On a selected Thursday early in the academic year every educational institution in Thailand will have a “wai kru” ceremony so that students may pay respect to their teachers. Teachers are generally accepted as “second parents” to students, and schools are a “second home”. Schools and teachers are invested with a great level of trust in Thai society.
First, a discussion of terms. “Wai” is a gesture with the hands, palms together, in front of one’s chest, chin, face or with the knuckles of the thumbs touching ones forehead. The gesture is both a common greeting and an implied exchange of respect with a touch of reverence. A wai is fraught with meaning. The way it is carried out signals recognition of social status. It may happen in a flash, but the two persons will catch a sense of who is who from that first moment. To wai is to show respect or reverence toward something or someone. [Perhaps I will expand on this in a future essay.] “Kru” (or khru) means “teacher”. The word is pronounced like the English word “crew”. As a common noun kru refers to a role. In spoken Thai the word may precede the teacher’s name, and so serve as a title. It is not only proper to refer to a teacher as “Kru so-and-so” or simply as Khun Kru (“Mistress Teacher” or “Mister Teacher”), it is highly improper not to attach the title. Since there is no such formality in English (except in some places the word “Professor”, as every Harry Potter fan knows), Americans in Thai classrooms may find it grates on the ear to be greeted , “Good morning, teacher”, and “Thank you, teacher”. For those with college degrees or who are experts in some field and who function as teachers, the word “acharn” (now spelled “ajan”) takes the place of kru as a title.
The typical wai kru ceremony involves two actions undertaken by the students: presentation of a traditional flower arrangement, and recitation of expressions of respect. In the picture accompanying this essay, students at Payap University are presenting floral tributes to the president of the university. All the faculty members are understood to be honored simultaneously. Each of the university’s colleges and faculties selects students to make a presentation in turn. At a primary or secondary school each homeroom will make such a flower arrangement for wan wai kru, the day to pay homage to teachers (not to be confused with “teachers day” which is a school holiday in January). These flower arrangements constructed of buds, petals and leaves attached to a clay or Styrofoam core on a pedestal tray also include candles and incense sticks. The arrangement should include four items: (1) dawk khem (ixora) flowers with pointed buds representing sharp wit, (2) yaa phraek (Cynodon dactylon) grass known to grow fast and be hardy, thereby symbolizing perseverance and ability to learn, (3) popped rice which symbolizes discipline, (4) and eggplant flowers which bow low when near the fruit stage, and symbolize respect and humility. A very great deal of creativity goes into constructing these arrangements. Sometimes prizes are awarded for various categories of art or significance. As for the “expressions of respect” or homage, generally a student recites a poem extolling the virtues of the teachers and the gratitude of the students. If at all possible, however, the students will have learned the Sarabhanna chant, that was written by Thanpuying Dussadee Malakul Na Ayutthaya in 1941 for a Wai Kru ceremony at Trium Udom School. That ceremony has become the model for almost all teacher veneration ceremonies. The president or head of the institution will thank the students for doing this, and probably offer advice on being a good student. There may be other presentations of dances or musical numbers, but the ceremony is usually not long.
Aside from general education, teacher veneration ceremonies are observed in three disciplines: drama, massage and martial arts. A study of these ceremonies shows how the tradition goes back to Vedic times with even earlier origins in supernaturalism (also called “animism”). Fifty years ago Ajan Dhanit Yupho described the wai kru ceremony for students and masters of the dramatic/musical arts of khon (classical masked dance) and lakon. Similar rites are performed for likay (folk melodrama) and pipat (musical ensembles that include gong circles and xylophones, used to accompany the dramas). In these wai kru ceremonies the Rishi Bharotmuni, whom Aj Dhanit calls “the prime teacher of dramatic art”, and all other subsequent teachers right up to the present generation, are honored. “Invitation” chants, Aj Dhanit explains, call on “gods of the drama and spirits of departed teachers” to come and accept offerings of bai sri (featured in another essay in this series, and in paragraph two above), liquor, rice, a hog’s head, duck, chicken, etc. “Pupils twice make three traditional obeisances. The presiding teacher orders the scattering of popped rice which is then sprinkled thrice.... Each pupil then takes a sip of the wash-water from the taphon which is also used to wet the pupil’s hair by the presiding teacher.” That is followed by a recital of traditional music according to a formula set by HM King Rama IV (1851-1868). [See Dhanit Yupho, 2507 (1964), The Custom and Rite of Paying Homage to Teachers of Khon, Lakon and Piphat. Bangkok, The Fine Arts Department.]
The wai kru ceremony is one of the best examples of how overlapping traditions from all four Thai faith domains are combined: religion, spirituality, venerations and supernaturalism. The resilience of Thai culture comes from this complex plaiting of strands of faith. At the same time, religious co-existence and mutual respect make allowances for adapting ceremonies by which homage is paid to teachers, within different religious communities.
