VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Village schools are the surest sign that Northern Thai culture is evolving and village culture is vanishing.
Our village school in Ban Den, Sanpatong District is basically derelict, although the grounds are used once or twice a year for community events for which the village hall (which has no grounds) is not large enough.
The community school was built 60 or 70 years ago during a period of national expansion of elementary education. The government decided it was in the national interest to require all children to complete at least the fourth grade and be counted as “literate”. Before that time, only boys would go to school, if a temple community had established one. The government plan was to have a school in every village, in principle. In fact, some villages never had one.
In our Ban Mae sub-district of 13 villages there were 9 schools. The Village of Ban Den acquired Jaruwan Brachaphan School, named for the abbot of the Buddhist temple in the village. Our school was on one floor, divided into five rooms with four teachers, one of whom was the head ครูใหญ่. It is obvious from talking to graduates and village natives that there was school spirit and the school was a community focus along with the temple.
When the school closed due to reduced enrollment and transportation became available to larger schools, children from Ban Den either traveled to Wat Ta Pong School in the next village or competed to get into schools of their choice elsewhere. By that time elementary education was compulsory through sixth grade but free education was available through grade 12 for qualified students who could pass exams to get in. Although tuition was free at all government schools, fees for activities, books, supplies, and uniforms prevented many students from staying in school beyond the mandatory level.
Of the 9 schools in our sub-district, 3 are still in operation, although one has enrollment below the minimum set by the government and is maintained because some students would otherwise have to travel several miles to school. 3 of the other 6 schools are used by communities to store community supplies, one is a meeting hall, one has been torn down, and our school is standing idle. In all cases where the schools are closed the buildings have lost their function as centers of community pride and regular activities.
Demographics is part of the reason for the demise of village elementary schools. When the schools were built, a village of 100 houses would average 4 or 5 children per household. Recent statistics in Thailand show that there are now 1.7 children per couple with children. This does not count childless couples. The number of school-age Thai children is going down everywhere there is not population influx. Families with children tend to migrate toward towns where they can be close to jobs with salaries and schools that go all the way to grade 12. Professionals with children would be reluctant to move to a community where schools were not adequate all the way through high school.
Economics is another part of the reason for the decline of village schools. Elementary education is not considered sufficient these days to enable people to function in a consumer-oriented, money-based economy. So, educational institutions with elementary and secondary programs in sequence are preferred, especially since starting out in such a program reduces the risk of being unable to continue to higher levels. Schools give preference to students who are already in them, rather than those who would like to transfer in from outside. Most of our Ban Den secondary students are in schools with not more than two or three others from our village. Their social clique in school will usually be made up totally of friends from several villages away. Young people become oriented in school to being away from the village. The bride and groom in every one of the last 10 weddings we have attended were from different districts, 3 from different provinces, and one from a different country. It was rare for folks of their grandparent’s time to marry someone farther away than the next village or two.
To what should we attribute this movement of life out of the village?
Although the government has no priority given to preserving village culture, there is not (in this case) evidence that abandoning village primary schools is an attempt to undermine village life in behalf of homogenized national culture. That effort has been undertaken by imposing a national curriculum for all subjects, citizenship training, and scout programs for all boys and girls.
It can be argued that the government is responding to people’s desire for better schools with more opportunities for students. Parents express an abiding desire for their children to be able to get into schools and universities as far as possible since education is a key to upward social and economic mobility, and therefore to family security. So, larger schools are a popular choice. At the same time, larger schools operating at close to capacity are more economical to run than scattered, small schools with vacant seats and low teacher/student ratios.
Given the choice, most salaried workers would travel to work and leave children at home close to extended family members. Relocation of a family tends to happen when the distance to work is too far to commute AND other factors combine to make the move a better option. Even so, leaving the family center is the last resort, and most people try to think of it as temporary.
For the most part moving a whole household away from one’s village is not equivalent to moving into a new community, but is more likely to feel like moving out of community into fragmented life where aspects of living are disconnected. Urban industrial living is decentralized with education in one place, religious activities in another, recreation at a distance, and services scattered in every direction. In a housing sub-division one hardly “belongs” but merely “resides”. If a family member were to die, neighbors would need to be recruited to respond, whereas in a village everyone would know their role and respond automatically. Even in the crowded conditions of laborers’ housing, dorms near industry for example, a family rarely feels permanent and does not want to.
In the end, the dissolution of integrated community life is an unavoidable result of developing life around the need for money in a consumer economy. “A certain amount of dislocation” has to be accepted, and the acceptable amount gradually expands. Anxiety may reach unacceptable levels when unmanageable circumstances develop, such as the need to care for senile elders or acutely dependent youngsters. These were traditionally handled by the extended family system in cohesive communities. Government social services tend to be developed reluctantly, and the gap is where vanishing village culture is most lamented.
Although there is no unified organization that includes all the Protestant Christian groups in Thailand the basic form of worship for all of them is remarkably similar. The pattern of most gatherings for worship is to begin with music, either instrumental or choral, and singing by the whole assembly. It is significant that the two main aspects of worship are group singing and a spoken message. Thai congregations are aware that the main difference between the role of the laity in Buddhist and Christian worship is that Buddhists chant while Christians sing. Very likely a small group or two has prepared a song to sing and the entire assembly will also sing from two to six songs and responses. Larger churches have choirs that perform a song and help the congregation with the rest of the singing done together. A leader will also offer prayers addressed to God directly, signifying that God is presumed to be attentive to the worship going on and to the condition and concerns of the people.
A second major portion of Protestant worship in Thailand will generally consist of readings from the Christian Bible followed by a spoken message that is designed to explain how that set of readings applies to those present. The service ends either at that point with a closing prayer and group song or with one of a number of possible events in which all people or selected individuals are involved, symbolically presenting themselves for special roles or life passages.
