Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Water Transfer

Transferring Of Merit Ritual In Ban Tahsang

Water is extremely important to the human organism.  People can survive far longer without food or without sufficient amounts of potable water.  The lack of  clean potable water is one of the leading killers of young children.  In addition to carrying organisms that cause diarrhea, water carries vectors for such water borne scourges as botulism, typhoid, Cholera, Legionellosis, and Malaria to name just a few.

Water touches our lives everyday - from the water that we drink, the water that we bathe our bodies with, as well as the water that we use to cook and prepare our food.

We are also dependent upon water for the production of the foods that we consume whether our diet is omnivorous, vegetarian, or even vegan.

There is no escaping our body's need and reliance upon water - clean water.

It should come as no big surprise that water also plays an important role in the major religions of the world.  Just as water is necessary and essential for man's physical survival, water plays a very important role in man's spiritual welfare either its ability to cleanse or purify, its symbolism, or the powers attributed to it.

Here in Isaan at the many rituals that I attend, water is frequently used.  At many rituals a Monk will splash special water, water that has been chanted over and sometimes has had melted wax dropped into it by burning candles during the ritual.  The water is contained in an ornamental bowl in which a bundle of reeds is dipped to toss the water droplets over the laypeople.  For me this is very reminiscent of receiving a certain blessing in the Catholic Church.

Evening Ritual For Duang's Father Prior to Cremation

By far the greatest use of water at Theravada Buddhist rituals here in Isaan is to transfer merit to the departed.

Duang Transferring Merit At Wat Ban Mat

In Buddhism it is believed that good deeds and performing acts of merit will bring happiness in this world and in the spirit world.  The amount of merit that a person has acquired will be a determining factor in the status that they will reincarnated into along the path to enlightenment.

Merit that is acquired here in this life can be transferred to other people - living or dead.  Ordinarily the transfer can be done just by thinking of the person as you earn the merit.

There is a belief that the departed person may have gone to the world of departed spirits.  These spirits are not capable of earning merit on their own - they are stuck with the merit they earned in this world.  If they were a good person they have a good chance of being reborn in a happy circumstance.  However , if they they don't have enough merits they have to wait to get merit from living people to get enough merit to be reborn in a happy circumstance.

All is not lost for people who are reborn in an unhappy situation.  They can be released through the transfer of merits from living people.

Laypeople Transferring Merit

Merit can be transfer in your home environment just by thinking of the recipient as you make merit.

Another transfer mechanism takes place and can only take place in a ritual at a Wat involving the participation of Monks.  As the Monks chant, people silent recite special words, as they pour water from one container to another.  The containers range in sophistication from ornate brass "jots" - small covered chalice type containers with matching receptacle bowl to the more prevalent ordinary plastic water bottle and plastic bowl.

The Monks chant in Pali, the language of the people who brought Buddhism to Thailand, words - the Nidhikanda Sutta in the Khuddakapatha:

As river, when full must flow
and reach and fill the distant main,
So indeed what is given here
will reach and bless the spirits there.

As water poured on a mountain top must
soon descend and fill the plain,
So indeed what is given here will reach
and bless the spirits there

It is one of my favorite rituals.

There Are No Age Restrictions For Participating In Rituals

Peelawat, at age 8 months, Participates In His Own Way
So just as water is essential and serves us in this world and is often used to travel from one place to another in this life, it also aids some of us in our journey beyond this world.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

More Bone Washing In Isaan

Ghoats Containing Bone fragments

Songkran is the time of the year when people wash the bones of their departed loved ones.  This is tied into the theme of the new year being the time for cleaning.  Throughout the villages of Isaan, people clean their homes and yards as part of the Songkran celebration.  Many of the villagers also go to the local temple and assist the Monks to clean the grounds - trimming trees, raking up and burning leaves and trash.  The villagers then go to the tats which contain the bone fragments of their family members to clean and spruce them up.

