The other day there was a funeral and cremation involving our extended family. Various aspects of the complicated event had to be performed by specialists. I paid attention to how few were turned over to women, and also how some things had to be done by Buddhist monks or former monks.
I was particularly interested in a short rite following the main service. The emcee announced that four monks would perform a tawn ถอน ceremony. Tawn means “extract”, “withdraw”, or “revoke”. It is a transitive verb with the implication that the thing being removed has little or no power to object. A tawn ceremony is intended to evict a pii พีthat may be recalcitrant or confused. Pii is a multi-functional term that includes almost all non-physical beings except divinities. Spirits of the dead are pii but they may have none of the personal qualities they once seemed to have when they inhabited a physical body. In the instance the other day, the four monks took positions at the corners of the prasat(see picture: www.kendobson.asia/blog/community-funerals) on which the coffin was elevated. The monks were given little baskets with traditional gifts to ameliorate the pii whichever way it might choose to go, and then with incense and candles the monks exhorted the pii to remove itself. It need no longer try to remain attached to the coffin and the corpse inside. Its destiny was elsewhere.
It is striking how this pii no longer was identified with the personality of the deceased. There was very little sense that the pii was our dead aunt or that anyone alive would want anything more to do with the pii. This attitude is borne out in the lack of a reunion narrative here in Thailand, in which we might imagine ourselves reunited with loved ones when we die. Death has severed body from spirit and the personhood of the deceased has, as the word implies, ceased. That person we once knew and to whom we related is no more. The person’s body is inert and decomposing, and the spirit is now alien. Affection for the dead person’s spirit is muffled by anxiety and suspicion. Affection for the person who we loved is now grief, which is a wall between the past and present. At the same time, attention is paid to the departed spirit. Here in Northern Thailand the spirits of one’s ancestors are less imminent and needy than in some ethnic subcultures in the region. They do not need to be fed or venerated. But since it is impossible to know when they might have been reincarnated, it is common to have merit transferral rites in their behalf. In fact, even if they have been reincarnated and no longer linger in heaven or hell (or hereabouts, or somewhere in-between heaven and hell), the merit made in their behalf never goes astray.
As the prasat was being pulled from the house where three days of funeral services had been concluded the procession was led by a fellow carrying a three-tailed banner with the name of the deceased written on it (see:www.kendobson.asia/blog/three-tailed-banners-varieties-of-faith). The purpose was to encourage the pii to notice where everybody was going with its former host. Further rituals were undertaken at the cremation grounds to expel thepii from the vicinity and send it on its way. Fireworks lighted the funeral pyre and sought to drive the pii into the beyond. This was not only to get the village rid of a potential malevolent, lost ghost, but for the benefit of the spirit itself. It needed, so the narrative says, to go “on” in order to have a chance to be reborn and continue its progress toward the enlightenment that brings final release through extinction, the eradication of ego, Nirvana (nibbana).
Almost all aspects of this are handled by monks and former monks, even though there is hardly any justification in theTripitaka, the Theravada Buddhist scriptural canon, for they being the ones in charge of this whole confrontation with piiand spirits. One analysis of this is that the supernatural aspects of Thai culture and religion are simply not Buddhist. Anthropologists and others who are not sympathetic with concern about pii call this syncretism. It is considered an accretion, an overlay that should be considered separately from Buddhism. It is clear that the ritualistic handling of piiwas once done by Brahmans in India, and that is still the case with Thai royal protocols and ceremonies. For people at every other social level Buddhist priests now fill the role. Another approach is to see Thai Buddhism as having synthesized the supernatural issues of life and become more holistic. This runs counter to the favorite academic perception that supernaturalism is more primitive and less evolved than rational naturalism, that it is going backward for Buddhism to accept responsibility for pii as well as for merit and reincarnation.
It can be seen that orthodox Theravada Buddhism is reticent about occult, supernatural, and metaphysical aspects of popular Buddhism. When asked directly, monks will tend to avoid using the same terms laity use in describing what is going on in tawn ceremonies, subjata life enhancement ceremonies (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/subjata), or even inauguration ceremonies for Buddhist temple buildings and images (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/awakening-buddha).
Nevertheless, Northern Thai Buddhism is fully involved with all these concerns of the people, and would be less popular without its strategies for managing spirits, connecting to divinities, and directing traffic to the next life. These are the very matters that constitute mystery in life (which is inevitable) and fear (which needs to be mitigated).
I believe it is beyond argument that Thai Buddhism as it is practiced and supported by the people is an amalgam of Buddhist narrative and philosophical doctrine including a way by means of yoga to achieve enlightened understanding of this doctrine, and at the same time a way of rendering manageable all aspects of existence not yet subject to that elevated understanding of the real nature of things. A rare few Buddhists achieve the break-through to enlightenment. Some sixty million Thai people have not achieved that blessed state and do not expect to. They need reassurance that something might be possible to ameliorate the random horrors, vicissitudes and consequences of life that are very real to them. Certain Buddhist priests and a rare few “hermits” have acquired special skill and gifts to intervene using one or the other of the esoteric arts to prolong life, enhance prosperity, command pii, and divine the future. In times of distress these specialists are invited to help people find the peace that comes from doing “all we could do”.
There is an area of sacredness as well as a corresponding area of evil that must be negotiated. Certain stories help explicate those areas and tell of heroes and villains who encountered the awesome power residing in those realms, which have tendrils and influences in our own world. But these stories can only go so far to help us traverse liminal regions and control their influences. Particular cases take particular intervention which depends on supernatural insight and inspiration. It is not relevant to try to ascertain whether or not anyone, supplicant or practitioner, is absolutely convinced that any given ritual or suggestion will succeed. Probably influences that produced the circumstances needing to be ameliorated are too great to render such certainty. The motivation is, “Here is something to try. If it works, great.”
The other day I overheard a monk recommend that our family burn pink candles on Tuesday and Thursday and put pink liquids and pink fruit on the household shrine-shelf in veneration of Mae Kuan Im (see:www.kendobson.asia/blog/mae-kuan-im) since little Pen, the person they were concerned about, was born on Friday. The monk did this after holding the patient’s hands and chanting an obscure blessing. [See the picture at the top of this essay.] I call it obscure because it consisted of a few syllables repeated rapidly and was not any Thai dialect or Pali. The inspiration to suggest colored candles and glasses of liquid came to him, apparently, during his chanting. That is how charismatic inspirations often occur.
[An essay to follow will review in greater detail how blood became the factor that prevents women from equality in world religions.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.