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.
There was a symbolic wedding ceremony on Valentine’s Day Eve, last night, sponsored by M+, a gender-equality and HIV-awareness NGO here in Chiang Mai. The theme was that people who love each other and are committed to life together ought to have the right to get married. The organizers were clear that love is the criterion. They were equally clear that the law is the obstacle to full rights to get married and to have all the benefits and responsibilities that come with being a full-fledged family in Thai society.
So Kuai and Ream, First and Nick, Dew and Jang got “married” at the Latti Lanna Hotel under a crescent moon and star-spangled sky on the banks of the Ping River. The event was set up just like most weddings, with guests writing congratulatory messages in scrapbooks, taking pictures with the wedding couples, and being ushered to tables with full view of a stage where things were about to happen.
We saw a video about the loving couples’ romantic development, and then they arrived from across the river on a lovely boat. Photographers sprang into action.
Then the 3 couples were seated at a table across from the Deputy Nai Amphur (Asst. to the head of the Chiang Mai Municipal District) and signed marriage applications, just as every couple does to have their marriage registered. A registered marriage is the key to several civil rights and protections. The Deputy then explained that national law has to be changed for couples to be granted marriage certificates if they are not heterosexual on their national identity cards. Since our 3 couples did not qualify, one of them being 2 males, another being 2 females, and the third being 2 males with one transgender, applying for marriage was as far as the legal process would go. The Deputy would have to “reject” the applications on legal grounds. The ceremony demonstrated that.
But it continued, even so. The couples were provided with traditional leis and congratulated with symbolic speeches and then they symbolically filled champagne glasses, watered tulips, and cut a monstrous wedding cake with a silver sword. The congratulatory speeches were a bit more than hollow ritual, however. One was by the US Consul for Political and Economic Affairs in Chiang Mai, who underscored that marriage rights are human rights in the eyes of a large section of the community of nations, especially the USA. The second speaker (me) emphasized that in Thai society a marriage is actually constituted by the consent and blessing of the families and the community, no matter how reticent the government may be to register it. The third speaker spoke as a long-time government official working for human rights and as head of a human-rights foundation, saying that the law in Thailand and in the region is evolving and progress is being made.
There are two perspectives about the wedding last night. First, it was meant to be a wedding in which the three couples got married as fully and publicly as possible. Second, it was a “historic event” in that actual government officials participated as fully as they were able, which was more fully than anyone could remember it ever happening that way before. It was a small, satisfying step toward gender rights and equality.
It was not lost on the assembly that this was the 8th annual marriage equality and gender status event sponsored by M+ and co-sponsored by a wide variety of government and non-government entities. Pongthorn “Tor” Chanlearn, director of M+, organizes a major event every February. The most memorable was on 21 February 2009 when a gay-pride parade was sabotaged by a gang of paid political thugs with cooperation from the police. Subsequent February events have been seminars and rallies. Tor says there will be a wedding like this every February from now on.
THANKS: to Tor and his team and to Pramote for the pictures accompanying this blog.
Every major funeral service teaches lessons about life and culture. That was especially true of the cremation ceremonies for the former abbot of Wat Kiew Lae Luang in San Pa Tong District of Chiang Mai Province last week.
The venerable abbot died in 2557 (2014) and his body has been waiting an auspicious time for cremation ever since. It must be a good time for such ceremonies because there have been two of them last week and several more soon to follow. I am certain that many factors are considered, but in the case of Kiew Lae Luang and Kiew Lae Noi supernatural ones are not included. Those two villages eschew veneration of ghosts and other supernatural beings. There are no spirit houses or shrines and no spirit ceremonies (we understand) in those two villages, which set them apart from most other villages hereabouts.
The actual cremation ceremonies began on Monday, February 1 with a community evening service much like other funeral services, but inside the vihara (assembly hall) of the temple compound. This was the final service for the abbot inside the temple with which he had been associated for many of his 82 years.
Meanwhile, for several days, a cremation structure befitting the eminence of this abbot was being constructed in the city of Lampoon under the supervision of a monk who specializes in this sort of structure and tradition. During the week before, the components of the structure were transported to the cremation grounds next to the temple and school in Kiew Lae Luang. The final assembly was completed on Sunday, January 31. The structure was made of a wooden framework covered with a skin of woven fiber and spectacularly painted. The structure is a Nok Hasadeeling, a mythological bird five times as large as an elephant with an elephant’s head. This nok (bird, not elephant) is considered the most feared and vicious creature in Thai mythology. (See the picture at the top of this article).
