Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Phra Mae Thorani

Phra Mae Thorani
One of the fascinating benefits of living in this region is having all the opportunities to experience and learn just how different your new reality can become as you develop greater perspectives and interpretation for everything beyond your first perception.  Your reality from your old world is reborn as you learn that some things are not what they first appear and that it is acceptable for things to not be the way they are supposed to be especially if that way that you thought was the only way they should be.

Life for me is never boring here because there is so much to learn and experience from a culture that is so different from the previous 57 years of my life.  A very great component of the culture in my new life here in Isan is the religious beliefs and practices.  My wife is very religious so I am exposed to many different rituals and celebrations seated in Animism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism.

Just as with the ancient cultures of Western Civilization, Animism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism have rich pantheons, legends, and myths.

One of my favorite legends is about Buddha and the Earth goddess, Phra Mae Thorani.

Buddha did not become enlightened over night.  He had many life cycles, some not even human (123 as an animal), before attaining enlightenment or liberation. In one of the stories, some people say myths but for me the term has too much of a negative connotation), Buddha was a Bodhisattva (a being whose goal is to attain enlightenment, a previous life of Buddha) who was meditating under a Bodhi tree (ficus religiosa). He vowed to remain meditating under the tree until he became enlightened.  After seven years, his body was ravaged.

Mara, The Evil One (the Buddhist Devil) apparently out of jealousy, wanted to prevent Buddha from attaining liberation.  Mara represents temptation, sin and death.   He is the King of the Heaven of sensual delight - the quenching of the thirst for pleasure, power, and existence.  Mara first tried to convince and reason with the Buddha to stop and give up his seat under the tree thus giving up on his quest for enlightenment.  When that did not work, Mara showed up with his army, his daughters, and wild animals to drive away the Bodhisattva from his throne - one way or another.  The gods that were watching over Buddha tried to stop Mara's army but when they could not, they fled leaving Buddha alone to resist Mara, alone and physically weakened after seven years of meditation.

Phra Mae Thorani - Private Residence in Kumphawapi

Mara called upon his army to witness his power and what he planned to do next.  Buddha had no one to witness for his good deeds.  He stretched out his right hand and touched the Earth to call forth the earth deity.

Phra Mae Thorani - Huay Xai, Lao

From underneath Buddha's throne, Phra Mae Thorani, the Earth Goddess, in the form of a beautiful young woman rose to bear witness of the Bodhisattva's good deeds. Phra Mae Thorani affirmed Buddha's right to remain on his throne under the tree.  As she twisted her long hair, torrents of water which had been accumulated over the ages from Buddha's libations (pouring of water in rituals to the gods) caused a great flood which washed away Mara and his army.  Buddha was thus freed to continue his path to enlightenment.

The Earth deity - Phra Mae Thorani, Vat Jom Khao Manilet, Lao

For me, this is a great story as well as an inspiring story.  I plan on taking a series of photographs based upon the symbolism and imagery of Phra Mae Thorani.  As it turns out, for me, classical sculpture and posing is not just limited to Greek or Roman culture.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Fruits Of Their Labors

Duang has been very busy the past week learning from her friend how to make pahn, also known as pahn sii kwan and pahn bai sii.  Besides learning how to make pahn, Duang is actually helping to produce pahn for making special offerings during Vassa.

In Thailand the Buddhist Retreat is known as Vassa.  Buddhist Lent starts the first day of the waning moon in the eighth lunar month (typically July).  Buddhist Retreat lasts three lunar months.  During the period, Monks are supposed to remain at their home Wats or monasteries.  The practice predates Buddhism when religious holy men in India would not travel during the rainy season in order to prevent damage to crops growing in the fields, to reduce the likelihood that they could kill insects that they were unable to see in the mud or water, and also to reduce the likelihood that they could injure themselves.