In Thailand it is not assumed that a church group has life in common outside the context of church gatherings. Life for Christians throughout the week is scattered and Christian activity hardly ever involves an entire village. A Christian’s identity is derived from formal membership and actual participation in the assemblies for worship. However, it is also assumed that the church group will be sufficiently coherent to respond to crises and urgent needs that may involve member families and the wider community.
In Thai Protestant culture there is an unarticulated sense that the Church and Christian believers are outnumbered and potentially disadvantaged, so the weekly worship gathering is also for social encouragement and community building.
Nevertheless, every Protestant worship service is understood to be an indigenous, local, contextualized form of all Christian worship by Christian groups all over the world. Roman Catholic worship in Thailand reflects this global unity more emphatically through the use of costumes, rituals and formalities that conform to a narrower range of variations than Protestant have. The main difference between weekly Roman Catholic and Protestant worship services in Thailand is that a Catholic service is structured around a stylized re-enactment of a meal Jesus had with his disciples (with the sermon/spoken message being less central), whereas Protestant assemblies reserve that sacramental re-enactment for special occasions and tend to do it less dramatically.
The paradigm for Christian worship is a gathering of committed believers under the direction of trained leaders, to receive inspiration and to give praise to God who is “in their midst”. The service of worship is a divine-human encounter reflecting many such events in history and in Biblical narratives in which God was present in a significant way.
[Thanks to Second Church, Sam Yan, Bangkok, for the pictures that illustrate this article.]
[THANKS to Bruce Grether for two pictures of spirit shrines he took in January 2016 when he was visiting here in Chiang Mai.]
What role does supernaturalism play in the faith and life of northern Thai natives? I propose an axiom to simplify and focus the discussion: in north Thailand the nature of faith in supernaturalism can be assessed by observing the way spirit shrines are treated. In brief, “Does the spirit being venerated reside in the shrine or not?”
To get at this question two things must be considered: (1) the activities being undertaken with regard to spirit shrines, (2) the presenting story as well as the foundational narrative that is being remembered.
Spirit shrines come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes these days, mostly reflecting the status and capacity of the people who display the shrines.
There are two types of household shrines, those inside the house and those outside.
Inside shrines tend to be shelves attached high upon a wall, or an entire upper room complete with an “altar” of 7 small tables with a Buddha image on the uppermost central one. Venerated articles, amulets and pious souvenirs are usually collected on these shelves along with regular offerings of flowers, candles and incense. Overall these inside shrines represent the central faith of the residents, their formal religion, Buddhism. In that regard they function as mnemonic devices to facilitate faith and practice of Buddhism, viz. worship of the Lord Buddha, practice of Dharma, and veneration of the Sangha including particular “saints”. Insofar as the shelves or shrines serve to sanctify the house as holy space their religious function overlaps supernaturalism.
Outside shrines are of two types, temporary and permanent. The temporary ones are for a special occasion such as a house blessing or a supchata life-extension ceremony, or perhaps to mark the beginning of the rice planting cycle. Permanent outdoor shrines are the main topic of this article.
Currently, here in the Chiang Mai area, following development from Central Thailand, there are two types of shrines, traditionally called “spirit houses” in English. I am prepared to argue that there used to be only one type of permanent spirit shrine for a domicile, and the spirit was understood as the cao thii เจ้า ที่ the “Lord of the place”. The shrine was called a sao phra phum meaning literally a post for the Lord of the Land or possibly for the Divine Land. The shrines were all miniature temples, typically made of concrete and mounted on a pedestal. Humbler versions might be as simple as a piece of metal bent round over a small board mounted on a post (looking a lot like a rural postal box in the USA). Offerings were always incense, sometimes candles, a glass of whiskey or other beverage, occasionally symbolic food such as fruit and rice, and about once a year cooked chicken. It is unclear from the offering ceremony with which they are presented whether these are to worship or honor the spirit, or to feed and placate it, and therein lies the discussion. Recently, two shrines have become common placed side-by-side on the same concrete foundation. One is taller, on a single column at eye level with a small temple structure (typically about 18 inches tall) mounted on top that may either resemble a Buddhist temple building or a tall pavilion with a spire or prang with an image inside. The second shrine is a bit lower, on 4 or 6 legs, and may either look like a house or a temple. It is often adorned with figurines, small vases and a water jar evoking a sense of domesticity. If the ceramic figurines include mythological creatures or dancers, the suggestion is ceremonial. Husband and wife figures represent ancestors, or the first inhabitants of the place. The meaning can be tipped by how it is adorned. The whole assembly of two shrines is called a sao phra phum but the taller one is dedicated to the Phra Phum and the shorter one to the cao thii, indicating that the divinities are considered to be separate entities.
A major clue as to what people understand about attention paid to the compound’s sao phra phum is what story is running through their minds. That is usually the “presenting story”. As with all sacramental narratives it has a sense of presence and immediacy. The story tells what is going on right now in the event taking place. A second, background narrative tells the context for that event.
Before a house is constructed on a plot of land the “Lord of the place” cao thii is ceremoniously informed of the plan. The presenting narrative would probably be, “We are about to make major changes to this place and we would like your concurrence since these disruptions will be offset by our diligent observance of rites giving you honor as the eternal proprietor of this place.” That promise would be vouchsafed by a special offering at the time, and possibly the erection of a spirit shrine if there isn’t one there already. The underlying “foundational narrative” is that the place has a proprietary spirit, the nature and character of which the foundational narrative would clarify.
