Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Special Ritual

It has been a while since I wrote a new blog entry.  We had spent six weeks in the USA which was great for taking photographs of landscapes in Olympic National Park and Glacier National Park but not so great for taking portraits which is what I prefer to do now.

We have been back from our USA trip for one month now.  The past month has been very busy and my camera along with my preferred lens had to be sent to Bangkok for servicing.  They are back now and we are getting back to our "normal" life.

Yesterday we went out early in the morning to Tahsang Village to participate and document a unique religious ritual associated with the Naga.

The people of Northeast Thailand are predominately ethnic Lowland Lao.  The Lowland Lao of Thailand and neighboring Laos are Theravada Buddhists.  As I have written several times in this blog, the actual beliefs as well as practices of the Buddhists here are actually an amalgamation of Animist, Brahmin, and Buddhist traditions.

In this region there is a strong belief in Nagas.  Nagas are a deity that is in the form of a great snake although some Nagas are known to have transfigured into human form at times.  One of the Naga kings, Phaya Nak, is believed to live in the Mekong River just north of our home in Udon Thani.

Each day of the week has a statue of Buddha in a particular pose associated with it except for Wednesday which has two poses associated with it dependent upon the time of day.  The statue, or rather the pose, associated with Saturday is:  The Buddha Seated Under A Naga

The Buddha Seated Under A Naga
The pose depicts an event in Guatama Buddha's life.  Four weeks after Guatama Buddha began to meditate under a Bodhi tree, a large strong storm raged for seven days.  The King of the Nagas at the time, Mucalinda, a seven headed king cobra came up from his realm of the underworld and protected the Buddha from the ravages of the storm with his hood.  After the storm had cleared, Mucalinda, assumed a human form, bowed before the Buddha and returned in joy to his palace.

Yesterday a new shrine featuring The Buddha Seated Under A Naga was being dedicated at the Wat outside of Tahsang Village.  This Wat is preferred by Duang's immediate family over the Wat inside of the village.

We arrived at the Wat amongst the sugar cane and cassava fields around 8:00 A.M.  Preparations were already well underway when we arrived.  Men and woman dressed in either white or very pale blue shirts and blouses were occupied sweeping up the vegetation litter throughout the Wat grounds.  In short time the litter had been consolidated into four piles to be burned later.  The ground was now bare sandy compacted clay with patches of mud from the daily rains that we have experienced for the past month (one day without rain since 9 August)

In the Northwest corner of the grounds, under the roof of a combination open kitchen/workshop area, women were busy preparing the daily food offerings for the Monks.

There was a large table covered with a white cloth over it and surrounded by a heavy red cloth with gold fringe in front of the new shrine.  People were busy placing food offerings on the table in preparation for the dedication ritual later in the morning.

We went directly to the Sala, the meeting place where daily merit making of offering food to the Monks is conducted, with our offerings of bottled drinking water and food that Duang had prepared earlier in the morning.

Preparing Lotus Blossoms For Offerings Inside the Sala
Many women in the sala were busy preparing either the offerings for the typical morning merit making ritual and offerings of food and flowers for the dedication ritual.  Duang quickly joined in preparing the offerings for the special ritual.

For the dedication ritual, "nine" was the requirement.  All the offerings had to be in amounts of "nine"- nine green coconuts, nine bunches of bananas, nine turban squashes, nine Lotus blossoms in each vase, nine apples, nine pineapples and so on.  As it turned out, there were three locations at the Wat where offerings would be made so there were several platters of offerings to be prepared.  Since this is Thailand with a great appreciation and dedication to form as well as style - the offerings on each platter had to be placed with care and precision to be visually appealing.

I asked Duang why everything had to be "nine'.  She explained to me "Not 5, not 7, not 10. 9 very good, very special - very good for Buddha"  Who am I to argue?  I don't have to understand to report what I experience, observe, or in this case ... what I am told.

Lotus blossoms, actually buds, are a very important floral offering during rituals.  The lotus flower has strong symbolism in Buddhism.  The flower grows in muddy and murky waters. From this environment it grows forth to be beautiful.  Therefore in Buddhism, it represents the rising and blossoming above the mud and murk of the human condition to achieve enlightenment, purification - purifying of the human spirit which is born into a world of suffering to become one with the Buddha.

The petals of the closed Lotus bud are carefully peeled away from the bud, gently folded back towards, and the tips tucked back into the bud.  This process continues until there are three rows of tucked in petals.  Three - more religious connotations.  Three is very significant in Buddhism - symbolizing the three gems - Buddha, the teachings of Buddha, and the Buddhist religious community (Sanga).