For the Theravada Buddhists of Thailand, there is also a connection between the practice of the Retreat and the life of Buddha.  There is a legend, a belief for others, that Buddha retreated to heaven to give a sermon to his mother who had died seven days after his birth.  He stayed in heaven for three months.  When Buddha returned to Earth, he was welcomed back with great enthusiasm and joy.  The welcome back celebration was so joyous that the gods and goddesses joined in.

We are in Vassa.  During this time, Monks are to remain in their monastery and refrain from overnight travel.  During this time, it is customary for laypeople to make offerings of candles to the Monks because Vassa is a period of intense study of scriptures and teaching by the Monks.

During Buddhist Lent many women made extra merit by wearing white clothing when participating in merit making rituals and when praying.  Some of the women also attended overnight women's retreats at the Wats where they recited and studied scriptures.  Duang has attended one of these overnight retreats already this season.

She and her friends wear white clothing when creating their pahns.

Sunday we traveled 4 hours from our home to make offerings to a special Monk.  We traveled with our daughter-in-law., our grandson Pope, Duang's son, Duang's friend, the Monk from the new Wat near our home, and two other women from the new Wat.  We ended up going in two vehicles due to the threatening weather conditions.

Our journey took us along Thai Highway 2195, a two lane country road, that parallels the Hueang River.  The Hueang River is 90 miles long and empties into the Mekong River.  We travelled along part of the 56 miles of the river that constitutes the border between Thailand and the Lao People's Democratic Republic.  In many places the "river" is in a gully about 50 feet from the side of the road.  Across the 50 foot wide river, on the other side, is Laos - literally a stones throw away - even with my rag arm!  For me it sure put a new perspective on the concept of building a wall to secure a country's border.  It was difficult terrain and a great distance even the short time that we traveled along the border.

Thailand does not have a wall but the border is not ignored.  We went through two sections of road where we were forced to navigate around several hefty log barriers topped with concertina wire which narrowed the road to a single serpentine lane.  The checkpoints were not manned when we passed through them.  However on our way to the shrine, we were stopped by a squad of armed military.  I suspect that they were Thahan Phran, Thai Rangers, paramilitary light infantry.  They were all armed with HK33 assault rifles.  We were stopped, questioned as to where we were going, and given a good look over.  We were quite the lot - a Buddhist Monk, a 4 month pregnant woman, a two year old, my stepson, and me - a foreigner!  We were wished a good day and sent along on our way.

We eventually pulled off of Highway 2195 and took country road 3033 up into the highlands to Wat Phon Nong.  Wat Phon Nong is precided over by a very important Monk.  Duang says that he is the Number 1 Monk in Isan.  He is 49 years old and has been a Monk for 17 years.

Pakoo Pawahna Vilotwavi (?) teaches 16 other Monks at Wat Phon Nong.  His patrons are high ranking officers in the Thai military.  He has meditated for as long as 15 days and nights.  His reputation is also for knowing everything ... knowing the future, telling fortunes, as well as being a great judge of character.  These beliefs of the laypeople are strong and very important in Isan culture.

We arrived at Wat Phon Nong during a light rain shower that continued on and off during our entire stay.  I went up to the sheltered portico were some laypeople were seated on the tile floor in front of Pakoo Pawahna Vilotwavi.  The others of our group stayed at some little huts alongside of the road, busy assembling the offerings to be made.

After about 20 minutes, I was joined by the others lead by Duang carrying a completed offering.  The offering was a large sculpted saffron colored candle, about 9 inches in diameter and roughly 4 feet long, mounted inside of a large pottery pot painted like a strawberry.  The women had assembled components of their pahn sii kwan around and along the candle to be a large Naga (serpent) topped off with three heads with interwoven red, white and blue ribbons.  Red, white and blue are the colors of the Thai national flag. Yellow chrysanthemums, pumalai made from chrysanthemums, and ribbons created out of Thai currency completed the candle offering.  The other people of our group carried the other candle offering as well as the smaller pahn offerings and placed them before the esteemed Monk.

After receiving a blessing from the Monk, time was spent in small talk.  I asked several questions to get a better understanding of what I was observing.  One of the Monks then took me on a private tour of the facility which I greatly appreciated.

