December 5 is the 87th birthday anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, the King of Thailand. In the picture accompanying this essay HM the King is wearing his distinctive symbol of office, his ceremonial robe. This symbol incorporates several strands of tradition in somewhat the same way crowns do in Europe. In fact, there are seven pieces of regalia the King received on his coronation in 1950, but these days it is the robe that every Thai person recognizes, while the rest (including “The Great Crown of Victory”) are rarely used even on major occasions.
Julia Brannan and Yaowalak Bunnag produced a definitive study of “Thai Official Rank Robes (Sua Khrui)”. They describe the history and methods of producing these robes. See www.caringfortextiles.com/site3/wp.../Arts-of-Asia-March-2014.pdf
Brannan and Yaowalak explain that HM the King’s robe “…is constructed of a netted fabric worked with…embroidery and … embellishment on top….” “…the exclusively royal robe with ‘solidly overall’ gold-thread net that can include gold thread or beetle wings, or sequins.” The thread for the net base is made of either gold thread or gold wound around a silk core. For lesser officials the net can be of other metallic thread or of silk alone. The gold net of the robe is made with a special technique called thak ta chun. The method of knotting is taught only in the Thai royal court. The knot looks similar to a common “fisherman’s knot”. It is a loose knot creating a very open mesh. The variation in the size of the loops, density of the honeycomb-like fabric, selection of threads and the skill of the artist could create gossamer or dense cloth. The embroidery of the King’s robe is “solidly overall” meaning that the net is entirely filled in. The resulting robe weighs about five kilograms (11.2 pounds).
During the early reigns of the restored Siamese Kingdom after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 the production, ownership and use of ceremonial robes was strictly controlled. No one could have such a robe without the King’s grace. The robe for the King was produced in the inner court, in a special workshop, supervised by a prince. Then the robe was bestowed in a highly ritualized rite to insure the unbroken sequence of tradition.
As far as can be speculated historically, the style of the robe can be traced back to Persia. There were Persian advisers and experts in rites and rituals in the courts of the Khmer (Cambodian) monarchs in Angkor Thom as well as in Ayutthaya which followed. The role of the Persians was supplemented and then taken over by Brahmin advisers in the 18th century. Brannan and Yaowalak tell us, “The Kings’ robes are very specifically embellished with royal symbols, such as nagas (mythical serpents), Garuda (mythical bird and Vishnu’s mount) and even insignia or monograms.” These latter symbols would specify the monarch for which the robe was made, while the former symbols would link the monarch (and him alone) to the mythical roots of the cultural tradition, and reiterate that he is an incarnation or direct descendant of those who created the universe.
A category of exiting church members has come to my attention in the past few days. It is being called the “dones”. This category is made up of people who are feeling “done” with the church and their role in it. They may have been leaders heavily involved and committed to the church, but they are done with that now. They are also done with any other role in the institutional church and may not even be regular attendees at church services.
In contrast to other withdrawing members, the “dones” have no hard feelings toward the church. In most cases there was no precipitating event that led to their departure. They do not disagree, necessarily, with the church or its theology. They have not developed a new point of view that is more enthusiastic than other people in their church can tolerate; they have not cooled down to the point that they are disgusted with the church and do not want to associate with it any more. They still like the church, or at least what they may call “THE CHURCH” as distinct from the institutional church. They do not consider that their faith has withered or their relationship with God has changed. They have achieved closure with the church.
In most cases their separation from the church is irreversible. They will not be persuaded to return. There is no issue that can be addressed to heal their feelings. Their feelings toward the church as a whole have not been hurt. There is nothing to heal.
In reading hundreds of responses to an Internet article entitled, “The Rise of the Dones” that can be found on www.holysoup.com/2014/11/12/the-rise-of-the-dones I think that most of the stories told by “dones” say that they are de-churched for one of two reasons: (a) they are done with the institutional church in order to be unfettered in finding a more authentic form of Christianity, (b) they are done with the institutional church because of being burned out. There are other reasons why active, committed Christians feel “done”.