Our alert website manager drew my attention to a United Nations Development Programme article entitled, “Being LGBT in Asia”. The article describes a series of consultations being conducted and reports being compiled.
As is the case everywhere, not just in Asia, knowledge, understanding and concern for LGBT persons and their issues requires removing filters and lenses that color the truth and keep conclusions out of focus. Some filters tend to make certain populations invisible to outside observers, while other lenses distort them and make them grotesque. As I understand it, the UNDP and United States Aid for International Development joint project is all about removing those lenses and filters to find out what is really going on in terms of human rights and potential for LGBT persons.
There are well-known, influential religious and cultural entities determined to keep the distortions and blind-spots in place. The report does not say whether representatives of those positions were consulted, although their power and effects could not reasonably be ignored. Instead, the report emphasizes that eight consultations were held in the past two years that called upon a wide spectrum of academic, “civil society organizations”, and LGBT individuals to share their narratives and data.
Apparently and appropriately, the joint project is geared toward reducing stigma and discrimination “within every country in the region”. In other words, enhancement of protections and equalization of rights is the ideal eventual outcome of the project. However, it is about data gathering and providing information at this point.
The product of these consultations is nine country reports. It is hoped these will have an impact on such things as empowering LGBT youth and young leaders, getting LGBT rights in the mainstream of human rights discussions, and by-passing information gate-keepers to go straight to the public (using modern social media). It is hinted that international aid organizations will be interested in this information when they consider grants.
The report ties LGBT issues to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, saying that the data will expose how LGBT people may be impeded in education by discrimination, how gender inclusiveness needs to involve lesbians, and how promotion of LGBT access to health care is attended to.
I really want to see those reports. I think they will probably break out some valuable areas of dialogue. South, South-East and Eastern Asia may not be the areas of the world where LGBT people are in the most immediate danger this year, but even here there are few shining points of light to create optimism about equal rights and gender understanding. Small LGBT rights organizations such as SOGI-FOR and M+ in Thailand are beleaguered and belittled by the immensity of other civic and political issues. In most other countries in South East Asia the situation is apparently worse, but the reports may clarify this.
Meanwhile, I am able to keep my excitement under control when I hear that still another international entity is producing still another set of reports focusing on national circumstances. It is not my understanding that the etiology of suppressed rights and dignity for LGBT persons is the result of national laws and policies here in South, South East and East Asia. Rather, these are deeply rooted cultural biases, and by cultural I mean also biases expressed sometimes in religious terms.
Realistically, we cannot expect the UN or the USA to undertake a direct study of these roots. Hopefully, the academics being called on will identify these influences more explicitly. A large general report would probably not gain attention that country reports would get. It is not only news organizations that spend 95% of their reporting on in-country events and only 5% of international news. Thai leaders will only feel compelled to respond to specifically Thai conclusions and then if they are clearly and accurately generated by Thai informants. Strategically, if results are to be forthcoming from this UNDP-USAID project, they will be most visible if they are pieces of legislation and implementation that send a signal that LGBT rights are the right thing to espouse.
Lameye is a major cash crop here in North Thailand. Quite a few farmers count on it as their
source of funds for the year. It is a hard 12 months if the lameye harvest is poor or the price is low, as it is this year.
McFarland says that lameye is “Nephelium (Euphoria) longana (Supindaceae) a tree of relatively small size, cultivated in southern China, in some parts of India, throughout Malaysia and Thailand.... It grows from seed, and can be grafted on the rambutan. But, like the litchi, it is exacting in the conditions which it requires for fruiting.” The scientific name has led to many Westerners calling the fruit longon, which derives from the word in Malay where the British first became acquainted with it. McFarland goes on to explain that the fruit is dried and used by the Chinese to make a tonic. Lameye is the term I prefer since it is what the fruit is called here; “lameye” is no stranger and the word longon is no more familiar than the word lameye (sometimes spelled lay-yai).
These days, 60 years after McFarland’s dictionary was written, there are more convenient means of transportation, so the fresh fruit can be sold abroad as well, and a number of other products have been developed.
As with a great deal of traditional agriculture, lameye production is labor intensive at least in the planting of the orchards and in the annual harvest. The pictures accompanying this essay show how the fruit grows in clusters, with a leathery skin and white pulp the consistency of a grape inside. It has a relatively large seed that comes loose easily. It is very juicy and mildly aromatic. Harvesters cut and break off small branches to get the fruit, and simultaneously to trim the tree so it does not grow too gangly since the limbs are apt to break if they grow too long. Individual lameyes are pulled off and sacked. The fruit is sold in the village after being sorted by size. There are 4 sizes, AA bringing the best price, A about half as much, B half of A, and grade C being worth little or nothing. Farmers are paid cash on the spot. The trick, as with most fruit, is to wait until it is full size but not so long that it gets past prime. In the end it must be sold when it is ready.