According to Phya Anuman Rajadhon, “it is generally assumed that the cao thii can be appeased by a suitable abode and regular sustenance.” His 1952 treatise is the definitive account of the general narrative as held at that time by “Thai tradition”. We should note that the perspective for his observation is that of the believers. Using social scientific tools as an anthropologist might, he synthesizes rather than interprets the belief, and being an elite scholar he tends to imply, without denying “Thai tradition”, that there is room for other points of view.
Whether it is because the people around where I live are Northerners rather than Central Thai, or because it is sixty years after Phya Anuman Rajadhon re-narrated the belief, I feel compelled to respectfully disagree with several of his folk-lore-esque conclusions. First, I do not think that people here believe that the cao thii consume the food offered to them. The food is not consumed; it is offered and succumbs to nature but never appears to be eaten by the spirits. It was never meant to be food for the spirit; it was meant to demonstrate symbolic sacrifice and to give honor to the spirits. Nor is the structure erected for the cao thii either suitable or necessary for habitation. The cao thii has never had nor needed a “house” in the long centuries previously, but Barry M. Broman says that providing a “spirit house” complete with honorific and helpful offerings is a way of keeping the spirit from deciding to move into the people’s house being constructed. That raises the question of what would be wrong with a spirit cohabiting. Broman says that the cao thii “must be kept happy lest the spirit move into the main house/building and cause misfortune or mayhem” [Reichart and Pathawee, p. 2]. This concern notwithstanding, the hope is that the cao thii will remain happy and helpful nearby. These are hints about the foundational narrative, that the character of the cao thii is capricious and untrustworthy, but will be able to provide a wide range of blessings if so disposed.
“The requirement that the house should not throw its shadow over the shrine is perhaps due to a belief that man and spirit are distinctly of different worlds; they therefore cannot logically reside in the same place” [quote of P. Anuman R. by Reichart and Pathawee, p. 20]. In short, when people move onto a piece of land and cast the shadow of their presence and residence upon it there is danger that the benevolence of the cao thii will be lost. Care is taken to invite the cao thii, which P. Anuman identifies as the Phra Phum, “to come and stay at the shrine so that he may protect the place and the residents of the house” (ibid.). Thereafter, the cao thii becomes something like the family patron.
To be clear, these spirit shrines, be they house-shaped or temple-shaped, are not residences, homes or even resting pavilions for the Phra Phum or cao thii. They are shrines. It would be an absurd demotion to suggest that divine spirits lodge in human-made edifices, and miniature ones at that. In addition, the difference between a shrine and a temple is that a shrine is where people can interact with divinities, whereas a temple is a structure where a sacred event in a sacred time is re-enacted thus connecting all within the temple to that event by eliminating the boundary between mundane and sacred time and space, thereby renewing the significance and effect of the event being celebrated for the worshipers.
In our village, Ban Den, Sanpatong District, it would be an insult now in 2559 (2016) to imply, as Thai aristocrats and foreign observers did a century ago, that people are so naïve and simple-minded that they believe the Phra Phum or cao thii they honor either need or feed on the fruit and drink presented as offerings, any more than the ancestors of the Phra Phum needed or appreciated the pregnant women impaled on stakes in the holes into which city pillars were planted up to about 200 years ago.
It is tiresome to have modern men and women living in our village treated as children, presumably fed on simplistic narratives, when there is no credible evidence they are incapable of thinking metaphorically and perceiving their acts of worship as enigmatic and the objects of their worship as mysterious. One of the unfolding perils in contemporary Thai society is the scarcely-disguised contempt the urban elite have for “upcountry villagers”, particularly for villagers’ need to be spoken to and talked about in simple, literal, collective terms. There are university professors, business entrepreneurs, and people with spiritual power living in our cluster of villages who are just as capable of postulating the connection between life events and eternal principles as those living in Bangkok, while also being far more able to expound on the life-cycle of chickens and fruit trees and the evanescence of the sustainable environment.
Nevertheless, the presenting narrative regarding spirit shrines is that they are places where people can go to interact with the cao thii. Ordinarily this interaction is routine, presentation of offerings in an attitude of reverence. Occasionally special intentions are indicated such as the plan to depart for a while, the expected arrival of a new resident, or the desire for particular help. Behind this is the belief that the cao thii and the residents share a mutually beneficial relationship.
Theologically, I notice that this relationship does not travel with the people; should they move, they have to develop a new relationship with the cao thii in their new location. Furthermore, especially in times of crisis or need, the cao thii of a new place lingers in people’s minds even as they pay reverence and “take refuge in the Lord Buddha….” When students move into a college dorm they tend to count on the cao thii whose shrine is there to provide help similar to that which the cao thii provided back home. Supplications become all the more fervent as examinations draw near. Virtually all universities and hospitals provide shrines where interaction between people and benevolent spirits can take place. In other words, one should never be out of the range of a cao thii.
Are these all interactions with cao thii or Phra Phum? Some of the shrines have images of the Lord Buddha, Lord Ganesh, or Lord Indra. Doesn’t that clarify who is being venerated? Is this not another theism rather than supernaturalism? Consider this: there is nowhere in Theravada narratives and teachings of the Lord Buddha that people are encouraged to count on the Lord Buddha for help with their exams or health, nor are they encouraged to obtain winning lottery numbers or escape from being drafted into the Army. Yet these are the things beyond personal control that people bring to shrines of all kinds. The shrines are rarely selected by type. When a student “prays to the Lord Buddha” for a good grade on the national placement exams, the hope is for supernatural help of a type never mentioned in the Dharma, but frequently alluded to in temple ceremonies. A desperate student might well go from one shrine to another with the same aspirations.
This is our clue that we cannot rely on reports and observations alone to sort out supernatural faith from religious faith. As observed phenomena, they overlap. However, the muddle may not be as hopeless as it seems.