I am one of the “dones”. Looking back on it I see that my commitment to the church was conditional. I was committed to being a church leader. I was convinced, with much encouragement from community and friends, that I would find that role fulfilling. I prepared for it since about age 16 by being very involved in church work and conscientiously expanding my range of experiences. It was more than a vocation; it was an identity. During the next 50 years my faith grew more mature and my theology did too. When I stopped being in a leadership role my reason for being active in the institutional church ended. I was ready for almost any new leadership role, but the church here in Thailand made it clear I was no longer acceptable. I had broad background as a senior pastor of large churches, evangelist, seminary teacher, missionary, national staff worker and finally as a Christian college administrator. I was not unqualified to change roles and I was available to assist in many ways. But when leadership options ended I no longer fit into any category I was committed to. I was invited to continue as a college administrator, but it was specified I was not to perform any religious functions. I had come out as gay. I was done.
I conform to the category of “done” in that when I chose to distance myself from the institutional church in order to keep from causing them to face issues they are unready to confront (and thereby jeopardizing others), I did so with actual respect for the church. I have positive regard for the church here in Thailand. I know enough of organizational dynamics (having taught that very subject) to understand that the church’s time to face gender diversity has not yet come. I let my former students (now pastors and leaders) know that I was still on call if they wanted me, but the phone never rang. I was disappointed but not surprised. I am neither burned out nor angry. I have a different ministry now, manifesting Christian core values non-confrontationally at the grass-roots (village) level and writing “bridge-building” articles [many can be found on this site]. I am done with the institutional church. I am officially “honorably retired” but my actual status is “done” and I have contentment and closure.
I do miss the pipe organ music.
John is a grocer. In our village he supplies the makings of the evening meal for a fair share of the households. At 7:30 in the morning John goes to a large market beyond the range of people on foot or with bicycles. He buys about 5000 baht ($150) worth of perishable vegetables, meat, confections and a small amount of fruit. He loads this onto his motorcycle side-car in packets and sacks and into his ice chest. He includes sacks of ready to eat lunches as well, because customers looking for lunch and snacks are his first sales.
When he is ready he starts out on a regular route where customers are waiting at usual times. Stop by stop he works his way through 6 villages toward home. During the morning his customers are buying things to eat for lunch. By about 3 he is ready to unload his remaining produce onto a long roadside table in front of his house.
Even before he is finished, customers begin to pedal and walk over to decide what they will fix for supper. A few bring things to sell or trade from their gardens or orchards, but most of what he sells comes from the central market and is bought for cash. This season fish are plentiful. Many households will eat fish twice or more a week. Pork and chicken are other mainstays. Those are almost always added in small amounts to a dish that contains a preponderance of vegetables, either boiled or stir-fried. It only takes a few herbs or spices to turn one set of ingredients into a variety of dishes. As often as possible, a family will dine on something from their own yard or orchard. Pumpkins, melons, jack-fruit, green beans, sweet corn, lemon grass, mangoes and bananas are sometimes just out the back door. [In a blog later this year I will report on “Hunting and Gathering Right at Home”. Throughout 2015 there will be essays on “Thai village life: see it before it disappears”.]
Most families expect to spend about twenty or thirty baht (less than a dollar) cash per person on the night’s meal with enough left over for breakfast. If money is scarce a meal can be cooked for less than that. Bamboo shoots and mushrooms still come from the woods.
Rice is naturally the staple. Most families grow the rice they eat. Steaming the day’s supply of sticky rice or cooking the “pretty” rice is a routine task in every home. Families who stick with traditional Northern Thai steamed, glutinous rice eaten with the fingers, will inevitably have one or another sort of chili-paste which they either make at home or buy.
In our village there are also a couple of stores that sell non-perishable necessities for daily living. [An essay will feature this function of village life in a blog, later.] John’s mobile market does not provide meal ingredients that come in cans or bottles.
A few things are delivered to houses. Most homes have drinking water delivered; a woman brings eggs on demand from her chicken farm in the neighboring village. Ice cream comes by motorcycle, too.