I have written of the bone washing ritual for Duang's father who died in November.  His bones, at his request, were interned in a tat at the temple located amongst the sugar cane fields outside of Tahsang Village hence I refer to it as the "Outside Wat" whereas the temple located inside of the village I refer to as "Inside Wat"

The "Outside Wat" is a Dhammayuttika Nikaya monastery - a sect of Theravada Buddhism created in 1833 by Prince Mongkut of Siam.  Prince Mongkut was a Monk for a long period of time and was very learned in the ancient Pali scriptures of Buddhism.  He founded the Dhammayuttika Nikaya to be a more orthodox school - a return by the Monks to the more traditional practises of Theravada Buddhism.

The "Inside Wat" is a Maha Nikaya monastery - the older sect of Theravada Buddhism.  Dhammayuttika and Maha Nikaya devotees believe in the same things in regards to Buddhism.  Often Monks from both schools will participate in rituals together.  The differences between the two schools is that Dhammayuttika Nikaya Monks are more orthodox in their practises - such as eating only one meal a day before noon, and more focused on proper pronunciation of Pali than their Maha Nikaya brethren.

For some reason, and I am certain that it really did not boil down to how many meals a day the Monks ate before Noon, Duang's father, who was not very religious, wanted to be interned at the "Outside Wat".  For some reason, Duang prefers the Dhammayuttika Nikaya school also so she had no reservations about fulfilling her father's literal and figurative dying wish.

But just as in any other country, matters of life, death, and religion are not simple and frequently are not easy.  Duang's father's family in the area are devotees of the Maha Nikaya - the "Inside Wat" with a family tat in place with the bone fragments of Duang's grandmother and grandfather.

The interning of Duang's father at the "Outside Wat" was the cause of several discussions with Duang's Aunt who is now the mariarch of that side of the family.  Matters have been resolved and while I can not claim that the decision has been approved or even supported, it is accepted.

Because of the interning of family bones at two different wats, we had to attend two family bone washings this Songkran - one at the "Outside Wat" and one at the "Inside Wat"

Two days after the bone washing ritual for Duang's father, we returned to Tahsang Village for a bone washing ritual at the "Inside Wat" for Duang's grandfather, grandmother, and an uncle who had been a Monk at the "Inside Wat"

I often write about funerals and use the term "Same, Same but different".  This is also true in regards to bone washing rituals - although the ritual and its intent is the same, each ritual is often unique.

Whereas the ritual at the "Outside Wat" had been held outside at the base of the tat, the ritual was performed in the usobot of the "Inside Wat".

"Rocketman" Pours Water Over Bones

For this bone washing ritual, the bones contained in ghoats were first presented to the Abbott of the wat.  He poured water over the bones.  The trays upon which the ghoats were placed were then moved off  of the raised platform and placed on the floor of the bot in front of the offerings to the Monks between the Monks and the laypeople .

Offering Food to the Spirits of the Departed Relatives
A sii sein was placed from the offerings for the Monks, wrapped around each ghoat and up to the raised area where the Monks were seated.  The sii sein was held by each of the Monks with the spool of the unused cotton string carefully placed on an ordinary plate next to the Monk at the end of the row of Monks.

After the offerings had been made to the spirits, the ordinary metal serving trays were returned to the raised area off to the sides of the Monks.  The sii sein was adjusted and the odinary merit making of offering food to the Monks was performed.

The ghoats which contained the bone fragments of Duang's uncle, the Monk, were brass and pot metal.  The brass ghoat was rather sophisticated and resembled one of the chedi at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.  The pot metal ghoat resembled an embossed drinking cup.  Bone fragments from her grandparents were contained in recycled Ovaltine glass jars - not elaborate in the least but as a former boss of mine would often point out definitely "Fit for purpose".

I asked Duang if there was merit making involved in washing of the bone fragments.  She said that people did not earn merit for either themselves or the spirits of their departed relatives by the act of washing the bones but that it was good luck for the living to do so.  However the acts of offering food to the Monks did earn merit for the living as well as the dead.

After the Monks had been offered food and were eating, people gathered up the metal trays and left the bot.  Once outside they respectfully drained the water from the ghoats into the metal trays and poured the water at the base of the many trees and shrubs that grow on wat grounds.

The people then gathered together to bring the ghoats to the appropriate tat for re-internment.  Once the bone fragments had been returned and the tat door closed, people then threw cups of water over the tat to complete the ritual.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Samanens of Ban Tahsang

During the past two weeks here in Isaan, I have taken many photographs of Novice Monks, Samanens, at the wat outside of Thasang Village.