August is the big month for harvesting lameye from orchards that have not been manipulated to produce fruit out of season through the use of phosphates and hormones. This year the government declared that the price of AA lameyes should not be less than 28 baht a kilogram, but the price was not subsidized to keep it that high. In fact, the government was buying at 17 baht a kilo from the markets to which the farmers were selling. For a few days the farmers refused to sell and most local buyers were not in operation. But it became clear that it would be necessary to sell at the markets’ price or not at all, so business picked up. The price has been 13 or 14 baht a kilo this week, which is half the peak price last year.
It’ll be a lean year for many orchard growers.
Lustral water sprinkled by a Buddhist priest using a whisk is one of the most common forms of blessing here in Thailand. The rite comes at the conclusion of many ceremonies, but may be an independent ceremony apart from a larger event as well.
In the picture accompanying this essay the priest is flicking water over people attending a house blessing. The same priest went through the new house sprinkling each room. The instrument the priest uses is a whisk of stiff yaa-khaa; the grass is Imperata cylindrica, thatch-grass or lalang (not, as one Wiki site says, Bermuda grass which is Cynodon dactylon, another type of grass).
To assess what this means, two domains of faith need to be considered.
It is obvious to everyone that this act is an aspect of Buddhism here in Thailand. In the house blessing ceremony, as in many others, the naam-mon which is usually called lustral water in English was produced while priests chanted stanzas of scripture prescribed for a house blessing and “life extension” ceremony [to be discussed in another blog]. Naam-mon is also called mantra water (by Wells, K 1960, Thai Buddhism, p. 195), referring to its having been chanted into effectiveness. A white string extended from the Buddha image in the front of the room through the reverent hands of the chapter of priests assembled in a line to do the chanting. The string was then wrapped around a bowl in front of one of the priests, symbolically connecting the bowl and the priests to the Lord Buddha. As they chanted, the priest with the bowl used an upended lighted candle to drip wax into the bowl half-full of water. He moved the candle in a circular motion while the priests chanted the Namokaratthaka paritta which includes the prayer that “having expressed reverence and rightly proclaimed the Dharma there is reason to expect misfortune might be avoided, good fortune come, and strength may follow”. The fourteenth verse expresses the aspiration for enlightenment, “The wise who have destroyed the seeds [i.e. the seeds of clinging which bear fruit of reincarnation and continuation] of existence...go out like a light.” As these words are chanted the priest snuffs out the candle in the water.
The second domain of faith involved in the production of naam-mon lies outside Buddhism, at least insofar as Buddhism is a religion devoid of the occult. The water to make naam-mon must come from nine different wells, I have been told. Most writings simply say that the water must come from underground. But there are certain ceremonies (e.g. one in Lampoon) wherein the water comes from 9 holy pools and in one royal celebration water was collected from the holiest source in each of the 76 provinces of Thailand. During the Songkran water festival water from washing Buddha images is collected to use exactly as naam-mon is used. When a person has been very ill a bucket-full of naam-mon is produced (with a recipe that varies greatly) including a type of pine splinters, jasmine and particular oils; the patient is soaked in this while remaining outside the boundaries of a residential property or temple grounds. From this diversity, as is always the case with the supernatural domain of faith, it is clear there is no uniform procedure.
Within Buddhism there are two schools of thought about these kinds of practices. The stricter school frowns on such things and tries to restrict their use, calling them superstitions which divert attention from the message of Dharma. The more popular school remembers that the Lord Buddha had little to say about routine human affairs such as house blessings, weddings and the like. The assumption is that prevailing practices on those occasions were not set aside. Those aspects of religion and life were left in the charge of Brahmin priests (and remain so to this day in many royal ceremonies). Some of what the Brahmin priests did was taken over by Buddhist priests. They are considered additions to their monastic duties.
On closer examination it is clear, however, that in this and countless other instances, faith domains not only co-exist, but overlap, intermix and are inseparable. This is not pandering to popular preference for the mysterious, as purists sniff. It is an expression of need for intervention in troubled human affairs. The need may be penultimate from a Buddhist point of view. The ultimate need may be for detachment, awareness of the truth about reality, and deliverance from enslavement to ego. But in the meantime, for those less endowed with intellectual gifts and persistence, the vicissitudes of this world require contributions of hope, symbolized, simplified and widely respected. That is what rituals provide.
In Christianity and some other faith systems water is a symbol of cleansing, the washing away of those things which are barriers to devout and eternal life. It seems that in Thai Buddhism the water symbolizes not so much what is removed, but that which is added. Naam-mon enhances one's condition, adds power, and sustains life. Of course it is not the few drops of water that do this, but the power invested by the chanting and in the other esoteric processes hinted at and alluded to, delivered in the drops of water. The effect is already disbursed, but the water makes the effect immediate.