Prepared Lotus Blossoms Placed Into Vase
In addition to Lotus blossoms the women were very busy removing the petals from several large plastic bags of chrysanthemums.  When they were finished there were several metal food serving platters of high mounds of bright yellow petals.  There were also some platters with mounds of white Lotus petals.

Duang Participating In Merit Making Ritual Of Offering Food To Monks
After the merit making ritual of making food offerings to the Monks, the Monks ate their one meal of the day.  Upon finishing their meal, the three Monks left the sala and returned to their quarters.  The villagers then enjoyed a community meal out of the food that the Monks had not placed in their food bowls.

When the villagers had completed their meal, the Monks returned and the special dedication ritual commenced at the new shrine.  The ritual was conducted by a visiting Monk from a nearby village.  He apparently is better versed in those matters than the young Monk at the outside Wat.

The ritual was performed by the visiting Monk with the assistance of the Abbott of the "outside" Wat.  The other "outside" Monk and three "Tapahao" young men witnessed the ritual off to the side.

The villagers sat on sahts (woven reed mats) placed upon the ground.

The ritual consisted of lighting candles, the offering of the fruits and coconuts to the spirits with a great deal of chanting by the two Monks and the villagers.  At the conclusion of this portion of the ritual, the visiting Monk tossed handfuls of flower petals at the new statue before walking through the villagers and sprinkling them with flower petals.

A Monk Tosses Chrysanthemum Petals At Shrine
After blessing the people with the flower petals, I followed the two Monks as they walked from the new shrine out through the gate of the Wat and along the adjoining dirt road outside of the Wat.  As they walked, the Monks chanted, while the visiting Monk tossed flower petals along their path.

Sprinkling Flower Petals Outside of the Wat Grounds
Upon returning to the inside of the Wat compound, the Monks went to the Bot (ubosoth), ordination hall, of the Wat where they were joined by the villagers.  Offerings had been placed earlier in the morning in front of the statues.

Offerings To the Spirits Placed in the Bot
A much shorter ritual was conducted in the Bot which concluded once again with the visiting Monk tossing flower petals on the statues, offerings as well as other participants.

Sprinkling Flower Petals On Offerings to the Spirits
From the Bot everyone made the very short walk to the shrine next to the Abbott's quarters.  This shrine was the site of the Korb Siarn Khu Ceremony that we attended on May 1.

Offerings At the Ruesi Shrine
At the Ruesi shrine, the Abbott of the outside Wat took a large bundle of joss sticks (incense), 16 total, and lit them.  I joked to him about the need to be careful to not burn the place down.  After extinguishing the flames of the incense sticks, he placed them one by one in the offerings on the table situated at the entrance to the shrine.  The villagers then each lit up nine joss sticks each and like the Monk, set the smoldering sticks into the various offerings.  I was seated at the end of the table inside of the small shrine.  In no time at all the room was filled with smoke.

The Smoke Filled Ruesi Shrine
Perhaps you might be wondering ... why the young Abbott had 16 joss sticks when everyone else had nine and nine was supposed to be so important that day?  I wondered why too.  When I asked Duang why, she explained "It's alright.  He number one. Big boss".

The ritual ended with once again the offerings and the villagers being showered with Chrysanthemum and Lotus petals.  Duang ended up with a wad of petals in her open pocketbook and I was showered with several handfuls - so many petals that some fell out of the bottom of my shirt when I lowered my pants to go to the toilet upon returning to our home.  Duang said that it was all good luck for us!

I often get singled out for the special blessings - I am typically the only foreigner at the rituals.  Since I go to so many of the events the Monks have gotten familiar and used to me.  So when the blessings are given out, be it water or petals, I get more than my share - much to everyone's amusement.  Or perhaps they believe that I need more than the local villagers.

I was not quite sure exactly what I had observed so I ran my theory past Duang.  She listened and then said to me "Why you ask me?  You understand already"  I wanted to be sure that my theory was correct and did not leave anything out.

The offerings and blessing of flower petals at the new shrine were to welcome the spirits of the new shrine to its home.  The tossing of the petals along the road out of the Wat and onto the adjoining dirt road outside the Wat was for the spirits that inhabited the area.  This was like having the ritual when you move into a new home, start a new business , or in my early days here in Thailand - commence a refinery expansion!

The offerings at the Bot and Ruesi shrine were to their spirits so that they would be accepting of the new spirit inhabitants.

On our way out of the Wat, we stopped at the new shrine where people were removing the offerings.  Duang brought one of the green coconuts back to the truck so that we could enjoy fresh coconut water for our trip back home.  After determining that it was OK I had her also bring back one of the bunches of bananas.  Tomorrow I will bake some banana bread for myself and my little friends back in Tahsang Village.

It is good to be back home!

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