Although Novice Monks can be of any age with the term "Novice" reflecting more on the Monk's degree of training and the rules they are to follow rather than their physical age, the focus of my photography recently has been young boys aged 8 to about 12 years.

Students in Thailand go to school throughout the year but have a major break during the hottest part of the year, Elementary school students have roughly 6 weeks off - a month prior to the Songkran holiday and two weeks after the holiday.  During this period many young boys, typically 8 years and older, enter their local monastery and become Novice Monks.

The most ornate and culturally unique aspect of becoming Novice Monks or Samanens that I have witnessed has been the Poi Sang Long Festival of the ethnic Shan people of Maehongson Province on the Thai-Myanmar (Burma) border.

Young Shan Boy Participating in Poi Sang Long Festival
Here in Northeast Thailand the tradition for young boys 8 to 12 yers old to become samaneras is much less elaborate and extravagant.  I missed out on witnessing the ritual for 8 boys from Tahsang Village to become Novice Monks this year.  But our paths crossed a few days later.

Duang and I often use the adjective, "naughty", in regards to many of the young boys and girls that we encounter here.  Rather than being a judgement of their character or morals, we use the adjective as a term of endearment; an adjective related to the child's exuberance, enthusiasm, and joie de vivre.

I often find myself smiling and in admiration of the confidence, curiosity, and Independence exhibit by the children - often starting as early as they are able to walk.  Although I write about "Allen's World", more often than not I am more like a resident or guest in their world!

I especially enjoy photographing young Novice Monks.  For me there is a dichotomy related to the young samaneras - Monks on a journey to enlightenment, people on a higher level of enlightenment than the laypeople around them but at the same time, and at certain times very apparent, they are still just very young boys.  A sort of ying and yang, a spiritual ying and yang.

There is the dichotomy of the discipline and constraints of the monastic life and the exuberance, energy, and enthusiasm of young boys.

Samaneras Building Pop Guns Out of Bamboo
Earlier this month we drove out to the wat located in the sugar cane fields outside of Tahsang Village to prepare the site for where the tat for Duang's father would be installed.  A tat is a decorative structure in which bone fragments of ancestors are interned at a wat.  On 12 April after a bone washing ritual, bone fragments from Duang's father were interned in the family tat.

As Duang and her brothers cleaned and planted around the tat area, I went off to where the 8 village boys were occupied.  Novice Monks ... were they meditating?  No.  Novice Monks ... were they studying scriptures?  No.  Novice Monks were they chanting or reciting prayers or something like that? No.  The Novice Monks were all occupied, very busy with knives, machetes, and one bow saw - making pop guns out of bamboo.

The pop gun mechanism was very similar to some of the parts of the snares that Duang and I saw in the Khmu villages of the Luang Prabang area in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.  The boys carefully cut almost through a small diameter section of a particular type of bamboo.  They skillfully used knives to separate the bamboo into two pieces - a barrel piece with a smooth bore and a section piece with a solid portion and an extended piston that would slide into the barrel.

The boys were having a grand time building their pop guns.  The boys worked intently to properly fashion and fit the pieces of their guns.  They giggled, laughed and joked as they worked.  A couple of the older boys with more experience in these types of matters helped the less experienced boys in constructing their guns. I found it quite entertaining and even educational to see the young boys enjoying themselves on a hot late morning in Isaan.  The boys were also entertained by my interest in photographing them - laughing, posing, joking, and at times hamming it up for my camera.  Yes these were samaneras but they were definitely "naughty" boys.

Hamming for the camera

Once the pop guns were completed, the Novice Monks loaded them with ammunition.  The pop guns were single shot muzzle loaded devices.  The ammunition was water soaked toilet paper - spit balls.  The boys would make a ball out of wet toilet paper - the ball being slightly larger than the bore of their gun. Using their fingers and the solid section of their gun to shove and pound the wad of wet paper into the open end of the gun.  When the wad was completely inserted and jammed into the bore, the gun was ready to be fired. The gun is fired by rapidly and forcibly shoving the rod portion of the gun into the barrel section sending the spit ball flying through the air with a loud "pop".

