Spectacular events are something that every religion tries to have from time to time. Pramote and I got up early on Friday to participate in one near our home. The early hour was one reason for asking, “Why are we doing this?”
Several villages combined efforts to hold a merit-making event to mark the end of the Buddhist rainy season retreat. Buddhist Lent ended on the day of the full moon this week. During the retreat people made a special effort to observe the Buddhist precepts, and some spent a day and night or two each week at the temple learning chants, listening to sermons and instruction, and practicing somewhat austere disciplines. Monks are required to stay in their monasteries unless they get permission to leave for some particular purpose. Life centers on the temple-monastery. The traditional reason is that the Lord Buddha had compassion on village folks who had planted rice at the beginning of the rainy season, and so he instructed his disciples to refrain from traipsing around over the rice fields trampling on the seedlings. But when the rainy season ends, the monks can be out and about again.
This is the occasion for another kind of merit-making. Once again the monks will be making the rounds collecting food. The reason for monks doing this is to make it easier for the laity to earn merit by donating food without having to travel to the temples. The picture of monks getting rice ladled into a pot held in a sling carried on the monk’s shoulder is an icon of Buddhism and a summary of many aspects of faith. People kneel (if they are able) to receive a blessing after making their donation. Kneeling is a sign of reverence to what the monk stands for. The monk is the most immediate link between one’s daily existence and the sacred goal of enlightenment and release into an ego-less state free of suffering, toward which one is (hopefully) moving. Monks facilitate the person’s devotion to the Lord Buddha by enabling this pious act. One of the final exchanges in any morning service is for the laity to ask the monks for permission to present them a meal. Unlike many chants that precede it, this chant is in vernacular Thai. But the simplest form of this offering is at one’s front gate or on a city walkway.
There are several more spectacular ways of doing this. Our event at Wat Doi Saphan-u on Friday morning was designed to give people a chance to multiply merit by placing offerings in the pots (i.e. in the bahtr ) of 99 monks. This mass offering was called Tham Bun Tak Bahtr Tee Wo Rohana (ทำบุญตักบาทรเทโวโรหฌะ).
According to the math by which merit is calculated, the amount of merit increases in proportion to the effort needed to do the act. 99 is a very auspicious number, and the intention to do something 99 times is approximately 99 times better than doing it once. It did not decrease the merit when only 89 monks actually came. The effort had already been made to provide offerings for 99 monks. Intention counts.
The offerings were food items placed in the monks’ bowls, but we had been instructed to bring “dry” food which would last and which could be distributed or converted into cash. Each monk collected a large sack-full of items such as packs of noodles, packets of rice, boxes of milk, bottles of water and the occasional bunch of bananas. The monks made merit by relinquishing this abundance for the use of the poor and disadvantaged, or for the greater good of the community at large. Everybody made merit, even, presumably, photographers.
The setting was impressive, at the foot of the hundred steps leading up to colossal images of the Lord Buddha facing in the 4 cardinal directions. That setting might have played a small role in attracting a crowd for this annual event. But the event was all about making merit. Without merit-making it is hard to imagine what would hold northern Thai Buddhism together and enable a hand-full of little villages to produce such a spectacle.
Note: This is the second essay in a series that will extend through 2018 on “Temple Secrets” about little known aspects or events in Northern Thai village temples. The introductory essay is “Alive”. www.kendobson.asia/blog/alive The next essay in this series will be in November.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.