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.