As the Novice Monks finished their guns they set off to what appeared to me to be training for urban warfare.  They ran around the grounds, hiding behind trees and the small cabins to ambush other Monks.  They were having a grand time.

After a while of urban warfare, the Novice Monks headed over to their quarters to prepare for lunch.  The Novice Monks walked the short distance to the usobot where they slept inside of small mosquito net tents.  Inside of the bot, the boys adjusted and put on their robes - no small task.  Older boys and boys with more experience in donning robes helped the other boys.

Getting Dressed for Lunch

Donning On the Monk's Robes

After they were completely and properly attired, the Novice Monks went over to the sala, meeting hall, to have lunch.  The Monks of the "outside" Wat are members of the Dhammayuttika Nikaya sect of Theravada Buddhism.  They are more orthodox in their practises than the Maha Nikaya sect of Monks.  Dhammayuttika Monks eat only one meal a day which must be consumed by noon.

Apparently out of deference to their youth, the young samanens eat more than one meal.  As they entered the sala they were greeted by one of their mothers.  The  semanens were directed to sit on some sahts placed on the unfinished sala's concrete floor.  A charcoal stove was blazing away at each end of the saht covered area.  As another woman, off to side, was busy preparing food, the mother placed conical pans atop the charcoal stoves and poured water in the trough around the cone.  I instantly recognized that the boys were going to have "mukkatah" (Thai BBQ) for their meal.

Mukkatah is a very popular Thai dining experience.  A conical metal pan with a slotted cone rising out of its center is placed over a charcoal fire.  Chunks of pig fat are rubbed over the conical section of the pan to season it.  Water or broth is poured into the trough that surrounds the conical section of the pan.  After the conical section is properly seasoned the diners using chopsticks place thin pieces of squid, chicken, pork and sometimes beef on the slotted conical section to grill them.  Rice noodles along with various greens, mushrooms, garlic, and onions are added to the to the trough liquid to create a hearty soup flavored by the juices rolling down the conical section.

Samaneras Enjoying Their Afternoon Meal

It was interesting to watch the interaction of the Novice Monks and the women who were feeding them.  As Monks, the boys can not touch females.  There are procedures and methods to avoid contact with females.  As Monks, the boys are also in a position of high respect despite their age or relationship to the laypeople.  Even little sisters were careful to not to touch their brother or his friends.  The mother had the Novice Monks recite a mantra or prayer before they started their meal.

During our stay I had witnessed the Novice Monks building pop guns, playing with their pop guns and having a great lunch.  To me this seemed like a great deal of fun - perhaps too much fun.  I asked through Duang when the boys would have class or instruction.  It turns out that the Novice Monks have instruction starting at 5:30 P.M.  It sounded pretty good to me - good food, and plenty of time to play with friends .  I asked our grandson, Peelawat if we should become samanens together next year.  he knew that I was joking and smiled.

Samanen With His Bowl Waiting for Food Offering Ritual to Commence

Novice Monks From Ban Tahsang Participate in Food Offering Ritual

Being a Monk requires following many rules and regulations.  The higher that you go in monastic life the more rules and regulations there are to be followed. Since Samanens are just starting out in monastic life, they have fewer rules and simpler rules to follow.  Novice Monks are required to follow the "Ten Precepts" (training rules).

     1.     Refrain from killing living creatures
     2.     Refrain from stealing
     3.     Refrain from unchaste behavior and thoughts (sensuality, sexuality, lust)
     4.     Refrain from incorrect speech (lying)
     5.     Refrain from taking intoxicants
     6.     Refrain from taking food at inappropriate times (after noon)
     7.     Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment programs
     8.     Refrain from wearing perfume, cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories)
     9.     Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on luxurious, soft beds
    10.    Refrain from accepting money

The "Ten Precepts" seem rather reasonable to follow - perhaps easier for a 8 to 12 year old than a 65 year old, but reasonable for all.  But as I have written many times before ... there are the ways that things are supposed to be and then there is the way that they really are - especially if you are a young boy and a "naughty" boy at that.

We returned to the wat on April 14 for the celebration of "Songpoo Day". During this visit I witnessed another example of the dichotomy of the life required in adherence to the Ten Precepts and the life of 8 to 12 year old "naughty" boys.