Donald Swearer observes:
…Buddha’s presence operates in terms of three different yet related levels: magical, cosmological and ontological. The first is the instrumental significance of a particular event or object; the second, the underlying meaning of the interrelationship among particular events and objects; the third, the overarching reference to which all events and objects point. [p. 29]
…pious acts not only guarantee the survival of Buddhism, they bestow specific blessings on patrons. In sum, contact with the Buddha, whether with his bodily person in the story’s narrative present or as contact with the relics of the Buddha’s absence, is the basis for the popular Buddhist understanding of blessing and merit. [pp. 29-30]
It is blessing, of course that residents seek in their veneration of cao thii.
The most famous shrine and most legendary blessings in modern Thailand are at the Erewan Hotel in Bangkok. This shrine has been elevated to cult status through the testimony of grateful intercessors. Any connection between the land, or creation, is eclipsed by an anticipated personal relationship of the suppliant to the semi-anonymous demi-divinity of the shrine. Everything else about that shrine is hardly relevant. It is scarcely remembered that the image of Brahma is in the San Phra Phum. Promises are made that must be fulfilled at this and no other place. Since Lord Brahma could be worshipped and thanked anywhere, the need to return to this particular shrine is evidence that it is the place that signifies rather than divinity portrayed there. No particular dogma attaches to this shrine, nor is there a prescribed form of worship (and some very unusual vows have been fulfilled there). The shrine is an aspect of supernaturalism rather than formal religion.
This is what Swearer calls “magical and instrumentalist”. It is the hope and expectation that acts of worship will bring prosperous results. These results are confined and specific. They are particular, not in the nature of “peace in our time” or “joy and love” in general, which are ontological conditions. Although the Erewan Hotel shrine was built to placate disturbed spirits who had interrupted the hotel’s construction, that is hardly remembered by those who come for blessings. The emphasis is on particular, individual acts of worship and anticipated results rather than placating and venerating the cao thii as the eternal spirit of the land upon which the hotel was built.
The Erewan shrine, unlike the Bangkok city pillar, lacks primary cosmological significance as well. This place is not visited daily by hundreds of worshipers because the Lord Buddha once came there or because a relic of the Lord Buddha is enshrined there. It has no cosmological or ontological significance. It is not a Buddhist shrine, nor is it antithetical or incompatible with Buddhism. It is supplemental to Buddhism.
The second level, which Swearer identifies as cosmological, attempts to pinpoint where we are with reference to sacred time and space. Chiang Mai, Swearer points out is a place where, in some sense, the Buddha visited and left behind footprints and relics. This has consecrated Chiang Mai and validated it as a political entity as well as part of the Buddhist cosmos.
The second level of meaning points beyond a magical, instrumentalist view of particular events associated with the Buddha and his relics to the geographical and cosmological map in which they are imbedded. The Buddha’s wanderings in northern Thailand constitute the region as the land of the Buddha. The presence of the Buddha literally gives the region an identity indicated by the giving of a name, a tradition associated with folklore. …The Buddha’s wanderings establish a map within which particular locations derive meaning as a result of being integrated into a larger scheme of things grounded ultimately in the Buddha. [p. 30]
The shrine in our back yard and in the yards and orchards of almost every house in our village are, however, not Buddhist shrines, nor is any particular event in the many lives of the Lord Buddha associated with any of these shrines.
The third level of meaning can be called universal. Swearer names it ontological. Buddhism has much to say about this, but supernaturalism in Thailand has little.
As we have seen in the description of spirit shrines and their function, supernaturalism is what Swearer calls instrumentalist and magical. Supernaturalism personalizes people’s relationship to that which is beyond our reach and makes it less threatening.
Do cao thii reside in the edifices erected on posts and pillars all over northern Thailand? Our answer is no. The places are shrines and the “residing” implied is metaphorical. The aspect of faith being symbolized refers to the mysterious powers in and above nature as we comprehend it. There is capriciousness about our worldly existence requiring attention. We are vulnerable as we struggle here, exposed to forces far beyond our control, squirming across the surface of the land for our brief time, neither fully in the earth nor out of it. Our veneration of the pernicious and beneficent cao thii, whether we articulate it or not, is the ambivalent respect one pays to elemental components of our mortal bodies compounded of divine Phra Phum channeled through ancestors beyond counting.
Every Thai Buddhist worship service is a re-enactment of the encounters of the Gautama, the Self-Enlightened One, with is disciples. The paradigm for those encounters is that the Buddha enunciated Truth-Dharma so clearly, logically, relevantly and convincingly that attentive listeners would typically experience a cognitive break-through, a great “ah-ha!”, that would dispel confusion and anxiety about the nature of life. Optimally, all who listened would benefit, either by achieving the initial insight or having it reinforced. Naturally, some people in the audience might be distracted or mired so deeply in their circumstances that the great ah-ha did not happen, but if they retained only a metaphor or aphorism they still benefited.
The model for a Buddhist service is the Lord Buddha seated facing a reverent and attentive audience. That is the form of the Buddhist “divine-human encounter”. There is an implied dialogue between the Buddha and the audience that begins with the audience expressing reverence and asking for a dissertation of Dharma-Truth. Then the Buddha speaks, using a key simile or metaphor to gather up the Truth and make it memorable. Finally, the audience expresses appreciation and acknowledges that they have received a blessing.
These days, of course, a current generation of disciples fills the role that the Buddha once did. Monks are more than mere surrogates for the Buddha or de facto substitutes, however. They are also less than that. There is not supposed to be confusion on this point. The Lord Buddha called (and therefore ordained) disciples to be Dharma-carriers, as was he, but also monastics who adhere to a higher level of discipline; but as dispensers of grace they are mediators. Their authority as innovators is limited to telling stories of the Buddha speaking and interpreting what the Buddha is said to have said. In this, of course, they have a great deal of latitude because few Buddhist discourses expound on fixed texts, although a great many are recitations of discourses prepared by others. In several ways (through costume, stylized chanting, physical posture, and use of “palm leaf” style sermon texts) monks symbolize the unbroken chain back to the Lord Buddha. So when a monk is chanting stanzas or preaching a sermon he represents the Buddha without ever losing consciousness that he is just a monk. Laity in the audience recognize that monks represent the Buddha, but they “take refuge” in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as three separate aspects of how they are blessed.
