Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Long Journey

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step" - Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu, the 6th century B.C Chinese philosopher and poet, is correct however in our household and for a journey of over 8,300 miles, the journey actually begins not with one step but with a special ritual.

In 24 hours we will commence our journey to America - a journey that will take 30 hours or more from our doorstep to the doorstep of my parent's home on the East Coast.  In America we will also be visiting Olympic National Park on the West Coast and Glacier National Park in Montana.

I have been very busy lately making all the necessary arrangements.  Thanks to the wonder and power of the Internet, researching and making the arrangements is possible - 8 flight legs, 5 hotel stays, and 3 car rentals.  I will be 65 years soon and I along with all the other baby boomers have witnessed a revolution - an information revolution.

When I was a young man, there was no Internet.  To plan, let alone research such a trip, people had to rely upon travel agents.  Like most of our trips, in doing the research I revise plans and arrangements as I discover more information.  With the Internet I can review photographs of the hotels as well as read reviews from recent customers.  I also can shop for better prices and ... better values. There is no worry about being surprised by "No Vacancy" signs during our travels - a distinct problem in and around national parks in July!

Going on such a grand journey also presents some challenges to my wife, Duang.  Besides traveling half way around the world, this journey is like traveling to the end of the world - her world.  Duang is a very devout Buddhist along with Animism as well as Brahmanism.  In America, she will be far removed from kindred spirits.  Thankfully she is very adaptable and has managed quite well on previous trips.

However, there is nothing wrong with properly preparing for such a journey.  For me the proper preparation is planning and scheduling the entire trip.  For Duang, proper preparation involves spiritual matters - which brings us to today's activity.

This morning we drove out to Ban Mat to visit Luang Por Pohm Likit, the Forest Monk. After the typical merit making of offering food to him, and eating the food that he did not take with the local people, we went to his quarters for a special blessing.

Duang sat on a plastic chair just outside of his quarters, half of which is a shrine.  The half of his quarters is open visiting space and a small enclosed area where he sleeps.

Duang About To Receive Special Blessing

After making some preparations which included some chanting and burning a white candle so that the melted wax dropped into a Monk's bowl filled with water, Luang Por Pohm Likit walked up behind Duang.

As Duang sat in the chair with her hands in the wai position, the Thai gesture of respect, he sprayed water upon her using a rough brush made of very thin strips of bamboo.

Luang Por Pohm Likit Prepares to Bless Duang

As he sprinkled the water on Duang, the Monk was softly chanting in Lao words to the effect of "Good luck to you.  Have a good and safe journey.  Buddha take care of you.  Ghosts and spirits do not go into you.  Don't be afraid.  Good luck for you"  Since Duang and I are inseparable during our travels I am assuming that I am also covered by the blessing.

As the ritual was proceeding, Duang was inwardly focused on thanking Luang Por Pohm Likit as he chanted, thanking Buddha, thinking about good luck for us, and our safe as well as happy return"

The act of sprinkling water on Duang was the transference of merit and blessing from Luang Por Likit to Duang -  a process and belief that I wrote abut in a recent previous blog entry.

Upon completion of this blessing, Duang with wet and wax flaked hair, went to the shrine in the Monk's quarters to perform additional merit making - three different locations at the shrine.  The "three" locations and separate offerings were not by chance.  It is a dominant theme in Buddhism - showing respect and devotion to the three "gems" of Buddhism - Buddha, the Teachings of Buddha, and the Sanga (the Buddhist religious clergy)

Duang Making Offerings At Luang Por Pohm Likit's Shrine

Upon completing her offerings at the shrine, Duang and I bid Luang Por Pohm Likit a traditional farewell and promising to see him upon our return.  On our way to our truck we received the best wishes from the local people for our grand journey.

Earlier in the morning, Luang Por Pohm Likit gave us two special talisman to carry with us on our journey.  The talisman were from India and were anatomically correct images naturally occurring out of tree bark of Buddha as a man and as a woman in his previous lives before attaining enlightenment.  Upon our safe return, and the completion of their task we will return these precious objects to Luang Por Pohm Likit.

We returned home and Duang commenced to pack her suitcase with enthusiasm.  Fortified with special blessing and the talisman, she is prepared to take her journey to the end of her world.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Korb Siarn Khru Ceremony In A Small Village

Back in March, my wife and I went on a special trip to the area west of Bangkok.  The main purpose of our journey was to observe and experience the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival.  As I learned, the main purpose of the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival is to conduct a Wai Khru ceremony.

In a Wai Khru ceremony, devotees pay homage and demonstrate their respect for their teachers and the deities associated with their art or practice.  The term, "teachers", is not restricted to the people who are employed to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Teachers in this sense of the word includes all those that have instructed, inspired, and trained others in a wide variety of matters.  Buddha is considered to be the greatest of teachers.  There are teachers of many things such as music, dance, martial arts, astrology, traditional healing, and magic.

