“The Hong is a bird of infinite grace…the head and neck of a Hong can be seen on the prow of the magnificent royal barge the Suphannahong. The Hong is also an auspicious animal, portending miracles. Nothing can match the grace of the Hong, for the great swan-like bird has a poise and delicacy beyond compare and its name is used in a modern Thai expression denoting unsurpassed beauty and grace.” That’s how one website describes the Hong, a mythological bird that is a popular figure in Thai architecture.
McFarland, whose Thai English dictionary of 1944 is still the standard work for biological references, defines hong(s) and hangs as “a goose; a swan”. He includes hong(s)-tong as “the golden mallard; hongsakati “resembling swans in actions”; hongsabat, a literary reference meaning “resembling the color of a swan’s foot”, i.e. pink; reddish yellow; hongsarot, a literary term meaning “having a swan as a means of transportation,” i.e. the god Brahma; and hongsaraj as king of the swans; the imperial swan.
Another website transliterates the Thai word as Hongsa, whereas the final S in Thai is marked as silent [I put the s in parenthesis for this reason when transcribing McFarland’s reference]. The website says, “Hongsa is the vehicle bird of Brahma. In Buddhist mythology Lord Buddha himself was once born as a Hongsa. At the time the Buddha Hongsa governed 96,000 hongsas.”
That brings me to last Sunday when a crowd of us gathered in the village of Huay Yao in the hills of Mae Wang District, Chiang Mai Province, to witness and participate in a ceremony to initiate a Buddhist temple building. The building was described by the Buddhist abbot who coordinated the construction and the dedication, as a vihara (pronounced: wee-han, rhymes with neon), an assembly hall. With the inclusion of a vihara and a small chedi (stupa) immediately behind it, that Buddhist hillside now constitutes a temple in all but name. The name, no doubt, will follow after the site is officially approved for the designation. The culmination of the ceremony involved installing a symbolic umbrella on the back of a Hong standing on the middle of the roof-peak.
In Thailand there are umbrellas of a large variety, some functional and others symbolic. The most symbolic of all is the chatr (which rhymes with dot). In royal circles the many-layered umbrella signifies the rank of the royal person entitled to repose beneath it. Only the reigning King has a 9-step umbrella. The Queen and Crown Prince have 7-step umbrellas, and other princesses of the inner circle have 5 step umbrellas. In Buddhist symbolism the many-layered umbrella represents the many levels of heaven, namely 6. However, all Thai Buddhist art represents the Lord Buddha under a 5-layer umbrella. I was told long ago that refers to the fact that Gautama was a prince before he renounced his royal status to seek enlightenment.
The umbrella at Huay Yao had 5 layers. It was suspended on ropes with pulleys to be raised up to the rooftop. First, it was decorated by major donors who helped tie symbolic cloths and garlands to it, and then it was anointed by the presiding monk. As conches (or instruments representing conches) and drums sounded, the chatr was raised into the grasp of a couple of men who lifted it onto a tall spike sticking out of the back of the golden Hong.
What can we observe from this ceremony? What was being symbolized?
There is an unbroken link between Vedic Hinduism, Brahmanism and Buddhism. In ways some other religions do not, Buddhism respects its roots. On the other hand, Buddhist teaching moves an adherent toward severing that reverence along with other religious and supernatural fascinations. In the end, the Lord Buddha was able to identify the links in the chain of causation and to realize that all things are non-entities; they have no fixed reality but are constantly in flux. Temples are tools for those who aspire to the insight that all is an illusion.
Above the top of the world mountain (the axial mountain, represented both by the pinnacle of the chedi and (as in Huay Yao) also the peak of the temple roof) are heavens. Insofar, as the vast majority of us are not going to be able to achieve full enlightenment in this life, our hope is that our demise and cremation will liberate our spirits to fly to one of the levels of heaven from which we will be re-incarnated to try again, less encumbered by the terrible drag of karma. The umbrella, higher than everything terrestrial, draws us upward.
The best way to make merit to offset the gravity of our misconduct and failures is to contribute toward the dissemination of Dharma, which is work best done by monks, who are best supported in their doing it by the accommodating environment of a temple/monastery which is conducive to meditation and equipped with points of focus. The effort constantly being expended in temple construction can be understood in this light. It is a “godsend” to be fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity and means to participate in such an undertaking.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.