Friday, September 23, 2016

What Becomes of Cremains In Isaan

In a person's life there are many questions, some that will never be answered.  They say that there is no such thing as a stupid or even a silly question.  However, some questions have more importance and significance than others.

Fifty-one years ago, in 1965, Jimmy Ruffin, in his hit song "What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted?" wondered about what happened to people who experience a common condition for people of all ages, backgrounds, economic status, and cultures.  I don't know if he ever got an answer or if there is even an answer to what becomes of the broken hearted.  I do know that from the lyrics of the song, he had the proper attitude and an adequate coping mechanism - "I know I've got to find some piece of mind, I'll be searching everywhere, Just to find someone to care"

Here in Isaan, I have attended 18 funeral rituals.  Up until the last funeral ritual, September 10th, my personal experience ceased with the smoke rising from the cremation furnace with all attendees departing the Wat for the family home for some more drinking and eating. It has often crossed my mind as to "What happens to the cremains of the beloved departed?"

Bone Washing Ritual

My next involvement or experience with the departed or more specifically the remains of the departed, was at Songkran when the family would gather together to wash the bones of the dead.  During the bone washing ritual, small bone fragments that are stored in a small container called a ghoat are rinsed with water in a special ritual.

The amount of bones retained by the family is a small amount and does not contain ashes from the cremation of the body.  I knew that the cremation process had to produce more bone fragments than were stored in the ghoats and definitely a significant amount of ash.  I asked Duang about it and she had told me that the other bone fragments and ash were buried on the Wat grounds.

It was not until two weeks ago, that I got to experience as Paul Harvey used to say "the rest of the story"

With the exception of Monks, the bodies of people are typically cremated around 2 or 3 PM.  The next morning starting at 7:00AM the cremains are retrieved by the Monks often with involvement by family members.

Following Duang's advise, I got up at 3:30 AM and arrived at the Wat inside of Thasang Village around 5:00 AM - before the Monks had woken up.  I arrived so early that even the Wat dogs had not woken up yet!  It was pitch black outside so I had to very cautiously walk across the mud from my truck to the concrete landing of the stairs leading up to the bot (ordination hall).  After awhile the Wat dogs woke and sensed my presence.  They were not pleased at all and aggressively let me know as well as the nearby villagers.  Wat dogs do not have a reputation as  bad as their cousins - junkyard dogs but they can be intimidating.  I hurriedly opened the metal gate across the stairway, quickly shut the gate behind me and ascended the stairs to the bot.  From my safe perch on the porch of the bot, I looked down upon the gang of Wat dogs and gave them the evil eye as the sky lightened up in the east with the rising sun obscured by heavy threatening cloud cover.

Around 6:00 AM the Monks arose and upon reassuring the Wat dogs that all was alright in this world, peace and calm returned to the Wat.  I vacated my sanctuary in the bot and joined the Monks at ground level around the crematorium.  I learned that the ritual would commence at 7:00 AM.

Duang arrived with a car full of people - the Monk and her friends from the Wat near our home.  She was shortly joined by her son, daughter and their families as well as family members and friends.

The ritual started with the Abbot of the Wat opening the doors of the furnace and checking things out.  Everything was apparently in good order, so he instructed Duang's son to proceed.  Duang's son used a long metal handled hoe to push the ash and remains through the grating of the heavy metal cremation bed down through the furnace to a couple sheets of recycled corrugated metal at the base of the furnace.

With the help of his sister's boyfriend, Duang's son pulled the cremation carriage out from the interior of the furnace.  With stiff handcrafted brooms and under the supervision of the Abbbott, they brushed ash and dust from the carriage onto the floor of the furnace and then down the natural draft duct to the corrugated metal below.  Ash and dust wafted into the air forcing the young men to occasionally back off to catch their breadths and clear their throats.

Luang Tong Points Out Some Missed Ash

With the carriage and topside of the furnace acceptably clean, the young men and Monks descended the stairs of the furnace, walked around to the base at the backside of the furnace.

