Ceramic lions could be better guardians of property than watchmen or guard dogs, particularly if intruders might be of the invisible variety.
Our friend and barber, Sunit, has just constructed a wall along the highway side of the property he and his sister share. He decided to mount guardian lions on the gate posts into the compound. A Buddhist priest from the neighborhood came with an assistant to “activate” the lions and initiate this new form of protection.
The process began with the priest seated in front of the four small statues, which were Chinese in character (rather than Burmese or Khmer), whereupon he lit incense sticks (but not candles, I noticed). The choice of Chinese figurines was to maintain a distinction between these lions and ones guarding the gates of temples. It is unseemly and inauspicious for private individuals to appropriate temple symbols.
The priest performed four sets of actions.
First he chanted from a script he had brought – indicating that the chant was prescribed but not frequently enough used that he had memorized it. His chanting was largely in colloquial Northern Thai language with Pali verses inserted a couple of times. The chant was a charge to the lions to perform their protective function for the houses and residents so they would have good health, prosperity, and safety from intrusions natural and supernatural. The chant ended by the priest producing a small sword about six inches long and a tiny one both of which he inserted into a glass of water infused with special pieces of tree bark. He used thrusting rather than stirring motions as he was holding the smallest knife and chanting. He told me later this was to “penetrate” the water with the extraordinary power of a Buddhist saint who used to own one or both of those knives and for whom the knife was now a surrogate. This turned the water intonaam-mon [see: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/august-16th-2014 ]
Second, he inscribed 4 pieces of gold-colored foil, using an ornate wooden stick with a sharp point. Each of the pieces of foil was etched with a square box and then subdivided into either 9 or 4 squares. The squares were inscribed with numbers in old Lanna script. The nine squares were filled with numbers 1 through 9 in order, but the placement was in a special order which was the same for both pieces that contained 9 squares. Number 9 was in the place of honor in the middle. The priest told me that the 9 numbers represented 9 syllables in a verse calling for blessings from the Triple Gems of the Lord Buddha (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha), which he had intoned in a whisper as he etched the numbers in place. The two pieces of foil inscribed with 4 numbers represented “the heart of the lion”, the priest said, referring to an appellation of 4 syllables which he had chanted as he inscribed them. When he had finished, he chanted quietly (i.e. khathaa) while holding the 4 inscriptions close to his lips and then he solemnly blew on them.
Third, he turned his attention to the 4 gold and red painted statues. With a felt-tipped gold marker he wrote gold number nines on the chests of the four lions and then a more elaborate number on the bases between the front legs of each figurine. Then, using sprigs of leaves and flowers, he anointed the lions with naam-mon three times, and finally caressed each of their heads with his two hands. He was handed a cup of white lime paste [see:www.kendobson.asia/blog/summoning-prosperity] to which he added a few drops of naam-mon, without bothering to stir it. The preparation of the lions ended with him daubing a spot of paste onto the forehead of each lion. I think it might have been more spots if there had been room.
Fourth, the statues were placed on the gate posts. A bucket of cement was ready. In turn, the top of each post was covered with a finger-thick layer of cement. One of the foil inscriptions was placed in the middle of the cement and one of the lions was firmly set on top. Great attention was paid to the alignment so they were exactly straight and precisely centered. There was no chanting or ceremony as this was being done.
With that the project was complete.
Very few houses in our area have their gate posts adorned in this fashion. Electric lights are more common, but the majority of houses with front gates have nothing atop their posts. Perhaps Sunit was inspired by the incidence of several traffic accidents nearby on the new highway, resulting in at least two deaths, one of which, before the road was even finished, was right in front of his house.
The culture of village people of North Thailand, no matter which ethnic sub-group, can be called RICE CULTURE. For centuries life has been geared to rice: when it needs to be planted, how it is handled, and what to do in the meantime. That may have already changed. Let’s consider how rice is being harvested this year.
Our rice was harvested today. It was transplanted 105 days ago from seedlings a month old. That’s 4 months total. This year we have two crops from our field. Everybody around here counts on two crops a year. The actual harvesting this year was entirely mechanical for the first time. [See the picture of the rice harvester in action]. It took less than half an hour for our 2 rai [.8 acre].
We can say that rice harvesting requires two separate actions, cutting the plants and threshing the grain. Last year may have been the last time those actions were done separately. As in the past, for a millennium at least, the rice was cut by a work crew [see the picture of the crew cutting the rice by hand]. Getting it done this way is called long khack ลงแขก (literally “descent of guests” [friends, relatives, neighbors] but the phrase is usually used for calling out a work crew for planting or harvesting rice). Work crews were the oldest way of cutting rice. Until recently the grain was separated out of the heads by beating bunches over the lip of a big harvesting basket, on beating it with cudgels on a sun-baked mud floor, or by having hooved animals tread on it. In former times, still within memory, this was a community effort with important social opportunities.
Mechanical threshing machines removed a lot of the effort. That’s how our rice was threshed last year and several previous years. It was cut by hand and threshed by machine. This year the harvesting and threshing were done at once. Back home in Illinois the machine that could do both cutting and threshing was called a combine.
The next two steps in preparing rice are drying and storing the grain. The final step is to “mill” it, to grind the husk off so it will be ready to cook. This year the rice we just harvested was immediately delivered to an establishment for drying, although it would be cheaper to spread it out in the sun. That takes labor and attention. A sudden downpour of rain can spoil everything. The rice could have been sold today at a price depending on its moisture content and type of rice. But our rice will be kept for the extended family to eat.
Essentially every step in the harvesting process this year is being done mechanically for the first time. It could all be done by one laborer with the full range of equipment. But that is too expensive for our limited acreage, or even for a village-size cooperative. The fellow with the combine can harvest a lot of rice in a day, and his window of opportunity is at least two weeks long. A drier can accomplish the task in a few hours. Every village or two gets by with a single mill that can mill a sack of rice in a few minutes. One mill for every 3 or 4 hundred households seems to be enough.
The introduction of mechanical equipment has made harvesting less labor intensive. Last year cutting the rice for our 2rai took 10 people about 2 hours. Then the rice was transported by truck to a central threshing operation, which required another couple of hours, with about 15 minutes to feed our shocks into the threshing machine, operated by 4 men.[See the picture above of the threshing machine blowing away the chaff.] Each stage of mechanization reduces the amount of physical labor. This year one man did it all in 30 minutes.
It won’t be long until every aspect of rice production will be mechanized. This year we saw a rice transplanting machine for the first time. It was on TV, not yet here in our valley. But even here rice does not have to be transplanted. Seed can be broadcast onto a muddy field under perfect conditions. It’s being done that way more and more in the central part of the country. It’s only a matter of time before we will have planting fully mechanized, too.
Life on the farm is no longer rigidly geared to the phases of rice production. Rice for a whole clan of 20 people or so can be planted in a day, left for about 4 months and harvested in a day. Memories will be all that’s left of the year’s major social events when the whole village was busy, when boys met girls, when men courted eligible women around the threshing floor and grew adoring and desperate, and developed life-long friendships.
If there is any one thing that shows village culture vanishing, changes in rice harvesting might be it.