On Songpoo Day, there was a big swarming and hatch of some kind of insect near the cabins at the outside wat.  The hatch was concentrated in the area where the Novice Monks played during their free time.  I do not know exactly what kind of insect was swarming or hatching  but they seemed to be a sort of flying ant perhaps termites.  The bugs had two large delicate wings - extremely large in comparison to the body.  The body was reddish and appeared to be a larval stage.  The insects were in gyrating masses on the bare ground.  Wings were falling off leaving maggot sized reddish larvae writhing on the ground.  Ants were busy capturing the larvae and dragging them off to shove and pull them down underground to their colonies.

The drama of life and death was played out on a massive scale for those willing to watch Nature's way.  Some of those willing to watch and willing to become involved were the Novice Monks - young boys bound to follow the Ten Precepts but at the same time still 8 to 12 year old boys.

"There are the ways that things are supposed to be and then there are the ways that things actually are"

Some of the Novice Monks were occupied assisting the ants.  They gathered up some of the larvae and placed them near or in many cases placed the insects in the ant holes.  In some cases they utilized twigs to herd either the larvae or ants into a confrontation.  The Monks in reality were not cruel.  They did not remove any wings from the insects and did not kill any of them.  But the little boys did set the stage for the insects to be devoured by the ants in a sense facilitating the natural order of things.

Busy with bugs
The dichotomy was not lost to me.  I am not judging or would I choose to judge this type of behavior.  I am only reporting what I witnessed.  I am sharing the incidents with others in perhaps a sort of celebration of the reality of boys being boys no matter their current circumstances - a celebration of non-conformity and a celebration of being "naughty".

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Theravada Buddhist Bone Washing Ritual

We are now in the final days of this year's Songkran Festival.  As I am sitting here at my computer I have just heard two ambulances, or what often goes for ambulances here in Thailand, speeding down the main road with their sirens blaring "Bee Paw... Bee Paw ... Bee Paw"outside of our development.

Songkran is a time of greating rejoicing and happiness.  The festival is traditional Thai New Years marked by the passing of the sun into Aires.  In Thailand the astrological calculations are no longer used to determine the start of Songkran. The official Songkran Holiday here in Thailand is April 13 to 15. If any of the official days are a weekend, the day or days are added on to the end of the official period.  That is what is supposed to be but there is the way that things are.  Many places celebrate the holiday for 6 or 7 days no matter what.  Just to add to the confusion some places celebrate at slightly different times - such as Pattaya concluding their celebration 1, 2, or 3 days after Bangkok.

There is some method to what may appear to be madness either figuratively or literally.  Staggering the local celebration dates allows people, especially those from Isaan and work in the Bangkok or Phuket areas, to celebrate with friends that they work with and still be able to return to their homes to celebrate with family.  Besides it allows a great party to continue even longer.

Tahsang Village, not ever to be mistaken for Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Pattaya, is celebrating Songkran from April 12 until April 18th.  It can become rather confusing and not just for foreigners either.  The other morning when we drove out to the village, we were admonished by our five year old grandson, Peelawat.  He wanted to know why we had not gone out to the village to see him for Songkran.  Duang explained to him that we were visiting him that day for the start of Songkran,  He was not buying into that and told her that they had already thrown water on cars, people, trucks and motorbikes and were done.  That is true - Peelawat and his friends had started throwing water on April 8th.

Songkran is a time when people are expected to return to their villages to pay respect to their elders.  It is a time of family reunions, family parties, celebrations with friends, and religious merit making to go along with merriment in general.  Songkran here in Thailand is like the combining of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and the Super Bowl into one grand celebration in America.

I have written of previous Songkran Festivals in previous blogs:

The joy and festivities of Songkran often leads to tragedy.  Newspapers keep a tally of what is labelled Songkrans 7 "Dangerous Days".  Thailand's roads are the second most dangerous in the world and even more so during Songkran.  For the first 4 days, 204 people have died, 2,142 have injured in 2,027 accidents.  On 14 April 43 people died, 43% of the deaths were due to drunk driving with 78% of the accidents involving motorcycles. "Dangerous" to say the least!