Duang's son pulled the sheets of corrugated metal covered with his father's remains from underneath the furnace through the natural draft opening at the back of the furnace.

Using some large freshly fashioned chopsticks cut from some nearby bamboo, the Monks sifted through the ash and still glowing embers of the funeral pyre to recover bone fragments.  Once the Monks had selected and set aside the largest fragments, family and friends took up positions around the corrugated metal to complete the search for bone fragments.

Family Recovering Bone Fragments From Cremains
The recovered bone fragments were placed off to the side on top of a recycled piece of the fine plastic mesh that is placed upon the ground to recover rice kernels during the threshing process.  There were not that many bone fragments and they were all rather small - under 5 to 6 inches long.  Readily identifiable fragments were vertebrae, ulna, radius, ribs, a very small skull patch and a ball joint from a knee, elbow, or ankle.  The collected bones and mesh were formed into a ball and dipped 5 times into a plastic bucket of water.  The five dips signify the moral code of five precepts that Buddhist laypeople take:

     Refrain from harming living things
     Refrain from taking what is not given
     Refrain from sexual misconduct
     Refrain from lying and gossip
     Refrain from taking intoxicating substances

After the bones had been washed they were carefully and reverently placed inside of an ordinary plain clay pot and covered with a white muslin cloth secured with a sacred string (sai sin) wrapped three times around the neck of the pot - three times being symbolic of the three gems of Buddhism - "Buddha", "the Teachings of Buddha", and the Buddhist Religious Community (Sanga).

The pot of bones were then taken and presented to the Monks who were seated in a single line on sahts placed upon the ground off to the side of the assembled family. The bones were presented by an uncle who besides having been a Monk earlier in his life also received additional special training making him a "tapakhao"  Started with the Abbott of the Wat, and then the visiting Monk, Luang Tong, each of the Monks poured water into the pot containing the bones. The act of pouring water in this case was not to cleanse the bones before them.  The act of pouring the water was the act of transference of merit to the departed spirit.

After the last Monk had poured water on the bones, a Brahman performed an offering ritual to the Monks.

The clay pot containing the bone fragments as well as water from the Monks was brought to the area where the family was seated on sahts placed on the ground.  The water was decanted from the clay pot into another container.  A woman selected specific fragments from the pot for placement in a ghoat next to the pot and eventual interment in a tat on the Wat grounds.

Selecting Fragments To Be Stored in the Ghoat
 At this point, the family placed many small yellow candles amongst the ashes and embers remaining on the recycled corrugated metal sheets.  The offering plate from the just concluded ritual with the Monks was also placed on the metal sheets.

Duang's son and some other male family members went off to the edge of the Wat grounds behind the furnace and dug a small hole in the area where deceased people's last possessions are burned as part of the cremation ritual.  The clay pot with bone fragments was placed into the hole followed by the ashes and embers from the metal sheets.  The contents of the offering plate were then placed into the hole followed by the pouring of drinking water from a plastic bottle.  The hole was then filled with dirt.  The ritual was over.

A mystery of the Universe had not been solved but for me, my question of what becomes of cremains here in Isaan had been answered.  As for Jimmy Ruffin's question of what becomes of the broken hearted ... I have been there and done that.  The answer is their life moves on, their life changes, and if they are fortunate, they do find someone who cares along with peace of mind.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Bun Khao Saht 2016 - Feeding the Family Spirits

Making Food Offering To the Spirits of Parents

Friday was a special day in Isaan.  September 16, was Bun Khao Saht also known as Boun Khao Salak or "Celebration of the Dead" in neighboring Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos).  It is the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival held on the day of the tenth Full Moon of the lunar calendar.  For Westerners it is called the "Harvest Moon".

On this special day merit making is performed by offering food to the Phii (ghosts) of family members.  People also earn merit through offering a special treat called "Kao Tawtek" to their local Monks.  Kao Tawtek is a mixture of freshly popped rice, caramel, peanuts, shredded coconut and millet.  It is made in backyards, front yards, and side yards throughout Isaan just prior to Wan Kao Saht - typically in huge woks over wood fires. It is also traditional for older people to give gifts of Kao Tawtek and money to children.

