a piece of sai sein.  Other sai sein were used to bind the feet, the legs and to bind the shroud to the body.  I believe the leaves are an offering that is a reminder of the temporary nature of all things and in particular - this life.

Securing the shroud and binding the hands
Duang and her son went off into Kumphawapi to commence making arrangements for the upcoming four days - four days of ritual, and feeding guests concluding on Friday with the cremation.  Their first task was to purchase a consumable coffin, arrange for the delivery and rental of a refrigerated coffin, and commence buying food, soft drinks, and liquor for all the guests who would be arriving over the four days.

After the shroud was secured, the body was completely covered with heavy blankets.  Particular attention was made to ensure that the body was completely covered.  I kept a vigil over the body with the other men.  The women divided themselves into two groups.  One group occupied themselves cleaning the house and outside area.  The other group occupied themselves slicing, dicing and chopping vegetables in preparation for cooking.  A large plastic tub was filled with water and about 50 pounds of sticky rice was poured into it to soak prior to steaming later in the day.

Everyone was busy.  They all seemed to know what to do.

When Duang returned with the consumable coffin, one of the aunts sprinkled the plastic liner with baby powder.  The body was then placed inside of the coffin by the men - again with a great deal of animation and conversation.

Since Duang arrived from her side trip to the market, there were huge bags of vegetables, mushrooms, and other food items to be washed and prepared.  Magically the man who goes around selling charcoal stoves (five gallon sized refractory lined containers) had arrived earlier and the family had purchased five of them to cook the meals for the upcoming days.  These stoves were quickly filled with wood along with charcoal and fired up.

Later the man with the refrigerated coffin arrived, a problem was discovered.  The refrigerated coffin would not fit through the doors of the house.  Where there is a will there is a way but it does help to have a hammer.  Several men took turns with a claw hammer to beat out one side of the door and some of the thin cinder block wall that it was attached to.  In time the access was created and the ensuing mess cleaned up.

The refrigerated coffin was wheeled into the room where the body was located in the consumable coffin.  After a couple shots of lavender room freshener spray into the refrigerated coffin. the consumable coffin was placed inside with the body going in feet first.  The man from the rental company then set up a stand to display a photograph of Duang's father and brought in several tribute items - cardboard artificial flower displays with clocks and freshly printed personal messages from donors.  After the cremation the clocks are offered to the Monks.  I asked Duang what the Monks did with all the clocks that they get.  She said that they sometimes give them to other Monks who don't have a clock.  I noticed all three of the clocks read 10:20 when the actual time was 2:30.  I told Duang to tell the man they we should get a discount because the clocks did not work.  She told the man and every one had a good laugh.  Laughing?  Laughing when someone had just died?  Yes that is the way it is here and in this culture.  Actually the laughing had started earlier in the morning and at my expense.  Duang's father had just died.  One of his sisters said to everyone that her dead brother looked like me.  They all laughed like crazy.  I touched her skin which is very thin and wrinkled as I then touched her brother's arm.  I had Duang translate "I look like a dead man?  Look your skin is much worse than his skin"  Everyone, including her. enjoyed another good laugh.

Death here is familiar.  It is a recognized part of life.  Death is experienced in the open and not hidden from view or restricted.  One of the great grandchildren, a three year old girl, witnessed the entire process.  She was not afraid and seemed curious as to what was going on.  I was concerned about our grandson, Peelawat, who lives with Duang's parents and his mother.  He was at school for the day and was returning at 4:00 P.M..  I had talked to Duang about ensuring that he understood what had happened, what was going on, and what would happen.  I did not want him to be afraid let alone traumatized by events.

Duang and I had discussed the situation of her father's death long ago.  When her father died I knew that she would have many duties and responsibilities which would require her to stay in the village.  We agreed that she would stay in her parent's home while I would stay at our home.  Too many people drinking and making too much noise get to me along with the more primitive comforts of the family home.  I told Duang that I would do what she needed me to do to support and help her.  Actually my absence actually makes things easier for her - she does not have to worry about me, feel obligated to take care of me, or take time away from family and friends to explain things to me.  She asked me to stay until Peelawat came home from school.  Later the plan evolved into me staying until he came home from school, Duang, Peelawat, and I would then go to our home to get clothes and essentials for Duang to stay at the village, I would eat foreign food, and we all would return for 6:00 P.M. when the Monks would arrive to perform the first night ritual.