Songkran also has a more somber and sober side.  It is during Songkran that Theravada Buddhist families will wash the bones of their ansectors.  For our family this was compounded by the interring the bones of Duang's father who died in November of last year into a family Tat at the "outside" Wat.

During Songkran, Thai people demonstrate care, concern and respect for elders by pouring cool water and placing scented powder on elderly people.  Mid-April is the hottest time of the year and the end of the dry season here in Thailand.  Traditionally the people poured cool water on elderly people to help them deal with the heat.  The tradition is still practised by the rowdy street parties and roving water wars of public thoroughfare's get the most attention nowadays.

Every Songkran people pour water over Buddha statues in homes and in Wats to clean, cool, as well as to show respect. The grounds of the temples are also cleaned up as well as residential property.  At many Wats there are festivals to raise funds for the maintenance of the temple and related property.  During the Songkran Festival families will remove the bones of ansectors to wash them and then return them to their resting places inside of the family Tat.

People Participating In Bone Washing For Duang's Father

There had been many preparations leading up to the bone washing ritual for Duang's father.  The first step was preparing a portion of the land along the inside perimeter wall of the "outside" Wat.  After the land had been cleared, an excavation was made for the foundation of the new family Tat. A large stepped concrete and brick foundation was then constructed.  Duang asked for my opinion and after giving her my opinion, the contractor reworked the foundation to be "acceptable" - to her, my standards are higher or perhaps I don't mind being confrontational over quality.

A concrete slab was poured around the pedestal foundation.  After the foundation and slab were sufficiently cured, colorful ceramic tile was installed.  Shrubs and flowers were planted at the corners of the concrete slab surrounding the foundation.

Everywhere where you drive about Isaan you will see places with colorful and sometimes gaudy concrete structures can be purchased.  Many of them are "Spirit Houses" but many are Tats.  Tats are elaborate structures on temple grounds in which bones are stored.

Duang's Son Hangs Jasmine Garlands On Family Tat

As family members die, they are cremated, and some of their bone fragments are retrieved by the Monks.  The Monks store the fragments and bury the remaining fragments and ashes on the Wat grounds.  After the family has constructed a Tat, the retained fragments are interned in a special ritual is performed to place them in the Tat.

Making Offrings From Banana Leaves and Jasmine Buds

The day before the scheduled bone washing ritual on April 12th, several of Duang's aunts gathered at the Wat to make special offerings for the next day.  The offerings are made from banana leaves and jasmine buds. The intricate floral arrangements, like all floral arrangements used in Buddhist rituals, are reminders of the impermanance of this life.  The creation of these offerings is a folk handicraft that for me is quintessencial Isaan.

Completed Floral Offerings

We arrived at the wat on the morning of the 12th around 8:00 A.M..  The bone washing ritual was scheduled to be performed before the daily ritual of offering food to the Monks.  Bone washing rituals can be performed outside in front of the Tat or inside the Wat's ubosot.  Duang's family to opted to have the ritual in front of the family Tat.

Sahts were placed on the ground in front of the Tat.  An additional saht was placed upon the tiled slab of the Tat where the four Monks would be seated for the ritual.  Two containers of specially prepared water to be used in the ritual.  Duang's Aunt prepared the water by filling the containers with water and the adding flowers and scented powder to the water.

A decorative porcelan urn, ghoat, containing the bone fragments was placed on an ordinary metal serving tray along with a metal drinking cup, and a bunch of sprigs from a daugkuhn shrub from the grounds of the wat.  Another decorative metal serving tray was prepared with small portions of food offerings, two yellow birthday type wax candles, two sprigs of jasmine buds for the spirit of Duang's father.  Interning the bone fragments in the Tat was very important - since his cremation, Duang's father's spirit has been resident to Tahsang Village.  Upon internment of his bone fragments in the Tat, his spirit is released to continue on its journey to reincarnation.

The Brahman who took over duties when Duang's Uncle was no longer able to lead the laypeople in rituals supervised and lead the family in the ritual.  Water was drawn out of the large container with the metal drinking cup.  The sprigs of daugkuhn shrub were then dipped into the metal cup and withdrawn to sprinkle the scented water over the bone fragments contained in the ghoat.