In some symbolic and effective way what happens in a Buddhist worship service is a re-enactment of countless similar events 2500 years ago. Each such re-enactment subsumes the meaning of all the other re-enactments and all the original encounters. Each one has the potential to be an enlightening experience. But all of them are able to help move people from states of anxiety into greater levels of serenity, through cognitive engagement. The sustained chanting produces affective benefits, which are at least suggestive of trance states. And all services generate merit to offset accumulated negative karma, which can also be comforting.
A VERY SHORT PHILOSOPHICAL DISCOURSE
Easter is not the worst day to give up the quest for the historical Jesus. It is a search, after all, bound to disappoint. Easter is the day on which the historical Jesus ended. Women and then men went early in the morning to the place where they thought he was interred but the tomb was empty. After that the stories all end in disappearances. There was no more historical Jesus. From then on those who want to hold onto Jesus have to cling to his legacy and deal with paradigm shifts.
Beginning with Easter all we have are stories and metaphors. The narratives of Jesus are what have been put together to create a semblance of Jesus for those untimely born, like us, who are curious about what Jesus was like. Those accounts leave a lot of room for imagination (and film-makers) to fill in blanks. A good metaphor is more astonishing. A satisfactory metaphor is the product of intense concentration.
One of the first profound imaginative shifts had to do with finding aspects and episodes in the Jesus stories that resonate with older sacred stories as well as with current events and conditions. According to this model, Jesus stories are rooted in stories of Isaiah and Moses and are also entwined with the very things we are concerned about. Our connection with Jesus is through narrative. Paul was particularly deft at doing that. He used a mode of reflection that has never been abandoned by Christian followers and is the basis for all Christian sermons. We might call this the paradigm of the never-ending story.
The second paradigm shift was to re-imagine divine-human encounters as sacramental events wherein people need not go to Jesus, but he comes to them. Sacred space is hollowed out of (or hallowed into) everyday space, at the corner of a busy city intersection, say, and Jesus meets them there. This could be called the paradigm of the holy encounter.
The third shift of context was even further away from the literal-historical into the metaphorical-philosophical realm where universals congregate. God-Father, Jesus-Savior, and Holy Spirit overlap and deal with such other universals as life-death, evil and eternity. This theological maneuver universalizes not only the way Jesus deals with human conditions such as sin and salvation in general, but also how he connects with specific personal conditions such as yours and mine. We could call this a paradigm of cognitive transformation.
So anxiety that periodically arises about the historical facts and localities of Jesus’ life is avoidable. Just don’t worry about whether Jesus was born in this place or that, actually said something or didn’t, or was buried here or there. Or what he looked like. Easter is liberation from such tedious concerns. We are not connected to Jesus by a long historical chain. Easter disconnects us from the need to establish a historical thread.
Easter is also a connecting link. If we are to any extent Christian there must be a thread or chain connecting us to Jesus. Since we live at the beginning of the third millennium after Jesus our connection extends across 2000 years. Because of Easter and the disappearance of Jesus we are connected to Jesus by one or more of the three paradigms. Each of those paradigms has its own illustrious advocates and shining episodes. All of them may be aspects of any person’s relationship to Jesus. Either we have internalized the narrative thread, been engaged through a sacramental connection, or undergone transformation of our belief system. His story is linked to our story, his mystery attracts our wonder, and/or his reality transforms our own.
Notes on Easter paintings: “The Resurrection” by Carl Bloch, ca 1873, represents the high Romantic Age linked closely to attempts to imaginatively re-capture the historical Jesus for a particular ethnic-cultural context; in Bloch’s case the context was Scandinavian. The picture is from “Jesus: the Son of Man” published by Scandinavia Publishing House, 1982, p. 72. “Resurrection” by Andre Kamba Luesa, the Congo/Zaire, 1992; the print is Post-Modern Impressionist; meaning and message dominate and are especially for a specific time and people. The print is taken from a collection in the book “Christ for All People” edited by Ron O’Grady, published by the Asian Christian Art Association, 2001, p. 143.
One of the more enduring missionary legacies here in Chiang Mai is buildings. On this Palm Sunday I’d like to share reflections on two impressive chapels, The Prince Royal’s Chapel and the McKean Chapel. They are important architectural landmarks and symbols of their institutions, but also expressions of the vision of the Church at the time they were constructed in the first quarter of the 20th century. In that respect they are worth considering in this era of increasing uncertainty about the role of the Church in the world.
The Prince Royal’s College Chapel was built of bricks covered with stucco with teak rafters, struts and beams creating a fascinating web overhead. The roof was baked tile. The architectural style is neo-Gothic with cruciform interior design. Seating is on substantial teak pews in the nave, with similar pews for the choir in the chancel on either side of a communion table in the style and position of an altar in a Gothic church. The pulpit is elevated prominently on the left side (from the congregation’s perspective) with a lectern opposite. Windows high in the walls let in light and lower down provided ventilation. The design was intended to rivet attention on the front, while keeping the audience as immobile as feasible. This was not only the best chapel plan for a school for little boys, it was how all neo-Gothic churches were constructed.