Taylor Potter’s mission houses from the early 1960s are remarkable departures from the stately brick and teakwood mansions of the previous era. They were far less pretentious, more functional and practical. They were statements of the intention that the Thai Church would be served by missionaries and not run by them. Moreover, the mission houses were generally tucked into corners of property and on spare lots, rather than at the front gates and in the center of things. Still (perhaps above all) the houses Taylor built were comfortable and efficient. They were designed to be relatively maintenance free and to operate with hardly any hired staff. There was no hierarchy among these houses; none was larger or more elegant than another. All of them blended into their comfortable place under the great shade trees missionary ancestors had planted. The houses were uniformly two stories tall, with maximum ventilation, and frill-free design. The houses encouraged the residents to be that way, too, to fit in and function without creating a heavy imprint on either the environment or society.
After the Second World War the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church USA began to send missionaries back to Thailand to resume work that had been interrupted by the occupation of Christian institutions, and to carry on the main missions of church-building, education, and medicine. Older missionaries returned if they were able, and new missionaries were recruited for innovative undertakings. After China was closed to Christian missionary work a new supply of experienced workers was diverted to Thailand, more rapidly filling leadership and support roles than would otherwise have been possible.
With regard to buildings and homes, the first task was to reclaim and repair what already was there. But the postwar mission force was soon larger than it had ever been, especially in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. As a new generation of Thai leaders began to fill key positions in schools and hospitals the houses that had been built for missionaries were often relinquished and missionaries were put into temporary quarters or new houses. Schools and hospitals not only restarted or recovered, they almost all expanded. Building projects the Presbyterian Church undertook continued for 25 years. In many cases the Presbyterian Church cooperated with sister missionary organizations to keep from duplicating and overlapping.
The Rev. Taylor Potter was both a clergyman and an architect. As such he was uniquely suited to consult and supervise mission construction. Although many of Taylor’s designs were unique, as was the Thailand Theological Seminary Fine Arts Center with its hyperbolic paraboloid roof, and his new plan for First Thai Church of Chiang Mai with semi-circular moveable seating, his design for new mission houses was duplicated many times with modest modifications.
Taylor’s idea was to utilize time-honored environmental adaptations to semi-tropical weather and pests, while accommodating modern tastes and needs. A typical Taylor design featured a maximum of windows for ventilation and light. These windows were rolled to one side for storage in pockets, often 2 or 3 layers thick. Windows downstairs were floor to ceiling. Upstairs there were waist high walls with windows above for breezes from as many directions as possible. Another Taylor design was to put the screens on the outside so they didn’t have to be negotiated to open or close the windows. The windows were of glass, rather than thick wooden shutters of older houses. All the houses were 2 stories tall with open stairways (not boxed in). Kitchens were small and efficient compared to earlier homes. Gone were the wide front porches that could rarely be used because of sun, rain or mosquitoes. Most of the houses had 2 large bedrooms on the second floor with an open area in the middle that could either be a third bedroom, a family area, or a storage space. Outside the kitchen some houses had an extra room for food preparation or laundry that might have an enclosed sleeping area for a cook or domestic staff to use. The houses were always elevated for moisture protection, mounted on posts usually a meter tall (not built on concrete slabs as soon became the plan for houses built of concrete). The houses were all wood, throughout Taylor’s era, before lumber became too expensive.
Taylor was known for his creativity and persistence. Even when he had to teach builders how to do such things as laminated beams, standardized windows, steps mounted on metal supports, and inset lighting fixtures, he supplied on-site supervision to get the jobs done as he had designed. So far as I know, all his innovations have survived except the pocket windows with screens on the outside. No subsequent builders have picked up on that.
In his 15 years or so in Thailand, Taylor was in charge of 47 building projects, he once told me. His comments and help were provided for many other building programs in addition. He was a clergy member of the sixth district of the Church of Christ in Thailand and pastor of Wattana Church for a term. After he left Thailand he was pastor of churches in Alaska and Hawaii. When he retired to Huntington Valley Pennsylvania he and Don McIlvride were the driving force behind a partnership between Huntington Valley Presbytery and the CCT’s 5th District in Nan. Taylor returned several times to consult on church and school building projects.
[This is a continuation of the discussion of why women are not eligible to be ordained into the Thai Buddhist priesthood. For the first and second essays in this series see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/monks-manage-pii andwww.kendobson.asia/blog/men-monks-only ]
Why are there no women in the Thai Sangha, the ordained Buddhist priesthood in Thailand? Is there a way out of this inequality?
Gender issues in our time are based on a shift in faith that is a thousand years older than any religion now arguing about these matters. What’s more, I contend that this is not news and therefore the energy to sustain these very long-term disparities is disguised as something it is not. It is commonly understood that somehow in the “ancient-classical” period a major paradigm shift took place. Men took total control. Women were marginalized. New religious narratives emerged that ratified this. Feminist and human rights discussions have focused on the usurpation of power by men, concluding that the way to address this is to simply recognize the facts and open doors for women. This approach has met with limited success.
Theravada Buddhism is the predominant Thai form of Buddhism. Women are not permitted into the Sangha, and never have been. Thai Buddhist legends recognize that women were ordained by the Lord Buddha, himself, but that tradition lapsed and is impossible to reinstate because there are no women monks to form the required council to do the ordination. To be ordained women need to be reborn as men. The need for women on the council is a bit more cantankerous. Some modern Thai scholars hold that an all-male council could decide to ordain women. But the highest council in Thai Buddhism has consistently said no, citing one authority or another. They appear to disagree about everything except the conclusion, “no”.
I think what we have here is another case of “tying up a pile of rice with a rope.” The story goes that a neighbor asked to borrow a rope. “No,” the owner said, “I need it to tie up my pile of rice.” “But you can’t tie up a pile of rice with a rope,” the neighbor protested. The owner of the rope said, “Any excuse is good if you don’t want to loan your rope.”
If I am right, no amount of debate will resolve this. In Thai Buddhism scripture is the highest authority. An international council right here in Chiang Mai in 1477 CE determined the present form of the canon of scripture, meeting in Wat Jet Yod (Temple of Seven Peaks) which was built for that purpose. Their product was the Tripitaka, a ponderous set of writings roughly the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica. There was agreement about the basics of Buddhist Dharma (the teaching and doctrine of Buddhism), but wide latitude in interpretation. By the 1800s there was need to bring some uniformity to the way things were done, and King Mongkut, Rama IV, was just the man to do it. He was a scholar, had been an ordained monk for forty years and he was the King when Siam was still an absolute monarchy. Under his management the Supreme Council worked out the regulations for all Buddhism in Siam. This then eventually became law. In effect it designated who had authority to make decisions of all types. So Dharma is supreme, the Tripitaca explicates Dharma, and the Sangha expounds the Tripitaca. It’s the law. Women will not be ordained until the Sangha says so.
But why won’t they say so? Why is access to meritorious rank only open to men?
Here in our villages there are two clues. The first is the bot or ordination hall of major monasteries. This is a temple building that usually is a smaller model of the large assembly hall (vihara, weehan) all temples normally have. But women are forbidden entrance to the bot. The hall is designated by 3 sema stones along each side, one at the rear of the hall, and one in front. A ninth stone is located under the center of the floor inside. That is the foundation stone that not only symbolically holds up the building but also connects it to the heart of the earth. The function of that central stone is the same as the city pillars in most towns. Women are not permitted inside city pillar shrines either.
Menstrual blood is the reason. Is it a mere excuse, like the case of tying up a pile of rice?
