A sub jata ceremony is a life-extension event. It usually follows some ominous portent, such as a serious illness or series of potentially life-threatening occurrences that could indicate danger to the person or household (or community [see:www.kendobson.asia/blog/subjata from 3 years ago]). Although the ceremony is often part of a house blessing or major birthday where there has been no cause for alarm. A sub jata is a set of ceremonies that are hoped to satisfy or pacify supernatural forces and to adjust the forces that energize life. This photographic essay is just about the main ceremony in which a chapter of priests is invited to chant while merit from doing that is transferred to the subject(s) in whose behalf the sub jata is being conducted.
Lon and Sri are members of our family, Pramote’s next older brother and his wife. They have two married daughters, and two grandchildren. Lon has been experiencing medical issues and so the family encouraged them to do a sub jata. The ceremony was conducted on Saturday, June 16, 2018; it was at the family home, to be as close to the presumed super-natural cause of the disturbance that has disrupted Lon’s life, as possible.
Northern Thai Buddhism is a complex mix of philosophical Buddhist teaching, re-enactment of the events in which the Lord Buddha dispensed sacred teaching to his disciples and the laity, symbolic divine-human encounter creating sacred time and space in our midst, acknowledgement of the eternal power and reality of nature, and honoring super-natural entities that have influence.
Philosophical Buddhist purists continue to insist that this is an unfortunate and unnecessary mix and that Buddhism would be far better without it. Those academic voices hardly resound in the valley where our villages are nestled. From my perspective as a resident foreigner, however, I believe that insofar as philosophical Buddhism has fertile ground to grow it will be as Buddhist priests continue to respond to the existential concerns and fears of the people. Those concerns are the gateway to anything else, theological or philosophical.
From the perspective of Lon and everyone in our large family and surrounding communities, it is always all about sub jata – the alignment of life forces.
It’s worth thinking about how, in spite of the maximization of educational opportunities, we have gotten into the mess where the least intelligent US President in history is running the country into the abyss with the consent of the Congress, and with a substantial minority of the population in agreement even as their rights and protections are being ravaged. At the same time, something perilously similar is undermining countries as diverse as Great Britain, Italy, Indonesia, Austria, Israel and Columbia. The list is long.
One set of factors is the Massification of Higher Education. The second set of factors is the puerile influence of Post-modernism. The combination has led to an entire span of generations who obsessively believe things which are clearly wrong and are not working.
Misplaced faith in IQ. Hardly anyone under the age of 90 in “developed” countries doubts that intelligence is good. Access to education is based on it. But continuous examples show that bright people in key positions with no conscience are bad for society.
You CAN. Our role model is the stunning individualist who sets off against all odds and does amazing things nobody believed possible. But the message is that whole societies should be composed of this sort of self-directed diva. It’s the merit trickle-down theory that this kind of person benefits those lesser endowed. Still, sooner or later protectionism prevails and the benefits become expensive so the newly wealthy can become more so.
I am what I do. The value of a person is measured by what the person accomplishes. What I do is what should be celebrated. Moral character is devalued in behalf of what is pragmatic. But when there is little value placed on building social harmony, society crumbles.
Institutions are disparaged. The most egregious gift of post-modernism is the conviction that institutions are untrustworthy. We have a public that has withdrawn not only their respect for such institutions as government and corporations, but also their belief that they can relate to those institutions. Without public accountability institutions become what they are imagined to be, greedy and flagrant.
Difference is the goal. We do not need to look far to see what goes wrong when a society refuses to appreciate diversity. But diversity is not the goal. The point must be that different people and their cultural perspectives are important to achieve a common purpose. When the point of being a large society is lost, there are only small exclusive societies left.
I am indebted to David Brooks for his May 28, 2018 opinion column “The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite” in the New York Times for his insights which I have adapted. Brooks identifies with the “Boomer” generation, and acknowledges its failure to have civic consciousness. He advocates, “… a new ethos … to redefine how people are seen, how applicants are selected, how social roles are understood and how we narrate a common national purpose.”