The chapel of McKean Leprosy Asylum, as it was called at the time its chapel was built, was also made of large bricks covered with stucco, heavy teak structure overhead, and tile roof. The architectural style, unlike most other chapels and churches the missionaries built, was Moorish. The chapel essentially had no walls but entrance was through a large portal at the south end of the rectangular building. The chapel was on a small island surrounded by lotus ponds. McKean (for short – the institution has had many names) is on a large island in the Ping River, so the chapel suggests that the church is the heart and purpose for the whole institute. The chapel has a bell in a belfry over the narthex that actually served to call the large community. The nave has teak pews for the congregation, with spacious side aisles that could accommodate extra seating. The chancel was in the basilica style, complete with side aisles, flying buttresses and a rounded apse in front. The apse was rather shallow and hung with drapes rather than having mosaics, carvings or stained glass windows above a formidable altar. Chancel furnishings are small, even (if I may say so) out of scale, but consistent with the intention to accommodate an unadorned Presbyterian form of worship. The chapel essentially has no windows, but the many-layered roof with wide overhangs thwarts the worst effects of sun and rain. McKean was a leprosy refuge, hospital, vocational development facility, large residence community and medical research institute. It provided holistic care, and some who crossed the bridge onto the island spent decades there without ever leaving. The church grew to be the largest Protestant church in Thailand, and is the “mother church” for a network of more than a dozen congregations planted as the McKean community disbanded to be re-integrated in larger society in the 1980s as leprosy was conquered and stigma diminished (that’s another amazing “resurrection” story).
Aside from their primary function as gathering places for traditional worship, the two chapels were meant to communicate the stability of the church’s mission. The buildings were built to last, with no thought of flexibility of function. In fact, both chapels have multi-purpose halls right beside them for whatever community events might not be worship. The chapels stand for one thing above all: “THE MAIN ENTERPRISE OF THIS INSTITUTION IS GIVING GLORY TO GOD AND DIRECTING ATTENTION TO JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD AND SAVIOR.”
Buddhist temples are certainly the most distinctive feature of Thai village culture. They are symbolically, and most often physically, the center of a village. The purpose of this essay is to describe the components of the majority of Northern Thai Buddhist temples in villages.
WIHARA (pronounced “wee-hahn”) วิหาร are the dominant structure in a typical northern village temple. They are assembly halls and function as gathering places for Buddhist ceremonies. The wihara (also spelled vihara) is inevitably rectangular with the doors at one end. There are usually three double doors leading inside the main hall; the center set is the largest and may reach as high as the building’s walls. Almost without exception the main front doors face east. The front of the building has a wide set of stairs leading to a spacious porch where some activities take place, including presentation of offerings before worship. The roof generally has three steps and has a naga (serpent) motif along the eaves and a chofah (stylized naga) at both ends of the roof peak.
The installation of the front chofah is usually a ceremony to formally inaugurate the wihara. The interior has a platform at the far (western) end upon which sits a large image of the Lord Buddha in a meditative pose. There will probably be one or more additional images arranged in front of the large one, with a smaller set of tables and an image right at the front on floor level where candle and incense lighting ceremonies take place at the beginning of worship services. This entire area will be decorated with flowers, candlesticks and various memorabilia. Along the left side (south), that is to the right of the Buddha, is a seating platform for monks, raised about a foot and a half above the floor. It is taboo for laity and novices to sit on this platform. Walls of the wihara are usually decorated with painted frescos that depict either events in the life-narrative of the Buddha or also village ceremonies. The wihara will be open whenever there is a temple event or when it is used by the temple’s chapter of monks for daily services.
GUTI are residences for monks in a temple compound. In very rural temples the guti may be quite simple, but most northern Thai villages have constructed comfortable houses for their monks. There is no typical design for a guti although custom dictates that they not be too ostentatious no matter how famous the monk might be. It would be improper for a female of any age to enter a guti under any circumstances.
SALA is a Thai word for pavilion, an open-sided or semi-enclosed building with a roof. Village temples usually have one or more of these, where less formal events, such as meetings or classes, can be conducted. During the rainy season lay people might stay in the temple for a couple of days and nights each week, sleeping in a sala. In cities, the sala may also be used for wakes and funeral services, which are generally held in homes if there is space available.
CHEDI is otherwise known in English as stupa or pagoda. Most of the time a chedi is a solid structure representing the world-mountain. It is a reliquary for relics of the Lord Buddha or for cremated remains of venerated persons, thus referring to the Buddha in a less direct way. (For more on this structure see www.kendobson.asia/blog/chedi ).
BOT (pronounced “boat”, sometimes transliterated Ubosot) is a hall, generally looking like a second, smaller wihara, used for ordinations, vow-reaffirmation rituals, and services exclusive to the Sangha (ordained priests/monks). A bot is bounded, and therefore designated, by a perimeter of 8 sema stones – a 9th is buried in the center of the floor as a foundation stone. (For more about the supernatural aspects of the bot refer to paragraphs 7 through 10 of www.kendobson.asia/blog/options ).
HO THAM (literally, “Dharma tower”, i.e. a library) used to be a necessary feature of a temple. The small building both protects and respects the temple’s collection of sacred texts. The building is elevated to thwart rodents, thieves and pests and may be (or once may have been) surrounded by a pond or moat to deter termites, but also to symbolize the wholeness of nature, which is inhabitable land projecting out of surrounding sea. “Dharma” is derived from the word ธรรม “nature”, referring to the natural order of creation as well as the connection of spirit and nature. Novices may be housed on the ground floor area of a ho tham if the temple is old enough to have one.
KAMPAENG WAT, a substantial, protective wall will be the outermost feature of almost every temple compound unless the temple is on top of a steep hill. It is the duty of the abbot to close and open the temple gates, and thereby to control the movements of priests, novices and temple guests under his auspices.