At present, we are confronted with rigid stubbornness on the part of the male Buddhist authorities to allow women into the priesthood, and even to allow them to cross the threshold into the ordination hall. As the hall is being constructed they can enter. I have been present on the eve of the dedication of an ordination hall and women were inside having a last look around. Most of what they saw was a gaping hole in the floor with a wooden scaffold above it holding a stone ball the size of a basketball covered with gold foil. On the following day at the auspicious hour that ball was cut loose and allowed to drop into the hole, while the other eight sema stones also were deposited into holes surrounding the building. Then the women departed. Someone told me that the women had to leave before the balls were cut, but I have seen HRH Princess Somsaowalee cut the central stone at a bot. In fact, men also depart and the final act of consecration is performed by ordained monks alone. In due time, lingam stones mark the location of the buried stones surrounding the bot. So, something happens after those stones have been buried that exiles women from ordination chapels. If we can find that, by extension, we will know what is going on to prevent women from leadership in Buddhism.
As a matter of fact, the “thing that happens” is that as the dedication service concludes, a connection is made between that sacred site and the macrocosm. The ordination hall becomes an axial rod between the primordial regions of the universe, and ordained people gain access to supernatural power. Thai priests/monks thereby are dually ordained. It can be inferred, then, that one reason women cannot be ordained is that allowing women into the ordination hall runs the risk of negating the connection to the supernatural that the hall has been built to provide.
Can monks be ordained elsewhere? Ah, that is a point to consider. Why not just exclude this occult business from those who do not want to be involved with it?
That brings us to the second clue as to why women are presently excluded from certain aspects and roles of Thai Buddhism. It has to do with what the Buddhist priests actually do. On the one hand they study and expound Dharma. Although the Tripitaka is now an established canon and is used to understand and interpret Buddhism, it does not have quite the same role as scriptures do in religions which are built upon a holy book. In the people’s minds monks are the highest authority on all things religious. The Tripataka is what scholarly monks refer to as their highest authority. Most people, as well as most monks, have no more access to a set of the Tripataka than medieval monks in Europe had to the Bible. So the assumption must be insisted upon that there is at least an indirect link between what a monk says and what the Buddha taught. Most priests do not write their own sermons. It is assumed that the writers of the sermon texts are dependable conduits of Buddhist Dharma. The link between the preacher seated before a congregation and the Lord Buddha is visible when monks preach from traditional texts held reverently in their hands.
Still, if someone wants to argue a point of doctrine, references to passages in the Tripitaka carry a lot of weight, but Dharma is interpreted by priests who are prepared and authorized to do so. The authorization they need comes in two ways, through ordination and appointment by the Sangha, and by common acclaim of the people who flock to certain leading monks and who select them to chant at important events. The enunciations of these leaders carry as much weight as a quote from the Tripitaka. In fact, the presence and chanting of priests can be called “charismatic” in its effect. It is the event that is efficacious rather than the content. Some forms of chanting are hardly understood by anybody in the audience, and these tend to be accorded greater regard. On the whole, if a monk preaches in the vernacular, the audience pays less attention and considers the chanting to be less impressive. Nevertheless, some popular monks are well known for their messages. They tend to have highly developed rhetorical skills, often an excellent sense of humor, and always a traditional message about the ethical impact of Dharma. Can women do this? They can and they do. There are radio programs on which women expound Dharma and do it well.
On the other hand some equally popular monks are renowned, not for their chanting and interpretations of Dharma, but for what else they do. In general, they are specialists and practitioners of arcane arts: manufacture of amulets, conduct of rites to control the effects of nature and the supernatural, production of herbal medicines and much more. It is noteworthy that monks are not the only ones who can do these things, but if a monk is famous for effectively doing one of these things he is likely to be preferred to lay practitioners or shaman. There are some roles, however, that only lay people can undertake, such as “spirit dances” and certain prophetic incantations. Women and especiallykathoey (the “third sex” in Thai culture) can take some of these roles and participate fully. It seems that if practices of shamanism are undertaken by monks, women are prevented from performing them, but those which monks cannot do are open for women.
There is an unresolved debate in Buddhism about how far the Buddha meant his followers to go in abrogating asceticism as well as Brahmin ritual influences in everyday affairs. One school of thought is that the Buddha discovered a Way to Enlightenment that eliminated the need for both extreme asceticism and esoteric ritualism. Another school of thought insists that the Buddha’s Way was an alternative for the spiritually elite; he assumed that daily life would continue for the majority, as it would need to do if the Sangha (monastic priesthood) was to be sustained, and that Brahmins would continue to conduct the rituals that get people through mundane life passages. Did the Buddha mean for his monks to take over the conduct of Brahmin rites? That is what has happened to a large extent, especially in Theravada practice. In Thailand they have taken charge of the supernaturalist interpretations of those rites as well. However, it is helpful and important to notice that some Buddhist monks have nothing to do with some aspects of Buddhism. Some never preach. Others do not distribute amulets or medals. Many would decline from teaching certain forms of meditation. In practice, monks exercise a wide range of options.
Not surprisingly, some Buddhist scholars have argued for reforms of Thai Buddhism to move away from all supernatural, superstitious, occult practices. The late Ven. Buddhadasa Bikkhu was the most famous modern spokesman for this reform movement, with current leaders like Sulak Sivaraksa trying to sustain the reform movement as well as to steer Thai Buddhism toward social responsibility and involvement. Notice that for Thai Buddhist reformers the principle is that occult practices are “superstitions”, so they can and should be dispensed with. This would seem to leave the way open for women to be ordained, since nothing monks would do would then involve a taboo regarding menstrual blood. The main thing standing in the way of making this decision is the fact that monks’ dual ordination and the holistic nature of popular Buddhism is not open to discussion.
It seems that the large majority of Thai people neither understand what is at stake nor wish to have Buddhism divested of its supernaturalism. Whereas in royal ceremonies Buddhists and Brahmins have specified roles, in village culture the conduct of supernatural rites is undertaken sometimes by monks and at other times by lay practitioners who were formerly monks. One sort depends on gifts at composing certain kinds of poetry, whereas another (rarer) practice involves music for which even the production of the musical instruments must be strictly controlled and ritualized. Two things are significant in this observation: first, that the role of Brahmins has been at least to some extent taken on by monks and former monks; second, that the “arts” are involved in the rites and ceremonies, and the arts are traditionally closely tied to the supernatural. In Thai culture the arts are music, dance, drama, healing, martial and plastic (sculpture and painting). All arts typically involve initiation rites and veneration of a line of teachers of the arts back to a pre-Buddhist progenitor. Every explanation I have ever read about these rites says that they are conducted to insure continuity of the inspiration and any failure to observe these venerations risks severing the connection to the source, which would result in the art being without effect.
So it may come down to this: is there an unbreakable connection between Buddhist priests’ performance of solemn rites involving pii and their role as teachers of Dharma, and is there an ironclad prohibition of women performing those solemn rites? (For that matter, why couldn’t women be ordained, as the Ven. Dhammananda was and a growing number of women following her have been, without engaging in occult, if that is so disturbing?) Certain practices can be performed by women. They can be spirit mediums, deal in amulets, concoct herbal medicine, do effective massage, and much more. There is evidence that before Buddhism came along with the establishment of the Dvaravati city-state confederation, women were doing a whole range of things they presumably cannot now do. It is entirely a cultural and political matter that the Great Mother, and in effect all mothers, are subjected to male domination for yet a little while. Such immense power held so tenuously cannot be contained in the hands of the few forever.