Like many things here in Thailand, Bun Khao Saht seems to be adapted and amalgamated from other cultures. The Chinese celebrate a Hungry Ghost Festival and "Ghost Day" around the same time.  In Vietnam, the second biggest holiday with an emphasis and focus on children is celebrated at this time of the year.

I drove out to Tahsang Village, my wife's home village, early this morning to be able to participate in the daily merit making ritual of offering food to the Monks.  I drove through the bright green rice paddies, "high as an elephant's eye" sugar cane fields, and muddy fields lying in fallow before I arrived at Wat Pha That Nong Mat.  This has been one of the most wet monsoon seasons since I have been in Thailand.  Since we returned to Thailand from our trip to America on July 20th, we have had rain all but three days.  Mud is everywhere and some of the country roads have moving water flowing across them.  Of course the combination of rain and traffic is taking a heavy toll on all the roads.  Potholes and failing pavement are now the norm.

On Bun Khao Saht, in addition to earning personal merit, the participants earn merit for the spirits of their dead relatives.  It is especially important to make offerings to family members who died during the year since that last Bun Khao Saht.  For my step-son and step-daughter, it had the significance associated with the death of their father who died the previous week.

Duang's Daughter Makes Offering to Her Father

In the Lao Loum culture, as well as other Southeast Asia cultures, the people have to take care of the spirits of their family as well as other ghosts.  Spirits need merit in death as well in life to assist them in their journey to enlightenment.  Merit is the basis for determining what form and status a person will be reincarnated as in a future life.

The villagers, in addition to the normal offerings of food for the Monks, had brought baskets of special foods wrapped in banana leaves.  The baskets were carefully placed on the floor of the incomplete Viharn (several years under construction but it does have a tile floor now) next to a concrete column.  A sai sin (sacred cotton string) was placed across the tops of the baskets.  The sai sin ran up the column, across the Viharn and ran down a second column near where the Monks sat slightly above the villagers.  The sai sin terminated in a ball placed on a plate at the side of the Wat's senior Monk.  The sai sin connects this world to other worlds, the laypeople to the Monks and conveys the merit making to the deceased people.

Many of the women were dressed in white uniforms like the attire that Duang wears just about every night when she conducts her ritual upstairs in our home where my roll top desk has been converted into a shrine.  The women, including Duang and her mother, were participating in a women's retreat at the Wat.  They spent the remainder of the day and most of the night reading and studying the scriptures and receiving lectures from the Monks.

The offering of food to the Monks was a typical daily ritual with one exception, while the Monks ate their one meal of the day, the women in the white costumes along with a couple of Brahmans chanted in Pali for most of the time.

Pope and Peelawat Participate in the Ritual

At the end of the ritual, the villagers gathered up their baskets and went outside.  The villagers scattered throughout the Wat grounds selecting specific trees to stop at before going to their family tat where the bones of their family are interned.  The offerings made at the trees were for family members who died prior to the family having enough money to buy a tat as a repository for their bones.

The food was placed upon banana leaves and consisted of peeled fruits, sticky rice, chili sauces, dried fish, kao tawtek and other typical Isaan foods.  Off to the side was a banana leaf with betel-nut chewing items.  After the foods were laid out, water was poured over them as the family members communicated to the spirits.

The offerings to the spirits also included two lit yellow candles and two sprigs of "dogkhut" - I suspect Thai jasmine buds.  When offerings are made to the Buddha, three of each item are offered - one for Buddha, one for the teachings of Buddha (Dhamma), and one for the Buddhist religious community (Sanga).  For spirits the offerings are in pairs.

After the family spirits residing in the tats had been offered food and drink, the people hung filled thin banana leaf packets in the trees throughout the grounds.  The banana packets contained food offerings to the other family spirits whose bones were not interned in the tat.