How to get there is the basic question. Surely education is the way to introduce “a new ethos”. But that will take a pedagogical revolution, and if we continue with the social fragmentation brought to us by post-modernism we will never get there. As long as the sole purpose of education is the production of factors of production, even if you call graduates “professionals”, there is little room for character building. For societies composed of individuals without character the downhill trajectory is steep.
Meanwhile, authoritarian societies avoid the perils of meritocracy by sticking to aristocracy. In an authoritarian society, like Thailand, upward mobility is grudgingly encouraged as long as everybody rises without dislodging the elite and upsetting their ability to pass their privileges along to the chosen of the next generation. Change is OK, as long as nothing changes about how the rich and powerful stay that way.
Obviously, in authoritarian societies the dangers of post-modern, entitled individualism are prevented. But how they do it is also (as with neo-liberal societies) at the expense of character development. Those are honored who exemplify the duties of their status and designated function. Those who strive to rise are obstructed. Mediocrity is to be preferred to turbulence, even that disturbance which comes from critical thinking and social innovation. It is all about short-term acquisition. An aristocratic, authoritarian society is just as oblivious to the impact of its actions on any future generation as “liberated post-moderns” are.
The mess can be cleaned up. Education can once again involve heart, mind and soul. It can again be about building social harmony and shared well-being. But stake-holders will need to regain power to hold each other accountable. The generators of collective conscience must make this need their focus.
TEMPLE SECRETS 5
One of the rarest ceremonies in Northern Thai Buddhism is the dedication of a new ordination chapel, อุโบสถ or bote (pronounced much like “boat”), sometimes written in English as it is spelled in Thai, Ubosot. The word is used both for the building as well as for the “Buddhist holy day” on the quarters of the moon in which laity participate, and for the observance of the Eight Precepts as well as for the fortnightly recitation of Patimokkha, which are 227 binding rules for priests. Permission for a temple community to undertake construction of such a building must be from the highest authority in Thai Buddhism. Not every temple has a bote. The bote usually resembles a small version of the temple’s large assembly hall. [See picture #1] It faces east with the main image of the Lord Buddha seated in the western end so as to see the rising sun. The bote is used by monks, and only by monks. It is available for ceremonies undertaken exclusively by monks, including ordinations, some funeral rites for monks, fortnightly ceremonies to renew vows, and for meditation. What sets the bote apart, both figuratively and literally, from other temple buildings are 8 boundary stones around the outside of the building, with a ninth serving as a foundation stone in the middle of the floor of the bote. But the familiar sema stones standing upright are merely markers indicating where the main stones lie buried protecting the bote from demonic interference and influence. Burying those stones, called ลูกนิมิต, is the main event of a chapel dedication.
On May 30, 2018 (B.E. 2561) the day after Visaka Bucha Day, there was a dedication ceremony for the new bote at Wat Jom Jaeng, Sanpatong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The official decree attributed to HM King Rama IX and signed by the Supreme Patriarch 7 years ago giving permission to begin construction and setting aside the area upon which the building would stand was read by the District’s Chief Officer, the Nai Amphur as part of the inauguration ceremony. After permission had been granted, then began the project of fund raising which was moved into higher visibility 3 years ago when the 9 sacred stones were put on display and faithful were invited to give them veneration and to make merit by contributing to the construction project. [Picture #2] As I understand, the total anticipated cost of building the bote was divided into ninths, and the 9 stones would represent the entire project. Some temple projects take up collections for such things as individual roof tiles.
The bote for Wat Jom Jaeng was made of aged golden teak using traditional construction methods for the rafters and walls. Various stages of construction were observed over the years. The Buddha image was moved in before the walls were finished, and there was little ceremony since that figure had not yet been “awakened.” [Picture #3] One of the most important preliminary ceremonies was to raise the chofah [picture #4] and umbrellas to the roof peak. [Picture #5] The “eye-opening ceremony” for the Buddha image inside the bote was held throughout the night before the chapel dedication. Chanting lasted all night, ending just before dawn with removal of a hood and wax covering the eyes of the Buddha image. Then faithful brought offerings of rice to symbolically feed the Buddha, newly awakened and brought to life.