This is what I have concluded from several years of looking at this: (1) There is no reason based on Buddhist scripture to contend the Lord Buddha did not believe women could be enlightened as could men. (2) There is no inherent bond between Buddhism and supernaturalism; they are separate, overlapping realms of faith. (3) There is no reason to believe women cannot be as effective as men in expounding the teachings of the Lord Buddha. (4) The decision against ordination of women is not doctrinal at all, it is cultural. (5) The solution to the issue of ordination of women is to openly declare that performance of arcane rites is an optional aspect of being a monk, which is already what is practiced, and then let the people decide who they will call upon to do what.
NOTE to our website readers: During this coming year (Nov 2015 to Oct 2016), in addition to comments on LGBT issues and reflections on Thai religion and village life, I will be providing a series of reminiscences about historic Christian buildings and programs in Chiang Mai and a few short-short stories. The following is the first of at least 5 stories about Professor Virgil Verbal who believes English language can be just as magical as other subjects taught at the world’s most famous school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As with most of the Virgil Verbal stories, I have investigated possible sources of J.K. Rowling’s magical ideas, and for this story came up with fascinating facts about hobgoblins, elves like the Kobold elf in the picture, and Samhain (November 1, a day far older than Halloween).
A familiar, large, maroon book hovered in front of Professor Virgil Verbal as his third year students came from breakfast into the semi-circular classroom. The November sky in the Great Hall ceiling had looked overcast with scudding clouds fleeing from the north. But the “Advanced Adventures” classroom had only an arrow-slit window at the far end which was always covered with thick black drapes. Student chairs had been replaced by cloak racks on which hung green capes and large scarves which Professor Verbal was modeling. Without needing to be coached, the students put down their backpacks and donned capes and scarves.
“Today we will venture into Sherwood Forest…” the teacher said, matter-of-factly, even though what was left of the famous forest was a long Hogwarts Express train ride south. “…into the fourth century,” Professor Verbal finished his announcement. “Ranklin will be our guide.”
Many of the ten students taking the elective course on Advanced Adventures knew that Ranklin was a house elf attached to the Attlee estate which Professor Verbal had inherited from his Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Like most teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor Verbal did not talk about his family, although some students assumed he had descended from a long line of magical ancestors despite his affinity with Muggles and his love of history and academic studies. It was altogether possible that the ghost of Professor Binns had mentioned the Attlees and their aristocratic Verbal branch in some droning lecture the students had dozed through. If he had been more forceful they might have perked up because they liked benign, bland Professor Verbal. Quite despite his character, his imagination and creative teaching were such fun that he drew a loyal group of students year after year. There was nothing pale and colorless about the adventures that poured out of his maroon book floating in the center of the room. Unlike such standard courses as Herbology, Potions and Transfiguration, Adventures was not always confined to the present or even the past, as was History. Some stories moved students into the future, but it did seem that today’s adventure into Sherwood Forest in the fourth century would take them into the past.
“If we only had access to a preserved wisp of memory from our intended informants we could perhaps impose on our Headmistress to let us use the Pensieve for our journey, but you have now mastered the art of this sort of travel through the drier medium of old books,” he joked. In an earlier course the students had been “enchanted” into the stories they read. But by now, merely touching the maroon leather would get them transported. For a few students, just imagining touching the book or looking at its enthralling pages was enough.
However, to get them all to the same destination, Professor Verbal began reading, “On the day of Samhain in the Christian year 409 a fateful confrontation was undertaken in a little Roman village with the pretentious name Antonius, a short way north of Segelocum, which is now the hamlet of Littleborough in Nottinghamshire. In a field on one side of the village Druid priests prepared to sacrifice a virgin, while a Christian missionary just arrived from across the Channel was preparing to oppose it.” The classroom faded.
The students found themselves huddled in misty shadows at the edge of a thick wood. Before them stood a giant figure made of sticks and straw with a gaping hole in its torso. A young woman lay on the ground at its feet while townspeople watched a naked dancer feverishly menace the victim with a spear in one hand and a long knife in the other. The dancer was screaming chants while a chorus of townspeople droned responses accompanied by three drums. The woman, clothed only in tufts of dry grass bound by rope, was perfectly still, as though resigned to her fate or drugged.
Opposite them a lone figure holding a wooden cross accompanied by two boys, was also chanting from a book one of the boys held open. In truth, the Christian monk could not read the book, but he had memorized what he wanted to say. The monk was dressed as a Roman, as were the elders of the village. His chant was in Latin, the language of the Romans who had conquered all this part of the island of Britannia, which the people considered their whole world.
From time to time the naked shaman took a slice at the supine woman, catching a few blades of grass, making the people gasp. Each time he did this the monk thrust the wooden cross forward and forbade danger to come to the girl. It seemed a futile gesture. What could sticks of wood do against a flint spear and iron sword?
This contest was not what it appeared to be. It was not about the Roman-Celtic monk against the Anglo-Celtic Druid. Nor was it a battle between the old order and the new, as later accounts would have it. A much more definite and final struggle was going on with the Druid and the Christian just holding the attention of the townspeople to keep them out of the way. There was no clue that the monk and the Druid knew they were a sideshow while the main event went on deeper in the thick wood.
Ranklin tugged at Professor Verbal’s cape and he waved his students to follow him. They turned away from the unconcluded sacrifice that would decide if the village was to become Christian. They walked soundlessly into the dense forest. After but a few hundred paces they came upon a scene that blotted out all thought of the village and its drama. There before them gaped a large hole in the ground as if the earth had sunk causing a long hollow. Clustered around the rim of this crevasse were thousands of creatures. They were of similar build, like hairy little men and women the size of four-year-old human children, with big pointed ears, enormous noses, bulbous eyes and heads too large for their small powerful bodies.
At sight of this mob the students all glanced at Ranklin standing beside Professor Verbal. These were Ranklin’s ancestors, surely. The house elf paid attention only to the scene before them.
In the middle of the pit, two clusters of about ten individuals each were milling about and apparently jeering at each other. Then the action became more intense. With a sudden gesture, two of one group seemed to devastate two of the other. The attackers had not touched their targets, but the victims crumpled in agony.
Chaos ensued, accompanied by cracks as loud as thunder when boulders were hacked in two by unseen forces. This escalated the action and a group on the rim waved their arms as if to concentrate the air to produce a whirlwind. The wind was countered by bolts of lightning. Here and there the battle got personal and some individuals sparred, attempting to pull ears and gouge eyes. These attacks were all ineffectual, as no one was actually wounded. Pride, it seems, was the target. The goal was to humiliate each other.
The student spectators could make nothing of the fighting. The students couldn’t even tell who was on which side. The combatants looked the same.
But apparently some objective was reached because all at once, after quite a breathtaking final melee, half the group flocked into the cavern and were gone, while the other half clustered around their champions without, however, displaying signs of victory or defeat. Whatever had been decided was not about which side won.
A couple of student noticed that Ranklin was stock still, as if thunderstruck or dumbfounded.
The hundreds who had not withdrawn underground disbanded, moving away in all directions, until there were none left to be seen.
“What was that?” one of the students asked.
“That was the war of the Hobgoblins,” Professor Verbal replied. “On this day the Hobs and the Goblins separated, each withdrawing to the conditions they preferred.”
“Couldn’t they have done that without a fight?” a young wizard from Aberdeen asked.
“There was the question of whether one group could dominate the other, I suppose,” Professor Verbal replied.
“Was it a draw?” a witch from Surry asked.
“It was,” the teacher assured her. “From then on the Cofgodas of the Anglo-Saxons and the Lares of the Romans in Britain remained domestic. We think of them as elves, or Brownies in Scotland, although ones like the Kobold from Germany tend to be even more attached to hearth and home. The Goblins prefer the underground with its minerals and mines and are known throughout our lands as Dwarves.”