Water Sprinkled Over Bones Using Sprigs of Daugkuhn

After the Monks had sprinkled the bones, the tray was placed in front of the immediate family.  Each family member repeated the water sprinkling.  When they had completed. other family members and others came up to the tray and sprinkled water.  The ritual was not limited to adults.  A toddler, daughter of Duang's cousin from Bangkok, was very interested in the ritual.  Children here in Isaan are taught manners and religion at a very young age.  This little girl was no exception.  She was lead by her grandmother's hand and sprinkled the bones with water.

Learning At An Early Age

After everyone, who wanted to, had sprinkled or poured water on the bone fragments, Duang's Aunt placed her hand over the open top of the ghot and shook it several times to agitate the fragments and water.  She then allowed the water to slowly drain into the metal serving tray.  She then repeated the process.  After the second time she removed the bone fragments and held them in one hand while she drained the water from the ghoat into the tray. After inspecting each fragment and brushing off any sand like particles into the metal tray, she returned the fragments to the ghoat.  The top was placed on the ghoat.

The focus of the ritual then became the offering of food to the spirit of Duang's father.

Food Offerings For the Spirit of Duang's Father

As the ritual continued, a sii sein was unfurled to connect the food offerings, the Monks and the bone fragments together. The sii sein, a cotton string or sometimes several cotton strings are used in Buddhist as well as Animist rituals.  The strings are tied on the wrists of people in the Bai Sii Ritual, several strings are wrapped around the steering columns of motor vehicles for good luck, and in a funeral procession a thick sii sein connects the Monks who are leading the procession back to the coffin with family members and friends in between holding on to the sii sein as they walk.  At the Wat during the most part of the ritual, the coffin is connected by a sii sein from the crematorium across to the sala where  much of the ritual is being conducted.

The food offerings for the spirit are brought to the two senior Monks who pour water over the offering to symbolize the transfer of merit to the spirit from the family.

Offerings are then made to the Monks in the name of the departed person.  Special bundles had been prepared the day before the Monks.  Items such as tooth paste, tooth brush, hand soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper, and other toiletries had been placed in three of the bundles each contained in plastic shopping bags.  One bundle, the fourth one for the Abbott, was wrapped in a special plain white cotton cloth with sii sein binding at the top.  This bundle contained new items such as pants, eye-glasses, watch, belt, socks, shoes, wallet, underwear, and shirt for the spirit of Duang's father.  After the ritual, the Monk will give the offered personal items to local people in need.

Upon completion of the ritual, Duang's son took the ghoat and placed it in the upper chamber of the Tat.  This week a ceramic plaque with Duang's father's picture, his birth date and date of death will be installed on the opposite side of the tat from the small door where the ghoat was placed.  Duang had ordered it from a vendor in near by Kumphawapi.  The vendor told her that it would take four days.  She protested not knowing the process involved to produce the plaque.  The vendor informed her that the plaque was not like foreign food - you did not put it in the microwave, push a button, and have it done in 2 minutes.

This was not the end of bone washing this Songkran, but that will be the subject of another blog.

Next Songkran, the bone fragments of Duang's father will be removed from the Tat, washed, and returned.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

This Is Thailand - Thankfully!

One of my objectives, actually my last objective, for our trip to Nakhon Pathom last month was to visit a special institution.  According to the e-brochure, "Khlong Tour, Cruising the Majestic Waterways", issued by the Tourism Authority of Thailand in 2007 near Khlong Maha Sawat there was the Palace College And Museum of Ten Schools of Thai Crafts.

The e-brochure described the college as an institution where visitors could observe the training of Thai craftspeople for traditional arts of mother-of-pearl inlay, painting, sculpting, fruit and vehetable carving.  My Internet search for additional details yielded a contact phone number and an address of "Salay-Bang Phasi Rd, Tambon Salaya"  Unfortunately I was unable to determine further details from the "Salay-Bang Phasi Rd, Tambon Salaya" - maps that I accessed either on the Internet or purchased at local 7-11s, more often than not, referred to roads and highways by their number or gave the name in Thai.  Our driver did not speak English and the specific details that I had was only in English.