John’s customers do not regularly travel to and from the city or distant work sites. In the city or in towns, people tend to shop in super markets or from the same sort of market that John buys his produce. More often salaried people stop on the way home and buy supper items from cooks who offer pots and pans of a dozen stock dishes they sell in front of their homes. Some villages have enterprising cooks that do this, too, but not our village. John used to supplement his produce with 3 or 4 pots of curry, but he gave it up as not cost effective. In our village about half of the households consist of older people and folks who stay around their homes and farms full-time. They are John’s customers.
John’s roadside table closes by about 7:30. That’s a 12 hour day. Minimum wage in Thailand is 300 baht per day (about $10). John’s profit if people are hungry is about that.
One of two unexpected spiritual resurgences here in Thailand is the expanded cult of Mae Kuan Im (the other being the cult of Genesh). One of the largest and most opulent shrines to the Chinese Goddess of Mercy is on the south side of Chiang Mai. In the picture accompanying this essay she is depicted standing atop her transporter, a great dragon, dispensing blessings symbolized by water flowing endlessly from a jar.
For a more complete account of the various identities of Mae Kuan Im, refer to the Wikipedia article on Guanyin on the Internet. The remainder of this essay deals with two issues: (1) how Mae Kuan Im became so dispersed throughout religions of South and East Asia, (2) and why her cult has arisen in Thailand at just this time.
Huston Smith [The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, New York: Harper, San Francisco, 1991, p. 143] blithely tells us, “The Dalai Lama is the bodhisattva who in India is known as Avalokiteshvara, in China as the Goddess of Mercy Kwan Yin, and in Japan as Kannon.” The Wikipedia article reiterates the same claim. C. Kerenyi, a protégé of Carl Jung, demonstrates the process by which such mythological transferals take place.
The Voguls worshiped—and perhaps still worship—one especially among their gods who bears the name of “The Man who Looks at the World.” He is a god let down from heaven in two variations: with his mother and without her. With his mother he was “let down” in such a way that he was born as the son of a woman expelled from heaven. She fell upon the banks of the River Ob. “Under her right arm-pit two ribs broke out. A child with golden hands and feet was born” [Munkacsi]. This manner of birth, the emergence of the child from its mother’s right side, betrays Buddhist influence. The Bodhisattva who later became Gautama Buddha entered his mother’s womb from the right side and at the end of ten months left the right side of his mother again in full consciousness and immaculate; thus it was according to the northern sect—Mahayana Buddhism, as it is called” [Lalitavistara]. “The Man who Looks at the World” is the exact translation of “Avalokiteshvara,” the name of the world-ruling Bodhisattva in the above religion whose missionaries dispersed throughout Northern Asia. Avalokiteshvara is just such a divinity compassionately observing the world as the god of the Voguls became. From the latter’s titles—which refer to him as a goose, swan, or crane—we get a glimpse of his original nature. [Munkacsi]. Golden limbs are characteristic as the new-born Buddha of the Avalokiteshvara world (our world) “who gleamed, shining like gold worked in the fire by the Master’s hand [Sutta Mipata]. The orphan’s fate has nothing to do with all this and leads us into a world quite different from that of the Dalai Lama, the present day embodiment of the Avalokiteshvara. [Kerenyi, C. 1949. “The Primordial Child in Primordial Times” in Essays on a Science of Mythology by C.G. Jung and C. Kerenyi. Princeton: Princeton University Press]
The Virgin Mary has also been identified with Guanyin. In what sense, however, are Mae Kuan Im, the Dalai Lama, the Lord Buddha, and Avalokiteshvara the same? The mechanics to discern this are in the science of mythology, rather than theology. Theologically, the Virgin Mother Mary and Mother Kuan Im are separate contexts. Theologically, a Thai (Theravada) Buddhist would have to be broad minded to identify the Lord Buddha with either the Hindu Avalokiteshvara or with any Bodhisattva including Mae Kuan Im.