“But they are Goblins,” a Slytherin student insisted.
“How have the elves been turned into slaves?” a girl asked, avoiding a glance from Ranklin.
“I think you will find they are not all so subservient,” Professor Verbal suggested. “Those attached to magical families and households have been severely subjugated. But outside our magical world elves can be quite independent. They all retain great skills, when allowed to manifest them.”
“They can spin straw into gold,” one Muggle-born student recalled from the story of Rumpelstiltskin.
“And produce wonderful leather slippers,” remembered another.
“Puck,” announced a third. The students born in strict magical families had never heard of dangerous Puck or “Robin Goodfellow” as he was called. Even after the Battle of Hogwarts and the end of terror against the Muggles, independent elves were seldom mentioned.
“Perhaps it is time to return to our classroom,” Professor Verbal suggested since no further adventures seemed forthcoming right then in Sherwood Forest.
Ranklin, for once, was inattentive to his master. Still staring at the now-vacant crevasse he muttered, “We were once one. We were gods.”
“We were, we all were, if we go back far enough,” Verbal reassured his elf and his students.
Ranklin was never quite the same after that.
Essay 2: Women Are Too Dangerous to Be Monks
[This is a continuation of the discussion of why women are not eligible to be ordained in Thai Buddhisism. For the first essay in this series see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/monks-manage-pii ]
Ancient religious tradition is arrayed against women being allowed into the leadership elite.
Buddhism, as the narrative of Gautama implies, was born into a religious climate in which radical asceticism was considered the way to achieve insight. The Buddha was steeped in this severe tradition before deciding on a more moderate middle way. On the whole, the Jains were the most serious ascetics in history. Their attitude toward women practitioners is instructive.
The Jains were the archetypal ascetics of all time. Jains were adamant that women were incapable of advanced forms of renunciation necessary for religious achievement. Women supposedly emanated forces from their bodies that required them to remain clothed and not go “air clad” as Jain adepts did (and still do). Note, it was because of these “forces” (and for the protection of men and beasts) that the women were to be clothed; and it was this clothing which prevented women from subjecting themselves to the extremes of weather and nature that was the Jain key to religious attainment. Women were not too weak to be religious at the highest level; they were too potent to be allowed to be so.
The roots of this perception can be traced all the way back to Paleolithic and Neolithic times. Karen Armstrong, using her gifts of reducing complex religious topics to easy terms, describes how the hunters of ancient times dealt with the twin issues of killing in order to live and living in order to die:
Hunters risked their lives to support their women and children. The guilt and anxiety induced by hunting, combined with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy[as preparation prior to the hunt], could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. [Armstrong refers to Homo Necans, by Walter Burkert, 1983]. She continues, “The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they – not the expendable males – who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself – a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals. [Karen Armstrong, 2005. A Short History of Myth. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd. P. 39]
Judy Grahn agrees. “Women’s oldest magical-science powers revolved around menstruation and birth, and the blood of both these states of being was considered sacred.” [Judy Grahn, 1984, 1990. Another Mother Tongue, NY: Quality Paperback Book Club edition, p. 214] Armstrong gives the key as to how this sacred blood became so negative that religions everywhere loathed it. “The history of religion shows that, once a myth ceases to give people intimations of transcendence, it becomes abhorrent.” [Armstrong, p. 94] Armstrong follows Karl Jaspers and other proponents of the “axial age” analysis of history, that a new age required a new mythic narrative. In the axial age men took over, but they did not – they could not – forget the power of blood. Rites were created, therefore, by which men and boys also bled. Says Grahn, “To ritually shed blood, meant the ability to take on women’s ancient powers.”
Joseph Campbell frames it in Freudian terms:
…the mysterious (one might even say magical) functioning of the female body in its menstrual cycle, in the ceasing of the cycle during the period of gestation, and in the agony of birth – and the appearance, then, of the new being; these, certainly, have made profound imprints on the mind. The fear of menstrual blood and isolation of women during their periods, the rites of birth, and all lore of magic associated with human fecundity make it evident that we are here in a field of one of the major centers of interest of the human imagination. [Joseph Campbell, 1959, 1969.Primitive Mythology. NY: Penguin Books, Arkana edition, 1991. P. 59]
Campbell concludes, “There can be no doubt that in the very early ages of human history the magical force and wonder of the female was no less a marvel than the universe itself; and this gave to woman a prodigious power, which it has been one of the chief concerns of the masculine part of the population to break, control, and employ to its own ends.” [p. 315]
Still, through the new era of agriculture in place of hunting and gathering, the Great Mother ruled. That was true everywhere. “The interdependence of death and sex, their import as the contemporary aspects of a single state of being, and the necessity of killing – killing and eating – for the continuance of this state of being, which is that of man on earth, and of all things on earth, the animals, birds, and fish, as well as man – this deeply moving emotionally disturbing glimpse of death as the life of the living is the fundamental motivation supporting the rites around which the social structure of the early planting villages was composed.” [Joseph Campbell, 1962. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. NY: Viking. P. 164]
…The mythological foundation of the Indus Civilization overthrown by the Aryans appears to have been a variant of the old High Bronze Age vegetal-lunar rhythmic order, wherein a priestly science of the calendar required of all submission without resistance to an ungainsayable destiny. The goddess mother in whose macrocosmic womb all things were supposed to live their brief lives was in her sway; and no such puny sentiment as heroism could hope, in the field of her dominion, to achieve any serious result. “She is self-willed,” said Ramakrishna, “and must always have her way.” Yet for those children who submit without tumult to their mother’s will, “She is full of bliss.” All life, all moments, terminate in her insatiable maw; yet in this frightening return there is ultimately rapture for the one who, in trust, can give himself – like the perfect king: the son and yet the bull of his cosmic mother. [Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 179]
As farm village culture gave way to cities another change in religious perception resulted.
A broad zone of readiness had … been established for the reception of a new approach to the problem of man’s highest good. Dislodged from the soil as well as from the old necessities of the hunt, a rather sophisticated urban population had appeared, with a certain leisure, considerable luxury, and time, consequently, for neuroses. Inevitably the new initiators appeared, who had, themselves, in their own experience, faced out the new anxieties: the first systematic psychologists of all time and in many ways, perhaps, the best. And their basic tools were everywhere the same: the old ritual lore, inherited from the hieratic past, with its concept of hidden harmony and equivalence uniting the microcosm and the macrocosm and of a consequent resonance conducive to magical effects. However, now the concern was no longer magical (the weather, crops, abundance of goods, and long years) but psychological (the detante and harmonization of the psyche) and sociological (the integration of the individual with a new society based on a secular instead of hieratic tradition). [Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 251]
In the West, the predominance of social concerns over survival issues took the form of theological narratives, based on families of divinities with developed personalities, followed by a revolution of monotheism. In Campbell’s synthesis: “…the typical Occidental hero is a personality, and therefore necessarily tragic, doomed to be implicated seriously in the agony and mystery of temporality.” (That is, the god-hero must have some responsibility for “sudden monstrous death [which] becomes therewith a revelation of the inhumanity of the order of the universe,” and moreover, “a god-willed monstrosity”). [Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 243]
The Oriental hero is a monad: in essence without character but an image of eternity, untouched by, or else casting off successfully, the delusory involvements of the mortal sphere.
