Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

Today is Thanksgiving here in Thailand; a day like most every other day here.

Thailand does not celebrate or recognize the holiday.

However we do not need government sanctioning of the day to contemplate, give thanks, and to rejoice for all that is good in our life.

Yes today is a day like any other day here in Isaan - for me.  Everyday I contemplate, give thanks, and rejoice for all that is good in my life.  But it is on American Thanksgiving that I celebrate, share, and publicize it with people other than my wife.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays even more so than Christmas and definitely more so than New Years - specifically New Year's Eve.

Christmas carries too much emotional baggage to truly be appreciated.  After perhaps spending more money than you should have on gifts for your family, if you are fortunate you only get to witness their suppressed disappointment at the results of your efforts.  If you are less fortunate, you are told what they really wanted or asked when along with where they can exchange the gift.  You are also often put into the same situation of having to express gratitude and appreciation for receiving things that you neither wanted or needed all the while feeling guilty in recognition of the donor's efforts and generosity.

However, Thanksgiving is a time for families to gather together to feast and celebrate the blessings of the past year.  I believe that I am an optimist so a day of rejoicing and celebrating the good in life is not difficult.  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 what we wished that we had or to focus on what we do not have.  If for no other reason, being alive is reason to give thanks on Thanksgiving.  With life there is hope; hope for a better tomorrow or some day after.

This Thanksgiving I am am thankful for so many things that I have.  As much as I am thankful for what I have, I am thankful for the many blessings that I had and some that I no longer can enjoy.

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 our past that prepared us for today and for the days to come.

Today, as for all days, I am thankful for the love, experiences, and guidance that I have received from family and friends who are no longer in this world.  They have passed on and I can no longer enjoy their presence. They affected my life in ways that are impossible to quantify or for me to express into 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 to me.  The gift of family, companionship and friendship is reason enough to give thanks today as well as every day.

I am thankful for having been raised in a country and time where excellent quality free public education was available to everyone.  Going to school in Groton, Connecticut in the 1950s and into the late 1960s was a blessing.  I often think back to those school years and believe that there was a unique group of teachers back then.  As students we were challenged by our teachers to do more than our best.  A quality free education is a blessing to be thankful for.  Even today in many parts of the world, children do not have access to 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 even in some Western countries.

I am most thankful for the way that my parents raised me.  Too often today, people blame their problems on their parents.  They blame their current behavior on their parents.  Blaming their parents, to them. absolves them of their individual responsibility and accountability for their own actions.  I know that my parents did their very best in raising their family based upon what they knew and could at the time.  Should we expect any less or demand anything more? I suspect that most parents do the same.

I was taught manners. Manners and etiquette allow individuals to function, interact and thrive in a society with minimal conflict.  Manners and etiquette help to define our value and standing as an individual and to society.  The manners and etiquette that I learned as a child have allowed me to integrate into different cultures easily where I have worked and lived.  While these may not be a blessing, they are things that I am thankful for.

I was taught that I was not special.  I am not certain how well I learned that lesson.  I suspect that most people have not completely learned that lesson well.  However I learned to not expect or demand special privileges or preferential treatment.  I expect to treated the same as any other person.  An off shoot of this lesson that I was taught throughout my youth was the realization that as an individual I had certain responsibilities to the group.  I have the responsibility to not demand that the group conform solely to appease my wishes, practices, or beliefs.  I do not necessarily have to conform but that choice is mine to make and I should be prepared for and accept the consequences.

I was taught that I could have anything that I wanted; as long as I first had the money to pay for it. I was taught and more importantly demonstrated each day.  I was taught that anything worth having was worth working for.  I was also taught that I wanted something bad enough I would work for it.  If I was not willing to work for something, I did not need it.

Today I am also thankful for my families and friends that are part of my daily life.

I am most thankful to having, recognizing and appreciating my peace of mind.

Thank You - all of you.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Monk's Cremation

Wan Tong Veeboonkul
Buddhists do not believe in a permanent and fixed reality.  To them everything in this world is subject to change as well as alteration.  Impermanence and change are truths in our existence according to Buddhism.