Peelawat arrived home and seemed somewhat surprised or bewildered by all that was going on.  He came into the large room and stared at the refrigerated coffin, the floral arrangements, the tributes suspended from the exposed ceiling beams, the large stick of incense burning, the large lit candle, and the flashing Christmas type lights on top of the coffin and around his great grandfather's photo. Duang calmly explained to him what had happened.  He went to his room and quickly returned wearing his regular clothes rather than his school uniform.  He went to Duang and he paid his respects to his great grandfather.

Great Grandson, Peelawat, lights incense to offer to the spirit of his Great Grandfather

Afterwards on our way back to our home with Peelawat, I asked Duang about if Peelawat understood what had happened and what was going on.  She said that Peelawat was fine and was not afraid.  She had explained to him and he told her that he understood and had known other people who had died before.

Peelawat, almost 5 years old, makes an offering and pays respect
We returned to Tahsang Village in time to participate in the ritual with seven Monks - Duang's uncle who is an Abbott and highly revered Monk in the area, Monks from "Inside" Wat and "Outside" Wat.  The ritual seemed to be a typical merit making ritual that I have witnessed countless times here in Thailand.

Duang's uncle, an Abbott, pours water over the food that she will offer as nourishment to her father's spirit
As part of the ritual a tray of food was offered by Duang to nourish her father's spirit.  After chanting by both laypeople and the Monks, her uncle a very senior Monk poured water over the food which Duang then placed underneath her father's photograph next to his coffin.

After the ritual I returned home after a very eventful day - one of several sure to come during the remainder of this week.

As I drove the one hour back to our home, I could not help reflecting about life and death amongst the ethnic Lao people of Isaan.  I have always been impressed with the sense of family and community that I observed at Lao Loum funerals over my time here in Isaan. After experiencing the final hour of life and preparations for a funeral, I am even more impressed and in admiration of the culture.

On a personal note, I am more familiar with death now than I was ten years ago.  Death holds much less mystic over me. We learn much from each other.  I have been taught a great deal and learned much from my wife and her culture.  I am thankful and I believe I am better prepared for the  future.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Another Rice Harvest

Harvesting Rice Outside of Tahsang Village

Our rains. in Isaan, ceased about three weeks ago.  The rice paddies that only a month ago were covered with standing water are now parched.  The rice plants that a month ago was a vibrant green a month ago has been transformed under the hot sun into straw with heavy drooping heads of rice kernels.  Another growing season has concluded and the time is here once again to harvest the rice.

As you drive along the highways, country roads, and dirt trails of Isaan you will come upon many locations where people heavily clothed and in anonymity under large hats along with tee shirt masks are stooped over cutting the rice stalks.

We have been travelling the highways and roads a great deal lately due to Duang having to care for her father either in the Kumphawapi Hospital or at his home in Tahsang Village.  I bring her out and her cousin returns her to our home in the evening.  As the youngest daughter, Duang has a great deal of responsibility for taking care of her father - it is the way things are in the ethnic Lao culture.  Fortunately her sister and two brothers help out so Duang does not have to spend nights away from home and gets a break during the early morning.  I use our trips out to Kumphawapi and Tahsang Village to reconnoiter locations for photography on my return trip.

Along the the highways and byways you will come upon places where motorbikes, farm wagons, and sometimes even bicycles are parked - a sure tip off that harvesting is going on in the nearby fields.

In other locations you can see people working in the adjacent fields sometimes with little more than their broad brimmed straw hats visible above the standing rice plants.

In addition to the rice harvest, people are also occupied planting sugar cane while others are harvesting reeds that are used to weave sahts.

There is much more work related to the rice harvest than going out into the dry paddies and cutting the stalks.  After the rice has been cut, the stalks are laid out in the paddy to dry out further in the sun.  After drying the individual stalks are gathered up and bundled into sheaves - several stalks held together at their base by using a couple rice plants as string to tie them.  After the rice in a paddy has been bundled into sheaves, the sheaves have to be gathered and brought to a central location.

At the central location the sheaves are either loaded on to a farm truck or placed on blue plastic netting.  The sheaves that are placed on the plastic netting will be threshed either by hand or by a truck mounted threshing machine at that location.  The sheaves that are loaded on the farm truck will be transported another location for threshing.

Loading Sun Dried Rice Into Fertilizer Bags

As part of the threshing process, the rice kernels are placed in recycled fertilizer bags - 50 kg (110 pounds).  If the rice is sufficiently dry, the bags of rice are put inside of raised granaries in the yards of the farmers.  If the rice is not sufficiently dry after threshing, which appears to be the case this year, the rice is spread out once again on the blue plastic netting in front yards, backyards, side yards, parking lots, vacant lots, and even on Wat grounds to dry another 3 or 4 days in the sun.  After the rice is dry enough it is placed back into the fertilizer bags for long term storage.