The focus of concern is not the individual, but the monad, the reincarnating jiva, to which no individuality whatsoever intrinsically pertains, but which passes on, like a ship through waves, from one personality to the next: now a mealworm, now a god, demon, king, or tailor. [Campbell, Oriental Mythology. Pp. 242-3]
In India as well as Israel the chief effect of this intellectual triumph of mind over matter was firmly in the control of men. But the triumph was, obviously, incomplete. The reality of “sudden monstrous death” remained. The memory of the terrible-nurturing mother refused to dissipate. Eternal life might be subject to “an absolutely impersonal law suffusing and harmonizing all things” but daily life was fraught with more urgent mysteries. Men’s control over all aspects of concern remains tenuous. The scripted shedding of blood through ritual regicide, sacrifice of first-born sons, or symbolically through circumcision or the even less bloody shaving of one’s head to simulate initiation into the naked state of birth through death have not yet eclipsed the fearful force of Great Mother in whose womb we live until we die, as we surely shall.
[This is the second of three essays on the reasons why men are afraid to relinquish total control in Theravada Buddhism. Expect the conclusion before Christmas.]
The other day there was a funeral and cremation involving our extended family. Various aspects of the complicated event had to be performed by specialists. I paid attention to how few were turned over to women, and also how some things had to be done by Buddhist monks or former monks.
I was particularly interested in a short rite following the main service. The emcee announced that four monks would perform a tawn ถอน ceremony. Tawn means “extract”, “withdraw”, or “revoke”. It is a transitive verb with the implication that the thing being removed has little or no power to object. A tawn ceremony is intended to evict a pii พีthat may be recalcitrant or confused. Pii is a multi-functional term that includes almost all non-physical beings except divinities. Spirits of the dead are pii but they may have none of the personal qualities they once seemed to have when they inhabited a physical body. In the instance the other day, the four monks took positions at the corners of the prasat(see picture: www.kendobson.asia/blog/community-funerals) on which the coffin was elevated. The monks were given little baskets with traditional gifts to ameliorate the pii whichever way it might choose to go, and then with incense and candles the monks exhorted the pii to remove itself. It need no longer try to remain attached to the coffin and the corpse inside. Its destiny was elsewhere.
It is striking how this pii no longer was identified with the personality of the deceased. There was very little sense that the pii was our dead aunt or that anyone alive would want anything more to do with the pii. This attitude is borne out in the lack of a reunion narrative here in Thailand, in which we might imagine ourselves reunited with loved ones when we die. Death has severed body from spirit and the personhood of the deceased has, as the word implies, ceased. That person we once knew and to whom we related is no more. The person’s body is inert and decomposing, and the spirit is now alien. Affection for the dead person’s spirit is muffled by anxiety and suspicion. Affection for the person who we loved is now grief, which is a wall between the past and present. At the same time, attention is paid to the departed spirit. Here in Northern Thailand the spirits of one’s ancestors are less imminent and needy than in some ethnic subcultures in the region. They do not need to be fed or venerated. But since it is impossible to know when they might have been reincarnated, it is common to have merit transferral rites in their behalf. In fact, even if they have been reincarnated and no longer linger in heaven or hell (or hereabouts, or somewhere in-between heaven and hell), the merit made in their behalf never goes astray.
As the prasat was being pulled from the house where three days of funeral services had been concluded the procession was led by a fellow carrying a three-tailed banner with the name of the deceased written on it (see:www.kendobson.asia/blog/three-tailed-banners-varieties-of-faith). The purpose was to encourage the pii to notice where everybody was going with its former host. Further rituals were undertaken at the cremation grounds to expel thepii from the vicinity and send it on its way. Fireworks lighted the funeral pyre and sought to drive the pii into the beyond. This was not only to get the village rid of a potential malevolent, lost ghost, but for the benefit of the spirit itself. It needed, so the narrative says, to go “on” in order to have a chance to be reborn and continue its progress toward the enlightenment that brings final release through extinction, the eradication of ego, Nirvana (nibbana).
Almost all aspects of this are handled by monks and former monks, even though there is hardly any justification in theTripitaka, the Theravada Buddhist scriptural canon, for they being the ones in charge of this whole confrontation with piiand spirits. One analysis of this is that the supernatural aspects of Thai culture and religion are simply not Buddhist. Anthropologists and others who are not sympathetic with concern about pii call this syncretism. It is considered an accretion, an overlay that should be considered separately from Buddhism. It is clear that the ritualistic handling of piiwas once done by Brahmans in India, and that is still the case with Thai royal protocols and ceremonies. For people at every other social level Buddhist priests now fill the role. Another approach is to see Thai Buddhism as having synthesized the supernatural issues of life and become more holistic. This runs counter to the favorite academic perception that supernaturalism is more primitive and less evolved than rational naturalism, that it is going backward for Buddhism to accept responsibility for pii as well as for merit and reincarnation.
It can be seen that orthodox Theravada Buddhism is reticent about occult, supernatural, and metaphysical aspects of popular Buddhism. When asked directly, monks will tend to avoid using the same terms laity use in describing what is going on in tawn ceremonies, subjata life enhancement ceremonies (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/subjata), or even inauguration ceremonies for Buddhist temple buildings and images (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/awakening-buddha).
Nevertheless, Northern Thai Buddhism is fully involved with all these concerns of the people, and would be less popular without its strategies for managing spirits, connecting to divinities, and directing traffic to the next life. These are the very matters that constitute mystery in life (which is inevitable) and fear (which needs to be mitigated).
I believe it is beyond argument that Thai Buddhism as it is practiced and supported by the people is an amalgam of Buddhist narrative and philosophical doctrine including a way by means of yoga to achieve enlightened understanding of this doctrine, and at the same time a way of rendering manageable all aspects of existence not yet subject to that elevated understanding of the real nature of things. A rare few Buddhists achieve the break-through to enlightenment. Some sixty million Thai people have not achieved that blessed state and do not expect to. They need reassurance that something might be possible to ameliorate the random horrors, vicissitudes and consequences of life that are very real to them. Certain Buddhist priests and a rare few “hermits” have acquired special skill and gifts to intervene using one or the other of the esoteric arts to prolong life, enhance prosperity, command pii, and divine the future. In times of distress these specialists are invited to help people find the peace that comes from doing “all we could do”.
There is an area of sacredness as well as a corresponding area of evil that must be negotiated. Certain stories help explicate those areas and tell of heroes and villains who encountered the awesome power residing in those realms, which have tendrils and influences in our own world. But these stories can only go so far to help us traverse liminal regions and control their influences. Particular cases take particular intervention which depends on supernatural insight and inspiration. It is not relevant to try to ascertain whether or not anyone, supplicant or practitioner, is absolutely convinced that any given ritual or suggestion will succeed. Probably influences that produced the circumstances needing to be ameliorated are too great to render such certainty. The motivation is, “Here is something to try. If it works, great.”
The other day I overheard a monk recommend that our family burn pink candles on Tuesday and Thursday and put pink liquids and pink fruit on the household shrine-shelf in veneration of Mae Kuan Im (see:www.kendobson.asia/blog/mae-kuan-im) since little Pen, the person they were concerned about, was born on Friday. The monk did this after holding the patient’s hands and chanting an obscure blessing. [See the picture at the top of this essay.] I call it obscure because it consisted of a few syllables repeated rapidly and was not any Thai dialect or Pali. The inspiration to suggest colored candles and glasses of liquid came to him, apparently, during his chanting. That is how charismatic inspirations often occur.