It is understood that in former times this mythological bird structure was used for the cremation of Lanna and Lao royalty. The fact that monks of a certain status are given this honor equates them with royalty. However, after the incorporation of Northern Thailand into the nation of Siam, royalty were cremated in Mount Meru (temple shaped) structures.
On Tuesday, there was a ceremony and procession to move the body in the casket from the temple to the cremation grounds and to install it in the cremation structure. After appropriate chanting and a eulogy the casket was removed to a vehicle for the trip across the street. It was pulled by a hundred monks and novices as well as hundreds of villagers. Then the casket was hoisted by man-power into position at the top of the temple-like tower on the back of the bird. During this ceremony the head of the bird was animated by fellows inside the structure moving the head, flicking the trunk and flapping the ears. It was supposed to be imposing and a bit intimidating, but the activity of the scores of workers was distracting from that effect. Eventually the casket was in place and that processional event ended.
On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the faithful came to the temple in the evening for chanting services and to listen to sermons. Both preaching and listening to sermons on Buddhist Dharma are meritorious. On this occasion, however, some of the best-known preachers in the region were recruited to teach. On the final evening there were three sermons going antiphonally. Throughout the week people in the village provided food for guests, monks and for themselves. It was a week of eating as well as chanting and preparation for the big event.
The actual cremation took place on Saturday, and was divided into two distinct parts. As custom expects, the Palace in Bangkok provided a gift of fire for the cremation. With a police escort befitting royalty, the makings of the fire were brought to the cremation grounds and presented for use with ceremony and short speeches. This was the official cremation ceremony at which a large number of monks (more than 80) chanted, and government officials from far and near participated. In other circumstances actual fire is presented, brought in a lamp to light ceremonial logs which simulate the cremation that may actually take place in a modern gas-fired crematorium nearby.
As darkness deepened, about 6:30, the cremation ceremony resumed with the second part getting under way. Again there was a funeral sermon chanted, and the eulogy was repeated. As this was going on a team of workers was climbing over the structure checking and getting the preparations ready for the incineration to follow. The scale of the anticipated fire was emphasized by the presence of four fire trucks parked at strategic locations. When everything was ready and all the workers and monks had left, the fireworks began. First there was a long line of areal bombs and fireworks. That ended with a rocket screaming along a wire toward the Nok Hasadeeling. Fireworks brought the structure into fierce action as flaming wheels whirled strings of sparks cascaded, and the bird made a symbolic journey into mythic time and space through skies filled with stars and forests of flowering trees past waterfalls, all represented by fireworks. In a simulated flash of lightning the pinnacle of the tower on the back of the bird was ignited. The bird’s eyes glowed and then blazed. And soon the entire structure was engulfed in fire. The platform was the main fuel. As that burned, the rest of the towers and more distant parts of the structure caught fire. Everything that collapsed tipped inward adding to the inferno (an engineering feat in my estimation). Nothing was spared.
At some time the actual body of the monk had been removed from the casket in its place of honor high overhead, and was now exposed amid the flames in the center of the cremation platform. It would be cremated to bones during the night, which would be gathered for interment back in the temple, perhaps in a chedi to be provided by a temple patron at a later time.
Throughout the week the abbot's robe was suspended overhead. Everyone wondered whether it would catch fire or not. In this case it did not, indicating, some say (and others deny), that the monk will be reincarnated. If it had burned he supposedly would have "gone on". Since the robe did not burn it was expected to be cut into small valuable squares of orange cloth to be treated as venerated objects in homes of the faithful.
**NOTE: Several of the pictures accompanying this article are taken by art historian, Dr. Rebecca Hall, who came to Chiang Mai specifically for this cremation to gather information, impressions and photographs as part of her research on Northern Thai Buddhist funerals. She has previously written the following articles on this subject "Onward toward Heaven: Burning the Nok Hatsadiling" and "Materiality and Death: Visual arts and Northern Thai Funerals." Her book in preparation is one we eagerly await.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.