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.”
Northern Thai Village Temples
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.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.