Duang and some other women, made food offerings to the spirits of relatives whose bones are kept in highly decorated steeple or spire shaped structures called "Tats".  Tats are reliquaries for bone chips of departed ancestors.  More affluent villagers have a free standing tat and those less affluent will often have a niche inside of the block walls that surround Wats.

After a while, around ten minutes, one of the men rang the Wat's large bell three times signifying that the spirits had completed eating.  The small banana leaf packets were quickly removed from the trees and returned to the family baskets.  The packets will later be placed in the sugar cane fields, rice paddies, and other lands to feed the spirits (ghosts)  that inhabit them.  In return for feeding the hungry ghosts, the people ask that the spirits watch over the land and its crops bringing success as well as good luck to the owners.

Laypeople of Thasang Village Partake In Communal Meal

The villagers returned to the Viharn to have a community meal with the food leftover from the offerings to the Monks.  There is always too much food offered to the Monks and since they are allowed to take only what they can eat that morning for their one meal of the day ensuring that there are always "leftovers".

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Boy's Day In Isaan

Peelawat Gets His Hair Removed

The passage of time here in rural Northeast Thailand is marked by the seasonal rhythm of the land - the wet Monsoon season which we are now in, the dry season, rice planting, rice harvesting, cassava planting, cassava harvesting, sugar cane planting along with sugar cane harvesting, peanut cultivation, and corn cultivation.  The passage of time is punctuated by the many religious events and celebrations.

A person's life here is a journey of personal milestones - starting with birth, commencing pre-school at 3 years of age, graduating from pre-school, commencing elementary school, becoming married, and so on.

Last Saturday, 10 September 2016, was a busy day of milestones - the cremation of Duang's ex-husband and the first time that Peelawat, out seven year old grandson became a Monk.

Duang had been married for 20 years to her first husband and had two children with him.  I met her after she had been divorced for 5 years.  I had met her ex-husband under rather odd circumstances - he had driven a car from Bangkok to Pattaya with Duang's children to bring Duang and I  to Bangkok and back to our home so that I could buy gold as part of our marriage ritual.  I did not know who he was until late in the afternoon when I got Duang off to the side and asked her who he was.  She replied "He father, my daughter and my son"  I was shocked.

He attended our wedding in the village and it turned out that one of Duang's best friends was his current wife. He told Duang that he could see that we loved each other and that he would not cause any problems for us.  He kept his word and I have been grateful.

I had seen him several times over the past 10 years with the last time being three years ago when I hired him to be our driver when we flew down to Bangkok for a vacation.  Over the time we had developed a respect for each other.

Two months ago, he was diagnosed with cancer of the liver and spine.  The end came fast for him but not without suffering.  He had been living in the Bangkok area away from his son and other relatives.  Duang's son decided to bring his father up here to Isaan for the cremation and interment of his bones.  Duang joined her son, daughter, and several family members driving down to Bangkok and then immediately back to Thasang Village for the cremation ritual.

The cremation ritual was conducted on Saturday.  It is traditional and expected here that upon the death of a close family member, some male relatives have their heads shorn and  their eyebrows shaved on the morning of the cremation.  After having their heads shorn, often shaved, the males go to the Wat where the cremation ritual will take place.  At the Wat, they are interviewed by the Abbot, don the saffron Monk robe, take some vows, and become Monks for the day.  After they have a meal of food offered by the family of the deceased person, the Monks of the Wat and the new Monks go to the home where the body lies inside of a refrigerated coffin.

I have attended many funerals here in Isaan, many more than I had attended in my previous 61 years in America.  I remember being sheltered as a child from attending funerals.  It was not until I was 17 or 18 years old that I attended a funeral.  Such is not the case here in Isaan.  At the earliest age and more importantly, throughout childhood, children attend and participate in funerals.

Children attend and participate in funerals as full members of the family or community.

I am often reminded of a wonderful quote from National Geographic contributor, Wade Davis, a renowned Canadian Anthropologist.  In his documentary series, "Light At the End of the World" concerning the Buddhist attitude towards death ... "The Buddhists spend all their lies getting ready for a moment that we spend most of our lives pretending does not exist, which is the moment of our death".