Around Tahsang Village I often find myself amongst family members.  As I approach the good natured shouting and laughing start.  The family is well aware of my passion to learn and photograph their culture.  They seem to enjoy my efforts and will often call Duang to inform her of "interesting" things that they will be doing the next day or day after.

My efforts to photograph ethnic life here in Isaan is not limited to people that I am familiar with or even restricted to the times that Duang is with me.  I venture out on my own when Duang's family obligations prevent her from coming with me.  I often find myself photographing total strangers. 

Like the family members the people have no objections to be observed and photographed.  They seem to be as interested in me as I am of them.  I suspect they may find our interactions as entertaining as I do.

I hope that they learn a little about American culture from me as I learn more of their culture.  Some how with my limited Thai, their limited English, and a great deal of pantomime we are able to communicate on issues such as rice farming in America, working in America, and ordinary life in America.

I do not discuss Thai politics.  I know about "Red Shirts" and "Yellow Shirts" but I laughingly tell them foreigners are "Blue Shirts".  I am a guest here and good guests do not interfere in their host's affairs.  I tell the people that I just want whoever is in power to let me stay.  That ends, with a good laugh, any further attempts to discuss local politics.  Like it is often said here "Good for you. good for me"

Rumors of My Demise ...

The Forest Monk, Luang Paw Pohm Likit

"The report of my death was an exaggeration" is a phrase attributed and often quoted in several versions to the American writer Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain") in May 1897 when newspapers confused about his cousin's illness reported that Samuel had died.  This quote is sometimes given as "The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated" , "The report of my death  have been greatly exaggerated", "Rumors of my death have been exaggerated".

Recently I was confronted with a similar situation albeit not as serious as the situation that Mark Twain found himself in so many years ago.

We have been going out to Wat Ban Mat often to visit the Forest Monk, Luang Paw Pohm Likit.  Duang likes to make merit at the Wat along with the the other lay people who visit the Wat.  The local people are very friendly and accepting.  Duang enjoys communing with them and I quite comfortable around them.

Duang's father is dying.  He has been dying since July but recently he has been wasting away more rapidly.  Periodically he will go to the hospital for relief and some comfort from his ailment.  After  3 or 4 days in the Kumphawapi Hospital, he returns to his home in Tahsang Village.

Three weeks ago Duang's father was back in the hospital.  This was also during the time that the workers were painting our house.  Duang goes to Wat Ban Mat to make merit and get a sort of comfort from consulting with the forest Monk and lay people.  Because of the need to have one of us at the house while people were working, I have not been accompanying her out to the Wat.

One afternoon upon returning home, Duang found me ill at home.  It was not serious for me - some sort of gastro-intestinal distress.  After two hours I was fine but Duang was concerned  and asked me if I needed to go to the hospital.  Of course not!  It was nothing serious.

A couple days later Duang told me that Buddha was going to see her father at the hospital in Kumphawapi some 40 miles away from Wat Ban Mat.  I thought that was very nice considering that the Monk did not know her father, the distance involved and the fact that Duang had only recently started going to his Wat.

A couple of days later, Duang called me from the hospital where her father was staying.  Luand Paw Pohm Likit and some people from the Wat had come to the hospital to see me.  Me?  She was laughing.  Apparently they all thought that I was sick and in the hospital.  They came to visit me and bring some special herbs to help cure me!  Luang Paw Pohm Likit had been confused why I was in a hospital so far from our home.  The Army Hospital where we go for healthcare is 3/4 mile from our home.  He was also confused when he did not find me in the Kumphawapi Hospital.  Eventually he found Duang and everything got clarified and straightened out.  Duang called me to let me know that Buddha, a term she uses for Monks, was going to stop and visit me at the house on his way back to his Wat.

Shortly after Duang returned home, the Monk and six people from Ban Mat pulled up to our home.  Everyone enjoyed a good laugh upon seeing me in great health and recounting the story of their visit to the Kumphawapi Hospital.

With this being Isaan, and everyone being interested in every one's personal life. the lay people had to have a tour of our home.  Luang Paw Pohm Likit remained with me in the living room but he was in the spirit of it all by asking me how much we had paid for the house.

After about 30 minutes, our visitors left; promising to return at the beginning of the new year to eat at and bless our home.