With another four hours of driving awaiting us before we were once again home, we soon bid our farewell to the Monks and hit the road once again. The weather had not been great but we had had a great day.  Duang and her friends were quite satisfied and pleased with their offerings to an important Monk.  I was pleased to experience yet another unique aspect of Isaan culture and life.

We will return to the area some day when the weather is more conducive to outdoor exploration.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Passing On

Pahn Sii Kwan
"Passing on" - this blog entry is not another entry regarding the funeral rituals of the Lao Loum people who inhabit the Northeast Thailand.  This blog entry has nothing to do with someone's death. rather it is about keeping a culture and a handicraft alive.  They are kept alive by passing on the knowledge and training others to develop the skills required to maintain the traditions.

Here in Isaan, ornate centerpieces created out of banana leaves, chrysanthemums, and jasmine buds are used during many significant events celebrated with rituals based upon Buddhist, Hindu, and Animist religions.   The centerpieces, called Pahn, Pahn Sii Kwan or Pahn Baisii, can be seen at funerals, 100 Day Parties, weddings, ordinations, birthdays, baii sii rituals, and special Buddhist days.

I have seen pahn being created many times and consider them to be one of the hallmarks of life here in Isaan and in Lao.  The making of pahn, like many things here, is a community endeavor.   Prior to the reason for celebration, women, typically older women, will gather to make the pahn.  In addition to making the pahn, the women spend their time eating, drinking, and most of all ... socializing.  Some of the women chew betelnut, a pastime similar to chewing tobacco even down to spitting out copious amounts of darkly colored saliva.

I had mention some time ago to Duang that it would be nice if she learned how to make pahn.  Duang is clever as well as artistic so learning to make pahn seemed natural to me for her.  There was also another contributing factor for her.  Since pahn are used as offerings in religious rituals, merit is earned by their creators.  Duang agreed and said that she wanted to learn how.  She was willing and we only had to wait for a way.

Tearing Banana Leaves to Use for Pahns
For the past two years, Duang has been going to the local market and purchasing pahn for the shrine in our home.  She has also ordered special pahn to take to rituals in her home village of Thasang Village.  Over the time she developed a friendship with the vendor.  Last week through the vendor, Duang learned of the special ritual to cast the Naga at the local rustic Wat.  After our visit for the casting of the Naga, the woman offered to start teaching Duang how to make pahn.

On Sunday, we drove back to the local rustic Wat near our home for Duang to start her training.  I went along to take photographs specifically to work on using speedlights to control the lighting for photographs.

I had not properly prepared to take photographs.  I had not checked on the numerous AA batteries that I would be using to power the speedlight and two radio transmitters to trigger the speedlight.  A total of 8 batteries are necessary for the technique that I planned on using.  After the first few shots, the flash no longer worked either due to its depleted batteries, depleted batteries in the radio receiver attached to the flash or depleted batteries in the radio receiver on top of my camera - or so I thought.  I had not brought my battery tester so troubleshooting was a hit or miss affair - with many misses.  Despite my shaking, reinstallation of batteries and swapping out of batteries along with several "words of encouragement" from me, the flash did not operate consistently or reliably.  It was then that the Abbott who was casting Naga parts just outside of the room where the lessons and photography were going on got involved.  He told Duang that she and her friend needed to make some offerings and say some prayers to the spirits.  The spirits were upset and did not want photographs.

Apparently earlier, a television crew had arrived at the site to make a film.  They were unable to get their equipment to work.  Apparently the spirits were not pleased and would not allow the filming.

Duang told me to wait.  She and her friend moved over to the corner of  the room that contained a shrine.  Together they made an offering of a pahn and said their prayers, Duang beseeching the spirits to allow me to photograph and not to make me angry.