In Isaan, death is a milestone of life which is familiar to and accepted by all people from a very early age.  The conclusion of this life, which for many has been very difficult, presents the hope as well as the opportunity for a better as well as easier life in the future - another step towards eventual liberation - enlightenment.

With the death of his grandfather, Peelawat, our 7.5 year old grandson, would mark a major milestone of his young life - he would become a Monk for the cremation ritual.

Peelawat Takes A Seat
Around 9:30 AM the morning of his grandfather's cremation, Peelawat took a seat in front of his great-grandmother's house where he lives.  It was his turn to have his hair removed and then his eyebrows shaved.  His turn had been determined by age ... older male relatives went first in accordance with their age.

Peelawat sat very patiently an stoically as an uncle from the village removed his hair with some electric clippers.  The uncle was also assisted by Duang who took a turn with the shears,

In a short time, Peelawat's hair was all gone.  At most of the funerals that I have attended here in Isaan the head was also shaved but for this ritual the heads were not shaved.  However the eyebrows were shaved with Duang's oldest brother doing the job just off to the side of the hair removal station.

Just like the relatives before him, Peelawat sat down in another plastic chair for his uncle to shave off his eyebrows using a straight razor - one razor for all but a freshly purchased razor from the little market at the end of the street.

Peelawat Has His Eyebrows Removed

After the last young boy had his eyebrows removed, the Monks "to be" walked the short distance to the Wat inside of Thasang Village. In quiet orderly fashion, they climbed the stairs to enter the Bot (ubosoth - ordination hall).

Once inside the Bot, all the men and boys lined up and knelt in single file to pay their respects to the Abbot of the Wat - the Monk that I have nicknamed "Rocket Man".  He then interviewed them to ensure that they were humans - "of this world" and not Nagas.

Peelawat Reverently Holds His Robe

The men and boys were then presented with Monk robes by the Abbot.  The Monk robe was actually comprised of several individual articles of clothing - Angsa - a vest that hangs over the left shoulder leaving the right shoulder exposed.  Peelawat, after removing his shirt, put his on incorrectly but "Rocket Man" corrected him and then assisted Peelawat with getting dressed completely and properly.  The older men who had been Monks before tended to themselves.  Another male relative helped the two other young boys.  I was of no help to Peelawat so "Rocket Man"'s help was much needed and appreciated.

Peelawat Gets Help With Sabong

The second article of the Monk's robe was a sarong called Sabong.  It is a simple sarong ut very important because it is the article of clothing that is worn 24 hours a day.  After putting on the Sabong, Peelawat like all the others. modestly removed his pants from underneath the sarong.

The sabong is held in place by a wide and thick cotton belt called a Prakod.

The last article comprising the robe is the Jeeworn (Mantle Robe) the outer cloak like wrapping that you often see Monks adjusting.  When a Monk is at his temple, his Jeeworn covers his body except for the right shoulder.  When the Monk leaves his Wat, his Jeeworn must cover his entire body.  The Jeeworn has no straps, buttons, velcro, or zippers so it must be folded, wrapped and tucked to be worn properly.

Peelawat Awaits His Jeeworn

After everyone was dressed, they participated in a short ritual that made them Monks.  They then sat down to have a meal.  One of Duang's female cousins made offerings of food to the Monks - taking care now to not touch the boys as well as men since they were now Monks.

Monks Have Their Meal

I was surprised at how much Peelawat ate.  He was the last one to leave the bot!  He eats well when he is at our house but he often does not eat that much at home.  At home he is often preoccupied with playing futball (soccer) or riding bicycles with friends.  At the Wat there were no distractions - the Monks ate in silence.  There were no soccer balls, televisions, smart phones, or bicycles in sight.

After Peelawat had finished eating around 11:00 AM, I returned to the house where Duang and everyone were occupied. One hour and a half later, all the Monks arrived at the house.  There was a 20 minute ritual lead by the chanting Monks.  Upon completion of the 20 minute ritual, the coffin and deadman's personal possessions were removed from the house in placed in two pick-up trucks for the short drive back to the Wat.

