Thursday, September 1, 2016

Wan Kao Saht - Feeding the Spirits

Making an offering of food to the spirits

Today was a special day here in Isaan.  Today, 1 September 2016, 2559 BE, is Wan Kao Saht.  On this special day of Vassa (Buddhist Rain Retreat) merit making is performed in offering food to the Phii (ghosts).  People also earn merit through offering "Kao Tawtek) to their local Monks.

Kao Tawtek is a traditional Isaan sweet treat made from rice, caramel, millet, peanuts, and shredded coconut.  I refer to it as "Thai Cracker Jacks". It is also traditional for older people to give gifts of Kao Tawtek and money to children.  Today Duang's mother gave Duang some Kao Tawtek.

Like many things here in Thailand, Wan Kao Saht seems to be adapted and amalgamated from other cultures. There is a strong tradition here in Southeast Asia for paying homage to the dead and for making offerings to them.  The Chinese celebrate a Hungry Ghost Festival but that was 17 August to 31 August this year.  In Vietnam, Vu Lan festival was celebrated from August 3rd to August 31st this 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.  Duang could not go this morning because her car was being serviced at 9:30 AM.  I was left to fend for myself until I arrived at Thasang Village where plenty of family and friends were ready to assist me.After driving past many bright green rice paddies,  and through muddy fields lying in fallow, I arrived at the "Outside" Wat, Wat Pha That Nong Mat.  There are two Wats in Thasang Village - one "inside" and one "outside" - Duang's immediate family frefer the "outside" Wat.

Today in addition to earning personal merit, the participants earned merit for the spirit of their dead relatives.  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.

Installing the Si Sein from Spirit Offerings

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 wihan (worship hall) next to a concrete column.  A si sein (cotton string) was placed across the tops of the baskets.  The si sein ran up the column, across the wihan and ran down a second column near where the Monks would sit slightly above the villagers.  The si sein terminated in a ball placed on a plate at the side of the Wat's senior Monk.

Many of the women were dressed in white uniforms like the attire that Duang wears just about every night during Vassa when she conducts her ritual upstairs in our home where my roll top desk has been converted into a shrine.  The women, including Duang's mother, are participating in a women's retreat at the Wat tonight.  They will spend 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 along with a couple of Brahmans chanted in Pali.

Offering Food to the Monks of Wat Pha That Nong Mat

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.  My mother-in-law selected a large bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa).  She squatted down next to the exposed roots of the sacred tree.  It is considered sacred because it is said that Buddha sat under bodhi trees while meditating.

Yai Puh, Grandmother Puh, laid out food for the spirits of deceased family members.  The food was placed upon banana leaves an consisted of peeled fruits, sticky rice, chili sauces, dried fish, 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 said things along the lines of "You come down now to eat.  Good for you.  I miss you.  You look after family.  Good luck for you.  You go back up to Buddha. Santa Claus take care of you"  Santa Claus?

I think that Duang is trying to help me to understand the ritual in terms that I can better relate to.  I sincerely doubt that any of the villagers there this morning know about "Santa Claus" let alone in the context that Duang refers to him.

Eight years ago we were in Bangkok for Christmas.  I woke before Duang on Christmas morning.  I took one of her socks, placed some money in it and since the hotel did not have a fireplace in our room, hung her sock from the large flat screen television.  When she woke I explained to her the story of Jesus's birth, the three Kings and Santa Claus.  What is the saying about throwing things up against the wall to see what sticks? The "Santa Claus" part of my explanation of Christianity is what Duang has retained.  To her, Santa Claus, is Christianity's supreme being or spirit, - the guy that makes all things happen, the entity that you pray to for favors.

So in that context, I believe that she was helping me to understand that the people were beseeching the supreme power to look after the departed 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 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).  However, for spirits the offerings are in pairs.

Offering Food to the Spirit of Duang's Father

After feeding the family spirits had been offered food and drink, Yai Puh relocated to the Tat where the bones of Duang's father are kept. She and a close family friend made offerings to Duang's father spirit.

People here in Isaan enjoy being photographed - my mother-in-law is no exception.  She wanted me to take her photograph along with the family friend.  They posed for me atop the base of the tat for Duang's father.

The villagers returned to the wihan (worship hall) 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 they are allowed to take only what they can eat that morning for their one meal of the day.  The food, that the Monks have not taken, is eaten by the laypeople in a community meal in the wihan after the Monks have left.

Life goes on here in Isaan measured in part by the seasons of the crops and the cycle of religious events.  Whether it is the seasons of the crops, the cycle of religious events, or personal life milestones, life here always is interesting and can often be "enlightening".

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