In Buddhism, impermanence is described in four phrases:

Whatever is stored up is bound to run out.

Whatever rises up is bound to fall down.

Whatever come together is bound to fall apart.

Whatever is born is impermanent and is bound to die.

Everyday, if we look or choose to be aware there are examples as well as affirmations of the four phrases regarding impermanence.  However, it is the death of someone that we know that strongly drives into our reality the truth of the fourth phrase  "Whatever is born is impermanent and is bound to die".

A week ago, one of Duang's cousins died.  Wan Tong Veeboonkul was 72 years old.  We last saw him at a funeral in Thasang Village on October 14th.

Wan Tong Veeboonkul - far right side of this photo
Wan Tong had been a Theravada Buddhist Monk for five years.  He had become a Monk after the death of his wife.  As is very common her in Thailand, many men after the death of their wife and their children leaving to start their own families, will "take refuge" in the Triple Gem (Three Jewels) of Buddhism - the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of Buddha), and the Sangha (the Buddhist religious community of Monks and Nuns).

Duang's cousin had four daughters and one son who lived near him in Ban Nong Daeng near Duang's home village in Nongwa Subdistrict.

He had not been feeling well for a while - Duang said that his insides were no good.  Last week he went out for a walk and had a heart attack.  Typically when someone dies of natural causes they are cremated three days after their death.  In cases of violent deaths such as accidents or suicides, the person is cremated sooner because the spirits are unsettled by the death - in those cases the body is cremated one or two days later.  However Duang's cousin was a Monk which is an entirely different protocol.

Monks are considered and treated as a higher class of people than typical people here in Thailand.  Their social status is due to Monks being closer to liberation ("Enlightenment") than average people or even wealthy people.

I have attended over 15 funerals in six years, however this was the first cremation ritual for a monk.  To paraphrase an expression that Duang often uses when I point out something in America or Thailand that Is different from each other - "Funeral for Buddha (Monk) not same for other people"

The first difference is that a Monk is not cremated until 7 days after his death.  Secondly whereas all the cremations that I have attended were around 1:00 PM, the cremation for Monks does not start until after sundown.  Our sunset now is around 5:30 PM so yesterday's ritual did not start until 7:00 P.M. The ritual for the Monk lasted two hours whereas typical cremations that I have attended lasted around one hour.

The ritual for laypeople starts at their home with a procession to the local Wat for the final aspects of the ritual.  The Monk was kept at the Wat where he lived.

Entrance to Wat Udom Nong Daeng

Oh - the biggest difference was Monks are cremated on a funeral pyre on the Wat's grounds and not in the Wat's crematory furnace.  When I arrived yesterday afternoon for the evenings ritual, the Monk was already positioned on top of the funeral pyre.

Funeral Pyre for Wan Tong Veeboonkul
A small ornate pavilion had been erected around the funeral pyre. The pavilion was constructed from four concrete piles placed in the ground to serve as support columns.  The concrete columns served as support elements for horizontal bamboo members that in turn served as attachment points for long thin bamboo members to form a dome above the funeral pyre.

The dome framework was covered with a fine white fabric that very well could have been mosquito netting. The base of the dome was circled by a ring of  homemade ornate consumable panels - thin Styrofoam boards covered with a solid colored foil with an overlay of a different colored foil cut by hand into intricate designs.  I have watched this type of decoration being produced before but on a much smaller scale for "spirit houses" (basahts) used in Tambon Nong Roy Wan parties (Bone Party).

Ornate thin colored cloth panels, reminiscent of delicate summer curtains from my youth in New England were suspended from the dome ring and gathered at their end near the ground to form triangles along the circumference of the funeral pyre.  There was a low wall type structure created from horizontal bamboo poles and fabric covered thin Styrofoam panels.  Two openings at opposite ends of the structure allowed access to the pyre.  Leaning up against the outside  four low walls were many funeral memorial placards readily available for all funerals.  The placards often contain clocks, fans, giant ornamental watches, and sometimes kitchen utensils along with artificial flowers, garlands and custom printed banners of best wishes for the deceased along with the name of the donor.