BO TREES Ficus religiosa, otherwise written as Bodhi trees, may be inside or outside the temple compound. Wherever they are they are sacred since they refer to the Lord Buddha. In theory, all Bo trees in Buddhist temples are descendants of the tree under which the Buddha sat to become enlightened. Leaning against the Bo tree may be a number of poles that have been brought to symbolically assist the tree to resist destructive winds or floods after having been used for life-extension ceremonies or brought in annual village pilgrimages related to the Songkran festival.
A temple is not a temple until it has been officially designated as a temple. Before that designation, the collection of edifices might be called an ashram or be given a temporary name. A temple is always a temple after it has been consecrated, no matter how its surroundings or use might change. Here and there a derelict chedi may be all that remains of a temple from ages past and even the name of the temple might be forgotten, but it is still a temple. That is to say, it is a place where a sacred encounter is symbolized and has been re-enacted. That is what temples do and why they are sacred places.
I find myself fatigued in the struggle to identify what is Christian America. I had it all figured out in 1976 for the Bicentennial of the USA. It fell apart for me after that. The bell-ringing fun of the decentralized Bicentennial celebrations almost immediately faded. The impact of the 1968-1975 anti-war and anti-establishment movements finally hit. The issue expanded into, “What is really all that special about America?” And that was an unthinkable question.
Then America dreamed up new ways of keeping war going, and the whole concept of Christian America grew as grotesque as had been the war propaganda movies of the 1940s and the communist-threat TV shows of the 1950s.
All I know anymore is that somewhere, somehow the idea of “Christian America” and “Americans who are Christians” diverged so now we have virtually separated the two. Christian-America is an increasingly unified cultural entity comprised of individuals with a shared patriotic-religious mindset and an implied historical narrative that unifies the nation. Christians in America are individuals affiliated with Christian groups that are modeling their lifestyle requirements on selected religious narratives transformed by diverse historical influences that enrich the nation. The deeper into the 21st century we get the more incompatible unity and diversity, e pluribus unum, become.
The recurring issue of my early career as a pastor is no longer confined to, “Can the flag my grandfather gave his life for have a place of honor in the front of the sanctuary or not?” Concerns about separation of symbols for church and state have been eclipsed by the movement to eliminate the principle of separation of church and state. The essentially spiritual idea that “none are free as long as some are not free” that got me marching behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. singing “We Shall Overcome”, has morphed into the essentially political conviction that “America is not safe as long as _______ lives” (fill in the blank: Ho, Pinochet, Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden). America has grown used to the idea that people must continually be dying for America to be safe, safety is America’s highest value, and safety-freedom is a hyphenated concept for which individual lives, liberties and pursuits routinely will be suspended. So we send our sons and daughters to endless war in which they, of course, kill a great many others for a cause we have redefined as freedom.
Where I lost track of the logic of current events is when the idea shifted that what we were fighting to defend was the lives and freedoms of oppressed minorities, and it became the idea that these military actions around the world are in behalf of America’s security and freedom. It was also confusing that we were so selective, hurrying to Granada but ignoring Rwanda, targeting Saddam who was supposed to have weapons of mass destruction but did not while being so cautious about Kim in North Korea who is not supposed to have them but does. It is hard to connect the dots between most recent military interventions and America’s sustainability.
Meanwhile, Christian-America grows negative with expanding targets to vilify and bizarre targets to attack. This week’s skirmishes have included where to build the next wall and concentration camp to contain the threat of fleeing refugees, Alabama’s rejection of the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court, an Archbishop’s war on Girl Scout cookies, and a presidential candidate’s penis size. All this is somehow conflated with what it is all about to be Christian-America.
Somewhere the line was crossed between the sublime and the absurd.
Traditionally the Buddhist rainy season retreat, often called “Buddhist Lent”, ends with katin processions to bring new sets of saffron colored garments to monks. There are three to seven pieces to a set: a long, loose sleeveless shirt without the right shoulder, a knee-length sarong, and a long over-robe to be wrapped around the torso and arms in various ways depending on circumstances, a belt, a cloth for receiving items formally, and two other optional pieces. There may also be a folded rectangular cloth to be draped over the left shoulder on special occasions inside a temple precinct. Buddhist faithful, especially family members, brought a new set to their ordained relatives to help them be ready to go “out and about” as the lenten sequestration ended.
Nowadays it is likely that monks have several sets because they receive them on many occasions. Anyhow, a katin is conducted to bring not only robes but also large monitary gifts for temple upkeep or construction. A donor, wishing to make merit, first requests permission to conduct a katin and then becomes the festival’s sponsor. Since a temple can only receive one katin a year, the sponsor may actually be a group of co-sponsors. Members of the temple community act as appreciative hosts and join in the “procession” by bringing their own money trees. The sponsor is given a warm reception and the crowd usually circumambulates the temple’s main hall or chedi three times. Then there are formalities in the presentation and bestowing of blessings, followed by a meal provided by the community for the sponsors.
Katins are multi-faceted merit-making events. Merit is compounded, through the subtle economics of religious calculation, by the amount of piety involved. Intense effort adds merit. Long pilgrimages are more meritorious than short ones. Mass ordinations are more meritorious for participants than individual ones. This appears to be the principle behind a chulakatin จุฬากฐิน such as the one I witnessed November 21-22, 2015 at Wat Ta Pong near our village.
Whereas, a katin is the presentation of money trees and robes, a chulakatin is the presentation of very large money trees and robes made of cotton collected, spun, and woven within a single uninterrupted day. The extraordinary effort this requires produces compound merit.
The abbot of Wat Ta Pong explained that in their case some short-cuts had been taken. The effort was symbolic, a demonstration of what the chulakatin festivals of old had been like. It was impressive.