[An essay to follow will review in greater detail how blood became the factor that prevents women from equality in world religions.]
The ten flags in front of a village school out our way are faded and a bit sad. They were put up at the crest of enthusiasm for the ASEAN Economic Accords of 2000 that promised an “ASEAN Economic Community” (AEC) in 2015. The agreement was touted as the way to coalesce the economic power of the hundreds of millions of people in South East Asia to challenge the European Union, upon which the AEC was modeled.
Gradually every school, community center and government office building displayed flags of the 10 ASEAN nations along with the ASEAN “hourglass” flag in the center. [I’m playing with words here; the ASEAN flag symbol represents a sheaf of “padi” (the Malay word for rice, usually written in English as paddy and mistaken to mean a rice field), symbolizing, ASEAN websites tell us, “strength and unity”.] It looks to me like the good times are over and the sand has run out in the hourglass. For a while schools invited each other to contests built around ASEAN. Companies planned how they would prosper in the wide-open market place. Ponderous academic conferences listened to distinguished speakers before dispersing into small rooms to hear summaries of important sounding research papers. Imagination flourished.
At this point this essay is supposed to tell of reasons why the ASEAN Economic Community is a dream that has only seemed to have faded as have the flags in the school yard. Actually, it is only just now sinking in that December 31, 2015, the delayed start-up date for the AEC, will not make much difference in critical matters like moving manufactured products, standardizing money, or opening labor opportunities. The hotel manager in Chiang Mai waiting for January to replace his Thai staff with cheaper workers from the Philippines who have better English, may be disappointed. What I have sensed is that the AEC will arrive entirely without impact. I do not pretend to know what is going on in the minds of Thai military ministers in charge of government departments, but they seem distracted from ASEAN. I have heard that ASEAN is dead, based on results of a natural gas agreement or something like that. I don’t know. But I think the AEC is further away than the end of the year.
I am living at a more grassroots level than many others pontificating on ASEAN and the Thai military government. But I can read signs of fading interest. This is a top-down society, and that helps me understand that when no sand is coming down it is because no sand is coming into the top. The ASEAN symbol is a funnel, to my way of thinking, and not an hourglass that can be turned over. There’s no chance of the people sustaining enthusiasm for the AEC if the government has lost interest in it. People out here in our neck of the valley never understood what the AEC was, never had high hopes of great economic improvement from internationalization, and never were much interested in the AEC beyond the pretty flags. Now that the flags are no longer pretty, even that mild interest is pretty much gone.
Many Christians say that Paul condemned homosexual behavior. It is clearest in Romans 1. Paul may have been wrong, but he obviously said that people who engage in same-sex activities are in line for judgment and condemnation. In fact, the whole Gentile lifestyle is wrong and must be given up. That’s how most Christians understand Paul’s position.
To be specific, Paul wrote, “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Rom. 1:26-27, NRSV). And finally, “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die – yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them” (Rom 1:32, NRSV).
Paul goes on to say that the order of nature will bring about the downfall of those who oppose it. This natural order can be discerned by everybody, so nobody has an excuse for rebelling against it.
But there has long been a problem with this interpretation of Paul’s intended meaning in the opening stanzas of his letter to the Jewish Christians in Rome. There is something about its harsh judgmental tone that runs against the grain of the rest of the Book of Romans as we have it. Since no scholars could quite put their finger on what was wrong with this way of understanding Paul, and since the Church had a long history of reading Romans that way, the interpretation became rock solid in the church, and useful stones for hurling at those who are “exchanging natural intercourse … who were consumed with passion for one another.” Paul then seems to say, and modern preachers repeat this very thought, “Those who practice such things deserve to die….” This line of thinking was very prevalent in Jewish thinking, particularly among Jews living in overwhelmingly Gentile circumstances, as the Roman Jews were. Even though this condemnatory attitude is in marked contrast with all the rest of Romans, what else can we do but just accept it as it reads?
Calvin Porter of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis reconsidered this issue and came to another conclusion. Porter discovered that Romans conforms to a particular form of debate that Romans used. The key for Porter was the insistent use of the word “they” in Romans 1. “They” say these things. “They quote the law.” “They condemn and reject.” Furthermore, the people who do such things were Jewish legalists. But suddenly in Romans 2, Paul switches to “you”. Do you want to be treated that way, subject to those judgments? “You” know such condemnation is wrong. You know that Christ wiped out that condemnatory use of the law. You know God’s love and grace.
In other words, Paul is using a literary legal form of argument in which he summarizes a popular point of view and then rejects it. “You” Romans reading my letter, Paul seems to say, need not be that type of judgmental, condemning, self-righteous follower of Christ. You will know better. Paul’s whole argument in Romans is to be non-judgmental because that use of the law is destructive and has been over-ruled by what Christ did for us.
Paul did not condemn gays and lesbians, because Christ does not condemn.
Romans 1 is not available to lambaste us. Christians who use these legalistic, judgmental arguments do not understand the Gospel that Paul was advocating from Jesus Christ. Their condemnation, moreover, will rebound upon them.
Porter is more nuanced, naturally, than this brief extraction from his writing. You can read a helpful article about Porter’s writing here:
I also wrote a more complete review of all this which is now available here:
If there is any structure that represents Buddhism everywhere it would be the CHEDI, stupa, or pagoda. The word stupa probably is derived from a Sanskrit word for “worship” and the word pagoda from another Sanskrit word for “a dwelling for divinities”. The word “chedi” comes from yet another Sanskrit word, but is used only in Thai or to refer to Thai forms of these mountain structures.
The purpose of a chedi is to bury holy items, particularly ashes of dead persons. But in Buddhist parlance in Thailand they might may refer to the Lord Buddha while containing some other relic, such as inscriptions of sayings of the Buddha, or the ashes of disciples of the Buddha including royalty and renowned Buddhist monks.
Chedi come in all shapes and sizes, from a single cup of sand to the immense Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom, 70 miles west of Bangkok, said to be the world’s tallest (at 120 meters). The earliest stupa were in India, and the most famous were hemispherical, attributed to King Asoka in the third century BC (third century BE) but actually proliferating in the Kanishka era, first or second century AD. In Thailand the classical form of a chedi is bell-shaped on a square base. Many chedi are positioned on bases with layers that gradually become round as they go higher, and are topped with a spire consisting of some thirty rings. Other chedi might be tall, slender, four-sided pyramids with notches holding Buddha statues. Those harkening back to the Cambodian-Khmer era are sometimes called “corn-cob” shaped, properly “prang”. Some of the oldest chedi in Thailand are from the Cambodian cultural era. To the dismay of art historians and archeologists the tendency has been, when chedi become unstable, to encase them in a larger structure of an entirely different form.