The Wai Khru ceremony is not a Buddhist ceremony although Buddhism is often involved in the ritual.  The origins of the Wai Khru ceremony are in the Animist and subsequent influence of Brahmanism.  Animism was the original religious belief system of the native peoples of Thailand and in particular the inhabitants of the region referred to as Isaan (Northeast).  The history of Southeast Asia is fraught with migrations, wars, invasion, and subjugations. One of the consequences of the turbulent past was the spread of different religions and philosophies.  One of the religions that spread to Thailand was Brahmanism, the precursor of Hinduism, originating in Northern India but most likely spread in Thailand from Cambodia as part of the Khmer Empire.

Rather than eliminating the former Animist practices, beliefs and rituals with the arrival of Brahmanism, the old traditions were assimilated into the new system.  The same thing occurred later when Buddhism arrived from Ceylon.

This all makes for a very interesting and quite often confusing religious system which is practiced here in Isaan today.  Today, 95% of the Thai people are Theravada Buddhists but a vast majority of the Thai people's religious beliefs, practices, as well as rituals are vestiges or heavily influenced by Animism and Brahmanism.  The Wai Khru Ceremony is one example.

Table of Offerings for Wai Khru Ceremony - Tahsang Village

At the Wai Khru Ceremony conducted at Wat Bang Phra, the energy and powers of magical tattoos, called "Sak Yant" were renewed.  The former Abbott of Wat Bang Phra, Luang Phor Penn, was world famous for the powers of his tattoos.  Thousands of his devotees and thousands of foreigners make the pilgrimage to Wat Bang Phra for the Wai Khru ceremony.

My ambition and goal in photography is "to show extraordinary people doing ordinary things.  In so doing, I wish to show how different people appear, to provide a glimpse of other cultures, to celebrate the diversity of mankind, and to demonstrate that despite our appearances, we are so much alike"

Attending large and well known events such as the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival provides opportunities to meet my ambition and achieve my goals in regards to photography.  However I prefer the smaller, more intimate venues where there are not television cameras, reporters, or thousands or even hundreds of tourists.  These events and venues, where the people are conducting rituals for their own benefit offer much better opportunities to experience and better understand the event and its impact on the people.

Living in Thailand and being married to an ethnic Lao, gives me many opportunities to experience and photograph "extraordinary people doing ordinary things."  Often I have opportunities to experience and photograph "ordinary people doing extraordinary things"  Often my wife will get a phone call from the extended family notifying her of some ritual, event, or thing that they believe that I would like to photograph.  Just as new religious systems have been assimilated, I have been assimilated into Duang's extended family.

Such an opportunity occurred on May 1.  Duang had gotten a call earlier in the week that a Wai Khru Ceremony was going to happen at the "Outside" Wat in Tahsang Village.  We drove out to the Wat under the bright and hot sun through the parched sugar cane fields to the "Outside" Wat (the Wat outside of the village as opposed to the Wat inside the village)

Pig's Head Offering

At the perimeter of the Wat's grounds, near the small huts were the Monks sleep, we went to the small shrine.  We had gone to the small shrine a few times for special rituals where Duang and her friend would be doused with buckets of water by the Monk in a special ritual and when Duang's brother received some special blessing while wearing an ornate mask.  Visiting this shrine is not a common occurrence.

Three pavilions had been erected around the shrine with plastic chairs set up for people  to sit out of the strong sun light.  In front of the shrine a large folding table covered with a white cloth had been set up.  Upon the white cloth covered table there were many objects associated with the upcoming ritual.

There was a Pahn Sii Khwan, a centerpiece made by local women out of fresh banana leaves, jasmine buds and chrysanthemums, along with a smaller handmade arrangement on the table along with food offerings to the spirits and deities. The main food offering was a  cooked pig head.  Offerings of a pig head are not common and typically reserved for special occasions. There were also offerings of eggs, pineapple, cooked prawns, sweet potatoes, coconut, cooked duck, oranges, limes, bananas, mangoes, prepared bananas, sticky rice and coconut wrapped in banana leaves, and some bowls of special desserts.

Ruesi Mask - "Siarn Ruesi"
The table also had a silver colored pressed metal ornate tray upon which rolled up sii sein string, a tiger skin cloth and a full life sized Ruesi mask (Siarn Ruesi) and a pumalai of chrysanthemums along with jasmine buds.  The items all symbolize things for and in the ritual.  Pumalai symbolize and celebrate beauty of this life but as they age and deteriorate they remind people of the impermanence of this life as well as the fate that awaits all of us.  The tiger skin patterned cloth is symbolic of Ruesi, hermits of the forest some of who make Sak Yant (magical tattoos). In another  silver colored pressed metal ornate tray containing the sweet potatoes were lotus flower buds, white candles and joss sticks. There was also a large tray of chrysanthemum petals on the table along with an ordinary serving tray of pumalai.

