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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