I had Duang call the phone number and she ended up speaking with some manager at an apartment house!  I had determined from the Internet that the school was open from 9:00 A. M. to 4:00 P.M. It was getting fairly late on our last full day in the area.  The next morning we were going to the airport to fly back to Udonthani.  It appeared that we would not get to visit the school.  We stopped at a gas station to refuel the car, and get some snacks.  Duang and our driver spoke with some people and seemed to make a connection for the school that I wanted to visit.  Surprisingly it was very close to the hotel where we were staying.

We arrived at "The College of Dramatic Arts: Fine Arts Dept" at 2:45 P.M.  The guard at the main gate directed us to a seven story building located at the corner of a modern university complex.  Duang and I entered the building and found ourselves amongst a couple of sculpture studios - studios with sculptures in various stages of completion but no people.

After walking about the studios, we returned to the lobby and went to the elevator.  I suggested to Duang that we go up to the seventh floor and work our way down to look for some people.  We went up to the seventh floor and exited the elevator to find ourselves in a sterile lobby.  Behind a glass partition and a locked door, we saw some people in what appeared to be an administrative office.  After telling them, through a glass section that had some small holes in it for better communication, why we were there, they electrically unlocked the door for us to enter.

This was very reminiscent of our experience at my former junior high school two years ago in America.  Duang was going there to learn English (reading, writing, and speaking) at night school.  One night she apparently left her pencil case with her prescription glasses at the school.  The next day we returned to the school to see if the case had been found.  I had gone to the school in the early 1960's, a time when you or anyone could and would go inside the school, walk about 25 feet inside to the school office and transact your business.  Not any more!  We approached the school and found an entryway very similar a high security entrance to a bank - once you clear scrutiny, you are allowed into a small sterile area where you are subject to additional scrutiny and questioning before being admitted to the office to deal with people face to face.

Our experience in Nakhon Pathom was similar but more pleasant.  Once we got past a single door we were in the office speaking with some very pleasant and friendly people.  We told them that we had learned on the Internet of a place, perhaps this place, where people were trained in the arts.  They told us that they were preparing for a large public exhibition at the end of the week.  We told them that we were leaving to return to our home the next day and would not be able to attend the exhibition.  It was no big deal for me.  I know things like that happen - unexpected situations and circumstances - part of life. As I thanked them and was turning around to leave they asked us to wait and brought us each a glass of cold water.  After a short while we we joined by a very pleasant young woman, a woman obvious with some authority.  After repeating our story to her, she asked us to follow her.  This was the start of our personal tour of the facility - all seven floors with the woman who was an important professor.

A Student Finishing Up Her Painting For the Upcoming Exhibit

We were fortunate during our tour to speak with the few students that we encountered along the way.  Duang was kept very busy interpreting for me and all the other people.  I was encouraged to take as many photographs as I wanted to.  Our tour guide willingly answered all the questions that I had regarding which made for a very pleasant experience.

A Student's Sculpture of Mythological Creatures Central To Thai Culture

Floor by floor, art by art, and craft by craft we toured the facility with our personal guide.  It was a very entertaining and enlightening experience for us.

An Example Of Traditional Thai Painting By A Student

A Student Working On Her Pottery

Wire Sculpture In First Floor Lobby

First Floor Studio Sculpture

Outside Courtyard Sculpture

Our personal tour of the facility lasted approximately one hour.  Looking back at our experience the term TIT (This Is Thailand) comes to my mind.

TIT, This Is Thailand, is an expression often used by expats in reaction to an experience or situation that they have encountered here.  The expression is typically not meant to be complimentary.  It often stems from frustration from falang (foreigners) who have observed or experienced some  aspect or idiosyncrasy of Thai culture or life that is very different than what they are accustomed to or familiar with in their home culture.

I am using the expression in this blog entry as a compliment and expression of gratitude for our experience at The College of Dramatic Arts: Fine Arts Dept.  The kindness and friendliness of the staff was a pleasant surprise.  The staff's concern over our situation and the action that they took to help us was beyond what I normally would expect.  They very well could have saved themselves some time and effort by just telling us "Sorry, we are closed.  We are busy preparing for the exhibit"

But this is indeed Thailand - a place where you will frequently encounter friendly and accommodating people.  These are some of the people who add greatly to the quality of life here.