Happy birthday to HM Queen Sirikit of Thailand and to granddaughter Siree (pictured in her royal mode). Their birthdays are August 12 and 13 one day and sixty-seven years apart.
Queen Sirikit will be 82 this Tuesday. Since 1976 her birthday has been a Thai national holiday, and since the time of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda as Prime Minister, the Queen’s birthday has also been commemorated as national Mother’s Day. During the Queen’s long and illustrious reign she has promoted Thai traditional textiles, playing an important role in preserving the art of weaving complicated silk patterns. Her world tour in 1960 during which she wore Thai silk all the time is considered a key factor in the emergence of Thai silk as a major product. She has also been appreciated for her involvement in Muslim relations and for her annual periods of residence in Muslim areas of Southern Thailand. On July 21, 2012 she suffered an ischemic stroke [according to a Bureau of the Royal Household announcement that day] and has refrained from public appearances since then.
The Queen’s birthday will be observed in a large number of ways. Categories of these observations include recognition of her birthday and Mother’s Day commemorations. Throughout the country there are countless opportunities for everyone to sign greeting books which are forwarded to the palace. Many governmental, commercial and philanthropic groups will buy space in newspapers and time on TV to express greetings to the Queen, using poetic and formal language. Official ceremonies will be held in every province with presentation of traditional gold and silver globes and candle lighting. A gathering at the Royal Palace is also traditional, an event at which the Queen used to address the nation; her speeches often set in motion projects to improve the environment or to highlight social concerns. People participating in those activities will probably wear sky-blue, since that is the Queen’s color, she having been born on a Friday. Mother’s Day events linked to the Queen’s birthday include awards ceremonies for “mothers of the year” in various categories. Scholarship presentations at schools, along with merit-making opportunities in temples connected to schools, and such diverse things as essay and art contests will also be held. The nature of these is extremely creative.
The formal expression of good wishes for royal occasions is song phra charoen generally translated “Long live the Queen” following British custom, “God save the Queen and long live the Queen”. The Thai phrase more literally means, “Prosper!” or “May you prosper”. That is our wish for Her Majesty.
On a somewhat smaller scale, family and friends of Siree McRady will be celebrating her fifteenth birthday on August 13. Perhaps “celebrating” is a bit strong, since the main event will be the first day of the new school year at the Chiang Mai International School. To avoid overcrowding the calendar, we provided Siree with our version of a debutante coming out party a couple of weeks ago, a glamour photo-shoot with a dinner for those involved. It was a “crowning” achievement, as the picture shows. I am sure that Siree’s mother will bake a cake for the actual day. In place of a national essay competition, I would just like to offer Siree a simple “Happy Birthday. Have a great year.”
In Mahayana Buddhism which developed in China, Tibet and Japan there are Bodhisattvas who defer Nirvana so as to help others, as the Lord Buddha did. It has been traditional to say that Theravada Buddhism which developed in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Ava (Burma), Angkor (the Khmer Empire) and Siam has no such semi-divinities. It would be more helpful to simply recognize that one of the factors that distinguish many schools of Buddhism is how individuals are venerated who have attained or are surely about to attain enlightenment. In some ways these venerable ones are similar to Christian saints as far as their status is concerned.
Here in Thailand great reverence is paid to a special religious elite group. They are given veneration reserved for very few others. Two elements combine to generate the esteem they receive: life and legend. The lives of these venerated monks must reflect remarkable achievement and their stories must be elevated into legends. It must be unquestionable that these monks have accomplished what ordinary human beings cannot, and their importance to the general welfare is essentially incomprehensible.
Luang Phu-waen Sujinno was a mendicant. He resided in a little known, nearly derelict temple on a wooded hillside a hundred kilometers north of Chiang Mai. He appeared to be neither a scholar nor an activist and thrived, in his own way, by staying almost isolated. That all changed, so the legend says, when a pilot of a small plane was scouting the hills and swears he saw a monk in a half-lotus position floating in mid-air. This impressed the pilot so much that he went looking for the monk on the ground and found Luang Phu-waen very near where he had seen him floating. The pilot recognized the monk and paid him reverence. The pilot’s story spread and people began to make their way to that rather inaccessible place not far from the small town of Prao. When HM the King planned to visit, a road was hastily built and then the crowds began regular daily audiences. Even when the monk developed geriatric disabilities he was a person of veneration and his funeral was a national event under royal patronage. Donations in the monk’s memory helped build the central building of the region’s main medical center. It contains a shrine featuring a life-size statue of Luang Phu-waen covered in gold leaf.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.