I believe it is no mere coincidence that the cult of Mae Kuan Im has re-emerged into prominence at just this time in Thailand. Several reasons could be cited. First, the cult of Mae Kuan Im has reappeared all over South East Asia, particularly wherever the Mahayana branch of Buddhism has become stronger through the contributions of ethnic Chinese in dispersion and the interest of Chinese tourists. Second, Mae Kuan Im is considered the patron of the childless and the destitute, leading to reliance on her by those with particular needs. Third, Mae Kuan Im is female in a time and region where masculine religion predominates; her cult is a refuge and implied protest against the adamant refusal of the dominant religions to provide women equal status. Fourth, the cult of Mae Kuan Im in Thailand involves an alternative form of meditation through chanting that devotees attest offers elevated levels of serenity. Finally, and most importantly, the cult of Mae Kuan Im coincides with the economic emergence of Thailand as an economic power in the region especially prior to the economic downturn of 1997. A central aspect of this variety of faith is its connection to prosperity, which is a core value in Thailand. Those who visit shrines and centers of devotion to Mae Kuan Im testify that they are motivated by hope for inspiration and results with regard to their business enterprises, their gambling (especially in the lotteries which abound in the country), and their health and relationships. Mother is the care-giver, the refuge in times of distress and turmoil.
A friend of mine is a devotee, persuaded by overwhelming evidence, he claims. He has been diverted from a lucrative business selling a Thai confection (and from traditional evangelical forms of Christianity) by visitations from Mother. Typically she instructs him where to travel on journeys with unspecified purposes, which often produce gifts of religious statuary, some of which are rare and valuable. “She tells me where to go,” he says. “She sent me to a distant temple I had never seen before and when I arrived the abbot was standing at the gate holding this,” he pointed to an elegant jade Buddha image. “The abbot said he had a dream that he was to give it to me.” Our colleague had to break off his narration at that point because the line of people waiting to see him for personal messages from Mae Kuan Im was growing restive.
Loy Kratong is always held on the night of the full moon of the 12th lunar month. This year that is November 6. It is the most popular Thai holiday of the year. Nearly every able-bodied person takes part in Loy Kratong somehow.
A short list of various Loy Kratong activities includes:
1. Making and floating a kratong [see the picture above]
2. Adorning the front of one’s house with candles or lanterns
3. Setting off fire crackers and fireworks
4. Attending a community fair or parade
5. Merit making at the temple
The basic meaning of Loy Kratong is a bit obscure. In general it is understood to be a festival to pay homage to rivers and waterways as a source of life. It is an ecological observance. But there is a layer of veneration involved in making an offering to the “mother of water” (the literal meaning of the Thai word for “river”). The traditional offering is home-made if possible, and is a floating tribute with a coin, incense and always a candle. These are set adrift by families with a prayer of thanks for the gifts of prosperity the waters of nature bring and a prayer of forgiveness for pollution and disrespect one may have had for the river in the past.
As is the case with other festivals in other lands, patriotic and religious notions are attached to Loy Kratong. Officialdom attributes the origins of Loy Kratong to King Ramkamhaeng whom they also credit with inventing Thai writing. It is said that the first lovely kratongs were floated (“loy”=float) in Sukhothai 700 years ago by the lovely queen and the idea simply caught on. The religious aspects involve merit making to atone for past sins, and they have the convenience of the fact that Loy Kragong always falls on the day of the full moon, which is a Buddhist “Sabbath”.
Since Loy Kratong observances are centered on waterways, boat races may also be held. Sometimes there are river parades. In Chiang Mai large kratong floats are loaded on trucks and move through town before being launched on the Ping River. Fireworks are indispensable aspects of the colorful festivities. Here in the North people also launch tissue paper hot air balloons by the thousands. They include a coil of waxed string suspended underneath that provides the heat to make them rise and gives them an orange glow as they float away on upper wind currents. Hopefully they do not descend until the fire burns out and then they come down harmlessly as they cool.
Above all, Loy Kratong is a family time. It is a night to have fun, to instill community spirit, to do things together, and to appreciate nature.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.