The actual, final ceremony was divided into three parts.
For the first part, priests came from all over the area including a delegation from the office of the Supreme Patriarch in Bangkok. [Picture #6] Laity took their places according to rank. The service was chanting. Most temple services are led in an antiphonal fashion by a lay leader and presiding priest, but this service had no such chanting and response. The priests inside the new bote took both parts. The leader was a very specially prepared monk who chanted non-stop for three quarters of an hour, leading all the monks in unison.
The second part of the ceremony was called a tawn (extraction) ritual. The participating monks formed two lines shoulder to shoulder with no gaps around both sides of the holes outside the bote. [Picture #7] Chanting was conducted at each of the four corners and inside the chapel. [Picture #8] An announcer explained that this was to remove any previous influences that may have been part of that sacred precinct in the forgotten past. The implication is that there may have been other supernatural or religious events there that would negate those for which the bote was about to be used. The overlap of doctrinal Buddhism with pre-Buddhist roots and supernaturalism is most obvious in the traditions which surround the bote. (I am not alone in thinking there is irony involved in the facts that having a bote is one of the highest honors a temple community can have, while a bote is probably the temple construction that the temple can most do without.)
The third part of the ceremony was releasing the sacred stones to fall into holes prepared for them. [Picture #9] These round stones, I have been told, are just conglomerate material (cement and sand presumably) but it is hard to imagine that they did not have other arcane ingredients. Certainly they were coated with gold foil and naam-mon – holy water which set them apart from ordinary use. The ลูกนิมิต were arranged according to number with the first being inside the bote and number 2 in front of the front gate. Numbers 3 to 9 were around the perimeter in clockwise/auspicious order. The word ลูกนิมิต means an omen or augury, as well as a sign. It can be in the form of a vision that portends the future. The scaffold for each of the stones contained an explanation. For example, posters informed us:
AUGURY STONE 7 In the northwest direction (Payap) the stone at the back of the left side of the bote is in honor of Phra Kawambatitern, a disciple of outstanding good fortune and good looks. He was the tenth arahant (enlightened disciple) and 1 in 4 of Phra Yasakul, as well as the son of Nang Suchada, who donated rice to Gautama before he declaimed the way of enlightenment. And it is in worship of Phra Rahu who is the divinity in this direction.
STONE 9 In the northeast direction (Isan) the augury stone buried in the front on the left side of the bote is a sign of affinity, affecting the spirit. It is the final direction to venerate Phra Rahu who is the Prince of Prince Sittapa the disciple who was praised as exemplary in education. It invites worship of the Sun God who presides in this direction.
Notice that each informational poster mentioned both the pre-Buddhist divinity who presides in a particular direction as well as a connection with saints from the first set of disciples who received instruction and ordination as disciples directly from the Buddha, himself.
Each of the 8 border stones was suspended in place and held in a wicker harness with other wicker strands needing to be cut as well. This job was performed by donors who contributed major shares of the cost of construction. Each donor was given a ceremonial knife and sent to an assigned place. [Picture #10] The highest honor was given to those assigned to cut bindings of the foundation stone inside the chapel. After a brief bit of chanting, fireworks and a large gong accompanied the donors as they chopped the wicker strands binding the stones. [Picture #11] The knives, being more ceremonial than functionally sharp, required a lot of hacking to release the stones. The stones dropped into the holes, but those nearby got pieces of the wicker for good luck. [Picture #12] Then the donors and laity moved outside the retaining wall behind where their stone was now sunk. The presiding cleric approached each group and asked in Pali if they had buried the stone in the hole and they responded in Pali that they had done so. He made specific mention of each stone by its position, “This Western Stone …,” or “This Northeastern Stone.” [Picture 13] Meanwhile the other monks re-entered the chapel to be formally presented the edifice in the name of the people, and to receive it ceremonially. With that, the chapel was dedicated and the service ended. [Picture #14]
After the formal service, participants and patrons were awarded souvenirs including 80 specially made Buddha images.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.