After Fire or Tomb
Buddhists in Thailand honestly do not think very often about Christian Easter. But if they did how would it go?
Jesus died on a cross, was interred in a tomb, and then rose from the dead, after which he ascended into heaven. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion. Easter is the central observance of all Christians. It is a signal that the specter of death has been overcome.
This is a synopsis of the Christian Easter narrative. It addresses humankind’s deepest psychic trauma.
On the surface it has little in common with the story of the life and death of Gautama, the Buddha. Buddhist narrative has no Easter. The Buddha attained enlightened knowledge about the true nature of existence, keys to which he passed on to a rapidly expanding corps of disciples over the course of a long life, and then he died of natural causes and was cremated.
It’s a very different narrative from the Christian one, and results in very different types of religious observances. These differences are sometimes compounded into a sense of exclusivity. Without going into the issues of “only through Christ” or how Anicca prevents theism, I appeal to us in this approach to Easter to concentrate on its meaning and effect.
On the surface, Easter observances seem to have no equivalent in Thai Buddhism. However, beneath the surface there is more in common than is popularly acknowledged. In both Christianity and Buddhism, narratives of the ironic savior-hero are essential to a mythic thread that connects believers in our time to the primordial origins of life and creation as well as to death and consummation. In both the cases of Jesus and Gautama, the hero did something that reduced the specter of death and nullified its apparent results. What they did was central to all that is important about them. In the case of the Buddha, he discovered a way to enlightenment. Jesus conquered death in our behalf.
The narrative of the mythic thread goes on to tell how generations of believers have retained the essential truth and preserved keys for deriving the emotional benefits of realizing this truth. The thread speculates about what comes after this mortal life. In both Buddhism and Christianity there is tentativeness about the ultimate outcome, but for those who are blessed this includes a penultimate period of heavenly bliss after which the thread of events-in-time ends.
Both Christianity and Buddhism extract theological principles from these mythic narratives. There are prior, immediate and eventual consequences to the salvation from enslavement to death’s dark influences. The prior consequence of Easter for Christians is the organization of communities of believers throughout history to provide mutual support and to perpetuate awareness of the truth, Logos/ Word. Similarly the organization of communities of monks scattered among communities of laity is to provide mutual support and to perpetuate awareness of the truth, Dharma/ teaching for Buddhists.
For people in our time, the immediate consequence of Easter is eradication of the terror people have when anticipating death. This simultaneously releases us from any need to propitiate death or to obviate its effects (efforts that previously engrossed religious people). Christian effort can then be expended on expanding the influence of our reformed perspective about life and death to social, political, and cultural spheres. Christians call this “Kingdom building,” although Jesus’ discourses point to the Kingdom being the very antithesis of Empire to which the Church has tirelessly aspired.
The eventual consequences of fully realizing the Truth come after the tomb or the fire.
Thai Buddhists likewise try to navigate through life without being obstructed by overwhelming concern about death. Death, per se, is largely ignored, although presumed causes of death are dealt with expeditiously. Even funerals are interpreted as opportunities for the living to engage in mutual assistance as a community. Meritorious community action by Buddhists is identical to Christian Kingdom building except in nomenclature and with reference to the mythic thread that is its rationale.
This, then, puts Easter Sunday festivities into perspective. What a Christian worshiping group is trying to do is to re-enact a pivotal divine-human encounter. Many groups will draw all the diverse elements of Easter together in an elaborate festival of dramatic music and symbolic action. Other church groups will be more restrained, but the emotive force will be toward joy and celebration wherever Easter is Easter. Never far from consciousness is the notion that the Easter Sunday service of worship is a paradigm for every Sunday service.
If a Buddhist were to wander into an Easter service and ask, “What’s going on?” the answer would probably be, “an Easter worship service.” It would seem distinct from any Buddhist event, but that would be misleading. The basic effort is hardly any different from a Buddhist service, except for the language and trappings.
In every Buddhist or Christian worship event in Thailand the intent is to remember that death need not be the obstacle to a better outcome for life. We ought not to be distracted by the ominous portent of fire or tomb. They are gateways. We are brothers and sisters in all that counts in this life.
Lucubration on palms along our lane
Palm trees line the lane. They thrive without rigor. They are docile and regal. They neither threaten nor intimidate, as do soft-wood giants towering and toppling. Nor do they tempt greedy timber plunderers to hunt their logs. Palm wood is not good for that.
Palm trees line the lane. There are a hundred thousand types of them, so says our agricultural university, euphemistically. They mean the number is beyond counting. Yet the count stands at 2,600 by the university’s palmologists.