Donald Swearer quotes Adrian Snodgrass as saying, the stupa is “a network of homologous symbols, myths, rituals and doctrines that include the stupa as reliquary and memorial, cosmic mountain and navel of the universe, mandala-field from which demonic forces have been expelled, generative womb (yabbha), and an ascending pathway to liberation.” [Swearer, D. 1995. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, 2nd ed. Bangkok: Silkworm Books. P. 76]. Joseph Campbell was impressed with the dissonance between the Buddha’s pessimistic teaching about the nature of life and the figures found on the earliest stupa. Campbell reports, “…opulently carved stone gates and railings on which all of the earth and vegetation genii of the ageless folk tradition appeared in teeming abundance.” He describes, “pot-bellied dwarfs support great architraves, whereon are beasts, gods, nature sprites, and human beings adoring symbols of Buddhas, past and future. Winged lions squat like guardian dogs. Earth demons shouldering heavy clubs guard the Sun Wheel of the Law. Everywhere flowering vines and lianas pour from the mouths and navels of mythological monsters….” [Campbell, J. 1962. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. New York: The Viking Press. P. 299.] This effusion of color and life is still vivid in Thai Buddhist temple art. But one form has been suppressed. “…the most prominent single figure in the ornamentation of all the early Buddhist monuments, rivaling in prominence even the symbols of the Buddha and nirvana, is the lotus goddess, Shri Lakshmi. The Indus Valley goddess of the tree, giving birth to the plant world, has thus dramatically returned and she is to be known as present or represented, it would seem, in every woman in the world. She is the goddess of the Bodhi-tree – the same who, in the legend of Adam, was Eve.” [pp. 301, 302] Whereas in the case of Adam and Eve the serpent is Eve’s lover and is cursed, in the Parshvanatha myth and in the Buddhist narrative the Naga is a protector...”the goddess Lotus, Shri Lakshmi, the goddess of the life force, in serpent form.” [p. 302]. Shri Lakshmi has been minimized in Thai Buddhist temples, although the Bo tree remains a central symbol and the goddess has been re-named Mae Toranee (literally the “mother of the physical world”) seen wringing out her recently shampooed hair to create a flood to delay the demonic hoards intending to interrupt Gautama’s meditation.
Buddhist narrative infers stupa were created for the first time for the purpose of interring relics of the Lord Buddha. They were sacred reliquaries. Actually, there were burial mounds before 2000 BC, and stupa were of that type, gradually being modified to express Buddhist ideology. Swearer clarifies pre-Buddhist heritage, calling stupa Indra-kila or World Pillars, reflective of the Vedic myth of Indra’s act of creation. “Indra’s demiurgic act was to slay the demon [Vrtra] and to release the waters, while at the same time separating heaven and earth by ‘pushing them apart’ and ‘propping up the sky’ at the world’s axis, commonly visualized in India as well as other traditions as a World Tree or World Pillar … with his raising of the heavens, Indra ‘pegged’ the floating Primordial Mound to the bottom of the Cosmic Ocean, thus ‘fixing’ or ‘stabilizing’ our universe; the peg he used was the ‘Indra-kila,” metaphysically synonymous with the World pillar.” [Swearer, p. 77]. This cosmological design was quite similar to the newer of the two creation accounts in the Hebrew Bible, the very first account in the Holy Bible. There was originally water, but creation consisted in dividing the water above from the water below. A central holy mountain (later identified as Mount Zion) served as a column to hold the bubble aloft and keep the water away from the earth, unless a deluge was unleashed.
The chedi in the temple on Doi Sutape just west of Chiang Mai (within walking distance, as countless pilgrims and university freshmen can attest) is indisputably the most prominent chedi in Chiang Mai and one of the ten most important in the country. Doi Sutape Temple has been designated a Phra That พระธาตุ indicating that the item interred within the chedi is a relic of the Lord Buddha. Furthermore, it is a validation of Lanna royalty. It takes facile thinking to accomplish this, inasmuch as the Lanna kingdom began in the 14th century AD and Buddha relics had long been identified and claimed before that. Swearer describes how this all was covered in The Legend of Phra That Sutape. In essence, as it relates to how a Buddha relic came to be on Sutape Mountain in the historical past, the story is that in the “Universal Past” the Lord Buddha walked through the Northern Thai region which was the kingdom of a pair of giants who had a son who was enlightened by the Buddha. To preserve the immediacy of the Buddha’s presence, which was likely to fade over time, the Buddha gave the giant’s son a hair from the back of his hand and instructions about how to enshrine this relic. By the time of the founding of the Lanna kingdom that shrine had collapsed and just a spiny plant was left to mark its location. 1875 years after the Buddha departed, through a series of dreams involving the Kings of Sukothai and Lanna the shrine and relic were located and sent to Chiang Mai. To fulfill a prophecy the relic was to be sent onward to an unknown place on the back of a sacred elephant. When it came time for the departure it was found that the relic had miraculously divided into two, so one part was sent on the journey and another retained in the city of Chiang Mai. The elephant took off toward Doi Sutape and paused at the base before continuing on toward the summit where a hermit resided. The elephant recognized the hermit and the sacred spot on which he sat. The elephant ended its journey, kneeling reverently before the hermit after making three circuits and trumpeting loudly. So the location of the temple was identified and construction began. [See Swearer, D., Sommai Premchit, and Phaithoom Dokbuakaew, 2004. Sacred Mountains of Northern Thailand and Their Legends. Bangkok: Silkworm Books, pp. 72-83]. Through dreams and miracles the particular and physical aspects of the Lord Buddha multiply and travel enabling the Buddha to become immediate and universal not only symbolically but super-physically.
Not all chedis are entitled to be designated Phra That. Some contain relics that only indirectly relate to the Buddha in person. In fact not all temples are entitled to have a chedi. But it is instructive how a temple acquires one. A few years ago Wat Ta Pong, in the village next to our village, began construction of a chedi. The construction commenced with digging nine holes for nine pillars to hold up the chedi. On the auspicious day and hour, hundreds of faithful lined up to drop their personal astrological charts on copper, silver and gold sheets, money, sacred objects, and cursed objects (to be thus sanctified) into the holes which were filled with concrete. The solid pre-fabricated chedi was put in place layer by layer. And finally a “heart” was installed in a hole near the top. This object was provided from the sacred trove prepared for such use by the headquarters of the Supreme Patriarch in Bangkok. It was a lineal descendant of a relic of the Lord Buddha, rendered so by arcane rites.
I learned more about such “hearts” while attending a festival in the village of Jom Jaeng just across the valley from our house. The festival lasted for two days and consisted of removing the “heart” from Wat Jom Jaeng and itinerating it through the village. On the second afternoon a large parade escorted the “heart” back home. The occasion was used for presenting other offerings including a pair of “lions” (actually mythological beasts called chinthe by the Burmese who donated the art form to North Thailand) to guard the entrance to the temple proper. I was told at that festival that sometimes the “heart” takes it upon itself to go for visits, and at other times is visited. Many people report having seen these visitations in the form of bright balls of light that float and propel themselves from place to place. This morning (as I type this), five women from our village testified that they have seen just such balls of light. Only one person in the group denied having personally seen such a phenomenon.
What this says is that a chedi is more than a mausoleum for retaining relics of the dead. Like Buddha images (certain ones, at least, see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/awakening-buddha), chedi are more than the physical material from which they are constructed and more than reminders of abstract principles. There is something supernatural about them, something real but hard to describe. Still, it is real, by common agreement.
There are four faith domains in Thailand: religion (Buddhism in this case), personal spirituality that promotes growth and insight, veneration of super-social persons and institutions, and recognition of supernatural forces. Here in North Thailand it seems clear that all these aspects of faith are served by chedi. Moreover, no one domain predominates. Chedi are what they are, and by implication Northern Thai Buddhism is what it is, by virtue of the fact that these domains overlap and converge. Chedi are objects for pilgrimage to make merit and to gain additional faith and insight (spiritual growth). They are validators of the land and its lords as well as reliquaries of historical data (veneration). Chedi contain and control supernatural forces. And, of course, they serve their primary purpose of recalling the Lord Buddha, his teaching and his disciples. In a way that is completely impervious to dispute, the Lord Buddha is not simply symbolized in a chedi, he is present.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.