Outside of the house, a funeral procession formed up.  The procession was lead by the oldest Monk of the Wat followed by the 6 family member Monks.  A sacred cord, sai siin, was carried by the Monks with the other end of the cord attached to the refrigerated coffin located on the back of a following pick-up truck.

Immediately behind the Monks, close family members walked in front of the truck bearing the coffin.  They also held on to the sai siin.  One of the family members, a brother, carried a basket filled with freshly puffed rice.  As the procession marched along the village street towards the Wat, He threw handfuls of the puffed rice along the route - offerings to the local spirits.

The second pick-up truck carrying the possessions and tributes to the deceased person followed behind the first truck.  Extended-family members, and friends marched alongside and behind the second truck.

The Monks, truck with the coffin and close family members circled around the crematory furnace 3 times counter-clockwise while the other members of the procession broke ranks and settled down in the sala or covered pavilion for the remainder of the ritual.

The refrigerated coffin was offloaded from the pickup truck and placed in front of the furnace structure.  It was opened and the consumable coffin containing the body was removed to be carried up the stairs for placement on steel sawhorses at the doors to the furnace.  The personal possessions were offloaded from the second truck and placed in a pile off to the side and behind the furnace structure to be burned.

There was an extended ritual conducted inside the sala which is located next to the crematorium.  The ritual involved making offerings to the Monks and offerings to the spirit of the deceased man.  For part of the offering, the sacred cord, sai sin was strung out and held by the Monks thereby connecting the Monks, Buddha statue of the Sala and the coffin at the door to the crematorium furnace.  Peelawat did his part and held on to the sai sin as if he had done the ritual many times before.

The ritual then focused at the coffin located at the doors to the furnace.  Offerings were placed on top of the coffin and then the senior Monks climbed the stairs one by one to accept the offerings as presented by senior members of the family or dignitaries at the funeral.

Bamboo and paper mementos, called daugmaichan, were placed upon a tray placed on top of the closed coffin by everyone.  Attendees walked up the steps of the Wat's crematorium to the coffin that was placed upon two metal sawhorses at the doors to the furnace.  They carried with them small paper and bamboo objects called "Daugmaichan", good luck tokens that they had taken from a large bowl placed on a table at the foot of the stairs, and placed them in metal trays on top of the coffin. They first "wai", slightly bowing the head as the hands in the praying position are raised to the forehead, and then placed their daugmaichan on the pile building up in the trays.  The wai is the Thai expression of respect that people use to greet each other or to say goodbye.  Some people will knock three times on the side of the coffin in a final farewell gesture.  Other people will call out in controlled voices words to the effect "Good luck to you, I will miss you, I hope to see you again soon."  The scene is always dignified and touching.Upon completion of the placing of the mementos, it was time for the body to have coconut water poured on it.

The Monks climbed the stairs to pour coconut water on the corpse.  The senior Monks were first in line to pour the coconut water followed by the family Monks for the day.  Peelawat had never performed this ritual before.  With guidance and encouragement from the Monks, Peelawat did just fine - not showing any fear or being shy,

After the funeral, Peelawat's time as a monk was over.  He returned to his home to resume his life as a 7 year old.  His aunt asked him if she could borrow some money from him.  He had received roughly $9 USD (280 baht) from offerings during the funeral ritual.  His aunt was teasing and joking with him about having some money.  Peelawat explained to her that he could not give her any money because he had given it all to his great-grandmother so that she could give it to him each day for school.  Peelawat "needs" 20 baht ($0.60 USD) each day to buy lunch and snacks at school.  His plan is to use his funds from being a Monk to buy some of his lunches and snacks.

It had been quite a busy day for Peelawat.  He had successfully achieved one of his life milestones - being a Monk for the funeral of his grandfather.  Peelawat is quickly evolving into a responsible young man - a young man that we are so proud of.


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