Palm trees line the lane. They ask little but are generous. Water from coconuts is considered so pure it is holy, used for sacred rites. Their fronds drape ceremonial gates. Betel nuts from areca palms are featured in royal rituals. Palm trees produce the largest seeds and the largest leaves of any plant. Cultures in lands with snow might not know these things.
Palm trees line our lane as they lined lanes leading to Jerusalem. They symbolized peace and plenty. Palm leaves were awarded to heroes and waved to welcome them home victorious.
How Our Village Runs
We are Ban Den Village, Mu (residential cluster) number 2 of Ban Mae Sub-district of Sanpatong District of Chiang Mai Province of the Kingdom of Thailand. At last count Chiang Mai had 27 Amphur (districts), Sanpatong had 11 Tambol (sub-districts of which 3 were classified as municipalities), and Ban Mae had 13 villages. I believe every plot of land that is not owned by the government in the name of the King of Thailand is included in a village or its equivalent, including the farmland. Our village has about 150 residences with about 450 inhabitants. Everyone who resides in the village is an official resident and has a house number as his or her residence on their national identification card. New residents who move into the village or come by marriage are often given a public welcome. The population has been steady over the past decade.
There is one Buddhist temple, a primary school building (no longer used), 3 small buildings owned by the village (a multi-purpose assembly hall, a storage shed for community equipment, a drinking water purification plant), and a public water system. There are 4 shops selling non-perishable daily necessities, and two agri-businesses that buy farm products and sell them to bigger wholesalers. There is one kwiteo (noodle) shop.
This means that the food people eat at home must be prepared from items that grow around their house, rice they have harvested but not sold for profit, and fresh produce from a roadside table or a market in a nearby village. Local fresh food supplies are sold either in the early morning or late afternoon and may include some cooked items. Occasionally people in our village purchase foodstuffs from big supermarkets; they go to the supermarkets and malls for clothing, house ware, and cleaning supplies. I counted 25 edible items growing around our house, but, like lemon-grass, chili peppers, bananas, coconuts and jackfruit, they are not staples.
Nearly every household has someone who is employed outside the village earning a salary. Agriculture is quickly becoming a sideline, but almost all families still own their own fields and orchards. An average holding would be 1-3 acres. With land values sharply rising, an acre of farmland would be worth about $50,000. There are 45 orchards in Ban Den (based on a count from the Google map above). Orchards produce one crop a year. Lameye (longon) are the most popular. A tree is full-grown in about 5 years and naturally produces a crop in August worth about $150; a one-acre orchard would have about 50 trees. Some orchards are stressed with phosphates to produce an out-of-season crop in December, but the price of December fruit has dropped to about the same as other seasons. Rice fields can produce 2 crops a year if irrigation water is available, which it usually is not. The big rice harvest is in November. About a third of the fields are used to grow sweet corn, onions or soybeans as a cash crop from January to May. A typical farm would produce about $3,500 in gross income in a year, or about $3,000 in actual profit, not counting the value of labor.
Wage earners from Ban Den work in towns or the city of Chiang Mai, earning an average of $300 a month. Only a few (not more than 3 or 4 I think) work in Bangkok or overseas. I know of neighbors who are employed as domestic workers, in the health department or hospital, as teachers, clerical staff in educational institutions, construction workers, small shopkeepers in market places, piece-workers (sewing garments in shops in their home), one is a veterinary assistant in a big swine operation in the next province, another is a sales trainer for a major appliance company, and about half a dozen are civil servants. No one in our village is a concerted producer of handicrafts. In the past, the villages around here had people who made pottery, musical instruments and chili sauce, wove baskets and cloth, did wood carving and made furniture, as well as bamboo mats of many varieties. At least a third of us village residents are too old or too young to be gainfully employed. I am the only ex-patriot in residence full-time, but 2 others are here some of each year and have Thai family connections and a house in the village.
Community services are either provided by community members or the government. There is a primary care clinic in the next village and a much-improved government hospital in the district town 15 minutes from here. An ambulance based in a village close-by is on call. A corps of village health volunteers assists the public health nurses to do screenings for high blood pressure and diabetes, and run mosquito eradication campaigns.
The village head is an elected official who serves as government liaison and village constable. The head hires a couple of assistants to be on duty when needed. The sub-district governor is elected and has an office and staff. Most government citizens’ services are provided by the district office. The district governor (called Nai Amphur) is appointed by the national government but office personnel and staff are hired by department heads.
