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.

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