Upon completion of their worship, my flash began to function properly, consistently, and reliably.  Duang is certain that the spirits had relented and allowed me to continue.  Personally I suspect that I had resolved the issue by using my third radio transmitter and scavenging four batteries from my spare speedlight.  In my experiences and travels around this world I have found that man has a need to explain and understand the events that occur about them.  Duang has solace in her faith and I have comfort in my trust of science - different solutions from different perspectives but solutions that satisfy a common need.

With the technical issues resolved, the lesson began.  The commitment and supportive teacher showed her eager student how to fold, bend, staple pieces of banana leaves and jasmine buds to form the components that will stapled and pinned with sewing pins to create simple pahn.

The women kept busy with their craft while I was occupied with taking photographs.  Their efforts and my efforts were periodically interrupted by my need to share with them the results of photograph efforts. It was a very relaxed atmosphere with plenty of conversation and laughter.  Duang and her friend often laughing at my efforts to take photos from different perspectives such as laying on the floor.  I made several quips about Duang's efforts ... when her friend praised her pahn, I remarked that Duang was good but slow!  Truthfully, Duang had done very well.  Her instructor had gone to school for one year to learn the handicraft and has spent 6 years supporting herself, her mother, and her daughter making pahn to sell at the local market so making speed comparisons was unfair.

I was impressed with the patience of Duang's instructor.  She is the type of teacher that we all wish that we have had.  She watched over Duang's efforts without interfering with Duang's learning process.  She was extremely supportive and encouraging.

Duang concentrated on making the simple pahn while her friend moved on to the more complicated components for intricate pahn.

After three hours of intense learning and work, we left.  Duang said that learning to make pahn was "same same" as learning English ... "think think too much, my head hurt"  We shared a good laugh and returned satisfied and content.  Duang enjoyed her lesson and will return tomorrow for more instruction.

I was pleased to see that Duang will be able to maintain a tradition so closely related to her culture.  Like I often find and appreciate in photography there are people who are willing and capable of passing on their knowledge.  Our world is a better place due to their efforts.  Their students are the legacy and testimony of their teachers.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Casting A Naga

We have been back from our one month trip to Connecticut for two weeks now and life is returning to normal for us.  "Normal" does not necessarily mean routine but rather means the type of life that we enjoy.  For Duang it means being able to practise her faith more completely and conveniently.  For me it means being able to take advantage of the many opportunities here to photograph the details of Isaan culture.

On Thursday, July 28th my 67th birthday, Duang went to the local market to buy some of her foods.  At the market, she learned of a special event that was happening later in the morning - the casting of a Naga statue at a nearby Wat.

Throughout Northeast Thailand and Lao People's Democratic Republic, concrete statues of Naga can be found at Wats often as handrails leading up to worship halls, as guardians at the gates to the grounds, or guardians at the entrance to worship halls and sometimes as part of a water or fountain feature of the Wat.  Nagas are associated with the underwater world which the nearby Mekong River is closely associated with.

Naga is a mythological deity that takes the form a a very great snake.  Nagas are found in the traditions and legends of Hinduism as well as in Buddhism.  I have written before about the amalgamation of Animist, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and traditions here in Isaan.  The area was once Animist before Hindu and then Buddhist believers arrived.  Today in Isaan traditions and beliefs from all three remain a very strong part of not only the culture but of individual daily life.

A long time ago, during one of Buddha's many reincarnations, this time as a toad, the rain god (King of the Sky), Phaya Tan  (Taen) was angry with the people and animals. Buddha ( Phaya Khang Khok)'s, sermons were drawing people and creatures from earth and sky away from the King of the Sky.  He decided to punish them by withholding the necessary life giving and sustaining rains.  After seven years, seven months, and seven days of drought, the surviving people along with the animals got together and consulted with Buddha.  After much deliberations, they decided that Phaya Nak (Naga), the giant snake, would lead them in war against the rain god, Phaya Tan.  Phaya Tan defeated the giant snake and his troops.  After eventually overcoming Phaya Tan, Buddha rewarded  Phaya Nak (Naga) for his loyalty as well as service with the honor of being guardians.