Beginning at dusk the community gathered. The first event was a service to invoke the presence and blessing of the spirits of the ancestors and of the weaver masters of old. Offerings of fruit and flowers were made. Then a company of classical dancers led the assembly through a symbolic cotton field. The cotton was attached to potted trees for this purpose, just outside the temple gate. The bolls were piled onto lacquer pedestal-trays to be carried into the temple grounds. The cotton was paraded before the ancestors and then turned ceremoniously over to workers who were waiting.
Every step in the process was represented. The bolls were symbolically de-seeded, while some of them were already being spun into thread and wound onto bobbins. Meanwhile, weavers had loaded looms ready to operate with orange thread. All operations began at once. The need to dye the thread with saffron or dye made from certain trees was (from my perspective) the only step skipped. The weaving was to take all night. The time was broken for the faithful who were diligent in their piety, by a midnight chanting featuring a famous monk from the historic temple in Jom Thong. As cloth became available it was cut and sewn by hand into a set of robes. Pieces were sewn together into a symbolic rice field pattern, reminiscent of the tradition that the first Buddhists’ robes were scraps collected from cremation grounds.
Everything was finished by dawn.
The day began with a tak bahtr ceremony. Then people gathered at the town’s intersection with their money trees and musical instruments. At the head of the procession an elephant made of wads of cotton carried the set of robes produced during the night (perhaps a live elephant would have been employed if available). At 10 the procession made its very noisy way through the temple gates. Money trees joined the great tall one in the temple yard and the people entered the wihara assembly hall. A company of 9 monks led by the presiding monk of the district received the robe by unanimous vote (“let any monk who objects speak now” and none did).
The ceremony ended at the appropriate time before noon so that the monks could finish their last meal of the day in conformance to their vows.
The crowd of about a thousand villagers and visitors feasted on noodles and ice cream bars.
The merit acquired was, as always, incalculable.
Magha Puja is the second-most sacred of three annual Buddhist holidays in Thailand. Magha Puja (มาฆบูชา pronounced somewhat like mahk-ah boo-cha) takes place at the time when the full moon comes into proximity with the Magha star cluster in Indian astrology; the old name for this month is Magha).
It commemorates four miracles:
1. It was the time of the full moon in the star Magha.
2. 1250 disciples of the Buddha, all saints, assembled.
3. They [spontaneously] met at Veluvana Temple without prior arrangement.
4. They all had entered the Sangha by the simple command of the Buddha, “Ehi bhikkhu”.
(Wells, K. 1960. Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities. Bangkok: The Christian Bookstore, pp. 78-79).
At the assembly, the Lord Buddha gave the Patimokkha to the disciples and prophesied he would die in three months (another tradition says this assembly happened much earlier in the life of the Buddha). The Patimokkha are the 227 binding rules which govern the lives of monks. These rules are recited in a solemn ceremony by all monks twice a month, but the original dissemination of the rules is celebrated in the Magha Puja ceremony using a recitation written by H.M. King Rama IV entitled the “Ovada Patimokkhadi Patha”. This recitation underlines the importance of three gathas: the non-doing of evil, the full performance of what is wholesome, the total purification of the mind.” (Swearer, D. 1995. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia second edition. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, p. 38)
Magha Puja is very much focused on the Sangha and the spiritual life of monks.
This year, 2559 BE, Magha Puja falls on February 22, the full moon of the third lunar month (by Central Thai reckoning). It is a national holiday. All government offices and educational institutions will be closed. Festivities in temples in the central part of the country will probably be at night, but in the morning in Chiang Mai and the north.
About these things there is widespread agreement. But just which of the “Triple Gems” is being emphasized on this occasion? There are three major holidays. Don Swearer declared in 1990 that Magha Puja represents one of the “Triple Gems of Theravada Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.” He lists the 3 holidays in order: Visakha Puja (birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha), Asalha Puja (the Buddha’s first discourse of the Dhamma) and Magha Puja (where the Sangha is formally organized). On the other hand, Ken Wells, reporting on his research from the 1930s lists only 2 main Buddhist holidays, Visakha and Magha Puja and says that Magha is sometimes called “The Buddhist All Saints Day and Dharma Day….” (ibid., p. 79). In other words, it is primarily about Dharma as well as enlightened ones. Wells makes no mention of Asalha Puja Day because it was mandated much later by the central government at the time of the celebration of the 2500th anniversary of Buddhism, to round-out the three festivals, giving each of the Gems its due. Magha Puja Day was initiated by King Mongkut (Rama IV) and formally set as a national holiday by his son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).
As for the “saints” who gathered, they were all arahants. Most scholars writing for Western readers use the word “saints” for arahants, asThe Bangkok Times first did on February 26, 1937. By the end of the Buddha’s earthly mission there were many monks and disciples, but fewer arahants. Arahants have had the break-through to an enlightened, ego-less state. They have seen the nature of the universe and may have glimpsed their past lives. Being an arahant is a perfected state that few achieve or attempt to achieve. But Magha Puja is designed to keep this goal in mind, as well as to venerate all who have taken the strict vows of ordination.
Finally, we see that the agricultural connection between Magha Puja and the rice harvest is diminishing. The association is not only no longer remembered, the actual agricultural calendar has shifted. For a long time the rice harvest was in January and so Magha Pujacame at the end of it as a sort of thanksgiving. Now with two rice crops a year, planting and harvesting are out of synchronization with the religious calendar. In modern times, Magha Puja may never have been a harvest thanksgiving event per se, but Buddhism and all world religions sustained the age-old awareness of humanity’s spiritual roots in the soil. Shifts in culture need to be responded to by religious entities if they are to stay relevant. No one was more aware of this than King Mongkut, when he re-focused Magha Puja away from its pre-modern blur. It remains to be seen, perhaps a couple of generations from now, how the disconnection of Buddhist festivals from village cycles will impact piety and participation.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.