I can best and happily describe my situation as "Rumors of my demise were greatly miscommunicated"  I doubt that this quote will ever approach the fame of Mark Twain's but I doubt his provided as many laughs or smiles as mine.

Although this event could be considered somewhat a comedy of errors, for me it was another example of the sense of community and concern demonstrated by the ethnic Lao people here in Isaan.  I am a falang (foreigner) here in Isaan but it appears that I have willingly been accepted by the people.  That is a precious gift no matter who or where you are. It is just so much easier here in Isaan than in many places.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Home Shrine


Duang's Shrine

Here in Thailand, more specifically in Isaan, it is common for people to have a special place in their home or business.  The special place is a shrine where they are able to perform their devotions.

Wealthy people often have a small room in their home whereas poor people will have a shelf set high on a wall for their shrine.

For Duang's shrine, the location is an alcove off to the side of the stairway leading to the second floor of our home.  My roll top desk, which I purchased 35 years ago in Lake Charles, Louisiana, has been appropriated by Duang to serve as the base of her Buddhist shrine.

Behind the shrine are two portraits of Buddha - occupying the highest position as is appropriate for demonstrating respect and high regard for the Teacher.

The pictures and sculptures that comprise the shrine are not objects to be worshipped or constitute idolatry.  They are objects that remind the person of the Buddhist teachings and show reverence for the Buddha and his teachings.  Reverence is an essential part of Buddhist training.  Buddha taught that people who are respectful and honor those who are superior to them will have more "Long life and beauty, happiness and strength" (Dhp 109)

Duang's shrine is located in a quiet area of our home - no television, no computers, and no radio, as is is appropriate and required for mediation and practicing Dhamma (Teachings of the Buddha).  Her shrine is also separated from where I am in the home.  Shrines are supposed to be out of the line of sight of people who are not interested in the Dhamma and it is desirable that the area be set up for only Dhamma practice.

Besides an image of the Buddha, there are three other things required for a shrine.  The three things are necessary for making the usual offerings.  The three items are:  candlesticks or devices to hold candles, an incense (Joss stick) burner and vases for flowers.

On certain days Duang will also place other items such as glasses of water, glasses of strawberry soda, glasses of whiskey, bananas, tropical fruit, plates of food.  These offerings show gratitude to Buddha, The Teacher, and also melds into the Animist tradition of offering nourishment to the spirits of departed family members.

Candlesticks or devices to hold candles are necessary because candles are burned as offerings to symbolize the light of Buddha's teachings which people should have in their heart to drive out the darkness and desecrations that are there.

Incense is burned as an offering as a reminder that the Dhamma-light can only be found with the assistance of good moral conduct.

"Slight is this perfume of tagara and sandalwood, best the perfume of the virtuous blowing even to the devas.

The perfume of flowers does not go against the wind, neither that of sandalwood, jasmine, or tagara:
but the perfume of the vituous does go against the wind.  The good man suffuses (spreads out) all directions.

Sandalwood or tagara, lotus or the jasmine great - of these perfumes various, virtue's perfume is unexcelled."  Dhammapada verses (54, 55, 56)

Duang's incense burner is typical of home shrines as well as many Wats.  The incense burner is a ceramic bowl filled with clean sand and placed on a metal tray to collect the ash as it falls from the burning Joss sticks.

Flowers are made as offerings and are reminders of the transitory nature and impermanence of the body.  There is a very old Sinhalese Pali writing along that line:

"These flowers, bright and beautiful
fragrant and good-smelling, handsome and well formed - soon indeed discolored, ill smelling and ugly they become.

This very body, beautiful, fragrant and well formed - soon indeed discolored, ill smelling and ugly becomes.

This body of mine too is of the same nature,
will become like this,
and has not escaped from this."

The offerings also serve as objects for focusing the mind so that the person can concentrate when reciting the Buddhist scriptures and for meditation.

Almost every night after dinner, Duang will shower and change into what I call her "holy clothes".  She will then make her offerings and perform her ritual in front of the shrine.  During that time I do not talk or distract her.

The roll top desk has travelled far and near - going from Lake Charles, Louisiana to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Santa Maria, California to Hercules, California to Martinez, California to Walnut Creek, California and eventually to here - Udonthani Thailand.  However in all its' travels I don't believe that it has ever been used more or for a better purpose than now.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Photo Gallery - Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival 2013

Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle - 2013

A new photography gallery has been added to my photography website.  This gallery is a collection of some of the photographs from our recent trip to Sakon Nakhon, 150 km east of our home, to enjoy this year's Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival.


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