Underneath the dome, a refrigerated coffin was resting upon a bed of logs.  The bed of logs was comprised of two layers of 9" to 12" diameter hardwood logs perpendicular to each other.  Inside of the refrigerated coffin was the typical consumable coffin containing the corpse.

Outside of the entrance closest to the pavilions where people sat to view the ritual where tables with talisman called daughans that would be placed on top of the consumable coffin by mourners before coconut water is poured on the corpse by Monks, dignitaries and family members.  Men remove the daugchans from the lid of the consumable coffin and place them inside of the coffin before the pouring of the coconut water.

Mourners Carrying Monk Robes Offerings Three Times Clockwise Around Pyre
A very important aspect of the ritual is to earn merit for one-self as well as for the spirit of the deceased person.  Merit is typically earned at funerals by offering robes to the Monks by dignitaries and immediate family members. The people earn merit for themselves and the deceased person by carrying the robe up to the coffin and placing the robe on a ordinary metal serving platter on the coffin at the entrance to the furnace.  The Senior Monk accepts the first offering followed by Monks in descending seniority until all the robes are distributed.  Typically at funerals there are 2 to 5 offerings made.  For the ritual associated with the Monk's cremation, ordinary laypeople made a cash offering in a collection box at one of the tables off to the side of the pyre.  They then took a packaged robe and carefully carried it three times clockwise around the pyre.  It seemed to me that unlike a typical funeral there was no announcing of who gave what for cash offerings.  Unlike typical funerals, poor people who could not offer cash did not offer small bags of rice.  It appeared to me that you offered what you could at this ritual and you got to walk around with the robe.  After people completed their circumambulation of the pyre, the robes were returned to the white cloth covered folding table to be used by other mourners.

At most cremation rituals there are 6 to 14 Monks in attendance.  However for the ritual involving a Monk there was about 34 Monks participating.

At 7:00 PM the ritual commenced.  The start was initiated by the ringing of a bell - sounded like the ringing of a steam locomotive bell.

A senior education official did the "Master of Ceremony" duty - announcing and keeping things organized in accordance to the supervision of another one of Duang's cousins - an Abbott at another local Wat.  Both the education official and Duang's cousin are common participants at the local funerals.

The Start of the Ritual - School Official Shows Sign of Respect for the Deceased
A big difference in this ritual as opposed to a typical funeral was the offering of robes to the Monks.  Besides the sheer number of robes that were offered, there was a different way to offer them.  A dignitary or family member would be called, go up to the table of robes, take a robe on a gold colored pressed metal ornate raided bowl, and carry it to the area just inside of the pyre area.  Once the person had place the bowl with the robe on a table next to the coffin. a Monk would walk barefoot about 20 meters from their pavilion to accept the offering.  Each Monk said a chant before accepting the offering.

As part of the ritual. laymen removed the refrigerated coffin from the pyre and set it off to the side.

After the coconut water had been poured over the corpse and the daugchans placed inside of the consumable coffin, laymen punctured the bottom of the coffin to drain away the liquids in the coffin and to facilitate the cremation of the corpse.  They then placed additional long logs that had been stored off to the side of the funeral structure.  The logs were placed to form a large and dense teepee around the consumable coffin. The pyre was then doused with naphtha rather than the typical diesel fuel to start the fire.

As a Monk entered the funeral structure with a candle and started the pyre fire, fireworks were launched into the black sky.  Typically three are launched to scare away any malevolent spirits that might interfere with the release of the deceased person's spirit.  For the Monk's ritual there were several fireworks shot into the sky - it was difficult to count because each firework had several secondary explosions once it got up to elevation.  I was busy taking photos but I would estimate roughly 24 explosions and colorful bursts.

Like all funeral rituals, the symbolism of turning away from the materialism of this world, candies and foiled wrapped coins were tossed to the eagerly awaiting crowd - especially the children.

The cremation ritual last night took two hours to complete.  Typical funeral rituals take one hour once the coffin arrives at the local Wat.

Whatever is born is impermanent and is bound to die.


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