The young Monk of the Wat performed an typical offering ritual outside at the white covered table while devotees sat in chairs underneath the pavilions.  After completing this part of the ritual, he went inside of the shrine for the remainder of ceremony.

Devotees At the Wai Khru Ceremony

Ruesi Shrine

The Ruesi shrine was very congested.  One wall of the room was covered with statues and masks related to Ruesi.  Ruesi is a hermit sage that is prominent in several legends as well as stories in Thai folklore.

Ruesi was and are hermit sages who spend their time meditating and developing their psychic powers - sort of like wizards.  They collect magical herbs, and minerals.  Using magical ingredients they produce love charms, spells and powerful amulets. The goal of the Ruesi is to help others have a happier life by telling fortunes, conducting rituals and making spells to reduce the effects of bad karma.  Ruesi also are able to ward off evil spirits.  They also help people by protecting them from enemies.  Certain rituals performed by Ruesi can bring good luck and fortune to their devotees.  Some of the Ruesi make Sak Yants, the magical and powerful tattoos know throughout this world.

I was about to dip my toes, if not enter, into a new world, the world of the occult in Thailand - "Saiyasart" (waes -magical spells).

As Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz - "Toto, I've a feeling that we're not in Kansas anymore" or at least any parts of Kansas that I visited some 20 years ago!

One of the most important Ruesi rituals is performed once a year is the Korb Siarn Khru - laying the Ruesi mask of the master teacher, Ruesi Por Gae, on the devotee  The Korb Siarn Khru is performed during the Wai Khru Ceremony.  The Siarn Ruesi mask is a full sized mask with head dress with an open mouth, three eyes, two teeth sticking out of the mouth, a moustache, and a beard.  There are also masks of other deities within the Ruesi pantheon - some of them being tigers, elephants, yaks (giants) and other creatures.

Inside of the shrine there was a matrix overhead formed by stringing sii sein  across the room in a checkerboard pattern.  Where the sii sein intersected, separate lengths of sii sein were coiled up.  As the devotees entered the shrine they uncoiled the sii sein and wrapped the free length around their head connecting them physically and spiritually to the Buddha image in the coroner of the room, the Ruesi image and the items used by the Monk in the ritual.

As their turn arrived the devotees would place themselves in front of one of the two Monks involved in the ritual.  Once in place they would make an offering and give it to the Monk.

Making Offering

After accepting the offering, the Monk would start chanting.  It was a special chant called a "Kata".  Chanting a Kata is necessary to cast a spell.  As the Monk was chanting, he selected a Ruesi mask and placed it over the face and head of the devotee.  As the Monk's chanting became louder and more animated, the devotee tensed up with his arms and hands becoming rigid as if going into a cationic state or becoming possessed.

Placing a Ruesi Mask On A Devotee

Monk Chanting A Special Kata To Cast A Spell

The devotees would grunt, howl, and screech the sounds of the animal or deity that was possessing them - their spirit.  The devotees would then start to writhe, crawl, jump, and hop as the spirit took control of their body.  To prevent damage to the devotee, Monk, observers and the shrine, layperson assistants flanking the devotee, would restrain the devotee as the possession reached its apogee.  The Monk would then blow upon the devotee to energize the Sak Yant tattoos and to complete the transference of the spell.  The Monk would then remove the mask.  The devotee, physically and emotionally spent, would then perform a wai (bowed, raised hands clasped in prayer position - Thai demonstration of respect and gratitude) before leaving the shrine.

So what was that all about?

In the Korb Khru ritual, devotees believe that they receive very powerful blessings, are rid of evil influences and black magic is eliminated,  In addition, the merits and strengths of the ancient Ruesi Por Gae, the master teacher of all Sak Yant practitioners.  The Master Teacher, Kroo, protects devotees of his teachings that have passed through the ages amongst the teachers from word of mouth.

I learned from Duang that the young Monk at the "Outside" Wat had studied under Luang Pi Nunn at Wat Bang Phra.  People often remark that it is a small world obviously referring to this physical world but apparently the spirit world is also somewhat finite.

Unlike the Wai Khru Ceremony at the Wat Bang Phra which lasted approximately one hour, the Korb Siarn Khru and subsequent Wai Khru Ceremony at Tahsang Village lasted from 9:30 A.M. to 3:00 P.M.  People, all of them from local villages, arrived by motorbike or pick up truck.  There were no tourist vans or tour buses. It was a event for ordinary people - local people.  It was an extraordinary event - a great opportunity for photography and a special opportunity to experience a unique aspect of Thai culture.

This was just a glimpse into the realm of the occult here in Isaan.  Interestingly the occult here is related to doing good and benefiting people whereas my previous view of the occult in the West was that it was related to doing evil.  My goal now is to learn more about Ruesi and the associated practices from the young Monk at Tahsang Village.

There is always something to learn and experience no matter where you are or how old you are if you are only willing to get off the beaten track and interact with the ordinary people.


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