There is also another Buddhist legend involving nagas or snakes.  Today, young men who are participating in the ritual of becoming a novice Monk, after renouncing their worldly goods, are considered to be a "naga".

When Buddha was walking around preaching and teaching his disciples, Naga The Serpent King (Phaya Nak) took on human form, asked to become a Monk, and followed Buddha around listening to the sermons.

One day the naga fell asleep and reverted back to his snake form. Buddha told him that he could not be a Monk because he was not of this world - only humans could be a Monk. The naga agreed to leave the Sanga (religious community of Monks) but requested a favor. He asked Buddha that all young men who are about to be ordained as Monks be called "nagas". Buddha agreed.

To prevent a recurrence of this incident, all young men as part of their ordination are asked if they are human. Phaya Nak, despite leaving the monkhood, continued his devotion to Buddha and is often depicted in art as the seven headed cobra shielding Buddha from the rain.

After checking out the sight, Duang returned home to see if I was interested.  Naturally I was enthused at such an opportunity.  I grabbed my camera gear and we set  off accompanied by our daughter-in-law and 22 month old grandson, Pope.

A short distance from our home along a route that included two dirt single lane paths, we ended up at the sight of the Wat.  This Wat is very rustic and primitive.  The Monk's quarters are very basic - bamboo, wood, and thatched huts.  The worship hall is a small building of similar construction.

The complex is a work in progress.  A large statue of Buddha in the "Calling The Earth to Witness" pose had been recently been set upon a newly poured concrete block to still be completely backfilled.  In this pose which defines the moment when Buddha became enlightened, Buddha is seated cross-legged with his left hand placed in his lap with the palm facing upwards, the right hand placed on his right knee with the fingers pointing down toward the Earth and the palm facing Buddha.

Upon arrival, we went to the building which serves as the worship hall.  Inside some women were busy making pahn sii kwan, decorative centerpieces used in special rituals.  Pahn are made from flowers, floral buds, and banana leaves and are a special handicraft of the ethnic Lao people of Thailand and Lao.

Pope Helping Out to Make A Pahn Sii Kwan

After a while we went outside to where the Naga was to be cast.  Sahts were placed upon the compacted moist ground for people to sit before a small shrine constructed for the day's ritual.

Monks Preparing Cement to Cast a Naga

I then became aware that I would have the honor of pouring the first three buckets of cement for the statue.  Was the honor because it was my birthday?  Apparently not - the Monk did not know that it was my birthday until the next day.  Was it because I was a foreigner, a falang?  Yes!  The land was once a horse farm frequented by foreigners and the husband of the landowner was a foreigner.  Giving me the honor was considered good Karma for the place apparently.

Pope Places Some Coins In The Naga Form
After I had poured three buckets of cement - symbolic of the three gems of Buddhism - one for Buddha, one for the teachings of Buddha, and the last one for the Sangha (Buddhist religious community), people and Monks took their turn pouring cement into the metal formwork for the Naga.  Pope did not participate in pouring cement but did place some coins into the wet cement.  When columns are set for Wat buildings and statues are cast coins are placed in the concrete for good luck.

Coins were not the only objects placed inside of the Naga.  After the lower portion of the Naga had been poured, the top sections of the formwork were attached.  Just before the formwork was closed up with the last panel, the Abbott placed a special object inside of the void to be filled with cement.  An intricate handcrafted Naga made from woven banana leaves and some type of organic fibers was unfurled and placed into the still wet cement of the lower base.  The Naga might not have a heart but it would have a spirit and perhaps a soul.

Setting the Last Formwork Panel

With the final panel installed, the pouring of  cement recommenced and was quickly completed.

With the last bucket of cement poured, we said good bye to everyone and left the Wat with the Abbott making final adjustments to the formwork for the Naga's tongue.

We returned to our home satisfied and pleased; Duang satisfied and pleased at participating in as well as pleased with the merit that she earned for this special event.  I was satisfied and pleased at having the opportunity to experience as well as documenting a unique cultural ritual.


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