When there is a crisis in Ban Den, the community will respond first – as in the case of a flood or fire, both of which are rare. When a death occurs in the village the community springs into action. Religious events at the temple count on community support. The village is sub-divided into 5 neighborhood units which respond to needs in their neighborhood, such as work-details to cut weeds along the pathways or street or to help cook and assist with funerals or house-blessings.
There are meetings of two types. The entire village is called to an annual planning meeting about once a year to voice opinions about preferred public improvement projects, which are almost always road repairs. Other meetings are for those concerned to learn about or to sign up for assistance from the government. Old people with no income or those with disabilities get a monthly subsidy of something like $10 or $20, which is to supplement family support but would be entirely insufficient for independent living. Pet owners sign up once a year for rabies vaccinations for their dogs and cats. Occasionally a commercial enterprise will pay the village head to use the village public address system and assembly pavilion to sell such things as agricultural chemicals or eye-glasses. The other type of village meeting is for organized groups. Two highly visible groups are the Housewives Association and Village Health Volunteers. An organization for youth doesn’t seem to ever have any meetings but they have activities anyway. There is also a village savings system that operates like a savings and loan and a committee to manage funds distributed by the government to encourage local economic development. The underground lottery has no meetings to supervise their considerable cash-flow.
Primary school children are transported to a consolidated school about 2 kilometers from here, or they are taken to private schools. A few go to select schools in Chiang Mai about 30 kilometers away. Parents choose the best secondary schools they can afford. Tuition for public secondary schools is usually covered but admission fees, expenses for activities, and travel expenses have to be met by the families. Nearly half of the secondary-school-age children go to private vocational and prep-schools. The extended-family (clan) is also the main source of care for persons with disabilities and for infants up to nursery school age. In our village there is just one fellow with cerebral palsy, a blind woman, and a couple of old people with mild dementia.
The way villages run is constantly shifting. A few years ago the temple committee was how the government connected with the village to provide everything from road improvements to distribution of medicines. Now services are greatly expanded and the temple committee rarely meets.
Postscript: Ban Den is an agricultural low-land village. Upland ethnic-minority villages are organized and function differently. Villages inside a metropolitan complex, such as Chiang Mai, tend to serve as suburban housing and may contain several sub-divisions and housing developments along with a cluster of stores if they are on an arterial highway. The most conspicuous difference between types of villages is the degree of cohesion and mutuality.
Bathing the Sacred Heart
TEMPLE SECRETS ESSAY 5
This photographic essay is an account of a festive occasion on March 3, 2017 at Wat Ta Pong. The event was designed to bathe the “sacred heart” of the chedi of Wat Ta Pong, as well as to provide Buddhists an opportunity to make merit and to obtain the benefits of a sub jata life extension ceremony. For more extensive accounts of several of the key terms please follow the links to the following previous essays:
“Sacred Heart” see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/traveling-hearts
“Chedi” see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/chedi
“Sub jata” see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/subjata
This photo account will be limited to ten pictures with the following explanations:
1.“Front of the Wiharn” This is the morning sun reflected off the gilded front of the assembly hall of Wat Ta Pong, Sanpatong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
2.“Loading Donations” People made merit by attaching sleeves of money to a rope pulley to be symbolically offered to the Lord Buddha symbolized in the chedi, which is called “Phra That”
3.“Offerings at the Door” As people entered the assembly hall they made traditional offerings of flowers, candles and incense as well as a coin. These were later offered to honor the Lord Buddha.
4.“The Bishop Arrives” Monks from several temples in the area were included in the ceremony, presided over by the leader of monks of the district, whose duties are similar to those of a Christian bishop. He was the senior monk present for the occasion.
5.“Guest Monks Donating” As the monks arrived they paid respects to the abbot of Wat Ta Pong.
6.“Leader of the Ceremony” A ceremony to “bathe the sacred heart” is a special occasion. The leader for the ceremony was a specialist in this ceremony. He opened the ceremony with a recitation venerating the sacred heart of the Lord Buddha.
7.“Phra-boroma lika-that enshrined” The sacred heart had been removed from its repository in the chedi and was encased in a crystal goblet with a gold crown.
8.“Opening Chant Ends” The opening service ended with the people’s offerings being presented by the monk presiding at the rite.
9.“Leaving the Wiharn” The “bishop” carried the sacred heart vessel between lines of worshipers who showered it with marigold petals.
10.“Positioning the Sacred Heart” The crystal inside the vessel was put in place in a temporary shrine where it would be bathed with water poured by faithful into a pipe.
That was the end of the bathing ceremony. A subjata life extension merit making ceremony followed in the wihara.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.