Just when I think I have seen every Northern Thai Buddhist ceremony still being done, a new one comes along. On January 21, 2023 at Wat Ta Pong in Sanpatong District of Chiang Mai an old Lanna "Suat Sadaw' Kroh'" ceremony was resurrected from obscurity.
The ceremony was chanting to expel evil.
To set up the ceremony, nine tables were placed in 3 rows of three, with trays made of plaited banana stalk loaded with items formerly considered essential for a satisfactory life. They included hand-rolled cigars, betel nut, bananas (slices), orange sections, fermented tea, biscuits or some other goodie, and balls of sticky rice. In the center of the tray was a cluster of flowers in the midst of which a bees-wax candle was stuck. The most prominent feature of the tray was a rank of colored paper flags, actually called jaw' in Northern Thai dialect or chaw' in Central Thai which usually indicates a boquet. (See photos of the tables and trays.)
The rows of flags represented the days of the week. Sunday's tray had 6 red flags, Monday's had 18 yellow ones. Tuesday: 8 pink; Wednesday 17 green; Thursday 19 Orange; Friday 21 sky-blue, and Saturday had 10 violet-purple flags. There were also trays for the god Rahu with 12 black flags and for Gay-tu with 9 white ones. Those were the numbers if the set were full, but some trays had a few less. Each tray also contained a pair of animals, in miniature. Sunday's tray had an elephant and goat, Monday's had a kwai (water buffalo) and krut (the mythic bird-giant that is the Thai royal symbol, the transport for Rama). Tuesday's tray had a lion and sheep. Etc. The reason for these particular colors, numbers, and animals is mythic, with no single explanation other than the ancient assignment of a color with a divinity, red being the color of Suriya, yellow for Chandra, pink for Mangala, and so forth.
Beneath each table members of the Ta Pong community had put items of clothing in bowls. Each person put a single garment or cloth piece under the table for the day of the week in which they were born. These pieces of cloth symbolized the person, of course.
The ceremony began with the usual chanting, and then the abbot of Wat Ta Pong was invited to light the candle in the tray for Sunday. As he did so, a priest who was the instructor for this ceremony chanted. He told me the chants for each day were different, but they were substantially to expel evil influences for the people born on that day and to have those evil entities and forces float away into the waters of oblivion. His recitation took about 5 minutes. When he was done, the chapter of monks chanted a response in unison. Then the abbot was invited to light the candle for Monday. This went on color by color, day by day, finishing with black for the waning phase of the Moon (that phase going by the name Rahu, the god of eclipses) and then white for the waxing phase of the Moon (Gay-tu) being the eighth and nineth.
This ceremony was one of several included in the weekend to mark the 62nd birthday of Phra-kru Arun, the abbot of Wat Ta Pong. They included a Syb-jata life-extension ceremony, the awarding of educational scholarships for novices under the patronage of Wat Ta Pong, and a birthday lunch, followed by a "tawn" ceremony to commence the tearing-down of the dormitory for the novices in preparation for building a new housing unit after 50 years.
This set of events served several purposes, I think. As a birthday celebration it reiterated the importance of the abbot in the life of Ta Pong village and surrounding communities. This reinforces his authority and his ability to do things, including supporting the education of several novices and other children, as well as construction of things for the temple, such as the new dorm. Not entirely coincidentally, the life-extension ceremony is one of a number of measures being undertaken to combat a life-threatening medical condition for the abbot. At the same time, all of us who participated also were infused with the ineffible enhancement to our kwan (elan-vital or life-force) as we were symbolically connected through the 9-strand cords to the Lord Buddha, whose image was regally clad for the occasion in a magnificent red cloak.
The reintroduction of the "expulsion of evil" ceremony is part of a prolonged effort to keep Northern Thai religious practices in mind. But that ceremony is also indicative of the persistent power of the supernatural in Thailand. About the only aspect of this ceremony that is Buddhist is the fact that it was conducted inside the temple by ordained monks. That does make the ceremony Buddhist. There were also no obvious Brahmin or Hindu elements or symbols for this ceremony. But it was all about demonic powers, kharmic evil, and the restoration of tranquil goodness. Orthodox Buddhism insists this can be accomplished by individuals practicing right thinking.
Evil is never completely comprised of kharma, which is the result of demeritorious behavior in this life or previous lives. Evil resides on its own, insinuating itself in people's lives as conditions permit. It is the part of evil which can be expelled, that this old ceremony addresses.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.