Money trees are not as rare as it might seem. I have heard all my life that “money doesn’t grow on trees” but I can testify that it very often gets transported to Buddhist temples that way here in Thailand. As the pictures accompanying this essay bear witness, a lot of work and creativity goes into preparing these trees. In the picture above there are two types of money frames, designed to look like bushes and like peacocks. The reason for this particular, elaborate presentation of picturesque funds to the temple was to support the construction of a chapel on the temple grounds of Wat Jam Jaeng in San Pa Tong District of Chiang Mai. In this case, a large donation was the impetus but people from several nearby villages more than doubled the total amount. People worked long hours to make the frames and mount the money. They reminded me, as they showed them off, how proud they were to have been able to do this because the skills to make these birds are disappearing.
Although a large event like the one above may be infrequent, many temples have some sort of fund-raising event every year. This is the season for ton salak ceremonies. A “ton” is a tree or bush or plant. “Salak” refers to a drawing or selection by lot. All families in the village are invited to present a decorated tree for the event. On the tree a variety of useful small items will be hung and money will be inserted as well. For our ton salak ceremony a week ago (pictured below) priests from 7 other temples were invited to come. Everyone had an equal chance to have their tree, large or small, drawn for one of the other temples. It was considered good luck and an honor to have one’s tree picked. The rest of the trees stayed at the home temple or were sold (without the cash attached) to be re-used. The money will pay such things as electricity bills for the temple.
The trees can be a specially prepared branch from a tree, but typically is a “trunk” made of tough grass wrapped tightly into which are stuck stiff branches whittled out of bamboo and covered with frilly crepe paper. The prominent feature of the tree, aside from the attached gifts, is hand-crafted paper flowers. Here in Thailand the faithful make donations on several occasions to support the temple and its programs. In general, the government does not provide funds for the ongoing operation of a temple, but might help if a temple needs renovation.
Finally, these money trees make eloquent statements about how the people feel about their contributions of money. The money is consecrated by being presented in this way. The
money is no longer ordinary, but dedicated to a lofty and sacred purpose. Every religion has offertories, some have been very primal. In Thai Buddhism the symbolism is deeply cultural and subtle. To make this sort of offering a whole community must unite. The artistry employed in the displays reflects community spirit that rises above individual intention. Money tree ceremonies are eloquent testimony against the charge that Buddhism has no social aspect since it is all about one’s path to enlightenment. Thai Buddhism is above all, social.
It can be truly said that temples get money plucked from trees.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.